Eastern Promises: a great masterpiece. Evocative, ruthless, dark and mesmerizing, it all applies to this powerful movie, which lingers long after it ends. Viggo Mortensen gives a phenomenal performance while Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts also make very strong impressions. This is one of those films you find even better every time you replay key moments and bits of dialogue in your head. The sharp script has a great moral complexity, which director David Cronenberg augments with a sustained formal mastery, creating a film whose tone, mood and exploration of human nature is much richer than your average crime drama. (1st).
The Jane Austen Book Club: what a wonderful treat. Maria Bello has long shown that her talent matches her considerable beauty, and she’s sensational here – rarely has guarded eagerness been better portrayed. Her pairing with the steadily surprising Hugh Dancy creates the most romantic screen couple of the year; you really want these two to end up together, and they do. This is a great example of why pigeonholing films as “chick flicks” is stupid, unless you consider the term to mean a superior film in thoughtfulness, writing, characters and performances. Anybody that overlooks this Club is missing out on a great movie. (2nd)
Evening: exceptional filmmaking, intricate and touching. Powerful emotions are bursting at the seams in this wonderful film by director Lajos Koltai, who tells us an engaging, heartfelt story about embracing the past, the present and the future. It’s as women-centric as can be, but guys should not dismiss this gem on such grounds: the ability to be moved is universal. The beautiful Claire Danes gives a tremendous performance. Toni Collette is simply exquisite, while Hugh Dancy and Patrick Wilson also shine in supporting roles. (3rd)
300: among the many highlights in this movie, an emissary is kicked down a bottomless pit, a warlord threatens of arrows so plentiful they’ll blot out the sun, a hunchback driven mad by resentment is lured to the dark side with promises of all that he’s never had, and a beautiful queen exerts deadly retribution on the lying slimeball who violated her honour. What more do you want? 300 is a striking visual spectacle full of lush, painterly images, ones that steadily and brazenly embrace its “freedom isn’t free” ethos. (4th)
Dan in Real Life: quite simply one of the best movies about family in the past several years. Peter Hedges gives us a film that’s witty, affecting, moving and also funny in small, simple measures. The score is a sweet melody and there’s a memorable rendition of “Let my Love open the Door”. Steve Carell is perfect and Juliette Binoche is truly charming. (5th)
L’âge des ténèbres: Sharp, biting satire of the highest order, turning an only slightly magnified mirror on many of our societal ills. Sometimes we laugh so that we may not cry, and there are many good laughs in this tremendously accomplished and relevant film from Denys Arcand. The fantasy scenes are amusing and sexy while the medieval interlude, if you will, reveals both the delectable pleasure and the profound absurdity of escaping into fantasy worlds, whatever they are. The first scene, with Rufus Wainwright, is a musically sublime piece of opera, a hypnotizing entrée en matière. Marc Labrèche is remarkable as Jean-Marc, always hitting the right notes. (6th)
Music and Lyrics: this delightful romantic comedy starts with a deliriously enjoyable parody of a 80s pop music video, an unusual but brilliant start that put a huge smile on my face for the whole movie. The pairing of the charismatic Hugh Grant and the adorable Drew Barrymore, who have fantastic chemistry, creates a tremendously appealing film. (7th)
Surf’s Up: the film’s mockumentary approach (I loved the footage of penguins inventing surfing) is part of the reason why it’s as good as it is. Too many animated films these days overstay their welcome and become irritating one way or another, but not this one. Surf’s Up is perfectly content being a well-spun, simple story with cool characters, lots of humour, an easygoing charm and a great message, gently told, about what’s really important in life. (8th)
Dead Silence: underrated and quickly dismissed, as is often the case with genre efforts. This was the most stylish horror film of the year, with impressive sound work, a really well-done gothic look and a gripping tale about a spooky dummy and the vengeful ghost of a chilling ventriloquist. (9th)
The Mist: It’s the Twilight Zone meets “Lord of the Flies” in this exceptionally well done adaptation of the Stephen King story, where ordinary people are trapped in a quickly worsening nightmare. While carrying intimations of class conflict and a political subtext, the film also shows the disastrous divide that can develop out of religious extremism. The mist and its deadly creatures from another world bring a creepy feeling of desperation and fatality – and then the cavalry’s too late, leading to an extremely bleak ending. (10th)
Vacancy: the couple’s bickering is incredibly annoying, the plot is dumb, the execution is boring and the villains are beyond ridiculous.
Nitro: rarely have I seen something so profoundly bad, so disarmingly ludicrous.
Les 3 petits cochons: I’ve had my fill of this brand of dishonesty, vulgarity and tired bickering. The fact that this vacuous project was not roundly trashed as a disgrace but instead considered relevant, funny and realistic was almost as disheartening as the film itself.
Halloween: Rob Zombie’s latest is boring and uninspired, all mechanical murders and no tension. An ill-considered attempt to reinvent an all-time horror classic.
Saw IV: this once promising franchise, which in hindsight peaked with Saw II, gets even more convoluted, while going even further down the gutter. Simply abysmal.
(in alphabetical order)
This isn’t your usual period drama. Director Joe Wright did the genre justice last time out by getting it all in line with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE but this time out, he infuses the genre with passion and modern sensibility. The result is gripping and heartbreaking.
Wes Anderson’s latest quirkfest was blasted for being too simple but when the picture is this colorful and this telling, who needs complication? It’s a shame Anderson’s audience is so specific because too many people missed out on this beautiful brotherly bonding.
Poetry inspired by a great poet. Todd Haynes’ imagination is boundless and luckily for us, he does nothing to constrict his potential. This Bob Dylan biopic is challenging, engrossing, full of fantastic performances and so fresh that all future biopics now have a new standard to achieve.
At first, this teen pregnancy comedy is too cool for its own good. Only that’s the beauty of it all. Like the teenage girl the story follows, JUNO only lets down its guard once given the chance to get comfortable with itself and with us watching. It is hilarious and heartfelt without being the least bit sappy.
This is the easiest title to include on the list. The Coen Brothers have never made it look easier. This film is smart, calculated, quiet and frighteningly tense. It is on one level a drastic departure from their signature style while still entirely loyal on another level. It is fascinating and flawless.
John Carney’s little Irish musical shouldn’t even be called that. What it actually is, is a movie about two musicians falling in love. Their harmonies sing of their compatibility while their dialogue denotes every reason they cannot be together. It is realism and romance rolled into one soothing melody.
Most animated features are mindful to tread the thin line of appeal between child and adult. Marjane Sartrapi’s account of her coming-of-age in Iran and Austria makes no such effort. It is distinctly adult and absolutely enthralling. Her plight is not lightened by the style but rather heightened.
One would think that this is exactly the kind of animated feature I just described – trying to please as many as possible but what it really is, is a movie about a rat. Director Brad Bird is not concerned about appeal but rather a story that stirs and delights and imagery that pushes animation further with every frame. If rats were this cute and culinarily-inclined, they would be in every kitchen.
This French film is not for the faint of heart. However, those brave enough to see it will get an experience unlike any they’ve ever had at the movies. Julian Schnabel’s delicate telling of Jean-Domique Bauby’s real life experience with locked-in syndrome is claustrophobic and nauseating but yet somehow also inspiring and liberating.
This was the first film I reviewed in 2007 and it announced a great year to follow. It may be a little long but David Fincher’s dark, rich account of the puzzling mystery to uncover the identity of the zodiac killer is at times brutal, at other times snarky and at all times deeply absorbing. Fincher gets us lost and makes us like it.
Here’s to 2007 … Thanks for all the great times in the dark. Bring on 2008!
People often find themselves feeling trapped. They feel trapped at work or trapped in a bad relationship. When we find ourselves in these sorts of situations, we are sometimes fortunate enough to have choices. We can change our surroundings; we can look to new possibilities and put the scenarios that are suffocating us behind us. And if we can’t make that change happen immediately, we can find ways to escape for a while. We can go for walks; we can talk to friends; we can go to the movies. Now, thanks to director, Julian Schnabel, we can feel just as trapped at the movies as we already may feel in our regular waking lives. “Le Scaphandre et le papillon” is a French film about one man’s true account of what it feels like to experience the medical condition called locked-in syndrome. Someone in this condition can see and think, even remember everything but his body is paralyzed from top to bottom and he cannot move his mouth to speak. As depressing as this all sounds, it is nowhere near as intense as how it feels to see the film from the perspective of the patient, which is exactly where Schnabel places his viewer. Whatever you were escaping won’t seem so important after having experienced this cinematic paralysis.
The film is even more devastating because this horror is a true story. Former Elle magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played in the film by Mathieu Amalric) suffered a stroke that left him in a coma in 1995. The film tells his story from the moment he awakes from that coma twenty days later. He must battle his way through his confusion to deal with the crushing news that the life he knew is now over. This is a man who worked in fashion. His life was glitz, glamour, always moving and now he is sitting in a cramped hospital room and unable to get out of bed or even sit up. While Bauby wakes up to hell, we wake up to cinematic heaven. Award-winning cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, developed a style of shooting that shows the viewer what Bauby is seeing. Doctors and orderlies are constantly in his face; images are blurred or skewed depending on how alert Bauby is; and when he closes his eyes, we see nothing but the back of his eyelid. We get out of that claustrophobic space the same way Bauby does by following his imagination, which takes him back to many memories or to all-together new places for experiences he’s never had. The dreamy technique is humbling, inspiring and, rather ironically, cinematically alive. Kaminski has taken a paralyzed perspective and made it dance.
Ronald Harwood‘s script lights a fire of frustration in the viewer while it exposes the stupidity of humanity. While no one around him can hear his thoughts, we are privy to all of them being trapped in the mind where they are formed. The manner in which the senior doctors speak to him and the liberties they take knowing he cannot speak back or push their fingers away while they poke at him exposes the inequities of the medical profession. Hope is casually dropped into the conversation whenever there is nothing more to say. Even in this so obviously dire situation, people cannot directly address pain and suffering. Harwood is also careful not to inundate us with imagery of Bauby’s former existence. The memories we do see alert us to significant relationships and moments but make no linear trajectory of everything that led up to this. Nor are we subjected to clichés of everything exciting that Bauby will never know again. Instead, we are just shown glimpses of the man we are meant to identify with. This story would be tragic no matter what the background and Harwood’s sparse humanization allows us to see that clearly. More importantly, the dialogue in Bauby’s head and the little that manages to get to those around him allows us to see who he is right now. After all, he is still alive.
As harrowing as this all sounds, “Le Scaphandre et le papillon” is still uplifting. Bauby manages to maintain some of the relationships he had prior to his attack and their new context is a reminder that something deeper than mindless chatter holds them together. And for every bumbling doctor that doesn’t know what to do with him, there are just as many others determined to help him, even some that develop all new relationships with him. While his whirlwind life may seem to have come to a deadening halt, he learns a lesson that we all need to remind ourselves of regularly. There is no sense in sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves while we are still alive and capable of progress. If you need an example to see that, you should know that by blinking his way through the alphabet one letter at a time, Bauby wrote the book on which this film is based.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Paulie Bleeker: You mean as friends?
Juno MacGuff: No, I mean, like for real. You’re like the coolest person I’ve ever met and you don’t even have to try, y’know.
Paulie Bleeker: I try really hard, actually.
I must be older at heart than I thought. I was instantly put off by Jason Reitman‘s “Juno”. Here you have this little movie about a pregnant teenager who is just trying to do the right thing by everyone and all I could think was how hard it was trying to have its own marginalized identity. A sketched doodle of the word, “autumn” appears at the top of the screen; the sounds of Barry Louis Polisar’s indie acoustic music begin to play as a comic book-like animated title sequence takes over the screen; Rainn Wilson, working as a convenience store counter clerk, says things like, “Your eggo is preggo,” and “What’s the prognosis, Fertile Myrtle?” It was as though Reitman was pulling out every trick he could think of to make sure we knew how edgy his film was. “We are indie!” it screamed like a loud teenager yammering away in the back of the theatre. Only, just like that teenager, “Juno” is much deeper than it first appears and simply requires a closer look to see Reitman’s sensitive, gentle hand at work. “Juno” just may be the most earnest and humble film I’ve seen all year. It’s merely hiding behind a tough exterior.
That tough exterior comes courtesy of first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, and is reinforced by Reitman’s strong understanding of the nuanced material. It is honest, frank and forgiving, which is a refreshing take from the usual damnation pregnant teenage girls suffer on film. Parents don’t scream and shout when they find out about their daughter’s situation; nobody forbids anyone from seeing anybody else ever again. It is not the least bit dramatic considering that exaggeration colors mostly every word uttered on screen. (Look, I can embellish too!) The non-judgmental approach allows almost every character to come from his or her own perspective and place in the story, making them much more real than they let on. We know that prospective adoptive mother, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), is concerned with image and perception because we see her hands straightening frames and towels while waiting to receive company before we even see her face. We know that her husband, Mark (Jason Bateman), is not as enthusiastic about the adoption as his wife is because he isn’t by her side when Juno (Ellen Page) first appears at their door. These kinds of subtle visual touches act like prenatal vitamins meant to ensure that Cody’s script is born with a healthy heartbeat.
“Juno” also gives birth to a new star, albeit a little bit past her due date (despite her young age of 20). Halifax native, Ellen Page, carries the majority of the film and is as complex as they come without making it seem labored (no pun intended). Past starring roles in lesser-known films like “Hard Candy” and “The Tracey Fragments” were explosive and impossible to ignore only the films themselves were overlooked. Turning in another unforgettable performance in a crowd pleaser is sure to get her the accolades and recognition she deserves. Page whips out Cody’s snappy pseudo-hipster speak with fervor and confidence but gives herself away without realizing. She always plays it cool so that no one, including herself, can acknowledge how frightened she must be to be in her position. Her decision to have her baby and put it up for adoption rather than go the abortion route is brave but naïve as she has no idea how adult her decision actually is. She speaks like she has all the answers and yet has no idea what she’s talking about most of the time, but once you catch a glimmer of that fragility, anything that came off as false prior, shows itself as the front that it is.
Reitman, Cody, Page and the rest of the fantastic cast (J.K. Simmons, Alison Janney and the fascinatingly talented and gangly, Michael Cera) light “Juno” afire with warmth and genuine caring. This is a movie about real people dealing with the obstacles they’re faced with rather than sitting around and whining about them. On that level, there’s nothing indie about this movie. Instead, JUNO is the perfect portrait of a young girl flung into adulthood unexpectedly. She feels prepared, realizes she isn’t, learns that she needs others and yet carries herself like she’s been the one calling the shots all along. It sure sounds awfully adult to me.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
Wendy Savage: What does that mean? Like a toilet? Like a port-o-potty?
What better time of year to talk about family? The holidays bring families together. Differences are put aside; memories are shared. I don’t know about you but this warm, fuzzy Christmas wish is not what happens when my family gets together. We’re lucky enough if we actually manage to get together. Still, we are far from savages … far from “The Savages”, that is. Now this is a real family. Mom left when little John and Wendy Savage were still prepubescent. They suddenly found themselves under the sole care of Lenny Savage but his idea of care included neglect and beatings. Now, Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) is nearly 40 and temping to support herself while she dreams of being a playwright in New York City. John Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre professor who has success but carries himself like a failure. As for dear old Dad, Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) went off and made a home for himself in Sun City, Arizona. He moved in with his lover and the two were together until her death. With dementia and Parkinson’s disease settling in, Lenny is no longer capable of taking care of himself. John and Wendy, having washed their hands of the old man years ago, now have to take responsibility for what is theirs, whether they want to or not. We can run as far away as we want but family is still family.
You would never guess but “The Savages” is actually pretty darn funny. Tamara Jenkins both wrote and directed the film, wise to realize that her harsh reality would be difficult to swallow without a little sugar added. In fact, this is the script’s greatest triumph. Life is messy and you will get your hands dirty if you decide to go outside. Still, no matter how hard it gets, laughter makes it easier and Jenkins can see humour in even this dark scenario. The laughter serves not only to put her audience at ease but it slowly heals the Savages as well as they find themselves seeing life more honestly than they ever have before. Nothing forces people to live in the present more than the promise of death. With Lenny reaching the end of his line, John and Wendy must do something they have never done before; they must grow up. (It’s no wonder their surnames are taken directly from the Peter Pan stories.) Growing up for these two means turning around to face the very man they have been running from for their entire lives, seeing him as the fragile human being he is and releasing him of the blame they have laid on him and hid behind for as long as they can recall.
John and Wendy must learn to forgive in order to move on. Simple enough of a concept, perhaps too simple, but Jenkins is smart enough to know that this is a nuanced, sometimes torturous process and one that would require a higher caliber performer to convey. Wendy Savage is essentially paralyzed. She wants to be a writer but lacks the confidence to make that happen. While she lives in the shadow of her brother’s numerous degrees, she makes the cubicle rounds and seems to be waiting for someone to acknowledge her talent as worthy before standing up for it herself. Linney plays Wendy as a woman who knows she deserves more from everyone in her life, including herself, but hasn’t quite figured out how to make that necessity manifest. Meanwhile, brother John doesn’t dress up for funerals, refers to his father as a situation and signs sympathy cards without reading them first. His work is his life and he refuses to feel for anyone but as Hoffman goes from sternly controlling his sister to crying privately in the bathroom in the middle of the night over a woman he does not know how to love, it becomes obvious that the feelings he is trying so hard to suppress will be coming out regardless. The Savage siblings will come a long way from only being able to say, “I love you,” on a balloon.
It would be entirely left field to call “The Savages” preachy or overly critical but Jenkins does still draw our attention to some truly savage human behavior – our treatment of the elderly. While the orderlies and nurses are doing their best, they clearly lack funding to make their residents feel as comfortable as possible. Regardless of how you lived your life, there is no reason it should end in small room made even smaller by a curtain that cuts it in half. The elderly may be dying but they aren’t already dead and that’s the way we’re treating them. Jenkins and her sensitive, honest film should be commended for not wagging a judgmental finger in the faces of the characters or the audience but rather showing all involved that caring for our elders in their final hours is definitely hard but there is still laughter to be found in the days before darkness falls.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
When the ensemble harmonizes the unsettling baritone with the glass-shattering soprano parts of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd at the opening of the stage production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the tone is not only announced but adamantly affirmed. You are in store for a truly bizarre tale that is the epitome of madness and you are being introduced to a man burnt by an unjust system, robbed of everything and everyone that ever meant anything to him who has now returned for his due vengeance and has brought with him a very unhealthy bloodlust. It would seem that there could be no one better suited to translate this haunting story to film than master of the dark and champion of the disenfranchised, director, Tim Burton. Burton begins by hastily deciding to skip the ballad and go straight to what he knows best. Bright red blood drips down walls and slips between the gears of a giant meat grinder, Stephen Sondheim’s potently explosive score driving everything forward. But just as the ballad foretells on stage of unbelievable vocal histrionics to come and amaze, Burton’s decision to remove it in favour of score and visual gore confirms that he will be relying on what he knows in fear of the daunting music he has failed to grasp.
For a director who has built his entire reputation on his creative visual style, it is genuinely surprising to watch “Sweeney Todd” unfold in such an unimaginative fashion. It does not seem so at first. In fact, it is quite a twisted treat to dive in to the cobblestone streets of yesterday’s London, tainted blue and gray by Dariusz Wolski to a saturation point that makes the patrons appear as though they are just waiting, if not begging, for their dull lives to end. Who can blame them really? The light of day rarely seems to rise on London as it is constantly shrouded in heavy cloud. And while the camera hints at the scope of London by weaving from the picturesque rooftops to the dizzying maze of streets, it quickly ceases to a halt on one particular street corner, home to Todd’s barbershop. Despite having so much room to move, Burton traps us here and allows the claustrophobia to set in. This is a fine way to make people uncomfortable but it also makes for some rather limited musical staging. Burton rushes through the musical numbers by slicing lines out (unfortunately some of the more hilarious ones) so that he can get to the action because he knows that their stunted staging slows the pace. Subsequently, he leaves us with nothing more than a bloody mess on the floor.
Further proving the unimportance of technical mastery in this musical is Burton’s decision (with the perplexing blessing of Sondheim himself) to cast untrained singers in the demanding leads. The character of Sweeney Todd requires a voice so powerful and fierce that it resonates fear through the bodies of all who hear it. Johnny Depp surprises with how well he can handle the material but his capable performance never ignites the passion of a mad man. Meanwhile, Todd’s counterpart in scheming evil, Mrs. Lovett, a woman so conniving and desperate that she will say or do anything to make sure her man is content and by her side, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, a woman whose voice is so weak that she is barely capable of communicating any of the colour in the character. Each actor carries the same drab expression on their face throughout the film as though they are bored or just completely unsure of themselves. They each have their moments but neither successfully demonstrates the depths of their treachery or the heights of their dark wit. As they watch each step, careful not to step on anyone’s toes,
Burton breaks a golden musical rule: the musical numbers should never be rushed. That’s why we’re there – to appreciate the beauty of Sondheim’s layered and dense masterpiece. Only that isn’t why Burton is there. Clearly, Todd’s penchant for slashing throats is what most fascinated the man at the helm of this horror story. And while the blood gushing out and splattering against the camera and the walls is both disgusting and exhilarating, it amounts to very little more than gorgeous torture porn. Who knew that Sweeney Todd would be so maniacal that even the insane genius of Tim Burton could not fully comprehend the man himself?
Review by Joseph Bélanger
As portrayed by Day-Lewis, in what might be his best performance, Daniel Plainview is one of the most iconic monsters in cinema history. He might seem like an ordinary guy at first, a benevolent family man even, who just happens to have a strong drive to succeed as an oilman. But before long, you can tell he’s not only greedy but filled with pride, hatred and contempt. He only goes along with the social interaction game insofar as it allows him to get close enough to people to sink his teeth into their neck and suck them dry of their blood/oil. If this isn’t the definition of a vampire, I don’t know what is!
As you can tell, this is new territory for P.T. Anderson, who has until now made mostly sentimental movies. The characters in “Boogie Nights” might have been porn stars and Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan from “Punch-Drunk Love” was certainly full of anger but, ultimately, they were all profoundly sympathetic chaps and the films were full of heart. In his latest, Anderson rips that heart out with his teeth, then gleefully watches as blood spurts everywhere. “There Will Be Blood” indeed.
As much as I adore previous PTA flicks (especially “Magnolia”, one of the all-time masterpieces in my opinion) for their sense of humanity and love, it’s an immense pleasure to watch him take a break from that and plunge into the darkest corners of the soul. I say pleasure, because as disturbing and mean as this tale can be, it’s also pierced by an infectious streak of (oil) black humor. Try not to giggle as the battle of wills escalates between Plainview and his nemesis, self-appointed leader of the faith Eli Sunday (played by a fanatical, practically possessed Paul Dano).
I’d rather not go into plot details and let you discover the many surprising twists for yourself, so I’ll just mention that Plainview and Sunday are basically both professional bullshiters, who manipulate folks for their own profit, and each can instinctively tell that the other is on to him and, well, that’s bothersome. This leads to a series of figurative but also often literal (!) bitch-slapping matches, as the two enemies relentlessly try to beat each other into submission. The climax to that is the most insanely over the top sequence you’ll see all year, and I loved every second of it.
“There Will Be Blood” is kind of a cross between a Western and a horror movie and, accordingly, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit alternate between sun-bleached shots of wide open spaces and sequences taking place in the dark of night, which is sometimes lit up by hellish fire, in a few key instances. Long stretches are dialogue-free, making room for purely visual storytelling… Though said visuals are aided by the brilliant music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, which is equal parts dissonant, percussive musique contemporaine and a classic film score à la Bernard Herrmann.
Since its premiere at the Austin Fantastic Fest last October, “There Will Be Blood” has repeatedly been compared to such American cinema classics as “Giant”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and that holiest of the holiest, “Citizen Kane”. That may sound like an oversell but believe me, it is that good and then some.
Tap tap tap goes the typewriter. The tapping is coming faster and hitting harder. The pace is set and the race has officially started. Joe Wright’s “Atonement” bursts out of the gate from the moment it starts, as a pan away from a modeled replica of the Tallis manor reveals a parade of toy animals and ends aptly on the purported queen of this particular animal kingdom, Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). Briony is only thirteen years old but she is just about to finish her very first play. This precocious child is captivating. She is at once frightening while just as frightened. Her focus is eerily burning and her need for command of the situation and those involved motivate her every decision. On this particularly sweltering day, Briony believes her play to be her greatest accomplishment yet and sees her future more brightly boundless than even before. She has no idea that everything is about to crumble beneath her. Chance allows her to witness a few things she was not meant to and before long she makes a desperate play to regain control of her destiny. Who knew that one little girl could cause so much trouble for so many people and invite turmoil into her family for the rest of her days by telling one misguided lie?
When Briony falsely accuses Robbie (James McAvoy), her sister, Cecilia’s (Keira Knightley) lover, of a horrible crime, he is arrested and sent to prison. It isn’t clear whether Briony was aware of how serious her accusations were or how far Robbie would be taken from Cecilia and his future as a result but it is clear that she interrupted a love of immense proportion. “Atonement”’s first act goes back and forth between Briony’s breakdown and the escalating sexual tension between Robbie and Cecilia. Cecilia is not your typical period drama maiden. She is provocative and sharp-tongued. For all her fierce self-awareness though, she has made a point to repress her longing for Robbie out of respect for status. Robbie too has been hiding how he feels to appease the rules that apply to status and boundaries, not so much out of respect though but rather for blind tradition. Society’s restraints cannot hold back a love of this magnitude. The passion bustling between them is palpable and exacerbated by the heat; it is no wonder that it all comes to a head on this fated day and is halted no sooner than it is just begun. As they are only given the chance to wet their lips with each other’s taste before being ripped apart, theirs is a relationship that will live in a suspended state of foreplay for a long time to come.
When Robbie is taken prisoner, “Atonement” shifts into a new and noticeably different movement. The intensity carefully crafted in the first act dissipates as the characters enter their own individual limbos, left to meander aimlessly in search of repair. The build toward Briony’s lie was punctuated by a sharp, concise score by Dario Marianelli and highlighted by Seamus McGarvey’s bright and elegantly fluid cinematography. Both artists employ entirely new approaches toward the action that unfolds in the lie’s aftermath. The score becomes dark, somber – less driven and more haunting. The visuals follow suit, feeling heavy and dense. The change halts the flow of the film and feels like a misstep momentarily. Once you catch the breath you were holding previously, the severity of the scenario sinks in and the fresh aesthetic takes on its own significance. It cannot help but feel longer or slower in comparison but how else are we or the characters expected to feel when they are living their new lives lost and haunted by a past they could not control? Beside being relevant to the tone of the story, the shift also gives birth to a four and a half minute shot depicting the 1940 evacuation at Dunkirk Beach that is mesmerizing in its grace and awesome in scope.
“Atonement” is a fresh and surprising spectacle. Wright impressed with charm and poise last time out in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” (also starring Knightley) but his latest grabs the period drama by its snotty superiority and turns it inside out, thanks in no small part to Ian McEwan’s much loved novel of the same name. The gravity of how one bad decision can ruin many lives resonates loudly and the guilt that follows gives way to the need for forgiveness from those who were hurt and from the one that caused the pain. “Atonement” does not judge Briony for what she’s done; instead it allows her the chance to heal and make things right without ever presuming that her recovery is inevitable. For breaking convention and for demonstrating sincere respect for the story, the characters and the audience, Wright has absolutely nothing to be sorry for.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
First High Councilor: It’s the Golden Compass, Lyra. I feel you’re meant to have it.
Lyra: But what’s it for?
Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) lives in a world where witches wage war and giant polar bears are warriors. The people she walks amongst walk alongside their daemon spirits, which are essentially each person’s soul manifest in physical and animal form. The ruling power of this world is called the Magisterium and they seek more to control rather than govern. Everything in the world began at one time with dust but now dust and the supposed answers it holds for a better future are not to be mentioned in public settings. This is a world divided between free will, the individual powers held within the soul and a looming force that threatens to eliminate the infinite possibilities these privileges provide. Unbeknownst to her, Lyra is the central figure in the inevitable clash that lies ahead and her power can be found in her ability to read the world’s single remaining alethiometer, otherwise known as “The Golden Compass”. When held by this little girl, the alethiometer will reveal the answers to the questions that have yet to be answered. Lyra’s world is beautifully painted and richly textured but why we need to be there to see it never becomes clear in this icy, hollow attempt to become the next must-see fantasy trilogy.
Writer/Director Chris Weitz originally backed out on directing this project. He felt the grandiose special effects driven blockbuster was out of his directorial league. Having only directed a couple of smaller comedies (“About a Boy” and an uncredited second director on “American Pie”), I can understand why he would be overwhelmed by the task of adapting Philip Pullman’s first book in the “Dark Material” series. I’m not clear on why he decided to come back on though because his lack of confidence in his own capabilities as well as the competency of his audience is omnipresent throughout the film and leaves “The Golden Compass” on rather thin ice. Once the first ten minutes of narration have given us all the information we will need to understand our surroundings (see the first paragraph of this review), the subsequent scenes seem to run in a very specific order. One scene will explain what we are about to see, the next will show us what has just been described and the one that follows will clarify whatever we might have missed. If Weitz does not feel his magical world to be believable, how can we be expected to?
Urgency is also lacking in “The Golden Compass”. We know because we are told that Lyra, according to the prophecies of the witches, is the one person with the ability to read the alethiometer. We also know that, again because we are told, that a great war is coming. Lyra’s special talent will be pivotal to a positive outcome in this battle. The battle itself has something to do with free will, dust and control. What we are not told is exactly how these things tie back to Lyra. Without knowing what all this fighting is truly for (which may be missing as the novel’s religious implications and criticisms have been removed almost entirely as to not alienate any viewers that may have been offended by these subjects). Still, we know that no good can come if anything is to happen to Lyra so there is never any actual fear or concern that she is in any real danger. Young newcomer, Richards, is charismatic and fun enough to win over your sympathy and caring as Lyra, but this is not enough in Weitz’s world. No, here, escape from each perilous situation she finds herself in is certain and thus the film is devoid of suspense and often disappointingly predictable.
“The Golden Compass” is much more along the same vein as the Harry Potter movies or the Narnia franchise than a successor to the throne where the Lord of the Rings trilogy sits quite comfortably. Peter Jackson drew millions into the plight of a few hobbits by allowing their journey and its importance to speak for itself and by making correlations between that world and ours. Weitz has no control over the vast ground he has to cover. He’s got polar bears, daemons and witches to think about; he’s got to build a story when the original intended theme is not allowed to be mentioned overtly; he’s got legions of fans to please while simultaneously appeasing the demands of the Hollywood executives that sign his checks. It’s as if Hollywood is the contemporary Magisterium and Weitz is little Lyra. Hollywood wants to control everything and make sure that certain elements remain unmentioned and Weitz holds the key to a strong future. Only Weitz hasn’t learned how to read his golden compass and what he leaves us with is an obvious play for fantasy gold that will likely please very few.
Review by Joseph Bélanger
What does it say about your wedding when your estranged sister’s attendance is a bigger event than the wedding itself? I mean, it’s right there in the title of Noah Baumbach’s dysfunctional family disaster movie. It isn’t called “The Wedding” or “Malcolm and Pauline Get Married”. No, it’s called “Margot at the Wedding”. If your sister at your wedding causes that big a stir, perhaps the invitation would have been better lost in the mail. Still, despite her better judgment and in the interest of progress and healing, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) does invite the sister she still refers to as her closest friend after years of not speaking, to her intimate affair. It is clear her idea was not her best from the moment Margot (Nicole Kidman) steps off the boat and on to the New England shore. Pauline sends her fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), to pick Margot and her eldest son, Claude (Zane Pais), up from the ferry. She claims to be making last minute arrangements back at the house but I suspect it was she and not the house who was not quite ready to receive. Then, when the two are finally face to face, standing in front of the house they grew up in, they smile and make pleasantries but fidget hesitatingly before actually embracing. That awkward moment grows into a whirlwind of deep-seeded pain before long and suddenly rain on the blessed day is hardly the biggest worry for the bride-to-be.
Baumbach scored last time out with his Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale”. He was lauded for his sensitive and honest tale of divorce and how it affects the entire family unit. With “Margot at the Wedding”, he solidifies his reputation for creating believable family ties based on dependence, dysfunction and subtle admiration. Watching the sisters as they sit around the house catching up is voyeuristic as we are often privy to conversations that feel as though they were not meant to be heard. As the sisters flip through old records in their even older house, Baumbach writes decades of experiences into his characters and we, like Malcolm, are latecomers to this dinner party. Director of photography, Harris Savides, draws us even closer to this inner circle by shooting mostly handheld footage in natural lighting and with older lenses. The resulting tone is dark and grainy but nostalgic and rich with history at the same time. At times, we are the quiet cousin who says nothing but stands in the corner with a camera and follows the drama from room to room. It isn’t long before we learn how to interpret the vernacular of this particular family and we find ourselves laughing along inappropriately at the expense of whomever Margot is lovingly ridiculing at the moment. As we laugh though, we care as well.
Kidman and Leigh (Baumbach’s wife) are both marvelous as they walk the very tightly wound lines of their borderline personalities. Baumbach guides their performances into textured characters that seem natural as sisters and strongly rooted as multifaceted people who struggle to be themselves when in the presence of the other. They even possess archetypal qualities without coming across as contrived. Margot is the master of deflection. She is constantly doling out psychological diagnoses to those around her to avoid any fingers pointing back her way. It never dawns on her that as a writer, she actually has no formal foundation to base her opinions on. She cannot understand why Pauline would settle for Malcolm; she picks at Claude to keep him closer; she even attacks her husband (John Turturro) for his good nature because it just makes her feel like a bad person. She is a fatalist to Pauline’s hopeful but defeated optimist. Pauline is damaged but wants to heal and has done so much more than she gives herself credit for. She teeters back and forth between making sneaky, subtle jabs at her sister, habits from her youth, and building new connections so that she can have the sister she always wanted instead of the one she has always had. Only, in the house that Baumbach built, the answer to whether people can ever truly change is not the least bit clear.
Family, even the best examples, can be tricky to negotiate. Spending any extended period of time with the people who both influenced you and hurt you the most in your life can be exhausting. That said, “Margot at the Wedding” can be no less trying. There are those who revel in watching others with deeper dysfunction then their own. It helps them to feel that their lives are not nearly as bad as they thought. There are also others who feel they have enough to juggle already with potentially damaging weddings of their own to survive coming up fast. Why then immerse yourself in a tornado of neuroses and painful memories that are not even your own? Truthfully, you don’t have to. Along those lines, Pauline never needed to invite her sister to her wedding either. Only if she hadn’t, she would have missed out on everything the experience taught her about herself and the potential for progress. This is the genuine beauty of Baumbach’s work. He shares so intensely and personally that he inevitably forces the viewer to deal with their own inner-Margot.
Review by Joseph Bélanger