Friday, December 28, 2007


Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Julian Schnabel

Jean-Dominique Bauby: Mon premier mot est “je.” Je commence par moi.

People often find themselves feeling trapped. They feel trapped at work or trapped in a bad relationship. When we find ourselves in these sorts of situations, we are sometimes fortunate enough to have choices. We can change our surroundings; we can look to new possibilities and put the scenarios that are suffocating us behind us. And if we can’t make that change happen immediately, we can find ways to escape for a while. We can go for walks; we can talk to friends; we can go to the movies. Now, thanks to director, Julian Schnabel, we can feel just as trapped at the movies as we already may feel in our regular waking lives. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is a French film about one man’s true account of what it feels like to experience the medical condition called locked-in syndrome. Someone in this condition can see and think, even remember everything but his body is paralyzed from top to bottom and he cannot move his mouth to speak. As depressing as this all sounds, it is nowhere near as intense as how it feels to see the film from the perspective of the patient, which is exactly where Schnabel places his viewer. Whatever you were escaping won’t seem so important after having experienced this cinematic paralysis.

The film is even more devastating because this horror is a true story. Former Elle magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played in the film by Mathieu Almarich) suffered a stroke that left him in a coma in 1995. The film tells his story from the moment he awakes from that coma twenty days later. He must battle his way through his confusion to deal with the crushing news that the life he knew is now over. This is a man who worked in fashion. His life was glitz, glamour, always moving and now he is sitting in a cramped hospital room and unable to get out of bed or even sit up. While Bauby wakes up to hell, we wake up to cinematic heaven. Award-winning cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, developed a style of shooting that shows the viewer what Bauby is seeing. Doctors and orderlies are constantly in his face; images are blurred or skewed depending on how alert Bauby is; and when he closes his eyes, we see nothing but the back of his eyelid. We get out of that claustrophobic space the same way Bauby does by following his imagination, which takes him back to many memories or to all-together new places for experiences he’s never had. The dreamy technique is humbling, inspiring and, rather ironically, cinematically alive. Kaminski has taken a paralyzed perspective and made it dance.

Ronald Harwood’s script lights a fire of frustration in the viewer while it exposes the stupidity of humanity. While no one around him can hear his thoughts, we are privy to all of them being trapped in the mind where they are formed. The manner in which the senior doctors speak to him and the liberties they take knowing he cannot speak back or push their fingers away while they poke at him exposes the inequities of the medical profession. Hope is casually dropped into the conversation whenever there is nothing more to say. Even in this so obviously dire situation, people cannot directly address pain and suffering. Harwood is also careful not to inundate us with imagery of Bauby’s former existence. The memories we do see alert us to significant relationships and moments but make no linear trajectory of everything that led up to this. Nor are we subjected to clichés of everything exciting that Bauby will never know again. Instead, we are just shown glimpses of the man we are meant to identify with. This story would be tragic no matter what the background and Harwood’s sparse humanization allows us to see that clearly. More importantly, the dialogue in Bauby’s head and the little that manages to get to those around him allows us to see who he is right now. After all, he is still alive.

As harrowing as this all sounds, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY is still uplifting. Bauby manages to maintain some of the relationships he had prior to his attack and their new context is a reminder that something deeper than mindless chatter holds them together. And for every bumbling doctor that doesn’t know what to do with him, there are just as many others determined to help him, even some that develop all new relationships with him. While his whirlwind life may seem to have come to a deadening halt, he learns a lesson that we all need to remind ourselves of regularly. There is no sense in sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves while we are still alive and capable of progress. If you need an example to see that, you should know that by blinking his way through the alphabet one letter at a time, Bauby wrote the book on which this film is based.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Jason Reitman

Juno MacGuff: I think I’m, like, in love with you.
Paulie Bleeker: You mean as friends?
Juno MacGuff: No, I mean, like for real. You’re like the coolest person I’ve ever met and you don’t even have to try, y’know.
Paulie Bleeker: I try really hard, actually.

I must be older at heart than I thought. I was instantly put off by Jason Reitman’s JUNO. Here you have this little movie about a pregnant teenager who is just trying to do the right thing by everyone and all I could think was how hard it was trying to have its own marginalized identity. A sketched doodle of the word, “autumn” appears at the top of the screen; the sounds of Barry Louis Polisar’s indie acoustic music begin to play as a comic book-like animated title sequence takes over the screen; Rainn Wilson, working as a convenience store counter clerk, says things like, “Your eggo is preggo,” and “What’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle?” It was as though Reitman was pulling out every trick he could think of to make sure we knew how edgy his film was. “We are indie!” it screamed like a loud teenager yammering away in the back of the theatre. Only, just like that teenager, JUNO is much deeper than it first appears and simply requires a closer look to see Reitman’s sensitive, gentle hand at work. JUNO just may be the most earnest and humble film I’ve seen all year. It’s merely hiding behind a tough exterior.

That tough exterior comes courtesy of first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, and is reinforced by Reitman’s strong understanding of the nuanced material. It is honest, frank and forgiving, which is a refreshing take from the usual damnation pregnant teenage girls suffer on film. Parents don’t scream and shout when they find out about their daughter’s situation; nobody forbids anyone from seeing anybody else ever again. It is not the least bit dramatic considering that exaggeration colors mostly every word uttered on screen. (Look, I can embellish too!) The non-judgmental approach allows almost every character to come from his or her own perspective and place in the story, making them much more real than they let on. We know that prospective adoptive mother, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), is concerned with image and perception because we see her hands straightening frames and towels while waiting to receive company before we even see her face. We know that her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman), is not as enthusiastic about the adoption as his wife is because he isn’t by her side when Juno (Ellen Page) first appears at their door. These kinds of subtle visual touches act like prenatal vitamins meant to ensure that Cody’s script is born with a healthy heartbeat.

JUNO also gives birth to a new star, albeit a little bit past her due date (despite her young age of 20). Halifax native, Ellen Page, carries the majority of the film and is as complex as they come without making it seem labored (no pun intended). Past starring roles in lesser-known films like HARD CANDY and THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS were explosive and impossible to ignore only the films themselves were overlooked. Turning in another unforgettable performance in a crowd pleaser is sure to get her the accolades and recognition she deserves. Page whips out Cody’s snappy pseudo-hipster speak with fervor and confidence but gives herself away without realizing. She always plays it cool so that no one, including herself, can acknowledge how frightened she must be to be in her position. Her decision to have her baby and put it up for adoption rather than go the abortion route is brave but naïve as she has no idea how adult her decision actually is. She speaks like she has all the answers and yet has no idea what she’s talking about most of the time, but once you catch a glimmer of that fragility, anything that came off as false prior, shows itself as the front that it is.

Reitman, Cody, Page and the rest of the fantastic cast (J.K. Simmons, Alison Janney and the fascinatingly talented and gangly, Michael Cera) light JUNO afire with warmth and genuine caring. This is a movie about real people dealing with the obstacles they’re faced with rather than sitting around and whining about them. On that level, there’s nothing indie about this movie. Instead, JUNO is the perfect portrait of a young girl flung into adulthood unexpectedly. She feels prepared, realizes she isn’t, learns that she needs others and yet carries herself like she’s been the one calling the shots all along. It sure sounds awfully adult to me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Written and Directed by Tamara Jenkins

John Savage: Your life is much more portable than mine.
Wendy Savage: What does that mean? Like a toilet? Like a port-o-potty?

What better time of year to talk about family? The holidays bring families together. Differences are put aside; memories are shared. I don’t know about you but this warm, fuzzy Christmas wish is not what happens when my family gets together. We’re lucky enough if we actually manage to get together. Still, we are far from savages … far from THE SAVAGES, that is. Now this is a real family. Mom left when little John and Wendy Savage were still prepubescent. They suddenly found themselves under the sole care of Lenny Savage but his idea of care included neglect and beatings. Now, Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is nearly 40 and temping to support herself while she dreams of being a playwright in New York City. John Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre professor who has success but carries himself like a failure. As for dear old Dad, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) went off and made a home for himself in Sun City, Arizona. He moved in with his lover and the two were together until her death. With dementia and Parkinson’s disease settling in, Lenny is no longer capable of taking care of himself. John and Wendy, having washed their hands of the old man years ago, now have to take responsibility for what is theirs, whether they want to or not. We can run as far away as we want but family is still family.

You would never guess but THE SAVAGES is actually pretty darn funny. Tamara Jenkins both wrote and directed the film, wise to realize that her harsh reality would be difficult to swallow without a little sugar added. In fact, this is the script’s greatest triumph. Life is messy and you will get your hands dirty if you decide to go outside. Still, no matter how hard it gets, laughter makes it easier and Jenkins can see humour in even this dark scenario. The laughter serves not only to put her audience at ease but it slowly heals the Savages as well as they find themselves seeing life more honestly than they ever have before. Nothing forces people to live in the present more than the promise of death. With Lenny reaching the end of his line, John and Wendy must do something they have never done before; they must grow up. (It’s no wonder their surnames are taken directly from the Peter Pan stories.) Growing up for these two means turning around to face the very man they have been running from for their entire lives, seeing him as the fragile human being he is and releasing him of the blame they have laid on him and hid behind for as long as they can recall.

John and Wendy must learn to forgive in order to move on. Simple enough of a concept, perhaps too simple, but Jenkins is smart enough to know that this is a nuanced, sometimes torturous process and one that would require a higher caliber performer to convey. Wendy Savage is essentially paralyzed. She wants to be a writer but lacks the confidence to make that happen. While she lives in the shadow of her brother’s numerous degrees, she makes the cubicle rounds and seems to be waiting for someone to acknowledge her talent as worthy before standing up for it herself. Linney plays Wendy as a woman who knows she deserves more from everyone in her life, including herself, but hasn’t quite figured out how to make that necessity manifest. Meanwhile, brother John doesn’t dress up for funerals, refers to his father as a situation and signs sympathy cards without reading them first. His work is his life and he refuses to feel for anyone but as Hoffman goes from sternly controlling his sister to crying privately in the bathroom in the middle of the night over a woman he does not know how to love, it becomes obvious that the feelings he is trying so hard to suppress will be coming out regardless. The Savage siblings will come a long way from only being able to say, “I love you,” on a balloon.

It would be entirely left field to call THE SAVAGES preachy or overly critical but Jenkins does still draw our attention to some truly savage human behavior – our treatment of the elderly. While the orderlies and nurses are doing their best, they clearly lack funding to make their residents feel as comfortable as possible. Regardless of how you lived your life, there is no reason it should end in small room made even smaller by a curtain that cuts it in half. The elderly may be dying but they aren’t already dead and that’s the way we’re treating them. Jenkins and her sensitive, honest film should be commended for not wagging a judgmental finger in the faces of the characters or the audience but rather showing all involved that caring for our elders in their final hours is definitely hard but there is still laughter to be found in the days before darkness falls.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Written by John Logan
Words and Music by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Tim Burton

Sweenney Todd: I can guarantee the closest shave you’ll ever know.

When the ensemble harmonizes the unsettling baritone with the glass-shattering soprano parts of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” at the opening of the stage production, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, the tone is not only announced but adamantly affirmed. You are in store for a truly bizarre tale that is the epitome of madness and you are being introduced to man burnt by an unjust system, robbed of everything and everyone that ever meant anything to him, who has now returned for his due vengeance and has brought with him a very unhealthy bloodlust. It would seem that there could be no one better suited to translate this haunting story to film than master of the dark and champion of the disenfranchised, director, Tim Burton. Burton begins by hastily deciding to skip the ballad and go straight to what he knows best. Bright red blood drips down walls and slips between the gears of a giant meat grinder, Stephen Sondheim’s potently explosive score driving everything forward. But just as the ballad foretells on stage of unbelievable vocal histrionics to come and amaze, Burton’s decision to remove it in favour of score and visual gore confirms that he will be relying on what he knows in fear of the daunting music he has failed to grasp.

For a director who has built his entire reputation on his creative visual style, it is genuinely surprising to watch SWEENEY TODD unfold in such an unimaginative fashion. It does not seem so at first. In fact, it is quite a twisted treat to dive in to the cobblestone streets of yesterday’s London, tainted blue and gray by cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, to a saturation point that makes the patrons appear as though they are just waiting, if not begging, for their dull lives to end. Who can blame them really? The light of day rarely seems to rise on London as it is constantly shrouded in heavy cloud. And while the camera hints at the scope of London by weaving from the picturesque rooftops to a dizzying maze of streets, it quickly ceases to a halt on one particular street corner, home to Todd’s barbershop. Despite having so much room to move, Burton traps us here and allows the claustrophobia to set in. This is a fine way to make people uncomfortable but it also makes for some rather limited musical staging. Burton rushes through the musical numbers by slicing lines out (unfortunately some of the more hilarious ones) so that he can get to the action because he knows that their stunted staging slows the pace. Subsequently, he leaves us with nothing more than a bloody mess on the floor.

Further proving the unimportance of technical mastery in this musical is Burton’s decision (with the perplexing blessing of Sondheim himself) to cast untrained singers in the demanding leads. The character of Sweeney Todd requires a voice so powerful and fierce that it resonates fear through the bodies of all who hear it. Johnny Depp surprises with how well he can handle the material but his capable performance never ignites the passion of a mad man. Meanwhile, Todd’s counterpart in scheming evil, Mrs. Lovett, a woman so conniving and desperate that she will say or do anything to make sure her man is content and by her side, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, a woman whose voice is so weak that she is barely capable of communicating any of the colour in the character. Each actor carries the same drab expression on their face throughout the film as though they are bored or just completely unsure of themselves. They each have their moments but neither successfully demonstrates the depths of their treachery or the heights of their dark wit. As they watch each step, careful to avoid each other’s toes, Burton guides their performances into characters with soulless shells that barely frighten each other, let alone the audience.

In what will hopefully be his last musical outing, Burton breaks a golden musical rule. The musical numbers should never be rushed. That’s why we’re there – to appreciate the beauty of Sondheim’s layered and dense masterpiece. Only that isn’t why Burton is there. Clearly, Todd’s penchant for slashing throats is what most fascinated the man at the helm of this horror story. And while the blood gushing out and splattering against the camera and the walls is both disgusting and exhilarating at the same time, it amounts to very little more than gorgeous torture porn. Who knew that SWEENEY TODD would be so maniacal that even the insane genius of Tim Burton could not fully comprehend the man himself?

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Written by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Joe Wright

Robbie Turner: The story can resume.

Tap tap tap goes the typewriter. The tapping is coming faster and hitting harder. The pace is set and the race has officially started. Director, Joe Wright’s ATONEMENT bursts out of the gate from the moment it starts, as a pan away from a modeled replica of the Tallis manor reveals a parade of toy animals and ends aptly on the purported queen of this particular animal kingdom, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). Briony is only thirteen years old but she is just about to finish her very first play. This precocious child is captivating. She is at once frightening while just as frightened. Her focus is eerily burning and her need for command of the situation and those involved motivate her every decision. On this particularly sweltering day, Briony believes her play to be her greatest accomplishment yet and sees her future more brightly boundless than even before. She has no idea that everything is about to crumble beneath her. Chance allows her to witness a few things she was not meant to and before long she makes a desperate play to regain control of her destiny. Who knew that one little girl could cause so much trouble for so many people and invite turmoil into her family for the rest of her days by telling one misguided lie?

When Briony falsely accuses Robbie (James McAvoy), her sister, Cecilia’s (Keira Knightly) lover, of a horrible crime, he is arrested and sent to prison. It isn’t clear whether Briony was aware of how serious her accusations were or how far Robbie would be taken from Cecilia and his future as a result but it is clear that she interrupted a love of immense proportion. ATONEMENT’s first act goes back and forth between Briony’s breakdown and the escalating sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia. Cecilia is not your typical period drama maiden. She is provocative and sharp-tongued. For all her fierce self-awareness though, she has made a point to repress her longing for Robbie out of respect for status. Robbie too has been hiding how he feels to appease the rules that apply to status and boundaries, not so much out of respect though but rather for blind tradition. Society’s restraints cannot hold back a love of this magnitude. The passion bustling between them is palpable and exacerbated by the heat; it is no wonder that it all comes to a head on this fated day and is halted no sooner than it is just begun. As they are only given the chance to wet their lips with each other’s taste before being ripped apart, theirs is a relationship that will live in a suspended state of foreplay for a long time to come.

When Robbie is taken prisoner, ATONEMENT shifts into a new and noticeably different movement. The intensity carefully crafted in the first act dissipates as the characters enter their own individual limbos, left to meander aimlessly in search of repair. The build toward Briony’s lie was punctuated by a sharp, concise score by Dario Marianelli and highlighted by Seamus McGarvey’s bright and elegantly fluid cinematography. Both artists employ entirely new approaches toward the action that unfolds in the lie’s aftermath. The score becomes dark, somber - less driven and more haunting. The visuals follow suit, feeling heavy and dense. The change halts the flow of the film and feels like a misstep momentarily. Once you catch the breath you were holding previously, the severity of the scenario sinks in and the fresh aesthetic takes on its own significance. It cannot help but feel longer or slower in comparison but how else are we or the characters expected to feel when they are living their new lives lost and haunted by a past they could not control? Besides being relevant to the tone of the story, the shift also gives birth to a four and a half minute shot depicting the 1940 evacuation at Dunkirk Beach that is mesmerizing in its grace and awesome in scope.

ATONEMENT is a fresh and surprising spectacle. Wright impressed with charm and poise last time out in 2005’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (also starring Knightly) but his latest grabs the period drama by its snotty superiority and turns it inside out, thanks in no small part to Ian McEwan’s much loved novel of the same name. The gravity of how one bad decision can ruin many lives resonates loudly and the guilt that follows gives way to the need for forgiveness from those who were hurt and from the one that caused the pain. ATONEMENT does not judge Briony for what she’s done; instead it allows her the chance to heal and make things right without ever presuming that her recovery is inevitable. For breaking convention and for demonstrating sincere respect for the story, the characters and the audience, Wright has absolutely nothing to be sorry for.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Written and Directed by Chris Weitz

Lyra: What’s this?
First High Councilor: It’s the Golden Compass, Lyra. I feel you’re meant to have it.
Lyra: But what’s it for?

Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in a world where witches wage war and giant polar bears are warriors. The people she walks amongst walk alongside their daemon spirits, which are essentially each person’s soul manifest in physical and animal form. The ruling power of this world is called the Magisterium and they seek more to control rather than govern. Everything in the world began at one time with dust but now dust and the supposed answers it holds for a better future are not to be mentioned in public settings. This is a world divided between free will, the individual powers held within the soul and a looming force that threatens to eliminate the infinite possibilities these privileges provide. Unbeknownst to her, Lyra is the central figure in the inevitable clash that lies ahead and her power can be found in her ability to read the world’s single remaining alethiometer, otherwise known as THE GOLDEN COMPASS. When held by this little girl, the alethiometer will reveal the answers to the questions that have yet to be answered. Lyra’s world is beautifully painted and richly textured but why we need to be there to see it never becomes clear in this icy, hollow attempt to become the next must-see fantasy trilogy.

Writer/Director Chris Weitz originally backed out on directing this project. He felt the grandiose special effects driven blockbuster was out of his directorial league. Having only directed a couple of smaller comedies (ABOUT A BOY and an uncredited second director on AMERICAN PIE), I can understand why he would be overwhelmed by the task of adapting Philip Pullman’s first book in the “Dark Material” series. I’m not clear on why he decided to come back on though because his lack of confidence in his own capabilities as well as the competency of his audience is omnipresent throughout the film and leaves THE GOLDEN COMPASS on rather thin ice. Once the first ten minutes of narration have given us all the information we will need to understand our surroundings (see the first paragraph of this review), the subsequent scenes seem to run in a very specific order. One scene will explain what we are about to see, the next will show us what has just been described and the one that follows will clarify whatever we might have missed. If Weitz does not feel his magical world to be believable, how can we be expected to?

Urgency is also lacking in THE GOLDEN COMPASS. We know because we are told that Lyra, according to the prophecies of the witches, is the one person with the ability to read the alethiometer. We also know that, again because we are told, that a great war is coming. Lyra’s special talent will be pivotal to a positive outcome in this battle. The battle itself has something to do with free will, dust and control. What we are not told is exactly how these things tie back to Lyra. Without knowing what all this fighting is truly for (which may be missing as the novel’s religious implications and criticisms have been removed almost entirely as to not alienate any viewers that may have been offended by these subjects). Still, we know that no good can come if anything is to happen to Lyra so there is never any actual fear or concern that she is in any real danger. Young newcomer, Richards, is charismatic and fun enough to win over your sympathy and caring as Lyra, but this is not enough in Weitz’s world. No, here, escape from each perilous situation she finds herself in is certain and thus the film is devoid of suspense and often disappointingly predictable.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS is much more along the same vein as the Harry Potter movies or the Narnia franchise than a successor to the thrown where the Lord of the Rings trilogy sits quite comfortably. Peter Jackson drew millions into the plight of a few hobbits by allowing their journey and its importance to speak for itself and by making correlations between that world and ours. Weitz has no control over the vast ground he has to cover. He’s got polar bears, daemons and witches to think about; he’s got to build a story when the original intended theme is not allowed to be mentioned overtly; he’s got legions of fans to please while simultaneously appeasing the demands of the Hollywood executives that sign his checks. It’s as if Hollywood is the contemporary Magisterium and Weitz is little Lyra. Hollywood wants to control everything and make sure that certain elements remain unmentioned and Weitz holds the key to a strong future. Only Weitz hasn’t learned how to read his golden compass and what he leaves us with is an obvious play for fantasy gold that will likely please very few.


Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach

Malcolm: I haven’t had that thing yet where you realize that you’re not the most important thing in the world – anxious for that to happen.

What does it say about your wedding when your estranged sister’s attendance is a bigger event than the wedding itself? I mean, it’s right there in the title of Noah Baumbach’s dysfunctional family disaster movie. It isn’t called “The Wedding” or “Malcolm and Pauline Get Married”. No, it’s called MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. If your sister at your wedding causes that big a stir, perhaps the invitation would have been better lost in the mail. Still, despite her better judgment and in the interest of progress and healing, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does invite the sister she still refers to as her closest friend after years of not speaking, to her intimate affair. It is clear her idea was not her best from the moment Margot (Nicole Kidman) steps off the boat and on to the New England shore. Pauline sends her fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), to pick Margot and her eldest son, Claude (Zane Pais), up from the ferry. She claims to be making last minute arrangements back at the house but I suspect it was she and not the house who was not quite ready to receive. Then, when the two are finally face to face, standing in front of the house they grew up in, they smile and make pleasantries but fidget hesitatingly before actually embracing. That awkward moment grows into a whirlwind of deep-seeded pain before long and suddenly rain on the blessed day is hardly the biggest worry for the bride-to-be.

Baumbach scored last time out with his Oscar-nominated THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. He was lauded for his sensitive and honest tale of divorce and how it affects the entire family unit. With MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, he solidifies his reputation for creating believable family ties based on dependence, dysfunction and subtle admiration. Watching the sisters as they sit around the house catching up is voyeuristic as we are often privy to conversations that feel as though they were not meant to be heard. As the sisters flip through old records in their even older house, Baumbach writes decades of experiences into his characters and we, like Malcolm, are latecomers to this dinner party. Director of photography, Harris Savides, draws us even closer to this inner circle by shooting mostly handheld footage in natural lighting and with older lenses. The resulting tone is dark and grainy but nostalgic and rich with history at the same time. At times, we are the quiet cousin who says nothing but stands in the corner with a camera and follows the drama from room to room. It isn’t long before we learn how to interpret the vernacular of this particular family and we find ourselves laughing along inappropriately at the expense of whomever Margot is lovingly ridiculing at the moment. As we laugh though, we care as well.

Kidman and Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) are both marvelous as they walk the very tightly wound lines of their borderline personalities. Baumbach guides their performances into textured characters that seem natural as sisters and strongly rooted as multifaceted people who struggle to be themselves when in the presence of the other. They even possess archetypal qualities without coming across as contrived. Margot is the master of deflection. She is constantly doling out psychological diagnoses to those around her to avoid any fingers pointing back her way. It never dawns on her that as a writer, she actually has no formal foundation to base her opinions on. She cannot understand why Pauline would settle for Malcolm; she picks at Claude to keep him closer; she even attacks her husband (John Turturro) for his good nature because it just makes her feel like a bad person. She is a fatalist to Pauline’s hopeful but defeated optimist. Pauline is damaged but wants to heal and has done so much more than she gives herself credit for. She teeters back and forth between making sneaky, subtle jabs at her sister, habits from her youth, and building new connections so that she can have the sister she always wanted instead of the one she has always had. Only, in the house that Baumbach built, the answer to whether people can ever truly change is not the least bit clear.

Family, even the best examples, can be tricky to negotiate. Spending any extended period of time with the people who both influenced you and hurt you the most in your life can be exhausting. That said, MARGOT AT THE WEDDING can be no less trying. There are those who revel in watching others with deeper dysfunction then their own. It helps them to feel that their lives are not nearly as bad as they thought. There are also others who feel they have enough to juggle already with potentially damaging weddings of their own to survive coming up fast. Why then immerse yourself in a tornado of neuroses and painful memories that are not even your own? Truthfully, you don’t have to. Along those lines, Pauline never needed to invite her sister to her wedding either. Only if she hadn’t, she would have missed out on everything the experience taught her about herself and the potential for progress. This is the genuine beauty of Baumbach’s work. He shares so intensely and personally that he inevitably forces the viewer to deal with their own inner-Margot.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Written by Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman
Directed by Todd Haynes

Interviewer: Mr. Quinn, have you got a word for your fans?
Mr. Quinn: Astronaut.

In true tribute style, I’M NOT THERE opens with the sounds of adoring fans waiting for their favorite folk-rock star to grace the stage. The camera maneuvers in first person point of view through the winding corridors leading from the dressing room to the stage. This build toward the reveal is one we’ve all seen before but this is perhaps the most traditional thirty seconds of the entire film. It isn’t long before the cheers are interrupted by the roar of a motorcycle and a man on a bike driving across a deserted dirt road. The shot is ultra wide and the sky is that deep grey only black and white film can provide. Writer/Director, Todd Haynes inadvertently announces, in the mere seconds it takes the shadowy biker to cross from one end of the screen to the other, that what we are about to watch will be anything but traditional, aesthetically breathtaking and an experience unlike any other. Blinking boldly on and off in the middle of the sky are the words of the title – one by one they appear out of sequence until they settle for a moment in order and all at once, before flickering away yet again. I’M NOT THERE is inspired by the many lives of Bob Dylan but he is somehow nowhere to be found in the two hours that follow and yet still everywhere at the same time.

I’M NOT THERE is entirely and unapologetically experimental. Six different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Wishaw) play six different characters that represent human incarnations of Dylan from various periods of his existence or from inspired interpretations of where his life could have gone. No one story is told from beginning to end nor overtly connected to any of the surrounding stories. Each is told with a different visual motif, from smooth to grain, from subdued black and white to brilliantly expressive color, from cinema verité to abstract imagery that leaves you lost and puzzled. The entire undertaking can be daunting and overwhelming if you aren’t prepared. Even if you go in armed with sharpened knives ready to dissect the onslaught of non-linear imagery, it will come at you so fast, your knives will be dulled before you can make the first cut. While it certainly helps to be a fountain of Dylan knowledge, it won’t hurt if all you can do is maybe hum along to “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a good day because Haynes is not concerned with telling a direct account of Dylan’s story. Rather, he is paying homage to what his life and how he lived it inspired both passion and rage in millions.

What saves I’M NOT THERE from being overbearing, pompous and pretentious is intention. Haynes had been a Dylan fan in his high school years but only recently rekindled his love for the artist. His decision to cast and shoot without boundaries was meant to embody the same spirit and freedom of the man whose life story he was telling. His unfettered approach does at times come off as film student idealism (with expert technique, mind you) but his innovative and open-minded choices ultimately win out as inspired. His decisions are not only experimental but also successful. There is never a moment that Haynes’s love for Dylan is in question. In fact, his love is so potent that, just like the real love experienced in intimate relationships, it clouds his vision. Haynes’s Dylan is put upon and criticized to the point of hiding and recluse but his attackers (members of the press or fans who have turned on him) are always portrayed as people disappointed that he is not what they want him to be or need him to be. People needed Dylan to bring them peace but all he could claim was that you couldn’t change the world with a song, that all he could sing was what was inside of him. In that regard, he never stopped singing about the truth.

The truth behind I’M NOT THERE is that it is best enjoyed if you don’t try to define it. If you allow it to be what it is, to let it go where it must in order to be complete, then its secrets will inevitably reveal themselves when they are meant to be seen and understood. I don’t pretend to say I understand the film in its entirety. I have theories about what is being said and how it needs to be said in a certain fashion but I can’t claim that any of them are accurate. For me, both Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan are poets and this film is but a love poem from one man to the other.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


(Montreal’s 20th Annual LGBT Film Festival)

A few years back, a short film I directed was screened at the Image+Nation film festival as part of the “Local Heroes” series. It was a fantastic honour and also incredibly surreal. I had been attending the festival for years at that point and I suddenly found myself changing roles from the spectator to the guy standing in front of the screen at the Parisian theatre, introducing the film that was about to run. I knew even then that being a part of this festival meant my film would be seen by a gracious and appreciative audience. Flash forward to a few years later; I have not even been to the festival since CANOEING (my film) screened. The following year, I was already heavily into establishing Black Sheep Reviews and I just couldn’t find time for the festival. So when I went back this year, I experienced a bizarre déjà vu like sensation. It was a Saturday night and I was alone – ordinarily not an exciting combination. It wasn’t long before my apprehension about being the only single guy in the room disappeared entirely though. It was impossible to feel alone when a nearly packed room full of men surrounded me. The best part about it – everyone there was gay (or at the very least, gay-friendly) and there to indulge their love of the cinema. With that strong a commonality filling the room, it no longer even mattered that the movie wasn’t any good.

A gay cinephile is subjected to straight imagery and storyline most of the time they sit down to a movie. So when nothing but gay-themed films are amassed to be screened in succession throughout a queer film festival, the need to see characters that breathe the same air we do is as high as Amy Winehouse in the morning. The danger one runs into in festivals such as these is that, with perhaps limited films to choose from during the selection process, the risk of rushing to a mediocre film is much greater. Only here, even mediocre is better than nothing at all. That said, sub-par is still just that. Enter THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY – the first of three films I caught at this year’s festival and certainly not an encouraging sign of what was to come. Oscar Wilde’s literary classic has been cinematically attempted before but this time it has been modernized as well. Orphan turned millionaire, Dorian (David Gallagher) is in the prime of his life. If it weren’t enough that he was rich, he’s also got a baby face that gets the attention of everyone who sees him. He could have anyone he wants but he makes it very clear that he could never sleep with another man - that is, until he does so later that evening. Gallagher is way out his league here as a classical contemplation on obsession with youth; ironically, he lacks maturity to make his actions believable. Meanwhile, director Duncan Roy also fails as he adapts the tale to expose the current climate within the global gay community where youth is equated with perfection and the unattainable. Relying on unnecessary split screen tricks and flashes of highlighted dialogue spread across the screen to prove his point (I particularly enjoyed the one where the word, “AIDS” was cut in to tell the audience that one character was suffering from the disease as if we couldn’t have known from the horrifically tacky makeup on his face), he lacks the confidence in his own direction to convince us that he believes the lesson he’s teaching. The whole thing spirals into a mess of horrible acting and predictability that begs for an end to come quickly. By the way, it doesn’t come quick enough.

From recontextualizing for modern times to actual progression comes BREAKFAST WITH SCOT (that isn’t a typo),the first gay-themed film to be fully endorsed by the National Hockey League. Director Laurie Lynd presents this Canadian film with as many American cinema conventions as possible. This is a bright, sitcom style picture in the same vein as TRICK or MAMBO ITALIANO. It can be very endearing and it can be very funny (thanks mostly to 12-year-old Noah Bennett as Scot) but it fails when it tries to be more than it is. Scot’s mother has just died and he finds himself placed with his mom’s ex-boyfriend’s brother, Sam (Ben Shenkman) and his lover, Ed (Tom Cavanagh). Ed is in sports news and lives a closeted life so when an effeminate child enters his life unwanted, he takes it upon himself to steer the child in a more masculine direction. I do agree that Scot needed a lesson or two about being aware of how his behavior could incite others to taunt, tease or even hurt him but Ed’s coaching taught the boy shame. As if shame weren’t enough for his future therapist to have to work on, Scot also has a horrible example of love between men to learn from. Ed and Sam are one of the most loveless gay couples I have ever seen in a gay film. They act more like roommates who barely like each other. They rarely look at each other and never consult each other on how to deal with Scot. Ed even goes so far as to call Scot Sam’s problem as it is his brother’s responsibility after all. This is clearly meant to define the relationship between Ed and Scot but it shows Ed as entirely disrespectful of his partner and just all around selfish and despicable. Ultimately, I learned that the only place flame(r)s have in hockey is in Calgary. (Get it? Flamers? Calgary Flames? C’mon … it’s a gay hockey joke!)

The centerpiece film of the festival was French director, André Téchiné’s LES TEMOINS (THE WITNESSES). As a centerpiece, it certainly embodied the space with its depth and honesty. It begins with the birth of many a new thing. A new novel is being written; a new baby is being born; and a new move to Paris is the beginning of the end for Manu (Johan Libéreau). At 20, Manu has come to Paris to start what he believes will be a long and exciting life. He makes friends almost as quickly as he drops his pants for strangers in a park. Amongst these friends are Adrien (Michel Blanc), an older gentleman who is instantly taken by his boyish grin, Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), a writer and friend of Adrien’s who is always wearing a different shade of yellow, and Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a police officer and Sarah’s husband. Along with Manu’s sister (Julie Depardieu), this group will play witness to the first reported cases of H.I.V and A.I.D.S. but not before they get to enjoy themselves and the simple pleasures life offers them. Téchiné splits his film into three acts. In the first, boat rides are taken, picnics are had and affairs inevitably happen. There are moments of joy and moments of drama, all of which become utterly meaningless by the time the second act commences and A.I.D.S becomes everything. Being new and frightening, the disease drives some into isolation and blurs the lines between fear and feeling, leaving some wanting to reach out, unsure of what might happen if they do. By presenting the onset of A.I.D.S. so directly, Téchiné not only tells the story of those who first witnessed the horrors of the disease but also forces the audience to witness these same horrors in a day when many feel the disease to be no longer a threat. And so he leaves us with an important message - we must turn back to witness again what is still ongoing.

Attending Image+Nation this year was eye opening. Not only was it inspiring to see such high attendance and an exciting schedule but at 20 years old, the festival is just the right age to understand its own identity while remaining open to new cultural movements. Organizers Charlie Boudreau and Katharine Setzer are still in line with what their audience loves after many years and they make sure to present diverse films that are both playful and pensive. (By the way, there are plenty of films for girls and those in between genders as well – I just didn’t catch any for this article.) On a more personal note, the Image+Nation reminded me of a community I once belonged to and showed me that I could go back at any time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Llewelyn Moss: Can’t help but compare yourself to the ol’ timers. Can’t help but wonder how’d they do in these times.

The Coen brothers have been making movies for over 20 years now. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is their twelfth feature together. While they were once considered princely collaborators held at the highest esteem by film enthusiasts the world over, they have recently been the victims of their own identity crisis. Caught between their signature exploration of all things quirky and abnormal found in the parts of America thought to be forgotten and the demanding pressures of delivering bankable Hollywood fare, the Coen’s finished by delivering sub-par work that tarnished their lustrous reputation. The film enthusiasts thought they might have lost great talents to Hollywood while Hollywood wasn’t even sure they wanted them. What were these "aging" filmmakers to do? They could have polished off another Tom Hanks picture and crossed their fingers. They could have appealed to their fans and told another tale of the idiosyncrasies of those living in the middle of nowhere. They could have tried appeasing both parties by attempting THE BIG LEBOWSKI 2. Instead, they did none of these things. No, instead, the Coen brothers crafted a film that is unlike any film they have ever made and is also perhaps the best film they’ve ever made.

Translating Cormac McCarthy’s novel about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted to the screen may be smoothest decision these boys have made for years. Not only does it allow for the brothers to explore the grim sides of characters consumed by money and an unnerving peace derived from killing, but NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN also leaves the door open for an interpretive commentary on the Coen’s career itself. Allow me to explain by painting a picture from the film. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) aims his rifle at an unsuspecting animal grazing alongside the herd. He is right now in charge, in control, the hunter. He fires and misses, thus beginning his steady descent into ruin. He moves toward the spot where his prey once stood only to find the site of a drug deal massacre. Here, he innocently stumbles upon an enormous amount of money. He picks it up and goes without realizing the hell that is about to be brought upon him. He inadvertently becomes the hunted. He spends the remainder of the film calculating and executing different attempts to regain the superior position he once held. The comparisons are subtle and come about naturally rather than existing as the initial basis for the film to grow out of, reinforcing their genuine nature. I could explain my logic behind this analogy but that would be very un-Coen like.

Another consistency throughout the Coen Brothers’ careers is the elevated caliber of talent they attract to their diverse projects. With their writing at top of its game, performances by Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones are pushed to the heights of their potential. Moss is a quiet man, focused and constantly thinking about what his next play will be. He has no time for ego, only function, and though most of his motivation is to avoid drawing attention to himself, Brolin’s interpretation cannot help but capture our notice. For the second time this year (in conjunction with his slimy crooked cop turn in AMERICAN GANGSTER), Brolin reinvigorates his skills by inhabiting Moss fully as an instinctual and reactionary being. While Jones is also impressive as a police officer resigned to following the action without any possibility of curbing the outcome, it is Bardem’s performance as Anton Chigurh that will leave audiences with a haunting chill after experiencing it. His portrayal of a psychopathic hunter is both disturbing and riveting. This is a man who enjoys torturing his victims mentally by asking them questions meant to expose the inconsistencies in the way they live their lives before ushering them out of this world. He abides by some form of ethical code that only makes sense in his own mind and fully justifies his killings. His adherence to this code is what sends him to an internal state of ecstasy as he chokes a man and stares intently at the ceiling. The hunter is always frightening but Bardem is worse; he’s unsettling.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is entirely disconcerting but is somehow still a tranquil experience. There is a normality amidst the unrest that thrives in the plain, natural manner in which the story unfolds. The chase is constantly surprising without ever seeming forced. Each move made makes perfect sense but is not seen coming. On this level, even their formal execution of this film speaks to the trajectory of their career. Who knew that leaving quirk behind for harrowing humour and a story that serves itself instead of as a platform for character would invigorate the Coen’s method and assert their place as two of the greatest American filmmakers operating in a country thought not to have any place for the them? I like to think they did. In doing so, they have also made a movie for a sharp adult audience in a country bent on catering to all things youthful and disposable.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Written by Nancy Oliver
Directed by Craig Gillespie

Dagmar: Sometimes I get so lonely I forget what day it is and how to spell my name.

Novice film director, Craig Gillespie, would like you to meet Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling). Lars lives in a small, northern American town where everyone knows each other. Lars works in a dreary office where the most excitement revolves around his cubicle-mate’s missing action figures. He lives next door to his brother and pregnant sister-in-law (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) in what is not so much a place of his own as it is his brother’s garage. He doesn’t like to be touched; in fact, he considers the often-casual act of embracing to be painful, like the feeling your feet get when they’re thawing after a long time in the freezing cold. He lives a solitary life in the safety of his dark, underdone home, watching curiously from his window. If you were to ask him if he was lonely or if he were OK, he would say he was fine and finish the conversation before you could probe any further. Lars is that guy that everyone always knew had problems but no one was willing to put aside their own long enough to help. In LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, Gillespie is more than happy to introduce you to Lars Lindstrom, if only so someone can look at him instead of away from him and see this beautiful human being that has been ignored for far too long.

There is one person in Lars’s life that doesn’t look away. Her name is Bianca. Bianca allows Lars to be himself and loves him for who he is. The only problem with Bianca is that she isn’t real. She arrived at Lars’s door one day in a large wooden box after he ordered her online six weeks earlier. She is made of plastic, has real hair and is anatomically correct. Even though she is designed for sex play, Lars brings her to life for a safe return of love. It is funny at first but it quickly becomes horribly awkward. Suddenly, those that were thought to be closest to Lars realize that they allowed for this to happen by not stepping in earlier. Upon covert psychological analysis (by Patricia Clarkson in a stoic, frank performance that is brutally honest while always sensitive), Lars is diagnosed as having a delusion. Maybe he believes that if people see him with Bianca they will stop judging him for being so pathetically lonely. Maybe it’s as simple as he just wanted someone to talk to. No matter what the reason that led to this mental snap though, Bianca’s arrival is the best thing that could have happened to Lars and to everyone who knows him. Despite the minor inconvenience of her being inanimate, her relationship with Lars brings him back to life.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is bravely independent. Gillespie has taken Nancy Oliver’s script/psychological case study and ensured that we as viewers are never allowed to look away from Lars, no matter how uncomfortable we may be. That said, the film experience itself is certainly not an easy one. Lars is not a clumsy yet endearing kind of awkward. He is a man with real problems and rich history that is unveiled piece by piece throughout the film. Fortunately for the film and the audience, Lars is played by a young actor who is not afraid to explore the dark place Lars calls home (and I’m not talking about the dank garage where he sleeps). Gosling is sincere in his suffering, in his caring and in his instability. Both he and Gillespie never allow for Lars to drift into caricature or ridicule. The earnestness of Gosling’s performance, from his difficulty getting words out to his flinching body language, inspires genuine sympathy from the audience and saves the performance from being the farce it could have been in the hands of a lesser actor. It also elevates the film to a compelling study in humanity as the manner in which the townsfolk react to Lars and Bianca says novels about their decency and compassion or lack thereof.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL is sure to repel some but is extremely cathartic if you allow for it to work its magic on you. Even “magic” is not the right word as there is nothing magical about this movie. Considering it’s about a relationship between a man and a blowup doll, it is shockingly real. Loneliness is real. Mental anguish is real. Bianca may not be real but the love Lars feels for her is and the experiences that led to this delusion are valid and should not be ignored. Perhaps it isn’t just that Lars needed someone to talk to or someone to have as a standing Saturday night date. Perhaps Lars created Bianca to show himself that he truly deserved love despite it never showing its face to him before. In doing so, maybe he would learn that he already had an abundance of it.