Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lust, Caution, Three hours of my Life... Out this coming Tuesday, the 19th. (******6/10)

Lust, Caution is the newest movie from the man who may well be the most over-rated director this side of M. Night Shyamalan. Ang Lee, the celebrated director of the magnificent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has followed up that triumph with three movies which, while decent, were decidedly over-rated. The Hulk, in which Eric Bana rips off his shirt and becomes giant and green, was a nice new take on the comic book genre, but it was far from revolutionary. Lee followed that one up with Brokeback Mountain, which scored far more points for it's subject matter and for the guts it took to make the project a major Hollywood film, than it did for actual quality. A good film, but not as great as people seem to think. And now we get Lust, Caution. Another film that took guts, another film that pushes boundaries, but not exactly Earth-shattering. (I say he is less over-rated than M. Night Shyamalan, because Lee continues to at the very least make good movies. Shyamalan, since the Sixth Sense and maybe Unbreakable, has blown chunks. His movies have been downright rotten.)

The premise of Lust, Caution is that it is 1942, in the middle of World War II. The Japanese have occupied China since the late 30s, and the story takes place in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. Tang Wei plays a woman who used to be a college student, and is a part of the resistance fighting the occupation. This is now a collaborative occupation, with both Japanese and Chinese officials cracking down on the populace. Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) is an official in this oppressive government, a man who has risen through the ranks by being brutal and sadistic, torturing people and smoking out the reactionaries. One of those reactionaries is Tang Wei. Her assignment is to infiltrate the collaborationist government by becoming Mr. Lee's lover. And she achieves that goal with considerable success. She is young and beautiful, and quickly catches his eye. Tang Wei is expected to be able to bring about a situation where Mr. Lee can be assassinated by the reactionaries, she is not expected to do it herself.

We do not see the atrocities being committed by Mr. Lee in the movie. Therefore, the only way Ang Lee chooses to show his sadism is through sex. And there is a lot of sex. Dirty, GRAPHIC sex. This film famously got an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and while I almost never agree with the MPAA, this is one of the few times I actually understand them. The sex becomes the central character in the story, as Tang Wei begins the relationship reluctant to give up her virginity, and then the two graduate to more and more S&M flavoured relations. Mr. Lee begins to show more and more of his true nature, and as he does so, Wei begins to become more and more intertwined with him. She still hates him, but like the Brokeback Mountain cowboys, she can't quit him. By the way, although the sex is graphic, and could possibly be titillating to some, it was not the sadistic quality of it that put me off, it was the bushy armpit hair. Tough to enjoy a sex scene when all you're looking at is armpits.

At any rate, the film is, once again, quite good. But not great, not classic, not wonderful. As always, Ang Lee shows he is terrific with the camera. The shots he uses are breathtaking, and he has an eye for photographing sex with the best of them. But this movie is LONG. And by the time it is over, any connection we have built up with the characters has turned into something of a disconnect simply because of the length. And because there are so many sex scenes, and the sex is really what drives the movie, those are the main basis we have for even knowing the Mr. Lee character at all, and in large part knowing his mistress as well. And by the end, we really don't know how to feel about Mr. Lee at all - we feel like we should hate him, that he is a sadist, but the only way we see that sadism is through sex. However, his mistress likes that bondage type sex. So if she likes it, how can we really be upset with him for it? Perhaps this is what Ang Lee is going for - this is exactly how Tang Wei sees Mr. Lee as well. But it means that there is very little emotional resonance in the final scenes, which ought to be far more powerful than they are. I like this movie, but it is no Crouching Tiger.

It Happened One Night. Release date February 22nd, 1934. (*********9/10)

As I am now speeding through the Frank Capra movie collection, I just watched It Happened One Night. Another classic, and another wonderful film. But since I watched it, I have been wracking my brain to figure out why I enjoyed it so much. And why it didn't bother me. Had this film been made today, it would have starred Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, and it would have made me very angry. And it isn't just that Clark Gable keeps his shirt on and Claudette Colbert is a better actress than Kate Hudson that makes the difference. Sure, Gable and Colbert are hundreds of times better than most modern actors, but there is little sense of realism in this old movie. It's not like the dialogue is any more realistic than it is today, in fact it is less so. And by all rights, I should hate it, because it was an example of the beginning of the genre that plagues me most today - romantic comedies where the leads hate each other to start with, then end up falling in love and getting together at the end of the film. I hate that garbage!

But then, that's kind of like hating Minor Threat just because they helped create emo. I just can't do it. In fact, I loved this movie. I loved the dialogue. It isn't realism this movie aims for, it's entertainment, intelligent entertainment. The dialogue is whip-cracking fast, smart, and incredibly engaging. Clark Gable is effortlessly charming and clever, Colbert is innocently sweet and naive, with more to her under the surface. She plays a rich-kid girl who is running away from her father to marry the guy she believes she loves. Of course, she doesn't really love him, because otherwise the movie would not make sense, and she would not end up riding a train with Clark Gable. He is a reporter who has been fired for drinking on the job, and he sees Colbert as his golden opportunity. A rich girl whose father is scouring the country for her, whose name and picture are in all the papers, and who has a $50,000.00 reward for her discovery. Now Gable has the story of a lifetime, and he means to see it through to the end. That means keeping Colbert hidden until she reaches her husband-to-be, and helping her through by stealing food and lodgings, bribing people, threatening those who mean to expose her and otherwise breaking the laws at every turn.

This romantic comedy is as "light" a comedy as it gets. It's non-stop, whether it's action as they run from one place to the next, or dialogue, as when Gable lights into Colbert as a stuck-up rich snobby brat, or humour. One of the funniest recurring bits in the film is the telegrams Gable keeps sending his old newspaper editor, the one who fired him. He keeps telling him that he has the runaway rich girl, that he's onto the story of the century, and that this editor can't have it. And he sends these telegrams collect. This film is so quick, so funny, so well-paced and so well acted that it really stands the test of time, despite the romantic comedies that followed it with so much less success.

At the time of the filming, Claudette Colbert really didn't want to do the project, and when filming wrapped, she was quoted as saying it was going to be the worst movie of her career, and one of her worst performances ever. However, somehow, despite her, Capra was able to get the most out of her that he could. In fact, I would suspect the credit would have to go more to Clark Gable in this instance, since it seems he is drawing the very best out of Colbert in every scene simply by virtue of his magnetism and exuberance for the role. The movie succeeded despite her, and she excels despite herself. In the end, It Happened One Night became the first movie ever to sweep the five major Oscar categories - Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Deservedly so in all categories. The only other movies worth while in that year were The Thin Man (still a wonderful classic comedy/mystery) and Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra, also starring Claudette Colbert in the title role (no longer really remembered). But only one of those films endures to this day, and that is It Happened One Night. Seventy-four years later, it is still magnificent.

P.S. Most film critics and historians will mention It Happened One Night in conjuction with two other, seemingly undrelated movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence Of The Lambs. That is because to this day, they are the only three movies ever to win all five of the major Oscar awards. And in each case, those were the only five awards they picked up. Oh, and in the interests of accuracy, so I don't get any angry emails, Clark Gable does in fact, at one point in the film, take off his shirt to reveal his bare torso, a very rare thing in movies at the time. All of which did indeed pave the way for Matthew McConaughey. But I still love this movie.

Romance and Cigarettes. Out now. (*******7/10)

When I rented Romance and Cigarettes, I did so because of the cast and director. John Turturro directed this film, and it stars James Gandolfini, Kate Winslett, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, Eddie Izzard, and two of my favourites - Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken. Based on that cast alone, I picked it up and watched it. So imagine my surprise when James Gandolfini, in the first scene, Tony Soprano, began to sing. Yes, Romance and Cigarettes is a musical! A bonkers, insane, weirdly entertaining musical. Everyone sings, and the musical numbers feel unnecessary, but they are the most entertaining part of the film. The basic premise is that Gandolfini is married to Sarandon, but cheating on her with the much-younger Kate Winslett, who has never looked sexier in a movie. Sarandon catches him, and effectively ends their relationship, which has an effect on the children (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker and Aida Turturro - who plays Ton'y sister on The Sopranos...weird).

Gandolfini's character is named Nick Murder, a strange name, and he comes off as a modern, filthier Ralph Kramden. His buddy at work, Steve Buscemi, is a modern, much filthier Ed Norton. Every character is a bizarre weirdo, and they each have twisted and strange relationships with each other. And the movie is filthy. There is a weird but effective scene where Winslett talks to Gandolfini in an incredibly dirty phone call while Sarandon sings Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart. Christopher Walken, as "cousin Bo" (of course) has several of the best scenes, including a demented take on My Delilah, which ends with him using a knife to stab his wife, then singing into that knife as though it is a microphone. He is one of the strangest of the cast, in that he talks almost exclusively in movie lines and song titles. Mandy Moore's creepy take on the song "I Want Candy" is mercifully cut short.

Overall, Romance And Cigarettes is fun and exuberant while still being tragic and sad. There are parts that are downright gloomy, which sort of takes away from the more entertaining moments. But watching these terrific actors, especially Walken, do their thing is more than enough reason to rent this film. It is not perfect, or even great, but it is more than enough fun for a Sunday afternoon.

The Invasion - out now. (*****5/10)

The Invasion is a remake, yet again, of the 1950s classic sci-fi horror film Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a film that has been done many times, in many different ways, including an excellent 1978 remake featuring Donald Sutherland. The basic premise here is that aliens are invading Earth, and doing so by taking over the bodies of humans. In this way, no one can tell that the aliens are here - they still look like the same people. But their loved ones and people close to these people begin to notice. Those people are somehow different. You see, they seem to have lost all capacity for emotion. And it's easy to spot emotionless people when you are close to them. This leads to some creepy scenes without the need to have some kind of high-tech computer generated monster spitting venom at the screen, or an actor of Anthony Hopkins' calibre talking about fava beans and Chianti. All you really need to be creeped out is real people who can register no emotion and convey an icy demeanor.

Enter Nicole Kidman. No one does icy demeanor and cold-fish emotionlessness better than Nicole Kidman. She looks like a china doll, as though her features have been carved out of some kind of fine china, and might shatter if she smiles or frowns. And that's when she's being interviewed. One big problem with the 2007 edition of The Invasion is that Kidman does not play the leader of the emotionless drones who take over the world. That is a role that would suit her immensely. Yet she plays the emotional centre of the movie, for some reason. The only scenes where she is truly convincing are the ones where she must blend in with the invaders by acting emotionless. Another big problem with The Invasion is that there is nothing terribly interesting about it. Daniel Craig plays Kidman's best friend, with some romantic tension, but nothing really develops there. Kidman's son is the catalyst for the proceedings, as he has been taken by his father, and Kidman must get him back before hiding out in the safe zone away from the steel-faced mobs. Her ex-husband, the child's father, fills the role of the big villain in the film, as he is perhaps the First Person Infected, and therefore the Most Evil.

During the shooting of this movie, there was a well-publicized accident during a car chase scene. A car (with Kidman inside) slammed into a wall with six or seven stunt men hanging onto it. The headlines in the papers - Nicole Kidman survives scare! The details in the reports were that Kidman had suffered only minor scrapes and bruises. Ummm...what about the stuntmen? They must have been completely smashed up, right? They were hanging onto the car, it crashed into a wall...no mention of them. I tried to do some research on this to include here in the review. Other than the fact that two stunt men had to be hospitalized, there was no information about them at all. I assume broken bones, smashed ribcages, horrible injuries. But who knows? And this is in a way another problem with the movie. Only Nicole Kidman matters. Daniel Craig exists mainly as her driver. Jeremy Northam exists only to put a bad-guy face on the "invaders", and Jeffrey Wright has a part that could be fairly interesting, but takes up only about three minutes of screen time.

Wright is a scientist and doctor who can solve the problem of the epidemic. The key to stopping that epidemic is finding Kidman's son, who seems to be immune to the infection. I guess they will just mulch him up, synthesize his remains, and create an antidote that will be administered to the emotionless masses by means of an army of crop dusters. Who knows. The climactic scene is nerve-wracking for a moment, but loses all the momentum it has right at the end, leading to something of an anti-climax. The one thing I will say about the movie is that it is a bit of a throwback to those classic horror sci-fi films of the 50s, (like the original Bodysnatchers) and attempts to make a social commentary at the conclusion of the film. It comes off as a bit heavy-handed, since early in the movie there is a Russian diplomat inserted into the story for the express purpose of making that social commentary. Was there anyone who didn't think his words would come back to seem prescient? No. By the way, during that scene, Kidman is praised for her intelligence in shooting down the theories of this diplomat, but she does so by making statements that have nothing to do with his. It's like someone says to you "I think abortion is the murder of babies". And you say "I once burped a baby, and he was grateful". And then people say "what a brilliant way to win that argument!" What?

As far as modern horror or sci-fi movies go, The Invasion is in the middle of the pack. Far below The Descent and The Host and 28 Days Later, far above Resident Evil and Stay Alive and The Village and Lady in the Water. But all that means is that sci-fi fanatics might find it worthwhile just because they will watch anything in that genre. Really, this movie is made for rabid fans of Nicole Kidman, who want to watch her run around, pretend to talk smart, and get into her underwear several times. That's the target audience, that's who should watch this film.

One small step for a man...one giant leap for Whitey On The Moon. In The Shadow Of The Moon, out now. (*********9/10)

In The Shadow Of The Moon is a documentary, out now, about the Apollo 11 mission that landed a man on the moon for the first time. And while I still agree with Gil Scott-Heron, that perhaps the whole excercise was unnecessary - I mean, what did these guys do that a remote-control drone couldn't do? It is still an awe-inspiring feat, all these years later. Although I was not alive when all this drama was taking place, I still felt a small child's wonder when I watched this film. When I was a kid in Grade Four at McNabb public school, the teachers liked to encourage our creativity, and every week we would do something called "learning centres", where we would study one particular subject in small groups. The class was basically from Grades one through four, and everyone would participate. Each group would choose their own project, centred around the larger theme, and at the end of the day each Friday we would present our small group's findings to the class. One such learning centre was on Outer Space.

It was January, 1986, and the reason we were doing this group project on Outer Space that week was that there was to be a shuttle launch that week. The class (and teachers) were very excited, because the Challenger would be taking a teacher with them, in the first teacher-in-space program. We were ready to gather around the TV in school and watch the launch as a class, having just completed our projects on outer space. However, the launch was delayed. We were unable to watch, and a few days later, we were gathered around the television again. Again, the shuttle lauch was delayed. I don't know if my life would have changed, as a nine-year-old watching this with my class, had we ever seen the actual launch in 1986 of the Challenger. Had the launch not been pushed back so far that we all ended up missing it, and were not watching live with our class when the Challenger was launched, and 73 seconds later was consumed in a ball of fire, taking seven crew members with it, including the first teacher in space.

These are the dangers faced by the astronauts who went up there. These are people who must ignore the danger inherent in any attempt to reach a new high for humankind. Is that all one word? Humankind? My blog doesn't have spellcheck. Anyway, the 1969 Neil Armstrong first step on the moon is something we have all seen hundreds if not thousands of times, whether we were alive at the time or not. We no longer televise launches, at least not that I have seen, and it no longer captures the imagination of the world the way it once did. But at that time, in 1969, in that place, it was an event over which the entire world came together. And hearing the astronauts tell their story is wonderful. Many things I did not know - the many failed attempts just to get a rocket launched before the actual Apollo 11 moon mission, and the fact that the entire crew that was originally scheduled to go died. On a training run at NASA, a spark set off a fire that burned the entire crew alive. The crew that ended up actually going to the moon were the replacement crew.

All this is interesting, and tragic, but where In The Shadow of the Moon really takes off is when the astronauts get to the rocket for the launch. The reverential way they still speak about it is fascinating, and each one has a personality that is engaging in a totally different way. Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Alan Bean, James Lovell and Edgar Mitchell remain the only people alive who have been to the moon, of the 24 people who have undertaken that journey in history. They each reminisce about their trips, their experiences, and the sense of wonder upon looking back at the Earth and seeing it alone there, suspended in space. The astronauts who have gone on moon missions remain the only people ever to see the Earth in this context. For some, it was a religious experience, for others, it was bigger than religion, but for each of them it was something that connected them in a very real way to all of their fellow men. The reaction of the rest of the world to this achievement is shown in the film, and that too is inspiring.

In The Shadow of the Moon is more a celebration of humanity than it is a straight-forward story about some men and a spaceship. It is inspirational, educational, and breathtaking. I highly recommend watching this documentary with your kids, because whatever mystique has gone out of the space program and NASA in the intervening years is recaptured brilliantly in this movie. And wouldn't you rather have your kids aspiring to be astronauts than rappers?

Surviving My Mother. Out Tuesday the 19th. (*******7/10)

I did not need to read the back of the DVD for Surviving My Mother to figure out it was shot in Montreal and that it was a Canadian film. You see, it stars Colin Mochrie. While Mochrie is no Colm Feore or Roy Dupuis, his involvement in a movie instantly identifies it as Canadian. Also, during the movie, he mentions attending St. Piux X high school. That seems pretty Canadian to me. However, this is the amazing thing: Had I not been aware of Mochrie and St. Pius X, I would not have known! So many movies and TV shows that are made in Canada just smack of "Canadian". Even the big-budget experiments, the shows that make an attempt to be just like American shows - think Street Legal, or Nikita. (Which of course stars Roy Dupuis.) They had high ambitions, and Cynthia Dale and Peta Wilson were certainly international-hot, rather than just Canadian-hot, but there was something about those shows, something I could never put my finger on, that screamed "Canadian" at me when I watched. It was unavoidable, as though Canuck was something stamped into the film that couldn't be shaken no matter how hard the producers tried. Call it the Curse Of Danger Bay.

By the way - when I was a kid, I thought the most beautiful woman on earth had to be Nancy Sakovich, star of such Canadian fare as Destiny Ridge and Psi-Factor. To this day, I maintain that she was the only reason to watch either of those shows. She later played Silken Laumann in a made-for-TV biopic, and the same year starred in another made-for-TV biopic, The Jesse Ventura Story. As you can see from this picture, she is still very attractive. But usually, in Canadian TV shows and movies, the "hot girl" was what screamed "second class Canadian!" at the top of her lungs. Because usually the "hot girl" was the chick who played Amanda on Ready Or Not, or the older daughter from Danger Bay, or someone like that. All attractive girls, to be sure, but it's a different kind of attractive. Were the film or show American, the girls would be played by Jessica Simpson or Mischa Barton or some such thing. There was just an added bit of glamour. Now, it was likely in the way they were shot, more so than in the actual selection of the actresses, but that doesn't change the fact that there was always a distinct difference.


OK. Now that I had an excuse to put a picture of Nancy Sakovich into a review of a totally non-Nancy-Sakovich related movie, here are some words about Surviving My Mother. It does not smack of Canadian. That, I truly believe, is one of the highest compliments one can pay a Canadian movie. You film it here, you use our stars, you use our cinematographers, and yet an outsider would not know it was Canadian. That's huge. Now, before all you rah-rah patriotic Canadians get righteously indignant with me, I would like to say this: A movie or TV show that smacks of Canadian is bad. Nikita, Danger Bay, Bumper Stumpers, Bon Cop Bad Cop. But something that feels Canadian is good - Corner Gas, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Away From Her, or Surviving My Mother. This movie is good. And it feels Canadian. Ellen David plays Clara, a woman whose mother has been sick for a long time, living with the family, and has been an enormous burden on everyone. She is a horribly bitter old woman, played comically by Veronique Le Flaguais. Colin Mochrie is Clara's husband, and Caroline Dhavernas is their daughter Bianca.

When Clara's mother finally dies, Clara feels like she needs to recapture some of her life that she wasted doting on the frail old lady. She does that by attempting to re-connect with her daughter, and really getting to know her. This leads to some very good scenes, most notably a scene in a movie theatre that is almost self-referential, where the two of them are watching some stupid Hollywood comedy and the daughter starts sobbing. The big drama in the movie centres around the daughter. Does the mom really want to know her daughter that well? Those of us watching would think not. The daughter, you see, is a very dirty tramp. She sleeps with dozens of married men, with anonymous partners she meets online, and has been whoring herself out for a very long time. Her latest partner turns out to be someone fairly close to the family, a local priest who, like Bianca, is living very much of a double life. I would have liked to see a lot more of the relationship between the priest and his own mother, it seems almost more interesting than the relationship between Clara and Bianca.

The movie is smart, well-written and well acted. Caroline Dhavernas is smoking hot in a very non-Canadian way. Again this isn't her physical appearance so much as the way she is shot in the movie. She is creepily believable as the seductress, a Linda Fiorentino type almost, who leads men to their doom, and she has a very disturbing scene later on with the young priest. Normally, I watch movies like this one and think "I don't care HOW hot she is. I would have been out of there weeks ago. No one needs that much drama." But in this case, I sort of get it. Sort of. Toward the end, the movie gets very melodramatic, with a scene that comes off as unnecessarily harsh, which unleashes a scene that seems like a massive over-reaction, but it still works. In the end, Clara must come to terms with her relationship with her daughter at about the same time she is coming to terms with her own mother. A fine film that feels Canadian, but not obnoxiously so.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rendition! Out this coming Tuesday, well worth it. (********8/10)

Going into Rendition, I was a little worried. I have read many many reviews suggesting that this film was not a good one. On rottentomatoes.com, James Berardinelli writes: "We are ambushed by a simplistic storyline that's more interested in sermonizing and demonizing than existing in the real world where things aren't as clear-cut as the movie would like us to believe." Richard Roeper says: "I don’t fault Rendition for its liberal politics. I fault it for hammering home those politics in such pounding, slanted fashion." And Todd McCarthy says: "Even [Reese] Witherspoon, normally the most spirited of performers who can inject even limited characters and blah scripts with her own spark, can do little but mope around and search for different ways to look worried." Well, they are wrong. All wrong. Yes, Rendition tends to be a little melodramatic. And yes, it has left-leaning politics, but who can be upset by that? Other than Jerry Falwell? Those politics are indeed heavy-handed, and they are indeed pounded home in a slanted fashion, but then the movie ends, and...are they really?

The critics appear to be divided along the same lines that divide people over Meher Arar. The people who believe he was indeed unjustly imprisoned, and those who think "oh, the government's just doing their job". Rendition is basically a story about a guy much like Arar, who is detained by the American government after a terrorist attack and then extradited to another country to be tortured into giving up information. But does he really know this information? Or is he an innocent man held without trial without any recourse and with no access to a lawyer or a phone to call his wife to say he is OK? And frankly, if this is what happened to Arar, the 10.5 million dollars he got from the government is not even close to enough. People complain, like he won the lottery just for being tortured, but those people are basing their opinions on media reports which are of course conflicting. Very few people would know the real story there. Like, Arar and three government officials. Everything else is conjecture, and having an opinion one way or the other is more than likely based on the opinion of someone who really doesn't know the whole story.

And while Rendition is certainly a condemnation of the American practice of detaining people without trial and throwing due process out the window. But it makes sure that by the end of the movie, there is a certain ambiguity, where the people watching the film can make their own decision about what took place, a decision that more than likely will be based on their existing prejudices. I don't want to reveal the ending here, but it is far more ambiguous than you would assume. Rendition is not terribly complicated, but it treads along much the same ground as the very-complicated Syriana. Think of Rendition as the poor man's Syriana. Whereas George Clooney's movie was intricate and almost inexplicable, (and was, in fact, better than this one) Rendition is far more straight-forward, far easier to understand. But Rendition is thought-provoking in a similar way to Syriana. Even if a man is guilty, is it worth torturing him to find out? If the torture of that one man will create ten more who become enemies of your country?

I agree with Dennis Schwartz, who says that this movie deserves to be commended just for being made. It does. And Reese Witherspoon, who is one of my least favourite actresses, is terrific. As the pregnant wife of the imprisoned man, she hits all the right notes. Yes, she spends a lot of the movie just looking concerned. She's pregnant. It becomes clear throughout the film that she has only so much energy. She works endlessly, but most of the time she is doing this by fighting through intense fatigue, which leaves her with no option but to sit and look despondent. And during the melodramatic scenes, she is believable in that she can all of a sudden get a burst of energy to confront her husband's captors, and her emotions carry her away and she dissolves into a shrieking blubbery mess. But you know, I still believe that. After all, she's pregnant. Jake Gyllenhall could have been better in his role as the American assigned to the interrogation, and I wish Meryl Streep had more screen time as the icy woman in charge of the rendition. And yes, the final scene between Gyllenhall and the torture victim is a little far-fetched and melodramatic.

But these are small quibbles with an otherwise excellent film. I would guess that hard line right-wingers will hate this film, because they will see it as the terrorists winning, or they will see it as questioning something that ought to be beyond reproach. But thoughtful, regular people will just enjoy it for what it is - a thought-provoking, interesting, very good film. I definitely recommend watching Rendition. It comes out from Alliance Films on Tuesday, February 19th.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Police! And...more importantly, Elvis Costello.

It has been officially announced. The Police are coming to Ottawa. Which is great. Although I must admit that as far as I am concerned, I am not terribly interested in seeing that show. I have tried to like the Police. I even know that I should like the Police, I know they wrote great songs and played great music and that they were a fantastic band. But for some reason, I just can't connect with their music. It does nothing for me, and all I can muster when I think of the Police is a casual respect, mingling with a sort of shoulder-shrugging disregard. But I am excited today, and the Police are not the reason. No, it is the opening act that excites me. The May 5th concert is the first show on the last leg of the gigantic Police tour that has been selling out all over North America. And on this leg of the tour, accompanying Sting and the boys, will be Elvis Costello and the Imposters. Elvis Costello in Ottawa! Now, that's exciting.

I have tried to get my girlfriend into Elvis Costello. Maybe I should try the Costello-Burt Bacharach album Randall was going on about this morning. It really is a fantastic album, and Randall is right - it is a great Valentine's Day CD in that it is romantic and the women will like it, but it is good, so it won't make us guys angry to listen to it. So far I have managed to cultivate an appreciation in mt girlfriend only for the song "Alsion", which is decidedly less than romantic. In fact, much of Costello's music is as anti-romantic as anything ever written, and perhaps that's why I am so pleased I will get a chance to see him. Costello is one of the all-time great songwriters, and must be seen when the chance presents itself. And with the Imposters, that's just a huge bonus. Go to this show. And if you are not familiar with Costello, download Alison, Oliver's Army, Watching The Detectives and...oh whatever. Download his whole catalog. Purchase all his CDs. There is barely a weak track over his entire career.

I am a Roger Clemens denier.

In watching Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee go back and forth with the steroid allegations yesterday in front of the senate committee, I couldn't help but be reminded of a few things. First of all, this Mitchell report. This has seemed like a witch hunt from day one. I would be loath to compare it to McCarthyism, because it is clearly based in fact and not wild allegations, but come on. If every single player in baseball was on the juice - and can anyone name me a player who is definitively clean? Anywhere in the game? Then just forget it. Why drag out specific names and target them, when the entire game is totally screwed. Frankly, if Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire are on the juice, who cares? This is my new opinion. If Clemens is facing juiced-up batters, and is on the juice himself, isn't that the same level playing field it was in 1986 when no one was on steroids and Clemens was becoming the greatest pitcher of his generation? Possibly ever? If Bonds is hitting 73 home runs off steroid-fueled pitchers, who cares? Level playing field, no? I want to say lay off, Mitchell. Let baseball police itself.

But then, of course, baseball does not police itself. John Rocker, who is a fairly despicable human being, recently said in a radio interview that Commissioner Bud Selig was fully aware that Rocker and others were juicing, and did nothing, sweeping it under the carpet as best he could. Not that John Rocker is the most credible witness, but then Jose Canseco wasn't either, was he? And wasn't he proved right in every case? I dislike Rocker, but I believe him. There had to be some kind of conspiracy of silence from the top down to keep this rampant epidemic quiet for so long. And, as such, who is really to blame? The upper management in baseball - commissioners and owners - who turned a blind eye, and in many cases (according to the likes of Rocker and Canseco) actively instructed their players in ways to take steroids and beat the tests? Or the players who bought into the system, and felt as though they had no other choice but to do what everyone else was doing? I'm sure for many of them it was either use the juice, or get out of the majors. It's a horrible situation, and I'm sure that some players (whoever they may be) rose above the whole thing, refused to take steroids, and made it anyway. But I'm not holding my breath.

So now I'm watching the McNamee - Clemens clash, and I start to be reminded of something else. Obfuscation. The technique used to such brilliant effect by George Bush's administration, among others. For example: Climate change deniers. They can't win through facts, because climate change and global warming are facts. They are real. There is no real way to argue against them directly. So the best thing to do, if you want to convince people it doesn't exist, is to confuse the situation. Muddy the waters. Then at least people are not sure what is happening. And unsure people are better than people who are convinced of the thing against which you are fighting. Clemens is doing exactly this. He calls McNamee on the phone, and at no point in the conversation does anything happen that would convince people one way or the other about Clemens' guilt. Or innocence, for that matter. So Clemens, who has taped the phone call, airs it publicly. For what? Look - we had a whole phone conversation and at no point was I incriminated. OK good...so if McNamee had sent him a postcard from his vacation in Florida, and had NOT said "remember when I injected you with steroids?" then he would have made that public too?

When it comes right down to it, why would McNamee lie? That's my big question. I certainly know why Roger Clemens would lie. That's obvious. And Barry Bonds responded to the steroid allegations the exact same way. Only a little less publicly. Yet he is completely convicted in the court of public opinion, yet Clemens' public fate hangs in the air still. Why? Because Clemens is more likeable? More of an icon? Probably. But why would McNamee make this up? Like I said before, this is a different kind of witch hunt than McCarthyism. I suspect that no one approached Clemens' trainer and said "finger Clemens or we'll get you". McNamee had to tell the truth to avoid jail, and had, it appears, no motivation whatsoever to lie about it. So come on Clemens. I would have had much more respect for this man had he come clean and said "yeah. I did this. I took HGH and steroids and I did it because every single other player out there was doing the same. It was the only way to compete at that time." Because in the end, who cares any more? The legacy of every single ball player in the major leagues is now tainted whether he likes it or not, and their usefulness as role models for children extends only to the point where the steroids begin.

So now what? Clemens says his wife - his WIFE used HGH. For what - growing a better moustache? How strange. And Andy Pettite, fellow Cy Young winner and training partner of Clemens, signs a sworn affidavit that says that Clemens did tell him that he had used HGH. (Human Growth Hormone - which works slower but is slightly safer than Bovine Growth Hormone.) Clemens says that Pettite misremembers. This is what I hope most of all. Well, first that this whole messy charade ends soon. And second, that "misremembers" will become an official word in the English language within five years. At least that way Roger Clemens will have contributed something to our culture that cannot later be tainted with allegations or asterisks. I used to know what drugs to take to increase my word power, but I seem to misremember now.

I wish I was a part of a Village Green Preservation Society.

I recently watched Hot Fuzz again, because every time I watch that movie I find something new to love about it. This time it was the soundtrack that sparked my interest, specifically the letter-perfect inclusion of tracks from the Kinks album "The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society". Such an ideal choice for what is almost a perfect movie. And that got me back into the album, one of those almost-forgotten classics of the 60s. But not forgotten yet! I have searched and searched in the past for a copy of this brilliant album on vinyl, but I have yet to turn one up. So in my zeal for listening to more of it, I placed an order for the CD, but then I couldn't wait to hear it and I downloaded it for playing in my car. And now I can't get enough. This is one of the truly great British invasion records of the 60s, up there with Exile on Main Street and The Who Sings My Generation. It's basically a concept album that laments the passing away of old English traditions, but at the same time, much like Hot Fuzz, it manages to be a self-parody, which is humourous without being insulting.

There is such a warm tone to the album, and such a fondness for the subject material, that one can't help but think this is not so much a Kinks album as it is a Ray Davies solo project on which the Kinks just happened to play. It is such a powerfully British album that one can't help but feel nostalgic for Britain when listening, even if, like myself, one has never been to Britain. There is no weak track, and as a concept album, the tracks are not meant to be heard individually, really. But there are five or six that stand out on their own. The first three are as good as any singles the Kinks ever released - The Village Green Preservation Society, Do You Remember Water, and Picture Book. Also well worth it as solo songs are Johnny Thunder, Animal Farm, Village Green and People Take Pictures Of Each Other. Now, those of you familiar with The Kinks through songs like You Really Got Me and Lola, be warned: The Village Green Preservation Society, with the exception of Wicked Annabella, does not rock. This is not a hard-rocking album. Just an ass-kicking album. Go get it, you will not be displeased.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Available now on DVD. Release date: October 17th, 1939. (**********10/10)

There are a few movies I have always meant to see, movies I know I should see, but somehow have yet to get there. I have recently narrowed the gap some, having watched E.T. for the first time, as well as Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Grapes of Wrath, The Best Years of Our Lives, 8 1/2, and Fritz The Cat. But I always, for whatever reason, left the Frank Capra movies aside. I had seen a few of his movies - Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet John Doe. And I liked them enough to pick up the Frank Capra box set that's out there - or, at least, to ask for it for Christmas. But I had yet to open it until a week ago. I managed to catch It's A Wonderful Life over Christmas, but it was an effort for me to sit down and actually force myself to watch it, since I had been avoiding it my whole life. I hate schmaltzy, Hollywood pap, and for some reason I associated this movie with the beginning of that painful sentimentality. Of course I was wrong, and It's A Wonderful Life was certainly the brilliant movie everyone has always said it is.

So I moved on to such fare as Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, another triumph for Capra, and now to perhaps his greatest work, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I can't imagine another actor playing the role of Jefferson Smith in this movie, it was the part Jimmy Stewart was born to play. Sure, Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds was a similar character, both small-town naive and at the same time smart enough to play with and see through the corruption in the big city. But I can't see Cooper bringing the same kind of energy and force to that scene where Smith goes through the letters and telegrams on the floor of the senate, doctored letters that tell him it's time to stop. In fact, the entire final scene, where Stewart refuses to cede the floor and talks for 24 straight hours, is one of the finest moments of true acting in movie history. In watching it, we feel both his passion and his fatigue, it's like we're right in there with him, rooting for him yet at the same time exhausted. It's as though we too have been sitting on the Senate floor for 24 hours. And the scene with Jean Arthur when she tells him how to go about getting a bill passed in the senate, and he listens with rapt attention, is both hilarious and poignant. This is a man who is absolutely in love with the system and the country and the higher powers. So much so that learning his bill will likely take two years to be passed, if it is heard at all, still fills him with some kind of misdirected American pride.

Which all lends so much weight to his devastation and disillusionment when he discovers that the system is not perfect. That in fact, it is corrupt, indecent, and run by shadowy figures that no one really understands. That the justice and legal system at the top of the food chain in America is run more on bribes and threats and blackmail than it is on ideals and the notion of right and wrong. Which is why, sadly, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains timeless. This film, I warrant, will never feel dated, because the corruption at the highest levels of American government will never disappear. In fact, it is likely even more corrupt now than it was in Capra's day, what with lobbyists and campaign donations and the desperate deisre to be re-elected. The only reason the movie could not be made today is that today, everyone is aware of the cesspool. You could not find a wide-eyed, idealistic rube from anywhere in America, who was not aware of the infernal dealings that go on at that level. In 1939, that character was wholly believable. Today, such a person does not exist.

(Note - it WAS possible to do a remake of All The King's Men a year ago. Willie Stark did indeed start out as an idealist, but was aware of the corruption inherent in the system and fought against it. Then he too was corrupted by that system. He was no naive innocent rube, he was always a smart and calculating man.) Claude Rains is wonderful as always as Senator Joseph Paine, Jean Arthur is reliably terrific, and Edward Arnold plays the best role of his life as shadowy, influential media magnate James Taylor. An early model for the Rupert Murdochs of today. But the movie always, in every scene, belongs to Stewart. No actor in history was a better fit for the role he played (with the possible exception of George C. Scott in Patton) than Stewart was here. And this movie, sadly, will continue to be completely relevant and topical for the rest of our lifetimes.

A fine time was had by all...stupid parking...

Last night I attended a fundraising thank-you kind of event for Operation Go Home. It was held at something called the Jazz'oo bar? lounge? jazzandmartinijoint? I don't know. Just Jazz'oo, I guess. The name of the bar says it all. Inside these walls, it promises, a Latin Jazz Trio will be playing softly on the stage, instrumental latin jazz arrangements of the Beatles's Yesterday and The Girl From Ipanema. And I was not disappointed. What was a little disappointing was that I did not know it was a night to dress up. I was just about the only person there not in a suit jacket and tie, instead I had a ratty old CHEZ T-shirt and ripped-up jeans. I could not figure out whether the OGH event was a specifically classy affair or whether it was just that bar (or restaurant...maybe it was a restaurant). At any rate, I probably should have been more dressed up because they were surprising me with an award, but it was past my bedtime and that's just how I dress.

On the way into the place, I met some lovely young girld from Industry Canada, Allison and Christine and their crew. There was a private birthday party going on for one of their co-workers behind a screen in the corner. We crossed paths outside as I was going to my car for prizes and they were headed into this party. I guessed it would be eleven dollars for a drink. When I sat down at their table a couple of hours later, it turns out I was a little low. Allison had a drink in front of her that had cost $11.50. I was 50 cents off. Speaking of 50 cents, I had a pretty tough time parking. I got there at 4:30 and I was to leave at about 8:00. I had brought extra change specifically to feed the metres when I got downtown. I was actually prepared this time! I had toonies, and loonies and quarters, silver dollars and doubloons. I was not going to get stuck in parking! Except that I was then stuck with parking. I did not have enough change for the time I wished to stay there. In order to park for three and a half hours, it would have cost me $712.75. Or thereabouts. I just did not have that kind of change on me. No regular human being carries that much in change. Ever.

So I drove to a parking lot. But he wanted a deposit of ten dollars. I did not have ten dollars. I had a mere seven dollars and twenty-five cents in change. I drove around some more. Finally, I saw the entrance to the World Exchange Plaza. I drove in. In the end, it cost me a little more than eight bucks. So I still had to go to a bank machine. And I also am something of an idiot. You see, I used to work at World Exchange Plaza. As a security guard. And I still, last night, got lost in their parking lot underground. But that's not my point here. My point is this. I carried more than seven dollars in change downtown. I never carry seven dollars in change. That is a lot of change. I went out of my way to fill my pockets with as much as I had. (There were many many dimes and nickels in the door, but the parking metres sure don't take those!) So I brought it all downtown, and it still wasn't enough. Not nearly enough! So what's going to happen when they jack up the parking rates? I'll just plan better? Not likely.

No, I will not plan any better. I will show up downtown, as I always do, with the change I happen to have in my pockets. If I'm there for a longer time, I will find an overpriced parking garage, just because I don't have enough change. Also, it's usually cheaper anyway. Or, I will be in a hurry, as I tend to be, and I will throw the three bucks I happen to have into the metre, and then I will run off. That three bucks will buy me thirty minutes of parking, but my errand will take me thirty-five minutes. I will return to my car to find a ticket that will cost me far more than even several hours worth of parking. I will forget to pay that ticket, which will then accumulate interest until I renew my drivers' license, at which point it will show up again and I will now have to pay 80 dollars. And I will think "it cost me 80 dollars just to go downtown and run into a store?" And I will never return to the market again. For two reasons. I am lazy enough that it will cost me massive amounts of money, and also because my pockets can't stand the strain of carrying around thirty-four pounds of coins. I completely understand the position of the BIA. Parking hikes can easily hurt businesses. Here's my half-assed solution: Make the parking metres able to take nickels and dimes as well. Then you have an outside chance of having enough change on you normally. Also, when you go downtown to park, you can just empty that jar of nickels and dimes you've been saving for a rainy day, and instead of rolling them all up on the bed and home and lugging them to a bank, you can just dump them in a metre. Any thoughts?

In the end, however, it was a terrific, fun event for Operation Go Home. Some guys from CIBC were there, they just donated $10,000 to the campaign, and Scotiabank made a large donation as well. Adam made a speech, he's a former street kid who went through OGH and is now at university for social work, and actually working with the street youth. And of course dozens of other dignitaries and board members and people who are incredibly involved in the community down there in the market. Pierre Belanger, Elspeth MacKay, Chris Day, Shaun Vardon, and so many others. There was a raffle, and Christine from the Industry Canada birthday party in the other room won a CHEZ 106 hat and Senators tickets. Even those not in our own party were helping out. And so far, the "reality campaign" launched by Operation Go Home with the 24 Hours of Homelessness event has managed to raise $30,000. That is almost half way to their ultimate goal this year of $75,000, and is a great sign this early in the campaign. For more information about Operation Go Home, please visit:

http://www.operationgohome.ca/

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

We Own The Night. Out now. (******6/10)

We Own the Night is decent, but not great. Gene Siskel used to say that a movie with great actors was only good if you would rather watch that movie than watch those same actors eat lunch. (Which is the big failing of the Ocean's Twelve-Thirteen-through-Seventy-six series of films.) And I would certainly like to watch Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Duvall and Mark Wahlberg have a spirited conversation over lunch. Only slightly more would I like to watch this movie again. Now, usually that's an analogy used for vanity pictures, like that Ocean's series. Which I keep referencing for some reason. Either because I just watched The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or because I have a poster of George Clooney in a wet T-Shirt looking down on me from above my computer. Boy, he's dreamy.

The thing is, I can't decide whether We Own the Night is a vanity picture or not. It seems like one, especially for Wahlberg and Phoenix, who seem to have played these characters many times before. They are brothers, Wahlberg a cop and Phoenix a night club owner. Duvall is their father, the chief of police. When Duvall and Wahlberg approach Phoenix to help them with some information that could lead to a major drug bust, he refuses to help. He wants to distance himself from the police life that is his family. So much so that he no longer goes by his family name, having chosen to use his mother's name after her death. Wahlberg and his unit stage a raid on the bar, during which his brother is arrested. The cops are trying to nail a particularly unpleasant dealer named Vadim. Afterward, Wahlberg is attacked and almost killed by Vadim, who then tells Phoenix all about it - they have different last names, see, and this dealer does not know they are related. Then a bunch of stuff happens, brothers fighting brothers, brothers loving brothers, brothers sticking by their father, father sacrificing for the brothers...all kind of family stuff that sort of rings hollow.

The movie flows fine, the story works decently, and the performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall are pretty good. But that's about it. The supporting cast is not great. Eva Mendes, as Phoienix's girlfriend, is mostly useless, except as someone who can get upset at his actions. The bad-guy drug dealer is barely seen, barely in the movie, and certainly does not give off a sense of dread or of being dangerous. Except for his very long Steven Seagal-type pony tail. That means drug lord. Anyone with a pony tail is a drug lord. Or Steven Seagal. Or into aromatherapy. Whatever. In the end, there is not much to recommend this movie. And there is not much to say against it. So it's just plain not much of a movie.

So...what do I do now?

I have had a hole in my stomach for a while now. An abcess, as the emergency room doctors explained. I have been taking the pills that were prescribed for about a wek, they will run out today. And yet, it has still not gone away. I have done all that was required - I could not bathe in Epson salts in order to soak the area properly, so every night I have been going through the embarrassing and idiotic ritual of filling a glass with water and Epson salts and holding it over the affected area. Which is a pain, both literally and figuratively. And now, with the pills ending, and the Epson salts not necessarily doing their magical thing, I don't quite know what to do. Perhaps I need more pills. I don't know. Maybe it will go away eventually on it's own. I don't know that either. But what I do know is that I am not going back to the emergency room. Last time I waited four hours for thirty seconds worth of doctor. The time it takes me to type "here's a Q-Tip. Yep, that's an abcess. Here's a prescription. Soak in Epson Salts. Whoosh." is the time the doctor spent with me.

So now, if I need further attention, I will have to at the very least go to a clinic. If I need a refill on that prescription, I will need to see a doctor about it. And that means a clinic. And that means at the very least a two or three hour wait. When I already know exactly what's wrong and exactly what I need. Anyone know a black market prescriptionist? I don't want to do anything illegal, I just hate waiting...

Shake Hands With The Devil - not the book, or the documentary, but the Roy Dupuis movie. (*******7/10)

I have long said that Roy Dupuis is the French Canadian version of Colm Feore. When you have a big Canadian icon that you want to immortalize on film or TV, you pick one or the other. Anglophone icon? Feore. (Pierre Trudeau, Glenn Gould.) A Francophone icon? Dupuis. (Maurice Richard, Romeo Dallaire.) And so there was no question in my mind when I heard that Shake Hands With The Devil was going to be made into a feature film as to who would play Dallaire. It was Dupuis, or the film would not have been made. By the way, in order to avoid those "do your research" and "get your facts straight" emails, I would like to state right now that I am indeed aware that Pierre Trudeau was a Francophone. But that movie was mostly English.

Dallaire's book was a sensation in Canada when it came out. A tragic and devastating look at the genocide in Rwanda. It was later made into a documentary film, which helped make people aware of the horror a little more, and now this movie, which might help even a little more. The thing that made me saddest in watching this film was the fact that it came out so many years after the genocide was over. Same for the documentary and the book. Now, it's not like Dallaire could have written his book while things were going on. But it's sad to think that so many people pay attention now, and watch other films like Hotel Rwanda, and feel sad and mourn the tragedy and get enraged over things like "why didn't somebody do something". And yet, when we see those things on TV, on the news, in the papers, and we are aware it is taking place RIGHT NOW, we don't do much. As Joaquin Phoenix says in Hotel Rwanda, we go back to our TV dinners and turn on the hockey game when the news is over.

Part of this, I feel, is because of the nature of the media. When genocide is taking place in Darfur, in Africa, way across the sea, it is treated as simply a news story. A two-minute piece on the horrors in Darfur gets as much importance as a two-minute piece on the possibility of the defeat of the budget in the House of Commons. Very often, it gets less. A school shooting is big news, front page on every paper, lead story in every newscast. That is a tragedy that hits close to home. But more people died in thirty seconds during the genocide in Rwanda than have died in all school shootings in North America combined. It doesn't affect us. It is reported as "here's what's going on in a country that isn't ours", and is followed up with "a small town in France has outlawed public toilets!" and we forget all about it. Toilets! That's hilarious! I think it's safe to say that most of us know (myself included) know more about Columbine and Dawson College and Virginia Tech than we do about Darfur. Really, this isn't exactly the fault of the media. This is really the way we want to be fed our news, and they are just complying with the wishes of the general population - you wouldn't get many ratings if you showed machete massacres every night.

And so we get Shake Hands With the Devil, a movie that has been made only when it could be made, many years after the fact. And hopefully, it makes people aware that such things are still going on, or curious enough to find out. (Steven Spielberg has just pulled out of the Olympics in Beijing to protest China, feeling that they haven't done enough to stop the genocide in Darfur.) And the movie is pretty good, as a movie. Dupuis is steely and tough as Dallaire, a man who carries himself with the utmost dignity and commands respect as a lifelong soldier. His supporting cast is for the most part excellent. Having just finished the book, I recognized most of the characters being protrayed just as I had imagined them. Especially James Gallanders as Major Brent Beardsley, who has a few tough scenes. This is a fascinating story, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.

But there is a little problem with the movie, looking at it solely in the context of a movie. It is a dramatization of real events, but somehow, it doesn't feel dramatized enough. There are scenes taken directly from the book - a scene where Beardsley is confronted by a mob of machete-weilding Interahmwe, as he tries to get a wounded woman to safety, and he punches the man who stands in his way. In the book, the scene is tense, dramatic and poignant. In the film, it's tough to tell what you're seeing. Is that guy standing in his way...or not...or OK it's over. Another scene where Dallaire and Beardsley are blockaded from a portion of the city and must get out of the car and walk through the barricade, as weapons are cocked and the bad guys say they will shoot. Again, in the book, this scene made me pretty nervous. In the movie, it is treated as a matter of course.

Doc hated Gone Baby Gone because he had read the book first, and he couldn't reconcile what he saw on the screen with what he had imagined in his head when reading. I had the same problem with Shake Hands With the Devil, seeing scenes that were so familiar to me and yet not feeling their poignancy as much as I had while reading. But at the same time, I'm not sure anyone would understand this movie without having read the book first. There are so many factions and institutions - the RPF, the RGF, the Interahmwe, the president, prime minister, interim government, and countless others. Each with their own politics, their own attitudes, their own enemies and their own clandestine secrets. It is such a complicated picture that the movie can't hope for a moment to make sense of it all in less than two hours. In the end, this film should be watched, and is certainly good, but if you had to make a choice, read the book.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a long title that explains much of what you need to know about the movie (*********9/10)

It was the mother of Jesse James, in real life, who would select the words for his epitaph. "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here". The new movie, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, feels that Robert Ford's name IS worthy to appear in their title alongside that of James. That the two men were equally important parts to the same story. It's a story that has been told many times, in books, music, and of course movies. Jesse James has been played by Tyrone Power, Red Barry, Roy Rogers, Clayton Moore, Audie Murphy, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson and Rob Lowe. Among others. The worst portrayal of James was Colin Farrell's in American Outlaws - mostly because that movie was so very very terrible. The best may well be Brad Pitt in this film. Whose title I won't keep typing for fear of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

But Brad Pitt is outdone considerably in this movie by Casey Affleck. Yes, Casey Affleck, the kid brother of Ben, who has never appeared in any significant role in his life and yet all of a sudden finds himself in two of the biggest roles in two of the best movies of the year! And he is good. In both - it isn't just his brother's direction that makes him great, he is just legitimately an excellent actor. Robert Ford has been played by John Carradine, whose four sons became actors. Son David was later killed by Uma Thurman. He has also been played by John Ireland, and some guy on an episode of Little House on the Prairie. But the best protrayal is without a doubt Affleck's in this movie, and he richly deserved his Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. Although Brad Pitt is a Movie Star, and his public persona dwarfs his talent, people forget that he is an outstanding actor. Outdoing him in a movie is a considerable achievement.

Pitt at his very best reminds me a little of Paul Newman, and watching this movie reminded me of Paul Newman's portrayal of Billy The Kid in The Left-Handed Gun (1958). He's an outlaw on the edge of sanity, paranoid and almost childish in his outlook. He seems to be the kind of guy who has reached the end of his rope, and almost welcomes his own death. Death is his deliverance, and I think the title of the movie makes it pretty clear it happens, and as such this is not much of a spoiler. Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shephard are all excellent in supporting roles, and James Carville makes a bizarre appearance as the governor. Nick Cave shows up as a saloon singer, and Hugh Ross lends just the right tone to keep the story moving as the narrator.

Jesse James, in his day, was about the most famous person in America, outside the president, because his exploits were followed in the papers. He was a celebrity simply because he was someone that people had heard of, and there were not many of those around at the time. Even at the time, he was considered a hero in the west, because the papers protrayed him as an anti-establishment fighter on the side of good. But of course, he was really just a bandit and a murderer who happened to get good press. Che Guevara he was not. This movie captures the tone perfectly, Robert Ford being an idol-worshipping sycophant to James and his gang at first. He has been a die-hard Jesse James fan since he was a small boy, and now that he comes face to face with the reality of the outlaw, he becomes completely torn between his hero-worship and his desire for self-preservation. And the film has a surprisingly un-dramatic conclusion, given the subject matter contained so succinctly in the title. Like the best westerns of all time (and this is among the top 200 ever made) death is just something that happens as a natural course of living, whether it be because of the elements, sickness, or at the hand of other men.

Westerns have gone through many ups and downs in movie history. John Ford's Stagecoach, in 1939, was the first movie to suggest that westerns could be real feature films, A-list movies, rather than continuing as it was in B-movie, black-and-white serials and the like. That was the golden age of the western, when John Wayne and John Ford were kings, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart were major stars, and films like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were among some of the best ever made. There was a big resurgence in the western genre during the 70s, when the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood breathed some life back into the genre. Then it died again, until the 90s, when Unforgiven in 1992 became one of the greatest movies of all time, and quite possibly the best western. This resurgence led mostly to B-grade fluff, like Bad Girls and The Quick And The Dead, and nothing of substance. I sincerely hope now that films like 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford mark a more substantial return to significance in the history of the western, and that more movies like this one can be made. But even if not, the fact that this particular movie was made is reason enough to be happy.

New releases Tuesday February 12th.

Becoming Jane: A garbage movie about an amazing woman. Anne Hathaway is irksome in her choices of movies, and this one is no exception. Avoid it.

Buah, Ha- (Also called The Bubble): Love story set against the backdrop of war in modern-day Tel Aviv and Palestine. From all accounts, it is worth renting.

Dallas (Season Eight): I suppose this would be worthwhile. If you already had the first seven seasons. And really loved the 80s.

Dirty Laundry: African-American family must come to terms with their gay brethren. From all accounts, it is quite good.

Family Ties Season 3: Well, if you like Family Ties...or if you're an obsessive Geena Davis fan - she appears in one episode.

Gone Baby Gone: Perhaps only in working together can the Affleck brothers become more than the sum of their parts. Or, better than garbage. This movie is fantastic. Watch it.

In The Shadow of the Moon: I am really looking forward to this one. Reviews have been fantastic. Apparently this is a brilliant documentary, all about that very first moon landing.

Into the Wild: Apparently fantastic. Sean Penn directed, and Emile Hirsch stars as a kid who gives up normal life and treks through the wild. Generated lots of Oscar buzz, but few nominations.

Introducing the Dwights: Supposedly average movie about a middle aged woman moving to Australia to marry a one-hit-wonder country singer.

The Joan Crawford Collection, Volume 2: Joan Crawford was never much of an actress, more of a movie star. She was certainly gorgeous, and was a huge name, but her movies were rarely excellent. The second volume of her work includes Torch Song, Strange Cargo, Sadie McKee, Flamingo Road and A Woman's Face. These movies are on DVD for the first time, middle-career films for Crawford. It's worth it for Flamingo Road, Strange Cargo, and A Woman's Face. The others are weak.

Martian Child: Sentimental Hollywood schmaltz - John Cusack is a fantasy novelist who adopts a boy who believes he comes from Mars. Skip it.

The Amateurs: Universally poor reviews, it's the story of a bunch of small town pals who band together to make their fortune in the world of homemade porno. Anthony Quinn himself watched it. He says it sucks.

No Reservations: Catherine Zeta Jones and Aaron Eckhardt fall in love with the aid of food and cooking. It sure doesn't get any more chick-flicky. Unless it's Becoming Jane.

Romance and Cigarettes: Should be good. John Turturro directed, Kate Winslett and James Gandolfini star in what is purportedly an extremely dirty yet sexy musical. I know, musical.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Halle Berry gets cozy with Benicio Del Toro. Could be decent, reviews were very mixed.

We Own The Night: Could be good - Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg haven't made too many bad choices lately. Also in Blu-Ray.

Why Did I Get Married: Tyler Perry is doing more movies? Stop the presses. This one includes "actresses" like Janet Jackson and Jill Scott. I have not seen it, but I predict...it is obnoxious.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Across the Universe - out now. (*****5/10)

Across the Universe thinks it is very smart. And in some ways, it is. But in watching it, I was constantly aware of the smug sense of self-satisfaction the people involved obviously felt. The concept of the film is that it is a story that is told through Beatles' songs. That's about it. So what it ends up becoming is a loose and poorly connected collection of related stories, barely adequate acting, and some heavy-handed symbolism and satire. (Example: There is a sign painted on a wall in New York that says Cafe Huh? Get it? Example 2: They sing "Revolution", and as they talk about pictures of Chairman Mao, lo and behold, there's one on the wall. The rooftop concert. Remember when the Beatles did a...never mind.) The characters all have very convenient names for a movie with Beatles songs as its only means of conveying plot. There is a Lucy, a Jude, and Maxwell, Sadie, Prudence and Jojo. Jojo is convenient for the song Come Together, Lucy appears in a sky with diamonds, and Jude...well, obviously. For some reason, Maxwell never goes on a silver-hammer-aided rampage, and that disappointed me a little. I mean, he WAS sent to Vietnam.

In the end, Across the Universe ends up being nothing more than a series of music videos set to Beatles songs, with the occasional staggeringly cheesy my-first-video-editor-kit special effects. And yet, somehow, against all odds, it works. It should not work. I should not enjoy this movie. In fact, I kept kicking myself, over and over, every time I realized I was having a good time watching. Which, at the end of the two-hours-plus run time, left my non-kicking leg extremely bruised. I can't explain it. I really don't understand why it was good. It just was. Bono shows up as a guy in a cowboy hat and a handlebar mustache to lead a rousing rendition of I Am The Walrus. Eddie Izzard, as Mr. Kite, appears in a cartoon music video that looks as though it was shot by the Monty Python animation department. And Salma Hayek shows up in a nurse uniform to do backing vocals on Happiness is a Warm Gun.

In the end, the movie's main failing is that it is WAY too long. This would have been a terrifically entertaining one-hour movie, but at more than two hours, it requires a commitment. Also, the best covers of the Beatles songs come near the beginning - a fantastic version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, sung by a lovesick lesbian teenager, and a heartbreaking version of Let It Be set during a riot in Detroit. Also great is the take on Revolution. The only moment in the movie where you feel and see the song the way the Beatles intended. Song to skip: I Want You/She's So Heavy. This is painful in that same heavy-handed sort of way. It's a draft board, see, and Uncle Sam is singing I Want You...to join the army...and then the soldiers are singing She's So Heavy while carrying...the Statue of Liberty. You want to scream at the television. Come ON! There are many other songs worth skipping as well. And the dialogue is dreadful. The guy at the unemployment line in England says "I was going to retire when I'm 64." Get it? Or the explanation for the presence of Prudence in the apartment: "She came in through the bathroom window". We GET IT. Now STOP.

I know, it seems like I'm ragging on this movie, and, in point of fact, I am. Nothing about it adds up. It should really be awful, and it IS awful. But somehow, it came together enough to entertain me reasonably for at least an hour. Get it? Came together? Whooo, I could have written this film. I don't know how I could have written a more ambiguous review, but there it is. This movie is terrible. And you might just enjoy it.

Trailers!

The trailers for that movie I acted in - The Funeral...Again are now on youtube! Feel free to mock my acting abilities now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaiOvMpt8Nc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6Sw5xp0HvA&feature=related

Here is another version.

A Grammys recap. Because I know we've all been holding our breath.

Amy Winehouse wins five Grammys. That's good. She's good. And she will likely never work again because she will very soon be living in a roach infested apartment in London looking to score smack and never bathing. So it's nice to see her getting an award while she still can. Kanye West won four. That's OK. He's OK. And Herbie Hancock won record of the year. That's great. He's great.

Also great - Bruce Springsteen wins two, Foo Fighters win two. And the Eagles won an award in the category "Best Pop, Reggae, Calypso, Black Metal Or Country Song More Than Four Minutes in Length With Vocals Done By Men With a Combined Age Of Eighty Or More That Was Released Only At Wal-Mart Or Starbucks". This is considered one of the major categories.

Thank goodness the American Idols were well represented. Quality in music could not possibly be defined without the likes of Carrie Underwood and more Carrie Underwood. Also synonymous with quality in music, were winners Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, Jay-Z, and Maroon 5. Wow. Musical geniuses, all. Shut out were such unimportant acts as Feist and Arcade Fire. Well, at least they have the Junos.

One fantastic surprise was Barack Obama, fresh off three big defeats of Hilary Clinton in primaries over the weekend, defeating Bill Clinton for best spoken word album. Much as I hate the Grammys, and think they are a colossal waste of time, I will say this about them: They are immeasurably better than the Junos.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Family Ties Season 3! Why would one watch this? Out this coming Tuesday. (****4/10)

Why indeed? There must be some hardcore Family Ties fans out there in the world. I assume they are 80s fanatics, the same folks who insist that vinyl ALWAYS sounds better than CD, who subscribe to the Game Show Network and play along with the 50,000 Dollar Pyramid, who crank We Built This City and Duran Duran at every party, and who still wear jean jackets with Motley Crue logos on the back. I'm certain these people exist, and I imagine they have followed the careers of Michael J. Fox and Alan Thicke for a good chunk of their natural adult lives. They may be the same people who purchase Three's Company box sets and eagerly anticipate the next season of the Rockford Files on DVD. But I must admit, I am not one of them. My formative years occured some time after the 80s were over, and I feel good about having missed that decade for the most part. I feel I may have benefitted from being exposed to the likes of Guns 'N Roses a little earlier, or perhaps watching Raging Bull when I was much younger. But I caught up on those few shining moments of the 80s in a few short weeks, and I feel I can now comfortably leave the decade completely in my wake.

Growing up IN the 80s, I was a sheltered child. Oh, I would occasionally be able to watch Hockey Night in Canada with my dad on a Saturday night, getting bedtime measurements like "ten more minutes or four more whistles, you pick". Invariably I would choose to go to bed after four more whistles, because there was a chance that four whistles would take longer than ten minutes, and then I would win. Had I been a contestant on those 80s game shows, I would have been, every time, the guy who chose the "mystery box". And I also relished the arguments that would arise. A goal, I would insist, did not count as a whistle, nor did a shattered pane of glass. Those were unforseen stoppages, and therefore could not be included in my expectations of play for the rest of the game, and as such I still have three whistles to go. My father would counter with the always-logical "go to bed". I lost most of the arguments, but I felt I had made my position understood, and that as I trundled off to bed, he would at least feel bad sitting there, watching the rest of the hockey game, regretful that he had sent me to bed despite my victorious logical arguments.

But that was about all the TV I watched. I was allowed to watch Wonderstruck after school, a program which seemed delightful to me at the time simply because it was science-related and I was (and still am) somewhat of a science nerd. I was also allowed to watch Degrassi Junior High, but I quickly decided it was not worth my while, because each episode would be followed with a long, painful discussion with my mom concerning my opinions on the issues raised on that particular episode. "What do you think about abortion?" she would say. "Can't I go to bed?" would be my reply. After a while I gave up on even watching the show. As the years progressed, I began to feel more and more as though I was getting away with something when I managed to be quiet all night and maybe, just maybe, mom didn't see me there and I would catch an entire episode of one of her programs. Street Legal was big in my house at the time, my mom was a big fan. This was either because we only got three channels and she didn't know anything better existed, or because at the time it was actually quality programming. When I now catch an episode of my favourite TV program from that time, MacGyver, I am struck with how foolish I must have been to think that was good. It was horrible TV, much like the other shows I remember - Seeing Things, Muder She Wrote, Melrose Place and 90210.

However, Street Legal DID leave a lasting impression, if only because for several years thereafter, Cynthia Dale (or, Olivia Novak, I suppose) and women like her were the main objects of my youthful desire. I was twenty-six before I finally figured out how to score one of those women, (it turns out the best way is just showing up) but boy did I practice in the meantime. What I mean by all this is that I had seen maybe one episode, ever, of Family Ties. So when Paramount offered to send me Season Three to review, in time for it's February 12th release, I thought perhaps it was time to catch up on this forgotten classic, one that I missed the first time around. I have managed to catch re-runs of such gems as Three's Company and The Cosby Show and Happy Days on TV, so I know what I'm missing there, but Family Ties seems to be largely ignored in the world of televised re-runs from the 80s sit-com vault.

In watching the show, I could understand that Michael J. Fox was destined for something greater. He was a fine actor on TV, and went on to become a major film star, in vehicles such as Teen Wolf, and Teen Wolf II. I'm not sure he ever did anything else. Oh, right. Some trilogy or other. Also in the 80s. But, like the rest of the cast, and the show itself, Fox was destined to be stuck in the 80s. Unable to escape the quagmire that dragged down so many of his contemporaries...Tina Yothers, Kirk Cameron, Alan Thicke, Suzanne Somers et al. OK. I'm being told that Family Ties IS in the re-run world, along with Laverne and Shirley and other quality programming. My mother-in-law, who is sitting behind me, is apparently a big proponent of the 80s. I have seen Michael Gross on an episode of Law and Order, and apparently he has some kind of recurring role on ER, and starred in Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, a fine cinematic experience if there ever was one. Meredith Baxter has vanished off the face of the earth. Tina Yothers is in a band of some kind. And Justine Bateman, who I think may have had the most potential of anyone on that series, was most recently in a movie where she played a corpse with a carrot up her butt.

In season 3, there were some notable guest stars, most notably Geena Davis, who appeared in an episode as a hot but useless nanny. This was part of the season 3 story arc, where Meredith Baxter is pregnant and eventually has a child. Geena Davis, since then, has done fairly well for herself. Marc Price, who played "Skippy", looks to be gone forever, much like Jaleel White, who played the exact same character as Steven Erkel on Family Matters. Which, come to think of it, was basically Family Ties with African-American characters. Come to think of it again, every sit-com from that era was a version of Family Ties. The biggest difference between Family Ties and Roseanne was that the parents were fatter. The biggest difference between Family Ties and Growing Pains was...ummm...Kirk Cameron? And the only difference between Family Ties and today's sit-coms is that the fathers are now always stupid. So...I am not terribly glad that I just watched twenty-four episodes of this show. But, Paramount sent me the DVD, so I better at the very least mention it. Too bad they don't carry MacGyver.

More hockey talk. Old-time hockey. Like Eddie Shore.

I have just finished reading a fabulous slice of Canadiana, Stephen Brunt's excellent book Searching For Bobby Orr. Orr is a famously private individual, and would not agree to be interviewed for the book, and Brunt had to agree also to not approach his immediate family for his biography either. Although it seems a fortuitous encounter with Bobby's father Doug, in their hometown of Parry Sound, managed to get into the book and certainly enriched it with detail and character. Now, I know a lot about Bobby Orr already, as does every Canadian with even a passing interest in hockey. I know he led the Bruins to two Stanley Cups, I know he won three straight Hart trophies and eight straight Norris trophies, and that he was the only defenseman to lead the league in scoring, and he did that twice. I also know that every discussion of the Greatest Hockey Player Who Ever Lived almost inevitably comes down to Gretzky, Howe, and Bobby Orr. And I know that he spent his last two seasons with Chicago, barely playing until his career was tragically cut way too short. And THEN I know that Alan Eagleson screwed him.

But that kind of knowledge, that just about every hockey fan has, just scratches the surface of this excellent biography. Events that are a part of our national consciousness, even if we were not alive at the time, are given a different, Orr-centric spin in Brunt's book. For example - I was not aware that Orr was even IN Russia during the '72 Summit Series. I remember wondering why he wasn't playing when I saw the endless documentaries and remembrances of that event, but I forgot about it rather quickly, and all I know now about that event is Espo, Henderson, Eagleson and Cournoyer, and Bobby Clarke's hatchet job on a Russian ankle. The famous photo of Orr flying through the air after scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime - I always thought it was a Game Six, after a long and bitterly fought series. It turns out it was in Game 4 to complete a fairly easy sweep of St. Louis. In the old days, the Stanley Cup was contested between the best of the original six and the best of the six expansion teams. Which meant it wasn't even close to a contest until the emergence of the Broad Street Bullies in the 70s.

The Flyers of course took a lot of their style from Orr's Bruins. I can remember reading a couple of books by Hall of Fame Leafs' coach Punch Imlach when I was a kid - two great books I revisit every now and then. Hockey Is a Battle and Heaven and Hell in the NHL. I highly recommend both of them, for Leaf fans and hockey fans alike. One of the incidents Imlach mentions in his books is a time when one of his players, a guy with a long and impressive hockey lineage named Brian Conacher, accidentally clipped Orr in the face with his stick. Orr charged down the ice after him and wailed on him, blood still pouring down his face. In Brunt's book the memories are such that this brawl, this game, and this incident defined Orr and the Bruins for a lot of people. Orr would back down against nobody, was as tough as anyone in the game, and his team were a gang that stuck together and fought together. To some that was a great example of team unity and toughness, to others it was a brutal display of goon hockey. In Imlach's book, he says that was the incident that convinced him that his Leafs team of that year were a bunch of pansies and sissies - they kind of stood around while the entire Bruins team pummeled Conacher.

Interesting sidebar - the Leafs decided to add some toughness by inserting a big fighter with little hockey talent into their lineup - a player who would later run Orr into the ice in a collision that is still disputed. Was it an elbow, was it a clean check? Orr had his head down, and ended up out cold on the ice. That Leaf player - Pat Quinn. See, these things I just did not know. And Brunt peppers his book with little anecdotes about just about everyone he mentions, in many cases these anecdotes are even more interesting than the stories themselves. The Red Army team from Russia walking off the ice...or skating off, I suppose, in the middle of an exhibition game against then-Cup-champions Philadelphia, as the Broad Street Bullies seemingly could not tone their game down for an exhibition. Imagine Colton Orr being selected to the All-Star team this year (I know I know - just imagine for a second) and then getting into a fight with Sidney Crosby on the first shift. The tragic on-ice death of Bill Masterton, old-timers fond memories of Eddie Shore and Doug Harvey, and dozens of other stories permeate the book, adding an incredible amount of hockey history. Searching For Bobby Orr is about so much more than just the Bruins' defenseman, and it's just enough to make me very nostalgic for a time during which I was not even alive.

Some hockey talk.

Am I the only one really worried about the Senators' big win over the Habs yesterday? Everyone I have talked to since is excited. 6-1! Look at that big line produce! Yeah. I know. That's what worries me. How come with Heatley and Alfredsson in the lineup we are the Best Team In Hockey, yet when they are out, we are the Worst Team In The East? I do think it's great that we are the best team in hockey when everyone is healthy, but doesn't this win speak in a big way to our lack of depth? That top line is so much better than any other line in hockey, but it is also so much better than the rest of the Ottawa team! Therefore, beyond that line, there can be precious little depth, something we have taken for granted for a while here in Ottawa. We're a deep team! We can roll four lines! Sure. As long as we have that top one working for us. But although the likes of Eaves and Vermette and such like remain players with huge upsides, that's all they are for the time being. Guys with big upsides, not guys who can step in and plug the gaps when the big boys go down.

There are three Senators I really like, outside Alfredsson and Heatley of course. Mike Fisher, but then, everyone likes Fisher. Chris Neil, but same goes for him. And Anton Volchenkov, who I think may be the most under-rated defenceman in the East. They seem to be the only three Ottawa players who have the capacity for toughness on their own. Everyone else needs Alfredsson to be back in the lineup, to take a pounding, before they respond with tough play of their own. And I don't mean fights and such. (Although I am firmly convinced that without Alfredsson in the lineup last night, Redden would never have got into that scrap.) I mean hard-nosed play in the corners, battling for the puck, and in the case of Volchenkov, blocking more shots than Ray Emery.

Of course, Emery and the goaltending worry me, but that is more the side-effect of the defense worrying me. Much as a 6-1 score looks great, Alfredsson, Spezza and Heatley had 15 of the possible 18 points in the game. Meaning that without them, or possibly without even one of them, we may have scored one goal. Or possibly zero. And had the Habs not hit five crossbars and posts, this game could easily have been 6-1 Habs! Now, Montreal is a very good team, and I love the Canadiens, but Ottawa played poor defense for much of the night yesterday. Our defense seems to be the place where we are most lacking depth. And, with the exception of Volchenkov, toughness. A win against hard-charging Montreal is big, and it is great for us to get one, but for me this win created more questions than it answered.