Thursday, April 30, 2009

Black Sheep @ TRIBECA

My time at the Tribeca Film Festival is coming to an end now. For the most part, it was an incredible experience. It was light on sleep but it was certainly plentiful when it came to seeing films. All the volunteers were extremely helpful, especially the crew at the Direct TV Tribeca press center. If it weren't for these people at this great space, I would not have had the chance to meet as many filmmakers as I did. There was one day where I didn't know how I was going to make it actually. I caught the latest from XXY director, Lucia Puenza, entitled THE FISH CHILD, first thing in the morning before scurrying over to the aforementioned press center for an interview with Puenza (who is breathtaking, I must say). From there, I hopped in a cab to go uptown to the Regency Hotel on Park and 61st for an interview with one of my favorite directors, Steven Soderbergh and the star of his latest film, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, adult film star, Sasha Gray. They were running late so I got to relax for a bit and enjoy the catered set up before doing the interview and rushing down to another interview in an alternate universe - a quaint midtown apartment that had no air conditioning, let alone snacks. After that, I hopped on the subway and ventured back to my friend's apartment, where I have been staying. I took a well deserved nap but that ended up being my downfall. I woke up later to realize that I had completely missed my scheduled time on the red carpet with Eric Bana for his directorial debut, LOVE THE BEAST. Right, I am awesome.

It could have been a blessing in disguise. Perhaps I would have been so blinded by Bana's beauty that I would have just stood there, stupefied when it came my turn to speak. Who knows really? What I do know is that I certainly enjoyed his film more than I had anticipated. The beast referred to in the title, LOVE THE BEAST, is Bana's race car, a Falcon Coop he has had since he was 15 years old and the film is a documentary about how holding on to that car and fixing it up with his longtime buddies has kept him real through all his years and time in Hollywood. To hear the synopsis, one might think that the concept inherently takes away from its intention. How can one create a film that centers around yourself when the point is to demonstrate how your ego has remained in check despite your celebrity? And in actuality, LOVE THE BEAST does come off at first as a big budgeted equivalent of a home made movie posted on YouTube, just another film put out to the world that begs to question as to wether the subject matter is relevant to anyone other than those involved in making it. But something sneaks up on you while watching Bana and friends partake in a five day race in Australia; you suddenly begin to care about this car and the connection it has with its owner and those who have worked on it all these years. Apparently, what people who aren't car people, of which I can be counted among, don't get, is that cars, for people who are car people, can become living entities, that you can develop a relationship with. This is exactly what Bana achieves somewhere among the racing laps and then he successfully drives the appreciation across the finish line.

Now, ordinarily I would not review a film I walked out of but this one is way too good to pass up. After a morning interview, I rushed to catch DON MCKAY, starring Thomas Haden Church and Elizabeth Shue, only to end up walking out twenty minutes or so after it started. When I tell people this, they look at me and ask how I could do that. And so I tell it to them just like this ... Church plays the title character, a high school janitor that has worked at his job for over 20 unhappy years. He gets a letter at the school, reads it, and then stares off into space. He packs a bag and goes back home to some small town I can't recall, the same unaffected, almost dead look still plastered on his face. A peculiar taxi driver drops him off at a home, where he is greeted by an even more peculiar woman. He is shown up to a room and this is where he finds Sonny (Shue). She is sprawled out on her bed in a satin nightgown, her hair perfectly placed on her pillows and her body positioned as though she were waiting for hours for her lover to come through that door. Sonny looks incredible but she is actually dying and wants Don to spend his time with her before she goes. The two were high school sweethearts and apparently never got over each other. It is all painfully awkward and even more so when her doctor arrives the next morning. He startles Don, who has just been stung by a bee. For no reason whatsoever, the two begin to struggle and the doctor attempts to kill Don while he is in the midst of having an allergic reaction to the bee sting. Sonny and her nurse are out but Don manages to save himself despite slipping into anaphylactic shock. When he wakes up, it is like nothing has happened. When he and Sonny find themselves on the floor appreciating the view from there, I walked out. Most people I tell this premise to stop me long before that point.

One of the films I was most looking forward to seeing at the festival was SERIOUS MOONLIGHT. This film has a very special back story as it was written by Adrienne Shelley, the writer/director of the surprisingly scrumptious film, WAITRESS. The film won great praise but Shelley sadly did not live to see this, as she was murdered before the film was released. Before she died (obviously), she wrote the script for SERIOUS MOONLIGHT, a story about a husband (Timothy Hutton) who is leaving his longtime wife (Meg Ryan) and how she subsequently holds him hostage in their country home to force him to see that he is making a giant mistake. The film was directed by WAITRESS co-star and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star, Cheryl Hines. While the premise might seem contrived, it is exactly the kind of thin line between the implausible and the unexpectedly relatable that Shelley towed so delicately in WAITRESS and Hines does a beautiful job honouring Shelley's last words. In addition to this success, the film also boasts the first time Meg Ryan has shined in years. She gets to play on all her strengths, from her frantic neurosis to quick wit and adorable charm. The only question that looms over the film and threatens to unravel it at any time is why anyone would fight so hard for someone who doesn't want to be there. Luckily, Shelley exceeds at understanding love in trying times and exposing it for all its flaws in order to see its might, right there shining down in the moonlight - which is exactly where Hines allows Shelley to look down in approval throughout the film.

The remainder of my Tribeca coverage will follow when the films find their theatrical releases. As for now, I will proceed to nap again. That said, I was sure to check my schedule first and it is all clear. Thank you New York and thank you Tribeca for a great stay.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia and Sandra Khin

I am reminded of a lyric of a song, “What ever happened to modern jazz?” after watching first time filmmaker, Damien Chazelle’s GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. The answer is certainly not that simple but there are a number of possible theories to be found in the textured grain of this experimental musical that has captured the hearts of the Tribeca Film Festival patrons. Now, there is no need to be frightened of the word, “experimental” – or “jazz” for that matter – in this case, as some tend to run when they hear these words. In fact, the reason the film has been so well received is because it captures the beauty of these sometimes intimidating concepts so naturally that you wonder why you were ever hesitant to begin with.

What began as an undergraduate thesis at Harvard, GUY AND MADELINE (as it is affectionately shortened to for convenience purposes), grew into what Chazelle describes as his personal take on the musicals of the 1930’s and 40’s, which he had been obsessing over at the time. Citing specific influences like THE BAND WAGON and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, Chazelle pitched his thesis as a real life musical; people would still break out into song and dance but it would be grounded in a context that could be universally understood. The classic Hollywood musical is not the only genre being played up here though; Chazelle was also fascinated with the French new wave cinema of the 1960’s and 70’s, from Jean-Luc Godard to Jean Eustace. The combination of the two drastically different approaches is what makes GUY AND MADELINE so distinctly unique and according to Chazelle, balancing between the two was certainly tricky.

“The new wave films don’t really follow strict plots and find themselves as they go along and I tried to find a way to reconcile that with the very strict code of these old musicals that I loved. They have very familiar plots and archetypal characters and follow a strict pacing of musical numbers. It was important to me to not cop out from making a musical, to make an actual musical but in my own way.”

Guy and Madeline (fresh faces, Jason Palmer and Desiree Garcia) have it rough from the start. Heralding from Boston, these two lovers of both music and each other are introduced to the viewer as happy and then torn apart before we can even get a chance to be happy for them. Still, as they both proceed to stumble around somewhat aimlessly in the wake of their brief but affecting time together, your heart goes out to them and you can’t help but wonder what went wrong. And what better way to explore the complicated nature of emotional turmoil than through song? Without a Hollywood sized budget, the musical numbers in GUY AND MADELINE have to rely on plain old fashioned talent, which, after scouring Boston’s music scene, Chazelle found in Palmer in Garcia. Garcia was pursuing her PhD on musicals at the time and was already entrenched in the tap dance scene so she was a natural fit but Palmer doesn’t actually sing. His musical contribution is a beautiful and delicate trumpet.

“I have to admit that wasn’t the original conception. It was originally going to be a singing and dancing male. The movie just changed when I saw Jason play. He just hit us out of nowhere as I went to this club to see someone else play really. It wasn’t the film that I envisioned in my head but it was immediately the film that I wanted to make.”

The musical is inherently out of step with reality but yet it continues to be made and it continues to honour the same values it did when it was originally conceived. Back in the day, when a character needed to deal with a love that is lost, they would saunter through a park and lament to the moon; when that love is reaffirmed, the whole cast breaks out into dance. In GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, the aesthetic is decidedly different but the sentiment is the same. This is perhaps why the musical has survived all this time despite its detractors; perhaps beneath all of our meandering cynicism, we are all still romantics at heart.

“I believe the musical is so well suited to expressing romance because songs begin and end and are completely separate from the larger movie world. It is this kind of momentary perfection of existence that the characters are able to reach but they always know that it is inherently an illusion. So for me, there is something very beautiful but yet very sad about the great musicals but that’s part of the point.”

Damian Chazelle is already at work on his next screenplay and GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH has two remaining screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival …

Wednesday, April 29 @ 9:45 PM
and Sunday May 3 @ 10:30 AM

Monday, April 27, 2009

WEEKEND BOX OFFICE: Unreasonable Obsession

OK, I get it. You like Beyonce. Her songs are catchy; her body is rockin’. She is an all around tour de force. But really, does she really need to be a bankable movie star too? I don’t begrudge her every possible success but couldn’t you throw you support behind her for something a little less ridiculous than OBSESSED?

Even though it was panned by critics universally, or perhaps in spite of that, OBSESSED pulled in over $28 million to become April’s biggest opening for a thriller, beating out DISTURBIA, which pulled in over $22 million back in its day. This will mean many more film offers for Beyonce, who clearly has a strong following that are willing to cross over from downloading her music to dropping their money to gaze upon her on the big screen. As a result, another pretty face, Zac Efron, in 17 AGAIN, was forced down to second place with a 50% drop.

Many another film made its debut this week in the Top 10 but none did so very strongly. The most successful of the bunch was the fight movie, appropriately titled, FIGHTING. The film brought in the second highest average in the Top 10 but was originally expected to fight it out with OBSESSED for the top spot. Its third place finish is respectable but a disappointment. Coming in right behind in fourth was the delayed, THE SOLOIST. Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) directed this pedigree project, which stars Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. Good word of mouth could save it but adult fare is not faring too well these days (just ask STATE OF PLAY). And after its solid Earth Day debut, Disney’s EARTH came in fifth place for the weekend. Given that this is a repurposed documentary that many have already seen in its other incarnation, the BBC series, “Planet Earth”, I’d say its $14 million five-day take is definitely the strongest showing of these selections.

Below the Top 10, the much buzzed about documentary about boxer, Mike Tyson, again appropriately titled, TYSON, debuted on 11 screens to the tune of an average just under $8K. The film is being well received by critics and could play better to wider audiences in the weeks to come given the popularity of the subject. Meanwhile, the ensemble piece, THE INFORMERS, starring Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Billy Bob Thornton and Winona Ryder (now, there are a bunch of misfits!) bombed its opening, pulling in a pathetic average of just $622 on nearly 500 screens. And the week’s best per screen average went to the documentary, NURSERY UNIVERSITY. The doc, which depicts the competitive world of nursery school admissions, opened on just one screen in all of North America and pulled in an average of $13K. I guess it was easier for parents interested in the topic to find a baby sitter for the night than a good school.

NEXT WEEK: Let the unofficial launch of summer officially begin with the release of X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE. Opening of over 4000 screens, it will be very interesting to see if that feature length leak from a month ago really has an effect or not on the theatrical gross. And if bladed mutants are not your thing, perhaps laughable romantic comedies starring Matthew McConaughey are. GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST, co-starring Jennifer Garner, opens on 3000+ screens.

Source: Box Office Mojo

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Black Sheep @ TRIBECA

I am a gay man. For over a dozen years now, I have lived my life outside of the closet very proudly. And yet, when I sit to write for Black Sheep, I choose my words carefully. Well, I always choose my words carefully; I am a writer and that is the job after all. What I mean in this context is that I will often pause before making any overt statements that undeniably confirm my sexuality. It has always been my concern that if I were to come right out and state in my reviews that I'm gay, that it will somehow taint the way the reader interprets my work and my opinions. Oh, that explains why he loves BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN so much. Or, of course he named MILK as Best Picture of the year. He has to; he's gay. Not that one couldn't easily figure it out if they were to read between the lines, and not that I mind one bit if they do, but there is a significant difference between being coy and being direct.

Saturday morning, I caught the press screening of a new documentary from Kirby Dick, the man behind the wonderful film, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED. His new documentary is called OUTRAGE and by the time I had finished watching it, I was in tears. Granted, yes, I was also quite tired but I'm sure I would have been crying regardless. Even as I made my way over to the Direct TV Tribeca press center for an interview with Dick, I could not stop the tears from welling up in my eyes on the streets of New York City. OUTRAGE is a direct effort to actually out prominent closeted men in American government. The approach has come under much criticism as outing is often considered sensationalistic and a private matter. That said, the men that are targeted in OUTRAGE use their powerful positions to pass legislature that denies many basic human rights to gay men and women but then proceed to live that very same lifestyle behind closed doors. I assure you, the arguments for are well supported and OUTRAGE is a fine piece of investigative journalism with its integrity well intact. As Dick later said in our interview, and I am paraphrasing because the interview itself is to be published at a later date, OUTRAGE is not about outing one's sexuality but rather their hypocrisy.

OUTRAGE obviously filled me with a great deal of rage in addition to my sadness and my pride. It also helped me see that my approach to writing for this site was in direct conflict with my basic approach to film criticism. It is my belief that film criticism is inherently subjective. Everything in my life lends to my interpretation and appreciation of the film. How then can I honour that philosophy without being completely honest about who I am? So, without supposing that you didn't already know, I will say once again that I am gay. And now that that's done, I can get back to the movies.

Friday, April 24, 2009

ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW: An Interview with writer/director, Francois Dompierre

It couldn’t happen any other time than the middle of the night. That ringing is not a dream. There, on the other side of the line, is the voice you have tried so hard to forget while secretly longing to hear again. You’re half asleep so you can’t be sure the conversation is actually happening. She’s in town. She’s leaving tomorrow. She wants to see you. Nothing good can come of this but you can’t say no., not to her. So you drag yourself out of bed, throw on some jeans and prepare yourself to revisit every memory, good and bad, that the two of you created. It’s a scenario most can relate to and that common experience is what makes Francois Dompierre’s ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW, a dissected history of Wes (Joey Kern), Alison (Alexandra Holden) and the space they created together, easy to connect with and even easier to fall in love with.

Dompierre called Montreal his home for many a year before he moved to Los Angeles to complete his graduate studies in film. For the first little while, he struggled to find confidence in himself and his ability to make a meaningful contribution to the overcrowded world of film. His belief in himself eventually grew out of the friendships he made with his fellow film students and consistently working on films. Once the craft began to work its way into his nature, he penned his first feature, which is loosely based on a woman he once knew. Having a wide group of talented individuals to choose his crew from (including cinematographer, Gavin Kelly, who shot the Academy Award winning short, WEST BANK STORY), Dompierre set out across Utah, California and Montreal to put all those years of training to test. Thus far, his labor has been rewarding as the film has been screened at numerous festivals throughout the United States and most recently, it has come home to Montreal at the World Film Festival, where it is competing in the First Feature category.

While it may have first stemmed from the need to heal himself, the script for ALL THE DAYS BEFORE TOMORROW grew into an insightful examination of the differences between the sexes and more specifically between these two people. At times they infuriate each other while at others, they show each other a potential they didn’t know was possible. At all times though, they fascinate the viewer’s mind while their brilliant surroundings engage the senses. After seeing the film, I suddenly felt nervous to meet Dompierre. How could I interview him without gushing the entire time about the subtleties and simple insights that worked themselves into my soul within the film’s first minutes? We ended up having a very real conversation that ended, much to my surprise, with an embrace instead of a handshake. I guess I must have still gushed a little.

Joseph Belanger: If I can be honest, I was concerned the film might not come together the way I felt it could after seeing the trailer but really, your film truly surprised me from beginning to end. Congratulations.

Francois Dompierre: Thank you.

JB: It was my pleasure really. There’s a point early on in the film where the characters come home to Montreal. I didn’t see that coming and it warmed my sensitive Montrealer heart to have seen that. So after so many festival screenings in the United States, how does it feel to bring this movie home?

FD: It’s a huge deal. I haven’t been nervous like this is such a long time. We’ve been showing the film for six months and you can give me a crowd of a thousand and I don’t care because I don’t know anyone there. Here in Montreal though, I was stressed. I had all my friends and my family coming to see it. Strangely enough, their opinions really matter to me. I was actually curious to see if it would be received well in the Montreal culture. I was worried they would think it was too American or commercial, which I don’t think it is. Are they going to think it’s cheesy because of the romantic elements? But it ended up working so well; everybody loved it.

JB: With the film being so well loved, how is that you don’t have wider distribution for it?

FD: We’re a little under the radar. Making a film is one thing but finding out about the politics of distribution … Wow, that I was not prepared for. I was prepared to make a film, technically and artistically, and I put all my heart and hard work into it. I naively felt that if the film were good then somehow, it would surface. That could still happen in the long term.

JB: How long do you think you’re going to have to wait though? When watching the film, I feel a sense of pride as a Montrealer to see what good can come out of this city. The script is great; it looks great; the acting is great but there’s something about it that gives me pause as to whether it has the potential to play well in wide distribution. Then again, why wouldn’t it?

FD: It’s a hard thing to figure out. It’s not even that distributors don’t like it; they’re just not seeing it. Some of the bigger festivals have turned us down but those selection committees never even watched it. The interns get over 100 DVD’s a week that they have to go through and pick five from those. Toronto turned us down which is a shame because they should be proud but our last big hope is Berlin and Telefilm is helping us there. I know that if I can get a selection committee into a theatre to see a print, I think I could get in. I feel like the first fifteen minutes of my film still have some issues so if you’re watching that many DVD’s in a week, you might turn it off right away because you think it might be good but there is surely better. But if I can just get people in a room where they can’t leave, y’know. And this is what might happen in Berlin. If we get into Berlin, we might as well have played in Toronto because our chances of getting picked up are just as good there. It’s just frustrating because now that it’s been made, I just really want people to see it. Then again, a lot of directors have troubles with their first films and still go on to promising careers.

JB: Speaking of other directors, and I hate to be so plain, but as I drew many comparisons to other directors while watching the movie, I wanted to know who your influences were.

FD: One film I really like is LOST IN TRANSLATION. I actually wrote this film before seeing it and then you see this girl in Tokyo and the similarities really freaked me out. Oh great, I’m ruined. I almost changed it to Hong Kong but I decided not to. I really liked CRASH, which came out around the same time we were making this film. And even then I thought that people would think that I was stealing the snow scene from CRASH. I ended up meeting Paul Haggis and I told him people would think I was stealing the snow scene from his movie. He told me not to worry because a lot of people told him that they thought he was ripping off the frog scene in Magnolia. And that film actually had a huge influence on me too. I like Wong Kar-Wai, Woody Allen, Alejandro Inarritu.

JB: I actually saw some Woody Allen in your film. You framed Montreal much in the same way Allen does New York in Manhattan, like postcards.

FD: And Manhattan is my favorite film of his. That is such an amazing compliment. BABEL, TRAFFIC, Michel GondryTHE SCIENCE OF SLEEP or ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, all these films have such a human component to them, always so much emotion, all gorgeous visually. They’re all like hyper-real, that much prettier, that much more dramatic.

JB: So these are the people that have inspired your style and filmic approach, now what was the inspiration for All the Days Before Tomorrow?

FD: It’s loosely based on someone I met. I’ll be very honest, I wrote it at first just to get it out of my system, deal with that person literally. I was in love; it wasn’t working out. I was really bummed for a whole year. So I decided to be a full cliché and just write about it to get it out of my system. It could have been really bad but it was very therapeutic. Then, very quickly as I was writing it, it became something else. It’s very different from what happened between us but that was the fuel.

JB: It’s very relatable.

FD: See, this is a surprise. I always thought I was writing this really specific film and obviously it is really specific to me and what was going on in my head. I never really thought that people were going to be able to relate to it. I wrote it thinking that if people like it, great, and if they don’t, well too bad. As it turns out though, so many people relate to so many different aspects of it. After the screenings, people come to talk to me or send me e-mails afterward. It’s loaded.

JB: And subtle. 30 seconds after Alison enters Wes’s apartment, she is picking things off of his sweater. How much of these kinds of details come from your direction or your script and how much of this comes from the actors’ performances?

FD: A lot of the details were very specific to the script but obviously they’re really good actors. I do a lot of takes. I knew I had no film if the acting was not superb just like I knew that I had no film if the dialog was flat. We designed everything regarding shooting this film around getting good performances. Every day, I’d show up and take half an hour with the actors. We would take all the direction out of the script and just leave the set-up and the dialogue and have them run it to see where it would go without thinking too much. They brought a lot and we fought on a lot of things. I’m an unproven director and even if I was proven, I’d still have to get really involved. By far, the hardest thing to get in this film were the performances but they really did a great job.

JB: Indeed they did. In fact they did so great a job that you really get to know these characters when watching. They’re quirky, endearing and very real. After spending so much time with them during the production process, do you miss them now?

FD (laughing): I’m really happy you asked that. Yes, I do miss them. Even though I’ve seen the film like 300 times, I still get wrapped up in these people. It’s a strange process, to take what’s in your head and then somehow put it out there and still want more. I do wish I could be with these people again.

JB: Me too and I’ve only seen it once so far.

Black Sheep @ TRIBECA

So, this is what it's really like. I've been to film festivals before, sometimes with press access and sometimes without. TRIBECA is however, the first major film festival I have been to outside of Montreal, the island I call home, with full press access. It is a little overwhelming, somewhat frantic to manage and absolutely satisfying despite all of this. As I write this first of a number of posts direct from the festival, I am sitting in the filmmaker's lounge, just across from Union Square in New York City. It is a large open space, lowly lit, with a number of eclectic couches for sitting, a bar with free lunch and coffee and, as I am actually able to post, free wireless access. I just came from the press center, just a few blocks south of here. I sat in on my very first roundtable discussion with Mark and Michael Polish to discuss their latest film, STAY COOL. While I was packing up my gear, Geena Davis sauntered into the room for the next roundtable for her latest work, ACCIDENTS HAPPEN. That lady is tall and striking, let me tell you.

There are actually movies to see at the Tribeca Film Festival too, believe it or not. I have now seen three and have two more to watch before the day is out. The first film I saw yesterday was AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK, from director, Richard Laxton. In 1975, John Hurt shot to new heights of fame, when he played Britsh eccentric, Quentin Crisp, in THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT. More than 30 years later, he returns to the role in what is both a heartbreaking and thrilling turn. The film itself is sadly held back by flat cinematography and mediocre dialogue but Hurt is so transfixing as Crisp that you cannot help but be taken in regardless. Everything that comes out of Hurt's mouth is gold and I couldn't help but be struck by his experience as an aging queen who moves to New York City in the 1980's as he approaches his own 80's. Here you have a man displaced in New York City, writing film reviews and realizing how these crowded streets allow the chance for everyone to shine. It was the perfect film to usher in the festival for me. Well, Woody Allen's world premiere of WHATEVER WORKS, which opened the festival the night before, would have been the perfect film but I couldn't sell a kidney for a ticket to that one.

Coming straight from Sundance, IN THE LOOP, a fiercely sharp and biting political satire about the onset of the Iraq war, was the next film I caught. Hilarious. I was roaring in the middle of the press screening and I was not alone. The language is as telling as it is shockingly foul. The film just recently opened in the UK to wide praise, which means good things for first time feature filmmaker, Arnando Iannucci. Having also had a hand in writing this fantastically dry and witty screenplay, Iannucci will most certainly establish himself as a director to be watched in the next few years. The ensemble cast spans the bridge between the UK and the USA, with parts as diverse as politicians, army generals, political aids, public relations people and foreign ministers. While one might expect their worlds to be quite formal and underhandedly evil, instead Iannucci gives them to us as a bunch of power hungry pawns who spend the majority of their time simply running into walls and each other and who are still somewhat evil. For American audiences, James Gandolfini may be the only easily recognizable face but his turn as an aging general with half hidden political aspirations is simply hysterical; he could not look like he is having any more fun. Again, hi-la-ri-ous.

The Polish Brothers have now been there for many a first for me. My first review for both The National Post and The Movie Network was the brothers' last film, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER. And now, my first ever roundtable interview was again with these wonderful twin brothers for their latest film, STAY COOL. The film itself was written by and stars Mark Polish and was directed by Michael Polish. To sit at a table with them (and supporting actor, Sean Astin, casting director, Kelly Wagner and executive producer, Nick Byassee), I would describe Mark as the scruffier brother, stylish but casual and Michael as the well-maintained brother. I would also describe them both as genuine artists, interested in making movies without having to deal with all the trouble associated with doing that through the Hollywood system. For that reason primarily, comparisons to the Coen Brothers are entirely unfounded. Not that they wouldn't mind making a big movie (I believe the idea of redoing THE GODFATHER III came up); they just enjoy the liberty that comes with independence. STAY COOL is an 80's throwback and homage to the period. It almost feels like it is trying hard to be cool at first and figures out along the way that it was cool all along.

Tomorrow, more films, more interviews, more e-mails, more walking, more writing and less sleeping. I will check back in with you as soon as I get a chance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Written and Directed by Alastair Fothergrill and Mark Linfield
Narrated by James Earl Jones

I’m not sure how to do this. How does one heap praise on a film that is essentially comprised of previously used footage and reappropriated in the interest of making it more accessible for American family audiences? Furthermore, how does one criticize said film when its ultimate purpose, outside of cashing in on growing environmental concern as a viable marketing strategy, is to draw awareness to the fragility and magnificent beauty of our planet? The new distribution leg of the multinational conglomerate, Walt Disney, known as Disney Nature has all too conveniently chosen today, Earth Day, to unveil the first in what it hopes will be a new kind of franchise for a world gone green. Each year, Earth Day will now have to fulfill new duties as a tent pole release date for Disney Nature’s series of nature documentaries and their inaugural offering keeps it both simple and broad, beginning pretty much where you would have to, with EARTH.

Years ago, the BBC embarked on a project so immense in size, one could describe it as planetary. Highly skilled camera crews spanned the globe, from pole to pole, capturing penguins, polar bears and scenic shots of desserts, mountains and jungles in between. The project’s purpose was to unobtrusively document the wonders of the planet on a scale that had never been accomplished before. In 2006, the series, “Planet Earth”, debuted to wild success and was repurposed for American audiences shortly thereafter. Disney has now acquired the rights to this breathtaking footage and all the intense drama and hilarious quirkiness that goes along with it. The premiere episode of the series was a general breakdown of what the subsequent episodes would focus on more specifically and EARTH is recut to follow that same structure, implementing some new footage to highlight three specific stories amidst the global tour. It doesn’t do this as well as the series did, losing its direction somewhere in the lofty dessert but thankfully it never loses its gripping beauty. By the way, James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader and CNN, is your official tour guide. The results cannot help but be as breathtaking as they were to begin with.

They say the world is a stage but being the narcissistic egomaniacs that we are as humans, we assume this applies solely to are own pointless dramas and experiences that consume us on a daily basis. EARTH is here to remind us that we are not alone. Contrary to what we may believe, even as I sit on this bus and toil over this review, the cycle of life is happening on such a massive level that it essentially renders our supposedly important days somewhat meaningless. I know that it is hard for some people to accept this but I meant “meaningless” in the more freeing sense. How can agonizing over who was voted off last night’s talent show du jour hold any resonance whatsoever when you remember that right now, ecosystems are breaking down and rebuilding themselves across the globe, all the while playing home to necessary hunts, painstaking migrations and miraculous stories of survival and spirit? In that regard, EARTH is a spiritual experience that will touch audiences of all ages alike. The real question though is whether it will inspire.

EARTH also serves as another more timely reminder, that the planet is unique and not to be taken for granted. Aside from tailoring the film to appeal to families by focusing much of its attention on animal parents and the rearing of their kin, EARTH also points out how some of these animals have it harder than they did in the past thanks to “the warming of the planet”, clearly mindful of the controversy mentioning global warming conjures. That said, while I still struggle with handing over praise for the acquisition of previously acclaimed footage and while I may still harbour some likely unnecessary resistance towards Disney’s true intentions for going green at a time when it is fashionable to do so, I must look sooner to the greater effect this might have on tomorrow. Brining families to EARTH means more chance for a future generation to lead the way back to the level of respect this planet rightfully deserves. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t seen EARTH.

Editor’s note: To dispel their eco-capitalist image, Disney has pledged to plant a tree for every ticket sold to EARTH through its opening weekend so get out there and see it already. 500,000 advance tickets have been sold already.

Monday, April 20, 2009


Written and Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham and Stuart Graham

Father Moran: You lot figure out which book is the best yet?
Bobby Sands: We only smoke the Lamentations, right miserable cigarettes.

HUNGER is by far one of the most complex experiences I’ve had at the movies in some time. It is immediately intriguing. Very little is said but so much is shown to contextualize exactly what it felt like in 1981 in Northern Ireland. A man we do not know looks at himself in the mirror and is clearly questioning something about himself, as he soaks his bloodied knuckles in the sink. This same man checks beneath his car for potential bombs before he gets in it. He is so clearly burdened by the heaviness of his time and the decisions he has made to fit into that time that watching him while not knowing exactly who he is or what he does or where he’s going, instantly creates the need to know more. The reveal itself is slow enough to allow for a single snowflake to fall on a knuckle and fully melt before us, but once writer/director, Steve McQueen, does show us what is really going on, you will recoil in horror without being able to turn away.

2,187 people were killed between the years of 1969 and 1981 when Parliament decided to remove special category status from prisoners who committed violent crimes in the name of politics. Therefore, members of the Irish Republican Army who had staged protests that got violent or blown things up in the name of their cause were now to be subjected to the same prison conditions as common murderers and thieves. This was the presumption anyway. Instead, they were placed two by two in tiny chambers that were infested with maggots, had human excrement all over the walls and contained, for lack of a cleaner description, no pot to piss in. So not only were they not being given any consideration for their convictions but they were being treated as though they were sub-human. It is certainly hard on the system to look at but it is all shot so delicately and yet so intensely that you are drawn in so closely that it breaks your heart.

HUNGER follows brief party leader, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) through his time as a prisoner at the HM Prison Maze until he embarks on a now infamous hunger strike. This is McQueen’s first screenplay and first film and yet he executes this fragile material with such grace and technical prowess that one would think he’d been doing this for years. This tightly told story is told with little to no dialogue but yet never gets tedious. The truth is that the harshness of these prisoners’ supposed living arrangements is so dire that all McQueen needs to do is place his camera in the right spot and let it all just happen naturally. Thanks to cinematographer, Scott Bobbitt, McQueen’s camera is always in the right spot. The imagery is as colorful and lustrous as it is jarring. The silence allows for the our own thoughts to become more fiery without the distraction and focuses out attention on what the characters could possibly have been thinking.

Just when you think you’ve seen enough misery, it suddenly gets that much worse. I do not want to dissuade anyone from seeing HUNGER as its power and beauty are far more satisfying and enlightening than its ghastly truths. That said, the hunger strike itself does not happen until the third act and when it does, you will lose any hunger you yourself may have had prior. What you will have lost in appetite though, you will have gained in compassion.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Sure, there is a slight age difference but if the Teen Choice Awards were to hold a prom and announce a king and queen of this prom, I’m pretty sure the masses would vote for Zac Efron as king and Miley Cyrus as queen. (Sorry, Vanessa Hudgens.) And this week, in one swift move, the king has taken the queen down a few notches to be crowned.

A $24 million opening weekend for the Efron vehicle, 17 AGAIN, is a far cry from the $34 million opening of Cyrus’s HANNAH MONTANA THE MOVIE but it does still outpace any other title playing this week by $10 million. HANNAH MONTANA actually suffered a steep drop in its second week, falling 60% over its fan heavy opening weekend. If the declining trend continues, it would show that Cyrus perhaps appeals only to her fan base and not much further past that. 17 AGAIN has a much more broad appeal and stands a stronger change of showing sturdier legs in the weeks to come. Any way you look at it though, Efron, after opening his last picture, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3, at number one as well, is proving to be a pretty bankable face.

Opening solidly in second place is the political journalist thriller, STATE OF PLAY, starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck. Given the amount of teenagers that must have been running around the multiplex this weekend, I’m sure this adult fare could have fared better if parents weren’t being dragged what were likely mind numbing experiences. Speaking of which, CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE opening poorly in sixth place this weekend. The Jason Statham now failed franchise pulled in about half as much as the first film did in its opening weekend. It seems to me like the film could have used some extra voltage of its own. Statham isn’t the only semi-bankable star suffering this weekend. Seth Rogen’s OBSERVE AND REPORT suffered the steepest decline in this week’s Top 10, dropping off more than 63%. At this rate, it will be his lowest grossing picture since he rose to fame.

Below the Top 10, the best per screen average of any film playing belongs to EVERY LITTLE STEP, taking in $73K on 8 screens. This documentary follows the rise of one of Broadway’s most successful and most influential shows, “A Chorus Line”. Something tells me though that this film will only play well in that same market. And the Michael Caine starring, IS ANYBODY THERE?, also pulled in a solid per screen average, $45K on 6 screens. The film has the potential to become something of a sleeper hit as it expands to over 50 screens next week, so the next few weeks will be crucial.

NEXT WEEK: Walt Disney celebrates Earth Day on the 22nd with their appropriated footage from the BBC series, “Planet Earth” compiled together for a feature called simply EARTH (1800 screens). The Joe Wright directed, THE SOLOIST, finally hits theatres after being delayed from last fall (1800 screens). And Channing Tatum in FIGHTING (2100 screens) will take on Beyonce Knowles in OBSESSED (2400 screens) for what will inevitably be a disappointing frame.

Source: Box Office Mojo

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Remembering the year 2000

When asked to look back at the year 2000, or more specifically, the year 2000 in film, I remember distinctly being torn between not just two films that year but rather being torn over what constituted the true value of a film worthy of the title, “Best Picture of the Year”. The first of the two films in question captured my mind. It is a distinctly cerebral experience in its carefully plotted design and intricate balance of several different stories told simultaneously and the serious nature of its subject matter. The other film captured my heart. It is achingly romantic in tone and theme but it never crosses over into the saccharine. Instead, it honours the emotion itself as the governing force of life. What holds more value when it comes to film appreciation? An interaction with your emotional core or the provocation of thought? An appeal to one’s intellect or a plea to the soul? Which film is better? Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC or Ang Lee’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON?

The moment Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) appear on screen in the same space in, the attraction between them is undeniable. Yet, the same can be said for their restraint. And so CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON establishes its largest question; if love is the greatest gift that can bestowed upon man, so great that warriors such as these two fight in its name, why then deny this gift for yourself in favor of respect for social obligation? Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien cannot be together because she was once promised to his greatest warrior brother. The two bonded after his death but have never acted upon their feelings as not to disrespect his memory. In many ways, Li’s fallen brother brought he and Yu together but in just as many ways, he made it impossible for them to be together. Now, Li is debating leaving his battles behind him and pursuing that which his heart has longed for for so long but duty almost seems bent on stopping this from happening as no sooner does he hang up his sword, it is stolen, forcing him to confront his oldest nemesis. It would seem that love and honour go hand in hand but honouring love in this case makes it impossible to experience it.

The romantic core of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON is certainly honoured by Ang Lee, who infuses the picture with fluidity and intensity, establishing a tone that can only be described as magical. (I suppose it could also be described as mystical, majestic or mesmerizing as well but you get my point.) The sword robbery prompts a sequence of battles that combine seamless excellence in cinematography, score, choreography and of course, performance (including breakout, Zhang Ziyi). Running on air across shingled rooftops or through towering treetops is visually stunning but also heightens the passion of an already fiery experience. When on the ground and engaged in combat or sword play, the actual fighting is so perfectly timed and executed against Tan Dun’s drum heavy score that it is often impossible to distinguish between what is fighting and what it dance. As usual, Lee’s gentle directorial hand allows for a vast canvas that takes on an enlightened stance all its own. In a film where all who have honour are bound by decorum and tradition, flying is possible and seems boundless but they are ultimately grounded by the same properties that make flight possible.

TRAFFIC is no less a technical feat. Based on the British mini-series, “Traffik”, writer, Stephen Gaghan, scaled down over 300 minutes of story to a scant 147. In it, he explores the war on drugs, from sales to distribution to border crossing to addiction and treatment. The severity of the situation is not glazed over in TRAFFIC and Soderbergh makes directing this enormous undertaking all look so easy. Considering the title, it is ironic that the film travels so easily back and forth between Mexico, San Diego, Washington and Ohio. The different locales and stories are all differentiated by color schemes – a yellow tinged Mexico stimulates our nervous systems while demonstrating a fragile city controlled by drug cartels and corruption and a blue Ohio allows us to dive deeper into the lows of addiction with a sedated effect. San Diego rather is painted in much more naturalistic hues, perhaps highlighting the normalcy of the drug sales in America. The action taking place in all these locations makes for its own contradictions as well, thanks to Gaghan’s delicate and precise screenplay. How else could one explain a film that is essentially anti-drug that exposes some of its more insightful musings during drug-addled hazes?

What is traffic after all but being stalled and surrounded by an endless see of obstacles ahead of you, stopping you from getting to where you’re going? It never feels as though it will ever let up or you will ever find a way to get through it all. While TRAFFIC is not entirely pessimistic, it is decidedly realistic. It never insinuates that the war on drugs is one that cannot be won but that perhaps the idea of winning needs to be modified. It seems almost naïve to think that drug usage will ever be irradiated from the human experience but with all the extreme violence that the trade creates, clearly the consumption needs to be scaled down significantly. Soderbergh is also careful not to suggest that he has all the answers. To him, it is clear that the Mexican drug cartels must be taken down; that the flow of drugs and firearms across the Mexico/US border needs to be cracked down on; and that we must no longer be afraid to look inside out own houses, at our own family members and friends to help bring them back to a place where they can truly see the world as it is. As Brian Eno’s “Ascension” plays over the film’s final frames, the idea of progress seems at the very least, possible.

Both films were released in December of 2000; both went on to earn roughly around $125 million at the box office; and both went on to win four Oscars each. It would appear that I am not the only one split on the two films. And as neither actually went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, perhaps the debate will never be settled as to which film truly deserves the crown. Of course, it is fair to say that neither film actually needs to be regarded as better than the other. I can love them both equally for different reasons as I’ve got plenty of love to go around. After all, I spend so much time trying to get my mind and my heart on the same page, why would not apply that same logic to these two beautiful pictures? And as GLADIATOR actually went on to win the title that year, perhaps brawn is more appealing than brains and beauty combined anyway.

Both films ...

Black Sheep’s Top 10 Films of 2000
(in alphabetical order)

Best in Show
Billy Elliott
Chicken Run
Chuck & Buck
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
In the Mood for Love
Requiem for a Dream
The Virgin Suicides
Wonder Boys

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Written by Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso and Roberto Saviano
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Starring Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale and Salvatore Cantalupo

There are two things I can assert to you right here and now. I have never been to Naples and I don’t know the first thing about how the mafia works there. I presume it must work pretty well considering Italy is the birthplace for the age old organization known as the mob and this presumption would be based on having seen a couple of mob movies here and there. My having no Italian heritage whatsoever means that everything I know about the mafia, I know from the movies. Given that Hollywood likes to sensationalize here and there for effect, I should probably take what I’ve learned with a grain of salt. I mean, do people actually say things like, “He’ll be sleeping with the fishes”? Well, regardless of whether everything I think I know is a fat lie or not, I do know now that I know nothing at all after having seen GOMORRA

GOMORRA, a 2008 Italian export that earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, has made its way across the ocean to North America and is certain to set a modern day benchmark for all mafia films to come. This will happen for two reasons. The first is the provocative and shockingly stark portrayal of today’s mob. The second is the gritty reality that director, Matteo Garrone infuses into every single scene in his seamless film. Combining such desolate reality in the script with such intense imagery makes for a visceral experience unlike any mafia film I’ve seen before. It all felt so real, so believable and that was made the experience so effective. The reality that Garrone gives us, based on Roberto Saviano’s intensely controversial novel, is so bleak that its hard to imagine anything good in the world after seeing it.

GOMORRA tells the story of the Camorra, a group supposedly responsible for the murders of 4000 people in the last thirty years of its existence. Those 4000 people were all individuals at one point and the exposing the plight of the individual within the huddled masses is one of Garrone’s strongest suits. GOMORRA focuses on five separate stories to make its point. Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) makes sure the family members of imprisoned members of his clan are financially taken care of until it becomes uncertain who is in charge. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is thirteen and thinks he’s ready for the man’s world. Marco and Ciro (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) prove Toto wrong as they are slightly older, want to run their own racket but only prove to be a nuisance. Roberto (Carmine Patemoster) graduates from University and tries the mob on as his first real job. And finally, Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupe) tries to make a little on the side after the mob has taken care of him for years. Though they never connect, they are all under the same gun.

The title itself condemns Naples and its inhabitants as doomed to their inevitable fate of self-destruction, GOMORRA being that infamous sister city of Sodom. Garrone isn’t kidding either. At no point does it seem like there is any way for the people who call this mess their home to rise above their own situations. Yet, at no point in time does Garrone imply that the mob actually knows what they’re doing either. Perhaps then, it is the mafia that will one day self-destruct. And if that glorious day ever comes, hopefully Garrone will be around to take the inherent rawness of the collapse and turn into as brave a film as this one.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

WEEKEND BOX OFFICE: Fast Hannah, Furious Diesel

The first time I was ever asked to write a box office report was around this same time last year. I had to report how Miley Cyrus and her alter ego, Hannah Montana, had broken new ground for 3D pictures and concert flicks alike when the BEST OF BOTH WORLDS concert took in over $31 million in what was supposed to be a limited engagement. Taking advantage of the Easter weekend, Disney has unleashed the Cyrus’s first big screen adventure, HANNAH MONTANA THE MOVIE, and proved that you don’t need to lie about limited runs to get people out on opening weekend.

Box office prognosticators debated all week whether HANNAH MONTANA THE MOVIE would be able to topple last week’s unexpected juggernaut, FAST AND FURIOUS. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker may appeal to the ladies out there but the ladies are no match for tween girls. FAST AND FURIOUS managed an almost respectable 60% drop this weekend but its fate was officially sealed when HANNAH MONTANA debuted to $17 million, the biggest opening day ever for a G-rated non-animated film. That one day accounted for 50% of the final weekend gross and allowed America’s newest underage sweetheart to easily slide past F&F’s $28 million. In other holdover news, MONSTERS VS. ALIENS performed strongly in its third week, thanks surely to many kids having Friday off.

Audiences and critics were essentially split on whether OBSERVE AND REPORT was horrifically offensive or hilarious. Either way, this latest Seth Rogen vehicle is his weakest opening besides last fall’s disappointment, ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO. The bad press on this one will likely ring louder than those who actually enjoyed it given the gravity of how offensive it has the potential to be so a quick decline is to be expected. Even though it did debut higher than ZACK AND MIRI, I would expect OBSERVE AND REPORT to gross less in the long run. The week’s only other Top 10 debut belonged to DRAGONBALL EVOLUTION. None too surprisingly, the film fizzled but it had already made over $25 million internationally prior to this domestic release so all is not lost.

The week’s best per screen average belonged to ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL. This well received rockumentary tells the story of two Canadian buddies who made a promise to rock out forever together and have never gone back on that promise. Playing on three screens in all of North America, the film pulled in a decent $11K average. Meanwhile, quirky indie, LYMELIFE, starring Alec Baldwin and Rory Culkin, pulled in an average of over $7K on four screens.

NEXT WEEK: CRANK:HIGH VOLTAGE (2200 screens) will try to make as much as money as possible before its heart explodes; and even though STATE OF PLAY (2700 screens) boasts a cast including Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren, I’m pretty sure none of them have as much appeal these days Mr. High School Musical himself, Zac Efron, whose first major starring vehicle, 17 AGAIN debuts on over 3000 screens. Screaming girls everywhere will flock to see him; I may join them.

Source: Box Office Mojo