Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis

Stormshadow: It is possible to feel so much hate you don’t feel it at all, like a fish surrounded by water.

When I reviewed the original G.I. JOE film, THE RISE OF COBRA, I actually received rather menacing messages from regular readers who had seen it based on my recommendation that it was mindless fun. They felt somehow that I had abused their trust because they genuinely felt it was pure trash and not worth watching at all. I have since seen it again and still feel the same as I did then. It is not a good movie; I’m not saying it is. It is a cartoonish explosion of exaggerated charicature, melodramatic backstory and silly one-liners. For me, it was laughable but still enjoyable. This time around, in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, new director, Jon M. Chu, has taken the Joe’s in a more serious direction, trying to give them a more authentic air that is supposed to be more closely linked to the original source material. In doing so though, he also robbed the franchise of almost all of its fun.

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION does everything it can to distance itself from THE RISE OF COBRA within the first half hour of the film. Let alone that there is no explanation as to where most of the characters from the first film have disappeared to, the few characters that did make it to the sequel are mostly killed off in the first half hour. This act of retaliation is meant to galvanize what little Joe’s remain to take down their aggressors, which are of course, Cobra, a terrorist cell bent on world domination. What it really does is leave us with a just few boring leftover Joe’s who are tasked with saving the entire world. They might seem outmatched but there only seem to be a few Cobra members anyway so they should be just fine. And you would think that if the film chooses to only focus on a few of the characters fans have loved for ages, those characters would actually have some personality. Aside from The Rock, who is perfectly cast because his neck, arms and chest resemble the physique of an action figure, other players, like Lady Jaye (Adrianne Policki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), might as well be just as faceless as the rest of the cast, given they bring nothing in terms of personality. Bruce Willis even makes an appearance as the original Joe, General Joe Colton, but blink and you’ll miss him entirely.

Chu’s previous films, the last three STEP UP movies, and the Justin Bieber documentary, NEVER SAY NEVER, were not about character either; they were about the dance or the show. G.I. JOE: RETALIATION barely even has the show though. And without the flashy action scenes, save for one thrilling mountainside ninja extravaganza, all you’re left to focus on are the holes in the storyline and the lack of passion in the majority of the performances. Sure the re-imagined backstories in the first film felt forced and unnecessary but without them, Chu gives us no reason to care about this new batch of Joe’s. There also doesn’t seem to be much in terms of a master plan on Cobra’s part either so we’re just left to bumble along to some unclear climax in the company of a bunch of forgettable faces. So far, we are now two attempts at successfully bringing G.I. JOE to the big screen and I am still nowhere near ready to yell, “Yo Joe!”

Monday, March 25, 2013


Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes and Ben Mendelsohn

Robin: You know something, Luke? If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder. 

Derek Cianfrance made a big splash on the indie film scene a few years back with his heartbreaking drama, BLUE VALENTINE. Many thought that he had captured the breakdown of a troubled relationship so perfectly, including myself. I also thought that, as brave a filmmaker as he was to go to the dark places people rarely go to themselves, he did relish his time there a bit more than he needed to. He returns with another disturbing tale, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, and this time, he takes on a lot more and gets a little lost in his own darkness.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is a conventional three-act film that tries very hard to be as non-traditional as possible. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, both strong and compelling, play new fathers. Gosling is a total mess, covered in tattoos and wearing rotten shirts inside out to appear as though he is trying to clean himself up. Contrarily, Cooper is as polished as they come, the son of a former judge and a promising rookie cop. They are on opposite sides of the law and their lives become intrinsically connected in ways that I cannot describe without spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that the mistakes of the fathers are passed on to the next generation and the choice to rectify or continue them is set upon the young.

Cianfrance structures the film in such a way that I think he thinks makes THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES original and daring. Personally, I felt that, by the time Cianfrance reveals to the viewer where he’s going with everything in the second act, he makes it painfully obvious where everything will end up in the third act, which is marred by poor performances on the part of the film’s younger actors. There is an air on the part of the filmmaker that he knows better than the viewer, but I think most viewers will see that his gimmicky structure only really reveals that he doesn’t fully have a handle on his own material.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler

Dan: This is what defeat looks like. Your jihad is over.

Remember how it took a moment to process the reality of the announcement that Osama bin Laden, leader of the al Qaeda terrorist organization, had been killed by the Americans? I do. It was late at night and it didn’t seem real. The Americans had made it their personal mission to hunt down and kill the man behind the horrifying September 11th terrorist attacks, but that was nearly ten years prior. It seemed to me, to most perhaps, that their efforts would ultimately prove fruitless, to the point where I had almost forgotten they were still looking for him. Find bin Laden they did though and now, thanks to Academy Award winning director, Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER), you can see exactly how it happened and precisely why it took so darn long.

ZERO DARK THIRTY, a reference to the approximate hour bin Laden was killed, is an intense account of the ten years it took to fulfill the promise President George W. Bush made to his people after they were attacked. Bigelow does not shy away from the dirtier details of the mission, exposing us to a great deal of torture from the very onset. The manner in which America dealt with its enemies changed a great deal after 9/11, and again since then, when it was exposed to the world how horrible they were being to their detainees. Bigelow hardly glorifies their methods but she also is sure to show that if it weren’t for some of these tactics, they might not have been able to prevent some potentially disastrous terrorist plots. To watch the ever changing face of how the Central Intelligence Agency worked to protect the American people, only further highlights just how long it took to execute its vendetta. To watch that mission presented as an obsession sheds some much needed light on how it may have also distracted from thwarting some other successful terrorist attacks.

Bigelow reteams with THE HURT LOCKER screenwriter, Mark Boal, for ZERO DARK THIRTY, and while the twosome certainly work well together and know how to craft tense, taut thrillers, their latest collaboration lacks some of the deeper insight their previous success had. Watching THE HURT LOCKER, I felt a grander sense of purpose in the unfolding action, while ZERO DARK THIRTY felt more like a straight forward manhunt thriller than anything else. Sure, it is led by the luminous, Jessica Chastain, in yet another remarkable performance, but even her profound subtlety doesn’t bring us anywhere underneath the surface of this hunt. That being said, the surface itself, which clocks in at a near two and a half hour runtime, is stellar, fully engaging from start to finish. Perhaps if I was American though, accomplishing the mission would have felt more personally satisfying.


ZERO DARK THIRTY certainly saw its fair share of controversy during its theatrical run. You know that Oscar campaigning has gone too far when mud originally flung to at a film to take away from its chances of winning an award, is suddenly being discussed in the mass media as well as on the senate floor. The original argument was made that intelligence shared with the filmmakers was classified and that many details should not have been shared. From there, the conversation became about how the film glorifies or justifies the use of torture on the part of the American government to obtain the information necessary to find, and eventually kill, Osama bin Laden. Eventually, the talk was how the filmmakers had distorted some of the details of the actual operation, as if creative license ceased to exist. Hopefully, now that the film has found its way to people's homes, people can enjoy it for what it actually is, a really great film.

What I said then: "Watching THE HURT LOCKER, I felt a grander sense of purpose in the unfolding action, while ZERO DARK THIRTY felt more like a straight forward manhunt thriller than anything else."

And now? Having seen the film a second time, I still feel similarly. ZERO DARK THIRTY is an intense thriller. Jessica Chastain leads the charge for this driving military operation and it is consistently compelling from start to finish. It never took on any greater meaning for me though. There was commentary on the approach taken, presented in as objective a fashion as possible, but that is the extent of it really. I commend Bigelow for remaining objective but this is a highly subjective topic and it felt like her opinion on the subject was missing.

SPECIAL FEATURES: The ZERO DARK THIRTY special features are fairly simple when they could have actually been quite revealing about what went into the construction of this film's plot. I did learn that Bigelow was originally planning on making a film about how the Americans lost bin Laden in December of 2001. In the middle of that process though, bin Laden was actually killed, which inadvertently changed the direction of this film. Many elements of the productions design, like the stealth helicopters they recreated without having ever seen or the compound where bin Laden was killed itself, are explained in fascinating detail. They don't really amount to much more than puff pieces for awards consideration though.

All the same, ZERO DARK THIRTY doesn't need extra padding to make it must own. It just would have been nice to get a little more intelligence on how they found their intelligence.

Review copy provided by eOne Entertainment. 


Written by by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Ian McKellen

Bilbo Baggins: Can I help you?
Gandalf: That remains to be seen.

When they first announced that J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE HOBBIT, was being made into a movie, I don't think anyone was the least bit surprised. The trilogy had won tons of awards and had made billions of dollars around the world. To not make this movie would have just been bad business. That being said, taking Tolkien's work, which as I understand it, is shorter than all of his other previously filmed novels, and then turning that work into three 3-hour films doesn't just feel like overkill but it feels like a fleecing to me - a direct attempt to squeeze money out of fan's pockets conveniently disguised as a special extended project made just for them. Perhaps fans, of which admittedly, I am not, will consider this a gift but to me, it feels more like a punishment. 

The titular hobbit here is Bilbo Baggins, a character we all met in the original series but whom now we are meeting as a much younger hobbit, played with great jubilance by Martin Freeman. One seemingly ordinary day, he gets a knock on the door from a very familiar wizard, Gandalf (once again portrayed by Sir Ian McKellan). Gandalf wants the hobbit to join him on an adventure, which sounds innocent enough, but essentially involves joining a band of dwarves who want to reclaim their land from a dragon that has taken possession of it. After some initial hesitation, Bilbo gets on board and off they go. This quest is far less compelling to me than the focused effort to destroy a certain infamous ring. There are just too many dwarves to care about and, seeing as Bilbo was never truly sure he wanted to be there, it was very difficult for me to muster any desire to stick around either. The gang get into battle after battle as they make their way, but it isn't until the last third of the film where any of it seems to matter. And by then, I was just waiting for everything finish.

It has been some time since I last saw any LORD OF THE RINGS film but THE HOBBIT felt distinctly different to me. Peter Jackson is once again at the helm of this massive project but the attention and care that he put into those films felt lacking for me here. Much of the imagery felt more cartoonish than fantastical and much of the camera work felt designed specifically for a 3D adventure ride. It simply lacked the gravitas that grounded the previous films and made them not only believable for even the less involved viewer (like myself), but also gave them the footing to stand very tall and very proud as some of the best fantasy films ever made. THE HOBBIT just feels tacked on at the end, like an aside or something. I don't know about you but I've never seen an afterthought stretched out to eight or nine hours before and, at this point, I doubt very much I will still be there to find out how the whole thing ends.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Written and Directed by Sally El Hosaini
Starring James Floyd, Fady Elsayed and Said Taghmaoui

Rashid and Mo (James Floyd and Fady Elsayed) are, on the one hand, the kinds of brothers parents dream of having. Rashid, being the older of the two, looks after his little brother in the tough East London neighborhood they call home. He tries to keep him in school and away from trouble with the local gangs. But when you are surrounded by drugs, guns and violence every day, it isn’t easy to avoid it altogether. This is especially difficult when the very brother that you idolize and that is trying to protect you, is also running with those same gangs.

In MY BROTHER THE DEVIL, one incident triggers these brothers’ unravelling. When Rashid’s best mate, Izzy (Anthony Welsh) is shot and killed in a gang fight that Rashid is involved in, and that Mo witnesses, the reality of life sets in immediately. Rashid realizes that life isn’t a game, that when you’re dead, you’re dead. Mo meanwhile has a different reaction. The killing disturbs him but he still fights for a place in his brother’s gang just as his brother is trying to get out. While Mo struggles to find himself and emulate his brother, Rashid deals with the same internal conflict to know who he is now that he has lost his friend. He eventually finds comfort in the arms of Sayyid (Said Taghmaoui), a mutual friend of Izzy’s, and then neither brother knows who they are anymore.

MY BROTHER THE DEVIL is Sally El Hosaini’s first feature film as a writer and director. Her biggest success before this one would be as assistant director on Paul Greengrass’s GREEN ZONE, which I despised. Fortunately, she did not take on Greengrass’s infamously shaky camera aesthetic. She demonstrates a strong sense of sensitivity toward her characters but doesn’t sacrifice any of the reality needed to make a story like this believable. And while it doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the table, the brothers themselves are a convincing pair. Their once internal struggles become an amalgamated problem that threatens to ruin their relationship. To watch them fight to save it is moving.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Written and Directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco
Voices by Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Catherine Keener and Ryan Reynolds

Grug: Tomorrow isn’t a place. You can’t see it.
Guy: Yes, you can. I’ve seen it! And that’s where I’m going.

I was initially very skeptical of THE CROODS before seeing it. On the one hand, it is co-written and co-directed by Chris Sanders, the man behind the exhilarating and unexpected, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. On the other hand, it is co-written and co-directed by Kirk De Micco, the man behind the clunky, tiresome and almost entirely forgettable, SPACE CHIMPS. Would THE CROODS be a constant delight or would it just be plain crude? Well, either De Micco has become a much better storyteller than he was five years ago, or Sanders’ sense of style and direction was just more dominant during production, because, while THE CROODS never soars as high as a dragon can, it is still infinitely more entertaining than monkeys in outer space.

The Croods, the family that is, and not the movie, are a prehistoric take on the modern family. Dad, Mom, brother, sister, baby and grandmother all live in one cramped, little cave. In fact, they spend the majority of their time in this cave out of fear of the unknown that is waiting just outside their makeshift boulder-door. The entire film is based on a very simple construct; new is bad. Sticking to what they know has kept the Croods alive and together, when so many other families have perished before them because they dared to explore the world in front of them. Playing it safe keeps Crood patriarch, Grug (Nicolas Cage) quite content. This does not bode as well for his teenage daughter, Eep (Emma Stone). She is so curious, she is even seen chasing a light on a wall at one point, just like the famously curious beast we know as cat. This inevitably leads to some heated father / daughter moments, and naturally some emotional father / daughter resolutions.

What elevates THE CROODS past its basic premise is a combination of the dynamic animation style and the winning voice performances from this impressive cast. The manner in which these cavemen move is noticeably distinct, like a cross between human and animal, as they climb up rocks and chase prey, surrounded by prehistoric animals unlike anything I've ever imagined. Cage does a solid job as the father who can feel his family slipping away from him, but it is Stone and Ryan Reynolds that really shine in an ensemble that also includes Catherine Keener and Cloris Leachman. As Guy, Eep’s love interest, Reynolds makes the most of his natural charm. He represents all that is new, from fire to the very notion of having an idea, and Eep eats it up, while Grug resists any and all change. As they journey toward a fresh start in a more prosperous land, the Croods’ constant sense of awe with all that they encounter eventually makes its way off the screen and infects the viewer with the same sense of wonder. THE CROODS are cavemen made for the modern mind.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Written by Karen Croner
Directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin

Portia Nathan: Just be yourself, because who else could you be? That’s who you’re stuck with.

Full disclosure, ADMISSION has a very obvious premise. Tina Fey stars as a Princeton admissions officer who denies people entrance professionally. Naturally, we know before the movie even begins that she will ultimately have to learn how to let down her walls and let people into her own lonely life. Not to sound too cynical but what contemporary romantic comedy doesn’t reveal its hand to you right upfront? The trick isn’t to avoid doing this though. No, to make a romantic comedy transcend its own conventions, you have to get creative with how you get from point A to point B. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone as funny, and as savvy, as Fey leading the way.

Fey’s Portia Nathan thinks her life is set. She has been working for Princeton for more than 15 years; she has a functional, childless (read, boring) relationship with a university professor (played by Michael Sheen, who was also great opposite Fey on “30 Rock” as another mismatched mate); and she is up for a promotion for her dream job as the head of the admissions department. With that set-up properly established, we can watch each of these elements fall apart when she meets John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a principal at a new progressive school she is checking out for applications. This is where ADMISSION breaks from tradition and solidifies itself as a cut above the rest. Meeting John may disarm her but not because she realizes her life is dull and she has never really known love before that moment. Instead, she is thrown by her own past, which John is privy to and reminds her of.

Under Paul Weitz’s (ABOUT A BOY) direction, Portia’s journey is a personal one, even though it is still a familiar one. Instead of scene after scene of Fey and Rudd comedically trying to avoid what they feel for each other, ADMISSION is more about Portia battling her own demons so that she can actually see the path to happiness in her own life. Rudd’s John naturally has his own intimacy issues to work out too but they never take on as much significance as Portia’s do. As a result, they feel more like two people who are working through their own things who happen to find each other along the way instead of just two people pushed together for the purposes of the picture.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Written and Directed by Harmony Korine
Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and James Franco

Faith: I’m so tired of seeing the same thing every single day. Everything is the same and everyone is just sad.

I should preface this review by saying that I myself have never personally been on spring break. I’ve never been too heavy a drinker or been too keen on exposing myself in public, so the concept never appealed to me. And, after seeing Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS, I have to say I’m very happy to have missed the experience. If it is anything at all like Korine’s booze, drugs and sex fueled contemplation on the subject, I’m surprised any responsible parents allow their children to partake in it. Past that, if it is anywhere near as violent as Korine insinuates, I’m surprised it hasn’t just been banned from happening altogether. Kids will be kids though so spring break will live on. I cannot say the same for SPRING BREAKERS though.

Korine exploded onto the film scene when he wrote the screenplay to Larry Clark’s infamous KIDS, when he himself was just a kid. Since that time, he has gone on to write and direct some obscure art flicks (GUMMO, MISTER LONELY) but has never come close to courting the mainstream until now. SPRING BREAKERS is arguably Korine’s most accessible film, as it stars unlikely party girls, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, as well as Academy Award nominee, James Franco. That said, any mainstream college kid looking for a good party film with a little gratuitous nakedness is in for a big shock when they see this. There is plenty of partying and plenty of nudity in SPRING BREAKERS, but there is also very little dialogue and very little plot to speak of either. Korine pieces together the film like one long montage designed to highlight the moral decay of America’s youth. He makes his point more often than not but will any of the intended audience actually hear it?

Earlier this year, Korine turned 40. His debut was celebrated for its frighteningly honest examination of urban youth. Twenty years later though, Korine does not have the direct connection to his subject he had then and his idea of spring break is perhaps just as far removed as mine is. As we watch the beautiful bodies bouncing up and down along the beach time and time again, it is never clear whether Korine is sitting there in judgment or just sitting there enjoying the view. And then, when the party starts to wind down, as they tend to do but, as Korine suggests, the youth of today seem uninterested in acknowledging, Korine realizes he has nowhere left to go and takes SPRING BREAKERS on an unexpected break of its own from its original premise. Like the kids he writes about, Korine too needs to work harder on his ability to focus.


Written by David Magee
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irfan Kahn and Rafe Spall

Francis Adirubasamy: A mouthful of water will not harm you, but panic will.

LIFE OF PI is an almost entirely unbelievable story that provides a great deal of solace and inspiration for so many who have been fortunate enough to read it. Its scope is so vastly epic, essentially biblical in nature. For years, Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker Prize winner had been called unfilmable. Directors, from M. Night Shaymalan to Alfonso Cuaron, came and went without finding a successful way to translate the incredible story of a boy trapped at sea with a bengal tiger to the screen. Enter Academy Award winning director, Ang Lee, the man with the sensitivity and vision necessary to make LIFE OF PI into the inconceivable spectacle it needs to be in order to meet its goal - proving the existence of God.

From the moment Lee sets the scene, the Pondicherry Zoo, in India, where Piscine “Pi” Patel (newcomer, Suraj Sharma, chosen by Lee from over 3,000 auditions) grew up with his family, the language of the film is light and lyrical. The animals in this zoo move with grace and a sense of purpose and Lee follows suit as though he is truly letting the nature of this wondrous tale unfold in front of us. The story is being told by a present day Pi, played by Irfan Kahn, who plays this elder incarnation like a man enlightened by all that life has shown him. Khan is telling his story to an author (Rafe Spall, in a role that was originally Tobey Maguire’s), presumably based on Martel. His narration, which is heavy at first but eventually gives way for the action itself, lends a much needed resonance to the sometimes implausible chain of events.

Pi’s family decides one day to pack up everything they own, including the great wealth of animals in their collection, and move from Pondicherry to Winnipeg. The promise of a better life is put to the ultimate test for Pi, when the freighter inexplicably sinks in the midst of a storm just a few days after leaving port. Pi is the only survivor, well, human survivor anyway, which is not at all surprising when you see how immense his escape from the sinking ship is. This is the other reason I’m happy they waited so long to make this movie. Lee’s usage of 3D is exemplary in LIFE OF PI. Not only does it make for a dazzling visual feast, but it highlights the distance the character feels from his lost family, from land, from God.

While some directors would get lost at sea for this long in a movie, Lee comes alive. His ocean, one that could be very static if not tended carefully, is a constantly changing symphony of movements that are both terrifying and mesmerizing. And to move back and forth between the never ending ocean and the confined space of the rescue boat so seamlessly, is a true testament to what mastery Lee commands and his deep understanding of the audience. A story that is supposed to make you believe in God has to be immense to accomplish such a lofty goal. What Pi endures on that boat with his feline shipmate, Richard Parker, should not be believed, but yet to read it on the page, is to behold an extraordinary tale of strength and spirit. The fact that Lee has so triumphantly captured both the bewilderment and inquisitive insight of the book is in itself enough to make me a believer. Only God could craft something so moving through the hands of one of His children.


When I first saw LIFE OF PI, I was extremely nervous about how it would turn out. I knew that if anyone could bring this spectacle to life properly, it could be Ang Lee, but I was still skeptical. In fact, I made a point to read Yann Martel's novel for a second time before seeing the film because I was that afraid that its spirituality would not translate to film. I breathed a great sigh of relief within moments of the opening credit sequence though. It was clear from the tone Lee had already struck that he understood what made Martel's novel so magical. This is of course echoed by Lee's recent and second Academy Award win for Best Director. I will never doubt the man ever again.

I saw LIFE OF PI twice in theatres. Both times, I was blown away by what I saw. It is an incredibly emotional experience. On the one hand, it is one of the most visually impressive feats ever filmed, enhanced for the viewer with breathtaking 3D, filmed by Oscar winning cinematographer, Claudio Miranda. On the other hand, it is really a quite intimate and personal film about one boy's journey through seemingly impossible circumstances, shared with the most unlikely of companions, a Bengal tiger. Even though I loved the film, I was concerned that some of its mystery would be lost when watched at home. I knew the intimacy and connection would still be there; in fact, I expected it to be enhanced. My worry was that without that extra dimension, that the film would fall short of the grandness it needs to be successful. Once again, I needn't have been worried. Lee and Miranda, along with the remarkable visual effects team, have crafted a brilliant work of art that wows not only when it roars but when it purrs as well.

What I said then: "The fact that Lee has so triumphantly captured both the bewilderment and inquisitive insight of the book is in itself enough to make me a believer. Only God could craft something so moving through the hands of one of His children."

And now? Clearly I still believe this. Subsequent viewings of LIFE OF PI have only deepened my appreciation for this very special film. And when you watch the behind the scenes features on this Blu-ray release, the respect and admiration I already had for the crew behind this film, is equally deepened. LIFE OF PI was a four-year endeavour for many people involved in the project. Each and every aspect of how this film came together is explained, from editing and cinematography to score recording and casting. And of course, a great deal of time is focused on the visual effects of the film, including the recreation of Richard Parker himself. Having worked with a professional tiger trainer to get every detail just right, the final result shows a seamless transition between the real tiger, a 70-year old, 450-pound specimen by the name of King, and the digital creation that is Richard Parker.

There are actually 23 real tiger shots in the film. Why not make a game of it and see if you can spot them? (wink.)

Ang Lee is one of my absolute favourite directors working in cinema today. By taking on LIFE OF PI, he volunteered to put himself metaphorically into that lifeboat lost at sea with a tiger for a shipmate for four long years. Having successfully come out the other side of his journey, you know from his interviews that he is a better person for having done it, and you know from watching the film that it has also made him a better filmmaker.

LIFE OF PI is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD. Review copy provided by 20th Century Fox.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Written by Pedro Peirano
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro and Antonia Zegers

As is explained at the onset of NO, the Chilean submission and eventual nominee at this year’s Academy Awards for Foreign Language Film, Chile held a referendum in 1988 to decide whether or not the dictator who had been running the country since he took it over in 1973, Augusto Pinochet, should remain in power for the next eight years or whether a free election should take place the following year instead. It was meant to be a spectacle, a distraction to the rest of the world to give some semblance that the people of Chile had a democratic voice that was being heard. At no point in time did Pinochet’s people ever believe they would lose the vote but they underestimated both the passion of the Chilean people and the untapped power of suggestion. And at no point in time during NO, which is based on an unpublished play, will you ever not be fascinated by how it all went down.

From the title of the film, you know where the film’s political allegiance’s lie. Director, Pablo Larrain, gives us the “No” camp, or at least their advertising arm, in the same aesthetic one would expect if this actually were shot at the time. As led by Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young, trendy ad man, his team aims to create positive and uplifting messages about Chile to be presented to the Chilean people in a series of twenty-seven 15-minute commercials. While the concept of deciding political outcome in an advertising arena is nothing new to us today, at the time, it was still a reasonably young practice, especially in Chile, where there were no elections prior to this for at least 15 years. Bernal is a good leader, a well-rounded one with conviction and determination but who still has fears to make him human. Combine that pioneering tone with the authentically 1980’s production design and the inherently weighted political intrigue and it becomes impossible to say no to NO.

Friday, March 08, 2013


Written by J.H. Wyman
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Starring Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper and Terrence Howard

I don’t know what it is about boys and guns but I’m growing somewhat weary of seeing the pairing appear in film after film. DEAD MAN DOWN, a film that was essentially doomed when someone out there decided that was an acceptable title, is a watered down version of every revenge fantasy that came before it. Worse yet, it tries to work insight and emotion into the mix, which only truly highlight how thin it actually is. Fortunately for director, Niels Arden Oplev, his reunion with his original THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO star, Noomi Rapace, infuses the film with just enough dramatic breadth to save it from disaster.

DEAD MAN DOWN is a fairly complex affair. This tends to happen though when no one is who they claim to be. Victor (Colin Farrell) is a hired gun working with a gangster by the name of Alphonse (Terrence Howard), who likes to flip buildings or something. We know he is a bad man because he has an entourage and they all have guns. Of course, Victor has a troubled past that no one knows about that threatens to undermine Alphonse’s entire empire. And when Victor isn’t trying to take down the mini-mob from the inside, he is flirting with the girl who lives in the building across from him (Rapace) from his balcony. Of course they meet and we soon learn that she too has secrets but what else can you expect from a beautician who has been in a car accident and is no longer beautiful.

I joke, basically because I can’t help myself, but Farrell and Rapace provide an emotional center, without which, DEAD MAN DOWN would be almost unwatchable. Any scene that doesn’t revolve around their romance, which is hesitant and refreshingly cautious, is either painfully cliched or packed with gunfire to make up for the awkward silence. They both have a past that has left them feeling dead and buried but you can feel that they want to reach out to each other despite their learned behaviour. Their connection is compelling but their chemistry is completely wasted once the whole affair culminates in yet another barrage of gunfire. DEAD MAN DOWN attempts resurrection but just simply never comes alive.

Thursday, March 07, 2013


An interview with CLOUDBURST writer/director, Thom Fitzgerald.

“Sometimes I blush watching the movie but I also know what I cut out, which is much, much worse.” This is a quote from mild-mannered filmmaker, Thom Fitzgerald. From the sounds of it, he is describing his latest film as some raunchy R-rated comedy where young men behave very badly, only this isn’t the case. He is actually talking about CLOUDBURST, his seventh feature film, that tells the story of two aging women who take a road trip to Canada to get married. It’s not what I was expecting either.

CLOUDBURST is based on Fitzgerald’s own 2010 play of the same name, but he probably knew all along the story would not stop there. “When I’m reading any book or watching any play, I am making into a film in my mind,” Fitzgerald shares with me, when me meet in person at the Toronto Inside Out Film Festival. “And it turned out that watching my own play was no different.”

This may seem like a lengthy process but starting on the stage first had its advantages. “Being a play first, it was like the greatest education and rehearsal period. Even though it was a different cast, I was still able to try every line of dialogue different ways and learn about how the audience would feel it.”

Of course the major difference between the stage production and the film version, which is playing throughout Canada this March, is landscape. In CLOUDBURST, Stella and Dot (Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker) are fleeing America, and Dot’s family, to get to Canada so that they can marry and Dot’s family will no longer have the power to put her in a home, thus breaking up their 30 year relationship.

“When they get on the open road, their world just explodes. In the play, they were either inside their home or inside their truck. Film can bring the idea of Canada to life. They become so small amidst those landscapes and that itself speaks to their point of view opening up and expanding as well.”

One point of view that is sure to change after seeing CLOUDBURST is what you thought you knew of Dukakis. The 81-year-old actress explores her more manly side as Stella or, as Fitzgerald puts it, she plays a “ball-busting lesbian.” The things that come out of her mouth are so unexpectedly crude at times that I may have actually spit up more than once when I saw it.

“I certainly wrote it for Olympia,” Fitzgerald says of his third collaboration with the Academy Award winner. “She’s nothing like Stella but I knew she had a lot of things in her that would help her channel Stella. She is a ferocious, outspoken person. She speaks very differently than Stella but she has the same passion.”

When I ask Fitzgerald about why he has worked with Dukakis as often as he has, his answer is simple. “I love her and she inspires me and its kinda that simple. I’m very lucky as an artist, as a director, to have found someone that I really connect with and understand. I admire her and I think admiration fosters inspiration.”

When CLOUDBURST isn’t busy making you laugh and cry, it makes a compelling case for gay marriage. It also explores the topic from a perspective that was quite new to me. “The two women who are about to get married are not thinking about politics at all. They had never considered marriage before because it was never a possibility. For seven decades, that door was closed to them and suddenly that door flies open to them and it’s not a given for them. How do you deal with these complicated feelings?”

As strong as a case that it makes, Fitzgerald would rather focus on the personal over the political. “The politics of it all are outside the script. These two women are talking about their feelings and that was very important to me to focus on because there is ultimately nothing political about it. For someone who is getting married, the absolute last thing on their minds is politics.”

CLOUDBURST is playing across Canada this month and Fitzgerald will be on hand to talk about the film on March 8 in Toronto at the Carlton Cinema. Dukakis will join via satellite for the Q&A as well. (Click here for details.) For more information about the film in your city, click here to visit the film's official site.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013


Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams

Lancaster Dodd: Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom.

One of today’s most remarkable American film directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, returns with yet another majestic work, that is both visually stunning and psychologically enthralling. THE MASTER pits a disturbed and unhinged former sailor, just back from the war, against the intellectual and commanding leader of a budding religious group, and it is never quite clear just who is playing who. As the film lingers on in your mind after it’s done though, it becomes clear that there really only was one master all along, and that is undeniably, Mr. Anderson himself.

THE MASTER marks a very welcome return to narrative filmmaking for Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the aforementioned sailor, Freddie Quell. He struggles to find his path as he attempts reintegration into society after WWII, drifting from one pointless job to the next, as he inevitably makes a mess of each opportunity he’s given. He is prone to aggressive and violent outbursts and thanks to Phoenix’s stone cold expression, it is near impossible to tell whether he intentionally means to lash out or whether he truly cannot control himself. While lost on land, he finds himself again at sea, on a boat commandeered by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the aforementioned, and self-proclaimed, religious leader. Dodd has founded The Cause and aims to integrate Quell into his fold by healing the demons of his past. Much to Dodd’s dismay though, some demons cannot be tamed.

The Cause is a religion founded in the 1950’s that helps its practitioners return to their true selves through a series of exercises designed to conquer the lingering effects of past trauma. Anderson insists that The Cause is not a thinly veiled attempt at criticizing the controversial religion known as Scientology, but that just doesn’t ring true. Scientology was also formed in the 1950’s and also employs similar methods, known as auditing, which essentially accomplish the same task I just described. It seems silly to look at THE MASTER as anything other than a judgmental look at Scientology really. While it is a fascinating character piece, as Anderson’s films generally are, Dodd’s difficulty rehabilitating the deranged Quell, points to undeniable flaws in his system. If all mankind is eternal, then we should all be able to find our way back from our animalistic behaviour and toward our true, honest selves.

As technically perfect as it is, THE MASTER is the least emotionally engaging film of Anderson’s I’ve seen. I was so locked in on a cerebral level, overwhelmed by the brilliant cinematography (presented in 70MM and shot by Mihai Malaimaire Jr.), another obscurely melodic score by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead, THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and unforgettable  performances from actors at the top of their game (including Amy Adams, as Dodd’s submissive yet dominant wife, Peggy Dodd). Still, I was somewhat taken aback when it ended. I felt as though there was more to this story that had yet to be told. Repeat viewings will likely prove me wrong, as Anderson is in full control of his facilities, but for all its prowess, THE MASTER left me a little cold. Anderson may be a true movie making master, but if he relinquishes just a little bit of control, he might unleash a genius we have never known the likes of. Hell, if he does that, he may even lead his own religion some day.


I know THE MASTER is a bit too obscure for mainstream audiences but why it was not more celebrated than it was by the filmmaking community, I cannot understand. I expected that Paul Thomas Anderson's visual masterpiece would have been feted all the way through awards season but even the technical communities failed to embrace it. I've now seen the film three times and it only continues to draw me into its complicated web with each viewing. The more I allow Malaimare Jr.'s unbelievable cinematography to wash over me, or Greenwood's disconnected score to throw me off guard, the more I find myself understanding the numerous layers to Anderson's genius. And then again, every time I feel closer to the meaning of THE MASTER, I am almost immediately faced with another fascination to focus on. I recently named Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman Mouton d'Or winners for their mind-blowing performances, and THE MASTER itself as the best film of 2012. And now that awards season is officially behind us, it is time to give THE MASTER the attention it is long overdue.

What I said then: "As technically perfect as it is, THE MASTER is the least emotionally engaging film of Anderson’s I’ve seen." 

And now? While I know what I felt when I wrote that, repeat viewing has since clarified what that feeling of disconnectedness actually was. THE MASTER may not have any clear arch that allows for any of the characters to grow significantly in the time we're with them, but that only adds to the story's authenticity. I may not feel emotionally engaged with the characters but that could be in great part because they are hiding inside of themselves as it is. The manner in which Anderson frames this world may be extremely technical but the path he chooses to follow is entirely organic. One of the central themes in the film is about the suppression of one's more animalistic behaviour. The meticulousness of this film's execution contrasted with the explosiveness of all the performances further solidifies that point.

SPECIAL FEATURES ... THE MASTER extras are fittingly obscure but I appreciate the effort to keep things interesting. The "Behind-the-Scenes" feature is about ten minutes of on location set footage. There is no guide to the tour, just a special vantage point for fans of the film. The deleted and extended scenes are cut together like a short companion piece film to the feature that actually sheds new light on the characters and storyline that make the film all the more fascinating. And perhaps the most bizarre inclusion is the John Huston documentary, "Let There Be Light", which was produced for the U.S. Government in 1946 and showcased 75 soldiers who had come back from WWII with severe psychological problems. Within minutes of watching this documentary, the influence on THE MASTER is clear. One can only presume it is included here for that reason because Anderson did not record a commentary track for the film.

THE MASTER is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from eOne Entertainment.

Monday, March 04, 2013


Directed by Dror Moreh

For anyone with a serious interest in Israeli politics, THE GATEKEEPERS is a godsend of a documentary. Even those with only a vague understanding of the State of Israel will find this film to be a revealing guide to some of the most significant moments in its history. Despite being known and accessible to the public, the surviving leaders of Israel’s central intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, have never given any interviews about their time as leaders. Novice filmmaker, and newly-minted Academy Award nominee, Dror Moreh somehow not only managed to get all six of these men to sit down with him to talk, but he also got them to be deeply candid about the thinking behind some of the most controversial tactical decisions they ever made while defending their home. You won’t want to miss what they’ve been keeping behind these gates either.

THE GATEKEEPERS is mostly a talking head piece, in Hebrew with subtitles, with some crafty computer animation to keep things interesting. Little by little, the history of the Shin Bet is retold from their emergence after the Six Day War in 1967, through their highly criticized decision to kill two Arab hijackers in the 300 bus incident after they had already been captured, and concluding with the 1996 assassination of then Hamas leader, Yahya Ayyash, which successfully eliminated a major threat but that also resulted in the deaths of a number of innocents. While they are very diplomatic about their failings, they never brag about their successes either. What is perhaps most disturbing though is that they speak so plainly about all of it. They do not question any moral implication at any time as they recount their tales and when Moreh pushes them on it, which he does when he seems entirely baffled that it was never even a consideration, they wave it away as if it has no place in the equation.

Aside from Moreh’s occasional indignant interruption though, THE GATEKEEPERS is an entirely one-sided affair. These Shin Bet leaders all seem extremely forthcoming with their revelations and willingness to share, but their perspective is the only one Moreh ever gives us. In that sense, even though it is not really meant to be a historical overview of the Israeli political climate over the last 45 years, it does follow that path and structure. With only the Shin Bet’s take on all these events, somewhere along the way, it becomes important to remember just who is giving us this tour. And perhaps this is paranoia, which is reasonably called for when talking about intelligence agencies, but I can’t help but wonder why the Shin Bet ever decided to invite us in to begin with when they never have before.