Saturday, April 28, 2007


Written and Directed by Rob Stewart

I had an awfully difficult time getting anyone to see this movie with me. Apparently, a lot of people have issues with sharks. This apprehension was part of the original inspiration for filmmaker, Rob Stewart, to make SHARKWATER. He had been taught his entire life to fear sharks, as have we. The media vilifies sharks every so often to remind us that they are not our friends. It isn’t safe to get in the water after all. Haven’t you all seen that movie with sharks where they eat all the innocent people? It’s as if we have never fully recovered from JAWS. In his career as an underwater photographer, Stewart discovered that these fears are almost entirely unfounded. He could swim with the sharks and get close enough to touch them if he showed them that he did not fear them and that they had no reason to fear him. And so he set out to make a documentary that would demystify our notions that sharks are perversely obsessed with the killing of human beings. What he would discover is that we as humans have already launched a full-scale retaliation against our sworn enemy.

Stewart’s experience as an underwater photographer does not go to waste in this breathtaking film. Stewart’s ocean is one of tranquility and warmth. Over time, it has become his sanctuary and he presents the environment to his audience with the same feeling of security that he claims to get from it. Though he was once very much like a fish out of water, Stewart has found a new home in the ocean and his neighbors don’t seem to mind him at all. The imagery of SHARKWATER was what originally drew me to the film and it does not disappoint. Schools of fish of so many different varieties swim past and mingle with each other that the screen becomes a mélange of colour and movement that is at times dizzying and hypnotic. And though those same fish scatter when the sharks enter the frame, Stewart does not. Instead, he swims towards them and in one instant you see how two species can forget their supposed feud between them by letting their fear of the unknown fall away. For a moment, two worlds collide to create an unexpected harmony.

This only makes what follows all the more painful. Stewart’s shoot took an unforeseen turn when he joined the crew of a militant oceanic watchdog ship that makes it their mission to ensure international treaties protecting the rights of ocean dwellers are upheld. Before long, Stewart and the crew are involved in an international scandal over shark-finning. In some countries, like Japan, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy that when served affirms one’s social status. It is popular at massive weddings and can cost upwards of a hundred dollars in a restaurant. According to Stewart, shark fin trading on the black market is only second to drug trafficking. Although the statistic seems a bit skewed, there are still billions of dollars involved in the trade. For the first time in the 450 billion years that sharks have been on this planet, there are certain species of sharks that are facing serious threats of extinction. Once again, human beings plow through other life in pursuit of the almighty dollar without acknowledging the long term ramifications. See, the planet consists of two-thirds water and this water contains a lot of plankton that produces 70% of the planet’s oxygen. The ocean is filled with fish that survive on plankton. The shark is the ocean’s leading predator of these plankton eaters. If we kill off all the sharks, then the other fish will have free reign over the plankton, which means a diminished production of oxygen for us to breathe. Why do we always assume that our actions have no consequence? And why do we always put money ahead of preservation? You can’t spend money if you can’t breathe.

All of this ecological unrest for soup. Shark fishers remove the fins of the shark, which make up 5% of the shark’s body, and throw the shark back into the ocean to die. Stewart and his crew go undercover into the illegal industry to give weight to their accusations and, as you stare out at rooftops covered with shark fins drying in the sun, you cannot help but be horrified at the sheer size of the operation. SHARKWATER invites you to make friends with the enemy and to see how we as humans are so much worse to sharks than they are to us. The mirror is turned to expose who is the more evil predator and its mouth is not home to sharp jagged teeth but rather to a smiling face sipping down its soup. Sadly, SHARKWATER will not be seen by as many as it should as people prefer their sharks as foe instead of friend. Bring on JAWS 5! Quite frankly, I consider SHARKWATER to be a hell of a lot scarier.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Written and Directed by Mike White

“Animals are like us; they live for love.
And if you have too many of them,
then there isn’t enough love to go around.”

Dog people. When I think of dog people, I think of my friend, Lloyd. He’s got this puppy, Andy. Andy’s got his own personal walker, play dates on weekends and some pieces of his wardrobe are more stylish than mine. Despite being the dog that has everything, the most important thing he has is Lloyd. If you spend any time with this twosome, it’s hard to tell who loves who more. Some people say that owning a dog is selfish, that having another living being depend on you and give you nothing but love in return only serves the owner’s ego. I guess these people forgot about the natural human need to nurture. I suppose these people also have not had the chance to see Mike White’s YEAR OF THE DOG. White, writer of indie faves CHUCK AND BUCK and THE GOOD GIRL, makes his directorial debut with the simple tale of one woman, whose tightly wound life of disappointment unravels after the death of her dog, a beautiful beagle named Pencil.

Before Pencil’s unexpected passing, Peggy (Molly Shannon) spent her days with a permanent smile on her face. Whether she was at the office comforting her boss (Josh Pais) while his neuroses got stuck in spin over office politics, or at the mall listening to her colleague (Regina King) yammer on about her boyfriend’s commitment issues or even walking on eggshells while visiting her brother and his overprotective wife (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern), Peggy never frowned. Sure, she never found her dream job or got married or had any kids of her own. But why should she let that bother her? She has her health, a home and Pencil. Finding herself without Pencil though finds Peggy feeling lost. The beauty of White’s script is that Peggy is not suddenly lost but only suddenly realizing that she has been for years. Anchoring this decent into the depth of an internal fear that has been avoided for years is Shannon. As Peggy, she never fully abandons her comedic luminescence but shows new sides of her range, including fragility, determination and sparks of buried hope. She sits one night in a passenger seat at the end of a date. Her suitor (John C. Reilly) asks without tact if she has ever been married. The woman who answers no longer has the strength or the desire to pretend anymore. She simply stutters through an evasive response and stumbles as she exits the car.

Pencil’s death leads to her meeting Newt (Peter Saarsgard), a dog trainer that coaches her how to tame her newly adopted dog, Valentine, while unknowingly waking a part of her heart thought long to be dead. Meeting people is easy. Getting to know people is tricky. Navigating a relationship through the hope and apprehension that comes after years of potentially difficult experiences can be more than enough to make you run home to your dog. For Newt and Peggy, neither has had much success with other human beings. Other human beings are complicated and come with their own set of expectations. Animals on the other hand, want very clear things from you, like food and attention, and, in return, give you unqualified love and admiration. You don’t have to think about what to say to a dog when there is an awkward silence. There is no experience to be had with a dog that mirrors the dance between two people who are trying to figure out whether this is or isn’t the right time to kiss the other person. And while all of this can be infuriating, it should not be forgotten that this is an excitement that cannot be had with a dog.

White’s script works because he does not categorize the characters but rather allows them to grow into themselves, no matter whether that self fits into society’s mold or not. As a film however, YEAR OF THE DOG, is occasionally just as awkward as its characters. White’s direction and cinematic approach are often static and flat, ultimately taking away from the warmth of the whole. Thankfully, Peggy’s late life journey towards embracing her true self is so winningly portrayed by Shannon that the film’s cinematic limitations never go from flaw to fault. By the time she realizes that her own compartmentalized cubicle life bares its own resemblance to the life of a dog in a pound, she sees that it is also just as wrong for her as for the dogs. After all, dog people are people too and if there's anyone out there who should give you unconditional love, it's yourself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Written and Directed by
Robert Rodriguez
Quentin Tarantino

Cherry Darling: That’s the problem with goals.
They become the thing you talk about instead of
the thing you do.

Cult favorites, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are not talkers; they are doers. If they want to recreate exploitation films popularized in the 1970’s for today’s masses, they don’t just hang around talking about how cool they would be if they did something like that; they do it. GRINDHOUSE packs more blood, boobs and banalities than you can shake a severed limb at into two feature-length films that run back to back. Despite being packaged as two films from the same genre, Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s “Death Proof” offer very different approaches in their homage to excessive sex, violence and gore. One throws story to the blood-soaked floor and spits on it, cluttering the screen with an abundance of characters, sub-plots, political insinuations and zombies galore. The other is all about fast cars and even faster talking women. Both films were aged to simulate the feel of the “Grindhouse” era, complete with added dust and scratches as well as missing reels thrown in for authenticity. And after three hours of vain indulgence, neither film rises above its flaws to become the ultimate cheesy experience it both should and could be.

Up first is Rodriguez’s zombie flick, “Planet Terror”. It isn’t fair to criticize a “Grindhouse” film for it’s plot, even less so in the case of a zombie movie. Regardless, Rodriguez crams so many people and plights into this fright film that the focus is mostly scattered, at times so much so that it takes away from the impending onslaught of zombies bent on taking over humanity. The acting is often horrible; the scenarios are often ludicrous. Ordinarily, this would be the downfall of any film but here it is expected. It is functional for the most part, good for some laughs, groans and nausea, but the fun that Rodriguez is clearly trying to have is often stunted by his efforts to be loyal to the genre. There is so much time spent attempting to recreate a long forgotten feel, that the action is left floundering. His own talent as a filmmaker further undermines Rodriguez’s mimicry of style. The careful framing and calculated composition is often too good to be believable as the B-movie the style is structuring the film to be. Still, Rodriguez deserves praise simply for casting Tarantino himself as a biochemically infected soldier, finding the perfect role for Quentin’s unique acting style. And by unique, I mean bad.

The moment “Death Proof” begins, Tarantino puts Rodriguez to shame. Applying similar visual effects to the film stock, Quentin has crafted a modern take on the “Grindhouse” style rather than attempt a film that feels it was taken from the era. The result is a smoother, more sophisticated aesthetic that is only further strengthened by social implications. “Death Proof” tells the tale of Stunt Man Mike (an energized and exciting Kurt Russell) and his fetish for killing beautiful babes in high-speed collisions. The ladies he targets are nowhere near helpless. In fact, they are strong and smart, if not somewhat naïve. Tarantino’s genius shines through his approach to showcase female empowerment in a genre designed to rob them of all power as well bring the filmmaker’s own perverse gaze to light in the eyes of his antagonist. Just like Rodriguez though, Tarantino trips his own pace. He does so by over-indulging the sound of his written word. One too many dialogue-heavy scenes slows the chase to a dangerously boring speed. The girls (Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, etc.) wrap their luscious lips around Tarantino’s snappy quips but this is the last thing you want when you’ve already been watching for over two and a half hours. A drag race movie should never drag.

GRINDHOUSE can be a lot of fun when it isn’t taking itself so seriously. It is broken up by hilarious mock previews, again crafted to fit the period, by directors like Eli Roth (HOSTEL) and Rob Zombie (HOUSE OF A 1000 CORPSES), arguably a director making modern day “Grindhouse” pictures without going out of his way to label them as such. The features themselves though are then bogged down by auteurs trying to be amateurs. In fact, it might have actually been more fun if two such meticulous filmmakers weren’t at its helm. Perhaps then, it would have actually captured the amateur feel it was designed too. For all its pretentious good intentions, GRINDHOUSE is never neither good nor bad enough to be great.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Written by Sooni Tarapolevala
Directed by Mira Nair

Ashoke Ganguli: My grandfather always said that’s what books are for, to travel without moving an inch.

THE NAMESAKE is a true treasure. It is a film that honours long-established convention and meaning by maintaining its own traditional approach. All too often, filmmakers take sides when telling a story about a culture taken out of context. Either the old is just plain too old for its own good or the new is entirely empty. Director Mira Nair begins this story of one family’s history by drawing her own conclusions but allows the film to learn the error of its ways at the same pace as its characters. The Ganguli family must learn to meet each other in the middle of its own extremes. Once there, they must learn to breathe soft and slow to allow both sides to hear each other and learn from what they are hearing. By finding a similar breathing pattern to establish its pacing, THE NAMESAKE is able to criticize and question the Americanization of other cultures while never losing focus on what matters, the experience and heart of the Ganguli family.

Giving history its due, THE NAMESAKE opens in Calcutta. A young girl by the name of Ashima (played by Tabu) returns home from singing lessons to find a male suitor waiting to ask for her hand in marriage. She does not run from what is expected of her nor does she go towards it blindly and obediently. Instead, she approaches with caution and an open mind. Before she even meets Ashoke (Irfan Khan), she is drawn to the exotic possibilities he can offer her when she finds his American shoes by the door. She slips the shoes on, seemingly trying to feel what kind of man wears these shoes and what kind of weight wears them down. It is a simple moment, one of many to follow, that both gives the film its charm and connects Ashima and Ashoke to each other. Theirs is a marriage arranged in the most traditional sense yet a great love grows from this beginning. The newlyweds travel to New York to start their life together while getting to know both each other and their new surroundings. The tenderness of their relationship is a moving testament to the importance of listening and comprehension.

The wide spectrum of colour that runs rampant through Calcutta is reduced to nothing in New York. The city is covered in snow and only the drab concrete manages to poke through. Before long, Ashoke and Ashima have their first of two children, Gogol (Kal Penn). With his birth, the central conflict is also born. As Gogol grows older, he grows further away from his heritage but more importantly, he grows further away from his parents. All families face these kinds of challenges. In the case of the Ganguli family, it is easy for the children to rebel against their cultural backgrounds as it is the most obvious target that will certainly hurt their parents. The parents had to adjust to the American way of life while the children were born and raised within it. It is difficult to reconcile the differences, which leads to the feeling that they are barely a family at times.

THE NAMESAKE is about healing and understanding. It does not focus on any one family member more than any other but rather on their shared similar experiences of happiness and loss. And though its visual basis is specific, its messages are much more universal. Never letting go of the past will never allow you to see your future. Still, refusing to acknowledge the past will leave your future just as hollow. If you’re not too stubborn though and you realize that everything that comes before you makes you who you are today and who you can be tomorrow, then you will learn to resolve both past and future to enjoy your present and the family you are fortunate to have surround you.