2009’s Best & Worst, by Jean-François Tremblay

TOP 10

1. Watchmen: a wondrous film. Take me to the watchtower, so I can listen to the sound of silence, saying Halleluiah. It’s a visual delight for sure, but the moral and philosophical reach of this major work is quite astounding as well – simply consider the haunting question, “Who’s watching the watchmen?” There are heavy themes like one’s calling and the price of a life without compromise, and every character is fascinating – with a special mention for the unforgettable Rorschach, as played by Jackie Earle Haley.

2. Brothers: a tremendously powerful movie about the cost of war and the toll on those fighting it, and how it affects their loved ones. It’s heart-wrenching stuff, imbued with an air of mourning by a fantastic score by Thomas Newman. Natalie Portman deserves an Oscar, while Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire also give some of their very best performances ever.

3. District 9: what a hypnotizing, thrilling discovery. A deeply layered story makes great use of the faux documentary approach, touching on the man-machine, the man-alien, the fugitive and the beast with a soul, as well as the deceit and cover-up by those in power. It coalesces into a highly resonant, quietly shattering film, worth many viewings.

4. Terminator Salvation: by far the most interesting film in the franchise since the excellent first one, this is science fiction of a high order: it has ideas and it has soul, thanks to a clear story with many evocative touches. Christian Bale is suitably intense, but this is really Sam Worthington’s film. He’s fabulous as Marcus, whose plight is a distant but unmistakable echo of Frankenstein. His character arc with Blair (a superb Moon Bloodgood) is full of tenderness, creating a very poignant relationship.

5. I Love You, Man: there’s a ton of great laughs in this level-headed, intelligent and super-sweet film. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are just brilliant, while the beautiful Rashida Jones is absolutely delightful.

6. Paranormal Activity: if it wasn’t for that awfully disappointing ending, which takes the movie into weak J-horror territory, this would be higher on the list. The slowly rising level of dread and fear is at times unbearable, and some of the stuff we see is profoundly scary and chilling.

7. Love Happens: a lovely, underappreciated film. This quietly romantic movie reminded me of the first few films by Ed Burns, notably She’s the One. The flow and feel resemble those of the best indie films, and there’s excellent work by Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston.

8. Public Enemies: very sharp, very tough and exceptionally well constructed.

9. The Ugly Truth: it’s sexy, spicy, and above all, very, very funny.

10. G.I. Joe – The Rise of Cobra: completely crazy, but that’s why it’s such a blast. 🙂 The action scenes are super exciting, Rachel Nichols is really hot and Sienna Miller is just stunning as well.

Honourable mentions

The movie coming closest to being on the above list is Adventureland, which has a fabulous soundtrack, great characters and a keen eye for detail. Also: Mes stars et moi, Dragonball: Evolution, Up and Year One.

Worst 5
Revolutionary Road, Obsessed, Martyrs, Pandorum, The Uninvited

Sunshine Cleaning


I have a low tolerance for a certain kind of film that specializes in quirkiness obviously, patently meant to get your sympathy – eccentricity for its own sake. And there’s a fair amount of that in “Sunshine Cleaning”, the new film by Christine Jeffs (Sylvia). The picture strives for a quiet salute to the value of the family unit – in its own unobtrusive way, I guess it kind of works, but its impact is muzzled. The main reason I’m giving it a passing grade is the presence of the remarkable Amy Adams (Junebug, Enchanted), who once again emerges as the shining star of the cast.

Adams plays Rose, a single mom with an 8 year-old son who looks and talks like he just dropped in from Mars – God forbid they have a well-adjusted, good at sports, does fine at school kind of kid in these movies. Little Oscar’s latest bit of odd behaviour: he just started licking stuff out of the blue– teacher’s legs too. Maybe it’s time for some serious medication, the school advises. Don’t worry, you’re the normal one and they don’t get you, replies Grandpa Joe (Alan Arkin, who here speaks in an amusing tone of contained exasperation). Joe has one of those only at the movies occupations – let me get it straight from the promo material: he’s “working on the latest of a life-long string of get-rich-quick schemes”. One minute he’s hawking some kind of miracle candy, the next he’s trying to peddle shrimp to a local restaurant, who’s having none of it. I wouldn’t trust Joe as a business partner, but I’m sure it’d be a hoot to tag along on a sales pitch.

Oscar (Jason Spevack) is the kind of little guy who asks himself everyday questions like “Who was I before I was born?” and “What happens when we die?”, when he’s by himself in a van. Joe sees something special in the kid, however, especially since he thinks that Oscar has “business acumen”. All right.

Rose works has a cleaning lady, but she’d love to get into real estate. She’s also having an affair with her married high school boyfriend, Mac (Steve Zahn). Mac, who’s now a cop, tells her there’s big money in the crime scene cleanup and bio-hazard removal business, and maybe she ought to get into that. Meanwhile, her younger sister Norah , played by the striking Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Dan in Real Life), has just been fired from another waitress job (cue a scene so cliché you basically never see it, the one where you drop the plates and get fired on the spot, but it’s not really a firing, you know, cuz she’s quitting the hellhole anyway). What better occasion for the two sisters to spend time together and make some money while at it, right? So they start the more or less black market operation that drives the narrative – and allows for the only true laugh in the movie: the tumble caused by a dropped dirty mattress, more precisely Norah’s reaction – understandable yet comically exaggerated – to the ensuing contact with her face.

There’s an attempt from Norah to deal with a past trauma, in a subplot involving Mary Lynn Rajskub. It has good intentions and is fairly intriguing, but it feels truncated. Also, I’m not sure what the deal was with the cop’s wife telling Rose she knows she’s seeing her husband. It’s a weird little tone breaker of a scene, coming basically out of nowhere and never addressed again. The film’s high point, I will concede, is Norah’s touching admission to her big sister about what they had to go through as children and how important she is to her. As played by the luminous Adams, Rose is a very likable character – you root for her and those she loves, while wishing there was a little less quirkiness and a few characters were more fleshed out.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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2008’s Best & Worst, By Jean-François Tremblay

TOP 10

1. Slumdog Millionaire: that rare film that soars into the sublime. One of the most captivating, enthralling and exhilarating film ever. It’s that good, and then some.

2. Il y a longtemps que je t’aime: it takes a while for the main character to earn your sympathies, but when it does the film shatters you to the core. The song playing during the end credits is hauntingly beautiful. It’s not often I’m shaken at the end of a film, but I was really touched by both the sorrow and the ray of light in this powerful movie.

3. Marley & Me: understandably marketed as a zany comedy with one adorable, unruly puppy, this is so much more. It’s a deeply moving, beautiful film about love, family, the things we hold dear and the special place pets can have in people’s lives.

4. Definitely, Maybe: a glistening example of what a romantic film can be, this one is no doubt among the best in recent years. Isla Fisher is delightful, exuding heartfelt emotion at every turn. Ryan Reynolds is superb, while Elizabeth Banks and Abigail Breslin also shine in this thoughtful, hugely charming movie by Adam Brooks.

5. Iron Man: fabulous superhero entertainment, witty and humorous. Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast and the relationship with secretary Pepper Potts, played by an especially lovely Gwyneth Paltrow, is just fantastic.

6. The Dark Knight: a standout effort with a lot of arresting moments, many provided by the remarkable, sadly departed Heath Ledger in a story that probes deep into the notion of a hero being tormented by his calling. The triangle between Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes is very complex – and what a quietly devastating moment it is when Alfred burns that letter from Rachel to Bruce.

7. Nothing like the Holidays: the funny stuff is carefully balanced with serious matters is this warm and observant holiday-themed picture. We feel the strong bonds within the family and there are several excellent performances, notably from Freddy Rodriguez, Melonie Diaz and Debra Messing.

8. In Bruges: there’s something hypnotic about this continually surprising, very dark but very original movie. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson create memorable characters, and the gorgeous location of the story adds a surreal quality to the atmosphere.

9. Forgetting Sarah Marshall: I couldn’t sum it up any better than the Ottawa Citizen’s Jay Stone: “sweetly rambling”, which is a pretty nice compliment. The lovely Mila Kunis is adorable in this finely crafted romantic comedy.

10. Hancock: this was an exceptional year for superheroes. While a notch below the two above, this film is a funny and thrilling example of the genre. It doesn’t hurt to have the strikingly beautiful Charlize Theron in it. Some people found her back-story and the twist ridiculous – for my part, even though I unwillingly knew about it before going to the theatre, I loved it and I found it well-done and a lot of fun to watch.

Honourable mentions

One Missed Call, The Eye, Charlie Bartlett, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, You don’t mess with the Zohan, The Deal and Quarantine

Worst 5

The Strangers (0 stars), My Best Friend’s Girl (0 stars), Nobel Son (0 stars), The Happening (1 star) and Max Payne (1 star) .

Nothing Like the Holidays


I went into “Nothing like the Holidays” a little bit wary after having seen director Alfredo de Villa’s previous two films, “Yellow” and “Adrift in Manhattan”. The former is a lightweight, uninvolving story about following your dreams and the latter, even with the optimism at the end, is a largely downbeat and off-putting affair. From all evidence, though, the holiday theme had a wonderfully inspiring effect on de Villa, who here delivers a tremendously enjoyable mix of comedy and drama, a multi-strand story with a strong sense of family and its heart in the right place.

It’s Christmas time in Humboldt Park, a northwest Chicago neighbourhood with a
strong Puerto Rican flavour, and the Rodriguez clan is gathering at the family household. There’s Mom and Dad Anna and Edy (Elizabeth Pena and Alfred Molina), three siblings, Roxanna, Mauricio and Jesse (Vanessa Ferlito, John Leguizamo and Freddy Rodriguez), Maurizio’s wife Sarah (Debra Messing) and loud cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman). Also important to the ensemble dynamic are Ozzie, a friend of the family (Jay Hernandez), as well as an old love of Jesse named Marissa (Melonie Diaz).

De Villa does a great job of addressing some serious issues in a mature way, guiding along a sharp, authentic script from Rick Najera, Robert Teitel, Rene Rigal and Alison Swan. The dialogue is always believable and only Guzman approaches mild exaggeration, but he’s a riot. Jesse, who has just returned from a long tour of duty in Iraq, has scars from the battlefield weighing heavily on his mind. This never feels exploitative or fake – Jesse appears a wounded soul, but he has his head on straight. Life has thrown him some hard blows, but by the end he walks with confidence, his head up high and his shoulders straight, and Rodriguez makes him into a real, relatable individual. His interactions with Marissa (Diaz herself is great in a smallish role) really feel derived from shared experience and a bittersweet sense of, well, that’s the way the cookie crumbled and this is Marissa now, this is her life and she’s happy in it.

Manhattan lawyer Maurizio, Jesse and Roxanna, a struggling actress in L.A., act and talk like real siblings, and the whole movie has a strong sense of family and community pride, starting with the bodega owned by Edy. The film takes a serious turn rather early with a sudden dining table announcement from Anna that she’s going to divorce their father, but it’s easy to see things are not really what they seem to be. Ozzie has an unresolved issue from a troubled past while Roxanna and Sarah, especially, hear it from Anna about her disappointment in not being a grandmother yet. All of these matters are dealt with in a believable way, because these characters feel genuine, and they’re all given the chance to say what they’re about and what they want out of life – for Sarah, for example, yes, that includes children, but that lucrative job offer is also quite important.

Amidst all that, there are some good laughs to be had, notably from Johnny but also from a pillow fight, and the whole bit with the chainsaw and the tree in front of the house is comic gold, seamlessly thrown in. There’s a bit of everything in “Nothing like the Holidays” – drama, comedy, romance, poignancy in how the family comes together at the end – and it’s a huge compliment to de Villa and the performers that nobody and no issue is given short shrift. This is an observant, heart-warming film that can proudly take its place with “The Family Stone” as one of the superior holiday-themed ensemble pictures of recent times.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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Quarantine


What if you went to a horror film and there’s not a single horror trailer before it starts? To this long-time horror fan, that’s got to be a first. Are the pickings so slim this year? There are distribution and marketing people out there letting stuff pick up dust, that’s for sure. Trick’r’Treat, anyone? This hasn’t been a banner year for fright fans. The Eye remake was well done, but to me it’s almost more of a spooky thriller than it is a straight horror film. For my money, before “Quarantine”, the only horror film that’s been pretty good in 2008 is the unjustly slaughtered One Missed Call remake, back in January. Some relief has arrived, however, with this rabid remake of the 2007 Spanish film [REC], by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza. The new version comes from John Erick Dowdle, director of the as yet unreleased Poughkeepsie Tapes.

Since it’s basically impossible to find a copy of [REC], we’ll go strictly with the new film, which is pretty good in its own right. The look and general thrust of the picture is from a cameraman’s point of view, something that worked tremendously for The Blair Witch Project but also for a film like Cloverfield, you might argue. This branch of horror is heavily dependent on framing and a sense of immediacy and less on editing –though in “Quarantine”, a few sudden cuts and black screens add to the disquieting atmosphere.

The film begins with Los Angeles TV reporter Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) running some intros for her Night Shift segment – her and Scott the camera guy (Steve Harris) will be shadowing a fire station. There we meet firemen Fletcher (Johnathon Schaech) and Jake (Hostel’s Jay Hernandez), and even the resident Dalmatian, who looks to be more useful than Fletcher at an actual fire – the latter gets whipped by Angela in a contest to see who puts on the gear the quickest. He seems like a happy-go-lucky goof, whose main contribution is the chick-o-meter (pointing out hot girls on the way to a call). It’s all fun and games at the station – playing some hoops, fooling around in the locker room – until a call comes to go to this apartment complex. It seems a woman’s been screaming like a lunatic on one of the upper floors – having fallen prey to a mad rage, she violently attacks a policeman, and from there the situation soon degenerates. In a shocking development (and a terrific example of framing and surprise), a body – or is the person dead yet? – lands with a horrible thud from the staircase, and the building quickly turns into a living hell. The apartment complex is sealed off, the CDC gets involved and we hear the word “rabies”, and then you know things are going from bad to worse to out of control. The police tell the media everybody’s been evacuated, but don’t you dare try to get out of the place, or Uncle Sam will make sure you don’t.

The film is not much of an actors’ showcase, but Carpenter is pretty intense – she had some measure of practice in the stellar The Exorcism of Emily Rose. For the most part, the cameraman’s point of view works well within the film and hey, you never know if that camera won’t come in handy if you need to kill the undead. Among the great scenes is one I call “the rock and the hard place”: on one side of an apartment, some of the survivors, who may not keep that status for long, have a young woman curled up in the corner, soon to be rabid and on the attack, and on the other side there’s a lost case, one or two bangs away from breaking free from that meagre door holding it back for a while. The ending isn’t among the greatest ever – I think there are too many worms in the can, if you will, but for a decent portion of its running time, “Quarantine” is as nerve-wracking and pulse-pounding as they come.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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Iron Man


I have just seen the ultimate exit strategy for the Middle East, and its name is Iron Man, a ruthless, strikingly efficient Marvel of engineering. And now this Rocketeer on steroids has his own energetic movie, helmed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed Elf and Zathura, among others. As superhero movies go, “Iron Man” ranks among the very best efforts of the genre, thanks to an exciting story, lots of humour, witty lines aplenty and the delectable, through-the-roof romantic tension between Tony Stark and his secretary Pepper Potts.

The film begins in Afghanistan, where an Army vehicle carrying weapons builder Stark (a tremendous Robert Downey Jr.) is rocked by a roadside bomb then attacked by insurgents. Stark is captured, after which we get a flashback for why he was in these parts, to show his new mega-weapon, the Jericho missile. The terrorists force him to build them such a missile; helped by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who saved his life with a device to prevent shrapnel from entering his heart, and also by loose monitoring from his captors, he instead creates an early version of the Iron Man suit. That allows him to escape, but his three-month ordeal and the destruction he saw from his weapons motivate him to discontinue that branch of Stark Industries, which sends the stocks into a tailspin and infuriates his associate, the untrustworthy and resentful Obadiah Stane (a wonderfully scheming Jeff Bridges).

Deep within his lavish Malibu mansion, however, Stark goes to work on the gold and “hot rod red” suit, which looks absolutely fabulous. He goes back to Afghanistan to take care of business, shall we say, and that will lead to a climactic confrontation, back home, with Stane as the Iron Monger. Also important to the story are Air Force pilot Jim Rhodes, well played by Terrence Howard as the responsible counterpart to Stark’s playboy lifestyle, and of course Stark’s secretary Pepper Potts, brilliantly played by an especially alluring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Favreau and the writers position “Iron Man” somewhere between the lightness of the Fantastic Four movies and the dramatic heaviness of Batman Begins and the last two Spider-Man films, for example, while the free spirit and careless attitude of the main character reminded me of Hellboy. The hologram shuffling is a bit Minority Report-like, but yet the fact that you’re reminded of other films (Robocop would be another) never brings down the enjoyment of watching “Iron Man”; in fact, it may enhance it for genre fans, who will probably think fondly of these influences, while casual fans of action films will find plenty to like about it. The romantic tension between Stark and Pepper is also a big reason why the film works so well, and it’s a credit to both actors. Paltrow is really stunning, especially with her blondish/caramel color hair down, and there are some quiet moments of true resonance, revealing these two as lonely souls who need each other. All in all “Iron Man” is great stuff across the board, with a cool final line to boot.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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The best & worst movies of 2007, By Jean-François Tremblay

TOP 10

Eastern Promises: a great masterpiece. Evocative, ruthless, dark and mesmerizing, it all applies to this powerful movie, which lingers long after it ends. Viggo Mortensen gives a phenomenal performance while Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts also make very strong impressions. This is one of those films you find even better every time you replay key moments and bits of dialogue in your head. The sharp script has a great moral complexity, which director David Cronenberg augments with a sustained formal mastery, creating a film whose tone, mood and exploration of human nature is much richer than your average crime drama. (1st).

The Jane Austen Book Club: what a wonderful treat. Maria Bello has long shown that her talent matches her considerable beauty, and she’s sensational here – rarely has guarded eagerness been better portrayed. Her pairing with the steadily surprising Hugh Dancy creates the most romantic screen couple of the year; you really want these two to end up together, and they do. This is a great example of why pigeonholing films as “chick flicks” is stupid, unless you consider the term to mean a superior film in thoughtfulness, writing, characters and performances. Anybody that overlooks this Club is missing out on a great movie. (2nd)

Evening: exceptional filmmaking, intricate and touching. Powerful emotions are bursting at the seams in this wonderful film by director Lajos Koltai, who tells us an engaging, heartfelt story about embracing the past, the present and the future. It’s as women-centric as can be, but guys should not dismiss this gem on such grounds: the ability to be moved is universal. The beautiful Claire Danes gives a tremendous performance. Toni Collette is simply exquisite, while Hugh Dancy and Patrick Wilson also shine in supporting roles. (3rd)

300: among the many highlights in this movie, an emissary is kicked down a bottomless pit, a warlord threatens of arrows so plentiful they’ll blot out the sun, a hunchback driven mad by resentment is lured to the dark side with promises of all that he’s never had, and a beautiful queen exerts deadly retribution on the lying slimeball who violated her honour. What more do you want? 300 is a striking visual spectacle full of lush, painterly images, ones that steadily and brazenly embrace its “freedom isn’t free” ethos. (4th)

Dan in Real Life: quite simply one of the best movies about family in the past several years. Peter Hedges gives us a film that’s witty, affecting, moving and also funny in small, simple measures. The score is a sweet melody and there’s a memorable rendition of “Let my Love open the Door”. Steve Carell is perfect and Juliette Binoche is truly charming. (5th)

L’âge des ténèbres: Sharp, biting satire of the highest order, turning an only slightly magnified mirror on many of our societal ills. Sometimes we laugh so that we may not cry, and there are many good laughs in this tremendously accomplished and relevant film from Denys Arcand. The fantasy scenes are amusing and sexy while the medieval interlude, if you will, reveals both the delectable pleasure and the profound absurdity of escaping into fantasy worlds, whatever they are. The first scene, with Rufus Wainwright, is a musically sublime piece of opera, a hypnotizing entrée en matière. Marc Labrèche is remarkable as Jean-Marc, always hitting the right notes. (6th)

Music and Lyrics: this delightful romantic comedy starts with a deliriously enjoyable parody of a 80s pop music video, an unusual but brilliant start that put a huge smile on my face for the whole movie. The pairing of the charismatic Hugh Grant and the adorable Drew Barrymore, who have fantastic chemistry, creates a tremendously appealing film. (7th)

Surf’s Up: the film’s mockumentary approach (I loved the footage of penguins inventing surfing) is part of the reason why it’s as good as it is. Too many animated films these days overstay their welcome and become irritating one way or another, but not this one. Surf’s Up is perfectly content being a well-spun, simple story with cool characters, lots of humour, an easygoing charm and a great message, gently told, about what’s really important in life. (8th)

Dead Silence: underrated and quickly dismissed, as is often the case with genre efforts. This was the most stylish horror film of the year, with impressive sound work, a really well-done gothic look and a gripping tale about a spooky dummy and the vengeful ghost of a chilling ventriloquist. (9th)

The Mist: It’s the Twilight Zone meets “Lord of the Flies” in this exceptionally well done adaptation of the Stephen King story, where ordinary people are trapped in a quickly worsening nightmare. While carrying intimations of class conflict and a political subtext, the film also shows the disastrous divide that can develop out of religious extremism. The mist and its deadly creatures from another world bring a creepy feeling of desperation and fatality – and then the cavalry’s too late, leading to an extremely bleak ending. (10th)

Honourable mentions

The Kite Runner, Rise: Blood Hunter, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Nanny Diaries, Hitman and Fred Claus.

Worst 5

Vacancy: the couple’s bickering is incredibly annoying, the plot is dumb, the execution is boring and the villains are beyond ridiculous.

Nitro: rarely have I seen something so profoundly bad, so disarmingly ludicrous.

Les 3 petits cochons: I’ve had my fill of this brand of dishonesty, vulgarity and tired bickering. The fact that this vacuous project was not roundly trashed as a disgrace but instead considered relevant, funny and realistic was almost as disheartening as the film itself.

Halloween: Rob Zombie’s latest is boring and uninspired, all mechanical murders and no tension. An ill-considered attempt to reinvent an all-time horror classic.

Saw IV: this once promising franchise, which in hindsight peaked with Saw II, gets even more convoluted, while going even further down the gutter. Simply abysmal.

Hitman


Finally, a movie has come along that actually uses a fabulous piece of music from the trailer in the actual film. I often wonder why that doesn’t happen more often. When the music referred to is a heartbreakingly beautiful version of “Ave Maria”, then it’s even better. As musical openings go, even though they’re completely different in nature, it’s the most dynamic this year along with “Pop goes my heart” at the start of Music & Lyrics. The rest of “Hitman” is not quite as involving, but it’s definitely worth a good look. The director, Frenchman Xavier Gens, opens with a shady organization training children from birth to become ultra-efficient assassins, under the blessing of what seems to be a secret branch of the Church. With the heavenly “Ave Maria” and a somber score during evocative early scenes, several years later, the film starts on a vibe of gloomy existentialism that’s only briefly evoked thereafter. Our title hero, Agent 47 (Tim Olyphant), is the best of his kind. In an early scene at a bar, when agent 47 is asked for his name, he excuses himself and just walks away. “The place I was raised, they didn’t give us names, he says later. They gave us numbers. Mine was number 47.”

I don’t know much about the game, but my feeling is that long-time fans will like this adaptation, as will fans of good action flicks. After the opening sequence, the film is book ended with a discussion between 47 and Interpol agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), who’s been tenaciously pursuing him for three years, essentially making the film a flashback. The key question that 47 asks Whittier is enigmatic, in a very good way – it is directly connected to the situation, and a reflection of the calculating pragmatism of 47. This leads to an ending which may be interpreted as disappointingly vague or just about perfect; I stand close to the middle, hedging slightly towards the latter.

The film delivers on the action front: 47 makes a thrilling escape from a hotel, and the sabre fight against three fellow agents is a show-stopping, tightly choreographed affair. While the story by Skip Woods (Swordfish) is pretty elaborate, even a little confusing when it comes to political intrigue, it unfolds rather seamlessly. Beyond being chased by Whittier, Agent 47 is hounded by the Russian secret service after a frame-up in which he was ordered to kill Russian President Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). When 47 is told there was a witness, a prostitute called Nika (Ukrainian knockout Olga Kurylenko), he smells a rat and takes off with her, to put it gently –it’s more or less a kidnapping- and starts looking for answers. An abused woman whose services were bought by Belicoff, Nika has held on to enough spunk to be saucy and flirty, despite dire circumstances. She develops an intriguing, unusual rapport with 47, who treats her either with vested attention (“We need to buy you a new dress”) or twisted efficiency (when she keeps bugging him after he brought her breakfast and just wants to take a nap, he says “Stop talking, or I’ll put you back in the trunk”). The brutal ending to their dinner date, and more precisely the fallout, is a little funny but also a little sad. It’s the kind of scene that gives the film a layer of substance that goes a long way. Nika’s relationship with 47 straddles a line between thankfulness, possibly even desire, and profoundly hating his guts. You’d hate the guy too if he made you ride twice in the trunk – including with a dead body the first time. “Don’t be dramatic, he tells the furious damsel after he lets her out of there the second time. I got rid of the body.” Oh well, then.

Kurylenko (Paris je t’aime) has a great presence and wonderfully expressive eyes. Olyphant is well know for his starring role in “Deadwood”, but I also really liked his work in Go (1999), The Girl Next Door (2004) and Catch and Release (2007). He has a bit of a clipped delivery, well measured, and again shows his knack for speaking softly but firmly. Scott (Mission: Impossible II) hams it up just a bit; it’s fun watching Whittier thumb his nose in no uncertain terms at FSB agent Yuri Marklov, personified proficiently by Robert Knepper (“Prison Break”). Kurylenko and Olyphant work subtlety and discreet interplay into their relationship, which is partly why some will feel the ending should be more conclusive. The emotional high point of the film is when Nika, with searing pain in her voice, begs 47 to “Please… stop.”, after she’s seen more than enough violence. “She saved your life” is 47’s benevolent remark to the man on the ground, hinting at a level of soul searching that doesn’t really materializes. “Hitman” sometimes feels like an empty vessel type of shoot’em up (the Istanbul massacre and the destruction of the cathedral are outrageous), but it has a good story, dazzling action and a surprisingly compelling central relationship.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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Halloween


All right folks, I don’t want to spend much more time than I already have in the theatre on the badly mishandled enterprise that is Rob Zombie’s re-imagining of one of the all-time horror classics. Simply said, his “Halloween” is boring, mostly nondescript, obsessed with blood, free of character development and ultimately very disappointing.

The quality of Zombie’s film output seems to be on a sharp slide: there was a jarring difference in style, thrust and focus between his explosive debut House of a 1000 Corpses, in 2003 (a solid 3 stars for this writer) and his follow-up The Devil’s Rejects, two years later. House was back roads horror in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes: it was hardcore, nasty and raw, but if you’re not going the more psychological route of, say, The Blair Witch Project or The Mothman Prophecies, sometimes that’s the way horror films should be. It was rather gory, within limits, but the horror came mostly from the predicament of being trapped by the Firefly family. House developed a sense of the morbid and the macabre turning into a horribly nightmarish experience, featuring a standout performance by Erin Daniels, while Rejects had a vastly different visual style and narrative structure. It was at best a two-star film, but Halloween falls even further down the scale.

This new “Halloween” deflates reasonable hopes right from the start: the abusive stepfather is a tired example of the worst kind of trailer park trash, and there’s a severe lack of insight into the broken psyche of the already disturbed 10 year-old Michael Myers (he starts by killing and mutilating pets. Perhaps a haircut would have saved everybody a lot of trouble – what’s up with that hair?). After violently attacking and killing a bully after school, Michael slaughters his stepfather, his big sister and her boyfriend (his mom and the baby are spared). We then move forward 15 years to the escape from the asylum and the return to Haddonfield. There’s not much to say about Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton), but that’s saying something in itself: Zombie doesn’t show any real interest in the characters: he seems content to set up a string of mechanical killings (Tyler Mane has no chance to show emotion as the adult Michael).

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There’s a lot of self-referential casting from the previous films of the director: sometimes that can be fun, but in such a weak film it feels like a gimmicky checklist. Look, it’s Ken Foree as a jovial trucker. Wow, here’s Danny Trejo, unfortunately not as Machete, but as a janitor at the asylum. There’s Sid Haig as the graveyard man. And how clever is that, Danielle Harris (little Jamie in Halloween IV and V) is in there for like three minutes as one of Laurie’s sassy friends. If I’m not mistaken, I counted 16 murders; in the order they happen, they started being awfully repetitive and predictable at about the seventh one; in short, we see way too much of Michael, and that robs him of the mystique he had in John Carpenter’s 1978 classic.

There’s also a weird, brief moment where the movie shifts into an almost shot for shot, word for word remake of the original. Malcolm McDowell turns out to be a faulty choice to play Dr. Loomis, a character pretty much as iconic as Michael himself for fans of the franchise. Whereas Loomis was played with semi-camp gravity by Donald Pleasence, who said almost all his lines with a hint of fatality, McDowell conveys a mannered psychologist with unclear motivations (he’s on the lecture circuit, with a book on his experience trying to understand the silent madman). His tone feels unnatural, and the script provides him with distracting touches of throwaway humour. Sheri Moon Zombie is the film’s lone bright spot as a mother still caring about her son (Daeg Faerch), while desperately trying to understand why he turned so brutally violent. Her portrayal is as mastered and affecting as can be in the circumstances. Michael’s use of masks as psychological crutches from a young age has some potential, but it’s not nearly as looked into as it could have been. At some point, Michael’s behaviour is referred to as being the result of a “perfect storm” of interior and exterior factors, but don’t get your hopes up for any meaningful answers.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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Hostel: Part II


Oh, how the mighty can fall, or at least stumble. Roughly a year and a half after his powerful Hostel, writer-director Eli Roth is back with another trip to the Slovak hell hole in disguise and another look at the pay-for-murder Elite Hunting organization, which from the looks of it provides steady employment to pretty much everybody in town and allows its boss a palatial home with blood hound statues at the entrance. Not quite as big a downgrade from its predecessor as the appalling Saw III was to the excellent Saw II, “Hostel: Part II” is still a disappointment as a follow-up to an exceptional horror film. This is the result of a shift away from the many strengths of Hostel – the visceral impact, the unblinkingly dark tone, the ruthless indictment of American imperialism and arrogance and the terrifying feeling of being lost in a strange land where life is cheap and evil’s only limit is the size of your bank account.

The film basically picks up where it left off. Paxton (Jay Hernandez) has escaped, but how long can you survive when Elite Hunting is after you? It’s no spoiler to say we don’t see him for too long. The plot shifts to a new batch of victims: whereas the first film had three guys (two American college students and an Icelandic “drifter”), this one has three young Americans gals in Rome for art classes. Lorna, Whitney and Beth (Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Philips and Lauren German) have just finished drawing nude portraits when the female model (Vera Jordanova) shows friendly curiosity about Beth’s rendering of herself. Axelle (the model) runs into the girls again on a train to Prague, and she talks the ladies into going with her to these fabulous hot springs at this super-spa in Slovakia. Cue the lodgings we know, with the same shady clerk, and let the mayhem begin.

Lorna, who’s incredibly meek, dreamy and naïve, is the first to be trapped by Elite’s henchmen after she accepts a night-time boat ride with a complete stranger that looks even less trustworthy than that sort-of pimp Alex did in the first movie. This decision leads to what is undoubtedly the film’s nastiest and most perverse scene: being naked, gagged and hung upside down is just the start of her ordeal, especially when you throw a scythe into the equation. Having good-times girl Whitney tied up and ball-gagged in sexy pink lingerie will give further ammunition to those who accuse Roth of voyeurism and exploitation through torture, but variations of what happens here have been happening in horror films for some time, to both men and women. It’s part of the nature of the genre to shock and sometimes repel, but like any other film genre, horror movies should be viewed and reviewed in a comprehensive manner about what makes it work or not; it’s often simplistic to make moral judgments based only on what may or may not be repulsive within a film.

Yet even with this inclusive approach, it’s hard to say what Roth was after here. Is this film some pitch-black vision of consumerism gone past the extreme, or is he trying to convey some alleged fear of the potential murderous maniac next door, hiding his worst impulses under the cover of financial stability, an apple-pie family and Sunday golf? Still waters may run deep, but there’s a jarring change of attitude here with the seemingly remorseful and hesitant Stuart (Roger Bart), one of two wealthy American clients, that is profoundly puzzling. He snaps in the blink of an eye, while his friend and fellow client, the boastful Todd (Richard Burgi), rationalizing the idea of murder as a self-imposed rite of passage, a demented road to unmatchable empowerment, is revealed to be all bark and no bite about his twisted intentions. I kept looking for possible insights into the nature of the evil that men do but found little explanation- perhaps the answer is that there is none- as well as a few sudden shifts in tone. At times the mood seems resigned and sorrowful (the plaintive song heard as Todd and Stuart march toward their respective death-dealing rooms is an evocative highlight), but this kind of atmosphere is undermined by perplexing asides that would be disgusting if they weren’t silly (the bidding process for the victims is preposterous almost to the point of parody, while the executioner’s “dinner” and the bubble gum gang’s soccer game, with a special “ball”, are incongruous attempts at gallows humour).

German turns in a fine performance as the headstrong and resourceful Beth. Her role is by far the most important of the girls, and she gives it the intensity it requires. No one else really stands out, but it’s not like they have fully developed characters to work with. An intriguing exception is Elite’s mastermind Sasha (veteran Slovakian actor Milan Knazko). We don’t know much about the man, but Knazko is very convincing as an all-powerful crime boss, for whom anything can be negotiated if the price is right and a key clause of the contract is respected – getting his organization’s trademark tattoo of a blood hound. “Hostel: Part II” is worth seeing for horror fans – if you usually stay away from the genre, this brand of gory, in your face nastiness is probably not a good fit for you – but a lot has been lost from the standout original film, most importantly the crucial element of surprise.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

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