Archives For Review

Honestly, I don’t have much at all to say about this film, so I’ll keep it relatively brief. Watching Olympia I could see the talent behind the camera. Leni Riefenstahl, lover her or hate her, knew what she was doing. Olympia is impressive on two technical fronts. The first is in how much it resembles modern sports coverage, which is remarkable because this film covers the Olympics of 1936! The second is that in may of the events, Riefenstahl forgoes standard sports highlight coverage in favour of showing off the human form and the beautiful feats it is capable of accomplishing. These sequences are definitely quite beautiful to watch, in particular the diving sequence at the very end of the three and a half hour, two-part film.

But honestly, as well made as it is, it’s basically three and a half hours of Olympic highlights made for those who wanted to re-live the games or who couldn’t catch them on a television set. Just as I wouldn’t care to pick up a set of highlight footage from a modern Olympics, I don’t really care all that much to see the highlights of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. There are a couple cool notes, like the fact that Canada won some medals, and that the US and Germany won lots of medals, and that Hitler got really excited during some of the track events. But other than that, it was kind of just like watching two weeks of Olympics coverage condensed down to under four hours, with only some of the beauty left over and none of the suspense.

The last note is about the context of the film. Riefenstahl, no matter how much she claimed otherwise, was a part of the Nazi machine. Without understanding the historical context, Olympia is a fairly simple highlight reel that gives more than its fair share of time to covering the other countries competing, especially the US. But within a historical context, Olympia is a film with a mission that was made within the Nazi propaganda apparatus and was used at the time to show off the glory and “peacefulness” of a Germany under the Third Reich. Leni Riefenstahl would have been aware of this, and this is extremely troubling. While it isn’t as inherently despicable as her clear propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, and while it can be viewed as a perfectly okay movie to watch without that context, I do still think it’s important to note.

It’s difficult to properly review a film of such elusive nature as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. Every time I think I’ve grasped a bit of it, it all just slips through my fingers. There’s a shape to the film, though its progression is quite shapeless. Images appear and reappear or don’t reappear. There are scenes that would seem to make no sense only to make sense with a certain perspective or in the context of other scenes in different parts of the film. The Double Life of Veronique is the kind of film that I am sure requires a second viewing to really wrap your arms around, but at the same time I doubt whether anyone could ever wrap their arms around it too tightly. Click to read more

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of watching Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic, Rebel Without a Cause. It was a fairly nice 35mm print presented at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (there is another screening on Tuesday, Nov. 8 and if you life in Toronto I highly recommend going). I had never seen the film before, but obviously the James Dean is iconic in the film, as is his distinctive red jacket. I had no idea what the story entailed, but having seen Bigger Than Life, another Nicholas Ray film, I knew to expect a healthy dose of melodrama and beautiful cinematography. Rebel Without a Cause did not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and it showcases one of the best performances I have ever seen in film.

Going into the film I knew all about James Dean’s method acting training, and I knew that he has been held up as one of the shining examples of that method alongside Marlon Brando. Yet I found myself completely unprepared for just how good James Dean was. His performance in Rebel Without a Cause is so good that he somehow manages to make every other actor in the movie look bad while simultaneously raising them up and making the whole film better as a result. Without Dean, the film would play as great melodrama, but by bringing an unparalleled sense of naturalism through his acting, Dean’s performance makes that melodrama so much more personal and powerful. Click to read more

We all love Pierce Brosnan. He’s a handsome, charming man. He was a really good James Bond, and starred in one excellent Bond movie. He was the asshole boyfriend in Mrs. Doubtfire. Basically, Pierce Brosnan has earned an unlimited supply of goodwill from myself and most others, which is why I find it odd that when The Matador was released I actually avoided it. What can I say? It’s just looked bad. Now, after watching the film for the first time, I am happy to report that I will never again doubt the promise of a mustachioed Pierce Brosnan.

The Matador tells the story of a high-priced assassin in a stort of midlife existential crisis who intrudes on the life of an amiable business man trying to close a deal in Mexico. There is a little bit more to the story, and a little bit of mystery manufactured through some non-linear structure, but mostly it’s pretty straightforward. Pierce Brosnan is Julian, the assassin, and Greg Kinnear is Danny, the man who becomes his friend.

The pleasure of The Matador comes from two places. The first is the writing. It’s a real cracking script. Wonderful dialogue and a black sense of humour that keeps the film light on its feet, even when it threatens to get bogged down by some more serious subject matter. The second great pleasure comes from watching Brosnan deliver what has got to be his best performance ever. We already know the man has charm to spare, but here he puts all of into a brilliantly funny and wild character. He’s a womanizing drunk assassin with practically no filter. He intrudes on Danny’s life but is so charming as to make that intrusion fluctuate constantly from slightly annoying to totally endearing. And Brosnan nails it all perfectly. He’s a joy to watch on screen.

I wouldn’t say that The Matador is a great film. It’s a little bit too simple, and that non-linear construction is slightly cheap. If you want a great film about assassins you can look to In Bruges. But if it’s not a great film, it’s at least great fun. I enjoyed the heck out of The Matador. I just had a great time with it, and with Brosnan and Kinnear. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a movie in quite a while, in fact. For that reason alone I can easily recommend The Matador to just about anyone.

I am not a big fan of anime. I find a lot of it is derivative in style and annoying in convolution. There are a few I have enjoyed—the work of Hayao Miyazaki comes to mind. Five Centimeters Per Second stands tall right alongside those great works in Japanese animation, and if I may be so bold, it bests most of them as well. This marathon has had some extreme highs and lows. I hated Werckmeister Harmonies and then adored Time of the Gypsies. In my last review I crapped all over High Strung, and now I’m going to spew nothing but overflowing praise for Five Centimeters Per Second.

First of all, Five Centimeters Per Second is beautiful to look at. It’s got some of the very best animation I’ve ever seen. It’s right up there with the incredible animated spots in Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler. I still don’t consider myself a fan of the anime style of character design. Characters all tend to look alike, and sometimes I actually confused the male characters with the female ones when only their faces were shown. But other than that niggling issues, Five Centimeters Per Second looks spectacular, with amazing colours, incredibly detailed and emotive backgrounds, and impressive “camera moves” that are incredibly difficult to achieve in the field of traditional animation.

The structure of the film is equally beautiful. In effect, Five Centimeters Per Second is a sixty-minute film comprised of three short films. Each short takes a jump in time, but follows the same overall story and characters. In the first we see a young boy travelling by train to meet his girlfriend in another city. The second film shows that same boy, now in his last year of high school, yearning for that girl and being yearned for by another girl who goes to his school. The third short shows the boy, now a man, having let his life become defined by his dream of being with the girl, now a woman about to be married. Through loose connective tissue, director Makoto Shinkai crafts a tender look at young, unrequited love; a story that builds on itself until it becomes overwhelmingly emotional.

That’s the most impressive achievement of the film. Where at first the story feels like the characters are investing more emotion in each other than the audience is in them, by exploring the various facets of their love for each other, the film becomes truly insightful. I don’t want to say much more about the film other than that if you haven’t seen it you must seek it out as soon as possible. It’s one of the most simple yet densely nuanced films about young love that I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the most remarkably beautiful animated films I’ve seen, and that’s true on a number of levels. But seriously, stop reading this and go find Five Centimeters Per Second. You owe it to yourself to watch this movie.

There are times in every movie lover’s life when one must suffer undue punishment. Earlier in this marathon I was forced to endure the travesty of art house cinema, known as Werckmeister Harmonies. Yet, through all my hatred of that film, I was still able to recognize some good qualities, mostly in the technical areas. In other words, there are some redeeming qualities to be found even in the worst films. Or so I thought. Enter: High Strung.

High Strung, directed (sic) by Roger Nygard and co-written and starring Steve Oedekerk, is a travesty from top to bottom. It’s a one joke movie, the one joke is terrible, the acting is insufferable, the filmmaking is about as objectively bad as you can get, and the parade of cameos only brings up the question “how did a pile of shit this huge manage to attract this kind of talent?” I will never know the answer to that question, and honestly, I don’t think any answer would satisfy me. High Strung is unavailable for purchase on DVD, and while I would normally consider that a bad thing, if it means that less people will accidentally watch it, I can only support this absence.

There isn’t really a story in High Strung. It basically works as a dramatized stand-up comedy routine devised by people who are either completely braindead or simply have no understanding of what constitutes comedy. I’d imagine it’s some sort of combination of the two. Though I enjoy the silliness of Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, High Strung is solid proof that Oedekerk should never ever be allowed to act. He plays his character as though he’s doing stand-up, but when your stand-up can be negatively compared in terms of obnoxiousness to Dane Cook, you know you have a problem.

The film is basically Oedekerk walking around his hour, complaining to the camera about everything that annoys him. The joke is that EVERYTHING annoys him, and worse, everything annoys him to a ridiculous degree. High Strung is the equivalent of watching an internet troll go off on a rant for 90 minutes. And not in a good way. Oedekerk may hate everything around him, but while watching him, all I could hope was for him to die a horrible death. Such annoyance is rare, but High Strung reaches those heights of irritation and then some.

Of course, all of this might work if any of the humour was carefully crafted into resembling jokes or gags. Nope. Not at all. It’s literally just one rant after another, all about things that people already complain about, and with absolutely no added insight that might have at least given the film a satirical edge.

The fact of the matter is, there is nothing redeeming about High Strung. If I could find away to wipe the film’s existence from history, I would. It deserves to be buried in the annals of film history, never to resurface. Actually, it doesn’t deserve to be called a film, because that would put it alongside such comparative masterpieces as Baby Geniuses and Epic Movie. I may have had to sit through the agony of it, but nobody else deserves to suffer such a fate as watching High Strung.

TIFF’11 Review: Kill List

September 22, 2011 — 3 Comments

I have had a hard time coming to terms with Kill List. It’s a very well made film, with great production values and some very good acting. But for the majority of the film it is also fairly inert. There is little to attach to emotionally, the plot is mostly uninteresting, and the hints at something larger going on get mostly lost in the shuffle. That is, until the last act of the film, which is a piece of bravura horror filmmaking. If only the rest of the film held that level entertainment.

The main plot of Kill List follows two hitmen taking on a job, whacking a list of terrible people. This section of the film, as I’ve said, is fairly well made in every way, except for the fact that it’s quite boring. The two actors have a good rapport, but nothing is really added to the film because of it. It’s all just stale, to the point where I had trouble staying awake.

And then the last act comes in. I won’t begin to spoil what happens, except to say that it’s scary and fucked up. The ending of the film left me reeling, and momentarily I actually thought the film was kind of brilliant.

I quickly came to my senses and realized that Kill List as a whole is problemati. Most of it is simply not engaging at all. That last act is amazing, but it also comes about with almost no relation to the rest of the film, save for a few clues throughout. I would say that the film is worth watching if only to get to that ending, but it’s a tough call. Is the slow burn really worth the trouble? Only barely.

Carré blanc follows in the footsteps of some of the great experimental utopian sci-fi, most notably THX 1138. The comparison to that George Lucas film is definitely apt. Carré blanc plays very much like a tonal experiment, with a spare plot, little dialogue, striking imagery and repetitious music and voice over. The film lulls you into a mood of cold horror, and it packs quite a lot of social commentary into a fairly brief running time.

The world of the film is fascinating. Carré blanc shows us a “futue” in which people are constantly committing suicide. Government, corporations and the wealthy control everything and make life for others a living hell. Those higher up fall into horrific sadistic tendencies, playing torture games with their underlings and often beating or killing them.

There is a plot to the film, and in some ways it’s kind of a romance, or at least a look at a troubled marriage. We follow two kids who started with nothing, and as adults, the man is now one of those top level people, torturing others, being a terrible human being. This puts a strain on their marriage, but slowly his wife manages to get through to him, and they end up rebelling against the system.

Carré blanc also has a wonderfully dry sense of humour. There is a lot of talk about croquet being a family sport… and it’s very physical, too. The use of elevator music is annoyingly hilarious. Even some of the darker, more sadistic stuff ends up being quite funny, even if it makes you feel bad to laugh.

All in all, Carré blanc is a kind of sci-fi I very much enjoy. It presents us with a sharply crafted world, defined primarily through great imagery. The story is slight, but is actually quite powerful in conjunction with the rest of the film. And most of all, the mood of it all is oppressive, but endlessly intriguing. Even after the film was over, I was wishing I could spend more time in that world to learn as much as possible about it. That’s a very good sign for this sort of film.

TIFF’11 Review: Tyrannosaur

September 22, 2011 — 8 Comments

Tyrannosaur is proof positive that you can make a film too dark, too depressing, too bleak. Director Paddy Considine introduced the screening by saying that Tyrannosaur is a film to endure more than enjoy. He was exactly right. There was almost nothing to enjoy in the film, and for the most part it played as a terrible endurance test, both of my ability to withstand overwhelmingly trite bleakness as well as my patience for boring cliche.

Tyrannosaur tells the story of a very violent man forming a bond with a woman stuck in an incredibly psychopathic, abusive marriage. Considine doesn’t hold back. He fills the film with as much dark, awful material as possible. Yelling, insults, dog-killing, urinating on people, severe beatings, the mauling of a child, rape, murder. There’s no end to it, and I could not stand it.

That’s not to say that I can’t handle such material. I love dark movies, and often the darker the better. But the darkness must have a purpose. If all we get from Tyrannosaur is a guy learning to be less angry and a woman learning she doesn’t have to put up with abuse, then the level of violence and horror does little more than blunt the impact of those themes. It’s a bad movie, with little to say, and content that is so hard to stomach that it almost becomes laughable.

There are a lot of parallels between Take Shelter and the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy, A Serious Man. Both have a lead male character who feels like he’s losing his grip on life. Both men feel a sense of impending doom. And both have weird nightmares that haunt them throughout. But, where A Serious Man is a wry look at the impossibility of controlling the ways of the universe, Take Shelter is an incredibly dark and emotional look at mental illness.

Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon as a working class family man who begins having ominous dreams about storms and animals and people attacking him and his daughter. These dreams begin to take a toll on his mental state, until it’s revealed that he has a family history of paranoid schizophrenia. As the film goes on, he starts working to expand his backyard storm shelter to protect him from the storm in his dreams. All the while, he is trying to get psychological help and keep his family from falling into disarray.

Everything in the film hinges on Michael Shannon’s absolutely spectacular performance. He is incredibly quiet, but also seething with anger and frustration and fear. At one point he has a huge outburst, and the power in his performance and dialogue was so intense that a member of the audience audibly gasped. Watching Shannon succumb to mental illness is truly stunning.

Director Jeff Nichols also does the material right by building that sense of dread and paranoia to an extremely uncomfortable degree. Throughout it all, though, Nichols still keeps a focused eye on the real effects of Shannon’s actions, making us feel for this working guy who is throwing his family into emotional and financial turmoil. Jessica Chastain, who plays his wife in the film, does an excellent job of grounding the sad reality of the situation.

Take Shelter is an amazing film. It basically took my breath away, with an ending that had me practically hyperventilating. Michael Shannon is amazing, in a role that deserves to win every award possible, and the film overall is carefully and perfectly directed for maximum effectiveness.