Monday, 31 August 2015

Seymour: An Introduction

Ethan Hawke has starred in a number of my all-time favourite films, specifically those made by Richard Linklater in which Hawke plays characters which in some sense I take to be autobiographical (especially as Hawke is also credited as a co-writer of some of these films). In other words, despite the many lousy films Hawke has starred in (most of which I refuse to watch), I have always had the impression that he is a man searching for a meaning in life that goes beyond societal norms. 

It comes as no surprise to me, therefore, that Hawke would make a documentary about a New York City pianist in which the underlying theme is precisely that; in this case, focusing on how music and the meaning of life intertwine. Indeed, during the few scenes in which we see Hawke talking with the pianist, Hawke is trying to get a handle on how his own life as an actor (and filmmaker) can become more meaningful, setting aside typical definitions of success.

The pianist in question is Seymour Bernstein. Now 85 years old, he was a well-known concert pianist until the age of 50, at which point his struggles with stage fright finally drove him to retire from the stage and led him to a much more meaningful part of his life and career, as a piano teacher. Along the way, Bernstein has searched for integration in his life, with, in his case, music being what links him to meaning and fulfillment in the deepest spiritual sense.

While Hawke gives us glimpses into Bernstein’s past, the focus of Seymour: An Introduction is Bernstein’s life and learnings in the present. So we get to meet some of his past and present students and hear the impact Bernstein has had on them, we get to watch him teach, and we get to hear him reflect on what life and music have taught him. For Bernstein, music is something mystical and magical that connects to our deepest emotions and spirituality, and he tries to impart this to his students. I have always appreciated the way music connects me to stories in a deeper way, which is why I love musicals and operas, so I had no trouble connecting with Bernstein’s comments in the film. 

But Bernstein knows that music isn’t everyone’s link to fulfillment. “The essence of who we are lies in our talent, whatever that is,” Bernstein says. For Hawke, Bernstein suggests, the talent is acting (and, perhaps, filmmaking). It’s definitely linked to creativity. As I understood Bernstein, the extent to which we find happiness and fulfillment in our lives is dependent on the nurturing of that talent and making it, as much as possible, a part of our daily work, though there are dangers to watch for.

Seymour: An Introduction is moving and profound and reveals Hawke’s considerable skills as a documentary filmmaker in the beautiful way it presents this tribute to an amazing man. I’m not quite sure it deserves **** but that’s where I’m leaning for now. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Gift

A critically-acclaimed independent psychological thriller? Sounds like something I might like, though I’m not a Joel Egerton fan and he not only stars in The Gift, but also wrote and directed it.

From the start, The Gift didn’t connect with me. I kept having the feeling that I had seen the film before. I can only assume that this is because I saw the trailer one too many times and it basically covers the first half hour or so of the film. 

The Gift stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn, a young married couple who move into town and buy a house in the suburbs. It seems idyllic until Simon bumps into Gordo, an old acquaintance from high school. Gordo welcomes Simon and Robyn to town with gifts and shows up uninvited, leading to him sharing dinner with the couple. Simon is wary, but Robyn takes an interest in Gordo until he does one strange thing too many and Robyn learns of a dark secret from Simon and Gordo’s past.

There’s an interesting story here, with important questions about how responsible we are as adults for things we did in high school and about how the people we are in high school change (or don’t) as we mature and work through those challenging years. I almost connected enough with this theme, from my own past, to make the film work, but not quite, thanks to the film’s many flawed scenes, especially those involving Robyn and silly shock tactics that were completely unnecessary and out of place. 

I suppose that part of the problem for me may have been that the story is too serious to make it into a typical psychological ‘horror’ film (i.e. I liked the understated parts of the film, but it kept trying to slide into melodrama). Gordo could have been much more interesting if the film had stayed with exploring the psychological impact of past experiences in a believable way. 

The acting by the three leads is solid enough, as is the cinematography and score. And much of the atmosphere and camera work worked for me and showed some good direction. But, in the end, I felt disappointed and that The Gift is an overrated film that I’m not sure I would ever want to see again. I feel like I should give it ***, but once again my mug is nowhere to be found.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Irrational Man

A Woody Allen film about a philosophy professor having an existential crisis: How could it go wrong? That it apparently did go wrong is evident in the way both critics and viewers have generally panned it. Allen’s last two films played for more than two months in our arthouse cinema. Irrational Man lasted a week. 

Not surprisingly (because I’m an Allen fan), I enjoyed Irrational Man from beginning to end in spite of the bad reviews. As I’ve said before, a bad Woody Allen film is still better than most of the stuff out there. Not that I think Irrational Man is a bad film. On the contrary, I felt it was a fairly well-made film, with only Allen’s writing being somewhat suspect. The acting by Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey was more than solid, with Stone being the standout. The jazz score was great and the cinematography was perfect for this kind of film. 

Which gets us back to Allen’s writing. I can imagine many people finding Irrational Man tedious, implausible and overly contrived. This was no doubt a primary complaint of the critics. I won’t say I was riveted, but I was never bored, and Allen films are rarely believable or lacking in plot holes. But I happen to like the way Allen uses film to work through his obsession with the meaninglessness and futility of life, even if I rarely agree with his arguments.

In this case, we have a 40-year-old philosophy professor named Abe Lucas (Phoenix) who finds no meaning or joy in his life and thinks about ending it, even while a smart and beautiful student (Jill, played by Stone) hangs on his every word and tries to seduce him. Abe has tried to find a purpose in life by being an activist, but it all seems futile to him (note: one of the weakest parts of the film is Allen’s unconvincing depiction of this). Until one day he overhears a woman talking about an evil judge who has been bought off to make a decision which will ruin her life. It occurs to Abe that he could bump off the judge to avert this decision and no one would suspect him because he has no motive (as in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). 

Suddenly, Abe’s life has a purpose, a purpose which injects his life with the joy that has so long eluded him. For finally he is taking direct action to make the world a better place (by ridding it of a person who was making the world a worse place). Seeing such an act as immoral, as murder, is missing the big picture. Of course, Allen is not actually promoting such a worldview, but I’ll say no more about how the plot unfolds, other than to mention that Abe and Jill have a lot of fascinating (to me at least) philosophical discussions. 

As with most of Allen’s dramas/mysteries, there’s a darkly comic undertone to the proceedings, which works well if you’re in the mood. What interests me with Irrational Man is how Allen has once again found no answer to his own existential crisis, to the meaninglessness of existence, other than to suggest that the answer lies in doing something constructive and finding joy in the doing. But in Irrational Man that doing is ultimately counterproductive, so we are left waiting for Allen to continue his search for a revelation as he heads towards his eightieth birthday in a few months. You could argue that Allen frequently remakes his own better films, but I, for one, don’t mind being along for this ride and I look forward to his next exploration of the meaning of life. A solid ***. My mug is up.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Mr. Holmes

This underrated British film starring Ian McKellen as Mr. Holmes may be a slow-moving drama instead of the kind of action film more recently associated with Sherlock Holmes, but it has much more to say and is well worth a patient and careful viewing. ***+ My mug is up! My full review can be read on the Third Way Cafe website:

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

I'll See You in My Dreams

It’s been over a month since I watched this film in Edmonton, so again my observations will be brief.

Blythe Danner plays Carol, an aging widow who has just lost her dog and is looking for something to rejuvenate her boring life. The advice of her close circle of friends has not been helpful. But then two very different men come into her life and everything changes. One of those men is Lloyd (a young pool maintenance man, played by Martin Starr); the other is Bill (a lonely retired man looking for a fun companion, played by Sam Elliott). 

The chemistry between Danner and Elliott is fantastic (as are their performances), making I’ll See You in My Dreams a very enjoyable film to watch. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a well-written story about aging that defies predictability and perfectly balances humour and sadness. I’m nowhere near as old as the film’s protagonist, but the theme did connect with me. Unfortunately, while the characters were well-developed and beautifully humanized, I was ultimately disappointed with the shallowness of their lives and what gave their lives meaning. 

So the well-made (directed by Brett Haley) I’ll See You in My Dreams gets only a very solid ***. My mug is up.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Inside Out

This review is long overdue (I watched Inside Out back in June) and my comments will be relatively brief (my memory is fading). The bottom line is that Inside Out is one of Disney’s (and Pixar’s) best efforts. This is a film that will be enjoyed by all and should be watched by all (unlike most of this year’s blockbusters, with the possible exception of Cinderella, another Disney contribution). 

Inside Out provides a unique perspective on how we are guided by our emotions, focusing on a young girl’s emotions when her parents decide to move from the northern U.S. (where they play hockey) to San Francisco. We see five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust) represented by characters in Riley’s head who argue and work together as Riley experiences the roller-coaster of a child’s life in a new city, with a new school and a new home. 

Led by Joy, who is, of course, always trying to look at life positively, the interaction between the emotions is an absolute delight and full of wise and heartfelt insights. When we catch the occasional glimpse of the same five emotions at work in Riley’s parents, the film is absolutely hilarious. I wish they had done even more with that. Inside Out is a brilliantly written, perfectly acted and gorgeously animated film.

However, as is far too common these days, I do have to complain about the fact that Inside Out was made for 3D. It still looked great in 2D (I haven’t watched anything in 3D for years now), but by far the weakest part of the film were the action scenes that were thrown in (especially in the second half of the film) to take advantage of the 3D, resulting in unnecessary boredom.

Nevertheless, Inside Out is too good a film to be ruined by 3D action. Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen have given us another Pixar gem that can be enjoyed again and again by children and adults alike. Has to get ****. My mug is up. Don’t miss it on the big screen (ideally in 2D). 

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

At the Skylight Festival’s ‘Film Year in Review’ (always a highlight), Gareth Higgins noted that he had watched Rogue Nation so that the rest of us wouldn’t have to. I was planning to accept that kind offer, but Katrina is a Mission Impossible fan, it was playing at the IMAX, it was on the way to the airport to pick up Kathy and I had enjoyed Ghost Protocol, so I took a chance.

Returning to the big screen for the fifth time, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) attempts to save the world from the evil Syndicate while the CIA tries to save the world from the reckless Ethan Hunt. There’s a beautiful British spy/double agent (Rebecca Ferguson) to provide some sexual tension, there’s Simon Pegg’s Benji to provide some laughs, there’s Alec Baldwin trying to be serious as the CIA director, there’s Jeremy Renner trying to be serious as Hunt’s IMF boss and there’s Sean Harris as Solomon Lane, the evil villain. It’s all pretty standard spy-thriller fare, with endless chase scenes, lots of violent action and various twists and turns that rarely surprised me. It’s all very well done but even Katrina wasn’t particularly impressed.

While Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, cannot be taken too seriously, the one piece of dialogue that did impress me was a discussion about who the bad guys really are (i.e. is the CIA or the IMF any better than the evil Syndicate in the way they treat the average citizens of this planet?). Unfortunately, this discussion goes nowhere in the end and we are supposed to rejoice that the world is once again safely in the wise hands of the CIA (and IMF), which could hardly be further from the truth.

Because Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is a distracting entertainment that managed to avoid overwhelming me with its violent action, I am going to let it slip into *** territory, but my mug is leaning precariously.

Friday, 7 August 2015


The first Skylight Festival is over and I am planning to write one review a day in an attempt to catch up, starting with the most recent film I watched (very late last night). 

Kathy’s flight was delayed (are there still flights that arrive on time?), so I had no choice but to go to the theatre and watch a film. The timing was right for Trainwreck, a film I thought I’d miss, as it’s not a favourite genre of mine (romantic comedy). With my low expectations, Trainwreck was, for the most part, a pleasant surprise, though there were many scenes and lines that didn’t work for me at all.

Trainwreck is a very quirky, very adult (vulgar?) and very honest romantic comedy directed by Judd Apatow and starring the writer of the film, Amy Schumer. I know nothing about Schumer and, as far as I know, have never seen her act before (TV stuff mostly). She has an endearing realness about her. Schumer plays Amy, a broken young woman whose honesty is not necessarily a positive attribute. Amy is trying to make it in New York as a writer of what looks like an awful magazine while sleeping with any men she finds interesting (her father having taught her about the evils of monogamy in one of the film’s funniest, if also depressing, scenes). Then she meets Aaron (Bill Hader), the subject of one of her articles, and, for the first time in her life, she begins contemplating the possibility of getting serious with a man.

The central romantic story of Trainwreck didn’t really work for me, especially with the sports subplot (Aaron is a sports doctor and hangs out with guys like LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire), but every few minutes the film would have a scene that had me at least grinning if not laughing out loud, which I did more often than in most comedies I have watched. 

The highlight of the film for me was, by far, Tilda Swinton, who played Dianna, Amy’s ice cold boss. Once again Swinton pulls off playing an almost unrecognizable character (no one out there can do it better) and I loved every second of every scene she was in (which were too few in number). There was also a marvellous scene involving Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert, Marv Albert and LeBron James, all playing themselves, in which they try to do an intervention on Aaron. And then there’s the film within the film as we catch a number of short scenes of The Dogwalker, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei. Hilarious stuff. And I really appreciated the family story of Amy and her sister, Kim (Brie Larson) and their father (Colin Quinn). There’s a lot more intelligence here than in most romantic comedies.

But for every scene that worked for me, there was another that didn’t. Still, on the whole, I was quite glad that Kathy’s flight had been delayed, because Trainwreck was almost as distracting as (and better than) Rogue Nation, which I’d seen just a few minutes before with Katrina (review coming tomorrow). 

As the credits rolled, I finally caught a glimpse of the rest of the audience (quite large for that hour on a Thursday) and realized that at least 95% of the audience was women. That was interesting and slightly unsettling, as if I didn’t belong there. I wonder if men are a little afraid of Trainwreck’s brutal honesty. Anyway, a very solid ***. My mug is up, but a warning is needed: this is not your average chick flick.