Saturday, September 30, 2006


Written and Directed by Michel Gondry

I am half asleep while writing this review. I think that’s appropriate. I think, therefore I am awake? Maybe I’ll fall in and out of my own dreams while I write but I doubt it. With rare exceptions, I do not have any difficulty differentiating between my subconscious and my conscious life. The same cannot be said for Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), the naïve and enigmatic dreamer who carries us charismatically through writer/director Michel Gondry’s THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. Stéphane has an easier time living in his dreams than in his monotonous day-to-day life where nothing seems to go the way he’d like it to. In his dreams, he is the host of “Stéphane TV”; he calls the shots and dictates to his apparent audience what to think, where to look and how to see things. His television studio comes from the imagination of Gondry, an infamous dreamer. The walls are made of egg cartons; the cameras are made out of boxes; and Stéphane is showing his audience a recipe for dreams. Mix random thoughts with reminiscences from the day just passed, like songs you heard or things you saw. Blend that with past memories of friends and lovers and you have hours of dreaming ahead of you. Take one part linear romantic boy-chasing-girl storyline and several parts absurdist visual experimentations, mix well and you have THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP.

Stéphane, a Mexican-born painter, has just moved to Paris at the insistence of his mother. His father has just died and she tells him that she can get him work as an artist. He has taken up in her apartment to find that not much has changed. He soon realizes that the work his mother secured for him is much less artistic than he had been led to believe it was. Amidst his frustrating disappointment, he meets Stéphanie, his next-door neighbor. Though it is not love at first sight, he falls for her and they dance the dance that no one seems to know how to dance without stepping on each other’s toes. Gondry weaves Stéphane’s pursuit of Stéphanie in and out of dream and reality. The seamlessness between each existence confuses the viewer to the point where one is not clear whether or not he is really getting any closer to her. When it isn’t going well in the real world, Stéphane almost forces himself into his dreams where he feels he has a better grasp on the situation. Though, the surreal atmosphere can be interpreted numerous ways, the real path can be traced and appreciated. There is pain but there is escape from that pain.

Gondry does not limit his analysis of sleep to when people are actually sleeping. In fact, while sleeping, Stéphane does an awful lot more living and learning than when he’s awake. Stéphane’s passion is for painting the greatest disasters the world has ever known. He would like nothing more than to combine these images with astrological forecasts, creating a new kind of calendar – disasterology. Instead of making this calendar, he is wasting away as a typesetter. Gondry now folds a different kind of dream into the batter, the conscious dreams we have that serve as hope for a better future. Stéphane might as well be asleep given that the drab nature of his work is pushing his dreams further away. Then there is the work colleague that sleeps with any girl he can. As every experience is purely visceral and devoid of meaning, he is passing his time more than anything else. Even the world’s greatest time waster is given a grandiose send off as Stéphane and his same colleague (Alain Chabat), hurl a television into a river after feeling inundated with useless imagery. Gondry is fascinated with the mysterious yet inevitable lost hours that pass while we sleep and the exorbitant amount of time that we knowingly throw away while we’re awake.

Though not as satisfying as Gondry’s attempt to answer the question whether it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP is an amusing puzzler that plants seeds of thought in the gardens of your mind without you noticing. Stéphane’s life is a perfect example of how little life makes sense. His dreams take the elements of his life he cannot comprehend and try to make sense of them in his head by mixing them up and placing them in a new order. The sad thing is that while he’s trying to pick it all apart with his scientific approach to sleep, he doesn’t see that he’s met someone who speaks his language and shares similar dreams.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Directed by Ryan Fleck

A teacher tries to open the minds of a class of inner-city high school students. Plainly put, the premise of HALF NELSON sounds like a movie we’ve all seen too many times before but this is not that movie. HALF NELSON doesn’t soften the hard or smooth over the rough. It opens with Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, waking up to his day. He looks exhausted, dirty. As he stumbles around for his pants, he even looks deathly. Mr. Dunne is an 8th grade history teacher and a basketball coach. He is also a drug addict who has cut himself off from as much human intimacy as possible. After coaching a losing game and having an awkward conversation with an ex-girlfriend, his two worlds crash into each other in the girls’ locker room. When he thinks everyone has left, he lights up his crack pipe in a bathroom stall and falls into the high until he hears footsteps. The stall door opens and he stares blankly, curled up on the toilet, at the face of Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his history students. He insists he’s fine but he isn’t fooling either one of them. She helps him off the floor and into his car. By the time he drops her off, an unlikely friendship has begun, a star performance is being built by Gosling and a brilliantly engaging film is well under way.

Despite his dependence, Mr. Dunne manages to make it to class fairly often. His students, he claims on more than one occasion, are possibly the only thing in his life that keeps him sane. In the classroom, he has purpose. That purpose, he has decided despite the school principal’s protests, is to prepare his students for mental and emotional challenges life will present when they leave high school. Though he is supposed to be teaching the details surrounding the civil rights movement, he prefers to lecture on the philosophy behind how such a change comes about. His approach, albeit unorthodox, is effective. His students are attentive and encouraged to think progressively. Mr. Dunne believes change is brought about when two opposing forces reach a turning point where one force will ultimately overpower the other force. He illustrates this point with a friendly game of arm wrestling. The paradox of a man so intent on inspiring others when he has so little interest in inspiring himself is both fascinatingly twisted and painfully heartbreaking to watch. My heart goes out to Mr. Dunne but all the while, I want to shake him out of his funk.

Keeping with the theme of opposing forces, Mr. Dunne’s relationship with Drey serves as a mirror to the state his life has reached. Drey is a 13-year-old girl who is growing up mostly on her own as her father has left, her mother is always working and her older brother is in jail. She is in need of a solid adult influence in her life and her choices are between Mr. Dunne, a man who has long ago given up on his future and a neighborhood drug dealer who would like to recruit her as part of his crew. Evidently, she has her own opposing forces to deal with. While she is necessarily more mature than the majority of her peers, she is still a teenager and struggles to know her place, especially in relation to Mr. Dunne. There is clearly an admiration as she hangs off every word of his lectures, possibly even a crush. Still, her most mature awareness, and this can be directly attributed to Epps’ stunningly understated performance, is that Mr. Dunne needs her more than she needs him. As he has no friends, he needs an impartial person in his life to remind him about the simple and touching aspects of human interaction. Her beauty grows out of her instinctual impulse to help.

A “half nelson” is a wrestling move that, when applied correctly, prohibits the person in the hold from being able to free him or herself from the hold until they submit to defeat to stop the pain. In the case of Dan Dunne, the drug addiction in his life is the perpetrator of that move and he admitted defeat a long time ago, acknowledging at this point in his life that he only takes the drugs to get by these days compared to his earlier days when he took them to forget. I honestly don’t know which is worse. HALF NELSON is a transfixing character study, thanks in great part to Gosling’s impressive versatility. In many ways, he himself encompasses two opposing forces at the same time but with the hold his drug usage has on his life, it isn’t likely he’ll reach his turning point any time soon, if at all.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Written by Paul Haggis
Directed by Tony Goldwyn

If you spend any time at all at Zach Braff’s myspace page, you would read how excited and proud he is of his latest starring role in THE LAST KISS. In it, he plays Michael, a 29-year-old architect who has everything he’s ever wanted. He has a great position at a large firm in a field he loves; he has a strong group of friends who are always there for each other; and he has a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend who loves him deeply. He knows he’s a lucky man and his friends and family see how he’s about to get luckier with his girlfriend pregnant with their first child. He has them all fooled though because he sees this baby more as permanency than possibility. In many ways, this is the perfect follow-up to GARDEN STATE, in which, in addition to writing and directing, he also plays a man in his mid-twenties who does not know where his life is headed. It is only natural to find a similar character a few years later facing the issues that confront you when you finally get your ducks in line. And whereas Michael’s fear of never being surprised by life again is a real anxiety, the hollow characters that make up this ensemble lend little humanity to this reality. THE LAST KISS plays out, with rare exception, as a once-fresh tale that has been spoiled by one-dimensional characters, unmotivated actions, uninspired dialogue and an expectation that its deeper than it really is.

From the way Braff goes on in his blog postings, one would almost think he wrote and directed this film too. Despite not having any way to test this theory, I wonder if the film would have been better if he had. Braff’s creative influence on GARDEN STATE elevated it to a higher caliber of film making because of its innovative visuals, believably broken characters and timely musings. THE LAST KISS was written by two-time Academy Award winning writer, Paul Haggis (CRASH, MILLION DOLLAR BABY). Haggis juggled an even larger ensemble in CRASH and managed to give nearly every character enough backstory to make them tangible. Here, characters are more like symbolic signifiers for Braff’s Michael to go through his own transformation. One of the more notable examples is his friend, Chris (played by Casey Affleck who brings more heart to his character than any of the other younger cast members). Chris is married and has a newborn, whom his wife has grown so attached to that she no longer has interest or patience for her husband. The insinuation that this hell is what awaits anyone who gets married and has a baby is groan-inducing. Yet another obvious purpose is served in the writing of Michael’s future in-laws (played by the always subtle Tom Wilkinson and always fragile Blythe Danner). They remind Michael, and us of course, that a long term marriage is difficult at best but yet somehow still worthwhile if you work real hard and learn to forgive.

Despite all these poorly hidden character devices, I believe that Haggis’ script is only made worse by Tony Goldwyn’s direction. The problems even begin in the opening shot. Feet stroll by in close-up from each end of the frame while the credits appear amidst the limbs. A car approaches very slowly behind them and the camera tilts up to reveal Michael and his girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett), sitting silently. The movement is awkward but the effort is noble. She asks what he is thinking about and he replies that he was wondering how he got so lucky to have her in his life. As he says this, a bus pulls up along side with a lingerie ad on its side. Michael leers and it becomes immediately obvious that THE LAST KISS will be about a man who learns to stop thinking with his penis and start feeling with his heart. Only Braff exudes too much sensitivity for him to come off as a typically uncaring guy. By the time Michael meets Kim (Rachel Bilson) at a friend’s wedding (an event that naturally depresses the typical male because it feels so final), he has cemented his stance as the man who has no idea what he wants. This is perfect because Kim is the younger temptress who knows what she wants but has no idea why. They sit in a tree house and exchange thoughts on how the world moves so fast that it is only natural that people break down far earlier than in past generations. It may be a contemporary theory but it feels as borrowed from GARDEN STATE as the film’s soundtrack does.

Zach Braff, post-GARDEN STATE, has become something of an easily identifiable every man. He filled the shoes for a generation unsure of its path and desperately in need of meaning. And though he merely plays a role in THE LAST KISS, he has become the face of the film thanks to all his praise and enthusiasm for it. I can understand his pride in his performance but his character is flat and unimpressive. The man he once personified may have been lost but was open minded and bravely forging out a fresh, new course for himself. The man he has now become walks down a run down street in worn out shoes and blends in with the crowd.

Friday, September 15, 2006


Written and Directed by Bryan Barber

Hip-Hop duo, Outkast, has always been at the forefront of music video innovation. The man behind many of these innovations is director, Bryan Barber. With their Southern prohibition-era musical, IDLEWILD, the trio expands their quirky visual gimmickry to feature length size stimulation. The film opens at a funeral where we are introduced to Percival and Rooster (Outkast’s Andre 3000 and Big Boi) as they introduce themselves to each other. Flipping back and forth between black and white and vibrant colour, the images are manipulated like a vinyl LP being spun by a DJ. Eyes in frozen frames shift from left to right on beat with the jazzed-up Hip-Hop musical bed while the moving images jitter to the scratches of the record. And as musical notes come to life on the sheet music atop Percival’s upright piano, so does the film. It has an energy that invigorates your mind while it exhilarates your dancing feet. You feel that much cooler just for being there. Then, almost as quickly as your heart rate shot up, it slows down to its normal murmur as the lifeless story tries its hardest to suck all the force out of Barber’s hip fresh style. Pulling double duty as director and writer, Barber both saves and ruins his own film at the same time.

In recent years, media reports have reveled in telling the story of one of hip-hop’s most successful acts. Big Boi enjoys a lifestyle of excess that money can buy him – lots of booze, cigars and parties. Andre 3000 on the other hand seeks to purify his soul. Their last musical recording found them laying down tracks individually, encouraging rumours that the two could barely stand each other. There is plenty of opportunity for drama here that could translate easily to the screen. At first, this appears to be the story that Barber intends to tell. Percival and Rooster meet as young boys. Rooster is always getting into trouble while Percival must please his strict mortician father. As adults, Percival is still leading a straight, god-fearing existence while Rooster boozes it up at a club called Church as the major musical attraction. The way in which the story is set up leads you to think that you are about to watch a story in which two friends with two different motivations learn that they have an unbreakable bond despite all their differences – the kind of bond that will help them get through all of their struggles. Instead, in what I can only assume is a decided effort to get away from the story we are all familiar with, Barber takes his two characters in different directions. He takes them each so far from each other that, like their solo musical efforts, they barely end up on screen together. Their separate story paths range from banal to cliché to ridiculous and all the while there is a looming confusion as to why the friendship was established as the unshakeable center to begin with.

Another reason Barber should leave the writing duties to someone else is his complete lack of understanding of the female character. Paula Patton and Melinda Williams play the only two female characters of significance. Patton plays Angel Davenport, a sultry diva chanteuse who takes a liking to Percival, presumably because he respects her while everyone else, including the camera, ogles her. From the moment she makes her appearance on screen, with the first of a few fetishized close-ups of her feet, she turns the head of all the men and enrages all the chorus girls at Church. With her temptress persona cemented as her purpose straight away, it seems entirely bizarre when there is some background given to her in the later part of the film. Williams plays Zora, Rooster’s wife and mother to his numerous children. She scolds him for staying out all night and accuses him of fooling around on her while he’s boozing, to the point that she tries to run over a couple of girls she assumes her husband has been with. Of course, despite her constant complaints, she waits for him at home like the good wife she is, believing she’s won an argument because she has forced Rooster to take her and the kids shopping. With few exceptions, the remaining female cast members fill in as dancers who appear in little clothing that reveals plenty as they dance and shake around the men that love them. Their hollow, unmotivated dialogue becomes laughable as the film progresses.

Barber has a unique imagination. From a wall of cuckoo clocks cuckoo-ing melodically to a Matrix-ification of a swing dance sequence, IDLEWILD pushes its visual motif to the limits and dazzles the viewer. However, this is a musical, not a music video. Not only are solid story developments vital to get the viewer past the suspense of disbelief when people start to sing out of nowhere but the pacing, placement and relevance of musical numbers needs to be consistent. As Outkast rap on about the moment or their surroundings, they are not bringing the film forward but rather stopping it still. IDLEWILD could be recut into a series of four or five videos, leaving all the pointless filler on the floor and allowing Barber to shine on the right screen.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Eight or nine years ago, I broke up with my first boyfriend. I thought I was doing alright. Turned out, not so much. I decided to take a much needed and deserved vacation. I had not taken one in a long time and did not really know what to do with myself as I had the time but not the cash to do anything or go anywhere significant. That was the summer I discovered the Montreal World Film Festival. I would escape my pain and my thoughts in the dark of the Parisian theatre, watching film after film until they all became one big movie and dizzying of my mind slowed.

Over the course of a week and a half, hundreds of movies play from morning until night. An occasional Hollywood offering makes an appearance but, for the most part, the films that make up the program come from all over the world. You either catch them at the festival or you never hear from them again. I no longer see so many movies all day that I can’t tell them apart. Depending on the year, I often end up seeing a dozen or so films. This year, I had no time off to speak of, so I was able to catch five films. This is an account of my journey around the world … the world film festival, that is.

Having whittled down the list to five films that met my interests and schedule, I was very excited to see my first selection, Germany’s SO LANGE DU HIER BIST (AS LONG AS YOU’RE HERE). My anticipation for the festival came to sudden halt, the kind that could leave you with whiplash, moments into this tediously drab film. Once my eyes had adjusted to the dark grain of the DV transfer that left many sequences indistinguishable, I saw that what I had left to focus on was awkward and uncomfortable, not to mention boring. The opening sequence of retired Georg gluing a broken teacup back together shows promise of a thoughtful film that will explore the reparations of a shattered life. Then the lights go out and the drastically younger, Sebastien, Georg’s regular prostitute, knocks on Georg’s door. Both live hermit-like lives, Georg in his apartment and Sebastien, on the street. They spend the remainder of the film trying to connect with each other and give meaning to a relationship that is almost as meaningless as their lives have become. The apartment setting is cold and cramped. The constant tight framing only further lends to the growing claustrophobia this film incites. While Sebastien sits under the kitchen table like a child, Georg records all their interactions onto a tape recorder. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to spend more than five minutes trapped in this dark apartment with these two. Luckily, the film only clocked in at an hour and twenty minutes. I was very happy to leave.

The next morning, I was subjected to write a DVD review for another horrible film, called SORRY, HATERS, which I had to watch twice because I am contracted to review the disc features. With the rain falling in sheets from the sky, I was not enthused to be trekking out to the festival again for another potential disaster. Though it was not shining outside, the sun was beating against my face with fortune inside the Quartier Latin cinema as I watched my second film, LA BICYCLETTA, from Spain. LA BICYCLETTA was a joyous celebration of love and life, a true bohemian crowd-pleaser. Three stories are told about three similar people at three very different stages of their lives. Their love and connection to their bicycles ties them together. There are occasional structural problems, as two of three main characters interact but the third never crosses anyone else’s path, but these are easily overshadowed by the messages director Sigfrid Monleon infuses into his film. The bicycle is a mode of transportation that is not merely controlled by the driver but also powered by the driver. It is an innocent vehicle that brings out a children’s ideology in all who ride it. It is inexpensive and environmentally sound, making all who ride them respectful equals. Aside from their love for bicycle riding, the three main characters are all pioneers and not followers, further enforcing the symbolism behind riding a bike and controlling your own destiny. 12-year-old boy, Ramon, doesn’t feel the need to fit in with the cool crowd; Young woman, Julia, is determined to make it in the big city; and retired mother, Aurora, doesn’t want to move from her home just so the city can redevelop the area. This breezy ride will make you feel like you too are on a bike, gliding down a hill with the wind blowing through your hair while the sun warms your skin. When I left the theatre, it had stopped raining.

My hump film and the last one I saw in a language I don’t speak was KEILLERS PARK, from Sweden. It did not take very long for this film to become a variation on a film subgenre I’ve seen far too often. Successful businessman and happy husband, Peter, makes eye contact with an attractive man on a city bus and his world is torn apart. He happens across the young man again a short time later and it is not long before he is naked in his arms. This is the first of the film’s plot holes as his new lover, Nassim, just finished saying how he wants nothing to do with helping a married man find himself. His wife finds out and leaves him; his sister finds out and calls him a dirty pervert; his father finds out and disowns him. All are tired story elements that one expects to happen. It predictably becomes Peter and Nassim against the world, powered by their deep love. The ignorant reactions of the people in Peter’s life feel like the painful film reactions towards gay people from a dozen years ago. In a 2006 film, they feel like leftover issues that taint the film in its own homophobic colour. Perhaps these issues are expected in a Swedish city but as a North American audience member, I’ve dealt with them all before and left them behind already. The rest of the film is marred by odd motivations. Peter doesn’t seem the least bit phased by the drastically new direction his life has taken. Even stranger is when Nassim suddenly turns on Peter out of nowhere and with no explanation. It is no wonder filmmaker, Susana Edwards, wrapped this flat story in a murder mystery blanket. Without that and some colourful imagery, KEILLORS PARK is nothing more than a revisiting of 90’s homophobia.

F is for Friday, Film and Fuck. I say this because on Friday, I saw a film documentary on the F-word. F is also for Flawed and Funny. These two words sum it all up. American documentary, FUCK, explores how one little four-letter word can satisfy so many expressions of emotion and anger so many conservatives. At times, the documentary seems too reliant upon other media to stand on its own, interspersing many clips from films and stand-up routines as examples of heavy F-word usage. Aside from the clips, the film bounces back and forth between streeters, talking heads and animated bits. The talking heads are a little off-colour and the streeters are a bit of a stretch at times. The film itself even strays off course when it gets more into attitudes towards sex instead of the word for having sex. All that aside, there are many laughs to be had and some good points to discuss. FUCK is most insightful when it deals with how those who use the F-word are generally considered to be of a lower class; how protecting the children of America has become a blanket excuse for increasing censorship; and how different intonations change the functionality of the word. When used the right way, the word itself ordinarily incites people to laugh when they hear it so you can imagine how many laughs there were in a film that has “fuck” said nearly 700 times.

For my closing film, I chose to see the closing film of the festival, Canada’s own LA VIE SECRETE DES GENS HEUREUX (THE SECRET LIFE OF HAPPY PEOPLE). Quebecois director, Stephane Lapointe, tells the story of Thomas, a perpetual loser who is about to finish university at a fine school his father paid for in a program his father chose. The man cannot make his own decisions and has no idea what would make him happy. All he knows is that his successful businessman father, trivia genius mother and gifted sister have a much better handle on life than he does. Enter Audrey, a girl he meets on campus. For the first time, someone sees past his timid exterior to the warm person inside. The smiles beam from his face because now he doesn’t need to worry about his future anymore as he’s got a girl to distract him. From the moment the blueprint-style credits begin and flow into a cursive camera movement opening sequence at a family party, LA VIE SECRETE announces its arrival as a contemporary commentary on the pursuit of happiness. It is amusing, well acted and thoughtful. Disappointingly, the steam wears off before it reaches the halfway point. Odd, inexplicable scenes take you out of the flow and slow the film down until the bizarre explanation is given for these scenes. Not surprisingly, predictability settles in as the people who supposedly have life all figured out begin to unravel. Even Audrey, Thomas’ muse, transitions from character to caricature as her actions become less believable and more just the actions one would expect from a male writer who hasn’t quite figured out how to see a female character as anything more than a device to satisfy the male character needs. Despite not sharing any new insights on the secrets behind being happy, the film is light and enjoyable.

Light and enjoyable isn’t quite going out with a bang but from the sampling of films I ended up seeing at the World Film Festival, it seems a seriously impressive closer was not amidst the bunch. All the same, each year is always a gamble and as some of the films paid off, I still feel like a winner. Just having the opportunity to sift through so many possibilities and seeing the films with people that matter to me is enough to keep me coming back year after year. And though my initial reasons for finding the festival were to escape life, I no longer find myself running away but rather running towards.

(Thank you to Raymond, Holly, Josh, Samantha, Alexi and Trevor for joining me.)