25 October 2009

Thinking on Meryl Streep

I have been thinking about Meryl Streep for a number of weeks, ever since I found out that she was going to visiting the Royal Ontario Museum for an interview about her amazing career. I still regret that I did not go, owing to my complete lack of funds. But it has led me to ponder her body of work and there are so many of her films that I have not seen, mostly because I was too young to see them. My childhood consisted of The River Wild and Death Becomes Her (which is all too often undervalued). I have never seen Sophie's Choice, The French Lieutenant's Wife, A Cry in the Dark, or Out of Africa, and they are not the easiest to find in your local video store (especially not mine). This weekend I watched Death Becomes Her for the millionth time, and still found more reasons to love it.

But Meryl Streep is not the real reason for this post. After seeing An Education on Friday and then watching Death Becomes Her I was reminded of my choice for worst film ending ever. It is hard to believe that Meryl Streep can be part of any film that would qualify for worst on any of my lists. Thankfully she is the reason to watch the film and has no part in the ridiculously pathetic ending. So which film am I talking about? The Devil Wears Prada, obviously.

I will not bore you with the details of the film, because if you want to read this I am sure you have seen the film. When Andy (Anne Hathaway) leaves Runway and Miranda Priestly (Meryl Sreep) for a less than glamorous career it is completely unbelievable. After her transformation there is no way in Hell that Andy would ever leave her job knowing how far it will lead her in the future. She had also grown apart from her pathetic boyfriend (Adrien Grenier) and was still too good for Simon Baker. The film tied up all its loose ends in three minutes and tried for a Hollywood ending. If you ever wanted to know how to ruin a movie, there is no better example.

I am not a fan of forced happy endings. If you are going to make a film and you want it to end on a happy note, please have artistic integrity. Have the balls to make a real film and to create real characters that make real choices.

Review: "An Educaiton"

An Education is advertised as a film written by Nick Hornby, an accomplished writer, whose previous screenwriting credits include High Fidelity (directed by Stephen Frears, whose film The Grifters is among my favourites). I found High Fidelity to be too formulaic, probably owing to the fact that I have never been a huge fan of the romantic comedy. I can understand why Nick Hornby's name and prior films may attract a certain audience, but An Education completely surpassed my expectations. The film owes every ounce of its success to its star Carey Mulligan, who is able to make Jenny a multidimensional character who is innocent at 16, but by no means naive. While Jenny is the central character of the film, the roles of her father and suitor are equally pivotal. With Alfred Molina as Jenny's father Jack, and Peter Sarsgaard as David, we understand how and why Jenny makes her decisions in the film.

Jenny, the only child of Jack and Marjorie, is in her final year of secondary school. After school is either spent studying or playing cello as part of a youth orchestra. She is a bright student and has visions of studying English at Oxford. Jack believes that being part of the orchestra and getting an A in Latin are necessary for her admittance to Oxford. Stuck in a rainstorm after rehearsal one evening, an older gentleman driving by notices a stranded Jenny. David is a charming, cultured and well-traveled man, and Jenny is immediately taken by his charm. Their first encounter is nothing but innocent and soon David is being introduced to Jack and Marjorie and is given permission to take Jenny out to a concert. Jenny meets David's friends Danny (Mamma Mia's Dominic Cooper, looking very disheveled) and Helen (a beautiful Rosamund Pike). Jenny enters a world of fine dining, art, music and travel. She begins to neglect her studies and her relationship with David blossoms. But can a 16 year old girl really have a relationship with a man in his 30s, even with her parents' consent?

An Education is a wonderful film, with fantastic performances by its supporting cast, including Emma Thompson and Sally Hawkins (whose performance in Happy-Go-Lucky was one of last year's finest). The film does belong to Carey Mulligan, and her portrayal of Jenny allows the audience to experience her education alongside her. The film is based off a memoir by Lynn Barber, a British journalist, which may account for the pitiful ending of the film. There is nothing more aggravating than a lousy ending to a good film.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4 (a half star reduction for a pathetic ending).

18 October 2009

Review: "Where The Wild Things Are"

When I think about the books that represent my childhood, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is among the very few that have immense sentimental value. I have been awaiting the release of Spike Jonze's film adaptation since I first saw the trailer. I have long considered him an inventive film maker, considering two of his previous directorial efforts (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) are two of the weirdest films I have ever seen--but this may also be due to Charlie Kaufman's screenplays. Spike Jonze controversially decided not to use CGI for the wild things and chose to use actors wearing suits--special effects were, of course, used for facial expressions. I think this worked brilliantly because the wild things looked similarly to the way I would have imagined them on screen. Spike Jonze, as co-writer and director, had the daunting task of turning a ten sentence story into a feature film. There are numerous differences between page and screen, but the central theme and emotional core of the book remain present in the film.

Max (Max Records) is a boy who often lives in worlds he created in his head rather than in reality. He has good reason: his teenage sister has grown too old to feign interest in his ideas and his divorced mother is struggling to find a balance between work, dating, and coping with the needs of her children. One evening, after discovering his mother deep in conversation with a date, Max puts on his wolf costume and throws a huge tantrum in the kitchen, which ends with him fleeing the house, too quick for his mother to catch him. He ends up finding a boat and sails for days, through disastrous weather, until he reaches a far away island. There he finds a group of large, talking wild things. He convinces them that he is a king that has come to protect them from sadness. He befriends Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and Carol, convinced he is a king, crowns young Max and the boy attempts to help the wild things. Judith (Catherine O'Hara, wonderful as ever) is hardly convinced that Max is their long-awaited saviour. Carol is upset because he is unable to express his feelings to KW (Lauren Ambrose), who is unsure she wants to continue living with the others. Max, unsure of himself in his adult-like position, tries valiantly to protect the wild things from all the sadness in the world.

Watching Spike Jonze's interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are I was amazed at
how superbly he adapted one of my most cherished books into a breathtaking film. The film is beautiful, from Max`s graffiti on the production studios' logos at the beginning, to every heart wrenching moment between Max and the wild things, and his mother. Max Records is nothing but perfect in the role as Max, and the character is wonderfully brought to life on screen. Where the Wild Things Are was everything I wanted it to be. It was funny, touching, visually amazing, and it was a wonderful trip back to my childhood.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Review: "A Serious Man"

It goes without saying that I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers. Fargo is a brilliant film, their best in my opinion, and No Country for Old Men was a wonderful turn from black comedy to suspense. The newest film, A Serious Man, seems to have opened in theatres without much fanfare. Last year's Burn After Reading also opened at the Toronto International Film Festival, but had much more publicity. This is probably due to the fact that Richard Kind (or Adam Arkin) are the biggest names featured in this new film. A Serious Man was the best reviewed film at TIFF and after seeing the film I can see why. Todd McCarthy, film critic at Variety, said of the film: "This is the kind of picture you get to make after you've won an Oscar." It is a fiercely funny film that has drawn numerous comparisons to Woody Allen due to its Jewish main character's religious quest for holy guidance. Maybe that is why I enjoyed it so much! Immediately after the film ended all I wanted to do was sit back down and see it again.

Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and father of two in suburban Minnesota. His wife Judith has just told him that she wants a divorce so that she can marry his friend Sy. His daughter Sarah is only interested in going out and is always annoyed by Larry's brother Arthur, who is constantly draining his cyst in the washroom. Danny, his son, is about to have his bar mitzvah, but prefers listening to Jefferson Airplane and getting high. Larry's spiritual well-being is further compromised by a student's bribes, his less-than-comfortable living arrangement, his application for tenure at the university, and his quest to find a rabbi who will help him through the tough times.

The film is enjoyable to watch and the pacing is perfect. The film flows with such ease that after the film ends you can not believe that time has passed. The actors, all relatively unknown, have created such memorable characters that it is easy to find sympathy. I did watch the film and hope that Larry would overcome his obstacles. The way the film ended was as unexpected as it was refreshing, and it really left me with many questions. I guess that means that there is just more to talk about!

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

16 October 2009

Review: "Coco Avant Chanel"

I have only seen Audrey Tautou in a few movies (Amélie, Dirty Pretty Things, and Auberge Espagnole), but she is a wonderfully actress. In Amélie she gives a wonderful performance and uses her awkward facial features to create a fantastically memorable character. In Coco avant Chanel, Tautou plays the French fashion icon Coco Chanel. Anne Fontaine's film depicts the life of Coco Chanel from her youth until she became a prominent figure in haute couture. Other than knowing that Chanel is a revered fashion house established by Coco Chanel in the 1920s, so admittedly I knew nothing about her life prior to viewing the film. There is a striking resemblance between Audrey Tautou and Coco Chanel, yet throughout the whole film I was expecting her to give an Amélie-esque wink (maybe due to me watching Amélie the night before). The film's emotion rests heavily on the fact that viewers understand that the young Gabrielle will one day become Coco Chanel. You watch Coco avant Chanel and anticipate a huge reward for suffering though Coco's young life... except it never happens.

Gabrielle Chanel and her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) were orphans who earned a living as seamstresses. The two girls also worked in a nightclub, singing one song a night, called Coco. Adrienne met a man and soon moved to Paris. His friend, the Baron Balsan (Benoit Poelvoodre), becomes quite amorous of Gabrielle and begins to call her Coco. After Adrienne moves to Paris, Coco finds it quite difficult to establish herself on the nightclub scene as a solo act. She ends up on the doorstep of Balsan and soon becomes an uninvited house guest. Coco remains a hidden guest in his house until he discovers that she can be used to entertain his party guests at night. She befriends an actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos) and eventually creates hats for her and her socialite friends to wear. While Coco and Balsan do not have a formal relationship, he treats her as his property. She meets a young business associate of Balsan, an Englishman named Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola--a dead ringer for Joseph Fiennes). As their relationship grows, so does her need to work and the woman named Gabrielle will eventually become Coco Chanel.

I had high hopes for Coco avant Chanel and ended up being quite disappointed once the film ended. Throughout the entire film I was waiting for the moment when Gabrielle would suddenly realize that she was Coco Chanel and that she had a passion for fashion... and this never happened. There were scenes where Coco showed a distaste for women's fashion and the film did demonstrate that she was quite a hat maker, yet it all seemed to lead to nowhere. Audrey Tautou was wonderful in the role, but the film would have worked a lot better if a significantly greater amount of time was allotted to Coco's life as a fashion icon. There was such great promise during the beginning of the film and as the film slowly continued, almost laboriously, I realized there would be no payoff.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

06 October 2009

My Wait List

Since it is October and film studios are about to shove Oscar bait down our throats, I present my list of the ten films I am most eagerly anticipating!

10. Precious

I remember hearing about this film when it was earning praise at Sundance. According to all early reviews it is worthy of all its accolades. Its only downfall: having Oprah Winfrey attached as producer (and can that fact please include an asterisk that lets people know that she only became the film's producer after seeing the finished product?).

9. The Lovely Bones
I may be in the minority among those who have read this book, and although I know nothing about the story beyond the simple facts, how can you not be excited about a film starring Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon? I'm also excited to see what Peter Jackson has done in terms of direction after The Lord of the Rings since his film Heavenly Creatures was pretty special (it doesn't hurt that it starred a young Kate Winslet).

8. It's Complicated
Meryl Streep. Does anything else need to be said? Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin are accomplished comedians, and it will be exciting to see how Meryl Streep mixes with them. Nancy Myers' film Something's Gotta Give was surprisingly enjoyable, which makes me eager to see this film. The trailer certainly makes the film look quite funny.

7. An Education
I know next to nothing about this film beyond the basics. I have read numerous articles about Carey Mulligan, and how this film will be her coming out performance. It certainly helps that Sally Hawkins has a supporting role--she was Oscar-worthy in Happy-Go-Lucky.

6. The Men Who Stare At Goats
George Clooney is not my favourite actor, but this film looks nothing short of hilarious. Even though this film seems to be based on a true story, the trailer looks great.

5. A Serious Man
The Coen brothers have made so many great films, and after No Country For Old Men they created Burn After Reading, which was quite funny but lacked a lot of the innovation the Coen brothers are known for. The film does not have any A-list names, and has been getting great early reviews. It was the best reviewed film at TIFF.

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderon's previous films (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited) were all fantastic, but he ventures into the world of stop-motion animation with his new film. It is based off the book by Roald Dahl and Anderson co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). My only disappointment is that Cate Blanchett, originally cast as Mrs. Fox, had to drop out... only to be replaced with Meryl Streep!

3. Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces)
I disliked Penélope Cruz for years until I saw her in Pedro Almodovar's Volver. She was a relevation in that film, and I have loved her ever since. She was brilliant in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona and deservedly won an Academy Award. Her new film with Almodovar is advertised as a noir, which is one of the reasons it excites me.

2. Where The Wild Things Are
The previews bring me close to tears, that is how bad I want to see this movie! The book was one of my favourites growing up and there is probably no better director than Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) to bring the two worlds in the story to the screen.

1. Up In The Air
Hard to believe that there are already two George Clooney movies in my list, and he's at the top of the list, too. I remember buying Walter Kirn's novel when it was first published. I am very excited to see what Jason Reitman has done post-Juno and I think that Clooney might just be perfect for the role of Ryan Bingham. The previews look fantastic and I think this film will live up to the hype.

04 October 2009

Review: "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore, at only 34, has been starring in films for longer than I have been alive. She has come so far in recent years that her so-called rebellious adolescent years no longer taint her star power. She has starred in a number of very enjoyable films (E.T., Never Been Kissed, and of course one of my favourite films, Everyone Says I Love You), and after a number of years acting as a producer, she has finally transitioned to director. It is a film that straddles two genres: the light-hearted coming-of-age teenage film and the aggressive sports film. Barrymore definitely finds her own niche right in the middle and has created a film that is as touching as it is enjoyable. Roller derby is not a sport that is well known and Whip It showcases the excitement and the women of this contact sport. Whip It is definitely a girl power movie. For her directorial debut, Barrymore has cast a handful of strong actresses: Ellen Page continues to show she is an actress beyond her years, Kristin Wiig and Zoe Bell are delightfully hilarious in supporting roles, and Marcia Gay Harden is wonderful as an overbearing mother. The film, set in Austin, Texas and its suburbs, is about finding that one thing you are really great at and not letting anything stop you. This is something we can all relate to.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a high school senior whose mother (Marcia Gay Harden) insists that she compete in beauty pageants. Bliss has never enjoyed these pageants and only competes because she has no other passions. This all changes on day, when shopping in Austin, she finds a flyer for a roller derby exhibition. After she and her friend Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) sneak off to Austin to see the competition, Bliss falls in love with the sport. She tries out for the team and is given a chance to play for the Hurl Scouts, the league's worst team. With the help of her teammates, Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Bloody Holly (Bell) and Rosa Sparks (Eve) she becomes more confident and becomes a rising star in the league. Bliss helps the succeed and eventually rival the league's undefeated champions, much to the chagrin of Iron Maven (a superb Juliette Lewis). Bliss' involvement in roller derby is completely unnoticed by her parents, and her mother is eagerly anticipating the Bluebonnet pageant. As Bliss becomes more confident and independent, her desire to compete in beauty pageants wanes as her two lives begin to collide.

Whip It is a lot of fun, even though it follows a predictable formula. Ellen Page is fantastic as Bliss, a teenage girl who wants to please her mother but also wants to find a passion to call her own. As director and producer, Drew Barrymore acts in a much smaller role and lets her fellow actresses own the film. While Whip It will not go down in history as Drew Barrymore's finest film, it is a great first effort and makes me excited for her next project.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

01 October 2009

NUMBER ONE: "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands"

As I said earlier, Everyone Says I Love You is not my favourite Woody Allen film. It is a fantastic film, but there is another film that I believe to be pure perfection: Hannah and Her Sisters. This film came out in the middle of Woody's more dramatic period in the 1980s. A lot of people wished that he would revert back to his comedy roots and create films that were more like Sleeper or Annie Hall (another brilliant Woody Allen film), but I have to admit that many of my favourite Woody Allen films were from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, I am a sucker for the dramatic. Hannah and Her Sisters is both witty and emotional, which is a credit to Allen's screenplay and the marvelous cast. The film stars Mia Farrow as the eponymous Hannah, with Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest co-starring as her sisters. Michael Caine and Allen himself play supporting roles as Hannah's husband and ex-husband, respectively. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three for Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress. Woody Allen is my favourite all-time director and although he has made some below-average films in his five decades as a director, Hannah and Her Sisters is above and beyond his best film, and is therefore my number one favourite film.

The film begins and ends on Thanksgiving, two years apart, at a party hosted by Hannah. We learn that Hannah's
husband Elliot (Michael Caine) has been harbouring romantic feelings towards his sister-in-law Lee (Barbara Hershey). He finds Hannah too self-sufficient and is drawn to Lee's fragility. The two eventually begin having an affair, which all passes without Hannah ever believing that her husband is being unfaithful. Mickey (Woody Allen) plays Hannah's ex-husband, a television executive who quits his job due to his hypochondria. He contemplates religious conversion and we watch as he considers Catholicism and the Hare Krishna movement. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is an unsuccessful actress who constantly changes careers and often borrows money from Hannah. She starts a catering company with her friend April (Carrie Fisher) and they meet a man (Sam Waterston). Both women are instantly attracted to him and Holly is devastated when he chooses April. The film progresses through the months and we see the characters change. After two years, when Thanksgiving comes again, the characters have had new revelations and their lives are completely different from who they were at the start of the film.

Hannah and Her Sisters is a film that belongs to its cast. The wonderful actors in this film brings Woody Allen's words to life. Dianne Wiest was completely deserving of her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role of Holly. The first Woody Allen film I ever saw was Bullets Over Broadway, which also won Dianne Wiest an Oscar. That film, which would be my third favourite Woody Allen film, introduced me to his films and to her amazing talent. To this day I am still drawn to films that she is in, regardless of the size of her role. I started to watch In Treatment because she had a supporting role. I must also talk about Michael Caine's brilliant performance. Watching his character Elliot, as he begins an affair with Lee in the scene entited "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands" shows such a range of emotions that I find it uncomfortable to watch, each and every time. Finally, it is wonderful to watch Maureen O'Sullivan in the role of Hannah's mother, watching Mia Farrow interact with her real life mother. It is a beautiful film to watch. Hannah and Her Sisters is such a perfect film that it will be next to impossible for another film to surpass it.