Thursday, 31 January 2013

Walter's Top Ten of 2012



I'll agree, Vic, that 2012 was a bit of a step down after a better year last year, but we've seen worse. It wasn't too hard to come up with ten (as you can see by my including a couple extra). 

[Annual disclaimer: my choices are quite intentionally based on the subjective impact the films made on me and are not meant to aim at objective critique of film-making quality. And some of these were released last year - but I live in St. Stephen.]

Honourable mentions: Liverpool (Canadian rom-com I saw on a plane - I suspect few people will ever watch this film, but it was definitely cute and watchable - if you're flying Air Canada or see it somewhere else, check it out.), Habemus Papam (Italian story of a reluctant pope - an oddly inconsistent but enjoyable film that packs a punch on the nature of hierarchical faith leadership) and Your Sister's Sister (a unique romantic comedy with natural beauty, pleasant pacing, and a theme of grace and forgiveness). 

10. Liberal Arts - This is an intelligent romantic dramedy that explores questions of maturing in the context of a liberal arts college (a context with which I am quite familiar). Well-acted and not entirely predictable. 

9. Hope Springs - In my memory this is the first film ever to depict a marriage counsellor in a good light. It’s not by any means flawless in its depiction of a stuck marriage which two good people try to get unstuck, but it's a pretty solid attempt. Some may not find this interesting enough, but mature couples should find this worth their while. 

8. Intouchables - This is a French film based on a true story of an unlikely friendship between a rich quadriplegic man and his unexpected caretaker. A good counterpoint to emphases on sensitivity, political correctness and adequate training/preparation.

7. Bernie - Also based on a true story (it would be worthless otherwise), this is the most unlikely account of small town murder you will ever see. Absolutely fascinating study of human nature - both of the main character and of the townspeople that try to respond and make sense of a consistently good person doing a horrifying thing. It's like the best of mockumentaries (think A Mighty Wind) that oddly turns out to be true (I gather that most of the interviewees were the real townspeople).

6. The Music Never Stopped - Probably shouldn't really be on a 2012 list, but I didn't see it last year - and admit it: neither did any of you. But it shouldn't be overlooked. It's another Oliver Sacks story and it explores the miraculous way that music affects the brain in ways we are barely beginning to understand. Besides the psychological/musical interest, the story of a challenging relationship between father and son is solidly depicted. 

5. Hellbound? - The only doc in my list, this film explores a similar question to Rob Bell's Love Wins. A variety of voices offer thoughts on the nature of hell and most should find it quite thought-provoking and worth many follow-up conversations. 

4. Silver Linings Playbook - I'm a little fascinated and surprised that this film received all the Oscar nominations it did, but it is a wonderful film. Mental illness is reasonably presented as something that is a part of life. The story is interesting, the humour and drama are rich, and even the minor characters are interesting and developed. Some aspects of the plot struck me as a little too "neat" for all the critical praise, but I can overlook that, and I guess most others can too.

3. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - I love stories about the unlikely formation of community and this is a great example. The film is about the "outsourcing of old age," and I'm sure that many mature viewers will find themselves wondering about what kind of context they want to retire in. I imagine one could do worse than joining with an interesting cast of slightly annoying characters in a warm and exotic location. 

2. Monsieur Lazhar - When I saw this the second time I loved it again but found it harder than I expected to think what it was really about. Is that a good thing? It's a very warm, human and unique story that is very well told. You want to cheer the beautiful yet flawed main character on, perhaps above all for his ironic authenticity in a context that fights against such authenticity. 

1. Les Miserables - What can I say? I loved the musical and I love the film. The story and the music are incredible in the way they allow emotion and archetypal meanings to come together. The close-ups worked for me, and I appreciated the experimentation with how to transform a musical into a film. None of the occasional singing weaknesses interfered with my enjoyment of the film. And, probably above all, the evening spent seeing this film together with Carol and all our kids while out in Vancouver, followed by lively non-stop chat on the Skytrain and in the pub, was definitely the best time of my entire year. 

For the record, I haven't seen Cloud Atlas, The Impossible or Life of Pi which all could be contenders. And, finally, duds of the year (please avoid) go to Prometheus, John Carter, Premium Rush, The Campaign, This Means War and Wanderlust - all shallow and disappointing.


21 Jump Street



I should have known better. When it comes to comedies, the major critics and I frequently part company (e.g. Hangover and Ted), so I should not have been impressed by the many positive reviews for 21 Jump Street. And I certainly should not have wasted two hours of my life watching this utterly pointless drivel.
I won’t waste even more time by writing a long review. 21 Jump Street had exactly one funny and entertaining scene, lasting about thirty seconds. That came near the end of the film and was the result of a surprise cameo appearance. There was nothing else worth watching. Like Ted and The Hangover, this is a pathetic excuse for a comedy. Awful in every way, 21 Jump Street gets *+ (for the cameo). My mug is down.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Bourne Legacy



The major film critics and I had far more disagreements than usual in 2012. I missed seeing The Bourne Legacy on the big screen because critics thought it was mediocre at best. Since those same critics adored The Bourne Ultimatum, which I thought was fairly mediocre, and since Matt Damon, one of my faves, was not on hand this time, I could only imagine how bad The Bourne Legacy must be and stayed away.

On the positive side, as a result, my expectations were appropriately lowered. On the negative side, this is a big screen film and I enjoyed it more than enough to regret not seeing it at the theatre. Sure, the plot is wearing thin and there’s not much new here. And the nonstop action in the last half hour is boring, as such action usual is. And having this film take place during the same time period as The Bourne Ultimatum is more distraction than brilliance. And the ending is anticlimactic, which, given the fact that there isn’t much substance to the plot to begin with, is a major disappointment.

But the intense Jeremy Renner is a good choice for the lead role this time out, Rachel Weisz does well in the somewhat frustrating but therefore unique female lead role (who gets a fair amount of airtime), the film does have far less action than The Bourne Ultimatum (that’s a very good thing) while not sacrificing suspense (also a good thing) and there is some intelligence to be found here (even a few thought-provoking ideas).

Tony Gilroy, who wrote the other three Bourne films as well as this one, directed this time, and I, for one, consider him a far better director than Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two Bournes. It was such a relief to not sit through Greengrass’s constantly moving camera work and desaturated colours. In fact, the cinematography in The Bourne Legacy was one of the highlights for me, which is why I regret not seeing it on the big screen.

All in all, an enjoyable escapist entertainment which gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Vic's Top Ten Films of 2012



Unlike 2011, 2012 was not a great year for film, though it did come on strong near the end of the year. And my four favourite films of the year will all make it into my top 100 films of all time, which is quite impressive. But along the way, 2012 featured more Hollywood garbage than we’ve seen in a while, and that’s saying something. Not surprisingly, there are very few Hollywood films in my top ten of the year.

But Steven Spielberg made one of them, making it back into my top ten this year. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is well on his way to greatness, found his way into three of my top ten films. And of particular note is the amazing fact that German director Tom Tykwer has now made my favourite film of the year three times in fourteen years. Wow! It is obvious that he and I connect and indeed I have given all of his films either ***+ or ****, even when the average critic is unimpressed. Going back to 1930, only three other directors have made three of my favourite films of the year (yes, I do have them all listed in case anyone is interested): Stanley Kubrick (my all-time favourite director), Steven Spielberg (who has five films in my top 100 films of all time) and Terry Gilliam.

Here are my top ten films of 2012, counting down from 10:

10. The Dark Knight Rises - While ambiguous in its depiction of redemptive violence, the concluding chapter of Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman trilogy features outstanding acting, cinematography and music, an intelligent and thought-provoking screenplay, and no 3D.

9. In the Family - A long, slow-moving understated film about how we communicate and how we work together to make the world a better place. Patrick Wang’s debut film is profound, wise and humanizing.

8. The Impossible - A moving, intense, inspiring and expertly-crafted disaster film about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, this true story features great acting by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and an art-house feel rarely seen in a disaster flick.
7. Life of Pi - Ang Lee’s filming of the bestselling novel by Yann Martel features stunning cinematography and special effects. It is also a thoughtful, wise, spiritual and uplifting adventure.

6. Lincoln - Steven Spielberg’s dialogue-heavy (that’s a good thing) drama may feature an idealized Abraham Lincoln, but the performances by Daniel Day-Lewis (as Lincoln) and an incredible ensemble cast make this film exceptional.

5. Moonrise Kingdom - One of Wes Anderson’s best films, this quirky comedy about teenage romance is beautifully filmed, brilliantly structured and very funny, if also sad.

4. Looper - A thoughtful science fiction thriller, written and directed by Rian Johnson, Looper features not only great acting (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt) and cinematography but one of the best endings ever. It’s a very violent film that profoundly challenges the myth of redemptive violence.

3. Monsieur Lazhar - Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, this wonderful Canadian drama was made in 2011 but not released until 2012. Brilliant performances (especially by Mohamed Fellag) and an inspiring thought-provoking story.

2. Les Miserables - While not a perfect filming of the magnificent stage musical, Tom Hooper’s film is nevertheless more than good enough to make me want to see it again and again. The highlight is the terrific performances by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne. 

1. Cloud Atlas - Made by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy), Cloud Atlas is a breathtaking and imaginative (if not perfect) work of cinematic art. Six stories of varying genres, featuring the same actors in multiple roles, challenge the domination system in the past, present and future while inspiring wonder, hope and a desire to both be more fully human and to make the world a better place. I’ve seen it twice already and can’t wait to see it again. 

Friday, 25 January 2013

5 Broken Cameras



5 Broken Cameras, nominated for this year’s Academy Awards (for Best Documentary) is a documentary film from Israel/Palestine chronicling five years of nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank (the most well-known incidence of Palestinian resistance). It was co-directed by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer whose five cameras captured the video footage, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli filmmaker who joined the resistance and became friends with Burnat.

5 Broken Cameras does an amazing job of summarizing five years (2005-2010) of resistance to various kinds of Israeli infringement on the land of the Palestinians, highlighted by the building of a barrier which separated them from much of their farm land (followed later by a wall). The leaders of the resistance (friends and relatives of the farmer/filmmaker) consistently called for nonviolent resistance, but the patience of the young men in their ranks wore thin and some began throwing rocks and bricks. The young Israeli soldiers responded to any threat with violence, killing (and arresting) a number of those who were part of the nonviolent movement. All of this is captured on film.

The nonviolent resistance in Bil’in drew worldwide attention to the Israeli occupation and resulted in some small victories for the Palestinian people.

I missed a discussion of the reasons for keeping the resistance nonviolent and was left with too many unanswered questions about the life of the filmmaker, so I am only giving 5 Broken Cameras ***+ and it won’t make my top ten. Still, it’s a film everyone should see as a prime example of what has been happening all over the West Bank during the past few decades. 

Tomorrow: My top ten films of 2012.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

360



In many ways my kind of film, 360 is a typical European-style drama (with a bit of thriller thrown in) about the intersecting lives of eight or nine main characters who come from very diverse social and cultural backgrounds (between England and Russia). 

360 is directed by Fernando Meirelles, who has made two of my favourite 150 films (The Constant Gardener, City of God), and stars Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, among others. Critics panned this outing, primarily seeing it as hollow and superficial, if intriguing. I understand these sentiments, but, like I said: ‘this is my kind of film’, and I quite enjoyed it, finding many thought-provoking moments to appreciate. So I am giving 360 a solid ***. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Mad Ship



Very few films are made in Manitoba and Mad Ship is such a small independent film that you will probably never have the opportunity to watch it. That’s too bad, because, for a Manitoba film, Mad Ship is very good.

Mad Ship tells the story of a Norwegian family trying to survive on a prairie farm during the 1930‘s depression. For the mother and wife, it means a slow descent into desperation and despair; for the father and husband, it means a slow descent into madness; and for the two children it means growing up very fast if they are not to stand by and watch helplessly as the world crumbles around them.

Written and directed by David Morton, Mad Ship stars Nikolaj Lie Kaas as the father and he does an excellent job. Line Verndal is also quite good as the mother. The rest of the acting is best described as uneven. The cinematography is amazing. This depressing quiet film from my home province gets a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty



This evening I watched the most critically acclaimed film of 2012. Does it deserve all the acclaim? From a purely technical standpoint, it deserves some of it, for it is an intense well-made film, but I think Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained are among the most overrated films of the century. I am not a fan of the style or the cinematography or even the structure of the film (the first half was just an ordinary film to me), but those are mostly personal preferences which would only minimally impact my ‘objective’ assessment of the film. The acting is flawless, with Jessica Chastain well-deserving of her best actress nomination. 

Technical considerations aside, however, Zero Dark Thirty is the failure I suspected it would be and is in no danger of sneaking into my top ten of the year. The most glaring flaw for me was the complete lack of heart. Yes, the film highlights Maya’s obsession with finding and killing Bin Laden and her almost complete lack of a life outside of that obsession, so it gives us some insight into at least one character. But this is a cold analytical amoral film. If it is trying to be critical of the use of torture (which played a role in finding Bin Laden) or any other actions of the CIA or the U.S., I missed it and that, for me, is a deal-breaker.

Maya’s obsession with Bin Laden mirrors the American obsession with finding and killing the man (the monster) responsible for 9/11. Everyone seems to take it for granted that he was solely responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people that day, so now the case is closed. I, for one, accept none of the official statements about 9/11 and see nothing but a very long list of unanswered questions and unexplainable events which suggest that there was much more to 9/11 than Osama. I will leave it at that. Sure the film treats its mission in such a casual way that it doesn’t glorify the hunt for Bin Laden the way an action film might do, but to me the film was still making a hero out of Maya and her obsession with this most noble of causes representing this most noble of countries. And I will also leave that at that. 

Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained are, for me, examples of how film critics are so focused on analyzing the craft of filmmaking that they forget to ask whether these films are “good” for people to watch and applaud; whether they help make the world a better place or a worse place. I believe discussing that should be part of the critic’s task.  And I know there are critics who would argue that Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal (writer) are really asking whether the hunt for Osama was worth it. I am happy to discuss it, but I was looking for it and didn’t see it. Still, I will give Zero Dark Thirty ***. My mug is  up but there’s nothing particularly tasty inside. 

P.S. I just saw for the first time that Roger Ebert only gave this film ***. I am surprised and delighted to see it.

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Impossible



I haven’t seen a disaster flick in quite some time. It’s not a genre that gets much respect and I would say rightfully so. The Impossible is a disaster flick based on the true story of a family of five who were vacationing on the coast of Thailand when the big tsunami hit in late 2004. To use such an horrific natural disaster as the basis for a ‘disaster flick’ is an incredibly risky undertaking, especially if you throw in a few cliches. 

In fact, given what I said about the genre, only an exceptionally skilled director and writer could make a good film out of this, let alone a great one. But Spanish director J.A. Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sanchez are more than up to the task (with the help of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the parents of the family). Watts and McGregor are terrific, but it’s the screenplay by Sergio G. Sanchez which makes The Impossible special, because the film is perfectly crafted and the story expertly told.

Although The Impossible focuses on the ordeal of one family, it manages (by telling its story so well) to encompass the grief of all the families who suffered on that horrific day. By doing this, it nullifies, for me, the most common criticism of the film, namely that it somehow trivializes the disaster. And while highlighting the tourist casualties might ignore the anguish and long-term hardship of the local Thai population, the film does let us see the way the Thai people stepped in to help all those in need. 

As for the cliches and the sentiment, I think Sanchez and Bayona were remarkably restrained and that what comes across is not what some critics call conventional melodrama but profound moments of honest humanity which reveal the courage and kindness of all involved. 

I had already put together a list of my top ten films of 2012 and was not looking for last-minute entries, but The Impossible may well be one. Another very solid ***+ effort. My mug is up. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia



This long glacially-paced Turkish film reminded me of Tarkovsky and Reygadas (Stellet Licht). It has no score and only limited dialogue, focusing instead on facial expressions as it tells the ‘story’ of 24 hours in the boring lonely lives of Turkish police officers (and the medical examiner who accompanies them) as they investigate a murder. If this doesn’t sound like your kind of film, it probably isn’t. But I thought it was a wondrous work of cinematic art, if maybe not quite a masterpiece (I want to see it again as soon as possible to judge further).

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is in some ways an homage to Sergio Leone, as its name suggests, but, unlike Django Unchained, not in its coldblooded violence but in the way it highlights close-ups and expressions and minimizes dialogue. The acting is critical in such a film and the lead actors (Firat Tanis, Muhammet Uzuner, Taner Birsel, Yilmaz Erdogan) do very well, though they are upstaged by the gorgeous cinematography.

The dialogue may be minimal but every word is precious and thoughtful. This sad profound film may yet slip into my top ten films of 2012. It gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Promised Land



Good Will Hunting, one of my all-time favourite films, was directed by Gus Van Sant and was written by the featured actors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. This time, again under Van Sant, Matt Damon teams up with co-star and co-writer John Krasinski to tell a story about how big corporations will go to any lengths to make their millions, including lying to entire towns about the risks of obtaining natural gas from their land. 

Promised Land could have been a better film, but the supposedly cheesy ending is not one of its flaws (at least not for me). It’s a well-made understated film with a good message that should have been fleshed out more. It won’t make my top ten of the year, but what can I say: I like Matt Damon both as actor and writer. Promised Land gets ***+. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Cosmopolis and Arbitrage: Two billionaires and their cars


I am watching lots of films at year-end, but don’t have the time for long reviews, so watch for daily shorter reviews during the next week.


Cosmopolis

So there’s this young billionaire who drives around New York City in his limousine and talks to one person after another on his way to self-destruction.

David Cronenberg has made many unusual films, so one should not be surprised by this very bizarre dark comedy full of philosophical musings, a haphazard structure, a mad protagonist and a surreal almost post-apocalyptic New York City.

Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis contains one absurd scene after another, but somewhere tries to address the issues of wealth and poverty.

I’m not sold on Robert Pattinson’s performance, but the actors who play the various people who come into his life do a good job (especially Paul Giamatti). I won’t describe who these people are because it would take an hour. This is a fascinating, almost mesmerizing, film to watch but whether it’s a good film is an open question. A second viewing is a must, though Ebert says you couldn’t pay him to see it again.

I will give Cosmopolis *** just for being so bizarre and intriguing and philosophical. My mug is up, but I’m not sure I want to do more than sip the contents.


Arbitrage

So there’s this older billionaire who drives around New York City in his limousine and talks to one person after another on his way to self-destruction.

Hmmm. Wait a minute. This sounds vaguely familiar. 

There are indeed some eery similarities between the two films I watched at home this week. But in most ways they could not be less alike. Written and directed by first-timer Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage is very carefully structured with a simple but intelligent screenplay, a very carefully controlled protagonist (played well by Richard Gere) and a very normal and typical New York City.

Arbitrage is a thriller (not a comedy) about a man struggling to keep his life from imploding after crossing the line a few too many times and venturing from the unethical and probably illegal to the definitely illegal. We don’t know whether to sweat with him or to despise him, but I found his character fascinating and was engaged throughout. In the end, you can never really escape the consequences of your actions.

Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling provide good acting support as the wife and daughter and Tim Roth is good as the detective who wants to catch the big fish. Arbitrage also features an excellent score and great cinematography. An intelligent thriller with no action, it gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Django Unchained



Let’s start by noting that I have always enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s films. Sure Tarantino is crazy (eccentric?), but he’s original, he’s unafraid and he’s a genius. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are classics. I even thought Tarantino had some profound things to say and that his use of graphic violence was carefully measured and used for satirical purposes. But that all changed with Kill Bill 1 and 2. I enjoyed Kill Bill and loved Inglourious Basterds, but they both (i.e. all three films) felt like guilty pleasures. Between them came the unimpressive (to me) Death-Proof. During the past decade, I have grown increasingly uneasy watching Tarantino’s films, and especially worried about his love of graphic violence. 
Now Tarantino has made his most critically acclaimed film since Pulp Fiction (1994). Django Unchained is a dark comedy (all Tarantino films are dark comedies) western about two bounty hunters (a German dentist called King Schultz and a former slave named Django) who slaughter bad guys for cash on their way to finding, and trying to free, Django’s wife. Django Unchained is a clear homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60’s, though they didn’t allow blood-filled violence back then. 
Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are perfectly cast as the bounty hunters. Waltz’s performance and dialogue are by far the best thing in the film, though I also loved the music and the cinematography.
Django Unchained has been controversial because of its frequent (and I do mean frequent) use of the word ‘nigger’ and its overall portrayal of African Americans. I do not feel qualified to speak into that controversy and will leave that for a discussion that begins within the African American community. But to be honest, I find that controversy almost irrelevant compared to the overwhelmingly offensive nature of the film as a whole.
I hated Django Unchained and I am deeply disturbed that both the critics and the public love it. Telling is the following long list of glowing compliments for Django (keep in mind these are meant to be positive qualities): brazenly irresponsible, gruesome, appalling, horrifying, disreputable, deplorable, unwholesome, incendiary, out of its mind, corkscrewed, brutal, raunchy, over-the-top, exaggerated, numbing. I don’t argue with a single word here, but to my mind, most of these words are used to denounce a film, not praise it.
At least three times in the film, a scene of dismissive slaughter elicited huge laughs in the audience. This was, of course, intended, since this is a comedy, but somewhere a line needs to be drawn, a line related to a sense of decency and humanity. Tarantino is all about crossing such lines and I always thought I had a high tolerance for radical line-crossers (wishing I was one, no doubt). But this time, Tarantino crossed MY line and that, my friends, is saying something. One critic referred to Django as ethically serious and another said that Tarantino didn’t sacrifice his humanity or conscience to make the film. They must have been watching a different film. I was thoroughly disgusted. Django Unchained is full of what I just called ‘dismissive slaughter’, with one scene of senseless graphic violence after another. It’s an incredibly stupid (intelligence without a moral compass is just plain stupid to me) tale of revenge and blood and I could not uncover one shred of redeeming value. Quentin, I do believe in my heart that you are a good person and that you want to do good and that you think you are doing good, but please consider doing something more worthwhile with your genius, because this mess of dehumanization and ultra-violence can only make the earth a worse place to inhabit.
In recent reviews, I have compared violence that is difficult to watch with violence that is meant to be enjoyed. At least one film critic commented that Django’s violence is ugly and difficult to watch. If only that were true. It’s ugly all right, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was meant to entertain, not to disturb, and that is profoundly disturbing to me.
Django himself is an incredibly unsympathetic character. The only sympathetic character in the film is Schultz, and he’s a coldblooded killer. As for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character (a plantation owner named Candie), all I will say is that it’s a waste of DiCaprio’s talent, because Candie is just bad news all around. And Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen? Brilliant and horrible at the same time. If the film had ended before our protagonists got to Tennessee (i.e. before DiCaprio and Jackson appeared), then I would have left feeling guilty but entertained. But more than half the film remained and I wish I hadn’t seen it. 
If it were not for Waltz’s performance, the music and the cinematography, I would give Django Unchained exactly zero stars. But each of those deserves at least a half star on its own, so Django gets a whopping *+. My mug is down and the stuff that’s dripping from it is poisonous.