Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

It's not my birthday until January 3rd but because I am home for the holidays now, I got my birthday cake now, which, I think you can agree, is the best cake any film lover could ask for. Check it out for yourself:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Muppets

What The Muppets succeeds at doing best is being a Muppet movie. That's the best praise you can give it. For a while there, back when they were coming to the end of their tenure as pop culture darlings (they haven’t been in theatres since 1999) it seemed as if they had forgotten how to be themselves. The characters and voices were there but what convinced the world they were special in the first place wasn't.

But the Muppets were a staple of many a childhood (mine included) and although The Muppets is more nostalgia for those days gone past than an exercise in rebuilding a new generation of fans (when I saw it there was surprisingly only one kid in the theatre), a love letter to one of the treasures of those lucky enough to know it in their childhood is welcome in these parts any day.

What The Muppets gets absolutely right, under the loving hands of director James Bobin and writer/star/devoted Muppetaphile Jason Segal, is exactly what Jim Henson gave them in the beginning to render them so timeless: distinct personalities with distinct human characteristics. The Muppets, when they were succeeding, did so not because they were cute and cuddly but because kids and adults alike could recognize a little bit of themselves in each of them.

Kermit the Frog was their noble leader but not above failure, Miss Piggy was vain, Fozzie was sincere but naive and Gonzo just wanted to find his place within a world where no one else like him existed. It’s the difference between pieces of felt with plastic eyes and real characters that make you feel warm and comfortable in their presence. Throw in that Henson was a mad comic genius (I still discover new winks and nods in the original The Muppet Movie all these years later) and you have the perfect family entertainment.

And like The Muppet Movie, The Muppets doesn’t so much tell a story as wrap a lose narrative around a collection of episodes (The Muppets were always at their best within the 30 minute confines of television sitcom). We start with an introduction to a new Muppet, Walter, who lives in a place called Small Town and loves his older brother and best friend Gary (Segal) more than anything. Their bond is touching and pure, but as Gary grows older, gets taller, makes human friends, and such, Walter continues to be the same, always loved and backed by Gary, but not quite fitting in. He finds, as maybe most kids did, refuge in the wonderful world of The Muppets, a place where he feels safe and where he is understood. The other kids may poke fun, but the Muppets give Walter everything he needs.

So when Gary plans on taking his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to L.A. Walter is elated when, despite some reservation from Mary, he is invited along as well. It will be a dream for him to finally visit the famous Muppet Studios and see where all the magic happened.

But the gang arrives in L.A. only to find the studio to be forgotten and run down. And then, when Walter sneaks away from the tour (led by a funny Alan Arkin), he discovers a plan for an evil oil barren (Chris Cooper) to purchase the studio, demolish it and drill for oil. Unless the long forgotten about Muppets band together again, an unlikely prospect, and raise the money to the buy the studio, it’s lights out on the last standing piece of Muppet history.

So in a desperate attempt to not lose the most meaningful thing in his life, Walter tracks down Kermit in hopes of convincing him to put on one last show to raise the money to buy back the studio. The first half of the movie is thus, in a tribute to The Muppet Movie, a hilarious and self-aware road picture as Kermit and his new friends travel around the country to collect the other Muppets and convince them to come back for one last show leading up to, not unpredictably, in a fitting tribute to their original televised form, that one last show.

That’s all there is to The Muppets. Anyone who knows the Muppet world knows that plot description doesn’t even begin to describe the manic comic energy of these characters and indeed, The Muppets is all smiles from beginning to end with several big laughs and some catchy songs littered along the way.

But no matter how clever the sight gags get, how inside the jokes go, how constant the celebrity cameos are and how shameless the lengths the film will go to get a laugh, The Muppets works because it leaves one with a warm and fuzzy feeling. That’s why the Muppets have endured for so long. They are our friends and neighbors who exist in this world without the slightest hint of irony. It’s what Jim Henson worked so hard to create. He couldn’t have asked for a more fitting tribute to his legacy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hype Argument

The hype argument to justify not liking a movie is one of the most powerful signs of poor film criticism out there. How many times can you recall coming across a review or editorial in which the writer gives props to a movie for being well made, well acted, well everything but that they just couldn’t get behind because they expected more based on all the positive press? It’s probably been quite a few, which is unfortunate because it may be one of the laziest arguments in film criticism, making the process much less about personal expression and far more about assembly line commodification. It’s depressing how far it sometimes feels we’ve fallen away from the practice of true film criticism.

If you’ve followed this space and my constant editorializing on the art of film criticism you will recognize this as a topic very dear to my heart and one I take very seriously. I am also, for the most part, adverse to film hype. That’s not to say that I don’t heavily anticipate new films from my favourite filmmakers, but that’s not nearly the same thing is it?

The truth is I watch trailers as little as possible (but let’s face it, one can’t avoid them entirely) and I don’t know how many times I’ve suggested a movie for the person to ask what it’s about. Nine times out of ten my answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”

The problem with hype is that it is, when you think about it, a secondary offshoot of the film itself. Whenever I read another lazy review in which the critic declares their expectations were not met due to hype I think, strange, I thought you were reviewing the movie, not the sociology that exists around it.

Okay, fair enough, you heard a movie was great, it wasn’t as great as you were told and now you’re disappointed. It happens. But this is water cooler talk, not criticism. The reason why we have critics is because criticism is a profession and an art form. It is a vocation in which we have entrusted a select few more well versed on the subject at hand than us in order to give us something to think about; a starting point for which to help shape our own thoughts and feelings about a particular work and, at the very least, to guide us towards good films and away from bad ones.

So why do I deem the hype argument lazy? Because, every time it is used it acts as an announcement of submission on behalf of the respective reviewer. We are tasked with reviewing the films we have seen not the ones we were hoping to see. To admit that one was disappointed simply because they expected more shows two things. The first is that the reviewer in question has not found their individual voice (great criticism after all is more about knowing what X thought of said work as opposed to hoping that X will tell us what to see this weekend). It also means that they have bought into a sort of reverse herd mentality. The majority said it was amazing, I didn’t think it was amazing, therefore it was disappointing. No thought whatsoever has been put into this argument. It’s Antonioni’s Problem of the Bicycle: now that the critic has let us know that they are disappointed we need to know why they didn’t like it as much as everyone else.

The second problem is that this argument shows that the critic hasn’t put much thought into the film itself or their affective relationship with it: the very foundation of good criticism. It is, as I said before, commodification: this one’s a disappointment, on to the next one. Great criticism, to repeat from older posts once again, is a combination of two things: a writer who knows how to read between the lines and then look inside themselves to understand what a work means to them emotionally, intelligently, philosophically, psychologically, etc., and someone who genuinely knows what they are talking about. The person who is submitting to the hype argument is doing neither.

Instead what they have done is written the movie off instead of giving it its fair due. Reviews should be written in a vacuum. What the world has to say about a specific film is much less important than what you yourself felt about it. That should be at the heart of every review. Being disappointed with a movie and blaming it on hype is to give the movie not a second thought and to pass the blame onto a third party, as if they are scared of taking a strong counter opinion. I have much greater admiration for the writer who writes a negative review about a universally deemed great film by providing intelligent discourse that, even though maybe you don’t agree with, you can’t argue with or dismiss, then the one who simply says they don’t agree with the hype and moves on. Once again: Lazy.

The writer who hides behind the hype machine thus tells us more about themselves as a whole than about the film in question as, at the heart of it, they’ve told us nothing about the film at all. Instead they’ve told us that their thinking mostly resides at the surface, their insights shallow and their patience to actually deal with a film is little. If I walk away indifferent or unimpressed by an acclaimed movie it leaves me with a feeling of utter unrest. Not only do I have to consider why I didn’t like it, but I must also meet it halfway to try to understand why so many people are singing it praises. Anything less is an insult to the film, the readers and even the reviewer themselves despite them also being the ones to blame.

Monday, December 5, 2011

It's Been a Good Year for the Roses...And the Movies

Every year for the past several years, as films become less and less about stories and characters and more about whose special effects are the biggest, shiniest and can cause the most damage as they crash headfirst into one another, there's always those who will say that the year in movies sucked.

There were a lot of movies that sucked in 2011. There were a lot of movies that sucked in 2010 and 2009 as well. And there were a lot of movies that sucked in 1925 and 1926 as well. There's always going to be movies that suck every year. It's inevitable. There's so damn many of them.

The problem with last year wasn't that it sucked, but that the good movies were just that: good. Few movies left a lasting impact. The Social Network was a timeless film but the highly praised Inception and Toy Story 3 weren't. They were good. Finding ten films to name as the year's best, that were better than good, was a bit of a chore.

2011 seemed to pose the same challenges. From January up until September there were a lot of bad movies and a lot of good ones but where were the great movies? Apparently now the question has been answered: they were waiting for Halloween to be over. My last 3 posts have all been reviews and all for films which I would award five stars. But they aren't just five star films (like say Inception), they are timeless films that rank among their respective filmmakers' best efforts.

I realized this as I was browsing Rotten Tomatoes. I clicked to see the expanded screen of the week's top box office grossers and found something I haven't seen in a long time. Of the 32 films on the list 22 of them are certified fresh, 9 of them are in the 90% range, 6 are in the 80% range and 5 of them are in the 70% range.

This means two things: 1) out of 32 films out there right now, critics on a whole have deemed that but 10 of them aren't worth the public's time and 2) the vast majority of critics are all in agreement: the good films are really good. Usually highly praised films are followed with sneers, unmatched expectations and general cynicism for some. Not in 2011, where everyone agreed we're in a good spot.

And here's the kicker: I write this on Monday December 12, 2011, weeks still before the release of Young Adult, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (which, if the script is any indication, will be something special), We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carnage (see comments on Tinker Taylor),The Adventures of Tintin, Girl With the Dragon Tatoo and War Horse. If last year the problem was finding 10, this year the problem will be sticking to just that many.

As a side note I've decided not to publish my year end list this year until January or probably even closer to February. Why? Two reasons: 1) come the end of December there are so many best of lists its hard to care about any on an individual basis and 2) unlike last year I want to take as much time as I need to see the films that I feel could be on it properly.


At the age of 69 Martin Scorsese will direct films after Hugo. Some of them, if not most of them, will be great and some of them may even still be on the lips of many long after both America’s greatest living filmmaker has passed on and the sound of Hugo has gone silent. But it’s safe to say that, no matter how many films are still to come from Scorsese, and no matter their quality, none of them will be as beautiful, touching or personal as Hugo. Martin Scorsese has, one film at a time, become the very definition of American film. But he’s no longer that young kid from New York trying to push boundaries and change the landscape of film as we know it. He’s already been there and done that. Now he’s that wise old man, none of the ambition or vision having faded, who looks back at it all and sees just what it has meant. There will not, I think it’s fairly safe to say, be a more magical film released in 2011 than Hugo.

Disguised in the veil of grand family adventure, Hugo is a film that tells the tale of a young boy in Paris. His father (Jude Law) was a clockmaker who loved to tinker and fix things. Together they fixed old gizmos, so primitive by today’s standards that it’s a marvel they even worked at all, went to the movies, and loved each other very much. The father’s swan song was to be fixing up an old mechanical man called an Automaton. These were essentially life-like wind up toys designed to, when wound, perform human tasks. When Hugo’s father finds an old one forgotten in a museum he brings it home to fix. This one is a writer, but before it can again put pen to page an accident happens and Hugo is left an orphan.

He’s taken in by his alcoholic uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) whose job it is to see that all the clocks at the local train station are in working order. Once the boy is taught how to operate the clocks he is left alone to perform the man’s duties and continue fixing the Automaton while constantly evading the pursuits of the Chaplinesque Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) who hates orphans.

In order to fix the Automaton, Hugo begins stealing parts from George (Ben Kingsly) an old man who owns a meagre toy shop in the station. When George catches Hugo in the act he takes the boy’s notebook, the contents of which, mysteriously upset him. Hugo enlists the help of George’s adopted god daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Mortez) who is an avid reader, has never seen a movie and is looking desperately for a real life adventure.

Scorsese and his writer John Logan, like master storytellers, allow this story to unfold gradually, not revealing all of its secrets up front. This allows the revelation of George’s true identity and the children’s quest to find the missing pieces of the Automaton, and how it’s existence is connected to him, to take the film out of grand family entertainment and slowly reveal a loving ode to the magic of cinema and all of it’s history.

I dare not say another word for fear of revealing anything. Some reviews have pegged Hugo as being a film about the importance of film preservation and restoration. Knowing Scorsese and all his recent invaluable efforts towards these practices it’s a fair assessment, but misses the point. This is not a film about why we should restore old films, but one about the magic that is inherent in them and how that magic shapes and changes our lives from the untold joys they unlock in the imagination of children, to the sweet and tender reflections of times gone past they aspire in adults. Films are, at their very greatest, both dream and memory all wrapped into one. This must have certainly wrung true for Scorsese, one of, if not the most well versed filmmakers working today.

But the key to Hugo is not that it’s a self congratulatory pat on the back to those who are well versed enough to know the film history that it pays such loving tribute to. It is rather, like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a tip of the hat to the works of art that defined the medium as we know it, while still creating something new and modern with the love that these reflections of the past have created. Hugo is thus, above all, the perfect anachronism.

So then the question remains, in an age where family films have become lightning paced flashes of colour and sound, will children be able to accept Hugo? Yes, I think, for some they will. Smart, mature ones will especially appreciate it; ones with grand creative imaginations who look at the world and see the magic of endless possibility. It will also appeal to the children who’s bodies have grown and aged but who’s minds have stayed young and alive and the children who are now falling somewhere in between.

Hugo may be a film about film history and other such adult topics mostly left to academia, but it’s also about so much more and so much less than that. It’s proof that happy endings don’t just happen in the movies. They happen between the seats of every theatre all over the world.


Brandon Sullivan, the hopeless sex addict played by Michael Fassbender at the centre of Steve McQueen’s new film Shame is almost always clinging to the side of a frame that only he occupies. No matter where Brandon goes, there is his face and his body, disconnected from the people around him. It seems a deliberate choice by McQueen to show Brandon this way: no matter on the crowded subway or the full boardroom at work, there is Brandon, a part of normal 30-something upper-class New York life, doing his best to appear to fit in, but always belonging to a lonely space all by himself. From time to time, he’ll let someone in but in all cases it's for sex. You can come into Brandon's world, but don't take your coat off, this space, at the end of every day, belongs to only him. 

That’s the approach to Shame, a stark and sexually intense film in which sex is more about Brandon’s desperate attempts to fill some hollow craving inside of himself than as titillation. There is no pleasure in the sex we see in Shame; only the reality of the man desperately engaging in it. That’s the drama of Shame, which, as can probably be gleaned from it’s title, is not so much about sex itself, but a man who, ironically, can’t seem to function without it and yet only seems to be functioning with it.

What makes the film so fascinating is not that this man is addicted to random, anonymous sex, but the way the film portrays how the hollow feeling that he gets from it is the closest he can come to establishing a normal emotional connection. Sex isn’t something Brandon craves for pleasure, it’s the only way, no matter how sick, desperate or pathetic it gets, that he can feel that he is alive. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, when Brandon has just about hit rock bottom where McQueen shows us his face as he reaches orgasm. It’s a twisted sight of torment and self-loathing. If sex in Shame is the only way Brandon can feel anything it is, conversely, the vice he uses as an excuse to continue not feeling anything at all. Even when Brandon's winning he's losing.

Then one day Brandon is startled to find that his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has shown up unexpectedly and needs a place to stay indefinitely. Sissy is an aspiring singer with a natural talent and, like her brother, a natural pull towards self-destruction. Her body, we see in another of the film’s stark and unflinching scenes, mutilated from years of self-abuse.

Although Brandon relents in allowing her to stay, Sissy, being his sister, posses an emotional connection in his life and therefore a threat to its natural balance. He thus takes his frustration out on her, accusing her of being a child who constantly needs to hang on to people and rely on others to get her trough. He blames her for all of the things he hates in himself: he can’t let any meaningful emotional connect sneak into his life and she can’t live on the independence that exceeds her grasp; and while his scars are hidden and personal, hers are physical and on full, naked display. This leads to one of the film's most powerful scenes in which Brandon tells Sissy how he really feels, while sitting on the couch, watching a cartoon, facing away from the camera. Brandon is so devoid of anything emotional that McQueen doesn’t even allow us into the scene, instead forcing the audience to casually observe from behind. That's the kind of film Shame is.

Observing is what McQueen does a lot. Like his acclaimed debut feature Hunger, McQueen’s approach is to set his camera and look straight on, never flinching or looking away from what he is capturing. The dialogue is sparse and when it does happen, occurs in unbroken long takes. To edit would be to hide from the raw brutality of what is happening and offer an easy escape. McQueen offers no such easy exits and as an artist looks to capture the events that transpire before his camera without comment or implication, no matter how unbearable they become.

But if Hunger was more admirable for its craft than outwardly enjoyable, Shame is a fascinating and wholly realistic (if unpleasant) journey towards despair and self-destruction. It isn’t about sexual addiction at the end of the day, but about a man crippled by his inability to feel anything. Aesthetically every single frame is meticulously composed from the shame of its hero. It offers no indications of how he came to this point or any helpful solutions on how to overcome it. It simply watches, indifferently, as events happen on a journey towards tragedy and doesn’t try to interfere in the least. With Hunger McQueen made a statement. With Shame he’s made close to a masterpiece. This is one of the year’s best films.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki’s is the cinema of restraint. There are no wasted scenes in his films, no dialogue that says anything other than the minimum necessary to make the point, no flamboyant dancing of the camera and no emotions that ever seem to quell beyond a murmur. If anyone ever cracks a smile of affection in Kaurismaki’s world it plays more like rapture than a small gesture, as his characters often stand, frozen in contemplative tableaus, often times so pronounced that they boarder on the comedic. These are quite films that play as if part of an extended fairy tale or comic strip, their movement and content limited by the economy of the frame.

That’s the world that the Finnish master lives in: a strange cross between the bright and building melodrama of Douglas Sirk mixed with the offhand static lull of Fassbinder and a comedic touch so deadpan that it, at times, boarders on the surreal. It is, needless to say, an acquired taste for some. “You’ve never seen another movie like this” Roger Ebert once said of Kaurismaki’s Man Without a Past, “Unless you’ve seen another Aki Kaurismaki movie.”

Which brings us to Kaurismaki’s newest Le Havre, which embodies everything that has come to be expected from the director and yet is a little livelier and sweeter than most of his work. Kaurismaki makes films about the down and out: the people who often fall between the cracks of a society that could just as well do without them.

This one focuses on Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a shoeshine man in Le Havre who, day in and day out, carries around his tool box and little stand in order to bring in enough money to support his wife Arletty (Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen) who he loves and who loves him back. There is no dialogue in the movie that ever expresses any outward declaration of love between the two but Kaurismaki manages to sneak it in, rather tenderly, by the way these two hold themselves; act in the presence of each other; create an aura in the room when they are together. That’s Kaurismaki’s approach to all of his drama: to let it linger instead of underlining it. “She’s too good a woman for you.” The local female bartender tells Marcel. “I know,” He replies. “But she’s too good for everyone so for now I’ll do.” The glass is half full.

Then two things happen. Arletty falls ill and is taken to the hospital where it looks unlikely she will live much longer. Not wanting to tell Marcel for fear that it would ruin him; she has the doctor conceal her disease. Meanwhile a shipping crate that was bound for London arrives in Le Harve by accident and is opened to find a collection of refugees from Africa. One, a young boy named Idrissa, is encouraged to run and escapes.

One day, while eating his lunch, Marcel finds the boy, offers him some food and is followed home by him that night. Where Marcel differs from most Kaurismaki heroes is that instead of being a lonely low class bum wandering through life in no direction in particular, he is a man of little means who instantly, without being asked, wants to help this boy who is of even lesser means. That’s the magic of the film that gives it it’s fairy tale-like quality. This does not bode well with the local investigator who is on the hunt for the illegal immigrant.

The entire film is a wonderful collection of episodes in which friends try to help Marcel who tries to find the boy’s origins and raise the money that would assist him in getting to London. The true treasure of the film is in these scenes where we see the warmth created from a community of low class people banding together in order to help out a fellow drifter who wants no more than they: to simply get by. The film has been described as a fairy tale or fable by many, a quality created by Kaurismaki’s unique worldview: life sucks, but our time in it doesn’t need to.

This story, in typical Kaurismaki fashion, is told in a minimalistic style that is mostly concerned with the quite nuance of human nature as it propels the story forward. Only in a Kaurismaki film could Marcel get away with the excuse he uses to convince a refugee shelter director that he is the black Idrissa’s uncle and only in a Kaurismaki film could the sight of a yellow dress bring such a smile to one’s face, especially having witnessed the care and love it was packaged with.

If all of this sounds maddeningly vague that’s maybe because there is no other way to describe it. Kaurismaki's films are all touching yet deadpan love letters to the down and out. They are a rebel yell for the lower class without ever raising their voice above a whisper, and that always seem to make a halfway political statement without ever the hint of much politics. The message is always clear: society is structured by ridged and superficial notions of class, but it is those at the bottom, left out and forgotten, who are the most human.

It’s a world so fiercely and uniquely unto itself that the only way I can describe it is to encourage you to see it for yourself. And it can’t be stressed enough how much you should get going and seeing it for yourself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Anti-Anti-Movie

I've just finished Peter Weir's Gallipoli which tells the tale of hundreds of thousands of young Australian men lead to their deaths in a battle that made really no sense to anyone. It is often, rightfully, compared with Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, which got me thinking: what does "anti-war" even really mean?

You could throw that term in front of a lot of war movies and it would stick. Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, Oliver Stone's Platoon, Speilberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, David O Russell's Three Kings, Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers and so on. But at what point do we define a movie as being anti anything? The reason the term sticks so well and is so uneasily refuted is that when the question is posed of what exactly could be named as an example of a pro-war movie, not too many titles instantly fit the bill.

And they rightfully shouldn't, but does that not mean that any movie that depicts the death and destruction caused by war is, in some way or another, anti-war by default? I can't think of too many movies, no matter how graphic or glorified the violence, that would stand up and openly claim themselves to being pro-war because, knowing the innate horrors or warfare, who would ever stand up and make a bold public statement in favour of it?

But let's assume, as we must, that not all war films are anti-war. At what point then does a film justifiably become anti-anything? Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting was originally criticized upon its release by some who felt it was pro-drug in it's stylized glorification and comedic outlook towards a bunch of Scottish junkies. I don't know about anyone else in the world, but seeing images of a man lose his bowels all over the bed sheets or another dive into the filthiest toilet in Scotland, no matter how humorous or stylized, should certainly be enough to turn most rational minds away from the temptations of heroin use.

Could this then simply be another one of these faux critical terms that seem to instill an importance in a film that simply inherently exists under the surface anyway based on the content? With the depiction of war itself, the realization of senseless death on a massive scale, the confusion and horror of being trapped alone in a place where each new step brings the possibility of death, are these things not the statement in and of itself without taste makers underlining and bolding it for us as well? I've heard many arguments about how Inception is a film about filmmaking, which I always dismiss as too easy a reading: of course Inception is a film about filmmaking. Every movie about dreams is, whether purposefully or not, a film about filmmaking.

That is of course not to take away from films such as Paths of Glory and Gallipoli, which are both, in similar and yet different ways, very affecting stories that rise above simple depictions of brutal combat. My point is, to come back to it again, at what point do we differentiate a war film from an anti-war film, a drug film from an anti-drug film, a violent film from an anti-violence film and so on? And how then, in all our infinite wisdom and critical capacity can we even begin to answer such a question when it is next to, if not completely impossible to separate a film's content from its message?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is the kind of movie that makes you almost instantly want to watch a better one. In this case, for me, that better one is Sidney Lumet’s swan song masterpiece Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Both films involve bad men dealing with even worse men, revolve around a crime gone horribly wrong and are both modern day reincarnations of the darkened and hardened crime films of the 70s and 80s(some of which Lumet himself masterminded).

But where the difference lies is that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was about more than the crime. It was about the implications, the aftermaths, the consequences of being stuck in a horrible situation to which there is no simple escape and to which the easiest option is to dig oneself even deeper into the murk. When the shock and awe, the hard talk, the sudden bursts of violence and the fierce tough guy posturing came to a crashing halt, left behind in its wake were damaged men who had bitten off more than they could chew and didn't know what to do about it.

Refn sets himself on the way to the same kind of payoff with Drive but then he stops almost destructively short as he builds towards no payoff in particular. Here is a polished and well made film (as well made as any other crime odyssey that comes to mind) that is all posturing. The film sneers, flexes it’s muscle, exists under the subtle and haunting thump of slow motion images playing under pounding retro 80s synth pop and does not, for any one second, give you any reason to care about a single thing that is going on in it. If you want to get a cheap lesson in pure film style without the burden of enrolment costs, Drive might be right up your alley. If it is, however, depth, compassion, or something that resembles anything slightly human, Drive feels like it is mostly grinding gears.

Ryan Gosling plays the Driver. He has no name, which is about right as he is all business and procedure. By day he’s a mechanic and Hollywood stunt man. By night he’s the getaway driver for lowly crooks. He lives by his defined set of rules: he doesn’t carry a gun, he’ll give you five minutes in which he is all yours, a minute too much on either side and he’s gone. And all he does, period, is drive.

He works for Shannon (Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston) who runs a garage, sets up the Driver’s stunt work and walks with the kind of limp that suggests that the shop probably isn't his sole source of income. He wants a loan to buy a race car which the Driver can drive and make them lots of money.

He approaches Rose (Albert Brooks in a long overdue dramatic role) for a payout and gets it. Rose is some kind of guy. Brooks brings something unassuming to the surface of the role, but this is the kind of man whose words speak louder than his actions. “My hands are kind of dirty” the Driver says when Rose extends it for a shake. “It’s okay”, Rose replies. “So are mine.”

Rose is business partners with a hothead named Nino (Ron Pearlman). Somehow, for reasons too convoluted to explain, the Driver takes a job to help out the recently released husband of his neighbour (Cary Mulligan) who he’s taken quite a shine to. The job gets botched, people end up dead, and the Driver ends up with a bag full of Nino’s money.

So goes the set-up which leads the somewhat effective and haunting opening scenes into a conclusion that is populated by short bursts of brutal graphic violence as the Driver and Rose both square off in an attempt to be the last man standing.

All of this, once again, brings to mind the hard-boiled, murky crime pictures of the 70s and 80s from Walter Hill’s The Driver to Michael Mann’s Thief. But where the film falters is in how content it is to simply get by with just being confined to homage. In terms of genre recreation, Refn does an excellent job, going through the motions from the slow tracking cameras, the tight two-shots, the suspense created not through unending stimulation but by taking a static scene and cutting between three or four set objects while tension mounts on the soundtrack. If nothing else, Drive does let us remember a time when action allowed us to breathe a little.

But the film never quite achieves anything more. Are we at the point in film history where films are praised for their ability to pay homage to a time when movies weren’t so bad? Is seeing something different that stands apart from the over stimulation of today’s action films so rare that we’ll heap praise upon the first one that seems destined to take a different approach? But homage is, at its worst, an ironic post-modern reconstruction of the spare parts of great films gone by. Where Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, to continue with the same example, took the elements and created something new and thrilling with them, Drive’s saving grace is that its irony doesn’t come served with the wink and smirk of most of today’s attempts at homage.

So what do we make of Drive? Who is it supposed to appeal to? What does it want to achieve except show one filmmaker's attempt to mask a shallow story with his ability to recreate the essence of genre’s past? Drive is an exceptionally well made film with a clear vision of what it should look and feel like; filled with good performances, knuckle grinding action in the tradition of the classic car chase movies, a bumping soundtrack and a lot of spilled blood. And then it ends, leaving you in no better or worse shape than when it came to you, to which you nod, give it some points for ambition and then walk away with the realization that the history is far more compelling than the history lesson.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Sound of Silence

Not a lot of people like silent films (comedies seeming to be the one exception). It's understandable. They can be long, boring, extremely dated, hard to follow, can be disjointed, don't involve, in most cases, waring alien robots, and require, above and beyond all else, our undivided attention. You can't sit doing something else, listening to a silent film and fill in the blanks. You need to read and watch. The other problem is that, in most cases, because no one owns the rights to them, which version do we pick up? Some have missing footage, some have ugly and careless transfers, alternate title cards, and soundtracks that don't touch anywhere near what the original would have sounded like. I think it's safe to bet that, back when Murnau was making Nosferatu he didn't have Type O Negative's Beatles meets Black Sabbath doom metal playing through his head as inspiration.

I'm in the bandwagon. Most of the way at least. I don't outright refuse silent films and have watched many of the titles by the big names: Griffith, Lang, Stroheim, Murnau, Dryer, Eisenstein, Chaplin, Keaton. But these are films mostly reserved for academic study or those film history completests and are, in most cases, easier to admire than outright enjoy.

What inspired all this? Last night I watched D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, his epic, in a way, apology for his previous masterpiece Birth of a Nation, the seminal and hugely racist epic that changed and rewrote film history as we know it. Why did I watch it? Because it is also seminal to film history, it's another notch on my belt, it's something you keep hearing about in film classes, the Babylonian sequences are supposed to be expensive and breathtaking (certainly that tracking shot of the dancers on the steps of Babylonia is one of the best ever committed to film), and all of the above.

Intolerance is, let's admit, long and hard to follow. It's also a visual masterpiece that was, except for Birth of a Nation, like nothing else anyone had ever dare try to attempt before. And as I was watching it, slowly but surely a new realization began to sink in: silent film was the most cinematic film has ever and will ever be. Ah ha. Revelation!

A lot of purists at the time (Munsterberg, Arnheim, etc) thought that sound was the death of film. A lot after that thought colour was the death of film too. Of course it's the standard now and even the huge ambassadors of black and white (Scorsese, Speilberg, Bogdanovich), haven't used it in ages. I think, the major stepping stone that sound and colour contributed, beside the obvious technical breakthrough, is that people felt it was pushing film one step farther away from theatre and one step closer to actual reality.

Reality or realism has always been an issue within film and especially film criticism. Films are criticised because people don't talk or act like that, no one in their right mind would do that and that's just not possible in real life. Fair enough. You've read it plenty in this space as well. But the term is one of those misrepresented critical idioms alongside "interesting" and "flawed." It just doesn't hold sway because it doesn't get used properly.

In that sense, silent films were about as realistic as they needed to be. Realism is not so much about a film's ability to reflect absolute reality (that, you'd have to admit, would be pretty boring), but about creating characters and actions and events that tie believably into the story. There's nothing about Knowing that is believable or realistic, but everything that happens makes sense within the context of the overall narrative. That's realism. That's believability.

The difference between current times and silent times is that, like the theatre, silent films asked their audiences to meet them half way. Just like the physical space of the theatre, which clearly does not take place on the streets, the beach, in front of a sunset, wherever, must be left up to the imagination, much of silent film requires that same leap of faith. We know we are watching a movie, but it's up to us to imbue the imagines with the realism they are trying to depict.

That's important because, at it's essence, silent film is filmmaking broken down into it's purest form: stories told through pictures edited together to create a whole. That's what every silent film was. That's what the medium of film was founded upon.

The pictures themselves, I think, add to the pure cinematic experience. That is, above and beyond all else, the images as captured look like nothing other than filmic images. You will never mistake a silent film as theatre or television or any form of art or reality. The thoughts don't even factor into the equation. When I look at Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen (to take the most recent example) in 50/50 I see two actors who I know in a film about getting cancer. When I watch Intolerance, I am transported to an olden time in which the men and women and horses in Babylon look like they could actually be men and women and horses in Babylon. The illusion is seamless. There is no sense of actors on a set in front of a camera. Today Babylon would look like it was created inside a video game that could stretch on forever. In that sense, just maybe, the farther we have moved away from silent film, the farther we have moved from realism after all.

Monday, October 31, 2011

One Minute Review - Insidious

James Wan is probably one of the most talented directors who has never made a single good movie. And for the fourth time in a row (which has also included the original Saw film, the remarkably awful Dead Silence and Death Sentence) has teamed up with writing partner Leigh Wannell to create another sleek and effective dud.

The film opens with a creepy and brilliant prologue that promises spooky things going bump in the night and ends with a devious title card that promises evil but ultimately delivers cottage cheese.

Wan, as per usual, employs elaborate shots, knowing that there is more suspense and mystery in tracking than cutting, masterfully decorating his way through a story that feels a little like it is being made up as it goes along.

Things begin moving and appearing after a young son goes into a coma that, medically speaking, isn't really a coma; ghost hunters are employed; they explain strange phenomena that in turn explains a lot about what is really happening but not much at all of what its overall purpose is.

It's nice that the film has the common sense to feel retro in it's use of shadows and mood over gore, but just like a lot of those old haunted house movies, it eventually throws logic to the wind in an effort to tell a story and the more it tries to explain, the deeper it digs itself into ridiculousness.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Although 50/50 is at its best in it’s small, quite scenes, it is still, I think, invaluable that the film is a comedy. Of course the description of a 27 year old diagnosed with cancer doesn’t immediately scream laughter, but why should the film not be funny? In the face of complete uncertainly why be stripped of the one last tool we have to cope; to make the most of what could possible be the last moments of our lives; the one last thing we have control of that makes us unique and human? 50/50 isn’t a comedy by choice but by necessity. When we’re left to swim by ourselves; when the odds are in no one’s favour; and when it’s inevitable that, at some point in this big ugly process, we will most certainly be staring death in the face, by God the least we can be allowed to do is laugh.

And that’s what 50/50 does. It takes the most hopeless of situations and brings something human out of it. Is humour a way of keeping an arms length from the true gravity of the matter? Sure it is, but what else could a young protagonist want when faced with the untimely possibility that there is nothing really left for him to do except wait to see if he dies? It must be nice to know that, in spite of it all, when many want to treat you like a special sob case, there are friends out there who still know you’re not above a good joke.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is 27, works in radio, and is having back pain. Maybe he tried a new sex position and hurt himself offers best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen). That can’t be, he and artist girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) haven’t had sex in three weeks.

Adam goes to the doctor for an MRI that reveals a rare form of cancer at the bottom of the spine. The plan is to shrink the large tumor down to a more manageable size with chemo and then cut it out. Adam’s odds of survival? About 50/50.

There’s no more need to describe the plot. Along the way we are introduced to Adam’s mother (Angelica Huston) who is overbearing, dealing with a husband who has Alzheimer’s and just wants to care for her poor sick baby who doesn't want to be reminded that he is a poor sick baby. There’s also Katherine (Anna Kendrick), who is currently studying for her doctorate and is assigned to council Adam through the process.

The film is thus a way of going through the motions as Adam slowly, painfully, but not unwillingly takes every day as it comes, walking towards a conclusion that has no more reassurance than the question mark that exists at the end of the road.

Kyle does his best and Rogen provides much of the film’s comic relief as he helps Adam shave his head, uses his friend’s disease to pick up girls, gets high with him, and does his best to support Adam in the only way he can: by being his goofy but caring friend. When the news is broken to Kyle he is as hopeful as he knows how to be: if Adam were a casino game, he'd have the best odds in the house.

Along the way Adam also grows close to two other older chemo patients he meets during treatment. One of them is played by the invaluable Phillip Baker Hall, who has one of those Christopher Walken presences. Whenever he is on screen one perks up in expectation of something good going to happen and sure enough Hall walks away with some of the films most insightful and honest moments.

The film was written by Rogen’s friend Will Resier who apparently based the story on his own personal experiences and how Rogen tried to support him. And although it feels like the work of a first time screenwriter (it’s a little to tidy for its own good) it also captures the small, profound moments that only someone who has walked in these shoes could possible have dreamed up.

Director Jonathan Levine and his stars don’t back the film up into moments of big melodrama. Instead they keep it quite and human, finding truth in the small moments between friends and family as they all try to find the best way to cope with an impossible situation. The small treasure of the film is in its showing just that: as these people laugh, cry, look into oblivion and do their best to crack a smile. That’s all they can do. When the odds are 50/50 the ball’s in no one's court and the film thankfully doesn’t try to have it any other way.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Filmic Measues: Gateway Movies

Filmic Measures is a glossery of critical terms and rules in which help us define the movies we watch.

I don't really follow so I'm not so sure if it's the case anymore but once upon a time one of the big arguments against the legalization of marijuana is that it is a gateway drug. Once you have become accustomed to the high that smoking pot comes with it opens the mind up to trying other, more stronger highs. Once you've driven 110 on the expressway, why not try 120 as well? And so forth.

In that sense, based on that argument, marijuana is an introduction to drug use: the first step on a path to other things (ed: I am not, of course, making any kind of comment on how much I agree or reject this argument).

There are certain movies that act in the same way: They are the first step into exploring greater, more sophisticated, deeper filmic experiences. Some of them are good in their own right, many of them have achieved a cult status, a couple are unjustly praised by those who are using them as their gateway because they don't know any better and so on. Quality hardly matters in such a case as long as they serve their specific purpose.

Now that I've laid out the foundations let me lead with some examples: The Usual Suspects is a gateway to the classic noir of Double Indemnity or Out of the Past; Pulp Fiction is the gateway to the highly stylised and homage friendly cultural hipness of early Godard like Breathless and Band of Outsiders; Fight Club is the gateway to experimental film-as-state-of-mind works like After Hours, Goodfellas is the gateway to more under appreciated Scorsese classics; Donnie Darko is the gateway to more obscure movies that actually know what they are about; Inception is the gateway to great science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey and even the films of David Lynch are a cross between the surrealism of Luis Bunuel mixed with the Hollywood cynicism of Billy Wilder. And so on down the line.

Is it ironic that they are all American movies? Maybe it is. Whenever, after all, we see a bland European movie it feels too "Americanized." But that's not the point I don't think. The vast majority of film goers learn the trade off of American movies. They strike a nice balance between trying to be (sometimes at least) hip and original while also trying to be popular and profitable (Scorcese, Tarantino, Forester, Soderberg and so on all fall into this category).

Some people, of course, will never get beyond this stage. Some are content not pushing the horizons, not being introduced to new forms of expression, culture, history or society. Fair enough. But if they ever choose, there's a whole new arena of things to experience after the baby steps.

Other Filmic Measures:

Chocolate Bar Movies
Where's the Airship Movies
Monday Movies  
The Documentary Rule

Sunday, October 16, 2011

TIFF 2011

Say what you will about Twilight and I don't know if Ashley Greene really has any talent outside of that franchise but she sure is stunning.
Alicia Silverstone is apparently still around. She didn't really stop or anything nor did she look very good. I guess being out of the spotlight for a long time will do that to you.

Ben Foster is very good at playing bad guys and seedy people and, seeing him at the Rampart premiere, I can't decide if he's a good actor or is just that way in real life. He showed up, chewing on a douchebag tooth pick, wouldn't sign anything and I can't be sure but I think when someone yelled for him to stop and sign I saw him turn around and mouth "no" at them.
If you look closely and to the left you will see Angelina Jolie waving to the crowd. Everyone was ecstatic when she showed up to the Moneyball premiere.
Ashley Greene signing my girlfriend's copy of Twilight. Do I really need to justify putting up two pictures of her?
Angelina and Brad from behind. There were so many people there that this was the best I could do.
Brad Pitt arrives and then goes to the car ahead of him to get Angelina out.
Chase Crawford. He is in Gossip Girl which I don't watch and he was in the Haunting of Molly Hartly which was horrible. That's about all I know of him.
When Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell showed up to the premiere of Moneyball for a minute, before he turned around, I thought it was Christian Bale.
Canadian director David Cronenberg didn't stop to sign anything. Directors can be weird like that. I guess they figure everyone is there for the stars anyway.
Some kid I don't know. Looks like he's in something on the Disney channel. If anyone knows who he is please share it in the comments.
Evan Rachel Wood looking awesome if you ask me.

George Clooney has a reputation for being very generous to his fans on the red carpet and he proved it again at the Ides of March premiere. He made his car let him out at the very end of the carpet and worked his way through everyone. When he accidentally signed the front of my friend's autograph book she made him sign it inside too and he did.
Gerrard Butler, behind the Elgin Theatre, still the worst and most disorganized location of TIFF.

Gerrard Butler at Roy Thompson Hall as well.
Jeffery Wright's expression as I handed him a copy of Basquiat to sign. He looked at it and said "wow, is that really me?"
Jennifer Garden was so nice and so pretty and signed for so many people. She was truly a class act.
Jessica Chastain. To be quite honest, as you can see in this picture, she looked like a real bitch.
Director Joel Schumacher was the first person to arrive for the Trespass premier. He is just a nice, funny, gay old man. It was raining and he was apologizing for the horrible weather as he was signing for people.
Jonah Hill newly skinny and looking to be having a great time.

This is the kid who played Eddie Murphy's daughter in Imagine That. She was cute and classy.
Kiera Knightly. I need not say more.
Kyle MacLachlan is one of those actors who, when they show up on screen you assume something good is going to happen. He stopped to sign my copy of Blue Velvet.
Madeline Carroll. She was in Flipped and Swing Vote.

 Director Marc Forster was reluctant to come over but some chanting finally led to his approaching the crowd for some autographs. 
It's a tough call but I don't think anyone looked better on the red carpet than Marisa Tomei. I'd read that she is pretty tough to get an autograph from but she didn't seem to mind stopping for people in Toronto.

Max (son of Anthony) Mingella and Kate (sister of Roony) Mara. I wanted his autograph on my copy of Art School Confidential but honestly didn't even recognize him. Oh well.
 Olivia Wilde at the Butter premiere.
 I don't care what anyone says about Nicholas Cage, he is easily one of my favourite actors and he was so charming and generous on the red carpet.
Michael Shannon plays a lot of creepy dudes. I guess he is just naturally good at it. It didn't stop him though from coming over to the fans. You can tell he's not a hardened star yet because, when you look at his signature, you can actually tell what it says.
Me and Sarah Polley at the Take This Waltz premiere. She was so nice to everyone. A true class act. I hope the movie does well.
 Paul Giamatti more or less being Paul Giamatti. He signed my copy of Sideways.
 Ryan Gosling arrives and causes near pandemonium. You could hear the chants of RYAN for blocks away.

Ralph Finnes emerging from behind the Elgin Theatre looking like he wished he could part the crowd with his dark magic.
In this picture you see Sarah Silverman's reaction to my friend who has just handed her a pen with the lid still on it: "Jesus Christ, do I have to do everything."
 Seth Rogen was very charming and sharp looking. That is publicist telling him that my copy of Zack and Miri Make a Porno was the last one he could sign.
Viggo Mortsenson came, signed as much as he could, went inside and then came back out to sign even more once the movie had started. You have to respect that.
Woody Harrelson showed up stoned out of his mind. I expected no less. Even though he missed my copy of Natural Born Killers I still love him.
Emily Blint stopping for a couple of pictures and signatures.