Sunday, May 31, 2009

The winds are changing direction....

Since the birth of Between the Seats last September, the site hasn't really followed any kind of pattern for the reviews I've written. Even when the Christmas and New Year's holidays rolled around last winter, I overlooked the opportunity to compile a 'Top 10 of 2008' list, or even review all that many films which fought to earn Oscar nominations or awards. It's pretty much been a bunch random reviews for movies from different genres, different directors and different decades.

All that changes in June.

Starting June, 'we' at Between the Seats will start to offer its readers the same 'quality' film analysis, but now the reviews will follow a specific pattern each month. Granted, it's not a major change. In fact, I'm trying to remember right now why I thought the idea would be an improvement on the current format. Regardless, we're going ahead with it anyways. A given month could be reserved for a specific director, a genre, an actor or actress, a country, or what have you.

2009 has been an interesting year in film thus far, so I thought we'd start off the easy way. June will therefore be reserved for all the films watched so far in 2009, regardless of genre or director. Just a neat recap of what has been good or bad so far this year. Each month a poll will be created inviting readers to choose which film theme Between the Seats will tackle the following month.

We're working hard here at the site to keep things as interesting as possible. I hope the new format will please our readers. Many thanks, and always remember that, when the lights go up and the film is over, stick around to discuss it 'between the seats.'


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: The Brood

The Brood (1979, David Cronenberg)


Early Cronenberg is a fascinating period in the filmmaker's career. Many, if not all of his earlier films feature gore, plenty of shock-value, very dark and disturbing tales, but also many psychological complexities and intelligent remarks (many of which are quite subtle, others perhaps less so) about society, individuals and the multifaceted nature of human behaviour and our minds. The Brood definitely has a healthy dose of gore, a particularly dark mood, and at least a little bit of psychological and emotional layers added to the story and characters, albeit perhaps less so than in films such as Videodrome and The Dead Zone.

Frank (Art Hindle) is in the construction business and lives alone with his young daughter, who attends elementary school. Frank isn't divorced, nor has his wife passed away. No, no, his wife (Samantha Eggar) is an institutionalized patient in a very exclusive, very private, and very odd clinic more or less secluded away in the woods, a clinic run by Dr. Raglan, played here by none other than Oliver Reed. The doctor's methods are decidedly strange, as he practice some new form of psychoanalysis which involves hypnotizing his patients into thinking he is people from their past or present. In the case of Frank's wife, Dr. Raglan often pretends he is her mother or father. Frank allows his daughter to visit the mother once a week, but eventually discovers a series of strange bruises decorating the child's body, which leads him to believe that when she is alone with her mother, the meetings aren't always the most pleasant and familial. There is also the matter of the recent brutal murders occuring throughout the town. As you can probably guess, the two threads are indeed intertwined somehow, but I shan't spoil too much for the readers.

Going back to what I wrote earlier regarding the mood in Cronenberg films, The Brood is an appropriately moody film. The circumstances under which the family has been divided, the string of murders that are plaguing the town, the eerie sessions hosted by Dr. Raglan, all this is treated with very bleak undertones. This isn't a happy story and Cronenberg gets that across from minute one. The setup itself is also extremely well executed. The opening scene, which involves Raglan and Frank's wife (although we don't know it at the time) in a psychoanalysis session performed in front of a small audience of doctors and specialists is appropriately bizarre and is a fantastic start to this strange tale. From there on the film wrestles with the 'broken family' storyline for the next half hour or so, and this portion of the film is also effective in displaying in how this emotionally trying and stressful situation is affecting Frank. Art Hindle himself gives a solid performance as Frank, never overplaying the role of the broken father trying to give his daughter a decent life. Oliver Reed is, well, he's Oliver Reed, which theoretically should be enough for fans of his anyways, and he doesn't disappoint here. He's a great doctor Raglan, a man convinced that his methods are a new and effective way at getting to the heart of what may afflict the mentally ill. His determination is possibly leading him to become obsessive with his pet project and very protective of it, even to the detriment of what Frank may want for his wife and daughter. Eventually Frank decides to end the daughter/mother visits in order to protect her. The setup is pitch perfect however. While I thougth the overall mood and tone of the film was deliciously bleak, I won't deny that some of the father-daughter scenes featured some rather stale acting, particularly from the little girl, who seems quite wooden throughout most of the story.

Eventually the plotline involving the murders makes surface and this too is handled well. The murderers themselves, this race of goblin looking children all dressed in children's winter gear, are quite odd and creepy, and while the actual scenes of the murders aren't terribly scary or shocking, it's the aftermath of the killings that leaves a shiver down the viewer's spine. One murder in which an elementary school teacher is the poor victim is particularly gruesome, with her stunned class looking over her beaten and bloody body.

The final 30 minutes or so of the film make for quite an experience. While director Cronenberg is pouring buckets of blood and guts at the screen, Dr. Raglan provides a small hint of what exactly lies behind the horrific events. Somewhat befuddled but ultimately fascinated by his prized patient, Raglan, under pressure from Frank, finally makes his best attempt to explain what role Frank's wife is playing in this nightmare. His reasoning is bizarre to say the least, but then again, the entire film is rather bizarre and isn't making any attempts to hide that. According to the doctor who may be in over his head, Frank's wife, through some evil circumstances, has adopted a biological deformity which enables her to give birth to the little monsters which are terrorizing the town. Her rage, explains the doctor, may be the source of this evil turns of events. What rage? That's where the film becomes a bit muddled, but interesting nonetheless. Is this plot point related to her rage being the result of not seeing her daughter anymore (destruction of the family construct), about being accused for physically hurting her daughter, about her past in which she was a victim of her parent's questionable ways? It's never explained, which can be a positive or a negative. All these possibilities can fit the story when the viewer looks back on what has transpired up until that point, which makes this climax all the more frightening. At the same time, I can imagine a viewer thinking that the explanation lacks anything concrete and only consists of far too loose an excuse for all the evil doing taking place. I'm more inclined to respect the ambiguous nature of the climax as opposed to searching for very specific answers, but what I'm saying is that this is a case where I could understand a viewer's dislike for the murky themes.

The Brood fits quite nicely into writer/director Cronenberg's filmmography. Interesting themes are given the vintage Cronenberg suspenseful and gory treatment. Essentially, if you like the man's work by and large, I don't see how you wouldn't enjoy this particular film. If you are not a fan of his material, than I wouldn't suggest you watch this outing.

Want to read some more on The Brood? Check another review at Bill's Movie Emporium.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: The Young Mr. Lincoln

The Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

Considered one of the great American directors, John Ford was at the helm for a considerable amount of superb productions throughout his illustrious career. His movies are still talked about till this day. The same ca be said for the great actor, Henry Fonda. The two would collaborate on several projects, but the first example of their great work together would in 1939, with The Young Mr. Lincoln, a mostly fictional episode in the life of future president Abraham Lincoln.

While the film sacrifices absolute facts (rarely do any historical films ever succeed at truly bringing history to the screen), Ford's film conveys a much different and equally satisfying movie watching experience: that of meeting and discovering a bit about the famous president before he became the public figure he is remembered as in the Unites States. There aren't very many films that choose to tread this path, with only Olver Stone's W. coming to mind (although there may be more). And even then, W. chose to deliver quick recapitulations of various poignant or comical episodes in the recent president's life. Ford's story opts to present a single episode and through it, explore a little bit about the man, who he is exactly and what drives him to do what it is he does.

Most American films, with some very far and few between exceptions, seem determined to deliver very structured plots. Point A, leading to point B, leading to point C, etc. I never got that sense from The Young Mr. Lincoln. Granted, there is a major plotpoint which occurs, that being the trial of two brothers who stand accused of murdering a man just outside there home one night, with Abe Lincoln serving as their defence lawyer. But even that felt as if it was serving more to the discovery of who the famous man was rather than give the viewer some kind of genuine 'plot' to grab onto. The film, overall, is more a series of sequences, all of which feature Lincoln, whose main collective purpose are to explore the soon to be famous man from Kentucky.

A film such as this one, regardless of the director's talents (which are many), will love or die by the performance of the main actor, in this case the late Henry Fonda. Not being American nor having studied very little United States history, I was, in a strange way, fortunate enough to go into the movie 'cold' as they say. I was somewhat aware that Ford had chosen to tell a mostly fictional story, but I can't say that I was intimately familiar with who Abraham Lincoln, the man, was. I knew he had been president of that country in the 19th century and, rather than leave office peacefully, was assassinated, but that's it. I was therefore left at the mercy of Fonda's performance, which turned out to be a great thing. From the very first scene (a personal favourite of mine), we see a fascinating figure who slowly but surely begins to emerge on the public stage. Fonda's Abe is in fact a rather shy figure at first, perhaps even unsure or unaware of his full capabilities as a public figure. The film opens with Abe delivering a very brief and quiet speech to a small crowd of gatherers in a town in Illinois as he wants to eventually be elected to the legislature. He has his own political views, has his own vision of how the country should be run, but certainly isn't very bombastic about it.

That characteristic plays a major role throughout most of the film in fact. There is an undeniable intelligence, both earned and innate, lying beneath that handsome surface. He rarely, if ever, opts to shout out his view or arguments in the film, to be an overly energetic orator or to rouse a crowd to his side through power rather than ideas. Most of the time, he speaks quite calmly for someone who wants, for one reason or another depending on the situation, everybody's attention. He reasons with the folk. As someone from a small town himself, he knows a lot about the people in the Illinois town where the film is set. His advantage is that, by divine gift and some hard work with his nose deep in books (there is even a scene which clearly shows his fascination with them), he is a cut above them and can hold sway. This holds true during many of the movie's entertaining and intriguing sequences, such as when Abe attempts to calm and reason with a furious mob outside the police station, whose sole desire is to lynch the two accused brother Lincoln wants to defend in court. He gets their attention by placing himself, alone, between the building and the angry troop of people (bravery), then begins to offer up a clever speech with mixes logic, common sense, a respect for the law, a respect for his opponents, and even some self-deprecation. It's a truly great moment, not only for the character of Abraham Lincoln, but also for the actor Henry Fonda, who delivers a brilliant performace throughout the movie. Time and time again, Lincoln demonstrates, whether in court, in his office or while visiting the family of his clients, a sense humility towards his fellow people, but also a shade of intelligence that few can probably match. He is an eloquent man, but he is no snob. He is an educated man, but not necessarily a show-off. He is a public figure gaining popularity, but can still hang out with the common folk. Lincoln, at least in this film, is a fully realized person with layer upon layer of human elements which should interest anybody interested in good writing and excellent acting. Fonda really does deliver an acting class to the willing viewer. Charm, subtlety, intelligence, passion, the man's range clearly had no bounds.

For those looking for a straightforward plot, as I hinted at earlier, you may be a tad disappointed. I suppose the focal point of the film in terms of 'story' is the court case. It takes up the better part of the film's second half and, like so many instances, put Loncoln's persona (and by extention Fonda's talent) fully on display. I did indeed want to discover how the case would unfold and what twists and turns the witnesses at the stand would provide, but it was more to see how Lincoln would adapt to the changing circumstances of the case, to see how far his intelligence and reason could carry him in a seemingly hopeless case. I wasn't so much interested in the actual fate of the two brothers than I was in witnessing Abe do his worst to the other side.

The case itself it settled with a twist that would go on to plague countless other court room dramas (a piece of evidence that the audience was not privy to during the previous hearings which suddenly, pop!, Abe has to offer to the jury to finally sway them), but by then the film, and above all else Fonda's performance had already swayed me into believing this was a fine film. For Ford and Fonda fans, this one shouldn't be missed.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: Star Trek

Star Trek ( J. J. Abrams, 2009)

And so yet another prequel/reboot arrives at all, and I mean all of our local multiplexes. What's so special about this one however? Well, this one is more a franchise that was considered to be dead in the water for one thing. So what, they pulled that off with Batman. Well, as an additional bonus, this prequel/reboot features a time travel story element that not only serves as a plotline, but quite literally plays a part in the evolution of the series. Plus the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and it was a wet Sunday, so why not?

Being as far removed from Star Trek as one can be in my culture, which basically means I have some but not a lot of knowledge regarding the franchise, I was a bit hesitant towards seeing the film regardless of the praise it had received. I was promised something that wasn’t ‘my father’s Star Trek’ (which I never really paid attention to anyways) and, evidently from the tv ads and trailers, an action packed popcorn movie for the summer. I’m not sure about the ‘not my father’s Star Trek’ bit, but I definitely got something that looked like an action-packed popcorn movie that tends to be released at this time of year. The story is a simple, with a young James Kirk (played by Chris Pine) and a young Spock (Zachary Quinto) earnings their stripes as members of a new space exploration shuttle, the U.S.S. Enterprise. Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Sulu (John Cho) also make appearances. Of course, a big movie deserves a big guy. Star Trek gets Captain Nero (Eric Bana), certainly a bad guy, but I’m not sure if he’s a big one however.

I won’t go into plot details too much because part of the fun is seeing how exactly the filmmakers use the time travel plotline to put a twist on the supposedly established Star Trek universe and timeline. Even for someone who is as Trek allergic as myself, I found the plot twist to be quite amusing and clever. It even involves a character who…well, no spoilers from me. As ridiculous as the plot is, which involves captain Nero and his band of nasty miners from a race of Romulans who travel back in time to avenge the destruction of their planet, I ultimately forgave the film because it still manages to be quite entertaining.

A case in point is how it treats its characters and their development into the men and women they will ultimately become in the future. Sure, there is James Kirk and Spock who must learn to become leaders and effective crew members, all the while fighting those dastardly Romulans, but through it all the movie is injected with a remarkable amount of comedy. And this wasn’t a bunch of weird Star Trek jokes that would have flown over my head (apparently there were plenty of those too though. I read about a couple and indeed, I have no freaking clue what they mean). Abrams his team of writers took the liberty to make sure the tone never became too serious. In fact, there are plenty of scenes in the movie that are simply downright comedic, nothing more. I don’t know how hard core Trek fans are reacting to this, but I had a blast with many of the Kirk scenes, particularly near the beginning of the film, which featured him as a very brash, overconfident pain in the neck. A lot of it was pretty darn entertaining and funny. Even some of the early Spock scenes had their fare share of laughs, this despite the fact that Spock is supposed to be the most emotionless member of the crew! I cannot say I would have expected a Trek film to offer so many laughs, but on that level at least, the film delivers in spades. The running joke about what Uhura’s first name is was a favourite of mine, and its ultimate conclusion made me laugh pretty hard.

That isn’t to say the film is without some good character moments. When the personalities of Kirk and Spock collide, one can be sure that flares will ignite. We know that in the end they will learn to trust each other and even grow fond of one another. But while there are clearly no surprises as to what the conclusion will be, there is a lot of fun to be had in seeing how this relationship comes to be. Again, a lot of it has to do with the time travel element so I can’t get into the details, but overall I thought the birth of their friendship, which pretty much requires the entire film, was rather neatly done. Scotty, played mostly for laughs by the wonderful Simon Pegg, is also awarded some great little scenes, most notably when he first makes his appearance on the deck of the Enterprise. Special mention should be awarded to the performances of the two leads in the film, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Both play their roles with the right attitude and range, depending of course on what their characters demand. Quinto has several sharp and funny lines, but because he is the emotionless Spock, they are mostly delivered in a very dry manner, which, in an odd way, makes those lines all the more entertaining. Pine brings the right amount of swagger to his role as Kirk, without ever overdoing or becoming overbearing. There are scenes when he clearly loses or becomes the receiving end of a joke and he plays on those levels accordingly. Bana, as the villainous Nero, is unfortunately rather forgettable even though he is an actor I usually enjoy. His plot is sort of cooky and I never felt his presence even mattered. When a scene involved his character, I was usually longing to return to Kirk, Spock and the rest of the gang.

Many of the reviews have praised the special effects and the action in the film and rightfully so. This was one of the rare big budget action films I had seen the theatre lately during which I was never at a loss when the explosions started. I find a lot of big action movies these days move at a neck breaking pace, which ultimately makes for a frustrating experience. I don’t find ‘being lost in the chaos of the battle’ a fun filmmaking technique (I’m talking to you Quantum of Solace team). Here things felt a bit more controlled than usual, which allows the viewer to savour the moments, to savour the hard work that went into creating these worlds and action set pieces. There were several shots in the film, particularly the exterior shots in space with all the shuttles, friendly or not, that had me gazing in wonder at the screen. There really is a remarkable amount of detail to the effects in the film, which alone is worthy of praise, but because the filmmakers use their camera wisely and with proper pacing and edits, we can really appreciate it all. As a movie goer who enjoys action films with special effects (although one probably wouldn’t know it judging from the kind of films I review at Between the Seats), I can’t possibly stress this enough. The only action sequence which didn’t impress featured Kirk and Sulu fighting off Romulans on some kind of mine digging rig in the sky. A tad unnecessary I felt. Plus, why were they fighting with swords? Doesn’t Star Trek have those lasers that can be set to ‘kill’?

Do I want to start watching Star Trek episodes now? Nope. I’ve seen a handful enough of films and episodes to know what to expect from them. That’s why I stopped watching them in the first place. Did I enjoy this blockbuster summer popcorn version of Star Trek? You bet. The plot is silly, the villain is rather boring, but overall there is a whole lot to like about the film if you are the mood for a good old fashioned summer action film. Fun characters, a healthy dose of comedy and some truly impressive special and visual effects make for a surprisingly fun Star Trek entry.

I can’t believe I just typed that phrase.

Review: 5 Minutes in Heaven

5 Minutes in Heaven (2009, Oliver Hirschbiegel)

I tend to focus a lot on the directors when I review a film, but this is one instance when the focus could be placed far more on the writer, in this case Guy Hibbert. Hibbert, inspired by the the real life stories of two men personally involved in the violent conflict that plagued Northern Ireland in the 1970s, chose to write a story that mixed both fact and fiction, intentionally (I listened to a recent interview with the writer on an arts program on the BBC, which is basically how I came to discover the film in the first place).

Alistair Little, a young newcomer to the UVF (Northern Ireland's Protestant and illegal armed force) is asked to perform his first kill. Equipped with a pistol and accompanied by some of his friends, they drive one night to the home of their target. The kill is performed mercilessly and quickly, but Alistair realizes that someone was watching: the victim's little brother, Joe Griffen. Alistair and his co-horts flee the premises, leaving Joe Griffen, only a young boy, standing there in shock. All of that is true. The twist occurs years later when, by some bizarre and possibly cruel twist of fate, both Alistair (now played by Liam Neeson) and Joe (James Nesbit) and invited to meet face to face on a television show that appears to specialize in awkward meetings and interviews like this. Alistair is now some sort of councillor for people trying to cope with their past mistakes such as violent crimes and Joe Griffen is basically a nervous wreck. Flashbacks show how his mother, upon learning that Joe was present at the scene of the crime, continuously scolded him for having not intervened. On the way to the location of the shoot (courtesy of a personal driver provided by the tv show), Joe is lost in his thoughts and begins to display some obvious nervous ticks. Alistair (also privileged with a personal lift) appears to be perhaps less nervous on the surface by not displaying any evident twitches, but he is no less worried about what the encounter may have in store for the both of them. Both arrive at a marvelous estate where the show will be taped and are kept in seperate rooms until the beginning of the shoot. What will happen?

Running at barely 90 minutes, 5 Minutes in Heaven is a curious little film. It explores the anxiety of two people whose fates have come crashing together in the most strange and uncomfortable of circumstances. The events that has their lives intertwined is one of pain and sorrow. Alistair performed the killing to earn recognition, to become part of an exclusive group. Today, he is a changed man who of course deeply regrets what he has done. But, as the movies like to remind us so often, there is no escaping one's past, and Alistair's past has returned to haunt him. Undaunted by still very, very cautious, he has accepted the invitation. In the case Joe, we have a man scarred in a completely different way. He has been victimized in two ways. First, by witnessing the gunning down of his older brother, and secondly, by the emotional and psychological repercussions such an event has had on him, not simply by the horrific night itself, but by the punishing attitude received at the hands of his mother in the years that followed. He has come to the event with, naturally, a completely different mindset, but also a hidden agenda...

The two lead performers, in this case Liam Neeson and James Nesbit, offer two greatly disparate style, both of which are effective in their own way. Notwithstanding the strange and possibly silly premise of the setting, one can accept these two characters, their behaviors and attitudes towards one another and the television show. It's quite interesting to see these two people prepare themselves mentally and emotionally in the hours and minutes leading up to the shoot. Neeson's Alistair offers a very calm demeanour, but with clear undertones of deep, sorrowful regret. Nesbit's Joe is a man bent on finally unleashing all the anger and mourning he has suffered throughout most of his life. The little ticks he shows and his reactions to others around him are brilliant and perfectly exude what a man in his position must be going through. This is a television show after all, the people there are working to earn a living (and high ratings possibly). They keep preparing him with explanations on how the show will proceed and makeup, whereas Joe himself is simply consumed by this unrelenting ferociousness. He tries to respond politely to their queries and comments, but it is clear that his more basic, instinctive emotions are getting the better of him. It makes for a host of awkward and intense moments that help drive this portion of the film. It should be added that with Joe being the more ecstatic of the two main characters, a bit more screen time is awarded to him than to Alistair. Anamaria Marinca, who garnered a small amount of fame last year (especially over on the Filmspotting message boards) for her role in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, even has a small role as one of the aids on the tv show.

This section of the film (the first being the extended prologue when both men were young and the third being what happens after the attempt to bring them together on the show) has some odd moments. Not 'odd' maybe, but confusing in that I was at times unsure as to what the film was driving at. Sometimes it was an intimate look into the emotional state of this Joe character, who clearly is losing control of himself, and there were other scenes which seemed, to me at least, as if the film were poking fun or making a statement about how the media treats matters like this. The behaviour of the producer especially, the way he talks to Joe as they ready him and a few other details had me wondering if the film was trying to kill two birds with one stone (an indie drama and a social commentary film). I wasn't entirely sold on the moments that appeared to hint at the commentary, but thankfully they were far and few between in the grander scheme of things.

I won't give any more away, but the film does not end with the television show. A new meeting is set up Alistair himself in the months afterwards, which leads up to the film's curious and strangely fun conclusion. I really don't want to give it away, but suffice to say that while I thought the climax was a bit at odds with everything that came before, I didn't mind it that much.

5 Minutes From Heaven
is an interesting look into how a violent past can affect those involved for years to come in more ways than one. Yes, the film deals with people involved in some way or another with 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland, but the same principles could be used for people around the globe who have had to suffer from the barbaric acts committed by others. Anger, revenge, remorse and forgiveness are universal and can therefor touch us all. While there may have been a few brief moments when I thought the film's tone was a tad off, it is still strong effort by writer Guy Hibbert and director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who has a knack for choosing fascinating projects (Downfall, Das Experiment

Disney Marathon: Saludos Amigos

Saludos Amigos (1942, writers Homer Brightman, Ralph White et al.)

As conflict in many regions of the globe became more deadly and pronounced in the wake of WWII, United States President Franklin Roosevelt implemented what was officially known as the Good Neighbor Policy towards the countires of Latin America. The goal was to build and preserve strong diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with their southern hemisphere neighbours. Pan-Americanism, support for local leaders, supported training for local national guards and the strengthening of economic ties. Rather than opt for more draconian, even military strategies, the United States wanted to preserve its influence and what support it had through…let’s call them ‘kindlier means.’ This included cultural penetration. A major moment of this came when, with the help of State Department loan guarantees, Disney and his fellow artists did a goodwill tour down in South America. They enjoyed the cultures they explored and the people they met, which led to the birth of a very South American centric film, Saludos Amigos.

Finding inspiration in what Disney and his crew learned and saw, his crack team of artists constructed a short animation film split into 4 distinct episodes, with the overall theme of a South America visit tying them all together. Interspersed between these animated episodes is recorded video footage of Walt Disney and his team visiting these varioud locations. Interestingly and clearly as part of the Good Neighbor Policy, Saludos Amigos premiered not in the United States, but in Rio De Janeiro in 1942. North Americans would have to wait until 1943 to see the film for the first time.

Is it any good though? In a way, yes it is. The animation, while perhaps not displaying the flair and stunning detail of Bambi, is still very, very competent and works well with all the colourful places and people the crew met down south. The clothing, the nature, the sunny days, the carnival in Rio, all these are wonderful aspects of the continent that lend themselves nicely to a fun Disney cartoon. The mini stories themselves are sprinkled with good doses of comedy throughout, which is mostly fine. I wasn’t expecting Disney Studios to give the viewer an uber realistic depiction of life in South America anyways. I went in expecting some looseness, some frivolity and nice animation.

The first episode has Donald Duck visiting Lake Titicaca in the Andes (Peru/Bolivian border), sight seeing, meeting the locals and suffering through a frustrating experience with the llama he rents. Not a whole lot made much sense. The llama responds to commands not spoken, but played by flute. This leads to a cute, if completely ridiculous scene. I did however enjoy the sequence when Donald and his llama are crossing a shabby little wooden bridge across two mountains. I won’t say what happens, but it’s pretty funny.

The second episode has a Chilean baby plane named Pedro flying across the Andes to pick up mail in Mendoza when Papà plane and Mamà plane cannot make the trip due to technical malfunctions. While not as funny as the first episode, I very much enjoyed the narration. He is an active narrator since he isn’t telling us a story from the past but rather witnessing the action on-hand with the audience. Thus, when things start to go wrong for little Pedro, the narrator gets frightened and starts urging the little plain onwards. I thought it was a nice touch. Along with the final episode, I thought this one had the best animation, mostly due to the few moments when the giant mountain with a face carved in it makes its appearance. For whatever reason, I thought that was pretty neat. The storm that ensues is also incredibly well realized, although after the quality rainfalls we’ve seen in Dumbo and Bambi, that was probably to be expected.

The third and arguably the best episode has an American cowboy played by Goofy transplanted to the pampas in Uruguay to learn how to be a gaucho (essentially the Latin American version of the cowboy). I thought this episode was neat for several reasons. First, Goofy has long been my favourite ‘staple’ Disney character, so if he’s in a story, I’m usually sold. But there were other little details about this one that I enjoyed. When goofy is stripped of his cowboy gear and given the traditional wear of the gaucho, the narrator pronounces the name of every article in Spanish and, in case anyone doesn’t understand it, the screen actually points out in lettering what each article is in Spanish. This isn’t Spanish 101 by any means, but I thought that was a neat touch (I know some Spanish so it was fun to see which articles I was familiar with and not). Whenever a sequence in the episode changed to another, the picture would roll over or slide away. That in of itself is not spectacular, but the filmmakers have the sliding or rolling motion influence Goofy and his horse. If it slides diagonally from down to top, Goofy and the horse are seen tackled by the moving frame of the picture and lifted upwards. I thought that was pretty funny. There is also a replay slow motion sequence that was good for some belly laughs.

The final episode is a bit of an oddity, but still kind of amusing. It has an artist render the episode itself (film within a film kind of technique) with Donald Duck, now in Rio de Janeiro, meeting up with a big fan of his, the parrot José Carioca. José, honoured to be in Donald’s presence, invites him to a night on the town and to learn samba. Like 1SO wrote, there isn’t a whole lot going on in this episode. We don’t really see them have a ‘night on the town’ In fact, most of the episode is spent with the first meeting between the two as the unknown artist is drawing them up. Still, I liked José enough and his pronunciation was nice and clear, so I could pretty much figure out what he was telling Donald (while the latter was standing there searching through his dictionaries. Ha ha!). Not to mention that the episode is accompanied by a stellar soundtrack.

All in all, maybe this one is a little bit forgettable in the grander scheme of things, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t good. There is certainly stuff to like. The quality of the animation, the comedy, the will of the star tourists to explore the region, the attempt of the film to show off some Spanish, etc. I liked it, but it’s not something I’ll be going back to time and time again.

Review: Two Lovers

Two Lovers (2008, James Gray)

Ah, the love triangle. Man is single. Fortune has man meet a pretty girl. Soon thereafter, another pretty girl comes into his life and before you know it, emotions and devotion all become...rather confusing for our main character and the objects of his desire. It's an old tale that has been told time and time again, and so when faced with a film which tells such a story, its merits and quality all come down to how well the movie deals with the subject matter.

Such is the case with James Gray's most recent effort, Two Lovers, which hasn't been released with much fanfare this year, although movie buff circles have taken notice and shared both negative and positive reactions (such as this recent episode of Filmspotting). Two Lovers has Joaquin Pheonix as Leonard (beardless and not acting so crazy unfortunately), a mostly kind and benevolent Jewish man who suffers from bipolar symptoms. Having recently split up with his fiancée, he has moved back in with his parents in New York. His parents him love him dearly and even saved him a job at their dry cleaning business. As a friend of the family is soon to take over the business, Leanord is introduced to their daughter, the sweet and lovely Sandra (Vanessa Shaw). She has a 'cute girl who lives next door' air about her, and what's more, she is Jewish just like him. A match made in heaven it seems. The only problem is that Leanord soon finds himself falling for the actual girl next door (almost. One floor above in fact), Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a sexy and adventurous blonde who is currently in the midst of an affair with a married man. She and Leanord get along very well, only she sees him more as a brother than a potential lover, whereas poor Leonard is clearly smitten by her. He likes Sandra alright, but she is too plain. Michelle...that's more of a catch, more of an adventure.

This was my first James Gray film (I skipped 2007's We Own the Night) and I enjoyed it tremendously. The storytelling in the film is both lyrical and poetic. Instead of rehashing a dry, tired story, director Gray gives us a beautiful film, whose qualities can be found on several levels. At the forefront of the movie is course the actor Joaquin Pheonix, who delivers a surprisingly strong performance. Having seen him in some other films, I was aware that he could certainly act, but here he displays a wide range of emotions and talents. His character is funny, charming, sad, troubled and head over heels in love. Pheonix plays every note perfectly. He isn't an empty character at the center of a story. Rather, he is fully fledged and his performance is one of his best, without a doubt. Gwyneth Platrow, whom I believe doesn't receive the credit she deserves, is also very strong here. While her character isn't cursed with a psychological affliction like Pheonix's, hers is given a shade of complexity nonetheless as she is caught in a predicament. Hoping that her current lover will leave his family, she also has to deal with the increasingly obvious fact that Leonard is falling for her. Paltrow plays the loose party girl very well, and while her character might not be the classiest, the performance itself is proof that she has plenty of class as an actress with plenty of range. The one member of the top 3 players who, unfortunately, gets the short end of the stick is the lovely Vanessa Shaw. It's not that she isn't good, because she is. The problem lies more with what the writing has given her to do as an actress. She shows up for not more than maybe 25 minutes of the entire running length, and while is clear that her character Sandra fancies Leonard, I was wishing the film would explore more of that half of the love triangle. As it stands, this feels more like a Pheonix/Paltrow film than it does a Pheonix/Paltrow+Shaw one. I think most of the scenes involving Leonard and Michelle are great, but in the end maybe I didn't feel the entire weight of a real love triangle. Still, Shaw and Pheonix are given one superb scene during which they make love for the first time while a CD of opera plays in the background. Great stuff.

Gray's film certainly deals with the emotional toil experienced by these characters (2 of them at least). At times they feel as light as a feather, at other moments as if they had just been gutted. The reason this works works so much is because it feels real. When we break up, when we get into an argument, when are torn between people, when we want to attract the full attention of the person we desire, there are so many passionate emotions that arise out of those situations and Two Lovers plays on that theme to the fullest extent. The soundrack, which features some opera and snappy jazz, is terrific and sets the tone very well for a great number of scenes. Even from a visual standpoint, while the film doesn't do anything extraordinary, the camera is often placed at the right angle, with terrific lighting and shadow to convey whatever narrative and emotional elements a scene needs to get across. And there were a countless number of scenes that were successful at either telling the story, bet it to explore the intricacies of the characters or to move the plot forward. The nightclub scene, the love makig session between Leonard and Sandra, the opening during which Leonard attempts to commit suicide by jumping in the river, the restaurant scene with Leonard, Michelle and her lover (played by none other than Elias Koteas), the climax, etc. Whether the tone of a given scene was that of melancholy, joy, frustration or sadness, it almost always fired on all cylinders. I could go on, but I'll keep this as short as possible.

Two Lovers takes a tired old tale and makes an emotionally charged and mature film out of it. From the directing to the acting, the film represents some of the best in what love stories have to offer. There is no fairy tale aspect to be found here at all. In fact, most of the film carries a darker, rather than a happier tone, but do not be mislead in believing that there is no love at stake here. While I still have yet to see a significant amount of 2009 pictures, Two Lovers is, thus far, at the top of my list.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: The Boys From Fengkuei

The Boys From Fengkuei (1983, Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Even before he became the world reknowned and admired director he is today, Hou Hsiao-hsien was making intimate films that invited viewers to peek into the daily lives of ordinary people. Rather than being mundane, Hou capitalizes on the roller coaster of emotions that many of us can experience on any given day, caused by a great variety of events and encounters. Translated to film, it makes for a very realistic and often emotionally satisfying movie watching experience.

A case in point would have to be his 1983 effort, The Boys From Fengkuei. Spanning a few months in the lives of three close teenage boys, the film details their experiences as friends, hooligans, employees in a factory and loiterers. As the title suggests, this tight group of 3 are from the town of Fengkuei and seem to spend much of their days hanging around not doing much. Boys will be boys after all and eventually they get into some trouble with some rivals (and the law). They don't have a lot of money and are clearly aimlessly waisting the spare time away.

One of them has a family member living in a city not too far who can maybe hook them up with an apartment to live as they look for a job in any kind of factory that might accept them. The plan's execution starts out nicely, as the family member does indeed set them up in a relatively cozy place where all three can stay. What's more, they do in fact find a job at a factory in town. They soon make friends with their next door neighbours, a young couple not much older than them.

To go into any more details of the plot would be spoiling the film. As I stated above, what Hou often does well as a director is take what might appear on paper as potentially mundane and boring sequences and weave them together to create an interesting chapter in the lives of whomever his films is about. The Boys From Fengkuei isn't much of an exception to that trend, even though it is one of his earliest works. I guess you could say the trend began with this film. The three buddies are often quite fun to see roam around and find stupid or funny things to do. The banter between them is pretty good and it's clear that even though they might tease and slap one another around often, the teases and slaps are mostly affectionate. Well, there is one brief moment during which two of them really get annoyed with each other, but for the most part they stick together closely.

The young lady from the couple next door made for an intriguing character. Her partner is often away (usually at work), so she gets to spend a lot of time with the three boys. One could be forgiven for guessing that she would create a split in the camp, with one or several of the lads taking a particular liking to her, thus creating conflict amongst each other. While one of them clearly does begin to feel an attractiveness towards the girl, Hou retreats from falling into any cliché romance episodes. The main weapon against that lies in the fact that the girl truly does love her partner, and therefore wouldn't return any deep feelings towards any of the to begin with, which kind of makes the crush one of them has on her all the more sad and strangely satisfying. It's these small, naturalistic sensibilities that Hou brings to the film that gives it some life.

While I think the director has made better films with slightly more interesting characters later in his career (Flight of the Red Balloon being a great example), I still liked Boys From Fengkuei for all the small quirks and details it allocates its central group of teenage boys. They are in a transitional phase of their lives, meandering between immaturity, with scuffles in the sreets, getting piss drunk at night, and simply acting like clowns in front of others, and slowly but surely finding their ways into adulthood (first jobs, attractiveness to the opposite sex and enlistment into the army). With maybe the exception of the army enlistment part, us men of all gone through this phase in our lives, and although we may not have come from lower middle class families in Taiwan, there are more than enough similarities between what these three lads go through in the film and what you and I probably did as well in our youth. For that reason alone I consider The Boys From Fengkuei a good film. There is one dramatic event that occurs late in the film however, and I won't deny that perhaps I wasn't completely sold on it (or at least on how it fit into the movie), but what's one misstep in an overall good film?

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien would go of course to create any more films that were loved by movie buffs around the world, but it was interesting to see this earlier work of his and discover the similarities it has with some of his later material.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Le Bonheur

Le Bonheur (1965, Agnes Varda)

What a trippy little film. After seeing two films from the great Varda (La Pointe Courte and now Le Bonheur), I must confess that I very much like her cinematographic sensibilities. The way she uses the ageless theme of love in her films is what really clinches it for me. In La Pointe Courte, the viewer was privy to the juxtaposition of the harsh economic and social realities afflicting a small French fishing town with a very private discussion between a husband and wife about where their relationship may or may not be heading. In addition to the confident and attractive camera work, I thought that juxtaposition was rather thought provoking (I elaborated a little bit on that in my review). With Le Bonheur, Varda this time confronts the viewer with a direct challenge to the commonly (at least in the West) accepted monogamous relationship. While it is evidently a film that merits repeated viewings, I'll still share some initial thoughts and reactions I had.

First and foremost, my immediate reaction was that this is a very small, but exquisitely made film. It begins in such strange manner. The family, led by the fine actor Jean-Claude Drouot as François the father and husband, is spending a lovely Sunday afternoon in the park for Father's Day. The music accompanying this introduction is beautiful, the colours really pop on the screen, the wife is happy and beautiful, the kids are having a joyous time, even the other people in the park are gay and merry. For a moment I was seriously wondering what in blazes Varda was trying to accomplish other than to seduce the viewer into some kind of false sense of security within this heavenly universe. Surely she will pull the rug from under my feet at some point. She does eventually do this when François encounters the lovely Émilie (Marie-France Boyer) at the postal office, but not after setting up this world of genuine love and happiness. I never once doubted that François was happy and very much in love with his wife, which made the initial flirtation with Émilie all the more provoking, or at least more interesting. Incidentally, I agree with worm on how well played out their initial meeting is. I love the little smile and tilt of of the head Émilie does as she glances at François as he uses the phone booth. Varda has created this man who has such a 'generous' (I guess) capacity to love, that he can genuinely not only be attracted to two different women, but show them both tenderness and compassion, possibly even love (which he claims on several occasions). This was decidedly different from the love triangle stories we watch so often.

Several people in this marathon of pointed out how this ecstasy of love is a challenge to the so called monogamous relationship. I agree with this sentiment, although, as I watched the film, I never felt as though Varda was clearly trying to feed me with that kind of thought or challenge. Yes, I can see how the film fits into that mold, I'm not disagreeing with that argument. Personally, Varda already had my attention with her sense of style and characterization. François is, in many respects, a very likeable character. The man is full of life, he almost always has a grin on his face, and, from what little we see, he's a pretty good family man as well. It just so happens that he possesses so much love, all ready to be spread around, that he's cheating on his wife. The catch is that he doesn't even see this as cheating, which I found extremely compelling. Essentially, I didn't feel anything was heavy handed in this form of storytelling. I simply went along for this ride, regardless of whether or not Varda had some kind of agenda. The movie could have been about something entirely different, and I still would have enjoyed it for its story and characters. What fulfilled my attraction to the movie was how, even once François has begun his flirtation and subsequent relationship with Émilie, Varda preserves this light, practically happy and pleasant tone to the film. With one glaring exception near the end, the film never adopts a dark tone, despite the common perception of what François is doing, namely, that it is taboo and vile.

Which brings me to the film's style, be it the cinematography, music or editing. From the first frame to the last, there were so many things that hooked me here. First and foremost, I learned that this was Varda's very first colour film. My goodness, did she ever take that visual element to its full potential. From the very get go (the Sunday in the park scene I mentioned earlier), everything in the movie looks vibrant and stunning. This pallet is preserved throughout the film, therefore making the movie very pleasant to simply 'observe'. Director Varda uses several interesting visual cues when making cuts. Every so often when a scene would change from one setting to another, rather than have the picture fade into one another, it fades to a rich colour for a brief moment and then actually fades into the next scene. I have only watched the film once so far and sadly haven't picked up on any potential thematic cues hidden in that technique, from just from a more elemental and artistic standpoint, it looked very cool. I also very much enjoyed how the film would cut very sharply and briefly to another image during a conversation. Sometimes the cut was to what a character was imagining, other times it may have been to something a character noticed when walking in a room, etc. This was such a great tool to portray something very real and human, that is, our ability to require only split seconds to think about something or to take a photograph in our minds. Someone tells you a story or describes a person to you, your mind immediately conjures up a picture, a visualization. You will sometimes make a mental note of your surroundings, sometimes for something unique, other times for something completely useless or random. I'm not entirely sure how often this technique really enhanced the storytelling (although there were a few times when it did), but I still felt that is was pretty nifty. A great example of a purely visual, cinematic technique to bring a fascinating human trait to the screen.

A great piece of filmmaking that many a film buff should check out, especially if you aren't intimidated by subtitles (Ha! I didn't need them!).

Only two Varda films in my repertoire, but both are more than sufficient for me to say that she's my kind of storyteller, both from a thematic and purely visual stanpoint. Of the two I've seen specifically, I liked Le Bonheur more.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Still Walking

Still Walking (2008, Horikazu Koreeda)

On a scorching hot day, a family gathers together at the grandparents' home on the 17th anniversary of the tragic death of one of their own. Although at first glance the occasion seems to be a rather pleasant one, with family members seeing one another for the first time in quite some time and enjoying one another's company, very subtle ill feelings and differences are shown between certain family members, most notably between the grandfather, a former doctor who worked hard all his life, and his son Ryo (Hiroshi Abe), a struggling artist of sorts and who has recently fallen in love with and married a widowed mother. While whatever bitter emotions or regretful thoughts never fully explode over the course of this special day, it becomes increasingly obvious that there are many things are not being said, but rather quasi hidden beneath certain subtle actions and falsely innocent throw away lines and comments.

It's with patience and care that Koreeda paints this family portrait. A bit like another film I reviewed recently, Nostalgia for the Countryside, there are clear signs of raw emotions stirring underneath the pot's cover, but they never result in any overly dramatic antics in the film. The characters all have a certain sense of pride that wouldn't permit such behaviour. But along the way, every small moment hen an awkward comment is made, there is unquestionably a discomfort or frustration that can be read on the faces of the character on the receiving end of the blow. When Ryo finds his father and son together in the old man's study, he discovers that the grandfather is encouraging the young boy to become a doctor, just like himself. The grandmother makes a handful of bizarre comments about drinking, windows and children that soon irk Ryo's new wife. I won't get into any more of these scenes, but suffice to say that there are certain long suffering issues that this family needs to deal with.

But this isn't a particularly dark movie despite the description I've provided above. They may have issues, but they are family that shows love after all. There are several instances that bring display potential richness and pleasure that only family gatherings can conjure up. Director Koreeda is content with showing the audience the little moments that characterize these kinds of family gatherings. Members cooking with each other, children from different different sides meeting up to play, old stories brought up once again, etc. It's all executed here quite naturally, which is a credit not only to the directing, but also to the acting. The cast is for the most part very good, with maybe a few personalities not resonating as much, but mostly because they aren't awarded sufficient screen time to develop and strike me, such as the chap whom I assumed was Ryo's brother in law. I was unfamiliar with all of the players here but I easily got the sense that they were indeed family members with their own histories and relations. I was under the impression that a lot of writing and preparation had gone into the development of these characters, thus lending the experience a very authentinc feeling. Either that or these aren't filmmakers but rather magicians. It was sometimes in the actions and at other times in the dialogue, but I felt that I was very much privy to a real family's day together. There are several funny lines, particularly earlier in the film, that enhance the setting very nicely.

The writing that went into these characters was impressive, especially the grandmother. She is a sweet lady for the most part, but there are times when she'll say something that doesn't quite sound right and I was left wondering if she there as any hidden malice behind the words or if she had merely spoken her mind without ever once trying to hurt anyone. There is one moment late in the film however that shows that on one particular issue, grandma can show a bad side.

Apart from the final scene, which I don't feel was all that necessary, I very much liked Still Walking. At times I felt there was a certain Rachel Getting Married vibe (minus the wedding and the hand held camera technique) Both are about family gatherings, both have stories that involve the death of a loved one in the past, and both feature family members facing each other with certain regrets. Both are also very good.