Saturday, October 27, 2007


Written by Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges
Directed by Peter Hedges

Marie: You are smooth.
Dan: No, I’m not smooth. I’m Dan.

If you’re anything like me, smooth and single do not go together. You see someone you like, rare enough as that can be, and you want to say something but you don’t. Or maybe you do say something but it ends up being perhaps the least intelligent thing you’ve ever said in your life. More often then not though, you stare from afar and admire without having to deal with taking that which most agree is the only way to get anywhere in life – a risk. You can’t blame a guy for being a little frightened though. Maybe he’s been burned hard before or maybe he’s trying to focus all his energy on his career. There are reasons, some valid, some not, and all of them can be interpreted as excuses rather than reason. You tell yourself you don’t need it or it isn’t the right time for you but you still wish it were happening. Any way you break it down, it’s not easy. Sound familiar? If you thought yes even just a little, then DAN IN REAL LIFE, the new comedy from director Peter Hedges, is a must-see. It will reach inside of you and somehow manage to both break and warm your heart all at once.

The Dan from the title is Dan Burns (Steve Carell), an advice columnist who is admired for his insight into living a balanced, fulfilling and morally uplifting life. Four years or so before the film opens on Dan waking up to his day, he lost his wife and love of his life. After that tragedy, Dan was left to raise their three daughters alone. Between that and focusing on his career, finding love again was not one of Dan’s priorities. And so he became more functional than feeling. Removed from the power of intimacy, Dan no longer knows what it means to be that close to someone and has resigned himself to never knowing that again. That is, until he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a book and tackle shop in Connecticut on a quiet morning. They’re interaction is casual, comfortable and it catches both of them off guard. There is only one problem really. She is already seeing someone. Unfortunately for all involved, that someone is Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). His entire family has come up to their parents’ country home for their yearly visit and Dan must now spend the weekend pining and yearning for the fleeting feeling he had with Marie that morning. It only lasted an hour or so but it only took that long to awaken Dan’s heart from its coma.

With so many family members to deal with (John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest are at the helm), DAN IN REAL LIFE does drift away from its grander purpose from time to time. While the cyclone of kids and parents and aunts and uncles makes for trying times for Dan, Hedges also uses it unnecessarily as a means to distract, with the presumption that it would ultimately make for a more complete film. Luckily, Hedges has got Carell to carry the heavy burden. It is a pleasure to watch Steve Carell come into his own more and more with every picture he makes (despite the occasional EVAN ALMIGHTY-sized misstep). He is charismatic, charming and obviously a sharp humorist. As Dan, he is also self-deprecating, awkward and scared. Carell is the rare comedian who pushes himself to find character in his roles rather than rely solely on his comedic instincts and established persona. Perhaps more importantly, he is entirely relatable as Dan. Whether he’s flopping down on the cot in the laundry room where he is subjected to sleep as the only single adult at this reunion or fidgeting around the kitchen, unable to stand still in his anxiety, Dan is every guy who has even been unsure of himself and felt alone in the crowd. Carell gives Dan so much heart that he becomes the heart of the film itself at the same time.

I wondered after seeing the film if I enjoyed the it as much as I did, despite its slight shortcomings (Juliette Binoche – I know you might like to lighten up every now and then but I don’t recommend it unless there is chocolate involved), because of where I am in my life. Would someone who has found that someone else derive as much meaning and comfort from this film? I can’t say. What I can say, as someone who knows what it means to be lonely, DAN IN REAL LIFE knows what it means to be surprised by life and love and how these moments and people need to be appreciated and cherished. It also knows that anyone who might be feeling lonely on any given day or for months at a time needs to be reminded that surprises still happen.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Every fall in Montreal, a seemingly small festival sneaks in with the colder weather. I had never paid it much mind in the past. It always appeared as too experimental for my taste. This year though, I was asked to cover the festival and interview directors so I had to put my entirely unfounded apprehension aside and deal with my fear of the experimental. If only I had done so sooner. As it turns out, there is very little that is experimental about the FESTIVAL NOUVEAU CINEMA. The festival is dedicated to showcasing new and original works from the independent field of cinema. New films by Denys Arcand, Brian De Palma and Gregg Araki were screening. Films that were already working the festival circuit, like PERSEPOLIS and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, were screening. And then there were the three films I caught that I am now presenting to you – FUGITIVE PIECES, DEFICIT and I’M NOT THERE. One is by an experienced director whose works are only getting bigger all the time; one is by an actor-turned-first-time-director who should perhaps stick to what he’s already good at; and the last is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Jeremy Podeswa. The name meant nothing to me when I was asked to schedule an interview with him to discuss his new film, FUGITIVE PIECES. The night before the screening of the film, I sat down to watch a season two episode of SIX FEET UNDER, entitled “The Invisible Woman.” The opening credits were rolling and there it was, “Directed by Jeremy Podeswa.” I paused for a moment to grasp the coincidental timing of it all as this was just the next episode in line on my trek to rewatch the series. By the time the episode, in which a woman dies alone in her home and no one discovers her for three weeks, was finished, I could not wait for the screening. Podeswa not only allows his characters to be flawed, he encourages it. At the same time, he does not lay blame on the characters for their troubles but rather forgives them and gives them the space to understand themselves. FUGITIVE PIECES is sweeping and romantic but still hard and honest. When Jakob is a young boy (Robbie Kay) in Poland, he is hidden under a table by his mother before Nazis break into the home, kill both his parents and leave with his older sister. He survives the ordeal and the war but years later (now played by Stephen Dillane), as he struggles with relationships and himself in Canada, it is clear, he is still hiding under that same table and praying for it all to end. The film defines itself by its nuanced performances, tight storytelling and unorthodox editing, choosing to tell both Jakob’s story as a boy and as an adult simultaneously instead of one after the other. The result is an intimate portrayal of his life with an understanding of how he became who he did and desperate longing for him to realize whom he could be.

Gael Garcia Bernal is a talented actor. He brings depth and innocent curiosity to his performances. The roles he takes on are often socially relevant and insightful contemplations on human interaction. After so many years in the business, making the move to directing would seem like a natural progression for someone of his pedigree. Somehow, this is simply not the case. His first feature, DEFICIT, is aimless. Any point it thinks it might be trying to make is entirely undermined by lack of driving action in the plot and the exhausted clichés that are used as character definition. Bernal stars in his own movie as Cristobel, a spoiled, young college student who has come to his Mexico home for the weekend to party it up with some friends. He gets to the house. His sister is already there with friends. His friends show up. They party by the pool. They drink and do drugs. The boys try to get with the girls. Someone almost overdoses. He cries about how he’s lonely and can’t get into the college of his choice. People go home. The movie ends. The young party goers all seem to be having a grand time but why would I want to watch this? Quite frankly, I’d rather be at such a party than watch other people have it. Throughout the day, Cristobel makes looks and comments at the house staff so it would appear as though he is trying to point out the disdain between classes. It is so plain a statement, so obvious in its execution and so underdeveloped that it hurts the film more than it helps. Why bother trying to make a point when you’re not quite sure what point it is you’re trying to make?

And then there was that Dylan movie everyone’s talking about. This is the one where six different people play different incarnations of the American icon from his illustrious life. There is no sequence to the story; there are no boundaries in the casting. Todd Haynes’ I’M NOT THERE is simply the most accessible experimental film I have seen and the most original film of this year so far. Throughout his life, Bob Dylan has filled many roles. He has been a folk-singer, a sellout, a husband, an outlaw, a hero and, at one point, he was someone he was not. Much like FUGITIVE PIECES, Dylan’s story is told in a fragmented fashion to paint the complete picture of this one complex man. Each fraction of his life is a story unto itself but intrinsically linked to the whole and each features a different actor playing the Dylan part. Albeit fine performances are delivered by Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and even Richard Gere, it is Cate Blanchette’s performance that is most memorable and most moving. She plays Dylan at a very low point in his life. His fans worldwide have turned on him, accusing him of being a sellout and going against everything he ever stood for. He has also traded sleep for drugs, making it near impossible to stop shaking his leg. In this time of confusion, all he is trying to get across is that he never believed he could change the world with a song despite everyone wanting him to do just that. Blanchette plays him as righteous, put upon and fragile and she is a marvel in this man’s shoes. I’M NOT THERE implies that Dylan is at the same time none of these people and still all of them at once. Haynes’ direction of the brave effort is genuine in intention, not the least bit pretentious and creatively alive – just like the man whose portrait it paints so beautifully.

As the festival has now wrapped, I can look back and honestly say that covering it – from morning press screenings to free passes to interviewing directors to mocha javas in between – has made me feel more like a legitimate film critic than I ever have before. Funny how being a part of something designed to distance itself from the mainstream managed to make me feel so included.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Wes Anderson

Jack: I wonder if the three of us could have been friends in real life – not as brothers but as real people.
Peter: I don’t know. We probably would have had a better chance.

Let’s make an agreement. Wes Anderson is a talented filmmaker. He has a distinct vision that may not be for everyone’s taste but his films are always colorful and his writing is always exploratory. His characters are usually bizarre exaggerations of downtrodden souls struggling to get back to the surface. The situations they find themselves in are far removed from the realities of the audiences that flock to enjoy them. The same faces reappear in film after film, from Bill Murray and Owen Wilson to Anjelica Huston and Jason Schwartzman, making his films feel at times like you’re hanging with the cool crowd. Their cool factor is only upped when they find themselves staring directly ahead in close-ups in the foreground of the screen – one of Anderson’s signature visual styles. All of these factors either delight Anderson’s numerous fans by appealing to their desire to revel in offbeat humour or repel his detractors who consider his work to be pretentious and empty. Keeping with the film’s spirit of healing and progress, I propose we leave what we know of Anderson behind us and open our minds to THE DARJEELING LIMITED – his most accomplished and satisfying film. Can we agree to that?

Wilson is Francis, the matriarch of sorts to Shwartzman’s Jack and Adrien Brody’s Peter. He has convinced his two brothers to join him on a spiritual journey through India aboard a train by the name of The Darjeeling Limited. The last time they were all together was a year prior, at their father’s funeral. None have healed fully from the experience and it is Francis’ intention to reconnect the threesome so that they can all move forward together. Albeit a well-intentioned concept, the damage done by their family dynamics throughout the years has made it near impossible for them to trust each other. Whenever one is absent from the trio, the two remaining take the opportunity to share something they don’t want the missing brother to know. It’s as if they are choosing the brother they know will handle whatever news they are imparting better. Realistically though, they each know that the moment they leave the room, the brother they told will tell they brother they avoided telling everything. In that regard, they do want to share with the group but they just don’t feel comfortable doing it directly. They play these boyish games while rejecting the need for Francis’ persistent mothering but whether they are buying poisonous snakes at village markets or chasing each other through adjoining train cars, it is clear that there are still many stops before maturity.

When the brothers are not busy sifting through the manipulation, they are seeking out spiritual enlightenment. With its rich tapestry of golds, blues and yellows, India makes for the perfect place for them to lose themselves with hopes of rebuilding. However, the copious amounts of extra-strength, locally found drugs the three share suggest that they aren’t quite finished numbing their pain just yet. Regardless, the journey itself and its intended purpose imply that healing is desperately needed. What the boys don’t realize is that healing can’t be forced. They visit temple after temple and partake in many a ritual hoping to put their past to rest without actually talking about or facing their very real issues. They’re trying so hard though and they clearly want it so bad, need it even. As they struggle to force it, it only seems to get further away from them. An urgency and a hope results in the viewer. These are likable guys and you want them to get what they need. In that respect, Anderson places you directly on the train along with them so that you too are along for the ride.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED is not a train wreck in the least. In fact, it is the opposite. It is a scenic ride that chugs along toward inner peace. The lull of the train serves to calm the chaos and it soothes the viewer as it does the brothers. With the train constantly moving forward, Francis, Peter and Jack will inevitably reach their destination, even though they don’t really know what that is. And with the speed it’s moving at, they can’t get off even though they might want to. Lucky for them, with Anderson wearing the conductor’s hat, there is no chance the train will be derailed.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Written and Directed by Paul Haggis

Soldier: Before I went, I would never say this, but if you ask me now, I’d say we just nuke ‘em all and watch it all turn back to dust.”

Before going to Iraq, a soldier would not likely even think this, let alone say it out loud in any serious manner. The times have changed though and eyes have seen more than any one pair should. Take Jo Anne’s husband for instance. He’s just returned from Iraq to Fort Rudd, New Mexico, a town built around its army base. You might think this would make Jo Anne very happy but, much to her dismay, this is just not the case. Instead, she doesn’t feel she still knows this changed man. When she goes to the police after he snaps a dog’s neck as punishment for biting, no one listens. Instead, they snicker at her. She is enraged but her anger is not enough to rattle any one out of their apathetic trance. Despite there being a clear need for Jo Anne’s husband to get help, there just isn’t anything to be done. He’s just another returning soldier whose mental stability has been fried under the Iraq sun. This is the side of America that is not often seen – a population exhausted by the weight of the war, be that by supporting it or questioning it or participating in it. And while the fighting is taking place overseas, writer/director Paul Haggis’ IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH aims to show America’s eyes what’s been happening in their homes while their focus was elsewhere.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is Haggis’s first time directing since his Best Picture winning CRASH. In the time since then, he has gone on to work on the screenplays for CASINO ROYALE and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. The experience seems to have taught him some valuable lessons about subtlety. While CRASH was intense and moving, it was also contrived and convenient. The pay off may have been worth the trouble but concessions were made for the bigger emotional impact. IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH does not resort to gimmicks to make its mark. Instead, the events unfold like any good mystery, where the pieces come together to reveal that what you’ve been trying to figure out all along is really just a fraction of what’s really going on. This particular mystery begins when Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) gets a call from the Fort Deer army base, informing him that his son has gone missing after returning from active duty. Hank has no helpful information as he didn’t even know his son had come back. It becomes clear pretty quickly that something foul has happened and that Hank didn’t know his son very well at all. Yet as he gets to know his son through the clues he comes across while searching for him, Hank realizes that he knows just as little about how the army has changed as he does his son.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH is able to make understated commentary about the mental and emotional burden of the Iraq war thanks mostly to Haggis’ direction of his stars, Jones and Charlize Theron. Theron is a single mother and a detective who struggles daily to prove that a woman can make just as good a detective as her sloppy male counterparts. She braves the testosterone that beats down on her from all sides but it is Deerfield’s arrival that shows her how fighting against oppression is taking away from her work. Jones achieves a similar effect on Theron’s performance. He is so strong, so internally tormented and still so unfaltering despite the overwhelming evidence that is chipping away at his impression of his great American hero of a son, that Theron cannot help but step up her game as an actress to avoid looking bland in front of the veteran. As Deerfield, Jones is the silent, proud father and husband. He’s the kind of man who cannot be around a lady while simply wearing an undershirt. He is an old-fashioned army boy in a world where he can watch unscrambled video image from a digital camera his son carried with him in Iraq. All the seedy revelations he is discovering must be made proper again and resolving his two conflicting minds becomes the challenge he needs to overcome in order to find both his son and his peace of mind. Jones is not just up for this challenge; he owns it.

With its simple tone and steady pace, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH laments the loss of America’s blanketed support and gusto for a war that was meant to protect their way of life and freedom. It is not so much a movie designed to criticize the decision to go to war in the first place. Haggis is too smart to give that tired argument. Instead, it is an expression of grief for the damage the war has weathered on the country, its citizens and the principals that it was initially meant to protect.