Saturday, January 31, 2009


Doubt (U.S., 2008) written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, 104 min.

A potentially abusive priest? A cold, vindictive nun? Catholic schools in the 1960s? Meryl Streep? Philip Seymour Hoffman? Oy ... did I want to go down this well traveled road? Have we not had enough stories of priests and violated boys? My friend B convinced me see the film. Despite my reservations, I'm glad I did though.

I must say that I was impressed with the performances even though I am not a huge fan of the two aforementioned actors. This is potentially a treasonous opinion, I imagine, from a self-professed movie lover.

The ambiguity of the situation saves the film for me ... did Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) abuse Donald Miller, the lone, often lonely, black student in the school? Was the relationship inappropriate despite the priest's apparent sincerely felt feelings for the boy? Was the boy a "willing" participant, if so? How complicit was his mother, Mrs. Miller (the Oscar nominated Viola Davis), who has a few very powerful scenes with the formidable Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep)?

Here, for me, Streep is free of those nervous acting tics which annoy me ... please don't ask me to number them. It's like that 1964 Supreme Court definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it." At times she seems the only actress of her age who seems to be employed. Sigh.

But she is formidable here and seems eerily familiar to this former Catholic school girl. The icy precision with which she tracks down every errant boy or girl in the school or in church. Her cold and unforgiving nature. The fact that she never smiles, never warmly greets a child, never shows tenderness or love put me in mind of our very own principal in grade school, Sister M, a severe nun in traditional habit, feared and hated by all (including the teachers). That's how terrifying she was, even the kids realized that the teachers hated her.

Sister Aloysius is frighteningly self-assured in her crusade to destroy the charming Father Flynn and almost persuades the tentative but spunky Sister James (Amy Adams) of her certainty. Sister James has doubts of her own but cannot side against the warm, charismatic Flynn who has a genuine love for the children and is trying to introduce a level of progress into the stultifying atmosphere of the school in 1964. Adams is graced with a beautiful face which can still convey, in these cynical times, innocence and grace. She is perfectly cast. Her star turn in Enchanted (2007) as the fairy tale princess come to life brought her well deserved acclaim and attention.

But if Flynn is innocent - and not even Donald Miller's mother is sure of this - why does the camera linger on a certain boy who recoils from any physical contact with the priest and revels in his potential demise when he learns of it? Is it just childish malice or a secret knowledge of the true situation?

The film is so good that I forgive Shanley my long standing grudge against him for the atrocious Moonstruck (1987).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Gran Torino

Gran Torino (U.S., 2008) directed by Clint Eastwood, 2 hrs.

Clint Eastwood's halo is barely obscured by the racist, xenophobic ex-Korean War veteran that he plays in this film. Walter Kowalski is recently widowed, a former vet, who is alienated from his two kind-hearted, if slightly dim-witted, sons and his obnoxious grandchildren who seem eager to paw over his possessions (specifically his Gran Torino car) once he too expires.

He refuses to leave the old Detroit neighborhood now dominated by a growing Asian community of Hmong (pronounced "mung", an ethnic group found in Southeast Asia, including northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar-Burma). He inadvertently and reluctantly becomes involved with the family next door when Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang), an introverted, socially awkward boy, is coerced into trying to steal Walt's car on a dare by a Hmong gang trying to recruit him.

They are thwarted of course by Walter and his sizable stash of weaponry and ammunition. Walt, the octogenarian, is able to fend off a gang member who wants to punish Thao for failing to steal the car. The Lor family and their kin try to thank Walt by bringing food and flowers to his home which he angrily refuses initially despite his lonely and underfed existence.

Soon he is captivated by Sue Lor (Ahney Her), the smart mouthed older teenage sister of Thao, who seeks to mediate between the mystified Walt who merely wants to be left alone and the equally mystified Lor family that only wants to give thanks for his assistance, trying to "repay" him for his protection and atone for Thao's transgressions.

Walt is compelled by Sue to accept the services of the sullen Thao in a series of tasks around his house and the neighborhood. Eventually both embrace these new roles - the teacher and the pupil. Walt finds Thao a job in construction. He tries to "man up" the shy boy in a stereotypically sexist fashion by teaching him to talk about cars, joke in a racist manner with the local barber, and be a bit more crude about girls and male body parts, etc ... it's not offensive really as it is so out there but it is also not particularly funny either.

Racist Walt is thrust into the life of the family and, because this is a Hollywood film, Walt soon grows to care for them and serves as a sort of protector in this troubled neighborhood. Because Thao's family and Walt foil the gang's intentions to embroil Thao in the gang's criminal activities, the gang begins a long and protracted war against both - physically harassing them, destroying their property - compelling Walt to retaliate in the expected and violent manner.

The story reaches a denouement when they target Sue and both Walt and Thao must decide how they will react to this extreme violence.

Since the film Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood seems to have consciously striven to present a path of non-violent reaction to violent situations as if to atone for the outlaw/cowboy/dirty detective savagery of his Josie Wales/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly/Dirty Harry oeuvre. The film follows in this vein.

But Eastwood's cinematic persona is so big, so all encompassing, that it is difficult to believe in this misanthropic, curmudgeonly persona in the early portion of the film. One simply does not believe it. Perhaps as a former war hero with thirteen kills under his belt, Walt's actions may seem credible and one could believe the extent that Walt is willing to sacrifice himself for the Lors. But the conclusion seems too pat, too heroic, to be truly satisfying.

The Asian cast is weak and I can guess why. There is so little work for Asian actors to cut their teeth on. They are usually forced into the old cliched roles: the tight-lipped scientist, the brainy nerd, the vicious gang member.

But this film does reveal to the filmgoer an Asian community that many of us are not aware of and few of us have exposure to. In our home, we are so pleased to see any Asians in the cinema or TV that we are now reduced to yelling "Asians on TV! Asians on TV!" when we see any.

True dat.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (U.S., 2008) directed by David Fincher, 2 hrs., 40 minutes

Two things motivated me here to see the film. Perhaps name them lust and its better bred cousin literature: Brad Pitt as the character of Benjamin Button and the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote the original story that the film was based on. I must say that the effects are phenomenal but my first warning that I would have reservations about it was that the script was written by Eric Roth, the same screenwriter who wrote Forrest Gump.

I remember I shocked family and friends by declaring that I disliked Gump – it was truly one of the worst films I had seen in many years. Tom Hanks, whom I think is talented, gave such a stunted, annoying, actorly delivery of his lines which I presume was considered to be endearing that it totally put me off. I had the same reaction to Brad Pitt in the film as he plays the character in the beginning of the film. The purpose of this style of delivery is inexplicable to me. Is he meant to be some sort of idiot savant at that stage of his life because clearly, later, he is seen to be intelligent and thoughtful? Is this what the actor envisages as the aspect of an old and infirm person?

It is surprising to me that this film comes from David Fincher (think of the excellent films Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac) who, in the past has directed very intense, very violent films. This film is so … yearnful, nostalgic, gentle, perhaps too much so, although I loved the original premise.
The story of Benjamin's life is told through his diary which is read aloud to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), his life long love, now dying in a hospital in New Orleans, Louisana during Hurricane Katrina, by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond).

As every filmgoer likely now knows, Benjamin is born old: a small, wizened, ugly, arthritic creature whom, it is predicted, will not live long. His horrified father (Jason Flemyng), an affluent Louisiana button maker, gives the boy away after the mother dies in childbirth, leaving him on the doorstep of a nursing home run by a soft hearted woman named Queenie (the now Oscar nominated Taraji P. Henson) who cannot bear to give the child away despite how frightening he appears physically. It is thought that she will never bear children.
Benjamin grows to the size of small but feeble man but he is old, very old, confined to a wheelchair as the film begins, and although he has the mentality of a child, he suffers all the indignities of old age physically. Here in the nursing home, at least, he finds some comfort and companionship primarily with a very young, red haired, blue eyed girl named Daisy whose grandmother also resides in the nursing home. His relationship with Daisy is discouraged even though, mentally, they are very close in age. He falls in love.

Then the “curious” thing happens, Benjamin appears to be growing younger to the astonishment of all. Although appearing old (and curiously, magically, very small on screen compared to Pitt’s true height) he is fleet enough to work on a ship swabbing decks and begins his world travels on a boat named the Chelsea.

In his travels, he falls in love with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), a slightly brittle, neurotic woman who is the wife of an English spy living in Russia. He takes an active part in WWII while on his ship and watches his friends die in the war. He becomes an adult away from Queenie's loving but somewhat smothering embrace. When he returns to the nursing home to live with his mother Queenie after the war, he again encounters Daisy, an aspiring ballet dancer, tall and beautiful and very pretentious. Here is Blanchett at her most annoying: "Acting" with a capital “A”. Perhaps even more annoying than her attempts to portray the dying, very old Daisy at the start of the film.

For some unknown reason, Benjamin cannot be with Daisy. Again, this is inexplicable to me - she is no longer a child but an adult woman, what are his reservations now? Is there a part of the back story that we are not privy to here? They part – she in a great huff to New York to dance in the ballet and he to other adventures. Eventually he follows her to New York (a jazzy, very exciting Beat-like atmosphere prevails here) and he is then rebuffed by Daisy – again the reasoning is unclear to me (c'mon Daisy it's Brad Pitt, and he looks like Brad Pitt now) unless it is to delay the moment when these two can meet and procreate when they are at their hottest on film. When they do meet he is exquisite – “perfect” as Daisy says. One disgruntled friend commented to me, "Yeah, but we had to wait until two thirds of the film to see him look like Brad Pitt."

Still the couple is plagued by the inevitable quandary: when they finally come together, she will age, he will grow younger. When will their relationship end? How will it end? Daisy gives birth to their child and Benjamin cannot face the future with his new daughter whom he will never see grow to adulthood. He leaves with regret and decides to tour the world; Daisy runs a small dance studio and raises their daughter who has no memory of her biological father. When Benjamin returns he is a teenager (how they did this effect is really remarkable – it is Pitt in aspect but much younger, looking perhaps twenty).

And they meet again when he is much, much younger but to say more would spoil the ending which I found truly beautiful. The end, when it comes, is heartrending. But I cannot forgive Pitt that accent and his wooden delivery during the scenes when he is "old". I can forgive him much - but not that!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire (U.K.) 2008 directed by Danny Boyle, 2 hrs.

I resisted this film for a long time ... I'm not sure what put me off. Director Danny Boyle? The perceived sadness of the topic? The poverty of India? It did incredibly well at TIFF. People were raving about this film and I felt I had to see it. It did not disappoint.

In Mumbai, three orphaned children Jamal (Dev Patel), his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their friend Latika (Freida Pinto) navigate a difficult childhood filled with scheming opportunists and sadists who try and exploit the children. They almost succeed in destroying all three.

The children are subjected to the worst imaginable horrors: poverty, destitution, preyed upon by the mercenary, hunger, exposed to the elements, absolutely horrific circumstances, portrayed in extremely realistic detail. But India, even amongst this degradation, somehow appears beautiful, vibrant, astonishing. I finally understand how people come to utterly love this country despite all its troubles.

Through a series of incidents, they are separated and divided and grow into unhappy adulthood.

Salim, the tougher of the two, eventually becomes a gangster's minion after stealing Latika away from his brother Jamal. Latika becomes the submissive moll of a vicious, sadistic gangster. Jamal, a self described slum dog, working as a "lowly" tea server to tech support workers in a large multi-national in Mumbai, decides to enter an Indian version of the game show "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" and to his surprise wins millions of rupees. His objective is to attract the attention and love of Latika, convinced that all of Mumbai is watching this show. They are.

He does win her - but he also raises the ire of the host, a previous contestant winner convinced that Jamal is a cheat and he sics the police on him, who torture him to try and get him to confess to no avail.

I will not spoil the ending but I will say that the entire package is mesmerizing: the acting of these three relative unknowns, the music, the cinematography, the rapid, artful editing, the colours of Mumbai, the beauty of the young actors played by three different sets of actors for each of the three main characters.

Utterly amazing and satisfying. It deserves all the accolades it has been receiving.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Anti-Titanic Movie

Revolutionary Road (U.S., 2009) directed by Sam Mendes, 1 hr 59 min

Well, this is not for the faint of heart or those dreading the prospect of marriage. It's a brilliant move actually on the part of Kate Winslet (April Wheeler) and Leonardo Di Caprio (Frank Wheeler) as they could never match the astronomic success of Titanic so they have chosen a small but extremely emotionally explosive vehicle for their considerable talents and acting reunion.

The film was adapted from a 1961 novel by Richard Yates and, it has been implied, carries some autobiographical content. In the Winter 1972 issue of Ploughshares, Yates described in detail the title's meaning:

“I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties."

It's a portrait of a particular kind of American marriage. The Wheelers see themselves as special - are they? Others say they are too. I'm not sure - I feel as if an important element of April and Frank's back story is missing here. As charming as both actors are (and good looking) I failed to sense their "specialness". They quickly become disillusioned by the suburban life they lead: a boring, stultifying white collar job in Manhattan for him; a stay at home mom existence for her despite failed acting ambitions. Each is deeply unhappy in their own way. He has affairs. She plots endlessly to escape suburbia.

At last she hits on a sort of escape plan that everyone around them thinks is foolish and a little mad: they will live in Paris. She will work as a secretary and support Frank so that Frank can determine what he wants to do with his life artistically - what is Frank's talent I wondered, I saw no evidence of it. She convinces Frank and they tell all of their friends about their plan.

Fate (or a lack of contraception) conspires to foil their plans. April becomes pregnant after a giddy night of celebrating but does not tell Frank until she is ten weeks pregnant and her options narrow regarding keeping the baby. Already he is having reservations about the life changing move as he has caught the eye of his superiors at work who offer a better job and much more money if he abandons his plans to move to France.

Representing a sort of wise fool in the film, John Givings (Michael Shannon) the son of friend, who has been institutionalized for his mental illness and is given to bluntly honest and inappropriate remarks, recognizes the truly brave thing they are trying to do but harshly castigates them when the plan falls apart, blaming the failed scheme on Frank's weakness and fear of change.

I knew nothing of this film so was a bit shocked by the ending. However, it was a very brave novel to have written at the time, at the end of an era of 50s conformity and the unraveling of the myth of always happy suburban families.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Finding Rosa

Finding Rosa by Caterina Edwards (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008) 304 pages

Full disclosure: Caterina Edwards, the author, is a friend of mine from Alberta. We meet very infrequently, usually at writing conferences, but it is always a pleasure to see her (and to read her work). Please go to her beautiful website for more information on Caterina.

This book is part memoir of Caterina caring for her mother Rosa Pagan Edwards during the last years of her life with Alzheimer's and a historical survey into what happened to the people of Rosa's homeland, Istria. Even many Italians may not know where Istria is and its troubled history (I certainly did not) ...

Istria is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea between the Gulf of Trieste and the Bay of Kvarner and it is now a part of Croatia. Yes, it's history is as complicated as it sounds.

Rosa's illness and disappearing memory seems to prompt Caterina's inquiry into the stories that her mother has spun about herself and the Pagan family... this leads her to travel to to the town of Lussino (now named Losinj in Croatia), Venice, England (where Caterina was born to an Italian mother and English father) and many other places to talk with the few remaining relations she has who can shed some light on the fate of the various members of the Pagan family.

She uncovers the long suppressed history of Istria which involved the ethnic cleansing of the Pagan family and other Istriani of Italian descent. She tries to uncover how Rosa's father Onorato Pagan disappeared (did he die in a submarine attack during the war?), where the Pagan family was exiled to despite conflicting remembrances (some said interned in camps in Sicily), to whom her mother first lost her heart as a girl who in her later dementia she might have referred to as her "first husband".

This historical information you will not find in a wikipedia entry. The brutality of the expunging of various ethnic groups as nations battle over tiny Istria is both horrifying and, sadly, not surprising, in light of the events of the 20th c. during both World Wars.

But with the exodus of some peoples (obviously not always, clearly not always) there has sometimes been a record of the devastation ... this is not true of Istria where the very little information there is must be mined from the few and very old survivors - some with conflicting memories - or found in exchanges over the internet by the few who want to keep the memory of Istria alive. Some today still claim that the only Italians killed or deported to camps were Fascist loyalists operating under Mussolini, or disloyal to whatever new power came into being. Not true, i Rimasti (those who remained), claim. There was no pattern, no sense to the slaughter, perhaps only a vicious hatred of the Italians among them and a sense of personal vengeance.

As always, mother/daughter relationships can be difficult - this one is no different. Caterina paints an honest, many times painful, picture of the struggle between a daughter determined to do the right thing despite difficult circumstances and a very ill, very unhappy mother as she deteriorates further and further in her illness, paranoia and anger which is often directed towards Caterina. She does not paint herself as a saint but these must have been very trying times and the temptation to give up very strong.

It makes one uneasy too as you read the book ... would I be this selfless in dealing with a difficult, sometimes verbally abusive, parent? Could I manage the raising of my child (for Caterina two teenage daughters), working outside the home and caring for that parent 24 hours a day? Could I find the energy to write? I wondered this continuously as I read.

This is beautifully written, often riveting and completely heartfelt.