Monday, May 25, 2009

Lymelife: What Would Han Solo Do?

Last night I saw a commercial for Star Trek claiming that it was "the first great movie of the summer." Now I have great affection for the Star Trek franchise, I did think it was a great movie (see post), and can't really argue with box office results ($193 million domestic as of May 26), but feel compelled to put a word in for one of the legion 98-pound weaklings that are trying to fill seats alongside the ~$160 million intergalactic fantasy.

Lymelife (Derrick Martini, 2008) (Bayers Lake) Like Star Trek, Lymelife tells the story of a teenage boy growing up and trying to find his way to become a man, and is a film that I think easily deserves the adjective "great," along with a few others such as "compelling," "engaging," and "beautifully made" - it was obviously a labour of love for Martini, and held me spellbound.

Jimmy Bartlett (Kieran Culkin) is at that awkward age that is clinically labeled "puberty," but could perhaps be more appropriately titled "chronically awkward" - witness our hero in his tighty whiteys posing in front of a full-length mirror in his bedroom, Han Solo's pistol menacingly in hand as he rehearses what he wishes he could say to the bullies who torment him, or, with scrawny chest puffed out, reeling out "slick" pick up lines to the girl who thinks of him "like a younger brother."

It is scenes such as this one - so true to real, everyday, average life - that make Lymelife such a special movie. We follow the pains and triumphs of an average boy growing up in perfectly rendered 1970s America, replete with turtlenecks, orange everything, and Star Wars collectibles.

We see him humbled at school and virtually ignored at home, where the litany of standard teenage woes is complemented by a womanizing father (Alec Baldwin, excellently cast as a bitter and lonely man) who uses any excuse to escape the realities of marriage and fatherhood, a mother (Jill Hennesy, of Law & Order fame) rendered miserable by the move from downtown New York to the isolated and tick-ridden suburbs, and an older brother (Rory Culkin) driven to join the army to escape his dysfunctional family and the economic malaise strangling the global economy as tensions in the Middle East boil over.

This noxious brew of fear, resentment, and misunderstanding lends Lymelife an overwhelming sense of doom that is perhaps best embodied by the deer tick, which is lurking in the forests surrounding burgeoning suburban America, waiting to infect the masses with Lyme disease. Jimmy's neighbour, Charlie Bragg (played by Timothy Hutton in one of the strongest performances of the film) has been infected, and the resulting near madness has torn his family apart. The Bragg family's situation mirrors what is happening to Jimmy's family in many ways, except that the Braggs are being destroyed by a chance infection, not by a string of questionable personal decisions and explosive personalities that are reeking havoc in the Bartlett household (although Cynthia Nixon's turn as Charlie's wife hints that it was headed nowhere good in any case.)

Indeed, as I have commented so often about other films I have reviewed and loved, Lymelife is not necessarily a pleasant movie to experience. It does not pull its punches or glamorize the world it reflects - instead it forces the viewer to see things as they really are, in the process arousing emotions that are primal, but seldom allowed such almost embarrassing free expression.

Its a lot to take in, but so is life
The natural point of comparison for Lymelife is Ang Lee's masterpiece The Ice Storm. Both films take us inside the minds and hearts of young boys trying to navigate the slow disintegration of their families for reasons that they little understand. Both are also set in the 1970s, and present the time as being so much more bleak and bland than it really could have been - right?

Perhaps the key difference between the two films is that Jimmy is older than The Ice Storm's Paul Hood (a very young Tobey McGuire), which means that the perspective we share is more mature (or at least maturing), and increasingly aware of the subtleties of what is happening - it also means that he is more able to make his own choices. Indeed, Jimmy is a much more active than is Paul, implying that Lymelife is more about its main character than it is about the brooding milieu that surrounds him, as is the case in Ice Storm.

This point is perhaps in no way better illustrated than in the general trajectory taken by each film. Whereas Ice Storm inexorably pushes towards an indescribably tragic conclusion, Lymelife is ultimately warm and even hopeful as Jimmy makes more choices for himself, becoming a man in his own stead, and seems to be escaping the drama that surrounds him. I won't go into details, but suffice to say there is a girl involved - a young lady that I feel guilty for not mentioning as much for her budding beauty as for her strong performance.

Letter to the Editor
If I may editorialize for a moment, Lymelife is a perfect example of the myriad of insightful, artistic, and deeply touching films that are being made every day in countries all over the world - but being shown only in the precious few theaters that are willing to accept less than top dollar by not pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Go see this film - if we don't watch quality cinema, there is no guarantee that cinema artists will continue to find patrons for their creations.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Angels and Demons, Taken

The Bad and the Blase
Yesterday I promised to write about the good, the bad, and the blase (to stretch the term a little), and I seem to have only gotten around to the good. I am ready to make good on my promise, save the need to decide which of today's films is bad and which one is "blase."

Angels and Demons (Ron Howard, 2009) (The Oxford) I am going to have to start with the blase, a term for which I think that Angels and Demons is a poster child.

Based on Dan Brown's blockbuster novel of the same name and following the phenomenal success of The DaVinci Code, Angels chronicles a night in the life of Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a symbologist who has been summoned to Rome by the camerlengo (essentially the deputy pope, played by Ewan McGregor) to save Vatican city, the College of Cardinals assembled in papal conclave to select a new pope, and thousands of pious onlookers from annihilation at the hands of the resurgent order of the Illuminati.

In Angels, the Illuminati, which also figured prominently in The DaVinci Code, have stolen a particle of dark matter - considered by some to be the "god particle" due to its presumed role in the genesis of the universe - from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Bent on destroying the Catholic Church for its history of persecuting scientists and free-thinkers, the Illuminati have kidnapped the four top candidates for the papacy, and are planning to murder one each hour ahead of midnight, when the particle of dark matter will be unleashed with a force akin to a nuclear detonation of significant magnitude - incinerating Vatican City and its environs.

A Whole Lot of Nothing
It is no small feat to summarize the plot of Angels and Demons, as is evidenced by the number of Wikipedia links in the preceding paragraphs. Indeed, like The DaVinci Code, the action in Angels plays out against a rich tapestry of secret societies, conspiracy theories, the long-standing "feud" between religion and science (here typified by Galileo's execution for heresy), and the Vatican pageantry that plays out largely behind closed doors.

Add to this fertile ground the talents of a director who has contributed to notable projects ranging from the recent Frost/Nixon and Changeling to Inventing the Abbots, Apollo 13, and Willow, and respectable and generally reliable actors like Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor, and one would think that Angels has the stuff that magic is made of.

So why is the movie so mind-numbingly boring? Indeed, perhaps the best word to describe my reaction - even while ensconced in the cinema, surrounded by the soundtrack and warmed by its glow - is blase. I just didn't care. Not that the film isn't beautiful to look at. Indeed, no expense was spared in crafting an onscreen world that drips with the atmosphere of modern Rome, its ancient churches and sculptures, and the mystique of Vatican City.

Weakest Links
The film's key failings, I believe, are twofold. Firstly, as is evidenced by the aforementioned profusion of Wikipedia links, there is a lot of extremely interesting history underpinning the narrative, but this translates into a lot of screen time spent providing context - Dr. Langdon and his sidekick for the film, Vittoria Vetter (Ayelet Zurer), essentially give the audience numerous mini lectures. This is acceptable in Brown's ever-so-slightly more engaging novel, but does not make for scintillating cinema. Angels strikes a better balance between education and action than did its unwieldy predecessor, The DaVinci Code, but nonetheless left this viewer drumming his fingers at times.

The other weakness of this film arises from the action that is supposed to balance the education. There is lots of rushing through the dark, crowded streets and squares of Rome, there are shadowy villains and murders most foul, and there are the lives of thousands and a cultural trove of near matchless value (the Vatican library) at stake, but the film still failed to convey a sense of jeopardy. There was no sense of impending doom, no aura of evil, no hero to root for (the church? the mild-mannered professor?) and no villain to pillory (the amorphous society of the Illuminati? the shadowy villain who's face is revealed a few times but is never named? the ultimate kingpin shockingly revealed at the end to yawns and indifference?).

Yawn. Stay home and watch reality TV - it is probably more interesting for it anthropological implications if nothing else.

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) (Home) Or stay home and watch Taken, which represents the bad film in this triptych of reviews, but is nonetheless infinitely more engaging than the blase.

Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) is a former special forces member who has retired from the life in order to be close to his 16 or 17 year old daughter Amanda, who lives in LA with his ex-wife and her super-rich new husband. Mills feels pretty pathetic and appears pretty irrelevant to his daughter's life as the film opens, but becomes intimately involved and highly relevant when Amanda's summer trip to Europe lands her in the clutches of an Albanian ring that runs a network of sex slaves.

Cue look of internal anguish that is Neeson's trademark, and a murderous rampage through Paris in hope of finding his daughter within the 96-hour window that these abductions apparently present before the victim becomes statistically irretrievable. I am tempted to watch this film again just to count how many knee-capped, garroted, and otherwise dispatched bodies litter Mills' path across Paris - I would lay odds that it approaches 40.

Now sex slavery and human trafficking in general exacts a horrid toll on its victims across the globe, but in this film it is treated largely as a plot device. We are not being educated about the problem or enlightened about attempts to stem the tide. No, Taken is unabashedly an upscale Steven Segal film about kicking ass and not bothering to take names - i.e., its a bad film.

But if your choice is between suffering the more cerebral but entirely un-engaging Angels and Demons or indulging in the throw-away action hero antics of Taken, I recommend that you opt for the latter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek

Well my friends, it has been a bad few days for a long weekend (read: rain), but a good weekend for a movie lover (read: screen time). Yup. When skies cloud and an insidious chill settles on the city, its time to find a plushly upholstered seat in the cinema and let yourself be carried away by the good, the bad, and the blase...

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) (IMAX) Let's start with the good. I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), and always had a soft spot for The Original Series (TOS), but I am far from a die-hard Trekkie, not having a single syllable of useful Klingon in my vocabulary.

Overall, however, I am enough of a fan to salivate at the idea of a new Star Trek movie despite all of the painfully bad screen time we have been subjected to (read: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Generations (gasp and shudder), and Insurrection) in hopes of once again experiencing the thrill that has embedded the franchise so deeply in western culture (read: Star Trek TNG, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (perhaps the best of them all), and First Contact).

The newest Star Trek outing predates all of the above in terms of chronology, and definitely outstrips many of them in terms of quality: J.J. Abrams, admittedly not a long-standing Star Trek fan, got a lot more right than wrong.

The interesting thing about Star Trek is that it is more about the characters than the stories or the technology. The movie begins in the days before Kirk was Captain and Spock was logic-bound first officer, and follows the events that forged the characters we know so well from TOS. Thus, getting it right for Abrams essentially means getting the right actors to inhabit the roles, something that, after much deliberation, I must say was well accomplished.

Chris Pine's turn as James Tiberious Kirk was the hardest for me to swallow. The brash, reckless, womanizing drunk was such an off-putting personality that I allowed my personal dislike to cloud my better judgement - I forgot how essentially vain, impulsive, and basically unlikeable William Shatner's Catptain Kirk was in TOS. As I have commented so many times before, the character may be essentially unlikeable, but may be serving the best interests of the film in being so - as is the case in Star Trek.

Zachary Quinto's Spock is a much more palatable incarnation for all of his crusty inflexibility. Quinto's task was no easy feat considering that he was starring opposite Leonard Nimoy in the flesh, and risked being overshadowed by the denture-wearing (according to DreamQueen) progenitor of the character. Instead we watch Quinto straddle the line between impulsive human and logical Vulcan in an entirely believable and endearing manner - we don't understand Spock's dilemma as much as Kirk's, but we definitely like him a lot more.

The rest of the menagerie is also well-represented:
  • Uhura (Zoe Seldana) is portrayed with confident, modern sexuality that is in keeping with her 1960s incarnation, which seems muted by modern standards, but pushed the boundaries of propriety in its day by participating in television's first ever interracial kiss.
  • Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) is played sternly and seriously, and seems to miss a bit of the congenial humor that typified the original character. However, his role is far from pivotal in this film, and has room to mature. No complaints overall, save for Urban's overly strong resemblance of Matt LeBlanc of Friends fame...
  • Chekov (Anton Yelchin) is played to a T measured against the TOS template, with the always enjoyable and seemingly perpetually young Yelchin punching his heavily-accented English for comic effect
  • Sulu (John Cho) is also spot on by comparison to George Takei's 1960 portrayal - overly serious but steady as a rock. Sulu sees some action in this film, and that could foreshadow bigger things to come for his character in future outings.
  • Scotty (Simon Pegg) is barely introduced in this film, but has all the Scottish brogue and sarcastic humor that one could want from the surly chief engineer.
Indeed, a lot of the supporting cast of Star Trek are merely introduced to us as token nods to their place in the pantheon - suggesting that they will have amply opportunity to flesh out their characters in films to come. Much as Casino Royale did for the Bond series, the latest big-screen incarnation of Star Trek pushes the reset button on the franchise, working from a blank sheet and setting a high standard for the sequels that are sure to come.

I'd love to end on that positive note, but must say that there was one thing that bothered me about the newest Star Trek outing: the darkness of its mood/tone. This is best typified by - not surprisingly - the Romulon bad guys, who inhabit an oily black spaceship seemingly fashioned of ominous tentacles. There is nothing redeeming in the Romulons, who appear in this film as heavly tatooed, brutish humans rather than the more alien guise portrayed for most of their history.

Now I know I am usually looking for a darker and/or more serious edge to films that insist on the sun only shining on TV. However, in this case I could not help but miss the naive optimism of Star Trek TOS or even TNG. You see, Star Trek has always been the one sci-fi future that shows humanity having overcome war, famine, economic inequality and other base desires, emerging a still-flawed but entirely admirable creature.

Overall a small complaint against a wall of praise, and one that I will not insist on, as I do not want the new film to be held hostage to the standards of its long and storied history. And this, I think, is the point - the newest Star Trek, rather like the most recent Bond outings, was made for a new generation of fans that are not measuring it against its predecessors.

So neither will I.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Che: Part One

Che: Part One (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) (Oxford) Before heading to the theater to view Che: Part One, Steven Soderbergh's biopic of the omnipresent revolutionary, I figured that I should know more about him than the fact that he was instrumental in Castro's Cuban revolution and graces at least 500 gazillion t-shirts worldwide. I optimistically pulled up Wikipedia's entry on the bearded revolutionary, but quickly got distracted by something else (ie, my job) and decided that the film itself would have to serve as an education.

Because that is what the biopic usually is: we learn the story of a person's life - the actions and reactions that shaped their life story - and the core social and/or political beliefs/philosophies/ideas that drove them. Basically, we learn about the fight and why it is fought.

Half a Film and Half a Story
Except that in Che we really only get 50% of this package deal - and I don't think that other 50% will be offered up in part two! Intertwining the Cuban guerrillas' slow march through the dense and mountainous terrain to Havana with Che Guevara's later journey to New York to harangue the United Nations about the crimes of capitalist America, Che: Part One is a slow but nonetheless enjoyable history of the actions that comprise Che's involvement in the Cuban revolution. It rings of authenticity, and is beautiful to look at as a result.

However, it is the 50% that was missing that nags me. I appreciate greatly the sacrifices made to slowly crawl over densely forested mountains and wade through engorged streams while fighting a technologically and numerically super force, and I think that this is clearly and effectively captured by the film. What is not conveyed to the viewer is why Che or the guerrilla's undertook this daunting campaign.

There are certainly the odd references to the corrupt nature of the puppet government of Batista, the unfair advantage taken by corporations, and the lack of basic services delivered to the Cuban people - indeed, Che takes it upon himself to try to ensure that all of his fighters are literate. However, the film fails to capture - and in truth does not even try to convey - the political and social ideas/philosophies/beliefs that impelled the Cuban revolution and inspired Che.

And the latter is the most important - I do not, after all, want to be subjected to a piece of sociopolitical propaganda on the evils of the capitalist west and the virtues of the revolution. However, if the goal of a biopic is to increase the viewer's understanding of the subject - in this case Che - then I think that it is important that we be given some appreciation of what they believed in and why they were fighting.

Indeed, as the slow progress over mountains and through valleys progressed, I found myself wondering why these people were following Che. I could easily understand why they would believe in the revolution based on my preexisting hazy knowledge of the situation, but the portrait of Che that was presented was not inspiring or uplifting. He was a reticent intellectual at worst, and a stern schoolmaster at best - always having the best interests of his men at heart, but never showing any connection to them on a human level.

As a highly politicized figure in a film that could easily have generated great controversy, I can understand the filmmakers' insistence on strict adherence to the historical facts of the revolution. However, I can't help but feel cheated by their decision to complete ignore the spirit of the man and of the times - I don't feel like I know or understand Che the man any more than I did before entering the Oxford Theatre.

Where was the inspiration for the filmmakers, let alone the revolutionary? Maybe I should return to Wikipedia to try to learn more about what ideas and beliefs drove Che the man, about the wellspring of his passion.....

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Kate Winslet: Little Children & Revolutionary Road

When I last wrote about Kate Winslet, in the context of her Oscar winning performance in The Reader, I managed little more than gushing - the film had rendered me speechless, leaving me with nothing else to give. Winslet's turn as Hanna Schmitz, the strangely innocent holocaust gaurd who is caught by her past, sent me in search of other films starring the virtuoso actress that had impressed me in notable films such as Finding Neverland and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but really was frozen in my mind as young Rose parting the sea on the ill-fated bows of HMS Titanic.

Some images die hard.

Little Children (2006, Todd Field) (Home) Last night I curled up in a blanket to escape the still frigid climes of Nova Scotia and immersed myself in Winslet's turn as Sarah Pierce in Little Children, a film that also left me awestruck, but that I can hopefully address with at least a modicum of critical distance.

Little Children follows the budding relationship between Sarah and Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), two young parents who feel trapped in comfortable, even affluent, suburban lives that could be postcards for the ever-foggier American dream. Sarah is married to a drab older man and has borne him a child that she feels little connection to, while Brad is married to the super-hot (always) but bitchily controlling Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) and plays stay-at-home Dad to their son.

Both are primary caregivers: such being Sarah's part to play in her "picture perfect" life, while Brad cares for his son while not studying for the bar exam that he does not want to take in order to become a lawyer that he does not want to be.

Voice of Reason
The first hour of Little Children is punctuated by the ever-reasonable voice of the omniscient narrator, who lets us know precisely what each character is feeling or thinking in a dispassionate, almost analytical manner. We never doubt the narrator's omniscience, because the truth of his reportage is ever apparent on the screen. Indeed, we even begin to adopt his analytic distance, feeling an anthropological fascination with the relationship we are witnessing, much as Sarah opened the film by explaining her anthropological fascination with the inane lives of the desperate housewives that she rubs shoulders with before Brad's appearance.

When their first passionate embrace - inevitable but somehow unexpected - leads to animal lust, we feel tension break like a thunderhead cracking open - the analytical distance is shortened like a choke chain viciously tugged. I gasped, clutched the sofa arm more tightly and let the electricity of their union slow through me. Sweet release.

But its not that easy, as the omniscient narrator reminds us about 20 minutes later, reimposing the perspective of a biologist beginning a dissection. Sarah and Brad are still part of postcards, after all, and wives, husbands, and children - little children - circumscribe the potential of their relationship.

The Pervert
Which is where the pervert comes in. Initially a side story, but increasingly prominent as the passion and deception grows, Ronnie is a convicted pedophile who has completed his sentence and returned to the neighbourhood to live with his ever-loving and surely long-suffering mother.

Initially I had trouble pegging Ronnie's role in Little Children, and I am still not sure that I fully understand it. Sure he plays a role in Brad's rebellion against his domineering wife, and certainly he represents jeopardy to the children that can only help being Sarah and Brad closer together in a protective circle.

But what stuck with me as I pondered the film last night and this morning was Ronnie's mother, who accepts that her son is guilty of the crime of exposing himself to young children, but still stands by him in the stolid belief that his crime was the past:"but we can always choose the future." I am paraphrasing, to be sure, but this is the essence of her eternal optimism for her son's potential to get a girlfriend, build a relationship, and "be good."

We Can Always Choose the Future
And that is a key reason for Ronnie's role in the film, it seems to me. He shows us that we truly can't always choose the future. He is a pedophile, pure and simple, and his only escape is horrifying and entirely lacks satisfaction for the audience despite its poetic appropriateness. We feel sorry for him, for god's sake....

And this perhaps is also the essence of the situation Sarah and Brad find themselves in. Dissatisfied with wholly-enviable lives of comfort and limitless potential, they feel trapped in roles they are not sure that they want to play, and, like many adulterers before them, find escape and new hope in each others' arms literally - and in the dream of running away and starting over figuratively. Bat can Sarah and Brad choose their futures?

Little Children left me in awe, pure and simple. WATCH THIS FILM.

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes) (Home) The other film that I encountered on my journey through Kate Winslet's career was Revolutionary Road, which reunites her with Leo DiCaprio in a role that is surprisingly similar to that she plays in Little Children.

April (Winslet) and Frank (DiCaprio) met and fell in love with each other and with the idea they are dramatic outliers in the cookie-cutter landscape of 1950s, suburban America. They fell in love with the idea they were somehow better than the average Joes living in little pink houses all over post-war USA, commuting to drab jobs in corporate America, and raising the next generation to play the same role ad infinitum.

Except that they live in a large, sprawling, white picket-fenced "little pink house" in the suburbs, Frank commutes every day to a drab job that he hates, and April stays home to raise the next generation of kids that we can only assume are destined to the same fate. And it makes them feel like failures who have compromised their dreams in trade for a wooden nickel. And this makes them bitter, which makes them lash out at each other, and makes them miserable.

Until they remember the dream that glowed around them when they first met: Frank had been to Paris, and in Paris, he believes, people are really alive. And this dream grows in April, who believes that moving to Paris is their ticket out of mediocrity, out of compromise, and out of misery - she believes that she and Frank can choose their future.

Which would be all well and good if the viewer really cared. If we looked at them and empathized with their "untenable" situation, wished that they could escape the confines of their "smothering" lives.

But we don't. Instead we feel that they are spoiled and selfish, like they feel that the world owes them something that it clearly doesn't. After all, like Sarah and Brad in Little Children, April and Frank made all of the decisions that led them to the comfortable if glamourless lives they now live.

Perhaps if we saw April and Frank being loving parents to the children that occupy the edges of Revolutionary Road like wooden props of convenience we could care. Perhaps if Frank were less flippantly cool and assuredly better than everyone around him. Perhaps if April ever said or did something realistic to try and improve their lives.

But no. Perhaps the one great scene in RR comes when the mentally ill son of a neighbour throws a tantrum and tells them in no uncertain terms how selfish and self-deluded they are. How they have sold out anything real they could have been in support of the illusion that they are somehow princes and princesses merely passing for paupers.

Game, Set, MATCH.
I hadn't realized until I sat down at the keyboard how similar these films are in the scenario that they present. Hell, even Titanic is about two young people feeling trapped in lives they weren't meant for and are struggling to rise above.

In Little Children this milieu plays out as a complex, compelling, physically and emotionally engaging drama. But in Revolutionary Road it ends up under the tires, making Titanic look like an insightful and intelligent accomplishment. Little Children accomplishes a modern work of art, Revolutionary Road wastes good talent.