Archives For August 2011

This article was originally written for TheReelists.com, published January 12th, 2011. It has been slightly revised and updated.

This September, for the first time ever, the entire Star Wars Saga will be released in one complete package and in Hi-Def. That’s right, this coming September you can purchase Star Wars on home video, again! A Blu-ray set of all the Star Wars films sounds like a great proposition, and as a wholehearted supporter of the Blu-ray format I should be over-the-moon excited about this. But I’m not. Not only am I not excited about Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray, I think spending any money on the set is willful participation in destruction of film as the most culturally important artistic medium of the modern age. Click to read more

Pedophilia is awful and wrong and monstrous and evil and the worst, most despicable act a human being can engage in. I think most of us agree on that. The Woodsman agrees with that as well, but it also dares to ask the question, aren’t pedophiles people, too?

The Woodsman stars Kevin Bacon as Walter, a child molester, recently released from prison, attempting to adjust to a normal life and possibly cure himself. It’s a short movie, and very focused on those two things. On the one side he gets a job at a lumber yard and through that gets a girlfriend. On the other side he is seeing a psychologist and trying to work through whether there is any hope for change from within.

The film is quite powerful in the way that it doesn’t make outright judgements about the character, instead allowing Kevin Bacon and his amazing performance to breathe humanity into him. What we see in him is not a monster, but a man, drawn to young girls and prone to committing heinous crimes. He knows that what he does is wrong in the eyes of society—even though he does try to justify his actions with the classic “they want it, too”—and unlike some truly far-gone psychopaths he wants to change because he values the normalcy associated with being a part of society.

But there is one point where I think the movie fails itself a little. It’s actually quite a good scene, with some wonderful acting and a powerful realization, but it feels forced, a little too contrived for the sake of catharsis, and that undermines what the film is otherwise trying to do. In the scene, Walter is attempting to get close to a young girl after speaking to her for a little while. Through doing that he comes to understand that the girl has been touched inappropriately by her own father. The tears streaming down her face, the pain in her eyes, and her eventual submission all coalesce to finally show Walter the true results of his actions. At that point Walter might not be “cured”, but for the first time he is actually properly disgusted with himself, giving him a much stronger motivation to change.

The problem with the scene is that the entire hopeful ending of the film rides on it, but the situation itself seems too coincidental to be realistic. It feels like the hand of a screenwriter at work, finding any possible way to bring along that change within the character. As I’ve said, the scene itself, on it’s own, is very good. But in the context of the rest of the film it feels somehow wrong; the only time the film actually tries to impose a moral judgement on the character that the audience is supposed to buy into. This goes completely against the more hands-off approach of the rest of the film, and it is a lesser film for it.

All that being said, The Woodsman is still a powerful film. It has perhaps the best performance Kevin Bacon has ever delivered. It generally treats its difficult subject matter with a great degree of nuance and sophistication. It is a difficult film, no doubt. It deals with a moral grey area that most people would rather see as black and white. It gives humanity to monsters, and while that may be tough to deal with, it is great to see the film do it anyway.

Because you can’t do a blog that focuses mostly on movies without having some sort of “Best Films of All Time” list.

Except, I have a love-hate relationship with those types of lists. I find there’s something terribly artificial and arbitrary about them. I love reading them, and disagreeing with them, or find out about new films from them, but I hate writing them, and ultimately I don’t value them as true representations of how anybody actually feels about the films they watch.

I think in the last year alone I’ve mentioned over 100 films as being in my “Top 100″, and this is despite never in my live having compiled any such list. I have attempted to compile a Top 20, but beyond the first ten it’s usually a wash, and even the rankings within that first ten are all over the map.

And then there’s another problem entirely, which is the Best vs. Favourite dilemma. In my mind there are two ways of considering a film’s quality. They definitely overlap, and they can be nigh impossible to separate, but I still find that I have to make a distinction. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that my favourite movie of all time is Back to the Future. I love it to death and I have watched it more times than anybody should probably watch any movie. But is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? Can such a distinction be made? I have held for many years that the best movie ever made is Apocalypse Now (and I’m one of those crazy people who prefers the Redux).

What does that mean? Would it be more correct to say that I think Back to the Future is the best movie ever made simply because it’s my favourite film to watch? Should I call Apocalypse Now my favourite film simply because I think it reaches heights of artistic expression not equalled by any other film I’ve seen? I’d say that the distinction must be made, but cannot be properly defined. This only makes the process of creating a ranked Top 100 even more frustrating and more arbitrary, which renders the actual rankings inherently meaningless.

All this is to say that I have decided to completely forgo a Top 100 list in favour of something very different. I’m calling it ‘The justAtad Essentials’.

The justAtad Essentials will be an ongoing collection of films that I consider essential viewing. These are the films that, if I had a Top 100 or 200 or 300, would likely make the chart. The way I’ll be breaking the list up is quite simple. The first entries will form a list of twenty films that I would generally consider my “Top of All Time”. These will be a mixture of that “favourite” and “best” that I was talking about, and they will be left unranked.

Following those initial entries, I will continue to post unranked lists, but instead of simply throwing them up on the blog under the ‘Essentials’ title I will place them into categories. The categories will be thought up as they come to me, but examples might include ‘Essential Westerns’, ‘Essential Adventure Films’ and ‘Essential Romantic Comedies’. The categories will likely get more specific and esoteric as I go along, but don’t get too invested in them. I’m not using the categories to necessarily delineate the very best films of a particular genre. I’m simply using these categories to create lists of films I consider essential viewing while also connecting them by recognizable themes or features.

Alright? Everything settled? Let’s get started then! Click to see the list.

Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station is a fairly conventional film. The outcome of the plot is easily predictable right from the start. The pacing is simple and brisk. The story itself is as basic as you can get with this sort of film. Where Cairo Station is elevated into something above and beyond the stale and mediocre is in that very simplicity. The story may be nothing new, but it is also played out very well. The very definition of a good story, well told.

What is that simple story? Cairo Station is about a man named Qinawi who works at a news stand at the train station. He clearly has some sort of mental issues, as well as an extremely unhealthy obsession with Hanuma, a woman who illegally sells pop to travellers. Qinawi attempts to propose to Hanuma, but instead of fully turning him down, Hanuma let’s him carry on his fantasies to a certain degree. At the same time, she is planning on marrying another man. As you can expect, Qinawi goes a little mad and violent, but I won’t spoil anything beyond that. I’m sure you can imagine the general direction anyway.

I wouldn’t say that Cairo Station is a particularly stand-out film. In a lot of ways it can be brushed off as nothing special. But what makes it really work is that Chahine enters the story through various stories that are all going on at the same time at this train station. While there really is only one major plot, the film feels alive, as though all the other characters at the station have their own little stories and lives going on that we only catch glimpses of. The world of the film feels fleshed out, and it’s one that very easy to spend time in. When Qinawi is pushed past his limits, his actions actually feel disruptive to the weird harmony of that world. It’s all quite masterfully handled.

And that’s why I liked Cairo Station. It’s masterfully handled. It’s a good story, no doubt, but it is also a well told story. It’s engaging and fun and suspenseful and all that jazz. I don’t know how much pathos I got from it. Certainly very little compared to other movies about obsession, like Vertigo, for example. Still, it’s a film I thoroughly enjoyed watching, and I’d very easily watch it again. It’s that sort of film.

I was never the biggest supporter of NDP Leader Jack Layton. I found his politics leaned too strictly to the left, but with a cold, calculating tendency to prop up the Conservative Party for no other reason than to get ahead of the Liberals. But whatever I thought of his shrewd politicking, there is no doubt his ambition was as grand as any Canadian politician since Pierre Trudeau. Layton saw something beautiful and compassionate in the Canadian electorate. When people scoffed at the idea of a powerful federal NDP, Layton stood strong, stood firm, and brought a boundless energy to the sadly apathetic state of our federal system.

Layton is gone now, but his energy will hopefully live on for a while longer.

It was in the last election that Jack Layton was finally vindicated for his vision. As he got up on the national stage, cane in hand as a sign of defiance, he displayed remarkable tenacity. Through sheer force of personality, Jack Layton managed to make the NDP the official opposition for the first time ever in the House of Commons. I did not vote NDP, but I couldn’t help feeling great pride in the way Jack Layton managed to speak to Canadians and to a dejected electorate in Quebec.

His passion was endless and the fortitude Layton brought to Canadian politics will be remembered for some time. He was a true fighter. He fought cancer in the last years of his life, and just as everything seemed to turn a corner and everything seemed to be going Jack Layton’s way he lost that fight.

The suddenness of the announcement on July 25th that he had a new form of cancer was shocking. That shock is only outdone by the suddenness of his passing mere weeks later. Canada needed a strong party and opposition leader like Jack Layton, and he leaves behind a huge void that will be immensely difficult to fill.

The loss of Jack Layton is a deep loss for Canada. My thoughts are with his wife, Olivia, his children, and all of his family and friends. I mourn with them, and I’m sure all of Canada mourns with them as well.

The trouble with The Hole is that there just isn’t enough there. The film itself is very good, well crafted, plays with the theme of loneliness and human connection in a great, unique way, but it’s just lacking. I think what it comes down to is a sense of development in the characters. As it stands, The Hole would have made for a brilliant short subject, but as a 90 minute feature it doesn’t do enough to justify its length.

The Hole is set in Taiwan, ever so slightly in the future (December 1999!), and in world where a viral epidemic has forced the entire population to evacuate into quarantine zones. But there are a few people who decide to stay home, those are our main characters. Two people, a man and a woman, living in an apartment building that’s nearly devoid of life. It’s an incredibly lonely existence, and Tsai renders it with gritty greys and the sound of constant downpour outside.

As the film opens, a plumber comes in to check on one of the pipes in the man’s floor. He apparently discovers a problem and digs up the concrete floor, creating a hole looking down into the woman’s apartment. There is some tension created by the hole. The man occasionally pours things down it; the woman asks him to get it fixed. That’s as far as the drama and the plot go. The rest of the film is spent watching these two lonely people carrying on with their lonely lives in a lonely environment, hardly ever speaking.

The ending of the film provides a predictable, but very touching moment of catharsis. It isn’t quite enough, though. The ending is quit simple in theme and there isn’t much actual complexity to the main narrative for that theme to play off of. It’s all quite one-note. As I said, this would work much better as a short film.

Oh, but I am forgetting one thing! The musical numbers. Yes, that’s right, the musical numbers. The Hole is also a musical. The musical numbers actually do make the film more interesting. Between certain sections of the film, Tsai inserts these musical interludes, with the woman singing very American 40s-inspired tunes. The songs are actually pretty fun to listen to, and they do a really good job of framing the film, adding a greater sense of meaning for the characters.

Alas, the musical numbers can’t quite save it. The Hole is a good film, well made, with a great sense of theme, and even some depth. That doesn’t change the fact that it felt somewhat hollow, undone not by anything bad, but by length. For a film that’s only 90 minutes, it’s weird that it could still stand to lose about an hour.

The other day I was surfing the vast seas of the interwebs when I came across an article by Matt Singer of IFC News. It is titled “A Movie Theatre Etiquette Manifesto”, and what a great manifesto it is. Singer lists several items to be agreed to in an online petition, like turning off cell phones, not sitting directly in front of somebody when there are plenty of open seats and other totally agreeable behavioural modifications. Everything was fine and dandy and I was all ready to sign the petition, that is, until I read the eighth and final item in the manfisto:

8. Throw Our Garbage On the Floor. The movie theater is the only public space in the world where it is socially acceptable to act like a pig. That is the way it has always been, that is the way it always shall be. We, the undersigned, vow that no matter how many times multiplexes include “Please Throw Away Your Trash” messages in their pre-show entertainment, we will continue to ignore them.

I’m sorry, Matt. This I cannot abide. It is just plain wrong. Now, I know that Matt subsequently revised the manifesto by adding:

8a. (In Moderation.) We, the undersigned, do enjoy being pigs, and tend to think a clean auditorium is the responsibility of the theater staff, not the customers. But we, the undersigned, also recognize that it’s hypocritical to expect others to change their bad habits and not change our own. So we, the undersigned, will moderate our mess (and, really, if you needed someone to tell you not to pour Coke on the floor of a movie theater, maybe movie theater etiquette isn’t your biggest problem). We, the undersigned, will clean up after ourselves as a concession, with the understanding that movie theater owners have just as much to fix as movie theatergoers, and they should expect their own manifesto/petition in the future.

Granted, if somebody actually uses this manifesto as a guide then the revision clears up the problem in terms of actual patron behaviour, but it fails admit that the original call to be messy pigs is wrong on every level. Click to read more

Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (also known as Revenge of a Kabuki Actor) is one of the more unique revenge stories I’ve seen. Unlike most in films of its kind, the main character in this one attempts to exact his revenge by manipulating the victims until they each do each other in. It’s that manipulation, that game-playing, as well as a sharp visual style, that makes An Actor’s Revenge a treat to watch.

The story is pretty simple. A famous actor, known as one of the best female impersonators in the land, attempts to take revenge on three men who wrong his family many years ago. The method of taking that revenge is where the complications lie, and it’s where all the fun is. The characters are all a lot of fun to watch, including an array of side characters, all thieves and robbers that balance out the darker tone of the main plot.

The other area in which An Actor’s Revenge excels is it’s visuals. Ichikawa brings an amazing theatrical style to the imagery of the film that feels like a stage without every feeling stage-y. I am a sucker for any solid use of anamorphic widescreen photography, but An Actor’s Revenge is way beyond solid. It’s beautiful. Stunning. The imagery is incredible. It adds a strange, almost ethereal quality to the film, with great compositions and some of the best use of colour I’ve seen, right up there with the likes of Gone With the Wind and The Red Shoes.

An Actor’s Revenge falls right into that space of a good story well told. And not only is it well told, it’s also incredibly beautiful to watch. It’s a fun film. It’s got a great dark streak. I loved watching the revenge plot play out, with all its complications and missteps. It’s the kind of film that I could probably recommend to anybody willing to watch a movie with subtitles. It’s quality entertainment.

I don’t have much more to say about this epic rant from MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan. He basically nails it. It’s so refreshing to see a cable news host get riled up and angry, but not be completely crazy like Glenn Beck or completely and morally wrong like Bill O’Reilly. If only the news media and politicians actually spoke the simple, direct truth this way all the time, the world would be a better place.

Good work, Mr. Ratigan. My respect for you just ballooned.

I LOVE this movie. LOVE it! LOVE. All caps!

After being forced through the nigh unbearable endurance test of Werckmeister Harmonies and coming out the other end mostly unscathed, it was time to watch Time of the Gypsies, a Yugoslave film by director Emir Kusturica. I’ll admit, after Werckmeister Harmonies I was quite weary of watching this next film. Turns out my fears were completely unfounded. Time of the Gypsies is the sort of film I wish was made more often. Equal parts The 400 Blows and The Godfather, with a dash of Jorge Luis Borges to give it a fantastical charm. The film is an absolute breath of fresh air, and one I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone with a taste for truly great cinema. Click to read more