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Movie Ratings and Reviews

Almost Famous

My favourite scenes in "Almost Famous" are those shared between Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and 15-year-old burgeoning rock journalist William Miller (Patrick Fugit). William is based on director Cameron Crowe, while Bangs is based on Bangs, the rock critic best know for putting Creem magazine on the map. He died at 33 of a drug overdose. In "Almost Famous", Bangs is just enough of a legend in his own mind to mentor young William, who looks looks up to Bangs' writing but not his lifestyle. Both are uncool characters, separated by years of trying to be cool.

The images of "Almost Famous" that jump immediately to mind, other than the hopeful eyes of Zooey Deschanel encouraging her little brother to find his own path, are the shots of the bands performing, of the groupies dancing in hotel rooms, of hangers-on clad in glam and hippie clothing, of Russell (Billy Crudup) high on acid, perched on a rooftop above a suburban Topeka swimming pool. But the film surprises me each time with its well written drama and comedic moments apart from the zany band adventures. The egos of the men, the destruction of a stadium gate, the knowing glances and smirks of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) are all grounded by William and his life, his innocence, his uncool, his mother (Frances McDormand). He is the character people in the real world relate to.

That's important, because so many moments in "Almost Famous" would be insufferable if William weren't around to watch them happen. Russell has a ridiculous argument with Jeff (Jason Lee) about a t-shirt before storming off, determined to find something "real." He and William end up at a party, where William tries his best to protect him, only for his rock star hero to yell in his face in a drug-induced rage. None of these guys are worth caring about, busy as they are caring about themselves, trading women for beer and offering insincere, hackneyed philosophies into the microphone about music that every fan wants to hear.

"Friendship is the booze they feed you," Bangs tells William over the phone one lonely night. "They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong." Stillwater have long ago accepted their status as music gods down to the detail of which member carries the mystique and which has the presence. Jeff and Russell are the type of rock stars who have never not belonged a day in their life, a dying breed of mid-70's up-and-comers who can play instruments and mimic their heroes from the 60's, but don't yet know that in a matter of a few years America will be hungry for punk rock, songs written by pissed off kids fed up with flower children and slickly produced arena rock.

Crowe indeed wrote for Rolling Stone as a teenager, experienced the touring lifestyle of Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band and interviewed many others, some mentioned with fanatic gusto by the groupies, who never seem to stop moving until they're on the road. One kid played by Jay Baruchel looks as though he's so into Zeppelin that he could keel over momentarily. Hudson is luminous in the film, mysterious and wild, intelligent, treating her own vulnerability like a Vaudeville joke. There is a beautiful moment when William loses his virginity to three aggressive women. Hudson beams at him from across the room as though she were an onlooking ethereal presence, waving goodbye with a smile moments before the certain look in William's innocent eyes goes away, never to return.

There is the music, scenes in which actors sing "Tiny Dancer" en masse, artist names identified as though their mythology is being written before the eyes. Little bits of Bowie and Simon and Garfunkel play in the background, providing a language to things unsaid. Band-aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) draws a well spoken line between fans and those who simply cling to celebrities: "They don't even know what it is to be a fan, to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts."

Though I don't own an Elton John record, I recognize the sentiment. I have an extensive music collection, but it's been a while since music has meant a lot to me. When "Almost Famous" was released in 2000, I was making a new mix tape every month, packed with songs from CDs I'd recently purchased. And older stuff, too - songs I already knew by heart that I'd mix in just to hear them in a brand new context. I didn't grow up in circumstances where putting on a vinyl of "Tommy" by the Who would give me a look at my future. But I do remember my first few albums well, cherishing them like extensions of myself, hearing songs and forgetting to breathe.

It felt like I belonged to something greater. Music affords that to the uncool. "If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends." Sage advice, that. But the record stores are disappearing. Where are the lonely going to turn? What will a film like "Almost Famous" look like 100 years from now? Hopelessly dated, perhaps, after those who remember what rock n' roll really felt like have all passed on. The rock star won't be cool forever. Stillwater, a band that never was in the first place, will appear a relic. But that desire to connect with a song is universal. Crowe puts his passion for that connection more poignantly here than he has anywhere else in his work, and he does it by uniting the song with the moment a kid realizes that nothing stays the same.

M
M(1931)

"M" is an unsettling film, a collection of images that don't seem to quite know how to relate to the accompanying sounds, forming a relationship that is hesitant and tense. An early talkie and German director Fritz Lang's first sound picture, "M" is still silent by about a third, its moments of eerie tranquility seeping through the cracks of Lang's experiments with spoken dialogue and noise.

The film's prologue, in which a young girl is abducted by a whistling lecher, ends with shots of her ball and balloon shown free of her grasp before the screen fades to black. Sound is heard before the picture returns. Newsies are yelling to promote their headlines. The entirety of Berlin is made aware of a man who stalks children. Everyone seems a suspect as mob intolerance begins to grow. The crowds in "M" don't simply talk; they scream angrily in peals of terror, mishear what is said, assume the worst of explanations. When the child murderer writes to the press in a crude cursive script, his taunting words are plastered on the front of newspapers for the entire city to see and fear.

Hans Beckert, played by the manic looking Peter Lorre in the actor's premiere starring role, is first seen testing his expression in a mirror as his personality is described in voiceover. Early in his film, Lang uses sound to describe, to explain and, most importantly, to assume. Thousands claim to know the murderer, each voicing his own preconceptions of how a man like Beckert must look and behave. These days, with its multiple sequences of stratagems and methodologies, "M" is regarded widely as a blueprint for the police procedural. German film scholar Anton Kaes cites no less than "Law and Order" on the Criterion edition's commentary track.

Above all, however, "M" is most fascinating in its portrayal of a haunting transitional state of social being for Germany as it sat positioned between two wars. First World War veterans are reduced to street beggars as children are seen gazing into shop windows at microcosms of thriving infrastructure - wooden cranes that lift and amusement park rides that spin. Proletariat mothers are reduced to grieving messes over the loss of their children while their husbands are nowhere to be seen. In fact, male characters are all but relegated to units of authority removed wholly from the familial, forming their own societies of law and the criminal respectively. They are alike in many ways, chief among them order and morality.

In an early draft of "M", Hans Beckert was a war veteran, a soldier turned serial killer with a developed taste for ending a life. In the final version, he is a mutant, an oddity without relation, consequently regarded as a common enemy. While criminal mastermind Schršnker (Gustaf GrŁndgens) and homicide inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) debate their methods for re-instituting their own brands of order in Berlin via crosscuts, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when Schršnker announces his intention to stop Beckert in his tracks. After all, he's a criminal too. Schršnker and his ilk are fed up with constant police raids, a ruse to convince the public that an effort is being made to catch Beckert. The killer could be next door. To compete and fill multiple editions, the media are doing all they can to stoke the fires of paranoia.

Lang pays fetishistic attention to inventory and arsenals, repeatedly laying out collections that range from violent weaponry to types of clothing accessories and time pieces. In doing so he makes "M" a bits-and-pieces film in which small collections must be taken together for cohesion. It is reflected further in the use of sound. In Alan Crosland's "The Jazz Singer", music was included as not only a striking feature but as a catalyst to that film's narrative. "M" contains almost no music apart from Beckert's oft-repeated and creepy whistling of a section of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suite. Recognized by a blind man, the only character tuned in exclusively to the aural, the act of creating sound leads to Beckert's discovery.

And what of the famous letter? That is Lang's hand shown in close-up, marking himself with the consonant that will soon be branded onto Beckert's jacket. "M" contains a selection of scenes in which off-screen characters make their presence known by reaching their hand into the frame and placing it on a shoulder, thereby constantly drawing attention what is unseen and always lurking. But why an "M"? It stands for MŲrder (murderer), and while Lang changed his original title from "Die MŲrder sind unter uns" (The Murderers are Among Us), it was done for marketing purposes, not fear of Nazi persecution.

"M" is also a symbol, easily identifiable and unchanging in a reflection. When Beckert sees his jacket in a mirror, his expression differs greatly from the first time he is shown staring at himself with perverse fascination. It has changed to one of fear, seeing himself in the incontestable way he is seen by others. Every truth about his sickness has been identified and pressed upon him for all to see. Once a loner in a crowd, he has been picked out like a child in a game of elimination.

Peter KŁrten, the serial killer dubbed the "Vampire of DŁsseldorf" by the local media, was put to death in 1931, one of the few killers given the death penalty in the era of the Weimar Republic. Those calling "M" a supportive tract on the death penalty ignore Lang's attempts to portray Lorre as pitiable as the actor thrashes about before a gang of hundreds of criminals, "experts in the rule of law" who believe that death is the only justifiable punishment.

The penultimate scene, in which Lorre delivers one of the cinema's great monologues, is characterized by a rampant and compelling brand of hypocrisy. Beckert exhibits a self-aware sickness that provokes little sympathy from the biased jury, but a certain amount in the viewer, who is suddenly a judge over the proceedings. As the criminals move ever closer toward satiating their collective bloodlust, Lang gives one more indication of sound's power over the image: Beckert covers his ears in desperation, hoping, ironically, that justice will be done.

Bad Lieutenant

"Bad Lieutenant" may be Harvey Keitel's crowning moment as a badass, heightened by the ferocity of his character's drive to mess up his life as much as possible. Nameless, angry and addicted, the lieutenant behaves like a nihilistic Dirty Harry, or Paul Kersey if he had tried to take revenge on himself. After watching Keitel in "Mean Streets" recently, I've gained a new respect for his ability as an actor. This is a brave performance, one that took sheer guts.

In one scene, Keitel stands totally exposed before the camera with his arms outstretched and weeping, high as a kite in the company of two prostitutes. How has this man reached such a low point? He has kids, a badge, a place to sleep at night. Though he wears a wedding ring prominently, his wife (Peggy Gormley) is rarely shown, and they certainly don't converse. The lieutenant is shown waking up on the couch at home in a hungover daze while his family gazes at him solemnly, as though they've already begun their grieving process.

Director and co-writer Abel Ferrara knows we've seen this archetype before. Whatever the reason for the lieutenant's decline, he is heading straight for the bottom, his ethical failures typified in scene after scene. I was fascinated by the film's abandon in capturing the fall as Keitel gambles, smokes and injects drugs, attempts to steal drugs from a crime scene, engages in illicit sex, forces two women to get him off, laughs in an indignant bookie's face, snorts cocaine off of a picture of his kids, shoots his pistol at his car radio and takes stolen cash from a pair of robbers rather than arresting them. The film received an NC-17 rating on its release. Certain scenes remain hard to watch, yet are compelling in their rawness.

Keitel is gloriously over the top in the midst of it all, culminating in a scene in a church, where a vision of Christ (Paul Hipp) appears before him. Keitel howls like a wounded animal, crawling on his hands and knees and pleading for forgiveness. Emotions of guilt and sadness have swelled to the bursting point in this figure, who bets thousands on the Dodgers but can no longer dodge the consequences of his actions. He collapses next to a kneeling nun (Frankie Thorn), a rape victim who has forgiven her attackers. Disheveled and nearly broken, he demands her explanation, not because he can't understand but because he desperately wants to forgive himself.

In not revealing too much about the lieutenant's character beyond his self-destructive behaviour, Ferrara and co-writers Victor Argo, Paul Calderon and ZoŽ Lund simplified a formula, letting only its most affecting parts bristle on screen. It works because of Keitel's commitment. The lieutenant is bad by virtue of his actions, but he is also hurt and unable to fully turn away from his faith. In the end, he redeems himself by action and is fittingly relieved of his misery.

"We eat away at ourselves until there's nothing left but appetite," the lieutenant is told in a drug-induced haze by a fellow junkie (Lund). A position of power can take hold of a weak-willed individual. That power can come to feel deserved, leaving justice as an afterthought. Bad things can start to seem rational in a career that can bend toward moral ambivalence. In "Mean Streets", Keitel held his hand over an open flame to get himself used to the fires of hell. In "Bad Lieutenant", he plays a man already in hell, dousing the flames with liquor in a vain attempt to extinguish them.

Brothers
Brothers(2009)

"Brothers" is a perfect example of how trailers and advertising can promise one story, yet deliver another unexpectedly, and fortunately. Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes off to fight in Afghanistan. His chopper crashes and he is presumed dead. His widow Grace (Natalie Portman) is left to raise their two daughters alone. Sam's brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) steps in to help out and a romance seems to blossom. They discover that Sam is still alive. He returns and there's a dramatic and emotional showdown.

Yes, and no. As the film opens, Sam has not yet gone to war. He drives out to county lockup to pick up Tommy, who has just served time for robbing a bank. The reunited family sits down to dinner whereupon Tommy endures the disappointment of his father Hank (Sam Shepard), a Vietnam War veteran. Overseas, Sam is taken prisoner by a group of insurgents, locked away in cavernous cells and forced to commit an unspeakable act. His family, presuming him dead, tries their best to pick up the pieces. Grace keeps his wedding ring on a chain around her neck and refuses to open his in-case-of letter. Hank and Tommy reconcile as best they can. The girls, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), come to adore their uncle, who remodels their kitchen, takes them ice skating and engages them in snowball fights.

The film's chief tension is Sam's fate, but in the meantime, Tommy is becoming a persuasive stand-in. His relationship with the girls and Isabelle in particular progresses naturally and believably. Consider a scene in which the two discuss sibling rivalry. Tommy's empathy for Isabelle is necessary in his becoming a better person, getting over his bitterness toward his own father and recognizing the value of family. It also contributes convincingly to how the girls react when their father returns.

When Sam gets off the plane, he doesn't look quite right, staring intensely straight ahead as though the world could fall apart at any moment. His rigid shoulder posture has gone from the effect of subordination to out and out paranoia. He paces through his home in the middle of the night with a loaded gun in his hand. He rearranges the drinking glasses in a kitchen cabinet with precision. He notices how relatively happy his family has been in his absence and assumes the worst about Tommy and Grace, reacting alternately with perverse glee and volcanic anger. Yes, the two shared a kiss. But look at how the aftermath of that moment is written and performed by Gyllenhaal and Portman, not for titillation but for complete honesty.

There is an intriguing and dramatic contrast between the horrors that Sam experiences and Tommy's search for involvement on parole, the former portraying a thorough lack of human decency and the latter championing it. In an effective turn as a reformed scumbag, Gyllenhaal ably carries most of the weight until Sam's return, whereupon Maguire offers some of the best work of his career, putting everyone in the room on edge as they try to tread lightly around his psychosis. David Benioff's adapted screenplay never allows glimpses at what could become of these characters, only that a very real and obscure danger hangs in the air that no one is entirely prepared to answer to.

Gyllenhaal and Maguire are two actors of similar look and stature and a film in which they play brothers seemed inevitable. They compliment each other well, with Maguire lending a wiriness and discipline in his performance that counterbalances Gyllenhaal's toughness and heart. Portman is also great, letting her character get attached to Tommy gradually while carefully gauging where her emotions take her, communicating them wisely in scenes where her devastation over Sam floods her decisions.

Ideologically, the honourable soldier fights to end fighting with the hope that not a soul in the free world will ever experience the things they experience. Attempting to put what they endure into words seems an impossible task. Untold cities of despair, hatred and loss may be constructed inside those who undergo torture and find themselves forced to live with it. "You can't train a person to watch somebody die," one character observes, implying that while the part of Sam that values life has been violently disrupted, his loved ones will never know how it became so.

"Brothers" is one of the best of the year, a narrative that took me over with measured force and left me feeling uneasy. It is a film about how post-traumatic stress disorder can affect not only the soldier who suffers it, but the people he cares for, those who patted him on the back and called him a hero as he took his leave. Like Staff Sergeant William James in "The Hurt Locker" earlier this year, Sam can't adapt to civilian life once he is taken out of theatre. "No one understands," he explains to his commanding officer. Even Hank, the veteran, can't tell Sam the words that will make what he has experienced go away. To a painful extent, it never will.

Everybody's Fine
½

I haven't see "Stanno tutti bene", the Italian film on which Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine" is based, but noticing that it starred Marcello Mastroianni in the De Niro role made me smile. De Niro is one of the great actors, capable of a part like this, but Mastroianni had an indelible expression that communicated tired humour in the face of life's obstacles. I think of Mastroianni visiting his children, looking at the people they've become with cocked eyebrows and raising his hand as if sarcastically accepting applause.

In the original, the character of Frank Goode was an opera enthusiast, his children named after opera characters, his efforts to reconnect with them the stuff of operatic tragedy. The plot has been shoehorned in by Jones to fit a modern America suburban old timer whose kids have migrated away from home to find different degrees of success. Frank's (De Niro) wife passed less than a year ago. She was the one the kids talked to, while he spent his moments apart from work raising them to be the best at their interests.

Conclusions reached from going out into the world and becoming one's own person can be hard to break to a parent with their own set of ethics and set-in-stone beliefs. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) is having marital problems. Robert (Sam Rockwell) has told his dad he conducts orchestras when he merely bangs a drum. Rosie (Drew Barrymore) isn't certain if she likes girls or boys. And then there's David (Austin Lysy), who everybody but Frank knows the truth about.

I come from a family of four kids and recognized certain details that Jones gets right, such as the conspiratorial efforts to keep bad news from the person each is trying to both protect and impress. David is in trouble in Mexico. His siblings make excuses to avoid visiting Frank so that they won't have to lie to his face. After years spent trying to raise the perfect family, they don't think he can take it. Frank takes it upon himself to visit them, even though years of coating telephone wires in PVC has left his lungs in bad shape.

It's a nifty metaphor - Frank spent his working life sealing lines of communication, yet he can't communicate with his kids. He proudly shows off thousands of miles of his work to a stranger on a train. But this is where Jones' script starts to falter. His symbolism is obvious to the point of violation. Hurricane Alice is destroying the coast. A passenger informs him, "My name is Alice. It's Greek for 'truth'." Get it? The truth is going to come on like a violent storm and disrupt things.

Frank still sees his grown children as kids. Jones chooses to represent Frank's outlook by switching his actors with toddler counterparts. Little Amy disappears behind a staircase and when she reemerges, it's Kate Beckinsale! It's a motif that Jones repeats ad nauseum near to the point of farce, leading to a completely surreal hallucinatory scene in which Frank confronts the subconscious constructions of his children as storm clouds gather.

The biggest and final misstep is David's fate, which is lazy, emotionally exploitative and borderline cruel. The film cries out for reconciliation, stomps all over it and then tries to justify its necessity. I wanted to like Frank, but he's so turned in on himself that he seems beyond hope. There is a desire in him to change his old approach to fatherhood, and Jones tacks on the obligatory bittersweet ending, but the fact that Frank has been ravaged by his lackluster abilities as a father drives a dagger deep into the good will of the film's final scene.

There are moments of poignancy, my favourite among them a scene in which Frank encounters a homeless youth (Brendan Sexton III) and offers to lend a compassionate hand. But for every well envisioned moment, there's a trite interjection of past-voice narration, dialogue from years ago that is heard in order to stoke an empathy for regret. I enjoyed the Frank-Robert exchange the most, as Rockwell provides an accurate portrayal of a son who has spent his whole life trying to both impress his father and convince himself that he doesn't have to.

Though the performances are fine overall, the fault lies squarely in the dismal screenplay. Similar in theme, Alexander Payne's superior "About Schmidt" worked in part because Schmidt's attitudes and desires came from character rather than character type - Jones seems to simply skim the surface, hitting emotional notes with scenes evoking death and memory without giving them depth. Families are tough. Everyone thinks they know what's best. The strength of that bond should offer anyone the opportunity to have their mind changed. Frank's mind is not simply changed. It's beaten with a baseball bat and left for dead.

The Room
The Room(2003)

Chances are if you're watching "The Room", you have a pretty good idea in advance of just how bad the film is. Since its release six years ago, it has gained a bit of popularity as a midnight movie in the Rocky Horror vein, where a screening can take on a life of its own. It's been showing at the Mayfair Theatre here in town for the past couple of months and I caught the screening last week. After being quizzed by the guy at the box office about whether or not I had liquor in my shoulder bag, he asked the most obvious follow-up: Any footballs?

I first heard about "The Room" a couple of years ago when longtime Kevin Smith cohort Bryan Johnson brought it up on one of Smith's SModcasts (number 35, for the fans). For a five-year period after the film's initial release, writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau rented billboard space on Highland Avenue in Los Angeles to promote it. Comedic actors like Paul Rudd and David Cross took notice and investigated, showing it around to friends. Before long, theatres started screening it routinely for fans who would show up knowing the film inside out, shouting perfectly timed criticisms at the screen as though they shared one mind, and hurling a barrage of plastic cutlery.

Spoons, to be precise. In certain scenes, a framed portrait of a spoon is in view on a table. That's a cue. There are many, many others, and for the uninitiated like myself, it was fascinating to sit back and watch the coordination of the audience. Screenings of "The Room" satisfy an urge for crowds looking for release from the enforced passivity of cinema-going, as viewers experience a kind of interaction that would normally get them tossed into the lobby. A few ground rules were set by the Mayfair proprietors: No metal spoons. Do not throw things directly at the screen. And no footballs.

The football rule may be for the best, but it's difficult to resist the urge to pass the pigskin when so many scenes in "The Room" seem obsessed with games of catch among its male cast members. It's as though Wiseau thought the act of playing catch was a catalyst to male relationships, a necessary overlay to an emotional subtext that would otherwise compromise their masculinity, and so inserted it into every scene that required the men to communicate their feelings to each other. It's never a cup of coffee or a night out at the arena. It's just football, football, football. And jogging and playful wrestling.

Wiseau plays Johnny. More on him in a minute. Johnny is in love with Lisa (Juliette Danielle) and repeatedly refers to her as his future wife. Lisa thinks Johnny is boring and starts cheating on him with his best friend Mark (Greg Sestero). There's your plot basis, a classic story of love and betrayal. There are secondary characters - Denny (Philip Haldiman), a young neighbour, sees Johnny as a father figure. Lisa's mother (Carolyn Minnott) wants Lisa to marry Johnny for the financial security. Oh, and she has breast cancer. There's also a psychologist, played by actor Kyle Vogt, who quit halfway through production. His remaining lines were given to some guy (Greg Ellery).

On the surface, "The Room" is the kind of soft-core porn film a young teenager would stay up until 3 in the morning idly watching for the dirty bits. The difference is that it fails embarrassingly at being erotic, with sex scenes that look unnatural, filmed from bizarre angles underneath timeworn R&B filler that had the audience sarcastically clapping along. Most of these occur in the film's first half and one looks as though it's largely the same sex scene shown just minutes before, with Wiseau's wrinkly, muscled naked rump thrusting against the stomach of poor Danielle.

Wiseau is a breed unto himself, a cross between Christopher Walken, Fabio and a car wreck. His dialogue is delivered with an alien sense of purpose and dedication that comes off as fascinating and unendurable at once. To make matters worse, the greater portion of his lines were dubbed in post-production, further separating his character from reality, certainly not spawning a shred of compassion for Johnny as he slowly comes to realize the truth about his girlfriend to the feigned response of shock and awe from the crowd.

What makes "The Room" such an oddity is its obvious budget in spite of its overall quality. There are certainly films that look worse, but what Wiseau has filmed has been so ineptly put together - editing that blatantly disrupts continuity, inexplicable green screen shots, dropped story threads, etc. - that the money that was put into it (reportedly $6 million) seems like such a glorious waste. After the film's proven success as a midnight guilty pleasure, Wiseau has stated that everything in "The Room" was constructed purposefully as kitsch. Given the brazen narcissism of the end result, it's hard to believe that.

And why would you want to? Yes, "The Room" sucks. As a film, there isn't a single good thing going for it. Its appeal is in how accidentally awful it is, and to that degree, Wiseau's predecessors date at least as far back as Ed Wood. Something about watching a group of people file out through a field of plastic spoons, still cracking jokes after a shared experience of such lunacy, did my heart good. The guy in front of me who loudly complained that he was trying to watch the movie was especially kidding.

Mean Streets
Mean Streets(1973)

Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" presents a character who knows he's bound to burn in hell and offers scenes in which he holds his hand out to desensitize it to open flames in preparation. At first, he pulls it away in pain, but by the end of the film he is able to hold it over a burning barbecue stove and call it "fine". In a way, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is the prototype of a lot of the tough-as-nails crooked Italian-Americans that Scorcese would come to showcase in his gangster pictures. There has always been a fascination with the paradox of the holy and the profane in Scorsese's scripts, but "Mean Streets" especially grants a look at how the spiritual sides of these men are burning away in their bodies.

Scorsese grew up with these character types. He saw them in Little Italy, hanging around in doorways, telling stories about bravado in the face of the law and the businessmen who could do them a lot of harm if they'd only catch them first. Scorsese has a lot of affection for his memory of these guys as they present their girlfriends like trophies and cover their backs when a punch is thrown. An unpaid debt is a mortal sin that requires confession. In a Scorsese film, morality is judged by capital, and those desperate for it inevitably twist it into survival at all costs.

Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy is a sinner, a defiler of the street order of things who believes that he can take advantage and not care about the people he shares a neighbourhood with. Early in the film, Charlie explains to a friend via voiceover that the Catholic Church is no longer enough to absolve his particular lifestyle and that he must do it on his own. All of the institutions seen in the film - religion, family, friendship, love, business - are intricately and tragically interconnected. Right is separated from wrong by who ends up with a bullet in their neck.

Charlie takes it upon himself to look after Johnny Boy, who repeatedly disappoints him. Michael (Richard Romanus), a local imported goods fencer, is growing increasingly tired of Johnny's cocky attitude and the fact that he'd rather spend money on hats and drinks than pay him off. Charlie is romantically involved with Johnny's cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson), so he walks a thin line between familial and business obligations. His ambition is to move up in the world, but he can't help but involve himself with dishonourable men.

A part of me is always baffled by gangster films. Strong feelings of sympathy and incredulity rush forward as I wonder why the characters can't simply put aside their filthy practices and start new lives, but the world of organized crime has a magnet at its nucleus. It spins with the combined indelible pull of easy success, chauvinistic macho stature, racial jealousy and the ideals of perverted saints. Charlie and Johnny converse in the graveyard of the first Catholic cathedral in New York City and death feels right next door. Charlie idolizes St. Assissi, but certainly there are many in hell who do, men who have gone too far and will never see paradise.

With his small frame, meek countenance and asthma, it is difficult to imagine Martin Scorsese the man fitting in with this crowd. But Scorsese was first and foremost a storyteller - it is his voice, not Keitel's, that we hear serving as narrator. He had an ear for dialogue and took great lengths to present it honestly and accurately. It was his actors that made the dialogue and inflection what it is today, positioning every "Get outta heah" and each exclamation of "Ay!" in the world's consciousness of New York at a specific time and street corner. It is a city that has become many things in many people's imaginations and a lot of that has to do with the film medium and Scorsese's contributions in particular.

In my favourite scene, Scorsese keeps the camera in a straight-ahead closeup on Charlie's face as he wanders drunkenly around a party with the deep red lights shining on his features like hellfire. People bump into him, spill drinks in his hair, kiss him on the cheek, and the smirk never leaves his lips before he passes out on a table. The party is for a returned Vietnam War vet, who experiences a flashback and attacks a woman on the dance floor. It's the kind of moment that gels Scorsese's vision of America, a country that raises fundamentally good people to do nefarious things for the sake of values they don't quite understand.

"Mean Streets" helped kick-start a far more visceral mode of storytelling in the cinema. Film became a reflection of and reaction to violence seen on television sets, in homes on the nightly news. Other directors such as Peckinpah, Cassavettes, Coppola and Hopper had already offered the initial blows to American cinematic convention, but Scorsese is the most responsible for how today's effective crime dramas operate. "Mean Streets" naturalizes the criminal life without exonerating it. It turns the bad guys into tragic figures who believe that they can shout louder than God can be silent.

The Road
The Road(2009)

The other day I was opening a container of butterscotch pudding and glanced at the expiration date on the side: June 25, 2010. If the world ended tonight and everybody died but me, the freshest pre-packaged pudding would last about another eight months. I started thinking about all the parts of the world that would go berserk because I'd have no idea how to fix or maintain them. Electricity would fail. Forest fires would consume the landscape. And yes, I'd have to go roaming for food, though if I were alone, the non-perishables in supermarkets from town to town would keep me alive for years.

If I weren't alone, and earthquakes and fire had forced humanity into survival mode, things might start to look a lot like Pennsylvania in "The Road". Director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe offer stunning and thoroughly bleak landscapes that appear completely bereft of wildlife. The ground is covered in volcanic ash and the few humans still clinging to life are filthy, forced to live like vagrants on the run from a lack of human decency. Humanity seems to have been ravaged by tornadoes and other natural disasters. The phrase "as the crow flies" has lost all meaning to members of the next generation.

If there's anything that Don McKellar's "Last Night" taught me, it's that the end of the world needs no explanation. Explaining the how and why behind the apocalypse is a screenplay additive that should be left with cyberpunk Mad Max knock-offs from the 1980's, the type of film that starts with a narrator or opening placard detailing the nuclear war that will happen in the year 20XX. The one element from those films that carries over into "The Road" is the wandering gang of nogoodniks with a bizarre affliction; in this case, putry-mouthed cannibals on the hunt for gasoline and weapons. Food is scarce and everyone starts acting like their soccer team's plane has crashed in the Andes.

Nothing in Hillcoat's film can be taken at surface value. Its characters, few in number, are nameless. They are representations of ideas, not living and breathing people. Like the Coens' adaptation of "No Country for Old Men", "The Road" holds tight to author Cormac McCarthy's grim metaphors for the loss of institutions. In the former, law and order are sacrificed. This time around, it's family - a man and his son walk to a destination that seems as sensible as any: the coast. Like "Zombieland" (yes, like "Zombieland") released earlier this year, the coast represents a last stand, the closest thing to paradise in chaos left, an idea that instills sanity while the rest of the world crumbles.

The man is played by Viggo Mortensen, who is consistently proving himself as the Harrison Ford of the "Lord of the Rings" films. Mortensen appears dangerously thin and appropriately haggard in the role, using his eyes and crow's feet packed with dirt to express helplessness and desperation. The boy is Kodi Smit-McPhee, a choir boy being shown the harsh realities of the world. His mother (Charlize Theron) is also seen in flashback, abandoning the men, walking out into the cold desolation and dying somewhere.

Death is thick in the atmosphere. The man sleeps with a six shooter, originally loaded with two bullets, then with one. He teaches his son how to kill himself, viewing death by his own hand as vastly preferable to capture. They scavenge farms and roadsides on their way to the coast, sometimes finding food, sometimes not. They discover a horde of malnutritioned victims kept in a makeshift meat locker. A woman and her young child are pursued across a field and killed by a bloodthirsty mob. We're the good guys, the man has explained to his son, who doubts that he can tell the difference anymore.

The film is about fatherhood, I think - the pain and unanswered questions that a father experiences in trying to raise a son into the world, making honest efforts to protect him in spite of the badness, the seemingly relentless nature of a society to pick apart innocence and leave only the fragile bones behind. He "carries the fire" in transporting his son, the narrative's only source of warmth and compassion, the truth of all of which we are capable. Screenwriter Joe Penhall brings forward the moments in McCarthy's text that test his characters morally. Their decisions colour whether or not the entire world gets any worse. Nick Cave, who wrote the screenplay for Hillcoat's "The Proposition", here supplies music that turns the production into a melancholy tone poem.

The man sees his own goodness in his son, completely transferred and gone from himself, crushed under the realities of the harsh environment. He trusts with his eyes and ears, keeps watching his son, listening for his voice. "He is my warrant," the man explains in voice-over: "If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke." They encounter an old man (Robert Duvall) with cataracts who understands the burden of keeping the only remaining evidence of God alive. "If there's a God, he's turned his back on us," he chuckles into the dead night with vomit on his lips.

When the Good Samaritan encountered the suffering man on the road, he found that the man had been stripped naked and robbed. There is a scene in "The Road" that shows these circumstances reversed - a man is forced to strip naked by the Samaritan, who has one bullet left in his gun. The son of the Samaritan, the emblem of his only remaining compassion, implores his mercy. They cannot find the man again but leave his clothes and a tin of food where he stood. Mistakes are made in the cold, cruel world that cannot be unmade. They coat the heart in ash and we are left to wander, in search of the infinite, hoping that it will have mercy on us.

A Prophet (Un prophete)
½

There's a certain sense of justice that accompanies seeing the impotence of macho bravado behind bars that the gangster picture doesn't offer. The character of CÔŅĹsar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), a figurehead of the Corsican National Front in "Un prophÔŅĹte", is the aging patriarch mob figure that I always crave to see broken in half. In prison, his character is pathetic, but performed well by Arestrup, who never looks as though he's trying to make the best of a bad situation.

I can't say the same for French director Jacques Audiard. "Un prophÔŅĹte" plainly shows skill, but is finally too lengthy and shallow, a collection of situations in which scum of the earth try to reassert the power they had on the other side of the wall. The conduit for understanding their hierarchy is Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old Arab man who we see introduced to the prison system as the result of an unspecified crime. The warden looks over his file as Malik casts fearful glances into the prison yard.

Many of the film's scenes are shot in the yard during break times. Men talk to one another with their eyes focused elsewhere, fooling themselves into thinking that even their body language and close proximity to people like CÔŅĹsar isn't under constant scrutiny. The Corsicans, a group of about 15 men, run the prison. A man ("Reyeb", we are told in big block letters) is transferred in, awaiting a court date to testify, and the Corsicans want him dead. They threaten to kill Malik if he doesn't do the job, and he practices carrying a razor blade in his mouth.

The film's effective first half-hour, a battle of wills between Malik and the Corsicans over Reyeb's (Hichem Yacoubi) murder, is fueled by suspense and capped by a grisly, realistic act of violence that brought some audience members to walk out. In comparison to the hard criminals, Malik is fresh-faced and easy to empathize with as he assures their faith. Learning to read and speak their language, he develops a bond with CÔŅĹsar, who suffers a loss of power once most of his men are transferred. He makes a deal with Malik: straighten up and fly right on the inside so that he can go on day leave and take care of some business on the outside.

A group of Muslims in the prison are shifting the balance of power. Feeling the pull of heritage, Malik befriends Ryad (Adel Bencherif), a man with testicular cancer who wants to rehabilitate. The two men become involved in hash dealing and soon Malik has his own business to take care of. All the while, Reyeb's ghost haunts Malik in his relatively cushy cell, exhaling smoke through the wound in his jugular.

Audiard shoots his scenes with a drained colour palette that captures the despair and hopelessness of these men's lives. His actors, not professionals, are more convincing as a result. However, the script lacks depth and squanders an opportunity to reveal more about race and religious relations in France by making most of the characters one note. Men like Tom Waitsish drug-runner Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb) are introduced in Scorsese-style still frames. The still frames are almost a godsend, given the convolution of the characters, who are all bad and not much else.

Audiard flirts with arthouse by including a scene of a deer being struck by a car and hurtling beautifully through the air. Malik had a premonition of the event. If Malik is a prophet, what kind of prophet is he? What is the significance of his spending 40 days and 40 nights in solitary, or catching a handful of snow from his cell window? These moments and ideas belong in a much more interesting narrative that doesn't slog its characters through a banal, brutal existence for the better part of two and a half hours.

The film's length isn't its chief problem. "Un prophÔŅĹte" would be a similar picture with an hour cut away. Its scenes of violence seem to exist to hurry the plot along, providing the film's most significant developments where actual character staging fails. We understand that Malik is descending upward through the ranks, but from where? He is serving a sentence of six years. Did he incite violence? Transport drugs? Commit manslaughter? He pleads his innocence, but after murdering Reyeb, there is no goodness in him. He is left to make the best of damnation.

Critics have thus far praised the film for its force and realism, but I'm doubtful. "Un prophÔŅĹte" took the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes earlier this year. It's bleak and disturbing and good at being both. It also suffers from an emptiness that prevents it from being the epic it aspires to be. Its complex structure inhibits its suspense. Malik may feel in over his head at moments, but I didn't care. None of these men can look each other in the eye. How was I supposed to?

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Heart-shattering and nightmarishly dramatic, "Precious" is as good as they say. I saw lead actress Gabourey Sidibe in a televised interview recently. She appeared happy and armed with the excitement of a young woman who has received a terrific opportunity. She spoke animatedly about Hollywood and make an embarrassing admission about her sincere crush on N*SYNC. Her transformation into Precious is outstanding. Sidibe pushes every good and healthy emotion that she quite apparently has in person and buries them, encasing Precious within herself, not greeting the world but trying to pass by unnoticed with a dark and featureless expression. She's fascinating to watch because I couldn't believe she was being seen.

Overweight and poor, Precious daydreams of fame, of men finding her attractive, of dancing in music videos and starring in fashion shoots as an empowered Queen Latifah song drowns out the sounds of real life. Daniels represents these fantasy sequences in stark contrast to the disheveled world of the 1980's tenement Harlem, whose residents all appear tired, worn out and doubtful that things will change. Precious' fantasies are a symptom of exposure to an outside world that she knows only via the images from the television sitting in the apartment she shares with her mother - white women finding quick success and fortune on game shows, part of a culture that lumps her lifestyle into a corner.

The dream sequences show Precious as full of life and happiness, a world that she can escape to and does when real life becomes too hurtful. She is physically bullied by sexist young boys in the street. She has the most torrid relationship imaginable with her mother Mary, played in an absolutely shocking turn by actress Mo'Nique. Profanity and physical abuse are only the beginning. It is discovered that Precious is pregnant with her second child. The first was born with Down Syndrome and lives with her grandmother until the social worker comes by the apartment, when Mary pretends to have it all together so that the welfare cheques won't stop coming.

Mo'Nique's performance as Mary is truly astounding as she hurls plates across the room at her pregnant daughter and chases her down stairs while Precious tries to keep her baby safe in her arms. Mary is an sickly mess of a human being who seems to exhibit either furious anger or an unsettling catatonia with little in between. "She lies around like a whale," Precious explains to social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey). Sunlight never appears to reach the living room, only the dim radiation of the television and the sickly yellow glow emitted by pawn shop lamps, while crackheads ring at the buzzer.

One night the principal of Precious' school comes calling. She offers a chance for Precious to pursue an education in a more intimate atmosphere, catering to troubled youth. Sixteen, illiterate and endlessly reminded of her shortcomings by her mother, Precious makes her way down to the Each One/Teach One alternative school and meets Blu Rain (Paula Patton), a teacher who inspires her to write. Through journal entries, Precious is able to give her own voice to her situation and she begins to see that her children will offer the only unconditional love in her life.

A score of historically significant videos are projected on the walls and windows as the camera circles Sapphire. She discovers Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the story of the world. "I'm going to teach them all this," she writes of her children with resolve. Based on the 1996 novel "Push" by Sapphire, Geoffrey Fletcher's screenplay smartly uses the education and writing process as a narrative device to illuminate Precious' life as characteristic of tragedy. "What do I mean if I say the author portrays her protagonist?s situation as unrelenting?" Ms. Rain asks of her students before a heartbreaking revelation about Precious' sexual abuse comes to light.

Moments like that are treated with great care and compassion by the filmmakers. Despite the girl-overcoming-the-odds sentimentalism of the narrative, the horror of the drama prevents it from ever being hokey, and thanks to Sidibe's performance and the editing choices, the film maintains a contemplative rather than a melodramatic tone. Certain moments elicited gasps from the audience in attendance. It's hard to believe how cold and cruel Precious' situation is. It is only her inner light that makes it not entirely tragic.

Mo'Nique's performance instills a hunger to see how her character is met with the true and just hand of the social care administration, which isn't without its flaws but operates through Mrs. Weiss as a kind of bureaucracy that heaves a deep sigh of compassion when a girl like Precious comes along. Sure enough, Mary will sit down in an office to reveal how messed up she really is. The film is uncompromising in its treatment of abuse, but brilliant in the way it strips away motivation to reveal the individual underneath.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

In some ways, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is the ideal project for Wes Anderson. The precise staging of his live action films is miniaturized to shoebox size for the director to get just right. While watching the finished product I imagined Anderson crouching to look at the sets at eye level, taking measurements with a ruler and luxuriating in the freedom of a world without actors to wait on his attention to detail. The same sort of pageantry that Anderson has made his trademark, told in shots that routinely appear to have generated from still images in the director's mind, spills over into stop motion animation and for a while I was amazed to see how well it worked.

Anderson's scripts are often funny and inventive, especially when he executes visual humour that plays against his characters, all of whom, animated or otherwise, are written as visionaries in their own specific way. His characters rarely break down, and when they do, voices are rarely raised and limbs are rarely thrown. There is typically a verbal recognition of the circumstances before everyone moves on to accomplish a task. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is no different. Its titular character, voiced by George Clooney, is a man with a master plan. In a manner of speaking.

As in Anderson's other films, everything is in the details. Acting on base instinct, Mr. and Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) approach a farm to make off with some chickens. Mr. Fox lays out how everything is going to go down, from the fence latch to the trap position to the hiding places. He takes pride at being the best at what he does, but life is short. There's a cub on the way and the real estate market looks promising. Fox trades in his thieving ways for a stable editorial gig at the local paper and moves his family out of the foxhole into a cozy tree. One caveat, according to Fox's lawyer (Bill Murray): His neighbours are none other than Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three farmers so nasty that they are the subjects of unflattering children's limericks.

Meanwhile, Fox's son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) isn't living up to the legend of his father. He can barely play whackbat, a satire of cricket with rules that the high school coach (Owen Wilson) goes over in a blur of complicated instruction (it ends up being pretty important). Ash's athletic, sleek and zen cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) moves in and a rivalry starts for Fox's attention. Ash sees a golden opportunity to impress his dad by exacting a master plan of his own, but Kristofferson can nail a high dive with hardly any splash-back. It's no contest.

Never one to turn down a challenge, Fox wants back into the thievery game and sees the farmers as a golden opportunity. He enlists the help of Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), an opossum who inconveniently tends to go cross-eyed. With Kristofferson's help, they stage raids on the farms, armed with drug-laced blueberries to knock out the guard dogs. Unfortunately, Bean (Michael Gambon) has a world of artillery at his disposal, not to mention a security rat (Willem Dafoe) who seems to have taken tough guy lessons from "West Side Story". Soon, the animals are banding together to survive and looking for revenge under their much cooler Latin designations: Call Fox Vulpes Vulpes.

There are funny moments when the animals revert to their wild tendencies in spite of the fact that they're clad in formal wear, and that indeed seems to be the dichotomy on which the whole narrative is based. If Fox would only resist his animalistic side, he could live a quite satisfying life, but he would be denying his instinct and thereby himself. There are moments of effective introspection, but some feel as though they're there purely for the sake of a toast. The animation is unlike anything I've seen, especially when Anderson pulls out to show his characters running from afar or digging through layers of complex set designs.

I'm not convinced that Anderson's talent with dialogue is entirely suited to a children's tale, but he has certainly made the tale his own. Other than "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", which began and ended for me with the colourful Gene Wilder movie, I had a childhood that was all but bereft of Roald Dahl. Since I didn't read "Fantastic Mr. Fox" growing up, Wes Anderson's adaptation, which is exceptionally creative in its animation, doesn't work for me on the level of a nostalgia kick. It looks pretty cuss spiffy, though.

Jurassic Park

For my money, no modern director is as consistently reliable as Steven Spielberg, who approaches a wide variety of genres with a seemingly tireless eagerness to make exemplars for each. The first three-quarters of "Jurassic Park" is superb adventure filmmaking of the highest order. One scene, in which a Tyrannosaurus Rex breaks free of its enclosure and attacks a group of tourists, remains among one of the most harrowing ever filmed. Before the 21st century Spielberg, who elected to go all George Lucas on a re-released "E.T." that toned down its scarier material, his younger self had no qualms with putting children in harm's way.

As a child, I loved him for it. Sixteen years after I saw the film in theatres, there is still a palpable sense of terror to the T-Rex scene as it nearly crushes the children under a sunroof before flipping the car and grinding it into the muddied road like a finished cigarette. In that scene and others in which dinosaurs are majestically portrayed as having returned to roam the earth after 65 million years, the boy in Spielberg is apparent, using all of the tools at his disposal to recreate the wonder he must have felt at a young age when flipping through illustrations in a grade school science textbook.

I had a first or second row seat for my first viewing of "Jurassic Park". People crammed into theatres to see it , the result of a marketing campaign that spent a dollar for every year that dinosaurs had been extinct. It seemed less a film that a full-on cultural event, something completely unique in light of most of its competition in the summer of '93, which included "Super Mario Bros." and "Last Action Hero". Merchandise and ancillary products dominated store shelves. Toronto named their new basketball team after a dinosaur that no one had so much as heard of three years prior.

Most significantly, "Jurassic Park" was the film that changed the movie-making landscape with regard to CGI. Sequences such as the running of the gallimimus herd and the brachiosaurus encounter, animated by the effects creators at the still teenaged Industrial Light & Magic, opened up doors of possibility for animators still working within the limitations of stop motion on productions. After "Jurassic Park", unreal creatures began to move more fluently, extending the possibilities of the corporeal onscreen.

The film's strongest effects work, however, remains in the realm of animatronics, which have always trumped CGI. The T-Rex is actually there in the frame, screaming like something out of a nightmare as it tears an electric fence to pieces. The potency of "Jurassic Park's" dinosaur scenes comes from the effort of the effects team to study the creatures' behaviour and apply it to their movements. The filmmakers are aware that all most of us know about dinosaurs comes from what we have retained from lessons and theories learned in childhood - the T-Rex can't see you if you don't move; the brontosaurus eats leaves, not people - thereupon building our empathy for the hapless characters as they find themselves at the mercy of natural selection.

For the most part, Michael Crichton and David Koepp's script is wisely fueled by the awe of their characters. These days, the movie starts to lose me around the time Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) has to restore electrical power to the park. Spielberg gets a little too energetic with his camera movements, which try in vain to pump life into the film after the T-Rex scene has shattered the nerves. There are plot holes and conveniences galore, such as the scene where Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) throws a stick at an electric fence to see if it's still working, or the fact that 13-year-old Lex (Ariana Richards) knows how to navigate a UNIX interface to restore the compound's locking mechanisms.

"Jurassic Park" was my introduction to the brilliance of Jeff Goldblum. Viewing Ian Malcolm in the post-Brundlefly context puts a whole new weird spin on his oddly delivered observations regarding chaos theory in the evolutionary process, but he's wasted in the film's second half, where he is positioned in fetishistic shots that linger on his bare chest and placement akin to some kind of fallen Greek deity. Samuel L. Jackson also plays an understated role as one of the park's technicians with an Andy Capp smoke perpetually dangling from his lips, and in his portlier days, Wayne Knight tangles with an acid-spitting dilophosaurus and loses in mucky fashion.

The character I've come to enjoy most is Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), who lived in Crichton's book but dies in the film. In spite of his fatal error in hunting velociraptors, he's the one guy out of the lot I'd trust to escape the island with, as he's the only one who seems to acknowledge exactly what the dinosaurs are capable of. Had he survived, I believe he could have single-handedly prevented the next two installments in the "Jurassic Park" series, or at least brought some much needed good sense to "The Lost World".

John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the showman, cares little for the science behind his attraction. I like his bit of dialogue about the flea circus, pregnant as it is with the idea of trading in things we can't see for things that are too big to imagine, overwhelming ourselves with our own power simply to see if it can be done. "Jurassic Park" is about ambition and a desire for capital triumphing over good ideas, told with an excitement for the scientific method and what becomes possible for the adult who never fully grows out of his childhood fantasies. Spielberg clearly never has.

Funny Face
Funny Face(1957)
½

In my review for "Roman Holiday", I professed my affection for Audrey Hepburn, describing her as an actress I could watch forever. Not many actresses could make the transition mid-picture from bookworm to fashion icon convincingly, but Hepburn is allowed. She always presented a duality of chaste spunk and sex appeal without extending herself too far in either direction. "Funny Face" needs her to be a success.

It also needs Fred Astaire, who by this time in his career had become accustomed to staging scenes of song and dance more organically than the stage could afford. It's especially evident in a scene where fashion photographer Dick Avery and consummate fashion magazine professional Maggie Prescott (played by consummate stage professional Kay Thompson) invent a routine on the spot to fit in at a party of Parisian beatniks. Another film might have seen the disinterested crowd spring into action alongside the leads, but Astair and co-choreographer Eugene Loring are aware of their environments. The stars adapt, rather than vice versa, and the scene works.

Musicals like "Funny Face" exist to showcase the singing and dancing talents of their stars, with a few light and breezy scenes thrown in to set up the next performance. Hepburn, who can certainly dance, makes up for her rather average vocal ability by giving her character some comedic oomph. Dick and Maggie cross Jo's path in a Greenwich Village bookstore, on location to make their Quality cover girl appear more intelligent. The bookish employee haughtily condemns their profession as superficial before they eject her from the store entirely, but Dick sees something in Jo that might sell a lot of magazines. He convinces Maggie to give her a shot at modeling and before long, everyone is off to Paris to launch a new clothing line.

The film is hardly a deep-cutting satire of the fashion industry, but it does play pretension on both sides for laughs. Jo repeatedly advocates for a school of philosophy called "empathicalism", which sounds impossible to discuss with others who don't follow it. Her dream is not to model clothing, but to meet Flostre (Michel Auclair), her hero, a professor of philosophy and the founder of empathicalism. As luck would have it, he lives in Paris and becomes the catalyst to Jo's willingness to travel. Unfortunately, Dick is right about what, exactly, his empathetic mind is good for.

One musical number features Astaire, Hepburn and Thompson enjoying three separate days out in Paris, singing and dancing in split-screen unison. Hepburn's best number takes place in a smoky cafe as she seems to improvise moves to free form jazz and swing, much to the amusing feigned horror on the face of Astaire. At 58 years of age, Astaire largely keeps his own routines reasonable, taking the opportunity to shine as an imagined bullfighter and an acoustic guitar-pounding tortured artist. The Gershwin songs are good, not great, with the title tune serving as the centerpiece.

Director Stanley Donen, who had worked with Astaire previously on "Royal Wedding" and boasted directorial duties on musical classics "On the Town" and "Singin' in the Rain", flirts with a pop sensibility in "Funny Face" that I found especially appealing. I liked the way he plays with photographic images, splashing them with wild colour over songs and dialogue that talk about how magazines influenced 1950s American women. I was hoping that "Funny Face" would delve deeper into ideas concerning celebrity image and femininity, but things are kept swimming pretty close to the surface. Not a single character in the film is self-aware, so no grand lessons are learned other than the obvious. Jo and Dick are happy together, fashion and philosophy be damned.

The Damned United
½

To call football a religion in the UK wouldn't be far off, entangled as it seems to be in age-old church rivalries and characterized by the devoted support of a working class who would rather sing hymns at the stadium than in a pew on Sunday. "You know it's illegal to sign someone on the Sabbath," Manager Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) reminds his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) as they approach the front door of a prospective defender. Maybe just a handshake now, to stay on the side of both divine and state law.

It was Clough's decision to sign Dave Mackay (Brian McCardie) that brought Derby County out of the depths of the English league's second division in 1969, or so he explains to Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent), the team chairman. Longson believes that the players pull rank on management, as do the fans, for that matter. He has a point. Clough could care less about the fans. He has his sights set on getting the best of Don Revie (Colm Meaney), the manager of the successful first division multi-award-winning Leeds United.

Revie seems to have it all together. Before Leeds' first lottery match with Derby, he and his players deboard their bus wearing suits and signing autographs for a collection of excited fans. Clough has carefully set out glasses and a wine bottle with the label facing just the right way. He knows everything about Revie, explaining to Peter that they've lived almost the same life. He knows the shops he probably frequented while living in Middlesbrough. Tonight, he will be Revie's equal at last. And then Clough is snubbed. He spends the game watching Revie coach Leeds animatedly, himself sitting quietly, wondering what Revie's got that he doesn't have.

"The Damned United" gets by on showing hardly any football action. It isn't about the players, after all. Clough talks to his Derby men like a prison warden in contrast to Revie's fatherly demeanor. A former player, he knows the moves but has no gift for relating to his men. He takes on new players like shapeless mounds of clay that he can mold to his liking, never stopping to understand their personalities, only knowing where each man should be according to his ability and what he should do in order to guarantee victory. For a while, things work out for Brian Clough. He's getting to where he believes he deserves to be.

Then, he is offered the position of manager of Leeds United. Revie has left the opportunity for Clough to move in, though he doesn't want him as a successor. Peter doesn't believe that it's a good idea. So much of a team's success, it seems, is in correlation to where the men come from. They know each other, know the community and understand how to function as a unit. Clough sees it as an opportunity to become known for being an even better coach than Revie. He is ravenous for fame, fed by moments such as Muhammad Ali calling him out on international television. Yet when he coaches the men, there is a clear disconnect. Leeds is loyal to Revie. So are the fans, who belt out his praises en masse in song at the matches.

Had he not been fired as Leeds manager, "The Damned United" may have served as Clough's profane epitaph, a curse hurled at all he could never be able to achieve. Director Tom Hooper, who helmed the recent "John Adams" miniseries, positions Sheen in his shots as though he is constantly being outmanned by the upper part of the frame. In one sequence, Clough can't bear to watch the outcome of a Derby match that could make or break his expensive efforts to revive the club. The light from the stadium shines through high windows, bringing him to squint as he tries to go on crowd reaction. Other shots put him on the far left or right in varying degrees of closeup. It is clear that Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan believe that Clough is two men, not one. Without Peter by his side, there is an empty hole in Clough's life that prevents him from achieving his lofty goals, or at least being able to set more reasonable ones.

Sheen is fantastic in the film, at turns cocky and childishly defeated, and it's great to see Meaney play a medium-profile legend. The film builds to a first and final confrontation between Clough and Revie that underscores the reality of what Clough tried to achieve in climbing the ranks of the first division. Was all of his pettiness really only sparked by a handshake? I wanted to see more of Clough's behaviour as a father to his two sons for comparison, given that the film puts such an emphasis on the familial bond that football teams take pride in defending, but it's clear that his approach is flawed. The league may canonize a man for bringing his club competitive glory, but he'll be damned if he doesn't answer to those who made him what he was.

Eldorado
Eldorado(2009)

A man arrives home one night to a window of his modest country house lying in pieces on the porch. The burglar is still upstairs. The man arms himself with a pipe and finds him under his bed. The burglar threatens to knife the man if he comes any closer, so the two are at a stalemate. Enough time passes for the shock of the situation to wear off. The man just wants to get some sleep, but he doesn't trust the burglar, who offers to leave peacefully if he can keep the man's coin jar.

And so the first of many fractured trust issues is presented for Yvan (Bouli Lanners) and Elie (Fabrice Adde). Yvan is a middle-aged used car salesman, sporting a scraggly Lou Albano beard and a garage uniform. Elie is 30, his beard a patchwork by comparison, his greasy hair kept flat by a ball cap. Yvan offers him a ride back to the main road and after a befuddled goodbye, he leaves for work. When he returns, Elie is still waiting. It turns out not many cars use that road. Elie is looking to get to his parents' house near the Belgium-France border. That's what he needed the coins for, he explains. Yvan can sense that he's a junkie. He knows the type. As the men struggle for conversation over the course of their trip, we discover why.

Along their journey, they are introduced to a series of bizarre people and situations including a psychic who collects cars involved in pedestrian deaths, a nudist who claims to be the actor Alain Delon and a doberman bound and hurled from a bridge. Elie reunites with his family, and in the film's best scene, it is understood perfectly what kind of a relationship he has with his father, who never appears onscreen. Elie's mother (FranÁoise Chichťry) explains more about familial tragedy in her eyes than any kind of literally visualized angry encounter ever could.

Individuals who can't seem to find a solid footing in daily life are perfect for road movies. There is a sustained sense of amusement in "Eldorado" that comes out of the fact that Elie and Yvon will never find common ground, yet their budding friendship is a comfort when it appears as though each character has no one left to turn to. They bicker spiritedly over whether or not making a person smoke in a rainstorm is fascist. They try to combat the dangers of drunk driving by taping Yvon's hair to the roof of the Chevy. They offers bits and pieces about their lives, but neither comes to wholly know or trust the other.

What they do reveal packs an effective emotional punch. Lanners, who plays Yvon but also wrote and directed the film, gives just enough of his characters away to make them emotionally sympathetic without spoiling the mystique of their relationship. Belgium has chosen to submit Lanners' film for Academy Award competition and the actor/writer/director stands a good chance of seeing his film reach a wider audience. In addition to some wondrous cinematography that captures the majestic and melancholy tranquility of the Belgian countryside, Lanners' film has heart, imagination and rich metaphors. He puts his characters in simple yet extraordinary circumstances, memorable in their off-centredness, and lets them figure a way out naturally.

Why would Yvan help out the man who tried to rob him? Perhaps it's out of loneliness. Perhaps it's Good Samaritanism. As the film opens, a disheveled man claiming to be Jesus Christ speaks in direct address, offering the instruction that God loves us and that this time, he will not be crucified. One of the men will lose his soul by the end of "Eldorado". The other, having buried his past mistakes, will be left to tread carefully as he tries to find his way home.

Planet 51
Planet 51(2009)
½

Compared to "WALL-E", the Pixar animated film about a robot who journeys into outer space and finds out more about humanity's place in the grand scheme of things, "Planet 51" is pretty inert. It's a film about first contact that succeeds pretty well only when it directly lifts from its predecessor. When Captain Charles T. Baker lands on an alien planet and figures out that the life forms can speak perfect English, he asks for a cappuccino. That's our best of the best right there.

I understand what screenwriter Joe Stillman was going for with Baker. He's a cocky, shallow, chiseled hero type who has no business flying a spacecraft. He would be voiced perfectly by Patrick Warburton. Instead, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has stepped in, marking his latest effort to boost his kid-friendly appeal. I even get that choice, to a certain extent. He's a big guy, a hero type, the kind of guy NASA might send to plant Old Glory on foreign galactic turf. But Johnson plays his character like an overgrown kid who's eaten too many Twix bars.

Baker tells us that "Planet 51" is 20 billion miles from Earth. Fine. It kind of looks like Saturn with a terrestrial composition instead of a gaseous one. Trees and intelligent life flourish. The atmosphere is apparently exactly like ours, because Baker can breathe freely. The aliens are green, sport antennae and have four fingers on each hand. Yes, there is a "Gimme four!" joke. Other than that, they look remarkably human. They wear clothing and have haircuts and run comic books shops.

Baker lands in the town of Glipforg, which looks like Hill Valley from the 1955 segments of "Back to the Future". The vehicles look like the vehicles from the 2015 segments of "Back to the Future Part II". Even though the cars hover, the alien race hasn't seemed to have mastered air travel, and certainly not space travel. Teenager Lem (Justin Long) lands a job at the local planetarium. He thinks the universe is 500 miles wide and that the stars number about a thousand, and no one corrects him. He has a crush on girl next door Neera (Jessica Biel) and his best friend Skiff (Seann William Scott) is a little too attached to robots.

"Planet 51" contains a lot of homages to past works of science fiction like "E.T.", "Jurassic Park" and "Terminator 2", some kind of funny, but none really all that imaginative. The film also has an affection for pulp comics and old sci-fi films from the 50's of the "It Came from Outer Space" variety. Black and white news reports are cheapened by commercials for toothpaste (probably a wise idea not to go with cigarettes). Green versions of Marilyn Monroe grace the pages of entertainment magazines. Young hippies protest for the sake of protesting and get around in space age Volkswagens.

Most interestingly, there is an undercurrent of Cold War paranoia running through the entire picture. A character named General Grawl (Gary Oldman) wants his army to exterminate Baker and spreads propaganda that he is a master of mind control and brainwashing. The kids are taught the duck-and-cover maneuver by their schoolteacher. All the while, Grawl has his opposable olive digit on the red button that will blow everything to hell, or whatever the creatures believe in.

The filmmakers seem very much in tune with darker visions of suburban America, but routinely hold back on expressing them lest things get too dour. The film borrows heavily from "WALL-E", down to a spunky and mute robot character (who is admittedly the most fun to watch). The success of "WALL-E" and "Up" has shown that today's kids can accept and be entertained by heavier thematic material if it's delivered in the right way. "Planet 51" is like a history book with all of the blood and guts blacked out. The teenage melodrama is routine, and there are a couple of dreadfully bizarre and borderline homophobic jokes about anal probing that should have been dropped altogether. The wonder of space travel is turned into a generic fantasy by Baker, who is a complete joke, but kind of a flat one.

"Planet 51" is Ilion Animation Studios' first feature. Based out of Madrid, their animation team shows talent. Considering that it's a film about exploration of the most universal order, I found myself wishing for more depth. Yes, it should keep kids busy for 85 minutes. Satisfying their curiosities about the night sky is another matter.

Garden State
Garden State(2004)

Recently I?ve come across several articles on hipsters and indie cinema that point to ?Garden State? as some sort of (un)holy text, for better or worse. Of note is one written by a personal friend of mine, music and culture enthusiast Matt Buttler, who seems to be arguing on his blog that hipster-dom is a sort of necessary result of the postmodern condition ? that is, a culture of anti-ideas rather than ideas, seeming creative dead-ends rather than new avenues, etc. Matt is responding in part to an article printed in Adbusters last year that made the claim that hipsters marked no less than the end of civilization. This week, Vadim Rizov, who may be my favourite film blogger, posted a rebuke of Twitter users who took part in a meme that defined ?indie? film as such and such, more often than not incorrectly out of ignorance, citing ?Garden State? as the film that kick-started a useless paradigm and stigma about independent cinema.

I don?t think of myself as a hipster, which is, of course, a classic hipster assertion to make. I turned 30 last week and I feel as though I?ve largely outgrown those kinds of definitions. If the definition of a hipster comes down to a lifestyle of constantly attending awful rock shows, making bad or extreme fashion choices, drinking a beer with too many consonants in its name and exhaling sarcasm instead of air, I?m about one for four. This isn?t to say that I?ve never bought an ironic t-shirt, thought that compilations weren?t a spiritual necessity or spouted asinine opinions about contemporary society that had no basis in informed fact. A lot of that comes out of the energy of being young and submitting to the false recognition that life is short, that cool is exclusive or that certain existential dilemmas can?t be solved with a little perspective.

I was first attracted to ?Garden State? because of the music. About a year before its release I took the advice of a friend and started listening to online radio stations to discover new songs, and that?s how I came across ?Breathe In? by Frou Frou, the former dance pop duo comprised of Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth that would come to pop up on ?sounds like Morcheeba? Amazon recommendation lists. I bought the record while on a trip to New York City in June of 2003. Less than a year later, the album?s first track, ?Let Go?, was featured prominently in the teaser trailer to ?Garden State?, which began opening in theatres on July 28th, 2004.
[youtube="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=la53nY41c9M"]
The teaser presents a series of images and brief snippets from many of the more visually alive sequences in the film. Writer/director/star Zach Braff is shown prominently wearing an expression of near catatonia as bizarre things happen around him or to him. A group of people scream for dear life as his plane crashes to the ground. A room full of people move in fast forward as he sits perfectly still on a couch. He is shown wearing a shirt that has been stylized in sync with the wallpaper behind him, causing his torso to blend in to the background. He discovers a torn gas pump handle still attached to his car. Throughout all of these moments, the same expression, the same glassy-eyed acknowledgment that he should be reacting to these incredible circumstances, but somehow can?t. Quotations from Newsweek and efilmcritic.com sell Braff as a young visionary. All the while, Frou Frou?s lilting dance number drives the preview forward, filling the cracks with heart and the melancholy observation that there is beauty in breaking down.

Perhaps my personal discovery of Frou Frou was instrumental in finding "Garden State" so appealing initially. Those who knew of Braff knew him from the popular television sitcom ?Scrubs?, in which he played a goofy medical intern with a bizarre imagination. His prominent presence in a film represented something fresh for a young generation, a new and unique kind of auteur that the youth could call their own without admitting to it. His devoted online presence fueled his fandom and drove scores of people to the theatre and video stores, turning ?Garden State? into a cult classic. Studios began their cookie-cutting process and the inevitable backlash followed. For some, the movie has come to stand for all that is unbearable about Generation Y, a collection of misguided individuals who assembled their cultural histories from soundbytes and conveniently located hyperlinks that teach them all they need to know about how the world works.

When we first see Andrew Largeman in a non-dream state, he is tucked tightly in bed in a purely white room, looking up at the ceiling. His phone rings. It?s his father, calling to tell him that his mother has died. Andrew reacts to the message as though he?s trying to do rudimentary math in his head ? the previous generation dies and leaves the next alone in mental disarray. We discover that Andrew gets through life on a cocktail of lithium and other anti-depressants that keep him functioning, but only barely. Throughout the course of a weekend, he abandons his meds and allows his emotions to surface, whereupon he is able to forgive himself for his mistakes and deal more truthfully with his own life.

The emotional sad sack with psychological issues is the hipster prototype. Kids understand dour and upset. The world is a massive letdown, but that?s sort of comforting. There is a solace in not being all right. It means that a person can be different, more fully individualized in a global village that has suddenly and dramatically shrunk in size. There is a relief in thinking that no one understands. And that?s how the hipster subculture thrives: by a superficially singular yet mutual understanding of a collective?s ironic apart-ness. Back in 2001, Donnie Darko excitedly turned to Gretchen Ross and asked, ?What emotional problems does your dad have?? as though emotional problems were trading cards that could be negotiated for a complete set. In ?Garden State?, Andrew Largeman sports a proud collection, as does old high school friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), though someone has stolen his Wolf Blitzer.

Sam (Natalie Portman) enters Andrew?s life in the waiting room of a doctor?s office. Her affliction is epilepsy. Her medicine is a sense of humour and music. She dares to utter the name of a band that will change Andrew?s life, pouring on the significance of The Shins before a brief few bars of ?New Slang? plays over her grinning face. It?s a moment with little precedent on film. Certainly, characters have luxuriated in music and called artists by name, but an actual, for real ?indie? rock band? The past decade has marked a period of time in which pop radio married itself to hip hop and music video channels stopped playing music videos altogether. How would a young woman in Jersey know of a band out of Portland with a couple of 7-inch singles and a full-length debut released on Sub Pop?

It?s unspoken in the film, perhaps because modern narratives still don't know how to discuss 21st century technology without sounding infantile or corny, but Sam in particular is a child of that technology. The Internet has expanded the definition of what can be called authentic, while simultaneously enforcing authenticity as a prime secular ethic. Anyone can now be the first to hear anything. The moment in ?Garden State? when Sam plays The Shins for Andrew, a band he?s never heard of, attracts hipsters by presenting itself as a moment of unbridled authenticity. The boy listens to the girl?s music and it/she changes his life. She pulls him out of his medication-induced clouded haze to realize that life is worth encountering by showing him that a song can still mean something to two people at the exact same time.

Music?s always had that power. The soundtrack to ?Garden State? is lathered with good, solid songs. They emerge from the narrative like a thoughtfully chosen playlist, repeatedly evoking the right kind of modern emotion. Every song spirals around the loneliness a person can experience when coming of age. Mark tells his mother that he?s only 26 and that he doesn?t want to feel rushed. At 24, I listened and thought, yes, I didn?t want to feel rushed. There?s something about being 23, 24, 25, 26 that makes the rest of a life feel unacceptable somehow. People speed by like blurs and rarely stay. The future is an infinite abyss.

What ?Garden State? does well is sustain a mood and vision that is quite apparently of its writer and director. Braff deserves due credit for it. He has yet to follow it up, and when he does, he won?t be telling the same story. The film is the acute result of being a certain age, feeling a certain way and resisting the belief that everything will change. ?Garden State? is about the process of letting go.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

At the end of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance", James Stewart has finished relaying his story of gunning down the infamous outlaw for a reporter, finally coming clean that it was John Wayne whose aim was true. It won't fly in the press, the reporter famously asserts: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." In spite of its wonderful cinematography and a great performance by Casey Affleck, I was thoroughly let down by "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". It makes the mistake of printing the facts, and too many at that.

The film stars Brad Pitt as the outlaw and he's just fine in the role. Jesse snarls and acts kind of nuts and seems dangerously unpredictable. He's a hero to the young Ford (Affleck), who desperately wants to join his gang. Indeed, Affleck plays the role with a pitiable brilliance - in one scene, he forks over all of the knowledge he's gained about Jesse from the pulp paperbacks that he keeps in a shoebox under his bed, drawing comparisons to himself down to the number of letters in their respective older brothers' names.

Jesse laughs in his face. We kind of want to see him get his due, and this is one of the film's faults - it can't commit to supporting either of its protagonists. There is no indication of why Jesse is the way he is. Keeping him a mystery would be fine if Ford were the focus of the narrative, but for the film's first half, which casts its net too widely in needlessly trying to establish supporting characters, he is not. Finally, Ford jumps into action, dispatching Jesse's cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner) in a gunfight that he had no part in. The kid might have the guts to fire on Jesse after all.

By the gunfight scene, the film had worn me down with its pacing, which is far too gradual and ultimately causes its structure as a whole to collapse from underneath itself. The last half hour offers a potentially fascinating conclusion, but compared to how the film has told the story to that point, everything ends up feeling rushed and superficial. Andrew Dominik, who based his script on the novel by Ron Hansen, would have been wiser to vary his approach with regard to timelines. All of the moments he chooses to chronicle, such as Wood and Dick Liddil's (Paul Schneider) romp up to Jesse's uncle's house and Jesse's relation of his execution of Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) to Robert's brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), might have indeed been necessary, but they aren't placed in a relation to one another that makes them seem particularly relevant to the plot.

Dominik implements a narrator to poetically describe his characters' lives and internalized feelings to the point of absurdity. In one scene, Ford paces around Jesse's house from room to room while the narrator details every move he makes, even though they are plainly visible, robbing Affleck of the chance to communicate his mindset physically. This exhibits only a cowardice in technique, not in Robert Ford. The narrator describes Jesse's home life. A good thing, too, because there would be hardly any indication that he had one otherwise. Poor Mary-Louise Parker is given precious little to do in her role as Mrs. James other than to shriek in horror upon his assassination, the one plot element that holds interest when nothing else of interest really presents itself.

"Assassination" is ultimately a story about how a man like Jesse James, who masterminded nearly 30 holdups, who outsmarted many men to their deaths in the violent environment of the old West, who trusted only two men in 10,000, and then not by much, could be shot by a punk kid with a crush on him. It takes an interesting turn in depicting the aftermath, but the slow buildup to the shooting doesn't allow the film's conclusions regarding Ford's character to carry much dramatic weight. Jesse and Ford's relationship is key, but the film spends far too much time diverting from it in order to pay attention to every single facet of the historical circumstances. In the telling of a legend, that's wholly unnecessary. In the relating of fact, it's tedious.

Coco Before Chanel
½

"Coco" was the name of a lost dog, found in the lyrics of a cabaret performer who refused to take off her clothes for the extra tips. To the rich men in attendance, the name seemed to neatly put in place the winsome creature who wanted nothing more than to go to Paris and seek her fortune, but not at the expense of debasing herself for their sexual pleasure. In "Coco avant Chanel", the creature is portrayed by Audrey Tautou, whose unique countenance commands and informs every scene like an alien presence.

The story of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's rise to fame in the world of fashion is paved with money. Raised in an orphanage before trying her hand at live performance, Coco shows early on an almost sixth sense for the way dresses should fit, preferring comfort over popular style. The warmth of her introduction to millionaire …tienne Balsan (BenoÓt Poelvoorde) might assure her big city success, but her partner and sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) has a chance at upward mobility with a Baron, leaving Coco in the lurch.

With a scant few francs left in her savings and no parents to turn to, Coco has no choice but to appeal to Balsan's attraction and becomes a guest in his house. Stage actress Emilienne d'AlenÁon (Emmanuelle Devos) confirms the suspicion that Coco is not the first to take advantage of Balsan's good graces. Coco is treated as a novelty at parties held to stroke the egos of the French bourgeoisie, men who have never worked a day in their lives, who treat and speak of women as items of property. In one scene, Balsan demands that Coco perform as though she were a trained seal, and Tautou remains in the centre of the shot while drunken revelers carouse around her unfortunate frame.

The film is appropriately subtle in its establishment of Coco's approach to fashion. Her tailored outfits are extensions of her emotions. The deeper her ideological separation from the patriarchal world around her becomes, the more her fashions defiantly tend toward the masculine. As she grows more comfortable in Balsam's house, so do her expressions of distaste for the exploitation of women in a society where money dictates personal, emotional and spiritual achievement. At the turn of the 20th century in Europe, when a woman's fashion choices ran directly in parallel to their sexuality, to see a woman dress proudly like a man must have introduced a buffet of repressed homosexual desire in men and women alike. Addressing the notion of sexual attraction, Coco notes that "skin is skin".

A man enters the picture who seems to sympathize with Coco's avant-garde fashion sense and intelligence. Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola) takes a shine to Coco's independence and admits his fetish with a smirk: "I'm not used to undressing boys". The two fall in love and the independent thought that marriage is little more than a social convention is of little solace to Coco when she cannot have the entirety of her lover's attention. He introduces Coco to Jules Renard and Friedrich Nietzsche and shows her the sea, an expanse of endless opportunity for the free thinker, where Coco sees the blue outfits of the fishermen and logs in her mind how brilliant they appear against the silver glint of the catch.

The textures and motion of fabrics can nearly be felt as Coco gets her hands into her hard work, in contrast to the effete men surrounding her, who take pride in their positions of wealth without lifting a finger unless it's to cheer a racehorse. Tautou is at turns radiant and reserved as Coco. She never offers a dishonest smile as she walks proudly in detailed outfits that inject her character with more than words could say. Writer/director Anne Fontaine and her crew of costume designers tell half of Chanel's story through dress. There is not an outfit or hairstyle that isn't meant to portray the bearing and social beliefs of the character. It is a treat to watch Coco move provocatively, comfortably, and yes, elegantly through a crowd in clothing that she deems beautiful according to the standards set by her own imagination and talent.

While the film admirably captures the part of Chanel's life that it advertises, I fear that Western audiences may be too unfamiliar with Chanel's life to feel satisfied with what it ultimately offers. Based on the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Fontaine's narrative pays too long an attention to Chanel's life at Balsan's mansion without making enough significant plot developments. As a result, the film drags in areas and ends too shortly after its climax. Tautou is great as the quintessential New Woman, though. She has a unique look that singles her out in a room full of dying archetypes.

Pirate Radio (The Boat That Rocked)
½

Watching "Pirate Radio" is like taking part in a 135-minute high school cafeteria food fight. At first, you can't believe everyone's getting away with it, but at around the 30-minute mark you kind of become desensitized to the dessert-flinging and start to realize what a giant mess everything is.

A shame, because there is some great talent in the film. In an early scene, young Carl (Tom Sturridge) is introduced to the crew of the Radio Rock, and my grin widened as the character actors stepped forward: Nick Frost, Rhys Darby, Chris O'Dowd, Katherine Parkinson. These are people I know and love from television and film and to see them all gathered in one place gave me high hopes for "Pirate Radio". As if things couldn't be looking better, Rhys Ifans and Bill Nighy were on board, and the one and only Philip Seymour Hoffman looked to be performing a role akin to Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous". One of the simple joys in life is watching Hoffman rock out to late 60's era rock n' roll music, an extensive playlist of which is present in "Pirate Radio".

Unfortunately, these terrific actors spend almost absolutely no time at all talking about the music. We see them on their boat in the North Sea, broadcasting The Who and The Rolling Stones to millions of listeners, much to the chagrin of the British government. Each DJ has his own shtick in place to build a cult of personality and tempt scores of women onto the boat for a quick shag. We understand quickly that the pirate's life is hedonistic and desirable and cool. But what about the songs? Why do these people feel it necessary to spend their lives at sea, other than the fact that rock n' roll allows them to take advantage of their lifestyles?

Hoffman's character, the Count, is a total lite version of Bangs. He's an American DJ who came aboard the ship in the absence of Gavin (Ifans), a Brit who left for greener pastures in America. For whatever unexplained reason, Gavin has decided to come back and a rivalry grows between the two. It is a competition that should blossom out of a mutual respect, but respect for what? Where do these men come from? Besides a desire to ruffle the feathers of the powers that be, what fuels their drive to get rock n' roll out to the masses? "These are the best days of our lives," the Count tells Carl as the ship's time at sea seems to be drawing to an end. Carl doesn't believe him, and it's no wonder.

The powers that be are tightly encased within Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a government minister with a very precise haircut. Branagh puts in the film's sharpest comedic performance. His second in command is Twatt (Jack Davenport), who digs up as much ammunition against the rogue DJs as he can to shut their operation down. It is a testament to Branagh's brilliance that I laughed every single time he offered a bit of dialogue that played on his subordinate's name ("Well done, Twatt").

The film contains several storylines involving the loss of Carl's innocence, the identity of his real father, the short-lived marriage of one character to a fan, and Dormandy's efforts to shut the radio station down. Director Richard Curtis periodically gives us shots of young people tuning in to the broadcasts and eating up the words and music of the DJs, sneaking radios under their pillows and into bathrooms to indulge in their rock n' roll fantasies. Things turn a bit hectic for the ship in the film's conclusion with some nice camerawork and harrowing action.

"Pirate Radio" embellishes a lot on the practices of pirate radio stations of the era including Radio Caroline, but not a lick of this story is true. I liked the film's energy, but it's only sporadically funny and it doesn't have an affection for the songs and records that a story like this should have. Released overseas as "The Boat that Rocked", "Pirate Radio" suffers from editing problems that leave its characters to flounder. The DJs don't seem to be serving any sort of socially important function, but are instead living selfishly for the glorification of their immature egos. Near the end of the Radio Rock's short-lived seafaring career, each crew member throws their hands in the air and salutes rock n' roll. They all know the moves, but no one knows the music.

2012
2012(2009)
½

Movies like "2012" make me miss Charlton Heston. That's what this movie needs: a square-jawed, histrionic, tough son of a bitch with crazy mannerisms to lead everyone to safety. Instead, we get John Cusack playing a kind of wimpy divorcee and unsuccessful author who would rather surf the Internet than play with his kids on a camping trip. I like Cusack. When he has a good script, he can be all things to all men. Here, he's treading water.

Granted, it's a whole lot of water. "2012" sports some of the best computer effects work I've seen in any film. It is directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, whose films have provided spectacle on a grand scale for quite a few years now. "Independence Day" unleashed aliens to wreak havoc on Washington and New York City. "The Day After Tomorrow" put the world into another ice age. Emmerich has made a career out of tearing the planet apart.

A decade ago, disaster pictures were all the rage to the point of repetition. In 1997, we saw dueling volcano films. In 1998, no less than two enormous asteroids threatened global extinction. With the onset of CGI, the 90's represented the first time these events happened convincingly on screen and production companies threw everything they had at the wall. Emmerich himself showed us the White House exploding. He sent devastating rivers of flame through city streets as the glass blew out from skyscrapers and he provided a visual of the Statue of Liberty frozen in time.

"2012" begins with a shot straight out of "2001: A Space Odyssey". The planets align vertically and we sense that something is cosmically amiss, yet the humbling visual is disrupted by a violent explosion from the sun's surface. There's so much in this shot that is indicative of where Emmerich is coming from in his storytelling. The world can be a place of unacknowledged pain and suffering. Our daily lives are inappropriate responses to our fragility and the violent forces in the universe will one day teach us a lesson.

In the film, Jackson Curtis (Cusack) has written a book about Atlantis. Geologist come high-ranking U.S. official Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) recognizes him. He's just made it to the part of the book where the good side of human nature triumphs in the face of adversity. Will that be the case in light of the real world's destruction? You'll find out, as things start to get bad for the planet. Real bad. "Independence Day" was a cakewalk compared to the scenes of destruction that Emmerich presents in "2012".

I recall being darkly fascinated by stories of the world's end as a kid, having no real concept of that kind of chaos. Such visuals as the explosion of Yellowstone National Park and the descent of Las Vegas into the earth's splitting crust offer moments approaching poetic beauty. An enormous fireball erupts in the sky and the characters are speechless. They fly planes through debris and witness the horrific detail of people hanging out of office buildings that have been cracked wide open by expanding fissures. There is no bigger action picture concept than the end of the world, and "2012's" special effects team brings the cataclysm to violent life.

Like the popular disaster pictures from the last decade, the film contains all of the cliches: the romantic couple rekindling their love, the dog in peril, the impassioned speech about human decency from a government member, ironic mentions of the end of the world in conversations and song lyrics. "2012" makes attempts to involve the international community by having characters from other nations speak different languages, though everyone seems to know English.

Emmerich is obsessed with landmarks and well known objects, tossing them in willy-nilly purely for the visceral thrill of seeing them break apart. At one point, an enormous ship careens full speed ahead into Air Force One even though the odds of such an event happening are astronomically against. Giant arks designed to save humanity are launched in China, inexplicably in the direction of Mount Everest, to provide the film's climatic sequence.

All of the characters conveniently seem to know one another in different contexts. There is a bad guy (Oliver Platt), whose black-and-white thinking is supposed to make us take a look inward at our own moral centres. There are countless scenes in which characters say goodbye to each other. Sometimes they are too late and we are given a moment to think about how tragic that is before a tsunami tosses an aircraft carrier into the White House, the building that just can't catch a break in an Emmerich film.

The ancient Mayans, who have been acknowledged as the inventors of the supposed clock that is clicking down to December 21, 2012 as the last day on Earth, are mentioned a grand total of one time. Religious explanations are given equally short shrift. The rest of the film is jam-packed with scientific blather about geological events that some scientist first witnessed back in the 1950s. Perhaps that's for the best, because where "2012" could be insufferable in its explanations, it is instead merely unexceptional.

What does the disaster movie have left to destroy? The whole world has been ground up and spit out by this point on the grandest level imaginable. I can't envision another film that could do our planet a greater amount of damage. For the sake of the talented effects artists who worked on "2012", I'll mean that as a compliment.

Playtime
Playtime(1973)

I took a course in auteur theory at University that focused on four comedy writers and directors. The syllabus included Chaplin and Keaton, of course, as well as Jerry Lewis, all of whom I had heard of and seen before, all of whom have their rightful places in the annals of American film comedy. The fourth name was new to me: Jacques Tati, a French filmmaker, who had apparently directed and starred in some movies called "Mon Oncle", "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" and "Play Time". A lesser-known name thrown in for credibility's sake, I probably thought. He had a foreign film Oscar under his belt. Good for him.

The Tati films astounded me with their narrative bravery. They weren't comprised of jokes, per se. They didn't feature Groucho Marx wagging his eyebrows and mustache, or Lewis crossing his eyes, or the dexterity of Keaton and Chaplin's physical abilities and timing. Tati was much, much more subtle. On the Criterion release of "Play Time", film historian Philip Kemp calls Tati's work a "democratic" style of comedy. Several developments occur on the screen simultaneously, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what's funny.

To the uninitiated, this is a daunting and seemingly meaningless task. It presupposes that watching a film is not purely a passive process, but an active one in which the viewer must pick and choose the parts they find of interest. Tati conducted his democratic experiments by offering a wide field of view in which to place his actors. In the case of "Play Time", he shot in the enormous 70mm resolution, the same resolution used for epics such as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Sound of Music". A massacred 35mm print of the film was the only one largely available until the 2006 Criterion edition, which is the only version that should be seen. Since much of the film's visual humour relies on an extremely large space to become apparent, it is lost without the original ratio left intact.

Consider a scene in which two apartments are shown from the outside through large picture windows. The occupants each watch televisions that are installed on opposite sides of the same wall, but at certain angles the entire group of people looks to be in the same room. A man begins to disrobe or bends over and a woman in the next apartment appears to watch or recoil. It is necessary to see the edges of the frame in order for Tati's ideas to be communicated. Understanding Tati's concepts is one of the rewards of watching the film, even if it requires a little effort. Another reward is knowing that, by virtue of the democratic presentation, the film may never be viewed the same way twice.

The "characters" in Tati's films, such as they are, hardly speak, including the bumbling Monsieur Hulot, who wanders between situations with his pipe and umbrella in place along with a trench coat and hat to complete the ensemble. These are the features of a cartoon character, akin to Chaplin's bowler hat and mustache, Keaton's porkpie hat or Harold Lloyd's glasses. By "Play Time", the world recognized Hulot, but Tati was tired of the persona and decided to have fun with it. As a result, a running gag involves a series of false Hulots who are meant to throw us off track.

The multiple Hulots gag is also a terrific reflection of "Play Time's" thematic concerns of the world's transformation into a processing plant of repetitive technologies and identities. Tati's observations about the modern world remain thoroughly current. American tourists are shown acting excited over the American-ness of a modern home exposition, rather than the differences the city of Paris has to offer. Technologies and gadgetry are portrayed as complicated nuisances that suit no functional purpose. The elaborate glass environments were constructed by Tati at great personal cost to the filmmaker, who suffered such a financial loss in producing the film that he never made another.

"Play Time" takes place in a handful of locations, though the opulence of Paris is only shown briefly in the reflections of doors leading into cold and sterile office building environments. The tourists try to position passersby in front of a lone flower stand amidst the dull blues and greys of the immense concrete jungle in order to take pictures of the city that will feel more authentic. In one scene, Hulot attempts to find a man on an office floor littered with self-contained cubicles. He navigates the giant room like a maze as we watch at a camera angle positioned high above it all. He sits on chairs that take odd shapes and emit odd sounds under his weight, only to accidentally end up next door at an exhibitor who is selling the chairs for office use.

Then there is the sequence in the night club, which is so new and exclusive that its construction isn't finished when the patrons start to arrive. One of my favourite gags involves a loose tile in the middle of the dance floor, which the staff remembers to step over exaggeratedly. Hulot accidentally shatters the front door, leaving the doorman to hold the handle and pretend that there is still a door in place. And a fiasco involving a collapsed bit of decorative trimming affords some patrons the opportunity to create an even smaller, more exclusive club near the kitchen.

If met with an open mind, "Play Time" is a thoroughly ideal viewing experience. Its wide expanses of activity are wondrous to behold and it plays as though we are spending time at these locations, watching the interesting people who pass by. The project may have ruined Tati financially, but he got to create exactly the type of film he wanted to create. "Play Time" is not so much a film as the quite literal projection of a funny and inventive imagination reacting to a society that would rather keep it cubically contained.

The Night of the Hunter

I get a charge out of old films that twist the mid-20th century American Judeo-Christian religious ethic into something disturbing and subversive. My dad's a religious man who loves a good western. I wonder what he made of Robert Mitchum in his role as a psychotic, murdering preacher hellbent on stealing from widows. He probably didn't see it. Not many did, after all, but it serves to reaffirm my own belief that Mitchum is one of the great actors of any era, former or current.

There weren't a lot of films quite like "Night of the Hunter", at least until long after its 1955 release. I wasn't aware of it until earlier this year, when I saw it starting to pop up as a forgotten classic on a few best-of lists. There is a bit of the disturbed Reverend Powell in Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and the Ghost Face Killer. The film's main characters, a young brother and sister, are relentlessly chased downstream by Powell on a river that snakes through the midwest. They make their way across farmlands that clearly appear to have influenced Tim Burton's darkly imaginative set designs and hide in a barn as Powell's silhouette is seen riding eerily against the horizon, singing a hymn that would bring a congregation to a hesitating silence.

It is during the time of the Great Depression, when orphaned children were forced to knock on doors for handouts of food and clothing. There doesn't seem to be much of God in the suffering. Out of desperation, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) commits murder and makes off with $10,000 in cash. He is arrested in front of his son John (Billy Chapin), who promises his dad to keep the money's hiding place a secret. It is stuffed into the plaything of Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), who is too young to see its value and cuts the bills up into paper dolls.

The father is executed, but not before putting the idea of the money's whereabouts in the head of his cellmate. Powell has a racket of courting widows until he is able to rob them of their funds and has left a trail of bodies in his wake. He is under the delusion that he is performing the Lord's work and talks to God as he navigates country roads in a stolen car. Dressed in an ominous black getup and sporting tattoos on his fingers that spell out "LOVE" and "HATE", Powell is nevertheless able to charm townspeople all over Ohio with his charisma and unique philosophies on God's will.

Powell introduces himself to the widow Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and is soon able to work his way into their marriage bed, which he soundly condemns shortly after she gazes fondly at her body in the mirror. In one of the film's best scenes, Powell stands in the foreground with his back to the camera as Willa seems trapped in the space between his accusing gaze and the foreboding black jacket hanging on the bathroom door. She moves across the room to look into a mirror and the shot switches to show the look of overbearing scorn on Powell's face as he preaches that her body is a temple.

The film is operatic in its treatment of Powell's madness. The sets look obviously constructed and recede deeply into the frame, making the characters appear grotesque and isolated. I was struck by the way its framing worked in perfect conjunction with the performances to create a tense yet comedic atmosphere. Upon a first consideration, Winters' character seems almost laughably awful as she spouts trite and weak-willed dialogue. We can't imagine that she could possibly marry this man, who seemed to enter her life with such ease. Yet she readily suits her purpose, which is to heighten the sickness of Powell's murderous, misogynistic persona behind the cloth. She cannot last under the tight hold he has on her.

There is a longstanding feeling of horror in the idea that man can turn to God and find the Devil. It is in the works of Flannery O'Connor and other writers in the Southern Gothic tradition, along with the Davis Grubb source material. Director Charles Laughton, screenwriter James Agee and cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who shot Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons", greet the gothic themes with a feverish Expressionist energy, creating distorted yet hyperreal environments for their characters to run in. Balancing Mitchum's creepy preacher is Lillian Gish as a saintly orphanage matron, whose readings of the Bible and loaded shotgun attempt to restore a sliver of sanity to the narrative.

Robert Golden's editing work intercuts phallic metaphors of speeding trains and sprung jackknives to indicate the threat of rape. Hardly any of the violence is shown, but his dramatic use of shadows and light make the darkness a palpable threat, especially once John and Pearl are on their own, running scared. The film is peppered with unsettling musical numbers about death sung by children in innocent, angelic voices. There is a mania to how things transpire and it is consistently driven by Mitchum's insane and often hilarious performance. As the children hide in a cellar, he pokes his head in from the top of the stairs, announcing, "I can feel myself getting awful mad" in the voice of a bedtime storyteller raising the curtain on a nightmare.

This was the only major film directed by Laughton, who had a slate of successful acting work in films such as "Spartacus" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". In "Hunter", he offered the kind of wildly inventive suspense picture that infuriated critics and studios wishing to brand the film as one thing or another. It recalls to mind the craziness of Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly", released the same year, also overlooked and just as influential by virtue of its desire to be a nail in the coffin of film genre. Sometimes the benefits of hindsight are tenfold.

The Boys Are Back

"The Boys are Back" is a surprisingly effective melodrama about the loss of a loved one. It feels like familiar territory but is so understated, so void of clichť and so nice to look at. It is directed with care by Scott Hicks, known widely for 1996's "Shine", which earned him a couple of Oscar nominations. His recent documentary on Philip Glass should be seen by more people.

"The Boys are Back" is based on a memoir by Simon Carr, a sports writer and columnist, whose young wife passed away in 1994 after a battle with cancer, leaving Carr with a six-year-old son to take care of. Joe Warr is masterfully played by Clive Owen. Having never fully matured, Joe is at odds with any maternal instincts that his wife Katy (Laura Fraser) may have influenced. There is the obligatory scene where Joe sits with his young son Artie (Nicholas McAnulty) to explain his mother's inevitable passing, but look at how the scene is played for authenticity over saccharine dramatic impact. Artie swings a monkey around his head, asking if she'll be dead by dinnertime.

A wordsmith by profession, Joe notes via an opening narration that the map of a child's mind is chaotic and ever-revolving. Artie runs around the house after his mother's funeral, playing with an airplane. Such behaviour draws unimpressed stares and sympathetic protests, but Joe allows it. It is never voiced, but there is a guilt over his shoddy abilities as a father swimming in his heart. Katy picked flowers from the garden, he explains. She took care of the chores, knew her son's teacher and cut the crusts from his sandwiches. All Joe did was watch.

Eventually, Joe finds his niche. The motto of his household becomes "Just say yes." To assuage Artie's temperament, Joe lets him get away with things that send the community's mothers into shock. He lets Artie take the wheel on rainy nights to douse the car with water. Football in the house becomes commonplace. "It's what he needs," Joe tells Laura (Emma Booth), a single mother who wonders if he is simply taking the easy way out.

Just when Joe seems to have established a parenting rhythm, the dynamic is disrupted. In the film's second act, we are introduced to his teenage son Harry (George MacKay), a child from a former marriage who carries feelings of abandonment. The film is tightly paced thanks to the evolving relationships shared by the principal male roles. Joe's home begins to look and feel like paradise, but until Joe finally matures and sees the need his sons have for some real direction, their lives with each other will ultimately be crushed by the weight of their mother's absence.

Hicks dwells on the romantic, hilly coastal landscapes of Australia as the wind caresses wheat fields, trading such shots in for the light of dingy street lamps shining through rain collecting on car windows to suit the emotion of his scenes. This is all complimented by a score performed by Sigur Ros, who refrain from meeting the film's most dramatic moments with customary bombastic string movements, painting them instead with light and fitting melancholy accents.

What separates "The Boys are Back" from similar melodramas is Clive Owen's tender performance. He has visions of his deceased wife at the grocery store and other places. They engage in conversation as he appeals to her memory for help. In another film, these scenes might have felt too ham-handed, but Owen plays them just right as a man desperately trying to do the right thing for his family, and for himself.

The film recognizes the small moments that comprise father-son relationships. Not being a father myself, I nevertheless identified with the depth of Joe's hurt as his son tells him that he wants to live elsewhere, and the response of Artie to Joe's every decision and action. Whether he likes it or not, Joe is an exemplar to his sons in most facets of their development into young men. Harry offers Joe the opportunity to recognize that a young life is processional, not static. His sons will grow up one day. He'd better make sure he gets there first.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

The line between genius and insanity is an optical illusion. It may appear to be thin, but when examined closely, it's actually pretty damn thick. War is an insane activity that requires genius to achieve victory. When the strategies of generals are boiled down to the essential, casualties and violence are variables in an equation. When considering "The Men Who Stare at Goats", I am reminded of General Buck Turgidson's appeal to the Commander-in-Chief in "Dr. Strangelove": "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops!"

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" is based on Jon Ronson's book about the training of American "psychic warriors" after the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It is the story of the establishment of the First Earth Battalion by Jim Channon, who wrote the battalion's manifesto, which is more of an instruction manual comprised of lengthy descriptions of new age military philosophy accompanied by whacked-out drawings of men summoning the psychic power to pass through walls. Channon is portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the film and renamed Bill Django, though why a man who considers himself a warrior monk would require that kind of anonymity is never explained.

The film is narrated by Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a small-time news rag correspondent working shortly after 9/11. He first learns about the New Earth Army while interviewing a nutjob (Stephen Root) who claims to have been trained to develop the psychic ability to kill his hamster. It's nothing compared to Lyn Cassady, he explains. He could stop the heart of a goat. Bob's wife has begun an affair with his one-armed editor (ouch) and Bob sees no recourse but to hurl himself into covering the Iraq War conflict. A tear rolls down his face as then-President Bush talks about American willpower on his television set. It is time for Bob to find the meaning in his life.

The universe intervenes and tosses Bob onto the same Kuwait restaurant patio as Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former special op who trained with the New Earth Army and has been "reactivated" to complete an unspecified mission in Iraq. Lyn believes that meeting Bob is fate, a natural result of his "Jedi" life philosophy. He describes his ability to "remote view" people and places and the role he played for the U.S. military to do just that.

I'm using a lot of quotation marks here. Lyn has an incredibly deep and disciplined understanding of universal harmony and pulled me into his lexicon of terms. He tells Bob the story of the establishment of the New Earth Army and Django, who was moved to write his manual after noticing the tendency of most new soldiers to aim high or feign distraction when told to fire on someone. The NEA operates on the belief of a fundamental decency in human beings and a connection of the human spirit to the earth. Rather than barking orders, Django leads his men in mantra-chanting and flowery hooey.

Bob finds it all fascinating, and so did I, frankly. Clooney is a wizard in the role, dialing back his suave persona to play a man who looks and behaves as though he is completely centred in a wholly unique frame of mind. He is perfectly offset by McGregor, a brilliant casting choice given his ties to the Star Wars franchise. Kevin Spacey also appears as a psychic warrior who is jealous of Lyn's abilities and turns the whole operation to his own gain.

The film is told partly in flashback until the two timeframes coincide. Peter Straughan's screenplay is full of small, humourous bits of detail and dialogue to show that Lyn is both completely nuts and some kind of superman. The exchanges between Clooney and McGregor are alive in their bizarreness and terrifically acted as Bob tries to reason with Lyn, who tells him that he's missing the point. The film needs Bob, a character who is looking to take a leap, in order to ground what we're being asked to accept. McGregor was popularized in the West as the narrator who sarcastically told an audience to "choose life". Here, he's had a religious awakening and is preaching every last ridiculous tenet of the dogma.

The modern war on terror, a loosely defined war to begin with, ultimately affords these insane characters the opportunity to try out new tactics of psychological warfare. Most famously, Ronson's story brought about media reports on the use of the "I Love You" theme from the Barney & Friends television show to torture Iraqi prisoners. Politically, the film sides firmly with Kubrick in its juxtapositions of silliness and tragedy. Trying to find meaning in war is difficult, especially if you're trying to shake off an LSD trip.

The Fourth Kind

"The Fourth Kind" is a curious bit of filmmaking from Olatunde Osunsanmi, who takes the recent found footage approach to horror and combines it into a rigamarole of a plot about alien abduction. The film stars Milla Jovovich, who plays herself as well as a woman named Dr. Abigail Tyler. Milla, not Abigail, introduces the film by explaining that what we're watching is essentially a dramatization of events combined with actual recorded video and audio footage captured in Nome, Alaska back in October of 2000. It is also, apparently, "very disturbing".

What unfolds is the story of Abigail, the real version of whom we are periodically shown in a sit-down interview with the director at a university two years after the events occurred. She is a psychologist who witnessed the violent murder of her husband and has taken his research work on as her own. The people of Nome all come to her with the same problem. They try to sleep at night, but are confronted by the haunting appearance of an owl at their windows. Abigail implements hypnosis to get at her clients' subconscious minds and they react violently, pitching themselves around the room and reacting to voices in their heads.

An alien abduction theory begins to take hold of Abigail's methods, especially after she is made privy to an audio recording of what happens in her bedroom after she falls asleep. This is all intercut with supposedly real footage (it's not) of the actual cases. At points, the original events and reenactments are played simultaneously, separated from each other by shifting black bars, appropriately creating a hypnotic effect. In her footage, the real Abigail looks as white as a ghost, and we gradually come to find out why as she (Milla) attempts to get closer to the truth of what is actually going on.

For about the first 15 minutes, the structure is engaging, but the film's biggest fault is its ceaseless efforts to beat its form and style over the head of the viewer. We are constantly reminded of the presence of the actual footage. Several scenes build tension but are consistently a letdown because the filmmakers are going for realism, which aggravatingly then gives way back to performance. The film falls into the trap of what ruins most alien abduction plots: We never quite see what's going on, and what we do see makes us skeptical instead of terrified.

About the only thing the film has going for it is its cast, who would have been better off in a film that just played things straight. Will Patton is a gritty, disbelieving sheriff who knows everyone in Nome by heart. Hakeem Kae-Kazim is Professor Awolowa Odusami, an expert in Sumerian culture who has some answers about what the aliens, if they exist, are trying to communicate. The always reliable Elias Koteas is Abel, a sympathetic colleague of Abigail's trying to ensure that she doesn't go crazy. All of their characters have assumed names, see, because what happened was so disturbing. We know it's disturbing, because the movie tells us so.

It's difficult to imagine the kind of reception "The Fourth Kind" would have seen in a year that didn't offer the "Paranormal Activity" warhorse. Though "The Fourth Kind's" execution results in a complicated, unscary mess, its approach is ambitious. Osunsanmi has a good sense of atmosphere that is most dramatically felt in the soundtrack, but he pollutes things with ideas that begin as intriguing yet become repetitive and obvious. "The Fourth Kind" has the gall to tell us to our faces that we should make up our own minds about what we've just seen. Consider it done.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

The beauty of a trilogy is that it lends the hero plenty of time to mess things up. Dramatic tension across a series of films is entirely different from that seen in a self-contained production. "The Empire Strikes Back" was the first Star Wars film released in my lifetime. I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in a theatre and watch its series of tragedies and surprises unfold, to witness the audience reactions as the film tossed them into a stone wall at full speed. When Luke (Mark Hamill) hangs suspended from the intestinal antennae at the base of Cloud City, there is a "How did I get here?" moment that is unparalleled in the cinema-going experience. No hero had a worse time of things than Luke in "Empire", and he wouldn't find his footing again for a whole three years.

George Lucas, who wrote and directed "A New Hope", had turned over the reigns of his vision to director Irvin Kershner along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Brackett came from a career writing John Wayne pictures such as "Rio Bravo" and "El Dorado", among others. He knew that audiences could better connect to a hero by virtue of their vulnerability. The relative rookie Kasdan would go on to help create a hero named Indiana Jones.

It is Kershner who is never given nearly enough credit for serving as the film's director. He had before him the formidable task of matching the first picture's originality and success. He did so by approaching "Empire" as a Shakespearean character drama first and foremost. There is more Hamlet to Skywalker than Buck Rogers.

Structurally, "Empire" is worlds away from every other installment in the entire Star Wars series. Hamill spends over half of the film acting onscreen alongside a beeping droid and a Jim Henson muppet. Thanks to the haunting set decoration that constructs the world of Dagobah, combined with the dedicated vocal performance of Frank Oz and the puppeteering team behind Yoda, they are the film's best scenes.

"Empire" is thick with philosophy. While Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) introduced millions to the nature of the Force in "A New Hope", "Empire" establishes it as the true existential battleground of the series. Even the scoundrel Han Solo (Harrison Ford), cocky and handy with a pistol (remember that he shot Greedo first), is crippled by the ease of Vader's control over his weapon. Bravery only takes a Jedi so far. It his ability to put himself in tune with the natural world, to bring on a transcendental at-oneness within himself, that guarantees his ability to confront the dark side.

The film is never overtly about the martial art of Skywalker's training. Yoda's abilities and instruction point Luke toward the truth. He must choose between staying on Dagobah to complete his lessons or to leave and save his friends, whose future is uncertain. As a kid, I used to dread the scene in which Luke confronts himself in the cave, slicing the head from Vader to reveal his own smoking face underneath the horrific armor. At the level of symbolism, it may well be the series' most powerful sequence.

The ghost of Ben Kenobi warns Luke that if he chooses to leave, he must face Vader alone. Later, Luke will be clutching a severed appendage in agony, hopelessly asking the atmosphere of Cloud City why he has been foresaken - by Ben, and by his father, who has turned his back on goodness. This is Luke's entrance into individuality. It is the completion of his training. He sports a deformity that he must embrace in order to sympathize with Vader's condition. Luke will be further tested by the dark side in "Return of the Jedi". At the end of "Empire", he is left to lick the horrific wounds inflicted by his first encounter.

The film contains a multitude of images that bring back childhood impressions of the cinema. To shelter Luke from the freezing winds of the ice planet of Hoth, Solo slices open the belly of a Tauntaun, exposing grey and white organs that spill out into the snow. A giant serpent-like creature nearly digests the Millennium Falcon after Solo, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) narrowly escape it jaws. Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) finally captures Solo with the aid of the Empire, who encase Solo in carbonite with a look of intense pain preserved on his face.

What I've always liked most about the film is the fortitude of its characters. Solo and Skywalker balance each other perfectly throughout the trilogy, but here they are pulling equal duty, with Hamill and Ford scarcely sharing scenes. Solo's bravado is traded in for Skywalker's meditative training and vice versa. Carrie Fisher as Leia takes a far more active role as an adventurer, rather than simply the princess who needs to be rescued. Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian provides an affecting trap. I recall feeling great disappointment with each viewing of the betrayal scene, eagerly anticipating the moment he gains some redemption. And Yoda exemplifies why I'll always prefer live action puppetry to CGI. The computer-rendered Yoda of Episodes II and III drains the heart of the creature in "Empire", whose feeble and lifelike exterior teaches us that appearances can be deceiving.

Star Wars was part of a lot of childhoods. The films are extraordinarily rich in re-watch value. I've seen "Empire" far more times than I can count. The script is so effective at delivering small bits of dialogue and tiny plot advancements that they can be experienced anew with every viewing. I'm not the convention-going type, but I identify far more with the emotional value of the Star Wars universe than that of most other films.

Part of that is no doubt rooted in nostalgia. I've spent the last year or so thinking about 10 films that I'd consider my all-time favourites. "The Empire Strikes Back" completes the list. About a third of that list is populated by movies I've watched over and over again since I began watching movies over 20 years ago. Films like "Empire" established my capacity for film appreciation by drawing me in with their stories, universal in truth and imagination.

"The Empire Strikes Back" is a film of both hard-fought victories and Promethean consequences. It revels in the luxuries that a second part can afford, daring to stand on its own as better than its final act because it makes no excuses for the pain of sacrifice. For a moment, the dark side wins. Outside of the realm of fantasy, but well within the realm of tragedy, that rings true.

Interview with the Vampire
½

Garlic and stakes through the heart are old wives' tales. Coffins are an unfortunate necessity. "I actually like staring at crucifixes," a man claiming to be a vampire tells a reporter in a modern apartment room somewhere in downtown San Franciso one night. Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) is there to set the record straight. Forget about that Dracula nonsense. He was the product of a drunken fool of an Irishman.

Breaking up sure is hard to do, especially if you've spent the last 200 years attempting to get over your first time. That is, essentially, what Neil Jordan's "Interview with the Vampire" boils down to. For vampires as for virgins, their first time is a life-changing experience that can never be repeated, no matter how many times a night they are able to feed afterward. The movie's homosexual undertones are not subtle; in fact, for a while there, the filmmakers make a pretty good argument for gay marriage.

The monkey wrench in that machinery is Claudia, played by a very young Kirsten Dunst, who effortlessly delivers the film's strongest performance. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, who plays the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt, are fine, capable actors, but they struck the completely wrong tone here. Cruise in particular looks almost embarrassingly made up in his role. Rarely is he able to break through the undeniably obvious fact that, underneath the blonde straggly wig and pale makeup, Lestat is simply Tom Cruise with sharper teeth.

Pitt is not much better, but at least he is somewhat believable as a lost soul. He is able to cast baleful, melancholy looks in spite of the demonic contacts that look impressive yet seem to go unnoticed by his myriad of victims over the years. As the film opens, Louis is still alive in modern times and enlists the aid of a reporter (Christian Slater) to tell his story, which is ultimately lacking in philosophical detail. Who spends 200 years alive and yet learns so little about how the world works?

To Louis' credit, not many of the other vampires seem to have much of a clue about the grand scheme of things either. He is given eternal life after Lestat discovers him, distraught and suicidal over the death of his wife and children. The two live together for years in New Orleans, feasting on the occasional human sacrifice to sustain their health (understandably, Louis can't immediately bring himself to kill humans, so he swigs back rat blood like spring water). Giving in to his hunger one night, Louis bites into an orphaned girl and Lestat takes pity on his conscience, lending her eternal life as well. And then there were three.

As 10-year-old Claudia, Dunst is viciously self-aware and merciless. She bears a grudge to Lestat for her inability to grow up and dispatches him with trickery. His body is dumped in a swamp, but it's hard to keep a good vampire down, and Lestat returns with fiery results. Louis can't help but feel a little guilty in the midst of all this, but he and Claudia decide it best to travel to France and leave America behind altogether.

In Paris, they discover a clan of vampires who disguise themselves by way of showmanship, calling themselves the Th√©√Ętre des Vampires and offering very real shows of sacrifices as entertainment to an unsuspecting public. Their leader is Armand (Antonio Banderas), who takes a shine to Louis' still-human soul. He claims to be the oldest living vampire, but offers still little in the way of existentialist conclusions in the vampiric circle. Rumours about what Louis and Claudia have done to Lestat circle among the clan with a nasty bit of vampire-style torture involving sunlight, but we know that Louis survives and returns to America.

What are we to gather from his story? Louis is a man whose loneliness pushes him to make a desperate choice, only for that choice to make his life eternally desperate. He gains no pleasure from his lifestyle and continually seeks knowledge that no one can give him. He offers nothing of consequence to his interviewer and hence to us. He exists in a perpetual state of guilt and is constantly taken to task by Claudia's reminders that he made her what she is. It's easier for her to play the victim. She's been 10 for a hundred years.

"Interview with the Vampire" has terrific sets, costumes and special effects and benefits from Neil Jordan's grand vision of direction. It's too bad that the story is so un-flashy. The performances and dialogue are so over the top in moments that the whole thing might have succeeded as camp, but it repeatedly returns to wallow in its own gulag of depressing themes. The script was written by Anne Rice and based on her novel. She shows no real handle on what could make her characters cinematic as opposed to purely literary. Louis has a gift of sorts, but he's so mopey. Where's the fun in eternal life if you spend every waking moment wishing you were dead?

An Education
An Education(2009)
½

Young Carey Mulligan is the reason to see "An Education". Where did she come from? After four short years in the industry, the 24-year-old actress has assured herself awards and the attention of the world with this performance. We believe that Jenny is sixteen, vulnerable yet incredibly sharp and knowledgeable. She is ready for adulthood in most facets. Emotionally, we're not as certain.

She meets a man who is too old for her. He shows her what life can offer beyond the preparatory halls of an early 60's all-girl Catholic school. The film walks a thin line. Because we're never sure of David's (Peter Sarsgaard) angle, the story of his relationship with Jenny never quite serves as thoroughly romantic, in spite of its heartfelt (and accurate) belief that Paris is the city to begin and end love.

The two meet on a rainy afternoon. To dance around the impropriety of their age difference, David offers a ride to Jenny's cello instead. He seems genial. They bump into each other, serendipitously it seems, and begin to spend more time together. He sees in her a progeny for a life of frequenting jazz clubs, misbehaving at art auctions and taking fiscal advantage of the elderly. He also sees her virginity, ready for the taking on her 17th birthday. Their relationship is unhealthy, and our suspicions are confirmed on the faces and in the attitudes of David's friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), who must appear to Jenny like the stars of a Godard film.

There are forces in Jenny's life trying to direct her down certain paths. The strongest parts of Hornby's script are moments in which Jenny's destinies blur and cross over into one another, facilitated completely by Jenny's intelligent outlook. She can read people, too, suiting an entirely different set of more honest purposes. Supportive teacher Ms. Stubbs (Olivia Williams) tells her that she can do anything. Jenny is pretty and clever and should go to Oxford. Jenny fires back, asking Ms. Stubbs where she attended school. She could have done anything and now she sifts through agonizing interpretations of Jane Eyre from girls who lack Jenny's cleverness.

We are certain that David is a con man. Thanks to an early scene in which Jenny's parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) give her a hard time about her plans for education, we expect them to take a stand on David, who unexpectedly wins them over. David knows how to read people. He's the kind of shyster who can make anyone form a near-religious belief in a great idea and make it seem as though he had nothing to do with it. He's unlikeable, slippery and entirely different from the naive boys that are Jenny's age. Sarsgaard is miscast in the role, sporting an awful accent and lack of emotion.

"An Education" has genuine moments that grab a laugh, most of them courtesy of Molina. Jenny's father is king of his castle and not nearly as smart as his daughter. He buys a lie about meeting C. S. Lewis hook, line and sinker with the observation, "Becoming a famous author isn't the same as knowing one." The conflict of near-Puritan values with emerging feminist ideas in the house make for the film's best scenes. Though Jenny is seemingly able to finish her parents' thoughts two conversations ahead of time, she has enough respect to keep her rebellion to a winking hush.

I found myself underwhelmed with the end result. Things finalize as they should for Jenny, who is on her way to becoming both old and wise. The truth about David is revealed and suspicions are confirmed. The heartbreak in Jenny's situation is one best mended with a knowing sigh. The film is based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber, and in Mulligan's portrayal of the woman, we are reminded of all of the great things an education can awaken inside of us as it simultaneously threatens us with an intense emotional loss. This is in due credit to Mulligan, whose lust to be a part of the adult art world is infectious. It's easy to see where she's coming from. Where she's going is up to her.

Michael Jackson's This Is It
½

"This Is It" is a unique documentary about a deceased performer. It has been four months since Michael Jackson passed away after accidentally taking a lethal combination of drugs that only the rich can access. He was about to begin dress rehearsals for his 50 sold-out shows in London, marking what promised to be the comeback of all comebacks.

When I first heard about the shows, I couldn't envision him pulling it off. Jackson was 50 when he passed. He hadn't performed in years, hadn't released a record of new material since 2001 and had been keeping a low profile for obvious reasons. His massive debts were rumoured to be the impetus behind the tour. One more time around to put some money into the outstretched hands and that would be that.

I don't know what the throngs of his fans expected. There is a breed of Michael Jackson fan that will always thoroughly believe in his inherent goodness, his message of love and his seeming immortality. It was as if he had been deposited on the planet from elsewhere as a child and represented some kind of a divine gift to millions. We see the look of the believer on the faces of the dancers who are interviewed as "This Is It" opens. They have tears in their eyes as they try to put the feeling of dancing with the performer into words. Michael Jackson meant everything to those people.

Jackson cut a refreshing figure for a while. He came across as almost supernaturally humble and gracious. When he was accused of child molestation in the early 90's, he wept in a recorded statement to the public. Since the 80's, his anger seemed reserved for his performances, a growling, guttural, sexy delivery of all of his hatred and resentment for his accusers and detractors. It complemented his ever-changing features under numerous plastic surgeries and the lightening of his skin due to vitiligo. In interviews he began to come off as freakish, but once he took the stage it seemed to completely melt away.

Kenny Ortega's "This Is It" collects rehearsal footage of the lead up to what would have been Jackson's last hurrah. It offers the Michael Jackson of the stage and little more. The film is propelled by an excitement over hearing all of Jackson's famous songs performed unknowingly for the last time. Announcing the dates, Jackson told the press that he wanted to give his fans the songs they wanted. Other than a demo recording of the title track over the end credits, these are all chapters of a remarkable pop career.

I sat in awe through a lot of "This Is It". The stage production looked to be incredible. Revealed are sequences that would have been shown to the live audience on a massive screen, including involved new 3-D horror footage for "Thriller" and a bit for "Smooth Criminal" that features Jackson in a gunfight that crosses Humphrey Bogart with The Matrix. It's undeniably cool stuff. It's also fascinating to watch Jackson work on his show. As he rehearses with his dancers and the band, he knows every song inside out, when every flail of the arm should happen and where every visual in a long series is going to aid his delivery, all down to the specific detail.

His conversations with the stage crew present Jackson as controlled, firm but gentle, passionate but ready. Yes, he could still move. When he really belts out his material, it's transcendent. We understand that this footage was never meant to be seen as the final product. It's not the greatest rock show in the world, but it may well could have been.

I was ready to take it at that level, but a feeling came over me. The movie actively does Jackson a disservice by ignoring what it is. All involved in the production are enthralled by Jackson. There are the expected interviews in which people relate how they've listened to him growing up, that he represents the ultimate star, et cetera. All that is offered of Jackson's views on the production are a few simplistic and naive, if not unadmirable, observations about humanity's treatment of the environment. When the crew form a prayer circle near the end of the film, we expect a revelation and get the standard Jackson credos: love each other, we're all family, heal the world.

Perhaps that makes sense. Jackson certainly didn't know he'd pass away. Unfortunately, the filmmakers present "This Is It" without that awareness. There are moments of awe, but little poignancy. It's interesting to hear Jackson describe shifts and changes in music and movement in poetic terms such as being bathed in moonlight or having a fist lodged in the inner ear, but overall Ortega seems too busy praising Jackson to look at him objectively. It robs the film of heart, because Jackson's humanity is rarely glimpsed.

What's left in the end are the songs. Even at not quite 100%, they're damn good. Jackson performs them to a largely empty arena, creating a dazzling contradiction with the way he is usually presented on film. His dancers surround the stage, egging him on with applause to the point where he shyly asks them to stop because he's enjoying himself too much. They were the last times he'd perform the songs for anyone at all. They've been preserved in a film that rightly hails Jackson as a performer and then leaves it at that.

Halloween II
Halloween II(1981)
½

I have seen "Halloween II" three times over the years and I can never remember what happens in it. It's a film that's entirely perfunctory, one that probably should never have been made, and one that was made for slightly dubious reasons. John Carpenter explained it best: "Because of business considerations, we were literally forced into making a sequel. The sequel was going to be made with or without us. Part of the reason for making the sequel was to get the money that was owed to both Debra (Hill) and I from the first film. Being nice capitalists, we decided to go ahead and do that. I sat down to write the sequel and realized there's no story here. We've done the story. All we're doing is xeroxing."

And so, "Halloween II" was made with its eyes on the financial prize, kick-starting a series of films that continues to this day, now 30 years on. I have to admit that the film is unique by virtue of the setup chosen by Carpenter and Hill. "Halloween II" begins at the moment where the first "Halloween" left off. You don't see that a lot in sequels. Loomis has downed Michael Myers with six gunshots, yet his body has disappeared. The match must continue.

I kind of enjoy that idea. What the "Halloween" sequel has going for it in addition are the returns of the irrepressible Donald Pleasence as Loomis and now-established scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode. Unfortunately, poor Curtis is given little more to do than scream, and she can't even time that correctly in order to save all concerned a whole bunch of hassle. Then again, the film wouldn't have its fiery finale if Curtis had been able to get her pipes in tune a split second before her saviours rush in to extract her from the clutches of the unstoppable Myers.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Laurie is transported to Haddonfield hospital for treatment of her injuries after tangling with Myers at the end of the first film. Loomis is still on the lookout, spouting his unique brand of doom-inducing rhetoric around town as he and the police try to track Myers' movements. In an amusingly over-the-top sequence, a kid dressed as Myers is mowed down by a police car and set ablaze. Ben Tramer, we hardly knew ye.

They discover a break-in at a local elementary school, where Myers has written "Samhain", a Gaelic term referencing a festival of the dead, on the blackboard in blood. Myers' connection to Laurie is revealed, a plot point that takes a backseat to Myers' rampage and eventual destruction. How the heck does Laurie feel about all this? Curtis had to have had a page of lines to memorize, tops. Her character is reduced to a limping, agitated mess whose presence is required only to give Myers a reason to keep going.

Director Rick Rosenthal attempts to mimic a few of the better visual techniques that Carpenter employed in the first film and succeeds on occasion, but the story is a dead duck. The excellent pacing and suspense from the first film is abandoned for a higher body count and more violent death sequences, some of which produce some macabre visuals and effective jump scares but little else. Part of the reason why I can never remember what transpires in "Halloween II" is that it's set up as a sequence of murders of people I couldn't care less about. "Halloween" featured Myers stalking babysitters with focus. You got to know the girls. Here, Myers is just laying waste to the entire anonymous night staff of the hospital until he gets to Laurie's room.

"Halloween II" looks a bit better than the original, since it had more money behind it. The haunting piano score has been replaced with lamer, dated synth sounds. Myers is Myers, still walking at a snail's pace, still tilting his head in a questioning way at his kills because it worked so well in the first film. What the movie is lacking are original ideas worth a damn. To play it safe (and recoup expenses), Carpenter and Hill xeroxed this one in, and it shows.

Halloween
Halloween(1978)

When that piano interlude plays, you know who's in town. "Halloween" is my favourite horror film and one of my favourite films period. I've watched it unfailingly on Halloween every year for about the past 13. It perfectly captures the feeling of darkness falling on an average suburban neighbourhood before unloading the threat of something decidedly non-average. It takes the elements that made Hitchcock's "Psycho" so disturbing and concentrates it in Michael Myers, a figure that seems invincible and unstoppable. It is the slasher film to dictate the form of all slasher films. The young women at its center have little precedent to play a role in how they defend themselves. They are at the mercy of a psychotic who cannot be cured or killed.

Norman Bates had a deceptively sheepish demeanor at his disposal. Myers' disposition is covered by a pallid mask bereft of features. Part of the terror is never seeing the killer's expression, instead being met with a cold, eyeless stare and the heavy breathing brought on by struggle. The film opens with a point of view shot of two teenagers fooling around on a couch. They are being watched - by the camera, we realize, which pursues the young woman into an upstairs bedroom, but not before a mask is placed over the lens. The shot reduced to eye-hole view, the young woman is brutally stabbed to death while the camera seems to detach itself from its consciousness, staring instead at the mechanical downward swing of the knife. The killer escapes out the front door and is unmasked by an older couple. The POV switches to a shot of six-year-old Michael looking shocked, and the camera pulls up and away, letting the information sink in.

Back in 1978, the young John Carpenter knew his Welles and Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, he has a knack for framing his subjects in such a way that emphasizes an unease over being watched. There are shots of Myers stalking his prey early in the film, but they don't yet know they're prey. Watch how Carpenter lingers on a shot of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) singing to herself and walking away from Myers, who we see standing in the foreground from his shoulders down. Laurie's voice lessens in volume as she gains distance, while Myers' breathing gets louder. Compare this with one of the film's most effective shots. Laurie cowers next to an open doorway shrouded in darkness. She has just discovered the bodies of three of her friends in the next room. Myers' face slowly reveals itself from out of the darkness and suddenly, he has her. It is a reversal of the first shot, with the distance closed and Laurie's vulnerability realized.

Such sequences as Myers mysteriously appearing and then disappearing build tension to the moments when he will finally strike. Carpenter places us under the impression that his killer can move almost supernaturally and that it is a matter of sadistic choice when we later see Myers plodding along at a snail's pace behind Laurie as she attempts to scramble her way to safety. It helps that Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is on hand to offer some of the most overly dramatic exposition ever put on film ("The evil is gone!"). It's a bit much, but the British veteran Pleasence was such a good dramatic actor that his observations about Myers' mental state almost seem delivered as a blessing for the film's intent.

Much has been written about the virgin-whore dynamic between the girls. Laurie, the stalwart virgin, is the one who survives, while Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P. J. Soles) seem to be suffering a punishment for their consummated sexual urges. Screenwriters Carpenter and Debra Hill had no such intention. "The idea was that Laurie was naive, not sexless," Hill has commented. "Laurie likes everything safe. She doesn't want to ask the boy out. She doesn't want to go to the dance. She is looking for safe, and the irony is that it isn't safe."

It's hard to think that there isn't more going on in terms of how the movie treats the sexuality of young women. Lynda's strangulation at the hands of Myers is mistaken for sex, while Annie dies after stripping down to her underwear and talking provocatively on the phone with a guy. From childhood, Myers is quick to rise to a blind anger over teenagers caught in sexual acts. When Laurie gazes longingly across the street from where she babysits, a judgment is incidentally placed upon the house where the murders occur. The tension around the film's finale depends on how the "safe" Laurie will combat her dangerous opposite. She tucks her makeshift kids into bed and sets to penetrating the killer with knives, coathangers and knitting needles.

Shot choices and effective undercurrents of gender and sexuality aside, it's also a pretty damn good movie about Halloween. It pays respect to the things in the night that terrify us while we're young but that we lose sensitivity to as we get older. Despite shooting the film in California (the crew had to avoid photographing palm trees in certain backgrounds), the neighbourhood streets largely look as though they could belong to any midwestern small town. Imported falling leaves bring a tone of authenticity to the time of year. One of my favourite shots is the last to involve daylight, as Laurie and Annie talk about boys in a car with Myers in pursuit. The setting sunlight casting through the windshield creates a dreamlike quality - a moment of being young and happy frozen in time, as it's the last either girl will see before their lives either change or come to a brutal end.

Michael Myers, of course, has become an institution. He has been featured as a character eight times since. None of the sequels have recaptured the way he is presented in the first installment. How can they? In "Halloween", we are given the bogeyman, a human being comprised of pure evil, and find out that he cannot be destroyed. Why should we expect additional attempts to work? He is a predator who is silent in terms of his motives and approach. How many more times can his psychology be explained by those who encounter him? Once is enough. Loomis tells us all we need to know about Myers, and Laurie pushes him to the limit. Future installments invariably went the route of excessive violence and gore, mistaking those for the tools of an effective horror. "Halloween" exhibits all that can be accomplished with little more than a scary idea and great direction.

Cairo Time
Cairo Time(2010)
½

While looking into some background information for "Cairo Time", I discover that writer/director Ruba Nadda was nearly arrested multiple times by Egyptian police during filming. Now there's a movie. A Canadian filmmaker and her crew head abroad to film a feature in Egypt and are tossed out of the country. What Nadda offers instead with "Cairo Time" is a rather reserved look at the Egyptian culture and political climate, albeit one with an extraordinary view.

The film stars Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, who arrives in Cairo as the films opens to meet with her husband Mark (Tom McCamus). Mark works for the United Nations, organizing refugee camps in Gaza. He's a busy man and can't get away to entertain Juliette, who spends most of her time in her hotel room expecting the phone to ring.

Certain shots in "Cairo Time" reminded me of Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation", which is one of the best films about loneliness I've seen. Coppola's shots of Tokyo made the city look like an intimidating cement jungle that thoroughly isolated a young American woman whiling away hours gazing out her window high above the city. Nadda's shots evoke a similar feeling. Cairo stretches out under Juliette's hotel balcony, promising excitement but also evoking a hesitation in the face of the unknown.

The main problem with the film is that its efforts to communicate the passionate emotion it promises fall flat. Juliette is completely alone. Her husband is absent and she doesn't know when he'll return. Her children are grown and have gone out into the world to build their own identities. She is in the middle of a city that perplexes her Western sensibilities. And she has absolutely nothing to say about any of this. Instead, her emotions are communicated with longing glances at the horizon and slow-motion strides into temples and city squares.

Juliette befriends a former coworker of Mark's, a man named Tareq (Alexander Siddig). He has retired, runs a coffee shop and enjoys playing games of chess in a men's-only cafe. The two begin to spend more and more time together. He provides an outlet for Juliette's anxiety, a way for her to combat her loneliness and build an understanding of the city. Clarkson looks stunning and it's gratifying to see her take centre stage in a film. Both she and Siddig are terrific actors and it's easy to believe in their budding attraction for each other. Nadda builds it gradually, taking her time with each character revelation and moment of clarity.

Unfortunately, things proceed a little too gradually. I enjoyed Nadda's use of the pyramids as the film's grand symbol, and her final scenes are her strongest because of the emotion on display. Juliette and Tareq's relationship, which is really all the film is about, consists of two people killing time with each other. They rib each other jovially over their cultural views but never challenge each other. They begin conversations about Cairo's political climate and economy that sound intriguing but only scratch the surface. A scene in which Juliette attempts dramatic entry into Gaza is barely questioned later. Nadda leaves Cairo an expanse of nearly impenetrable otherness in which one either speaks the language or belongs somewhere else.

"Cairo Time" took home the award for Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has everything the typical lauded Canadian film has: a not-quite-famous but recognizable American actor in the principal role, multicultural themes and a vanilla plot. Canadians generally seem content when the films we produce don't look entirely like stereotypical independent efforts, but we too often mistake production value with film quality. "Cairo Time" looks great. Its characters scan the horizon as if they're impressed with how the budget was spent.

Amelia
Amelia(2009)
½

Much like Amelia Earhart's attempt at circling the globe in 1937, Mira Nair's "Amelia" biopic about the pioneering woman pilot can't quite make it. It lacks solid footing and never grounds itself. It takes an exceptionally dangerous profession and plays its depiction too safe, so that most of the time we never fully believe in what propelled Earhart to take such extraordinary risks.

Earhart is played by Hilary Swank, who certainly has nothing left to prove. She is clearly in love with the story and served as the film's executive producer. Swank strikes the right chord as Earhart, a woman whose spirit seems too big for her eyes to communicate, try as they might. Her dialogue is a string of believe-in-yourself-because-nothing-is-impossible credos, and sugary as they are, they are more often than not easy to forgive given Earhart's accomplishments, which include a score of trailblazing solo flights and derby victories.

The film analyzes Earhart in her roles as feminist icon, saleswoman, fashionista, poet and pilot. She returns to a sense of freedom as her motivation for taking to the skies - freedom from roles prescribed by men, who dominate the field of aviation, and freedom from gravity itself. To Earhart, flying makes her feel as though she is moving in three dimensions. Hard to argue there. Her lust for personal accomplishment, however, seems inextricably tied with her attraction to celebrity. Screenwriters Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan offer some of Earhart's narrative verse here and there to instill a sense of wonder in air travel, but the line between her personal and professional lives is blurred.

Indeed, "Amelia" attempts to present itself as a portrait of a women capable of many things, not all of them heroic. It would be admirable if it weren't so tritely pieced together. Swank's performance is good and even hinges on great, but Earhart's true character always seems out of focus, relegated as it is to moments of bravado coupled with relationship turmoil. The first hour or so of the film is relatively saccharine and drab in its made-for-TV-like execution. Earhart is introduced to George Putnam (Richard Gere), a wealthy publishing magnate who sees financial potential in Earhart's ambition. He commissions her to write a book. They end up married, but the feminist Earhart knows that marriage alone won't guarantee happiness and may indeed hold her back as powerfully as what keeps people grounded.

Enter Gene Vidal (Ewen McGregor), father of young Gore and accredited aviation pioneer. Like Putnam, Vidal offers a route to personal affection through the professional. We are given a decent helping of some good old fashioned melodrama intercut with Earhart's eventual final flight around the world. She releases her scarf from the cockpit window and marvels at the freedom of animals on the African savanna. In case that correlation doesn't drive the point of Earhart's joie de vivre home, the rest of it is established in spontaneous and prolix speeches given to nearly everyone she knows about what turned her into the role model she is.

The film's crucial scene, of course, is its depiction of the events surrounding her disappearance over the Atlantic. With premiere celestial navigator and renowned souse Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) riding shotgun, the two planned to depart from Lae, New Guinea and fly to California with a stopover to refuel on Howland Island, a miniature island in the Pacific. The Itasca Coast Guard vessel attempted to guide them down to Howland, but were unsuccessful in their transmissions.

"Amelia" documents these circumstances plainly, but with real tension and tragedy, capping it with images and video of the real Earhart. The costumes and set pieces of Depression-era America ring true. It's almost enough to redeem the film as a whole, but as exciting as the sequence is, it only highlights how relatively bland the rest of the picture is in comparison. Gere plays his role as Putnam well. I liked the way Earhart and Putnam seemed to talk to one another in dueling showman voices, even if some of their dialogue tries too hard to wring out every last bittersweet moment.

As I exited the theatre, I overhead a woman commenting that "Amelia" would be the kind of film a high school student would watch in class when learning about history. I think that's exactly right. All of the real Earhart's moments of historical interest are present and could be listed in point form. Unfortunately, the movie stalls at the level of the character in between. It gives us poetry but fails at being poetic.

A Serious Man
½

While I'm certainly not hip to a lot of Jewish humour, which often seems too esoteric for me to appreciate, there's something undeniably funny about a man who uses God as a last resort to solve his problems, especially when he didn't think he had many problems to begin with. In "A Serious Man", Larry Glopnick's (Michael Stuhlbarg) life gracefully lilts into an immediate downward slope. When his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) asks him for a divorce, it takes him a minute to look up from the papers he's marking. He definitely didn't see it coming.

"I haven't done anything" is Larry's life credo and most likely his epitaph. It is not uttered as the typical mid-life realization that life is passing by far too quickly, but as an argument in defense against all of the things that start to go wrong in Larry's life. His pending divorce is just the beginning. A professor of mathematics, Larry fails a student (David Kang) whose lawyer father senselessly threatens to take him to court for slander. Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on his couch, draining a nagging cyst and doodling manic formulas in a notebook that will get him into trouble with gambling officials. Larry's son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is using drugs and his daughter Mandy (Jessica McManus) is stealing money to save up for a nose job. And the Colombia Record Company won't stop calling. They want Larry to pay for the monthly releases they've been sending him.

Larry must have done something to make God angry. Judith is involved with the zen-like, over-affectionate Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), who might have the most appropriate name for a scorned husband's rival in the history of cinema. Larry's friends all ask him the same question: Has he talked to the rabbi yet? There are three to choose from and the older they get, the more wisdom they are able to impart. The junior rabbi tells Larry to stop and consider the beauty of something as simple as a parking lot. The next tells him a story about a goy whose teeth were carved mysteriously with the message "Save me" in Hebrew, but what his dentist does about it is irrelevant. The oldest, Rabbi Marshak, is so brilliant and worldly that he's too busy thinking to talk with Larry. When we eventually find out how he spends his time, he does indeed seem the wisest of the three.

In an Oscar-calibre performance, Stuhlbarg plays Larry as though an invisible weight were caving his shoulders in and burning crow's feet permanently into his face. This is a man in despair because he thought he had a handle on things as long as he kept on top of fixing his home's television antenna. The film is set in 1967 Minneapolis during the youth of suburban culture. Larry's neighbourhood is flat and pastel-toned, just like his life, but elements like rock and roll and marijuana are slowly infiltrating this buttoned-down existence.

Larry is being considered for tenure at work. Early in the film he is shown explaining the theorem attached to SchrŲdinger's cat. The mathematics behind the problem, which is a philosophical quandary as much as one related to quantum mechanics, make sense to Larry - it's the business about the cat that doesn't seem all that relevant. This is how Larry's life operates. One and one should have equaled two, yet after years of doing the right thing (nothing), everything is coming up zero.

A friend offers some advice. Jews look to the stories in their centuries-old past for solace. Yet Larry views stories as unsolved equations. The Coens open their film with a standalone portion in which a recently deceased man (the one and only Fyvush Finkel) returns from the dead. The wife of a homestead believes with certainty that he is an evil omen known in Hebrew as a "dybbuk". She stabs him in the heart and he begs his leave. Can Larry find solace in this story? A man comes back from the dead to haunt Larry in his dreams. Perhaps stories are worth more than he originally thought.

"A Serious Man" could have played as a standard film about a mid-life crisis, but its humour is darkly unique and different. Each character seems to breathe their own agenda like oxygen as Larry tries to figure out a way to smooth things over with God. Why would God have done this to him? As rabbi number two explains, the responsibility for living a good life only runs one way. No sense in standing still.

The Coens direct "A Serious Man" with the touch of something sinister. The sky always feels as if it never quite extends into the atmosphere, isolating Larry as he attempts to find the meaning in his life. The bits of haphazard wisdom thrown willingly at Larry to tide him over do little to ease his pain. No one has any solution that suits him, and certainly not God, who ends up having a pretty prickly sense of humour when everything after the equal sign is ultimately put in place.

Saw
Saw(2004)
½

The conclusion of "Saw" is so audacious that I can't help but be in awe of it, even after a second viewing. The film's puzzle pieces are not pieced but hammered together, and that is simultaneously its greatest strength and weakness. It is orchestrated as though the script was written backwards from the twist, which is totally unbelievable, but also kind of brilliant.

If only the same could be said for all that comes before it. Two men wake up in the filthiest bathroom imaginable with no recollection of how they got there or who the other man is. Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) are chained to large pipes on opposite sides of the room. Between them is a body with a gun in its hand and a very large hole in its cranium.

For a while, the men attempt to make sense of their situation, and this is when the film really works. Gordon's wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega) are being held captive elsewhere. Unless he kills Adam by 6 o'clock, they will die. The room is being monitored by a camera. In a device influenced by a score of noir films, Gordon recounts his implications in the murders of a killer dubbed Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), whose MO is teaching his victims the value of life. He places them in nightmarish situations that will cause them harm yet prevent their own deaths if they successfully follow his instructions. The killer's lone survivor (Shawnee Smith) is questioned by police, who relates her experience of having to gut a man alive in order to unlock a reverse bear trap that Jigsaw had strapped to her mouth.

It's all pretty gruesome, and the scenes of struggling victims are shown at high speed, cut with quick edits and accompanied by roars of machinery and inhuman screams to drive home the point that they're having a really bad time. The film contains some great sets and lighting, and the traps are diabolical works of the talented design crew.

Unfortunately, everything tends to get a little carried away at the expense of the story. Villains striking at people we root for make for effective thrillers, and the film loses steam outside of the bathroom set. Take Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) and his partner Detective Singh (Ken Leung), the two men tracking Jigsaw. The obsession of Glover's character is never based in anything. A few weeks ago I championed the merits of David Fincher's "Zodiac", a film that built obsession in a character until the obsession propelled the film's suspense, not the grisliness of the murders. Detective Tapp is a cardboard cutout. He is obsessed because the plot requires his anger to sustain a feverish pitch when the story diverts away from Gordon and Adam, yet his scenes are dulled by his lack of depth. He becomes a potential suspect, but it's an ineffective red herring because we're never given the chance to form an opinion about him.

Even Gordon and Adam can't hold up their end of the drama. I was shocked at the level at which Elwes hams it up by the film's conclusion. He's a great actor, but he takes the character far out into unintentionally funny territory, barking histrionic demands that would raise Patton's eyebrow and losing his mind with the conviction of a temper tantrum. The men's memories return at moments when past events are necessary to advance the plot and after a while it starts to feel a little contrived.

I like a twist that hangs in front of my eyes the entire time but never reveals itself. The genius of setting much of the movie in a single room is the implication that everything in the set is exactly as it seems. "Saw" contains all of the necessary elements for a terrific character drama, but squanders it to a large extent for hyperactive editing and jump scares. Terror always comes out of character, not situation. For a while, "Saw" gets this right, but ultimately it can't keep its chains on.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
½

I?m kind of torn on ?The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?. On the one hand, it?s directed incredibly efficiently and originally by Tobe Hooper, with some startling performances and heart-pounding sequences. Yes, I found it scary. On the other hand, it is characterized by a camp factor that is off the charts and tarnished by an overtly exploitative bent. I was bothered by its scenes of sadistic and weird depravity that seem to exist only for their own sake. Given that it was released all the way back in 1974, perhaps that?s somewhat to its credit.

I?m glad I watched the film, but it?s not one I?d subject myself to again. Chances are that if you?re a horror aficionado, the flick is old news. Up until now I had only been familiar with the 2003 remake, which I can now state definitively pales in comparison to the original (as remakes often do). There is no rhyme or reason to its killings beyond the murderers? taste for the obscene. It compares human beings to cattle and treats them as such, with one death quickly following another unceremoniously until the last, which is drawn out to uncomfortable lengths before the mad conclusion.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who is wheelchair-bound, head out to the boonies to investigate news reports of a vandalized graveyard, where their grandfather was laid to rest. Along for the ride are Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn). The troupe decide to head to Sally and Franklin?s old farmhouse for some R and R. Along the way, they pick up and quickly dispose of a psychotic hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) with a penchant for knives. Low on gas, they eventually arrive at their destination and pay little attention to the ominous signs of bone mobiles left hanging in the doorways. One by one, the group stumble on a neighbouring house inhabited by Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding maniac with a mask made of human skin, and his demented family.

The movie contains little real gore, but is assaulting in its prolonged sequences of chase and torture. Burns must have been a wreck after filming, as she spends a good half-an-hour plus screaming her brains out, pieces of which Hooper often places into quickly cut shots to evoke a fear-induced dementia in the viewer. The impressive set pieces include a sofa constructed out of animal skulls and bones, hooks and tables that look as though they were pulled straight from the killing floor of a slaughterhouse and corpses that may not be corpses after all. John Dugan as the grandfather particularly got under my skin.

The film is all about grisly murder, wasting no time on character establishment and instead tapping into the viewer?s tolerance level for human suffering. The villains are exaggerated, mentally handicapped redneck stereotypes who derive an almost sexual pleasure from capturing and torturing their prey. Leatherface himself appears in costume as both male and female, inviting some analysis on the politics of post-1960?s gender identification, but probably included only because it?s out-and-out bizarre.

?The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? is a ghastly tour through base psychotic mentality, but it can?t be denied that Hooper does a great job directing it. His work with available light approaches a stunning level, especially the final shot of Leatherface wielding his weapon simply for the exercise against the setting Texas sun. He makes unique choices with angles and framing as the characters walk pensively to their respective dooms. The camera often zooms in on collections of bugs and bone sculptures ? two things that never especially creep me out in films, but manage to here against a sickening soundtrack. In spite of its relatively low budget and disturbing subject matter, Hooper?s film has quite a bit going for it. I?ll more than likely never sit through it again, but I?m glad I did.

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" has been a staple of a lot of childhoods. I have a definitive memory of reading it in the sixth grade. Everyone in my class was assigned a kid in kindergarten to mentor. The assignment included reading them a story, and ours was Sendack's. In its 20-or-so pages, a young boy named Max acts out and is sent to bed without supper. He travels to a jungle land where he encounters monstrous beasts, who elect him as their king. After engaging in a wild rumpus, Max decides to return home to his mother, awakening to a hot meal in his bedroom.

The casting of Max Records must have felt like kismet to director Spike Jonze and Sendak, who co-produced the film adaptation. Indeed, Records is well cast in the role, hovering in the space just before his pre-teen years and just after most of his more childish inclinations have disappeared. Flirting with the anger of being a young man, Max has developed a taste for war, building snow forts, hoarding snowballs and shouting orders at the fence to move out. Jonze perfectly captures the joyous exhuberance of youth as Max leads a charge on his sister's friends, who respond playfully with return fire until they take it too far and crush Max's fort. The worst part? His sister doesn't stick up for him.

Max's mother (Catherine Keener) is a single parent whose attention is diverted to her job and boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), much to Max's dismay. There is a touching scene where Max invents a story on the spot and his mother lovingly types it into her word processor. Max is opening his eyes to a world without hope. On his bookshelf sits a globe, an inscribed present from his absent father, the source of his explorer spirit. At school, his teachers are exclaiming that the sun will one day burn out and that they'll all be goners. For the first time in his life, forces seem to be conspiring to make Max listen, and he doesn't like what he hears. His temper reaches a boiling point. He dons his wolf costume and bites his mother before running from the house in a panic.

This is where Jonze and screenplay co-writer Dave Eggers choose to transform Max's world. He discovers a sailboat and sets off for adventure, arriving through choppy seas at an island that looks inhabited by the fiery light shining up in its hills. He comes across the monsters, who are arguing about their houses. The one called Carol (James Gandolfini) wants to destroy the individual huts so that they can all live together. Max sympathizes with Carol as an outsider and without thinking, joins him in the destructive effort.

The monsters are puzzled by Max, who certainly doesn't look like a monster, but might be capable of vanquishing Viking hordes, just as he describes. The monsters make him king and introductions are made. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is Carol's bird-like best friend and right hand man. Alexander (Paul Dano) is a giant but frail goat who walks on his hind legs. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) has a horned nose and fights her battles with sarcasm. Ira (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of putting holes in the trees. The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.) is largely silent but threatening. And then there's KW (Lauren Ambrose). Things between her and Carol are complicated. She's met some new friends that he doesn't particularly like and she's thinking of living their little tribe altogether.

Max's first inclination in the new land is to act out as crazily as possible. The monsters sleep in a giant pile, scratch into the trees with their claws and play fight in wars using clods of dirt as ammunition. Max decides that they need to build a fortress and create a land envisioned by Carol, where anything can and will happen. Max discovers that being a king can be hard work. There seems to be an argument against socialist dictatorships at work as the monsters begin to resent their placement in a class system and rightfully blame Max when they are hurt in their war games.

What is a king to do? Max knows this for sure: He's no king. He's just a boy who's learning that the world is not something that he will always necessarily be able to shape. Jonze and Eggers turn Sendak's short picture book into a treatise on lost innocence. They know that the world can be a seemingly hopeless place that requires us to accept a lot of responsibility that we don't always want. Their metaphor of the dying sun is apt and emotionally resonant, especially when Carol considers it. He's so big and the sun is so small. How can he possibly take care of it?

The monsters are extraordinary creations of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, in combination with computer effects. I'll always prefer the Henson creations over CGI. Characters that are purely computer creations lack humanity, even if the characters are monsters. The personalities given to each reflect the forces in Max's real-world life and, in his role as king, he must try to put them in order. It's not as easy as it sounds, but then again, neither is growing up.

After a while, things get a little too depressing and murky as the wonder gets sucked pretty well completely from Max's adventure. It starts to feel a bit too heavy, but the creativity behind it is exceptional. Jonze scales back his usual frenetic approach to directing meta-comedies like "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation", instead achieving an almost zen-like calmness. He chooses to set important parts of his film at that magical hour of the day when the sun is going down and a heartfelt glow pervades everything around. Max will soon be awakening to the fact that acting wildly won't save the sun. There are some cold, hard facts in life that we simply can't change. Jonze eases us into that realization with gentleness, warmth and sharp teeth.

Paranormal Activity
½

Hype is a hard hurdle for a film to leap. I am an unapologetic fan of "The Blair Witch Project" and of the frame of mind that hype didn't kill its effectiveness. "Paranormal Activity", which will no doubt invite comparisons given its production value (about $11,000) and plot (young people terrorized by unseen force), succeeds because it keeps in mind what makes a horror movie effective. What we imagine is always so much worse than what any filmmaker could show us.

The young people here are Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat). They've recently moved in together and as the films opens, Micah is testing out some brand new electronic equipment that he has invested in to track some weird goings-on that have been happening in their house. During the night, footsteps, whispering and deep rumblings can be heard as though the house itself is alive and unhappy.

The problem isn't with the house, however. It seems that Katie has been keeping a secret from Micah, and now that they're paying into a mortgage it's time to spill the beans. Katie has been experiencing paranormal phenomena ever since she was a little girl, when a shadowy figure would appear and linger at the foot of her bed. The couple invite a psychic into their home, who tells them that Katie has a demon on her tail and gives them a number for a demonologist before he gets the hell out of there. Can't say I blame him.

Micah puts a video camera on a tripod in the master bedroom. This becomes the film's characteristic setup as the camera records what occurs as the couple sleeps. About three weeks pass and night after night, the phenomena become more threatening. At first, doors sway a little to and fro. The house sounds as though it's emitting a growl. Eventually, the bumps turn into loud bangs and the demon leaves foreboding clues about its intentions.

I'm skeptical of a lot of shows where the hosts visit scary places and try to collect evidence of paranormal activity. They're too easy to fake. "Blair Witch" spawned a ton of those shows and other films such as "The St. Francisville Experiment", which also took place in a building. That film tried too hard to create horrific visuals, which came off as too obviously staged. "Paranormal Activity" knows that keeping things relatively simple is the more productive route.

Micah wants to bring in an exorcist, but decides that it would only make things worse. The demonologist is out of the country. Micah toys with the idea of using a Ouija board with less-than-desirable results, freaking Katie out. He doesn't seem to have a great deal of concern for his girlfriend's beliefs, even after the cameras catch some undeniably unsettling footage.

While "Paranormal Activity" is effective at building tension, it suffers from the lengths it travels to keep the couple in the house. It is explained that the demon will follow Katie wherever she goes, and the film (unsuccessfully) attempts to convince us that they may as well stay at home. Part of what made "Blair Witch" so effective is that the fool kids were trapped in a haunted space that they couldn't escape. Hopelessness sunk in like a fog and each sundown marked a new sequence of encroaching terror.

"Paranormal Activity" goes for the same feeling, but can't pull it off to the same extent. We are given a bit of a closer look at the unseen evil with neat, simple effects and camera tricks. The film's scariest moments are those in which the characters seem driven by the force rather than against it. It effectively utilizes time-lapse photography with a clock speeding in the lower right-hand corner, and once the clock slows, you know something strange is going to happen. The eyes become riveted to the room, searching for anomalies and disturbances.

This technique kept me engaged in the film. It's a fun watch. Featherstone and Sloat are passable actors, though his comedic barbs are tired on occasion. The camera, of course, becomes an issue of contention. There's no reason Micah would have filmed certain scenes had this been a collection of discovered footage, but I can't give the filmmakers too hard a time for trying to tell a story. I was interested in what the next bit of evidence would be and how the filmmakers would present it on their budget. The end is a surprise, making an honest attempt to strike with the mother of all jump scares out of the darkness. Given the reactions of the people in the theatre and the pressure my girlfriend squeezed into my forearm during most of the film's night scenes, it worked.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

In "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Oscar Wilde wrote of his main character's newfound obsession with murderers through history: "There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful." I think of this quotation when confronted with a film that paints childlike fancy with spiked bristles of horror, projects of which are usually headed up by the name synonymous with Gothed-up children's fare: Tim Burton. Children are fascinated with evil and the forces that might do them harm. Burton's creations take this into account. They arrive at the level of fantasy and are beautiful in their own twisted way.

Burton is responsible for Jack Skellington et al, but "The Nightmare Before Christmas" may well be Danny Elfman's finest hour. Elfman wrote its exquisite compositions and lyrics and even provided Jack's singing voice, which is at turns fierce and lilting in the melancholy air of a largely grey and haunted landscape. Henry Selick's film is a dark and wildly imaginative romp through worlds tailored by holiday convention. When the worlds rub against each other, they produce humourous, colourful and sometimes unsettling results.

It's interesting to note the wide variations in our tastes for celebration over the course of a year, let alone that a holiday such as Halloween proceeds one such as Christmas by less than sixty days. No sooner are we taking down decorations cut into the shapes of witches, screeching cats and mutilated pumpkins than we are replacing them with flying reindeer, bright red holly berries and strings of multi-coloured lights. People engage in competitions for how well their house is decorated on either holiday. When I was a kid, there was always one house in the neighbourhood that went all out for Halloween, turning their suburban two-door garage into a house of horrors with a six-foot costumed beastie guarding the entrance. Less than two months later, our parents were driving us around for the wash in sentimental feeling that a neighbourhood strewn in Christmas lights brings on.

New to that sentimental feeling is Jack, who makes one of the grandest entrances in animation history. The citizens of Halloweentown regard him as a god of fright, but after years of the same old shtick Jack is looking for new horizons to conquer. He stumbles across a hidden grove of trees that provide doorways into lands assigned to each holiday. Drawn in by the look of a Christmas tree, which is so very un-Halloween-like, Jack finds himself deposited at the North Pole among elves, snowmen, toy trains and houses that look like something out of Whoville.

The biggest point of fascination of all is Santa Claus himself. Jack returns to Halloweentown and hatches a scheme to bring Christmas to where he lives. Since none of the frighteningly emaciated characters in Halloweentown can grasp the point of celebrating a holiday that doesn't scare the pants off people, the overlay of Christmas onto their world looks like a square peg jammed into a round, cobwebbed bottomless pit. The Christmas trees are nearly barren and the toys all have appetites for small children. Jack orders Santa Claus kidnapped and takes over Christmas Eve deliveries himself, prompting a myriad of calls to local police stations from disturbed parents.

The stop-motion animation is in the tradition of the old Rankin-Bass holiday productions, but Selick energized the process with something wholly new. Particularly a wonder to behold is Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), a bug-stuffed boogeyman stitched out of sackcloth and dwelling in a black-lit cavern. The eerie green glow cast against his material makes him appear hyper-real as he toys with the bound and bewildered Santa Claus. Also of great beauty in detail is Sally (Catherine O'Hara), a variation on Frankenstein's monster, who often comes apart at the seams and makes her own emergency sewing repairs.

Sally is in love with Jack, and the film's best moments are their expressions of feeling over song. In spite of his fame, Jack is unfulfilled, and Sally simply wants to experience the world outside of her master's foreboding domain. With an enormous yellow moon pressing against a completely black sky, the landscape extends to allow Jack the walking room to ponder his malaise. The meeting of the two at the end on the same curled hill reveal that Jack has found his answer. Stick to what you're good at and look to others for new opportunities. You can't pretend to be something you're not. No matter how creepy the entire world may seem to think you are, you can take comfort in those who can relate. And that's kind of beautiful.

Carrie
Carrie(1976)
½

The third act of "Carrie" contains some brilliant, relentless filmmaking, where character, theme, action, subtext and direction unite to kick a set of iconic images into the brain. This was my first time sitting through the entire film and I thought that it might hold no surprises. By now everyone knows that the high school outcast is tricked into believing that she's a prom queen before a bucket of pig's blood pours from the rafters and all hell literally breaks loose. What I hadn't counted on is the effectiveness of the route that De Palma takes to get there, which takes on the guise of a dormant snake and lunges once disturbed.

When I saw Piper Laurie's name in the credits, I smiled. Despite having three Oscar nominations under her belt, she's an actress who has never received her due. One of those nominations came for her portrayal as Margaret White, the domineering, psychotic religious fanatic of a mother whose beliefs have brought her daughter up twisted. Given her disgust with worldly convention and natural processes, it's a shock that Carrie wasn't home-schooled. There is no television in the house, but there is a prayer closet decorated with the creepiest religious statue on film, the eyes of which seem to burn a contemptuous hole through heaven.

Carrie is picked on at school by the popular kids, who range from cheerleader types to dictionary definitions of wallflowers. What singles Carrie out are her fierce efforts to blend into the background and her peculiar tendency to completely misunderstand how the world outside her home functions. She has her first period in the shower after gym class and reacts violently as the other girls throw tampons and towels. De Palma settles for nothing less than absolute realism in this scene, and the horror extends from its lack of contrivance.

Sexual panic is in the air as prom approaches. Carrie develops telekinesis, a talent borne out of her inability to shape herself to the world. She lacks the control to channel it away from violent outbursts and is in the midst of learning about it when the high school hunk asks her out. The girls who have had sex are armed with a sense of entitlement and treat Carrie like a martyr for their lost innocence. The episode in the showers lands them all detention, supervised by a sympathetic gym teacher named Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). If the girls don't cooperate, they don't go to the promised land of prom.

Teenagers Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta) scheme on how to get even. Meanwhile, Sue (Amy Irving) and Tommy (William Katt) appear to be hatching a plan of their own. Carrie and Tommy attend prom together, and De Palma conducts sequences that build incredible dramatic suspense as Tommy begins putting on the moves. In one scene, the two dance in each other's arms on a rotating platform while De Palma circles them in the opposite direction like a madman, bringing a sense of nervous disorientation to a boil.

What makes this scene and those succeeding it so effective is the apparently steadfast establishment of the teens as one-dimensional character types coming straight off the assembly line. While the film's weaknesses emerge from its portrayals of the more wicked teenage girls, it's not entirely that simple. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen takes the Stephen King novel and turns our own assumptions sideways, thereby escalating the suspense of the film's climax and ratcheting up the horror by punishing the undeserving with great fervor.

Sissy Spacek's performance is transformative. She demands that we see the attractive girl underneath the straggly hair and mundane wardrobe. Miss Clark brushes these elements away and begs us to look her in the eye. With Carrie's emerging excitement and willingness to finally stand up to her mother's psychological torment, we welcome her steps into a more normal existence - a deceptive reaction, for in the film's final moments, Carrie's demonic gaze instills in us the terror of her entrance into womanhood. The horror of her shower experience becomes realized a second time in a bloody nightmare, where life is taken away rather than created in the natural order of things.

De Palma incorporates soft focus in much of the production before unleashing split-screen shots and dramatic lighting effects for the finale. There are scenes scored with the same screeching strings heard in the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho". It's an applicable film for comparison. Surely, De Palma is aiming for a similar target of mothers who have too great a hold on their child's psyche. Rather than becoming her mother, Carrie fulfills her prophecy by turning inward and giving birth to chaos. What transpires is mesmerizing, rightfully making "Carrie" a classic of the horror genre.

Twister
Twister(1996)
½

"Twister" is less a film than an amusement park ride. It contains scenes that suit no other purpose but to thrill. Its protagonists chase tornadoes and often have to dodge debris, which consists of enormous pieces of farm equipment, 18-wheel tankers full of petroleum and cows. Indeed, flying bovine formed the basis of "Twister's" advertising campaign when it was released back in 1996, around the dawn (or at least brunch-hour) of some nifty CGI.

I admit that calling a film an amusement park ride is nothing new in the realm of describing an action picture, but the likeness in "Twister's" case is undeniable. Those of you who have been to Canada's Wonderland and strapped yourself in for the latest theatre-ride version of a Paramount flick will understand. The first half of the movie is a complete run of adrenaline, with cameras pointed directly into the path of enormous computer-generated tornadoes. Members of the chasing team scream instructions into their headsets that make little sense to the layman but sound really, really important. They make obvious observations about the conditions of the surrounding area, such as "We've got hail" or "It's gonna shift". Of course they do, and of course it is. You know how a ride works. You just want to experience it for yourself.

In that vein, director Jan de Bont knew exactly where to place his cameras when filming "Twister". In 1995, he made the transition over from an impressive list of cinematography credits with "Speed", a film that changed the modern action genre. Both that film and "Twister" are unrelenting in their execution of harrowing events. "Twister" gives us stuff we've never seen before, like a truck driving through a house as though it's roadkill, and a drive-in movie screen being torn to shreds as it displays the tensest moment of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining".

The cinematography is excellent, with long, sweeping aerial shots that caress the farmlands and dark, pallid tones that cast an ominous shadow over the entire midwest. When Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) sifts the dirt through his fingers and squints off into the distance over the horizon as the winds increase, his poise and calm demeanor in the face of inevitable chaos make him the man to trust. He is counterbalanced by Jo (Helen Hunt), who at times would rather fight a tornado with her fists than stand back to study it. She's driven by her father's death at the touch of an F5 (referred to as "the finger of God" in the midst of an awed silence) and has been on the lookout for one since.

The team is comprised of kooks and weirdos, some played by now-identifiable actors such as Alan Ruck, Jeremy Davies and a boisterous Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems incredibly happy to be there. In order to show the kind of damage the storms can do, the movie finds it necessary to sacrifice somebody it convinces us to loathe. Enter Jonas, who Cary Elwes plays with a southern accent and cocky attitude. His team has corporate sponsorship, though I wonder which corporations would benefit from such a niche area of scientific research. They drive around in black vehicles and sport the latest high-tech equipment, but they're no match for Bill's instinct.

The whole premise of rivaling tornado chasers is obviously ridiculous, but the actors have fun with it and the pace never slows. Paxton has a few overstuffed lines that he delivers with zero self-awareness. Hunt looks hangdog and open-mouthed much of the time, as though the tornadoes are an annoying upstairs neighbour. What keeps things cooking is the astounding visual work from the Oscar-nominated effects team and de Bont's ability to keep his camera moving without treading into shots that are too dramatic to take seriously.

It's a pity that de Bont has never really lived up to the promise he showed as a director after his first two films, instead putting out efforts like the dreadful "Speed" sequel and "The Haunting", the effects work of which looked silly in comparison. "Twister" doesn't take itself too seriously, looks appropriately atmospheric, is heart-stopping in its execution and knows that at the end of the day it's about providing spectacle. It's a film I toss on when I want to take a ride.

Couples Retreat
½

Remember how good "Swingers" was? And "Made"? Those films were written by Jon Favreau, who shares a co-writing credit with longtime partner in crime Vince Vaughn on "Couples Retreat". The writing of the early Favreau/Vaughn films was sharp and smart. "Swingers" might have been the best guy movie about relationships released in the 90's. The two actors played characters who dealt as well as they could with extenuating circumstances and did it with verbal flair. Vaughn, with his loud mouth and cocky attitude, was the guy who caused trouble. Favreau was the straight man, kind of afraid of crossing dangerous lines and always effectively amazed at his best friend's ridiculous decisions. The dynamic worked and worked well.

With actors like Jason Batemen and Jean Reno in the cast, the stars should have aligned for "Couples Retreat", but it's disappointingly flat and feels far too long for its simplistic premise. Favreau and Vaughn try to mine humour out of stuff like obvious sex gags and accents. There are scenes where the characters talk and talk and TALK, and never say anything all that interesting as they meander to the next bit of plot.

Batemen plays Jason, a testicular cancer survivor who can't conceive a child with his wife Cynthia (Kristen Bell). It's putting a strain on their marriage and in one of the film's few genuinely funny moments, the couple explain via PowerPoint presentation why their friends should tag along as part of a group rate to West Eden, an exotic resort island that caters to repairing relationships. The couples are Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Ackerman), who are heading up what looks like a textbook nuclear family. There's Shane (Faizon Love), who has divorced his wife and is now dating 20-year-old Trudy (Kali Hawk). And then there's Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), who have been together since high school and seem to be counting the hours until their daughter moves out of the house and they can call it quits.

Making the film about four couples presents a problem. With one or two, the writers may have been forced to streamline things a bit. With four couples, there is a visible effort to keep jogging around in order to make sure that everybody is being taken care of. Most of the couples' problems are superficial. Joey and Lucy think that sleeping with someone else will solve all of their problems. There's an agonizing sequence where they both receive massages and hope for more but don't get it for the expected reasons. Reno plays a relationship guru who yammers on about spirituality as if his observations are hilarious because they're so "out there", but some of them go on for so long that I stopped trying to process them.

The movie missteps in its efforts to keep these couples on the island at all costs. Initially, only Jason and Cynthia have problems, but by the third act everyone has their own issues to deal with. Everybody wants to make use of the locale for jet skiing and sunbathing, but unless they stick to the regimen, see, they'll be forced to accept a refund. Harsh. The regimen involves awaking at 6 AM for couples activities such as disrobing on the beach, therapy sessions with hot-air exhaling counselors and particularly invasive yoga instruction given by Fabio's kid brother (Carlos Ponce).

Favreau and Vaughn have always excelled at guy talk, and the movie's brief shining moments offer more of the same. The guys run into a bit of trouble when they try to write women. Ronnie and Cynthia are nearly indistinguishable from one another unless they're with their husbands, at which point they become defined by their problems. From what I've seen of Kristin Davis in comedies, she only has one speed. Poor Batemen tries his best, while Favreau plays only a slightly different version of the scum of the earth he's played in his past few acting roles.

In one particularly awful scene, Dave plays Guitar Hero against the island's chief steward (Peter Serafinowicz) for access to the singles area of the resort, located on East Eden. Dave manufactures the game, which is exactly the type of job guys like him have in movies, so he beats him pretty handily in a glorified television commercial. It's like something out of "The Wizard", the Fred Savage movie about an idiot savant kid who's really good at Super Mario 3.

"Couples Retreat" is about getting older, leaving the singles life behind and being okay with that. When it tries for laughs, it tries too hard, and it spends the rest of the time spouting dull material about relationships from a hundred other films that have done it better. These guys are so not money and they don't even know it.

2 ou 3 Choses que je Sais d'Elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her)

"2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" is my favourite film from Jean-Luc Godard, a director who propped my eyes wide open to the possibilities of the film medium. This is a film that pitches and swirls with philosophical ideas on what it means to see, hear, speak, think and love - not to necessarily direct those actions toward one object or person in particular, but simply to perform them. Like most films, it contains dialogue between characters, but here that dialogue is punctuated with observations on what the characters are really thinking and feeling.

To the uninitiated, this can be disorienting. Watch the interplay between Godard's whispering narrator and the detailed shot of coffee whirling and settling inside a cup. With words as a guide, the entire universe rests at our fingertips. A burst bubble signifies the end of civilization, all in a quiet moment spent in a cafť during lunch hour before the spectre of work returns to abscond with our humanity. A man and woman sit and converse about the nature of conversing. They tell small lies because their culture has conditioned them to believe it counts as conversation. "Too bad it's raining," a woman offers flatly, inaccurately.

Why bother speaking at all? The separation between our words, what we are trying to convey, our physical effort to speak and the listener are chasms in width. Godard shows that we are surrounded by images. We inhabit them and make attempts to turn ourselves into them to feel even more at home. He scans the skyline of late 60's suburban Paris and turns up buildings that look like kennels, housing thousands of the middle class attempting to lead the "normal life".

This isn't the Paris westerners know from television ads, travelogues and blockbuster films, nor even the Paris I saw when backpacking through Europe this past summer. There is not a shred of that kind of opulence for the middle class, only the same buttoned-down existence shared among an economically defined segment of people who don't know any better. There's a war going on in Vietnam, but who cares when one needs to meet a hair appointment? These people have no concept of distance when the workplace, the salon, the store, the service station and the cafť are so close by. Isn't it odd to imagine another place existing?

The Criterion edition of "2 or 3 Things" contains a riveting supplemental feature of Godard talking to Jean Saint-Geours, then a government official for France's Ministry of Economy and Finance. The two men shift position in a studio control room discussing what the French economy has made of its citizens. Godard argues that it has turned them into prostitutes, while Saint-Geours argues that advertising culture is necessary for economic advancement. Both are correct, but not arguing on the same wavelength.

Inspired by a letter Godard had read from a "shooting star", a Parisian middle-class woman who prostituted herself to help pay her bills and raise her children, "2 or 3 Things" is the story of a day in the life of Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady). She has a husband and two children. She lives in one of thousands of grey project apartments and washes her dishes with the latest dish soap formula. Over the course of a day she visits her husband at work, runs errands, buys a Coke, shops for clothing. She questions the nature of being aloud and no one hears because no one understands. She is also a prostitute, but her profession seems a natural condition of the normal life Godard presents. At the expense of the economy and the glorification of capitalism, we exchange our desires for prescriptions, our love for products, our sanity for the insanity of never speaking out.

Going on the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, Godard gives us many shots of infrastructure being constructed, daring us to see meaning in them, going so far as to rob the shots of sound. The end achieved is a complete revelation of words having no sort of honest worth. They may as well be sounds emitting from a jackhammer, crudely and noisily. Consider a scene in which two men sit in a cafť leafing through books, pulling out sentences at random. We assume that one of the men is writing them down, trying to string together meaning. He orders a dish called "Mystery", only to be informed by the waiter that there is no mystery. It shocks him into a catatonic state.

The mystery Godard is after, I think, has to do with why people fill their lives with conversations that never communicate ideas. Of course, we want to be near other people. We want to feel as though we can connect with another human being. But what is connection? How different is it from the feeling we have when choosing a brand of cereal in the grocery store? We talk to one another under the impression that if we don't talk, we are alone. But of course we're alone. We're individuals. We work to survive, to own things, to be happy, but rarely do we work out of our own inclinations. Godard considers that a prostitution of the mind. We kid ourselves into thinking our lives are real when they're simply facades that stretch on until our deaths.

"2 or 3 Things I Know About Her" is endlessly rich in thought-provoking dialogue and imagery. The relationship between the two is where Godard has always excelled as a filmmaker. My first experience of the film came in an American cinema class, of all things - a screening of the scene in which Juliette visits her husband at work. As the characters go about their lives, the whispering narrator carries on, pontificating about all of the things not seen, the words not said, the definitions that cannot possibly be given to every moment that transpires. Films create the illusion that this is possible. Godard admitted the illusion and shot holes in it, frame by frame.

Manhattan
Manhattan(1979)

One moment in "Manhattan" tells you all you need to know about where its head is, and that's the first kiss shared by Isaac (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton). There's nothing romantic to it whatsoever because these are characters who can't think their way into loving another person unconditionally. Isaac tells Mary to ignore her brain, but he can't follow his own advice. It's too big a part of both of them.

Because Allen only ever plays one role, his performaces either work for his films or they don't. Whiny, neurotic and smart as a whip, every sentence out of his mouth is a plea for the listener to believe what he says. Another man with these traits could lead troops into battle; with a frame, look and voice like Woody's, he's lucky that cars stop for him at crosswalks.

Sometimes a person can find themselves in a group of friends who seem to swing in and out of relationships with one another until couples finally emerge. "Manhattan" is about that process of settling after a brand new person comes along and changes the dynamic. The new person is Mary, a journalist and writer from Philadelphia, where people don't make trouble for themselves.

Isaac's friend Yale (Michael Murphy) brings her up in conversation. For the past two months, he has been seeing her behind his wife's (Anne Byrne Hoffman) back. "She's nervous, high-strung and elusive," he says. "You shouldn't ask me for advice," Isaac returns. "When it comes to relationships with women, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg award."

Strindberg was a Swedish playwright, known for his neurotic behaviour and torrid relationships with women. The people in "Manhattan" can rhyme off endless pieces of information such as this about high art and philosophical thought as though they are discussing the weather. Those in the know will laugh in recognition. However, Allen is also perfectly aware of what these discussions mean beyond their sometimes hard-to-penetrate exteriors of intellectualism.

This awareness is exhibited in two terrific scenes, both of which get at the director's fascination with existential themes. Isaac and Mary walk through a planetarium to escape a rain storm and discuss their views on relationships. The characters walk on the surfaces of planets and at points look as though they are floating in space. Isaac observes: "You rely too much on your brain. The brain is the most overrated organ, I think."

The other scene shows Isaac lying on his couch, dictating thoughts for potential use in a book that he is putting together. Alone with his thoughts, he comes up with "an idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe."

In a big city like New York it can be hard to look a stranger in the eye, which is why the moment a stranger is introduced to you carries extra significance. Moments of attraction are few and far between when a bustling crowd prefers to keep their heads down. How else are we going to be able to catch a glimpse of our place in the grand scheme of things if we don't jump at chances to connect with other people?

As art prematurely imitates life, Isaac finds himself in a relationship with a 17-year-old girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). She represents a reservoir that needs filling with all of Isaac's insights. That Mary and Isaac don't work as a couple is in equal parts testament to Isaac's need to be able to teach his lovers a lesson. Compared to Mary, Tracy is a blank slate.

"Manhattan" is shot in glorious black and white and is backed by an exploding Gershwin score. This is a sincere portrait of Allen's efforts to not only confront his approach to relationships but to an entire city, filled with life and love and lying in wait to be conquered with his powers of observation. His script crackles with paranoid energy and witty anecdotes.

The film closes with Isaac attempting to convince Tracy that they belong together. Of course they don't, but what else is he going to do? His ex-wife (Meryl Streep) has exposed every negative aspect of his identity as a romantic partner in a tell-all book. Every other woman in New York is wise to his tactics and hangups. Spoiling Tracy is a brand new way to settle down. It creates the illusion that the way-too-big universe can be controlled. Sometimes that's all we need for a little while.

Whip It
Whip It(2009)

By now I?m pretty well convinced that Ellen Page can do anything. From her earlier, edgier turns in films like ?Hard Candy? and ?Mouth to Mouth? to her explosion with ?Juno?, she?s revealed herself to be an actress of incredible depth and ability. It?s almost odd to see her continuing to play a typical teenager. It?s not to say she can?t, it?s just like trying to picture a younger Kate Winslet in a John Hughes movie. Page is that good.

In ?Whip It?, Page plays Bliss Cavender of Bodeen, Texas, a hick town outside of Austin. She works at a restaurant with a name that pulls no punches (The Oink Joint), where if a customer eats an enormous hamburger in 3 minutes or less, they don?t have to pay for it and get their picture added to an overflowing ?wall of fame?. Bliss? mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is an ex-beauty pageant contestant careerist turned postal worker who misses her own youth and attempts to use Bliss as a next generation of vicarious vanity. As the films opens, Bliss has committed a snafu with hair dye and greets a panel of judges looking bluer than usual.

While shopping for shoes in a store that horrifies her mother, Bliss witnesses a cadre of large tattooed women on roller skates drop off fliers advertising an all-girls roller derby bout in Austin. She likes the way these women carry themselves in a way wholly separated from the pageant circuit. Bliss and best friend slash coworker Pash (Alia Shawkat) attend the event and Bliss is won over. She lies about her age, tries out for the team and is accepted, Barbie roller skates and all.

Donning the cool moniker of ?Babe Ruthless?, Bliss joins other women with names the likes of ?Smashley Simpson? (Drew Barrymore), ?Maggie Mayhem? (Kristen Wiig), ?Rosa Sparks? (Eve) and ?Bloody Holly? (stunt woman extraordinaire Zoe Bell). They are coached by the deceptively sensitive Razor (Andrew Wilson) and given the play-by-play by ?Hot Tub? Johnny Rocket (?We called him ?Hot Tub? until he bought us one?).

Bliss? dad (Daniel Stern) is a beer-bellied redneck, but clearly loves his daughter and jumps at the chance to support her once he discovers that the girls-only bond Bliss shares with her mother has weakened. These parents are not alien beings. They are principled and strict enough, but not clichť when it?s time for them to show compassion. The moments when the parents are tested are scripted and acted perfectly by Stern and Harden. These are well rounded characters who can?t change their minds on a dime but seek reconciliation gradually and naturally.

A dumber movie would have made the mother a vindictive shrew, but there is real heart to the relationship Bliss shares with her mother in the midst of the mistakes they both make. Consider a scene in which Bliss is disappointed over her boyfriend, a skinny indie rocker named Oliver (Landon Pigg, playing a character type I?ve been seeing too much of lately), who gives Bliss? ironic Stryper t-shirt away to another girl. Where did she get that shirt? Once upon a time it was mom?s, and watch how Harden reacts to Bliss? compliment on it. She doesn?t fully understand, but a part of her is flattered by the connection they have, especially at such a weighty moment.

Roller derby is a violent sport. Blood gushes and bones break. Diminutive Bliss is intimidated at first but practices constantly. She builds a rivalry with ?Iron Maven? (Juliette Lewis), who looks like she could whip most of the guys I know. Indeed, the film presents strong women admirably and not simply as eye candy for a drooling effeminate male horde. A few of these women are north of 30 and the script wisely acknowledges the lives they lead outside of derby. There is a particularly great scene between Page and Lewis, where Maven justifies her resentment of Bliss? success, and another where Mayhem gives Bliss some advice on handling her parents while her own tyke bounces in the back seat.

?Whip It? is sometimes too predictable and saccharine, but it?s paced well and has heart. It?s not a film about derby in itself, but about a girl getting her first tastes of adulthood and realizing that she?s a separate entity from her parents and a product of her own dreams and ability, rather than the town she grew up in but will never relate to. The screenplay was written by Shauna Cross, based on her young adult novel ?Derby Girl?, which chronicled her own experiences as Maggie Mayhem in the Texas Rollergirl league. And yes, it?s directed by Drew Barrymore, who actually shows great promise. I haven?t seen her star in a movie in years, but if she continues to put together projects like this behind the scenes, she?ll give me a reason to check up on her more often.

Zombieland
Zombieland(2009)

?Zombieland? is exactly what it advertises. No trickery here. It?s a movie about a land populated mostly by zombies and narrated by an intelligent, withdrawn 20-something gamer with irritable bowel syndrome. We meet Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a college student in Austin, Texas who has survived the zombie apocalypse by devising a set of rules. Among the most important are: Keep your cardio up, double tap (don?t worry about wasting bullets, just make sure they?re dead), avoid bathrooms and wear a seat belt. We?re reminded of these rules and others by their appearance in big block letters throughout the film. They gradually become a sight gag in themselves.

?Zombieland? is a comedy in the vein of ?Shaun of the Dead?, and though it lacks the wit of that film, it has a few big laughs scattered throughout, including downright surreal sequences set in the Hollywood home of a cameo I couldn?t believe. Its material is elevated by its terrific ensemble cast. In addition to Eisenberg, whose reactions in the face of repetitive horror are spot on, Woody Harrelson plays Tallahassee, a southerner with a penchant for big guns and drinking while driving. Columbus just wants to get to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive, even though they seem like the kind of folks who think paying their kid?s tuition is in itself indicative of a healthy familial relationship.

On the way they meet a sister team of con artists, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin, who I last saw vying for the title of Little Miss Sunshine. Kids grow up fast in Zombieland). The sisters are aiming to arrive at a west coast amusement park called Pacific Playland that is rumoured to be zombie free. The four spend much of their time jockeying for leadership positions on the journey, which Columbus boils down to trust issues. The screenplay mines a lot of laughs from the relationship between Columbus and Tallahassee, who couldn?t be more different in size and philosophy.

Tallahassee just wants to find a Twinkie. ?Even Twinkies have an expiry date,? he explains. Good point. A terrifying bit of business after surviving an apocalypse of any sort would be running out of the things that made life livable, which is why Columbus adds ?Enjoy the little things? to his list. The little things in a post-apocalyptic wasteland include trashing a souvenir shop and smashing the windows out of new cars ? stuff a kid would fantasize about and an adult would probably try once before moving on.

?Zombieland? contains some of the more unique uses of slow motion footage I?ve seen to depict a siege of the undead. It diverts its attention occasionally to gimmicky moments such as ?Zombie Kill of the Week?, which is exactly what it sounds like. As funny as these moments are, they feel tossed in for those with short attention spans, as do a few scenes in the film that are shot from the perspective of a first person shooter. I saw the film in a theatre packed with people who applauded when Tallahassee repeatedly ran over a heap of corpses. Sometimes that?s all a movie needs.

I could go on about the beauty of the muted colours that make Texas look as though it?s in nuclear winter, but this is, after all, a movie about killing zombies. Many a zombie is exterminated, some in more creative ways than others. Some are clearly CGI creations and some aren?t. Maybe you?ll feel desensitized after a while and maybe you won?t. It?s the sick invention of Tallahassee that gets the laughs, especially when he whips his banjo out.

The tension that comes with most zombie flicks isn?t really present here because the movie is all about ass-kicking. The zombies are never portrayed as all that serious a threat, but this is far more a comedy than a horror film anyhow. The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick isn?t especially brilliant, but it?s definitely funny and never oversells itself. The performances are good. The deaths are bloody. With a title like ?Zombieland?, what more do you want?

Capitalism: A Love Story

Economics is not a strong point of mine. I imagine it?s not a strong point of most, and that a quarter of the people who believe it?s a strong point of theirs think they can speak the language just by going on pleasantries alone. When someone talks to me about derivatives, my eyes glaze over. I believe that many in America unconsciously rely on a certainty, however misguided, that the mathematics behind money add up. What are hundreds of millions of dollars here and there when a road gets fixed and a sports centre gets built?

This is the documentary that Michael Moore has spent his career building toward. Regarded by those on the left as a saviour and those on the right as a lunatic, his films have never failed to incite a passionate response on either side. But which is he? Speaking for myself, a lot of my social values seem to lean left. But I?m wary of the idea of fitting squarely into an ideology. I wish those marching on the White House these days, accusing the president of being a Nazi and claiming that he wishes to assassinate the elderly, felt the same way.

Why do they feel that way? The fact that certain politicians and plumbers tossed around the word ?socialism? during last year?s election as though even thinking it would encourage a brain tumour always puzzled me. Up in Canada, we have 37 outed and proud socialists in our Parliament. What do Americans think the word means? It?s no secret that the forces that support and reap the benefits of capitalism indoctrinate against socialism because it doesn?t do them any favours. The Americans who chant ?socialist!? at town hall meetings aren?t the suits lounging in 40th floor offices at Citibank. They?re people who believe that the fundamentals of American democracy are being challenged by new and scary ideas. To a great extent, they fear what they don?t understand and find competing ideologies an attack on an illusive concept of American pride.

Not that supporting any ideology to the bone is a good idea. Moore is most effective when he avoids committing wholeheartedly to any strain of political thought. In ?Capitalism: A Love Story?, he investigates socialism and finds some good ideas, but he doesn?t advocate throwing the entire financial system out the window. That would be ludicrous. The American market is knit tightly with other nations in foreign trade. What Moore contends with are the principles of capitalism that force people out of homes they?ve been living in for 22 years. He underscores the injustice of big business pulling the rug out from under workers? unions who don?t see a dime of their multi-million dollar bonuses and bailout money.

As has always been his approach, he runs his attacks on the unjust by fueling them with individual stories. In ?Capitalism?, we meet a family who has to burn and dump the contents of their farmhouse and move elsewhere with a paltry $1,000 in their pocket from the bank. We meet a union who gained verbal support from Obama in their efforts to see their share of money given to faltering lending institutions. We meet pilots who make less than service industry workers and watch a testimony delivered to Congress by Chesley ?Sully? Sullenberger, the pilot who saved the lives of 155 passengers after landing his plane in the Hudson River. Once he has the opportunity, an American hero asks for a bigger piece of the pie.

Through his interviews with congressmen and women and men like William K. Black, the former Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention, we discover just how interwoven big business is with government, to the point where the Treasury Board now has a sizable history of being populated by former employees of Goldman Sachs. Moore uses his technique of implementing old video footage and has come full circle, using footage from ?Roger and Me?, the film about GM plant closures in Flint, Michigan that put him on the map. There are the usual bouts of the filmmaker going to odd lengths to make a point, backing up armoured trucks to lending institutions and wrapping crime tape around the entrances of AIG and the New York Stock Exchange while announcing his intent to make citizen?s arrests of the boards of directors.

Even Moore?s comedic tone can?t bring a lot of the reasoning behind economic thinking to a level I could understand entirely, and a couple of the connections he tries to make are dubious, such as his implication that an airlplane crashed because the pilots were upset about their salaries. Still, the greed that transpires in the circles he discusses is flabbergasting. Footage of FDR?s intended call for a second Bill of Rights is shown, guaranteeing all Americans the right to basics like health care and affordable housing. Unearthed by his research team from a library in South Carolina, it?s poignant footage in what could be Moore?s last documentary.

?I can?t keep this up anymore,? he narrates in the closing moments of ?Capitalism?, ?unless you people sitting in the theatre want to join me.? Throughout the film, he hints at a revolt stirring in the American middle class against the 1% of Americans who control the wealth of the country and reap its benefits for themselves. When he actually shows people making these revolts, they are peaceful, fair and exhilarating. Moore believes in the goodness and honesty of Americans. After 20 years of uncovering injustice after injustice, that?s saying something.

Zodiac
Zodiac(2007)
½

?Zodiac? is not the story of a killer, but of an obsession. Once the killer?s identity is known, it almost seems beside the point. As San Fransisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues information for a book he is putting together on the serial killer years after the public has so much as paid a thought to him, it is as though he is treading through a graveyard of fact. ?Too much time has gone by,? Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) tells Graysmith. ?Too much evidence has been lost. People get old. They forget.?

Zodiac?s murders start in the 1960?s, when departments had to mail copies of evidence between jurisdictions and phone calls took 15 minutes to trace. What prevents his capture is red tape. Pre-DNA testing, the evidence that can result in a conviction of the killer hinges on the science of handwriting, which is inexact when your analyst is a lush. Zodiac has this particular era of police work on his side.

The film opens with a scene in which two young people are shot in cold blood in their car on the 4th of July, 1969 in Vallejo. So begins a blur of years and dates that the investigators in the film attempt to assemble into a timeline that makes sense. Another young couple is targeted and stabbed in Napa Valley. A cab driver is shot and killed at an intersection in San Francisco?s Presidio Heights. To investigate homicides that cover a wide geographic range, the authorities must communicate across jurisdictions to compare notes. Years pass and some information falls through the cracks, but 2,500 suspects are cleared of guilt.

Calling himself Zodiac, the killer sends letters claiming the responsibility for the murders to different newspaper outlets along with cipher messages written in code. Eventually, the letters take credit for murders that couldn?t have been Zodiac?s ? the incidental promotion of Zodiac in the papers makes him hungry for press. The Chronicle?s Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) reports on police efforts to track Zodiac down, but develops a crippling paranoia that drives him to alcoholism when Zodiac begins to threaten him. Graysmith is the unassuming weirdo in the Chronicle?s office, taking it upon himself to gather the case in his hands when everyone else seems to have let it slip away. At the expense of his book, his wife (ChloŽ Sevigny) and children leave him to anonymous phone calls of heaving breathing.

This is all based on the real Graysmith?s 1986 book, which posits the identity of the killer. Regardless, the case has since been reopened by the SFPD for additional DNA testing and stands thus far unsolved. In Fincher?s film, Zodiac represents a puzzle to be locked into place, even at the killer?s most threatening. Along with screenwriter James Vanderbilt, he portrays the Zodiac killings not as gratuitously violent but as shocking setups to the gradual destruction of the professionals they affect. The brutality of the murders, which all occur early in the film, gives way to the horror of time?s passage. As the years go by, Avery?s health declines, Graysmith?s obsession builds and Toschi?s reputation fizzles while the killer remains free.

?Zodiac? is well cast with great performances from all three of its leads and a terrific turn from Anthony Edwards as William Armstrong, Tocshi?s partner, who has always wanted to try sushi, but won?t because sushi means retirement. Ruffalo?s Toschi needs animal crackers to think straight, while Gyllenhaal?s Graysmith never waivers in attitude or approach from his boy scout training. John Carroll Lynch, who many will recognize as Drew Carey?s cross-dressing brother, effectively channels every dark part of his psyche to play a man who may or may not have a trail of bodies behind him.

Last week I posted a review for David Fincher?s ?Fight Club?, a film I admire for its spirit and energy but begrudge for its over-stylistic treatment of violence as a boy?s club antidote to the pressures of a capitalist society. ?Zodiac? is manned by a much more subdued Fincher, who delivers an account of real serial killings that have now mystified Californian police for more than 30 years. It follows the classic crime drama blueprint so fluently and with such little embellishment that I wanted a little bit of Fincher?s more rascally visual tendencies to surface, but what he offers is one of his strongest films overall. It?s tense, atmospheric and tight in scope.

As far as Graysmith is concerned, he?s found his killer. He has to have found him. He has a life to get back to. The film?s best scene arrives late, years after the last murder, when Graysmith is able to entice Toschi out to a diner one last time to go over his most recent connections. We watch him run down every fact, delivered with the excitement of a kid nearly through a placemat maze. At long last, he has a name, and it sounds airtight. Toschi, a man of procedure, looks impressed but shakes his head and smiles. In a court, it won?t hold up. For Graysmith?s sanity, it has to.

Do the Right Thing
½

Spike Lee?s ?Do the Right Thing? won?t leave me alone. It made me feel angry and disappointed. I?ve decided that this is not reflective of the film?s quality, but of its circumstances. This is an angry film about violence and oppression on the streets of urban inner-city America. The ghosts of Michael Stewart and the victims in Howard Beach float in the muggy air. It?s meant to make people who will take its characters for granted sit up and take notice. In that regard, Lee?s film is a resounding success. It?s a film I won?t soon forget.

I took a course in race and cinema at the graduate level that aggravated me week after week. Maybe that was the point. No matter the questions raised and the answers given, nothing felt solved. When asked if Mookie, the character he played in ?Do the Right Thing?, actually did the right thing, Spike Lee is famously quoted as saying, ?Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.? After watching the film, I wasn?t happy with that observation as a solution. But maybe it?s not a solution. Maybe it?s indicative of a solution yet to come.

Bringing to a head the unrest of a mob angry over the victimization of a neighbourhood black youth, Mookie throws a trash can through the window of Sal?s Famous Pizzeria, owned by a man who said that Mookie was like a son to him. Screaming the word ?hate? as he does so, the destruction of the building is symbolic of an emotional fever pitch that has built slowly throughout the film. A mentally challenged man who we have seen selling pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands pins one of the pictures to the wall of the burning pizzeria and smiles. Pacifism has given way to the violence of self-defense.

When Lee introduces us to these characters, they are meeting this particular day in the Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn in the way they are accustomed to meet every day until something goes horribly wrong and the system comes crashing down. If there?s a villain in the film, it?s capitalism, which is here portrayed as offering a hand up to immigrants while keeping African-Americans sweating in the streets of lower class neighbourhoods. Sal?s pizzeria, operated by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), has been in the neighbourhood for 25 years. Sal is proud that he has been feeding the kids and watching them grow up. He set up shop in Brooklyn due to a lack of competition. Mookie delivers for him, taking long breaks to shower and visit his wife (Rosie Perez) and child.

Lee treats his characters with tenderness, writing them each uniquely and well, colouring their opinions and attitudes with shades of grey while portraying their lives and relationships with vibrant colour. A young guy called Buggin? Out (Giancarlo Esposito) walks into Sal?s and questions why there are no pictures of black men on their wall of fame. Sal and his sons are Italian-American and live in a different neighbourhood altogether. They are making a profit from black customers as families such as Mookie?s have to make do with delivery tips and cramped apartments.

The crux of the film comes about when Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who carries around a ghettoblaster that plays only ?Fight the Power? by Public Enemy, blasts his radio in Sal?s in an act of defiance. Sal smashes the radio with a baseball bat and, after a beat, Radio attacks. The cops show up and choke Radio to death in the guise of restraint. Mookie throws the trash can and by morning, Sal?s store is a burned out mess.

This is a difficult set of events to process. By returning to the photograph of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shaking hands, Lee is getting at a meeting of their philosophies. These are two men who, while each took a stand on civil rights, had different ideas of how it may be achieved. Is Radio?s physical attack on Sal the result of an ill application of Malcolm?s thinking, or Public Enemy?s, or is it a justified response against oppression? If Radio?s actions against Sal represent the left hand?s strike of hatred, the blow of his right hand, which stretches out in love, is held back forcefully as the life is choked from him.

Most of these characters evade moral categorization. Sal?s son Pino is racist, and while Sal seems appreciative of the neighbourhood, even he uses racist language to attack the black youths who take a stand. It is hatred that causes Sal to wield the bat, and hatred that brings him to kick Buggin? Out out of his store. Why aren?t there black men on the wall? The problem is that the neighbourhood that these people call home or a place of business isn?t theirs. It?s only what has been relegated to them by a racially motivated history of economic segregation.

?Do the Right Thing? is still powerful if somewhat dated. Some of the performances suffer from a twinge of the too-theatrical. But I?ll give Lee credit. He knows how to raise important questions. He?s not afraid to assume a role that will yank the powers that be into the harshest of spotlights. But anger is not the only emotion coursing through the film. There is also love, and sadness, and lust, and joy. There are all the elements of a pulse beating on the steps of each stoop and in the drizzling of each bead of sweat. This is Lee?s love letter to his past and his grab for a new future.

Bright Star
Bright Star(2009)
½

?When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say?st,
?Beauty is truth, truth beauty, ? that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know?

- John Keats, ?Ode on a Grecian Urn?

So were written, in my opinion, the greatest words by any poet. Hearing them for the first time awoke within me a brand new way of seeing the world. They are words awash in the acceptance of what we are presented with in life and instill a feeling of infinite perspective. John Keats knew that he was not long for this world. He came up with a term for being okay with not being able to answer every question, and he never tried. He simply let the words flow from the world around him, and the closer he got to death, the faster the words came.

Unfortunately, these words are conspicuously absent from Jane Campion?s new film about the relationship Keats had with Fanny Brawne, a seamstress and artisan with stitch work who found his poetry alluring. She reads Keats? ?Endymion? and finds the opening perfect but the rest a massive misfire, an appropriate description of ?Bright Star?, which treads the surfaces of Brawne and Keats lovingly but never dares to plunge its feet into their story.

Granted, the film is more about Brawne than Keats, who travels abroad to write for extended periods of time, leaving Brawne at home to weep and harm herself physically over the toll of his absence. Their connection to one another is expressed in letters read by the actors and in poems the two have committed to memory. Campion loves Keats' words, going so far as to substitute them for music over the closing credits, but in leaving them alone without greater context she leaves visible only their vague connection to the poet.

Keats is played by Ben Winshaw and Brawne by Abbie Cornish. Both are fine young actors, but the performance of the film belongs to Paul Schneider, who gives lust and life to Charles Armitage Brown, Keats? friend and admirer. Brown is a complex character, boisterous and loud by nature yet vulnerable and humble when confronted with the perfect stanza. Campion toys slightly with Brown?s interest going beyond a sense of comradarie born out of the two men working closely together on intimate material. This is a man who supported Keats in his poverty and took care of him in sickness. Schneider walks a fine emotional line with seeming ease when Brown expresses his feelings for Keats, whom he knows will undeniably succumb to tuberculosis in Italy.

Campion, an Oscar-winning director and screenwriter, was responsible for the atmospheric and unique ?The Piano?. ?Bright Star? flirts with moments of greatness, such as the scene in which Keats and Brawne walk through reeds to share their first kiss. Several overhead shots of characters traversing fields resonate poetically, as does a shot of a breeze running through drapes and caressing Brawne while she lies in bed, thinking of her absent lover. I was drawn in to her characters? early moments of introduction and their discussions of artistic craft. Regrettably, Keats and Brawne never seem to come to life. An outpouring of emotion alone does not make a character real. There is little to their backgrounds, only the belief that recitations of poetry and letters are enough to flesh out an identity.

There remains a great film to come about John Keats. He was a man who witnessed beauty in the world in spite of his illness and drew it willingly into his temperament. What remains of their brief relationship are a few love letters and some of the greatest poems ever written. I wanted Campion to get further into Keats? head, but all she offers is his hesitation over explaining his process beyond a single striking metaphor. There is little visual flair to the film, which largely plays out like a standard period drama about passion in the Victorian age of propriety. I wanted more truth. There is so much more to know.

Pandorum
Pandorum(2009)
½

The sci-fi horror genre may be the toughest of all genres to get right. It feels as though the first couple of Alien films ran away with most of the good ideas. We?re afloat in space, something goes wrong, we can?t do anything about it because we?re so far from home, we go insane. With great aggression, ?Pandorum? is all about that last stage, too often portraying madness as out-of-control anger.

A few months ago, NASA launched the Kepler space telescope to capture information about planets like ours orbiting suns in galaxies light years away. In ?Pandorum?, it?s the year 2174 and overpopulation has driven mankind to send a ship called the Elysium out to colonize an Earth-like planet. There are some great sequences that show a land rover returning data of a planet called Tanis, where plants and vegetation are immediately visible.

Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) awakens from hypersleep. A member of the Elysium?s fifth flight crew, he was supposed to be awakened by the preceding crew, but they?re nowhere in sight. The only other crew member around is Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid), who awakens shortly afterwards. Because of the effects of hypersleep on the memory, both crew members have amnesia about certain aspects of the mission. The two men are trapped in a room next to the bridge, but the ship?s reactor has stopped generating power and they can?t open the door. To restart the reactor, Bower slithers his way through hatches insulated with python-like wires into another part of the ship, communicating with Payton as he goes.

?Pandorum? starts promisingly as a character drama, but diverts to material that rips off films like ?Alien?, ?Event Horizon? and ?Cube? without treating it as proficiently. Bower bumps into Nadia (Antje Traue), a crew member fighting for her life in fetishwear against creatures that have come aboard the Elysium and are hunting its cargo, the future of human civilization. The creatures are ghastly in appearance, cannibalistic mutants with pale skin that have inexplicably fashioned Mad Max-like wardrobes and sleep in orgiastic piles. Also battling to stay alive are Manh (Cung Le), who speaks no English, and Leland (Eddie Rouse), who knows what happened to the ship and relates it in terms paralleling native mythology, which I suppose the screenwriters found horrifying by virtue of its foreignness.

Meanwhile, Payton rescues another crew member crawling around in the wires, which begin to eerily resemble a birth canal. Gallo (Cam Gigandet) idenitifies himself as part of the original flight crew, who witnessed the onset of madness in their commanding officer. The madness relegated to sufferers in space is called pandorum, and it resulted in the loss of 5,000 lives in a previous mission. Payton begins to show the symptoms, and the film puts the point across noisily, with quick edits that look like a beginner?s course in jump cutting.

One of ?Pandorum?s? problems is that it treats its non-action sequences like action sequences by virtue of their composition, cuts and a score that rarely slows down. This creates a dizzying effect that either mutes the action when it happens or turns it up full blast, leaving the audience squinting instead of biting their nails. The sets and effects look great, but they?re put to an often disorienting use and don?t really match an idea of what a ship like the Elysium should look like. Why would humanity build a ship for a 1,000 year journey and make it look like a living hell?

The ending has a twist as visible as a mountain two miles out on a flat stretch of road (think about what kinds of shots only a sci-fi film loves to implement, and then think about why those shots are lacking in "Pandorum"). The men and women in the Alien films slowly went mad after receiving the full impression of what they were up against. These characters charge for madness as if it?s oxygen. Their dialogue is often buried in the pounding industrial score.

?Pandorum? was directed by German-born Christian Alvart, who also co-wrote the story. On his side, he has a great set, art and production design team, along with the talents of the Stan Winston Studio. Paul W. S. Anderson, the director of the aforementioned ?Event Horizon? along with films such as the recent ?Death Race? and ?Resident Evil?, produced this film and probably sees in Alvart a protťgť of sorts. If Alvart is smart, he?ll tone down his approach and spend more time working on more original material for his next films. A lot of this stuff has been done to death.

Surrogates
Surrogates(2009)
½

?Surrogates? is a callback to sci-fi films of the 80?s and 90?s that featured dystopian ideas and found no cause for expanding them beyond how many cars those ideas could flip over in an hour and a half. In the post-Matrix cinematic landscape, it feels about 10 years too late. Based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, it stars Bruce Willis, who has given solid performances in much better sci-fi films such as ?12 Monkeys? and ?The Fifth Element?, but clearly takes none of this stuff that seriously.

Not that I blame him. I watched an uncomfortable sit-down interview that CNN held with Willis to promote the film, and they seemed a lot more interested in how he?s kept up a good relationship with Demi Moore and their kids despite their divorce. Riveting questions such as ?If you had a surrogate, what would you do with it?? were pitched underhand to Willis, who gave answers like ?Walk into a bar naked? with a look of desperately wanting to be somewhere else.

The dystopian idea behind ?Surrogates? is that at a point in the future, humanity decides that they?d rather stay at home in their underpants and navigate their daily lives using robots, which they purchase like new cars and can pay extra to customize. Surrogates look like humans without pores or blemishes. Perhaps not surprisingly, everyone chooses to engineer their robot selves to look like models and athletes. The robots are controlled by their owners via wires that transmit brain signals. With little to do but hook themselves up to chairs in their homes, real, actual people start to look pretty rough.

Groups of humans against the use of surrogates dub themselves the Human Coalition and take up refuge in camps scattered across America. They shun the use of technology and live in what look like junkyards attached to pre-school playgrounds. Why is there no happy medium for people who are anti-robot? Surrogates are fashionable, but not mandatory, yet these groups behave like cults and insane activists who push themselves away from society. They are led by a religious figure known as the Prophet, who is played way too far over the top (and way too hairy) by Ving Rhames.

Since surrogates are only robots, harming them does not harm their owners. Produced by a company called VMI, their inventor is Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), who in the form of several surrogates assures that the robots are safe. Early in the film, two surrogates are blown away by an electromagnetic gun while making out in an alley beside a club. The shooting kills the owners by frying their brains. Willis plays Greer, a member of the FBI investigating the murders with his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell). Turns out the killings are linked to Canter, who may know more than he lets on.

There is an action sequence in which Greer chases down a bad guy, but because it?s his surrogate and not Greer himself, he does not express panic or the rush of adrenaline. So surrogates have passionate sex, but don?t bat an eye when they survive a helicopter crash. The action in the film is hampered by the fact that the crushing force of cars and shotgun blasts aren?t doing any real damage to the characters. The robots look creepy and uncannily inhuman, but I suppose that?s the point.

Surrogates run on batteries yet are reliable enough to fight our wars. The film doesn?t say outright that they?re fighting other surrogates, though one scene demonstrates that they are used worldwide. The film falls back on the generic, old fashioned explanation of the computer virus to solve all of its problems and allow for a conclusion of sorts to come about. The only scenes that register any philosophical bent at all are those between Greer and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), who in real life has a painkiller addiction and a deep grief over the loss of her son to a car accident.

I?ve picked apart some of the smaller details, but the main problem with ?Surrogates? is that its moral compass is all screwed up. Nobody really questions how fundamentally wrong it is to sign our identities completely over to technology without considering the ramifications. It?s an interesting idea that no one in the film seems to care about. The people who do disagree with it are portrayed as pure reactionaries who evade empathy. Greer has to take one final leap to assert his humanity, and even the leap he takes doesn?t seem to have any real concern for how it might turn out. For starters, what about the surrogates driving school buses full of children whose parents haven?t yet picked up the brand new model made just for kids?

Fight Club
Fight Club(1999)
½

I admire ?Fight Club?s? spirit. It has a lot of intelligent things to say about the way we in North America mistake meaning in our lives for the things we own. There is a scene where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) lies in a bathtub talking to Tyler Durden (Edward Norton) about the path his life has taken, all on the advice of his old man. Go to school. Get a job. Get married. Tyler is now a 30-year-old boy finding out about the ruse of the American Dream. He?s too old to start over. IKEA has got him by the balls.

It?s been about 10 years since I?d last seen ?Fight Club? from start to finish. It was not a movie I enjoyed. It?s still not a perfect film, but I was mistaken in thinking that it altogether abandons its sharp analysis of modern capitalist society for sensational violence and a ridiculous conclusion. The fact that Tyler splits into two makes sense. He?s right. To a certain extent, we all do it to retreat from ourselves in order to live in a fantasy world where none of us has to pay rent or bills or buy clothes and furniture to convince ourselves that we have attained an appropriate level of success. We define success and the value of life itself in degrees that have been twisted by corporations.

I haven?t been in a fight since the 6th grade. A kid pushed me to the ground, punched me in the face and bloodied my lip. I haven?t got a clue how I?d do in a fight these days, but I?m sane enough to recognize that no amount of extreme physical pain is going to bring the things I desire in life to my doorstep. The men in ?Fight Club? fool themselves into thinking that pain is equal to freedom and a lack of impotence. They go looking for fights because they have nothing else to look for, confusing masculinity with nihilism. The movie sees the world as black and white and desires to splatter it with the red of blood and explosions. It has an anarchic mind that it attempts to shoot from its own body.

Not one of these men emerges a better person from their experiences. Instead, they become akin to mindless cult members following orders. Viewing it this time and watching the transformation of Norton?s character, I?m more confident that the film recognizes that what he institutes is wrong. It is, after all, the byproduct of a sickness. When Tyler and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) hold hands and watch the skyscrapers of big business collapse, we watch the failure of a misguided idea. Starting over at zero means that we are worth nothing but our primal urges, leaving us susceptible to a new round of charlatans masking themselves as saviors.

Tyler?s addiction to attending support groups remains the strongest part of the film because it has its eyes and ears wide open to human suffering. The segments involving fight club, of which there were fewer than I remember, and the training of Tyler?s army take human suffering to the level of parody. Yes, capitalism can turn us into a nation of individuals who fight in different ways to become less and less individualistic. But our history is oftentimes characterized by sober thought, judgment and observance. How else would novelist Chuck Palahniuk have written his book?

?We?ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we?d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won?t?, Tyler says. Maybe, but the itchy feeling of day-to-day ennui is a condition of rarely questioning our own egos. That?s not the fault of capitalism, or big business, or even our parents. Who among us invests our money, or takes acting classes, or picks up an instrument and applies themselves? The generation Tyler talks about may not be satisfied with their parents? philosophy of shut up, work and don?t ask questions, but they?re lazy. Punching another man in the face is easy. Finding out who you are is harder. It takes guts.

As I said, I can?t argue with ?Fight?s Club?s? spirit. I can?t argue with the lines that Palahniuk casts out into our society. He has an undeniable knack for observing the underbelly of damaged people, and screenwriter Jim Uhls adapts his material well. What I continue to argue with is ?Fight Club?s? presentation. It glorifies violence at the same time it shows it to be a dead end in a spiritual war. The film looks great and feels alive thanks to the talents of David Fincher, but it doesn?t shoot enough of a sarcastic smile at how way off base these characters are when it comes to rediscovering their manhood. ?You?ve met me at a very strange time in my life,? Tyler tells Marla as America collapses outside the window. Hopefully he?s ready to grow up.

La Dolce Vita

I have now seen ?La Dolce Vita? twice. Upon first viewing, I was confused. I knew I?d seen a film of which every frame appeared a work of art, but I wasn?t sure if it held together. I found it somewhat long, meandering and disconnected. I turned to Roger Ebert and discovered that his 1961 review of the film was probably the first he?d ever written. Years later, he prefaced the three-star review with these words: ?I now consider ?La Dolce Vita? one of the greatest films I?ve seen, but obviously that was not my first impression.?

One of the nice things about studying film at university was knowing that a discussion on what I was absorbing would be forthcoming. I have to try harder now. I have to seek out information to make sure that the pieces of a confusing film make sense, all the while hoping that how a film affected me on a basic level won?t be entirely discounted or that someone else?s opinion will not bleed too obviously into my own. The moments a film initially raises questions are invaluable, but not gospel. A frame in a film is all too fleeting.

?La Dolce Vita?, which translates to ?The Sweet Life?, is a film in eight parts. Each part sees dawn arriving after a night of carousal. At its center is a man named Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a tabloid journalist with an army of paparazzi photographers constantly on the trail of the next big thing to exploit it for profit. Marcello wears an expression of tired and bemused disbelief as though it were stitched to his DNA.

Marcello is an aspiring novelist who has tossed himself into the soulless, repetitive profession of tearing down beauty left and right. The people in his circle are socialites and wannabes who skitter like ants and snap pictures in the presence of the rich and famous. In the first part, we are introduced to Maddalena (Anouk Aimťe), a woman who sleeps with men to ensure her invitations at parties. Perfect for Marcello in their mutual aim for recognition, the two sleep together in the flooded basement of a prostitute?s hovel. As dawn arrives, Marcello returns home to find his live-in girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) in the midst of a suicide attempt.

With each part arrive new objects of fascination for Marcello, revealing more and more about the influence his career has on his treatment of the people around him. He is captivated by an American actress named Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a simple-minded and beautifully statuesque blonde filming a role in Rome. He sees in her every woman, but cannot hold her attention with emotional pleas she cannot understand. Steiner (Alain Cuny) represents Marcello?s ideal level of success. Though he is man who seems to have accomplished great things, he seems haunted by how safe and calculated his life has become. Marcello?s father (Annibale Ninchi) turns up in Rome. Largely absent during his son's childhood, he appears to be the picture of virility, glad for a night that he has long since experienced as a young man. And after accepting an invitation from a former colleague, Marcello attends a party thrown by Italian aristocracy only to distill from them an eccentric insanity brought on by exclusion.

It is after this episode that things begin to crumble for Marcello. The people in his life are facades. He works in a primarily visual medium, where the photograph is the only indication of truth. He is emotionally masochistic, clinging to his girlfriend?s love in spite of his affairs, which she attributes the cause of her mental breakdown and bi-polar behaviour. In a shocking act of brutality, Steiner murders his children and takes his own life; the one figure that showed promise for Marcello?s future snuffed out, he submits wholly to the depravity reveled in by his associates.

If Christ were a man today, perhaps he would be hounded by photographers upon exiting a restaurant. Perhaps what we have come to regard as holy is no longer found in words, but in images. Steiner describes his children as uniquely observant of the beauty of both what is seen and heard. He has recordings of the natural world that play as a novelty to party guests. This is a man who believes that the only way to live is in a detachment from life. Marcello?s desire to become him is a death wish that he chooses to numb himself to in order to avoid.

The film is rich with symbolism. In its opening shots, Marcello pursues a helicopter that is transporting a statue of Christ to Vatican City. He pauses to talk to some bathing beauties, who can?t make out his words over the noise of the spinning blades. The end of the film mirrors this scene. A child calls to Marcello, who is meeting another dawn as a drunken mess. He does not remember this child, who earlier in the film had talked to him about his writing. She types her fingers in the air, but Marcello cannot understand. Driven away from the life he wanted but could never try hard enough to pursue, he turns his back on the child?s smiling face.

Fellini is in love with staging processions, and several are included here: Sylvia leads a crowd to dance, children lead a crowd of people to see a vision of the Madonna, a lone trumpeter leads a group of balloons magically from the floor of a cabaret hall. Marcello covers party-goers in feathers as they leave another night of debauchery behind. So much of life is following a lead. We must comes to terms with the ways we are let down by those in front.

One of my favourite shots in ?La Dolce Vita? shows Marcello sitting in the dark, watching his father, who has his back turned to the camera. He is gazing out the window, his hair tousled from a futile effort to make love to a young dancer. He is remembering the Rome he used to know on his travels before boredom began aging him at an incredible rate. He cannot tell Marcello where to go when all he wants is to go home.

Reviewing a film like this turns into a Sophie?s choice of which threads to cover and which to leave dangling for others to explore. Upon first viewing, I found it overwhelming, but once used to its structure I was able to focus more clearly on its intricacies and found them extremely rewarding. ?La Dolce Vita? looks great, but it requires a viewer who will not make the same mistakes that Marcello makes. Sometimes it is all too easy to fall into images without considering their ramifications. If we insist on looking, we must be willing to know what we are looking at.

In the Loop
In the Loop(2009)

It?s amazing, the power that one little word can have. But that?s politics. Having the ability to speak English in office is not enough. The meanings of words can always be massaged, manipulated or even deleted completely and replaced by better words under the noses of a justice committee. In the case of ?In the Loop?, the word is ?unforeseeable?, and it is used by Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the British Minister for International Development, to describe a war. He uses it in an interview that most of the public has heard before the rest of the cabinet knows about it.

There?s a side of Iannucci?s film ironically arguing that if some politicians didn?t have constituents to worry about, they?d be a lot better at their jobs. Most politicians don?t have to fight in wars. It?s one of the grandest disconnects of all time. And of course wars can be unforeseeable. But that?s not a word a politician should use. Politicians should speak in absolute terms; words like ?unforeseeable? suggest that there could, or should, or will be a war. The slogan Foster improvises to play cover-up for the media mystifies rather than settles: ?To walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.? What?

Calling Foster on his verbal inadequacies is the Prime Minister?s go-to spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), who tells Foster that he sounds like a ?Nazi Julie Andrews?. Tucker looks and shouts as though he is made of ulcers. Some in DC jump on Foster?s language and attempt to monger it for all it?s worth. A hidden committee chaired by Linton Barwick (David Rasche) wants the UN on its side for an invasion, but US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and US Lieutenant General George Miller (James Gandolfini) are in their way.

All of the higher-ups have offices full of people trying to help along their agendas. Foster?s chief aides, a young man named Toby (Chris Addison) and a woman named Judy (Gina McKee), are trying to keep him on track to rally with Washington against a war. Linton has a suck-up yes man of an assistant named Chad (Zach Woods). Karen, who needs to see a dentist desperately, has an assistant named Liza (Anna Chlumsky). Liza?s written an anti-war report that could sway the opinion of the UN jury, if they?re made aware of it.

These young aides and assistants are priming themselves for jobs as double talkers. There is no honour in these kinds of politics. It comes down to a matter of who?s faster with the facts, real or not. The screenplay, written by Iannucci along with Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roche, is no holds barred, with one offensively outrageous barb after another. Capaldi delivers his lines as if he has a bomb strapped to his chest. While the demure Foster suffers an internal conflict over doing the right thing, it?s Tucker?s job to ensure that the British don?t look stupid at any cost.

?In the Loop? is the funniest film I?ve seen so far this year. I hear a lot of politicians speak. They are figures that constituents trust to be authoritative and unwavering in principle, but they are people. They stammer and cling for dear life to the party line when they have nothing else to offer. They use words that other parties jump on incessantly to drive home a point to the media, who are more often than not too sharp to follow an unnecessary lead. I sometimes wonder if they believe that their endless repetition of slights and slogans are reaching anyone other than an obsessed few who tune into debates all day, every day. What happens when they break for the day and share a lunchroom?

The war in question in the film is never identified, only relegated to the ?Middle East?. Does it matter where it takes place? The reason for discussing it at all, let alone it going to the UN, stems from these people?s egos. ?In the Loop? casts a little bit of light on the bigger picture of their lives, relentlessly skewering it all the way. Some use every profanity under the sun, but never when the media?s cameras are on them. It is a satire about politicians trying to out-talk one another for the good of their respective countries and, of course, their jobs. It should play well in Ottawa.

Jennifer's Body
½

?My better half has bitten me.?

- ?Jennifer?s Body? by Hole

Megan Fox is hot. Did you know that? It?s hard to not know, given that her image is everywhere. The other day I was surfing the front page of rottentomatoes.com and saw her picture in four separate places ? advertisements, gala premiere coverage, trailers, picture galleries. She now has a few films and a fair bit of TV under her belt. Her body looks like it belongs in front of a camera. At 23, one place it doesn?t look like it belongs is wandering the halls of a high school.

I hate most teen flicks. The use of 20-something actors in those films is nothing new. Unless the director?s name is John Hughes, chances are they?ll be harebrained, shallow and awful. But then a film like ?Juno? will come along and be pleasantly surprising. Its characters won?t be clichťs. Its dialogue will be inventive and out there, but teenagers are out there. It's been about 10 years since I?ve been one and I?ve long since forgotten how to speak their language, but I have a feeling they?re still after what all teenagers have been after since the first high school was erected.

These teenagers are no different. Thanks to Diablo Cody, the lady who wrote ?Juno?, their dialogue is at least something wholly new. Thanks to actress Amanda Seyfried, who plays Jennifer?s best friend Needy, at least one of them has a brain. Thanks to the talented members of the makeup division, the whole thing is pretty disgusting. And so there ?Jennifer?s Body? sits. It?s not a great film, but what it is is pretty good in comparison.

Jennifer (Fox) has a thing for eyeliner-clad skinny indie rocker dudes that will get her into trouble sooner than she thinks. She begins to exhibit the tell-tale signs of demonhood, throwing up prickly black bile and tearing into store-bought chickens. Soon boys begin disappearing. The film provides a priceless motive for her condition. Cody goes ceremonial on safe, anthemic rock bands by suggesting their success is achieved in a deal with the Devil, which considering the likes of the dying breed of label presidents may not be far off.

?Jennifer?s Body? is being referred to as ?Twilight? for boys. ?Twilight? is about a young girl too panicked over sex to go through with it. ?Jennifer?s Body? is about a living vagina dentata. It?s all adorable and heartachey in that depressed emo punk kid sort of way until the boys? pants drop. Then things get ugly. Kids? fears over sex are certainly being expressed at deeply nerdy pitches these days. It?s all vampires and occult lore. No one rips their prom dress and hitchhikes home from a parked Chevy anymore.

The band?s name is Low Shoulder. They play a show in Devil?s Kettle, the hick town home to Jennifer and Needy, and the bar burns down. As Jennifer hops into their van in hopes of something she?s not prepared for, Needy looks on longingly as another part of the building explodes behind her. Ah, teenagers. Everything is such a big deal when you?re young. Needy is relating the story from a cell in a women?s prison, where she looks a lot more bedraggled than her everyday bookish self. Nobody believes she and Jennifer could be friends, she points out. Neither can we, really.

?Jennifer?s Body? requires Jennifer to be hot. That?s it. Fox generally plays her character as looking either annoyed and interested or annoyed and disinterested. This actually works, since the script requires Seyfried to carry most of the acting weight. She has a nice boyfriend named Chip (Johnny Simmons) who she doesn?t want to see eaten. There are undertones that her long-term friendship with Jennifer might be based on more than friendly feelings, and sometimes these undertones evolve into big slaps in the face. Should keep the boys happy.

J.K. Simmons appears hilariously made up as a teacher with a hook for a left hand. The title of the film is taken from a Hole song that inexplicably isn?t heard once (though ?Violet?, from the same album, is). I?d look forward to a sequel that takes a look at Needy?s body. It?s been a while since cinema has seen a demon-bitten bisexual serial murderer stalking a college campus. By then Seyfried should be pushing 30, but this is Hollywood. Welcome, Diablo.

The Informant!
½

?The Informant!? is the true story of a compulsive liar. Sort of. With its tongue firmly in cheek, it opens with a disclaimer telling people to rat out others in the theatre who are engaging in piracy before covering its own tail about real persons and real events, the kind of information that most audiences lose in the fine print once the credits are rolling. Some folks have an ear, eye or nose for easy money, and they can be pretty unassuming, especially if they have a good lawyer to do their talking.

Mark Whitacre, who is a real man and really did the things the film says he did, doesn?t know when to stop talking. He just never says the right thing at the right time, and his loudest voice is the one in his head. Played by Matt Damon, he is as unassuming as they come. He exudes a kind of bumpkin simplicity, fueled by a faith in the goodness of people. He offers his services to the FBI, who are investigating his bosses. Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) shows his supervisor a picture of Mark and his loving family. ?He?s a real person,? he explains, one the government should not abandon when the chips are finally down.

Whitacre works for the offices of Archer Daniels Midland, a grain processing conglomerate with cereal plants all over the world. In the early 1990?s, ADM was involved in an international price-fixing scheme that froze competing prices of lysine, a corn-extracted animal feed additive. ?We are victims of a corporate crime before we finish breakfast,? Shepard says, summing it up nicely. If there?s one thing I?m not, it?s an economist. If you?re not either, know this: Price fixing is illegal, and ADM ends up in the soup once Whitacre tells the FBI what they?re up to.

Whitacre also comes forward with a story that the lysine in ADM plants is being sabotaged by a mole working in the organization. He volunteers to go undercover and collects recordings and video of illegal agreements made by the company. To Damon?s credit, he makes Whitacre so inept that we don?t suspect that he might be hiding something, and then something else, and on and on. Largely, these revelations come forward in the realm of comedy, accompanied by music out of a Mexican carnival.

What transpires is accompanied by Whitacre?s voiceover narration, which contains insightful observations about the milieu of everyday life. The film is set in the 90?s, but everyone dresses 20 years out of date. In one scene, the FBI brief Whitacre while his mind wanders on to the subject of 2-for-1 tie deals at a men?s clothing store. It?s as though his mind works on a completely different level from what?s useful in the world of business, which makes him fascinating for a while, but then kind of pitiful.

The investigation into ADM turns against Whitacre once information he has kept from the FBI all along finally surfaces. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he is pushed along only by his belief that he is doing the right thing in spite of all of the wrong things he forgets to mention. Whitacre is an informer as much as an informant, spouting off-the-cuff metaphors in his head with a sharp yet delusional self-awareness. A chain-thinker, Whitacre equates everything with the type of reality captured in a Michael Crichton novel. In one well written scene, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has Whitacre?s thought process actually catch up with him in the midst of trying to dig himself out of his legal troubles. The process wears Whitacre down slowly, and Damon communicates it with subtle adjustments of the toupee.

I really liked parts of the film ? the bits of narration are funny and sometimes play poignantly with whatever Whitacre is actually doing onscreen ? but it probably sounded better on paper than it works in execution. The film makes ill use of director Steven Soderbergh?s occasional taste for over-dominant earth tones. Bakula and Joel McHale are strong in their roles as the FBI men who have to separate Whitacre?s BS from the truth he seems to really want to get around to. Damon is good, for the most part, but he always seems to be hovering around his character, getting ready to jump in but never committing.

The ADM antitrust lawsuit was the biggest in American history at that time. Soderbergh knows that there?s a fascinating story there, but he can?t communicate it in a fashion that gets at the heart of the evil that men do. As a comedy, it?s pretty flat. As a drama, it looks in the wrong places for pathos. Whitacre just wants to catch a big break. I just wanted him to catch a glimpse of himself.

The Truman Show

For better or for worse, but I imagine mostly for worse, ?The Truman Show? is probably regarded today as one of the most prophetic films released in the 1990?s. It didn?t introduce the concept of reality TV, but it pointed in the direction it could take if certain ethical concerns were left in the dust of network profit and ratings. Over the last 10 years prime time television has turned into a wasteland of everyday people doing increasingly ridiculous things for money. No one seems to have the slightest comprehension of what it can mean to have their very identity become a synonym for embarrassment.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column elsewhere about the American Dream, which George Carlin skewered so eloquently: ?It?s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.? These days every pop culture junkie believes they have a shot at fast and easy fame. Reality television exhibits a twisted perversion of the American Dream in which we do not realize our full potential but instead become widely associated with our deepest faults and insecurities. The camera loves a look of shame and regret on our masochistic faces. The viewers at home take a moral ground higher than any they?ve ever known, for at least they aren?t making fools of themselves nationwide.

The difference between Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) and the rest of reality television?s stars is his unwitting involvement in the production, which has been going on since before his birth and which he has gone about 30 years without recognizing. There have been small hints along the way, but if the world you?d known since birth more or less reliably behaved in a certain way, you wouldn?t notice the hints much either. What makes Truman begin to notice is the seemingly impossible reappearance of his father (Brian Delate), who capsized at sea when Truman was a boy. Bitter at the loss of his on-air role, his father ? or rather, the actor playing his father ? sneaks back onto the set while the production team scrambles to cover it up.

Unbeknownst to Truman, he is the world?s first son adopted by a corporation. The closest thing he really has to a father is the show?s creator, a Howard Hughes-esque artist known as Christof (Ed Harris), who directs the 24-hour-a-day show unseen from a control room located in the moon, which is fake. The sun is fake. The clouds are fake. Ditto the weather patterns, the streets, the entire city of Seahaven where Truman resides. Only Truman is real, according to Christof. In its 30th year, viewers around the world tune in to the show obsessively, leaving it on at night for comfort, secure in the proof that another person somewhere out there is living.

Director Peter Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol wisely refrain from taking a grander what-if route for the film?s first hour, whetting our appetites for select explanations from Christof in an exclusive interview. Harris? performance is fundamental to the film?s success. Clad in a wealthy artisan?s garb, he gives direction as though he is conducting a symphony. Even God wasn?t so histrionic when He created the universe. When Truman comes to learn the truth of his circumstances, he battles the world he knows with all he has.

The film cleverly offers reasons for Truman to have stayed put all these years without overselling it. With an apple-cheeked wife (Laura Linney), a steady job, a sensible car and a best friend (Noah Emmerich) who always jumps on the perfect moment to grab a beer, Truman is one step away from living the American Dream before a light goes on inside of him. There?s great inspiration in watching a human being fight for a normal life; no matter how normal it may feel, it simply can?t exist on camera. Even the blasť tranquility of Seahaven, which has the feel of a small American suburban community circa the late 1950?s, can?t provide the tonic for Truman?s explorer spirit.

?The Truman Show? was Carrey?s first popular foray into more dramatic work after a string of films that revolved around his skill as a physical and rubber-faced comedian. He portrays Truman as a man who has indeed been coddled by his false society?s conventions. His manufactured tragedies are offset by manufactured pleasant surprises. Carrey dials down almost every reaction to suit a character who simply wants something different from what we?re all told we want. The producers can control how Truman is seen and perceived, with music that swells and angles that flatter, but they cannot control his heart and mind.

Ideally, that?s the precise reason why ?The Truman Show? won?t become a fulfilled prophecy. People these days might act heartless (and more often mindless) for a television camera, but given the choice, no one likes to be kept in a bubble. It?s Truman?s reaction to the assault on his free will that ends his television coverage. ?If he was absolutely determined to discover the truth,? Christof offers, ?there?s no way we could prevent him.? These are words spoken ironically. Accurate as they are, no reality television producer would let the truth prevent the show we pay to see from airing.

Lťon: The Professional

I suppose I wasn?t fully prepared for ?Lťon?, a movie I had heard a thing or two about since its release in 1994, but little beyond that it starred a sunglasses-sporting hitman played by Jean Reno and a pre-teen Natalie Portman. I knew it had somewhat of a cult following and I had assumed that its stylized violence had a lot to do with it, considering that stylized violence often has much to do with cult followings. What I wasn?t prepared for was a movie that kept me glued to the screen with every sequence, action and non-action alike, prompting me to raise my eyebrows on occasion in disbelief. ?Lťon? never lets up.

I like Reno, and this is probably his most identifiable role in North America. His character is less a tough guy than an emotionally stunted manchild who just happens to have dead aim and a razor-sharp process. Like a blackbelt karate master, Lťon has worked his way up from using a scope at 500 metres to taking out kills with a knife. In one scene, he schools Mathilda (Portman) on the basics of making a hit: ?The closer you get to being a pro, the closer you can get to the client.? The clients he speaks of are his bread and butter ? $5,000 a head, with two exceptions: no women, no children.

In Reno?s Lťon, there is a hangdog portrait of a man who lives the life of a professional killer. His John Lennon shades in place, he sleeps in a sitting position with gun at the ready, unaware that he snores until Mathilda begins to spend her nights with him. The film is not shy about drawing attention to Mathilda?s budding sexuality, and it is equally careful about how it allows Lťon to deal with it. His resistance to Mathilda?s advances humanize him in the midst of the work he has to perform. There is a soul here, traumatized at a young age, yet able to treat love with respect, no matter the confusion surrounding the form it takes.

This is a brave early outing from Portman as well, who plays her 12-year-old character as adult as possible. Lťon incorporates Mathilda into his work, yet the inappropriateness of her exposure to violence is cleared away by her intelligence and self-awareness. Raised in an abusive household of drug dealers, Portman makes us believe that Mathilda has seen it all, even if Lťon does opt to sub her bullets with paintball pellets. She is a girl Lťon pities, drawing on his own dark past, revealed at the proper moment and put exactly the right way to the child, who has grown up far too soon.

The other effective element is Besson?s choice of Gary Oldman as Stansfield, head of the DEA. There are two key scenes in which the character visibly goes from Jekyll to Hyde, waving his gun around like a flyswatter finding targets out of boredom. Stansfield?s psychotic persona is given furious life by Oldman, greatly needed after an early scene shows Lťon taking out a cadre of turf infiltrators with ease. The climax of the film will feature the two men finally meeting, but even this is handled in an unexpected fashion that has its fists clenched in both Lťon?s procedure and his feelings for Mathilda.

Writer/director Luc Besson knows exactly what makes Lťon interesting and doesn?t waste a scene with him, even with the 24 minutes of footage restored to international cuts of the film in 1996. He also doesn?t waste space. Many of the more violent scenes, such as that in which Mathilda?s family are gunned down by a group of DEA agents, take place in enclosed areas, the claustrophobic tint heightening the terror. There are several hypnotizing shots of spiraling staircases that work to distort our perception, useful in a film where good and evil are turned upside down.

?Lťon? is a terrific example of great casting coupled with a precise vision of character down to the all-important small detail. Everyone here is a product of their environment, a professional who knows the ins and outs of their line of work. Lťon himself lives simply in a dingy apartment, treating a potted plant with great care, guzzling milk by the quart, laconically trusting that his boss (Danny Aiello) is putting aside his hit money for a rainy day. Or maybe the money isn?t all that important. Maybe it can?t fill the hole that love can leave in us. After such a loss, we can come to feel like machines in search of a function. Lťon?s function is to kill, until the day he chooses to save a young girl.

Tetro
Tetro(2009)
½

When I review a film, I typically like to do so as soon as possible after I see it so that my engagement with it comes out with a greater amount of clarity. In the case of ?Tetro?, I felt it needed a little rumination. It?s a film I slept on. There are images in the film that are undeniably beautiful, and the story is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy that Francis Ford Coppola has done so well in the past. Yet though ?Tetro? is in much the same way a film about a family who thrives on disreputable action and an unshakable past, this is a wholly different animal from ?The Godfather?, first and foremost in terms of style.

Coppola turned 70 earlier this year. He?s a director who has run the gamut of very personal efforts and studio fluff pieces. No one has ever denied his status as an auteur. After a ten-year hiatus that culminated in his return to directing with 2007?s ?Youth Without Youth?, a sea change appears to have risen in the man later in life. ?Tetro? is an art film of high degree. Coppola has renewed a fascination with experimentation that sometimes hinders but more often helps his narrative. It is a film of choices left entirely to the storyteller.

One superb choice is the casting of Vincent Gallo as the titular character. Tetro, formerly Angelino Tetrocini, is a disturbed writer who has taken a long-term sabbatical to deal with his feelings for his father Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a famous composer and conductor. In one scene, father and son walk along a beach, the son appealing to his father of his chosen career as a writer. Carlo kisses his son and all but entirely crushes his spirit with his contempt. There can be only one genius in any family.

Carlo?s contempt for his son stems from a car accident that killed his wife, an equally famous opera singer. Tetro was at the wheel. Coppola provides flashbacks of that event and others in colour in opposition to the film?s present tense of black and white. The effect this achieves is one of burning passion for the moments in a person?s life when things change forever. Like our deepest, most influential memories, they live with us intensely at any given moment.

We are uncertain of how deeply rooted Tetro?s psychosis over his father is, only that he has renounced his name and moved to Buenos Aires where he shares an apartment with his compassionate wife Miranda (Maribel Verdķ). Equally uncertain is Tetro?s younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), who shows up at Tetro?s home to find out more about their history. Sifting through a hidden stash of Tetro?s manuscripts, Bennie comes to know the truth about their father. The movie?s best moments involve Bennie?s pressuring of Tetro to come to terms with his past and realize that it is one they share. Gallo brings his frightening intensity to the role and plays it just right, barking when he needs to bark and always creating the impression that a bite is coming.

The family relationships in the film are complex. Coppola uses sequences of interpretative dance to illustrate character psychologies and certain events, portraying the past as a carnivalesque entity that perpetually haunts those who experience it. There is a sequence in which a production of the Faustus tale enters into the realm of burlesque, with the role of Faust played by a woman and Tetro working the lights from the balcony. A hush falls over the crowd as a world famous literary and theatre critic enters the room. The production is begun again for her benefit. This woman, dubbed ?Alone? (Carmen Maura), is a former teacher of Tetro?s, another figure for him to quietly agonize over pleasing.

The truth of these characters? lives is revealed in the end and they are left to carry on or perish. It?s a rich film to pick apart thematically, but Coppola seems to stage his actors in scenes far too deliberately, robbing them of naturalism. He appears to channel Godard and the French new wave for his first two acts before going full on Bergman in his finale, with overly dramatic choices in framing and dialogue. It?s jarring when it should be simplistic.

Coppola makes extensive and unique use of lighting effects in the film. If shedding light represents an unveiling of the truth, these characters all have their own to cast. Art can only do so much to change the artist into a better person. There are decisions that must be made and actions that must be taken outside of the written word or the directed scene. People must be loved in spite of what they represent. Sometimes they must be let go and we must be able to forgive ourselves.

9
9(2009)

It?s been a month of soul-searching at the cinema. Coming off ?Cold Souls?, here is another picture that postulates the removal of the soul from the human body for storage, though in ?9″ the sterile canisters take the form of rag dolls and the procedure suits a much grander purpose. ?9″ takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where human beings have been killed off by the very machines they manufactured to help them do battle. The only remnant of our existence has issues with keeping its arms attached.

Some animators sure have dark imaginations, and thank goodness for that. One such animator is Shane Acker, whose ?9″ is a full-length expansion of the world he created in his Academy Award nominated short film of the same name in 2005. The film is co-produced by Tim Burton, a collaboration that immediately makes sense given ?9?s? mutual fascination with apocalyptic themes and kid?s toys. A quick read of Acker?s bio mentions his influences as the Quay brothers and Czech surrealist director Jan ?vankmajer, whose adaptation of ?Alice and Wonderland? must be seen to be believed.

Based on my viewing of ?9″, I?ll throw some others influences on the table: Jim Henson and the Wachowskis. In fact, ?9″ could play as a lost segment of ?The Animatrix?, preoccupied as it is with the destruction of mankind at the hands of artificial intelligence ? even the big baddie of a robot slightly resembles the sentinels that sliced through the Nebuchadnezzar. Scenes in which a machine sucks the life essence out of the rag dolls reminded me of ?The Dark Crystal?, all to say that Acker takes his place in a tradition of exploring the dark rooms of a child?s mind in his animation.

A lot of kids will want to see the film, and it might scare them witless. In case the soul-sucking detail didn?t bring its tone home, I?ll put it like this: It?s like ?WALL-E?, except all of the humans are dead, and WALL-E killed them. As the film opens, an inventor (Alan Openheimer, the go-to guy for ?In a world? trailer narration) is finishing up work on a doll with electronic parts and describing how the world?s been flushed down the toilet by blind trust in technological advancement. When the doll awakens, his master is lying dead on the floor, but he discovers that eight other dolls like him have taken refuge in a nearby church.

All of the dolls, identified by the numbers on their backs, represent unique facets of the inventor?s soul, which is what the machines lack to cause anything but destruction. 1 (Christopher Plummer) takes on the role of a pious leader trying to keep the dolls safe. 2 (Martin Landau) appears to carry the greater part of the inventor?s mind. 3 and 4 are mute chroniclers of the events that have transpired, armed with the ability to project film reels and catalogue information. 5 (John C. Reilly) serves as the one-eyed lookout. 6 (Crispin Glover) is an idiot savant who seems crazy but has the key to stopping the machines. 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is a fearless warrior who can take down a machine with one slice of a rusted kitchen knife. 8 (Fred Tatasciore) is the brainless mass of muscle, and 9 (Elijah Wood) seems to unite the best qualities of all in sober thought and courage.

The movie is comprised of terrific action scenes in which the dolls come out of hiding to do battle with the machines and figure out how to help their friends who have fallen into harm?s way. 9 is directly responsible for a lot of the chaos that occurs, and Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler give him great depth in his fastidious determination to carry out his responsibilities while shouldering his guilt. The environment has a great dark look of greys and browns punctured occasionally by bursts of bright green light.

The film seems to be hinting that technology is becoming a kind of drug to humanity that will eventually rage out of control. I found myself confused by its insinuations about the nation responsible for the machine takeover (it appears to be Russia, comrade) and the religious overtones, but these were too slight to really complain about. By the end of the film I was hoping that I?ll get another look at the world Acker has created. It's a dark one, but the world can be a dark place.

The Cove
The Cove(2009)

I watch a lot of Parliamentary discussions here in Canada, and once in a while the North Atlantic seal hunt will come up as a topic of debate. Nearly all of Canada?s elected MPs support it for the following reasons: 1) It?s humane; 2) It?s culturally important; 3) It supplies a small portion of the population with a livelihood; 4) If the seals weren?t hunted, they would multiply, gobble up fish and kill the fishing industry in this country. Our Governor General went so far as to pluck a dead seal?s heart out and eat it raw, all for the aim of proving a point.

I?ll leave it to you to consider whether that point was made successfully. After all, my job is a film critic, and on that end, I have to comment on whether or not I think Louie Psihoyos? documentary ?The Cove? does what it intends to do, and how well it does it. It has a few aims of its own: 1) To reveal that dolphins are being killed off in a Japanese coastal community by the thousands (there are); 2) To point out that it is not only being kept a secret, but that the men who guard the cove where the slaughter takes place are outright contemptuous of those trying to sneak a peek (it is, and they are); 3) To argue that dolphins are a species of life whose intelligence rivals our own (it seems to); and 4) To illustrate that the dolphins are being killed for absolutely no good reason (undeniably).

The patriarch of these aims is a man named Richard O?Barry, the man responsible for capturing and training all of the dolphins that portrayed Flipper on the children?s television series. The lakeshore house on the show was his own. Now in old age, O?Barry continues to carry feelings of guilt over his role in holding the dolphins captive. A reformed activist, he has dedicated his life to setting dolphins free around the globe. Asked how many times he?s been arrested, he replies, ?This year?? For a long time he has set his sights on a cove located in the small Japanese town of Taiji, not visible to the mainland and guarded on all sides.

O?Barry is approached by Psihoyos, a former National Geographic photographer and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society. Psihoyos forms what he calls an ?Ocean?s Eleven? type crew to infiltrate the cove and get a look at what?s being kept secret. Bringing together enthusiastic help from film industry professionals, divers and conservationists, the crew embarks on missions to strategically place cameras and sound recording devices where they will do the most good. The missions are shot using thermal and night-vision cameras so precise that they can pick up an animal?s movement on the opposite cliff face. What the devices capture is devastating. By the completion of their purpose, there seems to be more blood in the water than sea.

The footage of the missions is exhilarating in its veracity. Japanese police officials know that O?Barry is a troublemaker, and the team uses it inventively to their advantage. Between these sequences, statistics regarding the efforts of Japan?s International Whaling Commission to rope in poorer countries in support of their whaling agenda by buying them off paint a damning picture of that nation?s conservation policy. More shocking still are the numbers given on the amount of mercury dolphins ingest. While some of the dolphins captured in Taiji are sold to theme parks internationally, an aborted effort to serve dolphin meat in schools underscores the danger in the potential of the meat to poison humans. There is no reason for the dolphin slaughter, which is brutal and alarming.

The activists are passionate about ending the injustice, and like most activist documentaries, we are invited to help. What makes ?The Cove? so effective is its technique of turning us into witnesses who root for the activists as action heroes. The film accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. It accomplishes it well, with exciting spy caper-style sequences that outline the geography, detail the circumstances and pull us in to the approach.

The Princess Bride

?The Princess Bride? started a curious tendency of mine to hold my breath at certain points in movies when characters are deprived of oxygen. Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) accidentally steps into a patch of lightning sand in the Fire Swamp and disappears for about 40 seconds. I can?t remember the last time I watched this scene while inhaling and exhaling normally. When Westley (Cary Elwes) emerges from the sand with Buttercup clinging to his neck, I gasp for air along with them as they roll about in dirt and ash on the forest floor, coughing their lungs out, trying to shake the horror loose.

?The Princess Bride? was among the first DVDs I owned after my parents gave me a DVD player as a graduation present. Though the transfer of the original MGM release has its issues, there was no contest in the quality of the film versus the old VHS copy my family had taped from the First Choice movie network in the late 1980?s. I count it among my early exposure to the benefits of viewing films at their original theatrical aspect ratios rather than the standard framing of films for television screens. It?s a movie I adored as a kid. I?ve seen it so many times, I now spend as much time with a direct eye on the sets and locales as I do on the characters.

It contains one of my favourite film scenes of all time, in which Westley goes sword to sword against hired Spaniard Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). Everything about this scene works perfectly ? the rocky terrain, the back-and-forth rhythm of the duel in both swordplay and language, the painted sunset backdrops that take just enough reality out of the scene without making it seem overly cartoonish or surreal. The way that Patinkin instantly brings his character to life in the imagination with a measured and humble monologue, detailing how his father was slaughtered by a six-fingered man. If Westley were this man, Inigo?s seething anger would bring an apocalyptic tone to their duel; as he is not, the two men battle while quibbling humourously over whose technique is superior.

This is counterbalanced with Inigo?s final confrontation with Count Tyrone Rugen, played by Christopher Guest, known more recently for his directing prowess rather than his vastly underrated abilities as a character actor. Here, he channels Vincent Price yet leaves even that figure?s few traces of humanity at the portcullis. Their duel is as brutal as the earlier is skillful. We see the blades enter the men, the blood pooling onto their clothing from the open wounds. Deranged with pain and frustration, Inigo utters what has now become a classic phrase, a mantra that has kept him from drinking himself to death over his greatest moment of loss: ?Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.? We see his face jerk slightly as the blade makes its final plunge. Justice has been served.

My experiences as a fascinated watcher of this film go back a long way. I still remember lines my mother laughed at on early viewings, more often than not delivered by the egocentric and verbose Vizzini. He?s played by Wallace Shawn, who doesn?t need a lot of makeup to fit this world. Nor does Fezzik, the towering man mountain played by former WWF wrestler Andre the Giant. These actors are recognizably left of center in a child?s eyes, contributing to the fantasy in a way that special effects can?t.

Descriptions of the film point at its status as a storybook story, a fairy tale with a twist of sharp postmodern humour. It?s based on the book by William Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay and whose work as a screenwriter has seen him awarded Oscars for films such as ?Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? and ?All the President?s Men?. His story is wholly original, told with a zest for putting recognizable character types (the princess, the hero, the freak, etc.) into one death-defying situation after the next. Director Rob Reiner keeps everything at a very contained octave, never relying too greatly on effects wizardry. There is not a single identifiable shot of the characters swashbuckling in front of a blue screen, a technique that so many other films of the period opted for.

Everything is played out in breathtaking locales and inventive sound stage constructs. The first half of the narrative flows symphonically thanks to the set of goals put in place by Westley?s quest. Buttercup is kidnapped, a masked man dressed in black tracks down the kidnappers, battles them one by one and each in a unique way, rescues Buttercup and eludes Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and his men until they are finally caught upon exiting the Fire Swamp. Over the course of these events, Westley?s true identity is revealed, though even a child would understand that the masked man pursuing Buttercup is the only man she?ll ever love.

Fairy tales are like that. However, fairy tales rarely jump their own tracks as often as ?The Princess Bride? does. When the albino hisses at Westley in the Pit of Despair, we don?t expect him to cough and reveal a matter-of-fact tone to his voice, obstructed by phlegm ? natural to an adult?s perception of such a creature, but unexpected considering the shine the movie takes to a child?s imagination. The film is full of moments such as this, pulling us away from the fantastic when it becomes a little too ?out there?, grounding the situations with humour so that an adult can?t possibly complain about the lack of realism.

As a kid, I recognized that humour, too. The film brought me to realize how unlike life a story can be, yet how fantastic a story can make life seem. Goldman keeps returning to the little boy (Fred Savage) listening to his grandfather (Peter Falk) tell the story. The boy?s vocal observations break up the parts he dislikes, creating the impression that the parts that proceed without interruption have him grabbing the sheets in amazement. ?The Princess Bride? believes that our imaginations remain fertile ground for wonder in spite of the distractions of cynicism later on in life. Not a bad belief to keep around.

Roman Holiday

I had never seen the ending to ?Roman Holiday?. I caught it on television in Toronto last year, but my friend?s TiVo had axed the last two minutes, just before Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) introduces herself (officially) to American reporter Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). Imagine not having closure on one of the cinema?s great love affairs for over a year. After finally getting to see it, I realize that what makes the affair so effective is its lack of closure. Audiences of these kinds of pictures love to create scenarios for themselves in which the lovers, given the necessary space and time, reunite again one day. The cinema offers that possibility, suggesting a narrative that continues beyond the frame.

The plot is a classic case of mistaken identity. Feeling the stress of her obligations on a European tour, the princess wants to live like a pauper for a while and goes AWOL after being loaded up with a serum to calm her nerves. Bradley finds her sleeping drowsily in the middle of town and can?t get an address out of her. He stows her at his tiny apartment. The next morning, he makes the discovery and pursues her with the help of his trusty cameraman Irving (Eddie Albert), who snaps covert shots with a camera concealed in a cigarette lighter. The two hope to put together an exclusive news story that will bring them a lot of dough. Misadventures ensue and we marvel at the exoticism.

Hepburn is an actress I could watch forever. This was her first starring role, winning her an Academy Award. Her performance as Princess Ann is never overstated, never too dramatic ? the character is funny, invigorating, always alluring and even pitiable despite her wealth. Small-shouldered and wide-eyed, Hepburn makes us believe she could weave through chaotic traffic effortlessly and emerge feverishly carefree. Bradley does not look after her so much as follow in the wake of her next wish fulfillment.

Peck and Hepburn have terrific chemistry as they employ one another for physical comedy. In one scene, the two approach Rome?s ?Mouth of Truth?, a circular marble sculpture with an open mouth thought to bite the hands of liars clean off. Peck places his hand in the mouth and reacts violently, causing Hepburn to cover her eyes in shock. That?s not acting. Peck was mimicking a Red Skelton gag and didn?t tell Hepburn beforehand. The sudden change in the score effectively catches us off guard, uniting the experience of viewer and actor alike.

The film is a travelogue for Roman adventure, making it clear off the top that all of its footage was shot in the city. Some scenes seem to exist simply to brag about their own ornamentation. Perhaps the film?s most famous scene is a scooter ride through the crowded city streets in which cars and cyclists are barely missed, artwork is torn and fruit stands are upset. All of this culminates into a bit of pantomime at the local police station after which everyone leaves happy. Director William Wyler keeps the danger only at the level of excitement without worrying too much about the repercussions, making ?Roman Holiday? a lot of fun.

Hinging on being a screwball comedy, ?Roman Holiday? spends a little too much time being light and breezy for Bradley?s character to realistically change his mind about his feelings for Ann. There are funny moments in which he abuses poor Irving, who always seems to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment. When it is time for Bradley to come clean, he does so with a bemused smirk, towering above every other reporter in the room. Ann says goodbye the same way she says hello: ?So happy?. It?s the way ?Roman Holiday? wants you to feel.

Cold Souls
Cold Souls(2009)

Paul Giamatti plays himself in ?Cold Souls?. At least, I?d like to believe he does, because to believe that Paul Giamatti is put into a tube to have a look at his own soul is to fully understand the importance of an actor?s ability to put himself in touch with the very nature of being. Paul sees his feet, but how does he know they?re his, or the feet of the character he plays, or simply the word for an otherwise elusive concept of what keeps a person upright?

The soul is an elusive concept - far more elusive than feet, which can be easily spotted. It takes on a different meaning to different people, most of whom might be as offended as Paul to find out that their soul is chick-pea like in size, colour and shape. ?Coul Souls? operates on the notion that souls are physical properties of ourselves that can be not only identified, but removed and stored in a freezer for safekeeping or later use. Their removal is facilitated by a large cylindrical machine that doesn?t appear to leave any surgical scars, though if the procedure is performed too many times it can leave one prone to nosebleeds.

Paul is struggling with his role in a production of Chekov?s ?Uncle Vanya?, finding himself drawn so deeply into his character that his life becomes a miserable reflection. He reads about the procedure in The New Yorker (where else?) and investigates. He asks rather sensible questions of Dr. David Flintstein (David Strathairn), who assures him that a de-souled body makes for a life removed of dark thoughts and complications. This much is true, but Paul?s new lack of complication makes him unable to play the part.

So much of acting is empathy and compassion, two other qualities that disappear from Paul?s repertoire once he is soulless. He recognizes that he is in danger of losing his job and decides to have the procedure reversed. Unfortunately, his soul has been absconded with to aid in the budding acting talent of a Russian black market soul trafficker?s wife. Paul and a Russian soul mule (Dina Korzun) travel to Russia to get it back, with Paul running on the rented soul of a Russian poet, chosen from a catalogue like an IKEA cabinet.

The film portrays Paul?s odd situation quietly without resorting to broad and obvious laughs. Giamatti is one of the current great American actors, exchanging looks of great pathos for blank stares, presenting himself as a lively feature player one moment before turning into a disembodied brain operating a body the next. Sporting a beard that covers his mouth and limits his facial contours, his expressions resonate profoundly in his eyes. After Paul is given a view of his soul, he removes a pair of dark glasses to reveal a look of amazement and infinite understanding.

Soul removal presents a lot of questions that the film wisely chooses to avoid answering. Even Dr. Flintstein is uncertain of the soul?s relation to the body beyond its tendency to leave a residual amount behind, more than likely as a defense against draining the body of the emotional investment needed to chew food and breathe. What the movie believes is clear ? the soul is necessary for the body to feel. We are not ourselves without our souls. Those who have souls transplanted experience memories and visions fundamental to the person who formed the soul into whichever shape it takes, chick-pea or charcoal sized.

The poet John Keats believed that life was a process of soul-making, and ?Cold Souls? seems to agree, at least to the degree to which it makes the soul a product of experience and trauma. Paul needs a poet?s soul to play his role, but he needs his own soul to be Paul. His wife (Emily Watson) notices a change in the way he feels, looks and smells. The soul is bound to those we choose to share it with, and they contribute to the other?s soul in turn. We are the result of a very specific equation, and if one element is removed, we just don?t add up.

Appropriately, the film is very Russian in atmosphere and structure, with characters who seem to thrive on bleakness, grey tones and less-than-ideal conclusions. A Japanese soul trafficking operation would have made ?Cold Souls? a very different film. ?Uncle Vanya? is a play about a man who rails against his dissatisfaction with the person he becomes, all the while suffering under the irony that he is invariably who he is. Actors are in the business of becoming different people for a short time. Paul is desperately in need of a look at himself before his character becomes him.

?Cold Souls? is the first feature written and directed by Sophie Barthes, who approaches her material with the slanted metaphysical view of Charlie Kaufman and the black humour of Jim Jarmusch. These directors are simply adjectives to describe her style, which will no doubt develop into something wholly her own in time. Her first effort is a doozy.

Congo
Congo(1995)
½

"Congo" was a film I remember my friends in high school and I appreciating for its comic tone, specifically for the scene in which Delroy Lindo, costumed as a junta military leader, screams at a philanthropist to stop eating his sesame cake. When I put the film on for the first time in a decade-plus, I was expecting to be let down by time's effect, but was surprised to see that "Congo" still works as a b-grade actioner, with performances that are laughably hammy when they need to be. It's a film that features "The Evil Dead's" Bruce Campbell meeting an untimely end in its first scene, and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show's" Tim Curry playing a Romanian obsessed with finding a lost city. I choose to take it for what it is.

In addition to a decent turn from a laser-wielding Laura Linney, its other principle part is played by a gorilla named Amy, who is clearly a person in a suit capped with facial animatronics that cast doe-eyed looks at her surroundings. In fact, all of the gorillas look astonishingly un-gorilla-like, so much so that it plays effectively as camp. There are some funny gags as Amy uses a sign language machine to verbalize what she thinks, emitting the factual tone of a 10-year-old girl administering an automated telephone survey.

Amy's keeper, Dr. Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), is looking for grant money to continue his research. Now that he's taught Amy to talk, he wants to return her to the wild in order to spread her new-found knowledge to other animals. Amy's home is in the Congo, and Elliot agrees to have the probably ill-intentioned Herkermer Homolka (Curry) fund the trip. A problem with Homolka's credit card sends telecommunications scientist Karen Ross (Linney) to the rescue. She's looking to find her former fiancť and return with a diamond powerful enough to run a leading-edge kind of communications satellite for her company.

This is all quite ludicrous, but fun. The group runs into a heap of political trouble once they hit Africa. Given the sight of terrorist bombs going off at the airport, crossing the border into then-Zaire seems to be a veritable suicide mission. Luckily, they've hired the cigar-chomping Captain Munro Kelly (Ernie Hudson), the type of man who seems to speak any language in any required accent. After diverting heat-seeking missiles away from their plane with flare guns over the border, the group parachutes into the Congo and find that their troubles have only just started.

Homolka wants to find King Solomon's mines in the lost city of Zinj. Unfortunately, Zinj is guarded by a species of gorilla undiscovered by man. Aggressive by nature, they attack the group in bloody fashion, swarming like Morlocks in the underground caverns of George Pal's "The Time Machine". In one scene, machine gun turrets are set up to fire automatically when motion sensors are triggered in the jungle. I was reminded of a similar scene in "Aliens", though that film keeps the pursuing creatures off camera, heightening the tension of their appearance and the mystery of their intelligence. This flick goes right for the gory detail, making the scent of singed gorilla flesh almost palpable.

"Congo" came out a couple of years after the phenomenon of "Jurassic Park" assured that Michael Crichton novels would remain sources of adaptations for years to come. Its screenplay was written by John Patrick Shanley, more recently known for writing and directing last year's "Doubt". "Congo" seems to know and cherish the conventions of "King Kong" and other man vs. unknown natural world films. It flaunts them pretty well, and on that level I enjoyed it.

Extract
Extract(2009)
½

In ?Extract?, Mike Judge takes some funny people and gives them things to do that aren?t particularly funny, or offensive - or much of anything, really. The film proceeds at a leisurely pace with dialogue that keeps us waiting for the punchline, but the punchline rarely comes. As a whole, it feels like a lazy afternoon spent in a gallery: The conversations and situations hang like paintings to be considered for a moment before moving on disinterestedly.

?Extract? is being billed as Mike Judge?s ?return to work?. Ten years ago he built a cult following with ?Office Space?, his first live action film after his work on ?Beavis and Butt-head? and ?King of the Hill?. That film spoke to my generation about the way that having a career for the sake of a having a career can crush a soul. Its main character, Peter, was tortured by the tedium of his job as a computer programmer for the most generic of corporations. ?Extract? presents us with Joel (Jason Bateman), who has founded and established a company that manufactures flavouring extracts, all based on a scientific discovery he made in university.

Joel?s goal is to sell his company to General Mills. It will allow him to retire young. The people who work for him range from elderly racist women with an overinflated sense of entitlement to the brand of white-trash hick that Judge has so lovingly showcased in his work on ?King of the Hill?. Their collective incompetency results in an accident on the factory floor that nearly castrates an employee named Step (Clifton Collins Jr.).

New to the factory is Cindy (Mila Kunis), who is actually a hustler looking to cash in on Step?s potential lawsuit. Joel sees Cindy as an opportunity to rediscover a sex life, since his wife (Kristen Wiig) seems far more willing to watch ?Dancing with the Stars? in her tightly knotted sweatpants. On the advice of his friend Dean (Ben Affleck), Joel hires a male prostitute named Brad (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife in order to justify the affair he wants to have.

There?s about one too many plot currents here, all whirlpooling around the fact that Joel is unsatisfied with his life. In ?Office Space?, Peter is hypnotized into not caring about work, affording the script some hilarious moments as the people he works with are jolted by his new attitude. In ?Extract?, Joel is drugged into going along with the male prostitute scheme and finds it impossible to reverse once his head is clearer. ?Office Space? worked because the imposition of the ordinary mundane world was suddenly disrupted ? ?Extract? can?t hit that note because Joel isn?t suffering in the same way. He kind of likes what he does. He?s just looking to get laid more often.

There are certain moments of character observation that are clearly yanked from Judge?s head, such as Joel?s neighbour (David Koechner, playing refreshingly against type), who just can?t take the hint that Joel despises him. Affleck?s Dean is also a high point as he tries to convince Joel that he?s in need of a higher consciousness attained through drugs, yet abandons him to an ass-kicking once Joel is at his most vulnerable. A cameo from Gene Simmons as a lawyer is also inspired casting, though I couldn?t help thinking he might have been far more interesting as the gigolo.

?Extract? isn?t so much a film about the pathos of being a working stiff as it is about finding ways to pull ourselves out of the daily grind. I would think it unfair to compare the film so thoroughly with ?Office Space? if I didn?t think that Judge was trying for a similar vibe. The character blueprint is certainly there, but a lot of the simple observational humour that made his first film funny is lacking in ?Extract?s? script. There is a great dark comedy boiling under its surface, but its characters are too light and bland to drill for it.

A View to a Kill
½

I have a list of things I?d like to accomplish before I turn 30 later this year. A very doable one is watching the entire series of James Bond films. I?d never seen one until late last year. Over the last few months I?ve watched most of them, now including each one featuring Roger Moore as Bond, and I have a confession to make: I never understand them.

When it comes to Bond?s briefings and discoveries, I never have the slightest idea what?s going on. I understand only that, time and again, Bond faces off against a super-villain who wants to destroy or own the world somehow. The super-villain always has an idea that will bring the world to its knees. Bond spends each movie following a trail of nonsensical clues until he finally discovers the villain?s true intentions in the final act.

What usually leads up to this discovery is blather punctuated by action and sex sequences. By now I?ve seen Bond ski down several mountains, fall out of planes, smash multiple speedboats, trash countless cars and outwit a zoo-full of wild beasts. He?s also slept with enough women to have a venereal disease clinic named in his honour ? at least one per film, but usually three or more.

I?m not especially complaining about any of this. I just know what to expect when it comes to a Bond film. But how can I evaluate an individual film in a series that devotes itself to repetition? With a few films to go, maybe I should once and for all establish a series of questions that will help me come to a conclusion about how good a Bond movie can be. Here we go:

1) Are the action sequences effective?
2) Are the women gorgeous?
3) Are the villains evil?
4) Is the theme song/refrain top notch?
5) Is Bond embarrassing?

With those questions in mind, I?m going to take a look at ?A View to a Kill?, the 14th film in the series, and the last to star Roger Moore as Bond.

1) ?A View to a Kill? is relatively low on action aside from two terrific sequences. The first involves a pursuit up and off of the Eiffel Tower. The second takes place at the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. Both work pretty seamlessly and the stunt crew is obviously talented. Other sequences, such as Bond hanging off the back of a speeding fire engine and a bit involving racehorses jumping over rigged fences, are either odd or obviously shot in front of a blue screen. The film opens with a downhill ski-off between Bond and a group of Russians ? nothing we haven?t seen before, and the addition of the Beach Boys singing ?California Girls? over a snowboarding Bond is cheesy.

2) ?A View to a Kill? has Tanya Roberts going for it, otherwise known as Julie from the ?Charlie?s Angels? TV series and Donna?s mom on ?That 70?s Show?. Batting cleanup are Fiona Fullerton and Alison Doody, who aren?t bad to look at.

3) Here is where ?A View to a Kill? racks up the points: the villain is Max Zorin, played by a blonde Christopher Walken. In one scene, he takes out about 50 miners with a machine gun. His right-hand woman is May Day, played by Grace Jones, a woman who looks like a cyborg manufactured in the bowels of a 1980?s-themed amusement park. A more unique villainous pair there has never been.

4) I have a soft spot for Duran Duran, whose theme song here provides what I feel is the first real jolt of modernity to a Bond film so far. In fact, the songs of each Bond film are probably the most reliable entry point into determining how modern the films are. The progression from Sean Connery through to Roger Moore is a slow one in terms of cinematographic style.

5) I will hand it to Moore. He played the role with his own tongue-in-cheek style and retired when he should have retired. This is his last Bond picture, and all involved with the production felt that he was too old to continue playing the part (he was 58). There are sequences where it is quite obvious that Moore isn?t performing his own stunts, especially given the way he moves in close-up. But hey, at least they didn?t stick him in a clown suit a la ?Octopussy?.

The Final Destination

?The Final Destination? is the most one-dimensional 3-D film I?ve seen. But this is it. This is THE final destination. Those other destinations, the first three, were nowhere near as final. This is the fourth final destination, the one that is absolutely, without doubt, the last and ultimate destination. Its finality is assured.

Hold on a second. The flick has grossed nearly $30 million at the American box office in its opening weekend. Can a destination that pulls in that much dough really be THAT final? There has to be one to come that will be final-er. As long as it keeps making money, that much is certain. Keep those speeding cars coming, those nail guns firing, those beauty and tanning salons going awry. Death will keep finding a way. Cha-ching.

?The Final Destination? is a moronic excuse to show people being killed by bad CGI effects. Little has changed plot-wise from the 2000 original (simply called ?Final Destination?, not THE final). A group of friends is nearly killed in a horrific disaster. One friend has a vision of the accident ahead of time and is able to save the others. Death spends the movie stalking them one after the other in the order in which they would have died. Paper-thin jokes and observations about fate are made. I cease giving a damn.

?The Final Destination? provides the added treat of making one of the characters, a redneck stock car fanatic, racist. How original. That?s how we know he?s bad, see? He insults a black security guard and it?s uncalled for. He shows up at the man?s house and aims to burn a cross on his lawn. Wouldn?t you LIKE to watch a guy like that die? Well, you?re in luck. Death gives him a taste of his own derivative medicine.

But the movie?s not done there. Later on it gives us an old and hospitalized war veteran, who incorrectly identifies the Chinese-American orderly as Korean, like the dirty sonsabitches he killed decades ago. Why include this racist dialogue? The veteran has nothing to do with the ?plot?, such as it is. A good horror film can weave funny material with the grotesque in order to provide a moment in which we allow our guard down for the next scare. ?The Final Destination? has nothing to offer but feeble shock humour and stereotypes.

Take Hunt, the boneheaded sex-crazed macho pig with the stupid haircut. Take any of these characters, who could give less of a crap about one another than I could about the entire film. Their relationships hinge on the non-existent. They have uninteresting things to say and offer only quick points of insight to advance the plot to the next grisly death sequence. The ending is a joke, thrown together at random without any regard for plausibility.

I use the term ?grisly? loosely. No jump tactic works. No torn limb elicits more than an eye-rolling ?ew?. The suspense is undercut by the cheapness of the production. You get used to the idea that death will put an end to these people in ways you can?t expect, so the interest one might have in every hint dropped during a scene is a dead end.

And yes, you can see it in 3-D. Rather than watching crap on a two-dimensional surface, you can get it thrown in your face. At one point, the characters go to see a 3-D movie and make lame attempts at self-referential humour. I wanted desperately to crawl into the frame and take a seat in the theatre with them. Whatever they were watching, it had to be above and beyond this swill.

It?s downright depressing that a movie like this does so well financially. It?s void of intelligence and doesn?t know how to be funny. It resorts to cheap scares that aren?t scary. And it?s something no horror film should ever, ever be: Boring as hell. Take your glasses and run.

El Dorado
El Dorado(1967)
½

Robert Mitchum was good. When he was wounded beyond repair in a Western, he let the wound take over his whole body with convulsions that sent him tumbling into pint glasses on the bar. My favourite scene in ?El Dorado? involves his confrontation of a gang under the employ of Bart Jason (Ed Asner). Sheriff J. P. Harrah (Mitchum) has just put a stop to a two-month-long bender and has a hell of a stomach ache. He guns a man down and clutches his own gut in pain before turning to the next. ?I was too mad to be scared and just too sick to be worried about it,? he explains after Jason is locked up.

Nothing mystifies a black-hatted villain more than a sheriff with a death wish, and that can be a valuable component in the element of surprise. The bad guys, led by the scarred but otherwise good-humoured Nelse McLeod (Christopher George), want the deed to the water owned by the MacDonald family, but they?re going to have to go through the sheriff first. Unfortunately for them, the sheriff is old friends with John Wayne. Cole Thornton (Wayne) is a hired gun who won?t take a job for the wrong reasons, and killing his friend is one of them.

?El Dorado? gives us something a John Wayne film doesn?t usually offer ? a vulnerable Duke. Early in the film, Thornton is shot in the back by Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey), who exacts revenge on the Duke for putting a bullet in the belly of her brother. With the bullet still lodged near his spine, Thornton suffers painful spasms that leave him paralyzed on the right side of his body and cause him to fall from his horse in pain.

By this time in the history of the Western, the audience knows that teaming Mitchum with Wayne requires that the deck be stacked strongly against them if the fight is going to be fair by any stretch of the imagination. They?re given two other men ? a poor shot named Mississippi (played by a way-too-young James Caan) and a old bugle-playing coot named Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt). The men spend much of their time holed up in the local jailhouse waiting for the U.S. Marshall to arrive, tending to their wounds and fending off attacks from McLeod and his men.

Wayne is as commanding a screen presence as there ever was, in part because his characters are fueled by a self-assured faith in the honour of their violent acts. His better films team him with actors with greater range; tough but wrung-out, Mitchum deftly evokes the pathos of a heartbroken lawman in his performance, though we never see the women who put him into such rough shape.

Given the late 60?s era countercultural movement in American cinema, the classic Westerns of that period always feel a tad odd to me. Like Dennis Hopper in ?True Grit?, Caan and Carey are clearly products of a different generation. While they play their roles effectively, they are kids along for the ride. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett gives the men some appropriately meaty dialogue to chew on, but there is no real effort to make the script into more than a perfunctory visitation of Western tropes, conflicts and resolutions. The shootouts, while filmed with an immediacy by Hawks and director of photography Harold Rosson, simply build upon each other with no real drama beyond the injuries of the heroes.

Still, Wayne and Mitchum offer some great scenes. Both are entirely comfortable with roles long since associated with them, yet they play them with as much aplomb as ever, one as the steely-eyed immovable object, one as the sorrowful irresistable force. Only this time, they?ve each got their mortality riding along with them.

The Barefoot Contessa
½

In the final scene of "The Barefoot Contessa", writer/director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) stands in front of the grave belonging to Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). The sun has finally vanquished the rain that has been pounding on the men who desired to make a profit from her in life. A young man approaches and tells Dawes that they're in for better weather tomorrow. Dawes agrees. "We'll get a good day's work done tomorrow."

If there's a motto that Dawes lives by, it's that life always louses up the script. He tells Maria that he has a sixth sense about people that drives him to write. Life has a beginning, middle and ending, but its timing is all wrong - not like a movie script, where what is supposed to happen does, for whichever reasons the studio allows. Maria is a character for Dawes to give dimension. A beautiful and talented Spanish dancer, she will make a lot of men a lot of money if Dawes gives her the tools.

Dawes has been reduced to a lackey for Wall Street tycoon Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), who recognizes in Maria a new face for moviegoers to flock to. Early in the film, the men discuss the story of Faust, which Dawes calls a fight between the Devil and God that ended in a draw. Edwards is the type of man who would give the Devil top billing over God in a picture if the pre-screening reactions added up. Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien) sits with them, sweating profusely, playing the angles as to how he might get the most amount of money out of the least powerful position.

As for Maria, she clings to metaphors for happiness as though the script of her life were already written. She despises wearing shoes, recounting a time during the Spanish Civil War when she felt safe with the ground beneath her feet, the dirt clenched between her toes. Since that moment she has searched for safety in the arms of men, leaving them of her own volition when their attempts to control her turn too severe. She finds the closest thing to love she can imagine with Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), the last of his line of nobility, who suffers a pressure of legacy more crushing than we realize until the moment it is revealed.

If this is starting to sound like too fantastic a tale, at least the film is well aware. Dawes comes to share narration duty with Muldoon and the Count at different junctures of Maria's story, and suddenly we have a Citizen Kane-style exposť of human life on our hands. The problem with Maria is that her Rosebud is fictional. She lives life in a fairy tale and always expects the happy ending, yet this is real life, or at least a film about real life.

The relationship between Dawes and Maria brought to my mind that of the great German director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, whose beauty he immortalized on film over the course of seven pictures. Dietrich took her heartstruck director's advice to the end of her career, creating an image of herself that lasted well beyond her youth. In Bogart's portrayal of a director under the lash of capital, we see a weary man reminded of his love for making movies when he meets a young woman who could command the whole world if she weren't preoccupied with doing what it least expects.

The film includes extraordinarily witty dialogue, written by a man who clearly loves to write for film. "The Barefoot Contessa" was a mid-career directoral effort from Joseph Mankiewicz, but he had been writing movies long enough to know the kind of people he was writing about firsthand - the "international set" who sit around at Hollywood parties and converse only to feed the image of themselves in a public forum.

Last week I took the opportunity to read Pauline Kael's excellent essay "On the Future of Movies", a far too prophetic look at the state of the motion picture industry in the early 1970's. Kael painted a bleak portrait of the reasons why movies were being made. All too often, the almighty dollar was of the greatest concern to any halfwit producer bringing a writer, director or actor aboard. "The Barefoot Contessa" took biting shots at the workings of film production in an era when audiences took a far greater interest in its output. Unfortunately, it goes for melodrama when it should go for real life. The scripts might be lousy, but at least they're honest.

High Fidelity

I wanted to work in a record store for years. I suppose my desire has diminished lately thanks to both my feigning interest in records and the realization I came to a couple of years ago that one man?s dream job is another man?s own personal hell. Rob Gordon may be able to put his music knowledge to great and enviable use at Championship Vinyl, but he has to deal with waiting on people with bad taste, punks who stuff records into their shirts and his two-man staff of social misfits who would hang out at the store as much as they do even if they weren?t getting paid.

My attraction to ?High Fidelity? dates back as far as 1995, when I started listening to the band Catherine Wheel. The band thanked author Nick Hornby in the liner notes for their 1997 album ?Adam and Eve?, which began and ended with lead vocalist Rob Dickinson singing lines of text from the novel over guitar melodies. I didn?t connect the lyrics with the book until I read it in college, and I remember the moment very precisely, sitting on a Greyhound bus on my way to Peterborough, thinking that the words were familiar at first and then knowing exactly where I?d heard them. Lyrics taken from a book about music. I experienced the crossover of two separate art forms for the first time.

If ?Say Anything? made John Cusack the 80?s teenager every guy could relate to and his character in ?Grosse Pointe Blank? made suffering psychoses in the 90?s hip, his portrayal of Rob cemented the actor as Gen X?s new millennium male touchstone. Rob Gordon says what men think. More often than not, he says it with a calculating intelligence reserved especially for giving order to the things in his life that mean the most to him. When he gives his top five favourite side ones, track ones, he lists them like they?re the examination answers of a child schooled by pop culture.

Rob is savvy about his relationships, yet in spite of the clever observations he delivers through the broken fourth wall, it is clear that he doesn?t understand women. His girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) has just moved out after a few years of living together. Rob concludes that there has to be something wrong with him, so he revisits his most painful breakups to gain insight from the women he dated. These women are played by Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Joelle Carter. On the level of the superficial, Rob certainly hasn?t done that badly. Nonetheless, there are things in his past that prevent him from moving forward and committing. A sultry songstress named Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet) grabs his attention, even when the pain of losing Laura has him teary-eyed on the sofa in his office. There are funny moments when Rob?s mind jumps tracks mid-scene as his priorities turn from love to sex and back again.

This is a film of philosophies and honest expression. We get to know about Rob?s insecurities. He forces himself to be open and communicative regardless of his frustration and pigheadedness. He describes moments of regret and seasons them with recollections of songs that come out of a mood or emotional situation. He details how he acts with women with unapologetic self-awareness. He judges others while serving as his own harshest critic. The adapted screenplay, written by Cusack along with D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and Scott Rosenberg, rings with the efforts of those involved to bring out the novel?s greatest revelations of the male mind. I recall reading Hornby?s book at 19 or 20 and feeling as though a writer had successfully captured my emotional thought process exactly, and these men translate it well to film.

It?s hard to imagine anyone but Cusack playing Rob. He?s just vulnerable enough, exhibiting a pretentious worldview punctured only by the right woman. Laura hurts his pride in order to help him make the changes he needs to make. Rob refuses to grow up and extracts validation from the simplicity of the vinyl aficionado?s mindset, music geeks whose primary concerns are duplicating the feeling they had the first time they heard an Elton John song or found an overlooked out-of-print Smiths single. Music is easy to commit to. People are harder.

I haven?t yet mentioned the performances of Jack Black as Barry and Todd Louiso as Dick, who take on a straight man/funny man dynamic as Rob?s employees. Since ?High Fidelity?, Black has made a career of crazy performances that make use of his skill as a physical performer. This remains one of his funniest roles, especially given the payoff of his surprising debut as a lead vocalist at the end of the film. Louiso is barely audible as the introverted Dick. One treat of a segment allows him the chance to go off in a fantasy scenario with great violence.

?High Fidelity? is a movie I watch when I feel as though I?ve lost my understanding of women, not because Rob has a great handle on things, but because he doesn?t. I take comfort in his failures. Like a great song filled with words of heartbreak, misery and loss, the perfectly phrased pain of a guy who?s lost his way can be a balm for heartache. Music, film and books communicate ideas and feelings with greater clarity than we can hope to achieve at moments when we say or do the wrong thing. A lot of songs and stories are written out of those moments. ?High Fidelity? is about coming to terms with our mistakes and moving on down the road.

District 9
District 9(2009)
½

?District 9″ left me feeling bad. Not in the ?I need to take a shower, that was so bad? way. I felt bad because I felt too disconnected from what I was watching. The movie has been out for a few weeks now. Three words that I had gleaned from reviews kept ringing in my ears: South African apartheid. What I was watching was important in a way I didn?t understand. I know little about South African apartheid, and if I?m to take ?District 9″ at its word, a group of that region?s people are or were being unmercifully and unfairly repressed by military and government organizations.

There is not a shred of human decency in the film. The characters with whom we sympathize are CGI alien creations that talk in a clicking and burbling language. They look like and are referred to callously as ?prawns?. I felt bad because I didn?t know more about the people these creatures represent, and ?District 9″ doesn?t offer any more information than what officials in the Multinational Union are interested in knowing. They arrived one day in a large mothership. We had to break our way in, where we found them collected and malnourished. We put them in a slum. They behave like animals and steal from humans, who grow sick of them and want them moved away.

A little research is in order here. I know this isn?t just an us vs. them movie. This isn?t Bill Pullman announcing that we should nuke the bastards. This isn?t men in white suits coming to sterilize E.T. You can feel it in the choice of setting, the voices, the people. So here we are: ?District 9″ is based on District Six, a former inner-city residential area in Cape Town, South Africa, occupied for 100 years by people of many races and occupations. In 1966, the area was designated whites-only by the government, who declared that an interracial society resulted in conflict and the perpetuation of gambling, drinking, prostitution and violence.

Segregation laws were commonly put in place in the wake of colonization, but a more thorough policy of apartheid was introduced by the National Party after its election in 1948. The Group Areas Act, introduced under apartheid, forced over 60,000 non-white men, women and children to move from District Six to Cape Flats, a new location 25 kilometers away. These people lost their homes because of their skin colour. The National Party fell out of power in 1994 and only very recently have attempts at reparations been made.

Now I know, and I believe it was necessary to know these things before I could come to a final decision on how well the film works. I don?t mind a film that has me doing a little work on the side to educate myself. Unfortunately, I?m not entirely convinced that what director Neill Blomkamp offers is an entirely justifiable representation of his sociopolitical source material. There is no question that there are victims of blind hatred and intolerance in the world. The plight of the victims is the problem with portraying them as a literal alien race.

The aliens just want to go home, but unlike the reality of apartheid, we haven?t taken their home. They are not a colonized people ? they are accidental prisoners. I recognize the apt comparison of herding them like animals, treating them like freaks and fearing them for lack of understanding. I recognize the tragic error that humanity has made in misjudging a peaceful ?people? out of ignorance. There is something poetic in the fact that MNU operations director Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who is assigned the task of leading the evacuation, cannot grasp his own humanity until he is able to literally merge with the alien Other. But every other human character lacks dimension. They are machines that care for nothing but having the upper hand in a fight.

Blomkamp is my age. He spent his first 18 years living in South Africa before relocating to Canada, where he has found success as a visual effects artist, and now as a filmmaker. In ?District 9″, he is a little too willing to play with gizmos at the expense of a serious historical event. Thanks to the shaky pseudo-documentary style, the effects look incredibly well integrated into the final product. He ensures that every blood splatter hits the lens, though the emotional effect is often muted by the fantasy.

While watching ?District 9″ I couldn?t help but think back to ?The Hurt Locker?, a film about soldiers assigned to do the world?s worst job and do it in spite of the pain and mental anguish. There was only so much those men could take. The men in ?District 9″ take it all and look for more to shoot out of the sky. We pity the aliens for coming across such a miserable planet in the first place.

The Prestige
The Prestige(2006)
½

?The Prestige? attempts to perform a magic act that continues to astound as the credits roll and nearly succeeds. I just finished watching it for the first time since I caught it in theatres, when I remember being blown away by its twist. The second viewing provided little in the way of re-watch value aside from a scene early in the film involving disappearing birds, where the twist is given away entirely ? a small fact easily missed by a viewer if they aren?t paying attention. Like an effective magic act, it keeps us looking elsewhere and believing something entirely different.

Once you know the secret, the wonder is gone and the story becomes about two (or three, or four) unbearable men with gargantuan egos. The film knows very well that these men are obsessed. Whoever is more obsessed will perform the greatest trick the world has ever seen, but will lose everything in the process. For a while that?s fascinating, aside from scenes in which the men either find out or reveal secrets like histrionic mad villains finally unveiling their master plans. Neither seeks world domination so much as control over the other?s psychology. It?s a war of wits.

The film is set believably at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century with great costumes and production design. Electricity is still a relatively brand new phenomenon. Thomas Edison sends leg-breaking toughs to thwart the efforts of Nikola Tesla to harness electrical power. It?s a perfect setting. The world is soon to forget its fascination with older, relatively simplistic wonders. The two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), are up-and-coming showmen trying to top one another before there is no longer an industry to conquer. Their quests for box office success are a last ditch effort at the only thing the men know how to do for a living.

The life of a magician is a life of commitment to a craft. In one scene, the magicians? mentor and business partner John Cutter (Michael Caine) challenges the men to watch the act of an elderly Chinese magician. The one to figure out how he performs the goldfish-in-a-bowl trick will get 10 minutes with a producer. Both men watch the old man gingerly enter his carriage after the performance, and neither doubt the show he continues to put on even after he is off the stage.

It is this constant second-guessing that fuels the mind of the magician. Each man always looks for the most obvious solution to a trick until Borden performs one that Angier can?t wrap his head around: Borden sets up two doors at opposite ends of a stage, bounces a ball before exiting through one door and catches it after entering the other. The trick is called ?The Transporting Man?, and despite Cutter?s insistence that Borden is using a double, Angier convinces himself that Borden is using new electrical technology to pull it off. Each magician sabotages the other?s show in order to sway public opinion, but ?The Transporting Man? remains the trick to master.

The rivalry between the men is rooted in bad blood. Algier?s wife, a former assistant, is killed in a drowning accident that Borden has a hand in causing. This circumstance joins the need the men have to one-up each other on stage. Though Borden is lower class, rough and unskilled as a performer, he is the superior magician. Algier recruits the help of Tesla (David Bowie. Yep. David Bowie.) to perfect a machine that will seemingly help him perform real magic. He also hires an assistant (Scarlett Johansson) to discover Borden?s secrets, yet we?re never certain which magician is playing the upper hand.

This is all pretty riveting on first viewing. When director Christopher Nolan isn?t making brilliant comic book adaptations, films like ?Memento?, ?Insomnia? and the upcoming ?Inception? show his interest in twisting minds. Films like ?The Prestige? make me wonder if every film requires more than one viewing before a review is written. ?Memento? holds up due to the artistry of its structure ? though told in a deceptive way, it loses nothing in its reveal. Like any magic trick, ?The Prestige? loses much of its wonder after the curtain is pulled back.

Away We Go
Away We Go(2009)

Last year Sam Mendes directed ?Revolutionary Road?, a blistering film about a 1950?s couple facing their ambitions and need for individuality in a marriage that had long since deteriorated into malice. Less than a year later he gives us ?Away We Go?, a film about a couple who is very much in love and very apprehensive about what it means to be young and have a baby in modern America. They are films that balance each other effectively in their treatment of roles. Whereas the characters in ?Road? struggled against gender and familial roles that wouldn?t be questioned until the next decade, the characters in ?Away We Go? struggle to define their identities as parents in a social environment that often feels role-less.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early 30?s and have little going for them. They live in a dingy house with a bad fuse box. Verona is an artist while Burt sells insurance, a job he doesn?t mind that much, even if he has to talk to his clients in a Casey Casem voice to drive home the point that he?s a professional. Huddled together in a blanket in front of a space heater, Verona asks if they?re fuck-ups. They have a baby on the way and don?t know much of anything about being good parents. Burt?s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O?Hara) are of little help, since they?re making a break for Belgium before the baby is born, and Verona?s parents are dead.

Burt and Verona decide to embark on a hunt for a new home and make a list of likely candidates comprised of old friends and relatives to visit in cities ranging from Phoenix to Montreal. Anyone new to the parent game is going to seek the advice of friends who have already taken the road. Lily (Allison Janney) is a former co-worker of Verona?s. Quite apparently separated from reality, she talks about her kids as though they?re sideshow attractions, while her husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) blandly forecasts the end of the world. Burt?s honorary cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a new age-obsessed professor living in a ?continuum? household. She continues to breastfeed her children well past the age of normalcy and shuns the use of strollers (?I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away from me??).

Characters such as these provide dark comedic moments. We are horrified to the point of laughter that parents like these could exist. Wisely, screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida refrain from creating exaggerated caricatures out of each person Burt and Verona encounter. Burt?s brother (Paul Schneider) is a newly single dad wondering how he?ll be able to raise his daughter alone. One friend (Melanie Lynskey) raises adopted children with her husband (Chris Messina). In a poignant scene, she dances lazily in a strip club while her husband talks about how her miscarriages have affected their relationship.

On their travels, Burt and Verona encounter the modern American (and Canadian) family?s dysfunction, which now seems to be waving openly without care for repression. A few of the parents have either given up or haven?t bothered to attempt to provide emotional stability for their children. Not even the less cuckoo parents have it figured out entirely. Each has children for their own reasons and each fills the role they set for themselves. Verona refuses to marry Burt, even though he?s proposed a multitude of times. She has her reasons. A good one is that a family is no longer a family, but a group of people who have to live with each other in some capacity. Everything else ? including marriage, perhaps ? is just semantics.

Maya Rudolph puts in a fantastic performance as Verona, revealing real depth as a serious actress. If there?s any justice, she?ll be a household name beyond her SNL work. It?s fun to see John Krasinski break away from his Office character here, playing a guy who doesn?t appear to have a sarcastic bone in his body. Burt has a clear idea of very specific things he?ll be able to share with his child; it?s the bigger picture he has trouble with.

I can?t recall ever seeing a film that tackles the subject of first-time parents in such a profound way. Couples are becoming increasingly free of the burden of definition, but it?s leaving them more prone to uncertainty than ever. Most problems can still be solved with a little honesty and soul-searching. ?You have to be better than you ever thought you could be?, one mother says. ?Away We Go? provides a pretty solid definition of a modern family using pancakes, sugar cubes and syrup. This is one of the best films of the year.

Inglourious Basterds

I?m convinced that there is a great movie trying to burst out of the script for ?Inglourious Basterds?. What keeps it from being more than simply a very good movie is, well, the Basterds. As enjoyable as it is to see Brad Pitt put himself so deeply into a character like Lt. Aldo Raine, which is one of his best performances, he becomes an intrusion in a story that doesn?t require such an easy out as the carnage the Basterds bring.

On that note, the movie has been marketed all wrong, or perhaps completely right ? Brad Pitt demanding Nazi scalps will no doubt put people in the seats for ?Basterds?? opening weekend. But the Basterds are only on-screen for about a quarter of the film. Most of the dialogue is in German or French, not English. Those who hate reading subtitles will find themselves itching in their seats for a gun to go off.

I?m not one of those people. Tarantino builds tension masterfully in two scenes, both set at tables. In the first, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates French farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) to discover where he is hiding a missing Jewish family. Landa is folksy with a steely, disturbing confidence that he will get what he wants. In the second scene, Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) joins a group of men dressed as Nazi soldiers, but he senses that one of their accents is off. They play 20 questions and Tarantino pulls the hatred and racism out of Hellstrom slowly via dialogue. Both scenes end in violence, but by the time the guns go off, our expectations have superseded it.

?Inglourious Basterds? takes place in an alternate reality, where World War II came to an end under very different means. It offers two separate storylines that play out over five chapters. The first involves a young Jewish woman named Shoshana (Mťlanie Laurent) who escapes German capture near the beginning of the war, assumes the name Emmanuelle and comes to inherit a French cinema. She encounters a young Nazi soldier named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel BrŁhl), a German war hero responsible for sniping off 300 enemy soldiers.

A German filmmaker named Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has turned Zoller?s story into a film called ?Nation?s Pride?. Zoller is so taken with Emmanuelle that he convinces his director and Col. Landa to hold the premiere for the film at Emmanuelle?s cinema. This affords Emmanuelle the opportunity to exact revenge on the Nazis, as she resolves to burn the place down with the Third Reich trapped inside.

Meanwhile, Aldo Raine and his band of Jewish-American soldiers are brutalizing Nazis across Germany without mercy, scalping soldiers and carving swastikas into the foreheads of the men they leave alive to spread the word. When Allied military leaders receive notice of the movie premiere, they order the Basterds to blow up the cinema with the help of German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

Laurent and Waltz are the film?s anchors. Much of the film?s tension is created through a process of identification. Landa carries a book of exterminations and appears to look through the people he converses with as if he can see all the way back to their birth. Emmanuelle knows exactly who Landa is, but she?s forced to hide her knowledge in order to get her revenge. The 20 questions scene is a hundred times more captivating than the hell the Basterds unleash at the movie?s blistering climax ? the men play a game of who?s who with far more serious consequences than anyone can admit.

Tarantino?s love for the power of cinema has never been more apparent than it is here. He is captivated with the role of film during the reign of the Third Reich and turns it into the fulcrum of the war?s conclusion. He sends a film critic to the front line to help the Basterds achieve their objective. He fictionalizes Goebbels, Hitler?s propaganda minister, who assisted in the creation of such films as ?Triumph of the Will?. Other names such as Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann are identified with names and arrows, thrown in to let you know they?ll be in attendance when the place goes up.

As for the Basterds, they turn things bloody, if that?s what you?re there to see. I?ll never understand Tarantino?s recent fascination with torture-porn director Eli Roth, who here is known as the ?Bear Jew?, a soldier armed with a baseball bat to beat Nazis to death. As he stands over a high-ranking Nazi opening fire into his face, I was disappointed with Tarantino for abandoning such a great lead-up for something easy. There?s no compassion in the Basterds, and it doesn?t make them very interesting.

Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown(1997)

Few facts are as irrefutable as Pam Grier?s beauty. One is Pam Grier?s toughness. I say this in spite of never having seen her popular 1970?s blaxploitation work in films such as ?Foxy Brown? and ?Coffy?, films that Tarantino has no doubt seen and could probably recite without prompting. When Jackie Brown points a loaded gun at the crotch of Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and threatens to blow his manhood away if he doesn?t take his hands from her neck, we know that Grier is still the woman no man should mess with.

?Jackie Brown? might be the film that Tarantino lovers list last when rhyming off his work, but it?s certainly among his best. Based on Elmore Leonard?s ?Rum Punch?, it?s a subtle, old-school crime film told colourfully with characters each wholly different from one another and all integral to how ?the big deal? goes down. It gives us characters that we don?t expect, like unassuming bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), who couldn?t be shocked out of his high-waisted vanilla existence if an AK-47 were aimed square at his head. Forster plays his gig just right and we care about him for his unshaken originality in a pool of hyperactive performances.

This is Jackson?s third project with Tarantino. Ordell Robbie is a smart man whose sexism is his Achille?s heel. His over-brimming confidence is apparent in his haircut and braided beard. His scheme is to make a million and half dollars by running guns to Mexico. The weapons are ordered by clientele who see them in action movies and want to emulate Hollywood crime lords.

Jackie is Ordell?s money-runner. She?s a stewardess for the worst airline in the United States, making 16 grand a year and collecting pitiful retirement benefits. The movie?s best scene is a conversation shared between Jackie and Max about getting old and having to start over. It?s a plain and simple problem for someone caught trafficking cocaine across the border.

The cocaine belongs to Melanie (Bridget Fonda), one of Ordell?s women, a young surfer girl who could care less about his plans. She spends a generous portion of the film getting high on Ordell?s sofa with Louis (Robert De Niro), an ex-cell mate of Ordell?s just released from the joint for bank robbery. Ray (Michael Keaton) and Dargus (Michael Bowen) are two cops trying to put a stop to Ordell?s transactions. He?s also wanted for an increasing number of murders, attached to people for whom he puts up bail money just to take out them of the picture.

All of these characters are connected by Jackie, who plays all sides. The cops just want Ordell. Ordell wants his money. Max wants Jackie to have Ordell?s money. Their relationships culminate into a money-exchange sequence guided by Tarantino?s preference for timelines that double back on each other to show scenes playing out from different perspectives. We aren?t sure of the entire scope of things until the last character leaves the scene with a smile on his face.

?Jackie Brown? further exhibits Tarantino?s love for character actors. Each is a unique type played by an actor with unique mannerisms. De Niro is tough, Keaton is spastic, Jackson is slick, and Forster is any white kid?s suburban dad, all in only the way they can be. No one derails their attitude for the sake of the menacing environment ? each person is exactly who Tarantino wants them to be, despite the circumstances in which they find themselves. These are characters who have to out-think one another, and Tarantino leaves his camera on the faces of Jackson, Forster and Grier as they ponder avenues to take. We watch Grier?s face until the last wisp of smoke disappears from her exhales, trying to calculate what?s going on in her mind, who she?ll remain loyal to and whether or not she?ll come out on top.

This really is Pam Grier?s movie. She is at turns tough, vulnerable, manipulative, cautious and always ready to handle whatever situation presents itself. Tarantino?s honourable mission to put veteran and longtime genre actors back into public consciousness is one that I hope continues his whole career. His attitude flies in the face of studios that place their belief in younger actors who can?t hold a candle to the well of talent an actor like Grier brings to the table.

It's a Wonderful Life

?It?s a Wonderful Life? is the story of a man who feels his life being pulled away from him, year by year, as he struggles to keep a destiny within his sights. George Bailey, as played by cinema great James Stewart, is an institutive American character perhaps unrivaled by any other aside from Charles Foster Kane. However, whereas Kane realizes the American dream only to squander it with greed and self-interest, Bailey is chained to the middle class by his empathy and respect ? his experience of the American nightmare, to never have existed at all, causes him to recognize and appreciate his own worth. It is what I have most recently called my favourite movie of all time.

?It?s a Wonderful Life? is regarded as a Christmas classic despite the fact that over half of the film never so much as mentions the holiday. It was not a film I grew up with. There was no tradition in place to watch it on Christmas Eve, and I don?t recall seeing so much as a single frame of the film until I caught a bit of it on television in my early twenties.

I remember the scene, however, to this day: George greets his brother at the train station after waiting four years for him to complete school. His brother?s return is yet another ticket for George to break the bonds of hometown Bedford Falls and branch out. He shuffles through brochures detailing exotic locations on every latitude, the excitement from his youth waning somewhat but still intact. His brother?s news: a marriage, the opportunity to start a decent job. George will have to remain at his father?s building and loan office. Another dream takes to the air, lost in the beautiful sound of a train whistle.

I have seen the film many times since. I have studied it for university courses in contexts of the Hollywood film industry and World War II American film narratives. However, the films I tend to truly appreciate are the ones with which I form connections on an emotional level. Stewart has many effective scenes as George?s idealism is battered and beaten time and again. Scared to death that the misplacement of money will result in jail time, the nearly impenetrable veneer of George Bailey comes crashing down in front of his family through violent outbursts and sharp commands. Without speaking a word, George grabs his son and weeps silently over his shoulder at the thought of losing all he has in the stead of all he?ll never be. His clenched-fist conversations with God for mercy in spite of not being a ?praying man? and pondering suicide capture a general humanity at both its lowest and most hopeful.

As infused with religious connotation as the film is, it never serves as a detraction. The film simply wouldn?t work without the angel getting his wings. George needs ethereal intervention because nothing on earth has the power to change his mind. He wants to see the world, yet he never leaves Bedford Falls. That?s why the presence of Clarence and the nightmare are such brilliant plot devices ? he doesn?t have to leave Bedford Falls to ultimately reach an understanding of the value of his life. Ultimately, George sees a vision much bigger than the world and is so frightened by its implications that he needs to see no more.

At first look, the film seems to wallow in hokey sentimentalism about appreciating what one has been given. George doesn?t need to go to Europe; he has a family and friends who love him. What would Paris provide? How could building skyscrapers and bridges compensate? Yet, look at George as a character type. His life is never quite what he wants it to be. He has every opportunity to change it. He could refuse to man the building and loan. He could walk away from a relationship with the girl next door. None of it is forced upon him. Yet he stays put. He marries the girl. He sticks with the ?business of nickels and dimes.? Why? I like to think it?s because George has the rest of his life to want something else to do. It?s just the kind of person he is. His is a wonderful, small-scale life, and regardless of his rhetoric it is something in which he finds great contentment.

But what rhetoric. What glorious delivery of words of passion and dedication. My favourite moments in the film are Stewart?s speeches, as he rips into Lionel Barrymore for trashing his father?s legacy, as he pleads with the townspeople to understand the nature of his living. This is James Stewart at his most fiery, matched perhaps only by his performance in ?Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.? But even that film lacks the enormous recesses and heights in a character that are provided in George Bailey. We see George weep and pray; we see him lose his mind in joyous exultation. The final scene of the film is one of the happiest you?ll find, in part because it is proceeded by a buildup of such seeming despair and anguish. George Bailey, with only one working ear, lives for others. He is repeatedly denied what anyone would call a right to live for himself. Life trods along, out of his reach. Finally, George ponders one final, selfish act. He believes he has lost everything, and then he is shown what others would lose without him. In a plot point used previously by Capra in ?You Can?t Take It with You,? the community rallies to not only pull George out of debt, but out of the depths within himself. The look on the face of George Bailey, overwhelmed and humbled to the point of exhaustion, is one of the film?s great moments.

No man is a failure who has friends. Is that a moral? It is, perhaps, the creed of a life. We all have our own lives to define, to manage and spend wisely. We all have our own words to see us through, to help us reach out and touch the things that matter most to us. Wonderful is relative.

American Beauty

I saw American Beauty for the first time at the Oshawa Centre movie theatre in the fall of 1999. As I exited the theatre I had to fight back the tears by biting my bottom lip. I was convinced I?d seen a movie that would change the way I saw the world forever. No other movie to that point, and for some time later, would provoke such an open and honest reaction in me.

At the time, I was a fan of fare that flouted society?s rules, characters in films that shirked their responsibilities without regard for the consequences. Mike Judge?s ?Office Space? featured a character hypnotized into not caring about a job that made his life miserable. The protagonist of Stephen Frears? ?High Fidelity? operated a business in spite of a laconic regard for his customers? opinions. American Beauty has Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey. At 42 years old, Lester continues to work at the same job he had at the age of 28. His life stands still while an unnamable, burning desire within him begins to build speed.

To a 19-year-old kid, which I was at the time, the mid-life crisis is a foreign concept. I think I understand it a bit better after spending a lot of my twenties freaking out over life paths and social expectations. At the time, however, I identified far more with 18-year-old Ricky Fitts, Lester?s next-door neighbour, played by Wes Bentley. Ricky quits his job in front of Lester without batting an eye, making him Lester?s ?own personal hero.? His youth lends him privileges ? to sell drugs and have it look glamorous, to make films and look like a blossoming artistic talent. Lester feels the loss of privilege as he ages and feels himself sliding into images antithetical to those of the ones he had while flipping burgers and getting laid as a teenager.

Lester?s wife, Carolyn, played by Annette Bening, has deluded herself into championing the romanticized grown-up image. She has the daughter, the house, the neighborhood, the meals at the dining room table she was more than likely always instructed to want. Yet she weeps uncontrollably to herself, barely keeping it together, hurting herself physically in order to keep from admitting that the image is only a sick joke of artifice. As I watched the film again, I was struck anew by the efficacy and bravery of Bening?s performance. Lester and Carolyn offset each other perfectly, revealing two very different reactions to mid-life malaise.

I worked at a video store for a time. I told a co-worker that American Beauty was my favourite film, and she replied that she had seen it and didn?t understand its appeal. I told her that she was watching it wrong. It was meant to be a flip comment, something to shock with its arrogance. But there are degrees at which the film may be viewed. If I were to tell someone ?how? to watch American Beauty I would tell them to figure out how the framing and bordering of each shot says something about the character in that frame. I would tell them to pay attention to which characters? faces are in light, and which are in shadow. Above all, I would mention the colour red.

Of course, this is all in credit to the great Conrad L. Hall, the film?s cinematographer. This was one of the last films he photographed in his lifetime. Hall once said in an interview that film audiences were always given credit for being smart, when in actuality they were ?pretty stupid.? A flip comment. Something, maybe, to shock with its arrogance. But how many of us actually watch a film? How many of us are interested in HOW a film tells a story, and how it makes us feel the emotions we feel? We should not be content with artifice, with surface images. I like the idea that we should always require a film to dig deeper than mere appearance.

I would be remiss to not talk about how the film makes me feel. It?s one of the only films that makes me cry. There are two scenes in particular. The first is Ricky narrating over the video of what he calls ?the most beautiful thing I?ve ever filmed? in an attempt at mining some emotional comprehension from Lester?s brooding teenage daughter Jane, played by Thora Birch. It is footage of a plastic bag, floating in the wind. Ricky talks about the bag?s invitation to view an ?entire life behind things,? and how this recognition signals the existence of God. The second scene is the film?s conclusion: Lester narrates as his life flashes before his eyes, images intercut with the circumstances and reactions surrounding his death. He slowly and peacefully utters the line, ?I can?t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.? These words express a boundless humility and thankfulness in the face of infinite understanding, something I try to express at every conscious opportunity in daily life.

As a youth, I would have ideas that would rise in my head from time to time, usually when I found myself outside, walking, thinking, staring at my feet. I would notice something as simple as a stone on the side of a road and experience the strong impression that I was having a unique moment. No one would ever notice the stone I was seeing, or think about it in the same way. It was a purely singular experience that would never be repeated. Since seeing the film for the first time, I have read poetry that has hoisted the seemingly mundane to the level of the holy. I have studied transcendentalism, which operates under the principle that God is perfectly visible to humanity in the natural world. American Beauty gave me the language for these ideas first. There are moments in life when it feels as though God is looking right at you. You can choose to either look away, or look closer.

Ghost World
Ghost World(2001)

I?ve been thinking about the title of ?Ghost World?, a film I have seen many times, the dialogue of which I can now feel like rhythmic sensations coursing through my body as I watch it. I know every beat of it now, watching the fading moments of any current scene give way with endless inevitably to those that follow. But I don?t think about the title that much. I gather it indicates a world that has died and yet cannot find the interest to notice, opting instead for the comforts of modern popular culture. ?You give people a Big Mac and a pair of Nikes and they?re happy,? says Seymour. He can?t relate with those people. They?ve passed away.

The choices: Join the dead masses, or continue living. The movie asks what life would be like without the comforts of aspiring to be like everyone else, and asks the question in a way no other movie asks it. Its impertinent, sardonic, dissatisfied vessel of enquiry is Enid, played by Thora Birch, who I would venture to call one of the most attractive female characters ever placed on screen. If I had to choose a ?type?, I?d look no further. I see the women I?ve cared deeply for over the last 15 years in subtle ways through Birch?s performance. A strong, young woman with character. Artsy, with a disregard for shallow perceptions and stereotypes. Sarcastic, witty, pale and bespectacled. Be still my beating heart.

I digress, for now. I saw ?Ghost World? for the first time at the World Exchange Theatre on Albert Street in Ottawa on Monday, October 1, 2001 at 9:25 PM (I owe my diligent collection of movie ticket stubs for pinpointing that information). The movie is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes, a copy of which is sitting on my bookshelf, a refugee of a past relationship. I had been endlessly excited to see the film after watching its amazing trailer on the apple.com website. Doubly excited, perhaps, because I was finally living in a city that had theatres that actually showed small-budget and independent films.

The film opens and closes with the song ?Jaan Pehechan Ho? as sung by Mohammed Rafi in the movie ?Gumnaam?, a Bollywood film released in 1965. The song delights Enid, who makes it a profession to scour out marginal interests in order to claim them as her own. As much as ?Ghost World? is a film about two young women figuring out what to do with their lives after the structure of high school has been pulled from under their trampling feet, it is also about the maturation of Enid?s artistic temperament. She compulsively sketches in a sketchbook, and her drawings are dismissed by flaky art teacher Roberta Allsworth, played by Illeana Douglas. Her relationship with best friend Rebecca, played by Scarlett Johansson, deteriorating, Enid relates to no one other than the boringly eccentric Seymour, who sells her a compilation LP containing ?Devil Got My Woman? by Skip James.

Enid?s discovery of the blues is one of the sexiest moments I?ve seen in a film. Having failed at making a rebellious statement by dyeing her hair green, Enid catches the soulful quality of James? voice in the air and wanders slowly into her bedroom. The camera pans around Birch?s face as the music registers, her eyebrows furrowing slightly at the effect of the music?s delivery and cadence. The shot cuts to the record as it plays, bent and warped with age. When the camera returns to Enid, she is lounging in a bathrobe as though she has just made love. Only when the song ends does she move to return the needle back to the beginning. It is a perfectly sequenced visual representation of how a song can take hold of a listener.

No actor other than Steve Buscemi could have played Seymour. He is just awkward enough, just odd-looking and sheepish enough to pull the right strings. He is yet another oddity in Enid?s collection that she believes sets her apart from everyone else. Withdrawn and bitterly antisocial, Seymour comes to read Enid as his only possibility for happiness. His desperate play for her towards the end of the film puts him in therapy. As I get older, I tend to watch the film from a different perspective than I did at first. I?m getting further away from Enid?s frame of mind and coming to realize how much I don?t want to be like Seymour at 40.

But what about Enid? Throughout the film, a man most view as crazy waits on a bus stop bench for a cancelled route. Only Enid, in her Louis Leakey-like obsession with the offbeat, would talk to this man. She observes him coolly, tired after settling terms with everyone around her. It is early evening. The lights of a Radio Shack and restaurants in the background blare a message of banality. The man rises, and a bus appears to pick him up. Enid regards this as though she has witnessed an asteroid crashing into a field five miles off. The movie appears to end.

Fade in. It is early morning. Enid is dragging a suitcase through an empty downtown street. Commuting cars are peppered lightly on the road. After umpteen viewings, I know she is heading for that bus stop. The sharply bowed strings of the score follow her steps exactly. The bus appears, empty. She makes her way to the back, and the final shot shows the bus taxiing her across a bridge into the unknown. The symbolism is thick, but completely apt.

Every time I watch the last shot fade out I want so badly to know where Enid ends up. I would like to think it is a world in which she is able to keep being as unique as she is. She has spent years trying to figure out how she can exist without the world that defines her as different. Perhaps she can?t. ?I used to think about one day,? she tells Seymour, ?just not telling anyone and going off to some random place. And I?d just disappear, and they?d never see me again.? Words from an almost ethereal presence in a world of ghosts.

Return to Oz
Return to Oz(1985)

Why does a person watch a film more than once? Why do they watch a film 10, 20, 30 times? Maybe it?s to have a film?s message reasserted at a time when it is most needed. Maybe it?s purely the love for a story or narrative, a particular sequence of events that registers in a certain way. Films don?t change over time. Or do they? Most likely, a film cannot be understood or appreciated fully on first viewing. There are always little intricacies that need to be unraveled. Of course, the viewer changes over time. They are exposed to new thoughts, new attitudes, new opinions and new films. They can revisit a film armed with new perspectives and make something else out of it entirely. Certainly, what a film means to a viewer changes, if not the film itself.

I know that I am not through with watching ?Return to Oz?. It is a film I have seen far more often than most others. Released in 1985 by Disney, most viewers paid it no attention. For me, it was a building block to my childhood. For many, it was a cause of kid nightmares, the source of which would never be traced until years later. I have read steady streams of comments on the Internet from viewers who see stills or clips from the film and exclaim, ?Oh my God, it?s THAT movie!? with equal parts horror and fascination. People remember it but can?t place it. I grew up loving it.

I?ll admit that I still get a thrill from ?Return to Oz? for all its unapologetic creepiness and attraction to the downright grotesque. To the souls who have yet to see it, I take a unique pleasure in sitting down and showing them how Walter Murch and the film?s crew took the world?s perception of the over-the-rainbow Oz and twisted it inside out. Gone are the singing munchkins, shimmering landscapes and joyful Emerald City townsfolk that populated the 1939 musical. Dorothy?s journey into Oz is a jump from one disturbing, colourless wasteland to another. Placed into an institution due to her persisting belief in the existence of Oz, Dorothy escapes electroshock therapy and nearly drowns before awaking in the middle of Oz?s deadly desert, inches away from turning to sand. Oz has been decimated by a tyrant known as the Nome King, played by Nicol Williamson, who has divested the land of its emeralds and turned the people of the Emerald City to stone.

That?s L. Frank Baum?s world. Murch and crew paid close attention to ?The Marvelous Land of Oz? and ?Ozma of Oz? in their formulations of setting and character, crossing over elements of the two books in order to make Dorothy?s trip back to Oz complete in scope. Baum was not afraid to confront his child protagonists with almost hellish forces to overcome, and they are on display here. Of particular unsettling presence is Princess Mombi, played by Jean Marsh, a conflation of characters from both books, who has 31 heads to choose from, on display in cases where she dwells in the usurped Wizard?s palace. In one scene, a headless Mombi feels her way to the case containing her original head in order to have eyes to pursue Dorothy with. It?s the stuff of not wanting to fall asleep at night.

There is a persistent fear of decapitation throughout the entire film that I only noticed on a most recent viewing. Dorothy?s room in the institution is numbered 31, the same number given to the case containing Mombi?s original head. The doctors want to shock the bad ?waking dreams? that plague Dorothy from her mind. New friends Jack Pumpkinhead and the Gump are decapitated at different points yet continue to speak freely. Mechanical man Tik-Tok?s neural impulses are wound by dials attached to his body, which wouldn?t operate otherwise. The nomes of Oz appear as visages in the land?s sediment, and the incarceration into the inanimate of Dorothy and her friends prompts the Nome King to grow a body. The pressure on Billina the hen to lay an egg suggests a fate under the axe, and what a pity that would be now that she?s learned to talk. Maybe that one is pushing it, but it?s all meant to show how horrible the world would be without imagination, done on a scale that portrays it as a scary and complete loss of humanity.

A movie set in the land of Oz is tough to make, and maybe another successful one will never see the light of day. ?The Wizard of Oz? is, of course, a masterpiece in its own right. It has permeated the consciousness of the culture so thoroughly that it perhaps may never be tampered with without coming off crass and second rate. It meant a lot to me as a kid, who was feverishly addicted to all things Oz and knew exactly where to raid the Peterborough Public Library for every volume it carried. I have memories of sitting at the kitchen table writing a letter to the long-deceased Baum, and of a dream in which I was given a jewel-encrusted pendant by Ozma that I tried to recreate with construction paper and markers the next morning. The first substantial bit of writing I ever completed was a story set in Oz. As fanciful as I found the world, ?Return to Oz? revealed a dark side to being young that I also took great delight in. It?s a delight that is currently appealing to viewers in the Harry Potter films and countless imitators. In that respect, ?Return to Oz? was 20 years ahead of its time.

Walter Murch hasn?t directed another film since. An award-winning and accomplished editor and sound worker, he would later come to my attention as the man who put Orson Welles? ?Touch of Evil? back together the way Welles might have wanted it. There?s an admirable character trait there, expressed by a desire to remain true to what originally inspires us. ?Return to Oz? continues to inspire me with its originality, its faithfulness, its darkness and imagination.

Watchmen
Watchmen(2009)
½

I collected comic books for a couple of years as a kid. It started with the death of Superman at the hands of Doomsday in 1992, and that story arc was collected in a graphic novel that I read cover to cover a few times, trying to keep the spine and pages in something resembling mint condition for the inevitable day I would sell it for millions (the day has not yet arrived). Outside of that collection and stuff by Daniel Clowes, I haven?t had too great an interest in exploring the potential of graphic novels to tell a story.

For this reason, I regarded the Watchmen trailer last year with a bit of indifference. I?ve read maybe two comic books in the last ten years and I was five when Alan Moore?s publication first hit shelves, so its influence on the format was never felt by me directly. My biggest amazement upon watching the Watchmen trailer last year was at the perseverance of ?The End is the Beginning is the End? by the Smashing Pumpkins as a comic anthem, used originally to promote Batman and Robin, now remixed for a group of superheroes in the 21st century. Beyond that, I had no idea.

The story takes place in an alternate 1985. Nixon is on his third presidential term. The Soviets are threatening nuclear war after moving their armies into Afghanistan. Vietnam was won handily by America thanks to the accidental dis- and re-integration of Dr. Manhattan, a physicist who loses his human form but gains a cut blue body, powers of universal transportation and the ability to see his past, present and future all at once. He is a member of the Watchmen, a group succeeding the 1940s-era Minutemen, forced to quit the crime-fighting life due to an act outlawing masks. When the antihero Comedian is killed, an insidious effort to kill off supermen seems afoot. It is up to characters Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Oxymandias and Dr. Manhattan to save the world from devastation, but not all are willing and/or able.

I sat down with the graphic novel this past week to get a handle on the story of these characters before I saw them come to life. Moore?s Watchmen is a bleak, desolate, existential and completely original experience that kept me interested with its dark humour and humanity. At its root, I believe it is a story about the value of life and how that value is betrayed by power. Moore mines the nihilistic human desire to destroy ourselves through war and portrays superheroes as a perverse byproduct of the absence of God, who no longer seems to give much of a damn about us.

Zack Snyder?s film adaptation has the hefty task of bringing these heroes to life, men and women who are more costumed nobodies than a Superman or Spider-man. It is a comparison that is important to keep in mind as the complicated pasts of these individuals builds into a grand plot, stretching 12 issues of the comic page and nearly three hours of film. It?s not easy to watch. Even after absorbing the graphic novel for a week, I still wasn?t completely certain who these characters were and what was motivating them.

That, however, is the case with a lot of classic noirs, which Zack Snyder calls upon with a hyperactive stylization the equal of which I can?t recall seeing. Think back to Bogart in The Big Sleep, a movie so complex and labyrinthine that one doesn?t watch it so much as experience it. When it comes to Watchmen, I take it for granted that the pieces fit, since the pieces I understand are incredibly worthy of my attention and appreciation.

My two favourite segments from the graphic novel are captured almost perfectly by Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong, who last collaborated on 300, a movie I found had admirable bombast but lacked intelligence. Here, they take Moore?s novel and lash themselves to it with great dedication. Dr. Manhattan?s origin story and Rorschach?s imprisonment and psycho-evaluation are as moody, violent and thought-provoking as they are on the page.

Jackie Earle Haley is incredible as Rorschach, a character who wears an ever-changing inkblot mask while grilling suspects with the hard-nosed attitude of an abused 40s-era private dick. New York is a cesspool, the twin towers still standing over the filth of a culture who doesn?t want or need heroes to come to their aid. As the government?s ?doomsday clock? ticks closer to the reality of nuclear holocaust, the group begins to rediscover their identities when life seems short. Patrick Wilson plays a great Nite Owl, heading into middle age and wondering if he can still squeeze into the suit that hangs in his basement.

Reading the source material first, a lot of my attention was drawn to areas the film glosses over. A haunting subplot involving a newsy and his customers is missing, which offered an important window into humanity that the film lacks. Matthew Goode?s Ozymandias is somewhat of a misfire, as someone older would have been more effective. And the climax is changed slightly, I?m assuming for simplicity?s sake. Given its subject matter and conventions, Watchmen is a tough sell to modern audiences, and I can understand why Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse would have pulled back the reins a bit. However, what the movie lacks in complete vision it makes up for in style. Of particular note is the opening sequence, an inspired montage of alternate-universe 20th century events set to Bob Dylan?s ?The Times They Are a Changin?.?

The scenes where Dr. Manhattan contemplates life and his own god-like existence on Mars really get at the story?s core. Humanity?s greatest accomplishments tend to overlap with its greatest ethical failures. Wars are fought to paradoxically end other wars. Lives are wiped out in an instant as though they never were. We wonder if a superhuman, if they existed, might take away the injustices in the world that everyday people cannot control. But what if we were unable to prove ourselves worthy of their help?

Iron Man
Iron Man(2008)
½

In the golden age of comic books, it was enough to amaze readers and fans with spectacle and science fiction. Nowadays, people seem heavy on the demand for humanity in their superheroes. Heroes who are heroes by their own ingenuity rather than by an accident that changes their genetic makeup have it a bit easier when meeting this demand. We have so far seen Batman don a suit to wage war on crime syndicates that were in one way or another responsible for the deaths of his parents. Now, in ?Iron Man,? another millionaire playboy seems to follow suit.

Where Batman?s story is sprung from a particular brand of tragedy, Tony Stark?s springs from another ? a man grows in the shadow of his father?s accomplishments into arrogance. He misses the chance to say goodbye to his father, but we have the impression that an act of such humanity is out of Tony Stark?s scope. A second-generation weapons manufacturer, Tony sees things in terms of the dollar and puts trust in American moral superiority where his own knowledge falls short. ?The best kind of weapon is the one you only have to fire once,? he announces in the film?s opening scenes. ?That?s how dad did it, that?s how America does it, and it?s worked out pretty well so far.?

These scenes are shot in the Olancha area of the California desert. We are told it is Afghanistan, and it?s convincing. The grittiness of the scenes surrounding Tony?s capture by Afghani militants, which make up the first third of the film, intercut an element of horror into Tony?s sardonic wit and attitude. As the film opens, he is being transported away from a missile test site in the back of an armored terrain vehicle with a glass of brandy in his hand. Part of the weapons deal is a case of liquors with glass and ice dispensers. In Tony?s mind, the exchange of weapons for capital is second in concern only to the toast that follows.

The character of Tony Stark finds a pivot between his charm and ego, which are obvious, and his abilities as an actual engineer, which only surface when his life depends on it. A brief montage at an awards ceremony tell us that he is gifted, but only when he is casting material for an artificial heart do we get a sense of Tony?s full capability. ?You lost something in that cave,? Tony is told by his long-time business associate. It is a heart that he gains. After building an iron suit prototype and blasting his way to freedom, Tony returns to America and announces the end of Stark Enterprises? weapons division. The weapons are ending up the hands of terrorists and he accepts the responsibility.

Tony?s decision to move full throttle into the superhero life makes sensible use of both facets of his personality. The film?s second act requires that he perfect his suit prototype, and we are given scenes in which he flies around his garage, crashing into his expensive cars and taking out edifices with the unexpected power of his boots and gloves. There are also some funny moments that involve Tony chastising the robot assistants of his own creation. It is gratifying to see an engineer get back to his roots and have a little fun along the way. An exceptional sequence shows Tony on an apparent direct course to the moon before the temperature freezes his suit to the point of incapacity, the melting of Icarus? wings on the flipside of the thermometer.

What ?Iron Man? has to do is make Tony Stark?s humanity a focal point of its story. It accomplishes this to a respectable extent. Robert Downey Jr. might be the only actor capable of playing this part to the fullest. He has a great comic timing for his macho bravado, but not to the point where we don?t believe in his injuries when he asks for a battery change. The challenge, though, is making the audience care for a millionaire playboy who decides to make right on his ignorance.

We need to see the man behind the suit. Moreover, we need to see the man behind the money. The film?s action sequences are impressive; in particular, a scene in which Tony flies to rectify a small village scourged by terrorists carries with it a certain rush of justice being delivered. The spectacle is grand, but there are other scenes in which we simply see robotic men throwing one another into buses, playing with the toys that only they could afford. It?s a smart decision to give a glimpse of Tony?s face during these scenes as they tend to get carried away with themselves.

Jeff Bridges is effectively creepy as Tony?s partner, representing the evil and perverse remnants of his father?s machinations. With a shaved head and mighty beard, Bridges looks massive and intimidating. He wants Tony?s heart to make a war machine out of the suit design. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Tony?s extraordinarily tolerant assistant Pepper Potts, a name that only a comic concerned with spectacle could think up. Terrence Howard is also on board as an Air Force colonel specializing in weapons development. The film is directed by Jon Favreau, who has an impressive comedic resume and shows his love for the comic genre in his execution.

The movie, however, hinges on Robert Downey Jr.?s performance from start to finish. His is a great story of an actor overcoming his own demons to take a role that will be long remembered in film. And good for him. He?s as good as Tony Stark can be, in as interesting a story about a spoiled engineer who discovers his own humanity and sticks it in a cold, expressionless suit can be.

Chelsea Walls
½

Natasha Richardson?s face is the first we see in Chelsea Walls. She is standing in the apartment of Bud, an alcoholic writer played by Kris Kristofferson, who in this movie looks as though he could live forever and age to ridiculous extremes on the outside. He doesn?t want her to go. She goes. In her second and final scene in the film, she speaks to a psychiatrist about her love for him: ?It?s very painful to fall in love with someone in the confines of four walls, where you share everything; to be silent while they work for days sometimes; to be taken into it, into them, their body and spirit; to be worshipped and magnified, immortalized; and then to see that, to them ? to Bud ? it?s work.?

Bud drinks. He also writes, occasionally, and in one scene the words of his narration fall into the film like rain. The words are strong and calculated. This old writer has seen a lot and his words have become all he knows how to love. When Bud?s publisher shows up at the end of the film to collect his novel, he finds it strewn around his apartment like removed clothing. Bud is on the verge of tears. He has pulled another great love from his booze-soaked heart and let it out of his life.

The Chelsea represents the long-standing artistic Mecca of New York City. It has served as a temporary home to a laundry list of well-known musicians, writers and artists of all disciplines. Andy Warhol shot a series of films there in the 1960s. Mark Twain stayed there, and it?s where Nancy Spungeon was found dead. The many characters of Chelsea Walls have the fact that they are artists in common. Beyond this, they are lonely, unsure of the direction their lives are taking, uncertain as to whether or not the art they are producing is any good and finding the Chelsea a despicable place to live. They often pay more attention to their own destitution than to the romanticized lifestyle they are living (and no wonder ? rates at the Chelsea currently start at $109 US a night).

We are not allowed too deeply into these characters? lives. One seems to haunt the elevators and abandoned rooms of the hotel with poetry book in hand, preaching at no one. Another dances by with no context given. The movie is full of suggestions about how these characters think and feel, but first-time director Ethan Hawke only gives us bits and pieces at a time. Like an Impressionist painting, examining the individual elements up close will not provide the picture as a whole. Viewed from a step back, the film is a complete story of the muse.

It is the muse that draws these artists to the Chelsea. Perhaps it is also the undeniable Cool Factor of sleeping in the same building where Keruoac wrote ?On the Road,? and perhaps there is no difference in the way these characters behave from the artist who believes that only the Chelsea could produce the greatness needed within them to create.

Grace (Uma Thurman) is a waitress at the hotel, apparently killing time writing while her boyfriend is off becoming a movie star. Frank (Vincent D?Onofrio) is a painter and can?t tell Grace how much he loves her. Ross (Steve Zahn) and Terry (Robert Sean Leonard) are musicians who arrive at the hotel from Minnesota and record songs in the bathroom. While Ross is intent on living the experience to the fullest, Terry broods that his constant attention towards music has denied him a love life. He is Bud before the fifty years of self-abuse. There is also a jazz singer played by Jimmy Scott, who has what seem like centuries of the wear and tear of life etched into his face.

Ethan Hawke shows a courageous tendency to capture unconventionally the need of artists to answer to the muse in their lives. For the most part, these are complicated, modest people with gently inferred pasts who seem more like pure products of a poor artistic culture than clichťs. Traded in for narrative are poetic expressions of emotion, including a real showstopper delivered by Rosario Dawson and Mark Webber. He appears at her room after what we assume is a long absence. They are lovers. A man on crutches shows up, seemingly a part of a former life that could drive a wedge between them. He is told to leave. The lovers spend time together writing. She tenderly shaves his face. They have a conversation on the telephone discussing a fistfight. Ultimately, he leaves with the crippled man and his associates in a car, refusing money from the woman he loves. All impressions, but what we remember most is the beauty of their language.

The film is based on a play by Nicole Burdette, who also wrote the screenplay. I have no idea how the staging of these stories would take place live. Film affords the opportunity to check in on each room, sometimes with abrupt intercuts, and lend each one a different tone or hue, always keeping them in the field of comparison. The achievement of this is a mood that can perhaps only be fully attuned to at 3 o?clock in the morning after a long night of drinking and worrying about the one you love not loving you back. While not always cogent, the impression is successful. Any artist should feel this film in their blood.

I?m slowly growing a new respect for Jeff Tweedy?s music. I took in ?I Am Trying to Break Your Heart? last weekend, a documentary on the making of Wilco?s ?Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,? and found myself fascinated by it. Here, Tweedy provides an ongoing, atmospheric score that resonates. At the film?s center, Ross and Terry perform a song written by Tweedy entitled ?The Lonely 1? and Hawke leaves it in the film complete with mistakes. To have perfected it would have been to miss the point entirely. The root of an artist?s identity comes out in the art, truthful and without pretense. The rest is getting there.

This is a film of moments. It gives them away and asks for a thought or two before moving on to the next. I?ll offer one more: Bud talks to one of his women on the phone. It is late. Too tired to type but just awake enough to drink, he needs the conversation. As Jimmy Scott croons in the Chelsea bar about jealousy, Bud details an experience of running into a woman with her little girl on the elevator:

?The little girl had these huge brown eyes and curls all over her head. She beamed at me and then hugged my leg. I just look at her and smiled. Grinned, really. No teeth. Teeth scare kids, I think. It was so strange. As I got out, her mother said, ?She?s going to fall in love with men who look like you and not know why, but I will.? And then the elevator door closed. It was oddly beautiful. I?ve had a couple of drinks, so it?s all dreamy, but I couldn?t help wondering about you as a little girl in an elevator with your mother. I wonder if you ever saw a man like me.?

I Love You, Man
½

The modern style of conversational comedy, where awkward exchanges wring out laughs until every last one has dripped from the sponge, might reach its zenith in ?I Love You, Man.? The screenplay is credited to director John Hamburg and Larry Levin, but it plays out as a series of beats to hit and expand from in improvisation. The premise is simple and we know what?s coming. A man is getting married. He has no male friend for a best man. He finds one, and the more he gets to know this friend the crazier the friend seems. It will put a strain on the relationship, but all will be well with everyone by the time the vows are said.

All of the beats are hit, but the pleasure in watching ?I Love You, Man? comes from watching these actors hit them. Paul Rudd is now a veteran in these types of films. He?s the perfect everyman, the kind of guy who knows exactly how to ice any conversation with the perfect joke or intonation. As Peter Kravel, he can barely spit out a sentence without marveling at the stupidity of his own words. Jason Segel is the friend. Sydney towers over Peter, counteracting his everyman appearance and attitude with Bermuda shorts and a painful honesty in how he expresses himself.

The movie is about modern male relationships and what they are based on. It flies in the face of convention by making its main character lucky in love but otherwise openly socially inept. When asked to run off a list of potential best men, Peter lists an overly tan coworker who markets himself as a realtor on urinal cakes and a fencing opponent who?s a sore loser. Not very prime candidates.

Peter knows how to make his fiancťe (Rashida Jones) happy, and she spends much of the film beaming supportively, which is sort of refreshing. They have actual conversations that resolve in the same scene. We believe they?re in love and not just characters ready to antagonize one another for the sake of a joke. The script is funny in its characterization of Peter as a man with no real social skills outside of romantic relationships. He translates what he knows about relationships into an inappropriately romantic language when attempting to bond with men. It?s what he?s used to.

At first, Peter has little luck embarking on ?man dates? with any lonely whacko he can find. He meets Sydney at an open house, who makes astute observations about food and the gastrointestinal habits of the homebuyers. He is funny, laid back and charming, a guy you?d want to have a beer with and then call off the night before it got too late. Peter tries shoehorning himself into the mold of a straight man who wants to be friends with another straight man. This, he assumes, involves talking in truncated lingo, which he messes up to a baffling extent.

Sydney becomes a guru of sorts to Peter, offering him advice on how to free himself from a seemingly comfortable life. He sees men as animals and induces Peter to engage in primal scream therapy. He talks about tossing his feces around at the Venice Beach boardwalk, and we are not sure if he?s joking. We admire his lifestyle and attitude. He is an outlet for Peter, who has never had a friend to have frank discussions about sex with, nor anyone to rock out to Rush with, and the two become friends. Since this is a movie, it has to turn sour. Comedy typically concerns itself with how extreme the conflict can be and how unexpected the resolution is. Thankfully, for the most part, ?I Love You, Man? recognizes that keeping conflicts and resolutions realistic adds to the payoff of its material.

Unfortunately, despite its interesting premise, there?s not a lot of material here. The movie has a strong second act but gets lost in how inherently funny it thinks putting Lou Ferrigno in a film is. The cast is golden, but terrific actors like J. K. Simmons and Jane Curtin are underutilized. Andy Samberg offers an interesting turn as Peter?s gay brother, but he all but disappears after the first 15 minutes. Jon Favreau plays his most unpleasant role of memory, the highlight of which is a joke about projectile vomiting that is only funny when Peter talks about it after the fact (?It can actually happen.?).

For many men, the friends they meet in high school and grow up with are the ones they put in their wedding parties and talk about their kids with. For those men who never start families, making new friends can be next to impossible. Who wants to know a man once he?s well past the age of claiming he knows everything? In Sydney, we see a character that seems to actually have it all figured out. Except the art of toasting.

Pontypool
Pontypool(2009)
½

?Pontypool? is probably the most cerebral zombie film I?ve seen in a genre typically more concerned with how the cerebrum is ingested by the undead. It is the name, I discover, of a real village area in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario about 22 miles from Peterborough, where I grew up. I doubt it has a radio station.

Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) was probably equally surprised when he took the job as morning man for 660 CLSY, the Beacon. The film opens with his voice ? which is too deep, weathered and rumbling to be of any help in the morning ? describing how the town got its name. He delivers an anecdote about posters for a lost cat that he has seen stapled to poles in a segment about small town life with the inflection of a suicidal Garrison Keillor. He fires his agent on his morning commute and saunters into the station wearing a cowboy hat. He?s a big fish in a small pool.

Pontypool is so small that the station?s weather and traffic reports are delivered not from a chopper, but from a reporter in a car playing chopper sound effects on the stereo. We have the impression that the entire station is run by no more than three people at a time. Little of the town is seen, as director Bruce McDonald keeps things pretty well confined to the interior of the building, and therein lies a masterful setup for the crisis, which I will now try to describe.

The citizens of Pontypool are contracting sicknesses by speech. The comprehension of certain words causes the victim to repeat the word, we are told, as a defense mechanism to rid the word of meaning. In their zombielike state, the infected hunt out other people by voice. The end result is cannibalism, which is what makes a zombie movie out of ?Pontypool? where it would otherwise be on par with a tedious crossword puzzle.

Reports from infected citizens start to come in to the station, but they are all parts of a giant, incoherent mess. One thing is clear: People are dying and the OPP can?t stop it. Beyond that, nobody at the station has a clue what?s happening and they do their best to follow through on journalistic procedure. Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), the Sunshine ?Chopper? pilot, sends in field reports from a grain silo in which he takes refuge. At one point, Mazzy is informed by a BBC reporter that he has broken the story, which is news to him.

The film is quite suspenseful during these moments of uncertainty. I was reminded of Oliver Stone?s ?Talk Radio?, a movie I love, and the suspense that film creates simply by allowing its audience to hear along with its characters. We are left to imagine what we can only sense with our ears, and screenwriter Tony Burgess recognizes a way to take that feeling to a grisly level. My hat?s also off to the sound department for their haunting work in a film that requires so much from them.

Eventually, the horror comes to the station and the main characters take turns talking ? or scribbling ? like madmen trying to discern exactly how to handle the situation. The film has fun with Canada?s bilingual nation status; apparently, only the English language is affected, so French Canadian police are creating the roadblocks. I will not give away how a cure for the disease is found, but I?ll say that making borderline absurd demands of any audience is not always the best way to convince them that the world is coming to an end.

I have to give credit to McDonald and Burgess for thinking this would work. It?s an interesting idea, if an obtuse one. There are scenes of dialogue that must have been difficult to describe to the actors, as words have to stand in virtually for instruments of death. By the time it?s all over, it feels more than a little incredulous, but I had a bit of a smile on my face thinking of the gumption it took to put together.

McHattie?s performance is spot on. He?s a commanding, fascinating character to both watch and listen to, a Wild West bandit born with a voice for radio. After seeing him in more bit part roles, it?s great to see him in a film that puts him centre stage. Lisa Houle plays producer Sydney Briar, a name that should spawn small-town Ontario band names. Georgina Reilly plays a soldier returned from Afghanistan who makes the ironic comment that at the least the war was something she could keep in her head. ?Pontypool? is a film that takes place as much in the theatre of the mind as it does on the screen.

Wonder Boys
Wonder Boys(2000)

Last summer I took a job as a classroom assistant for the Humber College School for Writers in Toronto. Classes ran for five days, but it was a full week-long to-do that featured some of Canada?s most regarded writers and publishers. Each afternoon, those enrolled could listen to hour-long lectures and participate in Q&As to discover what were often some cold hard facts about getting a written work published in this country. The more interesting moments, however, were provided by the writers, who passed on the advice they could to a hall full of wide-eyed students with knowing smiles cocked and loaded.

Behind the scenes, I spent some time with the men and women who organize the week. It instilled in me the desire to hunt down a copy of ?Wonder Boys?, a film I?ve seen countless times since its release in 2000. I was finally experiencing a burgeoning writer?s dream, the kind that has less to do with writing than it does with envisioning what could and might be written and the life that a writer leads. I enjoy films about writers, though they seem few and far between. The world of writers fascinates me. It intrigues me to watch writers as characters put on the other side of the pen.

Professor and author Grady Tripp is Michael Douglas? best role. He bookishly mopes around Pittsburgh at its most dreary, smoking pot to escape reality and fuel his artistic temperament, emitting low-key reactions to mishaps that would keep most people indoors for the weekend. Grady?s editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town for Word Fest, the university?s annual event ?for writers and wannabes?. Grady?s seven-year opus (and it is that, in length) is Crabtree?s meal ticket, but Crabtree?s raison d?Ítre is lit parties attended by prominent writers and fresh young prospects. In Grady?s opening narration, he reveals that his wife had left him that morning with not so much as the nonchalance of a drive-thru order delivery. His mutual feelings for the university?s chancellor Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand) keep him grounded, even if she is married to his boss.

The story is driven by Grady?s developing mentor/protťgť relationship with student James Leer (Tobey Maguire). The two drive around the greater Pittsburgh area as Grady attempts to sort his life out and experience what it might be like to be a father, a reality he discovers is arriving a lot sooner than expected. At a party, James opens fire on the Gaskells? dog and steals the jacket that Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding day from Dr. Gaskell?s private memorabilia collection. This is the stuff of fiction, for a writer ? characters who have interesting, expressive traits and little moments that seem to escalate into a story. Looking back, they happen all at once without realizing it, and it?s what allows Grady to write the book he needs to write, not the one he thinks he should write.

The belief that a romantic career as a writer is not only possible but probable is the gasoline for many students of English and creative writing. The writers do nothing to shatter the illusion save warning against the improbability of their own success, but any real writer shuns such warnings. In a scene in Wonder Boys, the prolific author ?Q? (Rip Torn) begins a lecture by announcing that he is a writer and pausing for applause, which he is bound to receive in this environment. Grady and James exchange a look of raised eyebrows. As Q goes off on a metaphor of how a writer sees an idea through, James Leer lets out a high-pitched giggle that resonates throughout the auditorium.

This is the kind of note that Wonder Boys hits perfectly throughout. Getting a book published is hard. Hardly anyone has the talent for it. Most kid themselves into believing that what they write will matter in an important way. But what is the alternative? To have written nothing at all? To not believe that a piece of writing can affect another person, even change their life somehow? All of the characters in the film believe in the possibility, and because they do, we care about them. Grady has spent seven years writing the follow-up to a novel that made him famous in literary circles. His struggle isn?t to finish his book; it?s to reaffirm his belief that stories are still worth telling. James is finding his voice as a writer, but he doesn?t know who he wants to be apart from that; he fictionalizes his own life while spending most of his time in old movie theatres and memorizing the morbid details of celebrity suicides.

The humour in ?Wonder Boys? arrives in observing how these characters perceive their own eccentricities and recognize the opportunity to make their own stories more interesting. Grady?s novel, titled ?Arsonist?s Daughter?, which is just appropriately perplexing enough to sound like the prototypical novel taught on English university syllabi, established him as a god to the novice writer, yet he writes in a ratty old woman?s bathrobe for reasons that ?aren?t particularly interesting?. James Leer talks of an incestuous relationship between his parents, who keep him locked in the basement ? a room that turns out to be decorated with hard-to-find Hollywood items and strewn with overdue library books.

For all his schizophrenic ideas and immature efforts to promote mystique, James is talented. I identified with his descriptions of writing stories in his head while trying to fall asleep at night. These and other poignant observations made about the mania of a writer are virtues of Steven Kloves? smart script. These people think like writers. They narrate lives for the people they meet, but never to a tiring extent. They use accessible metaphors and talk in sharp descriptions as though it was as natural a process as breathing, and that?s a refreshing quality in a film.

There?s a pleasure in hearing people talk about simple yet extraordinary things in the movies. In one scene, James and Grady discuss old films starring actors who went crazy. They make no additional observations; they just let it hang in the air like the snow flurrying lightly around them, confident that they both understand the implication and significance of what they?re discussing, knowing where to put their words and when to leave them aside. In another scene, my favorite, Grady calls up his boss at 3:30 in the morning to tell him that he?s in love with his wife. ?Wonder Boys? is at its best when its writers become characters.

Young People Fucking (Y.P.F.)
½

If ?Young People Fucking? did nothing else, it certainly brought to the forefront of the Canadian consciousness the state of the modern Canadian independent film. Without government funding, there would be no Canadian film industry. Bill C-10 was passed in the House of Commons in late 2007 and remains a controversial piece of legislation that will hopefully not become law. To suggest that the government could deem projects worthy of funding based on questionable content is antithetical to a film industry that cannot sustain on its own. Censorship is the last thing this country needs to promote its artistic expression.

My opinions and ideas concerning the Canadian film industry as a whole are perhaps items for another column altogether, so I will attempt to leave them for another time. ?Young People Fucking? is an appropriate if vulgar title, though that particular verb alone doesn?t express the film?s content entirely. It is a film in which young people also talk frankly and openly about sex. Types of relationships are classified as though they are species in a biology textbook. Sure, sex is had in the film, but at one point or another, sex is something that most of us have, or will have, or will want to have. ?Young People Fucking? recognizes the comic potential of a fact of life that most films hesitate to treat overtly, perhaps over fears of crossing the line into pornography. It?s funny because it?s honest.

The film follows five couples involved in different types of relationships. Ken (Callum Blue) and Jaime (Diora Baird) are coworkers who are on their first date. Matt (Aaron Abrams) and Kris (Carly Pope) are friends who are trying to add sex to their relationship. Mia (Sonja Bennett) and Eric (Josh Cooke) are exes who reunite for one night only. Gord (Ennis Esmer) and Inez (Natalie Lisinska) invite Gord?s roommate Dave (Peter Oldring) into a three-way, and Andrew (Josh Dean) and Abby (Kristin Booth) are the standard, white bread couple who are tired of having sex with each other and decide to add some excitement to their routine. The identity of the man she fantasizes about during sex made me howl with laughter.

Each story is centered on the actual ?performance?, divided into six segments, complete with helpful interstitials: prelude, foreplay, sex, interlude, orgasm and afterglow. Each segment is meant to reveal the subtleties of convention and how they cause a person to act with their partner. There is a lot of talking and reasoning about sex, which of course means little once the sex is over with. A score of wrong things are said, but rather than derail the night, they often lead to new conclusions and possibilities. These are smart people, if not always entirely bright, so the sex is never seen as unrealistic overkill. Sex is made out to be the ultimate mysterious signifier. Each character is certain of its meaning before and often during, but rarely for a period of time immediately afterwards.

All of the performances are well done. The film has no great final statement on how sex should be had or for what reasons ? and indeed, sex is one of the great dividers in both perception and execution ? but I liked the shine it took to love and faithfulness and its smart treatment of character types, from wallflower to gigolo, who each turn out to be human after all. The film is funniest when it asks how far we?d go for the people we love and love to make love to. At times, it feels a little too much like form over function, but isn?t that just the way sex is?

Titanic
Titanic(1997)

My favourite shot in ?Titanic? shows the massive boat small and alone in a desolate, endless seascape. A flare has been fired and it emits a pitiful popping sound as sparks rain into the water. The light from stars that shone millions of years ago dots the night sky with more intensity than could be found at any other location on earth. There is a quiet beauty to it. It is a moment removed from the unthinkable horror that makes up the film?s inevitable climax. History tells us that even the nearest ships won?t make it in time to rescue the 1,500 people gasping for breath and fighting hypothermia and panic in the middle of the North Atlantic, but we know that Rose will live to tell about it.

I first saw ?Titanic? in theatres in December of 1997, the first of the three or four times I would see it on the big screen. Nearly 12 years after its release, it is still the highest grossing film in the world. Why were people, including myself, so mesmerized with it? It was a movie for lovers, but it was also one for those who had lost loves for one reason or another. There?s nothing like watching a doomed romance on screen to mend a broken heart.

Theatres showed it for months and I recall it playing well into the summer of 1998. The backlash was inevitable. ?Titanic? has not been an easy film to admit liking. The dawn of the Internet age has meant a new era of cynicism. People have had no qualms with sinking Titanic a second time. As such, I feel I?m going to have to defend my love for this particular film rather than simply extol its virtues. Everyone?s seen it, most at least twice. The box office proves it.

It also leads me, I think, to explain a little bit more in depth my approach to writing film reviews, especially reviews of films that I consider my all-time favourites. Hundreds of thousands of films have been made. Why is ?Titanic? in my top ten? Because Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a pretty good performance? He?s better in other films. So is Kate Winslet. The special effects? Sure, they?re amazing, but ?Titanic? doesn?t jump to mind when I think about movies with great effects. I could argue it either way. Is it the script? When it comes to some of the scenes, I?ve heard better, more natural and thought-provoking dialogue in Bell ads.

Each of the movies on this list of mine is a movie that has resonated with me over the nearly 30 years I?ve been watching movies. Watching a movie that used to mean a lot to me brings the original time, circumstances and feelings rushing back. I?m faced with a conundrum as someone who would like to have a collection of solid film reviews under his belt. Can I really be subjective about a film that I associate so fiercely with my first love, a girl with whom I saw this movie twice in theatres on opposite sides of the country? She even looked a little bit like Rose, even though I?ve never been the Jack type.

Every insipid, obligatory beat of ?Titanic? is part of so damned romantic an idea. Two young people from opposing classes meet and fall in love over the course of two days at sea on a vessel neither of them knows is doomed. It?s a perfect tragic formula. We know the Titanic will sink. There must have been two people on the ship who were in love. They must have lost one another on the night of April 14th, 1912. It?s a heartbreaking idea that James Cameron executes with more passion and preparation than any filmmaker I?ve seen. The fact that he adores what he has uncovered in his research is evident in every frame.

I?ve always been a fan of the story, but over the last few years I?ve grown an interest in the technical aspects of the film?s production. I watched the movie again a couple of nights ago and I can?t stop wanting more, to get a look at every angle of how the story was put together. I?m currently listening to a commentary track given by the cast and crew, who are endlessly regaling the authenticity of the final project ? the small details of designs on the china, the accuracy of the carvings in the room interiors, Cameron himself getting on his knees and scrubbing at scuff marks that shouldn?t have been on the brand new floors. From idea to execution, the coordination of it all is astounding.

A fictional portrayal of the disaster of the Titanic places high demands on audience empathy. Few can imagine what it must have been like. Cameron and his crew built the environment and characters from photographs, artwork and first-hand looks at the ship as it lay on the bottom of the Atlantic. The sinking was a cold, sterile fact of humanity?s ambitions thwarted by pride and lack of precaution. Jack and Rose add the warmth necessary to bring life to an event that hardly anyone alive witnessed first hand. They are cut from the romance flick cloth, but there is magic apparent in Rose?s smile against the sunset. When Jack lays on his back and smokes while looking at the stars, it?s not hard to believe that he could reach up and collect them in his hand. Because we know of the ship?s demise, we feel the significance of every last moment, and the more we come to admire the characters, the less we want reality to intercede.

No wonder the attitudes toward ?Titanic? are so polarized. If it were a different ship in a different time, if Jack and Rose had sailed to America and were given the chance to begin their relationship, perhaps some would be a little more forgiving of their exuberance. But I speak of these characters as if they?re real. Maybe they were to me, for a period, when I was experiencing the same kind of whirlwind romantic feelings for the first time. I like that about a movie. I know the ship sinks. But what a voyage.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

I like the metaphor of the snow-covered beach that is featured so prominently in ?Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?. Sand is more than tiny little rocks. It is a constant despite the coming and going of ceaseless tides, pulled in and out by a moon lying in a bed of constellations. Some people enter our lives like a snowfall, and though they also come and go, they repeatedly affect us through memory. Joel and Clementine drag each other along the beach and the sand and snow mix. When we?re deeply in love, it is often difficult to keep in mind where we end and the other person begins.

This is a movie that hits the tragicomic sentiment spot on in dazzling moment after dazzling moment with innovation and an unreal poetic control. It is the most romantic film I?ve ever seen because its technique is inseparable from its execution. We see the ache and torment and hostility of Joel and Clementine?s relationship, and by the time they have forgotten one another, we are truly convinced that it was worthwhile.

If I?m getting ahead of myself, it?s only because I?m still under the influence of the film?s narrative structure. Joel and Clementine have been dating for a period. Slowly but surely, they drive each other crazy and end the relationship. Joel is shy, reserved and socially inept. Clementine is his opposite. She?s the kind of girl that writer Charlie Kaufman must have fantasized about ? someone who would come along and bring him out of himself. ?I still thought you were going to save my life,? Joel admits, and even his memory of Clementine admonishes him for the pressure that places on her.

Their story is told backward, as one horrifying memory of Clementine?s vindictiveness and bile after another is eliminated from Joel?s head in a procedure that doesn?t exist but would build lines around the block if it did. Eventually, Joel recognizes that there are some memories he wants to hold onto after all, so the film becomes a frenetic, surreal chase sequence wherein Joel leads Clementine through different parts of his memory in order to travel off the grid, so to speak.

Of course, this poses all kinds of questions about the identity of the self and one?s perception of events. Clementine probably isn?t as horrible as Joel remembers. How often do our memories actually map directly to the truth of any situation? We grow to understand that Joel is remembering emotional responses to a chain of events. A movie told in the realm of Clementine?s memory would be much different. We come to accept Joel?s point of view as just that and forgive Clementine for behaviour that we can?t witness firsthand.

The introduction and conclusion of the film are fascinating as standalone sequences, especially after we understand that Joel and Clementine are each acting on the thinnest wisp of emotional instinct to subconsciously beat their memory loss and find each other again. The film?s opening is my all-time favourite ? a near 20 minute introduction of the characters that begins with Joel making an impulsive decision and narrating his own insecurities.

In the past, I?ve commented that the film?s opening sequence struck me so powerfully when I saw it for the first time that I forgot I was watching a movie. There?s something about a story that builds at just the right tempo and conveys just the right take on a set of ideas and concepts. It replaces my awareness with an eagerness to find out how the rhythm will develop.

So few films hit that mark. I?ll credit Kaufman, whose screenplays have impressed me more and more since I first saw ?Being John Malkovich? and disliked it 10 years ago. His more recent ?Synecdoche, NY? told one of the most effective and accurate stories of an artist?s creative process that I?ve ever seen. He knows how to express fears of loneliness and not being able to measure up far better than most. Pairing him with a director as inventive as Michel Gondry allows for a startling visualization of some extraordinarily intricate arcs and ideas.

I?ve seen the movie many times and heard some of Gondry?s techniques explained, and part of the fun of watching the film now is looking at how he pulls off certain tricks. What he seems to appreciate first and foremost are unlikely pairings, and the collision of Joel?s memories affords him a wide palette. It?s impressive to think that a director would go to the extent of ordering the back of a car filled with sand for a three second shot, or a bed placed on a beach in a snowstorm. They?re memorable visuals in a film about memory loss.

I saw the movie three or four times in theatres when it came out in 2004. I remember it finding me at a time in my life when everything seemed coincidental and harmonious. I mentioned the film in a chapbook that I wrote entitled ?Joel?, which also happens to be my middle name. I?ve watched the movie with a few women with a great interest in their reactions. Personally, I?ve always watched it to reaffirm the truth that love, no matter how much pain, displeasure and emotional torture it can cause, is worth it for the one memory where that other person looks blurry and vulnerable under a bed sheet, telling you something very personal and difficult on the chance that you?ll accept them anyway.

Joel and Clementine have just met at the end of Eternal Sunshine. They have heard via taped interviews about how they might end up feeling about each other. When we first meet another person, we only let them know so much about ourselves. We believe that we maintain an attraction thanks to things left unsaid. However, the more time we spend with another person, the more we want to exchange that idea of attraction for something more honest. We want to be attractive for, and perhaps in spite of, who we are.

Joel thinks that?s fine. Clementine laughs. It?s worthwhile, after all.

24 Hour Party People
½

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

- W. B. Yeats, ?The Second Coming?

A scene of any popular sort always seems to appear suddenly out of the blue. A few people sit up and take notice. A few more join them, and then a tidal wave pours over an entire city. In ?24 Hour Party People?, the city is Manchester and the scenes are punk rock and rave culture. The film looks at the progression by examining the stories of Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, both bands led by self-destructive lead singers and both facilitated by the incomparable Tony Wilson.

Tony, played with a controlled ambition by Steve Coogan, doesn?t simply break the fourth wall. He removes it from the structure of the film, attaches it to a crane and raises it high above the earth to dwell in the realm of history?s most prominent figures. Despite the chaos in his life, we can trust Tony with great ease. He knows exactly what to say at every opportunity, even when it?s not fully understood. ?This is a film about the music and the people who made the music,? he tells the camera with one eye on the road. Maybe so, but Tony is our Virgil.

On June 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols played one of their first gigs at Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. About 40 people were in the crowd. Tony leads us on a score of introductions and leaves the sense of greatness in the wake of each. The film has an appreciation for ?The Moment When Everything Changed? and Tony hunts such moments throughout, undeterred by lack of attention and turnout, reasoning that there were only 12 people at the Last Supper.

Tony?s day job is an on-air personality for Granada Television. Intercut with his efforts as band manager, record-label runner and nightclub owner is footage of his assignments as a journalist, covering decidedly non-punk rock aspects of everyday life in Manchester, including elephant grooming and sheepherding. Most importantly, Tony hosts the ?So it Goes? music show, where he claims punk rock first reached its audience in the city.

The right man sees the right gig and plays the band on television. An audience grows and a counterculture takes shape around Iggy Pop, The Jam and Siouxsie & the Banshees. Tony makes Joy Division his flagship act and calls Ian Curtis ?the musical equivalent of Che Guevara? over his open casket. His grandiose thinking gains him a nightclub and label but loses him a wife, yet he maintains an air of cool throughout.

The film covers about 16 years in the life of the Manchester scene. Civil unrest in the punk rock era makes way for drug-induced splendor and gang violence in the era of rave culture. Tony walks a thin line with confidence and a strangely applied business savvy. He turns over the security of his club, the HaÁienda, to drug-runners, who seem to be the only ones profiting from the club?s massive turnouts.

The style and editing of the film take it to a level removed from the standard biopic. Its graphics and pacing are often frenetic, mirroring the energy of a rising populous in a working-class city. People from the real-life events are peppered throughout the film and referenced. The method of direct address is never worn out because it?s consistently delivered by Coogan with the aplomb of a sober showman, a character who not only survived but controlled the scenes and recognized their impact and influence.

The portrayal of the life of Tony Wilson is exciting, dangerous, thrilling and catastrophic at once and it invites the desire to have been there and seen it all go down. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce?s references to higher culture throughout the film are both funny in their irony and completely apt. Perhaps Tony is an Icarus figure, but he certainly doesn?t seem to mind the plummet.

Shaun of the Dead
½

I spent many a night in college marathoning b-grade horror films with friends who could appreciate the kitsch value of poor makeup effects, ridiculous dialogue and outlandish premises. The zombie film was always in a class by itself. Since zombies themselves offer little in the way of complex motivation, it?s up to the living to rationalize the cause of the outbreak and how best to combat those with an unquenchable hunger for human flesh. George A. Romero was the master, always weaving a thread of social commentary to the violence and making his living characters seem like the last cognizant people on earth. The characters would always go mad in such close proximity to one another and a few would end up sacrificed. It always seemed equal parts humourous and terrifying.

?Shaun of the Dead?, which plays on the title of Romero?s second ?Dead? film, takes on the risky challenge of being both a horrifying zombie film and a hilarious comedy. It is amazing how successful it is. All of the elements are there: an outbreak occurs. The cause is never explained. A group of people end up trapped and have to fend off an incalculable number of undead, who are pounding menacingly on the windows. The people argue about the best way to survive. Some are sacrificed. A young man shoots his mother in the head after she succumbs to a bite. It?s terrifying. It?s also one of the funniest films I?ve ever seen.

The movie shifts between genres and tones with a deft precision and nearly always feels as though it?s in motion. Screenwriters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have studied the zombie film well and know which bits of business need addressing. They move to each with quick cuts of mundane details, the kind that any average middle class Londoner might have to deal with. Sure, zombies are prowling and a girl needs saving, but when nature calls it?s best to take care of it first.

Shaun (played by Pegg) has been friends with freeloading roommate Ed (Nick Frost) since childhood. Ed sits on his couch playing video games, getting up only to sell weed and hit the local pub, the Winchester. Shaun is having problems with Liz (Kate Ashfield), who wants him to finally get serious about his life. Shaun works for an appliance retailer and finds himself in combat with zombies before he has the chance to change out of his work uniform.

Subtle hints about the outbreak are dropped during the first third of the film, but Shaun is too focused on other things to notice. Wright sets up two brilliant comparative single takes where Shaun all but sleepwalks to the corner store, the second of which lends the impression that he could probably get through a typical day with his eyes closed. Zombies have a way of bringing on moments of introspection. Armed with a cricket bat, Shaun sets out to fix his relationship, come to terms with his stepfather and clear a path to the Winchester until it all blows over. And who wouldn?t want to wait out a zombie apocalypse in the place they go to escape from the daily grind?

There are others on board. Shaun?s stepdad (Bill Nighy) seems contemptuous at first but has a change of demeanour once a bite seals his fate. Shaun?s mom (Penelope Wilton) keeps a pleasant face on while her son takes charge. David (Dylan Morin of the great ?Black Books?) and Dianne (Lucy Davis) complete the ensemble, complicating survival with their true feelings. And keep an eye out for other British comedic talent including Martin Freeman in wordless cameos as doppelgangers.

The outbreak is a golden opportunity for Ed to live a video game, and as he spins a Jaguar out for no reason other than the opportunity to finally do it in real life, there?s a palpable sense of the filmmakers? joy of playing in the sandbox built by Romero and Fulci. ?Shaun of the Dead? bills itself as a romantic comedy with zombies. All involved have an undeniable respect for the zombie genre, and as funny as the film is for its first hour, it?s equally disgusting for its conclusion. Limbs are severed and entrails are strewn about in gory fashion. The payoff won?t disappoint those who have watched the ?Return of the Living Dead? series back to back to back.

Pegg and Frost make a terrific comedy duo. They are equally on fire in ?Hot Fuzz?, a send-up and homage to action-infused cop pictures. They have such respect for the honest absurdity of certain genre films that producing one this slick feels like a vindication of those late nights spent wondering how in the world certain films ever got made in the first place. This is a film for fans of those films.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

What generally separates British and American humour is the stereotype that Brits are the most distinguished of beings. While some recent American comic films have reveled in the scatological and the vindictive embarrassment of its stars, it seems funnier when a man with a British accent meets with a rain of excrement from a high castle wall. ?Anything for him but mindless good taste,? John Cleese said while eulogizing his fellow troupe member Graham Chapman after his death in 1989. Quite right.

In ?Monty Python and the Holy Grail?, Chapman plays the mythical King Arthur, who is charged by God to find said chalice. God isn?t very helpful with directions, so Arthur disperses his newly acquired Knights of the Round Table to cover more ground. They include Bedevere (Terry Jones), Galahad (Michael Palin), Robin (Eric Idle) and Lancelot (Cleese). In traditional Python style, the actors play a score of different roles that comprise a peasantry who has heard of neither Arthur nor the object of his quest, let alone this ?Britain? he speaks of.

Among these characters are a son who refuses to go through with his arranged marriage, a father looking to expand his property, a three-headed knight constantly bickering with itself, an enchanter who becomes progressively less impressive, a sadistic wizened bridgekeeper, a castle of French soldiers with an arsenal of farm animals, a determined knight who could walk off a beheading and a group of villagers determined to burn a witch. Each knight has a singular trait that is challenged by his circumstance. Will Galahad the Chaste succumb to the great peril of a castle full of young nymphets?

The Pythons? rigid efforts to mask insanity with propriety escalate their work to the level of genius. The knights ride invisible horses while their valets bang empty halves of coconuts together to simulate the sound of galloping. When a castle guard calls attention to it, Arthur dismisses the detail as unimportant. Later, Arthur and Bedevere are confronted with a mystical band of knights, proprietors of the word ?Ni?, who will not allow them passage until a shrubbery is acquired (and that?s just for starters). No matter how silly each encounter becomes, the knights must push forward and reveal the object of their search. Their dedication to their quest acts as an anchor. It is what allows the medieval universe created by the Pythons to spin out of control.

Monty Python is a venerable institution. ?Holy Grail? is the first of their films I had the opportunity to see, on a grainy VHS copy taped from a television airing over a decade ago. Finally seeing the DVD version was a small milestone in movie-watching for me. How did we ever get along without DVDs? We are slowly forgetting the days when a crisp, clean home video transfer of a film was not only a novelty but a rarity, especially on a film with such a relatively small budget.

?Holy Grail? is shot mostly on location amidst castles and landscapes in Scotland, including Castle Doune and the island castle of Stalker. It is the first of the Python films, born out of the popular ?Flying Circus? series started by the Pythons in 1971. It is also the first full-length feature directed (in part) by Terry Gilliam, the sole American member of the group, who would later move on to a successful career bending minds with films such as ?Brazil? and ?Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?. Here, Gilliam?s inventive animations, which were always a staple of the series, play an active role in the plot. How else to represent God or a dreaded black beast on this kind of money?

In one of the film?s best-written scenes, two guards attempt to understand the very simple instructions given to them by their master, interpreting the instructions every way but they way they were intended. The bit evokes classic Vaudeville and exemplifies why Monty Python were so great on stage and in small situational comedic excerpts such as those seen on ?Flying Circus?. This is the funniest of the Python films. Everything is kept focused and quick, with the ultimate intention of giving the Pythons something to react to in their knight personas.

I will not give away the results of the Round Table?s search for those who have yet to discover it, but I?ll say that it provides one of the more truly abrupt conclusions in cinematic history. I?ve watched this film with others who have produced stone-faced reactions to a lot of the humour. To find those who share the sense of humour is to establish an instant and worthwhile camaraderie. Anyone who has ever been a fan of Python knows that one either gets it or can bugger off.

The Hole
The Hole(2001)

?The Hole? begins as an engrossing mystery before descending into a particular bit of depressing murk in its second half. Its main character is a young woman who is either delusional, or calculating, or both, and because the film never firmly commits to whichever she is, it loses its footing and turns nasty.

The film opens with a bedraggled Thora Birch shuffling her way up the road to an abandoned private school. On her way, she passes posters of missing teenagers that include her image. She picks up a public phone, dials an emergency number, screams and collapses. She is brought in for analysis and we discover via a montage of news reports that the whereabouts of the missing teens has been discovered ? three of them were found dead in an abandoned war bunker. Only Liz (Birch) escaped with her life. A psychiatrist (Embeth Davidtz) working for the police implores Liz to recount the story of her disappearance and to shed some light on exactly what happened.

Liz paints a picture of being unpopular at school and conniving a scheme to get the attention of the object of her affection, an American footballer and son of a famous rock star named Mike (Desmond Harrington). The two are scheduled to go on a field trip, but Liz?s ?like a gay friend? Martyn (Daniel Brocklebank) orchestrates a getaway to the old bunker for the popular crowd, including Frankie (Keira Knightley) and Geoff (Laurence Fox).

The bunker is essentially a cold and dusty underground cement chamber with an escape hatch as its only exit point. That the electricity still works at all is a marvel. The four teenagers enjoy themselves until it?s clear that Martyn is taking his sweet time in coming back to let them out. His unrequited crush on Liz is the only possible motive. But Liz?s story doesn?t add up.

The police bring Martyn in for interrogation. He offers a much different account, but it only raises more questions. Why does Liz believe that everyone was able to escape the bunker after what she describes as nothing more than a trying few days? Why was she so ragged as the film opened? What really happened? Most importantly, why place the blame on Martyn when he could easily refute the entire account?

The movie fails to deliver more effectively on answers to these questions. We start to doubt Liz?s sanity, but because she is aware of the lies she?s telling, the story creates intrigue without suspense. There are jealousies and betrayals among the teens in the bunker, but none of them quite ring true because neither account seems to establish who these characters really are. With sets like this, character drama is everything. The payoff resorts to some pretty depraved explanations that never seem to gel into the thriller the film wants to be.

?The Hole? is fairly well acted and quite well photographed. It builds into what has the potential to be a good little mystery. But for a mystery to succeed, it needs an authoritative voice to reveal a truth from beneath lies. ?The Hole? lacks this voice. The lies that are told have no bearing on what will inevitably be discovered. And that would be fine if the liar were crazy, but the screenplay can?t decide one way or the other.

The Full Monty
½

?The Full Monty? is a film all about the great reveal, which makes up about two minutes of the film and is great indeed. How much will be revealed is a question that hangs over all that precedes it. It is a movie that must be seen more than once, especially for North Americans, who may find the sharp dialogue a little difficult to understand. I?m thinking of those like myself, who upon first viewing did not know quite what a ?monty? was, nor exactly how full it could be.

The movie opens with an old archival video created to draw business to the city of Sheffield in England. It describes the city as growing with the strength of a booming industrial economy. Flash forward 25 years. Buildings have run down, factories have all but been abandoned and Sheffield, which is shown in several overview shots, appears to be a dilapidated shell of its former productive self.

One such factory provided employment for Gaz (Robert Carlyle) and Dave (Mark Addy), who as the film opens are stealing a girder from their old workplace to sell it for some extra scratch. Gaz has his son Nathan (William Snape) in tow, a kid who seems far more grown up than his dad, who is behind in his alimony payments. After the three witness the turnout for a Chippendales performance at a local club, the enterprising Gaz sees a golden opportunity to bring in some real money.

Gaz and Dave are members of a job club with their former foreman Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), who attempts to carry himself with dignity despite not being able to tell his wife about the loss of his job. They befriend Lomper (Steve Huison), a pale, redheaded factory security guard who has lost the will to live. Soon, the men are recruiting for their own strip routine, holding auditions in the factory and watching former coworkers undress as if they?re getting ready for bed.

Two show potential: Horse (Paul Barber), who is older but still has the moves, and Guy (Hugo Speer), who is young, attractive and endowed, yet can?t quite nail the ?running up the wall? back flip. The six men stage rehearsals that go from pathetic to promising. Pressed for details, Gaz tells the two biggest gossips in town that the men will strip completely nude, which is news to the other men. There are funny scenes that showcase how uncomfortable some of the men are with their bodies and the build to the reveal hinges on the potential ramifications of the performance.

Things are so bad financially for the men that they have to steal a copy of ?Flashdance? to use as a guide to exotic dancing and there is a funny moment when Dave complains about Jennifer Beals? skills as a welder. The script is written by Simon Beaufoy, who was Oscar-nominated for this film and recently took home an award for his adaptation of ?Slumdog Millionaire?. The slang used by the characters is among some of the most elaborate I?ve heard in a British film, with expressions as inventive as ?Are you gonna just stand there while some puff?s wavin? his tackle at your Mrs.??

The performances of Carlyle, Wilkinson and Addy take the material to another level. Carlyle crackles with his particular brand of wiry energy as Gaz, who cares about his son but is still trying to shake the loser behaviour that probably ended his marriage and put him in prison. Wilkinson can always be relied on to play a man of comfortable propriety. Here, Gerald?s pride reduces him to tears ? he?s a character who has to sink lower in order to find humility and the will he needs to get back on top. Dave is in the sweet and understandable position of simply wanting to be sexy for his wife, who he fears fantasizes about much fitter men.

?The Full Monty? is a light and subtle comedy about men who feel that, in one way or another, they have lost their manhood. It?s funny because it allows them to reclaim it only by revealing it at its most biological. The final performance is hilarious, uplifting and exciting. It looks like it took guts.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
½

?The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy? is a movie of big ideas delivered in the humourous factual tone of a helpful British tour guide. Its ambition to communicate these ideas is simultaneously its greatest strength and weakness. The book, which has long been a favourite of mine and many other pop existentialists since its publication in 1979, is a wildly interesting and hilarious read. The philosophy of Douglas Adams is married to the page and the film adaptation has the tricky task of presiding over the divorce. It is, after all, a movie about a book.

The Guide itself had the jump on Wikipedia as an encyclopedia containing helpful information on everything ever conceived. Helpful, because its advice will get an interstellar traveler out of a jam ? even its cover has emblazoned upon it the words ?Don?t Panic?. Research for the Guide is conducted by field correspondents such as Ford Prefect (Mos Def). Ford has the unfortunate assignment of researching a planet about to meet its demise at the filthy hands of an army of Vogons, who are clearing a path for a hyperspace bypass.

Unfortunately for humankind, the planet is Earth. Human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) has more immediate concerns, since a construction company is about to demolish his house to make way for an interstate bypass. He has no idea of his best friend Ford?s alien status, even after saving him from trying to shake hands with an oncoming car. Ford picks up the Vogons? signal and the two hitch a ride onto one of the fleet?s ships moments before Earth is completely obliterated.

Arthur isn?t the only human left alive. There?s also Trisha McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), who Arthur met at a party and can?t stop pining over. Turns out the guy she left with actually owned a spaceship and wasn?t just delivering a clever pickup line. He is Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), president of the galaxy, who had a second head surgically added but decided to portion out only one brain. After the Vogons eject Arthur and Ford, they are picked up by Zaphod?s ship, the Heart of Gold, which is piloted on the initiation of the event least likely to occur in the universe.

To explain the intricacies and side routes of the plot would take several columns. In summary, a computer known as Deep Thought was built by a civilization to formulate the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything and, after millions of years of processing, gave the rather too succinct answer of ?42?. The four embark on a search for the Ultimate Question, mostly for Zaphod?s gratification and goal of being the most famous being to have ever existed. Along the way, they are pursued by the Vogons, who are menacing and angry but definitely stick to procedure, no matter how inconvenient.

Rockwell is a maniac in the film. He plays Zaphod like a west coast surfer hobo version of George W. Bush. Freeman plays a perfectly suitable Arthur. Alan Rickman voices the crew?s robotic sidekick Marvin, who is ever-manic depressive, though his voice never seems to quite emit from his round, expressionless face. Mos Def is a bit of a misfire for Ford, and Deschanel often looks like she?s just killing time. John Malkovich also makes a creepy appearance as a high priest for people who believe the universe was sneezed out of the nose of its creator in a sequence that was introduced for the film by Adams before he died.

There are scenes that approach brilliance, such as when Arthur is given a tour by Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) of a planet factory and the two quibble about the need to know what ?it? all means, but these are offset by scenes that seem cartoonishly staged when they should be more grounded in Adams? fascination with simple comparison. Some of the sets look fantastic, while some look like exaggerations of 50-year-old sci-fi films. I?m certain the filmmakers did the best they could with the money they had, given that a full-scale realization of the books would have been astronomical in cost.

The movie is narrated in part by Stephen Fry, who takes the audience through certain concepts as the voice of the Guide. The concepts are underscored by amusing animations, but these segments seem to drag the film?s pacing down. The book contains multiple chapters of exposition. Screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick had assistance from Adams before his death, and while his desire to include much of the book?s observations for the hardcore fans is admirable, the screenplay?s mimicry of the book?s structure actually hinders its flow.

I?m one who always enjoys seeing how a book can transfer to film. Films shouldn?t be confronted with the presumption that the written material is superior to the adaptation, for a movie can sometimes add to a story with its uniquely visual language. This is one case where I?d recommend reading the book. Instead of showing you the universe, it will get your own ideas about the universe percolating, which is what I think Adams intended in the first place.

Earth (Disneynature's Earth) (Planet Earth)
½

While watching ?Earth?, I could not shake the feeling that the film was lacking something, and it was not until the credits rolled that it hit me ? a documentary about nature photographers would be fascinating. There are unbelievable shots and angles in ?Earth? that consistently beg the question: How did they do that? The credit sequence shows a cinematographer mount a harness in a hot air balloon to get a high aerial shot of the African savanna, announcing his fear of heights. The balloon ends up in a tree and the men scramble to free themselves.

Nature documentaries have a rhythm. An exotic animal will awaken to a new hunting season. It will follow along as part of a pride. Along the way, a predator will approach and there will be a scene in which the weaker animal attempts to outrun the aggressor. We will root for its cunning and hope that it completes its journey to the watering hole, but we will react in somber respect for the order of things if the animal is caught and devoured. Human empathy is tested and the nature film massages us toward looking at our own animal instincts for differences and similarities.

These are the buttons the nature film pushes. Thousands of these programs exist. Advances in camera technology are the only way for the material to progress any farther as is. ?Earth? is comprised of many shots taken from different points high above the Earth. Some are positioned so uniquely that we aren?t sure if they are taken by satellites or manned craft. There is wondrous time-lapse photography that captures the growth and blossoming of flowers and fungi on the floors of tropical rainforests, though the film cheats a bit in the wake of such effects by using dissolves to indicate the passage of seasons.

Even so, the film contains some of the best nature footage I?ve seen. There are several wowing moments, such as when a cheetah runs down a young antelope on a desert plain. Captured in high-def and run back in slow motion, it is gorgeous and humbling to watch the two animals jockey for position, dancing with one another before pulling away. Using the same technique, another shot captures a great white shark jumping clear of ocean waters to feed ? a feat I didn?t realize was possible, running on the memories I have of ?Jaws?. Baby ducks are filmed jumping from a tree knot in flight training and their impact on the ground is given an outstanding close-up.

?Earth? follows the journey of several members of the animal kingdom, who typically have their young in tow. It is narrated by James Earl Jones, who is nearing 80 and still delivers his words with the force of God. Jokes about the Lion King aside (this is a Disney flick), his delivery is as precise and affecting as ever. While the film never dwells on climate change issues in as direct a manner as could be expected, it is objective in its approach to capturing how the environment can adversely affect wildlife and regards how the Earth?s relationship with the sun determines the seasonal process with a grand eye.

The ?Planet Earth? series, which was also commissioned by the BBC and which this film borrows from directly, may have perfected the intention of a project like this, and it may be a wiser investment of time and money for the serious viewer. I liked ?Earth? as a distillation of the wildlife found on our planet that so few of us get to see up close. It?s fine material for kids to see and brings out the wonder of the natural world that some grown-ups may have lost. But what about that guy who had to swim under whales in the Antarctic?

Moon
Moon(2009)
½

It?s been 40 years since mankind first set foot on the moon and we haven?t gone back much since. There doesn?t seem to be a lot to do there beyond whacking a few golf balls around and making tracks with a land rover. With all that blackness and dust and silence, it?s the loneliest place we?ve ever encountered. We?re far more interested in Mars nowadays. It?s certainly a jazzier colour.

I took the opportunity to see ?Moon? at the Irish Film Institute last week during a backpacking tour of Western Europe. It had been a film I?d wanted to see since I?d heard of the concept: Sam Rockwell plays a guy who?s alone on the moon, and weird stuff starts to happen to him. Sign me up. Sam Rockwell is a phenomenal actor and I was looking forward to seeing him bring the goods in an arty mind-bender that people have been comparing to ?2001″. And bring the goods he does.

What Sam Bell is doing on the moon would require a special kind of mental fortitude. He?s there for three years, mining the rock for an energy source. Every so often he sends the mined energy back to Earth in small rockets. He?s completely alone except for a computer known as Gerty, which displays different smiley faces to show its ?mood? and is voiced by Kevin Spacey in that reassuring tone that only Kevin Spacey is capable of.

Sam is all set to go home. He has two weeks left on his mission and is looking forward to seeing his wife and daughter again. Transmissions to the ship from Earth arrive on a delay, so Sam is incapable of conversing with anyone in real time except Gerty ? and himself. Driven to the brink by isolation, his mind begins to play tricks on him. One of the mining machines malfunctions. When Sam drives out of the safety of the base to check on it, he is involved in an accident, and then the film begins to develop in ways we don?t expect.

That the film is able to keep us guessing is one of its virtues, though it has a hard time finding a satisfying conclusion. With the legacy of ?2001″ behind it, Gerty appears to be the likely candidate for an antagonist. Is the machine actually in charge, going behind Sam?s back to communicate with his superiors and ready to sacrifice Sam for the good of the mission? Is Sam really seeing the things he?s seeing? One thing becomes quite apparent: He?s not alone.

If you don?t want to know who?s up there with him, I?d advise you to stop reading now.

Still there? Sam awakens from his accident, but it?s not the Sam we think it is. That Sam is still alive out in the vehicle. Eventually, the two Sams meet each other. They play ping pong. One has a bad temper and one keeps getting sicker and sicker. Each claims to be the real Sam Bell, but neither has a whole lot of proof.

?Moon? has an intriguing premise, but it balks at revealing the deeper existentialism below its surface before resorting instead to advancing the plot with tired sci-fi cliches. I wanted to get inside Sam?s head for some answers, but the film makes it impossible to find the comment on human nature that it seems to desperately want to make. The empathy we have for Sam dwindles as the movie pulls the rug out from under him.

All this said, I recommend the film for Rockwell?s performance. He plays two very different versions of the same man simultaneously, turning him into two convincingly separate characters. The film blends the alternating takes of Rockwell together so effortlessly and with such innovation that we forget it?s a trick. The sets look great and Clint Mansell?s piano-driven score is beautiful and haunting, if a bit repetitive.

Outer space has always held potential for filmmakers to explore the human condition in the midst of the greatest mystery of all. I?m all for a modern trend of sci-fi think pieces, but as good as ?Moon? is in parts, it?s not the next ?2001″. It refuses to recognize outer space as the phenomenon that has motivated the world?s space programs for decades.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Perhaps I was born 10 years too late to fully appreciate the slew of 1980?s teen comedies that formed the basis of a modern institution. I still can?t watch ?The Breakfast Club?, a John Hughes effort in an avalanche of John Hughes efforts of the day, without scratching my chin at the weird cheesiness of it all. But it?s that cheesy quality that so many teens of the era will defend to their core. These were angry white suburban kids with no outlet for acting out against their vanilla lifestyles except for impromptu and furious dance sessions. Though it seems laughable in retrospect, that passion was the lifeblood of the characters residing in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, who could never quite see themselves getting out of high school alive.

In the 1980?s, John Hughes equipped teenagers with attributes that few screenwriters have offered them since: brains, interesting opinions and a philosophical bent. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his crowning teen flick achievement ?Ferris Bueller?s Day Off?. Matthew Broderick?s Ferris Bueller remains an idol to teenagers to this day because he represents the entire package: a self-aware, inventive, smart and capable young person who believes that anything is possible. He is far savvier than any adult, especially when it comes to figuring out how to live a worthwhile life.

Cameron (Alan Ruck), Ferris? longtime friend and auto facilitator, brings gravity to Ferris? plans with his miserable attitude and skepticism. But a John Hughes film needs gravity. The lives of these kids are at turns painful and dull. One scene depicts the most out-of-touch high school teacher in cinematic history, played by the lead-voiced Ben Stein, droning on about tariffs and economics while Hughes intercuts shots of the students? faces. They appear like cattle, insensitive to what they are taught, drooling on their desks and exhibiting a wide-eyed disinterest in authority.

Cameron longs to break free of the constraints placed upon him by his parents, who are more attached to their possessions than their son. He is floating between a prescribed life in which nothing interests him and the life he catches glimpses of through his participation in Ferris? schemes. He?s a tough nut to crack. Ferris? girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) is one year farther removed from graduation and has been with Ferris long enough to take most of his actions in stride. She looks at him with amazed admiration in certain moments, but what will next year bring?

The three kids borrow Cameron?s dad?s Ferrari and skip school to spend a day wandering the streets of Chicago. They are relentlessly pursued by high school principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), but have constructed ingenious blockades to place in his path. Ferris connives, negotiates and sweet-talks his way into a dreamlike array of situations, all the while drawing us in with his personal thoughts on life and the directions it can take.

Hughes was fascinated with the moments when a teenager has to start making their own decisions about who they are as people. In Ferris? case, his moments are so carefully orchestrated in advance that he seems to have figured himself out in grade school. He relates his thoughts on the institutions of school, marriage and adulthood only to the audience. This is one of the great examples of the broken fourth wall in movies. Ferris is engaging and funny. Broderick plays him not as the cocky know-it-all whose downfall we root for, but as an accomplice to our enjoyment of his adventures. He is a master letting us in on his tested techniques.

Adults in Hughes? films typically fit into one of two categories. They are either completely totalitarian figures out to enforce their own strict upbringing on the youth or they are completely dense and unsusceptible to the world around them now that they have grown up, purchased houses and cars and found well-paying but mind-numbing jobs as real estate agents and financial consultants. Both inhabit the world of Ferris Bueller, who can?t imagine following in the footsteps of either. He is a suburban Moses, determined to lead his people to a promised land of hedonism and free thought.

The true magic of watching ?Ferris Bueller?s Day Off? can be found when it?s caught on TV in the middle of a sick day, honest or otherwise. Under these conditions, it affords the opportunity to live vicariously through Ferris on our own days off. It?s a movie I hadn?t watched to completion for years because I?d always catch it in chunks while flipping through channels. It works well in segments because Hughes is always interested in executing single ideas within the same scene, no matter how off-the-wall they seem to become.

Watching the movie from beginning to end, it takes a turn into the incredibly dark from its jovial, eye-winking introduction. In one way or another, the kids of Shermer are ticking time bombs waiting for the opportunity to go off. Cameron?s sour exterior may be funny on its own for a time, but Hughes makes sure to build some strong psychological issues into the character for the moment when he will inevitably snap. As with most of Hughes? films, there is a depressing sense that adults have failed, and the emotional impact is devastating to the teens.

These are not the kinds of kids we have seen in teen films of recent memory. Hughes captured the anger of the youth at a time when the idolization of money in the adult world was just starting to point teens down a path of soullessness. Nowadays, kids play distractedly within the rules set out for them by technology and advertising. They aren?t expecting grown-ups to lead them much of anywhere, so they?re never let down. It?s too bad more kids these days aren?t taking a day off to take a good hard look at life. Twenty years after Ferris Bueller graduated, it?s moving faster than ever.

Funny People
Funny People(2009)
½

The mind of the stand-up comedian has long fascinated me. The good ones seem to have a better handle on life than most. It?s amazing what a little honesty can bring out in an audience, who will react with great appreciation to an observation that has never been made before. Each comedian walks a thin line between sympathy and empathy with their act. A misstep can silence a room and ruin an evening. The right balance can strike a chord of revelation. The movements a comedian makes on stage create the illusion of being spontaneous when they are anything but. Telling a joke correctly takes precision and practice.

The problem with ?Funny People?, which is a film about stand-up comedians, is its unwillingness to reflect the comedians? precision in its execution. Its funnier moments are when its characters are on stage trying to make people laugh and either succeeding or failing miserably. But it spends so much time meandering around that I was expecting the hook about halfway into its way-too-long 2 and a half hour running time.

The movie stars Adam Sandler as a version of himself and contains actual footage of Sandler from very early in his career. I?ve been watching Sandler?s movies for as long as he?s been making them. ?Happy Gilmore? was one of my favourites as a teenager. Over a decade later, Sandler still finds cause to dip into a bag that has long since become threadbare yet continues to be profitable for him. By now he has a somewhat extensive back catalogue of films in which he plays characters with silly voices doing immature things.

I believe he still has a good time making those movies. George Simmons (Sandler), on the other hand, is tiring of the movies he?s made. Early in the film he is told that he is dying from a form of leukemia. He becomes depressed and begins to notice just how alone his celebrity has made him. Looking back at old videos, he remembers how great it felt to do stand-up when he started out, so he makes a return to the club circuit. He meets comedian Ira Wright (played by a decidedly slimmer Seth Rogen), a young guy just starting out in L.A., who pokes fun at George?s depression and impresses George enough to become his personal assistant.

Ira sleeps on a sofabed in an apartment he shares with his two friends Leo (Jonah Hill) and Mark (Jason Schwartzman). Mark is starting to make some real money as an actor on a WB kids sitcom called ?Yo, Teach!? The conversations the roommates have revolving around the nature of show business feel pulled from a different, funnier movie.

It?s not that Sandler does a bad job with what he has here. I?m an advocate for his non-silly voice roles. He was brilliant in Paul Thomas Anderson?s ?Punch Drunk Love? and I?m glad to see him taking another different step, but George is largely flat, sour and uninteresting. He is still in love with a woman he almost married. Laura (Leslie Mann) has moved on, has two kids and is married to a spiritual Australian wannabe footballer named Clarke (Eric Bana). The plot becomes about George?s quest to win Laura back, mostly out of his self-centredness and a fear of being alone.

The material performed onstage by George and Ira is an extension of their hang-ups. Whereas George has always wanted to make his father laugh, Ira feels insecure about his lovelife. Amidst the profanity and odd sexual observations is their drive to communicate the way they have to navigate themselves to get by. The film spends hardly any time diagnosing its characters? need to be funny and devotes too much to its wandering commitment to relationship melodrama. There?s no powerful sense of a connection between their daily lives and their material.

The movie does have its bright spots. Leslie Mann puts in the performance of her career so far and Eric Bana makes a rare showing of his comedic side. In fact, I can?t say a bad thing about any of these actors. There is simply a funnier and perhaps more touching story to be told about how comedy and the entertainment industry affects the lives and motivates the psychologies of comedians. These people are funny, true, but by the end of ?Funny People? I wanted to know more about how they are funny.

Midnight Cowboy
½

?Midnight Cowboy? opens with a shot of a drive-in movie screen and pulls out to reveal it sitting in a vast, open stretch of California desert. It?s an appropriate image in a film about images. The western was the go-to genre for studios in the early days of cinema. Hundreds of westerns were produced every year; John Wayne made nearly 70 in the 1930?s. By the time the western genre had all but run its course with original scenarios, the west had long been turned into a machine for sustaining the image of real men.

The protagonist of ?Midnight Cowboy?, a naive hustler with the generic moniker of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), is a caricature of the decades of legendary silver screen figures on horseback, inserted into a frontier he was never envisioned to challenge. The frontier he seeks is back east in New York City where he believes he can make a successful living as a male prostitute for women, but he is so far removed from the cowboy heroes he emulates that his look and accent are fetishized by a mostly male clientele. ?I ain?t a for-real cowboy,? he makes a point of announcing, ?but I am one hell of a stud.?

In New York, Joe meets Rico ?Ratso? Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a different breed of hustler with a limp and an addiction to painkillers. Ratso steals and takes advantage of people where he can to get by, including Joe, who he eventually invites into his home and offers to manage once it becomes clear that Joe?s optimism does little for his business savvy. The two are an unlikely pairing but offset one another so perfectly that we can?t see them functioning without the other. This is in credit to both Voight and Hoffman, who wear their characters as though they?re the only suits they own.

Joe has a past that is hinted at in black and white and colour flashbacks. We get the sense that he was a victim of child abuse at the hands of his grandmother and that her perverse twisting of religion brought a violent end to Joe?s relationship with a girlfriend he refers to as ?Crazy Annie?. Editor Hugh A. Robertson brilliantly weaves together Joe?s past, present and possible futures in sequences that bring his thought processes to life. In Joe, we have a character who is constantly tormented by his sense of direction, and it generates great interest in where he will go next.

Released in 1969, ?Midnight Cowboy? explores the use of drugs in the era to reach an alternate state of consciousness for greater understanding. The film?s best scene takes place at a party that looks as though it?s hosted by Andy Warhol. Amidst the drug use and open sexuality of the environment, photographers and filmmakers circle the room and capture the attendees on video, presenting the image of each as a product of the time. Formerly portrayed as an anachronism, Joe is revealed as nothing more than an identity produced by the cinema that he adopts for lack of a better understanding of himself.

Ratso?s desire to head to Florida comes out of his own idea of a frontier where he can simply relax and cater to the whims of an older generation who were able to live the American Dream and retire in their golden years. He talks of his father, an illiterate hunchback who spent years as a shoe-polisher and was so dirty by the time of his death that the undertaker had to bury him wearing gloves. Hoffman?s character is a sweating, animalistic mess who appears so disheveled and unkempt that a dentist might turn him away in disgust. In his fantasies, he can outrun Joe on the beach, cook delicious meals and announce bingo results to seniors with aplomb.

?Midnight Cowboy? bravely subverts the cinematic figure of the mythic cowboy hero and reveals it as an irrelevant bar to continue setting for integrity and masculinity in America. The late 60?s were a time of great change in American cinema. Films such as this and ?Easy Rider? exploded ideals that until the counter-cultural movement were held in esteem by a movie-going public. It influenced directors such as Gus Van Sant and Ang Lee to continue to do so in its wake.

What does a film like this achieve? It colours more honestly a portrait of good, clean living with shades of abuse and perversion. By exploring the psychology and openly questioning the sexuality of its protagonist, it gets at a truth under a veneer of false morality. Joe Buck is a hero, but he?s a hero of a different sort, carrying his injuries lovingly in his arms as a new frontier reflects on the windows of the bus he rode in on.

500 Days of Summer
½

The last few years have seen a string of, for lack of a better term, ?hipster?-oriented comedies that feature a depressed young person working their way through a childlike naivety to achieve a better sense of themselves. I think chiefly of ?Garden State?, the film that confirmed that the market for such stories was there and that many twentysomethings were eager to see the cinema lend them some real attention. ?Garden State? was an exceptional film, presenting an often unique visual style that reverberated in its performances.

Now we have ?500 Days of Summer?, and again, its style makes it a far more effective and emotional film than it would otherwise have the right to be. It?s a film about a relationship that goes sour, so sour that to tell it from beginning to end would appear spiteful. Instead, the narrative cuts back and forth in the chronology of the relationship, beginning somewhere near the end before whirling back to the beginning and cutting intermittently to the middle.

In chronological order, the story goes something like this: Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) works at a greeting card company, where he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel). They begin dating. Summer doesn?t want a relationship, but Tom falls in love anyway. She encourages him to pursue architecture, his passion and chosen field. They?re good together. They go through a rough patch, but reach a temporary resolution. Then the relationship ends, for reasons I won?t divulge, since the movie tries hard to keep its climax under wraps.

Outlining the entire relationship doesn?t give the film away. We know from the beginning what?s coming, since the days appear numbered on the screen at intervals to let us know how far along Tom is in his fixation with Summer. We know it will come to an end, one way or another. The system of keeping track becomes confusing only occasionally, which is bound to happen given the temporal elasticity.

Setting up the film like this accomplishes two things. First, it always draws the attention of the viewer to the fate of the couple. Second, it colours scenes that we would normally process differently. For instance, a scene in which Tom and Summer are fooling around in IKEA is preceded by one in the future, in which they are in the same IKEA but definitely in lower spirits. As such, the joy of the happy scene is compromised.

We know that their story is a disaster. The film?s narrator warns that this is not a love story, which is slightly misleading. Tom is in love. He?s simply too young and inexperienced to comprehend Summer?s actions. Raised on a diet of Hollywood films as a child, he can?t bring himself to believe Summer when she tells him that love is only a fantasy. Five hundred days is not a long time, but it can be a lifetime in the mind of a young man trying to figure out a girl who seems to go against the status quo.

The film includes inspired scenes that raise it above the average romantic comedy. They include a scene at a party that is filmed in split screen, with the playing out of Tom?s expectations on one side and the reality of the situation on the other. Director Marc Webb, another modern filmmaker who found a start working on music videos, makes some varied and distinct visual choices that bring his first feature-length film to life. Zooey Deschanel plays Summer at just the right level of unattainability, always leaving Tom wanting more for good reason. And I have a feeling I?ll be kneeling at the altar of Joseph Gordon-Levitt for a long time to come. He?s been impressing me since ?Brick? and his first real breakout role must be right around the corner.

?500 Days of Summer? is not flawless. There are times when Tom is just too wimpy to garner much sympathy, and it?s a disappointment to find out that Summer is even more calculating than she seems, to the point where her actions don?t seem to flow naturally from the girl Tom gets to know. The story steps a little too far when it?s unwarranted. But it?s told with a mad scramble of reasoning that only a broken-hearted young man who will eventually be just fine could muster.

My Dinner with Andrť

Recently I made a resolution to own and review more Criterion editions of films and I?ve made plans to purchase one a month. This month?s is Louis Malle?s ?My Dinner with Andre?, though attributing it as the property of its director would do a great disservice to screenwriters Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who also play the film?s main characters. It had been a few years since I?d seen it, and while it unfolds in a simple and unforgettable format ? two men sit in a restaurant and talk ? I had forgotten exactly what about their discussions had made it such a fascinating oddity in the back of my mind.

The film opens with shots of Wally traveling across New York City to meet Andre for dinner. Wally is a meek and nervous playwright who spends his days performing the errands of the playwright who hasn?t yet had a success. He has a girlfriend and worries about paying his bills. Andre is a former colleague and close friend of Wally?s. Once a successful theater director, Andre all but disappeared from the country and the two haven?t seen each other for years. Stories have been circulating about Andre?s recent strange behaviour and emotional instability. A friend insists that Wally meet with Andre, who was discovered weeping against a wall after viewing an Ingmar Bergman movie. ?He had been seized by a fit of ungovernable crying,? Wally explains, ?when the character played by Ingrid Bergman had said, ?I could always live in my art, but never in my life.??

Andre appears excited and refreshed as the two men sit down to dinner in a fancy restaurant. After pleasantries are exchanged, he begins to tell Wally stories about his travels to Tibet, northern Scotland and the Sahara, relating his strange experiences abroad while Wally sits in awe, never quite knowing what to add. Indeed, for the first half of the film, Wally sits nearly silent, offering only small bits of insight and trivia that cannot possibly be latched to Andre?s wild tales of being buried alive and traveling with 40 non-English speaking Polish thespians into a forest as an exercise to rediscover his interest in the theater.

Eventually, however, the crux of the conversation comes about and the playing field is evened. Andre has been desperately trying to figuratively wake himself up from what he views as a life of tedium and mechanical action. Wally opens up more and more as they discuss themes of loneliness, love, art, existentialism and what it means to live a worthwhile life. The conversation flows eloquently and the men seem to always be dancing close to a series of great discoveries before they move on to new territory. Small, humourous bits of irony are injected when the waiter approaches at certain moments. The conversation feels free-flowing, but there is a precise attention to detail that envelopes its audience.

What makes the conversation especially fascinating are the obvious character differences, both in their physical appearances and their thoughts on existence. Wally enjoys his comfortable life. He likes a cold cup of coffee ready to sip when he wakes up in the morning. He enjoys his electric blanket and reading the autobiography of Charlton Heston. Andre believes that humanity is becoming too attached to its comforts and that they are becoming pushovers politically as a result. As his arguments bring Wally out of his shell, we admire Wally for his honesty and simple way of expressing himself, while Andre?s observations continue to amaze.

Andre?s stories put the film on the level of many an action blockbuster. His dialogue is delivered with the focus and attention to detail of a storyteller that has an entire room hanging on his every word. Images of his descriptions leap to the mind and build an impression of Andre?s world better than special effects ever could because they are presented with the passionate belief of a man who has just found religion. The film?s screenplay was pieced together by the men based on conversations the two shared in life and recorded. Beginning with a 1,500 page script, the film was carefully pared down to its essential themes by Shawn, Gregory and Malle.

?My Dinner with Andre? is as current in its exploration of human connection today as it was 30 years ago, and that?s a scary fact to admit. So many of us get older and find it nerve-wracking or even a waste of time to sit down with another person and have an honest and direct conversation about how we are living our lives, more than likely because we?re afraid we?re not getting it right. Life is the most fascinating and most important topic of conversation there is.

Perhaps we are afraid of talking about life because it is inevitably entangled with the subject of death. The modest Wally observes: ?If I understood it correctly, I think Heidegger said that if you were to experience your own being to the full, you would be experiencing the decay of that being toward death as part of your experience.? If we are able to live only in art, our guaranteed fate in life will take us by surprise, slowly and tragically. There is no shame in trying to understand it.

The Time Traveler's Wife
½

The problem with time-travel movies is that the paradoxes can sometimes overwhelm the narrative. That can be fine if the narrative has fun with the paradoxes, a la ?Back to the Future? and ?Bill and Ted?s Excellent Adventure?. But those are different films from ?The Time Traveler?s Wife?, which presents an interesting circumstance but is such a downer that I wished a good, old-fashioned paradox would turn its frown upside down.

I know. It?s unfair to compare ?The Time Traveler?s Wife? with ?Back to the Future?. One?s a drama and one?s a comedy. One character travels in a DeLorean and the other is the DeLorean. One film is about a relationship between two people who have found each other and are trying to avoid the circumstances that lead to one character?s death, and the other stars Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana.

Henry (Bana) suffers from the unusual condition of ?chrono-impairment?, which causes him to time travel at inopportune moments. The film is not clear about what causes Henry?s episodes, but alcohol, television and stress seem to be frontrunning candidates. When Henry time travels, he disappears into thin air and leaves his clothes behind, which is quite an inconvenient side effect when he materializes in the past.

One day Henry is at work when a young woman approaches him and tells him that she has known him all her life. She is Clare (McAdams) and she claims that Henry has been visiting her since childhood. This is news to Henry, but not impossible, since she seems to know about and understand his condition. She has kept a diary of his appearances, and sure enough, Henry begins making the trips back in time to see her. While he can?t control where he travels, he is often swept back to places in his life where big events occur, such as the death of his mother in a car crash.

The big question of any time-travel film is of course whether or not fate can be altered, and ?The Time Traveler?s Wife? doesn?t even attempt to provide a satisfactory answer. Henry mentions that nothing he does to change the future works and that events happen despite his actions, but we never see him giving it a go. He was able to convince Clare that he was from the future. Couldn?t he have dropped a hint to his mother to take the bus instead?

Henry and Clare go through the predetermined motions of their relationship, but I was never quite sure why they were in love with each other. He appreciates that she understands him and can tolerate his jumps, one of which occurs during their wedding with humourous results. But what about Clare? How does she become attracted to a grown man who appears to her at six years old like a pervert out of the trees?

Clare grows to love Henry for almost 20 years, yet once they are married their relationship becomes strained. All she wants is a bit of normalcy in their relationship, and so did I. The movie is so obsessed with Henry?s condition that it forgets to fill in the blanks of its main characters? affection for one another.

I read the Audrey Niffenegger novel a few years ago and remember enjoying it. It reads with the twinkle of a promising cinematic treatment. The film is indeed inventive in capturing what it?s like for Henry to jump from time period to time period, and there is a melancholy poetry to certain scenes. Bana in particular puts in a fine performance as Henry, a guy who?s long since gotten used to time?s immateriality.

Bruce Joel Rubin?s script chooses to follow the couple in as fluent a timeline as possible, from the beginning of their relationship as adults until the end, in order to keep from confusing the audience. This makes a certain amount of sense given that the structure of the novel might be a jumbled mess on film, but that?s what makes the novel work, in part. Robert Schwentke?s adaptation flips through the scenes like a deck of cards, never daring to shuffle them too much for fear of being caught cheating.

But that?s the fun in watching time-travel movies. They have to cheat. Time travel raises all sorts of questions and the successful time-travel film tries its best to answer them. ?The Time Traveler?s Wife? is more content to sit back and brood about how unfortunate it all is.

Singles
Singles(1992)
½

I really can‚??t put my finger on what I enjoy about ‚??Singles‚??. It‚??s a movie I watch at least once a year. When I finally started renting an apartment all to myself last summer, I put the movie on just so I could hear Kyra Sedgwick‚??s character talk about how good it felt to finally have her own place for the first time. It‚??s got some pretty great dialogue that has helped ease the pain of breakups. But there are unbearably dated parts to the film as well. It attempts to capture grunge-era Seattle, but I feel like it fails miserably, instead presenting the stories of a group of wannabe yuppies who work at coffeeshops yet can afford one-bedroom apartments just outside of Seattle‚??s downtown core.

The film is about single people in Seattle trying to find happiness in relationships. Most of their hangups are quaint. None of these people put in particularly bad performances. I quite like Steve, played by actor Campbell Scott, a guy who‚??s never gotten his due. He has an everyman quality to him that exudes stability and reassurance, even when he‚??s wigging out over his relationship with Linda (Sedgwick). But nothing about these people screams the disillusionment and anger that came along with growing up as part of Generation X.

Cliff (Matt Dillon) is the goof of a leather-wearing rocker frontman for the band Citizen Dick, whose single ‚??Touch Me I‚??m Dick‚?? is a nod to Mudhoney. Unfortunately, Cliff is no Mark Arm. He attempts to string together passionate lines about ‚??the anthems of our youth‚??, yet he‚??s not smart enough to finish the thought. All of the rockers in ‚??Singles‚??, which is a film set in the early 90‚??s grunge mecca, look like hair-band refugees. There‚??s not really a stitch of flannel in sight.

The soundtrack, which does feature acts such as Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, also features the oddly predominant presence of Paul Westerberg. Because when you‚??re making a movie about the Seattle scene, Paul Westerberg‚??s post-Replacements adult contemporary pop rock is less a requirement than an absolute must. Nirvana is nowhere to be found in the film. Kurt Cobain didn‚??t want to be associated with it, and it‚??s hard to argue with him in light of the final result.

‚??Singles‚?? features some amusing cameos from the likes of Paul Giamatti, Tim Burton, Jeremy Piven and Tom Skerritt. Bill Pullman is also on board as a breast enhancement surgeon. It seems that Janet (Bridget Fonda) can‚??t get Cliff to notice her perfectly fine body, since he‚??s caught up in trying to live the sex lifestyle of an expired stereotype. Debbie (Sheila Kelly) has resorted to using a video dating service to meet guys, most of whom look to be the most disturbing men on the planet.

Now, I‚??ve made some pretty backhanded observations about the film, but I have to recommend it. I loved the streets, the rain, the general atmosphere of Seattle captured by writer/director Cameron Crowe. The music is decent overall, particularly the haunting beauty of Chris Cornell‚??s ‚??Seasons‚??. Campbell Scott is terrific in his role. The scene where he gets drunk and calls Linda from a phonebooth at a club while people pound on the door thinking it‚??s a bathroom is great stuff.

The main problem with ‚??Singles‚?? is that it wants to be about both relationships and music, but it can‚??t be both because the two never quite gel. The people in the relationships would never listen to the kind of music they listen to. Linda cries over a guy in front of a wall spray-painted with Mother Love Bone graffiti, but there‚??s no sense that she‚??d have any idea who Mother Love Bone were, and that should have been important.

‚??Singles‚?? is an early effort from Crowe, who clearly has a passion for both music and relationships and made a much better movie about both with ‚??Almost Famous‚??. Here, his dialogue runs the gamut between smart and contrived. My complaints aside, the script offers great moments. There are also moments that show potential for getting at the heart and soul of the Seattle scene but they‚??re cut down too quickly. ‚??Where is the ‚??Misty Mountain Hop‚??, where is the ‚??Smoke on the Water‚??, where is the ‚??Iron Man‚?? of today?‚?? Cliff asks. Don‚??t go looking for it in this film.

Ponyo
Ponyo(2009)
½

I should definitely preface this review by acknowledging that I have no real interest in anime. Too often I find that the characters are portrayed lifelessly, their features exaggerated or drawn unrealistically to the point where they are unable to express emotion. When you add this to the fact that American actors have to overdub the original Japanese and occasionally lose something in the translation, I find that these films border on impenetrable. I can?t engage with them.

?Ponyo? is my first experience with Miyazaki, the acclaimed Japanese writer/director of films such as ?Howl?s Moving Castle?, ?Spirited Away? and ?My Neighbor Totoro?. Perhaps there is something in those films that I only caught glimpses of in ?Ponyo?, an overly unusual story containing several extraordinary visual sequences. It is perhaps best described as a Darwinian acid flashback.

Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus) is a human-fish hybrid, the offspring of a wizard named Fujimoto and a goddess named Gran Mamare (providing obvious implications). Fujimoto is a human who grew sick and tired of the world and found a new life in the ocean, where he conducts scientific experiments and has invented potions that enable him to reverse evolution. He is voiced by Liam Neeson. The goddess is voiced by Cate Blanchett. When we first see her, she is the size of the Empire State Building and swims just under the surface of the water, but she is able to change her form. A good thing, too, because I couldn?t even begin to imagine their lovemaking otherwise.

Ponyo escapes from her underwater home to dry land and is caught by Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a young boy living with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) in a house on a cliff in a little Japanese port town. Lisa works at a seniors centre near Sosuke?s school. One of the seniors notices that Ponyo has a human face and accurately predicts that it will bring on a tsunami.

Ponyo?s magic enables her to grow limbs and her affection for Sosuke causes her to turn her back on the ocean entirely. This upsets the balance of nature, and there is an unbelievably breathtaking sequence in which Lisa and Sosuke attempt to drive home in a storm that drowns the entire town. It seems that Ponyo?s magic is bringing the moon closer to the earth, so the tides are rising to unprecedented levels in its increased gravitational pull.

All of this would be adorable if there was any real connection between Ponyo and Sosuke, since their love is supposedly what will restore the balance. Simpleminded and almost abrasive in her exuberance, Ponyo comes off as more of a magical pet than a person. She lacks the coherent desire of a Pinocchio to find her humanity, and that?s what keeps ?Ponyo? from reaching its full potential.

The movie inventively showcases humanity?s effect on the natural world. Fujimoto?s misanthropy is rooted in our treatment of the oceans. He strikes back impressively with waves that turn into enormous schools of fish and takes refuge in underwater domes. The small details are where Miyazaki?s technique really shines. His fascination with physics is apparent in every rushing stream of water, every spawned jellyfish and every bubble joining a new pocket of air.

There is something to be appreciated about this style of animation after all. I was very struck by how the flow of the natural world was captured, if less so by the characters interacting with it. If these characters were made as real as the world they inhabit, Miyazaki would have a more complete picture. As is, he provides an ambitious narrative about how we remain connected to our origins and how that connection is threatened by our disinterest.

Reservoir Dogs
½

‚??Reservoir Dogs‚?? is a bloody, profane, rough-around-the-edges film featuring fantastic character actors bullying one another for 100 minutes. It mostly takes place in a warehouse used to store funereal items, deserted all but for some caskets and a hearse wrapped in plastic, ready to receive the outcome of the film‚??s violent climax. It is the first film Quentin Tarantino unleashed on the world after spending years as a fan of movies. The influence of Scorsese and Kurosawa can almost be seen bouncing off the cold cement walls of the death house the director creates.

But Tarantino brought something wholly new to cinema in the early 1990‚??s. His films attracted big names and won him the admiration of highly respected performers, all clamoring to be involved in his projects. While Tarantino would not see incredible renown until 1994‚??s ‚??Pulp Fiction‚??, ‚??Reservoir Dogs‚?? establishes the Tarantino template: Scenes of great violence are complimented with scenes of pop culture verbal minutia rather than the uniformly tough practices and attitudes of noir gangsters and mafia dons solemnly married to family tradition.

We get that these men are tough. They are products of a crime syndicate with its talons in the city. They follow the grand style of criminals trying to skirt the law in plots with schemes that can‚??t fail, but we are given an even greater look at their tipping habits in restaurants and their more-than-passing interests in music and film. Tarantino has a taste for the small detail, recognizing that the larger ones have already been established by the films he grew up admiring.

‚??Reservoir Dogs‚?? isn‚??t so much self-aware as it is hyper-aware of its cinematic environment. Most of Tarantino‚??s characters speak a more modern language tailored to the movie-goer, and they are offset against the likes of the fiercely old school Lawrence Tierney. Tierney plays Joe, an aging mob boss archetype with legitimate and illegitimate businesses to run. He assembles a team of criminals to rob a jewelry store. To play the heist safe, he gathers men who don‚??t know each other and assigns each a pseudonym.

The men include Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) and Mr. Brown (Tarantino). The late Chris Penn plays Nice Guy Eddie, Joe‚??s son and second in command. After the film opens with the men sitting around a restaurant table discussing the meaning behind Madonna‚??s ‚??Like a Virgin‚?? and the politics behind tipping, the film cuts to a shot of Mr. Orange bleeding to death in the backseat of a car with Mr. White at the wheel.

The heist goes terribly wrong. One of the men is an undercover cop, and since even the men aren‚??t allowed to find out too much information about one another, every scene carries the weight of significance. ‚??Reservoir Dogs‚?? plays with linear narrative via flashbacks capped with interstitials to answer certain questions when they need to be answered. The actual event of the heist is never shown ‚?? only its aftermath and certain events leading up to it.

By choosing what to show and when to show it, Tarantino distorts our perception of what transpires and contrasts violent scenes with non-violent scenes in order to avoid desensitizing the viewer. The film is famous for a scene in which a cop is tortured in the warehouse by Mr. Blonde, who severs the officer‚??s ear before dousing him in gasoline, all set to the tune of ‚??Stuck in the Middle with You‚?? by Stealers Wheel. The actual act of the ear-cutting isn‚??t shown on screen, but the sickness of what transpires is heightened by the near-jovial tone set by both the music and the scenes that bookend it, like a blood splatter on a black and white suit.

Tarantino is fascinated by character motivation. He takes an unrepentant shine toward the operation of the criminal mind in his films, recognizing the audience‚??s well trained need to see good triumph over evil and twisting it. We root for the good guys, but the lines are blurred by circumstance. Mr. White is a compassionate character, stroking the face of the dying Mr. Orange and repeating reassurances. This is the same man who is able to look at himself in the mirror and assert a ‚??them or me‚?? philosophy when it comes to killing.

In spite of Tarantino‚??s themes becoming more cinematic and even esoteric at times, his scripts would become better suited to actors. For its budget, ‚??Reservoir Dogs‚?? is a remarkable achievement. It is an actor‚??s film, and while each actor puts in a great performance, they sometimes seem overcome with the dialogue. The taste of something brand new is always on their tongues.

The Hurt Locker

‚??The Hurt Locker‚?? is a relentless Iraq war drama that strives for authenticity by adopting a gritty look and placing relative unknowns in its principle roles. Michael Bay this ain‚??t, and thank goodness for that. It stars Jeremy Renner as a bombs expert named Will James, who has defused over 800 explosive devices ‚?? 873, to be exact. He‚??s taking over duty from a former staff sergeant who died in an incident involving the ill performance of a bomb robot. James is of the mind that if you take the robot out of the equation, you take out a problematic element.

James all but charges to disarm the devices, showing little regard for his men‚??s comprehension of his actions and his own skin. At one point he removes his suit while reasoning that he‚??d rather ‚??die comfortable.‚?? Eliminating options for the location of a detonator, he strips down a burned-out car from back to front with the concentration of a surgeon, talking to himself all the way.

There‚??s a lot going on in James‚?? head. As the film builds by piling on scenario after scenario, we get different tastes of James‚?? motivation and recognize that his behaviour is that of an addict. There are several scenes in which James has no bomb to defuse, but he is no less intent on achieving the directives he sets for himself at all costs. It creates a fascinating dynamic between James and his men, who ponder killing James at turns and follow him into darkness at others.

For the first half of the film, James registers the consequences of his actions in two degrees: Either the bomb goes off, or it doesn‚??t. There are always Iraqis on the sidelines, watching from rooftops and balconies. Some present no threat and some are detrimental to the success of the soldiers‚?? efforts. The camera cuts to them quickly and lets the questions hang as the men try to provide James with cover. Each situation is fueled by a kind of delirium brought on by the sun, heat and stress.

As Bravo Company completes its stay, the conflicts they enter are given a more human face. Mark Boal‚??s screenplay never stretches for these moments. Consider the moment in the abandoned building. The men find a bloodied body lying on a table, but there‚??s something off about it. The scene is powerful in its grotesqueness, but Renner plays it just right, performing his job with a dedication tinged with horror, so it doesn‚??t seem exploitative or gratuitous.

At James‚?? side are Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The three men act as a think tank, providing the viewpoints necessary to fully analyze each situation. James has the kind of gung-ho, cocky and mechanical personality that defusing 873 bombs would instill. Eldridge is in counseling and asks permission before he fires on the enemy. Sanborn‚??s tough exterior is slowly eroding. He can‚??t stand James‚?? ability to shut the world off, but he envies him at the same time. The men get drunk and punch one another for the feeling of it after spending entire days doing battle and never knowing death.

The movie brings up the question of what it takes to do what James does. Back home, he has a son and a complicated relationship with his ex-wife. He keeps his wedding ring among souvenirs from defused bombs in a locker under his bed, expressing his great interest in grabbing a piece of something that could or has caused him harm. Defusing bombs is what James does. He‚??s a robot that never malfunctions. Without a task, he suits no purpose.

Kathryn Bigelow shows great skill in her execution, always letting her shots linger until the right emotion jumps from them. Her camera is always where it needs to be. ‚??The Hurt Locker‚?? is receiving much acclaim for being a sleeper action picture, and it is, but there is more to it than its moments of tension and violence. It is smart enough to refrain from depicting its soldiers as outwardly righteous. These are disturbed men performing disturbing tasks. Like the great war movies, it makes us question how anyone could stay sane under such conditions. It looks for humanity in the chaos of war and finds it burning alive.