Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Recursive Drama About Life (and Death and Art (and relationships)) (rated 4 stars)

Charlie Kaufman is a distinctive writer of quirky films that usually subvert formal structures and are built around narcissistic characters who lack self-awareness. To say that Synecdoche, New York takes places within Kaufman’s usual territory would be an understatement and in his directorial debut he takes it one step further in a messy, frustrating and fascinating film. Filled with strange images, characters and situations that sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t, it’s one of the most unique films that I’ve seen over the past year. I don’t think that it’s for everyone, but it is so dense and lovingly constructed that I think people will be talking about it for long time.
What kind of strange is it, you may ask? (he asked rhetorically). There are parts that are a bit dreamlike and surreal, but not in the way that David Lynch does it (with Lynch it seems more intuitive). There are parts that are like Jean-Luc Godard (but not as political or ecstatically cinematic). It’s quite neurotic and darkly funny and emotionally brutal at times.
It’s unsettling with complex performances from the cast who have to work within very strange parameters. I don’t think that I’ve seen a film that operates with such a strange sense of time and identity with days or years passing between cuts and the elements blurring the distinctions between places, times and people. Magical surreal images are sprinkled throughout the film with an absurd sense of humour that sometimes is poignant.
This is a unique vision and one that I need to revisit to start to piece together more.

An Inspirational Biography of a Pioneer (rated 4 stars)

The biographical drama is a well-worn genre and while it allows for important stories to be told, the conventions often will make the films a bit boring. Luckily with Gus Van Sant’s Milk he avoids the traps and with a wonderful performance by Sean Penn, the film blends a bit of documentary with solid performances and a bit of style to create a film that is powerful and entertaining. Establishing the context and touching on early and significant moments in Harvey Milk’s life, the film focuses mainly on Milk’s activist and political career in a clever balancing of the needs of the biographical story and a character study. The film is filled with an infectious energy and enthusiasm of those who surrounded Milk as played by the great cast. Van Sant handles with the film with a light touch and the two hours breeze by as we watch the brave and bold fighter for gay rights struggle and laugh and live.

A Stark 48 Hours with a Suicide Bomber (rated 4 stars)

by Julia Loktev

In Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night we accompany a woman who is a suicide bomber as she prepares. With any politics stripped away and with a minimalist and intimate style, it’s an unsettling, tense and very human look at a character in an extreme situation. Shot an edited in a style that is simple, close and claustrophobic, it becomes increasingly gripping and compelling as the inevitable approaches.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Sprawling Dysfunctional Family Melodrama (rated 5 stars)

by Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Story) is filled with characters and moments that are unforgettable. The characters aren’t neccessarily likable, but they are fascinating to watch. Desplechin weaves an intricate plot that pulls the characters together at Christmas. The matriarch played by Catherine Deneuve finds out that she is has cancer that could be fought with a transplant from someone in her family. But with his trademark bold style, it’s not a melodrama about fighting cancer, but about the tensions, battles and triumphs that happen within the family. It was a bit confusing at first, but as I kept watching the film more pieces start to fit together and I absolutely loved it.

A Beautiful Look at Horrible Things (rated 4 stars)

by Agnès Varda

Agnes Varda is a gifted and often overlooked filmmaker who was associated with the French New Wave and pioneered many of the techniques and styles later popularized by other members of the movement. In Le Bonheur (Happiness), she paints a strikingly beautiful story of a man who commits adultery. Every frame looks like a painting and she uses her trademark long shots and carefully-composed frames along with lovely music as the husband happily decides to cheat on his wife. It’s very jarring at times as it casually unfolds, but as it goes on the events that we’re seeing work completely at odds with the way they are presented. It’s unique and powerful, just like Agnes Varda.

Monday, October 13, 2008

An Oddly Muted Satire (rated 3 stars)

by Robert B. Weide

Sometimes a film is like something that is cooked. You can have all of the proper ingredients and when it comes out of the oven it just didn’t work. With “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”: there are some strong performances, funny moments and a great idea, but overall it just doesn’t work. I love Simon Pegg, but within the script there is a tendency to tone things down and as the film progresses it becomes more and more predictable. At times the film felt as if the production was rushed with some surprisly obvious technical flubs such as the boom in the shot or the distinctive shadow of the camera and a person beside the camera. For a film that was satirizing the world of celebrity and journalism, it pulls too many punches and falls into a romantic comedy formula that washes away the satirical edge.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Beautiful Night (rated 5 stars)

by Claire Denis

Claire Denis has a gift for capturing small and beautiful details in her films and Friday Night is simply follows a woman as she leaves her apartment to move in with her boyfriend and drives across Paris during the gridlock of a transit strike when she meets a stranger and spends the evening with him. Telling the story elliptically and with a minimal amount of dialogue it’s a poetic sketch of a moment in time.

A Subtle Story About Difficult Choices (rated 5 stars)

by Courtney Hunt

With a powerful performance by Melissa Leo at the centre of the film, Frozen River is an understated look at the choices a woman makes as she tries to make a better life for herself and her children. Set in the winter along the US and Canadian border, it’s the gripping story of how someone gets involved in smuggling people across the border. Shot on location with a documentary feel by Courtney Hunt, it’s a powerful film that presents realistic characters in an honest and brave way.

A Watered Down Adaptation (rated 2 stars)

by Fernando Meirelles

I really wanted to like Blindness and thought that it was a pretty safe bet with Fernando Meirelles who directed the heart wrenching “City of God”: as well as “The Constant Gardener”: , but it just didn’t work for me. For some reason I never connected with the characters and the film very much felt as if it was designed and constructed by a very large committee. While there are some nice visual touches, I kept thinking of other films that did the whole breakdown of society thing much better such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men . The large cast and the jumping around between the characters distanced me from what was happening and when a voice-over comes in later in the film, I was wondering how much longer the film was. While it does create the world with some interesting shooting and production design, it just wasn’t very compelling on a human level.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Melancholy Dystopian Comedy (rated 4 stars)

by Jared Drake

They don’t care about pole vaulting. Or dreams.

In the debut feature from Jared Drake (with a script cowritten by his brother Brandon), Visioneers there is an odd and melacholy tone, almost like a darker version of “Idiocracy” where it all holds together much better. There is a compelling lack of explanation for most of the absurdity in the film, which is at times very funny and at times poignant. One of the most unique films I’ve seen in a while, it’s a meditation on the pointlessness of work and consumerism that pushes things off-kilter to make a satirical point in a much more effective way than if it played it completely straight.
With strong and compelling performances by Zach Galifianakis and Judy Greer it’s a film that is hard to explain or categorize. I’m glad that I didn’t know a lot about it before seeing it as seeing the consistent, but puzzling world emerge was a lot of fun. It’s truly independent and special and I don’t know how it’s going to fit into the distribution system, but I hope that it does get out there.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Film About A Band That Isn't Here Any More (rated 4 stars)

In Grant Gee’s Joy Division he tells the story of the band and those surrounding it. It’s stylish filmmaking and he pieces together the interviews, photographs, sounds and archival footage skillfully to create a full and moving portrait of a band that only had two albumns before the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. Gee’s previous music documentary about Radiohead and their OK Computer tour, Meeting People is Easy was a downbeat and fascinating existential look at the soul-draining process of a gruelling tour. With Joy Division Gee relies on archival footage and audio presented in a visually interesting way. It’s respectful and for me it provided context for the Manchester scene and the people there. Some of the visual touches are quite clever with a running motif of titles that identify “Places That Aren’t There Any More” and displaying iTunes-like visualizations for audio-only interviews. It has just enough of the story and music to tell the story and give us a glimpse into the lives of the people who formed the band and who were left behind.

Sappyfest 2008

While I really should go to more live music throughout the year, I don’t seem to be able to find the time. Luckily for the past three years I’ve gone to the Sappy Records Music Festival (or Sappyfest ) in Sackville, New Brunswick for my live music fix. It’s an amazing deal with a pass that costs just $60 for three days of music. I think that I saw about half the bands that played, which was about 27 bands.
The shows took place in a tent on Bridge Street which sheltered us from the rain, as well as in the Vogue Theatre as well as George’s Roadhouse. With a largely volunteer crew, the shows ran smoothly with very little time between the bands that played amazing sets. It’s a fantastic time and it’s reassuring to know that I can see great live indie music in a great location every year. Go Team Sappy!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Thrilling Transatlantic Adaptation (rated 5 stars)

I briefly saw a review of Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One and kept my eye out for it, hoping that it would make it to a theatre near me or show up on DVD. Then one day in a bookstore a copy of a novel called “Tell No One” was misplaced on a stack of other books, then I realized that the French film was an adaptation of an American novel. Later that day in my local video store I saw the DVD, which surprised me as I didn’t think that it was released on DVD yet. Luckily there was a limited DVD release in Canada earlier this year, so while there is another release in the fall, I was able to see it now.
It’s a subtle and beautifully constructed thriller that carefully tells the story and slowly increases the pace as the story progresses. In retrospect it’s a bit improbable, but within the film, it sucked me in. The broad and simple outline is that a man who dearly loves his wife loses her in a seemingly random attack. Eight years after her death he receives an email that apparently indicates that she’s still alive. With a shifting tone and a skillful touch with a great cast, it starts out as a story of love and loss, and then changes seamlessly into a thriller. I loved watching the characters and piecing together the story, which is why I’m not revealing many details at all.
Tell No One is a great psychological thriller for grownups that teases us with enigmas built around fascinating characters.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Dark Set of Ethical Dilemmas (rated 4 stars)

by Christopher Nolan

With so much anticipation, I was excited, but slightly dreading attending The Dark Knight as I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the hype. The problem was that I watched the trailers a few times and couldn’t help be start to construct the film in my mind. Luckily the film of the trailer isn’t really the film that I saw.
Christopher Nolan (and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan) set up a series of ethical decisions that the main characters must make in the film as well as setting up an interlocking web of characters and their opposites. What distinguishes good from evil, right from wrong, or us from them. The film starts off by establishing the context of the situation in Gotham and then alternates between action and character development. The action is expertly done without the excesses of Nolan’s first Batman film.
The cast is great and Christian Bale continues his solid interpretation of Bruce Wayne / Batman, but with the addition of Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, it seems to balance things out more and makes the cast much more interesting. But the centre of the film is really Heath Ledger with his twisted and frightening performance as the Joker.
It’s a entertaining, but dark summer film that keeps you thinking about what happened and the idea of the superhero long after the film is done.

An Oblique Glimpse of Evil (rated 4 stars)

by Claire Denis

I would say that the less you know about I Can’t Sleep going in, the better. Claire Denis makes beautiful, elliptical films that sneak up on you and leave most of the work at making sense of things to the viewer. In I Can’t Sleep we’re introduced to a set of characters and as the film progresses we find out why they are in the film and how they are connected. Denis plays with the sound, so at times we hear the ambient sound from somewhere else and don’t hear what characters are saying since it doesn’t really matter. In the background of everything are a series of unsolved murders of elderly women, but Denis wisely doesn’t focus on that, but on the people as we watch them interact and go about thier lives in a film that explores themes of alientation and evil in a subtle and indirect way.

Slightly Dark and Fun Summer Movie (rated 4 stars)

The second Hellboy film from Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, gleefully stays within the B-movie confines of the original. With more elaborate creatures and a tighter story than the first film, it’s good fun with some beautiful images and moments between the characters. You can tell that del Toro and the cast are having a great time as they fight supernatural foes and struggle with relationship issues. It’s delicate balance, but I love the characters and the visual splendour of the film kept me interested and entertained. I like a film that is happy and secure in the world that it creates.

Trapped in a World of Sand (rated 4 stars)

by Hiroshi Teshigahara

The Japanese film Woman in the Dunes is a simple story about a man on a bug-collecting expedition who stays in a small village and becomes trapped in a hole in the ground with a woman who lives in a house surrounded by sand. It’s a strange and beautiful film from the 1960s that explores existential themes as two people relate to each other and the villagers as the sand constantly blows into the hole covering them. Shot in black & white with a sparse soundtrack, it’s a poetic and enigmatic character study.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Beautiful Story About the End of Life on Earth (rated 5 stars)

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see Wall-E or not, but from the first haunting images of a city filled with garbage accompanied by a song from the musical “Hello, Dolly!” the film had me. It’s quite an amazing achievement to tell a story with no dialogue and large sections of the film do it brilliantly. With the usual great animation I never thought about the film being animated until the end credits which take a tour through the history of art from cave paintings to 8-bit computer graphics.
The most amazing achievement is in how they manage to impart so much emotion and depth to characters that don’t have traditional human features or expressions.
I’ve seen the film twice now and I liked it more the second time as I noticed more lovely details. It’s a great film that is a bit dark with characters who rise above the despair around them.

Japanese Film About Youth (and Jellyfish) (rated 4 stars)

I became interested in the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa when I saw his horror film Pulse . It wasn’t the horror that interested me, but the feeling of alienation and the mood that ran through it as well as the structure and the way it was shot. I sought out his other films and they were even more intriguing often with clever twists on genres. With Bright Future he’s created a film that is difficult to describe other than to say that it’s about youth with a story told in a laid-back, almost documentary style. It’s a beautiful film that is enigmatic and haunting that always kept me a bit curious and uneasy.
Bright Future is about a set of characters who are gradually introduced as we see the connections between them as well as the things that keep them apart. One thing leads to another as connections are broken and made in sometimes surprising ways. I’m glad that I didn’t know a lot about the film before I saw it as I didn’t know what to expect and was curious to see what was happening as I tried to understand it as well. It’s a haunting film that isn’t afraid to leave questions unanswered.

Growing Up in the 80s (rated 4 stars)

I’d heard about Son of Rambow long before I saw it, but I loved the idea of two boys in the UK in the 1980s making their own Rambo film. It’s from the same team that made the film of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it seemed like a neat and smaller way to follow up a big budget Hollywood film.
When it was finally playing nearby I slipped out of work a bit early to see it in the afternoon and I was the only person in the theatre, which was a shame as it’s a lovely little film.
It manages to balance the 80s nostalgia with complex characters and a story that was a lot more substantial and subtle than I thought it would be. It’s a tough film to market as it balances comedy and drama in a story about children that isn’t really intended for children. I remember the 80s and I remember the joy that I felt in seeing films and acting out scenes with friends and how much different the experience was before DVDs and being able to buy movies on your computer.
Why aren’t there more films that tell smaller stories about interesting people?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Funny Adaptation (rated 4 stars)

by Peter Segal

I don’t really remember when I first saw the “Get Smart” tv show and the catchphrases and style of the show was part of my pop culture awareness for as long as I can remember. With an adaptation of a 60s tv show it can strictly follow the template of the original or update things or go for camp. With the new Get Smart they rather surpringly manage to capture the spirit of the original while allowing the cast to bring something new to the characters. Steve Carrel works wonderfully as Maxwell Smart and doesn’t imitate Don Adams’ Smart, but manages to capture more of the attitude of his character, in a similar way to Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There. Carrel somehow manages to walk in a distinctive way that is perfect for the character. The film has a few clever nods to the original, but it wisely avoids becoming something exclusively for fans. It’s very funny and my son (who didn’t know about the original series) and I laughed a lot. It was a pleasant surprise and a very fun summer movie.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Sparse Story of Men in Prison (rated 4 stars)

by Jacques Becker

Jacques Becker’s final film, Le Trou is a sparse character portrait of men in a French prison who share a cell and plan on escaping. With no music and an understated precision to his direction, we gradually come to know each of the characters and their plan as Becker reveals the information that we need to know. The characters are quite complicated and the film resists the impulse to paint characters as good or bad, but is more concerned with portraying their humanity. The tension builds and we follow along with characters as we wonder if they will be successful. Becker was one of the French directors who preceded the Nouvelle Vague, but was admired by them for his portrayal of complex characters and French society.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Remarkable Look at the Paris Commune

by Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins makes provocative films that fiercely criticize those in power and their institutions. Using documentary techniques along with improvisation and handheld cameras he creates powerful films that somehow transcend the limitations of both drama and documentary to come up with something that adds more to the debate and prompts you to think about and question what you see. In La Commune (Paris, 1871) Watkins uses a cast of a couple hundred people who improvise and reenact within the framework of the events surrounding the Paris Commune in 1851. The anachronistic narrative conceit that frames the story is television news as we see reports broadcast during the events. But the film moves from clever to brilliant as the lines between improvisation and reality are blurred as the crew asks the actors if they would do this now. It becomes at times an amazing look inside French society that shows that maybe things haven’t changed that much. Both historically and technically it’s a remarkable achievement that was spurned by broadcasters and will probably have a much larger audience over time through the DVD release.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Populist Love Story About Movies (rated 5 stars)

Our past belongs to us, we can change it if we like.

Michel Gondry brings his distinctive sensibilities to Be Kind Rewind and creates a film that is about a community and people who love movies. With distinctive and somewhat naive characters who almost could have walked out of a film by Frank Capra, it has a sentimental feeling while not being overly sweet. While the promotion of the film seems to be setting it up as a Jack Black comedy, it’s a surprisingly sophisticated look at how we relate to each other through the movies that we love and our own history. I loved the film for the strange point of view and infectious optimism and how it reminds us that a film only exists with an audience.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Musical Tour of the Idea of Bob Dylan (rated 4 stars)

It’s a bold idea to take the details of Bob Dylan’s life and music and to tell an episodic story with 6 different actors playing different versions of him. That’s what attracted me to the film as I appreciate Dylan’s music, but I’m not a huge fan. What surprised me was how much fun the film was and the skillful way that Todd Haynes was able to blend together the stories and clever allusions to different films and filmmmakers. So while I’m not well-versed in Dylan trivia, the cinematic trivia kept me interested and fascinated as biography, history and music swirled around. There aren’t a lot of biopics that have allusions to Fellini and quote dialogue from Godard.
Of all the Dylans in the film, Cate Blanchett is transcendent as Jude Quinn. When she shows up in the film it’s exciting and electric. Arriving home after the film a biography of Dylan was on the tv and seeing footage of Dylan from the time that Blanchett builds her character around made me think that she did a better job than Dylan himself.
It was a lot of fun and in many ways it’s a better way to explore the ideas and personas of Bob Dylan than a more traditional documentary.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Beautiful Journey Inside a Mind (rated 5 stars)

I’m glad that I didn’t know (or didn’t remember) much about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly before I saw it as part of the wonder of the film is in the way that story is told and the surprises along the way. Visually and aurally stunning, it is a story of love and regret that isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. With great performances throughout and a structure that blends impressions with a loose plot, it made me see, hear and feel the world in a different way after I left the theatre.