Friday, April 27, 2012

The Five Year Engagement ★★★

A Film Proving That The Romantic Comedy Is Not Dead

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

It's shameful to say that in the last twenty or more years I can count the number of good romantic comedies on one hand. With that in mind, I'm quite delighted to say that The Five Year Engagement is one more rom-com that I can add to that short list.

As the title implies, this is a film about Tom and Violet's struggle to make it to the alter over the course of five years. Tom is a San Francisco chef that proposes to the love of his life, Violet, on their one-year anniversary. When Violet gets accepted to University of Michigan's psychology program instead of Berkley's, Tom quits his job to move with her. As Violet excels with her psych group, Tom struggles with the fact that he can only get a job making sandwiches at Zingerman's Deli. This undoubtably puts a strain on their relationship and with every new hurtle that comes their way, the wedding is delayed further. 

The last film that I can remember caring about the main characters as much I do in The Five Year Engagement was When Harry Met Sally. The key to both films is having an on-screen couple, or potential couple, that we as an audience are truly, emotionally invested in. Jason Segal and Emily Blunt do stellar work as their respective Tom and Violet. There's something so natural about each of them that from the moment we first see these two, we're rooting for them. They're a couple that goes through what many couples have to go through and nearly every reaction that each of them has to the other never feels forced or false. 

Jason Segal also co-wrote the script with director Nicholas Stoller (their first film together being Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and I must say that these two have a gift for writing honest material. I recently read that the funniest moments in life and in film are those that are the most real. Take for instance the opening scene of the film, which features a quite nervous Tom trying to conceal the fact that he is going to propose from Violet. The way Segal plays it is so genuine and believable it is one of the funniest scenes of the movie, and we're not even into it five minutes. The scenes where Tom and Violet are fighting, or when their simply walking the streets of Ann Arbor are perhaps the most memorable and the funniest because again, we see these characters as real people. 

The film goes back and forth from San Francisco to Ann Arbor, which is important to note because so many films these days do not use location as a character. One of the criteria I look for in my favorite films is how location is used to better the story. Michigan serves as the foil to all of Tom's plans and it could not be more effective. They show Ann Arbor for what it is: a college town that's both simultaneously beautiful and frigidly devastating depending on what time of year it is. Yes, Michigan is portrayed as unbearably cold, and with the primary pastime being hunting. Or, as I like to call it, Michigan. Living in Michigan, I have to admit that seeing a film like this use it as a character is quite humbling. It's not often films showcase our state and when they do I'm always grateful. 

The Five Year Engagement is not a perfect film, but it's damn good. It's a film that recalls great onscreen couples like Harry and Sally, or the best of the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire films, and one of my personal favorite films, It Happened One Night. While we still may only be able to count good rom-coms on one hand, The Five Year Engagement gives me hope that we'll be able to add many more to that list, especially if Segal and Stoller continue with the amazing work they're doing. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

4:44: Last Day On Earth ★

A Sadly Missed Opportunity

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando and Jason Umpleby

If you knew that the world would end at 4:44 A.M. the following morning, what would you do? That question is at the heart of Abel Ferrara's film and it is one that accurately depicts what would most likely happen if this scenario were occurring in real life.

The film focuses on two characters: Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh); a couple living in New York trying to accept a fate from which neither of them can escape. We're shown their various stages of grief throughout the day that each of them experiences, and how those emotions impact their next action.

I have to say that while I admire the courage of this film, I cannot necessarily recommend it. There are films that have been depressing beyond the point that we should still like them, yet we do. This, unfortunately, is not one of them. While I understand Ferrara's point - that even if the world is ending we cannot lose who we are - I'm not so sure it's handled in an interesting enough way for film.

Looking at the main characters, Cisco and Skye are two people that no matter how hard I tried, I was never rooting for them in any way. They're not very compelling on-screen, though Dafoe does his best with the material he's given, and there's never a moment where I felt genuine sympathy for either of them. There's visually no chemistry between them - much less attraction to one another - which makes me wonder why they were ever a couple in the first place. I think that for a story/film like this to work, and for Ferrara to achieve his desired goal, we need to really fall in love with these characters thereby making us really care about who they are so that when the issue arises, we want them to stay true to themselves. There is none of that in this movie.

There's a scene where Cisco, after having quite an uncomfortable fight with Skye, goes to an old friend's house in an attempt to get high one last time. Yes, randomly we learn that Cisco is a recovering drug addict, sober for a little over two years. One of his friends (also recovering) explains to Cisco that he's proud of the man he has become and he's not willing to sacrifice that just because everyone is about to die. He argues that Cisco should feel the same about his own life. Cisco doesn't agree. A scene like this could work if it had been established earlier that he was an addict, and was still struggling with on a daily basis. Instead, we wonder why he's headed to this apartment until it's casually revealed through conversation that he once had drug problems.

Having said all that, I found this film to be better than the 2011 favorite, Melancholia, because the end of the world is used to examine the very meaning of humanity, whereas Melancholia felt like two separate stories that were forced into one another. It should be noted, however, that if there was a way to put a film in a less-than-zero category, Melancholia would be there.

I wish 4:44 had more to offer. Sadly, it made me wish the world was ending just so I would not have to endure these two characters any longer. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Cabin In The Woods ★

Over Praised And Sadly A Bit Underwhelming

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando and Jason Umpleby

This will probably be the trickiest review I write considering I have to be quite careful of venturing into spoiler territory. Let’s start with this: there’s a cabin in the woods; five college students arrive to party it up over the weekend; chaos ensues. Sounds familiar right? Well, it is and it isn’t. The film, written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, directed by Goddard, tries to turn the conventions of a typical horror film on it’s head (or does it) and give us something we’re not expecting. There’s the jock, Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the ditzy blonde, Jules (Anna Hutchison), the stoner, Marty (Fran Kranz), the scholar, Holden (Jesse Williams) and the virgin, Dana (Kristen Connolly). Based on all of these character types, we can guess who will die first (or can we?). At the same time, we’re shown two technicians, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) who seem to be setting the events with the cabin in motion. I’ve probably revealed more than I should already.

I had been waiting for The Cabin In The Woods to come out since January of 2010. I’m a fan (not a huge fan, but a fan nonetheless) of Joss Whedon (and to all my fellow browncoats) and was interested to see what he would do with a familiar horror story. I was really looking forward to seeing how Drew Goddard would do from a directing standpoint. I have been more of a fan of Goddard’s work (he’s floated through many more of my favorite shows than Whedon) for the past few years and after seeing Cloverfield, a film that he wrote, I wanted to see what else he would do in the film world in addition to his already impressive television work.

Cabin kind of feels like a lackluster version of an already successful genre. Say what you will about horror. Like any genre sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn’t, but when it does, you remember it. For horror, in the last decade, I don’t think any film has left me more emotionally scarred than The Ring. More recently, the Paranormal Activity Films worked, scaring us in the simplest (but not cheapest) of ways. Every few years films like those come along and really find a new way to scare us. Then for years after that it’s done over and over again until something new comes our way. Why am I going on and on about this? Because The Cabin In The Woods promotes itself as being one of these films; something that will change how we perceive horror. Let me be in the minority by saying that this film does not succeed.

I was hoping that it would take an approach that, I guess, explained why these types of characters exist in movies. They explain the character types within the universe they create in the film, which when it’s revealed what’s really going on I simply said, “seriously?” Maybe that approach would work in another film, but I would argue that Whedon and Goddard should have taken the Scream route and acknowledged the fact that this stuff happens in almost every horror film. I don’t think (don’t quote me) the words “film” or “movie” are mentioned once and for a revisionist approach such as this one, they need to be.

Watching this film reminded me of better films in this specific category of horror, The Evil Dead, Friday The 13th, and yes, as twisted as it is, Antichrist. The Cabin In The Woods is basically Whedon and Goddard’s attempt (yes, attempt) at putting their spin on horror. There’s a degree of affection for the genre, which I appreciate, but it just takes itself too seriously. It wants to point out elements of the genre that we know about, but then tries to one-up those elements and kills its own impact in the process.

I wanted to love this movie. I wanted to praise both Whedon and Goddard. Whedon gets another chance with The Avengers in a few weeks. I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer to see if Goddard has the directing chops to last in film. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Footnote ★★★½

A Unique Look At A Father/Son Rivalry

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Relationships between father and son are complicated to say the least. The film Footnote offers a darkly comical take on that relationship by setting the story in the world of academia, specifically in the Talmudic Research Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) is a philologist who studies different versions of the Jerusalem Talmud adhering to a strict view of their meaning. Eliezer is an outcast because of his old-school beliefs. Years back, another Professor, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), found similar results as Eliezer in his research but published them ahead of him, leaving Eliezer’s thirty years of work now pointless. It should be noted that Eliezer’s only claim to fame is a footnote in one of his former mentor’s books that everyone except Eliezer has long since forgotten. Meanwhile, Eliezer’s son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is perhaps the most popular professor at the University, whose work does not include such a strict interpretation of Talmudic texts. Eliezer finds everything that Uriel believes in to be simple speculation and thus not worthy of his respect.

For years Eliezer has hoped to win the Israel Prize in recognition of his work and each year he has become more saddened and bitter because he never wins. Elsewhere, Uriel has made the point that as long as his father is alive and hoping to win the Israel Prize, he does not want to be recommended for the honor. When a mix up of names occurs, Eliezer is mistakenly told that he will be receiving the award he has so long hoped for, even though unbeknownst to him the award was intended to be given to Uriel.

What I love about this film is how it takes this idea of the father son strained relationship and raises the stakes to the highest level by placing true animosity on the role of the father to the son. Eliezer is a bitter old man who never got over being cheated out of his life’s work. Thirty years of work suddenly being taken away is something I think we can all sympathize with. Uriel on the other hand at first comes across as egotistical, then slowly throughout the film reveals himself to be an honorable man, still seeking his father’s respect and admiration.

There’s one scene in particular that lasts about ten minutes that I’m just in awe of. It’s got everything one could want in a movie: comedy, drama and yes, some suspense. It’s the scene where Uriel is called into the crammed office of the Israeli Prize committee to be informed of their error. In it, Uriel begs them to just give his father the award because, as Uriel states, he deserves it. One of the members on the committee is Professor Grossman, who has no intention of ever awarding Eliezer the Israel Prize. It’s a powerful scene; one that I think no matter who you are, you could sympathize with. For me, it’s the son pleading for his father in the most compassionate way that hits me hard. If it sounds like Uriel is trying to save his father’s life, well, he is. He tells the committee that if his father finds out about the error, it will likely kill him. Eliezer is a man so desperate for respect that to finally think he’s achieved it only to have it taken away would most likely drive him to suicide. Uriel, for all intents and purposes, puts his life on the line to help his father.

The whole film basically shows us the perspectives of each character; Uriel doing his best to get his father the award he deserves, and Eliezer running his mouth about his son’s “superficial” work, enraging Uriel to no end. The film is quite intense in that we never know what either character might do or say to the other. We see Uriel reaching his breaking point the more his father ridicules his profession, yet we see Eliezer’s determination to get the respect he feels his son and others have stolen from him and we’re sympathetic to both stories. It’s almost as if we either don’t know who to root for, or we’re rooting for both characters equally.

Keep in mind that this is all set within the world of academic research; a field that largely in my opinion goes under-appreciated in our country. Joseph Cedar, the director of this film does a brilliant job raising the stakes as it were and showing us how complex not only the research field is, but also how difficult the relationships between fathers and sons can be. I’m used to seeing films where the son just wants to make his father proud. Yes, there’s a large amount of that in this film and it all works. But for me, what sets this film apart from any other is the portrayal of the father whose desperate to achieve what his son has; just a little respect.

Footnote is currently playing at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Hills. 

Jiro Dreams Of Sushi ★★★★

This May Just Be The Best Film of 2012

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Jiro Ono is an 85-year-old world-renowned sushi chef who, despite his age and experience with preparing sushi, is still looking to perfect his craft. Reservations for his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, have to be made a month, sometimes a year in advance. As we’re told in the film by a Japanese food critic, the meal might be very quick but well worth the wait to be able to sit in Jiro’s restaurant. This documentary by David Gelb chronicles the day-in and day-out life of Jiro, illustrating what kind of man he is and how he got to be the sushi chef he’s become. The answer is simple really, as Jiro tells us: “You have to love what you do.”

That principle is a large part of why this film is so good. For anyone out there who has ever had a dream about doing what they love, it shows us what can become of someone truly devoted to their love in life. Those of us who say that we do what we love might walk out of the film feeling like they’ve forgotten that passion that made them want to enter into their respective careers in the first place. At one point Jiro asks why anyone who “does what they love” have any complaints about the job? If they love it, there should be no complaints, plain and simple.

The film really does a great job of showing his passion for cooking sushi. There are countless slow motion shots of different stages of preparation; The sounds of the water hitting the rice that they use for the sushi and gorgeous cinematography by Gelb that puts us right in the kitchen to make us feel like we’re apart of something special. Every image is so crisp and beautiful that any time there are any shots of food, you wish you could partake in the experience.

The other story at the film’s center is the relationship that Jiro has with his two sons, Yamamoto and Takashi. Takashi (his younger son) has opened his own restaurant, which is basically a more relaxed mirror image of Jiro’s. (We’re shown in an early scene that Jiro is left-handed and therefore the design of his restaurant is meant for a left-handed chef. Takashi is right handed and so the opposite is true.) We’re told that Jiro often intimidates people, as he usually stares intently at each of his customers, studying their reactions to his food. Takashi on the other hand is more conversational and supposedly cooks sushi that is almost, if not equally as good as his father’s.

Yamamoto (the older son who’s now 51) is the heir to Jiro’s restaurant, but is still struggling to live up to the man his father is. A former employee of Jiro’s explains that in order for Yamamoto to be successful he has to make sushi that is far better than Jiro’s, not equal to. At 85, Jiro shows no signs of quitting despite a heart attack ten years earlier and the long hours he still puts in to his business, which leaves Yamamoto with some time to surpass his father.

For me, the aspects of this family and this restaurant are fascinating. The son’s quest for the father’s approval is something that I will always connect with, and the fact that Yamamoto still has not surpassed his father at his age is heartbreaking at times. In addition, the calculation and the process that goes into perfecting a product like Jiro has is so inspiring. Jiro doesn’t beat himself up for “not being perfect yet”, instead he works; each day seeing how he can improve upon the last. Some of his techniques took years to achieve, such as how long to massage an octopus before boiling it. We’re told he originally started at 20-30 minutes but now does it for closer to 40, which makes its texture much better than most are probably used to.

This is a film that shows the results of someone who is devoted to his craft and loving every minute of it. My eyes were glued to the screen for every minute that an image was projected. I kept thinking to myself that whatever I do in life, I’m nothing if I don’t relish every minute of it. I walked out of the theatre feeling inspired - something that I don’t feel often enough in movies anymore. It reminded me of why I love seeing films from all around the world, not just American films. I should mention that I’m a vegetarian and have, for my entire life, despised seafood. This is the first and only film that really made me wish I could try some sushi; that I was sitting right in front of Jiro, eating the meal he’s placed in front of me, while he stares patiently at me awaiting my response.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently playing at The Maple Theatre in Bloomfield Hills and will open at The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor this Sunday, April 22.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea ★★

Despite A Terrific Performance From Weisz, The Film Doesn’t Quite Work

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The Deep Blue Sea, the 2012 film from writer/director Terence Davies, tells the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a woman married to High Court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) who begins having an affair with an RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) because her marriage is, well, devoid of passion. The present time in the story is set somewhere around 1950 and takes place over a single day that begins with Hester’s failed attempt at suicide. The film weaves in and out of flashbacks showing how her affair began and ultimately what led her to want to commit suicide in the first place.

I have to admit, from the very first sequence, this film was not working for me. There are movies that can pull off a slow pace with an overbearing presence of melodrama; this, sadly, is not one of them. To be fair I have never seen any of Davies’ other films, but from what I’ve read this style of filmmaking seems to be what he’s known and praised for. Frankly, I don’t see it.

Based on a 1952 play by Terence Rattigan, the film tries to show a portrait of a woman whom we’re meant to feel sorry for. Now it’s very true that that Weisz gives an outstanding performance and should be recognized come awards season, however, through no fault of Weisz, I never quite felt the sympathy the film seemingly wanted me to feel for Hester. Hester herself is not written as a sympathetic character, she’s written as a mess; a victim of her own self destructiveness. She’s more frustrating than anything else.

It’s true that she is in a marriage that has no physical relationship. Her husband does love her, but does not seem to see the point in having sex. It’s also true that William is much older than Hester, and, from what I could gather, was married for his money. When she begins her affair with Freddie we see instantly that everything between them is completely physical. Most of what Freddie says has to do with his longing to be in the war again; how being a pilot during that time was the most exciting part of his life. As an audience, we see the looks on Hester’s face and know instantly that this is all Freddie wants to talk about. Hester falls so in love with Freddie despite him never really fully committing to that head-over-heals in love she wants him to feel.

That’s the problem with a character written like this: She knows that he’ll never love her the way she loves him and yet she continues to punish herself, believing that she can make him love her. Why? Well we’re never really told. The entire film is one sequence after another that illustrates why these two should not be together. Yet, our heart is supposed to break for Hester?

To be clear, this is not victim blaming. Hester is just a sad woman who says one thing but truly believes another and chooses to live in misery. I once heard the phrase, “You can’t help someone who won’t help oneself”, and guess that idea still sticks with me. After months apart, William, initially angry and never wanting to see Hester again upon finding out about the affair, checks in on Hester after her suicide attempt and offers to grant her a divorce and to help her in any way he can. She is given an out and never really does anything with it. Instead, she keeps bothering Freddie, begging him to love her after he finds out that she tried to kill herself. This does not come across as sad; it comes across as pathetic.

When the credits rolled I was kind of stumped. I didn’t understand why this film that I was looking forward to was getting so over-praised by critics. In reading Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips’ review of the film, I found out that he, too, praised it but also made sure to mention that, “Davie’s touch will never be for everyone”. Again, having not seen any of his other work, I do not feel that I can appropriately dignify that statement with a response. What I can say is that this film misses its mark by a long shot. If this is a sign of Davies’ other works I must be immune to his touch. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

American Reunion ★

I Wish There Was A Better Film To See All Of These Characters Come Back

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

American Pie was the first raunchy comedy I saw when I was younger. I was in middle school at the time and you could say that it was my first preview, if you will, of certain things I may encounter when entering high school. Of course movies are fictitious and have a tendency to over dramatize certain situations. Despite these facts, there was always something relatable to each of the characters in the film. There was that feeling that no matter what looms around the corner the friends you have in high school will be your friends forever. I don’t think it’s too far out there to say that all of us at one point or another have felt that way and for a time truly believe it. American Pie 2 saw all of our favorite characters coming home after their first year of college and trying to make sense of the world and accepting change. With both of these films – and if it is not yet clear I am a big fan of the first two – there was a compelling reason to care about these characters. The second one ended on a happy enough note that we could assume the events in American Wedding would happen. But also, American Wedding did not need to exist. There was no need for a third film that had only a fraction of the characters from the second film. (As a side note, I’m not counting the four other straight-to-DVD sequels that have nothing to do with these films.)

Now, thirteen years after the original release of American Pie we get American Reunion. This film succeeds where Wedding didn’t, in bringing back everyone, whether the characters are well served or not. What I mean by that is a handful of our favorites, Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) and Chuck Sherman (Chris Owens) make cameos, which leaves us wishing that the filmmakers actually brought them back for a reason other than just to see them again.

There’s a lot that feels empty in Reunion because much of the time is spent longing for the glory that was the high school days. If 2011 told us anything about film it was that nostalgia could be great to see on screen if used properly (Midnight in Paris and The Artist spring to mind). Unfortunately American Reunion thinks that a movie that concentrates on how boring each of the character’s lives are is the right approach. It isn’t.

Jim and Michelle (Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan) now have a two-year-old son, preventing them from having sexual lives. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is now married and considers himself a housewife; Oz (Chris Klein, absent from Wedding, another pitfall of that film) is a sportscaster living with a crazy, much younger party girl named Mia (Katrina Bowden); and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has apparently been traveling the world for the past few years. There’s the smallest element of charm (at least for me) in seeing all of these characters again. There was a part of me that did wonder what ever became of all of them.
I’m being harsh, yes, because I expected more from a film that was bringing everyone back. American Pie introduced us to them and got us emotionally invested in where they would end up. American Pie 2 showed us that these characters were growing up and finding their way in the world, which for me was quite interesting and different from the first film. With American Wedding and American Reunion, I find myself not really caring anymore. As much as I thought I wanted to find out where they all ended up, this film cemented the fact that I should not have been so curious. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Titanic 3D ★★★½

Despite Some Flaws In A Post- 3D Conversion, The Film Still Works

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

It was a genuine joy to see this film on the big screen again. I was in fourth grade when it released in December of 1997 and have since seen it a handful of times on VHS and TV. But being older, and a little wiser allowed me to appreciate this film in ways I hadn’t before. The effects are breathtaking, the sets are quite amazing, and the skill and craft it took to make a film like this is mind blowing. There are a handful of movies that are meant to be seen in a theatre and Titanic is one of them. We forgive the film for it’s flaws and appreciate it for what it is. No matter how you slice it, this is a damn good time at the movies.

The big question on everyone’s mind is how does the 3D look? Well, it works in spots and doesn’t quite meet expectations in others. Again, this was a post 3D conversion; this was not a film shot or designed for 3D. With a conversion like this it is true that much of the brightness and vivid imagery is dimmed down quite a bit. But, as every critic I’ve read has been saying, if there was anyone to do a 3D conversion, James Cameron is the man to do it. I’m not a fan of 3D unless it helps to elevate the story; Recently the film Hugo pulls that idea off successfully. With Titanic, I could take it or leave it.

By now everyone should know the plot of this film but just in case, I’ll summarize: the “unsinkable” Titanic leaves from England to New York on its maiden voyage, hits an iceberg and sinks. Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a third-class passenger who wins his ticket on Titanic from a lucky hand at poker. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a first-class passenger, doomed to wed a wealthy man, Cal (Billy Zane), whom she does not love. It’s Romeo and Juliet on an ill-fated ship and we know from the beginning (Belated Spoiler Alert) that there’s no way both of them will get to live happily ever after. Yet every time I see this movie I’m so involved in their story that I can’t help but hope that maybe this time the ship won’t sink.

So why does a film as poorly written as Titanic work so well? Let’s consider that question for a moment: they say one cannot make a good film from a bad script and yet, in almost every way, Titanic manages to disprove that theory, starting with DiCaprio and Winslet. These two were much younger in 1997 and to see them in these roles again and, in essence, go back in time, reminds us truly of how great actors can save a film from, pardon the pun, sinking into the abyss. These two are so good in their respective roles as Jack and Rose that even their terrible dialogue comes across as convincing. From that first moment that we see Jack notice Rose on the first-class deck we’re drawn in. It’s as if he’s been struck by lightening and will never be the same again. James Cameron has openly said that he wanted to find a way to tell the story of Titanic in a way that would make people understand and accept the loss and the tragedy of that fateful night in the Atlantic. By telling a love story where ultimately the love is lost, he achieves his goal. Manipulative? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely.

There are things to nitpick aside from poor dialogue. I’ve always felt Rose should have been written a little bit stronger. She is a smart and courageous woman. She deserves a little bit more credit than what she’s given throughout the film. In addition, Billy Zane as Cal is just too over the top. It’s a good thing to have a villain in a film but at least flesh him or her out a little bit more. But once again, we forgive these problems because Titanic stands on its own as an achievement in filmmaking
In recent years I tried to convince myself that I didn’t love this film, that it was too cheesy and that I couldn’t believe I ever liked it. Yet every time it’s been on TV I’ve stopped what I’m doing to watch it, to experience it again. At the end of the film, the much older Rose (Gloria Stuart) is telling us the story of Titanic and says, “Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me. In every way a person can be saved… I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists now only in my memory”. I kid you not, every single time I hear that line I lose it. I feel the pressure behind my eyes and the tears just fall down my face. Am I a cornball? Yes. Overly sentimental? Yes. Can anyone else tell me they are not in tears by the end of this film? Not anyone I’ve ever encountered.

See this film while you can on the big screen, especially if you haven’t watched it since its release in 1997. Whatever your opinion was about it then, open your heart and experience it one more time. It’s well worth it. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Kid With A Bike ★★★

Skillfully Avoids Sliding Into Melodrama In A Dark Tale Of A Troubled Young Boy

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I went into The Kid With A Bike not knowing what to expect. When I walked out of the theatre I found myself so moved by the performance of Thomas Deret as Cyril, the kid in question. Deret is in nearly every scene of the film, which for a boy his age is not easy. The basic premise of the film is as follows: Cyril is abandoned by his father (Jérémie Renier) and left at a foster home. He lives in denial of the fact that his father actually left him without a care in the world and makes continued attempts to locate him. After he finds out that his father has left his apartment and sold Cyril’s bike to make money he meets a hairdresser, Samantha (played by Cécile de France), who after a plea from Cyril, agrees to take care of him on weekends. The first act of the film involves Cyril and Samantha first getting Cyril’s bike back, and then finding out where his father is. Once the father located, he finally tells Cyril that he wants nothing to do with him.
At various times throughout this film I found it difficult to watch. Not because it was poorly executed or because I was seeing something that I had to avert my eyes from, but simply because Deret is so good in the role of Cyril that seeing his denial about his father and the inner turmoil he experiences at such a young age is just devastating. Cyril quite simply just wants to be loved. Samantha provides this love and care, but it seems that Cyril is more desperate for the approval of a father figure. As a result, Cyril later forms a friendship with a local gang leader who persuades Cyril to rob and assault a newsstand owner and, unexpectedly, the newsstand owner’s son. You see the desperation for approval from Cyril in a variety of ways, not the least of which is when Cyril tells the gang leader he’ll do the job for free because he just wants to please him.

Most films that I have seen like this one are quite melodramatic (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead springs to mind, a film that many liked but I did not). The Kid With A Bike manages to steer clear of that entirely. This film is directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and is the first film of theirs that I have seen. From what I’ve read their films tend to focus on similar subject matter, which for a film with such an emotional punch as this one, takes an incredible amount of skill and precision to execute successfully. For my money, the Dardeenes pull it off in spades. When watching the film you cannot help but feel sorry for Cyril and angry with him at the same time for acting the way he does. But again, you understand him. You see his motivations and you’re compelled to follow him and simply hope that he’ll come out of this whole ordeal all right. Samantha is the character symbolic of hope in the film; She sees everything that’s happening to Cyril and does everything she possibly can to save him.

My only complaint about the film quite honestly is the score. The same theme shows up at certain moments in the film and it just doesn’t quite fit for me. I feel as though it’s too sentimental; too on the nose. It’s telling me exactly how I should feel at this particular moment (and many others) in the film and I don’t need it. It almost feels as if the Dardeenes were not sure that certain scenes would land the way they intended with audiences, so they put this music in that just hits you over the head. If this is the case, they should have felt more comfortable with the subject matter and let it speak for itself. A minor complaint, yes, in an otherwise difficult but nevertheless uplifting story about hope, loss and redemption.

The Kid With A Bike is currently playing at The Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Crazy Horse ★★★★

A Brilliant Behind The Scenes Look At One Of France’s Most Erotic Cabarets

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Frederick Wiseman is a documentary filmmaker whose career has spanned more than forty years. Knowing that makes me feel even worse about the fact that this is the first film of his that I have ever seen. Crazy Horse is the name of the Parisian cabaret, known for its eroticism and skillfully crafted performances. In 2009, Wiseman brought his camera in to film the making of the new show the cabaret was putting on entitled Désirs. What we get is the fly-on-the-wall style of documentary filmmaking that Wiseman is known for, wherein we witness the stress, hard work and sacrifice that these people put into creating a show.

The film begins with a variety of musical numbers to introduce us to the world we’ll be spending the next two and a half hours living in. It’s dark; it’s atmospheric; it’s artistic and yes, quite erotic. Later, we see the director Ali Mahdavi talking about how they need to close Crazy Horse if they really want to be able to pull off Désirs. We see everyone from the dancers themselves, to the choreographers, makeup artists, costume designers and stage managers. What’s fascinating is that through all of the stress and apparent turmoil that exists behind putting on a show like this, no one ever shouts at one another. The overall feeling that I got when watching this film is that each show is such success largely because of the respect that everyone seemingly has for one another. They do fight, again, never yelling, they disagree on each other’s vision of the show but somehow they all work well together.

As mentioned, Wiseman’s unique style of documentary filmmaking is very removed, as opposed to most documentaries where the camera essentially forces its way in. Here, it’s literally as we’re the invisible man, unnoticed day in and day out. There are never any interviews conducted except for the ones conducted by other people promoting Désirs, which Wiseman gets on film because he happened to be there at that time. It’s a fascinating take on filmmaking because so much is left up to us as an audience to interpret. We observe everyone, but we never get to hear, for example, how any of the dancers feel personally about what they do. We hear whispers from the director that certain numbers like Venus are being cut because the women are not comfortable touching one another, but again, these are only hints.

The one scene that really lets us see the comical side of these women is when they’re sitting in the back watching bloopers of Russian ballet dancers, laughing hysterically at each of the mistakes they make. This is paralleled with another scene where the director talks about how the women are still making at least one mistake during each musical number, which is unacceptable. When watching this film one cannot help but appreciate the kind of work that goes into a show like this, or for that matter what it takes to do any show that’s worth talking about.

I should also mention that this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. This cinematography is spectacular, largely due to the artistic direction and lighting of Désirs itself. It’s amazing that a show like this even exists and it’s refreshing to see how another culture views the subject of eroticism. This is a film and a world unlike any other you’ve ever seen. It’s well worth your time and money to seek this film out and invite yourself into the world of The Crazy Horse Cabaret.  

Sunday, April 1, 2012

This Is Not A Film ★★★½

Heartbreaking And Simultaneously Uplifting

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

I’m the first to admit (and shamefully so) that my experience with Iranian cinema is next to none. Earlier this year I saw the brilliant, yet puzzling Certified Copy by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. And now This Is Not A Film, about Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi is one of the most prolific filmmakers to come out of Iran and has made an impact around the world as one of the most important filmmakers of our time. In 2009 he was arrested for opposing Iran’s regime and sentenced to six years in prison along with a twenty-year ban from filmmaking. In 2010, while still under house arrest, This Is Not A Film was made showing one day in the life of Panahi’s current predicament. This film was so secretive, so risky that it had to be smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside of a cake for a last minute submission to last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Basically what anyone like myself who has very limited knowledge of Iranian cinema should know before seeing this film is to know is that it is a very painstaking process to get a film made in Iran. While we think that the ratings system in the U.S. is a headache, there is a strict approval process from script to film in Iran, which is one of the many reasons that Panahi has the reputation he does. He’s made films that have criticized the treatment of women in Iran as well as taking what some have called an Iranian form of neorealism oftentimes using non-professional actors in the main roles of his films. Panahi is the true definition of an artist. He’s someone who longs for the opportunity to express himself and having his voice silenced as it has been is devastating to not only him but us as an audience.

The film starts off slow as we see Panahi making himself breakfast and making a phone call his lawyer to discuss whether or not she thinks his sentence will be reduced and if the ban will be lifted. She’s hopeful, but as we now know, neither the sentence nor the ban was reduced or lifted, sadly. Later, he makes a call to a friend of his who we later learn is another Iranian filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Panahi has invited him over to shoot a reenactment of Panahi’s latest film that was never made about a woman who is locked up by her father to prevent her from enrolling at an art school she’s been accepted to, the idea being that he is banned from directing and writing, but there was never anything said about him acting his story out.

Panahi uses white tape to section off his living room to illustrate the constrictions of the young woman’s room. He begins to discuss the opening shots and sets the overall mood of the film. He shows us pictures and video on his iPhone of the two actresses he was debating between for the lead role as well as the location he wanted to use for the indoor setting. Midway through this reenactment however, Panahi’s mood changes quite suddenly and we witness the heartbreak and frustration on his face. He asks himself why he’s even bothering, as movies are meant to be seen and shared by the world, not read out loud in a living room.

This one scene in particular is the defining reason, at least for me, as to why this film works so well. I’ve often been so removed from understanding what motivates artists in any field. Not that I have anything against different forms of art, I’m just not someone who understands process when it comes to creating something. I don’t know what it means to connect with a character from an acting standpoint, nor do I know what it means to express myself through an abstract drawing or painting. I respect the work from an outsider’s perspective and yet, I fully sympathize with Panahi’s situation especially after witnessing this one scene on film. I see how dreadful and truly terrifying it is for an artist like Panahi to essentially be handcuffed from doing what he loves.

Panahi spends the rest of the film doing a variety of things, which includes viewing DVDs of his films and commenting on specific scenes that exemplified to him what filmmaking truly is: collaboration, inspiration and above all, passion. There’s improvisation, there’s magic, there’s all sorts of different things that can happen when making a film and Panahi relishes in every minute of it. It also includes more phone calls and finally a conversation with his apartment building’s maintenance man, where Panahi accompanies him down each floor of his round until the film abruptly ends as they walk outside.

I walked out of this film feeling helpless for this man but also strangely hopeful because a filmmaker like Panahi exists in the first place. He is a man who stands up for what he believes in, has been silenced as a result of his work, and conveys the notion that despite the odds, he isn’t done yet. It’s the passion that exists in all of us; that idea that Andy Dufresne talked about in The Shawshank Redemption; they can lock us up and throw away the key, but they can’t get the hope that we hold inside.

This Is Not A Film is one of those most honest depictions of what it means to love one’s work that I have seen in a long time. It reminds us that film will always remain a staple of any culture and that no matter whose voice is silenced, the truth will always come out.