Thursday, February 24, 2011

127 Hours

My boy James Franco as Aron Ralston
127 Hours (U.S., 2010) directed by Danny Boyle, 94 minutes

Nominated for 6 Oscars
Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Franco)
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Original Song - “If I Rise”
Best Picture
Best Adapted Screenplay

I have to admit I have been avoiding this film because of that scene, you know the one I mean...every sentient being on the planet knows the plot of this film: the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a young man with a taste for adventure who goes mountain climbing near Blue John Canyon in Utah in 2003 and falls into a crevice, literally gets wedged between a rock and a hard place and spends 127 hours trapped until he cuts part of his arm off to escape.

When the film premiered at TIFF last year there were reports of people throwing up and passing out. Oy...I really didn't think I could handle it. Truth is I spent the worst scene watching the film with a scarf wrapped around my eyes.

I can't think of more diverse films than Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later..., Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours (among Boyle's many films). Director Danny Boyle is talented, eclectic and intriguing in his interests and directorial choices. Of this film he said:

...I knew that I wanted to make it a very immersive, first-person experience...because I think it’s so extraordinary what happens at the end of the film. I thought the only way you could possibly ever tolerate seeing that depicted in a way that was truthful—in the way that Aron depicts it in the book—is if you had been involved in the experience, and were somehow participating in it on some level.

It seems a near impossible thing to film - how to convey what happens to Ralston when the majority of time he is trapped by the boulder? The film never lags or bores. It certainly conveys, through its rapid editing and exuberant music, the energy and adventurousness of Ralston who blithely goes off on his own without leaving a message for family or friends as to his whereabouts during his trip which he soon comes to regret. Split screens are usually chaotic and annoying visually to me as a viewer but in this case they quickly convey the fragmented nature of Ralston's thinking as he begins to hallucinate over the five days.

Franco is completely disarming as Ralston - whether he is charming the two girls he meets in his travels, leaving a final video message for his parents, reliving an old romance or imagining the presence of his future son Leo (a son who was born in 2010) which propels him to take this final desperate action to be free.

Franco has it all: talent, brains, good looks, the courage to make controversial acting choices. I hope his efforts are rewarded at the Oscars.

Intriguingly, Ralston continues to be active: mountain climbing, skiing, swimming. He's bloody fearless and I wish I could say the same for my wimpy self.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole (U.S., 2010) directed by John Cameron Mitchell, ‎1hr 32 min‎‎utes

Nominated for 1 Oscar:
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Nicole Kidman)

It began when I was pregnant so I blame the kid for this... At that point, I had a very difficult time watching anything too physically graphic or involving a child in jeopardy or hurt. I remember feeling physically ill watching Crash (1996) for instance. As my daughter J matures and becomes a young adult, this squeamishness lessens. But I admit I was reticent to see this film for the reasons I have cited above.

The death of a child is a sort of plot point which can collapse a film - the theme is so overworked, so laden with volatile emotion that one can easily succumb to a sort of boredom regarding the parents' grief or conversely, horror and repugnance at its theme. The director John Cameron Mitchell treads a fine line here between maudlin and touchingly emotional. The choice of Mitchell as a director seemed odd as he is especially known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Short Bus but listening to a personal interview he gave it made sense. He had lost a brother at a very young age so obviously has a lot of empathy for the characters involved.

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart (the latter robbed of an nomination for Best Actor here I believe) are Becca and Howie Corbett, the parents of a four year old killed in a car accident. They each respond differently to the situation. Becca withdraws into an icy silence and survives by removing all vestiges of the boy's existence including clothes, toys, pictures he has drawn on the fridge and even the puppy he was chasing when he ran into the street. This rightly infuriates Howie. The best scene in the film is his confrontation with Becca on this issue.

Howie relies on a parent support group and grows closer to Gaby, another mourning parent (Sandra Oh - cast again in her perpetual "always a bridesmaid never a bride" role here) who is divorcing from her husband over what he perceives as her inability to overcome the tragedy of her own loss.

The film is saved, I think, by Becca's odd but touching attachment to the boy who was driving the car that killed her son. Becca begins to seek him out, following him, and the relationship almost appears to be one of Becca consoling the boy who is also grieving for his part in the tragedy. I'm not sure I buy into it but grief is an amorphous, strange thing which assumes many guises.

The teenager Jason (Miles Teller) is a sad-faced, doughy boy - lonely, talented and clearly haunted by what he has done. He is a graphic artist who is creating his own comic book which fascinates Becca. The comic book appears to assume a sort of central place in the film and in the relationship between Becca and - but its significance alludes me. 

The husband and wife harbor secrets - Becca's relationship with the boy feels not that different than Howie's secret attraction to Gaby - I feel that there is an underlying sexual tension between both "couples" which is disturbing to the viewer.

Everything exacerbates Becca's loss - her mother (Dianne Weist) compares the death of the 4 year old to the death of her own drug-ridden son who died as an adult and Becca's flaky sister's unanticipated pregnancy by a man she hardly knows - both clearly irk Becca and offer no emotional relief.

A rapprochement is eventually formed between husband and wife as must be - the marital relationship could not survive an event of this magnitude without one.  

I don't know if this is a particularly good film although I admired the performances of all the principals. I cried throughout it but, as you know, that's just not enough to qualify it as a good film.  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Salt (U.S., 2010) directed by Phillip Noyce, 100 minutes

Nominated for 1 Oscar
Best Sound Mixing 
I do find it curious that this film was only nominated for Best Sound Mixing and in no other category. I ain't saying this is art but, at the very least, the film and sound editing was extremely well done. You will need a refresher on the plot which is a bit involved and highly detailed here

These sorts of thrillers are usually not my kind of thing. The script feels dated as if it was written decades ago and resurrected with the idea of recasting a strong female lead in it. It has a Cold War feel to it which is a bit odd as tensions between the U.S. and Russia petered out with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Do we still fear that the Russians are trying to invade us from within by having Soviet trained children infiltrate the top echelons of the U.S. political system and the military? Hmm, do we?

Haven't we moved on to new villains now? Little tiny North Korean dictators with a fixation on Hollywood (although there is a brief nod to them here in the opening scenes)? Iranian leaders with big mouths and amnesiac memories about the decimation of European Jews during WWII? Oh, oh here's a popular one - radical Muslims - that's currently an audience favorite with conservatives and xenophobes.

But I have to say that Angelina Jolie has enormous appeal in this role. She is one of the few big box office female stars in Hollywood who could pull this role off – the role is extremely physical, very punishing and there are few actresses who could make these extraordinary antics seem mildly plausible. Even in those scenes where Jolie is not personally performing these spectacular stunts such as jumping from one moving vehicle to another on a highway, leaping out of aircraft, crawling along the surface of a highrise apartment building from window to window, disarming a whole squadron of secret agents singlehandedly - you believe that she is capable of these incredible feats of strength and power. That's star power.

Who else could we put in this category of female action hero – possibly Charlize Theron or the acting-challenged Milla Jovovich (star of the never ending Resident Evil sequels) and definitely the newcomer Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy)? But Theron is little too soft in appearance, Jovovich doesn't have the acting chops and Rapace is still a bit of an unknown entity - and neither surpasses, much less matches, Jolie in star power.

The plot is extremely convoluted as many modern thrillers seem to be – the viewer slips back and forth CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) a double agent or not? Did she marry Michael Krause (August Diehl) for love or as a cover for her spying activity? Why did Orlov (played by a slithery Daniel Olbrychski) approach Salt and blow her cover in front of her CIA colleagues if she was truly destined to fulfill her mission by killing the President of Russia to foment trouble between the two nations? Was that in itself a test of some kind by Orlov? 

I like the way they (the male characters) treat Salt as an equal – they actually seem physically afraid of her and they approach her in the same way they would any dangerous male opponent. We, the viewers, don’t cringe in the same manner when she is attacked because it’s Angelina Jolie – we know that she can take it! We are not horrified that a man is hitting a woman, our response is more like: oh boy, I can’t wait till she takes her revenge and kicks his ass. 

What more is there to say about Angelina? She appears as a kind of superwoman on screen with enormous sex appeal and charisma. Her beauty seems to mitigate the violence, even perversely enhances our experience of the violence. Imagine, say, Kathy Bates, plunging a broken vodka bottle into the neck of the spy Orlov…it has a totally different resonance doesn't it? It may be sexist, it may be unfair, it's certainly manipulative to cast a beautiful woman in this role but does achieve its goals of completely disarming us.

The diversity of the cast (such as Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of agent Peabody) and extras amongst the CIA and Secret Service members is refreshing. Peabody is an uncompromising hardass and there is seemingly no desire to soften his character or make him appear to be a nice guy because he is black. Ultimately we see that he is one of the good guys but that’s only after almost two hours of Peabody chasing Salt, beating a confession out of her and trying to convince everyone around him that she is a traitor. 

It's a great ride visually – and I can live with the holes in the plot. Jolie makes it all worthwhile. 

Post-script: Maybe the idea of raising brainwashed sleeper cells in the U.S. isn't such an outdated idea. Maybe enemies of the U.S. are plotting this as...we...speak. This is from a U.S. congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas, last summer: 

I talked to a retired FBI agent who said that one of the things they were looking at were terrorist cells overseas who had figured out how to game our system. And it appeared they would have young [radical Islamic] women, who became pregnant, would get them into the United States to have a baby. They wouldn't even have to pay anything for the baby. And then they would turn back where they could be raised and coddled as future terrorists. And then one day, twenty...thirty years down the road, they can be sent in to help destroy our way of life. 'Cause they figured out how stupid we are being in this country to allow our enemies to game our system, hurt our economy, get setup in a position to destroy our way of life.

Hey, maybe Gohmert should take a screenwriting course.

Monday, February 21, 2011

True Grit

True Grit (U.S., 2010) directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen, 110 minutes
Nominated for 10 Oscars:

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jeff Bridges)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hailee Steinfeld)
Best Art Direction
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Directing
Best Picture
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Adapted Screenplay

I can’t explain my reticence to see this film aside from the fact that the western genre is not my favorite. Jeff Bridges plays the usual gravelly-voiced misanthrope with a heart of gold as Rooster Cogburn, a bounty hunter. Matt Damon, a favorite of mine, also feels boringly familiar as the comic relief in the person of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who aids both Mattie and Cogburn. The script is quite good - hewing much closer to the original eponymously named book by Charles Portis than the 1969 film apparently. All the Oscar nominations seem fairly accorded - directing, art direction, sound editing, adapted screenplay and nods to Steinfeld's acting. True enough...

And I especially love Hailee Steinfeld, the female lead, who bears more than a passing resemblance to my teenage daughter J with those long beautiful chocolate brown braids, large expressive eyes and flashes of temper.

The plot is, by now, well known for those how have seen the original film from 1969 and heard the enormous hype surrounding this new film. Steinfeld completely steals the show as Mattie Ross, the 14 year old, who is out to avenge her sheriff father’s death at the hands of Tom Chaney (an appropriately repellent Josh Brolin who is almost unrecognizable under his makeup and matted hair), her father’s hired hand. I won't review the whole plot, take a look here if you need to refresh your memory about the plot.

The film is definitely a re-iteration of the anti-heroic western that surfaced in the 1960s and gained popularity (see for reference Cat Ballou (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Little Big Man (1970) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). The new genre of Western films were darker, grittier in tone and less romantic in their view of the old West. They challenged authority and the heroic myth of the white hat = good /black hat = evil Westerns with its sharp contrasts of good vs. evil.

Other elements of the revisionist westerns are:
A flawed and sometimes unpleasant hero – uncouth, dirty, sometimes cruel and foul-mouthed. Here Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) represents a more down to earth antidote to the antiseptic cowboy heroes of the first half of the 20th century cinema. Cogburn is filthy, unkempt, disorderly and likes his liquor – living in a pigsty at the back of a Chinese grocery. He dislikes children and pointedly throws two “brats” off a porch when he sees that they are mistreating a horse. He can play dirty as well as a bounty hunter too (he is accused of ambushing men and shooting them in the back). At one point, he leaves behind the obstinate Mattie whom he has reluctantly promised can accompany him in his search for Chaney.

A non-traditional hero/heroine – in this case a 14 year old very articulate, extremely determined girl. Mattie sleeps in a funeral home with dead bodies nearby to save the money she needs to hire a bounty hunter to hunt down her father's killer. She haggles with a horse trader to get her dead father's money back and threatens to sic her lawyer on him. She hires Cogburn, refuses to be left behind in the pursuit, in desperation crosses a river on horseback when the river ferry refuses to carry her across so that she not be separated from the two men in pursuit of her prey, shoots down her father’s murderer and ultimately and violently dispatches him in the end. She survives a near fatal fall and lives to tell the tale at the end.

A non-conventional ending – not necessarily happy for any concerned. As my daughter said at the end of this film – nothing good happens to anyone in the film. Even Matty must suffer a tragic loss after seeing that the villain of the piece is killed by her own hands. She misses an opportunity to see Cogburn again after 25 yeas of separation by a few days. She never sees Texas Ranger LaBoeuf again after their adventure.

A new awareness of the treatment of native Indians. This is not dwelt on in any significant way except in the opening scene – three men are to be hanged and the first two are given a chance to defend themselves before hanging to justify their actions. The third is a native Indian and even before he can utter his first word, a black hood is slipped over his head and the three men are hung. It's cruel joke ala Coen style but it strikes a bitter note of truth quickly and effectively.

Authority figures are often figures of fun. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who ultimately becomes a friend and ally to Mattie’s cause, is initially seen as a buffoon and a figure of fun. The horse trader that Mattie bargains with is a pompous fool, easily duped by Mattie. Other adults try to manipulate or exploit Mattie but do so at their own peril. Our sympathy never shifts from Mattie and her goal.

"Happy" endings are mixed at best. True, Mattie gets her man. The good guys prevail. The bad guys get their just deserts in particularly violent and creative ways. But Mattie loses an arm in the process and ends up in her own words “an old maid” at the end of the film. Cogburn concludes his career in the kind of demeaning cowboys-and-Indians traveling show towards the end of his life that made the rounds near the turn of the 19th c. and early 20th c. in the west. LaBoeuf disappears from Mattie’s life and is never heard from again even though there is a slight sort of sexual (and slightly disturbing) tension between the two. We (at least I) harbored a hope that they would reunite when Mattie reached a suitable age but no...

Then again…let me have another think about this film. That’s exactly my kind of tale: bittersweet.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Io Sono Amore (I am Love)

Io Sono Amore (I am Love) (Italy, 2010) directed by Luca Guadagnino, 120 minutes

Nominated for 1 Oscar: 
Costume Design
How shall I describe this film? Hmm, it's like Flaubert's Madame Bovary meets di Lampedusa's The Leopard in 21st century Milan. The film opens with some beautiful but icy shots of Milan in winter. An apt metaphor for the Recchis, affluent Milanese textile manufacturers. Emma, the beautiful, elegant Russian-born wife (Tilda Swinton speaking tentative but flawless Italian) has a handsome and successful husband Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) - immediately one should be aware of shades of The Leopard here - and an array of gorgeous, intelligent, talented children. She seems to have everything: a stunning palatial home, wealth, success, beauty. Of course...something is terribly awry.

Later, the business titan who has purchased the Recchi company murmurs of one of the Recchis: "He understands that the world is growing and that it has to be changed...All one has to do is alter one's way of viewing it." This echoes The Leopard's proclamation by Tancredi that, "If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." Here, too, as in the Sicilian novel we have a man of wealth forewarned that his world is changing and he must adapt.

At a formal dinner party, the patriarch and founder of the textile dynasty Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) is celebrating his birthday where he announces that he is passing on the reins of the empire to his son Tancredi and, unexpectedly, to his grandson Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti).

During the dinner the younger Eduardo has a visit from Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef who defeated him in a race earlier that day, and who comes bearing a cake as a gift. Later we see that the two men have become friends and plan to start a restaurant together.

Emma accidentally discovers that her daughter Elisabetta (The Solitude of Prime Number's exceptional Alba Rohrwacher) is a lesbian, but keeps it a secret from her husband.

When Emma is having dinner at Antonio's restaurant with her mother-in-law and son Eduardo's fiancee it's as if she goes into a romantic trance tasting the food prepared for her by Antonio. A spotlight is focused on Emma, her face lights up, she practically swoons. It is the beginning of Emma's feelings for Antonio. While in San Remo, on her way to view Elisabetta's art exhibit in Nice, she encounters the aspiring restaurateur. At his invitation, she travels with him to his house in the hills. Their relationship begins.

The post-coital glow and dazed smile on Emma's face (perhaps she is named for that other famous Emma as I suspected) clearly hearkens back to Madame Bovary's exclamations after her rendezvous with Rodolphe. "I have a lover! A lover!"

Under the pretext of discussing a menu with Antonio for a business dinner to be prepared for her son Edoardo, Emma travels to San Remo and spends a day with Antonio. Interestingly, both daughter and mother do the same thing when they finally acknowledge their true desires - they cut their beautiful red hair short as if liberating themselves from the past and old ways. The attire changes and their whole demeanor changes - it is more modern, more androgynous - shifting from elegant dresses to casual pants, shirts and jackets.

Antonio prepares a soup dish at the planned business dinner, ukha, a Russian dish that Emma had described to Antonio during one of their trysts and which she had made for Eduardo Jr. as a child. After seeing the dish (and remembering that he found a lock of what resembled his mother's hair at Antonio's), Edoardo Jr. suddenly realizes that the two are involved. He storms out of the dinner followed by Emma. He stumbles and hits his head on the edge of the swimming pool, sustaining a cerebral hemorrhage and soon dies.

When Tancredi attempts to console Emma after the funeral she reveals that she is in love with Antonio.
Shocked and repulsed, Tancredi tells her, "You no longer exist."

Emma rushes back to the villa, changes her clothes and hurriedly tries to leave. She exchanges knowing glances with her daughter although they do not speak. Eduardo Jr.'s fiance stands in the doorway and clutches her stomach; she is pregnant - the Recchi empire will go on, with or without Emma.

During the credits, we see Emma and Antonio lying together inside a cave. Is this the only way their love may exist?
Tilda Swinton as Emma Recchi

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Fighter

The Fighter (U.S., 2010) directed by David O. Russell, 116 Minutes
Nominated for 7 Oscars 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Directing
Best Film Editing
Best Picture
Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

Mark Wahlberg has come a long way since his rap career and Calvin Klein underwear ad a respected actor, producer and Hollywood powerhouse with executive producing credits for the TV series Entourage and Boardwalk Empire and a thriving acting career.

The biographical story depicted in The Fighter also echoes, perhaps, the relationship between the younger Mark Wahlberg and his older brother Donny Wahlberg, a once upon a time pop star in the popular 1980s/1990s boy band New Kids on the Block: a large, hardscrabble, Irish family from Massachusetts; an older, once successful brother and younger, aspiring brother also seeking fame and fortune, the older brother on the wonder the idea appealed to Wahlberg.

In The Fighter, Wahlberg plays Micky Ward, a Welterweight boxer from a rough and tumble Irish-American working class family in Lowell, MA. Micky is managed by his mother, Alice Ward (the miraculous Melissa Leo), and trained by his older half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), a crack addicted, unreliable screw-up who, inexplicably, appears to be the darling of the family which also includes seven adoring sisters.

Bale is a physical and psychological revelation here - eye poppingly gaunt, jittery, cocky - physically embodying the charming but volatile and none too bright Ecklund. David O. Russell's (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings) opening sequence featuring the pumping, hypnotic beat of The Heavy's How you like me now? follows Dicky down the street as he jokes, hugs, spars with neighbors and friends, as if he is still the king of the world he was a dozen or so years before as a former New England Welterweight champ instead of crack smoking junkie who's afraid of his mother's wrath (as he should be - Alice really kicks ass).

As the film begins, an HBO documentary crew is trailing Dicky about what he presumes is his supposed comeback (at the tender age of 40) but unbeknownst to Dicky, in actuality, it's about his crack cocaine addiction. He is to be featured in a doc called High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell. Thirty year old Micky's fate is perhaps no less depressing...he is perceived by most in the boxing world as a "stepping stone" for other boxers to defeat on their way up the boxing hierarchy to a championship.

I love Wahlberg's persona in this film - Micky is so cowed by everyone around him - his overbearing mother Alice, his charismatic, fuck up of a brother, his tough, soon-to-be girlfriend Charlene. He floats through life with no will of his own, being pulled this way and that, unable to say no. unable to resist the volcanic forces of the family. And Wahlberg plays it so simply, no tough guy smirks and posturing, just a look of utter defeat and hopelessness when it comes to how he should run his life and career.

Talked into a disastrous boxing match by his mother and brother with an opponent who outweighs him by 18 pounds, Micky is soundly and humiliatingly defeated in the ring in Las Vegas. This is the final straw for him. Back home Micky retreats from his family and begins a tentative relationship with the pretty but tough-minded and foul mouthed Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams), a former college athlete now working as a bartender who urges him to remove himself from the toxic circle of his family's control with regards to his career.

Adams has shown that she is fearless in choosing eclectic and challenging roles - from the naive fairy princess in Enchanted to the timid nun harboring a secret about alleged sexual abuse in Doubt to the Julia Child wannabe/blogger in Julia & Julie - she captures the essence of each character she plays.

Micky timidly tells the family that he has received an offer to be paid to train in Las Vegas but Dicky insists that he will match the offer to keep Micky with the family. His criminal antics to raise money (too foolish to elaborate here but involving prostitution and car theft) land him in jail after a tumultuous and bloody fight with police which has Micky and his seven sisters intervening and Micky breaking his hand defending his brother.

Those seven sisters: you have to hand it to Russell in casting very believable, very tough looking girls to play these roles. These are not pretty, they are not nice; they are trash talking, bleached blonde viragos who are just as likely to jump in a car and go to Charlene's house to beat her up for "stealing" Micky's affections from the family as they would be to bake a cake for Dicky's homecoming from prison (and they do both).The scenarios are depressing, the people are not pretty (with the exception of the two leads); it's ugly and dirty and realistic.

While Dicky is in jail, Micky's father George Ward finds a new manager, Sal LoNano, and they place Micky in a few minor fights to build his confidence with the proviso that neither his mother Alice nor brother Dicky be involved in Micky's career. Dicky, much to his horror, while in prison finally views the doc that was filmed about him before his cellmates - shocked, humiliated and angered, this appears to be a turning point for him - "the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts" is no more...

Dicky storms out, returns to his old crack house still peopled by the same gang, but rather than join them and resume smoking he continues on to Charlene's apartment appealing to her that Micky needs both of them; they reconcile...because they must.

Inevitably folks, because this is Hollywood and everyone loves a winner, the entire group goes to the U.K. for the title fight. Micky scores an upset victory and wins the Welterweight title. It never seems a sure thing which heightens the tension and sweetens the victory.

Raging Bull it ain't but it is a great story about family loyalty and overcoming can't beat that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Barney's Version

Scott Speedman as Boogie, Giamatti and Rachelle Lefevre as Clara
Barney's Version (Canada, 2010) directed by Richard J. Lewis, 132 minutes @ TIFF Lightbox 1

Nominated for 1 Oscar:
Best Make-up

The crowd I saw this film with at @ TIFF Lightbox 1 last September seemed suitably wowed, two viewers both claiming it to be a masterpiece at the Q&A following the film. Hmmm.

No doubt they are Paul Giamatti fans. Alas, I am not. His allure alludes me. However, I am a fan of the writer Mordecai Richler so I was intrigued by how this long awaited film would play. The producer Robert Lantos, whom I like a great deal, spoke after the film with the screenwriter and director, and said that he had searched for many years for Barney and when he saw the award winning film Sideways with Paul Giamatti as the lead said, "Hello Barney!" He felt he knew he had the right actor.

Lantos waited for numerous rewrites to get the right tone (he largely succeeds I think); hence, the film was years in preparation. I find Lantos' arrogance refreshingly un-Canadian and invigorating. He admitted that he questioned whether the screenwriter Michael Konyves (who is quite young) could possibly capture the tone he wanted. But he said something to the effect that he would only pay the kid slave wages so what did he have to lose?

My image of Richler's doppelganger Barney Panofsky is much like my image of Richler: sexy, funny, witty, a little crude, schlubby. Giamatti does not fit the bill for me. Not sexy, not funny, not witty, and okay...I'll concede Giamatti is schlubby.

We desperately want our Canadian classics (I want that too). The book may be a classic but the film, in my opinion, is not destined to be one. I won't go over the minutiae of the book or film in great detail as I am guessing most people interested in the review of this film will remember most of the plot. 

I will concede that I am faced with an enormous psychological impediment that is no fault of the director or producer. I find it difficult to watch a film set in the 70s as this one partially is - the hideousness and general physical shabbiness of the era have always turned me off. I find the fidelity to 70s costumes, hair and makeup and scenery incredibly distracting on screen. Giamatti's rug in the early scenes of his relative youth in Rome coupled with his eye popping overacting are particularly off putting. Barney, to my mind, is profane and vulgar and smart but he is not goofy or physically unappealing. 

Barney’s Version follows Barney Panofsky through his various marital travails guided by his father Izzy Panofsky (played by a believable and relatively low key Dustin Hoffman), a former cop with an indiscreet manner and a huge heart full of paternal love. Wife number one, Clara (the ravishing Rachelle Lefevre also known for her role as the vituperative vampire Victoria in the Twilight series), whom Barney meets in Rome, is promiscuous, unstable but beautiful. It ends badly and Barney returns to his hometown Montreal to nurse his wounds.

He becomes a successful television producer with his own company called Totally Unnecessary Productions and reluctantly acquires a high society Jewish princess (played very well by Minnie Driver) with whom he has absolutely nothing in common. He also acquires a set of unpleasant in-laws who despise him for his lower status. Driver is vulgar and selfish and completely unsuitable for the irascible Barney. This too ends in tears.

Fortuitously, at his second wedding, Barney meets and falls deeply in love with Miriam (Rosamund Pike) whom he relentlessly pursues until she becomes wife number three before the ink is literally dry on his divorce papers. Disappointingly, Pike is so passive in her role and so underused. I remember her in other films as being quite animated, lively and intelligent (is it because she has to play "older"?) but here her spark is smothered by a false sense of decorum or perhaps it was a desire to emulate Richler's wife Florence Richler whom I read she had met with prior to the shooting of the film.

Some fine acting highlights: Scott Speedman as the sexy, irresponsible Boogie, Barney's best friend whose mysterious disappearance Barney holds some responsibility for. Rachelle Lefevre hits the right notes of bitchy self-regard, sleazy hippie glamour and Jewish insecurity; Bruce Greenwood is appealing as the gentle suitor who vies for Miriam's affections.

I did love the various and plentiful cameos: the director Denys Arcand as a very proper waiter at a fancy restaurant; directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan as hack television directors; Paul Gross as the leading man in the popular "O'Malley of the North" TV series that Barney produces; Saul Rubinek as Clara's bitter-minded orthodox Jewish father. 

But masterpiece, shmasterpiece. I just wanted a good laugh.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone (U.S., 2010) written and directed by Debra Granik, 100 minutes 

Nominated for Four Oscars: 
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (John Hawkes)
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jennifer Lawrence)
Best Picture 
Best Adapted Screenplay

I would like to highlight some of the smaller films nominated this year. This is a very dark and bleak film (but not without merit of course) and it is interesting that it has been included in the Best Picture category but not the Best Director category - that sort of omission has never made sense to me. I have no recollection of it being released in Canada and only had the opportunity to see it by renting the film. This is director Debra Granik's second feature. The film is based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell.

Growing up in the Ozark woods, Ree Dolly (played by a pretty but grim faced Jennifer Lawrence) is seventeen and has responsibility for a narc'ed out mother and two siblings under ten. She is trying to track down her father Jessop Dolly, who has put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. She searches for him through a frightening array of relations and near relations, all of whom appear extremely hostile to her efforts to find him. The reason for this animosity is not immediately clear to the viewer.

Ree's world is populated with volatile, violent relations, a ramshackle cabin in which she must care for her mother who has obviously been damaged by drugs and two younger siblings; an ominous police presence determined to hunt down her father.

She must give her horse to a friend and we know, implicitly, without being told it is because she can no longer afford to care for the horse. Just as we know that soon Ree must educate her younger siblings on how to survive in the Ozark woods if they are evicted. This is subtly and evocatively portrayed: she teaches them how to shoot a rifle, how to skin a fish. She must face the possibility that they will be thrown out of their home with no one to shelter them if their father does not appear in court.

The cast is convincingly chosen - having the worn, stricken faces of people born in the Ozarks to poverty, ignorance, violence and hopelessness. This atmosphere surrounds Ree as she struggles to save her home, herself and her siblings. Her father's brother, Teardrop (Oscar nominated John Hawkes), and her father's father, are brutal dangerous men - prone to violence and determined to stop Ree from finding her father.

There is an explicit reason why the family does not want Ree to find her father. Jessop Dolly was a snitch and many people have a grievance with that. She eventually learns the truth of her father's whereabouts but to reveal more would spoil the plot.

Lawrence has been lauded and nominated for a number of awards and it is very warranted.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Black Swan

Portman as The Black Swan - powerful, destructive, hot....
Black Swan (U.S., 2010) directed by Darren Aronofsky, 1 hour, 50 minutes
Nominated for Five Oscars:
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Natalie Portman)
Best Cinematography
Best Directing
Best Film Editing
Best Picture

This is a frightening and dazzlingly beautiful film. Natalie Portman deserves all the accolades and awards she has received for her portrayal of Nina Sayers, a tormented ballerina tapped by ballet director Thomas Leroy (the caustic Vincent Cassel channeling a more butch version of Boris Lermontov in the The Red Shoes) to play the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a new production of Swan Lake.

I won't rehash the plot which you can review here if you like but I will examine some of the issues about women and art raised in the film.

I feel that this film represents an accurate portrayal of a young female artist who is literally driven to madness in her pursuit of perfection within the world of ballet. A good friend who lived in that world as a teenager said that she found it utterly realistic except for the scene where the girls crowd around Nina when she is hurt and express concern for her (ouch!).

Natalie Portman strikes the perfect tone as the innocent Nina - she is earnest, hard working, self-punishing and relentless. Ballet makes extreme psychological and physical demands on a young dancer's body and mind and there are concessions that not all, particularly young girls with self-esteem issues, can manage. It can be a cruel world with petty jealousies - a beautiful world to behold from the outside, ruthless and pitiless from within.

The dancer's feet are the perfect symbol for this world. Underneath the satin and ribbon and beautiful design are punished, damaged feet with sprains, cuts, broken nails and other not pretty physical ailments.

To my untrained eyes, Portman is convincing in the physical aspects for the role but more so when she begins to unravel and hallucinate that her understudy Lily (the ravishing and seductive Mila Kunis) is trying to steal away her role as the Swan Queen. The true enemy appears to be Nina herself.

Her anxieties and low self-esteem morph into a frightening alternate personality which is personified in Nina's mind by Lily, the understudy. That alternate personality is violent, jealous, undermining, highly sexual.

Added to Nina's own internal pressures is, of course, the image of the controlling mother. Erica (Barbara Hershey) is a loving but overbearing mother who has subsumed her own artistic desires and goals as a failed ballet dancer into Nina's career. Is her concern for Nina's health motherly or jealousy over Nina's superior skills and success as a dancer? It is an intense and disturbing relationship which devolves into recrimination and violence.

My only disappointment in the film is the character of Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) as the prima ballerina whom Nina supplants. I have always found Ryder to be lacking in substance in her meatier roles - smudged mascara and disheveled hair signifying mental distress won't suffice. The image of the prima ballerina should be majestic, powerful, emanating intense sexual appeal and, sadly, I don't feel that Ryder has these attributes. I find her an odd choice for this role.

Portman as White Swan - fragile, virginal
We see the slow metaphorical transformation of Nina from the White Swan (virginal, sweet, pliant) who wears white and pink, inhabits a child-like room filled with pretty stuffed toys with a sweet, feminine feel into the more vicious and passionate Black Swan. The Black Swan persona is more reckless - experimenting with drugs and sex with strangers - and challenging both her mother and the ballet director. She is angry and passionate and extremely powerful.

In the final scenes of the film Nina seeks to destroy her rival Lily and succeeds only in destroying herself but dies happily murmuring, "I was perfect" before her astonished fellow ballerinas. She was, she is...but at what cost?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Town

L-R: Renner, Lively, Affleck, Hamm, Hall
The Town (U.S., 2010) co-written and directed by Ben Affleck, 125 minutes
Nominated for One Oscar:
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeremy Renner)

Director/actor Ben Affleck would not be my first choice for directors to watch. I was underwhelmed by Gone Baby Gone (2007) although it appeared to have garnered a creditable critical response even if it wasn't a box office hit. Affleck always seems to elicit a sort of snickering response which I'm not sure is entirely justified. There seems to hang about him a whiff of disbelief that he and Matt Damon could have co-written Goodwill Hunting (1997) - a wonderful film that still resonates today. The pair taking their moms to the Oscars (which they won for Best Original Screenplay that year) certainly didn't help their images.

Time to let that cynicism go. The Town is a good film with solid acting, great pacing and a terrific premise. My problem with Gone Baby Gone was the convoluted plot. This film (also co-written by Affleck) suffers a bit from a surfeit of plot points but moves more smoothly and convincingly than the previous film. And if you read this blog, you know me, I do love me some bandits...

Four friends - Doug (Ben Affleck), James "Jem" (Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner), "Gloansy" (the Boston rapper Slaine) and "Dez" (Owen Burke) - born and bred in Charlestown, a down and out neighborhood in Boston, decide to rob a Cambridge bank, one of many jobs they have done together. They are, we are lead to understand, the product of generations of desperate men who have embraced bank robbery and criminality as a career in Charleston which the film claims breeds more bank robbers than any place on the earth.

Affleck captures the gritty despair of Charlestown so effectively. The neighborhood is ugly, the players are presented as dispirited, unappealing, violent "losers". The setting, the men, their homes, the places they drink, their women - everything looks ugly and depressing. One can imagine the men going to great lengths to escape this life, even resorting to theft and murder.

During the job, they abduct the bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) but subsequently release her. As Claire was blindfolded she has no knowledge of who took her hostage. Doug decides to track her movements afterward and he becomes attracted to her, initiating a relationship. He tells Claire that his mother deserted him as a child and moved to Tangerine, FL. This will be an important plot point later.

Doug has an on-again off-again relationship with Krista (played by an impressively sleazy Blake Lively of Gossip Girl fame), Jem's sister, complicating his friendship with Jem. Lively is compelling in this role - by turns manipulative, seductive, vicious, wounded - doing whatever it takes to survive. She, too, wants out of Charlestown.

A brief note about Renner who is tremendous, thoroughly believable. He seems to fully inhabit any role that he takes - so much so that it is hard to imagine him playing any other. He captures the look, the attitude, the sense of brotherhood he feels for the Doug character, the whole "honour among thieves" code.

Unbeknownst to the men, they are under surveillance by FBI agent Adam Frawley (convincingly played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm). He soon determines that they work for "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), a "florist" - an odd but intriguing idea - a mobster using Town Flowers, a floral shop, as a front for criminal activity. Postlethwaite, recently deceased, is always spot on as an actor.

On their next job during a robbery, the police arrive quickly and the men barely escape. They are interrogated and Frawley soon learns of Doug and Claire's relationship and confronts Claire who learns that Doug is a suspect.

Doug searches for a way out and tells Fergie he will not do the next job - a big heist at Fenway Park. To dissuade him, Fergie tells Doug that his mother committed suicide after Fergie got her addicted to drugs when Doug's father (Chris Cooper), also a career criminal, attempted to leave Fergie's employ. He threatens to hurt Claire as well so Doug reluctantly agrees to the job.

At Fenway, Doug and Jem, dressed as Boston police officers, make their way into Fenway Park and steal millions of dollars. They try to leave in an ambulance dressed as paramedics. Krista has snitched to Frawley, so the FBI surrounds the building. Dez, Gloansy and Jem are killed while Doug escapes in a police cruiser.

Doug immediately heads to Town Flowers, killing both Fergie and his bodyguard. He calls and asks Claire to come away with him, but can see from a strategic vantage point that the FBI are in the same room recording the call. Claire initially tells him to come to pick her up, but in the end delivers a coded message to warn him away. Doug escapes from Boston in a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority uniform.

One day Claire finds a bag buried in a community garden that she had shown to Doug. The bag contains a great deal of money, a tangerine, and a note which says, "I'll see you again, on this side or the other." Claire uses the money to renovate a local hockey rink dedicating it to Doug's mother. The last shot is of Doug, presumably, in Florida, and out of the life of crime he had pursued.

And me...I love a bittersweet ending.