The Simpsons Movie


Homer Simpson: I can’t believe we’re paying to see something we can see at home for free.

It has been eighteen years since America’s ultimate nuclear family introduced themselves to the television-watching world. Their popularity and critical favour have waffled in waves over the near-two-decade span of the series’ life, but they have also become pop culture icons and a source of constant comfort and laughter through widespread syndication and DVD sales. And so the question I’ve heard tossed around the most leading up to the release of their first foray in the land of the big screen is why did they wait so darn long to get here? The reason doesn’t matter really; it’s the sense of entitlement Simpson fans have regarding the series and these characters that is somewhat frightful in its level of expectation. (Although if you’re interested to know, series creator Matt Groening and creative mainstay, James L. Brooks, wanted to place all the focus necessary on perfecting the television series without having anything take away from that. When they finally decided to go forward, close to the turn of the century, there were disputes over final script approval.) The pressure alone to deliver a hilarious feature that will appease the fans, the masses and the studio execs alike would be enough reason for me to never consider making it. Yet “The Simpsons Movie” is finally here and from the moment little Ralph Wiggum pops out of the 20th Century Fox tag to trumpet triumphantly with the tune we all know well, it is clear that the whole “Simpsons” clan is happy to have arrived. As someone who would subscribe to a 24-hour “Simpsons” channel if one existed, I am just as happy to see them too.

The “Simpsons” folks know this is big. They almost seem to acknowledge it right away when the film opens with the biggest “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon ever created. Itchy the mouse and Scratchy the cat get on about their usual, violent antics, but they do so while taking the first steps on the moon. “The Simpsons Movie” is one small step for Springfield and one giant leap for television animated series everywhere. What does a leap of this size entail exactly? Rather than string four episodes together, “Simpsons” creators opted to tell a story that was too big to encompass on a small screen. In doing so, there are both elements lost and gained. The expansion means longer stretches between punch lines, which can be frustrating at first, as you want director, David Silverman (a one-time regular director of the series and former creative player at Pixar) to pick up the pace. Also, the story itself is much more linear than most of the television episodes that find Homer & company starting in one place and ending up somewhere entirely unexpected by episode’s end. (A recent example would be beginning with weaning Maggie off her pacifier, which leads to Homer taking sleeping pills, which finds him causing injury to all of Springfield’s fire department and ultimately ending with corruption in volunteer fire fighter work.) The movie follows the Simpson family as they once again find themselves the target of all of Springfield’s animosity after Homer commits a selfish blunder to eclipse the hundreds of blunders that came before that. Once the film finds its pace though and adjusts to its newfound size and stature, or perhaps once this fan boy became accustomed to the grandeur of it all, the laughs roll out rapidly. It may be mostly tame but it is also riotous and faithful.

A bigger screen means an opportunity to take some of the Simpson characters further than they have ever been. (It also means some characters don’t get any spoken screen time – sorry Patty and Selma.) Lisa meets a boy who transforms her into the giddy girl she’s repressed so many times before. Marge finds an assertive voice that elevates her above the doormat status she all too often assumes. One of the more prominent storylines, which I’m carefully trying to avoid being specific about for those of you who are trying to go in to the movie as clear as possible, finds Bart questioning what his life would be like if he had a father figure who wasn’t such an impulsive goof all the time. In one of the movie’s greatest achievements, it breathes new life and depth into characters that have spent almost two decades trying to remain the same. The one constant that needs to remain that way to avoid throwing the world order out of alignment is, of course, Homer. As Homer is accustomed to making monumental mistakes and learning lessons from those mistakes shortly afterward, his movie mistakes are nothing new for him. And like usual, he will see the error of his ways and make many more mistakes by the time a sequel hits.

“The Simpsons Movie” is a rare, successful experiment in defying expectation and pressure to become a film that honours its origins while moving forward at the same time. As the town of Springfield breeds a self contained awareness that requires more than just a casual glance to appreciate fully, I’m not sure how well “The Simpsons Movie” will play outside of its fan base. That said, anyone who has had the fortune to spend any amount of time with the people of Springfield since 1989, will find their first feature to be filled with a humoured familiarity that serves as a reminder for how they’ve been able to stick around for so long. And now that the my Mac widget that has been counting down the days until “The Simpsons Movie” has finally run its course, I can rest easy knowing that all my expectations were met and it probably won’t be quite as long until the Simpsons find themselves on the big screen again.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

God Grew Tired of Us


Unidentified Lost Boy (holding a bottle of Pepsi up to the camera):
“This is, in my country, we call it Coca-Cola.”

How often do critics and audiences agree on something? I think we can all admit it’s somewhat rare. So when I heard that documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us”, had managed to win both the Audience Prize and the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance festival, I was certainly intrigued. However, when I finally caught the trailer, skepticism settled in. The film appeared to be some sort of social experiment where young, African men were transplanted into America with an array of comedic mishaps to follow. What could be funnier than watching the unexposed baffled over how to use an escalator? Still, I was not deterred. I would see with my own eyes what movie had managed to appease the masses and the minutiae-oriented. Proving once again that you cannot judge a movie by its proverbial cover, “God Grew Tired of Us” is a unique and rare experience that burrows its way into your mind and soul, forcing you to see your world and the world outside your world through the eyes of a wide-eyed stranger.

In 1983, the second Sudanese Civil war began. Over 27,000 young boys and girls (many more boys than girls as girls were often snatched up by attackers to be raped and/or turned into slaves first) fled their villages and journeyed to refugee relief camps in bordering countries, Ethiopia and Kenya. The treks lasted a few years and only 12,000 managed to reach their destinations. These camps became their new homes, in some cases for fifteen years. In 2001, an aid program was put in place to bring 3800 young men over to the United States. The program was called The Lost Boys of Sudan. It was at this point that filmmakers Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker made their way to the refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. They would follow three lost boys as they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to begin their new life. Using archival footage to demonstrate the horrendous experience endured by these young men in their boyhood, Quinn ensures that his audience understands where these men came from and what family and community means to them before he shows their worlds being turned upside down.

Though the Lost Boys’ coming face to face with electricity and the subtle differences between turning a light on at the source or by using the wall switch can be comedic, their introduction to Western society is more telling of the natives than anything else. Coming from a past that at one point included eating mud as a source of water while in the desert, must make the concept of testing the water coming from your shower head until it is just right before stepping underneath it seem downright extravagant. Excessive is a Western way of life for those who can afford it. Even those who can’t live above their means to appear that they can. When the Lost Boys walk down the aisles of a large chain grocery store, awe beams from their eyes. The point is only further proven when they are offered a taste of a sugar doughnut smothered in sprinkles. They each take tiny bites as if unsure of what form of ridiculousness they’re biting into. Everyone around them walks up and down the grocery store aisles as if they do it every day and think nothing of it. I would be doing the same and “God Grew Tired of Us”, without being accusatory or judgmental, draws your attention to how much you take for granted on a daily basis. It’ll get you thinking about your supposed needs the next time you bite into a doughnut of your own.

What gives “God Grew Tired of Us” its deeper, more substantial meaning is the decision to not just expose the culture shock the Lost Boys endure as if they were guinea pigs put on screen for our privileged perspectives to devour. The film goes further when it follows the Lost Boys as they cement their lives in the United States over a period of three years. The illusion wears off when you have to work three jobs to afford your basic needs while sending money to your family back in Africa that you haven’t seen in over fifteen years. America the beautiful quickly becomes a very lonely place that feels very far from home. Despite having opportunity and an abundance of everything, the Lost Boys still miss the Sudan. “God Grew Tired of Us” is respectful of both its subjects and its audience, always sure never to demean one for the sake of the other. Maybe this is why it has captured the attention of critics and audiences alike; its humbling, thought-provoking nature levels the distance between the two, where each group feels better than the other, allowing each to see that they are no different from each other when faced with the bigger picture of humanity and its arduous journey towards global compassion.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix


Harry Potter: The more you care, the more you lose. Maybe it’s better to …
Hermione Granger: To what?
Harry Potter: To go it alone.

Consistency oddly both enhances and takes away from the Harry Potter experience. Like the books, the films have a built-in structure that allows for them to not bother with coming up with fresh ways to start and finish each film. A new academic year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry begins and ends with the film following suit. While this familiar structure doesn’t allow for surprise, it is the adventures the take place between these two bookends that define each film. And despite a new rule of conservative values and repression falling upon Hogwart’s, it is the constantly appreciative and awed faces of Harry, his few friends, his professors and the legions of fans watching that make “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” one of the most solid in the series. Being a part of one of the most successful film and literary phenomenon of all time has not jaded a single player in the least. Doing justice to a lushly imaginative world without making itself into something more serious than it is and managing to have fun while working hard has allowed Harry & co. to find a comfortable, satisfying stride.

Under the new direction of British television director, David Yates, Harry finds himself facing a darkness that is brooding and growing inside of him. In his fifth time out as Mr. Potter, Daniel Radcliffe continues to add new levels to Harry’s personality, becoming increasingly more introverted throughout the series. Here is a boy whose parents were killed and dons a scar that certifies him as the wizard the world has waited for. Dealing with his own demons and the weight of being something of a chosen one is so much for this young man’s shoulders to bare that social interaction and expectation become more difficult. Radcliffe’s Harry is a boy becoming a man. He knows he is destined for great things but he also knows how much there is still to be learned and how far there is still to go. The storm that goes from raging to calm in his mind on a regular basis is so taxing that his instinct is to cut himself off from those that always have his back. It is noble to wish to spare those he cares for from his pain but it is also telling of his fear to be close to people who might one day also be taken away from him.

Detachment and repression are common themes in “The Order of the Phoenix”. While Harry imposes rules upon himself, new addition to the Potter cast, Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) ushers Hogwart’s into conservative times, placing value on paranoia and control. With this comes the greatest challenge for Yates. How do you make a movie about magic where the characters are forbidden from performing any? Yates overcomes this by driving the magic underground and pitting the students against enemies both frivolous and frightful. Staunton’s tart persona has plenty of pucker, making her the teacher every kid wants to exact sweet revenge upon. Despite her stern hand, she is merely an irritating distraction when compared with the looming return of Lord Voldemort. The denial steeped around his return and the subsequent nondisclosure to the public make “The Order of the Phoenix” an atypically topical Potter film. The implications made when the ruling powers manipulate the press and silence those who oppose them are unexpected and yet never take away from the plight of Harry and friends. Suffice it to say that come the end of this film, their growth as people will ensure they are no longer treated like simple children. What is most striking about their maturity is they don’t even know it’s happening.

With so much emotion being forced inside, it is exhilarating and liberating by the time the climax comes and all is finally unleashed. It’s an awful lot like being in the head of an adolescent. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” also manages its own magic by cramming the longest book from the Potter series into the shortest running time of any of the films while maintaining all the elements necessary to make the story whole. Weaving in layers of thematic insight and giving more depth to Mr. Potter himself brings the film from magical to meaningful. And after five installments, bringing something new to the spell without ruining the recipe or changing the consistency is a pretty impressive trick unto itself.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Ratatouille


Gusteau: “If you focus on what you’ve left behind, you will never be able to see what lies ahead.”

Rats are a hard sell. They’re filthy little rodents with fierce, ugly teeth that scurry across your feet when you aren’t expecting anything, dragging their long, scaly tails behind them and sending those they cross into squeals of fear. Rats in a kitchen comedy are arguably an impossible sell. If you don’t like rats to begin with, you certainly don’t want them anywhere near your food. Yet here we are smack in the middle of the premise for the near infallible Pixar’s latest summer crowd pleaser, “Ratatouille”. Separated from his rat colony, Remy (voiced by comedian Patton Oswalt), finds himself accidentally putting his culinary talents to good use in what was once one of Paris’ most prestigious kitchens, earning him rave reviews. Of course a rat can’t take credit for fine food preparation so he forms an unlikely friendship with a gangly, awkward fellow by the name of Linguini (Lou Romano), who serves as his front. Together they bring new life to an aging restaurant and inspire each other to be better than they believe themselves to be. The folks at Pixar might have been sniffing too many expensive cheeses when they concocted this mousecapade but they may also be the only people out there who could have pulled it off. Only, under the writing and direction of Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”), they didn’t just pull it off; “Ratatouille” is a masterwork in the field of animated filmmaking, deliciously reaching heights that no rat has ever reached before.

Remy is no ordinary rat. He has a gift, a gift that is being squandered at home. He understands the complicated calibration of cooking. He knows the spice for every occasion yet his overbearing father (Brian Dennehy) uses his heightened senses as a tool to sniff out rat poison amongst the garbage. Like so many of us born into situations that do not lead instantly to fame and fortune, Remy is destined for greatness but has yet to be discovered. Not only does he need to win over the hearts and stomachs of notoriously finicky food critics (like the one voiced so delectably by Peter O’Toole) but he must also win over the potentially lost appetites of modest movie goers who may not want rats with the their popcorn. Bird’s animators studied the bahavior of rats extensively and felt it would be best to have the rats walk about like humans, on two feet, in an effort to appear more likeable. Bird refused. He wanted the rats to act like rats. He wanted their ideals to win us over. When trapped in a jar early on in the film, it is Remy’s charm that gets him set free. There is an earnestness, a yearning, a hope seen deep in his pleading eyes that reminds us just how often we find ourselves trapped in jars by people bent on keeping us down. Besides, aren’t we all just rats in the race?

Like Remy, Bird and his Pixar cohorts know to add a sprinkling of depth to their dishes and that presentation is key. “Ratatouille” raises the Pixar standard of beauty to new levels while seasoning the whole with hints of meaning that are only completely realized once they hit your palette. Pixar’s Paris is a foggy riverside with scattered street lamps at one moment and a string of window lights and fountains the next. While it is romantically distracting, it is nowhere near as chaotic as the view from two inches above the floor. Rats scamper and the camera follows as Remy swerves in and out of kitchen crevasses and sewers (always sure to wash his hands before touching the food). The fluidity of the movement through such luscious colour is hypnotic and magical, simply what one would expect from the city of love. Somewhere tucked away in this city is a tiny one-bedroom apartment the size of a storage space known as not much but still home to Linguini. The friendship formed between the man and his rat is unlikely, yes, but it anchors the film with its humbling mutual appreciation. They learn to rely on each other without forgetting how to contribute the most vital parts of themselves. Theirs is a friendship so powerful and so respectful that it changes the minds and hearts of the naysayers who play witness to it, including those sitting comfortably in front of the screen.

“Anyone can cook.” These are the words of Chef Gousteau, Remy’s inspiration and hero, that run throughout “Ratatouille”. Cooking can be interpreted as anything and therefore anyone can do anything they want. Just look at Remy, a rat with an impossible dream that comes true despite every odd and thanks to hard work (and a dash of fate). Better yet, just look at Pixar. By not simply following the recipe but rather using inspired, unusual ingredients, they have managed to make a mesmerizing masterpiece that is astonishing, endearing and about a rat.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

SiCKO


Tony Benn: “If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.”

Years ago, Michael Moore set out to produce a documentary about the American health care system and how that affects both those with and without insurance. In 1999 though, the Columbine shootings redirected his focus towards gun control and teenage violence. The health care project was put on hold and “Bowling for Columbine” was made and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Hollywood had found a new spokesman and Moore rode that wave for as long as he could. He was about to return to the health care project when the war in Iraq began. Again, Moore felt his efforts would be better put to use elsewhere. “Fahrenheit 9/11”, part expository documentary, part slander campaign to ensure George W. Bush would not be re-elected, became the highest grossing documentary of all time. He may have had notoriety like he had never known but he also had an increasing number of angry detractors. Moore’s success was inflating his ego and that ego was taking up more screen time than the subject matter itself in his films. Well, Mr. Moore has heard your complaints and has redirected his focus once again by removing it from himself and placing it back on the subject. Eight years after its original conception, Moore is finally ready to give us “Sicko”.

While Moore’s mug does still find its way into the action and his voice guides us along our tour of the world’s hospital waiting rooms, he is less invasive and more sympathetic in “Sicko”. In fact, we don’t even see him for the first third of the piece. Instead, real people with real horror stories of disappointment and struggle put a face to the bureaucracy. Having no insurance, Rick must make a decision between reattaching his middle finger ($60,000) or his ring finger ($12,000) after the tips are sliced off in a buzz saw accident as he cannot afford both. In her 50’s, Donna is forced to move in to her daughter’s storage room with her husband because their medical bills have far exceeded what their insurance will cover. The American people already know that their health care system does not work for everyone so “Sicko” ensures that people know the desperate realities of those that are left behind. Moore makes sure to get all his pills in a line by giving historical context to the deterioration of provided health care and establishes profit as the unsurprising devil. There have been so many stories of death and unnecessary suffering by this point in the film that the tears come naturally when you see the livelihood of real people being cast aside for profit expansion.

Yet through the tears, there is laughter to be had in “Sicko” and most of it is directed at Moore himself, as an American representative. Moore leaves the USA to explore whether socialized health care is as poor and pathetic as the American media and American Medical Association would have you believe. In Canada, he meets a hockey player who sliced several fingers off while playing and didn’t have to choose between having any one in particular reattached nor did he have to pay a cent for the operation. In England, he meets with a doctor who still earns a strong six-figure salary that affords him an Audi and a million-dollar home despite the government signing his checks. In France, he meets with a group of Americans who have relocated to France and are now enjoying social health benefits like 24-hour medical service that comes to your door. Moore seems as if in a constant state of shock and awe as he asks patients leaving hospitals what their bills cost. The response is always nothing but not before they have a good laugh at how ridiculous his question is.

When the initial urge to laugh has run its route, “Sicko” reminds us that we are laughing at how dire this situation has become. How else can one describe it when homeless patients, clearly without insurance, are dumped in front of shelters after being forced out of a hospital and forced into a cab? Moore still can’t resist a cheeky, sarcastic turn but his filmmaking is maturing. While past efforts struggled to maintain their objectivity, feeling at times like one man’s personal vendetta against the powers that be, “Sicko” is more like a rallying of the people, exposing many Americans’ selfish motivations to look out for themselves above all else as their ugliest problem. Instead of yelling incessantly at the Bush administration and the corporations that pull the strings, all Moore seems to be concerned with is how the American population is still allowing for a world where the weakest among them is left to die in the streets.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

A Mighty Heart


Mariane Pearl: This film is for our son so he knows his father was an ordinary man, an ordinary hero.

Telling the truth is generally considered to be the first step on the path to righteousness. It brings redemption to some and relieves the guilt of others. Many people have a hard time accepting the truth when faced with it. That difficulty in dealing is perhaps the main reason some run far away from the truth altogether. Given how troubling facing the truth can be in everyday reality, being subjected to it in celluloid on the big screen is a very hard sell. This is even more relevant when the film in question is based on an event that was played out to the point of emotional exhaustion in the media (just ask the producers of “United 93”). This is the plight of “A Mighty Heart”, an adaptation of Mariane Pearl’s novel of the same name, about her experiences during the search for her kidnapped husband, Daniel Pearl, in the winter of 2002. For director Michael Winterbottom, this is only the beginning though. Assuming he manages to get people to see the film, (casting Angelina Jolie in the role of Mariane Pearl certainly doesn‘t hurt the film’s chances), Winterbottom must then get people to forget that they know how it’s all going to end.

Winterbottom is too smart to go against the grain. Instead, he uses the audience’s prior knowledge of the story to incite an even deeper emotional reaction. He begins by establishing his style. “A Mighty Heart” is not a documentary but rather a fictionalized reenactment of actual events that is shot and edited like a documentary. There are no talking heads but the camera is an active participant in the drama that unfolds. Hand-held movement, jump cuts and an omnipresent observer’s point of view lend realism to the film’s already tense premise. For those who aren’t aware, Jewish-American journalist, Daniel Pearl (played here by “Capote” scribe, Dan Futterman) was kidnapped in Pakistan in January of 2002. The violent act became an international scandal as the group that claimed responsibility for the crime demanded the liberation of prisoners from American detainee prison, Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. The American government does not give in to the terrorists’ demands. It doesn’t end well. The film focuses on the efforts made by Mariane, the Pakistani police, the C.I.A. and the journalistic community throughout the search for Daniel. Knowing Daniel doesn’t live through the ordeal and that this search is fruitless may leave the audience without hope but the dedication and fervor with which the case is attacked carries enough hope to inspire an overwhelming sympathy that sinks our hearts when what we know is coming actually comes.

A blustering soundscape and tightly framed street and crowd shots elevate stress levels to unimagined heights. Mariane is alone in a foreign country, searching for the most important person in her life. Knowing the odds are against her, holding on to hope becomes all the more complicated when she is surrounded by strangers, traffic and the sounds of incessant honking, cell phones and random farm animals. The chaos is absolutely inescapable. Yet still, Mariane must remain calm. After all, she is the heart of this operation. If her heart fails, all hope is lost and all efforts will fall apart. Jolie exhibits both outer strength and inner fragility at the same time as Mariane. She is direct and focused in face of this horrific reality, holding it together for Daniel, herself and her unborn child but Jolie’s distant eyes and suddenly fidgeted demeanor suggest just how difficult maintaining all this composure truly is. Being a journalist herself, Mariane’s most endearing quality is perhaps her ability to remain hopeful in spite of all the horror she has known in her own career without coming across as naïve. Jolie’s balancing act upon such a tightly wound rope is truly genuine in both its intention and execution.

Any movie entitled “A Mighty Heart” cannot spend all its time entrenched in fact. After all, there is a delicate, growing love between Daniel and Mariane that is also being held prisoner. This love though cannot be held captive and gives life to hope. Their love comes back to Mariane in flashes throughout her suffering. Insignificant moments like the last time they saw each other take on new meanings, making the loss feel larger while still reminding her what she is fighting to find. The truth behind “A Mighty Heart” that it takes one to live through something like this and, more importantly, live past it.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Surf’s Up


Filmmaker: Do you have any other talents?
Cody Maverick: What? You mean like singing and dancing? Nah, man, I just surf.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I love me some penguin. Of course, I am referring to the line of clothing and not the waddling bird. Regardless, I too fell in love with the emperor penguins along with the rest of the world a couple of years back when “March of the Penguins” swept the summer documentary box office. That was the same summer the mischievous animated penguins of “Madagascar” had people begging for more (which they were unfortunately given months later with the dreadfully drab short, “A Christmas Caper”). Penguins were all the rage. After winning the Best Documentary Oscar, the penguin love only continued to grow with the holiday hit, “Happy Feet”. The premise there, after essentially crafting an animated reenactment of the mating ritual outlined in the aforementioned documentary, penguins sing to express themselves while one dances instead. “Happy Feet” was a big success and went on to a surprising win for Best Animated Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. And so the trend continues with another animated feature about penguins, “Surf’s Up”. Only now it may seem the public is growing weary of these tuxed-up birds. Perhaps there is only so much penguin love to go around. It’s a shame really because “Surf’s Up” may be the best of the (animated) bunch.

To differentiate itself from all the previous penguin fare, “Surf’s Up”, is constructed as a mockumentary. To capture an on-the-cuff style, a special motion capture camera system was mounted to an old Sony video camera to give the illusion that the movie was shot with a hand-held camera. Factor in jump cuts and film scratches from different stocks and you have a style that is both authentic and dynamic. A film crew (voiced by the actual directors, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck) has decided to follow an aspiring surfer by the name of Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) on his journey that begins at his humble home in Shiverpool to the Penguin World Surfing Championship. With blizzards gusting in the background at home and forestry looking lush and wet at the championship, “Surf’s Up” uses nature to not only establish its fish-out-of-water story but to wow its audience. The beauty of the animation itself is enough to make “Surf’s Up” a serious contender come award season when the waves of praise come crashing ashore.

Set amidst these beautiful backdrops is a bevy of lovable, genuinely hilarious characters. What is perhaps the film’s strongest achievement is the spontaneity it creates in a style that is so meticulously designed and planned. The penguins sincerely seem as if they are on camera. They are both uncomfortable and candid. At home, Cody is surrounded by his doting, doubtful mother (Dana Belben) and oversized, pesky brother (Brian Posehn). The tension in this family is palpable and unnervingly funny. En route to the competition, Cody comes into contact with talent scout, Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone), whose neurosis run through his head almost as fast as his little bird legs run on land and an oddball surfer/rooster named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), who is as laid back (read potentially stoned) as one would expect a surfer to be. Cody is taken under wing by a former surfer named Geek (Jeff Bridges) once at the competition and their playful interactions keep your gliding through to the finals. “Surf’s Up” packs in more unexpected laughs than one would expect and the fact that they are unexpected is what makes it so incredible.

“Surf’s Up” also makes sure to bang home an important lesson for the kids. After all, this is a summer family film and there needs to be a lesson learned. Cody learns a number of things along his way but they all amount to understanding a thing or two about patience. “Winning isn’t everything” and “There are more important things to life than winning” make appearances but what is most important is the philosophy that will help Cody win out overall. Stop fighting and learn to ride the wave. It is a lesson that even the filmmakers should have heeded as there are times when the imposing hand of the powers that be can be felt in the film’s construction to ensure it is as marketable as possible. Oddly placed soundtrack choices and shots that could not have been caught by documentary filmmakers undermine the credibility of the mockumentary but hardly take away from the fun to be had. “Surf’s Up” will surprise you, crack you up and leave you wanting to catch the wave again and again.

The only question left to answer is whether polar bears will be over saturating the marketplace after the people who brought you “March of the Penguins” bring you “An Arctic Tale” later this summer.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Once


“I don’t know you but I want you all the more for that.
Words fall through me and always fool me, and I can’t react.”

From the moment “Once” begins, it is clear that the experience about to be had is unlike any you’ve had before. A busker sings for his dollar in the street. The quality of the image is grainy; the steadiness of the camera is shaky at best. The day turns into night and the song goes from bright to dark. The passion with which it is sung is almost overwhelming and suddenly borders on off putting. From the manner in which the busker is framed, it isn’t clear whether anyone is there to hear his song but his fervor brushes skepticism aside and declares that the song itself and the satisfaction derived from singing it outweigh the importance of having someone hear it. But someone is listening after all. A young woman from the Czech Republic stands transfixed before our busker on this Dublin street and a spark ignites the flame that gives “Once” its warmth. Writer/Director John Carney removes all convention from the movie musical and creates a film that reads like a well-written love song about two musicians falling in love with each other and the music they create together.

In the early 90’s, Carney left his rock group, The Frames, to pursue a career in filmmaking. The Frames continued on without him and lead singer Glen Hansard eventually took leave to search out new musical ventures, moving from Dublin to the Czech Republic. There he met Marketa Irglova, a classically trained pianist, and they developed a project entitled The Swell Season. Though the two are not linked romantically, their meeting and the music that came out of that became Carney’s inspiration for “Once”. During the week that follows their initial meeting on the street, the two artists, who are never referred to by name in the film, learn to accept that they are inexplicably drawn to each other. Given the chance, a relationship between the two could become one that would help each other grow. He would make a great father figure to her young child and she would drive him to make something of himself. Though “Once”’s tone is simple, these two characters’ lives are not. He has a girlfriend in London he longs to be with but feels he cannot out of obligation to his father in Dublin, while she is still married to an estranged husband whom she is unsure she has a future with. The trick then becomes to remain in the moment with each other and never allow for their relationship to go where it naturally feels it should.

Albeit a modern approach to a movie musical, “Once” is not so modern that it leaves the music behind. Instead, the music becomes the catalyst for love. She is first drawn to him by the sound of his song. He sings it with such passion that it gives her a direct view of his soul. It is not all who are able to show such vulnerability yet when the song ends, he trips over his spoken words and nothing comes out as it should. At first, she almost seems a nuisance to him. It isn’t until he hears the beautiful music she can make with her hands that the glimpse of her soul captures all his attention. Theirs is a mating ritual carried out in song. When one sings or plays, the other listens. When one cannot express the proper sentiment in words, it is music that gets the point across. When the two find themselves alone in a local musical instrument shop, they learn what it means to sing together. In order to do so, they must truly listen to the sound of the other’s voice and fall into the same pace and rhythm of their notes. Their voices, as it turns out, are the perfect compliment to each other. The harmony they create leads into a song that is itself a representation of the love between them, both fragile and pure.

The delicate chemistry between Hansard and Irglova is framed in such a stripped fashion that it only further serves to concretize the genuine sincerity between the two. Almost entirely hand held and lit only with natural light, “Once” seems less like intricate filmmaking and more like layered storytelling, or perhaps more appropriately, song writing. Put simply, “Once” is like a perfectly soft song played acoustically in a park; it seeps into your soul, soothing you as the sun beats down upon your smiling face, allowing for all cynicism to melt away while your reaffirmed belief in love is sung from your mouth.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Paris, je t’aime


“Listen. Listen. There are times when life calls out for a change. A transition. Like the seasons. Our spring was wonderful, but summer is over now and we missed out on autumn. And now all of a sudden, it’s cold, so cold that everything is freezing over. Our love fell asleep, and the snow took it by surprise. But if you fall asleep in the snow, you don’t feel death coming.”

With the sun shining brilliantly on a quiet Sunday that is just about to fully wake up, love can be felt in the soft breeze that sweeps past my feet and can be seen in the smiles of the people I walk alongside. It is the perfect day to stop off for croissants and a café au lait before heading off to the city of lights and love. Of course, a flight to Paris is not reasonably in this humble film critic’s budget so I had to opt for the next best thing, “Paris, je t’aime”, a collection of 18 short films by a variety of international directors. Each piece is named after a different Parisian neighborhood and is a reflection on love. Careful not to over glorify the most powerful and persuasive of all human emotions, “Paris, je t’aime” explores love at the many stages of its own game. The results are spontaneously romantic and surprisingly consistent. And truly, what better way to express the fleeting nature of love and how a moment can change your life than with a collection of filmed moments.

The beautifully poetic quote above is taken from Tom Tykwer’s Faubourg Saint Denis. True to form, Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) uses time-lapse photography and repetition to demonstrate the entire cycle of love, from inception to dissolution. Originally shot in 2004 and paired down for this anthology, Faubourg stars Natalie Portman as Francine, an American actress in Paris for a part in a film, and Melchior Beslon as Thomas, a blind man she falls in love with. Here, the blind leads the blind through the most unstable of terrain, where two people consume each other to a point where their lives nearly lose their own existences. As love seems to go from dazzling to dizzying, Tykwer reminds us of the tricks it can play on our minds and the illusions it can create when we stray towards doubt.

Perhaps the most giddily romantic offering comes from Sylvain Chomet’s Tour Eiffel. Choosing the city’s most identifiable attraction for its title, Chomet (“Les Triplettes de Belleville”) gives us a little boy who tells the story of how his parents met and fell in love. His father, a mime (Paul Putner), finds himself falling into one surreal scenario after another and eventually lands himself in jail. This is where he meets the woman who will become the love of his life (Yolande Moreau). Miming has become something of a dying art, if it isn’t already dead. Yet by nature, it is dreamy and untroubled. Miming points its silent finger at the ridiculousness of human behaviour and what but love can make people act more absurd? We might find someone special in the least likely of circumstances if we could just take ourselves a little less seriously.

“Paris, je t’aime” keeps the flow lively by not always focusing on love between lovers. Three memorable shorts focus on the love between a parent and a child. Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) has Catalina Sandino Moreno singing lovingly to her child before she leaves him to sing the same song with a distant longing to the child she watches over for her living. Nobuhiro Suwa (“Un Couple Parfait”) has Juliette Binoche trying desperately to overcome the emptiness she feels after losing her son. Binoche says very little yet, not surprisingly given her immense talent, her struggle is evident in her face as she learns that love sometimes means letting go. And Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) weighs in with one continuous shot of a father (Nick Nolte) and his grown daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) walking together for what must be the first time in a long while. We see them only from across the street and we only get close to them as the distance between the two characters narrows to a place of comfort and accepting.

The last short to screen is Alexander Payne’s 14ieme Arrondissement. As usual, Payne (“Sideways”) takes an ordinary person and shows us what makes them extraordinary. Carol (Margo Martindale) is another American in Paris. She is there alone and for less time than she would have liked as she has dogs waiting for her at home. She is a plain person with an uneventful life who finds herself in a city that is rich and lush. In beautifully delivered Americanized French, she muses about the sights and how being there makes her feel. This woman spends so much time trying to be happy despite life’s numerous disappointments and as she sits in a city made for lovers, she realizes that she is in fact happy and loves herself more than she knew. She falls in love, if only for perhaps a moment, with life and love itself.

The characters that appear but fleetingly in “Paris, je t’aime” find themselves at the romantic center of the universe. The moments they share with each other, be it helping someone up after a hard fall or reaching out your hand to another person without touching them or without their knowledge, are the moments that give love its flare and flourish. Outside the city of lovers, it can be easy to miss moments such as these but we must remind ourselves of their significance. It takes but a moment for love to shine through a cloudy sky. You just have to keep your heart open to see it. And if one city can be so abundant with love, one has to believe it can find its way one day to your door.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End


“Slap me thrice and hand me to Mama. It’s Jack!”

Have you ever noticed how both good and bad things are said to come in three’s? The month of May at the movies this year does nothing to answer that question but it does take the entire superstition that much further, by making it so when things, good or bad, come in three’s, nothing else comes at all. The big commercial theatre where I saw “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” was playing only three films on its dozen or so screens. This summer’s other high profile third chapters, “Spider-Man 3” and “Shrek 3”, joined it. With these three films monopolizing every screen, how can any other film come to matter or register a dent in the consciousness of filmgoers? One could conclude that the theatre is just giving the people what they want but how accurate is that? By the time the third part in a series rolls around, people seem to be tired of the whole thing and just ready for it to be over. Given how much bile has been spilled over all three of the aforementioned films, it appears as though it has become cool to turn on those that have provided so much entertainment in the past. Luckily for Hollywood, the trend has done nothing to stop the money from rolling in.

I didn’t care for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”. I found it to have had its comic moments but to be overdrawn and tedious at times, lacking the spontaneity and energy of the first film, “The Curse of the Black Pearl”. As a result, I didn’t have much of an interest in “At World’s End”. The “Pirates” series falls into a category of trilogy where the second and third installments were not specifically intended when the first was conceived. What was once a complete story must be expanded into a longer series. Some storylines are given back-story while others are stretched so thin that it becomes distracting to actually grasp how everything is connected. In “At World’s End”, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) needs to be brought back from the dead, known here as Davy Jones’ Locker. With a variety of selfish motivations, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) make the dangerous journey along with their regular crew. Once back, Jack and company must defeat Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) and his fleet, who intend to rid the world of all pirates. Along the way, a number of other sub plots find some screen time but find themselves ultimately left ashore. Having already seen the first two films, I found it somewhat difficult to piece the muddled puzzle together at times so I can only imagine how lost one would be coming into this film without any previous pirate experience. Overly complex stories are almost inevitable though when you expand a story that was never intended to be expanded to begin with.

The “Pirates” series has relied increasingly on visual effects as the series has progressed. While the transitions between pirates and the undead in the first film were sleek and engrossing, the film itself struck with viewers thanks primarily to the wild and unpredictable performance of Johnny Depp. Depp has been just as consistent at being inconsistent in the two latter films but there’s only so much further the character can go. Subsequently, the visual aspects needed to step it up to deliver that which a summer blockbuster is expected to deliver. Back for a third time is director Gore Verbinski, taking a decidedly darker, more surreal approach to the pirates he made famous. When a film opens with mass hangings and the announcement that a number of citizens are being robbed of their fundamental rights, you know that fluff is not about to follow. Only here, it does. What ensues is a ride that bounces back and forth between varying visual motifs that leave the viewer lost at sea. That being said, I don’t think I will forget that close-up of Depp’s nose traveling along the screen, sniffing for a peanut, for a very long time.

It’s hard to say goodbye to anything that has been with you for so long. It’s even harder for studios to imagine never seeing the size of treasure that Jack and crew haul in with each of their adventures. Hence, even as this trilogy comes to its intended close, further pirate plots are being cooked up by studio heads that will likely plow ahead with them with or without their regular cast. That doesn’t stop “At World’s End” from ensuring that every possible audience satisfaction is met before the credits role. Characters say their goodbye’s almost as if they were the actors themselves saddened by the end of their own experiences together. The film suddenly seems to be fully aware of its own significance in the pop culture fabric. The problem here is the film is giving itself more credit than it likely deserves as it seems these days that more people flock to trilogy closers out of obligation and not anticipation.

Review by Joseph Bélanger