22 March 2010

Review: "Fish Tank"

Fish Tank was not released in North America until February 2010, though there was much mention of the film during the fall Oscar campaigning season. The film is directed by Andrea Arnold, who won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2005 for her film Wasp. Her first feature length film, Red Road (2006) is the first of a planned trilogy by first-time directors, conceived by Danish experimental director Lars von Trier. Fish Tank premiered at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in May 2009, where it won the Jury Prize. While it was not in contention for any awards in North American, Fish Tank won the 2010 BAFTA award for Outstanding British Film, beating such highly regarded films as An Education and In The Loop. The film's trailer and promotion make the film seem like a British Step Up, when in reality it has more similarities to London to Brighton. The film's star, Katie Jarvis, was reportedly asked to audition for the film after one of the film's casting agents saw her having a heater argument with a boyfriend at a train station. The film belongs to Katie Jarvis, and Fish Tank is her highly emotional roller coaster ride. In her very first acting role it is amazing that this young girl acts with so much humility and maturity.

Mia Williams (Jarvis) is a fifteen year-old girl who lives in a public housing apartment with her single-mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and her young sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in Essex. Her mother is often drunk, and Mia spends time fighting with girls in town and has a verbally abusive relationship with her sister. We see Mia make several attempts to rescue a malnourished horse, eventually angering its owners. She is saved by a boy named Billy (Harry Treadaway) and the two become friends. At home her mother brings home her newest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). He becomes a real father figure to the two girls, and Mia's mood is heightened by his presence. He encourages her dancing and helps her with the necessary preparations for an audition. The sexual tension between Mia and Connor builds because Mia is often walking around the house in her underwear and caught her mother having sex with him. One night Mia and Connor go too far and this leads to some unpleasant truths, leading Mia to question her future and make a life changing decision.

Unfortunately, Fish Tank is similar to a lot of British films that I have seen. The bleak cinematography and lower-class characters seems to be a staple of British cinema. works because it focuses so tightly on Mia. As viewers we are emotionally invested in her future and Katie Jarvis plays the part so well that we remain affected long after the film ends. The film does not give away its secrets easily, and many questions remain unanswered. I love when a film leaves you guessing and speculating. Fish Tank is not as remarkable as I had expected, but it features a convincing performance by Katie Jarvis. After reading about the film I found that Katie Jarvis, at only 18 years of age, lived an impoverished life much like her character and left home at a young age. She has given birth to a child and it seems that escaping this life will be even harder for it. It is reminiscent of the film Precious, and how many wrongly assumed that Gabourey Sidibe had a childhood like her character.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

20 March 2010

My Favourite Actors: Dianne Wiest

Even before I was a teenager and way before I became a film snob there was an actress that appeared in a few of my favourite films. Dianne Wiest has won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, has appeared in a handful of Woody Allen films, and has recently had a successful turn on one of HBO's most critically successful series.

Dianne Wiest is a wonderful actress and has played a wide range of characters, though she may be most well known for playing the best friend (like in Woody Allen's September) or the mother (like in Edward Scissorhands).

While those are definitely two performances that I love, they
are not amongst my favourites. Here, without much deliberation, are my top five favourite Dianne Wiest performances.

5. Gina, In Treatment (2008 - present)
While she may be most well known for her film r
oles, Dianne Wiest has had a successful stage career and is no stranger to television. In 1997 she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress on a Dramatic Series for her role on Road to Avonlea. On In Treatment she plays Gina, former mentor and therapist to main character Paul, played by Gabriel Byrne. She is the reason I started watching the series and it is her episodes that are my favourite. For a series that depends so much on character and dialogue, Dianne Wiest is captivating and thankfully Gabriel Byrne is a worthy adversary on screen.

4. Louise Keeley, The Birdcage (1996)
The Birdcage is a great film to watch because of Dianne Wiest. It may be remembered for Robin Williams' performance, but the highlight of the time is watching Dianne Wiest act against one of the best comedic actors (Robin Williams) and one of the best dramatic actors (Gene Hackman). In a film where most of the performances are over the top, Dianne Wiest balances the cast with her role as the conservative Republican wife wanting to break away from her husband's ideals.

3. Helen Buckman, Parenthood (1988)
Released during the heyday of Steve Martin's film career, Parenthood is a terrific film with a wonderful ensemble cast. H
elen is a divorced mother of two whose children seem to despise her. She is very insecure at the beginning of the film, and this comes across very well. Her daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) is still a teenager and her boyfriend (Keanu Reeves) eventually moves into their home. Some of the most touching and hilarious scenes in the whole film involve Helen and her two kids. She plays the role of an overwhelmed mother with a beautiful mix of intensity and ease. Dianne Wiest was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1989 for the film, losing to Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot).

2. Helen Sinclar, Bullets over Broadway (1994)
Dianne Wiest completely stole the film away from John Cusack. Her performance as the aging actress Helen Sinclair is brilliant in its controlled intensity. Her character is a diva
and an alcoholic, too old to play the temptress and too vain to play the mother, and Dianne Wiest made her into a three-dimensional character. Helen Sinclair, as a character, is over-the-top and dramatic, but Dianne Wiest is such a wonderful actress that Helen becomes a fully realized character so that we are able to see her insecurities and her fears. Bullets over Broadway also features great performances by Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly (who were also nominated for Academy Awards), but the film is definitely anchored by Dianne Wiest's inspired performance.

1. Holly, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Yes, Hannah and Her Sist
ers is my favourite film, and Woody Allen is my favourite director, so it should be expected that Dianne Wiest's Oscar-winning performance as Hannah's (Mia Farrow) sister Holly would be my favourite! In a film that also features Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, and Barbara Hershey, you must credit Dianne Wiest for being able to stand out amongst such talented actors. Holly undergoes a significant transformation through the course of the film and Dianne Wiest makes her storyline believable. There is no vanity in her performance and I found myself drawn to her performance the very first time I saw the film. It is a special role in a special film.

A few other performances worth watching:
Radio Days (1987)
Practical Magic (1998)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)

19 March 2010

Review: "Alice in Wonderland"

Film directors are known for using the same actors in multiple films. Diane Keaton appeared in many of Woody Allen's early films, and Mia Farrow appeared in almost every single one of his films during the 1980s. I do not think that any director has the list of frequent actors as Tim Burton. When one thinks of Tim Burton, one must also think of Johnny Depp, who has been in seven films, and the past three in a row. But he is not Tim Burton's only favourite, he has also worked with Helena Bonham Carter for each of his past six films since 2001. Both actors star in this reincarnation of Alice in Wonderland. Alice in Wonderland is a terrific story that has been adapted multiple times, though the most well-known may be the 1951 Disney animated film that remains of my favourite Disney films. The studio began its marketing campaign in June 2009, when images of the main characters were released. There were also Facebook groups created for members to gain early access to the film's trailer. Alice in Wonderland is a re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's story, and as excited as I was for the film's release, I was incredibly disappointed by the final product. The film started slowly and had a terribly weak ending that left me wanting to go back and watch a different version.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska, of HBO's In Treatment) is a nineteen year-old girl who has a vivid imagination and talks about strange creatures. Her father has just died and she is attending a party at a wealthy estate. It turns out that the party is for her engagement and, after hearing Hamish Ascot's proposal, she ends up chasing after the White Rabbit and falls down the rabbit hole. She has no memories of Underland, but the inhabitants are awaiting the return of a girl named Alice who once visited as a small child. Underland is ruled by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who stole the crown from her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). It is believed that Alice will slay the Red Queen's Jabberwocky and reclaim Underland for the White Queen. With the help of the Hatter (Johnny Depp), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), Absolem the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the bloodhound Bayard (Timothy Spall) and Mallymkun (Dormouse) (Barbara Windsor) Alice must find the courage to fight against the Red Queen and defeat the Jabberwocky.

I saw Alice in Wonderland in 3D, and even though the 3D animations were not as amazing as Avatar, I feel that the film would have been better in 2D. I was incredibly disappointed by the story and felt that the film pushed too hard to force the symbolism of Alice's struggle in Underland with her pending engagement. I had a lot of trouble during the first act of the film and found myself losing focus. I was able to get past that, but when the film approached the climactic battle scene I felt like Alice in Wonderland lost itself as a film. Roger Ebert mentioned this in his review, and questioned why the battle sequence was necessary. I found Helena Bonham Carter to be the most enjoyable part of the film. She was as enjoyable as her head was large. I was even able to cope with Johnny Depp, until the end of the film when I was worried one moment would ruin the entire film for me. Another site mentioned this, and I did not read the article until I had seen the film, but the author and I have similar feelings. At the end of the day I am left to wonder if Tim Burton was pressured by Disney to make a family film or if he is just running out of creative ideas?

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

18 March 2010

Review: "Maxed Out"

Both The Cove and Food, Inc. are recent documentaries that I have seen that have frightened me. I can now add Maxed Out to that list. The most alarming similarity is that these three films present disturbing realities that government agencies allow to happen. The film's director, James Scurlock, said that his reason for making the film "was to paint the story of our debt-fueled culture in broad strokes. The more people I met, the more I realized this is an emotional issue as well as an academic topic." Maxed Out does an effective job by presenting a wide range of viewpoints. It does not only showcase victims of credit card debt, but there are interviews with many individuals who profit from the incredible amount of debt in the United States. As a negative, The Wall Street Journal addressed the trustworthiness of the film by highlighting the fact that the film's main persuasive argument comes from Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor who is widely known for making these unsubstantiated arguments. Regardless of the accuracy of the film's facts, Maxed Out is a powerful and frightening film that has made me more aware of how I use my credit cards.

The film opens with a woman named Beth Naef, a successful real estate broker in Las Vegas. She is giving a hour of a $5.5M home and talking about the conveniences that her clients want: elevators and wine cellars. She goes as far as to say that she will not be able to afford her own home if interest rates go up. We also meet two mothers whose children went off to college and amassed thousands of dollars of credit card debt. Their story is heartbreaking and the women continue to fight credit card companies and the legality of college students having their own credit cards. Maxed Out also features interviews with credit collectors and we see firsthand how they mistreat those individuals with credit card debt. Personally, the most shocking story belonged to Doris Gohman. In 2004 three credit card companies mistakenly reported that she was dead, when in fact it was her daughter who was deceased. For three years she has gone to and from court with no protection.

Maxed Out is a well conceived film, though at times I feel that some of the more serious elements are made less powerful because of the lighthearted feel of other scenes. Three people featured in the film committed suicide. It is shocking and appalling that American banks and the American government stand idly by while lives are ruined. I have become more aware of credit card ads and have realized that almost all of the pop-up advertisements on the internet that I encounter are from Capital One. It is far too easy for someone to get a credit card, but it can be a long and painful road to learn how to use one.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Also, an interesting site referenced in the film: Debt Clock.

17 March 2010

Review: "The Ghost Writer"

You may have seen Roman Polanski's name in the news lately and his most recent film, The Ghost Writer, has opened in major cities without much press. It is not without talent, the film stars Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, with Kim Cattrall and Tom Wilkinson in supporting roles. Most people may know Roman Polanski for his personal struggles, but his early films include Rosemary's Baby (the 1968 horror film that helped launch Mia Farrow's career) and Chinatown (the 1974 film that is widely considered a standard in the film noir genre). More recently he directed The Pianist (2002), which won Adrien Brody an Academy Award for Best Actor. The Ghost Writer is based off a 2007 novel written by Robert Harris and was adapted by Harris and Polasnki. The film premiered in February 2010 at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival where Roman Polanski was awarded the Silver Bear award for Best Director. The Ghost Writer is a thriller that unfolds itself very deliberately, almost painfully slow. It is an interesting film that is almost ruined by the slow pacing during the first act.

Ewan McGregor stars as an English ghostwriter who has been hired to finish ghostwriting the memoirs of former British Primer Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnon). The original ghostwriter has died and the manuscript may only be viewed at Lang's home, on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Lang's personal assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall) controls access to the manuscript and it is apparent her relationship with her boss is more intimate. Their relationship does not go unnoticed by his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), who often appears cold and hostile. Soon after arriving on the island it is revealed that the International Criminal Court in The Hague has began investigating Lang for war crimes. The new controversy surrounding Lang leads the new ghostwriter to some startling revelations which put Lang's entire career into question.

The Ghost Writer is a film worth seeing, though it is probably best viewed from the comfort of one's home. I really enjoyed the style of the film, and I feel that the bleak colours on screen added to the tension. The acting was mostly very good, although I do not understand why Kim Cattrall was cast in a dramatic role. She seemed very out of place and her accent was frustrating (is it fair for her Wikipedia to consider her an English actress when she moved to Canada at a young age?). Roger Ebert raised an interesting point in his four-star review of the film. He said: "The Ghost Writer is handsome, smooth, persuasive. [...] Polanski at 76 provides a reminder of directors of the past who were raised on craft, not gimmicks, and depended on a deliberate rhythm of editing rather than mindless cutting." I completely agree, and if the beginning of the film had been crisper and more succinct I would have loved The Ghost Writer, instead it is only a film that I enjoyed.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

I just saw Fantastic Mr. Fox for the second time today. Thank you $2 March Break matinees at Empire Theatres. It was even more enjoyable the second time. I found it funnier, more touching and instead of focusing so much on the animation I was able to concentrate on the story. It is a wonderful film!

And I really loved Kristofferson this second time. He was my absolute favourite character.

15 March 2010

Review: "Green Zone"

Matt Damon's talent as an actor has always been in question, in my opinion. He seems to play the same roles with the same emotional range. Invictus was his chance to show the world his true acting talent. He came away with a Best Supporting Actor nomination, which I found undeserving. Green Zone reunites Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Both films were enjoyable and well made, and both financially and critically successful. Green Zone is advertised as companion to the Bourne franchise and this affects the film negatively. Jason Bourne was a spy and the film was about uncovering his true identity, but Green Zone is a film about the war in Iraq and has few similarities beyond the use of a hand-held camera and the disconnected acting of Matt Damon. The film does co-star two wonderful actors, Brendan Gleeson and Amy Ryan (from The Wire). The film is said to be inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Green Zone was exactly the film I expected it to be: an average thriller with choppy editing that, at times, made me feel nauseous (and not just due to Matt Damon's attempt at acting).

The film is set in 2003 in post-invasion Iraq and stars Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller. Miller and his squad investigate a warehouse reported to be concealing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and find nothing. He begins to doubt the intelligence reports. Meanwhile Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a member of Pentagon Special Intelligence, is welcoming Ahmed Zubadi (Raad Rawi) to Baghdad, in hopes of instilling Zubadi as the head of Iraq's new democracy. Poundstone is interrogated by Lawrie Dawes, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and she begins asking questions about Magellan, the source of information for the WMD locations in Iraq. Later, while investigating another suspect location, Miller meets an Iraqi civilian named Freddie (Khalid Abdalla) who informs him that General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor) is meeting with his allies nearby. Al-Rawi is one of the many power players of the Iraqi army that have gone into hiding. Miller and his team are unable to apprehend Al-Rawi, but they do come into possession of a notebook that contains the locations of all Al-Rawi's safe houses. During a debriefing Miller voices his concerns about the existence of WMDs in Iraq and is approached by Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a member of the CIA that believes the search for WMD is just a cover-up for a bigger issue. Miller begins following leads and finds himself going down a path that leads to some incredible revelations.

Green Zone is a film that, like Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, has the right elements to make a decent thriller but gets lost in itself. The characters on the periphery (Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendann Gleeson) are seriously underused. The film depends too much on Matt Damon and suffers because he is unable the carry the emotion of the film himself. I understand why Paul Greengrass chooses to use a hand-held camera. It gives the film a more intense and gritty quality. I just feel that it would work better if wide shots were included and it was not always necessary to zoom in and out during a single conversation. Roger Ebert said that the often distracting QuesyCam style of Paul Greengrass did not bother him during Green Zone because he became so involved in the story. I disagree. I lost focus because the camera moves too quickly and angles changed too drastically.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

09 March 2010

Review: "Valentino: The Last Emperor"

I remember being a young child and watching episodes of Fashion Television while skipping church on Saturday night. My interest in fashion has only grown since then. My favourite actresses - Audrey Hepburn, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Penélope Cruz - are style mavens known almost as much for their fashion as their talent. Admittedly, I prefer French fashion to Italian fashion, and I have never been a fan of Valentino, but it hard to pass up the opportunity to gain access to the world of haute couture. Valentino: The Last Emperor is a 2008 documentary film that followed Italian master Valentino Garavani from 2005 to 2007 as he planned his final runway show in Rome. The film showcases Valentino's career and personal life, particularly his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti. There were shots of Fashion File and Fashion Television, which gave the film a nice Canadian touch. The film does give considerable insight into the brand Valentino, but I found myself disliking the man behind the label when the film finished.

Valentino: The Last Emperor, directed by Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tyrnauer, begins with preparations for Valentino's Spring/Summer collection. While Valentino does not have a hand in the construction of his garments, he is the visionary behind each and every gown. Many of the celebrity guests and fashion media are reduced to tears after the runway show during Paris Fashion Week. It had long been speculated that Valentino had been considering retirement. Valentino had sold control of his company to Marzotto Apparel in 2002, and Matteo Marzotto features heavily in the film. Valentino's life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, acted as honourary president for the Valentino brand and had a lot of creative control over the styling of the runway show. The film follows the two men from Venice to Rome to Paris, from lavish parties and runway shows to personal conversations between the two longtime lovers. The film climaxes at the three-day event honouring Valentino, where Valentino's life and career are brilliantly feted.

Though Valentino: The Last Emperor is a highly enjoyable film, I found Valentino himself to be hard to stomach. I found him to be too egotistical and short-tempered for my liking. He has a considerably high opinion of himself and believes that he was the last true couturier working in fashion. There is a scene where he whines on film that the camera is to be focused on him. I sympathized more for Giancarlo during the film because it seems that Valentino is too busy focusing on his work to vocalize how much Giancarlo has done for him. There is a touching scene when Valentino does give a heartfelt thanks to his partner, but it still felt contrived. Valentino: The Last Emperor is no more provoking than The September Issue, and unfortunately a lot less fun than The Devil Wears Prada, and I felt slightly ripped off at the end.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

08 March 2010

Recapping the Oscars

Congratulations Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker!! I am excited that such a special film was recognized with six Academy Awards last night.

How bad was the telecast last night?
Days before the ceremony Sarah Polley announced that she wanted nothing to do with the short film she directed that aired last night during a commercial break. Polley, a known political activist, removed her name from the Women's Heart Health film last night because it had corporate sponsorship. I should have known that it was an omen of more disappointment to come.

I have always enjoyed watching the Red Carpet and seeing some of my favourite celebrities. Sadly, those of us in Canada were stuck watching E-Talk at the Oscars. Ben Mulroney may be completely without class, but Tanya Kim has no personality and should be banned from appearing on television. The red carpets interviews were awkward and uncomfortable. How did our favourite celebrities look? Penélope Cruz was beautiful, though not as glamorous as I expected. Meryl looked fantastic, as did Sandy, Rachel McAdams, Kate Winslet (less so than last year) and Helen Mirren. Mariah Carey looked slutty and Zoe Saldana was not sure what she was wearing. Why did she and Miley Cyrus want to make themselves look thinner than a pencil? I was most disappointed by Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga.

The opening of the show was pretty lame. I enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris at the Emmy Awards, but he does not suit the Academy Awards. Having the leading actors and actresses on stage to open the show was painful.

The Lowest of Low Points
1. Having the leading actors and actresses on stage to open the show. Awkward.
2. Neil Patrick Harris looked out of place and George Clooney looked miserable, which has made me like him considerably less.
3. Anyone related to teen films and anything related to them. Zac Efron, on the red carpet, said that the only reason he got an invite was because he is friends with producer Adam Shankman (who poor job producing the show makes me rethink my obsession with So You Think You Can Dance).
4. Ben Stiller.
5. Dancing to the Best Original Score nominees.
6. Forgetting to include Farrah Fawcett.
7. Long winded introductions for the Best Actor and Actress nominees.
8. The length of the show. Without long acceptance speeches, musical numbers and the Lifetime Achievement Award, why was the ceremony longer than last year?
9. It was really pathetic that Signourney Weaver presented Avatar with an award. She looked like she was about to orgasm when she announced the winner.

High (or slightly average) Points
1. Penélope Cruz presenting Christoph Waltz his much deserved Best Supporting Actor award. "Penélope and Oscar, that's an uber bingo."
2. Tina Fey looked hot and glamorous in Michael Kors. Loved it.
3. Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodóvar together.
4. Michelle Pfeiffer talking about Jeff Bridges.
5. Kathryn Bigelow winning. Though it is a shame Barbra Streisand had to be involved.

All in all it was a lame evening with few surprises. I can only hope next year will be better.

06 March 2010

Review: "Up the Yangtze"

Up the Yangtze is a 2007 documentary film about the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river and its affect on the people in nearby communities. I first heard about the film in 2008 from a family friend, and unfortunately it was not an easy film to find in theatres. The film was directed by an up and coming Canadian filmmaker, Yung Chang, and was screened at such festivals as Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Up the Yangtze was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and Montreal's EyeSteelFilm, which produces socially conscious films. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) and National Geographic Channel also participated in the making of the film. Up the Yangtze is an intriguing film that offers views and insights into the lives of people in China, while also depicting the emerging concerns of capitalism and Western tourism.

Up the Yangtze primarily focuses on one of the cruise ships that travels the Yangtze river. This particular ship mostly serves wealthy Western tourists and is advertised as an opportunity to travel the Yangtze river before the Three Gorges Dam is completed. The ship employs young Chinese men and women who are forced to take English names and learn English. One of these young girls, Yu Shui (renamed CIndy), is from the village Fengdu (which will be completely flooded by the dam). Her family is very poor and lives on the edge of the river in poverty. She once had dreams of university, but her parents needed her financial contribution and she was sent to work on the ship. Conversely, there is a young man named Jerry, whose father is more affluent than Cindy's, and he chooses to work on the cruise ship. Through behind the scenes footage of the lifestyle on and off the ship, Up the Yangtze gives considerable insight into how capitalism is affecting China and its people.

It was only recently that I came to understand how investigative journalism affects documentary filmmaking. The film Burma VJ, about military uprisings in Burma, had to be smuggled out of the country. The film crew of The Cove had to smuggle equipment into Japan. I have very little knowledge about the lifestyle in China, but Up the Yangtze made me feel guilty about "Western" tourists visiting impoverished reasons because of how negatively it affects the people and their culture. The film contains beautiful images of the region, and it does try to depict an honest and realistic China, but I feel that the film only skimmed the surface and could have gone further in depth. I sympathized greatly with the people whose lives were affected by the Three Gorges Dam, and when the film ended I was left to wonder what ultimately happened to them.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "Food, Inc."

While The Cove is the scariest film I have seen in a very long time, Food, Inc. frightened me on an entirely different level. The film investigates the American agricultural industry and concludes that their products are harmful to consumers and the environment. As a Canadian I can feel relieved that I can choose homegrown produce, but at the same time I feel horrified that our economy is so heavily influenced by the United States. Food, Inc. was directed by Robert Kenner, whose work has been produced by the National Geographic Society and PBS. His prior films have focused mainly on historical events, such as the Vietnam War (Two Days October (2005)) and Influenza, 1918 (a 1998 documentary about the 1918 flu pandemic). Food, Inc. took three years to make due to legal fees and generated a considerable amount of controversy from many American agricultural companies. It has since been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Food, Inc. looks at the modern American food industry and the drastic changes that have occurred in the past few decades. There is now a greater demand for products and produce is available all year long, opposed to only when in season. The first act of the film focuses on meat production. Chicken farmers raise their chickens in large, overcrowded coops and many companies expect the farmers to pay for expensive upgrades. The film does look at both sides, featuring interviews with farmers who continue to work in the industry and those who refused. The second act of the film investigates the production of grains and vegetables. Many of the products contain corn and corn syrup, and it is astonishing how many products contain some form of corn. Lastly, Food, Inc. looks at the legal issues surrounding these major corporations and how they have grown to be too powerful.

Food, Inc. features interviews with those involved in the agricultural industry and private citizens who have been negatively affected. There is a woman whose young son died because the mass production of meat has led to more cases of food poisoning. She has tried to fight against these corporations with limited success. I was also affected by a young family whose father is suffering from diabetes because a cheeseburger is cheaper than broccoli. There are so many disturbing images and statistics in this film that is unbelievable that it has taken so long for someone to bring it to the public. It is the responsibility of the government to protect its citizens, but it is also our own responsibility to know what we are eating and from where it came.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

My Oscar Predictions!

It makes me sad that Penélope Cruz will not longer be the reigning Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. Her win was my favourite moment last year, and her performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona was my favourite performance of 2008. I doubt that this year's Academy Awards will excite me as much, but there are still a few categories that could yield some surprises.

So here with go with my predictions for the 82nd Academy Awards, to be announced on Sunday, March 7, 2010.

Best Picture
What will win: The Hurt Locker.
What I want to win: Up in the Air, though sadly it is VERY unlikely.
What film should be nominated: A Single Man in place of The Blind Side and Fantastic Mr. Fox in place of District 9.

What I will do if Avatar wins: Question my obsession with the film industry.

Best Director
Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker.
Who should win: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker.
Who should be nominated: If Up can be nominated for Best Picture, why can Wes Anderson not be nominated for his brilliant work in Fantastic Mr. Fox?
What I will do if Avatar wins: Continue to think that James Cameron is the cockiest asshole in Hollywood and hereby refuse to see another of his films. Let's hope it takes another 12 years.

Best Actor
Who will win: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart.
Who should win: Colin Firt, A Single Man, is the best performance in the category.
Who should be nominated: Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man, in place of Morgan Freeman's unremarkable work in Invictus.
What I will do if Avatar wins: Praise the AMPAS for realizing that the actors in the film showcased no acting talent.

Best Actress
Who will win: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side.
Who should win: Carey Mulligan, An Education. While I would prefer Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia, to win over Sandy, I think that Carey Mulligan gave the best female performance of 2009.
Who should be nominated: Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria, over Helen Mirren in The Last Station. And although Penélope Cruz was not her best in Los Abrazos Rotos, she was way ahead of Sandra Bullock.
What I will do if Avatar wins: Praise the AMPAS for realizing that the actors in the film showcased no acting talent.

Best Supporting Actor
Who will win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds.
Who should win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds.
Who should be nominated: Stanley Tucci in Julie & Julia (the better role and performance) and Alfred Molina, An Education.
What I will do if Avatar wins: Praise the AMPAS for realizing that the actors in the film showcased no acting talent.

Best Supporting Actress
Who will win: Mo'Nique, Precious.
Who should win: Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air.
Who should be nominated: Julianne Moore, A Single Man; Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds; Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds.
What I will do if Avatar wins: Praise the AMPAS for realizing that the actors in the film showcased no acting talent.

Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air.
Best Animated Feature: Up (though if there was an upset and Fantastic Mr. Fox won it would make my night!).
Best Documentary Feature: The Cove.
Best Foreign Language Film: Un Prophète (France).
Best Art Direction: Sherlock Holmes.
Best Film Editing: The Hurt Locker.
Best Cinematography: The White Ribbon.
Best Make-Up: Star Trek.
Best Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker.
Best Sound Editing: Avatar.
Best Visual Effects: Avatar.
Best Original Song: Ryan Bingham & T-Bone Burnett, The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart.
Best Original Score: Michael Giacchino, Up.
Best Costume Design: The Young Victoria.
Best Short Film (Animated): A Matter of Loaf and Death.
Best Short Film (Documentary): The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant.
Best Short Film (Live Action): Miracle Fish.

Let's wait and see how I do! I am sorry for having to pick Avatar, but there are categories where it seems unlikely any other film will win.

05 March 2010

Review: "Shutter Island"

Last fall Shutter Island was listed alongside such films as Up in the Air, Avatar and Precious as one of the primary contenders for an Academy Award nomination. Set for release in October, Shutter Island was delayed until February 2010. The studio, Paramount Pictures, claimed that they were financially incapable of an Oscar campaign for Shutter Island. Many speculated that the film was a disappointment and Martin Scorsese was being punished with a February release. Martin Scorsese is one of the most renowned American directors, with his last three films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed) all being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Let's not forget that he is also responsible for the masterpieces Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), and my personal favourite, Casino (1995). Shutter Island stars Martin Scorsese veteran Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Michelle Williams. The film, unfortunately, is one of the most disappointing films I have seen in recent memory. Awkward pacing, poor acting and irrelevant scenes makes Shutter Island a horrible mess unworthy of viewing.

Set in 1954, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels. Along with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), he is investigating the disappearance of a patient at Ashecliff Hospital, on Shutter Island.
Ashecliff is a hospital for the criminally insane, and a woman named Rachel Solando is missing. The island is only accessible by ferry and both pairs of her shoes are found in her cell. The investigation is hampered by the chief psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) and top physician (Max von Sydow) who are unwilling to cooperate, and Teddy is bothered by constant memories of his military service during World War II and the tragic death of his wife (Michelle Williams). A huge storm hits the island, leaving the hospital without electricity, and when the dust settles Rachel Solondo (Match Point's Emily Mortimer) is back in her cell. It is then revealed that Teddy took this particular investigation in order to confront the man who set fire to the building that killed his wife. The film then leads to a messy climax that uses far too many dream sequences. The film would have worked a lot better had the screenwriter, Laeta Kalogridis, focused on fewer details. It is hard to fault Martin Scorsese, but it seems that his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has failed him. The film's editing is messy and so poorly paced that I was frustrated within the first twenty minutes.

Shutter Island features a considerably talented supporting cast. Patricia Clarkson, almost unrecognizable with dark hair, is superb in her small role, and Jackie Earle Haley (Best Supporting Actor nominee for Little Children) is chilling in a key role. I found it hard to enjoy the film from the very beginning. I really did not enjoy the opening sequence and found that it set the tone for the whole film. Leonardo DiCaprio was once able to depend on his boyish good looks, but I have found recently that his acting has suffered. I thought that Revolutionary Road was one of his weakest performances until now. Shutter Island is a film that had a lot of promise, but along the way it become a film that tried too hard to fool you and was too dependent on symbolism. Sure, the twist is very clever, but it would have been a lot more satisfying if I had cared when it was finally revealed.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.

04 March 2010

Review: "City of God" (Cidade de Deus)

City of God is a 2002 Brazilian film that, as embarrassing as it is, I have just seen for the first time recently. City of God refers to an area within Rio de Janeiro, known for its poverty and violence. City of God received four Academy Award nominations in 2003, for Cinematography, Editing, Adapted Screenplay and Directing. Amazingly, it was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It was directed by Fernando Mereilles, who became well known internationally in 2005 for his film The Constant Gardener, which is one of my absolute favourite films (narrowly missing out on my personal top ten list). The film inspired a 2002-2005 Brazilian television series called City of Men (created by Mereilles and his co-director Kátia Lund). The film premiered out of competition in 2002 at the Cannes Film Festival and received mass critical acclaim upon its release. Both Time and Emire magazines placed City of God amongst their lists of top all-time films. City of God excels due to its fast-paced action and vibrant cinematography, though the film is anchored by its talented and diverse cast.

Rocket (Buscapé in the original Portuguese) is the narrator and protagonist of City of God. The film opens with him as a young boy in the 1960s who has aspirations of leaving the slums and becoming a photographer. It is through his narration that we hear the stories of the other characters in the film, including his brother Goose, and his friends Shaggy and Clipper. These three boys form a group, The Tender Trio, who steal from local businesses. One night, while trying to hold up a motel, an eager young boy named L'il Zé, kills all the occupants at the motel. Shaggy is later shot by the police and Goose is killed by L'il Zé. During the next decade Rocket befriends the "Hippies" and continues to be enamored by photography, and a beautiful young woman. L'il Zé, along with his childhood friend Benny, build their own drug empire and eliminate nearly every form of competition. Benny later decides to leave this world and disappear with his girlfriend. At the farewell party a girl refuses to dance with L'il Zé and he humiliates a peaceful man named Knockout Ned. This action leads to Benny being gunned down by a man named Blackie (trying to kill L'il Zé) and L'il Zé retaliates by raping Ned's girlfriend and killing his brother and uncle. An arms war ensues between the two sides and Rocket and his camera find himself in the middle of the fight.

With a large cast and a timeline that spans more than two decades, City of God is a complex film that never lets its fast-paced action get out of control. I found that the narration expertly linked the stories together, going as far as to introduce Knockout Ned and his peaceful ways early in the film before showing how violent he will eventually become. The film is not as violent as one would expect from the prevalent themes, but there are definitely some harrowing moments that have stuck with me. It is often very hard to watch films like this because it seems so foreign to me and yet I believe that these kind of people exist in the world. While City of God is not, in my opinion, Fernando Mereilles best work, it is a vibrant and compelling film that showed the world that he is a gifted filmmaker.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

Review: "La Mala Educación" (Bad Education)

There is not much left that can be said about Pedro Almodóvar and his films. I am trying to make my way through his films, though it is very difficult to find them for rental. La Mala Educación is his 2004 effort, sandwiched in between 2002's Academy Award-winning Hable Con Ella (Best Original Screenplay) and 2006's Volver (also Oscar nominated, Best Actress for Penélope Cruz). La Mala Educación was the official opening film of the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, making it the very first Spanish film to ever have that honour. One of the central themes of the film is sexual abuse and the inspiration is said to have come from the director's own past. Variety reports that Pedro Almodóvar spent ten years developing the screenplay because he had to get the story out of his system. Unlike many of his films, La Mala Educación features male actors in leading roles. What may link this film to Almodóvar's previous films is that one of the key roles is a transsexual, played by Gael Garcia Bernal.

The film's present is 1980 and Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez) is a successful film director. He is visited by a stranger (Gael Garcia Bernal) claiming to be a man named Ignacio (now preferring to be called Angel), who was Enrique's boyhood love while at a Catholic boarding school. Enrique does not believe him to be Ignacio, who has come looking for work as an actor. He presents Enrique with an autobiographical screenplay, detailing their youthful exploits and an attempt to gain revenge on Fr. Manolo (Daniel Giménez Cacho) who abused both boys physically and sexually. Angel tells Enrique that he will give him the screenplay on the condition that he play the role of Zahara, the transsexual lead character, which we learn is based on Ignacio. The film presents events from the past through flashbacks, showing the boys' love and affection for each other and the torment that Fr. Manolo cause. Enrique investigates the memories of his own past and discovers that Angel is Ignacio's brother Juan and that Ignacio has died. The only real mystery is what happened to Ignacio and who was involved.

La Mala Educación is a fantastically complex film that incorporates sexual abuse and murder mystery with the exquisite colour and imagery found in Almodóvar films. Gael Garnia Bernal, a Mexican actor who had to prove to Almodóvar that he could produce a convincing Catalan accent, has an incredible presence on screen that gives his characters a sense of versatility that is uncommon amongst most working actors today. The film draws comparisons to Almodóvar's most recent film, Los Abrazos Rotos (which starred Lluis Homar, who has a critical role in this film), in which a film within a film leads to solving a murder mystery. The acting in this film is superb, as is always the case in Almodóvar films, but the film belongs to Gael Garnia Bernal who plays three extremely different characters. Almodóvar has a wonderful sense of direction and the themes in his films are strong and vibrant, and La Mala Educación is no exception.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

03 March 2010

Review: "Jeux des Enfants" (Love Me If You Dare)

I have been watching quite a few foreign films lately, the most recent of which is Jeux des Enfants, a French film starring Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard. It is a story of childhood love that struggles to mature into adulthood. It is a film from 2003 that is directed by Yann Samuell, whose only other film is the English-language film My Sassy Girl (2003). It is interesting that Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard are now in a relationship, though their relationship began in 2007. The film features a soundtrack heavily influenced by Edith Piaf, and Marion Cotillard won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2008 for playing Edith Piaf in the film La Vie en Rose. Guillaume Canet has recently gone behind the camera, and he directed one of my favourite films from 2008, Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One), though it was originally released in France in 2006. While Jeux des Enfants could have been a traditional romantic comedy, the imagery in the film and the lead performances help make it a beautiful film that still resonates with me days after viewing it.

Julien Janiver (Canet) first meets Sophie Kowalsky (Cotillard) as a young boy. She is constantly teased for being a Polish immigrant. One day Julien approaches her and presents her with a beautifully decorated tin that was given to him by his mother. The two use the tin to engage in a game of dares: whoever has the tin forces the other to regain possession by performing any task. The tin is special to Julien because it belonged to his mother, who passes away shortly after Sophie enters his life. He has never had a good relationship with his father and is led to believe that he is responsible for his mother's death. Although he may not understand his son, Julien's father asks permission for Sophie to stay overnight with Julien. This continues well into college, though Sophie begins to realize that she is in love with Julien. The two seem destined for Romeo and Juliet tragedy, and Jeux des Enfants leads to an incredibly satisfying climax.

I was originally put off by the film's English title, Love Me If You Dare, though after viewing the film I understand its significance. The film uses beautiful imagery and symbolism to help viewers empathize with its heroes. I have never been a real fan of Marion Cotillard until I saw this film. Her acting was beautiful and effortless, and I found myself drawn to her character time and time again. Roger Ebert, my favourite critic, reviewed the film and said "By the end I didn't like them. Did I loathe them as people, or as characters? [...] What I do know is the movie is strangely frustrating, because Julien and Sophie choose misery and obsession as a lifestyle, and push far beyond reality." I have disagreed with him in the past, though I feel that this time that he was too harsh. I was invested in their relationship and I believe that their misery and obsession are directly related to their denial of not being together.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.