12 Years a Slave

Here’s a truly great film… That is not quite the greatest, in my opinion. As is often the case, I find myself thinking that what is supposed to be the year’s Best Picture isn’t. Again, in my opinion.

A lot of people I respect are praising it to high heavens and I can understand why: it tells a powerful story, the direction is impeccable and the cast led by the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a series of particularly strong performances.

And yet I can’t say I was all that moved by “12 Years a Slave”. Sure, slavery is one of the most horrible things ever imagined by mankind. The film makes this plainly obvious, but we already knew that, right? Still, this should affect me more, but for some reason, the tears didn’t come.

Intellectually, I was horrified by all the pain and humiliation the African-American characters suffer through, I was impressed by how Ejiofor’s character manages to survive with his dignity intact somehow and I thoroughly despised the slavers played by Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and others.

But it remained an intellectual experience for me, never quite reaching me emotionally. So while I admire it, I’m not sure I’ll include it in my year-end top ten.

La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2

Deafening film-of-the-year buzz surrounds this Palme d’or-winning film and now that I’ve seen it, I can confirm that it’s a great film, definitely among the year’s best… Though it might still be just a bit overrated, especially when some scribes claim it’s “unlike anything we’ve ever seen” or “one of the best love stories of all time.”

Sure, the sex scenes are pretty graphic, the actresses are exceptional and their relationship is really involving… But we *have* seen other films do similar things, and I wouldn’t go as far as calling it the best anything of all time.

That being said, it is undeniably a great picture. The best thing about it has got to be the emotionally complex performance by Adèle Exarchopoulos as the titular character, a high school girl who discovers her sexuality and who she really is over the course of several years and nearly three hours. Three hours, really? Yes, really, and they go by quickly because of the smooth, confident storytelling. Things never feel rushed, but it never seem like they’re being stretched out too much either.

Much of the story deals with Adèle falling in love/lust at first sight with Emma, a blue-haired older girl with an alien, otherworldly quality played by the excellent Léa Seydoux. The two of them have tangible chemistry, in and out of bed, and their romance is idyllic at first, though it eventually shows cracks, in part because of their different lifestyles (Adèle wants to be a teacher, Emma feels that anything other than doing art isn’t fulfilling enough).

“La vie d’Adèle” is beautifully shot in a very natural way, with lots of close-ups and handheld camerawork. Equally sensual and thoughtful, it’s very attentive to faces and bodies, often focusing on action and movement even though it’s very talkative. Among other things, it perfectly captures desire on screen, which is no small feat.

I loved watching all of it, really… Even though I’m still not sure why some are practically calling it the greatest movie of all time. Let’s stick with one of the year’s best!


“At 600 km above planet Earth, the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.”

With that in mind, we’re off. For nearly 90 minutes, we will experience what it’s like to be in this “impossible” environment, and not even in ideal circumstances. “Gravity” is a study in things going wrong. It’s all about “What now?” and “You gotta be kidding!”

A plot summary is almost beside the point. Just know that we follow two astronauts, respectively played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, as a mission in open space goes awry and they struggle to make it back to Earth alive.

Alfonso Cuarón, who also wrote the minimalist, straight-to-the-point screenplay with son Jonás Cuarón, outdoes himself, crafting a technically flawless special effects-driven film that really makes you feel like you’re floating in space, in parts thanks to the use of long unbroken shots and POV sequences, all in glorious IMAX 3D.

It’s visually dazzling and overwhelmingly intense and, when things turn to “pretty scary shit”, it’s quite terrifying. Imagine drifting in the great big nothing, at the complete mercy of technology which, if it breaks down, means instant doom… Heck, just skydiving is out of the question for me. I don’t even go on the biggest amusement park rides! And this, my friends, is one hell of a ride.

It’s practically the ultimate survival story, with characters defying impossible odds in order to not end up lost in the void forever. As such, this is almost more horror than sci-fi… There are many moments of sheer terror, but also instances of grace and beauty. In any case, it’s one damn thing after another and there is really no excess fat in this picture, it’s tight, tight, tight.

I don’t know what else I can tell you… This is a cliché, but it’s true : “Gravity” is a film you must see for yourself and definitely on the biggest screen you can find and in 3D. It doesn’t have a complex story, rich character development or much thematic depth, but as a pure cinematic experience, it’s hard to beat.

Don Jon

What’s the difference between porno fucking, having sex in real life and making love?

That’s one of the questions at the centre of Don Jon, the tremendous directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars as the titular character. Here’s a guy who spends his time either in a bar, at the gym, in church, in his badass car or in his bachelor pad, where he often brings home girls…

But somehow, that’s not the thing that this borderline sex addict prefers. No, what the man truly loves more than anything is his porn! Even when he begins a relationship with a super hot chick played by Scarlett Johansson, he still needs to get his XXX fix daily.

What will it take for him to maybe start to appreciate actual intimate moments with a woman more than jerking it to people banging away? I’ll let you discover it along with Don Jon when you see the movie, which you really should. Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the witty and insightful screenplay, directs this into a truly fun and sexy flick with a bright, inventive visual style, dynamic editing and great use of voice-over narration and music.

This compelling character study can then count on the talent of Joseph we were already fully aware of, as an actor. Don Jon is quite unlike any character Gordon-Levitt has ever played, every bit as macho and cocky as, say, (500) Days of Summer’s Tom was sweet and sensitive. It’s an awesome performance, really. Scarlett Johansson is perfect in her part and I also loved the supporting turns by Julianne Moore, Tony Danza and others.

I’ve been a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt the leading man for a long time and now I can say right away based on this highly enjoyable first feature that I’m a fan of him as a writer-director. Can’t wait for film #2!


“Be ready.”

In his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve knocks it out of the park with a taut, troubling thriller that has deservedly been compared to the work of David Fincher.

It deals with many disturbing things, starting with child abduction – one of the many reasons why I could never have kids. It’s a scary world out there, and I can’t imagine the fear and the pain that must fill a parent when their offspring goes missing.

This is what happens to Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, as well as to their friends Terrence Howard and Viola Davis early in “Prisoners”, when both couples’ daughter disappears. And then… Well, the least you know about what follows, the better.

What I can tell you is that this leads to some devious twists and to some truly brutal scenes, in regards to violence but also just sheer emotion, and the deeper we get into things, the more morally ambiguous and creepy as fuck the film gets.

Villeneuve directs it all masterfully, working from a powerful screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski with priceless assists from cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, who gives “Prisoners” its grim, gritty look, and from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose music contributes greatly to maintaining the tense atmosphere of the piece.

Best of all is the brilliant acting by the top notch cast, particularly the super raw and intense Hugh Jackman, who delivers one of his best performances ever. I also thought Jake Gyllenhaal was tremendous as the cop leading the investigation into the little girls’ disappearance.

“Pray for the best. Prepare for the worst.”

The World’s End

In their third collaboration together after the awesome zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” and the badass action movie spoof “Hot Fuzz”, writer-director Edgar Wright, writer-star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost tackle sci-fi, though that is not obvious at first.

For a long while, we’re watching the straightforward, grounded, realistic story of a longtime fuckup (Pegg) who somehow convinces his four childhood friends (Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine) to try to complete a pub crawl they attempted 20-some years ago.

Five friends, 12 pubs, all in one night. Their goal is to finally reach the last pub, The World’s End. But eventually, it becomes to simply survive the night, as they discover that their hometown has been taken over by an alien force that has replaced the people with robots-who-aren’t-really-robots…  

This leads to a few big brawls and chases which are entertaining, if not that extraordinary. Likewise, I found Wright’s direction to be less dynamic and spectacular than what he has used us to, though I did enjoy the riffs on “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, among other things.

The best thing about “The World’s End” is probably the cast, starting with Pegg and Frost, who enjoyably trade places as far as who’s playing the wild and crazy guy and who’s playing the straight man. But I have to admit that while I liked the flick, I did feel a bit disappointed. Especially coming after “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, one of my absolute favourites of the last few years. Maybe my expectations were too high?

The Spectacular Now

One of my very favorite movies is Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything”, so I was excited to hear that this film was being compared to it. It turns out that the two are actually quite different, though I can see why people draw a link between them.

The central relationship in both movies is a somewhat unlikely romance between a cool, fun loving guy and a geeky, awkward girl, beginning at around the time of the end of high school up until the girl leaves for college, at which point it’s unclear whether the couple will survive.

There’s also the fact that star Miles Teller’s charismatic, easygoing, funny performance as Sutter does remind of a young John Cusack. But that’s about where the similarities end. Sutter is hardly as nice a guy as Lloyd Dobbler was. We cringe a little bit at the way he seems to be playing with Shailene Woodley’s Aimee, in part because he’s apparently still hung up on his ex… Plus he might be a bit of a dick and, as we gradually realize, an alcoholic.

“The Spectacular Now” isn’t afraid to be harsh and to go to some dark places, notably in depicting Sutter’s difficult rapport with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his attempt to reconnect with his father (Kyle Chandler).

I was really moved by all of this and I thoroughly enjoyed the many shades Teller gives his character. Woodley is great as well as the slightly naive Aimee, and the two have real chemistry together.

Director James Ponsoldt keeps their scenes feeling very natural and he shows a keen skill at maintaining a consistent tone, somewhere between comedy and drama. “(500) Days of Summer” screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, working from the book by Tim Tharp, also have to be praised for presenting such well-rounded characters and crafting a plot that flows smoothly without being too predictable.

Altogether, “The Spectacular Now” is a truly wonderful picture.

The Wolverine

First of all: yes, this is a much better movie than the atrocious “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. Thank God for small favours!

It does interesting things right from the striking opening scene, in which we learn that Logan (Hugh Jackman) was actually in Nagasaki when the bomb fell. We then cut to the first of many dream sequences involving the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), our hero’s one true love who he actually had to kill with his own claws when she went all Dark Phoenix in “X-Men: The Last Stand”.

When the Canadian mutant wakes up, we see that he’s now all long-haired and bearded, apparently living in the woods somewhere in Yukon. There’s a nice beat involving a grizzly, with whom the Wolverine seems to have an unspoken agreement, then after another incident involving the noble animal, Logan meets Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who convinces him to go back to Japan with her at a dying old man’s request.

Up until then and for a while afterwards, the film is moody and deliberately paced, almost like a film noir. But before too long, as we’re plunged in modern and traditional Japanese iconography, the action picks up and we’re suddenly hit with a rush of martial arts, shoot-outs and swordplay.

Yet “The Wolverine” remains a rather atmospheric picture, as Logan multiplies efforts to protect the lovely Mariko (Tao Okamoto) while dealing with the fact that he mysteriously seems to be losing his healing factor. Once in a while, there’s a big action scene like the particularly insane bullet train sequence or the big ninja attack, but this is hardly the wham-bam comic book flick you might have expected, for better or worse.

I’m personally all for a more thoughtful, stylish superhero movie, though I wish in this case that the screenplay was more solid. As mentioned, there are interesting little things throughout, like the idea that Logan is a ronin, i.e. a masterless samurai, but the plot is ultimately kind of a mess. I especially hated everything having to do with the Viper woman (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and the climax stretches the audience’s suspension of disbelief a bit too much.

I still rather enjoyed “The Wolverine”, thanks in no small part to the unwavering commitment of Hugh Jackman, who does wounded animal and badass antihero like the best of them. It’s quite telling that after starring in 5 features (plus that memorable cameo in “X-Men: First Class), Jackman’s Wolverine has yet to wear out his welcome.

This Is the End

To me, this movie features the best of the best current comedy stars, starting with Seth Rogen who, after writing two of my favourite comedies of the past decade, “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”, also takes on directing duties on this project along with longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg.

Rogen stars as himself (more or less), with Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride playing exaggerated versions of their public personas as well. The premise of “This Is the End” is that these 6 funnymen find themselves stuck together during the Apocalypse, which doesn’t stop them from bickering throughout the movie.

An early highlight is a big party at Franco’s house that features a ton of cameos from other members of the extended Apatow family (I particularly enjoyed seeing my beloved Jason Segel), various comedians and even Rihanna, for some reason! Most memorable among them is probably an out of control, coked up Michael Cera, though it’s mostly fun just to see all these people interacting…

And then they (and we in the audience) are hit by the first signs of the end of days, and the action and horror scenes that happen at that point and later in the film are actually pretty intense, if a bit messy. But for the most part, as I was saying, it’s mostly about the 6 leads mocking each other and fighting among themselves.

The dynamics of the group, which may or may not be based on the guys’ real life relationships, have Baruchel positioned as kind of an outsider, Rogen’s old Canadian friend who hates the L.A. lifestyle and who’s just not interested in hanging out with his new famous buddies. McBride also stands out, but just because he’s depicted as a huge asshole!

Other than that, this is a rather hard movie to review, if you don’t want to just list a bunch of wacky shit that happens in it. I do want to mention the bit involving Emma Watson, which includes a hilarious conversation about how the 6 men should make sure not to send off a “rapey vibe.” Oh, and that musical finale? Genius.

Pacific Rim

250 foot robots versus 250 foot monsters? Yes, please! I mean, how could that not be super cool? If your inner 10-year-old is still alive and well at least, you should get a huge kick out what is basically a cross between “Godzilla” and “Transformers”, with a touch of “Avatar” for good measure.

It begins with a quick prologue that sets up the basics about how Earth is now regularly assaulted by Kaiju, i.e. giant creatures coming from an interdimensional breach at the bottom of the Pacific ocean, and how humanity has created Jaegers, i.e. big-ass humanoid machines with all kinds of killer weapons, in order to defend itself.

We then get our first big action scene, which happens to be a turning point in the war between robots and monsters. The Kaiju have evolved, it turns out, and the Jaegers are growing obsolete. Cut to 5 years later, with mankind now counting on building enormous walls in order to stop the giant beasts. There are still a few Jaegers left, though, and they’re planning to make a big move in order to end the war by, basically, blowing up the breach. But it won’t be as easy as it sounds…

As directed by Guillermo del Toro, “Pacific Rim” is a visually striking affair, full of brilliantly designed monsters and robots. The action scenes are truly epic and breathtaking, even though they get a bit repetitive after a while. I also sometimes wished they weren’t almost all set at night and/or during rainstorms, as that sometimes made it harder to see what exactly was going on. One more nitpick: there’s often a remoteness to the mayhem. It’s telling that the most affecting scene in the movie is a flashback shown from the point of view of a terrorized little Asian girl, instead of just focusing on the enormous beings beating the crap out of each other. Not that this can’t also be fun!

Now, I’ve yet to write about the human characters, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. I wasn’t all that into lead actor Charlie Hunnam, who I wish was as charismatic and badass as, say, Casper Van Dien in “Starship Troopers”. But I loved Rinko Kikuchi as the grown-up version of the aforementioned little Asian girl, who’s clearly the heart of the movie. I also enjoyed Idris Elba as the Jaegers’ commanding officer, plus Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as bickering scientists, and of course Ron Perlman as a shady figure from the Hong Kong underground who sells Kaiju remains on the black market.

Is “Pacific Rim” a masterpiece like Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” or something? Hardly, but it’s a really entertaining summer movie that gives you plenty of bang for your buck. It’s 250 foot robots versus 250 foot monsters. What more do you need to know?