2011 log (10)

(1 Oct) 50/50 (2011, Jonathan Levine) 90
[ Dear God, I don’t even remember the last time I cried so much during a movie! And not just watery eyes, wiping a way a little tear – full-on sobbing, man. Thing is, through most of the early parts of “50/50”, I thought it was good but not necessarily great. I took it to be, you know, your slightly better than average indie flick, with a smart and insightful but not exactly transcendently brilliant screenplay, and competent but not particularly inventive or impressive direction, nothing more, nothing less. The one thing I found truly exceptional from the get-go was the acting, starting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of his very best performances (that’s saying a lot) as a 27-year-old diagnosed with cancer. I also loved Seth Rogen, who’s hilarious and unexpectedly touching as the best friend, Anjelica Huston and Serge Houde as the parents, Anna Kendrick as the therapist, Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer as fellow chemo patients, Bryce Dallas Howard as the girlfriend… These actors make all the characters ring true, so we grow to really care about them and, don’t get me wrong, writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine both do solid work, keeping us engaged throughout. Yet the third act takes things to a whole other level, which has something to do with the nature of the film’s subject and its progression, of course, but still! I had no idea the last act of this dramedy would move the hell out of me like that. ]

(1 Oct) The Object of My Affection (1998, Nicholas Hytner) 55
[ This rom-com with a twist, about the ambiguous relationship between a woman and her gay best friend, suffers from pacing issue, sitcom direction and a terrible, terrible score. Yet it manages to remain engaging enough thanks to the winning performances from Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Worth a rental. ]

(5 Oct) L’Assaut (2011, Julien Leclercq) 33
[ On December 24, 1994, Islamic terrorists hijacked an Air France plane at Algiers’ airport, taking the 227 passengers aboard hostage. Out of this event, writer-director Julien Leclercq has made a film that includes many inherently suspenseful scenes, but the approach he chose is unfortunately derivative and flashy. Desaturated colors, handheld cameras, high shutter speed, bombastic music: it’s like we’re watching a knockoff of late-era Ridley Scott. Lacking in historical and political context despite some exposition-heavy scenes involving bureaucrats and excerpts from actual newscasts, L’assaut also fails to make us care about anyone on screen. No, repeatedly showing us a GIGN agent’s wife and daughter doesn’t count for character development… ]

(6 Oct) Le pays des âmes – A jazz fable (2011, Olivier Godin) 66
[ After the death of her fiancé, a young woman (Ève Duranceau) attempts to contact him with the help of a priest (Luc Proulx) who might actually be the Devil… With its elliptical narrative, sparse dialogue, uneven performances, improvisational jazz backdrop and quasi-experimental style, this debut feature from Olivier Godin is a bit much to take in initially. But the sad-eyed, always compelling Duranceau, the warm hues of the cinematography and the meticulous shot composition go a long way towards drawing us into this Dantesque tale, which climaxes in a striking sequence set in the forest of suicides of the seventh circle of Hell. ]

(7 Oct) Pearl Jam Twenty (2011, Cameron Crowe) 91
[ Music has always been intrinsically linked to the films of former Rolling Stone scribe Cameron Crowe, who notably set his Singles (1992) in Seattle and cast members of various grunge bands in it, including Pearl Jam. To celebrate the latter’s 20th anniversary, Crowe has now assembled an electrifying, kaleidoscopic documentary, the result of years of digging through over 1,200 hours of archival footage (including some of the band’s earliest performances) and condensing it into a breathless calvacade of images and sounds. It starts by establishing the Seattle of the late 1980s, home to “a whole scene of musicians that really worked together to create their own world of influences and bands and community.” “Pearl Jam Twenty” depicts it all: the Mother Love Bone days with Andrew Wood, who OD’d in 1990, leaving bandmates Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard to hook up with Eddie Vedder and eventually form Pearl Jam; the quasi-overnight success that came along with the media frenzy surrounding grunge and almost caused the group to be “swallowed up by the mainstream”; the inevitable backlash, the subsequent left turns taken such as hooking up with Neil Young and going on a crusade against Ticketmaster; the unavoidable internal tensions; the lean years during which they sailed under the radar; the tragedy at Roskilde Festival 2000 which left nine audience members dead; and finally the realization that they had reached a certain state of maturity, via everlasting integrity, loyalty to their fans and vice versa. Here is a true music geek’s rockumentary with a wonderfully intimate scrapbook quality, in which you can feel Cameron Crowe’s love of the music in every frame. A must-see, even if you’re not into Pearl Jam – chance are you’ll be by film’s end. ]

(8 Oct) Gandu (2011, Q) 43
[ A far cry from the opulence and exuberance of Bollywood, this indie Indian film was shot in black and white with a low budget, small crew and no script. This gives it an interesting cinéma vérité feel, though it can also appear self-indulgent, aimless and somewhat tedious. Anubrata stars as the tiular Gandu (“asshole” in Bengali), a young man who, when he’s not watching porn or playing video games, wanders the streets of Calcutta, hangs out with a rickshaw driver, does drugs… And, in what are clearly the best moments of the film, raps furiously into the camera over music by alternative rock band Five Little Indians. A true oddity, for better or worse! ]

(11 Oct) Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols) 84
[ “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” once sang Bob Dylan… Here’s a psychological drama about a man (Michael Shannon) who might be losing his mind and how that affects his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their young deaf daughter… But there’s kind of a Shyamalan thing going on, because it takes the form of a genre flick, with elements of post-apocalyptic horror and/or sci-fi, which are either just nightmares or actual premonitions, depending on whether you believe the protagonist is a madman or a prophet. A nearly biblical tale on one level, an affecting character study on another, this sophomore effort from Jeff Nichols is riveting in any case thannks to its awe-inspiring cinematography by Adam Stone, ominous score by David Wingo and disturbing performance by Shannon. ]

(12 Oct) Footloose (2011, Craig Brewer) 63
[ After telling the story of a pimp who wants to be a rapper in “Hustle & Flow” and that of a bluesman trying to tame a nymphomaniac in “Black Snake Moan”, you wouldn’t expect Craig Brewer to be directing a remake of 1984’s Kevin Bacon vehicle “Footloose.” Then again, Brewer does bring to this new version a genial and convincing depiction of a Southern milieu populated by colorful characters, like in his previous movies. The small-town-banning-dancing premise remains silly, the leads are so-so (Kenny Wormald is okay but Julianne Hough is pretty awful), and the film could have used more dancing and less speechifying. Still, I enjoyed spending time in this Bomont, Georgia and really liked most of the supporting cast, especially Miles Teller in the part played by Chris Penn in the original. And good on Brewer for setting his version of the angry dance sequence to the White Stripes! ]

(13 Oct) Monsieur Lazhar (2011, Philippe Falardeau) 89
[ In this adaptation of Évelyne de la Chenelière’s play, Philippe Falardeau depicts how a group of sixth-graders try to cope with the self-inflicted death of their teacher through the help of her replacement, Bashir Lazhar, a fundamentally decent, wise and caring Algerian refugee who has some grief of his own to deal with. There is much to love in this film: the confident storytelling, which lets the characters breathe without forcing them into a conventional plot structure; the elegant cinematography by Ronald Plante, editing by Stéphane Lafleur and music by Martin Léon; Fellag’s immensely engaging lead performance and, perhaps more than anything, the exceptionally natural and touching performances by Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron and the other child actors. ]

(13 Oct) Surviving Progress (2011, Mathieu Roy & Harold Crooks)
[ “Koyaanisqatsi” meets “The Corporation” in this thought-provoking, brilliantly crafted film about nothing less than the history of the modern world, the best achievements and worst failures of humanity, and the fate of civilization – all that in 85 minutes! Through interviews with some of the greatest minds of our era (Ronald Wright, Stephen Hawking, Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Michael Hudson, Jane Goodall, etc.) and stunning montages of new and archival footage that dizzyingly take us through time and space while we’re being bombarded with fascinating information and ideas, “Surviving Progress” is as ambitious as it gets and it pulls it off. It raises more questions than it answers, of course, but that’s the name of the game when you’re tackling such lofty subjects. ]

(15 Oct) Leave It on the Floor (2011, Sheldon Larry) 67
[    Part dance-off, part fashion show, the balls put together by various houses in cities across the United States feature people – male, female and in between – walking on a runway and being judged on their appearance, attitude and vogue dancing skills. For many, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” was their first exposure to this flamboyant world. Canadian producer and director Sheldon Larry was one of them. and, after seeing it, he hooked up with writer Glenn Gaylord and spending three years developing the screenplay to what would become big-screen musical “Leave It on the Floor.” When it came down to finding a composer and a choreographer, Sheldon Larry had the good luck of being able to recruit none other than Beyoncé’s dream team, namely music director Kim Burse and choreographer Frank Gatson. Besides those seasoned pros, Sheldon Larry also got help from his students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, who formed much of his crew. “Leave It on the Floor” tells the story of Brad (Ephraim Sykes), a young gay man who, after being kicked out by his mother, stumbles upon the L.A. ball scene and finds himself crashing at the House of Eminence, surrounded by fierce and fabulous characters such as Queef Latina (Miss Barbie-Q), Princess Eminence (Phillip Evelyn), Carter (Andre Myers) and Eppie Durall (James Alsop). While upbeat, colourful, fun, sexy and somewhat campy on the surface, the film is anchored by the painful reality that, as a minority within a minority, these wonderful gay black people hardly always have it easy. But in the positive environment that is the ballroom community and its houses, these street kids finally get to express how brilliantly creative they can be. Even though the ball scene remains underground and off the grid, its influence on pop culture is undeniable, from Madonna’s David Fincher-directed Vogue video to the oeuvre of Lady Gaga. Considering that and also the success of “Glee” on TV, Sheldon Larry is hoping that his film might be able to cross over into the mainstream, seducing audiences with all those great song and dance numbers (Ballroom Bliss, Knock Them Mothaf*kk**’s Down, Black Love, the Justin Timberlake-dedicated Justin’s Gonna Call, etc.), and possibly also opening some minds in the process. Let’s hope it does!    ]

(15 Oct) Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) 90
[ It opens with a striking overture, a series of gorgeous slow-motion tableaux set to Wagner which, in retrospect, pretty much tell the whole tale. The tale of a bride and her sister. The tales of two planets on a collision course. The tale of the what may be the end of the bride’s world, as well as the end of the whole world. Divided into two parts (“Justine” and “Claire”), the film initially focuses on bride Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst in her best performance ever, which deservedly won her the Best Actress award in Cannes last May. It’s astonishing how she can be gorgeous and glowing for a while early on, then get ugly and dark, as if something had just snapped inside of her… Afterwards, she sometimes smiles and shines a little again, but you can tell that she’s faking it, that her heart just isn’t into it, even though her dress is amazing, the groom is amazing (Alexander Skarsgård), the venue is amazing… What’s her problem? Could be depression (“I’m trudging through this grey, woolly yarn”), but it could also be caused by the impending doom facing Earth if it’s hit by “fly-by” planet Melancholia… Which will become the main concern of Claire, Justine’s sister, who becomes increasingly filled with cosmic dread, terrified that she is that she, her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and especially her young son (Cameron Spurr) could be obliterated in a matter of days. Part drama, part science-fiction, “Melancholia” is shot by Lars von Trier with his signature post-Dogme unstable camera style, which mirrors how Justine and eventually Claire feel, and the cinematography is also often stunning, with a painterly use of light and colour bringing to life more tableaux throughout the film. Von Trier’s vision is cynical and nihilistic (“The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”), but also laced with black humor and some genuine emotion, and it’s the kind of picture that only grows in your mind as time passes. Even though the ending is jaw-droppingly awesome, I came out of the theatre feeling slightly disappointed… Then again, as I write this the next day, I’m still haunted by it and looking forward to seeing it again already – always a good sign, obviously. Dunst and Gainsbourg dominate it of course, but the entire ensemble cast is excellent as well, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as the girls’ divorced parents (yes, the accents all over the place in that family, going from English to American to French, but it doesn’t really matter), plus Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet and my personal favorite, Udo Kier as the wedding planner! Lots of greatness all around but, again, maybe not the immediate impact of, say, instant classics like “Dogville” or “Dancer in the Dark.” Even then, it easily ranks as one of the year’s best films. ]

(19 Oct) Laurentie (2011, Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie) 77
[ Divided into three parts (“Ghosts,” “Torments,” “Abysses”) and punctuated by quotes from poems by the likes of Anne Hébert, Denis Vanier and Hubert Aquin, Laurentie doesn’t reveal its hand until the very end, which is bound to leave you reeling. Filled with muted tension, pathos and impotent rage, Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s film, which premiered at the Karlovy Vary film fest this summer, is the raw portrait of a young Québécois (rivetingly played by Emmanuel Schwartz) who feels alienated from his job, his on-and-off girlfriend (Eugénie Beaudry), his drinking buddies and, perhaps most of all, his new anglo neighbour (Jay Kashyap). Favouring long unbroken shots and ambient sound, the filmmakers slowly but surely draw us in until the haunting finale. ]

(23 Oct) A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi) 92
[ The first scene, in which the wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), makes a strong argument to a judge that he should allow her to divorce her husband (Peyman Moaadi) and move abroad with her daughter (Sarina Farhadi), only to be casually dismissed, is quite gripping and seems to announce that this will be some kind of feminist tale about a woman fighting for her rights… But then for the next half hour or so, Simin more or less disappears and we’re left with the husband, or more precisely Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the lady he hired to take care of his Alzheimer-afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). Herself the mother of a young daughter (Kimia Hosseini), with another child on the way, Razieh finds the work strenuous and possibly conflicting with her religion, but she keeps at it because her husband (Shahab Hosseini) and her are heavily in debt. And then… We’ll, I usually don’t go into plot details this much so I should stop now, but let’s just say that a dramatic, ambiguous series of events happens, and we’re suddenly really uncomfortable, because of how nuanced all the characters have been established to be, so that there’s no clear good or bad guys, except maybe Iranian bureaucracy… Intelligently written, subtly directed and brilliantly acted, “A Separation” is unpredictable in a way that’s initially confounding, as we just don’t know where Asghar Farhadi is going with all this, but it eventually grows increasingly involving and affecting as it raises profound questions about ethics and causality. ]

(25 Oct) Le Vendeur (2011, Sébastien Pilote) 70
[ This debut feature from Sébastien Pilote is in direct continuity with his short Dust Bowl Ha! Ha!, again taking place in a small town in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region that is struggling with the impending closure of the plant which employs much of its population. Bleak yet punctuated by touches of warmth and humour, Le Vendeur impresses with its beautiful winter cinematography, its mournful score by Pierre Lapointe and Philippe Brault and its note-perfect performance by Gilbert Sicotte as an aging car salesman with no plans of retiring, his work seemingly defining his whole existence. Some might grow impatient with the relative uneventfulness of this low-key portrait of an ordinary man and his surroundings, but I found it captivating. ]

(30 Oct) The Future Is Now! (2011, Jim Brown & Gary Burns)
[ In 1949, Nicole Védrès blurred the line between documentary and fiction with “La Vie commence demain”, a film in which Jean-Pierre Aumont played the so-called Man of Today, whose vision of the world was challenged by such luminaries as Sartre, Picasso, Rostand, Prévert and Le Corbusier. With the help of journalist Jim Brown, with whom he had previously collaborated on another docufiction, 2006′s “Radiant City”, Gary Burns was inspired to directed this sorta-remake of it. To play the Man of Today in “The Future Is Now!”, Brown and him turned to Québécois actor Paul Ahmarani, who first came to prominence when he starred in mockumentary “La Moitié gauche du frigo”. Described at various times in the film as a defeatist, a pessimist or simply a pragmatist, the Man of Today is basically a symbol for the growing apathy and cynicism in our society. He is taken under the wing of the Woman of Tomorrow, a Montreal reporter played by Liane Balaban who attempts to change his views by introducing him to various men and women with a more positive, proactive outlook. Among them are architect Shigeru Ban, painter Marlene Dumas, philosopher Alain de Botton, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Rivka Galchen. Yet the most memorable scene is probably the one that most directly connects it to La Vie commence demain, where Paul Ahmarani has a discussion with the ghost of Jean-Paul Sartre, as footage from the 1949 film is integrated in the frame via rotoscoping. ]