Another Year

Gerri: Change is hard, isn’t it?
Janet: Nothing changes.

Aging is one of those human experiences that, if we’re fortunate enough to get up there that is, is essentially universal in theory. In practice though, some of us age much more gracefully than others. Some of us age while our dreams come true around us, while others do so while watching each of their dreams fall victim to time. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to choose how well life works out for us, so when the years continue to pass, each one has the potential to reinforce what we do or don’t have in our lives. “Another Year” is British filmmaker Mike Leigh’s specific look at one of these years and, in its delightful and touching execution, it contemplates the cruel little imbalances life has to offer.

There is a lot of eating in “Another Year” and all the glasses at the table are quite distinctly either half empty of half full. The table itself belongs to Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), a couple who have been together for more than 30 years, who are still just as adorable with each other today as the combination of their names suggests they should be. They are joined more often than not at their table by old friends like Mary (a heartbreaking Lesley Manville), who tells herself she is happy alone but drinks to forget she is actually alone whenever she can, and Ken (Peter Wright), who cannot fathom retiring because then he truly won’t have anything at all to do with his time. Sometimes their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman) stops by too. At 30, he hasn’t met anyone special yet and with such a great example of long lasting love to live up to, you know he knows he is missing out. The dinner conversation is never boring and, thanks to the incredible ensemble, always fascinating and enlightening.

Tom and Gerri garden together. “Another Year” follows their planting cycle from the planting itself to the period of growth, through the harvesting in the fall and finally the inevitable death in the winter. They have been planting in this garden for years, just as Leigh has been making movies for years. And if the relaxed, subtly aware tone of Leigh’s latest work tells me anything, it is that he too knows that all you can do is plant the seed and hope it grows to be strong, tall and surrounded by flowers.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Country Strong

Kelly Canter: Well, I remember that day / when our eyes first met / You ran into the building to get out of the rain ’cause you were soaking wet / And when you held the door / you wanted to know my name / Timing is everything.

There isn’t anything sadder in the world than a good country tune, except for maybe the booze-soaked, sleep-deprived, emotionally impossible days and nights that are the inspiration behind these great songs. Writer-director Shana Feste’s “Country Strong” is one of those true tragedies. One of the genre’s biggest stars falls off a Dallas stage, five months pregnant and wasted, killing her child and her spirit at the same time. A year later, she is checking out of rehab earlier than she should to return to that same stage and reclaim her career as well her own self. People are fighting, cheating and both breaking and making up, but by the time its done, everyone is crying tears into their beers.

Gwyneth Paltrow is Kelly Canter, a Faith Hill type country superstar, except with a slew of public problems. While her troubles are all very adult, her demeanor is still that of a child. Paltrow plays Canter as a little girl, lost in a big world, who would much rather be tending to a baby bird she found in a field than performing in front of thousands of screaming fans. She isn’t sober for long once her husband checks her out of rehab, as it becomes painfully clear the public is not going to let her forget her own personal hardships. She loses herself in anything and everyone she can in order to avoid her own self, until that’s all she has left – and Paltrow’s got a mess of mascara on her face most of the time to prove it.

“Country Strong”, which also boasts a surprisingly strong supporting cast, culminates into a somewhat simplified commentary about celebrity and people as products. Feste pulls out every country punch she can think of, but lucky for her, Paltrow knows how to roll those punches into something real so that you too can have a silent sob in your beverage.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Blue Valentine

Cindy: How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?
Gramma: I think the only way to find out is to have those feelings.

When they say, “For better of for worse,” in wedding vows, I believe they are referring to “Blue Valentine” in regards to the worse part. Novice feature filmmaker Derek Cianfrance’s latest is a very particular snapshot of a very specific place in a relationship that far too many people know far too well. And only few of those people live to tell the tale with their wits still about them. In reality, this space is an incredibly difficult test of the mind, the spirit and the heart and every effort is usually made to avoid getting there. It is one of the darkest stages a relationship can reach but Cianfrance is not the least bit afraid of the dark.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, an indie dream couple if I’ve ever heard one before, are Dean and Cindy, a young couple with a little girl, living their married life in rural Pennsylvania. They have been together for six years but those years have been far from kind. At the moment we meet them, Dean is feeding his daughter breakfast while Cindy is getting ready for work – an ordinary morning for many a couple, I’m sure. The difference here is that this kitchen is weighted down with a crushing tension that is evident in every look given and every word spoken. She seems appalled by his every action and influence over their daughter and he seems to know it. The room is rotten with the stench of hatred.

Dean and Cindy know they don’t have much time left and decide to get a room at a cheap motel in New York City for the night in hopes of working through their issues and rekindling their romance. Their intentions are sincere but the fight is so insurmountable at times, they each struggle with their resolve. Gosling, while somewhat overwrought in his character’s intensity, must be commended for the amount of evident effort he made to make Dean real and not just a bad husband. That said, Williams is heartbreaking every moment she is on screen. Even the manner in which she clasps her fists during one of the film’s many sexual moments is emotionally devastating. Together, they genuinely feel like two people who have been oscillating between love and hate for years, so much so that it can be too much to take at times.

Cianfrance is a brave man for going to as many places of despair in “Blue Valentine” as he does but he’s not stupid. He knows that an audience needs to breathe so he tells the entire story of their relationship in moments so that we can see that there once was a time when these two knew happiness, that there is another reason other than their daughter that they are fighting to stay together. The device is somewhat manipulative at times as its obvious point is to make us feel even worse that their relationship doesn’t seem to be salvageable. “Blue Valentine” did make me feel pretty bad. I had been in some variation of that relationship in my life and it was hard enough to deal with then so, as fantastic as the film is in its most candid moments, I’m not sure everyone is ready to go back there again.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

How Do You Know

Psychiatrist: Figure out what you want and how to ask for it.

Lisa: Those are both really hard.

Silly me. I assumed that “How Do You Know”, the new film by Academy Award winning director James L. Brooks, was asking an age old question about how you know when you’re actually in love. I did not realize that what it could also be asking is: how do you know when you’re watching a bad movie? For me, I knew when I was about half way through this muddled mess of a romantic comedy and still had no idea what the story actually was. Everything looked so pretty that I hadn’t noticed that Brooks had yet to make any effort to answer the question himself.

Reese Witherspoon returns to the big screen for the first time in two years in what certainly must have looked like a good project on paper. Everyone wants to know how you know you’re in love, including her character, Lisa, an Olympic softball player whose career has just stalled and whose interest in finding love seems to have stalled long before that. She is going through the motions with her casual boyfriend, Matty (Owen Wilson) but the clueless twosome actually think they are breaking new relationship ground every time he makes some space for her in his sock drawer. Meanwhile, Paul Rudd’s George is going through a crisis of his own but he knows without a doubt that Lisa is the girl for him. Naturally, we know as well too so we just have to sit around and wait for Lisa to get on the same page as everyone else.

If George can figure the whole love thing out, it stands to reason that anyone can, but Lisa and Matty exist on this plain where apparently love is a convoluted concept, that is as hard to understand as Jack Nicholson’s decision to appear in this farce. Love needn’t be so complicated but at least one thing is clear in this film – Brooks doesn’t know how you know anymore than anyone else does.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

The Tourist

Frank Tupelo: You’re ravenous.
Elise Clifton-Ward: Do you mean ravishing?
Frank: Yes, I do.
Elise: You’re ravenous.

Some poor sap of a math teacher from Wisconsin is sitting on a train en route to Venice from Paris when it happens. A devastatingly beautiful woman enters his car and spots the empty seat in front of him. Her gaze throws him completely off balance and from the moment she sits down, he doesn’t stand a chance. Who is she? Why would she sit with him when she could sit with any man she wanted? You just know that by the time they get off the train, their lives will be desperately intertwined. This is how Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, two of today’s biggest stars, meet in German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark’s first American foray, “The Tourist”. It’s all so old Hollywood but sadly it’s also all so transparently so.

Sometimes star power can have a blinding effect. The wattage can burn so bright that you don’t necessarily see how distracting it is from the actual film. And with stars as big as Depp and Jolie in your picture, it isn’t surprising that von Donnersmark, the man behind Oscar winner “The Lives of Others”, didn’t notice that they were not necessarily the best choices for their roles. Depp, with his beautiful hair and instinctual charm, is anything but a believable sap. Still, that charm inevitably saves him from coming off farcical and his decidedly anti-Bourne jaunt across shackled rooftops is certainly amusing. Meanwhile, Jolie seems to have been directed to walk around like a fembot of sorts, cold and false, from her perfect walk to her supposedly British accent. They are stars for a reason though and before long, the impossibly pretty people in the pretty foreign place lull you into comfortable and classical state of intrigue.

The setup for “The Tourist” is straight out of a Hitchcock movie. All the elements of a tantalizing mystery are there but all the goods are given away upfront so there is nothing left to guess at. Of course, seeing as how we don’t live in classical Hollywood, modern necessities like twists and surprises must occur and they are neither twisted nor surprising but at least they aren’t insulting. And so like a real tourist on a mediocre vacation that promised to be so gorgeous in the brochure, the stay is acceptable, at times even enjoyable, but we are happy to know we are going home when the credits roll.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

The King’s Speech

King George VI: Waiting for me to commence a conversation, one can wait a rather long wait.

When a king speaks, he must command attention. Though the British monarchy may be more iconography than anything else at this point in history, people will still look to their royal leader for guidance and reassurance in times of woe and doubt. That’s a lot of pressure for someone who may never have wanted to assume the responsibility to begin with. Unfortunately for King George VI, his birthright meant he did not have any choice in the matter. It’s not that he didn’t think he could do it; it’s just that he wasn’t confidant enough to think anyone would care to have him.

Forget the king; when director Tom Hooper speaks, he has my full attention. After his impressive first feature last year, “The Damned United”, Hooper continues his journey in regal fashion with “The King’s Speech” and delivers the goods right from the start. Colin Firth, who could easily garner another Oscar nod with his heartbreaking work here, is the Duke of York. It is 1925 and he is about to address the nation. The tension builds and by the time he gets to the podium, every ear in the land appears to be waiting to hear what he has to say. At first, there is nothing. What follows that awkwardness is a disjointed, passionless address that he stammers all the way through. It may not be as epic a global failure as modern day technology allows but enough people were listening to make it seem like a public collapse that he might never recover from.

He almost didn’t. King George VI went through many speech therapists before landing on Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue helps George break down the years of subtle abuse one suffers as the son of a king to see that his speech impediment is the result of isolation and lack of confidence, not something particularly physical. Their banter is at times hilarious and at others quite intense. Their immense combined talent, along with supporting turns from Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce, give “The King’s Speech” even more depth and flourish than Hooper already has. Together, they created a film that will certainly resonate long after it’s said what it has to say.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Love and Other Drugs

Jamie Randall: You’re my little blue pill.

Ordinarily, I would say that any film that starts with The Spin DoctorsTwo Princes is destined to be a disaster. “Love and Other Drugs” takes place is 1996 though so I guess I can be reasonable. The catchy ditty that consumed the airwaves that year is blasting in a high-end stereo store, where Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) is using his charms to make the sales and get the ladies while he’s at it. He hasn’t a care in the world until he meets a girl (Anne Hathaway) who has no choice but to take life seriously. The twosome are charming together and so disaster is averted but sadly, only so far as to achieve disappointment.

Director Edward Zwick often makes socially conscious films and “Love and Other Drugs” is no different (although arguably much less serious than say, “Blood Diamond”, as far as issues go). Jamie is a pharmaceutical representative for Pfizer at just the right time to cash in on the Viagra explosion. This allows Zwick to explore supposedly scandalous themes like the evils of the drug companies and how they’re ruining our immune systems while getting disgustingly rich. Zwick is never really interested in the matter at hand though. He just uses hot topic scenarios as backdrops for the real story – in this case, the reluctant love between Jamie and Hathaway’s Maggie Murdoch. To make matters worse, and of course much more poignant, Maggie has early on-set Parkinson’s. And so the real question is how life can be so terribly unfair as to give these two people a transformative love that will only get harder and harder to hold.

My answer to that is pretty simple. That’s life, folks. For all of Zwick’s fascination with serious subjects, he rarely seems to comprehend the actual impact of these hardships on the people involved. Maggie pushes people away because she doesn’t think its fair for anyone to have to deal with her condition. Meanwhile, Jamie is frustrated that he can’t fix her with a pill like everything else and has to accept that love is hard. While these are real struggles, the tone is kept pretty light while both of them accept that love is a drug all unto itself. Fortunately for “Love and Other Drugs”, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway get along brilliantly. They are playful and sharp, like lovers should be, and thanks to Zwick’s somewhat voyeuristic gaze, they are hot and naked a whole heck of a lot too. They are certainly the only addictive element to the film though and when the buzz wears off, there is no withdrawal at all.

Review by Joseph Bélanger


Ali: I’ve got to get out of this town

We open on a street so sparse, in a town so small, one expects tumbleweeds to float by the diner where two young ladies are wasting their lives away as waitresses. Pop princess/diva/star Christina Aguilera, is sitting on the counter top, staring off into the distance, looking forlorn and pensive. She announces that she’s got to get out of this town and before long, she is buying a one-way ticket to Los Angeles to become a star! There you have it. This is “Burlesque”, a new musical that steals (sorry, borrows would have been too generous a word to use here) from great movie musicals of the past, like “Cabaret”, “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago” (which incidentally all did it better), to showcase the vocal prowess of its star and transition her to the next inevitable level of her fame as a Hollywood actress.

It has not been a good year for Aguilera. Her latest album tanked and barely registered at radio. Her summer tour was scrapped due to low ticket sales, or so it was rumoured. And as if her professional troubles weren’t bad enough, she separated from her husband of just five years in the fall. With an album, a tour and a movie coming out in one year, this was clearly meant to be a big one for her. While my heart goes out to her, “Burlesque” is not going to turn anything around. Perhaps if there were a stitch of originality in the film, it might have given Aguilera some desperately needed credibility at this stage in her career. Writer-director (and I use those terms loosely) Steve Antin keeps the clichés coming though and it is painfully obvious that the only reason the film was made was to showcase Aguilera’s impressive chops. With reasons like that, it won’t amount to anything but a forgotten blip in the increasingly chaotic pop spectrum.

Judging from the age bracket of the audience I caught “Burlesque” with, I’d say more people were curious to see Cher return to the screen than anything else about this movie. Cher plays Tess, a former burlesque dancer that now runs the club, fittingly called “Burlesque”, where Aguilera finds acceptance and success. Cher is the only character other than Aguilera to sing in the film but never does she sing with her co-star. In fact, when Cher does sing, I was afraid her intensely tight face might crack into tiny little pieces but alas no, and at least she sounded decent. It’s a shame the songs she was given were so boring though. Fortunately, she has everyone’s favorite gay sidekick, Stanley Tucci, at her side to liven things up when necessary, which is often.

“Burlesque” is simply too easy to be anything other than mediocre. About half way through the film, when Aguilera inevitably finds her voice after struggling to get noticed in L.A. and just after Cher finds out that if they don’t raise an obscene amount of money by a fast approaching date that the club will close, you are lulled into a state of complete familiarity. Your fate is accepted and “Burlesque” makes its way to its predictable ending without full-on disaster or wardrobe malfunction. Familiar means comfortable and while comfortable can be nice, it can also be easily forgotten. Simply put, “Burlesque” falls very flat when it was clearly aiming for busty.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter: Blimey, Hermione!

Everyone who experiences the Harry Potter saga on film can be categorized into two separate groups – those who have read the books beforehand and those who have not. Those who have read them have likely read them several times. They know exactly what each film will bring, just not how it will bring it. For the rest of us, the young wizard exists only on the big screen and never has his world looked so great or been as engaging as in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”. No matter which group you belong to though, the Harry Potter film experience is entering its final chapter and the anticipation is palpable.

Director David Yates has outdone himself this time out. Despite the enormous amount of pressure on his back to bring one of film history’s biggest franchises to a satisfying and successful close, he seems to be flying through the Harry Potter universe with incredible ease after piloting the last three films. Yates also helms the second half of “The Deathly Hallows” but first he has masterfully and delicately handled this decidedly dark first half, where nothing is as it was. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his most trusted allies, Hermione and Ron (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) do not return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, like they do at the beginning of each previous installment. No, now this trio of role models to children the world over are officially dropouts, but with good reason of course. Harry must soon fulfill his destiny as the one who lived to vanquish he who used to not be named (psst .. that’s Voldemort – Ralph Fiennes). I know how it sounds but if you made it this far, you must have bought into this already and it’s still surprisingly compelling.

I can only imagine that J.K.Rowling’s last book operated in much the same fashion as Steve Kloves’ screenplay. Kloves has written every one of the Harry Potter films and in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”, he oscillates between somber, dark, sometimes downright frightening moments and a warm, nostalgic yearning for seemingly simpler times. As the series nears its end, familiar faces, places and things resurface to honour both the history and the fans while new addition to the Harry Potter family, cinematographer Eduardo Serra, lenses the Harry Potter landscape with depth and grandeur unlike anything I’ve seen in the first six films. The mounting magnificence of the Harry Potter films is infectious and to remain so fresh and relevant so many years later is some of the best magic I’ve ever seen.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Morning Glory

Mike Pomeroy: Half the people who watch your show lost the remote. The other half is just waiting for their nurse to turn them over.

In “Morning Glory”, the darling Rachel McAdams plays Becky. We all know Becky. We don’t necessarily know her in real life because she I’m not convinced she actually exists anywhere other in Hollywood films. Becky is married to her job as the executive producer of fourth place network morning show, “Daybreak”. As queen worker bee, she has no time for a life, let alone any time for love. We all know from the moment we meet her that she will inevitably find the balance in her life to live happily ever after, simultaneously providing a ripple effect of equilibrium to the people that surround her. In real life, Becky works around the clock, has meaningless sex if she’s lucky and probably has to take a multitude of medications to keep up the pace she has to in order to maintain her “life”. That would be way too depressing for a romantic comedy though.

“Morning Glory” may not be grounded in anything other than a clichéd perspective on life but director Roger Michell still manages to pull enough genuine emotion from his cast to make the experience pretty pleasant and often pretty funny. McAdams is the center, a 28-year-old who must choose between her dreams and reality (28 is apparently cut off age for chasing dreams). Her effortless charm propels her through countless difficult situations but you can tell she can feel the sting of failure catching up behind her and pushing her forward at the same time. Her morning show anchors are played by legends Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford. Keaton is sadly underused but looks to be having a blast whenever on screen. As for Ford, it was refreshing to see him look like he’s trying for a change. As former trusted news anchor and current unemployed curmudgeon, Mike Pomeroy, Ford’s cold exterior and antagonizing delivery could not be better suited. By the time he has to show a little heart (c’mon, you knew he would!), it practically feels like it could change the world.

I would like someone to answer this question for me. When is Patrick Wilson going to just waltz into my empty elevator on one of the worst days of my life like he does for Becky? I would settle for someone who isn’t Wilson but is equally attractive. The truth is though that, while life doesn’t work this way necessarily, people do still find happiness by searching, hoping and never giving up. It’s just a lot easier for them to find it when there is a director behind a camera making sure that all the missing pieces are waiting to be found in plain sight.

Review by Joseph Bélanger