Sunday, March 30, 2008


Written by Ira Sachs and Oren Moverman
Directed by Ira Sachs
Starring: Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams

Richard Langley: I always felt marriage was like a mild illness, like the flu or chicken pox.

The biggest problem with MARRIED LIFE, the movie not the state of existence, is the tone set by its title. Before even setting foot in the theatre, your mind is filled with preconceived notions about the likelihoods the film will deliver. You cannot expect a film called MARRIED LIFE to show long term couples just as happy now as they were when they first met. In fact, in these cynical times, you might likely be disappointed if you didn’t see spouses abusing each other, scheming and plotting against the other or, if you want to be old fashioned, just plain cheating on each other. Perhaps to offset these expectations, writer/director, Ira Sachs, sets his story in the 1940’s, a supposedly simpler time when people were married and stayed that way despite their personal unhappiness. Even a setting as delicately composed as this one is not a good enough disguise for its contemporary sensibility. The film’s fate seems sealed as soon as the opening credits begin to roll. Similar in design and manner to television’s “Desperate Housewives”, a show that has built its reputation on couples scheming, they seem to announce Sach’s intention to give us exactly what we expect. Only when the final animated frame settles on a city skyline and you expect the real thing to take its place, Sachs reveals that it is in fact a reflection. With the lens pointing inward now, I wonder if I’ve spoken too soon.

Like the beginning of a marriage, for a while, it is good. The strings of the score swell and sweep you up into the sentiment like a warm wind taking you for a dance in the sky overlooking a quiet family-friendly suburban street. This particular street is home to Harry and Pat Allen (Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson). The two have been married for what might as well be forever and they still cherish and respect each other but whether they still love each other is a question that looms over their lives like a heavy cloud. Harry believes that love is defined by the desire to give constantly to the other person. Pat believes that love is sex. Despite their definitions being categorically on different pages, they are a solid, functional couple. However, Harry has found another woman, Kay (Rachel McAdams in a refreshing return that is more tender and vulnerable than past performances) for whom continuously being doted on is the perfect compliment to her lonely life. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she is younger and beautiful but Harry conveniently avoids seeing this as the motivating factor for his affection.

And so Harry finds himself in quite the pickle. He doesn’t want to burden his wife with the embarrassment of a divorce but yet he cannot deny that he is no longer in love with her. Harry is a sensible businessman who lives his life with order and reason and is still able to embrace his more romantic sensibility, wanting his life to embody the love he feels. He racks his brain to come up with the tidiest, most logical solution to his dilemma and somehow, the best plan he can come up with is to kill his wife. He rationalizes that this will cause the least amount of pain to all involved, including his children. Is it me or is this the least rational course of action? Essentially, this becomes MARRIED LIFE’s main storyline and as it is ridiculous in concept, it also serves to undermine the intelligence of what was otherwise a fairly engaging film. Even Sachs seems unsure of this whole direction as he throws in a couple of painfully obvious scenes about how death can take away misery rather than add to it. If Sachs isn’t buying it, I’m not sure how he thought anyone else would.

Despite its shortcomings, MARRIED LIFE does plant a few seeds of wisdom in its perfectly tended garden. The banalities of spending every day of your life with the same person are accepted by most of the characters as a perfectly normal piece of the pie. With decades past between their time and ours, have we really changed all that much? There are so many things happening and left unsaid in any marriage with both partners none the wiser. Subsequently, we have fine-tuned an uncanny ability to exist in a state of comfortable misery. We may look elsewhere for distraction but so many never walk away from what they know isn’t working. Applying that same logic makes sitting through MARRIED LIFE entirely acceptable while you wonder what’s playing next door.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Written by Ken Dario and Cinco Paul
Directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
Voices by: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogan and Charles Osgood

Katie: In my world, everyone’s a pony and eats rainbows and poops butterflies.

Dr. Seuss has not always found fortune when making his way from page to screen. But, this latest incarnation is the most who-larious I’ve ever seen. Get it? Who-larious? Like “hi-larious” but with “who”. As in all the Who’s down in Whoville and little Cindy Lou Who? Fine, roll your eyes but you’d be rhyming too if you stopped being so cynical and saw HORTON HEARS A WHO! It’s funny; it’s goofy; it’s surprising and loopy. It’s colorful and flashy; it’s unexpected and splashy. Wait. Splashy? Is that even a word? I needed something to rhyme with flashy and what I came up with was absurd. Sorry, I promise I won’t rhyme all the way through. Besides I’m no match for Dr. You-Know-Who. It’s just that this movie is so darn adorable when all the previous Seuss movies have been basically horrible. The spirit of the book remains completely intact but it’s modern somehow and as a matter of fact, the ideas have expanded without looking back. Now, thanks to the good folks at Blue Sky, the studio that gave us ICE AGE before this, Dr. Seuss can rest easy, his legacy revered and no longer amiss. So pack up your car, pack up your girl and your boy and bring them to see Horton, a movie the whole family can… hmm, what rhymes with “boy”? Employ? Coy? Toy? Nevermind. Bring them to see Horton, a movie the whole family can appreciate.

All that rhyming was mildly exhausting. Let’s move on to the intellectualizing portion of this review. When HORTON HEARS A WHO! was originally published in 1954, Dr. Seuss gave his young readers an important lesson about how any voice, no matter how small it may appear to be, can change the world. Screenwriters, Ken Dario and Cinco Paul, have developed the confidence-boosting tale into a much grander take on societal hierarchies, the power of the imagination and the possibility that we are not alone in this universe. The very big elephant, Horton (voiced in a lovably whimsical fashion of fancy by Jim Carrey), randomly finds the tiniest world in the most unexpected of places, a spec of dust that has flown past him to eventually rest comfortably on a clover. It turns out that this world is known as Whoville. It plays home to hundreds if not thousands of Who’s and is run by a Who known only as The Mayor. You can only imagine The Mayor’s surprise when Horton finally makes contact with him. Now imagine that surprise voiced by the self-deprecating, neurotic genius of Steve Carrell. Together, Carell and Carey play perfectly off each other as their performances are based in the knowledge that Horton and The Mayor are not nearly as different as they initially appear. Though one is huge and one is small, they both know the meaning of responsibility and importance of helping all who need.

Of course, back in the Jungle of Nool that Horton calls home, no one believes his story about the people on the spec, so he must go it alone. This would be fine if it weren’t for one kangaroo (Carol Burnett), the self-proclaimed ruler of this particular jungle. Horton’s flagrant use of his imagination could inspire others and before you know it, all you got is anarchy. And so the door is opened to one of many lessons that give this fable a great richness. While children are not often discouraged to use their imaginations, here they are encouraged to support what they believe to be true inside of their hearts. In doing so, they should even challenge the status quo. Combine that with Horton’s perseverance, dedication and loyalty to his cause as well as The Mayor’s ability to rally his people together by overcoming his insecurity to become a great leader and you’ve got a family film focused on promoting fine values instead of promotional products for a refreshing change. The best part is that the lessons never take away from the fun!

I know I wouldn’t have an easy time if a giant elephant I couldn’t see informed me that my whole universe was nothing more than a spec of dust. This is why I’m not in charge of the planet, I suppose. Although slightly less jarring, I was also thrown and most certainly impressed by the existential depth of HORTON HEARS A WHO! Who knew that an animated family flick could challenge the young minds of children the world over to think for second about the fragility and preciousness of life itself while cracking them up non-stop and without freaking them out? Horton knew; that’s who!

Oh wait … ENJOY!! Enjoy rhymes with boy. Right.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Written and Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring: Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney

Alex: Nobody is ever ready for Paranoid Park.

Up the ramp, through the sky and inevitably down again, pulled back by the greater forces that were just defied momentarily. This is the repeated journey of the seasoned skater. In PARANOID PARK, the community made skate park that plays home to Gus Van Sant’s latest effort and a number of aimless boarders, the journey is dreamy. Boys go up, boys come down and though they never seem to know where they will land, the camera is always right behind them to capture their fall back to earth. Between Christopher Doyle’s sinuous cinematography and the mangled music of Nino Rota, it is easy to feel as if you might be dreaming when watching, if only your eyes were closed. It isn’t long though before the hollow looks on everyone’s faces, the pointless words that repeatedly fall out of everyone’s mouths and the "How I Spent my Summer Vacation" narration, wake you from your dream to see things as they really are. PARANOID PARK is just another Van Sant art experiment gone painfully wrong. If only the aging director weren’t so blinded by his adoration for the young – maybe then he could see that he wasn’t showing us his dreams but rather his fantasies.

From the moment the film opens on a static shot of cars passing over a bridge in time lapse photography, you know that you’re about to see that other kind of Van Sant movie. The veteran director has always skated back and forth between the accessible and the abnormal. He has proven that he can handle both sides of the ramp with ease (GOOD WILL HUNTING vs. MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO) and has wiped out just as often (FINDING FORRESTER vs. EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES). Lately though, he seems more concerned with trying hard to be different that the works feel increasingly labored and less genuine or spontaneous. While he’s busy spitting on convention, he doesn’t realize that he’s creating his own distinct but overdone aesthetic at the same time. I for one have seen enough lanky, longhaired, young boys looking blankly into the camera before turning and walking away as we follow and stare at their pants hanging off their asses. Change the scenery from a skate park to a desert or a high school corridor and all his later films become stylistically interchangeable. Only PARANOID PARK is distinctly different then his other works – it’s almost entirely unenjoyable and not the least bit aware of or concerned for its audience.

As if snubbing both your audience and convention weren’t enough, Van Sant also doesn’t seem to care about his own amassed experience. What point is there in making movies for over twenty years if you’re not going to use what you’ve learnt to make even better ones? Though Van Sant may clearly be bored of the Hollywood style, that doesn’t mean it holds no merit. To ensure PARANOID PARK felt fresh and inspired, he cast non-professional actors he found on Myspace. First of all, I’m pretty sure other men his age have been reprimanded, not rewarded, for seeking out underage boys on the internet. Secondly, untrained acting does not come across as more authentic, it just comes across as bad. A movie about teenagers trying to come to terms with their inevitable passage into adulthood shouldn’t feel like it was made by a bunch of teenagers on the weekend because they had nothing better to do with their time. And even Van Sant knows his story was thinner than the emaciated boys onscreen as he is constantly cutting back to montages of said boys performing skate tricks with their buddies. Either he was trying to distract us from the film’s futility or the boys were just plain distracting him.

Honestly, I’m not sure who exactly is supposed to enjoy PARANOID PARK. It is far too esoteric for the distracted generation it portrays and entirely uninteresting to the older art house crowd given the subject matter. I like art house AND skater boys and I still wanted to scream in the middle of the picture to see if I was either living or dreaming this particular nightmare. And so it would seem that Van Sant has successfully made a picture for an untapped audience – men in their fifties desperate enough to sit through a painfully mundane hour and a half of uselessness to enjoy a few shots of boys in their prime flying through the air with their wooden boards gripped tightly in their virile hands.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Kristen Scott Thomas

Lady Elizabeth: Our daughters are being traded like cattle for the advancement of men.

Historically speaking, Anne Boleyn was the second wife of England’s King Henry VIII. She was instrumental in England’s political and religious upheaval that saw England ultimately break away from the Catholic Church. When Henry’s first wife was unable to produce a male heir, he began to look elsewhere. His advances toward Anne were not returned, as she did not want to chance pregnancy. Any child born before the King could annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon would be a bastard child and therefore not a potential heir to the throne. As if this weren’t enough drama for the Boleyn family, Anne’s sister, Mary, was also involved with the King and rumoured to have had a child he fathered prior to his involvement with Anne. Regardless of how sordid the whole affair might have been, it altered England’s history dramatically and Anne went on to become both a martyr and a feminist icon. You would think that a screenplay about both sisters’ involvement with the King by the Oscar nominated writer of THE QUEEN would be an impartial account of the period but instead, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is nothing but a sexist farce that reduces both the male and female players to tired platitudes before robbing the story of all its humanity.

Men crave power and status. Women crave powerful men that they can manipulate to do their bidding. Men will essentially do anything to get into the skirt of a woman they desire and will lose their minds and capacity for rational thinking if she denies him. Women will in turn step over anyone, including their own sister, in order to bag a supposedly good man. Not only are all of these statements borderline offensive but they are also inane. There is always so much more to it than simply that. These clichés are the stuff great teen movies are made of and perhaps it was unfair of me to expect more from a costume film than insipid, nonsensical melodrama. What most undermines first time feature film director Justin Chadwick’s work is that it is amateurish and not at all convincing. Anne and Mary Boleyn (Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson) are introduced as loving, caring sisters. They protect each other, respect each other and love each other. Why then would I believe that either would hurt the other so maliciously? I guess because they’re girls and that’s what girls do when there is a man involved, right? Sure to stereotype both sexes fairly, the men do not escape Chadwick’s narrow view of gender definition. Am I to seriously believe the King of England (Eric Bana) would risk his throne and country’s well being just because a girl he lusts over refuses his royal wanting?

As Anne, Portman is a natural for the period but as she gets caught up in her father’s plans to have her bed the King as a means to better position her family’s standing at court, the inherent intelligence she brings to most of her roles makes it seem entirely unnatural that she would be naïve enough to play along with Daddy’s game. Johansson has never looked more drab as she stands amidst an always-overcast English countryside, her long, golden locks lying limp on her shoulders, her eyebrows almost invisible against her pale face. Though she seems to be playing catch-up to Portman’s supposed ease with the material at first, it is her poise and restraint that make for a more believable and sympathetic Boleyn. While Portman certainly masters the pain, remorse and paranoid fear necessary to convey Anne’s arch, she is incapable of escaping the same trap the entire cast falls into. Perhaps from having seen too many period pieces prior, the ensemble acts as though the events taking place are not actually happening to them as characters. Instead, they come off as amateur theatre actors caught up in the lore that comes with corsets and faked British accents.

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is not all that horrible. I too find myself getting lost in the barrage of bodices. Still, marrying off your children as commodities should not be taken lightly and the knowing twinkle in these girls’ eyes gives away their modern feminist thinking, making their wily behaviour seem all the more implausible. The only thing that makes this all worse is that all this trouble comes about to please the patriarch of the Boleyn family who is nothing more than a pathetic, insecure coward.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Written and Directed by Michel Gondry
Starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Melonie Diaz and Mia Farrow

Jerry: The only reason there’s anybody here is because there’s nowhere else to go.

How can someone who has built a reputation for being one of the more imaginative and visually creative directors in modern cinema find himself producing work that feels increasingly limited in scope? French filmmaker, Michel Gondry, broke out of the music video milieu in 2004 with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. The mind-melting dive into a psyche burnt by love was a dizzying assault on the eyes and a cerebral tickle simultaneously. His narrative film follow-up, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (2006), was expected to be a similar experience revolving around the dreamiest of human experiences. While it may have been whimsical, it lacked the firm contemplative nature of its predecessor. This was of course forgiven considering the elusive nature of the subject but disappointment was still felt. Now, as if in direct response to his criticisms of being perhaps too imaginative to be always understood, Gondry has crafted BE KIND, REWIND, where the madness of Gondry falls from the boundless sky and hits the pavement of Passaic, New Jersey, hard. His once ingenious approach is not entirely squashed but rather squeezed into conventional form resulting in a work that tries too hard on all plains.

The beginning of BE KIND, REWIND is both bizarre and boring. A video store clerk (Mos Def), his boss and mentor (Danny Glover) and a junkyard mechanic (Jack Black) sit around with colanders on their heads and stare across the street at a supposedly pimped out ride (an economy car outfitted with gigantic aluminum piping that looks like a musical wind instrument out of the world of Dr. Seuss) as they blabber on about working in a microwave or something equally nonsensical. Gondry just drops us there. He explains nothing as if everything we see is supposed to already make sense. Apparently, it means nothing to Gondry that we are not permanent residents in his brain. By the time Black’s Jerry concocts some plan about sabotaging the neighboring power plant with a grappling hook that I can only assume he found in the junkyard, I was ready to walk. Gondry’s attempt to ground the imagination in a real context only served to show how the two worlds are separate for a reason. Naturally, the sabotage is a disaster and this leads to every videotape in the “Be Kind, Rewind” store being erased by magnetism. Def’s Mike must now replace the tapes before his father figure finds him out and he proves to be the disappointment he fears he truly is. Thankfully, hilarity finally ensues.

Jerry and Mike proceed to reshoot “classic” fare like GHOSTBUSTERS, RUSH HOUR 2 and DRIVING MISS DAISY to replenish the shelves of wasted tapes. As they parade around in costumes made of aluminum foil and Christmas garland, they remove every trace of quality from these conventional crowd pleasers. Their antics and approaches are goofy and very funny in an intimate fashion; the chemistry between the pompous Black and the timid Def is just what the film needs to get the audience laughing and rooting for its formerly uninteresting heroes. And while they may look to be ruining these films at first, what they are really doing is reminding the audience that movies needn’t be made for millions of dollars to be entertaining. Suddenly, there is a lot being said in BE KIND, REWIND. The neighborhood that is home to the store is being entirely remodeled and Glover’s Mr. Fletcher wants to transition from VHS to DVD in order to compete with the chain stores that are gobbling up small business. The nostalgia for simpler times points out how glossing everything over to look new doesn’t erase what is underneath. Despite this, Gondry is too busy glossing his own work over to solidly make his point.

When BE KIND, REWIND is funny, it’s hysterical. When it is not, it is awkward and annoying. Though the film praises the amateur filmmaker in all of us, this is no excuse for it to play out like it was actually made by an amateur. Still, the film fosters a strong community effort to work together and be a part of movie making magic – a world so many of us admire regularly from afar but so few comparatively get to be involved in. The little guy can have his voice too and push his imagination further than, well, he ever imagined. Unfortunately, Gondry makes a crucial mistake and forgets to ask the audience to join in all the fun.