DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: May 2007

Thursday, 31 May 2007

AMERICAN PSYCHO


American Psycho (2000) dir. Mary Harron
Starring: Christian Bale, Reece Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe

****

“American Psycho” can easily scare people off, the book is disturbing and the connection to the Bernardo case is morbid and sickening. Knowing these barriers to adapting the book into film Mary Harron and the producers took a big risk by amplifying the humour and turning the film into a black comedy. In fact, it’s a scathing black comedy, which in many ways sends up the book and all the hype surrounding it. The film is daring and brilliant.

Patrick Bateman is a 27-year-old Wall Street analyst. In his morose voiceover he intimately describes the minute details of his life and how they relate to his increasing dehumanized existence. He confesses to us he is soulless, empty and devoid of any human qualities other than greed and disgust. His life is spent hanging out in his office not doing work, attending lunches with his equally cold-blooded colleagues and conversing business-like with his wife, heartlessly played by Reece Witherspoon.

Bateman in his boredom with the world has found the only way he can invigorate his emotions is by killing people. He targets homeless people, prostitutes, his colleagues, his girlfriend etc to help him find meaning or truth in the world. Despite his best efforts, he never does, until a cop played by Willem Dafoe makes Bateman a prime suspect in the disappearance of one of his victims. Bateman continues his routine of working, lunching and killing, and now adds ‘avoid murder-charge’ to his to-do list. Bateman becomes more and more delusional until his life spirals inside itself and when dreams and reality merge with one another. By the end, we aren’t sure if Bateman even committed the murders, or if it was all in his head.

“American Psycho” commits a grave screenwriting error, Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner don’t provide a traditional through-line for the film or for Bateman as lead character. The film moves from one scene to another as a series of flatlined beats with no emotional peaks or valleys. Other than the Willem Dafoe subplot the scenes could easily have been shuffled and the film still would have made sense. But ironically this structure actually works. The environment is a fantasy world of the 1980’s – a perfect satirical representation of the ultra-conservative economics of the Reagan-era and Bateman takes the survival of the fittest adage literally. But when Bateman discusses his murderous thoughts with his friends, colleagues, lovers and ordinary citizens they react with the same aloofness as their discussions of politics, restaurants or business cards. The competitiveness is so extreme murder has become a natural extension of socially acceptable life.

Christian Bale's performance as Bateman (go figure, it's a typo away from 'Batman') was a revelation at the time. His career rise afterwards is a result of this performance. The secondary characters, including his trio of callous banker friends, the snobby waiters, etc are all perfectly cast and give great performances. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula lights the film complimentary to the steely cold personalities of the characters.

The film would not have been the same if the filmmakers were men. Turner and Harron must have had fun subversively mocking the male ego. The men in the film are emasculated by making them insecure selfish and appearance-obsessed automatons. The need for acceptance by their peers causes the men to lose their identities – in figurative and literal fashion. The running joke of the frequent misidentification of the characters is very clever. “Wall Street” is a good companion-piece to “American Psycho” as Harron lampoons the behaviors of essentially the same characters that Oliver Stone aggrandizes.

The best scene in the film is the discussion of the font, type and card stock choices of Bateman and his friends’ business cards. It’s a priceless scene that has been reused in various forms in other films ever since. Enjoy.

Buy it here: American Psycho (Uncut Killer Collector's Edition)


Tuesday, 29 May 2007

DIRTY DANCING


Dirty Dancing (1987) dir. Emile Ardolino
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey

***

What better way to help kick off the summer than a trip down memory lane and revisit “Dirty Dancing”. Lions Gate Films and Maple Pictures have released a special edition DVD to commemorate its 20th anniversary. Finally the veil behind the controversial film will be lifted… just kidding, “Dirty Dancing” is still as saccharine as it was 20 years ago, but it’s also still the entertaining formula-driven film that we all grew up with, and holds up today a good ol' slice of forgettable entertainment.

Baby (Jennifer Grey, daughter the dancing legend Joel Grey), and her family, Mom, Dad and big sister, are on their way for summer vacation in the Catskills. It’s the 1960’s and a time before traveling abroad was popular, they instead spend their days at a Mountain resort – like a habited version of the hotel in “The Shining”. The environment is dull and completely uninteresting to the young and disaffected Baby. After a boring old demonstration of the Fox Trot, her eyes become transfixed on the hulking and rebellious figure of Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Johnny is as tough and brooding as his name, but he’s also an expert dancer.

At night Baby is brought into the forbidden staff quarters where she discovers the underground world of ‘dirty dancing’ (imagine the ‘Fight Club’ of 60’s dancing). The sweaty red-lit dancers, their body movements and sexual gyrations turn Baby on, especially when she’s given a personal tutorial by Castle himself. Baby gets roped into dancing with Castle at a show, for which his usual partner, the equally aloof Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) can’t perform due to her unplanned pregnancy. Castle has to train Baby in the ways of competitive dancing in order win the contest. At first they’re at odds with each other because of her lack of skills, but eventually they fall in love. But its forbidden love as Baby's father (Jerry Orbach) obviously disapproves of the relationship.

The affair continues secretly, and as this happens Castle’s confident persona breaks away revealing to Baby a vulnerable and scared man fearful of his own future. Baby turns the tables and teaches Castle the power of personal courage, positive thoughts and standing up for oneself. In the end, all plotlines are wrapped up nicely during the final talent show and the classic “Time of Your Life” finale.

“Dirty Dancing” could have been a traditional musical, but it was made at a time when that genre was completely out of style. And the success of the stage play today is indicative of that. As mentioned the story is formulaic and recycles virtually every musical every made. But the formula works for a reason, especially when the film is cast right. Swayze and Grey compliment each other perfectly. Grey personifies the naïve and innocent awkwardness of Baby, and Swayze has enough rough edges and pussy-cat soft interior to create depth to Castle. The dancing is choreographed and shot perfectly. With the current popularity of celebrity dancing on TV, “Dirty Dancing” would have made even more money today.

Rare for the 80’s, the film was 100% independently financed – through the now-defunct Vestron Pictures. Its success was tremendous, pulling in over $170 million equivalent dollars to today in box office and even more on video. Despite the enormous profit, the company couldn’t repeat the performance with its subsequent films and eventually is folded in 1991.

The popularity of the film has only increased since then. In fact, “Dirty Dancing” was recently named the most popular film among women in a survey by UK Broadcaster Sky Movies.

So kick off the summer with a helping of “No one puts Baby in the corner” and rewatch “Dirty Dancing”. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Dirty Dancing (20th Anniversary Edition)


Monday, 28 May 2007

CANNES 2007 WRAP UP PART 2

PART TWO - THE NON-WINNERS

Alexandra dir. Alexander Sokourov (Russia)

What if a grandmother were allowed to visit her grandson on active operations at a military base in Chechnya? This is the premise of Alexander Sokourov’s latest Cannes entry. The director of “The Russian Ark” has offered a more traditional film than the technically-proficient exercise of “Ark”. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times calls the film “conceptually outrageous, uncharacteristically straightforward and enthralling story”. In general critics gave top marks for Sokourov for delivering a unique and fresh take on a modern war, without the technical obstructions of his previous work.





Les Chansons D'amour dir. Christophe Honoré (France)

A musical about the lives and loves of two Parisian twenty-somethings. Timeout UK calls this film, “poorly conceived and weak”, and for a musical, the worst criticism, “The songs are dreadful too.” It’s also been described as a shameful “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”-wannabe, which is a huge mountain to climb considering “Umbrellas” was a Palme D’Or winner in 1964.





Promise Me This dir. Emir Kusturica (Bosnia)

Set outside Belgrade, an old man prays for his grandson to go to the city and bring back a wife. Mike Collett of Reuters says, “Two-time Cannes winner Emir Kusturica brought a happy ending to the film festival on Saturday with a boisterous Balkan romp, breaking the mould for a competition full of dark tales." “Promise Me This” has a unique whimsical quality to it, and as Cinematical describes it as “a mix of fairy-tale elements, crackpot inventions, gunplay and violence and hyper-stylized slapstick.”





My Blueberry Nights dir. Wong Kar Wai (U.S.)

The opening film and one of the hottest buzz films on the planet, “My Blueberry Nights” is WKW’s first English language feature starring Norah Jones. The traditional road trip film under whelmed most critics. Todd McCarthy (Variety) says, “while the actors' dialogue delivery is perfectly natural, the aphoristic philosophical nuggets Wong favors sound banal and clunky in this context, leaving the film thematically in the shallow end of the pool.” Visually WKW is a genius, and the consensus is he smartly adapts his love for burning cigarettes, hallways, door frames to America, both in the Manhattan setting and on the road. Whether it’s a score or not, the film is universally agreed that it fits into the dreamlike nature of WKW’s Hong Kong work and is worthy of a visit. Expect a fall/winter release from the Weinsteins.





Import Export dir. Ulrich Seidl (Austria)

A nurse from the Ukraine searches for a better life in the West, while an unemployed security guard from Austria heads East for the same reason. The Hollywood Reporter was scathing on the film, saying, “with an aimless script inadequately filmed, the picture is unlikely to make it much farther than its inexplicable inclusion In Competition here at Cannes.” AO Scott of the N.Y. Times is mixed, calling it “disturbing and sometimes brilliant”. The controversy revolves around its graphic depiction of the degradation of the displaced people of former Communist countries.





Death Proof dir. Quentin Tarantino (U.S.)

Quentin Tarantino’s half of “The Grindhouse” was expanded by 25 mins or so. The major difference is the inclusion of the ‘missing reel” – Vanessa Ferlito’s lap dance sequence, and some fleshing out of the second half characters played by Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. It’s generally agreed, that the film isn’t necessarily improved. The problems with pace are still present.





Breath dir. Kim Ki-duk (South Korea)

Kim Ki-Duk’s latest effort, according to Derek Elley of Variety, “will play best to Kim's existing fan club rather than enroll many new members.” It’s typically quirky and oddly funny, though the subject of a man on death row who falls in love. Eux TV raves and calls the film riveting. It’s interesting to note the film was shot in only 9 days, for the equivalent of $500,000.





Tehilim dir. Raphaël Nadjari (Israel)

A family in Jerusalem is torn apart by the mysterious disappearance of their father after a tragic a car accident. Nadjari’s film is possibly another depressing meditation on loss and tragedy. Lisa Nesselson of Variety describes it as “disturbing tale will prove more frustrating than enlightening for many viewers, despite its conversation-sparking premise.”





The Man From London dir. Bela Tarr (Hungary)

A lowly train switcher witnesses an exchange of stolen money. After a fight between the criminals the money ends up the switcher’s hands which will change the course of his life. Bela Tarr is a filmmaker with a sparse but internationally acclaimed series of films. “The Man From London” is told in the same patient manner as his other films – stark black and white with long, slow, fluid steadycam shots. Though magnificent technically it seems to have turned most people off. Kirk Honeycutt believes the visual storytelling “grows agonizingly tedious and repetitive.” One irksome note from virtually every critic is the poorly dubbed voice of Tilda Swinton into Hungarian.











Une Vieille Maîtresse dir. Catherine Breillat (France)

Secrets, rumors and betrayals surround the upcoming marriage between a young dissolute man and virtuous woman of the French aristocracy. Much has been made of the pairing of female l’enfant terrible, Catherine Breillat, and the euro-temptress extraordinaire Asia Argento. And though it’s sexy, it’s one of the more straight-forward films of Breillat’s career. Manohla Dargis says “The witty, often exuberantly funny screenplay keeps you laughing amid the couple’s pain and drama, while Ms. Breillat and Ms. Argento occasionally make you gasp with their own equally epic amour fou.” Lisa Nesselson of Variety was positive but not exactly glowing, “Tapping into a universal strain of yearning, Cannes competition entry gives arthouse a good name.” Regardless of the success, the fact that the movie was made is a miracle. Mr. Breillat suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2004 that left her paralyzed for many months.





We Own the Night dir. James Gray (U.S.)

James Gray’s last film, “The Yards”, was the minor critical hit, which unfortunately was unceremoniously dumped into the market by Miramax. It took seven years for Gray to pick himself back up again and produce this Cannes entry, albeit with much thanks due to Mark Cuban’s enviable 2929 Productions. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, it’s the story of a New York nightclub manager who tries to save his brother and father from Russian mafia hit men.

Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times writes, “We Own the Night is a big breakthrough. It's a searing family drama as well as a cops-versus-criminals thriller with the same sticky web of loyalty and rivalry seen in Martin Scorsese's best work.” Whoa… slow down Mr. Goldstein. Bold words. Variety sees the film as more conventional than innovative or inspired like Scorsese and cites a number of “dramatic implausibilities, plot loopholes, emotional cliches and period anachronisms” and goes on to say, “it plays like little more than an OK television movie, which is hardly enough after years of "The Sopranos" and "The Wire”. Comparisons to Scorsese are tough to live up to. Let’s leave the hype-machine alone and let his film do the talking when it’s released. Good luck Mr. Gray.

BTW: Columbia Pictures nabbed the American distribution rights for tidy $11.5million. Expect a major “Departed”-like Oscar push for this film.

Click the photo to link to the trailer















Zodiac dir. David Fincher (U.S.)

“Zodiac” is old news here in North America. So the Cannes entry is a little surprising. Fincher’s never been to Cannes before and this is one of his best films, so the surprise is welcomed. I reviewed “Zodiac” in an earlier entry. Click here to read. But the foreign consensus doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as the Americans a couple months earlier: Jonathan Romney of the UK Independent writes, “Zodiac may finally be too obsessively overwrought and self-conscious for greatness, but it's compelling, grown-up entertainment.” Bah! I love the film! Find it wherever you are.

Here’s the International Trailer:




Click here to read Part One

CANNES 2007 WRAP-UP PART 1

PART ONE – THE WINNERS

So you don’t have time to search through the plethora of news articles in the world to get a proper wrap-up of the Cannes Film Festival, here’s a brief summary of how each film fared in the competition, the critical consensus, some clips if available and their prospective releases. So consider this your one-stop info summary for Cannes 2007.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days dir. Cristian Mungui (Romania)

Prize: Palme D’Or

Hot off the heels of the other great recent Romanian film to be born at Cannes (“Death of Mr. Lazarescu” 2005), Crisitian Mungiu’s film has been acclaimed as “pitch perfect” and “brilliantly acted”. Mary Corliss of Time Magazine calls it a “gripping and satisfying film”. The film features long takes and is very observational and natural in its style, and unfolds a tragic story about a young girl who is raped and impregnated and forced to perform her own abortion. It sounds like tough visceral material, but a worthy journey to take. Cristian Mungiu is a filmmaker to watch, as this is a supposed first film of a series of films about life in Communist Romania. IFC Films snapped up the American distribution rights. But as far as I know no release date is set.






The Edge of Heaven dir. Fatih Akin (Turkey)

Prize: Best Screenplay

A Turkish man travels to Istanbul to find the daughter of his father's former girlfriend. Derek Elley of Variety calls the film “utterly assured, profoundly moving”, but detractors feel the film is unnecessarily clever in its narrative structure. Cinematical describes it as “strong and artful and well-made, but it also feels like its unpredictability is actually predictable.”






The Banishment dir. By Andreï Zviaguintsev (Russia)

Prize: Best Actor (Konstantin Lavronenko)

A trip to the pastoral countryside reveals a dark, sinister reality for a family from the city. This is Andrei Zviaguintsev’s second film after 2003’s “The Return”, which won him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Reaction is mixed. Timeout UK, says it “plays like the wet dream of a Tarkovsky fanatic.” But David Gritten of the U.K. Telegraph calls it a masterpiece and worth the 4 year wait after “The Return.” This looks like a hit or miss film, either a ‘mythic masterpiece’ or a ‘weary disappointment.’






Le Scaphandre et le Papillon dir. Julian Schnabel (France)

Prize: Best Director

Julian Schnabel’s long hiatus after “Before Night Falls” in 2000 was worth the wait. Also known as “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, Schnabel’s film instantly became one of the buzz films of the festival. It’s the true story of Elle France editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a stroke and ends up only being able to communicate by blinking one eye. Mathieu Amalric plays the lead in the universally acclaimed remarkable film. Though the subject matter is similar to Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside”, Schnabel’s film is worthy of its own acclaim and, as you can see by the trailer below, appears to be a uniquely artistic take on the theme. Miramax picked up the North American distribution rights. Expect a winter release in time for Oscar consideration.






The Mourning Forest dir. Naomi Kawase (Japan)

Prize: Grand Prix

A caregiver at a small retirement home takes one of her patients for a drive to the country, but the two wind up stranded in a forest where they embark on an exhausting and enlightening two-day journey. This appears to be another meditative film about grieving and loss. Reviews for this film seem sparse, but a Jury Prize is no small achievement.






Paranoid Park dir. Gus Van Sant (France)

Prize: Special 60th Anniversary Prize

Gus Van Sant’s new film is told in the same manner as his “death trilogy” - unknown or non-actors, long tracking shots, with a cerebral fear of simmering violence and dread. He again examines the subject of violence and disaffected youth, this time telling the story of a teenager who accidentally kills a security guard. In general, this appears to turn off as many people as it turns on, which is the usual reaction to his recent films. He employs the masterful Christopher Doyle instead of Harris Savides to shoot the film. Apparently his super 8mm footage he shot for the skateboarding sequences is magnificent. It’s scheduled for release in France (who financed the film) in September of this year. No North American release date is set




Persepolis dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (France)

Prize: Jury Prize

A poignant coming-of-age story of a precocious and outspoken young Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This seems quite possibly the oddest selection from Cannes in many years. A black and white animated film based on a graphic novel about the Iranian Revolution. Lisa Nellson of Variety says “this autobiographical tour de force is completely accessible and art of a very high order.” Richard Corliss of Time says, “Even when the story turns from Iranian political melodrama into more familiar coming-of-age territory, ‘Persepolis’ never loses its momentum, its sustaining sense of fun or its rapturous hold on the viewer.” Since it’s animated, in another language, look for a U.S. release with American celebs dubbing the voices. Though my guess is Sony Pictures Classics won’t turn it into a Shrek-like extravaganza.






Silent Light dir. Carlos Reygadas (Mexico)

Prize: Jury Prize

A film about a devout Mexican Mennonite whose faith is put to the test when he falls in love with a woman. Manohla Dargis calls Reygadas’ film, “A story about grace and the fallen world, and owes a strong debt to the Danish master Carl Dreyer” and The International Herald Tribune calls the film “the happiest surprise of the festival” and “a film that continues to linger in my thoughts days after seeing it.” Reygadas has been at Cannes before with “Battle in Heaven” and “Japon” and this film appears to be another hit for both himself and the red hot Mexican cinema-scene as well.





Secret Sunshine dir. Lee Chang-dong (South Korea)

Prize: Best Actress, Jeon Do-yeon

A mother moves with her son to the town where her dead husband was born. As she tries to resettle herself and set out on a new foundation, another tragic event overturns her life. According to Variety’s Derek Elley, the film is a slowly paced ambitious film that suffers from its long 142min running time. Anthony Kaufman disagrees, saying it’s “sensitive and fully naturalistic…” and “…expresses profound human truths in a fully realized way that has been rare at this year's festival.”






No Country For Old Men dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (U.S.)

Though not a prize winner, this is another one of the major buzz films. The latest Coens film is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy modern western novel. The logline reads, “violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon some dead bodies, a stash of heroin and more than $2 million in cash near the Rio Grande.” An interesting cast of non-Coens players include, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, and Josh Brolin. The film is a return to the lean and mean days of “Millers Crossing” and “Blood Simple,” but with the black wit of “Fargo” still present. In fact, some have dubbed it “Fargo” in Texas. Despite not winning any awards, the film is a critical success already. Jason Anderson of Toronto’s Now mightily approves and gives it four stars, and Alison Willmore of the IFC Blog is bold enough to say “No Country For Old Men is the best thing the Coens have ever done.” Miramax will release the film in November in the U.S. and Canada.








Please check in tomorrow for PART TWO of the Cannes 2007 Wrap-Up.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

CASINO ROYALE


Casino Royale (2006) dir. Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judy Dench, Mads Mikkelsen

***

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said already, but “Casino Royale” certainly is the badly needed shot in the arm for the Bond series. An ample dose of toughness, reality AND emotional investment has invigorated people’s interest in the now 45 year old character. After all, the suave, invincible action hero of the Bond series has now been trumped by the Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer new millennium hero. The Pierce Brosnan Bond was supposed to reboot from the lagging late Moore/Timothy Dalton films. And for a couple of films (“Goldeneye” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”) it was mildly interesting, but then the series devolved into the same comic-book trappings that plagued those other films. Will the Daniel Craig Bond devolve into double-entendre gags, silly gadgetry and ridiculous world-takeover plotting? Time will tell.

“Casino Royale” has the best opening of any Bond film by far. James Bond is still a fledgling MI6 agent. He’s infiltrated the home of a suspected traitor and he has his gun pointed to his head. The traitor doesn’t think he has the cojones to kill him. In a clever flashback sequence we see Bond’s very first kill as an agent – a rough and tumble fight in a bathroom. This is Bond’s initiation into the world of the double O’s.

The opening sequence sets the bar high for the rest of the film. The next major action sequence involves a wonderful chase of a terrorist through the streets of some African city. The terrorist has some neat parkour skills which allows him to leap and jump up walls and through windows with ease. Somehow Bond catches up to him though and kills him indiscriminately. This is Bond’s weakness – he’s a thug who can kill, but according to M he needs to see the big picture and “take his ego out of the picture”. One of the faults of the film is that beyond the cool action of these first two scenes, the rest of the film, technically, is a let down. Martin Campbell’s direction is adequate but uninspired.

Bond traces the perp to a higher level playing field involving a high stakes poker game, which if won by the international financier, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) the money will go to fund more international terrorists. Bond is sent to play on behalf of MI6 and the CIA to stop Le Chiffre from winning the game. Therefore we now get to see Bond’s poker face and skills at reading people. But Le Chiffre is just a pawn in the “big picture” as there are more nefarious men behind the curtains whom we have yet to see.

Bond develops an attraction to the woman who has supplied James with the money to bet with at the game. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) isn’t the “Bond-girl” type, she doesn’t chase down bad guys, nor pack any heat. She’s just there to see that Bond wins the game. But she’s also ridiculously gorgeous. Bond eventually falls deeply in love with her, and this becomes a major part of the story. Bond’s is so smitten he leaves the Secret Service altogether in hopes of starting a normal life. But a double cross quickly halts those plans.

By the end of the film Bond’s weaknesses and softness are gone. In the next installment he’ll likely be the hardened, callous, and unattached Bond we’ve all grown up with. Hopefully not. I hope the depth to his character will be more fully explored. The film doesn’t end with a neat wrap-up, as a sequel is set up nicely. A character whom we never meet is introduced late in the story as being key to the bigger picture. I think this is the only way to keep the series alive - to serialize the films into a trilogy or a group of trilogies. With the competition from “24”, “Bourne”, and the rash of recent “trilogies”, just a one-movie narrative just isn’t good enough. So I’m sure the next two Bond films will be fed from this first film.

“Casino Royale” received a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes last year – a remarkable achievement. But is “Casino Royale” that good a film on its own? No. I think the film has been received by audiences and critics in the context of the other Bond films. Indeed, it blows most of those other films out of the water, but as a film unto itself, I’ll take a couple episodes of “24”, or either of “The Bourne Identity” or “The Bourne Supremacy” any day. The producers succeeded in rebooting the Bond series and making it legit, but there still is much room for improvement. Good luck Bond. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Casino Royale (Two-Disc Widescreen Edition)


Saturday, 26 May 2007

THE BREAK-UP


The Break-Up (2006) dir. Peyton Reid
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston

***1/2

“The Break Up” was unrightfully put into the ‘romantic-comedy’ genre box upon its release, and though the film made over $100m in domestic theatres (mainly because of the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston press at the time) the film was critically dumped on and received less than favourable word of mouth from audiences. Well I’m writing to set the record straight that “The Break-Up” is worthy of a second look and a rediscovery as a thoughtful and entertaining (and realistic) domestic comedy more in the Woody Allen tradition than, say, a Julia Roberts rom-com.

From the opening photo montage of digital stills Gary and Brooke are in a healthy relationship. Gary is a working-class, alpha-male, who co-runs a Chicago tour bus service and Brooke is a beautiful and educated middle-class art gallery manager. After establishing the characters as such, they soon engage in an unruly domestic fight after they host the first meeting of their parents. The dinner scene with the families is a classic stand-alone piece of comedy, specifically John Michael Higgins’ hilarious rendition of Yes’ “Owner of Lonely Heart” A Capella. But afterwards tempers boil over when Brooke chastises Gary for not contributing or appreciating the work she did in preparing for the dinner. The argument isn’t out of the blue, in fact, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back, and, as a result, Brooke breaks up with Gary right there and then.

As usual the couple split up for the night and each seeks refuge with their respective best friends. Addie, (Joey Lauren Adams) and Johnny O (Jon Favreau) become their shoulders to cry on. Each person is frustrated with the other: Gary sees Brooke’s frequent requests to help out around the house as nagging, and Brooke is frustrated with Gary’s increasing selfishness with the relationship. The comic hook occurs when Gary and Brooke each stubbornly refuse to leave their condo and decide to co-habitate despite being broken-up. The second act of the film involves a battle of quid-pro-quo ‘War of the Roses’ one-up-manships. Brooke starts dating other guys to get back at Gary, Gary responds by subverting her attempts by claiming territory in the condo etc etc.

Warning: Spoilers below.

The film runs the path of a romantic comedy but in the third act actually subverts these genre expectations and moves the film in another direction. The film is more tragic than anything else. Like my earlier review of “All the Real Girls” the lack of communication prevents neither Gary nor Brooke from working on their problems to heal and mend their relationship. In the third act, it’s Brooke that makes the first attempts at patching things up, but she is elusive and cryptic and too subtle to penetrate Gary’s self-obsessed mind. By the time Gary realizes his own failings it’s too late. The distance between them is too far for Brooke to go back.

The film is more Woody Allen than Julia Roberts (or rather Garry Marshall), because Gary and Brooke are real people in situations believable and accessible to audiences. We all, as the audience, can imagine ourselves in their position at some point in our lives. All of us are, to some degree, selfish, lazy, over-worked, frustrated, incommunicable, shy, hotheaded, egotistical and unsure of the right thing to do in times of crisis. The characters never receive the magic pixie dust to make things right, and despite the informative advice of their supporting characters Gary and Brooke are left to their own devices to figure things out. And they don’t.

Ironically one of the failings of the film is also its strength and driving force - Vince Vaughn. He is the star of the film and he perfectly captures the essence of the typical alpha-male – outgoing, friendly, extroverted, and funny. It’s easy to see how Brooke fell in love him. But Vaughn also chews the scenery as well, and in almost every tête-à-tête exchange dominates Aniston’s character. It’s no surprise the film is co-written and produced by Vaughn and two of his older male friends. Despite the continuing frustration over Gary’s egregiously selfish behaviour it’s hard to fault in Aniston’s character for any of the arguments. The film could have used a female co-writer to get under the skin of Brooke and reveal her own insecurities and concerns with the relationship. After all, she is in her mid-thirties, unmarried, and at the end of a long relationship. There is much more emotional depth to the ramifications of her actions than just losing a teammate on the bowling team.

Other than this, “The Break-Up” is always smart, always engaging and there’s never a false moment. The film features a series of brilliant comically-timed exchanges of dialogue – both well-written and performed. But the film works because there’s bit of Brooke and Gary in all of us, and it takes a continual and conscious effort not to fall into the hole Brooke and Gary buried for themselves. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Break-Up (Widescreen Edition)


Friday, 25 May 2007

CHUNGKING EXPRESS


Chungking Express (1994) dir-Wong Kar-Wai
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Brigitte Lin and Takeshi Kaneshiro

****

Guest review by Blair Stewart

Do you ever smell a scent and suddenly find yourself ten years younger and in love?Hear a snippet of a song that takes you back to a forgotten memory, forgotten mood, and damned if it doesn’t just breaks you? From the first bars of its amazing synthesizer score, Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chungking Express” understands that sensation.

This was the first film I’d seen of WKW’s work and of Hong Kong cinema and still it remains my favorite. It is a dizzying pastiche of frantic camera speeds, big city noise and oddball characters falling in and out of love. The story is of two beat cops in the roughneck part of Kowloon in the 90’s, both mini movies of themselves that momentarily intersect, where one will always play the fool and one just might get the girl. Cop #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is drowning his blues in nearly expired cans of pineapple (canned foods is a perverse WKW fetish.) and after a brief encounter develops a crush on a ruthless drug trafficker in a Rita Hayworth wig (Brigitte Lin). Cop #633 (the mighty Tony Leung Chiu Wai) has just found out that his ‘girlfriend is a highway and she went by pretty quick*. But unbeknownst to him his local cafe server (Faye Wong) has fallen hard for him. So hard, in fact, she’s taken to breaking into his apartment and cleaning it while listening to earsplitting renditions of the Mama’s and the Papa’s “California Dreaming”. Meanwhile, all around them, one of the world’s great cities whoops and blusters as only a great city can.

A breakthrough internationally for Wong Kar-Wai after Quentin Tarantino started singing his praises upon its festival release, it would lead to his other triumphs “Happy Together” and “In the Mood for Love”. “Chungking Express” was also a triumphant introduction to the idiosyncratic work of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who not only had a tremendous flexibility in style and color has also lead a mysterious life worthy of J.D. Salinger’s next novel. Their collaboration is one of the great duos in cinema, two artists improvising on-the-fly and challenging each other with their craft.

If you are lovesick and seek a voice that speaks your language, you might find it here. If you have a good reason to celebrate and want background noise to your happiness, you will find it here. Enjoy.

*Thanks to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers “Roadrunner” for that great line.

Buy it here: Chungking Express


Thursday, 24 May 2007

BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) dir. David Lean
Starring Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden

****

Prior to “Bridge on the River Kwai” David Lean was known for his 2 Dickens adaptations – “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations” – and a series of small-scale British character dramas, such as “Brief Encounter”. And so David Lean was, at the time, an odd choice of director for the film (both John Ford and Howard Hawks were considered). It’s good Lean was given the assignment because propelled him into the pantheon of film history and allowed go on to make “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”.

The film’s opening credit sequence tells you this isn’t your ordinary Hollywood war film. The camera is mounted on a real train, traveling through the jungles of Siam (now Thailand) – though it’s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) substituting for Siam – it’s an actual jungle. No plastic Hollywood trees, no process shots or studio-based rear projection. It’s on location filming, which automatically elevates the authenticity and credibility.

The British soldiers on the train are being brought to a Japanese POW camp led by the brutal Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). But when the troops (privates and officers) are given their first instructions to immediately start work, the leader of British soldiers, Col Nicholson (Alec Guinness) protests. Nicholson stands at attention and maintains his position that under the Geneva Code officers are not permitted to do hard labour. Nicholson’s motives are not egotistical. Instead it’s calculated. He knows the only way for his soldiers to survive the camp is to live under their own terms, and not those of the Japanese. Therefore maintaining the order and protocol of King’s military is of utmost importance.

And so the battle of wills begins. Nicholson stubbornly endures the most ghastly of painful abuses, weeks of physical and mental torture continue for the Colonel, until finally Saito loses the battle and gives into Nicholson’s demand. Meanwhile Saito is given orders by his superiors to build a bridge across the Kwai river so Japanese soldiers can transport valuable arms across Asia. Nicholson is tasked with managing and coordinating the building effort. When the work begins Nicholson takes the effort more seriously than he should. Nicholson’s fellow officers question his steadfast desire not just to complete the work, but Nicholson’s insistence on making the best quality bridge possible. Nicholson’s British upper class superiority complex blinds him to the real war effort.

Intercut with the events at the camp is the journey of a former camp escapee Cmdr. Shears (William Holden) who is roped into going back to the camp, infiltrating it and blowing up the bridge. This storyline though essential to adding counterpoint to the main plot is the weakest part of the film. Holden’s performance as the typical disinterested American working for the British pales in comparison to the stubborn nobleman of Alec Guinness. But the ending which brings everyone together at the opening of the bridge and first shipment to cross it is a brilliant sequence of editing and staging.

Warning spoilers ahead…


The famous explosion scene actually blew up the bridge-set that was used throughout the film. They only built one bridge for the film, and blowing it up was so risky, it meant they couldn’t do reshoots. The footage was so valuable, producer Sam Speigal reportedly shipped the film canisters to the lab via 5 different airplanes to spread out the risk of total loss.

Alec Guinness’ performance, which deservedly won him an Oscar is the highlight of the film. From his first scene, he captures your attention, and you literally cannot take your eyes away from the screen.

As mentioned “Bridge on the River Kwai” was Lean’s first epic, and the rest of his film career would be a series of films which attempted to top the previous. Though I’m grateful for all the later films, the smaller, more intimate films he could have made unfortunately never materialized. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Bridge on the River Kwai


Wednesday, 23 May 2007

28 WEEKS LATER


28 Weeks Later (2007) dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Starring: Robert Carlyle, Imogen Poots, Mackintosh Muggleton

**

“28 Weeks Later” picks up on the same rage epidemic that decimated Great Britain in the summer of 2002. The epidemic has been stemmed, the infected ragers have all died and now the U.S.-led military force policing the island is letting some citizens back onto the island. They are testing bringing in 15,000 inhabitants before allowing full integration. Proper precautions seem to have been taken, citizens are allowed only within a small zone of London, they are given new clothes and domiciles to live in, and there are armed snipers on the rooftops.

Not exactly a great place for a couple of children to grow up in, but it’s a start. Youngsters Tam (Imogen Poots) and Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) have been reunited with their father Don (Robert Carlyle), after Don’s traumatizing pre-credit flashback sequence which saw his cottage attacked and destroyed by the ragers. Don is burdened with the guilt of not helping his wife be taken over by the ragers, and therefore is badly in need of redemption.

After a patient, but satisfying calm before the storm, the virus does manage to reignite in the new city and so the chaos begins again. Furiously violent zombie-ism spreads like wildfire and soon it’s survival-of-the-fittest to live. The military enacts its ‘Code-Red’ and turns against the civilians, opting for a complete extermination of everybody and everything. Don, Tam, and Andy and the others have seemingly no safety net. A couple of the military personnel refuse to obey their orders to join the civilians in their escape. Who, if any, will make it out alive?

What the sequel lacks in freshness makes up in the gore-factor. There’s some truly awesome maimings, blood-splatterings and gruesome deaths. “28 Days Later” differentiated its film from other zombie films by taking their story seriously and exploring issues of loyalty, trust and psycho-crisis management (I just made that up), instead of the general humourous outlook of the Romero films. And this trend continues in the sequel.

Where the film fails, unfortunately, is in the direction of the film, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, directs each action scene with an over-the-top shakey camera, resulting in absolutely incomprehensible action. The opening scene, which is an amazing feat of brutal intensity, was completely lost on me, because I couldn’t tell who was what, where the characters were, who was getting killed etc. After the scene, I gave the Mr. Fresnadillo the benefit of the doubt and thought, because it was the first scene maybe it was by design. No. Each and every attack or action scene was filmed this way. In between the wildly nauseating swishes and random camera twists I would catch a glimpse of a face I knew. It was frustrating because the action was structured and choreographed brilliantly, the director just had no clue how to shoot it. You may remember Danny Boyle who shot the first film, used a grainy video camera, but actually shot the film with an elegant locked down style and handheld only selected shots featuring the ragers. In addition, “28 Weeks Later” was missing the likeable and interesting actor and characters to which I invested my interest. Other than Robert Carlyle the other protags are weak compared to, say, Brendan Gleeson, Naomie Harris, or Cillian Murphy.

My experience was also tainted by a low lit, slightly out of focus screening (NOTE: for Torontoians out there, please avoid the Queensway theatre #16) and a most notably three annoying Russian hulkers who were talking with deep Russian voices throughout the entire film. Urgghh. The production design of the vacated and decayed city was again terrific, it hit close to home actually as many of the scenes reminded me of Toronto Parkdale at 2:00am on a Saturday night. Go figure.

Overall, don’t believe the hype, it’s not as good as the first film, and the nausea-inducing camerawork is amplified on the big screen, I would wait for video.


Tuesday, 22 May 2007

ALL THE REAL GIRLS


All the Real Girls (2003) dir. David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel

****

“All the Real Girls” is one of the most truthful and honest stories about love. Co-written and directed by David Gordon Green, the 27-year-old sophomore director strips away the artificiality of Hollywood romance and manages to capture the awkwardness and painful realities of real life love. Nobody’s perfect, and there is no formula or script to achieving happiness.

Paul (Paul Schneider, a young John C. Reilly) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel) are two young people in the throws of new love. Though we’re only told after the fact, Paul was a former playboy with a bad reputation for loving and leaving his girlfriends. Noel on the other hand is a virgin and naïve to sex and relationships. The romance causes conflict with Noel’s brother Tip, who happens to be Paul’s best friend. Despite this the relationship blossoms though Paul chooses to delay sex because he’s actually in love with her and wants to treat her differently than his one-night stands. But just as things are going good, an act of infidelity causes a major rift. Suddenly everything is flipped around and both characters are thrown into the deep end of emotions and forced to tread water to survive. Both Noel and Paul make bad decisions and catching up to fix them complicates things even more. Over the course of the film complexities compound each other, and the question then becomes why can’t two people who truly love each other be together?

“All the Real Girls” is a different film than say, “Garden State”; it’s certainly not as accessible and requires patience to see the whole story through. Conflict begins about half through the film, and from that point on I guarantee you’ll be completely engrossed. Green sets the mood by capturing moments in time. He often enters scenes halfway through conversation and enjoys watching and observing people doing the most banal of endeavours. Therefore often he’ll shoot with extremely long lenses at his characters, say, fixing a wheel, or brushing one’s hair, or lighting a cigarette. This is how Green establishes the reality and eschews artificiality.

Green also de-romanticizes the environment. The film was shot in North Carolina, which was also the setting and location for “Dawson’s Creek”. In many ways “All the Real Girls” is the anti-Dawson, there’s no grandiloquent pontificating, or neat life-lessons learned. But Green is not subtle about his love for his characters, for example the bowling alley scene is so simple and touching but also shamefully romantic. Though the film is beautifully shot with magic-hour light and bathed in golden browns and yellows, Green relishes the ugliness of the town. He spends more time looking at decayed rusty train tracks and dirty old cars than Dawson’s autumn leaves or peaceful rivers.

At 30 years old, Green has marked a place for himself as a distinct American independent. His other films “George Washington” and “Undertow” show an improvement and progression of maturity to his filmmaking. But “All the Real Girls” is still my favourite. The film’s preciousness is summed up in the clown scene, which, in my opinion, is one of the best stand-alone scenes of American-indie quirkiness. Enjoy.

Buy it here: All the Real Girls


Monday, 21 May 2007

ELEPHANT


Elephant (2003) dir by Gus Van Zant
Starring: Alex Frost, John Robinson and Carrie Finklea

****

Guest Review by Blair Stewart

This film is a brave ship cutting through rough, unknown waters. Gus Van Zant’s “Elephant” approaches the daunting subject of American school shootings as a meditation of cause and effect and for its objectivity it walked away with the 2003 Palme D’Or at Cannes only to be forgotten promptly upon its Stateside arrival.

Dovetailing appropriately from Alan’s recent praise of Bela Tarr’s work and the great long-takes in cinema, as the camera prowls the hallways of a nondescript high school, devoid of mood music or other dramatic histrionics, we see from multiple points-of-view the buildup to a massacre. Cast entirely with expressive non-actors improvising their dialogue and performances, a loose plotline emerges.

The shade of blue that cinematographer Harris Savides captures is awesome, and combined with crisp autumn colors, “Elephant” becomes a rare commodity that moves beyond docudrama and into dreamscape. Edits are rare, allowing us time to observe the vulnerability of these children in their routines, including the young killers, as we closely follow them down their respective paths. After establishing such youthful archetypes of the Sensitive Kid, the Awkward Nerd and the Budding Artist the film slides over into the orbit of the killers, where Van Zant wisely doesn’t provide us with a central reason or damnation as to why two kids would decide to commit extreme depravity, but a multitude of broad influences that could possibly have lead to its terrible conclusion.

The latter scenes project a profound sense of dread, especially the target practice in the garage. The scene is utterly terrifying on an aural level alone. Regardless, this is also an intensely beautiful work of cinema verite - capturing youth in the moment, as its poster, (my favorite movie poster) can attest to above.

With this middle part of his ‘Death Trilogy’, alongside the hypnotic “Gerry” and “Last Days”, Gus Van Zant becomes an even more admirable figure in American cinema. Emerging from the 80’s gay indie scene of “Drugstore Cowboy” to achieving mid-90’s mainstream success with “Good Will Hunting”, his track record, like Richard Linklater and David Lynch, has allowed him his own niche for small-scale artistic endeavors. “Elephant” is a result of that freedom and Van Sant shouldn’t look back, just keep on going.

Buy it here: Elephant


Sunday, 20 May 2007

HAPPY FEET


Happy Feet (2006) dir. George Miller
Voices by: Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Robin Williams

***

If you’re a cinephile, and want to take a break from Bela Tarr or Krzysztof Kieslowski, rent George Miller’s wonderful “Happy Feet” –a visual and auditory treat that’s like a good old bowl of Count Chocula in the morning or a blue ‘freezie’ on a hot summer day. It’ll bring the child-like joy back to your scowling face.

“Happy Feet” won an Oscar for Best Animated film. It’s not necessary as Oscar-worthy feat, considering there’s only a dozen or so animated films made in a year, but I’m just glad the great George Miller has a statuette for anything on his mantel piece.

As with any animated feature the production process is usually a 3-4 year journey, which means its genesis was before “March of the Penguins” and “Madagascar” – so it’s not a copy-cat film. The film takes place mostly in Antarctica; a group of emperor penguins are making their journey with their eggs back home to their colony. If you’ve seen “March of the Penguins” you’ll know how arduous the journey is and how the penguins must keep their eggs protected from the harsh environment in between their legs and under their fur. But “Memphis” (voiced by Hugh Jackman) briefly loses grip of his egg causing it to roll down a slope into the open snow. He quickly recovers it, but the damage is already done. Will the penguin-fetus survive? Yes, and its hatched out by our main character Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood). From infancy Mumble is different, he’s not just the runt of the group, he can’t sing, which for the colony is the unifying characteristic. Every Penguin has their own “heartsong” which distinguishes them as part of the group. Mumble’s only talent is for tap-dancing, which is misunderstood by the elders and so, he is shunned by everyone. Mumble also has an innate sense of curiosity. When he meets a group of birds, one of whom has a tracking tag on its foot, it piques his interest in the so-called “aliens” who live over yonder. He theorizes that these aliens may be causing the decrease in fish in ocean, which ultimately supplies the sustenance for his fellow penguins.

Mumble proceeds to go on a journey outside of his environment to find the mysterious aliens. It’s no secret that the aliens are the human population. Mumble meets a group of smaller, shorter penguins (a slightly different species) who help him in his journey. Mumble and the group proceed to get into a series of adventures on their way to discovering the human world.

For much of the film it’s all about the cute penguins and the American Idol-influenced song and dance routines. I was admittedly skeptical about hearing cover versions of classic pop songs sung by Penguins. Perhaps it was my film-snob ego getting the way, but after the first sequence, I let my guard down which allowed me to enjoy the fun.

Visually the images are stunning – the photo-realism is almost perfect, especially the water and skyscapes. The moments of action and peril the penguins eventually find themselves in also a visual delight. The attack of the seal from underneath the ice is terrific and the killer whale sequence is also a classic. Warning: Spoilers coming up…The final act freshens the film from potential monotony by adding the human element into the film. The careful incorporation of live human characters into the animation is handled well.

Overall, the film doesn’t necessarily rise above the Pixar-benchmark for computer animation, but thankfully it saves us a sappy third act emotional resolution which plagues the Pixar films. And it’s too bad much of its thunder was stolen by “Ice Age”, “March of the Penguins” and “Madagascar”, because without those films “Happy Feet” would have been a more unique film. But nonetheless I still recommend checking your ego at the door and open yourself up to a fun musical extravaganza. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Happy Feet (Widescreen Edition)


Saturday, 19 May 2007

LORENZO'S OIL


Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) dir. George Miller
Starring: Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon

***1/2

George Miller is a great filmmaker with one of the most eclectic bodies of work. The man who created the “Mad Max” series, the "Babe" series and won on Oscar for an animated film, “Happy Feet”, also directed the compelling and emotional drama, “Lorenzo’s Oil”. He pretty much is a visual genius, able to adapt his visual panache to whichever story he chooses to tell.

“Lorenzo’s Oil” has no action scenes, talking animals, or dancing penguins, it’s a film based on the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone’s fight to save the life of their son, Lorenzo from arare degenerative brain disease. The film literally jumps right into the story when Lorenzo, as a young child, has his first collapse and is diagnosed with adrenoleukodystrophy within the first 5 minutes of the film. ALD affects the brain, resulting in frequent collapses, loss of hearing, memory loss and eventually complete loss of motor skills. It’s so rare, it had only been identified as a disease 10 years prior and very little research is available. The doctors therefore cannot treat the child nor give the Odones any hope for a cure. When they meet other parents with similar children in more advanced stages of the disease the shock and awe causes them to go on a 10 year long search for a cure.

The Odones travel across the world to gain knowledge and insight about the disease. A few doctors have tinkered with it, almost as a hobby, but no one is a definitive expert, and no one has the funds to make it a full time effort. With that, the Odones take it upon themselves to learn the science of the disease and its effects on the body and develop a cure themselves. Their journey is remarkable. They are not doctors, but by the end of the film they have soaked up as much knowledge that short of having a diploma in their hands they become unofficial specialists in hematology and neuro-anatomy.

The film never dumbs down to the audience. As the Odones learn the chemistry of the disease so does the audience. Miller, who was a doctor before turning to filmmaking, explains the important details of cell biology with succinct clarity. At times the information passed through the screen makes it feel like biology 101, but education is never a bad thing, and it's remarkable how much more knowledgeable of the human body you will be after the film.

The intrinsic details of their scientific journey eventually consume and dominate their life at the expense of likeability and common decency. Michaela turns into a stark raving mad obsessive bitch. Eventually she turns all of her nurses away, leaving Michaela with the full burden of administering the palliative care for her increasing ailing child.

The building blocks of research eventually results in a partial cure. Miller doesn’t give us a magical deus ex machina discovery; instead it’s derived from a logical progression of their research, which I’ll leave to the audience to discover themselves.

Though the story is emotional due the extreme nature of the disease, Miller tells the story using fact and science as its basis, and therefore the characters are all business when it comes to moving the story forward. The Odones are moving too fast to pause and grieve. If they do, they themselves might shut down and give up the fight. It’s also interesting to note that we never really get to know Lorenzo as a character, he is diagnosed too quickly into the story and we’re in fourth gear right from the start.

George Miller’s fast-paced and uniquely quirky directing style fits surprisingly well with the subject matter. Where the camera could have become a static observer instead becomes a dynamic visual delight. The only major fault of the film perhaps is the casting of Nick Nolte as Augusto. Although Nolte’s trademark intensity is appropriate for the character, I never could get past his Italian accent, which at inappropriate times did bring a chuckle or two to my face.

The film doesn’t really end. Research is ongoing and Augusto Odone continues his journey toward a full cure. You have to visit the Myelin Project website to see the current status of the story. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Lorenzo's Oil

Unfortunately no suitable youtube clips exist. But here’s an interview with Miller:

Friday, 18 May 2007

FAR FROM HEAVEN


Far From Heaven (2002) dir. Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Dennis Quaid

****

David Whitaker: “Aw jeez”
Cathy Whitaker: “We don't use language like that in this house.”

“Far From Heaven” is a rare film that pays homage to old Hollywood, without spoofing it. In the 1950’s Douglas Sirk directed a series of so-called “woman’s pictures” aimed at the female, married, suburban middle class wasp demographic. Before the era of TV, the Sirk melodramas were the soap operas of its day. The frequent stars were Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and because of Hudson’s closeted homosexuality, after his death the Sirk films seemed to take on a more complex meaning. So where, on the surface, the films would appear to be light, and fluffy, forgettable entertainment, in fact, was a distinctly liberal subtextual form of expression. Cut to 50 years later, Todd Haynes, the talented indie filmmaker (“Velvet Goldmine”, “Poison”, “Safe”) recreated the look, feel, mood, and subtext of the Sirk films in “Far From Heaven.”

In the film, Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, the prototypical 50’s suburban homemaker. She wears her a-line skirts, hosts daiquiri parties for her gossiping neighbours and is staunchly loyal to her hardworking businessman husband, Frank. One day Cathy sees a new gardener working in her backyard. The neighbours who first see him wandering around the backyard are shocked to see a “negro” invading her private property. Cathy introduces herself and learns he is Raymond Deacon (Dennis Haysbert) the son of her former gardener who has recently passed away. Slowly over time, Cathy and Raymond strike up a friendship, which blossoms into a closeted, passionate, but unconsummated, romance. The gossipy neighbours slowly learn about the taboo friendship and take action to shun her.

Cathy’s curiosity toward Raymond is partially brought on by her increasing alienation from her husband Frank. Nights without sex and increasingly ornery behavior has caused a rift in their relationship. One day, Cathy walks in on Frank kissing another man at his office. The sight is confusing and frightening to her. Frank clearly is suffering from inner emotional turmoil of living the life of a closeted gay man while creating a subterfuge life of ‘normality’ with a wife and 2 children.

Frank and Cathy seek therapy from a Freudian psychoanalyst. Frank doesn’t want to be a homosexual, and is looking for a method to purge his evil urges. They both know they can’t lead the comfortable socially-acceptable lifestyles without suppressing their mutual urges to be with whom they want to be. The emotional dilemmas are made even more complex because they are presented in the earnest and melodramatic fashion of the 1950’s films.

Dennis Quaid is superb as the emasculated, humiliated and self-loathing man, disgusted by his own desires. He’d rather have himself lobotomized than keep having his urges. Dennis Haysbert is sincere and earnest, and caught up in the whirlwind of love, but unaware of the potential ramifications of his actions. And rounding out the great cast is indie-queen, Patricia Clarkson, who provides the conflict as the leader of the gossiping neighbours and one who exposes Cathy’s infidelities.

The great cinematographer Ed Lachman bathes the film is beautiful saturated coloured light and pops out the lush autumn colours. He uses classical framing and camera moves that remind you how powerful a timely dolly or crane move can be when used sparingly. Lastly, it’s a joy to hear the last great score from legendary composer Elmer Bernstein who died in 2004.

Todd Haynes is a true auteur with an innate sense of story and filmmaking. The attempt of telling a story using a seemingly antiquated and dated style of filmmaking is commendable. But the ability to pull it off and make a great film which is not only watchable but emotionally truthful and compelling is genius. Enjoy.

PS I must acknowledge über-indie producer Christine Vachon (Killer Films), who for over 15 years manages to finance and realize the stunning visions of today best young filmmakers.

Buy it here: Far from Heaven


Thursday, 17 May 2007

KURT & COURTNEY


Kurt and Courtney (1998) dir. Nick Broomfield
Documentary

***

Nick Broomfield has made a career of examining the lives of celebrities and exploiting them in the form of revealing and controversial documentaries. But Broomfield’s documentaries elevate themselves above an episode of, say, Hard Copy, or Dateline NBC, because of his own personality which he injects onto his films. As with Michael Moore, Broomfield’s docs are as much about his attempts to get the film made as the subject itself.

Kurt Cobain died in April 8, 1994, the same week Courtney Love’s band Hole debuted their first album. Coincidence? Perhaps not. That’s what the documentary purports to examine. Broomfield meets one-by-one some of the couple's closest friends, family and associates to examine the lives of the doomed rock star and his soon-to-be-famous wife. But we soon discover the film is not really about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, but the cult of personality and the shameful effect of celebrity their lives have had on the people around them.

Take for example Courtney’s father, Hank Harrison, a bull of a man, who’s been disowned by his daughter and has written two books on Kurt without even knowing the man. In fact, one of his books is a conspiracy theory accusing Courtney (his own daughter!) of being an accomplice to Kurt’s murder. When asked why write he'd book claiming his daughter is responsible for murdering Kurt Cobain, Hank says it’s “tough love”.

Broomfield surrounds himself with a sordid cast of seedy characters, junkies and former indie-punk rockers. One of the most memorable is El Duce, a hillybilly rockstar, who claims Courtney offered him $50,000 to ‘wack’ Kurt Cobain. Or the goth girl who claims to have photos of her and Courtney shooting heroin – the photos never do show up. Or the private investigator, Tom Grant, who was hired by Courtney to find Kurt after he disappeared, who continues to lobby the conspiracy theory of Kurt’s death.

Courtney, herself, is perhaps the biggest personality. We piece together from the interviews with her colleagues a personality driven toward success and celebrity at all costs. Most describe Kurt and Courtney’s relationship as dominated by Courtney in order to further her own career as a rock star and pseudo-celebrity. The personality of Courtney eventually comes to dominate the documentary. A subplot of the film is the attempt of Courtney to subjugate all the bad press around her, including the Broomfield himself.

Nick Broomfield, like Werner Herzog, is unintentionally hilarious. His lazy voiceover describing his interviews and his approach to the documentary sounds like an essay written in a high school writer’s class. It’s taken very seriously, but it’s also vacant, empty and faux-intellectual. In the end it’s an effective way to bring the audience into the sordid subject matter he specializes in. Broomfield is often featured on camera, creeping into the shot, carrying his trademark Nagra, headphones, and boom pole. This is his uniform and combined with his slight stature, soothing British accent, he's able to weasel his way into people’s lives and become part of the story.

Perhaps Dateline NBC and Nick Broomfield aren’t that much different. The salacious topics, the guerrilla-style interviews make for great viewing, but Broomfield’s likeable personality and naïve curiosity make him stand out as a personality as compelling and pervasive as Courtney Love.




Wednesday, 16 May 2007

DAYS OF BEING WILD


Days of Being Wild (1991) dir. Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau

***1/2

“Days of Being Wild” was Wong Kar Wai’s sophomore film, and after mild success with his pseudo-gangster film, “As Tears Go By”, as his debut in 1988, it would take “Days of Being Wild” for Wong Kar Wai to announce himself to the world.

Set in 1960 Hong Kong, the film centres on the reckless romantic life of a playboy named York (Leslie Chung). The film opens with the patient and romantic courtship of Su (Maggie Cheung) who works a concession kiosk at a sporting event. Day-by-day, their one-minute encounters turn into two-minutes encounters and so on and so on until they are in bed together fully in a blissful passionate affair. But as soon as Su asks York about commitment, he shuts down and kicks her out of the apartment. York then moves on to Leung Fung-Ying (Carina Lau), a younger and more immature girl, who seems to serve the same place-holder requirement York needs in his life. Su, meanwhile, still shaken up by the breakup, continues to return to York’s apartment demanding answers. During this time she meets a handsome and well-meaning beat cop, Tide (Andy Lau). Their relationship is brief, but still manages to add depth to the complex emotional web spun by all the characters.

Midway through the film Wai turns the tables on the audience and reveals the inner angst of York which has caused so much turmoil with our characters. His domineering mother, whom we see as a pathetic (but rich) drunk, is actually his stepmother, and who has babied him his whole life. When York demands to know his who his real mother was, she denies him. So therein lies York’s attachment issues. York eventually learns the whereabouts of his mother and begins a journey to the Philippines to find her and hopefully reconcile the problems of his life.

“Days of Being Wild” was the first collaboration with renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle. The film has a different look from his other 90’s works – this is more classically composed and framed, like “In the Mood For Love”. In fact, “Days” is an antecedent of that film in many ways. Wai and Doyle shoot hotel rooms, corridors and staircases like no one else (perhaps only rivaled by Polanksi). The gritty wallpaper, naked lightbulbs and fluorescent lights glowing in the background would become hallmarks of their future collaborations and influence many other filmmakers.

Thematically “Days of Being Wild” is typical Wai. No character has easily fallen in love in a Wong Kar Wai film. Wai puts up so many emotional barriers between his characters its exhausting for the viewer. Take for example the near-misses of two protagonists in “In the Mood For Love”. “Days Of Being Wild” is an anti-romance – it swelters with heat and passion, but in the end it’s a downward spiral into despair. Enjoy.

Buy it here: Days of Being Wild

Here’s the opening sequence. There’s no subtitles, but they’re not needed:


Tuesday, 15 May 2007

STRANGER THAN FICTION


Stranger Than Fiction (2006) dir. Marc Forster
Starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman

**1/2

Kaufman-esque is one of the new buzz words in Hollywood, in reference to the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, author of “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich”. It refers to the brand of self-deprecating geek-wit that Mr. Kaufman puts into all his films, usually depicting a meek insecure protagonist who is thrust into a fantasy world which looks inward upon one’s self. If M.C. Escher wrote a screenplay it would likely be “Kaufman-esque”.

Saying that, “Stranger Than Fiction” is a Kaufman-esque film about Harold Crick, a left-brained accountant who works for the IRS, who, during his normal mundane highly-regimented daily routine (which he calculates down to the number of steps to the bus stop) he starts hearing inside his head a woman narrating his exact movements. Crick spends his subsequent days in complete discombobulation not just because of the constant chatter in his head, but the fact that it takes him off his routine. This is merely an annoyance until he discovers the author/narrator intends to kill off her character, which sends Crick on a mission to find and stop the author from doing so.

The voice in his head is Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) a writer who’s writing her first novel in 10 years – a novel that will surely be another masterpiece/best seller which will put her back on top the literary world. But somehow Eiffel’s writings get connected to Crick’s life. Crick cleverly employs a literary expert (the typical Dustin Hoffman role now) to determine who the author could be and what kind of novel he’s been written into.

During this search, Crick, who has been assigned to audit a liberal café owner, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has fallen in love. Ana and Crick’s courtship is lovely and fresh and despite their political difference the two opposite attract and start dating. It’s the best part of the film.

I found several key fundamental faults in the writing. Firstly I didn’t see any discernible reason why Eiffel got connected to Crick. Harold Crick clearly had something to learn from the experience of losing control of his life – in the end he became less dependent on his routine, and learned to live life more in the moment. But Karen Eiffel remains a mystery. The idea of divine intervention as a way of connecting two random people together in the way the film has is fascinating, but God always has to have a plan. What is ‘God’s” motivation to choose Eiffel? And what does Eiffel learn the experience? We never know.

Queen Latifah who plays the woman assigned by the publisher to ensure Eiffel finishes her book is a wasted character. She has no other role in the film than to give Emma Thompson some dialogue to play off of. And as far as an uptight company woman, she’s badly miscast.

Only the love story with Ferrell and Gyllenhaal kept me interested. Other than that, it was a Kaufman imitation with some wasted talent behind it. Perhaps only Kaufman can do Kaufman-esque.

Buy it here: Stranger Than Fiction



Monday, 14 May 2007

AWAY FROM HER


Away From Her (2007) dir. Sarah Polley
Starring: Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie

****

Sarah Polley’s feature film debut is a triumph. A sensitive and emotional film that turns out to be a real heartbreaker.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) are 40 years into a marriage, not an easy marriage, but one that has stuck together through some rough times. But Fiona has entered the initial phases of Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative affliction of the brain that cause loses in short term and then long term memory. Eventually the afflicted will revert to a child-like state without any memories of the past. The opening scene is simple but so sad. Fiona and Grant are in the kitchen of their winter cottage after a lovely day of skiing. They come home for dinner, and as Fiona finishes the dishes she places the cleaned and dried frying pan in the freezer, then walks away. Gordon is left there stunned – the realization of what’s to come reads so well on his expressively sad face.

Thus begins the slow disintegration of Fiona’s memories and the disappearance of their relationship. Polley’s writing is smart and realistic, instead of using a cookie cutter formula which we would see in a Hollywood multiplex film (which Fiona, herself, trashes in a wonderfully humourous moment). Fiona and Grant, in anticipation of her eventual demise try to learn as much as they can about the disease. And when it comes to moving Fiona into the caregiver home, it’s Fiona who instigates the action. Although Grant despises the home Fiona’s about to go into, he knows he can’t make her better and let’s her go. For the first 30 days she must be alone in the home without visitors. This is painful for Grant, for when he eventually sees her again, she is a different person. She recognizes Grant, but it’s vacant, the 40 years of memories aren’t there, and he becomes just an acquaintance.

Meanwhile, the film uses a flash-forward device, a subplot between Grant and another woman, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whose husband is also in the home. They are brought together for a reason I won’t reveal here, but one which makes the story that much more tragic and poignant for both Grant and the viewer. Grant’s history as a former philanderer comes back to haunt him and he’s forced to deal with the mistakes he’s made in the past.

Gordon Pinsent is a star in the film – a revelation. After almost 50 years of Canadian movies and television, he has scored the best role of his career. His grizzled face expresses so much sadness without resorting to customary waterworks or scenes or over-dramatized emotions. Julie Christie is also terrific, in what is so far a shoe-in for 2007’s Oscars (my fingers are crossed for Pinsent too). In the latter stages of her illness, when her former self is completely departed, in her close-ups we still can see a glint of her true love for Grant. And even as a silver-haired elder, Christie is still ravishing.

Jonathan Goldsmith’s organic music sets the perfect tone for the film. A simple melancholy mood piece created with guitars, drums and piano. In fact, I’m reminded of Daniel Lanois’ sumptuous score for “Sling Blade”. Luc Montpillier’s photography is pitch perfect and David Wharnsby’s editing creates a complex emotional patchwork using just enough subtle flashbacks, and visual foreshadowing, without pushing the film into melodrama. There are very brief flashbacks to Fiona and Grant as younger people, and Polley and Wharnsby admirably resist the temptation of using the customary device of showing the young people in love to create more sympathy in the present. Instead, Pinsent’s longing close-ups say everything that could be said in any lame flashback.

The ending is beautiful and sweet, and I’ve never been a K.D. Lang fan, but her rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless” is the perfect ending to a near perfect film. Enjoy.