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A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)
A collection of beautiful parts that don't quite add up to a whole
I wanted to like this. I really did. Natalie Portman's directorial debut taking on an epic Amos Oz novel about his early life set against the tale of the birth of the State of Israel should have been wonderful. Instead, it felt like a series of beautiful cinematic vignettes that didn't quite come together to form a cohesive narrative. The dramatic tension is missing. The motivations of Oz and his mother and father are not explained. A couple of political scenes inserted to give some context -- namely the scene with the Arab girl and her brother, and the scene where the UN vote is being read out -- feel clunky and not well linked to the more personal story being told. If I hadn't come into the movie already having a good grasp of the history of mandatory Palestine and Israel's early years, I feel I would have been totally lost, as so much was glossed over or not really explored. Moreover, the most interesting parts to me were those that explored Amos's relationship with his father, but Portman chose to focus the narrative on his enigmatic, struggling mother -- someone you get the sense that the boy himself never really understood. There are a lot of wonderful scenes here, but they don't really go anywhere. Haval.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Basically just one long chase scene
This movie is getting so much hype and buzz that people would have you believe it's Oscar-worthy. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I was bored after the first half hour. Zero character development, the barest minimum of backstory, a silly plot that is essentially one big U-turn, and no acting to speak of. All the bad guys are faceless and nameless, and the good guys aren't much better. It's like playing a shoot 'em up video game where you just go through scores and scores of identical bad guys, blow up lots of things, face off with the big boss, and rescue the princess(es) by the end. It takes summer blockbuster to a new low -- I mean, the special effect action movies tend to at least have some likable characters and a little bit of humour and maybe some decent one-liners, but this has none of the above. Unless you like watching two hours straight of things exploding, this isn't for you. Two stars for the beautiful Namibia scenery and one star for Charlize Theron, but that's it.
Toshokan sensô (2013)
Cute action film / romantic comedy, but falls down on the anti-censorship message
I saw this at Fantasia Festival here in Montreal. It was billed as a "warning cry against the excesses of censorship and a thrilling, high-powered action film." Well, it did a fairly decent job at the latter, but sort of fell down on the former.
I think Library Wars couldn't quite decide whether to be a light-hearted romantic comedy or an action movie with a cool urban backdrop. It attempted both, at times fairly well, interspersing shoot-em-up military action scenes and martial arts against a classic tale of a slightly inept heroine looking for her prince charming. There were plenty of funny moments in the romantic plot line, and the action sequences started slow but the pace picked up in the second half. So the movie, overall, was entertaining enough.
The thing is, entertaining doesn't necessarily mean smart. The whole premise of the movie didn't really stand up to much scrutiny. You had two ostensibly legal government forces fighting one another using military force, which was a bit of a head-scratcher. The dialogue and script were -- even allowing for a poor translation -- pretty cheesy. And for a movie supposedly set in a near-future in an alternate reality, there was next to no attention paid to world-building.
Most problematically, the movie claimed the turf of an important, highly relevant issue -- censorship -- and then relegated it to little more than a MacGuffin. After establishing the Library Defence Force as the good guys and the Media Betterment Committee as the bad guys, you basically have an old-fashioned western with white hats and black hats, and the issue they're fighting for is never explored or delved into in any way beyond that setup. They could have been fighting to protect anything and the plot would have been exactly the same. We never get the sense that books or the thoughts they contain matter to the storyline or to the message of the film.
Library Wars is based on a book, which I haven't read but can only assume spent more time developing some of these premises. As for the film, it was good for a few laughs, some charming (if exaggerated) comedic acting, and a few good action sequences. I could easily envision it being turned into a video game, with a female main character battling bad guys through library stacks.
But the film never quite rises to its subject matter. The issue of censorship has perhaps never been more topical, relevant or critical, and Library Wars doesn't really seem to have anything of importance to say about it, which is disappointing considering all that it could have been.
In Bruges (2008)
Dark comedy, great dialogue, fantastic setting, but not what you'd expect
Went to see it for the setting. Loved it for the dialogue. Wished it had just gone a bit further.
In Bruges is a dark comedy set in the beautiful medieval town of Bruges, Belgium, featuring an Irish duo of hit men who have been ordered by their boss to hide out there after a high-profile job in London went sour. Their instructions are to keep a low profile, sightsee, and generally avoid trouble until further notice.
But all is not as it seems.
The dialogue between Gleeson and Farrell is witty, delivered with perfect comic timing, zany, and a joy to watch. Farrell and the charming Clémence Poésy also have great chemistry and are fun to watch on screen. The humour is designed to make viewers uncomfortable, and succeeds remarkably on this count. If you're looking for political correctness, you won't find it here. What you will find are jabs at Americans, tourists, gays, blacks, whites, fat people, and oh yeah, midgets. As this odd assortment of characters mixes and mingles in the streets of Bruges, the tension builds.
And there's just enough of a psychological dark edge to keep things interesting. This is a comedy, yes, but it's by no means light and fluffy. This movie has been compared to The Big Hit or The Whole Nine Yards, but in fact, it's much, much darker. And in my opinion, that makes it better.
Shot entirely on location in Bruges, the backdrop is of course stunning. I originally went to see this knowing absolutely nothing about it other than the title, simply because, having visited Bruges, I couldn't resist an opportunity to see it on the big screen. Filmed in the wintertime and largely at night, Bruges itself is one of the stars of the movie. Like the other characters, it is not portrayed as light, airy, innocent or picturesque, the way it is in real life. Instead, its more haunting quality is captured elegantly on film, with a heavy mist giving the town a sort of eerie, dream-like quality.
So much of this movie was just right, and I highly recommend it to people who like twisted humour and aren't easily offended.
I have two issues with this film, however. The first is the score. The music is completely wrong for this movie, giving it a feel that doesn't work at all with the dark comedy tone. The melancholy, slow, stirring music would've worked nicely with a drama or a psychological period piece, but just seems out of place here.
The second issue is with the ending. Nope, I won't give it away. Suffice to say, I thought it was wrong, wrong, wrong. All wrong. Almost as though the author couldn't figure out what to do next or how to end this thing.
But overall, I really enjoyed In Bruges. It was wickedly funny, daringly different, and fantastically non-PC. And the shots of Bruges are wonderful. Despite what the main characters say about the place, Bruges is really quite wonderful. I suggest seeing both the movie and the city.
The School of Rock (2003)
Laughed till I cried, then came back for more
The true test of a great movie is one that, months or years after its release, has me watching it again and again. School of Rock is just such a movie.
It never pretends to be anything more than it is: a lighthearted, feel-good comedy, one of those teacher-inspires-kids plots with a twist, sort of a Sister Act II with Jack Black instead of Whoopi Goldberg (a vast improvement if you ask me). Nothing we haven't seen or heard before, but a great script, some enthusiasm, kids with actual talent, and Jack Black's natural zaniness make this movie work. And you know what? It's actually funny. As in, really, really funny.
Jack Black is one of those actors who you can just wind up and let go with a script, and he'll take it to a whole new level. His enthusiasm is contagious, and the audience gets as caught up in it as the kids. Joan Cusack is laugh-out-loud funny in her role as the foil/school principal. And the music ain't half bad either.
Okay, so the plot is unrealistic, the movie's about as deep as a frat boy, and there is very little to learn here about the human condition. But here's a movie that doesn't promise anything other than to entertain. And entertain it does.
When the book "Atonement" was getting so much buzz, I read it, expecting great things. What I was left with was a feeling of "is that all?" It was an okay book, even intriguing at times, with a nice use of language and description. But I felt it was a rather bloated, overlong way to make what is essentially a simple point: Don't lie.
That's probably why I didn't rush out to see the movie. But with all the Oscar buzz it was getting, I figured, why not? What works well as slow in a novel doesn't necessarily translate well to screen at the same slow pacing. A movie needs to have pacing, character development, something to hold attention. This just didn't do it. I thought the performances were just humdrum, even Keira Knightley, who has the ability to be so much better. The actresses playing Briony didn't accomplish much other than looking vaguely alike. And we never really get an opportunity to understand the romance between Cee and Robbie; it begins with a crude letter, peaks with one hasty sexual encounter, and then drops off into oblivion.
The direction, cinematography and musical score are all excellent, and I could spend all day watching the beautiful costumes and scenery. But I really found this movie merely mediocre overall. I can usually tell after exiting a movie theatre whether a movie will be one that I'll want to re-watch again and again. Atonement, I could instantly tell, would be a one-shot deal.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
A brilliant commentary on the American family
Little Miss Sunshine is about a girl who wants to be Miss America.
Well, sort of. Actually, it's really about a family that, despite consisting of the most messed-up cast of characters you might imagine, is actually relatively normal, in all the ways that count.
A father terrified of failure, especially his own. A grandfather who likes loose women, crude language, and heroin. A brother who has taken a vow of silence until he gets his dream of entering the air force academy. A gay scholarly uncle who, after a bad breakup, has recently attempted suicide. A harried mother trying to hold everyone together. And oh yeah, a remarkably and refreshingly unspoiled little girl, who dreams in her own innocent way of being Miss America. Pile them all into a bright yellow VW bus with a broken clutch - and horn - as they try to rush Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant and see what ensues.
What does unfold is not only pure comedic gold, but also a refreshing commentary on family, values and the hypocrisy of the world in general. Without revealing too much, the movie's ending exposes this hypocrisy in such a spot-on way that it has audiences leaping to their feet and cheering.
Way to go, Little Miss Sunshine! A must-see.
P.S. I Love You (2007)
Total tearjerker falsely billed as a romantic comedy
I saw this movie on a girls-night-out to the movies, and we chose it on the basis of the previews, which had billed it as a romantic comedy. Wow, were they ever wrong! The basic plot is this: Woman loses husband far too early and tragically. Woman grieves for husband, hard. Husband, through a plan pre-arranged before his death, sends woman letters at set intervals, each one causing a fresh stream of tears to fall.
The acting was great. Hillary Swank was particularly good in her role, and let us see her vulnerability and conflicting emotions. The supporting cast was all excellent, and ladies, there is more than enough male eye candy in this movie to go around.
But - and I strongly warn all of you considering this as a light comedy or a date movie - it's sad. Very very sad. Even the happy parts are sad. If you go see this, wear waterproof mascara and bring lots of tissues. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
A scathing attack on US foreign policy, disguised as comedy
Michael Moore, eat your heart out. You've got nothing' on Aaron Sorkin.
Most of the reviews I've read of this movie missed the point by a mile. I've read criticism of the movie for being too light-hearted, for glorifying a terrible war and being too cheeky with the consequences. And I have to wonder, were they watching the same movie? Or were they simply taking it at face value, failing to notice that the entire movie was a thinly-veiled parody? Charlie Wilson's War is about a corrupt, live-hard-party-harder congressman from Texas (Hanks) who embodies just about all the negative qualities of humanity we can imagine. He chases and objectifies women, nearly gets brought down in a drug scandal, and freely admits his love of politics stems from the realization he could manipulate people. It's a movie about how he became a hero by almost single-handedly funding and fighting a covert war in Afghanistan that ultimately drove out the Soviet Army and helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union. And though the characters in the movie celebrate this "achievement", the movie itself, emphatically, does not.
Hoffman, ironically, plays the voice of conscience. I say ironically, because he plays Gust Avrakotos, a corrupt, sardonic CIA agent who plays both sides and mostly encourages Wilson in his effort. But unlike Wilson, who, despite his smoothness, can be read as somewhat naive, Gust knows exactly what he is doing and seems to have a firm grasp of what the consequences could be. If anything, this makes him guiltier than Wilson, but he's also the only one to voice the film's true message aloud: "We'll see".
That zen master speech that Hoffman delivers at the end of the movie felt a bit heavy-handed to me. But then, maybe I overestimated the movie's audience. Because it seemed like it was tacked on at the end to spell out to anyone who was left wondering that the entire movie was a reference to the events that led up to 9/11, and the short-sightedness of America's involvement in wars all over the world that backfired. Reading outside comments and reviews, though, maybe the speech wasn't enough, because I have to wonder why so few people seem to get it.
A longtime fan of the West Wing, I have always admired Sorkin's lack of need to talk down to his audience. This movie might have struck the wrong balance: just smart enough to be witty, and just dumb enough to attract a massive audience more accustomed to Michael Moore-like, in-your-face criticism of foreign policy, rather than the light touch chosen here. That's why I believe this film has had such a hard time finding its audience.
Of the two approaches, I still vastly prefer this one, though. A Moore film is poorly-researched, underhanded manipulative cheese, and I freely admit I can't stand the guy. But Charlie Wilson's War, despite its brief pandering to its far-left audience (was it really necessary to perpetuate the stereotypes about Jewish money and influence in Congress, Sorkin?) pulls off something neater, cleaner, and far more intelligent. When Wilson, who mostly plays his way through life, gets his heartstrings tugged by the refugees in Peshawar, it's not an appeal to the sympathy of the audience that we're witnessing, but rather, the cheap tactics that utterly sway a man so naive that he asks for alcohol from the president of Pakistan. Wilson, we are drawn to understand, is living proof why a little bit of knowledge - with a lack of perspective - can be a dangerous thing. Was it really Charlie Wilson's War? Or was it the war of those who manipulated Wilson to encourage the US short-sighted approach whereby the enemy of the enemy is (falsely and disastrously) considered to be a friend?
The acting, of course, was spot-on. Hanks and Hoffman both nailed their roles to a T, and what's more, they were a real pleasure to watch on screen. Amy Adams does a great job with her role. The one person I felt was miscast was Julia Roberts. She was playing the ultimate symbol of everything this movie disagreed with, but she seemed too young and tentative to really pull it off. I would've liked to see someone else in her role.
That aside, this is a fine film, with excellent dialogue and some real food for thought. I recommend it to those who can open their eyes enough to understand what is really being said here. 7/10.
Le scaphandre et le papillon (2007)
Moving. Inspiring. Haunting. Heartbreaking. A must-see.
This is the story of a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby. Editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, father, lover, friend, dreamer and writer. Oh, and did I mention, after an attack, completely paralyzed except in his left eye, which he used to painstakingly blink out the words of an entire book (on which this movie is based). His intact mind a prisoner of his broken body, Bauby tries to hold on, get his voice across, and dares to ask the question brought up by a character early on: What is it that makes us human? This beautifully acted, directed and imagined movie brings Bauby's own experienced to screen, using vast imagery to bring the dreams of the author to vivid life on screen. The nuanced performances of the entire cast are top notch. And the cinematography in every scene, whether on a beach, in the French countryside, the streets of Paris seen sideways, or a hospital bed, is just stunning.
It's about the death of a man, yes. But it's also about the triumph of the human spirit. And like most of the best stories, it's absolutely true.
Moving. Inspiring. Haunting. Heartbreaking. A must-see.