Stop-Loss


Steve Shriver: Shit, I’m gonna miss blowing things up.

A bunch of American army boys piss away their time at camp, horsing around and yelling obscenities at each other while they wait their next posting. The style is gritty and raw. There are no Hollywood glamour shots of pretty boy stars Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum or Joseph Gordon-Levitt; there is just confusion over where their day is headed. Before long, the team is manning a road blockade. Director Kimberly Pierce keeps the framing and the editing tight in this opening sequence and shoots the intensity high into the clear-blue, Iraq sky. Each car that approaches the young, scattered soldiers could be a disaster. One second they’re lusting over a girl back home, the next they find themselves in the middle of a full-on ambush. The lot of them all fall into line and show what good soldiers are made of – boys that become men in a moment’s notice without thinking. And then they fight. Moves are made in as calculated a fashion as is allowed in the back alleys of a foreign land. Some of the men live and some die fighting. Within minutes, “Stop-Loss” has you and then without warning, the film suddenly turns into a hip-hop musical montage, establishing the stop-and-start pulse of the film that ultimately leaves it for a loss.

It has been nearly ten years since Pierce made her fearless directorial debut with “Boys Don’t Cry”. It was a commanding assault on the viewer’s nerves with each scene building panic and mounting anxiety. You were never given a chance to breathe and the tragic story it told became unforgettable as a result. This is why it is all so strange to see her impose breaks upon the viewer. Not only does it grind the flow to a halt in the dirt but it also exposes the need to repackage the current wave of Iraq war themed films. On the one hand, it makes some sense to cut the film together in an MTV-inspired style to market the war to the generation that is actually fighting it (it should also be noted that the film is MTV produced). On the other hand though, this approach subsequently comes across as a compromised version of Pierce’s potential vision. That said, perhaps the new design is necessary in order to get the film’s important message across and heard.

The message in this latest condemnation of the Iraq war effort is to bring attention to the “stop-loss” process. The term itself refers to the army’s right to force soldiers into another tour of duty at the end of the term they voluntarily signed up for. It is only supposed to be invoked when the war is still ongoing so you can imagine the outrage felt by Brandon King (Phillippe) as he is expecting to be signing his discharge papers and is told instead that he is shipping back to Iraq. Infuriated by his government’s backdoor approach to get around the lack of a draft, Brandon goes AWOL in search of a way out. While taking advantage of the soldiers that enlisted freely to fight for their country is appalling enough, it becomes even more so when you see how messed up the returning soldiers have become after balancing being boys and being men in such devastating situations. Pierce’s subtle presentation of the young men of Middle America is smart enough not to exaggerate their psychological damage but their table manners speak volumes to make her point. These are men who cannot carry on a conversation without recounting atrocious experiences they suffered through and have no concept of how uncomfortable they are making everyone around them. Another tour of duty could reasonably crush them if it doesn’t kill them. With that in mind, Brandon’s escape is not just warranted but imperative.

At one point, Brandon makes a homecoming speech to the people of his Texas town. Midway, he is overwhelmed by how much he has been affected by the simple sights and smells of his home and he cannot go on. Everything he was fighting for becomes clear to him but his speech is interrupted by a fellow officer who favors a more crowd-rousing message. People don’t want to face the reality of the war; they just want to hear that their side is winning. And while Pierce’s point is important and still firmly made, it is impossible to feel as if this film that took so many years to make is actually the film she intended and not a film that was designed to profit from a specific market. Still, it is worth applauding for providing a product that will be most enjoyed and appreciated by the demographic that is actually fighting on the front lines as opposed to an older generation that until now has been able to just sit back in the theatre and quietly criticize the war from afar.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Leatherheads


Reporter: “They got a completely different style; how are you going to adjust to that?”
Carter Rutherford: “Maybe they’ll just adjust to me.”

Every seat in the stands is filled. The screams from the crowd almost eclipse the sound of the marching band. It is 1925 and both the country and its interest in college football is thriving. Meanwhile, at a game just a few fields away, a spectator could practically get an entire bench to themselves; a cow on the field goes unnoticed; and the entire thing could be called off because there is no spare football to be found when the game ball goes missing. Given today’s interest in the sport, it seems implausible to say but this second game is actually being played by the professionals. Apparently, back in the 20’s, America encouraged their young men to get on the field and toss the ball around for their amusement but expected them to grow up and be real men once college and the game were done. “Leatherheads”, George Clooney’s third time behind the lens of a feature film, follows one man’s refusal to play by the rules and his quest to legitimize the boys who would rather play than become productive members of society.

With Randy Newman’s swing jazz score keeping the tone lively and the entire cast generally looking like they’re having a blast, it is a wonder that “Leatherheads” falls as flat as it does. It’s got the look, the style, the attitude but it lacks the luster and the laughs necessary to transport the audience to a time when comedy meant screwball instead of raunchy. First time feature writers, Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, go back over 80 years to tell their story but while recreating the proper language lends to the credibility of the scenario, writing in jokes that are just as old as the story itself does nothing to inspire a single guffaw. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A guy and a gal are having words and the lady says, “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” Without pause, the man retorts, “No, where do you usually go?” You aren’t laughing, are you? I told you to stop me. Still, it may be unfair to lay the blame entirely on Brantley and Reilly as the script itself has a few years on it. Originally written over fifteen years ago, only a few original scenes made it into Clooney’s revised version but with the bare essentials intact, Clooney was not awarded any writing credit for his overhaul.

This particular caper find Clooney as Dodge Connolly, a forty-five year old professional football player that has no other skills other than playing it rough on the field. When his team seems to be headed for extinction due to lack of interest and therefore funds, he must make the country take notice of professional football or find a real job. To do this, he enlists Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) out of college ball and turns him pro. This puts the crowds in the seats instantly and draws the attention of the media to a franchise they thought to be fumbling. One journalist in particular, Lexie Littleton (Renée Zellweger), is sent in from Chicago to debunk the star player and soon enough, both Dodge and The Bullet are vying for her attentions. Clooney’s got his Cary Grant face on, Zellweger’s back in her Roxie Hart mode and Krasinski’s just got a face that beams with earnestness that you can’t help but love the guy. All around, the film is perfectly cast but everyone plays their part by the book. Funny how a film that makes such a strong statement about how rules ruined the game of football is so afraid of breaking them.

Clooney is a formidable director. His last effort, “Good Night and Good Luck”, earned him well-warranted accolades and he proves once again with “Leatherheads” that he is capable of assembling all the proper elements necessary to design a particular tenor. His issue here is that there are perhaps too many factors to consider and he loses sight of the whole and how that final product will come across to the audience. Unlike the players on the field, Clooney seems afraid to dive into the mud and get his film a little dirty. Every aspect is so polished but the game just isn’t as exciting if nobody gets their uniform dirty. And just because a play works on paper, doesn’t mean it will score your team a touchdown.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Married Life


Richard Langley: “I always felt marriage was like a mild illness, like the flu or chicken pox.”

The biggest problem with “Married Life”, the movie not the state of existence, is the tone set by its title. Before even setting foot in the theatre, your mind is filled with preconceived notions about the likelihoods the film will deliver. You cannot expect a film called “Married Life” to show long term couples just as happy now as they were when they first met. In fact, in these cynical times, you might likely be disappointed if you didn’t see spouses abusing each other, scheming and plotting against the other or, if you want to be old fashioned, just plain cheating on each other. Perhaps to offset these expectations, writer/director, Ira Sachs, sets his story in the 1940’s, a supposedly simpler time when people were married and stayed that way despite their personal unhappiness. Even a setting as delicately composed as this one is not a good enough disguise for its contemporary sensibility. The film’s fate seems sealed as soon as the opening credits begin to roll. Similar in design and manner to television’s “Desperate Housewives”, a show that has built its reputation on couples scheming, they seem to announce Sach’s intention to give us exactly what we expect. Only when the final animated frame settles on a city skyline and you expect the real thing to take its place, Sachs reveals that it is in fact a reflection. With the lens pointing inward now, I wonder if I’ve spoken too soon.

Like the beginning of a marriage, for a while, it is good. The strings of the score swell and sweep you up into the sentiment like a warm wind taking you for a dance in the sky overlooking a quiet family-friendly suburban street. This particular street is home to Harry and Pat Allen (Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson). The two have been married for what might as well be forever and they still cherish and respect each other but whether they still love each other is a question that looms over their lives like a heavy cloud. Harry believes that love is defined by the desire to give constantly to the other person. Pat believes that love is sex. Despite their definitions being categorically on different pages, they are a solid, functional couple. However, Harry has found another woman, Kay (Rachel McAdams in a refreshing return that is more tender and vulnerable than past performances) for whom continuously being doted on is the perfect compliment to her lonely life. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that she is younger and beautiful but Harry conveniently avoids seeing this as the motivating factor for his affection.

And so Harry finds himself in quite the pickle. He doesn’t want to burden his wife with the embarrassment of a divorce but yet he cannot deny that he is no longer in love with her. Harry is a sensible businessman who lives his life with order and reason and is still able to embrace his more romantic sensibility, wanting his life to embody the love he feels. He racks his brain to come up with the tidiest, most logical solution to his dilemma and somehow, the best plan he can come up with is to kill his wife. He rationalizes that this will cause the least amount of pain to all involved, including his children. Is it me or is this the least rational course of action? Essentially, this becomes “Married Life”’s main storyline and as it is ridiculous in concept, it also serves to undermine the intelligence of what was otherwise a fairly engaging film. Even Sachs seems unsure of this whole direction as he throws in a couple of painfully obvious scenes about how death can take away misery rather than add to it. If Sachs isn’t buying it, I’m not sure how he thought anyone else would.

Despite its shortcomings, “Married Life” does plant a few seeds of wisdom in its perfectly tended garden. The banalities of spending every day of your life with the same person are accepted by most of the characters as a perfectly normal piece of the pie. With decades past between their time and ours, have we really changed all that much? There are so many things happening and left unsaid in any marriage with both partners none the wiser. Subsequently, we have fine-tuned an uncanny ability to exist in a state of comfortable misery. We may look elsewhere for distraction but so many never walk away from what they know isn’t working. Applying that same logic makes sitting through “Married Life” entirely acceptable while you wonder what’s playing next door.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Horton Hears a Who!


Katie: In my world, everyone’s a pony and eats rainbows and poops butterflies.

Dr. Seuss has not always found fortune when making his way from page to screen. But, this latest incarnation is the most who-larious I’ve ever seen. Get it? Who-larious? Like “hi-larious” but with “who”. As in all the Who’s down in Whoville and little Cindy Lou Who? Fine, roll your eyes but you’d be rhyming too if you stopped being so cynical and saw “Horton Hears a Who!” It’s funny; it’s goofy; it’s surprising and loopy. It’s colorful and flashy; it’s unexpected and splashy. Wait. Splashy? Is that even a word? I needed something to rhyme with flashy and what I came up with was absurd. Sorry, I promise I won’t rhyme all the way through. Besides I’m no match for Dr. You-Know-Who. It’s just that this movie is so darn adorable when all the previous Seuss movies have been basically horrible. The spirit of the book remains completely intact but it’s modern somehow and as a matter of fact, the ideas have expanded without looking back. Now, thanks to the good folks at Blue Sky, the studio that gave us “Ice Age” before this, Dr. Seuss can rest easy, his legacy revered and no longer amiss. So pack up your car, pack up your girl and your boy and bring them to see Horton, a movie the whole family can… hmm, what rhymes with “boy”? Employ? Coy? Toy? Nevermind. Bring them to see Horton, a movie the whole family can appreciate.

All that rhyming was mildly exhausting. Let’s move on to the intellectualizing portion of this review. When “Horton Hears a Who!” was originally published in 1954, Dr. Seuss gave his young readers an important lesson about how any voice, no matter how small it may appear to be, can change the world. Screenwriters Ken Dario and Cinco Paul have developed the confidence-boosting tale into a much grander take on societal hierarchies, the power of the imagination and the possibility that we are not alone in this universe. The very big elephant, Horton (voiced in a lovably whimsical fashion of fancy by Jim Carrey), randomly finds the tiniest world in the most unexpected of places, a spec of dust that has flown past him to eventually rest comfortably on a clover. It turns out that this world is known as Whoville. It plays home to hundreds if not thousands of Who’s and is run by a Who known only as The Mayor. You can only imagine The Mayor’s surprise when Horton finally makes contact with him. Now imagine that surprise voiced by the self-deprecating, neurotic genius of Steve Carrell. Together, Carell and Carey play perfectly off each other as their performances are based in the knowledge that Horton and The Mayor are not nearly as different as they initially appear. Though one is huge and one is small, they both know the meaning of responsibility and importance of helping all who need.

Of course, back in the Jungle of Nool that Horton calls home, no one believes his story about the people on the spec, so he must go it alone. This would be fine if it weren’t for one kangaroo (Carol Burnett), the self-proclaimed ruler of this particular jungle. Horton’s flagrant use of his imagination could inspire others and before you know it, all you got is anarchy. And so the door is opened to one of many lessons that give this fable a great richness. While children are not often discouraged to use their imaginations, here they are encouraged to support what they believe to be true inside of their hearts. In doing so, they should even challenge the status quo. Combine that with Horton’s perseverance, dedication and loyalty to his cause as well as The Mayor’s ability to rally his people together by overcoming his insecurity to become a great leader and you’ve got a family film focused on promoting fine values instead of promotional products for a refreshing change. The best part is that the lessons never take away from the fun!

I know I wouldn’t have an easy time if a giant elephant I couldn’t see informed me that my whole universe was nothing more than a spec of dust. This is why I’m not in charge of the planet, I suppose. Although slightly less jarring, I was also thrown and most certainly impressed by the existential depth of “Horton Hears a Who!” Who knew that an animated family flick could challenge the young minds of children the world over to think for second about the fragility and preciousness of life itself while cracking them up non-stop and without freaking them out? Horton knew; that’s who!

Oh wait … ENJOY!! Enjoy rhymes with boy. Right.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Be Kind Rewind


Jerry: The only reason there’s anybody here is because there’s nowhere else to go.

How can someone who has built a reputation for being one of the more imaginative and visually creative directors in modern cinema find himself producing work that feels increasingly limited in scope? French filmmaker, Michel Gondry, broke out of the music video milieu in 2004 with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The mind-melting dive into a psyche burnt by love was a dizzying assault on the eyes and a cerebral tickle simultaneously. His narrative film follow-up, “The Science of Sleep” (2006), was expected to be a similar experience revolving around the dreamiest of human experiences. While it may have been whimsical, it lacked the firm contemplative nature of its predecessor. This was of course forgiven considering the elusive nature of the subject but disappointment was still felt. Now, as if in direct response to his criticisms of being perhaps too imaginative to be always understood, Gondry has crafted “Be Kind Rewind”, where the madness of Gondry falls from the boundless sky and hits the pavement of Passaic, New Jersey, hard. His once ingenious approach is not entirely squashed but rather squeezed into conventional form resulting in a work that tries too hard on all plains.

The beginning of “Be Kind Rewind” is both bizarre and boring. A video store clerk (Mos Def), his boss and mentor (Danny Glover) and a junkyard mechanic (Jack Black) sit around with colanders on their heads and stare across the street at a supposedly pimped out ride (an economy car outfitted with gigantic aluminum piping that looks like a musical wind instrument out of the world of Dr. Seuss) as they blabber on about working in a microwave or something equally nonsensical. Gondry just drops us there. He explains nothing as if everything we see is supposed to already make sense. Apparently, it means nothing to Gondry that we are not permanent residents in his brain. By the time Black’s Jerry concocts some plan about sabotaging the neighboring power plant with a grappling hook that I can only assume he found in the junkyard, I was ready to walk. Gondry’s attempt to ground the imagination in a real context only served to show how the two worlds are separate for a reason. Naturally, the sabotage is a disaster and this leads to every videotape in the Be Kind Rewind store being erased by magnetism. Def’s Mike must now replace the tapes before his father figure finds him out and he proves to be the disappointment he fears he truly is. Thankfully, hilarity finally ensues.

Jerry and Mike proceed to reshoot “classic” fare like “GhostBusters”, “Rush Hour 2” and “Driving Miss Daisy” to replenish the shelves of wasted tapes. As they parade around in costumes made of aluminum foil and Christmas garland, they remove every trace of quality from these conventional crowd pleasers. Their antics and approaches are goofy and very funny in an intimate fashion; the chemistry between the pompous Black and the timid Def is just what the film needs to get the audience laughing and rooting for its formerly uninteresting heroes. And while they may look to be ruining these films at first, what they are really doing is reminding the audience that movies needn’t be made for millions of dollars to be entertaining. Suddenly, there is a lot being said in “Be Kind Rewind”. The neighborhood that is home to the store is being entirely remodeled and Glover’s Mr. Fletcher wants to transition from VHS to DVD in order to compete with the chain stores that are gobbling up small business. The nostalgia for simpler times points out how glossing everything over to look new doesn’t erase what is underneath. Despite this, Gondry is too busy glossing his own work over to solidly make his point.

When “Be Kind Rewind” is funny, it’s hysterical. When it is not, it is awkward and annoying. Though the film praises the amateur filmmaker in all of us, this is no excuse for it to play out like it was actually made by an amateur. Still, the film fosters a strong community effort to work together and be a part of movie making magic – a world so many of us admire regularly from afar but so few comparatively get to be involved in. The little guy can have his voice too and push his imagination further than, well, he ever imagined. Unfortunately, Gondry makes a crucial mistake and forgets to ask the audience to join in all the fun.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Joe’s 2007 Top 10

The Top 10 films of 2007, according to Joseph Bélanger
(in alphabetical order)

ATONEMENT

This isn’t your usual period drama. Director Joe Wright did the genre justice last time out by getting it all in line with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE but this time out, he infuses the genre with passion and modern sensibility. The result is gripping and heartbreaking.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED

Wes Anderson’s latest quirkfest was blasted for being too simple but when the picture is this colorful and this telling, who needs complication? It’s a shame Anderson’s audience is so specific because too many people missed out on this beautiful brotherly bonding.

I’M NOT THERE

Poetry inspired by a great poet. Todd Haynes’ imagination is boundless and luckily for us, he does nothing to constrict his potential. This Bob Dylan biopic is challenging, engrossing, full of fantastic performances and so fresh that all future biopics now have a new standard to achieve.

JUNO

At first, this teen pregnancy comedy is too cool for its own good. Only that’s the beauty of it all. Like the teenage girl the story follows, JUNO only lets down its guard once given the chance to get comfortable with itself and with us watching. It is hilarious and heartfelt without being the least bit sappy.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

This is the easiest title to include on the list. The Coen Brothers have never made it look easier. This film is smart, calculated, quiet and frighteningly tense. It is on one level a drastic departure from their signature style while still entirely loyal on another level. It is fascinating and flawless.

ONCE

John Carney’s little Irish musical shouldn’t even be called that. What it actually is, is a movie about two musicians falling in love. Their harmonies sing of their compatibility while their dialogue denotes every reason they cannot be together. It is realism and romance rolled into one soothing melody.

PERSEPOLIS

Most animated features are mindful to tread the thin line of appeal between child and adult. Marjane Sartrapi’s account of her coming-of-age in Iran and Austria makes no such effort. It is distinctly adult and absolutely enthralling. Her plight is not lightened by the style but rather heightened.

RATATOUILLE

One would think that this is exactly the kind of animated feature I just described – trying to please as many as possible but what it really is, is a movie about a rat. Director Brad Bird is not concerned about appeal but rather a story that stirs and delights and imagery that pushes animation further with every frame. If rats were this cute and culinarily-inclined, they would be in every kitchen.


LE SCAPHANDRE ET LE PAPILLON

This French film is not for the faint of heart. However, those brave enough to see it will get an experience unlike any they’ve ever had at the movies. Julian Schnabel’s delicate telling of Jean-Domique Bauby’s real life experience with locked-in syndrome is claustrophobic and nauseating but yet somehow also inspiring and liberating.

ZODIAC

This was the first film I reviewed in 2007 and it announced a great year to follow. It may be a little long but David Fincher’s dark, rich account of the puzzling mystery to uncover the identity of the zodiac killer is at times brutal, at other times snarky and at all times deeply absorbing. Fincher gets us lost and makes us like it.

***

Here’s to 2007 … Thanks for all the great times in the dark. Bring on 2008!

Le Scaphandre et le papillon


Jean-Dominique Bauby: Mon premier mot est “je.” Je commence par moi.

People often find themselves feeling trapped. They feel trapped at work or trapped in a bad relationship. When we find ourselves in these sorts of situations, we are sometimes fortunate enough to have choices. We can change our surroundings; we can look to new possibilities and put the scenarios that are suffocating us behind us. And if we can’t make that change happen immediately, we can find ways to escape for a while. We can go for walks; we can talk to friends; we can go to the movies. Now, thanks to director, Julian Schnabel, we can feel just as trapped at the movies as we already may feel in our regular waking lives. “Le Scaphandre et le papillon” is a French film about one man’s true account of what it feels like to experience the medical condition called locked-in syndrome. Someone in this condition can see and think, even remember everything but his body is paralyzed from top to bottom and he cannot move his mouth to speak. As depressing as this all sounds, it is nowhere near as intense as how it feels to see the film from the perspective of the patient, which is exactly where Schnabel places his viewer. Whatever you were escaping won’t seem so important after having experienced this cinematic paralysis.

The film is even more devastating because this horror is a true story. Former Elle magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played in the film by Mathieu Amalric) suffered a stroke that left him in a coma in 1995. The film tells his story from the moment he awakes from that coma twenty days later. He must battle his way through his confusion to deal with the crushing news that the life he knew is now over. This is a man who worked in fashion. His life was glitz, glamour, always moving and now he is sitting in a cramped hospital room and unable to get out of bed or even sit up. While Bauby wakes up to hell, we wake up to cinematic heaven. Award-winning cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, developed a style of shooting that shows the viewer what Bauby is seeing. Doctors and orderlies are constantly in his face; images are blurred or skewed depending on how alert Bauby is; and when he closes his eyes, we see nothing but the back of his eyelid. We get out of that claustrophobic space the same way Bauby does by following his imagination, which takes him back to many memories or to all-together new places for experiences he’s never had. The dreamy technique is humbling, inspiring and, rather ironically, cinematically alive. Kaminski has taken a paralyzed perspective and made it dance.

Ronald Harwood‘s script lights a fire of frustration in the viewer while it exposes the stupidity of humanity. While no one around him can hear his thoughts, we are privy to all of them being trapped in the mind where they are formed. The manner in which the senior doctors speak to him and the liberties they take knowing he cannot speak back or push their fingers away while they poke at him exposes the inequities of the medical profession. Hope is casually dropped into the conversation whenever there is nothing more to say. Even in this so obviously dire situation, people cannot directly address pain and suffering. Harwood is also careful not to inundate us with imagery of Bauby’s former existence. The memories we do see alert us to significant relationships and moments but make no linear trajectory of everything that led up to this. Nor are we subjected to clichés of everything exciting that Bauby will never know again. Instead, we are just shown glimpses of the man we are meant to identify with. This story would be tragic no matter what the background and Harwood’s sparse humanization allows us to see that clearly. More importantly, the dialogue in Bauby’s head and the little that manages to get to those around him allows us to see who he is right now. After all, he is still alive.

As harrowing as this all sounds, “Le Scaphandre et le papillon” is still uplifting. Bauby manages to maintain some of the relationships he had prior to his attack and their new context is a reminder that something deeper than mindless chatter holds them together. And for every bumbling doctor that doesn’t know what to do with him, there are just as many others determined to help him, even some that develop all new relationships with him. While his whirlwind life may seem to have come to a deadening halt, he learns a lesson that we all need to remind ourselves of regularly. There is no sense in sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves while we are still alive and capable of progress. If you need an example to see that, you should know that by blinking his way through the alphabet one letter at a time, Bauby wrote the book on which this film is based.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

The Savages


John Savage: Your life is much more portable than mine.
Wendy Savage: What does that mean? Like a toilet? Like a port-o-potty?

What better time of year to talk about family? The holidays bring families together. Differences are put aside; memories are shared. I don’t know about you but this warm, fuzzy Christmas wish is not what happens when my family gets together. We’re lucky enough if we actually manage to get together. Still, we are far from savages … far from “The Savages”, that is. Now this is a real family. Mom left when little John and Wendy Savage were still prepubescent. They suddenly found themselves under the sole care of Lenny Savage but his idea of care included neglect and beatings. Now, Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is nearly 40 and temping to support herself while she dreams of being a playwright in New York City. John Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre professor who has success but carries himself like a failure. As for dear old Dad, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) went off and made a home for himself in Sun City, Arizona. He moved in with his lover and the two were together until her death. With dementia and Parkinson’s disease settling in, Lenny is no longer capable of taking care of himself. John and Wendy, having washed their hands of the old man years ago, now have to take responsibility for what is theirs, whether they want to or not. We can run as far away as we want but family is still family.

You would never guess but “The Savages” is actually pretty darn funny. Tamara Jenkins both wrote and directed the film, wise to realize that her harsh reality would be difficult to swallow without a little sugar added. In fact, this is the script’s greatest triumph. Life is messy and you will get your hands dirty if you decide to go outside. Still, no matter how hard it gets, laughter makes it easier and Jenkins can see humour in even this dark scenario. The laughter serves not only to put her audience at ease but it slowly heals the Savages as well as they find themselves seeing life more honestly than they ever have before. Nothing forces people to live in the present more than the promise of death. With Lenny reaching the end of his line, John and Wendy must do something they have never done before; they must grow up. (It’s no wonder their surnames are taken directly from the Peter Pan stories.) Growing up for these two means turning around to face the very man they have been running from for their entire lives, seeing him as the fragile human being he is and releasing him of the blame they have laid on him and hid behind for as long as they can recall.

John and Wendy must learn to forgive in order to move on. Simple enough of a concept, perhaps too simple, but Jenkins is smart enough to know that this is a nuanced, sometimes torturous process and one that would require a higher caliber performer to convey. Wendy Savage is essentially paralyzed. She wants to be a writer but lacks the confidence to make that happen. While she lives in the shadow of her brother’s numerous degrees, she makes the cubicle rounds and seems to be waiting for someone to acknowledge her talent as worthy before standing up for it herself. Linney plays Wendy as a woman who knows she deserves more from everyone in her life, including herself, but hasn’t quite figured out how to make that necessity manifest. Meanwhile, brother John doesn’t dress up for funerals, refers to his father as a situation and signs sympathy cards without reading them first. His work is his life and he refuses to feel for anyone but as Hoffman goes from sternly controlling his sister to crying privately in the bathroom in the middle of the night over a woman he does not know how to love, it becomes obvious that the feelings he is trying so hard to suppress will be coming out regardless. The Savage siblings will come a long way from only being able to say, “I love you,” on a balloon.

It would be entirely left field to call “The Savages” preachy or overly critical but Jenkins does still draw our attention to some truly savage human behavior – our treatment of the elderly. While the orderlies and nurses are doing their best, they clearly lack funding to make their residents feel as comfortable as possible. Regardless of how you lived your life, there is no reason it should end in small room made even smaller by a curtain that cuts it in half. The elderly may be dying but they aren’t already dead and that’s the way we’re treating them. Jenkins and her sensitive, honest film should be commended for not wagging a judgmental finger in the faces of the characters or the audience but rather showing all involved that caring for our elders in their final hours is definitely hard but there is still laughter to be found in the days before darkness falls.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Juno


Juno MacGuff: I think I’m, like, in love with you.
Paulie Bleeker: You mean as friends?
Juno MacGuff: No, I mean, like for real. You’re like the coolest person I’ve ever met and you don’t even have to try, y’know.
Paulie Bleeker: I try really hard, actually.

I must be older at heart than I thought. I was instantly put off by Jason Reitman‘s “Juno”. Here you have this little movie about a pregnant teenager who is just trying to do the right thing by everyone and all I could think was how hard it was trying to have its own marginalized identity. A sketched doodle of the word, “autumn” appears at the top of the screen; the sounds of Barry Louis Polisar’s indie acoustic music begin to play as a comic book-like animated title sequence takes over the screen; Rainn Wilson, working as a convenience store counter clerk, says things like, “Your eggo is preggo,” and “What’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle?” It was as though Reitman was pulling out every trick he could think of to make sure we knew how edgy his film was. “We are indie!” it screamed like a loud teenager yammering away in the back of the theatre. Only, just like that teenager, “Juno” is much deeper than it first appears and simply requires a closer look to see Reitman’s sensitive, gentle hand at work. “Juno” just may be the most earnest and humble film I’ve seen all year. It’s merely hiding behind a tough exterior.

That tough exterior comes courtesy of first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, and is reinforced by Reitman’s strong understanding of the nuanced material. It is honest, frank and forgiving, which is a refreshing take from the usual damnation pregnant teenage girls suffer on film. Parents don’t scream and shout when they find out about their daughter’s situation; nobody forbids anyone from seeing anybody else ever again. It is not the least bit dramatic considering that exaggeration colors mostly every word uttered on screen. (Look, I can embellish too!) The non-judgmental approach allows almost every character to come from his or her own perspective and place in the story, making them much more real than they let on. We know that prospective adoptive mother, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), is concerned with image and perception because we see her hands straightening frames and towels while waiting to receive company before we even see her face. We know that her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman), is not as enthusiastic about the adoption as his wife is because he isn’t by her side when Juno (Ellen Page) first appears at their door. These kinds of subtle visual touches act like prenatal vitamins meant to ensure that Cody’s script is born with a healthy heartbeat.

“Juno” also gives birth to a new star, albeit a little bit past her due date (despite her young age of 20). Halifax native, Ellen Page, carries the majority of the film and is as complex as they come without making it seem labored (no pun intended). Past starring roles in lesser-known films like “Hard Candy” and “The Tracey Fragments” were explosive and impossible to ignore only the films themselves were overlooked. Turning in another unforgettable performance in a crowd pleaser is sure to get her the accolades and recognition she deserves. Page whips out Cody’s snappy pseudo-hipster speak with fervor and confidence but gives herself away without realizing. She always plays it cool so that no one, including herself, can acknowledge how frightened she must be to be in her position. Her decision to have her baby and put it up for adoption rather than go the abortion route is brave but naïve as she has no idea how adult her decision actually is. She speaks like she has all the answers and yet has no idea what she’s talking about most of the time, but once you catch a glimmer of that fragility, anything that came off as false prior, shows itself as the front that it is.

Reitman, Cody, Page and the rest of the fantastic cast (J.K. Simmons, Alison Janney and the fascinatingly talented and gangly, Michael Cera) light “Juno” afire with warmth and genuine caring. This is a movie about real people dealing with the obstacles they’re faced with rather than sitting around and whining about them. On that level, there’s nothing indie about this movie. Instead, JUNO is the perfect portrait of a young girl flung into adulthood unexpectedly. She feels prepared, realizes she isn’t, learns that she needs others and yet carries herself like she’s been the one calling the shots all along. It sure sounds awfully adult to me.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Sweeney Todd


Sweeney Todd: “I can guarantee the closest shave you’ll ever know.”

When the ensemble harmonizes the unsettling baritone with the glass-shattering soprano parts of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd at the opening of the stage production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the tone is not only announced but adamantly affirmed. You are in store for a truly bizarre tale that is the epitome of madness and you are being introduced to a man burnt by an unjust system, robbed of everything and everyone that ever meant anything to him who has now returned for his due vengeance and has brought with him a very unhealthy bloodlust. It would seem that there could be no one better suited to translate this haunting story to film than master of the dark and champion of the disenfranchised, director, Tim Burton. Burton begins by hastily deciding to skip the ballad and go straight to what he knows best. Bright red blood drips down walls and slips between the gears of a giant meat grinder, Stephen Sondheim’s potently explosive score driving everything forward. But just as the ballad foretells on stage of unbelievable vocal histrionics to come and amaze, Burton’s decision to remove it in favour of score and visual gore confirms that he will be relying on what he knows in fear of the daunting music he has failed to grasp.

For a director who has built his entire reputation on his creative visual style, it is genuinely surprising to watch “Sweeney Todd” unfold in such an unimaginative fashion. It does not seem so at first. In fact, it is quite a twisted treat to dive in to the cobblestone streets of yesterday’s London, tainted blue and gray by Dariusz Wolski to a saturation point that makes the patrons appear as though they are just waiting, if not begging, for their dull lives to end. Who can blame them really? The light of day rarely seems to rise on London as it is constantly shrouded in heavy cloud. And while the camera hints at the scope of London by weaving from the picturesque rooftops to the dizzying maze of streets, it quickly ceases to a halt on one particular street corner, home to Todd’s barbershop. Despite having so much room to move, Burton traps us here and allows the claustrophobia to set in. This is a fine way to make people uncomfortable but it also makes for some rather limited musical staging. Burton rushes through the musical numbers by slicing lines out (unfortunately some of the more hilarious ones) so that he can get to the action because he knows that their stunted staging slows the pace. Subsequently, he leaves us with nothing more than a bloody mess on the floor.

Further proving the unimportance of technical mastery in this musical is Burton’s decision (with the perplexing blessing of Sondheim himself) to cast untrained singers in the demanding leads. The character of Sweeney Todd requires a voice so powerful and fierce that it resonates fear through the bodies of all who hear it. Johnny Depp surprises with how well he can handle the material but his capable performance never ignites the passion of a mad man. Meanwhile, Todd’s counterpart in scheming evil, Mrs. Lovett, a woman so conniving and desperate that she will say or do anything to make sure her man is content and by her side, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, a woman whose voice is so weak that she is barely capable of communicating any of the colour in the character. Each actor carries the same drab expression on their face throughout the film as though they are bored or just completely unsure of themselves. They each have their moments but neither successfully demonstrates the depths of their treachery or the heights of their dark wit. As they watch each step, careful not to step on anyone’s toes,

Burton breaks a golden musical rule: the musical numbers should never be rushed. That’s why we’re there – to appreciate the beauty of Sondheim’s layered and dense masterpiece. Only that isn’t why Burton is there. Clearly, Todd’s penchant for slashing throats is what most fascinated the man at the helm of this horror story. And while the blood gushing out and splattering against the camera and the walls is both disgusting and exhilarating, it amounts to very little more than gorgeous torture porn. Who knew that Sweeney Todd would be so maniacal that even the insane genius of Tim Burton could not fully comprehend the man himself?

Review by Joseph Bélanger