2012 log (3)

(6 Mar)   Payback  (2012, Jennifer Baichwal)
[   The best Canadian documentary since Surviving  Progress, this Sundance 2012 selection is based on the  book by Margaret Atwood, whose deadpan lecture of excerpts from  it acts as narration. Exploring various facets of debt, be it  financial, political, social, moral or ecological,  Payback is thoroughly thought-provoking in the way it  draws parallels between things like the treatment of migrant  farm workers in Florida, a blood feud between two Albanian  families and the BP oil spill. Meanwhile, Jennifer Baichwal  mixes talking-head segments with striking, evocative visuals  accompanied by a great ambient score by Martin Tielli and  Gabriel Morley.    ]

(8 Mar) Produced by George Martin (2012, Francis Hanly)
[ Every music fan already knows the history of The Beatles inside out, but this documentary takes a relatively original angle by focusing on Sir George Martin, the venerable Parlophone label manager who signed the Fab Four (even though he initially thought their music was rubbish!) and produced all their albums. Now 86, he generously opens up about his life and career through this lovely portrait, which also features interventions from his wife Judy, his son and collaborator Giles, as well as surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. ]

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

(10 Mar) Wild Thing (2012, Jérôme de Missolz)
[ This doc takes us on a subjective, messy journey full of sex, drugs and loud music that proves to be both fascinating and frustrating. Jérôme de Missolz rockets through the history of uninhibited, transgressive rock, name-checking its countless casualties (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, etc.), who appear via priceless archival footage, and interviewing such survivors as Iggy Pop, Eric Burdon, Jimmy Carl Black (Mother of Invention), Richard Hell (Television), Lemmy (Motörhead) and Jello Biafra. This could (should?) have been a 10-hour series. ]

(11 Mar) Cinémas d’horreur: ApocalypseVirusZombies (2012, Luc Lagier)
[ Here’s an admirably cinephilic look at the post-9/11 new wave of horror cinema, which reflects the impact of terrorism and the Iraq War on the collective unconscious the same way 70s horror echoed the Vietnam War. Featuring Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes remake), Eli Roth (Hostel), Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (REC) and Neil Marshall (The Descent), Luc Lagier’s well-crafted documentary explores trends like torture porn and real-time horror without dismissing them out of hand like some do. ]

(12 Mar) L’Empire Bo$$é (2012, Claude Desrosiers) 17
[ From the writers of Camping sauvage – Yves Lapierre, Luc Déry and André Ducharme – comes a similarly misguided, gaudy comedy. Taking the form of a mockumentary, it tells the life story of an unscrupulous business tycoon, played one-dimensionally by Guy A. Lepage. He’s not the worst offender, though, since Claude Legault, Valérie Blais and much of the supporting cast deliver embarrassingly hammy performances. Filled with facile, witless digs at savage capitalism, political corruption and the like, L’Empire Bo$$é is as unsubtle a satire as it is unfunny. It’s Elvis Gratton XXX minus the scatological humour. Not much of an improvement if you ask me. ]

(15 Mar) Footnote (2011, Joseph Cedar) 79
[     Winner of the screenplay award in Cannes and nominated in  the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, this  Israeli feature depicts the intellectual rivalry between two  Talmud scholars who happen to be related. The son, Uriel (Lior  Ashkenazi), lovingly followed in the footsteps of his father,  Eliezer (Shlomo Bar Aba), but ended up outshining him, which  fills the old man with resentment. Might not sound like it, but  Footnote is a gripping watch, thanks to the finely  tuned script and acute direction of Joseph Cedar  (Campfire, Beaufort). At times reminiscent of  the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, it also possesses a  droll sense of humour, but it’s mostly heartbreaking, in a  slow-burning kind of way.  ]

(16 Mar) The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross) 76
[ In this adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy, Oscar nominee (and “X-Men: First Class” alumnus!) Jennifer Lawrence stars as a 16-year-old girl living in a dystopian future where 24 teenagers are rounded up each year and forced to kill or be killed as part of a government-run televised reality show. Not that original a concept (see also: “The Running Man,” “Battle Royale,” “The Condemned,” etc.), but thanks to confident storytelling, lively and expressive direction from Gary Ross, a potent mix of down-to-earth realism and sci-fi glam, a great score by James Newton Howard, a fun supporting cast (Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones) and, most of all, an immensely involving, alternately strong and vulnerable performance by the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence, “The Hunger Games” entertains, fascinates and disturbs nonetheless. ‘Cause even though this isn’t as brutal as, say, “Battle Royale,” it’s still surprisingly bloody and ruthless for a young-adult-oriented Hollywood franchise. The action is a bit too frantically shot/edited and there are a few narrative cheats in my opinion, but for the most part this is a pretty damn solid flick. Bonus points for actually telling a whole story, with an ending that’s only slightly, subtly open. ]

(17 Mar) Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012, Jay & Mark Duplass) 84
[ Whoa! You see, not only is this film pretty much all about whether there’s such a thing as destiny, fate, signs and the like, it does so by repeatedly referring to M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece, “Signs” – a film I thought I was the only one to be that fascinated about. Speaking of signs (or coincidences, if you’d rather take it like that), “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” happens to star the actors who play my favourite characters in two of my favourite current sitcoms, “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Office,” respectively Jason Segel and Ed Helms. They play brothers who, from the outside, may seem very different – Jeff is a 30-year-old pothead who lives in his mother (Susan Sarandon)’s basement, while Pat has a job, a wife (Judy Greer) and a house – but who turn out to both be rather immature and insecure… We follow them over a day as they try to make sense of various signs and/or coincidences, many of which deal with someone named Kevin – like me! THis leads to a bunch of funny, touching and insightful moments, building up to a conceptually brilliant Shyamalanesque climax… the execution of which is good but not great, though. The Duplass brothers are wonderful writers and decent directors, but they’re very indie, or at least not quite able to knock said climax out of the park and fulfil its potential to be an all-time great sequence. That being said, it still works and the movie remains satisfying and well worth seeing. It’s no “Signs,” but hey… ]

(20 Mar)  Casa de mi Padre  (2012, Matt Piedmont) 75
[ Will Ferrell has been involved in a great many silly movies of the years, but this one takes the cake! I still can’t believe this even exists: a feature length Spanish-language telenovela/narco-drama/burrito-Western sendup starring the former SNL star as a simple-minded, cowardly Mexican ranchero who eventually grows a pair, kills a whole buncha motherfuckers and gets the girl! Intentionally tacky and melodramatic, with a lot of fake-looking sets, props and special effects, but also some genuinely effective action setpieces (and musical numbers, too!), “Casa de mi Padre” co-stars “Y Tu Mamá También” co-stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as ridiculously macho warring drug lords, plus Genesis Rodriguez as the femme fatale around which most of the story revolves. But ultimately, it’s all about watching Will Ferrell hilariously attempt to play it straight as Armando Alvarez – even when he’s acting opposite a magical white mountain lion!  ]

(20 Mar)  Chercher noise  (2012, Yellowtable)
[ If like me, you love music as much as movies, this is a real treat. 10 new songs by domlebo, developed, rehearsed and performed in a series of four-hour sessions with producer Dany Placard and a revolving cast of 37 guest musicians in 10 different locations, all of which has been immortalised by filmmaking team Yellowtable. It’s fascinating to see all these artists collaborating, clashing or finding perfect harmony… ]

(23 Mar)   The Muppets   (2011, James Bobin) [ review ] 90

(26 Mar) The Raid: Redemption (2012, Gareth Evans) 49
[ With the possible exception of the musical, action is my favourite movie genre, so I had high hopes for this hyped shoot-em-up/chopsocky/stab-a-rama epic. Alas, I was mostly disappointed. Oh, there are some absolutely terrific action beats sprinkled throughout the raid, some truly crazy stunts, extremely violent kills, and unbelievable fight choreography. Then again, the whole thing is oddly lacking in my kind of badass fun… Visually, it’s all about grime and gloom, and not in a particularly stylish way – it just feels like the camera is being rushed through ugly, underlit rooms and corridors. Then there’s practically no story (it’s quite literally structured like a video game, with levels and bosses and whatnot), which might have not been an issue if it wasn’t alo thoroughly lacking in compelling characters. But we’re stuck with a bunch of mostly interchangeable Indonesians who can certainly kick ass, but don’t necessarily make much of an impression otherwise. I couldn’t have cared less about any of the cops and criminals chasing each other through the apartment block where everything takes place. Where’s the charismatic action hero we’re supposed to be rooting for? This is like “Die Hard” minus Bruce Willis, or “Hard Boiled” minus Chow Yun Fat, y’know? All the awesome martial arts, machine guns and machetes mayhem in the world doesn’t seem to connect with me when it’s just being thrown on the screen in an effective yet cold and mechanical way. Personality goes a long way, as Jules would say. ]

(28 Mar)  Rebelle   (2012, Kim Nguyen) 90
[  Following Eastern European fantasy “Le Marais”, absurd B-movie homage “Truffe” and Middle-Eastern adventure “La Cité,” which showcased the remarkable visual skills of Kim Nguyen, but unfortunately also his lackluster writing abilities, the Québécois filmmaker finally knocks it out of the park with this fourth feature, where both the screenplay and the direction are truly outstanding. A relatively rare Occidental movie set in Africa that doesn’t use the POV of a white outsider, “Rebelle” stars Rachel Mwanza, who deservedly won the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for her utterly heartbreaking performance, as Komona, a young girl from an unidentified African country (though the film was shot in Congo)  who’s snatched from her village, forced to kill her own parents, then made into a child soldier by the rebel army, who are waging an unending guerilla warfare against the local government. Interestingly and somewhat disturbingly, the story is told by Komona herself, talking to her unborn baby about the horrors she experienced from 12- to 14- years old. Her tale feels both scary-real and fantastical; deemed a witch by the superstitious rebels, Komona is haunted by visions of the ghosts of her parents and other people she’s killed… As such, “Rebelle” reminded me a lot of “Apocalypse Now” which, incidentally, was based on Joseph Conrad’s Congo-set “Heart of Darkness.” It has to do with all those scenes of soldiers drifting up the river and wandering through the jungle, but mostly with hallucinatory, mythical quality of the storytelling and the striking imagery created by Nguyen and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc. One thing that distinguishes it from Coppola’s masterpiece is the way it allows the protagonist to, at least momentarily, emerge from the horror, the horror and to feel love and hope, via an impossible romance with another child soldier (Serge Kanyinda). ]

(30 Mar)   A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas  (2011, Todd Strauss-Schulson) 64
[   Ok, so seeing this at home (i.e. in 2D) and at the end of March (i.e. far past Christmas) kind of defeats the purpose of the two main new gimmicks this third episode in the Harold & Kumar saga. But what’s left – the racial satire, the pothead humor, the rampant absurdity – remains enjoyable enough and at times hilarious. John Chu and Kal Penn are still a winning comic duo, Neil Patrick Harris is more shameless than ever as a pussy-hounding, drugged-out asshole version of himself, and I got a kick out of Danny Trejo and Elias Koteas. Oh, and let’s not forget WaffleBot!   ]

(31 Mar)   Chico & Rita (2011, Fernando Trueba & Javier Mariscal) 70
[ Nominated in the Best Animated Film category at the last  Oscars, this Spanish production impresses with its gorgeous,  traditionally drawn images, which nicely convey the liveliness  and colourfulness of the various locations. Taking place in the  years leading up to the Cuban Revolution, Chico &  Rita depicts the passionate affair between a pianist and a  singer, which is put to the test by his infidelities and by her  leaving Havana to pursue her career in New York. Music lovers  should particularly enjoy the film, which boasts a great  soundtrack and features cameos by Charlie Parker, Chano Pozo,  Dizzy Gillespie and others. And Rita has got to be the sexiest  animated character since Jessica Rabbit! ]

February / April

2012 log (2)

(1 Feb) Bestiaire (2012, Denis Côté)
[ This might be Denis Côté’s most radical feature to date. A meditative… nah, ruminative series of long static shots of various animals, Bestiaire will try many viewers’ patience, but I found it oddly captivating, thanks to the thoughtful shot composition and immersive sound design. This is like an anti-nature documentary in the way it observes animals not in their natural environment but in enclosures (the film was shot at Parc Safari, mostly during the off-season) where they roam around aimlessly or just stand there, sometimes staring straight into the camera. It often feels gloomy, disturbing even to see these majestic wild beasts like that, even though Côté says his film is neutral. ]

(1 Feb)     The Help  (2011, Tate Taylor) 81
[ Okay, first, a few rants. One of the (many) things that bug me about some critics is how for them, anything sentimental, heartwarming or inspirational is automatically suspect. Bring on the dark, serious dramas about incest, abortion, death and whatnot, but how dare you make a movie about women standing up for themselves and with each other? Then going into the current Oscar race for a second, I’m annoyed at how so many pundits are being condescending towards “The Help”, in a way that kind of stinks of sexism… I’m not saying it’s about hating women, just that you get the impression that it feels better for some to embrace the latest George Clooney and Brad Pitt vehicles even though they’re ridiculously overrated… I don’t know, it just rubs me wrong. And it’s not like I’m saying that this is a masterpiece. There’s a good 25 pictures I liked better in 2011. Still, this is undeniably a quality production, which takes us to a well recreated time and place, namely Jackson, Mississipi in the 1960s, back when the Civil rights movement was still only brewing and racism was rampant and overt in the South of the United States. There is much heartaches and pain in “The Help,” as experienced by African-American women just a couple of generations away from slavery, who still have to work as “help” for white households where they’re too often treated without the respect they deserve. The plot deals with how a young white journalist (Emma Stone) decides to write a book from the perspective of black maids, and it leads to a lot of moving moments, and a few funny ones, too. Beside Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are both great, and so are Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard and the rest of the cast. Between this and “Bridesmaids”, this has been quite the year for female ensemble casts! The Academy Awards could do a lot worse than to honour this film.  ]

(5 Feb)    King of Devil’s Island  (2012, Marius Holst) 77
[ This harrowing Norwegian drama is based on true events that  took place at the Bastøy Island penal colony circa 1915. The  imposing Stellan Skarsgård plays the cruel governor of this  institution, where teenage boys submit to abusive treatment  until the arrival of a new inmate. As played by Benjamin  Helstad, the new kid is a rebellious, charismatic figure à la  Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or Jack Nicholson in  Cuckoo’s Nest, one who simply refuses to let his  spirit be crushed. Behind the camera, director Marius Holst  displays an impressive mastery of pace, atmosphere and tension,  delivering a harsh and gloomy film with a dash of hope coming  through via the Melvillesque whaling fantasies of Helstad’s  character and the use of Sigur Rós’ Vaka as a  leitmotif. ]

(16 Feb)    Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu  (2012, Shakun Batra) 61
[ Save for the not-so-conventional ending, this is a rather generic romantic comedy – boy and girl meet-cute, hate each other for a while, then get along really well, then there’s a misunderstanding, they make up and so on. Even the big twist, which has them getting drunk in Las Vegas and waking up unwittingly married to each other, has been done before. (see: “What Happens in Vegas”, “The Hangover”, that one episode of “The Simpsons”, etc. Then again, it’s enlivened by that Bollywood brand of genre-juggling, with roller-coaster peaks of slapstick and melodrama and, of course, a musical number thrown into the mix. And as in any rom-com, the charm and chemistry of the leads goes a long way towards making it at least modestly enjoyable, so kudos to Imran Khan and Kareena Kapoor. ]

(18 Feb)   A Better Life  (2011, Chris Weitz) 82
[ Like many folks I bet, I’m only now catching up to this film because it got nominated in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. And you what? Even though he’s not a charismatic Hollywood star like Clooney and Pitt, a funny and charming performer like Dujardin or as respected a veteran character actor as Englishman Gary Oldman, this here Demián Bichir, who you may remember as Fidel Castro in Soderbergh’s “Che”, would be a totally deserving winner. As an illegal immigrant worker who dreams of “a better life” for his teenage son (José Julián), he conveys overwhelming dignity and humanity, often with little dialogue – kudos to writer Eric Eason and director Chris Weitz for allowing that through sequences of visual storytelling in which we just see Bichir’s character go about his daily routine and get a feel of what he’s like through his actions and reactions. It also gives us a strong feel for the Los Angeles locations where the movie takes us. There’s also much underlying tension through the film, because we know there are so many things that could go wrong for this Mexican man without papers, as well as for his boy, who seems tempted to join a street gang…  ]

(20 Feb)    Goon  (2012, Michael Dowse) 73
[ They’re clearly selling this as a 21st century “Slap Shot,” but to me, what really attracted me more than the whole hockey aspect is the film’s impressive comedic pedigree. Here we have the director of cult classic “FUBAR”, Michael Dowse; one of the writers of “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”, Evan Goldberg; plus the always fun Jay Baruchel acting as co-writer, co-producer and co-star. Together, they’ve taken the nonfiction book Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey and made it into a ridiculously brutal and outrageous flick that’s also really kinda sweet, when you get past all the violence and foul language (not that those aren’t enjoyable!). As played by Seann William Scott, Doug “The Thug” Glatt is endearingly naive and awkward when he’s not beating the crap out of opposing goons, not unlike Adam Sandler in “The Waterboy”. I loved the cute/goofy fling between Doug and Alison Pill’s puck bunny, his uneasy friendship with Marc-André Grondin’s hard-partying, womanizing star player, as well as his somewhat respectful rivalry with Liev Schreiber’s aging enforcer. There’s a shaggy-dog quality to “Goon” which might bother some, but it kept me engaged, I laughed a lot and yeah, I got some cheap thrills out of the bloody brawls on the ice.  ]

(23 Feb)   Polisse  (2011, Maïwenn) 29
[ Certainly one of the most overrated films of the past year, this Cannes Prix du Jury winner depicts the day-to-day life of the Paris Child Protection Unit. Based on real cases and shot in a quasi-documentary style, “Polisse” features many disturbing scenes involving young victims or those suspected of abusing them. Yet most of the running time of this self-indulgent, miserabilist film by French actress Maïwenn seems to be devoted to depicting the interaction between the cops (including Marina Foïs, Joey Starr and Karin Viard), a sorry bunch who is constantly yelling and/or bullshitting, whether they’re on the job or not. This is a case study in how an important subject does NOT necessarily make great cinema. Oh and that ending? What idiotic, manipulative nonsense. ]

(25 Feb)   Back to the Future   (1985, Robert Zemeckis) [ review ] 95

(27 Feb)   Roméo Onze  (2012, Ivan Grbovic) 70
[  As a cinematographer, Sara Mishara has made great  contributions to the films of Stéphane Lafleur (En terrains  connus), Yves Christian Fournier (Tout est  parfait) and Maxime Giroux (Jo pour Jonathan).  Similarly, Ivan Grbovic’s debut feature wouldn’t be half as  effective if it wasn’t for the rich, fluid visual style he  created with Mishara, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A  sensitive, attentive character study, Roméo Onze  depicts the attempts by a Lebanese-Canadian teen (Ali Ammar) to  assert himself despite his physical disability and the pressure  put on him by his father (Joseph Bou Nassar). With the harp  melody of Hans Otte’s Wassermannmusik 1 as a  leitmotiv, the film tugs at our heartstrings and truly makes us  care for its protagonist.  ]

(29 Feb)   John Carter  (2012, Andrew Stanton) 57
[ Adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 pulp serial A  Princess of Mars, John Carter suffers from the  fact that in the 100 years since its source material was  published, countless science fantasy movies have borrowed from  it, notably Star Wars and Avatar. As such,  there’s a been-there, done-that feeling to the proceedings,  which involve a Civil War veteran (Taylor Kitsch) being  transported to Barsoom (a.k.a. Mars), where he joins a princess  (Lynn Collins) in her fight to save the planet. It doesn’t help  that this live-action debut from Andrew Stanton  (WALL-E) is exposition heavy and that the human cast  is unengaging. On the other hand, the green-skinned, four-armed  Tharks and “monster dog” Woola are awesome, and the action  scenes are fun enough.   ]

January / March

2012 log (1)

(1 Jan) In the Name of the King II (2011, Uwe Boll) 35
[ Ostensibly a sequel to 2008’s In the Name of the King: A  Dungeon Siege Tale, even though neither star Jason Statham  nor any of the characters from it are back, this typically  low-rent Uwe Boll production once again suffers from an  undercooked screenplay, muddled direction and rotten acting. It  does have one saving grace in the casting of the undeniably  charismatic Dolph Lundgren as an ex-Special Forces soldier  who’s sent back in time to fulfill a prophecy about vanquishing  Dark Ones or something. “I can’t believe this medieval crap,”  says Lundgren at some point, and neither can we, but at least  the movie has a sense of humour about it. There are also a few  decent action scenes, including a kind-of awesome climactic dragon attack. ]

(5 Jan) A Dangerous Method (2011, David Cronenberg) 62
[ Thank God for Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel! If it wasn’t for these three compelling screen presences, “A Dangerous Method” might have been a total letdown. An adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure” which fails to make us forget about its stage origins, this is one of Cronenberg’s most formally conventional pictures. An elegant period piece, unavoidably talkative considering that its protagonists are psychoanalysts, it deals with a lot of fascinating, thought-provoking, still provocative a hundred years later ideas. There’s also something potent and somewhat amusing about the fact that the aforementioned psychoanalysts are all neurotic, more or less repressed perverts… But save for a few rare moments when the darker, more twisted aspects of this psychosexual drama are depicted visually, the film never really takes off; it also sometimes feels oddly disjointed. And then there’s Keira Knightley, who indulges in over-the-top scenery-chewing as the patient at the heart of the story, contorting her face, pushing her jaw forward, crying, laughing and shaking like she’s playing a possessed woman in an exorcism B-movie. That being said, I would still marginally recommend the film just to see Fassbender as Carl Jung, Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Cassel as Otto Gross. Again, thank God for those guys! ]

(7 Jan)     Bridesmaids  (2011, Paul Feig) 74
[ This Judd Apatow production has been described in some quarters as a female “Hangover”, but I think it’d be more fitting to call it a female “I Love You Man” because, as hilarious as the comedy scenes can be, this also happens to be a pretty darn insightful and touching story about friendship. Kudos to star/writer Kristen Wiig for delivering the laughs bit time with all kinds of witty, raunchy and/or absurd gags, but also for keeping things relatively grounded in regards to the way women (mis)behave amongst each other. She couldn’t have picked a better on-screen BFF than Maya Rudolph, with whom she had great chemistry for all those years on SNL. Also a lot of fun are Rose Byrne, Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey and especially Melissa McCarthy. And the use of Wilson Phillips’ Hold On? Perfect, just perfect. 

Note: this is a repost of a blurb written in May 2011 after I first saw the film.  ]

(8 Jan)     Bad Teacher (2011, Jake Kasdan) 69
[ You can kinda tell from the title alone that this will be a twist on “Bad Santa,” i.e. an irreverent comedy about a foul-mouthed, drunken, sleazy individual who should really not be allowed to work around impressionable children… But instead of Billy Bob Thornton as a mall Santa, we get Cameron Diaz as the worst 7th grade teacher in the world, who’s current goal in life is to get enough money to 1) buy herself “new tits” and 2) use them to seduce a rich man. Also featuring great comic performances from Jason Segel, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins and Phyllis Smith, among others, “Bad Teacher” still works mostly because of the hilariously, thrillingly shameless lead turn by Diaz.  ]

(14 Jan)     Bumrush (2011, Michel Jetté) 47
[ There are two films at odds in “Bumrush”: 1) A heavily researched exploration of the dynamics of the Montreal criminal world, in which bikers, the Italian mafia and black street gangs maintain a volatile equilibrium, and 2) a cartoonish urban thriller / 80s-style action B-movie à la “Road House”/”Death Wish 3”/etc. that has a group of ex-military bouncers (Emmanuel Augé, Pat Lemaire, Sylvain Beauchamp, Constant Gagné, Alain Nadro) waging a war against gang member Loosecanon (the late Bad News Brown) and his cohorts for the control of the no man’s land that is the Kingdom strip club (!). Marred by low production values, sometimes excessive exposition, not always believable characters and story developments, and uneven acting, “Bumrush” still sporadically captivates, either for its insights into this reality or its outrageously over-the-top fights, shoot-outs and torture scenes. It’s certainly an unholy mess, but I enjoyed watching it all the same. ]

(16 Jan) Haywire (2012, Steven Soderbergh) 92
[ From the ever prolific and versatile Steven Soderbergh comes this early contender for the best action flick of 2012 title, starring MMA champion Gina Carano as an ex-Marine turned black ops agent who’s been double-crossed by her former employer. The smart, fast-paced, chronologically jumbled script by Lem Dobbs (“The Limey”) takes us from the U.S. to Spain, Ireland and Mexico as we’re introduced to a gallery of shady characters played by a stellar supporting cast (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, etc.), which the super badass Carano spends the film punching, kicking and shooting her way through in a series of jaw-dropping fight scenes. A slick, sly spy thriller that’s more “Bourne” than “Mission: Impossible”, with artful digital cinematography by Soderbergh himself and a jazzy score by David Holmes, “Haywire” is thoroughly enjoyable. Laced with sexy and funny bits, with further compelling turns by the likes of Michael Douglas, Mathieu Kassovitz, Bill Paxton and Michael Angarano, it just keeps moving forward and throwing twists and turns at us, leaving us almost exhausted by the end. ]

(18 Jan) The Grey (2012, Joe Carnahan) 79
[ After a plane bringing home the workers of a remote oil rig  crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, the survivors – a motley  crew of “ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes,” to quote  protagonist John Ottway (the always riveting Liam Neeson) –  must fend off a pack of vicious wolves in this grisly,  gruelling man-versus-nature thriller. Full of scary-intense  sequences that practically make it feel like a monster movie,  this adaptation of a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who  co-wrote the screenplay with director Joe Carnahan) is also a  surprisingly introspective, occasionally downright emo film in  which the characters spend much time reflecting upon their  lives, struggling with faith and trying to come to terms with  their seemingly impending death. ]

(19 Jan) La Peur de l’eau (2012, Gabriel Pelletier) 46
[ This initially comes off a bit like Fargo – i.e., a crime film featuring a dorky, unassuming cop (Pierre-François Legendre) and a bunch of homely small-town folks – with a touch of Vertigo thrown in, what with said cop being afflicted with aquaphobia (as opposed to acrophobia in the Hitchcock film). The early scenes depicting the aftermath of the murder of a young woman (Stéphanie Lapointe) and the beginning of the police investigation are intriguing enough, plus the Îles de la Madeleine locations are gorgeously shot, but La Peur de l’eau is soon marred by some clumsy tonal shifts, a lack of urgency and an increasingly preposterous plot, not to mention uneven performances from the supporting cast (including Brigitte Pogonat, Normand D’Amour and Pascale Bussières). ]

(21 Jan) Hard Target (1993, John Woo) [ review ] 75

(21 Jan)     Moneyball  (2011, Bennett Miller) 64
[ There’s a great story here, about how Oakland A’s G.M. Billy Beane’s heart was broken by his team being eliminated by the New York Yankees in 2001, with a budget three times bigger than his of course… And then with the help of “Peter Brand” (actually a composite character created for the film), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics and a vision about how to build a championship team using undervalued players who happen to have a high on-base percentage, he proved that there was another way to play the game. Sort of. Interestingly, this isn’t exactly a spectacular Cinderella story, even though the Atheletics’ 2002 season did include a historic winning streak. It’s more a “Rocky” kind of thing where you can win even if you technically lose in the end – not that Beane would agree about that (dude hates losing, even more than he likes winning). Anyway, so yeah, there’s a great story here, which also works as a metaphor for how in life, you sometimes have to change the way you look at people, to try and see the worth in those usually dismissed for one reason or another. But in my opinion, “Moneyball” is not a great movie. Good, but not great. The screenplay, a Frankenstein deal in which Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin successively took cracks at adapting Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, suffers from pacing issues, awkwardly introduced flashbacks and a kinda lame attempt to make it more sentimental via the character of Beane’s daughter. There are a few truly great scenes full of snappy, witty dialogue where you recognize the Sorkin touch, but other scenes are more dully functional. Likewise, I found Bennett Miller’s direction kinda flat; he’s certainly no Steven Soderbergh (just sayin’). Still, the cast goes a long way towards keeping us engaged nonetheless. I’m talking about Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but especially about Brad Pitt who delivers a great star turn, charismatic, cocky yet grounded, wounded even – a bit like Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire”. For him alone, the movie remains worth seeing. ]

(25 Jan)     Pink Ribbons, Inc.  (2012, Léa Pool)
[ Here’s a provocative documentary that isn’t afraid to go against the grain. Via interviews, testimonies, archival footage and evocative segments shot at breast cancer events across North America, “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” shows that these fundraising campaigns may start with good intentions, but they soon drown in capitalist bullshit and hollow publicity stunts. Whatever money is raised for research often pales in comparison with the profits generated for themselves by corporations, and the necessity to “sell the disease” in a way that doesn’t alienate customers can lead to a false sense of comfort and an overly optimistic approach, which angers some of the women who actually suffer from this horrible disease. You’ll never look at pink ribbons the same way. ]

(30 Jan)     L’Or des autres  (2012, Simon Plouffe)
[ This is not the first and, unfortunately, probably not the last documentary to be made about the excesses of the mining industry in Quebec, but it paints a particularly striking picture. It depicts how the creation of Canada’s largest open pit gold mine in Malartic forced hundreds of families to see their houses ripped apart and/or relocated, all so some private company can make billions of dollars they will never see even an infinitely small fraction of. This is also a truly great work of cinema, top-notch cinematography, editing and sound editing combining into a stylish, moody film filled with quasi post-apocalyptic visions. Also fascinating is the character of the desperately proud beardo who refuses to leave his home, even after his whole neighbourhood had been turned into holes and piles of rocks. A must-see. ]

December / February

2011 log (12)

(1 Dec) The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Steven Spielberg) 65
[  Adapted from Hergé’s beloved series of bandes dessinées, “The Adventures of Tintin” is most notable for how marvellously it uses performance capture and computer animation to strike a perfect balance between photorealism and cartoonishness. After a tediously exposition-heavy first act in which it becomes clear that the goody two shoes, white-bread persona of Tintin (Jamie Bell) can be rather dull on its own, things pick up considerably with the introduction of Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), a loudmouthed drunk whose flaws only give him more character. We also get to enjoy some spectacular action sequences, as Tintin, Haddock and brave pooch Snowy travel the world looking for lost pirate treasure in sort of a light version of “Indiana Jones”. Great snakes!   ]

(4 Dec) À bout portant (2011, Fred Cavayé) 69
[  This new film from Fred Cavayé, who previously directed “Pour elle” (which was remade – badly – by Paul Haggis in 2010 as the Russell Crowe vehicle “The Next Three Days”), further confirms that he’s one of France’s best action filmmakers. Beginning in the middle of a breathless chase through Paris, “À bout portant” (“Point Blank”) barely lets up over the next 80 minutes, as a nurse’s aide (Gilles Lellouche) unwittingly finds himself tagging along with a safecracker (Roschdy Zem) on the run from a police squad (led by Gérard Lanvin) in order to save his pregnant wife (Elena Anaya). Sometimes preposterous yet always gripping nonetheless, this taut thriller is the closest thing to a “Bourne” flick we’ll get this year from either side of the pond.  ]

(5 Dec) Nuit #1  (2011, Anne Émond) 30
[  Following a very Xavier Dolan opening which has sweaty girls  and boys dancing in slow-motion to Elysian Fields’ cover of  Serge Gainsbourg’s Les Amours perdues, an extended,  relatively explicit sequence shows Clara (Catherine de Léan)  and Nikolaï (Dimitri Storoge) getting it on in various  positions. Then we stick around with the two of them as their  one night stand turns into a series of pretentious, obnoxious,  woe-is-me soliloquies (“Modern times disgust me. Modern love  disgusts me,” etc.). A dour variation on Michel Deville’s  Nuit d’été en ville, this debut feature from local  filmmaker Anne Émond is a chore to sit through, even though  it’s adequately crafted and de Léan is occasionally affecting.  ]

(8 Dec) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  (2011, Tomas Alfredson) 71
[ This adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 espionage novel is not only set in the 1970s, it also feels like a 70s film. Far from adopting the frantic pace and style of a “Bourne” flick, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a dry, slowly unfolding yarn, elegantly shot with lots of grays and browns, moving between various European locations and back in forth in time, as protagonist George Smiley (a quietly imposing Gary Oldman) tries to discover the identity of the Soviet mole among the leaders of “the Circus,” i.e. MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. The story takes the form of a chess game of sorts, as Smiley and numerous other characters try to outplay each other, which initially seems rather unexciting, yet it gradually grows quite captivating. The ensemble cast, in which Oldman is notably joined John Hurt, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and my personal favourite, Tom Hardy, who single-handedly reignited my interest about halfway through when it threatened to wane. I also got a kick out of Karla, the never-seen Russian spymaster, who’s kind of got a Keyser Söze thing going on. To me,  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is more the kind of film I admire than the kind I truly enjoy, but one way or the other, it’s well worth seeing.  ]

(11 Dec) We Need to Talk About Kevin  (2011, Lynne Ramsay) 94
[ It opens with Eva (the always amazing Tilda Swinton) at La Tomatina, that annual tomato fight held in Buñol, Spain. As we watch everyone get covered in gory-red tomato chunks, we hear what sounds like the audio of a massacre and we’re filled with a feeling of dread and unrest which will be sustained throughout the whole film, as will the recurring use of the color red and the jarring sound design. This adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel blurs our notions of time and reality, plunging us into an impressionistic, hallucinatory experience we assume to be the troubled state of mind of Eva after husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller, previously seen in the similarly disturbing “Afterschool”) goes on a killing rampage at his school. As we catch glimpses of her raising Kevin from a baby who never stops screaming to a creepy infant and a downright evil teenager, we’re faced with what must be a parent’s worst nightmare. The aforementioned brilliantly unnerving sound design is augmented by a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood working in the same direction, never allowing us to get comfortable. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is also filled with striking imagery, as cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, editor Joe Bini and art director Charles Kulsziski all do absolutely remarkable work with filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, creating a masterpiece of an art-house horror film in which each moment is rivetingly visceral.  ]

(12 Dec) We Bought a Zoo (2011, Cameron Crowe) [ review ] 92

(15 Dec) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol  (2011, Brad Bird) 83
[  Easily the best entry in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, this over the top spy thriller is still stuck with a preposterous plot and one-dimensional characters. But the set pieces, i.e. what matters most in a flick like this, totally deliver. As directed by Brad Bird, making an astonishing live action debut, the various stunts, chases, fights, shoot-outs, break-ins and break-outs are all inventive and exciting. “Ghost Protocol” is also full of humor, I loved the chemistry between Tom Cruise and his team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg), and the villains are a blast as well (Michael Nyqvist, Samuli Edelmann, Léa Seydoux). Briskly moving from Budapest to Moscow, Dubai and Mumbai, all the while alternating fun little beats with IMAX-size action sequences, this is a damn great time at the movies.     ]

(18 Dec) Margin Call (2011, J.C. Chandor) 80
[ An ensemble drama set in the cutthroat world of big money à la “Glengarry Glenn Ross” or “Boiler Room”, this debut from J.C. Chandor is smart, slick and surprisingly suspenseful. Taking place over a two-day period, including a long sleepless night, “Margin Call” is all about how disconnected Wall Street guys are from the rest of the world (the 99%, you might say) and how they basically gamble with the global well-being of the economy until it’s too late. The whole cast is great, notably Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, Aasif Mandvi and Demi Moore, with Kevin Spacey coming out on top. ]

(18 Dec) Beginners (2011, Mike Mills) 74
[ “I don’t know… I don’t think this is what I’m supposed to feel like.” When this line was spoken out loud by one of the characters, it perfectly encapsulated my current state. Here’s a film that I should have totally, unequivocally loved. Quirky indie dramedies are a dime a dozen, but I still find the better ones to be a treat, and this clearly qualifies as such. Ewan McGregor is typically great as a man who, shortly after the death of his mother (Mary Page Keller), is told by his 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) that he’s gay… Finally out of the closet after all those years, the old man lives it up for a while, then he’s diagnosed with cancer and eventually dies from it. I’m not spoiling anything, we learn all of this in the opening minutes of the movie, which them cannily jumps back and forth in time between the last years of the father’s life and the aftermath of his death, during which McGregor begins a tentative relationship with a “strange girl” (Mélanie Laurent), with flashbacks to his childhood thrown into the mix as well. By all means, I should have cried my eyes out throughout the film, yet though I enjoyed it and did remain engaged, I never quite fully connect with it. Maybe it has to do with all the witty asides and whimsical flourishes, you know, the bittersweet cartoons, the historical trivia, the montages of photographs, the dog talking through subtitles… Clever and amusing stuff, sure, but could it have gotten in the way of me being moved more deeply by the film? Maybe a second viewing would help? ]

(18 Dec) Gerry (2011, Alain DesRochers) 17
[ You’d think a movie about Offenbach frontman Gerry Boulet would make us nostalgic for what a fun and lovable guy he was and for all the great music he created. Alas, this spectacularly misguided and inept biopic a) depicts him as a total drunken sleazebag who treated everyone around him like shit, and b) features shockingly little scenes of Boulet in the studio or on stage. Alternately clumsily dropping thick slices of exposition and skipping over important stuff, this clumsily written and directed movie never flows smoothly or builds any momentum. It’s just like, this happened, then that happened, oh and by the way we didn’t show you any of it, but all that other stuff happened as well, etc. And while Mario Saint-Amand looks the part as Gerry, his performance is uneven at best. ]

(18 Dec) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher) 94
[ Lisbeth Salander, man. The folks who’ve read the more than 65 million copies sold of the books in the “Millenium” series know this already, as do those who’ve seen the Swedish film trilogy. I wasn’t familiar with any of it though, so this was my first exposure to this absolutely fascinating character, a tattooed, pierced, bisexual, extremely smart yet antisocial  hacker who, as played by Rooney motherfuckin’ Mara, is by far the biggest badass in any of the past year’s movies. Likewise, I didn’t know anything about the intricately multilayered, wonderfully pulpy plot of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and found myself completely engrossed in it. Set in Sweden, which is apparently populated with serial killers, rapists and Nazis, the story has disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) investigating the mysterious disappearance, decades earlier, of the great-niece of a retired industrialist (Christopher Plummer), who lives on a secluded island with much of his dysfunctional family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson,  Per Myrberg, Marika Lagercrantz, etc.). Screenwriter Steven Zaillian’s adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel just keeps moving forward as new pieces of information are introduced, and it’s all increasingly intriguing, as is everything having to do with Lisbeth, who ends up working as Blomkvist’s assistant. David Fincher brilliantly, unflinchingly directs all of this, making even scenes of people looking shit up on computers riveting, but also nailing the more horrifying, suspenseful, disturbing and/or thrilling sequences. The cinematography and editing are top notch and, post-”Social Network”, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross once again deliver the best score of the year, filling the soundtrack with alternately minimalist and overpowering music which creeps right into your soul and fills you with dread and awe with astonishing skill.  I also loved the streak of black humor which runs through the film, much of it revolving around Lisbeth, naturally. In a world of evil and manipulative men, she refuses to submit to their playbook and would much rather cut through all the bullshit and just do her thing without a second thought, like a creature of pure instinct. Can’t wait to see her again in the next two parts of the trilogy, which Fincher will hopefully shoot soon. In any case, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” on its own is already a high point in his career. ]

(21 Dec) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt) 88
[ I love the “Planet of the Apes” franchise. Love the original Pierre Boulle novel. Love the 1968 cult classic starring Charlton Heston. Love (most of) its four sequels. I even enjoyed the much-maligned Tim Burton remake! But in many ways, this prequel goes beyond all that came before. The main difference being that instead of actors in makeup, it uses performance capture and state-of-the-art CGI to bring the apes to life. It can also count on the Marlon Brando of this 21st century technology, the one and only Andy Serkis, a.k.a Gollum, King Kong, Captain Haddock and now Caesar, the would-be leader of the ape revolution. Through swift, smooth storytelling and well-placed ellipses, we follow Caesar’s evolution from a newborn to an adult, as he grows bigger, stronger, faster, and also eerily smart. Meanwhile, there’s a surprisingly touching human subplot going on between Caesar’s scientist master (James Francor) and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (John Lithgow). There’s also a romantic interest (Freida Pinto), but it’s superfluous. The human cast also includes Brian Cox and Tom Felton as the assholes running the primate sanctuary where Caesar ends up midway into the story, as “Rise” turns into sort of a prison movie… Before building up into a revolutionary epic and an in-sa-ne climax set on the Golden Gate Bridge. This is truly great genre filmmaking, driven by strong writing, dynamic camerawork, impressive special effects and, more than anything, an incredibly soulful, Oscar-worthy performance by Andy Serkis. ]

(23 Dec) The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne) 68
[ To me, Alexander Payne is not the brilliant filmmaker many critics make him up to be. He’s capable of the best (“Election”) but also the worst (“About Schmidt”). And then there are those films like “Citizen Ruth” and “Sideways” that contain varying amounts of greatness, but also some more or less major flaws. In the case of “The Descendants”, that would be the contrived exposition delivered through thick slabs of voice-over narration and on-the-nose dialogue during the first act. I was like, SHUT THE FUCK UP, CLOONEY! STOP SPOON-FEEDING US EVERYTHING YOUR CHARACTER THINKS AND FEELS! THIS IS A MOVIE, NOT A BOOK! SHOW, DON’T TELL! Still, I thought the film nicely captured the amazing Hawaii scenery and found George Clooney’s acting to be exceptional when the screenplay didn’t get in his way. LESS IS MORE! (Ok, enough yelling) Then there’s Shailene Woodley, who’s a revelation as his teenage daughter, and I also loved Judy Greer’s extended cameo in the third act. What’s more, the movie eventually drops the voice-over narration and, while still clumsy and obvious at times, by the end it had mostly won me over with the way it dealt with the ambiguous, conflicting emotions the characters have to deal with. As such, even though I still think “The Descendants” is overrated, I gotta admit that at its best, it’s pretty damn good. ]

(28 Dec) Les Douze travaux d’Astérix (1976, René Goscinny, Albert Uderzo & Pierre Watrin) 80?
[ This is one of those Ciné-Cadeau perennial classics that is hard to rate objectively for me… The animation isn’t all and neither is the story of anything, but I love it all the same. Particularly when I was a kid but also regularly over the years since, I’ve watched it countless times and still find it to be a total treat. Highlights being l’Île du Plasir, l’antre de la Bête, la Maison qui rend fou… Good times. ]

(28 Dec) Our Idiot Brother (2011, Jesse Peretz) 67
[ It seemingly seems all over the place, as titular idiot brother Ned successively crashes at each of his three sisters’ place and becomes involved in their lives, for better or worse… But slowly but surely, a simple but engaging enough thematic thread reveals itself, what with Ned really not being so much of an idiot as just a really, really naive hippie dude (think The Dude) who’s too trusting and honest – which has a way of exposing the bullshit in others, e.g. his sisters. This is very much an actors movie, which wouldn’t be half as enjoyable if it wasn’t for Paul Rudd’s winning lead performance, plus the casting of Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer and Elizabeth Banks as the sisters, as well as Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones and Adam Scott in supporting parts. Oh, and let’s not forget about Willie Nelson the dog! ]

(29 Dec) Hanna (2011, Joe Wright) 45
[ In this modern fairytale, a girl (Saoirse Ronan) is raised/trained in the wild by her father (Eric Bana), in hope that she can escape the evil “witch” (Cate Blanchett) out to kill her when she’s grown-up and ready to go back into the world. Sort of a cross between “Nell” and “The Bourne Identity”, this action flick suffers, oddly enough, from being too artsy for its own sake. I’m all for auteurs doing action, but I’m not sure Joe Wright (“Pride and Prejudice”, “Atonement”) was the best choice for such a change of pace. Conceptually, I appreciate what “Hanna” is going for, but the pacing, tone and style are often all wrong, as if the filmmaker didn’t fully commit to the genre and wanted to remind us that he’s really an artist. As such, this never feels as gritty, badass and exciting as it should. It’s visually striking, it’s got a dynamic enough score by the Chemical Brothers and the three leads are solid, but it failed to connect with me. Basically, this is an action movie for people who don’t like action movies. ]

(29 Dec) Anchorman (2004, Adam McKay) [ review ] 85

(30 Dec) Astérix et Cléopâtre (1968, René Goscinny, Albert Uderzo & Lee Payant) 83?
[ Again, not sure how much is Ciné-Cadeau nostalgia and how much is the movie actually being great… But watching this for the umpteenth time, I was giddy the whole time. Love the characters, love the setting, love the twists and turns of the story… And I particularly love the music and the songs, notablyLe lion de Cléopâtre, Quand l’appétit va, tout va and of course Le pouding à l’arsenic! ]

2011 log (11)

(8 Nov) Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)  75
[  This starts off kinda like one of those British kitchen-sink dramas, set as it it in a South London public housing project… But then aliens drop down from the sky, inspiring not so much fear or wonder as a wickedly gleeful desire to go kill the bastards in a group of teenage thugs (John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard), who ride their bikes into the night, armed with baseball bats, swords and fireworks! This is some badass sci-fi horror action fun, which starts low-key enough but grows increasingly more suspenseful and exciting. You could say that it’s a cross between “Assault on Precinct 13”, “E.T.”, “Aliens”, “The Goonies”, “Banlieue 13” and whatnot, but this debut from Joe Cornish also possesses a distinct personality, in part because of that whole kitchen sink realism thing. The creature design is also rather original, the aliens looking like some kind of big, hairy, pitch-black gorilla-wolf monsters with sharp luminescent teeth.    ]

(9 Nov) Crazy Horse (2011, Frederick Wiseman)
[ Reputed to offer the most beautiful strip show in the world, Le Crazy Horse de Paris, which has been teasing audiences since 1951, is now the subject of a documentary by legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who spent 10 weeks observing the creation of “Désir,” a new show directed by choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Using a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité approach, Wiseman captures everything from production meetings to auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings, etc. We see a lot of stage numbers being performed as well, generally as works in progress, and the use of lights, shadows, projections, mirrors and other elements is often impressive. So much that the nude bodies on display almost seem like an afterthought (almost!). While a tad too long at 2h15, “Crazy Horse” remains an engrossing watch, thanks in part to some hilariously neurotic real-life characters. ]

(10 Nov) Immortals (2011, Tarsem Singh) 44
[ Like Zack Snyder’s 300 (which was also shot in Montreal with lots of green screen), Immortals features some awesomely stylish and brutal action scenes, but alas they’re too few and far between. Much of this tale of war amongst gods, titans and humans is devoted instead to ponderous pseudo-mythological exposition and humourlessly grandiloquent dialogue, generally delivered by way-too-stiff actors, including Henry Cavill as the heroic Theseus and Freida Pinto as the virgin oracle Phaedra. The only saving grace is good old Mickey Rourke as the wonderfully sleazy and evil Hyperion. Granted, this latest flick from Tarsem Singh (The Cell) does feature some spectacular 3D visuals; then again, the art direction is often awfully gaudy, if not downright campy. ]

(11 Nov) Singles (1992, Cameron Crowe) [ review91

(12 Nov) Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)  [  review ] 95 (previously: 94)

(17 Nov) The Artist  (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) 80 
[  In 1927 Hollywood(land), silent movie actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) enjoys fame and fortune. Two short years later, the advent of sound makes his career derail… Meanwhile Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young and pretty chorus line girl he’d been flirting with, makes it big. Falling star meets rising star: that’s the gist of this new film from many of the same folks behind 2006’s “OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions”, notably writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, stars Dujardin and Bejo, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and composer Ludovic Bource. Again, they perfectly recreate both the time period of the story and the filmmaking style of that era, in this case the golden age of the studio system, in the years when talkies came into prominence (already the setting of “Singin’ in the Rain”, not so incidentally). Shot in black and white, in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with no dialogue or sound effects (save for a few specific, very meta instances) but with intertiles, “The Artist” is not a spoof but a sincere homage, a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Like in “OSS”, Jean Dujardin’s dashing and debonair performance contributes greatly to the success of the film. It’s in his greased-down hair, pencil moustache, impeccable wardrobe and killer smile, in the way he emulates the likes of Gene Kelly, Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, but also in the way he navigates the tonal shifts of this romantic tragicomedy. Bérénice Bejo is very good as well, and so is the supporting cast (John Goodman, James Cromwell, etc.). Oh, and let’s not forget about George Valentin’s dog sidekick, who may just be my favorite character in the flick! This is an aesthetically irreproachable, featuring many clever, amusing and/or touching scenes… And yet I felt like it was missing a je ne sais quoi… A stronger narrative? More thematic depth? I don’t know… I admired and enjoyed “The Artist” while I was watching it, and for that it remains well worth seeing, but it didn’t quite have enough impact on me to call it one of the year’s best like some have done, going as far as predicting that it could win Best Picture at the Oscars.  ]

(19 Nov) Being Elmo (2011, Constance Marks)
[ “Elmo to a six-year-old is like Brad Pitt,” someone points out early on in this fun and surprisingly touching, if not particularly cinematic documentary about Kevin Clash, the man who’s been handling and voicing Elmo for the last 25 years or so. Here’s the story of a man who had a childhood dream, pursued it and made it a reality, becoming an integral part of the Sesame Street world he loved so much. Clash started crafting his own puppets and putting on shows when he was only 10, paid his dues on local TV in Baltimore and eventually got to work with Muppet empire mastermind Jim Henson. Constance Marks’ film shows how Clash poured all his best qualities and then some into Elmo. No wonder the little red fur-ball became so popular with the little ones! ]

(20 Nov) Starbuck  (2011, Ken Scott) 38 
[  Easily the most overrated film of the year, at least locally, “Starbuck” is built on a contrived and unconvincing as hell premise, having to do with how a guy who regularly donated sperm back in the day finds out that he unknowingly fathered 533 kids and decides to act as a guardian angel of sorts to as many of them as he can (but coming off like a creepy stalker)… But that’s not so much the problem here. I can imagine a thought-provoking and emotionally complex drama based on this out-there premise… Or a wacky and hilarious comedy… The problem with Ken Scott’s film, which he co-wrote with comedian Martin Petit, is that he tried to do both and, more so, failed in each case. The tone is all over the place in “Starbuck”, so is the pacing for that matter, the consequence being that we can never get past how contrived and unconvincing each twist and turn are. Patrick Huard does what he can, going a long way towards keeping us involved nonetheless, but ultimately, the film just. does. not. work. ]

(21 Nov) Hugo  (2011, Martin Scorsese) 78 
[ I must say, sentimental family movies about precocious children and “broken” adults teaching each other life lessons are one of my least favourite genres. But leave it to Martin Scorsese to make one that almost entirely won me over, thanks to dazzling 3D cinematography, magnificent art direction recreating 1930s Paris and all-around great performances (Asa Butterfield, Chloë Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, among others). Some of this adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 illustrated novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” remains too corny for my taste and there may be too many pratfall-heavy chases, but there are four or five absolutely brilliant sequences about the magic of early cinema, particularly that of George Méliès, which make it a must-see nonetheless. ]

(24 Nov) The Muppets  (2011, James Bobin) 90
[   Oddly enough, the movie this new Muppet flick most reminded me of is “Rocky Balboa.” It’s in that sense of nostalgia, with iconic characters who some may think are past their prime but who decide to stand tall and soldier on… Of course, on a scene to scene basis, this is a completely different kind of movie, filled as it is with goofiness, silliness… And musical numbers! Oh, those musical numbers! But beyond all that, there’s a truly moving story that pulled me in right away, as we meet Gary (Jason Segel, who co-wrote the screenplay with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller) and his little brother Walter (Peter Linz), who’s always dreamed of meeting Kermit the Frog and the Muppets – even though they’ve long gone out of style. What follows is a wonderful story about growing up, growing apart, looking to belong, looking to matter again, getting back together, getting back on stage… All of which is driven by Segel’s boundless enthusiasm, joie de vivre and obvious love for all things Muppets. I also loved Amy Adams as his girlfriend, Chris Cooper as the villain, plus all the celebrity cameos (Jack Black, Dave Grohl, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Emily Blunt, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinski, etc.). “The Muppets” is, quite simply, one of the most enjoyable movies of the year. Jim Henson would have been proud. ]

(27 Nov) Shame (2011, Steve McQueen) 84
[   There’s a cold, muted, almost clinical vibe to this film. The meticulous shot composition, the moody score, the sly use of ellipses and off-screen space, the way it formally mirrors the obsessive tendencies of its characters… Kubrick by the way of Soderbergh, a little bit “Eyes Wide Shut”, a little bit “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (maybe a little bit “American Psycho”, too, alas much more low-key).  And then there’s Michael Fassbender, who brilliantly embodies this fascinating character study, playing a walking contradiction of a man, who remains elusive and intriguing until the end. Alternately confident and awkward, suave and repelling, seemingly addicted to sex yet afraid of intimacy. Add to that a most unhealthy, quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister, affectingly played by Carey Mulligan, and the gradual realization that the two of them share a lot baggage and uneasy history (“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place”)… It all adds up to a powerful, rather disturbing film.    ]

(28 Nov) War Horse (2011, Steven Spielberg) 91
[   I can already see it. Many, many people are going to love this movie, LOVE it. But there are some, critics mostly, who’ll inevitably pan it. Funny thing is that both sides will do so for basically the same reason. This is a pure Spielberg movie through and through, with the wide-eyed sense of wonder, epic scope and brilliant production values you expect, as well as the fact that it’s blatantly sentimental, which is where the Beard tends to lose grumpier scribes.  Few filmmakers know how to work an audience and push the audience’s emotional buttons as well as Spielberg, and he’s going at it full throttle in “War Horse.” An adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel in which World War I was viewed through the eyes of a horse, the film sometimes superficially resembles “Au Hasard Balthazar” (in which the protagonist was a donkey) , but even though the film is mostly set in France, we’re not so much in Robert Bresson territory here as in the grand old tradition of classic Hollywood prestige pictures. Think John Ford, “Gone with the Wind”, David Lean, a bit of Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”… But think Spielberg, most of all. Starting with the birth of our thoroughbred hero in Devon, England, as witnessed by young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who’ll name the beast Joey and tame him, the movie then follows the two of them as they struggle to plow a field in order to save the family farm from being reclaimed by the landlord (David Thewlis). That first act is note-perfect, truly involving us in this story of a boy and his horse. Irvine is great as the young lad, who somehow made me think of the fundamentally decent and loyal Samwise as played by Sean Astin in the “LOTR” trilogy, Emily Watson and Peter Mullan are both splendid as his mum and dad, and through the magic of cinema, the horse also delivers a magnificent performance, seemingly conveying all kinds of emotion though his big black eyes (I also loved the goose, heh). A feisty, noble, beautiful creature, Joey is put the test more than ever when the Great War breaks out and he ends up being sold to a British officer (Tom Hiddleston), but also serving in the German army, being adopted by a French jam maker (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter and, in one of the most hauntingly memorable sequences in the film, desperately wandering the No Man’s Land between the British and German trenches… Filled with overwhelming visions of beauty and horror, this tale of a miraculous horse features some relatively long stretches without dialogue, all visual storytelling courtesy of Spielberg and cinematographer extraordinaire Janusz Kamiński, though with the assist of wall-to-wall John Williams… And it all builds up to a wordless sunset finale that won’t leave a dry eye in the house. Expect “War Horse” to win (or at least get nominated for) a whole lot of Oscars.  ]

(28 Nov) Martha Marcy May Marlene  (2011, Sean Durkin) 83
[    Every year seems to bring an independent film that reveals an exceptional new -or at least previously unheralded- actress. 2011’s is this here “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” starring Elizabeth Olsen, finally breaking breaking out from the shadow of her older sisters Mary Kate & Ashley to come into her own as one hell of an actress. She plays Martha, a.k.a. Marcy May, a.k.a Marlene, a troubled young woman who went off the grid a couple of years ago, only to resurface in her sister (Sarah Paulson)’s life with no explanation. Through a series of flashbacks, which the film goes in and out of via nearly seamless transitions, we get to learn more about what she went through; or do we? “MMMM” blends past and present, memories and dreams, reality and paranoid delusions, ostensibly to depict the mental state of a former cult member. As Marcy May, she was part of a “family” living on a farm in upstate New York in neo-hippie commune fashion, under the leadership fo the charismatic yet unnerving Patrick (John Hawkes)… And now, back in the world, with her sister and the latter’s husband (Hugh Dancy),  Martha seems to have a confused sense of social boundaries, and she goes from charming and vulnerable to weird and hysterical and… It’s hard to describe but all quite captivating, thanks to Olsen’s tour de force performance but also to Sean Durkin’s writing and direction, which fill most scenes with slow-burn tension.    ]

October / December

2011 log (10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011 log (8)

(4 Aug) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011, Troy Nixey) 42
[ Most notable for having been co-written and co-produced by Mexican filmmaker extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro, this remake of the 1973 made-for-television horror film comes off like a dumbed down, generic Hollywood version of “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Both movies are about a little girl who discovers a fantastic underworld, but try as he might, Troy Nixey possesses neither del Toro’s visual mastery nor his talent for getting great performances out of actors. Set in a gothic mansion where a little girl (Bailee Madison), her dad (Guy Pearce) and her stepmom (Katie Holmes) are stalked by creepy creatures who eat children’s teeth, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is pretty tense and scary at times, but it’s also frustratingly inconsistent and increasingly implausible. ]

(4 Aug) David (2011, Joel Fendelman) 63
[ When Daud, a Muslim boy, somehow befriends a group of young Orthodox Jews (who think his name is “David,” hence the title), he discovers that while they do have their differences, they’re ultimately mostly similar. Chatting, hanging out, playing around… They’re just kids being kids. Before making “David”, Fendelman shot “Daud”, a short that dealt with some of the same themes and also starred little Muatasem Mishal. The filmmaker then quickly moved on to the feature, putting his own savings into it so he wouldn’t have to wait to find financing. With the notable exception of Maz Jobrani, who plays Daud’s imam father, and a few others, most of the “David” cast is made up of non-professional actors, including the young lead, who delivers a moving, surprisingly understated and nuanced performance. Working with what he calls a “micro-budget” didn’t stop Fendelman from shooting a lot of exteriors and multiplying crowd scenes, practically making New York a character in his film. To pull it off, he often had to resort to what he describes as “guerrilla filmmaking,” shooting in real places with real people. The Muslim and Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn helped a lot in the making of David, both in front of and behind the camera. And based on the feedback he’s had so far, Fendelman’s message of open-mindedness and tolerance was well received by people on both sides. ]

(11 Aug) Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, Amy Heckerling) [ review ] 85

(14 Aug) Red State (2011, Kevin Smith) 88
[ See (14 Jul) ]

(15 Aug) Rocky II (1979, Sylvester Stallone) 54
[ This first “Rocky” sequel is watchable enough, if only for the Italian Stallion’s easygoing charisma, plus the always enjoyable performances by Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed and Burgess Meredith as Mickey. And then there’s the always rousing training montages, that amazing score, plus the actual fight at the end… But I have trouble with how the bulk of the flick is such a bummer, struggling as it does to pummel Rocky back into being a no-good nobody. Dramatically, the best films in the series have to be the original and the surprisingly affecting “Rocky Balboa,” with “Rocky IV” being the most entertaining by far. Your mileage may vary, etc. ]

(16 Aug) Conan the Barbarian (2011, Marcus Nispel) 19
[ Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery tales were already perfectly well served by the 1982 film, thanks to the primal efficiency of its storytelling, its iconic imagery, a brilliant score and the imposing performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This new iteration of the adventures of the Cimmerian warrior, here portrayed by Hawaiian male model Jason Momoa, is not only pointless but also brutally boring, even though it’s filled with bloody action. Blame the bombastic style of director Marcus Nispel (the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th” remakes), the muddled plot, the tacky art direction, the lame villains (a hammy Stephen Lang and an embarrassingly bad Rose McGowan). Only the early scenes with Ron Pearlman as Conan’s father are somewhat engaging. ]

(16 Aug) Nuit de noces (2001, Émile Gaudreault) 64
[ Watching Gaudreault’s debut almost right after his latest confirms that from the get-go, he’s known exactly what kind of movie he wanted to make and did a good job delivering on his intents. Like his three later pictures, this is an ensemble comedy that veers a bit too much into vaudeville/sitcom territory, but that is also quite heartfelt and grounded. This is a classic rom-com, from the meet-cute to the endless will-they-or-won’t-they dance between the leads (François Morency and Geneviève Brouillette), except that it’s not about them becoming a couple, but about whether their wedding weekend will end up with them getting hitched or not. The storytelling is a bit loose and the gags are hit and miss, but there are some interesting gimmicks borrowed from the “Annie Hall” playbook (characters talking to the camera, playful cross-cutting, fantasy sequences, etc.) and the supporting players (Pierrette Robitaille, Jacques Girard, René-Richard Cyr, Michel Courtemanche, Sonia Vachon, Yves Jacques, Diane Lavallée, etc.) are quite enjoyable. Also, if I’m not mistaken, Pierre Lapointe is an extra in an early scene!

Note: this is a repost of a blurb written in July 2009 after I first saw the film. ]

(17 Aug) Hobo with a Shotgun (2011, Jason Eisener) 23
[ Rutger Hauer as a hobo with a shotgun, “delivering justice one shell at a time”? Sounds badass as hell, alas the actual movie is a dud, save for the striking cinematography by Karim Hussain, with its low-key lighting scheme and splashes of bright neon colors. Set in the filthiest, sleaziest town in the world, where some asshole and his douchebag sons are free to murder countless people in plain sight, the flick is certainly as trashy and gory as the best/worst exploitation cinema, but it’s oddly lacking in either thrills or fun… It’s just a tedious, empty, repetitive exercise in bad taste. I didn’t care about anyone or anything in the story, and didn’t notice any particular wit in the way Jason Eisener went through the motions of making a modern-day grindhouse film. ]

(20 Aug) Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen) 86
[ The opening sequence, a jazz-scored series of postcard-perfect shots of the City of Lights, wonderfully sets the mood. This is a love letter to the French capital, as seen through the eyes of an American who has a thoroughly romantic vision of it. I’m talking about Woody Allen of course, but also about his on-screen alter ego, played by Owen Wilson. His character, a Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of moving permanently to Paris to become a serious novelist, is a typical Woody protagonist, down to the existential crisis, the dysfunctional relationship with a nagging woman (Rachel McAdams) and the temptation to go for another girl (Marion Cotillard)… Except that said girl happens to live in 1920s Paris, hanging around the same circles as Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Dyna Barnes, Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, Matisse and other legendary artists! As such, “Midnight in Paris” is pretty much a pure fantasy, a delightful time-travel tale driven by nostalgia, “Golden Age thinking” and, maybe, denial as well… But you can’t deny how gorgeous and pleasant it all is. I particularly enjoyed Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzerald and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, plus the present-day cameo by Léa Seydoux. And while it’s mostly feather-light, it eventually leads to Wilson’s character having an insight – an admittedly minor one, but still! I don’t want to overpraise it, but I’m thinking this might be somewhere close to being, say, one of Allen’s ten-best pictures. ]

(21 Aug) Something Borrowed (2011, Luke Greenfield) 49
[ For the first half or so, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this romantic comedy, with its breezy storytelling that sets everything up in the pre-credits sequence, fills in the blanks through a few flashbacks, then lets the central situation play out… Said situation having to do with a mousy girl (Ginnifer Goodwin), her bitchy BFF (Kate Hudson) and the latter’s fiancé (Colin Egglesfield), who the former has always secretly loved – and vice-versa. Seemingly complicating matters and making things less predictable is the buddy character played by the always great John Krasinski, who I figured Goodwin might actually end up with. Alas (SPOILER!), that thread is a dead-end, as the movie starts going into fits halfway through, with everyone on screen acting in inconsistent ways, as if the filmmakers didn’t know what to have them do, constantly changing their mind until the end. Is this a comedy or a drama? Should we like the characters despite their flaws, or end up hating them all? It’s all very frustrating. ]

(24 Aug) La Reine Rouge (saison 1) (2011, Patrick Senécal, Olivier Sabino & Podz)
[ Taking place between the events depicted in Patrick Senécal’s novels “5150, rue des Ormes” and “Aliss”, this webseries shows how the teenage Michelle Beaulieu became the Red Queen. Featuring plenty of graphic violence and explicit sexuality, “La Reine Rouge” is nonetheless most notable for the slow-burn intensity of its narrative, what with every episode ending with a cliffhanger and this whole 8-episode arc building up to an inevitably tragic finale. Stylish and wide in scope despite the fact that it was entirely self-financed, the series’ success lies in great part on Véronique Tremblay’s lead performance which, though shaky at first, gradually grows quite riveting. Supporting cast members Marc Beaupré, Marc Fournier and Stéphanie Labbé also do solid work, and watch out for the cameo by Passe-Partout herself, Marie Eykel! Amazing theme song by Mara Tremblay, too. ]

(26 Aug) Mamma Mia! (2008, Phyllida Lloyd) 0
[ It takes some kind of mad genius to manage to get Meryl Streep to deliver not just a bad performance, but an absolutely rotten, embarrassingly awfulone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the baffling directing choices made by first (and hopefully last) time filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd. I’ve rarely if ever seen a big-budget studio production as incompetently designed, staged, filmed and edited. Heck, this looks worse than a crappy TV movie! I don’t care that the plot is beyond silly and just an excuse to include as many ABBA songs as possible in this jukebox musical; it’s just that not a single scene or even a shot works. And, again, it’s pretty amazing how this flick manages to make not only Streep but also Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters and everyone ese on screen seem like obnoxious, talentless losers. ]

(30 Aug) Warrior (2011, Gavin O’ Connor) 87
[ While not quite on the level of last year’s “The Fighter”, this remains a very affecting take on some of the same themes. “Warrior” follows two underdogs, an ex-Marine living off the grid (Tom Hardy) and a teacher (Joel Edgerton) who’s been hit hard by the economic crisis, as they enter a winner-takes-all mixed martial arts tournament, the twist being that they’re estranged brothers. This potentially melodramatic and improbable story manages to remain grounded and engrossing thanks to the raw and gritty approach favoured by writer-director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”, “Pride and Glory”) and to the powerful performances by Hardy and Edgerton, plus the heartbreaking, Oscar-worthy turn by Nick Nolte as their father. Chances are that the climax, set to The National’s Around Today, will leave you in tears. ]

July / September

2011 log (9)

(2 Sep) SUPER (2011, James Gunn) 85
[ What a weird fucking movie! At first, I figured it would just be a variation on “Kick-Ass,” i.e. an irreverent send-up of comic book movies that’s as hilarious as it is badass (to quote from my review of that flick). Except that it’s also a rather sad, almost depressing story about a poor bastard (Rainn Wilson) who just can’t cope with his wife (Liv Tyler) having left him for another man (Kevin Bacon) – who just happens to be a drug lord… And our protagonist happens to be some kind of psychopath who has visions of God and demons which lead him to deciding to become a super-hero who beats criminals to a pulp with a pipe wrench, and who eventually teams up with a comic book geek girl (Ellen Page) who’s probably as much of a sick and twisted maniac as he is… Again, I guess this isn’t that far removed from “Kick-Ass”, or from elements of other subversive super-hero movies like “Watchmen”, “Orgazmo” and “The Toxic Avenger”… All the same, this remains a weird fucking movie, and I kinda loved it. ]

(7 Sep) Troll Hunter (2011, André Øvredal) 78
[ Featuring gorgeous cinematography despite its found footage conceit, this dark fantasy set in striking locations across Norway (woods, mountains, bridges, an abandonned mine…) depicts a young film crew as it follows a mysterious man (Otto Jespersen) they suspect of being a pear poacher. Turns out he’s actually yes, a troll hunter. Not so much reminiscent of “The Blair Witch Project” or “Cloverfield” than of “C’est arrivé près de chez vous” (“Man Bites Dog”), this movie juggles suspense, wonder and droll humor as it lets us get to know a most peculiar individual and learn about the ins and outs of his most unusual profession. The four or five set pieces involving various kinds of trolls are all gripping and fascinating, thanks to pretty awesome special effects but mostly to clever writing and direction. ]

(8 Sep) Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn) 93
[ “You give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what.” He’s the Driver (angel-faced badass Ryan Gosling), that’s it, that’s all. You do your dirty business, whatever it is, then he’ll drive the getaway car as well as any other man ever could. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll get all fast and furious, GTA smash-happy on your ass. Here’s a guy who thinks behind the wheel, who’d much rather slip through the cracks and escape discreetly than burn rubber… But if it comes to that, so be it. We gather all this through the pre-credits opening sequence of “Drive”, and almost entirely via visual storytelling, and we’re immediately hooked. Here’s a brilliantly crafted, whip-smart mood piece that initially reminds of things like Soderbergh’s “The Limey” or Mann’s “Collateral”, then of a Tarantino-by-the-way-of-Elmore-Leonard crime tale populated by a rogue gallery of colorful crooks (Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, James Biberi, Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, Ron motherfuckin’ Perlman)… And then the damn thing goes all “A History of Violence” on us, delivering a bunch of absolutely riveting, extremely violent action sequences. And yet this remains a generally quiet and atmospheric film, filled with evocative visuals and wonderful performances, including Carey Mulligan’s as the romantic interest. I also really dug the synth-heavy, 80s-style Cliff Martinez score and the use of songs by Kavinsky, Desire, College, Chromatics and Riz Ortolani… This is, dare I say it, some kind of genre-bending masterpiece, full of instant-classic movie moments that is bound to thrill any cinephile. ]

(9 Sep) Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson) [ review ] 100

(11 Sep) My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997, P.J. Hogan) [ review ] 67

(12 Sep) Peter Gabriel: New Blood Live in London (2011, Blue Leach)
[ Up until now, save for 2008’s U2 3D and maybe a few others, 3D concert films have been reserved to teen idols à la Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber and the Glee cast. Enter Peter Gabriel, who couldn’t be farther removed from that, especially the way we find him here, singing in front of a 46 piece orchestra conducted by Ben Foster and focusing in great part on lesser-known art rock numbers such as Intruder (off 1980’s Melt), San Jacinto and The Rhythm of the Heat (off 1982’s Security), Blood of Eden (off 1992’s Us), as well as Darkness and Signal to Noise (off 2002’s underrated album Up ). Also included are a few tracks from Gabriel’s 2010 covers album Scratch My Back (Regina Spektor’s Après moi, Lou Reed’s The Power of the Heart, The Magnetic Fields’ The Book of Love) and some favorites from his own repertoire like Biko, Digging in the Dirt, Mercy Street and Red Rain, culminating with the timeless Solsbury Hill and, during the encore, the very moving one-two punch of In Your Eyes and Don’t Give Up. Visually, Blue Leach’ film is not the most dynamic thing in the world, relying mostly on Peter Gabriel holding our attention with his powerful voice and presence, which he does. White-haired and dressed in black, often bathed in red light, the singer is surrounded by the orchestra, through which the camera swiftly moves. There are also some interesting mise en scène tricks, notably involving LED screens. The use of 3D is immersive enough, if not particularly impressive. ]

(13 Sep) Chasing Madoff (2011, Jeff Prosserman)
[ Based on the book “No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller” by Harry Markopolos, who was one of the whistleblowers in the Bernie Madoff investment scandal, this documentary depicts how, in spite of all the warnings Markopolos and others made for almost a decade, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission never took appropriate action. When Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme, the largest in history, was finally exposed, it was too late and investors lost billions of dollars. “Chasing Madoff” tells that story in a very dramatic way, maybe too dramatic for some tastes, but I liked the Errol Morris-esque use of stylized re-enactments and the faux-Philip Glass score by David Fleury. At times it feels like you’re watching a film noir, a paranoid thriller at others, but it remains engrossing throughout. ]

(14 Sep) Café de Flore (2011, Jean-Marc Vallée) 59
[ I find that movies like this are the hardest to review. Not because they ultimately fail in my opinion, au contraire, but because they get so many things so right before ultimately crashing down. In what could be construed as a stylistic follow-up to his modern Quebec cinema classic “C.R.A.Z.Y.”, writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée impresses once again with his mastery of visual storytelling, delivering countless memorable shots, transitions and, in what may be his greatest skill, sequences set to music (Pink Floyd, Sigur Ros, The Cure, etc.). Attempting to simultaneously tell two apparently unreleated stories, one set in contemporary Montreal and the other in 1960s Paris, the film hits a wall when it quickly becomes clear that one timeline is much more involving than the other, namely the latter, which depicts a French single mother (Vanessa Paradis)’s affecting and somewhat disturbing codependent relationship with her son (Marin Gerrier), who has Down syndrome. I was left mostly cold by the present-day portion, which deals with the first world problems of a yuppie-scum jet-setting DJ (Kevin Parent), who’s perfectly happy with his sexy young blonde girlfriend (Évelyne Brochu) but who still has conflicting feelings about his ex (Hélène Florent), who also happens to be the mother of his children (Rosalie Fortier and Joanny Corbeil-Picher). On the whole, “Café de Flore” also suffers from dialogue and voice-over narration that are often way too on the nose, it can be tiresomely repetitive (why make a point once when you can do it 10 times?), and the pseudo-mystical way the two story threads finally connects is groan-inducing at best. So basically, I came out of the theatre unsure what to think, having loved some elements, hated others… I might still marginally recommend it, but this remains a frustratingly uneven picture. ]

(15 Sep) Inni (2011, Vincent Morisset)
[ After “Miroir noir”, his spellbinding 2008 Arcade Fire film, Montreal director Vincent Morisset continues to push the limits of the rockumentary/concert movie format with this quasi-experimental film about Sigur Rós. Mostly made up of expressionist black-and-white shots, often tightly framed to capture only fingers strumming strings or hitting keys, a pulsating bass drum, a mouth singing into a mic, “Inni” also features brief excerpts of interviews with the Icelandic band and fleeting glimpses of archival footage. But more than anything, it’s a vivid, transfixing ode to the heartbreaking beauty of songs like Ny batterí, Svefn-g-englar, Festival, Inní mér syngur vitleysingur and Popplagið, as performed at London’s Alexandra Palace in 2008, before the group went on indefinite hiatus. ]

(16 Sep) Shark Night 3D (2011, David R. Ellis) 61
[ While not as wildly enjoyable as last year’s T&A and gore fest “Piranha 3D”, this latest outing in the killer fish exploitation film genre is still quite the hoot. Featuring a bunch of dumb college kids (Dustin Milligan, Sara Paxton, Joel David Moore, Alyssa Diaz, Sinqua Walls, Katharine McPhee, Chris Zylka) and dumb rednecks (Chris Carmack, Joshua Leonard, Donal Logue) butting heads around a lake infested with sharks, “Shark Night 3D” is preposterous, sure, but the direction by David R. Ellis is actually pretty effective – I for one was quite impressed by the use of 3D, especially in the underwater shots. Then you’ve got quite a few uproariously outrageous moments, up to and including the climax, that have got to be intentionally funny. If anything, the must-see post-credits Lonely Island-style hip hop music video by the cast goes along way towards confirming that no one was taking himself too seriously during the making of this flick. ]

(19 Sep) Real Steel (2011, Shawn Levy) 60
[ I consider Shawn Levy to be one of the better working directors of middlebrow Hollywood family movies. Doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, but when you see some of the unwatchable crap that targets kids these days, you have to appreciate the easygoing charm, giddiness and occasional wit of films likes Levy’s “Big Fat Liar”, “Cheaper by the Dozen” and especially “Night at the Museum”. There’s an old-fashioned quality to Levy’s movies, including his latest, “Real Steel,” which often feels like a throwback to the 1980s work of one of its executive producers, Steven Spielberg. Set in the near future, “Real Steel” stars Hugh Jackman as a former boxer who’s now moved on to the next big thing: managing fighting robots. Loosely based on a Richard Matheson short story, this sci-fi tale doubles as a drama about a deadbeat dad trying to make good with his son (Dakota Goyo) after his mother’s death, which makes it a virtual remake of the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling flick “Over the Top.” Levy says he hasn’t actually seen that one, but he admits that films like “Rocky” and “The Champ” were influences, much more than, say, “Transformers”. As such, even though the rousing robot boxing sequences do play an important part in the film, don’t be surprised if you find yourself unexpectedly moved by the climax. ]

(23 Sep) Contagion (2011, Steven Soderbergh) 91
[ It starts with someone coughing, over a black screen. Then we see a sick-looking Gwyneth Paltrow sitting in an airport bar, with a red title stating that this is DAY 2 – day two of a deadly epidemic, we’ll soon find out, an epidemic threatening to kill millions of people, and fast. As the days roll by, the film takes us back and forth around the world, introducing tons of characters, none of which could really be construed as a lead… No, the lead is the virus itself, which we follow as it spreads at an alarming rate, while scientists, government officials and others struggle to find a way to stop it. Steven Soderbergh directs all this masterfully, achieving to scare the shit out of us just by showing us people getting sweaty and dizzy, coughing, and touching things, goddammit – and then it’s off to another victim, and another, and another… The storytelling is remarkably fluid, we never feel lost – disturbed, uncomfortable and anxious, for sure, but we can always follow what’s going on all too well, even though the chain of events is complex and involves a whole lot of people, not to mention tons of technical jargon. Kudos to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for that, and again to Soderbergh and his almost clinical attention to detail. Also of note are the extra-sharp digital cinematography (the film was shot on Red One cameras), the typically brilliant electro-industrial score by Cliff Martinez, and what may very well be the best ensemble cast of the year (Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Anna Jacoby-Heron, Demetri Martin, etc.). Here is a flawlessly crafted film depicting the worst-case scenario that thankfully never materialized when the H1N1 and SARS outbreaks happened, an unnerving, “really grim” paranoid thriller with elements of horror, apocalyptic science-fiction and 1970s disaster movies… And maybe just a touch of gallows humor (“When did we run out of body bags?”). One of the year’s best pictures, no doubt about it. ]

(24 Sep) The Goonies (1985, Richard Donner) 85
[ “Data’s quite tired of falling and Data’s tired of skeletons!”
This classic Steven Spielberg production must have be thought up as a variation on “Indiana Jones” in which the stars would be Short-Round (Ke Huy Quan, here playing Data) and his little friends, a ragtag group of kids (Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Jeff Cohen, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton) from the wrong side of the track or, actually, from the “Goon Docks”, whatever that is, who go looking for pirate treasure to save their neighbourhood. Ostensibly for kids, the movie is truly fun and exciting, with not only booby traps, skeletons and shit, but also a family of gun-toting criminals (Anne Ramsey, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano) chasing our young heroes. And then there’s Sloth (John Matuszak), who’s initially scary-looking but who turns out to be the coolest of them all. I loved this back in the day, still do today. ]

(28 Sep) Marécages (2011, Guy Édoin) 64
[ Renowned on the film festival circuit for his award-winning shorts, Guy Édoin brings to his debut feature an impressive visual mastery and a willingness to submit to the deliberate pace and hushed sounds of life in the countryside. At its best, “Marécages” reminds of such masterworks as Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and Reygadas’ “Silent Light”. Alas, Édoin’s writing is not always at the same level as his direction. The setup of this family tragedy set on a dairy farm in the Eastern Townships does work, and Pascale Bussières, Luc Picard and Gabriel Maillé deliver affecting enough performances, but the developments of the narrative can be rather fickle (e.g., everything involving the François Papineau character). ]

(30 Sep) Bride Wars (2011, Gary Winick) 23
[ Shrill, generic, contrived… Even by the (low) standards of chick flicks, this is pretty worthless. You’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen it all, and even if you’re a fan of Kate Hudson and/or Anne Hathaway, chances are you won’t be sure you are anymore by the end of the movie. Aren’t we supposed to like the main characters at least a little bit? ]

2011 log (7)

(2 Jul) Milocrorze: A Love Story (2011, Yoshimasa Ishibashi) 70
[ In many ways, “Milocrorze” is a showcase for actor Takayuki Yamada, who plays the three very different yet equally iconic lead characters: youth counsellor Besson Kumagai, who comes off like a cross between Frank T.J. Mackey and Austin Powers; Tamon, a mild-mannered man who turns into a vengeful samurai when the girl he loves is kidnapped; and Ovreneli Vreneligare, a poor sap who had his heart broken by the titular Milocrorze when he was a little boy. “Milocrorze: A Love Story” blends fantasy, romance, comedy, irresistible dance numbers and badass action sequences, climaxing with a show-stopping six-minute combat sequence inspired by traditional Japanese painting and kabuki theatre. ]

(3 Jul) The FP (2011, Trost Bros.) 66
[ While I’ve seen many objectively better films at Fantasia this year, I still have a particular fondness for Jason and Brandon Trost’s ridiculously enjoyable film about the underground war between two gangs for control of Frazier Park, a.k.a. “the FP.” At this point, I should point out that the aforementioned gang members are all dressed in 1980s attire and that when they confront each other, they do so by playing a variation of the Dance Dance Revolution video game called Beat Beat Revelation! In addition to co-writing and co-directing, Jason Trost stars as the eyepatch-wearing JTRO, who’s forced to pick up the mantle and bring his clan to victory after the death of BTRO, their leader. While the plot is beyond silly, it’s mostly played straight, which makes it all the funnier. The film also happens to be pretty damn well crafted, from Brandon Trost’s stylish cinematography to George Holdcroft’s synth-heavy score. Still, it remains close to a Troma-produced B-movie in spirit, with apparent nods to 80s flicks like “The Warriors”, “Escape From New York”, “Commando” and “Rocky IV” (training montages!) thrown in for good measure. ]

(4 Jul) Ninja Kids!!! (2011, Takashi Miike) 64
[ Adapted from manga/anime series “Ninja Rantaro Flunks Again”, this is sorta-kinda what a “Harry Potter” movie would be like if it was directed by Takashi Miike. Telling the story of a boy’s first year at Ninja Academy and subsequent involvement in a conflict between a family of hair stylists and assassins, “Ninja Kids!!!” is colorful, alternately goofy and brutal (although in a cartoonish way), full of ridiculous characters (including a “friendly ninja trivia commentator”!), kind of messy but mostly a lot of fun. ]

(6 Jul) Post Grad (2009, Vicky Jenson) 19
[ Here’s a hopelessly formulaic flick that’s not even sure what formula it’s trying to follow. The title and initial premise suggest that’s it’s about the trials facing college graduates when they enter the job market… But then this seems to be forgotten about until, late in the game, the protagonist (Alexis Bledel playing a slight variation on Rory Gilmore) is handed the job of her dream on a platter – only to quit shortly afterwards. Why? You guessed it, a boy. Because that’s the other thing: “Post Grad” is also a romantic comedy about a girl caught beween a sexy, older Brazilian man (Rodrigo Santoro) and her lifelong BFF (Zach Gilford), who has long been in unrequited love with her… Again, you can guess where this is going. On top of the half-assed graduate story and predictable rom-com, “Post Grad” poorly attempts to be one of those quirky family comedies à la “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Juno”. But even though the supporting cast should be awesome in theory (Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch, Carol Burnett, J.K. Simmons, etc.), they’re stuck with one-dimensional roles, lifeless dialogue and hardly any plot to speak of. Instantly forgettable. ]

(10 Jul) Kaboom (2011, Gregg Araki) 5
[ If some film school dipshit had directed this embarassingly bad gay hipster knockoff of “Donnie Darko” about young people fucking, mysterious men in animal masks and visions of the end of the world, it would be one thing. But isn’t Gregg Araki getting a bit long in the tooth to be making such juvenile, self-indulgent schlock? ]

(11 Jul) The Whisperer in Darkness (2011, Sean Branney) 68
[ This adaptation of the 1931 H.P. Lovecraft short story, about a folklorist (Matt Foyer)’s encounter with sanity-defying mystery and horror in the eeriest corners of Vermont, is not only a period piece but also a brilliant pastiche of Golden Age filmmaking. The pulpy storytelling, the film noir-style narration, the ominous orchestral score, the stark b&w cinematography, the old-fashioned acting… It really seems like this a long-lost gem from the ‘30s that’s just been discovered. ]

(12 Jul) Retreat (2011, Carl Tibbetts) 77
[ Starting as a psychological drama about a couple (Cillian Murphy and Thandie Newton) whose marriage is on the rocks, “Retreat” then morphs into a truly suspenseful claustrophobic and paranoid thriller. Almost entirely set in a cabin on a secluded island,the film grows increasingly tense after a mysterious young private, played by the scarily intense Jamie Bell, arrives with news of a lethal outbreak and orders the couple to board themselves up -along with him- in the cabin… It almost never lets up until the staggeringly brutal ending. A truly auspicious debut feature from Carl Tibbetts. ]

(14 Jul) Red State (2011, Kevin Smith) 88
[ Inspired by Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church and their bullshit “God Hates Fags” campaign, but also by the Waco siege and the U.S. government’s post-9/11 excesses, Smith has put together a violently nihilistic film that comes off like an unholy cross between “Hostel”, “There Will Be Blood” and “Die Hard”, if that makes any sense. Going back and forth between horror, action and black comedy, all the while blasting away at religion and politics, “Red State” blends genres and juggles tone in ways that call to mind Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers.

This is the Kevin Smith of “Dogma” back with a vengeance, delivering a gritty-as-fuck flick that’s not without its flaws (a bit too much exposition here, a shaky scene there), but that skilfully pushes the audience’s buttons more often than not. For what it’s worth, it certainly played like gangbusters at Fantasia.

Talking about it with various folks after the screening, I did run into a few people who hated it, but even those had nothing but praise for Michael Parks and his riveting portrayal of Pastor Abin Cooper. I personally also got a kick out of Nicholas Braun, Michael Angarano and Kyle Gallner as the hilariously sleazy teenagers who inadvertently put the plot into motion, Melissa Leo as one of the most fanatical members of the Cooper family, and John Goodman as an ATF agent who shows up two thirds of the way through and practically walks away with the movie. ]

(15 Jul) Milocrorze: A Love Story (2011, Yoshimasa Ishibashi) 70
[ See above. ]

(15 Jul) A Lonely Place to Die (2011, Julian Gilbey) 79
[ Amidst the breathtaking scenery of the Scottish Highlands, a group of mountain climbers find themselves hunted down by creepy men with guns after they rescue a Serbian girl they found buried alive. Full of gasp-worthy moments, this mercilessly intense and action-packed thriller is driven by a very physical performance from Melissa George, not unlike the one of Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens”. Not for the faint of heart! ]

(17 Jul) Endhiran (2011, S. Shankar) 72
[ Superstar Rajni portrays both an android and his creator in this typically overstuffed but always entertaining Indian blockbuster. Over the 170-minute length, it swings between science-fiction, slapstick, action, musical and melodrama, as Chitty the robot and Dr. Vaseegaran end up fighting each other for the love of a woman, played by the ever gorgeous Aishwarya Rai. Expect a lot of ridiculous nonsense, but also some genuinely awesome set pieces and fun song-and-dance numbers. ]

(20 Jul) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston) 82
[ The latest Marvel Studios production is a wonderfully old-fashioned World War II adventure that seems to take its cues from 1930s and 40s serials, just like the “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” flicks did (not-so-incidentally, Joe Johnson worked on both those series back in the day). “Captain America: The First Avenger” takes its time to tell the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans<), a weak but fundamentally decent and brave little man who becomes tall and powerful after taking part in a U.S. army experiment. Many awesome super-heroics follow as Captain America takes on the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his HYDRA minions, kicking their asses all across Nazi-occupied Europe. Earnest but not without a sense of humour, Johnston’s beautifully crafted film is great fun from beginning to end. ]

(23 Jul) He’s Just Not That into You (2009, Ken Kwapis) 65
[ For the most part, this ensemble movie is not so much a romantic comedy as an insightful movie about dating and relationships. It juggles around with 8 or 9 characters who are either pathetic, manipulative, naive, cynical, hypocritical… Inevitably uneven, it sometimes falters (the whole Jennifer Connelly/Bradley Cooper thread is lame, though Scarlett Johansson makes for a convincing temptress), but otherwise it kept me involved and entertained enough (the Ginnifer Goodwin/Justin Long stuff, Jennifer Aniston/Ben Affleck, the glorified cameo by Drew Barrymore). Unfortunately, whatever good will it’s earned, it almost entirely spoils when it suddenly decides to go for a series of contrived rom-com happy endings at the end. ]

(24 Jul) Lords of Dogtown (2005, Catherine Hardwicke) meh
[ Caught this on TV and tried to watch it, but phased out here and there… I mean, it recreates the time and place (Santa Monica and Venice, California circa 1975) well enough and it features a cast of capable young actors (Emile Hirsch, John Robinson, Victor Rasuk, Michael Angarano and Heath Ledger) as the Z-Boys, a group of skateboarders who revolutionized the sport… But where’s the story? Okay, so they were great skaters, they got famous, had some falling-outs between them, and that’s about that. Insert endless, repetititve, tiresome scenes of skateboarding and partying. At least, if we cared about the characters, we might care about watching them do whatever they do, but they’re depicted as such morons and assholes! I stand by my ‘meh’. ]

(26 Jul) Sur le rythme (2011, Charles-Olivier Michaud) 41
[ In his first starring role, “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” winner Nico Archambault does his best Swayze, not necessarily proving to be a great actor but displaying ample charisma and screen presence. And boy, can the guy move! If it were just for the numerous dance scenes, which are skilfully choreographed by Archambault and directed by Charles Olivier-Michaud (Slamdance award-winner “Snow & Ashes”) and often set in interestingly grungy locations, this Québécois take on the “Dirty Dancing”/”Step Up” formula would be worth recommending. Alas, the movie also features a lot of clichés and bad melodrama, most of it having to do with the young female protagonist (Mylène Saint-Sauveur) butting heads with her stereotypically disapproving parents (Marina Orsini and Paul Doucet). ]

(28 Jul) The Future (2011, Miranda July) 75
[ You know you’re not watching an ordinary, run-of-the-mill film when it begins with Paw Paw the cat’s inner monologue, and then it only grows quirkier and more surreal as it goes along. Ostensibly about the disintegration of the relationship between a dance teacher (writer-director Miranda July, who also does the voice of Paw Paw) and a tech support guy (Hamish Linklater) who quit his job to volunteer for an environmental organization, “The Future” is more fundamentally concerned with the abstract nature of time and all those weird little moments that make life so fascinating. Not quite as sublime as her previous “Me and You and Everyone We Know”, July’s second feature is still full of elusive beauty, casually poetic dialogue and grace notes. ]

June / August

2011 log (6)

(11 Jun) Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams) 34
[ We’ve all heard the advance word about how this film is supposedly a big sloppy blowjob to Steven Spielberg (here credited as a producer through his Amblin Entertainment company) and his early films like “Jaws”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” (something way too many critics are clamoring as if they were the first to figure it out). How refreshing to see a blockbuster with an old-fashioned sense of wonder, they say… and what I wonder is what movie they were actually watching.

I mean, sure, it’s set in 1979 in a suburban town, the protagonists are kids not unlike the ones in “E.T.” or the Spielberg-produced “The Goonies” (or Stephen King stories like “It” and “The Body/Stand By Me”), and the sci-fi/horror elements are kept off-screen for quite a while. Because as one of the boys, a wannabe filmmaker shooting a Super 8 zombie flick with his buddies during summer vacation, says at some point, it intends to not just be about the thrills but to tell a story and to make the audience feel something.

Alas, after a promising first act, “Super 8” goes off the rails (no pun intended) when the kids witness a ridiculously over the top train crash which they miraculously walk away from unharmed. That is the beginning of a long, long series of scenes full of preposterous mayhem, with the small town where the action is set blowing up over and over while the kids and most everyone else never gets hurt.

Elle Fanning is pretty great, but the other child actors are uneven at best, if not downright awful in some cases. As for the grown-ups (parents, cops, soldiers), they’re all dull dull dull, and they keep behaving like idiots… Which might have more to do with the mediocre writing than with the skills of the cast.

For all its forced nostalgia and homages, “Super 8” is ultimately closer to “Cloverfield” than to anything Spielberg’s ever made. It’s an overblown B-movie creature feature that jerks us around for a while with a so-called mystery surrounding the nature of the threat facing the characters, with a payoff nowhere near as successful as the setup (or the marketing campaign, for that matter).

Hate to break it to you, Mr. Abrams, but you, sir, are no Spielberg. You know what? Forget about this overrated movie and its goddamn lens flares, and just watch the music video for Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”. In 5 minutes, Spike Jonze totally outdoes “Super 8” in every way as far as early Spielberg pastiches go (can’t wait to see the full 30 minute version). ]

(12 Jun) Sans dessein (2009, Steeve Léonard & Caroline Labrèche)
[ Full disclosure: a few friends of mine were involved with the production of this low-budget independent feature, but given that it won the Best Local Film award at Fantasia in 2009, I’m not the only one who enjoyed it a great deal! The way I see it, the U.S. has Kevin Smith, the U.K. has Edgar Wright, and now Quebec has Steeve Léonard, Caroline Labrèche and the rest of the Dead Cat Films crew. Starring writer-director Léonard as a slacker slowly coming into his own and co-director Labrèche as the girl who helps him to do so, this movie is both funny and touching, juvenile and clever. Full of universal geek culture references (“Star Wars”, “Back to the Future”, “Star Trek”, etc.), “Sans dessein” is nonetheless Québécois to the core, which makes it a real treat. ]

(18 Jun) Green Lantern (2011, Martin Campbell) 27
[ After playing supporting parts in “Blade: Trinity” and “Wolverine”, Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds finally gets to star in his own superhero flick. Alas, said flick is rather dreadful, with a story silly even by comic book standards, cartoonish FX and talented actors wasted in thankless roles (Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, etc.). Only Reynolds himself gets to have a little fun (emphasis on ‘little’) as Hal Jordan, a cocky pilot chosen to join the Green Lantern Corps, i.e. intergalactic peacekeepers with nifty super-powers. What follows isn’t so much sci-fi action as endless expository dialogue setting up the film’s convoluted mythology, trite human drama, and Yoda-isms about the power of will versus the power of fear. And the big climax? A big fight between our “green space cop” and what looks like a shit monster. ]

(21 Jun) Cabin Fever (2002, Eli Roth) 50
[ Why is it that Eli Roth can be such a cool and funny geek of a guy when you hear him talking or read interviews with him, but his movies are just not all that great? Maybe it’s because the line is so thin between having fun with B-movie tropes and merely making another B-movie. Set in and around a cabin in the woods, where five young men and women must face some creepy hicks and a mysterious, deadly disease, “Cabin Fever” is like an 80s exploitation flick, with lots of bad writing, bad directing and bad acting… Which might be intentional – or not. In any case, the gore, T&A and juvenile humor are modestly entertaning, and some of it is even genuinely effective. I still feel like hearing Roth talk about this stuff might be more fun then watching him try to pull it off on screen. ]

(26 Jun) Just Go with It (2011, Dennis Dugan) 52
[ A loose remake of “Cactus Flower”, this romantic comedy is modestly enjoyable thanks to the chemistry between Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. The plot is a big preposterous mess of lying and scheming, but as the title implies, if you “just go with it”, it leads to some pretty funny situations. At other times, it’s just stupid (everything to do with Nick Swardson’s character, for one), and regular Sandler collaborator Dennis Dugan’s directing skills remain mediocre at best. Still, like I said, Sandler and Aniston work well together, Brooklyn Decker sure is easy on the eyes, and it’s kind of a hoot to see Nicole Kidman acting like such a goofy bitch. Worth a rental, etc. ]

(27 Jun) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011, Michael Bay) 81
[ Not unlike “X-Men: First Class”, this third “Transformers” flick delves in alternate history storytelling, throwing the space race and the Chernobyl disaster into the timeline of the endless war between Autobots and Decepticons. Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf still finds himself caught in the middle, with a new babe by his side (model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and new supporting actors (Frances McDormand, John Malkovich) providing comic relief alongside the returning John Turturro. But all that is just to keep us mildly entertained until the main course, an hour-long sequence involving the near-annihilation of Chicago by evil extraterrestrial robots which delivers the most epic sci-fi action thrills since “Avatar”. Not-so-incidentally, Michael Bay got some pointers about modern 3D filmmaking from James Cameron himself. ]

(28 Jun) Scenes from the Suburbs (2011, Spike Jonze) 88
[ This Spike Jonze short film, which he co-wrote with Will and Win Butler from Arcade Fire, totally wipes the floor with “Super 8” as far as coming-of-age stories go. There’s no stupid monster, no over the top destruction scenes, no fucking lens flares, just some great young actors struggling to maintain their friendship as they grow up in a world they don’t understand. I love how no explanation is ever really given as to why the suburban town where it takes place is overrun by the police and army, and how the tale is told through a series of moments… memories… dreams? The cinematography is gorgeous, and the music of course is amazing as well. This doesn’t quite reach the genius level of Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, but it’s still a must-see. ]

(30 Jun) The Tree of Life (2011, Terrence Malick) 93
[ It won the Palme d’Or and it’s already been hailed as a masterpiece and an instant classic by some. Easy, now. Oh, this is most definitely a great film, but upon first viewing, I have some issues with it. The first act didn’t quite do it for me, then the much ballyhooed about Qatsi-style creation-of-the-world sequence did impress me as an audio-visual showcase, but not so much thematically. And I believe it’s clear that the Sean Penn thread is the film’s weakest link and that the finale is a bit meh. All that being said, I still loved the hell out of the majority of the picture, starting with the courtship Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s characters onto the birth of their three sons and the way their childhood unfolds. All the Malick trademarks are there: the gorgeous magic-hour cinematography, the spiritual/existential voice-over narration, the use of music (both the Alexandre Desplat score and the classical pieces), the impressionistic storytelling, the attention given to nature… But while it may seem pretentious and quasi-experimental at times, I was surprised by how straightforwardly moving it can be – again, particularly during the scenes/moments involving Pitt, Chastain and their boys. I’ll have to see it again before I can say that I even come close to fully understanding it and chances are I’ll love it even more then but, right away, I can tell you that it’s the best film I’ve seen during the whole first half of 2011. ]

May / July