Nov 27, 2012

Recent Screening Update

I don't know if you've ever noticed the Recent Screenings icon sidebar to the right, but that's where you can keep track of everything I've watched recently and see my ratings and tweet-length (or slightly longer) reviews. 

Here's a little taste of the updates in the past couple of weeks. 'Tis the season of Oscar films and updates are made frequently, so check back often!

Queen of Versailles (dir. Greenfield)
Sharply edited to maximize the bitter comedy, Queen of Versailles is a treatise on everything that is wrong with our society today, shot through the lens of reality television. (A-)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (dir. Chbosky)

Dodging many high-school drama clichés, but not all; heartfelt at its best moments and a bit cheesy at its worst; Benefits greatly from the director’s familiarity with his own source material and Logan Lerman’s star-making turn. (B)

Brave (dir. Chapman & Andrews)
Pixar lite, sure, but it’s still Pixar lite, which is to say a gorgeously rendered, arresting tale from start to finish. It’s a princess story like you’ve never seen before, as fiery as Merida’s locks. (B)

Smashed (dir. Ponsoldt)
It leaves the supporting characters underexplored but in the process, becomes a showcase for one of the year’s best performances in Winstead’s intimate and vulnerable portrayal of alcoholism. (B+)

Life of Pi (dir. Lee)

Absolutely resplendent painting of the ocean, with all its grace and horror, but otherwise muddled with blatant spirituality and intercut with a distractingly mushy framing device. (C+)

Skyfall (dir. Mendes) (thoughts)
One of the best in the long-standing franchise. Craig charms, Bardem repulses and Dench breaks the heart; the action is tense and the girls are fine but the true star of the show is Roger Deakins’s visionary cinematography. (B+)

Nov 26, 2012

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. 
We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. 
But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

 - Anton Ego from Ratatouille

Nov 22, 2012

Thoughts on Skyfall

*Potential SPOILERS ahead*

Things I liked about Skyfall

- Silva. Sure, it's not new to get the hottest foreign actor of the moment to play the villain in a blockbuster - how long before Matthias Schoenaarts is chasing down the hero in an action film? - but obvious as it is, Bardem is an inspired choice. He was Anton Chigurh for god's sake! His slimey, slithering, bleached blond Silva is more a damaged man holding a bitter grudge than a caricature of a monster like so many previous Bond villains. And Bardem, while maintaining the camp factor, gives Silva depth and personality.

- That scene where Silva shows his deformed face.

- Séverine. I mean, wow that woman is attractive.

- Roger Deakins's cinematography. The master of lighting does one of his best works yet, and anyone who's familiar with his filmography knows just what a standard he's set for himself, so that's quite high praise. He gets to show off in sequences light the neon-lit Shanghai tower or the Macau casino surrounded with dragon lanterns, but it's the subtler moments where his true genius is on display; just look at the colour palette when Bond and M get out of the Aston Martin in the Scottish highlands.

- The character driven screenplay: In theory, world domination sounds like a mightier order than getting revenge from your old boss. In practice, personal revenge keeps Skyfall grounded and makes the characters more relateable. The story feels so fresh that the usual clichés can be forgiven.

Things I didn't like about Skyfall

- Eve. She definitely won't go down in history books as one of Bond's most memorable girls. That's not to take anything away from Naomie Harris who actually shines whenever she's on the screen but it's the script that undermines her character. There's really just not enough to her, even though there's obviously potential. I guess a Bond film can't have two female characters pulling the focus and this one chose to put M front and centre.

- The title sequence, which is one of the most exciting trademarks of the franchise, was too fake (in the computer animated sense of the word) and aimless to live up to the song that was attuned to it.

Nov 20, 2012


Grade: B-

My first thought upon hearing that there was a double bill of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock going on in Toronto last night was that it was a disastrous idea. Psycho is in the highest echelon of cinema's greatest and very few films can live up to its level of quality. Sight unseen, a biopic by a first time director at the helm doesn't promise to be one of those films. And having now seen Hitchcock, it is clear that it does not, indeed, come anywhere close to Psycho's cinematic mastery. But the organizers' decision to show the films back to back has to be commended. In retrospect, the double bill might be reason I enjoyed Hitchcock so much. It isn't a perfect film by any means - or even a great film, for that matter - but it works as a sort of unclenching of the fists and letting out a sigh of relief after two suspenseful hours spent in Bates Motel.

Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is just coming off the successful release of North by Northwest when Gervasi's eponymous film opens, but he doesn't get to revel in the spotlight for long. As a reporter reminds him that he's in the twilight of his career despite his recent success, Hitchcock becomes determined to tackle a project that gets his creative juices flowing, something fresh and different. Countless number of projects are on offer but he rejects all of them in favour of adapting Psycho, a gory slasher book by Robert Bloch based on the true story of murders by Ed Gein. Initially, the idea sounds ludicrous to everyone around him but this reaction coupled with Paramount's decision to reject financing the film only urges him further to get the project off the ground. His ever supportive wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), is right by his side as they decide to finance the film out of pocket and risk losing their home.

Nov 15, 2012

Interview: Steve James

Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favourite directors, documentary filmmaker Steve James. He's been a staple of America's documentary scene since his breakout 90s masterpiece Hoop Dreams and I've been a fan of his work as long as I can remember.

I chatted with him about his newest film, Head Games, which is about the prevalence of concussion in contact sports. The premise doesn't suggest as much, but it was incredibly moving and almost frightening in some of its revelations. We also talked a little bit about the new voting structure of the documentary branch of the Academy and his future film, Life Itself, which will be based on Roger Ebert's biography.

The interview is posted here at The Film Exprience and my latest Oscar predictions in the Documentary category are here.

Nov 8, 2012

Stories We Tell

Grade: A-

There’s a moment late in Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s newest film and her first documentary, where Michael, her father, is confronted with the film’s big reveal. He gazes absent-mindedly at her daughter behind the camera, then at the window by his side, and then goes on to say in voiceover narration that he froze upon hearing the news “as he imagines Sarah had when she first heard it.” He’s unaware that the audience has already seen Sarah’s reaction to the same reveal a few scenes earlier. Sarah is anything but frozen. Surprised, sure, but not frozen at all. She is, or at least looks to be, genuinely relieved and happy about it. And she confirms our intuition about her feelings when she later admits that she was filled with joy that she had finally uncovered that secret. That, in essence, is why I’ve fallen so madly in love with her new film. It’s been a few days since I watched it and my mind keeps racing back to it at every chance, remembering every precious little moment.

Stories We Tell is centred on Diane, Sarah’s late mother, who was a theatre and television personality in Canada back in her day. Though “centering” is probably not the correct term. She is the focal point of the titular stories, but there’s nothing cyclical or circular about the way the narrative unfolds. As the title suggests, the structure is formed through interviews with family members and acquaintances who share their recollections of Diane. Polley’s more or less aware of the full scope of her story when she embarks on the adventure to make this film, but instead of telling us her story, she asks everyone involved – her two sisters, two brothers, father Michael (who also narrates the film through a piece he has written about his life with his wife), her mother’s friends and co-stars in a Montreal theatre production – to tell her everything about Diane as if she never knew her at all. From the resulting interviews, she peels back layers of information in ways so surprising that we’re kept guessing till the very last frame.

The strength of the film, however, lies not in the surprises – though there are plenty and they are deliciously scandalous – but precisely in the manner in which Polley tells the story. There are tales of romance, passion, ennui, infidelity and such in every family. It’s in the way Polley presents them to us that gives them warmth and depth. It is the way she forces us to rethink our perceptions of ourselves and our family members that make the film a special delight. Stories We Tell shows us that even those closest to us can often act radically different from what we expect of them and can have big secrets stored in their heart for an entire lifetime without letting anything slide; even when those secrets matter more to us than themselves. This film isn’t so much about the characters but the way they are formed through others’ words, perceptions and misconceptions about them.

Technically, too, Stories is an impressive accomplishment. Mike Munn’s work in the cutting room is crucial to the film’s tone as everything boils down to the order of interviews and the setup of the reveals, and his crisp editing does a great job of bringing everything neatly together. Polley has carefully recreated her mother’s theatre stint in Montreal and manages to integrate the washed out visuals of those sequences seamlessly in the intimately photographed reconstructions of the present time and the interviews. In transferring her bright, gracefully soft aesthetic and her repetitious but sparse approach to storytelling from fiction to documentary, Polley proves herself as one of the most interesting, unique voices in today’s cinema; a filmmaker whose every effort, even if flawed, is incredibly rewarding.

Nov 6, 2012

More Please...

Pedro Almodovar and Blanca Suarez on the set of Los Amantes Pasajeros (I'm So Excited)

Nov 1, 2012

Oscar Horrors: Aliens

Oscar Horrors, Nathaniel Rogers's amazing series on horror films nominated by the Academy, wrapped up yesterday as October ended. I contributed to the series twice, the first of which I already linked to. (Dogtooth, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film)

My second column was about the Oscar-winning Visual Effects of James Cameron's Aliens. It's a prime example of nuts and bolts effects, mostly achieved through mechanics and in-camera editing techniques. Have a read and chime in with your thoughts!