Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: The Wrestler

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

Comparisons have been made between this Aronofsky outing and to the recent JCVD when writing a review for this film, noting the parallels between the two. I didn't keep that in mind while watching this film, but afterwards I thought about it for a bit and I would have to agree. JCVD and The Wrestler both tell the story of people who are down on their luck, almost penniless and are experiencing shattered relationships with loved ones. Interestingly enough, they both star actors who, for all intents and purposes, have been out of the spotlight light for years and have always carried some kind of criticism. Redemption time?

Well, yes, The Wrestler is a film about an aging wrestler, Micky Rourke, who needs a second job at supermarket to get by and attempts to sweet talk a stripper (Marisa Tomei) at a local joint. When he learns that his heart has grown weak and is giving out, there then becomes the matter of his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he'd like to reconnect. From this synopsis, your can probably determine that there isn't much original material to this project. Well, I'd say you're spot on. Regardless, this is a good film. It's a case in which the writing and the acting really carries a film that otherwise would have felt pedestrian. In a pathetic attempt to add absolutely nothing to the discussion already under way about the movie, Rourke is really good. This is a wounded beast of a man who continuously makes the same mistakes that put in him trouble with others. He even admits to them but cannot seem to shake those weaknesses off. I think we've all dealt with specific issues that have plagued us that were probably of our doing and we just had the hardest time dealing with them. Rourke demonstrates a controlled sadness, a sadness for himself and for what he has done to those around him. He's an okay guy but he doesn't seem to know how to handle the big issues and that ultimately became his downfall. The problems he encounters continue to eat away at him and just when it seems like one character (no spoilers, although you can guess who) is likely to give up a little bit of herself for him, he rejects it. For all its shortcomings, he is most comfortable in his current state, regardless of the physical and emotional dangers involved.

Both Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are fine, although it seems the latter is reduced to yelling and whining. Tomei is sweet as the 'stripper with a heart of gold'. Not terribly original, granted, but she serves the story well enough as a little ray of light that is starting to appear in the wrestler's broken down life. It was peculiar however that several scenes that included her began with 45-50 second sequences with her giving either lap dances to customers or dancing on stage. I think Tomei is a beautiful actress and she certainly can put on some moves, but at one point I wondered why Aronofsky kept going back to these shots. We know what strippers do, we've all seen it before you don't have to beat us over the head with 'oh look how she has to debase herself to earn a living that sweet women.'

With all the characters in place and nicely set up, the story develops in somewhat predictable fashion. For all intents and purposes, there are no surprises here. I would say that Aronofsky filmed the actors well however. He rests the camera on their faces often, especially Rourke's. Closeups on the big screen can be quite unkind to an actor who doesn't give a good performance. But with Rourke's beaten up looks and his thoughtful stairs, it works perfectly. This is his show and he says a lot with his face. For all the mud that's been thrown in his face (or that he may thrown into his own face), there is still a very humane, kind side to him. Of course, keeping the camera on the faces of Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood never hurts either.

Despite some of its short comings, The Wrestler is a strong outing, mostly thanks to Micky Rourke. This is much like with JCVD, which had an okay heist plot, but was elevated by the presence of Jean-Claude Van Damme. A good movie overall.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Poll results

Sorry for the delay. The results from the previous showed that most of you would like to see a biopic about President William Clinton. In second place came Teddy Roosevelt. Interestingly enough, there was 1 vote to see a movie about a Canadian Prime Minister. I created that option more as a joke than anything else, but okay.

Review: Let The Right One In

(2008, Tomas Alfredson)

For a vampire movie, Let The Right One In is pretty quiet. Substituting for all out scares and gore is mood and special moments. The film shies away from the more common 'horror' genre and goes for an exploration on the 'horrifying' aspect of vampirism. For the most part, the story is about the bonding that occurs between a young lad Oskar, 12, and a curious and sad vampire girl Eli, also 12 'more or less'. There is a side story of sorts that plays out as well between the friends of a recently deceased man (bitten by you know who).

Let The Right One In is a neat movie in that in packs a good punch but serves it in small doses through mostly quiet scenes. The development of Oskar's and Eli's relationship is sweet in the oddest way. She quickly takes a liking to the boy but unsurprisingly their bonding is a slow process, mostly because she is hesitant to let him in (get it?) to her world. They meet one night in the playground in front their apartment block and display a certain curiosity for one another. Oskar never suspects anything particularly odd about her but she does show hints of interesting behavior, or traits. Only a day after lending her his Rubik cube, she has already solved the puzzle. She can't seem to digest candy. All these, including that 'strange smell' arouse Oskar's curiosity. His innocence and harmless nature arouses hers. Their scenes are pretty well acted, given that we're dealing with child actors, something I'm rarely fond of. Kare Hedebrant as Oskar plays the role very innocently, but never falls into 'cutesy' territory. Lina Leandersson as Eli has the more difficult role of the two leads. She may be a child, but she has seen and committed worse things than Oskar could ever dream of. Finding the right balance between childlike playfulness and animal like barbarism must have been rather difficult. Thankfully she delivers in spades.

The movie certainly doesn't make any kind of attempt at glorifying the vampire lifestyle. In fact, it's almost as if director Alfredson wants the viewer to pity them, to understand them. Other movies have made needless, even if somewhat entertaining attempts at making vampires appear as cool. While there may very well be some people who play with the thought of being a creature of the night, I for one enjoyed witnessing a movie that seemed to show how glum that life must be like. I can't imagine there being any fun in choosing between suicide and sucking the blood of an innocent bystander, and the movie gives no hint that Eli is enjoying herself any more than I would. It doesn't look like any 'bloody' fun. This is another strength in the film's thematic narrative. A movie about vampires is often there to frighten. Let The Right One In refuses to follow that path and instead offers a study (of sorts) into the social behavior of a vampire girl. Sure, she's a blood sucking monster, but as a living being, she still retains many of her young girl traits. There remains a trace of a human aspect in her, as is probably the case in all vampires, although other movies more often than not won't show it. There is one rather logical scene (I felt at least) which shows a newly born vampire and what she thinks of her dubious new physiological status. It's sounds like such a depressing lifestyle and with this film that idea is used to maximum effect. Overall, I found myself pitying Eli, and that way I wanted her and Oskar to become friends. It's a cute story, in a 'I promise I won't suck your blood' kind of way. There have been some negative comments regarding the climax and how it fits into the overall tone and structure of the story. It is pretty intense, but I think it reinforced Eli's feelings towards Oskar well. Director Alfredson has a keen eye for developing character relations judging by his efforts here. I look forward to exploring more of his work.

Eli was only looking for a friend that she didn't need to kill after all. Everybody needs somebody sometimes, right?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Review: Still Life

Still Life (2006, Jia Khang-Ke)

With Still Life, director Jia tells two stories that are common not only because that occur in the same city, Fengjie, but because thematically that are tightly associated with the real societal and demographic shifts emerging from the creation of the famous Three Gorges dam. A coal miner (Sanming Han, a real coal miner) and a nurse (Tao Zhao) return to the city where they once lived, searching for lost loved ones. The city is not far from the infamous Three Gorges Dam, and many of its older areas have been completely flooded. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a series of rather quiet scenes featuring cinematic shots of Fengjie and of the lives of the movie making a living in this city that has seen some radically demographic swings in recent years.

The acting is surprisingly good for a cast filled with non-actors. Nothing is stilted or false, and everyone pulls their own weight nicely. There are a lot of subtleties in the eyes or movements of the characters which convey motives, thoughts and emotions very well. The mere fact that Jia successfully gets effective performances out of his actors, who are, for all intents and purposes, non-actors, would be alone to recommend the film, in addition to its very lyrical nature. But where the movie really shines is in the visual depiction of the location. A lot of story is told merely through the camera work. It is a marvelously good looking film. Many places in Fengjie are featured throughout the movie, which provides the viewer with a fairly intimate look into the story of not only the characters, but of the place at large. The movie moves along very delicately as well. The cinematographic quality of the film is at times jaw dropping. These days in cinema a lot of movies 'go digital' in the creation of artificial worlds and characters. Depending on what kind of story the director wants to tell, this obviously can have its merits. But, personally, it is when filmmakers use high quality equipment to depict real life elements that I get particularly excited. Still Life is a case in when in which Fengjie and its surrounding region look so gorgeous on film it feels life some kind of National Geographic documentary at times. It allows the viewer to take everything at a slow, but productive pace. The movie could practically function as a documentary about life in Fengjie, but it also benefits from the two fictional and touching stories it tells.

Sanming, after arriving in Fengjie, earns a job as a building demolisher. He has left his life as a coal miner and of course needs to start earning some funds. But there was something quite emblematic in seeing the inhabitants of the region take apart these apartments. The times are changing in the region with this large scale project. There are valid arguments that the use of the dam will reduce China's dependence on coal, which, it can't be hidden, is a major contributor to green house gas pollution. China has depended for many years on coal, which is far more dangerous than hydroelectricity to the environment (not to say that the construction of hydroelectricity dams carries no ecological footprint either however). With that in mind, I found there was a very ambiguous feeling about the scenes in which the viewer witnesses these workers, some of whom probably live in the region, helping in the destruction of the homes.

There is a great 2-3 second clip in which the viewer hears a news report regarding the evolution of the Three Gorges dam. The broadcaster mentions how the citizens of the region have committed a 'great sacrifice' to the cause of this project. I thought that was very pertinent to the mood of the film and the mood of what is happening in China right now. It's a country that has truly exploded onto the international stage in recent years in terms of economic performance and how it holds sway in how international politics and economics are dictated. It's project like the Three Gorges dam that can get the ball rolling with regards to job creation and economic booms, not to mention the potential long term environmental benefits (which I believe outweigh the long term ecological footprint of hydro dams, because they do exist). And yet, we're witnessing the destruction of how a town use to live and be itself. It was that ambiguity which I felt that made Still Life particularly interesting.

For all the very real, down to earth elements highlighting the film, be sure to catch a couple rather fantastical touches sprinkled throughout the film. They may come off as odd a first, as they did for me. Jia catches the viewer off guard by throwing in these brief science-fiction elements into the mix. The debate as to what these short sequences bring to the movie can rage on, but they aren't enough to distract thankfully.

Jia Khang-Ka has crafted a fine piece of cinema with Still Life. It features characters and a place that are going through some profound changes. Jia finely tunes his film to give the viewer an honest and believable sense of what shifts exactly are the two main characters experiencing, but also how they fit perfectly into the overarching demographic and economic changes the region is involved in. The two subject matters are intimately linked and this makes for a fascinating viewing experience.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: Chop Shop

Chop Shop (2007, Ramin Bahrani)

The characters of Chop Shop live in New York. But not the glamorous Big Apple most people have visited. Rather, they inhabit a gritty, down and dirty neighborhood in Queens, New York. It's a dirt poor area of town, where people get by by starting what businesses they can. Many children never finished school and in fact, some never even attended any classes at all. The main character for the audience is Ale, played by the young and bright Alejandro Polanco. One could easily make the argument however that Ale represents the constituency of Queens, New York. He is the embodiment of hope, or the result of the failure to fight poverty. We see it through his eyes and live it with him. With no parents to care for him, Ale works and lives in a car repair shop, hence the title of the film. He is but a child, but already he had acquired the gutso and determination to make a living and be independent that others in society still haven't acquired by their early 20s. But then again, Ale doesn't quite live in a society that permits laziness. Find a way to make money or starve.

The business he works for has many rivals on the same streets, and Ale spends most of his days in the street has the bell boy of the business if you will. He asks drivers that pass by what they need done to their automobiles, estimates a price and points them to the garage. But the film shows the viewer much more than that. There is also the matter of his older teenage sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who is nice and loves him very much, but shows signs of laziness and a lack of will to earn a living. Unlike Ale, she quits jobs like teenagers quit boyfriends and girlfriends. Even though he is considerably younger than her in age, and should be younger than her in terms of maturity, it is up to him to look after her. He finds her a job and invites her to stay at his place for free. There is also his friend who hangs around in a few scenes, but he mostly wants to play. Then again, his friend has an uncle who also works in a chop shop, so he doesn't carry the burden of responsibility like Ale does.

When the film came to a close, the first that came to mind was why more American films can't be like Chop Shop? Is there a problem with telling stories like this, because it seems to me they don't come out of the United States very often. Nonetheless, I applaud writer/director Ramin Bahrani for choosing such a project. It is a perfect example of simple, competent, filmmaking and story telling. It may seem like a compilation of scenes stuck together, but there are in fact two stories being told. The first being Ale strive for economic independence. He is saving up to purchase an old ice cream van (or food stand van, I'm not sure) in order to run his own business. The kid can't even be 10 years old but he has big ideas, and it all feels genuine. A real coup by the young actor and director Bahrani. They work the balance between childlike behavior and maturity (with a particular emphasis on the latter) very, very well. The second story being shared is the story of the community itself. The viewer meets several people along the way. It's a community filled with people who are doing whatever it is they can to make the best out of a pathetic social status. It's sad and perfectly admirable all at once, which is a winning combination for the sake of the film. Bahrani makes use of the hand held 'faux' documentary style to show us the neighborhood, and it works well enough. As is always the case when such a technique is used, there are moments when I wondered what in blazes was the problem with holding the camera still for just a few seconds, but overall is doesn't produce any sea sickness. The richness of the movie of course lies in the characters and the environment, and on both accounts Chop Shop is a excellent example of what a relevant and, more importantly, an interesting film can and should be.

There is little doubt that Alejandro Palanco, as Ale, is a gifted little kid. Rarely do child actors demonstrates such a convincing performance. There is nuance, there is charm, both mature and childlike, and there is raw talent. Understandably this is young Palanco's only film role to date given is age, and whether or not he chooses to continue in film remains to be seen, but here he is quite the captivating young actor. His sister, played by Isabar Gonzales is also good, but this is Palanco's show, both with regards to the narrative and the acting skills. It's fascinating to see him change behavior somewhat later on the in the film when he realizes he has failed in his quest to become economically independent (the papers for the food stand van were not gone through thoroughly enough). Feeling betrayed, he really becomes disappointed and frustrated, just like any entrepreneur adult would if he or she realized they received the short of the stick in a business deal. But it's so gripping to see all this happen to a mere child. I think thematically this strengthens the movie as well. As mature as Ale may be, as intelligent as he may be, he is fallible. He is a kid and has not learned everything yet. Adults will and can still take advantage of his lack of experience and business sense. The movie presents this interesting dichotomy within a specific character. This impressive maturity, clearly beyond his years, coupled with a fallibility that makes him all the more human. It is simultaneously joyous and frustrating to watch unfold. No long not ago I shared my top 5 films of the year 'so far' in the appropriate discussion thread, but this film has shaken the ground underneath that list and I don't know where things stand anymore. Perhaps just before New Year's I will re-evaluate that list and post an update. Be sure to expect Chop Shop somewhere on it though.

Face-Off: Gran Torino and Taken

Gran Torino
(2008, Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film. His character, Walt Kowalski, is an embittered Korean War veteran living in Detroit. His wife has just passed away and his sons believe it may be time for the old timer to settle in in a residence. Kowolski, no fool to anyone except himself, vehemently disagrees and wants nothing more than to be left alone in his house. He especially wants nothing to do with that darn Asian family living next door (they are Hmong). But there are gangs about that terrorize the family and Walt eventually, and reluctantly, gives in and decides to lend a hand.

I very much enjoy Eastwood's as a director. If I'm not mistaken he's been frowned upon by a few filmspotters, but I feel he tells interesting stories with a great sense of maturity. For someone who started out as an actor, his movies are fine example of good filmmaking. However, with Gran Torino, he may have misplayed his cards. There are many, many scenes, between Walt and the youngest boy who lives next door, Thao (Bee Vang, who tried to steal his Gran Torino as an initiation step for his entry into a gang) while I admire Eastwood's attempts at going for character development, most of them feel stagy, forced. Young Vang's lack of acting skills doesn't help matters in the least. His body language is stiff and feels fake. In what is apparently his acting swan song, Eastwood is fine, but not spectacular (was he ever such a thing as an actor?). Thankfully, when he gets into action, it's done mostly with words and attitude rather than actual fists (with one exception), which was fun to see. At 78, I'm not sure how comfortably he could emulate Jason Bourne. He still packs a mean mug however.

Of course, gangs have to be involved to move the story forward, which would have been fine, but oh well, I suppose Clint needs to show us he can still kick some nuts. The gang's presence in the film adds a certain cultural layer to the film. It is mentioned at one point how the Hmong youth in the neighborhood tend to be poor and are thus regularly recruited. This serves, in a sense, as the reason behind Walt's slow change of face towards his neighbors. It's nice, if nothing that hasn't been see before. There some funny lines spread around. As words in everyday language, they shouldn't be uttered, unless you actually want to be called a racist bigot. But there is something strangely comical about 78 year old Clint walking into an Asian household and calling them all...well, I'm sure you know a few of them yourselves.

I suppose Gran Torino is alright, but it isn't terribly memorable and it suffers from some hokey acting and some stagy scenes. I dare say I won't remember much about this movie in a few months time. Check it out at your own risk, although you may find things to like about it.

(2008, Pierre Morrel)

Liam Neeson is Bryan Mills, a retired spy of sorts who has quit his job to be closer to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). She lives with her mother Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new husband, a rich and ideal man. Things are evidently sour between between Bryan and Lenore and bla bla bla, the setup is fairly long for an action movie. It's actually not terrible, I just don't think I should spend too much time one it. The point is that when Kim goes to Paris for the summer with a friend, she is kidnapped by women traders. Bryan, who's previous line of work has made him wary of the world and equipped him with a 'particular set of skills', sets out to Paris to find his daughter...and kick some nuts...literally.

Taken is about a really, really, ticked off man. I have always been a huge Liam Neeson fan particularly because he tends to play charming or complex characters. Here, he is on autopilot to destroy absolutely anyone who stands in his way. Certainly a minor shift in tone for a Neeson film. In fact, I'd even say that if Hollywood ever decided to make a Jason Bourne which featured the title character at 55-60 years old, Neeson and director Morrel have beaten them to it. This functions like a Bourne movie. No gadgets, working with wits and quick, intelligent decisions, quick pace and editing (but controlled, unlike another, bigger movie that came a few weeks ago). It was a strange experience overall. I mean, Liam Neeson absolutely ran over almost everybody in this movie. The editing made him look quicker than he probably is in real life, but still, this is something else. Schindler was breaking necks and cracking balls here. This led me to chuckle on a few occasions, which clearly wasn't the point of the film, but I'd rather laugh than be bored. His ingenuity is a bit too much at times, but I suppose that adds some funny charm to the movie.

The fights are relatively well choreographed. They are easy to follow and intense (and funny). Neeson isn't given too much to say or do. He's a nice guy, he just wants his daughter back is all. The screenplay, which has Luc Besson written all over it, features some silly plot points which hint that he and collaborators needed to make something, anything, happen in order to move the story forward, but again, if you're watching this movie is it for the story? I somehow have my doubts. His friend in the French police (Olivier Rabourbin) helps him out a bit, but doesn't do much overall.

Taken moves along a very brisk pace, and if you're curious enough to see the usual classy Liam Neeson drop the gloves in a one man war on slave traders, then look no further. Hey, he'll probably only make a movie like this once, so enjoy!

Neeson pins Eastwood into submission. Both shake hands and enjoy a good whisky afterwards. Taken wins.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Milk

Milk (2008, Gus Van Sant)

Openly and proud homosexual Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), after 40 years of an unproductive life, decides to run for office in San Fransisco. It's a story of trial and error, with many poignant victories and painful losses which occur along the way. Harvey Milk is quite clearly an important American figure in the long and arduous fight for social justice for gays and lesbians. No pressure for Penn, right? His performance is one of the better performances of the year, whether in a U.S. based film or international. And there have been strong performances this year, so that's saying something. What is interesting is that he doesn't even have to really carry the film because the plot is gripping to begin with anyways, but his effort elevates the film even more so. Not too many films openly deal with homosexuality like Milk does (Brokeback Mountain being another one), and everything feels mature and well directed.

James Franco, who plays one of Harvey's two lovers in the film, is very competent as Scott, despite that he isn't given nearly enough screen time. He's calm and wise throughout. He appears fleetingly after their breakup and seems to take on the role of the Harvey's voice of reason, a role that suits him perfectly. This has been an impressive year for Franco and one hopes that he'll continue to explore his acting chops in the years to come. Diego Luna does show some acting chops, but his character is under written and feels a tad 'one note.' That isn't is the actor's fault though. The screenwriters are to blame for that. His character is an oddball and possibly even legitimately paranoid. He behaves in a very needy fashion and demands for Harvey's attention, especially when the latter is hard at work. The audience rarely, if ever, sees Luna's character in another light, which is frustrating since with the way he behaves on screen, it's actually kind of difficult to determine what attracted Harvey Milk to him in the first place. A last special note should be given to Josh Brolin, who plays Dan White, a straight city supervisor who, despite his early allegiance to Harvey, soon becomes a political rival. There is something very subtle in his performance that really should be seen.

The directing is quite good, as the movie moves along briskly but still rests long enough on the crucial moments in Milk's career. Nothing of great significance feels too rushed. The pace is great and one won't see time fly when gripped by this rich tapestry laid out by director Van Sant. He knows the beats that work and what isn't necessary and might drag the movie down. Complaints that the movie spends too much time on the public life of Harvey can be understood, but I suspect that his story is all too unfamiliar for many people (I had no idea who he was until I found out this movie was coming out) so the fact that the story dwells very much on what the man fought for, which lays out the subject matter, and how precisely he fought for it, which lays out the man, is appreciated. Van Sant does a nice job of presenting us who this man was and the impact he had on other homosexuals around the U.S. who were also seeking respect. There are several uplifting scenes throughout the film that depicts the courage and sheer determination these people showed in the face of adversity (most notably the police). When the subject matter is so interesting and the acting so good, none of those scenes feel as if they are pleading for emotional responses from the audience. The movie rightfully earns every one of them. The movie's overall feel does fall into the traditional biopic mold somewhat. The same director gave us Paranoid Park earlier this year, which did a tremendous job at conveying emotion and narration through clever and artistic editing and cinematography. That doesn't quite apply here. This is mainstream friendly filming. Still, it doesn't hurt the film really since the purpose is to tell an important, interesting and straightforward story.

I can hear the cries of 'art house Van Sant is so much better' now. I would be inclined to agree with such an argument. But that doesn't mean mainstream Van Sant is bad though. Milk is a case in point.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Un conte de Noël

A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)

Deck the halls with boughs of holly because brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric) and sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), who haven't spoken to one another in 6 years are coming back home for the Christmas family reunion. Things are in a dire situation because their mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with a rare illness and needs a bone marrow transplant while Elizabeth's teenage son recently attempted to commit suicide. Smells like Christmas to me.

Desplechin has a massive story to tell. So much so that the running time of the film is a surprising 2h30. Then again, this never feels like a typical, Hollywood-esque family Holidays tale. The character relations are tragic for the most part. Henri is the black sheep of the family. His attitude towards those around him is confrontational for the part. He drinks to an excessive degree, is loud mouthed and has a knack for making people uncomfortable, or simply hate him. Anne, played with class by the beautiful Anne Consigny, is under an incredible amount of stress as her relationship with her own son is already strained due the boy's psychological condition. The relationships are complex and very well written. She doesn't need her brother's emotionally destructive behavior having any influence on her son, who is in enough trouble as it is already. She shields her son and herself from Henri therefore. It's a cold maneuver but she sticks by her principals. The movie lets us understand why everything is so bleak (including a terrible death many years ago) and allows for many, many scenes for that plot to thicken and develop. The mother does not hide her reservations regarding Henri, even when speaking face to face with him, and this makes for more than a few juicy scenes. She knows very well that she is far from the perfect mother, displaying cynicism, charm, love and at times despair. Flawed but motherly nonetheless, annoyed but accepting. All this culminates in an emotionally ambiguous final scene taking place shortly after Henri has donated some of his bone barrow to his mother. Along with the sister/brother dynamic, this is one of the better silver screen love/hate relationships this viewer has seen in quite some time.

The editing is also stylish, without ever overdoing it. I won't give too much away, but the film is divided into chapters, or acts, each one beginning with a nifty and effective visual treat. The picture is seen through a small hole surrounded by darkness, with the hole either closing in on itself or growing depending on whether the scene is coming to a close or opening. It feels like the curtains falling down or raising from the stage at the tail ends of acts in a play. The choice of using this technique is poignant for a few reasons. Henri is employed in the theater business after all and an early scene, a prologue if you will, in the film depicts how his sister Elizabeth bailed him out of debt for the last time in a court settlement. These narrative links to theater enhance the visual technique used later on and provide it a lyrical quality.

There are virtually no weak links in the acting department. Consigny, Amalric, Deneuve, Roussillon (as the father, Abel) all put on a class act for the film. This is partly do to the fact they are supremely talented and that each of those parts is well written. There is a depth to all of these characters that provides the film with that extra bit of energy and life to take it to another level beyond the typical dysfunctional family material. It's familiar yet refreshing all at once. Everything feels real and honest.

There are other characters in the film. Another brother and his wife, as well as their cousin. While there were no issues with having them in the film as a supporting cast, the movie, about one hour in, decides to provide those three with their own smaller sub plot. It's not a bad sub plot, but it never carries the weight that the bone marrow/brother and sister story does. In fact, their story only has about 20-25 minutes of screen time for itself, scattered throughout the second half of the film. It's not as engaging as the main focus of the movie and it's introduced after the viewer has invested 1 hour of his or her attention into the mother, brother, sister plot. Had it been provided its own film to breath, then all would be fine, but here it makes the second half of the film feel a bit unfocused at times. The narrative structure isn't hurt that badly, but it is odd to see this plot included so late into the story. Little wonder to movie last 2 and a half hours...

Still, the latter point did not detract too much from the enjoyment there is to be had with A Christmas Tale. Those looking for lighthearted holiday fare should look elsewhere. Despite a few clever lines and some comical scenes involving children, heavy material is dealt with here. For those looking for good drama, this might be the right gift for you.

Review: Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson)

Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a 17 year old, polite and mostly quiet dishwasher boy working at Rodriguez’ (Luis Guzman) funky night club in the late 1970s. He doesn’t get along well with his mother, who firmly believes he his a stupid little boy wasting his life away. But a fortuitous meeting with Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) one night in the kitchen of the club changes Eddie’s life, and eventually his very name, forever. Jack is in the adult film industry, making exotic and highly stimulating porno for the fans. He likes what he sees in Eddie, especially what’s in his pants, and makes him an offer to star in sex films. And thus their partnership begins, and so does this epic movie about life in the sex film industry.

I use the word ‘epic’ for several reasons. For one, the story takes place over the course several years during which time we see the rise and fall of these people, as well as the changes that are brought upon the industry (from showing sex films in theatre rooms to the advent of video tapes). Not to mention that the movie is populated with a host of colorful characters, all related to the porno industry, who all have at least some screen time devoted to them. There is Jack’s wife and famous porno star Amber (Julianne Moore), their younger protégé Roller Girl (Heather Graham), actor and sound system seller Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), actor Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) crew members played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and William H. Macy, and the Colonel (in other words, the producer) played by Robert Ridgeley, to name a few (my boy… or one of them anyways, Tom Jane, even makes an appearance). As the story advances through the years, the viewer is invited to see how the ‘business’ shapes and influences all these people and how they take genuine pride in what they do, despite what some of us may think of porno films. For all these reasons Boogie Nights is a special film. It is an honest, mostly dramatic (with smidgeons of laughs here and there) look at the inner life of a often frowned upon line of work. The movie takes its subject material very seriously. This isn’t a porno film. It’s a film about the business, which it is first and foremost.

The characters and their relations with one another were more than enough to hold my interest. Jack and Eddie, who changes his name to the very sexy Dirk Diggler, get along like peanut butter and bread, that is, until the money and drugs afflict the young man. Their relationship comes full circle in the end, but the time spent on Diggler’s downfall is indeed entertaining, if not as much as his early years in the business. Not everyone is offered a great amount of screen time, but the acting chops save most of the supporting characters. John C. Reilly as Rothchild becomes Diggler’s closest friend and obviously enjoys playing the sidekick porno role very much. This is arguably the best material I’ve seen Burt Reynolds work in, so that must count for a few more points.

Boogie Nights receives a serious audio boost with a smashing soundtrack. The music in films is generally not a top priority when judging a film, but here the 70s and 80s funk, disco and rock fits in perfectly with the setting. It never takes over the scenes either, which is nice. It should be noted that the film contains several tracking shots which follow either one character or several characters as they discuss, dance away at parties, or shoot their wives. These shots are finely executed and succeed in telling parts of the story or setting the mood or tone of a sequence. That is to say, they never feel forced and wanting of particular attention.

If there was one element that irked me, it would be that the plot feels a tad bit mechanical. I suspect many viewers will detect how the story should unfold, since it follows the similar pattern that most ‘from rags to riches’ tales do as well. It’s a finely crafted movie, with good dialogue, an interesting subject matter and a host of gifted actors putting on a true show, but its plot development isn’t the least bit imaginative. Something tells me that such an issue is irrelevant with such a film, but it’s nonetheless an issue that I took note of.

Who doesn’t want John C. Reilly as their best friend anyways?