Noting it’s been far too long without some mention of movies – rare for me – here’s a dump of reviews of several films I’ve seen the past couple weeks.
I’m addicted, I know, and remain the 21st most prolific reviewer in all of Canada on Zip.ca.
And with that, let’s go to the movies…
Death at a Funeral
Directed by Frank Oz, this black comedy has two brothers – Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) and Robert (Rupert Graves) – maneuvering about their father’s home trying to deal with a disabled and acerbic uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), a blackmailing dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and their cousin Martha’s (Daisy Donovan) fiance Simon (Allan Tudyk) who has surreptitiously taken hallucinogenic drugs. What makes this all so entertaining is the fact it happens on the day of their father’s funeral. Turns out the dwarf is actually their father’s gay lover; Martha’s dad Victor (Peter Egan) can’t abide Simon; and, best of all Daniel’s been harbouring a grudge against his older, more successful brother for ages. Death at a Funeral is a twisted dark comedy in a style so decided fawlty (emphasis and spelling intended) it’s a wicked joy to watch. My rating 7 out of 10.
Despite the considerable talent of none other than Clint Eastwood directing, Invictus is a formulaic – verging on trite – recap of the South African rugby team’s victory at the 1995 World Rugby Cup. Based on John Carlin’s book, Eastwood positions the story as President Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) mission to win the cup as one tool to help unite the apartheid-torn nation. He recruits into the effort none other than the team’s captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). And while a true story indeed – and an important one – sorry, it doesn’t make for very good film-making. Worse, Damon’s seemed to forgot how to act (unless you count woodenness as acting) and Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela cum Gandhi with a dreadful accent just plain hurts. All in all, a film decidedly lacking in heart. To paraphrase William Ernest Henley, whose poem the movie draws its title from: in the fell clutch of circumstance, I have both winced and cried aloud. My rating 4 out of 10.
The Counterfeiters won the Academy for Best Foreign Film in 2008, and deservedly so. Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, it recounts the true story of Operation Bernhard – the Nazi’s plan to destabilize the British and American governments by flooding their economies with forged pounds and dollars designed and printed by Jews interned at Sachsenhausen. Central to the story is Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (a superb Karl Markovics), a master counterfeiter who is captured in Berlin at the start of the war by Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), who later becomes his jailer at Sachsenhauser. The Counterfeits is a fine film full of fine acting – kudos to both August Diehl (as Adolf Burger) and the young Sebastian Urzendowsky (as Kolya) – that drags us into the dirty moral quicksand associated with Nazi complicity and lets us struggle with the question: what would you have done? My rating 8 out of 10.
There’s really only three reasons to watch this film. The opening credits are beautifully realized; the last ten minutes are achingly beautiful on an emotional level with – finally! – emotive acting by Madonna (as Amber, the uber rich, bitchy socialite); and, most intriguingly, to sift through the dreadful other bits to ponder the deeper themes at play. Themes of class warfare; sex; and the roles of men and women. Directed by Guy Ritchie, Swept Away is a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 film Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto (Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August). Madonna essentially plays herself and is forced to look at things a little differently when she is stranded on a Mediterranean island with a fisherman named Giuseppe (Adriano Giannini). Here she evolves we’re led to believe and the film ventures into territory that is deeply misogynistic (to the point of being uncomfortable) but perhaps that’s the film’s salient point? For making me uncomfortable and forcing me to think, my rating 4 out of 10.
Waltz with Bashir
If you haven’t yet danced with Bashir; get moving. Waltz with Bashir is director Ari Folman’s exploration of his time serving with the Israeli military during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. More than that however, the film cuts new territory on the art of documentary film-making by marrying one man’s journey to discover – and reconcile – his wartime actions using animation as the vehicle. Portraying the horror of the war and subsequent massacre of civilians in animation dulls the visceral nature of the violence so Folman can examine more clearly his part in it. Waltz with Bashir is a fascinating achievement that rockets the viewer through the history of the middle east and the wounded dreams of those who’ve fought its battles and ends with a live action segment that is brutally effective. This is powerful stuff and a must see. My rating 9 out of 10.
Directed by Christine Jeffs Sunshine Cleaning gives us the story of two Albuquerque sisters who venture into the business of bio-hazard and post-crime scene cleanup. Bright and cheery, it is not. Rose (Amy Adams) is eking out a living working as a house cleaner, dealing with a son, Oscar (Jason Spevack) with challenges of his own, and continuing an affair with her (married) high school sweetheart – now sheriff – Mac (Steve Zahn). When he suggests she raise the money she needs to send odd Oscar to private school by cleaning up murder scenes she recruits her gadabout sister Norah (Emily Blunt) and is off to the hardware store to bulk buy Lysol. And thereupon Sunshine Cleaning is born, and pardon the pun, dies. With a decidedly ‘indie’ feel to the adventure – and despite the appearance of Alan Arkin as their very eccentric father, Joe – Sunshine Cleaning feels wrong from the get-go. As though we are watching not a film but a version of Twin Peaks swept into Little Miss Sunshine. Where’s the magic eraser when you need it? My rating 3 out of 10.
The Lives of Others
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – a mouthful of a name for sure – directs this perfectly paced thriller that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign picture in 2007. Set in East Berlin when the Stasi ruled supreme and whole arms of the East Germany government spent their time monitoring the lives of others. Into this world arrives Stasi secret agent Capt. Gerd Wiesler (a fabulous Ulrich Mühe), a man of monotonous routine and precision, who is charged with spying on the lives of author Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) – believed to be sympathetic to the West – and his lover, a actor named Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Problem is the real motive for the spying is not western sympathies – though are these discovered? – but the fact the Minister of Culture has a love-on for Christa. The film works brilliantly on many levels – the suspense building subtlety throughout – as Wiesler’s own fascination with the couple slowly creates holes in his Stasi armour. The Lives of Others gives us an example of the tragedy that results when a man’s allegiance – to a ideology, to his country – is tested. My rating 9 out of 10.
Seems the world is always ending in America and Legion continues this trend with a fallen St. Michael (a wooden Paul Bettany) arriving in Los Angeles on the prowl for a new age Mary named Charlie (Adrianne Palicki). The premise of this gawd-awful film directed by Scott Charles Stewart is that God – it seems – is fed up with all our bullsh*t and has opted to use humans themselves (rather than a flood) to end the world. But God has been watching too many B-rate zombie movies and has possessed sort-of-dead Los Angeleans driving out to the desert to kill our new age Mary who is holed up with the renegade St. Michael and the occupants of a diner – Jeep (Lucas Black), his dad (Dennis Quaid), Kyle (a good Tyrese Gibson), Percy (Charles S. Dutton) and the Anderson family. Mayhem ensues until St. Gabriel arrives, bringing with him one of Hollywood’s most stupid entrances ever, a mace, and a nasty case of Father-infatuation. Production value aside Legion gives new meaning to bad film-making and is, in the worst sense of the word, a horror to watch. My rating – may God strike me down – 1 out of 10.
Love Actually is an ensemble piece whose characters are all in varying stages of infatuation. Some are madly in love; others are busy falling out of love; still others are finding their first love. Directed by Richard Curtis, it stars the likes of Hugh Grant (as the Prime Minister nonetheless); Liam Neeson (as Daniel); Emma Thompson (as Karen); Bill Nighy (as Billy Mack); Keira Knightley (as Juliet); Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Peter); Alan Rickman (as Harry); and even Billy Bob Thornton (as the US President). Set in London at Christmas, the film is wonderfully engaging as the lives of all these characters collide and intermingle with nary beat missed. Love Actually works. Works because we see in every encounter some semblance of ourselves. My rating 7 out of 10.
Hot Tub Time Machine
Dumb title, sure, yes, let’s admit that from the start. When three longtime buddies – just dumped Adam (John Cucsak); Nick (Craig Robinson) and a recently suicidal Lou (Rob Corddry) head back to a ski resort they partied at during their college days – accompanied by Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) – the strangest of things takes place. Thanks to too much booze, and a can of Russian Red Bull-like drink spilling on the hot tub’s control, the foursome find themselves transported back to 1986. Remember those days? Reliving their lives again reveals all sorts of truths and allows the guys to reconnect, reflect and heal. While Hot Tub Time Machine is inconsequentially silly with no greater meaning than filling screen time, it’s still worth digging out the bathing suit and heading to the water. My rating 5 out of 10.
Eat Pray Love
Eat Pray Love is Julia Roberts’ version of the film Shirley Valentine. Roberts plays Liz, a lass who is down on love, out of love with her husband, and lost within a new relationship to David (James Franco). To mend she flees: to Italy to eat; to India to pray; to Bali to reflect. On route she meets people who give her what she lacks – perspective. With their advice she is able to find love again with a divorced Brazilian Felipe (Javier Bardem). While a great travelogue, Eat Pray Love plods and director Ryan Murphy should have edited the film with more vigor. That said kudos to Richard Jenkins for his role as Richard the Texan and the richness of the scenery throughout (Ms. Roberts included). My rating 6 out of 10.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasssus
From the opening shots this is undeniably a film directed by Terry Gilliam. Christopher Plummer stars as Dr. Parnassus, a man given immortality through a deal with the devil (a brilliant Tom Waits). The deal requires he sacrifice his own daughter Valentina’s (Lily Cole) soul when she turns sixteen. Parnassus runs a traveling road show that takes people into his imagination where their dreams and wishes come true. This premise is used in a new deal with the devil to save his daughter’s soul with help from a corrupt charity CEO, Tony (variously Heath Ledger and Johnny Depp and Jude Law) they discover hanging under a bridge. It’s all very Brazil, of course. The Imaginarium of Dr. Panassus will forever be known as the last film of Heath Ledger and Gilliam does a fine job adapting the screenplay to accommodate Heath’s death. The movie is a fantastical journey and fans of Gilliam’s work will love it. Others will reach for the remote. For the sheer audacity of his imagination, my rating 5 out of 10.
Chloe, a film directed by Atom Egoyan, gives the viewer a great tour of Toronto and really, that’s about as much as you can say about this film that marries psychological thriller with sexy romp – neither successfully. Liam Neeson stars as David, a professor with an eye for his students that gets his wife Catherine (Julianne Moore) to wondering when he misses his surprise birthday party and she finds a picture of him with a student on his cell phone. Enter young-prostitute-with-a-problem Chloe (a doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried) whom Catherine hires to tempt David. Problem is Chloe has a thing for Catherine and begins telling fibs about her relations with David in order to further her own attempts to bed his wife. Yawn. Chloe is a darn awful film that fails to be entertaining, sexy, or scary. Egoyan who is known for – one could argue – too many films of this ilk should perhaps consider venturing down some new paths. My rating solely for the great architecture shot in the film, 2 out of 10.
Any new iteration of Conan Dolye’s classic is always welcome and director Guy Ritchie’s version adds another layer to the myth that is Sherlock Holmes (a just-on-the-edge Robert Downey Jr) and his sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law). This version has evil – and recently risen from the grave – Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) out to create a new world order by doing in the British Parliamentarians as a start. Ritchie adds some fabulous fun to this version by adding Rachel McAdams to the story as Holmes’ American femme fatale. Full of witty repartee, some heady high jinks and plenty of action, this reborn Sherlock Holmes is a welcome addition to the family. My rating 7 out of 10.
Push is interesting first because it’s intriguing despite being frustrating, and secondly because it uses American actors set against the backdrop of Hong Kong. Directed by Paul McGuigan, it is a rift of Matrix, Blade Runner, and, none-too-subtlety, X-men. Starring Dakota Fanning as Cassie Holmes, a ‘watcher’ who can see the future, who is busy convincing Nick Gant (Chris Evans) that he needs to reconnect with his girlfriend Kira (Camilla Belle) before the big bad ‘Division’ folks lead by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) get to her. Got all that? Push is so wrought with goings-on that you tend to grow mute to the telekinetic and clairvoyant abilities of everyone: screaming Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers-like asian brothers aside. The best advice with this one is to suspend reality and cede yourself to the silliness, action and great views of Hong Kong. It’s actually worth pushing yourself to do so. My rating 7 out of 10.
A Single Man
A Single Man starts and ends with death. In between are several gorgeously constructed – if rampantly artsy – moments of English professor George (a brilliant Colin Firth) dealing with the loss of his gay partner of sixteen years, Jim (Matthew Goode). The film is fashion designer Tom Ford’s coming out directorial debut and my, what a triumph it is. Ford captures both the beauty and tragedy of moments perfectly and knows how to linger on shots to allow all their Joycean detail to emerge. Working with a fine novel by Christopher Isherwood and supported by an excellent Julianne Moore as Charley, George’s ‘f*g hag’, and Nicholas Hoult as Kenny in full Tadzio splendor, A Single Man is a singularly beautiful film for its resonant depth. My rating 9 out of 10.
The Class aka Entre les murs
Winner of the 2008 Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Class follows french teacher Francois Marin’s (Francois Begaudeau) work with a multi-racial group of 14- and 15-year-olds who live on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, in Paris. Director Laurent Cantet utilizes the much-a-rage shaky-camera-syndrome to give the film a documentary feel. Everyone has baggage in the class, the teacher included, and the film is a poignant examination of people struggling to understand each other despite the biased perspectives their upbringing has bestowed. The subtlety of the class trying to comprehend the archaic rules of French grammar adds a je ne sais quoi to the whole process. Gritty, honest and familiar to anyone who attended an inner city school, this class is worth attending. My rating 8 out of 10.
Leap Year gives us a romantic comedy done a little differently with the arrival of a tightly strung American lass Anna Brady (Amy Adams) in County Nowhere Ireland. She’s en route to propose to her geeky fiance Jeremy (Adam Scott) in Dublin. Problem is Anna doesn’t carry much travel luck and enlists the help of Declan (Matthew Goode), an Irish innkeeper, to help her get across the Republic safely into the arms of her betrothed. But as Irish luck has it, she and Declan – fighting the whole way – end up in love. Directed by Anand Tucker, Leap Year is a solid film that’s fun to watch for both the interplay of its characters and the stunning Irish scenery. It is, in a word, endearing. My rating 8 out of 10.
(Yawn) yet another Robin Hood movie. Ridley Scott, no less, directs this version and opts to pack plenty of star power into his merry film in hopes – we think – to distract viewers from the fact this is yet another Robin Hood movie, and a bad one at that. Scott even tries a new angle to distract us by tackling Robin Hood’s before-the-merry-gang life as a crusader with Richard the Lionhearted, his return to England and his saving of King John’s throne from the French. Sadly, despite a decent Russell Crowe as Maximus (oops, I mean Robin Hood), Cate Blanchett as Marion, William Hurt as Marshall, and a great Mark Strong as evil Godfrey, this movie is a dreadful mess. Raspberries to a dreadful Oscar Issac (as King John) and a morose Matthew Macfadyen (as the Sheriff of Nottingham). Scott’s film delivers no heart so we are left adrift with characters so similar in their construct they seem cutouts. Too long by half, this Robin Hood is lost in the Nottingham woods from the get-go and ought to have stayed there. My rating 2 out of 10.
Camera Diaz plays Norma Lewis, the far-too-older looking wife of Arthur (James Marsden) in this psychological sci-fi thriller built in the X-Files and Twilight Zone vein. Using Richard Matheson’s short story Button, Button (which was actually made into a Twilight Zone spot) as his jumping off point, director/writer Richard Kelly takes the film into the pseudo-spiritual world casting a very good Frank Langella as Steward, a born-again NASA bigwig whose job it is oversee the testing of humankind. Clear? Well, the test is the box, which, if you hit its big red button will kill someone you don’t know somewhere in the world and leave you $1M richer for it. The premise is intriguing and this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the ride Kelly gives us – as outlandish, silly and outrageous as it all is. Kudos to Pallet, Butler and Chassagne for their perfectly realized music for this film. While frustratingly murky to the nth degree, it’s still worth pushing The Box’s button. My rating 7 out of 10.