Thursday, April 27, 2006

What Lies Within (Great Talent)

* Click the above link to direct yourself back to Nathaniel R's Pfeiffer blog-a-thon hub. And please note, the following "review" has major spoilers, so beware.

Quite frankly, you can all keep your Jamie Lee Curtises, Neve Campbells, and Jennifer Love Hewitts (I have a feeling that there will be few takers for that last one). I have found my absolute Scream Queen in the form of Michelle Pfeiffer in Robert Zemeckis's über-underrated Hitchcokian throwback What Lies Beneath, a film that had me screaming like a five-year-old and covering my eyes both times I saw it in theatres (something that has happened during only two other films - The Blair Witch Project and The Others.) I have to admit that before falling in love with this performance, I was not particularly ga-ga over the actress overall. You must consider that I was a naïve sixteen-year-old, only familiar with her work in the lacklustre vehicle Dangerous Minds and her respectable appearance in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But nothing prepared me for Pfeiffer in this film; even if you are a non-fan of the special effects extravaganza as a whole (and there are many of you out there), I doubt you can find much to quibble with in her luminous performance. What is so riveting about Pfeiffer's portrayal of this fractured, over medicated soul is that we are invited to piece together the mystery together along with her. But her neurotic Nancy Drew never grates on the nerves; rather, because she so desperately makes conclusions on such contradictory and shadowy evidence, we are thusly just as bewildered, clueless and scared shitless as she is.

But as effective as Pfeiffer is at jumping, screaming and apprehensively peeking around corners, what I love most about her portrayal are the funny, seemingly small elements. Take for instance her playful attempts early on in the film to seduce her husband Norman (Harrison Ford) away from his consuming work ("Ooh, a couple of Swedish sailor cells just gang-divided a virginal cheerleader cell...") , and the delightfully naughty gaze that follows thereafter. Or her frantic line delivery of "Fashionably five minutes late!!!", throwing her arms wildly in the air when informed by Norman that they will be tardy for a dinner with friends because of her compulsive neighbour-spying. One of my favourite moments is how she responds to her very kooky neighbour's ridiculous question ("Have you ever felt so completely consumed by a feeling for someone that you couldn't breathe?") with a wavering "Umm... sure". Hysterical! And, of course, she delivers in spades during the hard-hitting, emotional scenes. Recall how genuinely believable her plight is - when she matter-of-factly states to her therapist "There's a ghost in my house", you believe her (and not just because you were there during the hauntings). And then there's her stellar depiction of unwelcome memories suddenly returning ("I remember the party... oh god") - you can literally see the images re-enter her brain, weighing her down. I am sitting here with my notes, and every line is a reference to a particular nuance or detail in her performance (read: I could go on for hours citing these examples).

But what really seals the deal for me here is the way in which she remarkably holds the film together when it starts to unravel at an alarming rate into plain silliness. Who else could take potential howlers like "Forbidden fruit. You gotta problem with that?" and make them sound credible? It certainly helps that Pfeiffer has had experience playing possessed or similarly... intense characters (Catwoman), because the script's unnecessary shift in this regard ("I think she's starting to suspect something") is unfortunate. One scene that I cannot stop thinking about is in the final act, in which Pfeiffer is able to communicate such terror despite having her motor skills temporary impaired and her face completely frozen during that tortuous bathtub showdown. Just look at how she conveys tragic, bone-chilling desolation through only her eyes and a shivery release of breath when Norman brutally offers, "I'm sure, in some tragic way, your suicide is gonna help bring Caitlin and I closer together". Wowza. At times, I wish I could include clips from the film here to demonstrate my points... but you'll have to take my word for it. ;) I have no reservations in stating that this is one of my favourite performances by an actor - ever.

Anyways, I extend my best wishes to you, Ms. Pfeiffer, for a most wonderful Birthday and an even better year to come (both in terms of your personal and "reel" lives). Please do not stop making movies - I cannot promise that Oscar will finally be yours (you certainly deserved to be in contention for this performance, especially considering your limp competition), but all of us will be there to cheer you on and worship the ground you walk on. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

#1 (Film in Review 2005)

Whenever I take in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (#1), I am struck by the fact that I am really watching three very different films at once. On the most basic level, it's a strudy mobster revenge flick, with loopy twists and turns abound. The second reading is, of course, Cronenberg's dissertation on violence, which explores impositions against the body and mind in the family, at the workplace, on the schoolground and even how it manifests in sex. But then I also see a complexly self-conscious film, where the construction of these dilemmas are so utterly transparent. It is almost as if you can sense the director standing just inches off-frame, winking and pointing at the flimsiness of the facade, even before it is (literally) blown wide open by the arrival of those nasty bad men. This has been understood as a failing of the film for many of its critics and those in-between, yet I would argue that Cronenberg is very much aware of the obviousness of his machinations. Sequences with, say, the space-cadet daughter ("I had a nightmare about monsters") or the oh-so-bullying bully have been mocked for their "cheesiness". Yet the film is primarily interested in taking the icons of the American dream - cereal, baseball, the diner, the dutiful sheriff, heterosexual scripts - and completely turning them on their head. Cronenberg is not a fool, people - he's totally in control, every step of the way.

Another prominent criticism levelled against the film is that Cronenberg lacks much else to say beyond repeating scenes of brutality over and over again without purpose. Again, it is key to accept that he is not making any definitive statements about violence - he does observe how it pervades all these areas of one's life (moreso than one would think), how it has the potential to completely solidify (!) or annihilate human relationships. What I think is so impressive about Cronenberg's work is that he takes a solid yet unexceptional screenplay, and infuses it with such sly commentary and... Cronenbergian-ness (can I use that?). Of course, he is not alone in achieving brilliance - I have applauded the performances all season long, and I am not nearly finished. Consider Maria Bello, who fleshes out Edie Stahl beyond supportive-wife shlock and into another realm altogether (ferocious warrior). Recall William Hurt's off-the-wall, super-risky cameo, which just affirms Cronenberg's playful approach to this material (which is ripe with potential for comedy). Personally, these are the elements that make A History of Violence so appealing, so fucking brilliant and so much fun. It's a high-wire act with so much to dissect, savor and poke at - of all the films released this year, this is far and away the one that will keep me busy for years.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

#2 (Film in Review 2005)

And to think, just a few weeks ago, I was going to construct this list without having seen Marco Tullio Giordana's exquisite The Best of Youth (#2). Just as so many of the films in my top fifteen, this title also played at the Toronto Film Festival (almost two years ago), but I skipped it. I figured - a six-hour-long film? With no intermission in the middle? Think of all the other films I would be able to fit in that generous time period! ...Well, my loss. Because I had to wait years before finally seeing this rare gem of a motion picture. I know some will express hesitation at the intimidating running time, but I promise you, once you are a couple of minutes into Act One, you will thank yourself for not balking at the challenge. Furthermore, it's an utterly accessible feature (that actually screened as a television mini-series originally in Italy) - easily followable, fast-moving and consistently enthralling. The focus here is on three generations of a middle-class Italian family, tracking their highs and lows through more than thirty years. But Giordana is not only interested in the story of this sprawling progeny, but also the formation of Italy as a nation.

For both the Carati family and the country of Italy, the film is about the construction of identity through life experiences. Giordana explores not only how grand-scale events such as the devastating Florence Flood of 1966 (which damaged many priceless artworks) or the revolutionary Red Brigade movement affect the Caratis, but also how Italy itself is affected by the small, intimate experiences of families such as the Caratis. What I am trying to argue - very inarticulately - is that both inform and shape one another, that you can read the Caratis as Italy and vice-versa. Perhaps this will clarify itself further for me on a second viewing, but I think Giordana does an excellent job of maintaining an interest in the national history overall while at the same time delivering the family drama. But even if you dislike that interpretation, the story of the two protagonist brothers - Nicola and Matteo - and the girl that forever changes their lives (Giorgia) is instantly gripping. I doubt any viewer will able to walk away from the film without having finished it; indeed, I had to delay watching Act Two by about two days, and in the interim, all I could think about was what would happen. This is a fantastic, gorgeous piece of cinema, one that nearly took the #1 spot on the list (consider the film that takes it and The Best of Youth as almost interchangeable in this regard). What moved me most by the end of it is that Giordana has brilliantly taken us full circle, from youth to maturity and back again, proving that he is a director who has a very thorough understanding of the bittersweet nature of life and family.

Monday, April 24, 2006

At the top of my hit list...

... is James Blunt. Why on earth do you people like him? Especially you young women? Is it primarily because of his hideous anthem "You're Beautiful", which is blaring from every possible outlet in this city (and most others, I presume)? Yes, it is. I'm right, aren't I? It makes you all feel... special? I really can't understand how a voice like his (*pushes back bile*) is praised as so incredibly gifted. The man sounds like he's feigning opera with that warbly, high-pitched simpering. Hearing his music is like listening to fingernails being run repeatedly across the schoolroom chalkboard, enduring his hideous voice is like having a drill being inserted into my brain. And on top of that, it's as if someone is pouring acid into said hole in my head, effectively killing whatever tolerance I may have had for pop rock in the first place. And then it's as if someone has taken a butterknife, inefficiently sawed the top of my head open, and then stabbed my brain to mush. With the butterknife. The torture of his affected, cutesy style is like witnessing the end of all good music as we know it. If William Hung can sell CDs, it shouldn't surprise me that this off-putting hack can. He annoys me to no end, but am I alone in thinking this way? Is the universe just so taken with him that I'm the strange exception? Blunt indeed.

James: Please die. Or... um, die. Some combination of those two.
Thank you.

EDIT: Sorry, but this is wonderful. Exactly my point. But I'll shut up about Blunt now.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

#3 (Film in Review 2005)

Please note: the placing of Kim Ki-duk's 3-Iron at #3 on my list is purely coincidental; indeed, it occupied the #2 spot for several months before being supplanted by another title a few months ago. In fact, the film has been etched on my 2005 list for more than a year - I saw it at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, and was this close to including it in that year's list. However, American/Canadian distribution dates have a habit of making my life miserable, so I dutifully held off until now. 3-Iron opened small in early 2005, and has not received much more attention on video (what's more, the general reaction to it has been surprisingly indifferent-to-negative, with a couple of exceptions here and there). Watching it back then in 2004, I was almost sure that this one would end up a critical fave, admired for Kim's playful direction and generous use of understated humour. Instead, some were bored by the lethargic pacing (that apparently added upto little) or concerned with the depiction of marital abuse. Obviously, I find such critics nitpicking where they should be celebrating a film so freshly presented, gorgeously composed and, ultimately, deeply haunting.

It is a deconstruction of the human being and the life he or she leads by asking the basic yet integral question: "Who are you?". What exactly are you made up of? The personal possessions that you accumulate? Your house? The relationships you uphold to give you meaning? The hero of this story (played by a gleefully mischievous Hee Jae) is a drifter who constructs his identity with bits and pieces of other people's by entering their vacant homes and making use their things, then dropping them all in search of new surroundings. By the end of the story, having been misunderstood for his intentions and punished for straying so far outside the norm, he leaves the material world completely (or the samsara wheel of birth, death and re-birth, if you prefer). Also playing a part in the drama is the worldly businessman Min-gyu (Hyuk-ho Kwon), and his dejected, broken wife (a brilliant Seung-yeon Lee). A screenplay built on silences, pregnant pauses and meaningful blocking, 3-Iron is quite unlike anything I've seen before. I love this film dearly for how you can read absolutely anything into it (especially the ending - [scroll to bottom]), and yet for how it is entirely self-contained and formidable in its own worldview and philosophy. I feel it's the kind of film that will just appreciate more and more upon repeated viewings. Of all of the pictures released this year, this is the one that caught me the most off-guard, and led me through a profound journey that truly enriched me for the better.

Friday, April 21, 2006

#4 (Film in Review 2005)

Sometimes, in order to appreciate how good a film really is, you need to conceive of how bad it could have been had it fallen into lesser hands. In the case of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (#4), a documentary feature about the late nature and grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, it is easy to imagine what a flipside of this brilliant masterpiece would look like. The grisly (pun unintended) and deeply ironic end that Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard met in the fall of 2003 would have provided any other filmmaker a chance to run amuck with the details and footage, dabbling in sensationalism and shock journalism. But what Herzog does instead with the subject matter is much more impressive and soulful. Grizzly Man is indeed about the bear-lover and his compelling personality from birth to death, but it is also a meditation on the age-old questions surrounding the human's place in - and his or her connection to - nature. The film looks at this eccentric personality from every possible perspective, refusing to settle on one quick-fix thesis ("He was just a crazy fucker" or "He is a martyr"). I appreciate Herzog's insistence on daring to undermine the man, even challenge him in this manner; it would be easy to define Treadwell one way or the other (I know I foolishly did, upon hearing what the film was about early on). But once I saw the film, I was gobsmacked, unable to come to a single conclusion that I was satisfied with (which is what I love about these kinds of documentaries - such as Capturing the Friedmans - that probe in place of moralizing). Was Treadwell a little crazy? Or was he simply operating on a level of passion for nature that very few of us will ever appreciate in our lives? Both? The genius of Herzog's Grizzly Man is that it posits all of these possibilities and dozens more.

EDIT: Oh, and just a sidenote - my selections for #3 and #1 are likely to piss a lot of people off. Well, maybe not that dramatically, but nonetheless... don't say I didn't warn you!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

#5 (Film in Review 2005)

Terrence Malick's The New World (#5) is, simply put, a spiritual experience - a film brimming over with images and sounds that have left deep imprints upon my brain. It is certainly one of the most magical films I have ever seen, and it utterly bewitched me from the first frame to the last. I am aware that many others' experiences were less than sensational, and I can understand their frustrations with the piece. With Malick, you either take him or leave him - the lingering gazes upon the sublime landscape, the self-aware dialogue, the repetition... It is difficult to imagine one taking a middle ground with The New World, because the director is embraced as often as he is mocked for his distinctive poetic, rhythmical design. He certainly has not dramatically shifted gears compared to his last few efforts. Many zeroed in on the film's screenplay, calling the voiceovers poorly-composed and unnecessary. For me, they played a significant role in allowing me to enter the film's environment - I was able to experience the events through several different focalizers, "seeing" through the eyes of both the settlers and the "naturals". And this is the picture's key achievement, in that it is more than a package of pretty-looking sequences and a play-acting of historical events, but seems like watching history itself unfold before your eyes, like being dropped from the sky into the very axis of this particular reality. And Malick has quite the team working with him to construct this universe - from Emmanuel Lubezki's awe-inspiring cinematography to the art/set decoration by David Crank and Jim Erickson, I cannot imagine the film looking any better. Absolute perfection. And at the centre of it all is Q'Orianka Kilcher, who stole my heart as the Native Princess who, as affirmed by the film's devastating conclusion, lives on after her death in becoming one with the natural world she loved so much.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

#6 (Film in Review 2005)

Someone up there does not want this list to reach #1. Two days ago, I underwent what will now go down in history as one of the worst experiences of my life - around midnight, I started feeling incredibly queasy and dizzy. I ran to the washroom, and I did not emerge for what seemed like an eternity. I spent seven hours of hell throwing up every last particle of food or drop of liquid from my body. People, I could go into the specifics, but I don't think you're dying to know them. Suffice it to say, I wasted the entire night either desperately clutching onto the toilet seat or sprawled over the bathroom mat in between dry heaves. I was so pathetically weak by morning - and I couldn't have any solids or drinks because my body absolutely rejected them. A trip to the doctor's revealed that I have a bad seasonal flu that's making the circles, and that I'll be out of commission for four (!) days! That's not good, because I have exams to study for, but at the moment, I'm feeling much better. I've graduated to the "push the liquids" stage, so I am surrounded by fruit juices of all varieties. And the fact that I can actually sit at the computer for sustained periods of time is comforting (Gravol really does the trick). Anyways, on with the show!

What always surprises me about Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know (#6) is how hysterically funny it is. What I remember most vividly about my experience watching this film is gripping the sides of my seat, my body convulsing from childish giggles, all the while attempting to suppress my loud gasps for air from being heard across the cinema hall. This tale of alienation and unlikely connection in the modern age never crosses the line from pleasantly quirky to hubristically self-indulgent, as so many indie movies of this type do. Furthermore, it avoids the same kind of coincidental, cathartic serendipity that ensemble cast pictures like Crash and Magnolia engage in, always respecting audience members to make the big connections for themselves. Miranda July, taking on the roles of writer, director and actor, proves herself to be a truly phenomenal, gifted artist, blending a variety of different mediums to explore this fascinating web of complex relationships. The film is not as fresh in my mind as it should be, considering I saw the film back in August, so a repeat is definitely in order. But I have no doubt calling it one of the year's must-see pictures and certainly one of the most accomplished debuts I've ever seen from a director.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

#7 (Film in Review 2005)

Sorry all. Between pulling four consecutive all-nighters this past week (essays, tests, presentations, you name it) and spending time with my dad (who stopped in on Toronto from Houston for a few days on business), it's been hard to find time for this neglected blog. But now that classes are over and I'm home for the next few days studying, I'll wrap up this year in review countdown shortly, which was supposed to have concluded two weeks ago (!). So, on with the show...

What to say of Capote (#7)? As with Brokeback Mountain, I feel enough has already been said, from both the film's fans and its detractors. In conversation with many critics, I've used my "But it's not a biopic" card repeatedly, demonstrating how Miller, Futterman & co. are more interested in Capote's three years exploiting every individual in his way to compose In Cold Blood rather than documenting the eccentric's life and rooting his behaviour in some childhood trauma. Therefore, I think all arguments that focus on Futterman's propensity to sideline every other character in favour of Capote himself are rather misdirected. The film is about Capote and Perry, not Capote and Harper Lee, or Capote and his lover Jack Dunphy. The presence of those two characters is significant, but not integral to the complexities of the story. It took me two viewings to understand this (and appreciate it); after this, it became easy to admire how lean the film is, and how direct it is in what it desires to convey. For a first time director, Bennett Miller shows incredible restraint here, never resorting to the obvious approach. The effect is considerably discomforting, and the de-saturated, muted canvas of Adam Kimmel's framing is key in further distancing us from this cold, unfeeling world. Credit must also go out to Michael Dyanna and his exceptionally sparse score, as well as the other visual departments (costuming, art/set decoration, etc) for achieving so much with so little. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent in his Oscar-winning work, but in my eyes, he is upstaged by even two better performers, Clifton Collins Jr. and Catherine Keener (in that order respectively). That the former didn't even warrant a nomination is absolutely ridiculous, but that's another (finished) story. A thrilling problem play about the ethics of journalism and how far one should go to get the "truth", this film is a must-see for audiences that enjoy good, mature writing.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

#8 (Film in Review 2005)

In true Ali fashion, thrown sloppily together in between classes at the university library:

As usual, I must provide some personal background for Michael Haneke's shocking, unsettling "thriller". Caché (#8) was a remarkable experience in that it did not appreciate in my mind after a second or third viewing, but the days and weeks following my only screening. Walking out of the cinema hall in January, I felt fairly disappointed in the much-acclaimed film, cheated by the advance buzz (which started last year at Cannes, where the film picked up the Best Director prize). It was technically proficient for sure, and very watchable, but it was a case of artful smoke-and-mirrors for me. It felt empty, devoid of a necessary pay-off that I felt I needed to have proper closure. But an interesting thing happened - the film began to haunt me afterwards (what I realized that the lack of an explicit culmination was very much intentional on Haneke's part). The themes about surveillance, intimidation and guilt began to unpack themselves in my mind, making me realize that the film was actually much more intricate than I initially gave it credit for. The underlying political dimensions went completely over my head, and while I realize that they are an integral element of the film, they are not absolutely necessary to understand while watching. There is no one key to unlock the film's secret; Haneke purposefully skips over scenes of resolution or explanation that would pander to us. What is unique about the piece is that is completely subverts the usual conventions of this genre, and this is what threw me off initially. Haneke is extremely deliberate in his approach, testing the viewer's patience for longshots that seem to go on verbatim. The purpose is to lull the audience member into a state of ease, and then punctuate that stillness with disturbing implications. It may begin leisurely, but by the end it is impossible to feel aware or agreeable as the closing credits begin to roll. I have said nothing of the excellent performances by Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Annie Girardot and Maurice Benichou, with feature not a hint of artifice. But make no mistake, this is very much Haneke's film; a deceptively simple exercise that will have the viewer question what can be regarded as fact and who can be trusted in the technologically-advanced world in which we live. By teasing with what he reveals and what he chooses to veil as "Hidden", Caché evolves from psychological thriller to a dissertation on the complexities of severe mind-fucking.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

#9 [tie p2] (Film in Review 2005)

Note: I promise that this is the last tie on the list. Really.

Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (#9 - tie) is one of those films that I missed out on during the Toronto Film Festival. I had come across the write-up in the program booklet, but immediately dismissed it as one of those family breakdown-dysfunction movies we've been bombarded with of late (you know, along the lines of Imaginary Heroes and the lot). It seemed incredibly unappealing on paper, and Laura Linney or not, it seemed like it would die a quiet death during the event. It was not long before I learned of my mistake - after its premiere, crowds were buzzing about the film, Baumbach's phenomenal screenplay and its incredible cast. It was rare that I did not hear about Squid in lineups for other films thereafter, and I could have kicked myself for having initially skipped it (especially in favour of duds like Bee Season and North Country). Thankfully, I did not have to wait long for the distributors to release the film in theatres, and - much to my surprise - the hype was justified.

The key strength of this screenplay is its ability to make us consider the viewpoints of all the major characters; although fans have argued reasonably about who the true lead of the film is (Jesse Eisenberg's Walt or Jeff Daniels's Bernard), it seems like a moot point to me. Baumbach is able to make his audience get inside each of the figures (perhaps with the exception of Laura Linney's Joan, who is sadly underwritten), and how the divorce impacts them (whether they are aware of it or not). It is a film about transformation, forgiveness and (lost) youth, and yet manages to avoid a single cliché or a contrived moment. There are some flaws, such as the inclusion of a few distracting characters/subplots (like Anna Paquin's; the actress has played this role before), but they are not too damaging. In my time celebrating this feature, I have not shied away from stating that the film is in many ways a reflection of my own childhood. Owen Kline, in the film's best performance (and that is quite the feat, considering Daniels is in career-best mode), is stunning as the youngest child who suffers the most. I behaved pretty much the same way when my parents got divorced (minus the oddball masturbation habits and the alcohol addiction - I had other abuses). The Squid and the Whale ranks among one of the best films made about family, about sons and fathers, about sons and mothers. It is probably the best film I've seen so far about the devastating effects of divorce on children.

Link to original capsule Review

Friday, April 07, 2006

#9 [tie] (Film in Review 2005)

I must confess that before I sat down to watch this film, I was a Wallace and Gromit virgin. I had indeed heard tremendous praise for the prior short-length adventures of this animated duo, but I was never convinced that such a concept would appeal to me. From what little material I came across, I assumed that the proceedings would be either too cutesy (read: aimed at kids) or dry (read: aimed at adults). So The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (#9 - tie) came and went back in October, and despite the stellar reviews and the inevitabiliy of its Oscar win for Best Animated Feature, I felt no loss at having skipped it. The only reason I ended up watching it on DVD was because my local video store had no copies of Kings and Queen, so I picked up Were-Rabbit to bulk up my 2005 quota. What a great decision I made, for I found the film an absolutely riotous delight! I have since watched the film three more times since my initial viewing, and it has not lessened at all in my eyes one bit. It remains fresh and charming (without being pacifying) just as it was the first time around, succeeding in making me erupt into giggles every other minute (especially during those moments where those psychotic, bouncy rabbits hop their way into the frame). In this feature-length effort, directors Nick Park and Steve Box open up the world of their two characters, introducing the viewer to Wallace and Gromit's township and the people who reside in it.

The film looks stunning, and to consider the amount of detail, effort and planning that went into this only heightens one's appreciation of the team's accomplishments. This landscape has limitless potential, and it struck me how easy it is to lose oneself in these environments. Yet aware of the dangers of attempting to go overboard in an endeavor such as this, Park and Box are selective in who they choose to include in the tale, specifically choosing to elect only the glorious Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, in a performance that completely trumps her work in The Corpse Bride, another stop-motion film released last year) and the ruthless villain Lord Quartermaine (a delightful Ralph Fiennes) as fleshed-out characters. The beauty of the film lies in its simplicity - the characters of Wallace and his faithful partner are as impressionable as ever, and despite the greater scope of the narrative, the proceedings never feel come across as overwhelming. Ultimately, Wallace and Gromit do not lose their charms on the big screen; their winsome personalities are simply amplified for our enjoyment. It is a delightful tale that will win over an audience of both kids and adults of all ages.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

#10 (Film in Review 2005)

Sally Potter's Yes (#10) is a glorious mish-mash mess of poetry, music and language, hypnotizingly sexy and soulful. Known primarily as the film composed in iambic pentameter, it is much more than a gimmicky exercise in writing (although the rhythms of Potter's words and the actors' delivery of them is a feat in itself). It is foremostly an examination of transculturation in the present-day world (read: "culture clash" is a term that I find distasteful). Potter argues that no one way of life can today exist in isolation, but must necessarily mutate and take on elements of other cultures to have any chance of growth. Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian, cast as "She" and "He", play lovers who originate from totally dissimiar backgrounds (she an upper-class white biologist, he a Lebanese immigrant working as a chef in a restaurant kitchen). Their affair, once propelled by lust and mutual fascination with one another, eventually sours once suspicions are formed on both sides. Shirley Henderson and Sam Neill also participate in the ensemble, as an expressive houseworker and the cold distant husband respectively. A commentary on divisions made along racial and national lines, Potter examines the issues of representation, globalization and identity in the current modern world. The film is also a study of womanhood, and Potter also carefully raises questions about body image, abortion rights and sexual politics. Lest one think the film is a polemic, it is worth mentioning that these ideas are merely hinted at, rather than explicitly stated. The screenplay manages to evoke a style of speech that may seem foreign initially, but ultimately conveys concepts that are very much a part of the rhetoric and worldview we are familiar with today. Having watching this and Potter's Orlando in close succession, I am excited to seek out the rest of this director's work.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

#11 (Film in Review 2005)

For me, Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice (#11) was the biggest surprise of the year, a film that far, far surpassed my modest expectations. One could argue that even a shoddy adaptation of a Jane Austen novel would be watchable (the source material is that good), yet a film that attempts to fit her best work into about two hours - and when a prior effort has, in my opinion, already achieved perfection - has a great uphill challenge ahead of it (to say the least). Happily, Wright and his team somehow pulled off the impossible, being original and concise without undermining the source material, or repeating the past efforts of other films. Deborah Moggach's screenplay (with help from Emma Thompson, herself no stranger to Austen adaptations) is something of a small miracle, touching on all the beloved moments in the novel without resorting to hurried "Coles Notes" tactics. In every aspect, the film is a winner, from its outstanding esemble cast (with the exception of the horrid Rupert Friend as Mr. Wickham) to the rich musical score by Dario Marianelli to the dazzling choreography of Wright's camera. It is undoubtedly the best-looking film of the year as well, its costumes, sets and cinematography rivaled only by the gorgeous production values on Wong Kar-Wai's 2046. Even Keira Knightley, who has been painful to watch on-screen otherwise, gives what will probably be the best performance of her career (prove me wrong, Keira! I like being surprised). Perhaps the highest kudos of praise I can give to this film is that it gave me new insight into and appreciation of a text I thought I knew inside-out; that it was able to take a story so well-known (and over-done) and make it seem seemingly untouched.

Link to original capsule Review

#12 (Film in Review 2005)

In Olivier Assayas's Clean (#12), Maggie Cheung (pictured, of Hero and In the Mood for Love brilliance) plays Emily Wang, a recovering junkie widow who desperately attempts to re-gain control of her life. Her husband is dead of a drug overdose, she is utterly broke, and her estranged son is in the care of his over-protective paternal grandparents. On top of all this, there is always the danger of her relapsing, which threatens to send her plummeting down a black hole of negation. It sounds like the stuff of off-putting melodrama, yet Assayas mutes the emotion, leaving the viewer to feel moved on his or her own terms. Cheung's fantastic, Cannes-prize winning work is similar, refusing to make Emily's journey an outward display of breakdowns. It is a risky performance, because it threatens to taint any sympathy one might have for her character. But Cheung is a smart actor, and we understand that her ferocious anger stems from a deep vulnerability, one that causes her to reject people even before she knows their true intentions. Assayas wrote the part especially for her (they were once married), just as he did with Irma Vep. Equally stellar in a touching performance is Nick Nolte, playing Emily's father-in-law who is torn between wanting to trust her and having his grandson's best interests at heart. I saw the film almost two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, and it was released quietly in theatres here a couple of months ago. I hear that it is finally releasing in the States this month, although I don't know whether it will be anything more than a tiny, limited release. It is available on video in Canada now, and there are multiple DVD versions floating around the web. Whatever means by which you access it, do give it a try. At the very least, you will be astounded by Cheung's work - it's worth the watch for that.

Monday, April 03, 2006

#13 (Film in Review 2005)

Gus Van Sant is undoubtedly one of the most exciting directors working today. I look forward to his work as much as any new effort by Cronenberg, von Trier or Nair. I love his polarizing films so much that I feel a little guilty for not making room for his phenomenal Last Days (#13) on my top ten, as it would have placed in a lesser year (both Elephant and Gerry appeared on my 2003 write-up; you know, the one that exists in my head). But this does not take anything away from his efforts here, both an homage to and a deconstruction of Kurt Cobain and his legacy of grunge rock (as touched upon in my review, see link below). The film will likely alienate viewers unable to bond with Michael Pitt's Blake, or Van Sant's distancing techniques. Yet, upon close consideration, these are extremely accessible human emotions and motifs that anyone can understand. The desire to return to nature, the loss of love, and the crippling nature of addiction are all explored here through a hypnotizing of repetitive images and sounds. Not much happens during the running time, but the singular sequences in and of themselves are stellar little vignettes, beautifully composed. Pay close attention to the use of sound in the film, and how effective the silences are. Pitt plays the rock star here (clearly a stand-in for Cobain), who spends much of the running time muttering to himself, either composing a great swansong to mark his end or simply rambling drug-induced non-sensicals (it is left to us to decide). When I say that the film is open and loose, I mean it as a positive attribute. As I see it, the piece is malleable to any interpretation as conceived of by the viewer. Is it a comedy? (I think so). A tragedy? A wash? Watch it for yourself, and then decide.

Link to original capsule Review

#14 (Film in Review 2005)

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's Murderball (#14) is that it makes me want to watch a quad rugby game with the film's featured players. If that does not sound particularly commendable, consider that I am a self-proclaimed member of the "athletically challenged". I have spent my entire life resisting others' attempts (usually those of adult males) to get me involved in playing a competitive sport or compulsively watching one. The more they pushed me into doing so (either by concerned prodding - "Why isn't he interested in this?", or merciless taunting and interrogation - "What the hell is wrong with you?"), the further I distanced myself from that world. Although I can actually become involved in a game if I am there in person (I've been to three hockey games in my life, and I must confess they were all highly enjoyable excursions), sports otherwise take up very little of my time. If it seems that I am interested in the sport of murderball for the sole fact that its players move around in wheelchair-slash-tanks (thereby suggesting a fetishizing or twisted voyeurism on my part), this is not the case. What is different about this game is that I know the people in the chairs, I am familiar with their stories. One thing I find off-putting about competitive (especially televised) sports is that the participants are largely de-personalized. More often than not, they become part of a faceless team, mass identified by their nation or municipal region, and some adoption of an object that abstractly represents said area. I am not arguing for a documentary to be made about every professional team, but perhaps you can understand my point here. Murderball is so compelling because it opens up the world outside of the court, seeing these people as diverse individuals as well as players. And this is why my interest in this sport and these teams has been heightened. Utterly unsentimental and therefore utterly compelling, it's quite a knock-out.

Link to original capsule Review

Note: I apologize for the delay in posting these (it's uni crunch time for me right now). The entries will speed up for the next few days.