Friday, October 23, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, Zombieland

Wow, I just browsed the new cinema listings for the coming weeks, and am slightly overwhelmed! I haven't had much time for the movie theater of late, and wonder how I will ever fit in: Amelia, Cairo Time, The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D, Astro Boy, The Invention of Lying, and A Serious Man - alas, it appears that I have missed The Informant. I feel like I have to construct some kind of matrix to compare the virtues of the films and, in particular, how important it is to see them on the big vs the small screen.

Amelia is definitely a priority in terms of big-screen impact, Astro Boy may well lose any interest on the small screen, and Nightmare 3D, of course, can only be experienced at the multiplex. But there is another class of films to consider also: A Serious Man and Cairo Time sound marvelous, but am I likely to search them down to view at home if I miss them? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

On the other hand, if you are in Halifax and want to go to a movie, drop me a line! In the meantime, here's a taste of what I have been watching.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009) (Park Lane) Over the past few days I have talked with a few people about the children's book Wild Things is based on, only to hear that the average individual seems to have read it "about a 100 million times." Was I deprived as a child? Am I somehow lacking for not having entered this imaginary land as a tyke?

In any case, this lack of childhood exposure did little to blunt the intensity of the pleasure I derived from the film. In the first 10-15 minutes, as Max (Max Records) is buffeted by the trials and tribulations of childhood - including stormy relations with a teen-aged older sister and a single mom trying to date - I was astounded by how powerfully the scenes evoked my parallel emotions of joy, disappointment, love, hate, fear, loneliness, jealousy, and determination. Max is awash in a maelstrom of feelings and ideas that seem to rule him and to resist any attempt at restraint.

After one confrontation too many, Max runs away, hops on a sailboat, and after a dark night of the soul spent pounded by wind and waves, finds himself on an island inhabited by large, furry, humanoid approximations of birds, goats, and a menagerie of other creatures. More interestingly, however, each of these creatures seems to personify one of the emotions that Max is subject to in his everyday life. For example, there is Carol (James Gandolfini - brilliantly "cast"), who represents impulsive, petty rage; Judith (Catherine O'Hara), who personifies petty jealousies and vindictiveness; and Douglas (Chris Cooper), who is loneliness and exclusion.

These ultimately symbolic but physically furry creatures are living in chaos and misery, and quickly install Max as their king, electing him with a mandate to bring them happiness. Period. At first all is well, with everyone laughing and playing and sleeping together in a big warm pile, but jealousy, loneliness, exclusion, and petty rage are, of course, just around the corner. And Max, of course, is no more able to reconcile the personifications of these emotions than he is able to rule his own.

As one may expect, Wild Things does not end with the protagonist vanquishing the antagonist. Max's final lesson - and the lesson so many of my peer's apparently learned decades ago - is that his emotional depths and heights cannot be overcome, but must be accepted. In this sense, the film's message reminded me very much of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I attended in India, which taught the value of equanimity: recognize, acknowledge, and experience the conflicting storm of emotions and thoughts, but do not allow them to rule you.

In terms of film craft, Wild Things is beautifully made. Carol, Judith, Douglas and their peers are presented as slightly scruffy, life-sized teddy bears that evince an interesting melange of human and super-human characteristics, and are subject to wild emotional swings that are amplified by super strength that allows them to leap great distances and hoist (and hurl!) very heavy objects. The island itself is similarly a mixture of real and fantasy lands that allows fine-grained middle-eastern dessert to border rugged northern rocks and scrub trees.

I imagine that very early production meetings for Wild Things were alive with debate over whether the film should be animated, live action, or a blend of the two. I am glad that live action ruled the day, as it somehow made the film more immediate for me, grounding it - oddly - as something that could really happen - the wild things are strangely human for all their outlandish shapes and size.

I was moved to applaud by the end of Where the Wild Things Are, which touched me deeply and left me feeling warm and encompassed in a moment of comfort and goodness that somehow entirely eluded me during 10 days of 14-hours-per-day seated meditation...

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) (Park Lane) We never planned to see Zombieland, but upon arriving at the theater, it seems that Internet listings had misled us, and it was our only option. Decision made.

Despite my high regard for Danny Boyle's zombie horror masterpiece 28 Days Later, I can't say that I am a huge fan of the genre - to put it plainly, I was apathetic about Zombieland going in.

I have mentioned my thoughts on Woody Harrelson before - he's in a large number of great films, but they generally are not great because of him. I remain lukewarm on Harrelson and apathetic about Zombieland after having spent 90 minutes watching blood pour from zombie mouths, bullets, axes, and gardening shears dispatch the undead, and romance flourish for a loser and a "hot" survivor.

That being said, I did not dislike Zombieland and even enjoyed it for the most part, succumbing to some genuine belly laugh inducing moments, particularly when Bill Murray made an unexpected appearance. Overall, however, I have to conclude that I am not the target audience for this particular film - all power to you if you are!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Where Eagles Dare, Wall Street, New in Town

Well, it's been a while, n'est pas? Apologies, but I have been fairly busy of late, what with hectic days at work, consulting projects at home, the commencement of my French class, and lingering projects around the house that must be done before the full brunt of winter descends upon us. Primary among these projects - and the one you would think would not be subject to procrastination - is the need to reassemble my heating ducts to fend off increasingly cold morning temperatures. Brrrr...

This hasn't left much time for movies either. I think that I have set a new record for not visiting a movie theatre. The Halifax Film Festival has come and gone, and I, lamentably, made it to only one screening. I've watched the odd film at home, of course, and will take this opportunity to update you on a few of them.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Jan Kounan, 2009) (The Oxford) It is 1920, the dawn of one of the greatest eras of indulgence in modern western history, and a young Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) is attending the Paris debut of Igor Stravinsky's (Mads Mikkelsen) opera The Rite of Spring.

Chanel and Stravinsky sit in the concert hall amid a high-society crowd that is increasingly shocked and outraged as the music swells and the performers begin to shake and sway, shrugging off centuries of tradition in orchestration and dance in favor of the cacophony of the already full-fledged modern age that the privileged class is not yet reconciled with. This is an epic moment that is emblematic of the clash the traditional and modern that had permeated art and public discourse since the Victorian Age - Chanel, whose fashion and fragrance would be emblematic of the modern age, and Stravinsky are immediately and inextricably linked by their eager acceptance of the new age.

From this moment of well-documented history, the film moves rapidly to well-documented rumour: "In 1920, she was introduced ... to world famous composer Igor Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring), to whom she extended an offer for him and his family to reside with her. During this temporary sojourn it was rumoured that they had an affair." (Wikipedia)

The two court each other slowly and deliberately, brushing and then moving apart in a dance of seduction played against the backdrop of Chanel's emerging aesthetic: black and white wallpaper prints in elegant but sharp geometric lines; simple, almost austere fashions that render the feminine form powerful yet breathtakingly elegant in a world of puffy, impractical couture; square, solid, yet somehow delicate furniture that foreshadows the emergence of art deco; and sculpture and even fixtures that recall Auguste Rodin or even Ayn Rand.

This beautiful but edgy backdrop and the intensity of our hero and heroine combine to build a delicious tension that is finally released in a sexual union that feels like the first torrent of rain in a thunderstorm - the intertwining of bodies, and specifically Mouglalis' beautiful, powerful, long legs and arms somehow echoing Chanel's distinctly modern aesthetic while in the throes of passion.

From that moment, unfortunately, the film just sort of falls apart. Carefully constructed and strictly defined characters that made virtues of personal power and self expression devolved into aimless individuals just looking for the next opportunity to rut. The film was no less beautiful to look at, but quickly became tiring to engage with: a case in point is a digression in which we travel to Paris to witness the creation of the scent that defines the era, Chanel No. 5, played out as a boring and mundane affair that strips the powerful symbol of any resonance.

I can't even begin to describe how aggrieved I am to write this: I was astounded by the beauty and power of the first hour of this film, but by the end of the second hour I was treating it like a catalog: "nice suit, I wonder where I can get one" or "exquisite lamp, maybe I should redecorate my place in art deco".

Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton, 1968) (Home) Speaking of taking moments of history and spinning flights of fancy that bear no relation to reality, Where Eagles Dare follows a crew of allied spies sent into Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue the pilot of a plane that has crash landed in the Alps. Eagles delivers in exactly the area where Coco and Igor falls flat: it establishes a fictional world, drawing its characters and setting the "rules" by which they will play, and then sticks to those rules so that everything makes sense within the world of the film - the backdrop is rife with inaccuracies, but the structure of the film is sound. Minute for minute, Eagles delivers a rollicking World War II action adventure film that makes the most of its cast of suave secret agents, menacing Nazi's, double agents, imposing mountain-top fortresses, rat-a-tat gunfire, and spectacular explosions.

Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) (Home) I will paraphrase the CBC Radio Program The Current: Wall Street portrays the greedy, money-obsessed bankers of the mid-1980s who played with people's lives and livelihoods like toys, and shows us how much things have changed since then: the cell phones have gotten much smaller." In powerful, career-defining performances, Michael Douglas and Charlie and Martin Sheen give us a peek inside the sleazy side of high-finance that I firmly believe is essentially realistic - but hopefully the exception rather than the rule.

New in Town (Jonas Elmer, 2009) (Winnipeg) I have been sorely remiss with regard to New in Town and apologise sincerely if you have gone out and rented it before I had a chance to warn you: this is a dismal failure of a film with nary a redeeming quality. Renee Zellweger was a star for about 10 minutes due to Bridget Jones's Diary and co-stared in some pretty good films (think Cold Mountain and Cinderella Man), but really her star faded fairly quickly (think - and shudder - Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason).

Based on the film New in Town, I surmise that Zellweger's response to her waning moment in the sun has been: crash diets (frighteningly skinny), botox overdose (face like a death mask, that seems to sag at points, perhaps in between treatments), and a painfully pathetic "star vehicle." The movie New in Town is the film equivalent of TOXIC WASTE - avoid at any cost!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wrestler: A Masterpiece of Cinema

The Wrestler (David Aronofsky, 2008) (Home) The Wrestler is a quintessentially human film, and is heartbreaking in its simple honesty: Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) is a broken down old piece of meat that has only ever felt alive in the wrestling ring, invigorated by the adoration of the crowd.

Rourke plays Randy straight up: he's not a complicated or conflicted character. He likes to live hard and fast to a soundtrack of Gun-n-Roses and Skid Row, but a few too many fights and a heart attack under the belt and it seems like time to slow down. Time to take stock before he's wearing a catheter, wheel chair bound, or rendered a mental cripple.

As Randy looks around him and sees how empty his life outside of the limelight is - a crappy job, a ratty trailer to call home, an estranged daughter, a sort-of-maybe girlfriend - my heart ached. I felt his confusion and fear as he scrambled to build a few connections, to root himself in a real world where relationships are not choreographed and there is no roaring crowd to render even the most egregious sin forgiven.

This film brought tears to my eyes, and made my heart literally ache at the vast emptiness this simple but quintessentially good man lives in. I have always loved Scorcese's Raging Bull for its ability to make the audience understand even a little bit the way that Jake LaMotta sees the world - but in the end La Motta never boils down to anything but a wounded animal.

Randy the Ram is wounded, but it's his heart that is broken by more than cardiac arrest, and he understands instinctively that his redemption is not to be found in the ring - even though that may be all that is left.

I lament the fact that I missed The Wrestler in theatres, where I could have sat in the dark sharing the experience with the crowd and savoring that glorious last shot, and the abrupt climax, haunted as it is by the spectre of what could have been. It's not often that we have a chance to see such powerful performances as those given by Rourke and Marisa Tomei as they wound and soothe each other - their characters have both been used hard in this life, and they have so much to give each other.

The Wrestler is a compelling portrait of the human condition, and a true masterpiece of cinema. I saw Milk, and I respect Sean Penn - but Rourke deserved the Oscar.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Julie & Julia

I'm a bit slow out of the gate with this one, having seen it at least two weeks ago. However, one way or the other, here we go.

Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009) (The Oxford) I have recently received some feedback on my blog to the effect that my posts are too long and too detailed - it seems that many people don't make it to the end of the post, where my recommendation is usually served up as a grand finale. In a nod to the wishes of my long-suffering readers, I shall dispense with preliminaries and declare Julie & Julia a wonderful film that is very worth watching- actually, I think that delightful may just be le mot juste.

No Basterds Here
However, J&J is not delightfully indulgent as was the case with Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Far from it: J&J is delightful for bringing a luminous character to life on screen and making the audience feel that they are getting to know her via some kind of telephone line through time - no blood, gore, gunfights, or explosions folks.

The film actually intertwines the stories of two now famous cooks: Julia Child herself (Meryl Streep), as she discovers the wonders of French cooking while in Paris in 1948 and decides to share it with the average American housewife by writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a young American who hated her job and in 2002 found a way out of it by writing a blog chronicling her determination to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the space of one year.

Two Stories Boil Down to One
Sure J&J is ostensibly the story of these two aspiring cooks, but to my mind it is really only about one person and one cooking journey: Meryl Streep steals the show so completely as Julia Child that when I think of the movie I barely think of the Julie part of it. This is no slight to Amy Adams, who does a very good job playing the pouty/perky/precocious/pouty New Yorker cooking away her frustrations in life and making her own lucky break in the process. Rather it is a tribute to an actress who hardly needs another tribute (As The Onion is happy to point out).Few actors or actresses reach the height of the dramatic arts with as much class as Ms. Streep. I don't even know where to begin: an angel on earth, appearing in a soft halo of ethereal beauty in The Deer Hunter, a poet dreamer in Out of Africa, an action hero in The River Wild, a bitch goddess to beware of in The Devil Wears Prada, a temptress of the innocent in The Simpsons, and a flinty incarnation of the cold, inhuman power of politics in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

And Meryl Streep is the essence of J&J, outshining the entire cast by reincarnating Julia Child right before our eyes. A cursory viewing of Julia Child clips on YouTube immediately shows how minutely Streep captured every detail ranging from the master chef's cadence of speech to her sweeping body language. The vivacity of this performance cannot be overstated, and the sheer joy with which she plays the sometimes overbearingly bubbly role is evident in every frame

Admittedly I don't know much about Julia Child, and the film may have (and, who are we kidding, probably did) present a biased imaged. One way or the other, it makes for an engaging movie that leaves you smiling, full of culinary optimism, and hungry for beouf bourguignon.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

District 9.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) (Bayers Lake) About 30 years ago, a massive alien spacecraft entered earth's atmosphere, passed over the great cities of Washington, Paris, and Rome, and came to rest above Johannesburg, South Africa. And it just hovered there, making no contact and showing no signs of life. As time passed, curiosity got the better of those living in its shadow, and a team was sent up to cut its way into the ship.

First Contact
First contact was not epiphanic nor even remotely uplifting - rather than the marvels of a more advanced civilization, those that entered the ship found a motley crew of dirty, malnourished, and thoroughly stranded arthropod-like aliens. A full-scale humanitarian mission ensued, ferrying the pathetic creatures to earth for resettlement and rehabilitation.

The aliens quickly wore out their welcome, as the people of Johannesburg increasingly resented the time and money that was being spent on the newcomers. Far from integrating into human society, the aliens were herded into District 9, which became a heavily-guarded slum rife with crime (such as an underground cat food market to complement a booming arms trade), gang violence, and prostitution.

District 9 picks up up at around this point, with the government having decided to adopt a policy of "out of sight, out of mind." MNU, the multi-national security company charged with policing alien affairs, is assigned the task of evicting the aliens - derogatorily referred to as prawns - and transporting them some 200 miles into the desert to a makeshift concentration camp.

Wilkus van de Merwe (Sharto Copely) is the hapless (read ignorant) middle manager tasked with overseeing the eviction, which quickly devolves into mayhem as heavily-armed, government-sponsored thugs break into the stinking, broken-down hovels and heap both insult and injury on the degraded inhabitants

Echoes of Reality
District 9 is presented as a pseudo-documentary, and is shot in a grainy, raw light that makes it feel very real - similar to The Hurt Locker, or footage you would see from Iraq or the Middle East on the evening news. Everything we view looks extremely real and, more to the point, plausible: the space ship is dirty and rust-streaked even in its hovering majesty; the aliens are individuals with children to care for and mundane real lives that are very apparent rather than merely sci-fi, special effects eye candy; and the MNU agents are (for the most part) bumbling bureaucrats with very human failings. This is not a slick, spit-and-polished movie with a patina of reality - it is gritty realism done right.

Ranging as it does from pseudo-documentary to gory-horror film, shoot-em-up action movie, and thinking man's sci-fi, the look and feel of District 9 is a great accomplishment in film making and a pleasure to behold - even if the short "gory-horror part" was a little more than I could handle.

This sense of realism is further heightened by - and indeed adds to - the eerie resonance of the aliens' milieu vis-a-vis South Africa's very real experience of apartheid, particularly when the fictional neighbourhood of District 9 is contrasted with historical reality of District 6, an inner-city area of Johannesburg that was forcibly cleared under apartheid.

District 9 opened in South Africa yesterday (August 31), and the viewers I heard interviewed on the radio this morning made much of this retelling of the history of apartheid and the all-to-present legacy of that system today - but those reports strike me as a little biased towards the feel-good marketing side of things.

Social Commentary or Rehashed Stereotypes?
I have no doubt the filmmakers were very aware of the correlations between the fictional world of District 9 and South Africa's history of racism and abuse. However, after viewing the film and discussing it with a few friends, I am not sure that this intention is more than skin deep.

There are three main reasons for this, the most glaring being the stereotypes that the filmmakers fall back on. The slum area of District 9 is not a post-apartheid collection of the disadvantaged segment of South Africa's population. Rather, it is an old-school ghetto inhabited by the near-feral aliens and black African arms dealers, pimps, and drug lords who prey on the newcomers. Now, true to the allegory that the makers claim to be presenting, the aliens move towards a light at the end of the tunnel, ending the film with a glimmer of hope. Not so their black cohabitants, who are a literal embodiment of the heart of darkness, not given even the most subtle hint of redemption.

Secondly, the glimmer of hope that the film ends with is not achieved by the aliens overcoming odds. Rather, it is handed to them by a white bureaucrat (Wilkus) who has seen the essential flaw in his character and taken the high road. No, in District 9 the possibility of dignity for the aliens is a gift from a white ruler, not a natural expression of the will to be free on the part of the oppressed.

Thirdly there is the arc of the story itself, which does, as I alluded to earlier, an incredible job of portraying everything from the spaceship to the aliens as very real rather than as fantasy. However, this tone, which is particularly suited to prompting introspection on the part of the audience, is severely undermined by the film's climax. By abandoning the reality augmented by the odd piece of alien technology that seems altogether feasible in favor of a no-holds-barred alien robot vs human heavy weaponry showdown (the shoot-em-up action sequence alluded to above), any semblance of this being a topical film is lost.

Worth a Visit to the Multiplex
I still recommend District 9 highly, especially - as I discussed above - for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the dystopian reality that the filmmakers have so artfully created. However, I do caution that you should not attend in hope of seeing the in-depth analysis of apartheid-era South Africa that the media has gleefully portrayed it as being. Watch, enjoy, cover your eyes at times - but mostly, discuss the issues I have raised above upon exiting the cinema. Even if the film subverts its supposed intention of educating and/or inspiring its audience, you can bring this analysis of the real world it echoes to the table yourself - that's what I would call responsible viewing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: Delicious Indulgence

The reign of the summer blockbusters seems to have come to an end, and it has been a marvelous few weeks to be a movie lover!

Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) In the opening scenes of Inglorious Basterds, Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz), the notorious German "Jew Hunter," arrives at a small French farmhouse to "investigate" the possible presence of Jews in hiding. Banishing the farmer's three buxom daughters from the house, the two sit down, switch to English, and begin a delightful verbal game of cat and mouse. Landa is a pleasure to listen to, with words seeming to sparkle as they pass his lips, and is equally satisfying to watch, as he visibly takes great pleasure in the dialog Tarantino has furnished him with.

What Landa wants, Landa gets, and with a first blazing flourish of violence capped with one sweet but moment of release, Inglorious Basterds has begun.

Cut to England. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is giving his boys - his ten basterds - a pep talk ahead of their deployment deep behind enemy lines on a mission with a sole purpose: to kill Nazis and collect their scalps. And in this film, that is synonymous with killing Germans - cause save one honorary basterd, Tarantino's script allows for only one kind of German: a dyed in the wool, Jew-hating, Hitler-lover Nazi. You will not find an Oscar Schindler (Schindler's List) or a Claus Von Stauffenberg (Valkyrie) in this film...

Game on
From this point on we follow twin stories that slowly converge: that of a mild-mannered young Jewish woman who improbably operates a cinema in Nazi-occupied Paris with the soul help of her African lover, and that of the swaggering basterds. These stories slowly converge towards a delightfully indulgent conflagration that encompasses the ultimate revenge fantasy of the twentieth century - one worthy of the pages of the Sgt. Rock or Sgt. Fury comics of my childhood.

Along the way the audience cringes at the sight of almost unimaginable violence, but always ends up laughing uproarously in a coup of black humor that few save Tarantino and perhaps the Coen Brothers are capable of pulling off . I think back to Pulp Fiction, and the audience roaring with shocked laughter after Jules (John Travolta) accidentally blows Marvin's (Phil LaMarr) head all over the back seat of the car.

And the Award for Best Actor Goes to...
Basterd's is an ambitious, big-budget, Hollywood movie, and there is no doubt that Brad Pitt is the big gun of the cast. His name is emblazoned on the poster and his cocky, redneck American swagger is all over the preview for Basterds. So when it comes to the best actor award for this film, it is seemingly his to give away - and he does.

I like Brad Pitt, I like many of his movies, and I like his character in this film. However, the bottom line is that I found his character pretty one-dimensional in Basterds. Sure he is supposed to be a caricature, but if this is the case he could surely have a little more fun with the role. He could knead it and punch it up into something as gloriously indulgent as the film it inhabits. But no, much as was the case in Burn After Reading, Pitt plays a delightful stereotype perfectly straight - faithfully rendering the typecast to the millimeter without seems to understand that its all in good fun.

So the award goes to ... Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa.

No, I'm not kidding. Waltz gets the fact that he is playing a stereotype, and he is out to have fun with it. He enunciates every word with glee, adds extra flourish to every motion, and drips Dr. Evil-level eeee-vil with every word he utters. Bravo! Tarantino's words become art when Waltz utters them...

Love it or hate it, as you will...
Aside from my measured disappointment with Brad Pitt, which in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the film as a whole, there is little to criticize in Basterds - you either love it or you hate it, period. I hinted before that I was less than pleased to see every German in the film save one portrayed as pure evil, but that is the type of film we are watching - it wouldn't work if you made the evil in Basterds in any way ambiguous or open to interpretation.

My last bit of praise for Basterds will be to commend Tarantino for making a WWII film in which Germans for the most part speak German, the French for the most part speak French, and the English speak English, red neck, a bit of German, and spaghetti Italian. Again, bravo.

Once Upon a Time
Basterds lays it all on the table within five seconds of the beginning, when those five magic words are painted across the screen in medieval script: Once upon a time.... Keep this in mind if you ever find yourself shaking your head (something I never thought to do even when some scenes got a little laborious): this film is indulgence, pure and simple. Roll with it...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008) (Park Lane) The basic premise of Food, Inc. is that the way that a society treats its food - plants and animals - mirrors the way that it treats its people. But that can't be true, because if it were, the film would be saying that North Americans are selfish, materialistic, gluttons who value instant gratification, a chemical high, and social isolation over true connection to and communication with each other and the world of wonders that we live in.


Oh. OK ... he may actually have something there.

The Food Factory
Food, Inc. is divided into chapters, each discussing one aspect of the highly mechanized path that food - corn, wheat, fruit, vegetable, chicken, red meat, etc - travels from the expansive factory farms of middle America to the warehouse grocery stores where Americans and Canadian shop. Kenner paints a picture of a food supply chain that has sacrificed nutrition, hygiene, and humane practices (towards workers and livestock) in favour of calories, shelf life, cost cutting, and market share.

Highly disturbing images are de rigeur as the film progresses, ranging from dark, high-density coops housing chickens that cannot even stand under the weight of their enormous breasts to the appalling conditions in which migrant workers risk their lives on slaughterhouse floors. These images do not stand alone, however, as facts and figures accompany at a frenzied rate - like many documentaries with one axe to grind, the facts come so fast and furiously that it is hard to actually "learn" anything specific. Among the scariest bits are the fact that:

  • One of every three children and one of every two minority children born after 2000 will develop type II diabetes;
  • Middle American farms portrayed on butter and pork chop packages that grace supermarket shelves have long given way to highly automated high-intensity feedlots, nation-state-sized corn fields, and genetically modified crops;
  • While five American slaughterhouses controlled 20% of the US market in the 80s, four control about 90% of that market today (not sure I remember the exact figures, that this is the idea).

Phew...and its almost lunch time.

Light on the Horizon
But Food, Inc. is not only about the lamentable state of America's current food supply. It also takes the time to visit and document the efforts of small-scale farmers and food producers who are working to counter these disturbing trends: a rootsy farmer in Virginia who is grass feeding cattle and letting chickens run free and eat worms; farmers that are engaged in life-or-death courtroom struggles to resist the advances of Monsanto and its frankencrops; and the multitude of smaller food processors that are driving and organic revolution, which even Walmart is acknowledging with its decision to provide organic produce in response to customer demand.

But for me, Walmart's shift to providing organic produce also undercuts the hope that Kenner sees in the organic revolution. The very companies that he portrays as having ripped the heart out of North America's food supply are even now co-opting the revolution: Walmart jumping on the organic bandwagon (he does not address the problematic issue of what USDA "organic" actually means) and the myriad of smaller-scale organic producers that are rapidly being bought up by the same conglomerates that he vilifies so thoroughly (Kashi, for example, is now owned by Kraft).

Unfortunately, this leads me to the point where I must note my exceptions to this overall laudable film. With the organic revolution not serving as a solidly positive note to end on, Kenner flails around a bit for a ray of light to end with. I take issue with the fact that he ultimately concludes with an inappropriate comparison between the tobacco companies and food suppliers: he argues that the "fact" that tobacco companies have been brought to heel proves that food producers can also be brought into line. In the first place, I would argue that the assumption that tobacco companies have been brought to heel is just plain mistaken (they remain highly profitable multi-national corporations peddling sickness and decay). I would further suggest that if they had been, it would still be irrelevant - when government "took on" the tobacco companies in the 80s and 90s, corporations were but a shadow of the multi-headed hydras they now are, and they were not nearly as deeply embedded into the fabric of society and the government itself (as Kenner himself points out, most government regulatory agencies are run by former executives of food conglomerates).


Not a "Fun" Film
Ultimately, Food, Inc. is a compelling film that is sure to spark debate among friends and family, but is not a film that you "enjoy" watching - however, as I have said before, respectable films usually raise issues that are pertinent and important but ultimately disturbing. In this sense, I greatly enjoyed Food, Inc. and recommend it highly - not much of what you hear will be new information, but the impact of hearing it together in a more-or-less coherent narrative is worthwhile experience.

That being said, this is not a film that needs to be seen in a theater. The full effect will be conveyed on your home theater system, and, as a bonus, you will be able to pause it and discuss individual points, and/or launch into discussion at the end instead of having to file out of the cinema and drive home while gesticulating and pontificating. Actually, I think that a student union building would be the natural setting in which to watch the film and then hold a panel discussion.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I have a thing for war movies, the legacy of many weekend afternoons spent with my Dad in front of WWII flicks ranging from the shoot-em-up bravado of The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone (a tradition of war movie seemingly soon to be reincarnated in Brad Pitt's Inglorious Bastards) to veritable docudramas like The Longest Day, Patton, and Der Untergang (Downfall).

WWII is by far the conflict most covered by Hollywood, with the recent HBO mini-series Band of Brothers probably best capturing the individual soldier's experience of this conflict. With the exception of M*A*S*H, the Korean War seems to have been largely skipped over in the cinema, as it has been in the popular imagination (please correct me if I am dismissing classics of the genre). Vietnam, like WWII, has spawned as many films as casualties, with my favorites being Scorcese's The Deer Hunter, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Stone's Platoon, and, of course, Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

Modern conflicts are a little harder to address on the silver screen, or over coffee for that matter, as our culture has not had a chance to reach some form of consensus on them (WWII as a righteous campaign, Korea as a "forgotten war,"and Vietnam as superpower hubris). Perhaps for this very reason, the war films - modern and classic - that I love are ones that shy away from explicit judgements on the justification of the specific campaign and more on the individual experience of the soldiers posted to the maelstrom - and filmmakers have not shied from contributing to this aspect of the conversation.

For cinematic treatment of modern wars, my top picks include David O. Russell's Three Kings, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Stephan Gaghan's Syriana (a stunning film that is seemingly out of place, but very relevant in my opinion for its perspective on corporate involvement the US War on Terror), and the recently released The Hurt Locker.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) (Park Lane) Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is replacing the bomb sapper in an active explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) unit nearing the end of its tour in Iraq. Tasked with finding and difussing the seemingly endless number of deadly contraptions that take young lives every day in Iraq, I can't think of a better scenario for investigating the bonds of trust and the sense of connection that I can only imagine that soldiers depend on in the field, each looking out for the other regardless of the grand political slogan that they are fighting for.

Indeed, when James arrives, one his new partners, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), welcomes him to "Camp Victory." Upon replying that he thought it was "Camp Liberty," James is informed that it was recently changed to something that "sounds better." So the slogans keep changing and soldiers have neither influence over nor allegiance to them, but they can do something about keeping each other alive. Period.

I don't think I need to go into detail regarding why a replacement sapper was necessary, but needless to say, the tight-knit team that James joins is counting the days til they can return State-side, and more than a little bit wary of the unknown quantity that has been thrust upon them. Is James someone that they can trust with their lives?

Early in the film, the recently arrived James is approached by an officer who queries him on his track record. A telling dialog ensues:

Officer: "How many bombs have you disarmed?"
James: "873"
Officer: "873! You're a wild man."

And herein lies the problem: James is a wild man. The dialog continues with the officer asking what the best way is to disarm a bomb, to which James replies "The way that keeps you alive." The thing is, James seems to care just a little bit less about staying alive than do the other members of his team, who quickly find his way or working to be uncooperative and even reckless. During an EOD assignment when James is sent to disarm a booby trapped Hyundai Sonata (product placement gone horribly wrong?), he removes his protective headgear with the glib comment "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die comfortable," and goes on to also remove his radio headset, cutting off communication with his frustrated and scared compatriots.

Where the Wild Men Are

The story arc of The Hurt Locker, in a sense, is how the team members come to trust each other through the process of understanding their individual reactions to being constantly haunted by the specter of death. James, Sanborn, and the younger and more timid Specialist Owen (Brian Gerachty) all share the seemingly standard soldiers' diversions of loud heavy metal music and heavy drinking, but each also has their own private coping strategy:

  • James cares less, seeming reckless to others but actually freeing himself of surely crippling fear. He lives by the seemingly contradictory coda that the less you care about living the more likely you are to survive.
  • Sanborn trusts procedures, relying on constant contact with the team to ensure that basic army protocols are followed: perimeters are maintained, standard procedures are adhered to, and x-factors (like James) are eliminated.
  • Owen has faith in the longevity of his more experienced peers, constantly turning to them for confirmation of the instincts that should be automatic survival mechanisms.

None of these three leopards is about to change his spots, so what we witness is a chain of increasingly intense encounters with progressively more complicated and essentially evil explosive devices planted to kill Americans and wreak havoc for "collaborators." Through these trials by fire we watch the slow and painful process of the three men learning to become - despite their differences - what Shakespeare so aptly called "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

I find it interesting that this film was made by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. In The Hurt Locker, if I recall correctly, there are a total of two female characters who collectively garner about 25 seconds of screen time. On the surface that makes this is a movie about men - brothers, so to speak - in combat, but in reality it probably makes it a realistic portrayal of the war experience. Women soldiers fought on the front line of operation Desert Storm, and, presumably, the subsequent Desert Shield campaign of "shock and awe," but I imagine that they remain statistically irrelevant in combat situations - and probably virtually non-existent in the ranks of EOD specialists that are a hair from death at every moment and reliant on highly specialized and very heavy suits and equipment that are probably still designed with men in mind.

One way or the other, Bigelow, like Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, is masterful at her craft. The filming of The Hurt Locker is sublime, with explosive shock waves rolling across the screen like a ripple on a calm lake or the undulation in a flapping satin sheet. The ugliness of the surroundings and the sheer menacing evil of the bombs that James uncovers for our voyeuristic eyes is contrasted sharply with the strange sense of beauty that is evoked by the explosions themselves - the sense of catharsis that allows the viewer to relax again and take a deep breathe. To get a sense of this visual effect, it is only necessary to see the opening flash presentation on the masterfully designed movie homepage (http://thehurtlocker-movie.com/), which boldly declares that the film has "an intensity you can't shake."

I certainly left the theater with the shock waves rebounding in my head, and even a little bit of a feeling that I had experienced something of the EOD specialist's life. I didn't necessarily understand James, Sanborn, and Owen or agree with their individual coping mechanisms - but I felt that maybe I could trust them if, god forbid, I were ever to find myself in such ravaged climes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) (Bayers Lake) Now for those of you in fear of your mortal soul just for having read the title of this potentially heretical posting, rest easy: the Vatican has officially approved the newest installment in the Harry Potter franchise. Apparently the learned guardians of a billion or so catholic souls around the globe are happy to endorse the film's "'clear' depiction of the eternal battle between good and evil represented by the struggle between Harry and his nemesis, the evil sorcerer Lord Voldemort."
Now I don't claim to have anywhere near the influence of the Holy See, but, for what its worth: I'm Yuri van der Leest, and I approve of this film. In fact, The Half-Blood Prince was my favorite of the books, and, after two pretty weak installments of the film franchise (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), is a welcome breathe of fresh air.

The pace of the film is masterful, with the story moving along quickly but engagingly - although there was one moment when I glanced at my watch, I quickly lost myself in the film again. This is largely due to the filmmakers having made some difficult choices to eliminate scenes from the book, an exercise that would have greatly benefited the jumbled mess that comprised The Goblet of Fire.

These plot choices make the story flow smoothly and produce a thoroughly enjoyable film, and are only questionable in retrospect: in the car on the way home, after the initial awe had started to give way to critical thought, we started to notice some of what was missing. The scene where Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) travel to a storm-ravaged coast to secure a valuable object that can help weaken their foe is dark and painful in the book, but passes easily in the film. This is also apparent in the climactic confrontation between good and evil that pleased the Vatican so much: the epic confrontation of the novel is a passing occurrence on the screen.

What the filmmakers pay a lot of attention to, on the other hand, is the personal lives of the familiar magician triad of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). As in the novel, by this installment there is romance in the air for the tight crew of apprentice wizards, each augmented by their respective "person of interest." Indeed, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are growing up (though perhaps not so fast as the actors that are playing them), and they are paying attention to more than just every-flavour beans and butter beer!

Now romance has not been entirely absent from the franchise, Harry's junior-high courting of Cho Chang (Katie Leung) in The Goblet of Fire for example, but was largely a side-show to the action adventure and served - in the films - primarily to highlight the ineptitude of actors chosen more for marketability than talent (I believe). Not so in The Half-Blood Prince, which admittedly overplays the budding relationships as key plot lines, but at the same time highlights the fact that Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson must be taking acting classes: Watson has always been the strongest among the three, but even Radcliffe, a cringe-inducing bad actor in the last few installments, manages to convey subtle emotions. This admittedly could have to do with David Yates' direction, but is welcome nonetheless.

What Yates most certainly has a hand in is the overall look and feel of the film, which is awesome to behold, composed as it is with rich set pieces, luxurious, vibrant colors, and beautiful costumes that create a convincing fantasy world capable of completely encompassing the viewer for the entire 2.5-hour run time. The cinematography literally stunned me from the opening shots, which follow Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Narcisca Malfoy (Helen McCrory) through narrow, shadow-filled, cobbled alleyways in the dark of night, the camera panning widely to use the long, narrow, seemingly cavernous space to gorgeous effect.

I am aware, of course, that the visual effects that I am praising - and even the warm, glowing ambiance of the film as a whole - are largely the result of the same computer graphics (CG) that I often lament, but they are used to such great effect in this film that I can find nothing to impugn. Indeed, the computer effects in The Half-Blood Prince are used like the paint on an artist's palette. Perhaps my favorite scenes are those that occur in the pensieve, a shallow bowl of water in which thread of memory are deposited and can be revisited at will. When Harry plunges his head into the bowl, we see the memory slowly coalesce in a shadowy form reminiscent of ink diffusing in a bowl of water.

It must be apparent by now that I am recommending this film whole-heartedly, so will thus tie up this posting with a shout out to one of the most delightful additions to the franchise's cast and character roster: Jim Broadbent playing Professor Horace Slughorn. A veteran of such classic fare as Time Bandits, Brazil, Richard III, and Gangs of New York, I am used to seeing Broadbent in minor roles in excellent films. Not so in The Half-Blood Prince, in which he portrays a key character beautifully and convincingly.

I understand that the final Potter chronicle will be adapted for the screen in two parts. Whether the logic of this is to milk the series for every last drop of cash or to relate the story as faithfully as possible, I cannot say, but I can venture one vote for keeping Yates at the helm and using The Half-Blood Prince as a benchmark.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Adoration, Great Expectations

This week's headline movie is the perfect cure to the generally abysmal quality of cinema fare at this point of the summer blockbuster season. If you have already suffered through Transformers II, I have the perfect prescription: Adoration.
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, 2008) (Bayers Lake) As a translation exercise, Simon's (Devon Bostick) French teacher reads his class an article about the attempted bombing of an El Al flight to Tel Aviv - the would-be bomber had planted explosives in his pregnant wife's carry on luggage. Having lost his father, Sami (Noam Jenkins) and mother, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), in a questionable accident years earlier, the article inspires Simon to write a dramatic monologue re-imagining his past through the lens of this scenario: with his middle-eastern father as the bomber and his Canadian mother, a concert violinist, as the hapless bomb mule.

Simon's French teacher, Sabine (Arsinee Khanjian), also of middle-eastern extraction, encourages Simon to polish the monologue and to present it at the school drama festival. Although the school principal vetoes this idea, the simple but powerful narrative seems to take on a life of its own as Simon posts it on the internet and more and more people are touched by it.

The movie follows the growing shock waves created by the monologue on the internet through Simon's laptop computer screen, which starts with a nine-person video chat discussing the issue but slowly expands to 30, 40, 50, and maybe even 60 small windows filled with strangers united by the monologue but bitterly divided by the political, religious, and social beliefs that they impose on the narrative - all in the belief that it is a non-fiction account of the actual events surrounding the attempted bombing

This virtual widening of the influence of the monologue is mirrored in Simon's real life, where - like their internet counterparts - many seem unaware that the events described are inspired by true events and personal trauma rather than a direct recounting of the facts of the matter. Indeed, scenes where Simon reads from his composition are chilling, with his voice a matter-of-fact monotone relating a compelling but confusing and frightening tale: for most of the movie I was unaware that the monologue was fictional, although in retrospect there is nothing to suggest the opposite - a confusion that I think Egoyan exploits beautifully.

Sabine is almost immediately ensnared by the influence of the monologue, and ends up intimately involved not only with the fictional account of Simon's bereavement, but with the non-fictional reality of its legacy. This legacy includes Tom (Scott Speedman doing an excellent job with a complex role), Simon's older brother and reluctant guardian since the death of his parents, and the specter of racial intolerance - embodied by Simon's grandfather, Morris (Kenneth Walsh) - that has haunted the family since Rachel first brought Sami home

Simon maintains an impressive/disturbing equanimity through this entire process. He seems like a dispassionate documentarian weaving his unsettling fiction on the one hand, even as we learn his version of the "real" story of his parents meeting, marrying, and ultimately dying through a series of flashbacks on the other. A story that intimately touches the lives of Simon, Tom, Sabine, Morris, and - of course - Sami and Rachel - in a web of fear, loss, and recrimination. There is light at the end of the film, however, as Simon, Tom, and Sabine seem to reach a point where they can move beyond the trauma that has brought them together.

Adoration is a complex film that probably warrants multiple viewings to fully understand the relationships between its main characters, the issues that each is working through, and the highly relevant theme of intolerance. It is beautifully shot in dark, saturated colours that often present the speaker as if in a spotlight, with shadows behind, giving an intimacy and immediacy to what is being related. I was also struck by the music, which seemed to be integral to the theme of each scene both in terms of ambiance/tone and subject matter. In particular, I think of XTC's Dear God, which played in the background as a member of the internet chat forum raves about the 40 virgins said to be awaiting Muslim martyrs in the next world.

I loved this film, passionately. It seemed to caress the viewer like gentle waves on the surface of an inky-black lake that is as beautiful as it is chillingly cold and frighteningly inscrutable in depth.

Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 1998) I finished reading Dickens' Great Expectations this weekend, and feel like I lived a whole life inside the novel, a feeling I remember having after David Copperfield as well. While reading the novel I made a resolution to revisit Cuaron's modern reinterpretation, which I first viewed in the theater in Seoul. I remembered greatly enjoying the film, but had only blurred remembrances of its substance.

So, with Dickens' words echoing in my mind, I closed the back cover of the novel, flicked on the flat-screen, and pressed play. From the opening moments of the film I was in love with this modern re-imagining of Pip's trials and tribulations, as told through the story of Fin (Ethan Hawke, fitting the role, but looking overly pathetic when introduced), a budding young artist, his unattainable love Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the snarling, pit bull convict/benefactor Lustig (a powerhouse performance by the brilliantly cast Robert DeNiro giving ). I could go on an on about the cast of this film, which also includes a picture-perfect incarnation of Joe (Chris Cooper) and a delightful, aging-hippy Mrs. Dinsmore (Anne Bancroft) standing in for Dickens' Miss Havisham.

From the Page to the Screen
But what of the film's relationship to its Victorian progenitor? How does the essential tale stand up to being shorn of half its cast of characters, its sooty London locale, and the host of side stories and diversions Dickens' furnished us with? (As people love to complain, Dickens was paid by the word :) )

Well, there are two main differences that come to mind, one wholly acceptable and one less so. Firstly, in the film Estella is not quite the ice queen of Dickens' imagining. Indeed, she does more than her part to arouse Fin's interest and fire his blood, making his infatuation with her all the more understandable. Now it might seem that this dismisses the central tension of the novel, but actually it is a wise reworking of the premise by filmmakers who know that the great stuff of literature does not necessarily directly translate into great stuff on screen. In this case, Cuaron and his crew need to foster the viewer's attachment to both Fin and Estella and their relationship, so that we will care about their fates despite having known them for such a short time (two hours vs ~400 pages). Bottom line, it works.

The second major alteration, and the one that I am not as comfortable with, is the revision of Fin's/Pip's ultimate fate - I warn you to stop here if you do not wish to encounter any spoilers. In Dickens' Expectations, Pip loses his great fortune and fall from all expectations, ending up working a nine-to-five job (so to speak) and living a normal middle-class life. Not so Fin, who ends the film firmly possessed of "portable property," which means to say that he is very very rich - as heartbroken as Pip, but rich nonetheless. Now Fin's ending is in keeping with his character throughout, which is generally even-tempered, kind, and unassuming vs Pip's decent into a spendthrift, snobby, overbearing, boorish, frat boy of the novel, and perhaps it can be justified as stripping out Dickens' moralizing message and focusing on the essentials of the story. Nonetheless, it hit me like a curve ball.

I don't mean to impugn Cuaron's beautiful and lovingly crafted film with this dissent, as I am aware that this is a re-imagining of Great Expectations, and that the main character is renamed expressly to distance him from his inspiration. Overall I think that the spirit of Dickens' novel was admirably captured in Cuaron's film, and highly recommend it for Paltrow's stunning beauty in her early scenes if for no other reason ;)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Public Enemies, Easy Virtue, Transformers II

As the Halifax summer has to date been typified by angry, black-gray, rain-swollen skies of a decidedly apocalyptic tone, I have seen a fair number of films of late, but have not, you may remark, blogged on many. To begin addressing this backlog, I will dispense of those films viewed at home and instead concentrate on my visits to the theater, which, I lament to relate, have not been rewarded by silver screen magic for the most part.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009) (Park Lane) I have tried several times in the past few days to write about Public Enemies, and I just don't seem to be able to get my thoughts on "paper". The problem, you see, is that I was greatly anticipating the film, and even after watching it I still want to love it so much - I mean, what's not to like? Depression-era Chicago echoing with the bass thunk-a thunk-a thunk-a of tommy gun fire, gangsters playing cat and mouse with earnest G-men prosecuting J. Edgar Hoover's "war on crime" with the "latest scientific methods," gleaming straight-8 Ford sedans powering away from the heist. There's also Johnny Depp, portraying John Dillinger, recently paroled and out to reclaim his crown as the king of the waning golden age of bank robberies, and Christian Bale playing Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent charged with tracking down public enemy number one. The movie poster alone still gives me a thrill...

That's a lot to love, and we can add to that the fact that the film nods to some of the serious issues arising from the prosecution of the war on crime: the birth of the FBI and Hoover's Congressional battle to be granted interstate jurisdiction, the advent of modern scientific techniques in police work, and the mob making its shift from gun-blazing larceny to the more "respectable" pursuit of corporate crime such as sports gambling (and one can assume prostitution and drugs).

So why didn't I love this movie? Well, the easy answer is that despite lavish sets replete with highly polished hardwoods, gleaming chrome, and snazzy pin-striped suits, the film did not manage to create a convincing world. Throughout the 140-minute run time I was keenly aware that I was sitting in a theatre watching a film - a beautifully crafted film, but still one that did not invoke my sympathies or raise my ire.

I think that there are two main reasons for this. The first has to do with the filming itself, and is a little hard to describe. Whereas most big budget movies you go to see have a soft, post-processed patina over them that renders them "dream like" and allows for easy entry by the viewer, Public Enemies shifted between this soft-tone picture and a higher-contrast "real life" visual mode in which lighting popped and edges were sharp and defined. Essentially, I found myself always aware that I was watching actors on a set playing roles - think about the difference between watching your favorite drama (Say Sopranos) and then watching the "behind the scenes" special features where raw footage is shown. (Addendum: I have recently learned that Mann shot Public Enemies with digital HD cameras, which could go a long way to explaining its sterile feel. Oh for the days of cracking and popping celluloid!)

Which brings me to the second problem, which I am well aware borders on sacrilege. Johnny Depp and Christian Bale never became believable characters for me: I never felt like I identified with or was emotionally invested in the plights of either main character. The movie didn't touch me. Now this is partially a deep-rooted flaw in the film as a whole, which focuses very strongly on the characters of Dillinger and Purvis but is so concerned with looking slick and polished at every moment that it never lets us into the messier recesses of their hearts or minds. But it is also partially - here it comes - a problem with Depp and Bale, who play their roles with a cool reserve that seems almost arrogant.

I enjoyed Public Enemies, but, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't love it and can't recommend it out of hand. As I overheard one audience member tell a friend he met in the lobby after the show, "It was great at the beginning when they were robbing shit and shooting everything up, but then it got kinda slow." Well, the slower part - the adagio, so to speak - should have been the best part, uncovering the persona under the swaggering gunman...but never did.

As an addendum, I believe that Slate Magazine may have said it best: "It's like spending an afternoon...at a beautifully lit wax-museum display inspired by earlier gangster movies."

Easy Virtue (Stephan Elliott, 2008) (Bayers Lake) I was out last night with a friend who is a working actor in Halifax's performing arts community, and she was aghast to learn that I had not been swept away by this screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play - perhaps some stories are not meant to escape the stage to the silver screen. I went to see Easy Virtue on a Sunday night in every expectation that I would be treated to an hour or two of delightful whimsy - an incisive, Wildean stab at the heart of upper-class Victorian manners.

John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) is returning to the sprawling family estate to present his scandalous race car driving, pant wearing, cigarette smoking, American wife, Larita (Jessica Biel), to his stiff-upper-lip, no-sex-please-we're-British family. The family estate, ruled with staunch propriety by Mrs. Whitaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), is fading into financial ruin but still keeping up appearances, a fact little known by John's sisters and met with indifference by her husband (Colin Firth), who long ago stopped caring about appearances and tradition.

A delicious scenario for a comedy of "old-country manners meets new world vigour" to be sure, but is ultimately squandered and ends up largely bland and lifeless - which is a shame as it starts out with some degree of promise. The odd gag elicits laughs, such as when Larita accidentally sits on and kills Mrs. Whitaker's dog, but the dialogue - which is reputed to sparkle on stage - falls largely flat in the incapable hands of the cast. This should perhaps be laid largely at the feet of Ms. Biel, extends to Mr. Firth, who has never been known for dramatic range, but certainly not to Ms. Scott Thomas, who, despite her impressive credentials and arguable strong performance even in this film, just is not strong enough to pull the whole film up by its bootstraps.

Catch Easy Virtue the next time it plays on a stage near you, I am sure your local theater group will breathe more life into it than this crew has.

Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay shudder, 2009) (Bayers Lake) Let's be brief: pure, utter, unadulterate, SHIT. Painful dialogue that makes you cringe delivered by hacks that insult the words actor/actress (Shia LaBeouf should be taken out and shot), sophomoric jokes that range from dogs humping legs to Mom getting high by mistake and chasing all the university hotties. The intelligence that conceived this travesty of a film is akin to the brilliance of the political and military minds that ended its mildly more interesting precursor, Transformers, by deciding to stash the recently defeated carcass of the most dangerous alien robot in the world at the bottom of the ocean - where no one would ever find it. Evil laugh. LAME.

But you don't go to this kind of film for brilliant acting or sublime scripts, right? You go for special effects and action, right? And state-of-the-art special effects films are a legitimate creation, after all, often pioneering new techniques that allow other artists in the industry to add to their collective palette. Except that this rationale is wearing thin these days, with CGI having reached a point where it, in itself, seldom manages to blow the tech-jaded audience away.

In addition, Transformers II did not even manage to leverage the technology that it had at its disposal to good effect - I would have loved to have seen the Autobots and Decepticons transform from cars, airplanes, and motorcycles into awesomely powerful super robots, but was even cheated of this. Every transformation starts with the disguise incarnation starting to convulse a little, upon which the camera zooms in and shows a bunch of randomly shifting pieces of colored metal before pulling back and showing the massive resulting robot, which has a mass at least an order of magnitude large than the original, and massive weaponry to boot (hmm, I guess that that five-foot-long, barrel-girth cannon was hidden in the muffler...).

Why oh why did I not walk out of this 2 hour and 30 fricken minute travesty? Why oh why was the surely 100s of millions spent to make this lemon not spent to completely eradicate hunger in any of numerous countries around the world where suffering is so rife?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Away We Go: A Happy Ending that I Can Believe

Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009) (Park Lane) In the opening 10-15 minutes of Away We Go, a dispirited and recently pregnant Verona (Maya Rudolph) turns to her partner Burt (John Krasinski, of The Office fame), and asks the simple question: "Are we fuck ups?" Burt assures her that they are not.

But as I sat in the theater, already in love with this film, I knew that the real answer was "yes."

There I sat in the dark, in every way as fucked up as Verona and Burt - young, unmarried, not overly successful or stylish by the standards of grocery store checkout line magazines, and largely without community roots - and wanted to tell her that I understood exactly why she felt that way. Yes, they probably are pretty "fucked up," and that that is absolutely fine: I already knew that these were truly beautiful people and that I would love to have them over for the barbecue that I am planning...

Away They Go
So Verona and Burt hit the road, travelling across the United States and into Canada to visit friends and family in search of a "home" - a community to nestle into, feel a part of, and raise their little daughter in. During their travels, they are exposed to numerous examples of how "family" can manifest itself and what "success" can mean: in Phoenix they meet Verona's former co-worker (Alison Janney), who could mount a serious bid for worst mother of the century; in Tucson, they meet Verona's sister (Carmen Ejogo), who constantly pushes Verona to recall their long-deceased parents; in ???? they visit Burt's childhood friend (the always enjoyable Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is a "cuckoo for coco puffs" spiritually aware mother in the most patronizingly detestable manner; and in Montreal, they meet the possibly perfect couple with a gaggle of adopted kids but a secret torment over Mom's inability to conceive.

And along the way Verona and Burt start to learn what family, success, and community mean to them, as is the tradition of the great American road movie. These lessons are divided by city into vignettes of a sort, and are not maudlin or cliche in anyway - they are incredibly poignant and heartwarming, and touched me deeply. One of the strongest of these moments for me was the scene where the young couple lay in their hotel room in Phoenix, with the shadow of the "mom from hell" hanging over them. As Burt reassures Verona, we see a shadow of sadness cross her eyes as she buries her face into the pillow and laments that no one else seems to be in love the way that they are.

Sounds sappy, I know - but this is only one of several points in Away We Go when tears of tenderness and joy welled up in my eyes - where I felt an aching to be inside the beauty of the relationship I was watching. Indeed, I was truly moved by this film.

Not All Sentimental "Crap"
But Away We Go is not a tearjerker at its core - I am just a sucker for over romanticizing these things :) The film is essentially half road movie in the vein that Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown claimed to be/tried to be/so disappointingly was not, and half unabashed romantic comedy - and nothing gets me running to the theatre quicker than the newest summer rom-com. (Sarcasm anyone?)

Our saving grace on the rom-com front is that the romance is real and the comedy is side-splitting. Krasinski is far from a great actor, while Rudolph has a gift for displaying subtle emotions with her facial expression, but the bottom line is that as characters Verona and Burt are very likable people and their on-screen chemistry is undeniable. There is a tenderness that is endearing and altogether absent in much of the rom-com fodder we are subjected to.

Away We Go also delivers on the comedy front, keeping the theatre in stitches for much of the movie's 98 minutes and effectively counterbalancing its more serious themes of life, love, and community. While the opening scene is almost shocking and throws you off kilter in an "uncomfortable laugh" kind of way, the film keeps up a stream of good-natured humour that never sinks to the crass - keep your ears perked for the pregnant seahorse discussion. I read Dave Eggers' "You Shall Know Our Velocity" and enjoyed it, but I had no idea he could write such sparkling comedic dialogue.

Let's End on a High Note
The credits role on Verona and Burt as they arrive at their new home, where we have no doubt that they will love and cherish each other for eternity and raise a cute and precocious little girl: a happy ending that I believe and that I left the theatre virtually aglow with. Indeed, the crisp, cool Halifax air seemed cleaner and made me feel somehow more alive and the outlines of the buildings and telephone poles seemed sharper and more solid - my whole word seemed imbued with a sense of optimism.

Can you tell that I liked this film? Can you tell that I recommend it highly? Thanks for the tickets Jess :)

I may even forgive Sam Mendes for Revolutionary Road if he keeps this up....