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Pelo malo (2013)
One of the Best Discoveries at Toronto
One of the hidden gems at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that really stayed with me is "Bad Hair", an observant character drama from Venezuela that studies poverty and gender norms. I think if you love contemporary indie dramas like "Raising Victor Vargas" and "Pariah", you'll love this one, too.
Junior is a 9-10ish yr-old boy who lives with his mom Marta and baby brother in a tenement building inhabited by the working poor. Marta is her own worst enemy, not being able to hold onto steady employment, and we soon see her losing her cleaning job at a rich woman's house when Junior is caught in the lady's jacuzzi when he was supposed to be cleaning it on a day when he's tagged along with her to work.
Desperate, she goes to great lengths to get her old security guard job back. Marta is a pretty hot woman, but she's been hardened by her circumstances, and takes things out on Junior, who is an easy target because he's not like most boys.
Junior is obsessed with straightening his hair. He dances "funny". He holds long stares at the older teen boy who runs the little convenience stand outside their building. Why does he like that boy? "He has amazing eyes!". Not the right answer for mom, who feels responsible for the idea that her son is going down the gay path.
The movie observes their relationship with perception and sensitivity, with one honest scene building upon another. And those two lead performances are excellent. You never catch them acting, particularly by Samuel Lange as Junior, who has a very difficult task of suggesting things about gender and sexuality but in a way that a 10 yr-old doesn't quite understand yet.
This is a first-rate coming-of-age story, directed with assurance, with two performances that have stayed with me all week. Wonderful film. Should make it to the art-house circuit by next spring.
Django Unchained (2012)
The truth is that it drags and the violence gets generic.
My favorite quality of a Tarantino movie is that somehow he gets me to care about the characters while the narrative is filled with irony treading upon satire, but never crossing the line.
Another reason why I think he's so great is that he has a way with violence. A lot of people were shocked and appalled by "Pulp Fiction" because we really felt those kills. It meant something when they happened.
Same with Bridget Fonda's kill in "Jackie Brown". Absolutely stunning moment.
My problem with "Django Unchained" is that the violence becomes generic. I can't believe I just wrote that. I couldn't believe I thought that about three-quarters of the way in.
The joy of this movie is in that first hour with Christoph Waltz using his quick wits to get out of two huge jams. His charms are so effective that we let it go that it would be totally implausible for him and Django to have gotten out of those two pickles alive.
And then the movie appears to be building us up to some kind of payoff that just isn't satisfying. It just sort of goes the way of most spaghetti westerns, with tons of people getting shot up real good, instead of being turned on its head in usual QT fashion.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the generic, cartoonish violence towards the end is that we're not fully invested in Django as a character. Schultz is the character we gravitate towards and the only face we're watching up there no matter what shot he's in. Django never breaks free from being just a mythical creature of sorts.
I thought Kerry Washington was wasted.
I'm sorry, but this movie just doesn't have the gathering power from scene to scene the way "Pulp Fiction", "Jackie Brown" or the two Kill Bills did.
This is OK QT, not great QT.
Bad 25 (2012)
It's no "This Is It", but it'll do.
"This Is It" spoils us. It will no doubt go down as the film that got the closest to MJ's process and work habits.
That film makes "Bad 25" look especially like second-hand news, as an array of musicians, technicians, sound engineers and others weigh in on MJ's follow-up to the still-reigning highest-selling album of all time in "Thriller".
One by one, the songs on Bad are broken down into the stories of how they came to be produced, while it is noted throughout that at that point in his adulthood, MJ was becoming a savvy businessman.
I especially like the stuff from those who knew MJ at the time of the recording, while hangers-on Justin Bieber, Kanye, and Chris Brown all received boos at the Toronto screening during TIFF.
In "This Is It" we get right up close to the King of Pop, so having a doc with a bunch of people telling us about him just doesn't resonate as fully, and to my surprise, there is a lot of talking in this movie compared with the amount of music in it.
This is not a bad movie. It made me nostalgic for my youth and to want to hear these songs in full. And of course, MJ's passing has only increased the shivers I get when I hear that choir go, "man in the mirruh!", but as far as music docs go, this is pretty much par for the course.
At Any Price (2012)
Less About a Payoff; More a Thoughtful Study About American Values
From my thoughts about the film in my special Toronto coverage.
At Any Price
Iranian-American helmer Ramin Bahrani is fascinated with slices of American life that most Hollywood films today ignore. In his first three efforts, shot on shoe-string budgets in a neo-realist style familiar to fans of Middle East films of the past decade or so, we get absorbed into the everyday minutiae of his characters. There was the Middle East immigrant in New York City who runs his gift shop stand in Man Push Cart (2006), that resourceful Latino street orphan who works on a scrap-metal row behind old Shea Stadium in Queens in Chop Shop (2007), and the African cabbie in Goodbye Solo (2008).
At Any Price finds Bahrani exchanging neo-realism for a classic American style familiar to a bygone Hollywood era that produced Breaking Away (1979) and Silkwood (1983), while keeping intact his curiosity with everyday American life. Set in present-day Iowa with a pulse on our tense economic times, we follow enterprising farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid, in what may be his best performance), a tragic character who now secures the Willy Loman place in American movies that had been occupied for some time by Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham in American Beauty (1999).
Whipple, as he loves to remind us, is the largest seller of seeds in seven Iowa counties, second only to Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown). His eldest son Grant, who he idealizes, is off mountain-climbing in the Andes while his party-boy younger son Dean (Zac Efron) races cars, leaving dad and mom (a powerful, understated Kim Dickens) to run the family business.
A rich and textured story, this movie is less about building to a payoff than it is a soul-searching study of modern American values. What is astonishing is how Bahrani sees the glory of America and the trouble with her all at a level gaze. There may not be a better-directed sequence in American movies this year than one that takes place here at a race track where all of the major characters are assembled, singing the national anthem. Beneath its raw, physical appeal is a fundamental question about the price that is paid in the soul for winning at all costs at the detriment of your neighbor. This is a great American film.
The Revolution WILL Be Televised!
What a captivating film this is. Gael Garcia Bernal is good as usual, an actor who just keeps getting better and better, in this movie that shows the campaign that ousted Pinochet from office from the p.o.v. of the ad guys who tailored each side's messages.
Good PR work that frames the debate and sets the narrative for the campaign wins political campaigns.
The movie is thoughtful, funny, absorbing. Quality all around. You don't need to know anything about Chile to get swept up by it, and if there are details you want to know, you can go read about it afterwards.
I especially liked that it looked like a documentary video and a time- capsule from that era. It seamlessly mixes stock footage with filmed stuff to give it a dated look.
Gangster Exchange (2010)
A really stupid Canadian movie that is assembled from the wreckage of other bad movies that think they're so clever but really aren't.
Russell isn't Tom Cruise. Maybe he'd be good enough as Cruise's stunt double? He's just another himbo.
I hate that crap like this seems to get made so easily while good movies have to suffer an exhausting process of getting greenlit because of all the morons in the world today.
Eating candy and making out in the dark while ignoring this movie is the only reason it should be on around you.
The buddy cop thing can work depending on the talents of its actors, but these are all stand-in types who appear to have been promoted into leads.
There are good Canadian movies out there, so skip this one.
Mother and Child (2009)
Pitch Perfect & Sensitively Directed
Caught this one at TIFF, and it was one of the best movies of the festival. Rodrigo Garcia directed "Nine Lives", which may be familiar to some audiences. That one was from 2005 and wove together a series of short vignettes. Garcia has a wonderful sensibility at portraying female characters in that one, and in "Mother & Child" he builds upon it even further as the movie centers around the theme of adoption and how it affects three adult women, played by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, and Kerri Washington.
I suppose this will get the "chick flick" label upon it's release, but for any lover of good dramas with characters you can sink your teeth into, that shouldn't matter, and besides, when did it become unfashionable for grown men to see movies with attractive female stars in them? There isn't a false moment or a scene that doesn't ring true, and I found myself so involved in the particularities of all the characters we meet that it no longer mattered to me what happened next, it was more interesting to get inside the shoes and take a walk inside the lives of these characters, so well fleshed out by all the stars here. So many big movies from America often feature adults behaving like children, and so it's ultimately refreshing and quite moving to follow the characters in "Mother & Child" who are going through very adult problems and acting like adults throughout, even if sometimes they fall or crack or are flawed.
I think Bening and Watts, playing two very complicated and difficult women, should be nominated for Oscars. This movie takes material that could have been dumbed down and made into a TV movie of the week, but instead Rodrigo Garcia elevates the film by really listening to his characters. A wonderful movie, not just for women, but for all adults who like good movies, and for all film-goers who especially like "hyperlink" movies, that is, movies that deal with a multitude of characters while letting each of them take the wheel of the car. Terrific.
As Deeply Powerful A Psychological Drama As You'll Ever See
The Rwandan genocide has spawned a number of good films, from the docs "Shake Hands With The Devil" to "Hotel Rwanda", but none as personal and intimate and horrifying as this one.
"The Day God Walked Away" has two things going for it: a striking performance by singer Ruth Nirere as the Tutsi woman Jacqueline, and the direction by first-timer Philippe Van Leeuw that steers clear of commentary and simply shows. Jacqueline works as a domestic for a Belgium family, and in the film's opening scenes we see them preparing to flee the country as the looting and violence draws closer. Jacqueline is sent hiding in the attic in a scene that uses sound so disturbingly well to paint a picture of what's happening outside that the dread grips us and never lets us go. From then on we follow Jacqueline on her odyssey through the countryside, where she discovers the remains of her dead children, sleeps in forests, nurses a wounded man of her own tribe back to health, is fired upon by local Hutu militants.
But the movie is about so much more than those simple plot details. At it's heart it is a film not so much about a victim of unimaginable cruelty and indignity so much as it is about a proud and brave woman who wills herself to endure and rise above the madness, the despair, the nightmare of being terrorized. Ruth Nirere, like Charlize Theron in "Monster" or Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" or Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry", gives us one of those inspired performances that never once reminds us that we're actually watching an actor at work.
"The Day God Walked Away" is gut-wrenching and inspiring, and it takes just the right approach by seeing the genocide through the eyes of one character. This movie deserves to go on the final list of films nominated for best foreign language film.
One Week (2008)
Neither Fish Nor Fowl
"One Week" tries to be so many things, that it never settles down to do one of those things very well. It's a disease-of-the-week flick/relationship drama/road movie.
In a road movie, we've come to expect that the lead will meet an assorted cast of characters, mostly salt-of-the-earth types who impart wisdom on the hero and to the viewers. In "Into the Wild", there was genuine feeling in the sequences with the hippie couple and the old man, and when the kid decided not to make love to the girl, it rang true.
But in "One Week", the characters we meet on the road are all sympathetic to the degree that we get to know them, but they aren't given anything to do in their scenes with Ben except mostly to exchange long meaningful glances. The sequence with the woman in the forest rings false. The lonely cowgirl is a character we want to get to know better, but the film once again drowns her out in it's self-pity.
I don't like movies that are nudging me or begging me to like them every 2 minutes of the way, like a sad little puppy dog. "One Week" is like going on a date with someone who decides to talk more about how the date is going, than actually carrying on in the moment and experiencing the date, if you get what I mean.
I appreciate the wonderful Canadian scenery, even if the cinematography wasn't so good at times, and liked all of the actors too, but felt they were trapped in a screenplay that never really allowed them to step up and just be who they were, and it has everything to do with the movie not really knowing what it wants to be, except that it sort of wants to be "EVERYTHING" without succeeding at anything in particular.
I love movies that contain wisdom over "message" or "lessons", and for me, "Into the Wild" is a far richer journey, and "Wit" is a hundred times more wise and headstrong about terminal illnesses.
"One Week" is not a bad film, just an unfocused drama that drowns in self-pity.
Oh yes, and Tim Horton's deserves a good send-up. The one in this movie simply falls flat.
More Of An Exercise Than An Experience
I hate to be the resident party-pooper, but I was left feeling cold by the end. For me, the gimmick wore off and I was left with a bunch of really sad lives, particularly the leads.
The entire relationship left me puzzled. I don't know about you, dear reader, but when they first meet and he looks 70 something and she's about 7, I just sort of felt that was awkward and not right.
There is some nice humor sprinkled all throughout, particularly from the aged residents of that house, and with the early scenes that introduce us to Benjamin. But as the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy transforms in the second half, it was harder to accept this big block of Hollywood cheese. Their scenes as they begin to get closer in age started to feel strained to me. There is a scene where Benjamin visits Daisy in New York, and it's just stilted and forced.
I really wanted to care more about this film, but I feel like it was more an interesting exercise than a real experience that leaves us with something.
For me, a 6 is where movies go that I liked in some ways, but that are near misses, and all the thick laying on of melodrama and bittersweetness finally just did the picture in.