Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Expendables

The Expendables screens at Toronto Underground Cinema Friday, October 1st at 7:00pm, Saturday, October 2nd at 9:00pm, and Sunday, October 3rd at 7:00pm and 9:30pm.

The Expendables is a film that, much like last year's House of the Devil, should be released on VHS when it is made available for home viewing. It should come in one of those over sized cardboard boxes that MGM used to release all of their acquisitions from Cannon Films. I fear it might be the only box that could contain just what kind of awesomeness The Expendables has in store for the viewer.

By now, you have probably heard what everyone has said about the film; that it is a return to a straight up kind of action film that hasn't been around since the 1980s. I wouldn't necessarily go that far because I don't think those films ever stopped getting made and have been kept alive sporadically by people like Michael Bay and Tony Scott. I do have to say, however, that The Expendables is definitely the purest form of homage to those films that have such a special place in the heart of genre fans. The Expendables is quite simply a bunch of Rambos or a Delta Force thrown together to help out a country in need. It might be the simplest and most overused story template from the 1980s action filmmaker's handbook, but it is pretty effective and very easy to play with. It doesn't need to be rigidly adhered to at all times.

But also, and this is something that upon initial analysis that I think a lot of people missed, The Expendables is also far more progressive feeling than its 1980s counterparts. The rigidly right wing politics of writer/director Sylvester Stallone's earlier efforts (particularly Rambo III and Cobra) seem to be replaced by a far more humanist view of the world. This is a 1980s film made for a post 9/11 society, and damned if the changes don't end up working for the better. If this were the 1980s, it might have easily been one of the best action films of that decade. As for the one we just entered, it is going to be a tough one to beat.

Stallone plays Barney Ross, a leader of former soldiers turned mercenaries for hire, who is propositioned by a government spook (Bruce Willis) to assassinate the dictator of a small South American island rich in natural resources that the U.S. could use (read: exploit for fun and profit). It also appears that the dictator is in the pocket of a wealthy ex-CIA agent (Eric Roberts, who excels at sleaze) who is pushing the ruling class in the country to rule by fear, not in the traditional 80s fashion that states that Communism was a bad thing, but in the new millennium way of showing a dictator that simply wants to keep everything for himself no matter the cost to the country or its inhabitants. Oh, and Roberts has a right hand man quite aptly named Paine (Steve Austin).

Barney assembles his team with the help of logistics expert/tattoo artist extraordinaire Tool (Mickey Rourke). The team includes a close range weapons expert (Jason Statham), a hand to hand combat master (Jet Li), a grunt (Randy Couture), a high calibre weapons specialist (Terry Crews), and a drugged addled, more than half psychotic burn out (Dolph Lundgren). They all have ridiculous names. In typical 80s movie fashion, one of these men will betray Barney and his team, and it should end up being a surprise to no one. Once on the island they are aided by the daughter of the dictator named Sandra (Gisele Itie) who is leading the resistance because she understands that everyone around her father is simply using him.

Of course things go wrong and shit goes down. There wouldn't be a film if it didn't. But where the film seems oddly progressive is in a place where 1980s films sorely lacked. The Expendables has very strong female characters to balance out what should have been an all out testosterone festival. Sandra is a character that is very strong and you get the sense that she would carry on with or without the help of Barney's crew. In fact, Barney and his crew almost don't return to the island after their cover is blown, and he even acknowledges that while Sandra probably doesn't need help, they go back because they want to. There is also the matter of Statham's ex-girlfriend in the film (Charisma Carpenter) who is being abused by her current boyfriend. Punishing males who abuse women is a common 1980s motif, but in the films of that era the woman couldn't handle things on her own and the abuser was quite often a WASP-y type who wouldn't know how to be macho if Randy Savage gave him lessons. In this film, the abusers are the worst kind of douchebags in today's society: the fake macho men who buy Tapout shirts and think they can take anyone at any time. Needless to say, the payoff of this subplot is exactly what the audience would expect from such a film.

I could also express a few concerns about the film, but to take The Expendables to task for being unrealistic and chaotic (the editing in some sequences is downright atrocious, but Stallone has recently gone on record saying he is fixing this for the DVD release), but that would be like complaining that it rains occasionally. It is entirely counterproductive and if you wanted to talk about those problems you probably wouldn't be watching this film in the first place.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Make Believe

Make Believe screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Growing up I remember watching every David Copperfield and Penn and Teller special I could find on television. It wasn't necessarily because I was into magic at all. I really didn't have the dexterity or the drive to figure out the mechanics of it all. I really wanted to just see if I could figure out how the tricks worked on their own. Some were easier to figure out than others. After trying to figure out just how fake things were, I started to really like and appreciate magic. Magic and movies work on a similar level. The best magic and the best films have the power to surprise you. Make Believe, a documentary focusing on a teenage magic competition in Las Vegas, is one of those rare films that can combine both.

Make Believe focuses on 6 of the participants in the World Magic Seminar's Teen World Championships. Much like characters in any teen film, all of the different participants have vastly different personalities. Krystyn Lambert from Malibu, California is already largely a success in the magic world and juggles her magic alongside numerous extracurricular activities at school. Bill Koch from Chicago is as highly motivated as Krystyn and will settle for nothing more than excellence, even going as far as creating all the intricate props for his illusions himself. Siphiwe Fangase and Nkumbuzo Nkonyana are two friends studying at the College of Magic in South Africa while living in a place where they can get robbed on a daily basis. Derek McKee is a shy young man from Littleton, Colorado who wants to be a hometown hero and hones his skills by working in a magic shop. Hiroki Hara is a young man living quite literally in the middle of nowhere in Japan (the nearest store is an hour away) who taught himself magic simply by rewinding and slowing down a VHS tape repeatedly.

What works best about Make Believe is that it is the rare entertaining documentary where no one is made out to be a villain. The contestants all seem to get along most of the time and the only real tension in the film comes from the participants own personal reactions. These kids know what they want and they understand the hard work that goes into achieving their goals. From start to finish you generally care about the people on screen, which makes rooting for any of them going into the big finale all that much harder to do.

There aren't many films out there like Make Believe. It, much like magic, is simply there to entertain. What makes it stand out even more is that it is all real. This is a documentary meant to entertain. It isn't made to be a stuffed shirt expose about anything at all. It is simply great storytelling. Considering the state of documentaries these days I really can't think of a higher compliment. Make Believe is one of the best films of the year and one of the few films I have written about in this blog that the whole family can easily enjoy.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ****

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Bunraku screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Bunraku is a mess. That is the only phrase that keeps turning around in my head the more that I think about it. It is an entertaining mess at times, but it is still a mess. Bunraku is the kind of movie that is so needlessly convoluted that one gets the impression that even the writers stopped trying to make sense of it by about the halfway point and decided that the film needed to stick to its strong points: the action sequences that hold the movie together. Bunraku has great fight choreography, but it is so muddled in its message that I really could have cared less. Make me care why these people are fighting; don't simply show me fights for the sake of showing me fights.

To get an idea as to how jumbled and misguided Bunraku is, you need look no further than the opening title sequence. In fact, if you miss this sequence you are totally fucked. Do not even be 30 seconds late to a screening of Bunraku or you will be hopelessly lost for the remaining 117 minutes and 30 seconds of this overstuffed behemoth. The entire backstory of the world of Bunraku is explained over an admittedly awesome display of extra large origami puppetry. The only problem is that everything that is being said needs to be understood to comprehend the film and you can't pay attention to the visuals since without the voiceover (delivered by an equally awesome Mike Patton) you will have no clue in hell what is happening.

In fact, a lot of it is lost on me right now. A lot of it was lost on me then, but here is the gist. Bunraku (the title of which is never explained in the slightest) takes place in a world where guns have been outlawed and survival of the fittest reigns. The land is ruled by Nicola (Ron Perlman), a woodcutter (seriously) who has become the top assassin in all the land. Nicola is never seen by most of the peasants (I don't know, the movie never explains what the fuck Nicola is ruling to begin with) and is never without his trusty axe. In this land, anyone can challenge Nicola's reign and all challenges are met by Nicola's gang of hired killers, none of whom have names, just numbers.

Into this land come two strangers, both of whom have revenge on their minds. Yoshi (Asian singing sensation Gackt) is determined to win back his family's honour and fortune (I think, again, the film does a piss poor job of explaining things the first time you watch it) and a young man simply known as The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) who is there for his own mysterious reasons that will not be divulged until the final reel. At least Hartnett's character is as obtuse on the surface as the rest of the film tries not to be. Along the way they are helped by The Bartender (an utterly wasted but still decent Woody Harrelson) who also has a secret dark connection to Nicola, but instead of exploring it he is simply there to watch fights and drive our heroes around in a comically small car. Demi Moore is also in this film. Her role is so misplaced and half baked it isn't even worth mentioning in this review. It also goes absolutely nowhere. Moore's role in this film makes me madder and madder every time I think about it.

Bunraku is an over plotted clusterfuck drawn out over two hours with a fight scene roughly every 8 minutes. The fight scenes are pretty awesome and the production design is somewhere between delightfully cheesy low budget camp and actually well thought out. Bunraku also makes good use of samurai imagery and philosophy, but needlessly complicates matters by tying it all to a plot that makes no sense. What is even worse is that by the end, when you think everything is going to come together in an awesome conclusion, it instead races to an easily explained conclusion that makes the entire film a giant null set.

Bunraku could, and most probably will, resonate with indiscriminate fans of anime and revisionist westerns. I know a few people who have seen the film and actually love it, but mostly because it does have a "kick ass and take names later" swagger to it that some might find endearing. As a writer, though, I want to roundhouse kick this movie in the face. Really fucking hard.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ** (the extra star is really only for the fight sequences. Make no mistake. I do think this is a one star film going by everything else I have said about it. I also think the film might be cut down upon actual release, meaning I might give it a second shot.)

Let Me In

Let Me In screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Yeah, I know I am late with some of these. Just a lot of stuff going on. I am sure that all 15 or 20 of you that read this on a regular basis can forgive me. After all, this film still hasn't come out in theatres just yet and it isn't even booked to play at the Toronto Underground Cinema in the next few months. Don't worry. I will be getting back to those films later this week.

But first, there is the matter of the American remake. Not just Let Me In, but remakes in general of foreign films. It seems that there has been a trend in recent years to remake many foreign films almost immediately after their original forms have been released to no small amount of acclaim. One of the remakes that has caused the most rumblings from disgruntled fans would be this film; a remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In, that saw release in the U.S. and Canada no more than two years ago. Even if you asked Let Me In director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) he would have told you he thought it was a terrible idea to begin with as well.

Fortunately, Let Me In and Let the Right One In are both based on the same novel by John Lindqvist and it allows for both films to not feel as rigidly similar. Let Me In also manages to move the action from Europe to the New Mexico highlands without compromising any real sense of setting or atmosphere. I guess what I am trying to say is this:

1. If you love the original film or the book, Let Me In hits all the right notes in a respectful and well done manner, causing absolutely nothing you should complain too strenuously about.


2. It does this so well, that you begin to wonder if this film was really necessary at all despite how well made and entertaining it is when compared to the original.

Owen (Cody Smit-McPhee from The Road) is a socially awkward young boy living with his newly divorced mother in a housing project in 1980s Los Alamos, New Mexico. Owen spends most of his time being bullied, eating Now and Later candies, and spying on his neighbours through a telescope. One day his new neighbour catches his eye. It is a young girl (Kick Ass breakout star Chloe Moretz) and her silent, much older guardian (Richard Jenkins, again proving he just might be one of the most underrated actors of all time) who generally keep to themselves. Owen wants to strike up a friendship with this new girl, since it is quite apparent that Owen has no real friends of his own. The girl, Abby, wants nothing to do with a friendship at first, but her dark secret and past (and the fact that she might not even be a girl to begin with) forces a necessary bond between the two of them.

If you have seen the original film, you know every single beat this film is going to hit. With the exception of adding a beefed up presence for Abby's guardian and the enlarged police presence (headed by a detective played by an almost unrecognizable Elias Koteas), there is little new here. Abby turns out to be a vampire who doesn't hunt for her own food unless absolutely necessary or if threatened directly. Entire scenes play out almost beat for beat like the original, but they don't amp up the proceedings by adding more gore or trying for unusual shoehorning of Hollywood magic into the story.

This is both a good and a bad thing. Much like the Nightmare on Elm Street remake from earlier this year, it plows through mostly every iconic scene from the original with an almost workman like quality. It isn't a bad thing when you are remaking a good film, but it also sucks the tension out of anything you might have achieved by risking the pissing of people off by at least attempting a new direction.

Despite all of this, Let Me In still gets my vote for one of the best remakes I have seen in recent memory. The performances are top notch across the board, the technical achievement and visuals are small marvels, it is well written, and it doesn't damage the source material at all. But still, you have to wonder why even bother sometimes?

Rating (out of 4 stars): ***

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Promises Written In Water

Promises Written In Water screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Promises Written In Water is a Vincent Gallo film. Which is to say that its only aim is to please Vincent Gallo and no one else. In this sense, it is not unlike a David Lynch film, only Lynch has followers and Gallo is seen more as a crack pot who sells his sperm for a million dollars online and wishes cancer upon critics who hate his films. I don't like David Lynch and I have a very low tolerance for someone who is pretty much billed as a visual poet. So why would I bother seeing Gallo's latest film?

In truth, because I didn't think The Brown Bunny was as horrible as people made it out to be and because Buffalo 66 was genuinely decent.

This movie, unfortunately, I just didn't get. I kinda tried, but it simply annoyed me. The plot (what there is of it) centres around a hitman (played by Gallo) who agrees to carry out the last wishes of a dying woman, even going as far as taking a job as a funeral home attendant to make sure things go smoothly. Along the way, he learns about letting go and about how life works. I think. Some shit like that.

The term "hipster bullshit" is thrown around quite a bit these days, and it would be far too easy to lump Gallo in with them, but sadly the monicer really fits all too well. Half the audience was so full of themselves that they thought it was brilliant. The other half was simply there to openly heckle the film. I even admit to slow clapping audibly during the feature in a scene that was so repetative and pointless that I would rather have been watching The Room. And I fucking hate The Room.

But then again, a Vincent Gallo film is what it is. Is it particularly good? No. Did it serve a purpose? Not really. Did I feel anything from watching it? Maybe a bit sleepy, but thankful the film was only 75 minutes. Do I have anything nice to say about it? Yes. Visually the film is a small marvel. It was shot on 16mm and it looks great, serving the film quite well.

If you need a reason to see this film, see it as the art project that it clearly is. This is not a film. This is art in the purest (read: French) sense of the word. It is not meant to entertain or to even make someone think all that hard. It is simply meant to exist.

Side note: I have never seen more American Apparel, leg warmers, or ironic facial hair in a single room at the same time than this screening. I have a separate blog coming just listing the inane conversations I overheard while waiting in line to get into the screening.

Rating (out of 4 stars): *1/2

Friday, September 17, 2010

John Carpenter's The Ward

John Carpenter's The Ward screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday September 19th at 12:15pm at Scotiabank 1.

I'm glad that there is no trailer available for this film yet. You should also be glad if you really want to see this film. The Ward (I refuse to call it John Carpenter's The Ward simply because other than directing, Carpenter has NOTHING to do with the film, unlike every great film he has made) is a film that works best if seen cold. Because if I showed you any clips of this film, you wouldn't want to see it. I saw the movie cold and in hindsight I wish I hadn't seen it. So rarely has the term "career nadir" held so much weight. But hey, on the bright side, it's Carpenter's best film since Ghosts of Mars.

The Ward opens on a young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard) watching a house she just set on fire burn to the ground in the late 1960s. For this, Kristen is remanded to a mental hospital and placed under the care of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris). Dr. Stringer is apparently trying new forms of therapy on his patients, but we never really see anything new or cutting edge. It's really just everything you would see in a litany of other better films taking place in mental institutions. Luckily for us the one orderly who seems to work there (D.R. Anderson, who really has the only character I marginally thought was less annoying than the rest) isn't a pedophile or a rapist. Thankfully, the film has already provided us with a Nurse Ratchet character to make up for this gross oversight.

Naturally, the mental hospital is filled with other quirky (read: annoying and sterotypical to the point of offensiveness) characters, all of whom are haunted by the memory of a young woman named Alice who mysteriously disappeared and now appears to be haunting and killing the patients. The staff at the hospital somehow could care less that patients are disturbed by the same thing happening or that patients are dying. Kristen, naturally, seems to be the only crazy person sane enough to stop the madness.

The Ward is beyond fucking stupid. Not once is this rote genre piece ever exciting or engaging. It is PG rated (I'm not even joking about this) horror that wouldn't have any scares if it didn't crib from the litany of J-horror scares it manages to poach for its story. I would have fallen asleep out of sheer apathy if it wasn't for the fact that there is a pointless jump scare every five minutes that is punctuated by an ear shatteringly loud musical sting.

Carpenter is just a hired gun here, and other than showcasing some good technical abilities, it is a soulless film. It felt about as exciting as watching a clock, and given the advancements in clock technology these days watching the mechanics of a good clock seems far more interesting.

Then there is the matter of the ending. If you can't figure out the big twist ending to this film, you probably haven't watched any horror films in the last ten years. I am so tempted to spoil it, just to ensure that you don't want to see this film, but let me just end by saying two things. First, that it is quickly becoming one of the oldest tricks in the book, and second, that it never works. If you really want spoiler clues, just look in the tags section.

Rating (out of 4 stars): *

Everything Must Go

Everything Must Go screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week. It is currently seeking distribution.

Nick (Will Ferrell) is having a bad week. Nick just lost his job as a salesperson thanks to getting his employer involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit that may or may not be true. His wife has left him for good and locked him out of his house with all his personal belongings strewn about the front lawn. His neighbours want him out of their lives. A young boy (Christopher C.J. Wallace, son of the late Notorious B.I.G.) keeps circling his house on his bike because he is bored. Worst of all, Nick is a massive alcoholic and off the wagon in a big way; much to the chagrin of his best friend and A.A. sponsor (Michael Pena, who needs to be in more movies). Threatened with being arrested for vagrancy, Nick buys himself a few days thanks to a city by-law loophole stating that he can leave his stuff on the lawn provided that it is for a yard sale lasting no longer than five days.

Nick is forced to look at his life from outside his own home, and with the help of the young boy (who Nick is exploiting for cheap labour) and his new neighbour across the street, a pregnant woman waiting on her husband to actually show up (played by Rebecca Hall, who can also be seen at TIFF in The Town), Nick puts his life slowly into focus.

Everything Must Go is not your typical Will Ferrell film insomuch as he pisses his pants but it isn't played for laughs. It is simply tragic. This is probably Ferrell's best performance (although Stranger Than Fiction comes very close) as he embodies Nick with every defense mechanism that an alcoholic would have at their disposal: evasion, tactlessness, sadness, the ability to blame everyone but himself, etc. His eyes appear sunken in and the weather from sleeping on a chair on the lawn really takes its toll over the course of the film. The movie around him isn't perfect, but Ferrell is and the cast really keeps things grounded in a sense of reality.

Which leads me to the film's biggest problem: I don't buy it for a second and the film tries too hard to keep Nick on his lawn that it really makes no logical sense. I tried very hard to buy into the fact that this man could have lost everything so quickly and in the manner that he did. The biggest groan comes when Nick goes to the bank to find out he no longer has access to his account. The banker says since it is a joint account and somehow Nick's signature is on the stop payment form, he can't access any of the $45,000 that is rightfully his. We never know if Nick was dumb enough to have signed this and have no clue who did. When we arrive at a third act twist that isn't too hard to see coming, we might be incline to think that this character forged the signature, but why? Also, if his wife wanted him gone so badly, why leave everything on the lawn and absolutely no way to get rid of it all? If she was that pissed off, why not just throw it away? The movie is full of unanswerable questions and poorly thought out rifts in logic.

Despite it all, however, I am going to give this film a decent review because the performances and direction (from first time director Dan Rush) keep the film moving at a good pace and it is quite enjoyable if you can shut your brain off and not think about how none of this could ever happen in reality.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ***

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go screens as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, September 18th at 2:30pm at the Visa Screening Room (Elgin Theatre). It also opens in selected U.S. cities today.

It seems like it gets harder and harder to make faithful adaptations of great novels and not have someone complain about them. In our culture of ownership it seems like everyone has an opinion on how their favourite literary material be handled. Then everything devolves into hand wringing and nitpicking. Sadly, I am not immune to this. Never Let Me Go, from Howard's End writer Kazuo Ishiguro, is one of my favourite books of all time and one that I honestly thought would be pretty much unfilmable thanks to its alternate reality science fiction bent. Then I saw the trailer, which made me both ecstatic and upset at the same time. The trailer made the film look like it got the tone of the book correct, but it did something unforgivable: it gives the ENTIRE MOVIE AWAY.

But here it is anyway in hopes that you seek it out because it still remains one of the best films of the year.

Carey Mulligan, who keeps proving that An Education was not a fluke, stars as Kathy H., a young woman growing up at a boarding school in Hailsham, England with her best friend Ruth (Kiera Knightly) and her unrequited crush Tommy (future Spider-man Andrew Garfield) by her side from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. From the opening 30 minutes where we see the lead characters only as young children, we know something is not quite right in Hailsham. The school is closed off to the outside world almost completely and anyone who comes in from the outside looks at the children as if they are freaks. There are vigorous security measures in place to keep the children in place. Why all the security?

This is where it becomes apparent that Never Let Me Go is a tough film to market, but an easy book to sell people on. The big plot twist occurs at about the half hour point of the film when a Hailsham teacher (Sally Hawkins) tells the children that they are essentially human clones being farmed for their organs. This is a society where almost every congenital disease and debilitating virus is now more or less curable. Children are sent out to these farms and raised no differently than livestock.

As they age, Ruth and Tommy fall in love, much to the shier Kathy's chagrin. Kathy decides to become a carer, meaning she watched over those who begin to donate their organs in an effort to ease their pain and suffering. This also gives Kathy a few years reprieve from having to donate her own organs. Kathy can do nothing but sit back and watch her friends waste away until they die.

Never Let Me Go is not a happy story by any stretch of the imagination and it calls into question just what it means to be human. The acting across the board is top notch with Mulligan really standing out head and shoulders above the rest. Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) has also created what is probably the most visually arresting film of the year. The plot works well with his darker sensibilities and Romanek is great when it comes to finding menace in the mundane. The shots in this film are unlike anything I have ever seen, yet so beautifully simple and subdued. They are the kind of shots you can only truly appreciate if you have a love for the craft of filmmaking. The script does at times fail to address some of the plot's wonkier elements, but it gets everything about the book perfectly.

In short, Never Let Me Go is pretty blatant Oscar bait. It swings for the fences and succeeds. Unfortunately it is saddled with a marketing campaign that sadly panders to audiences that can no longer think for themselves. But, hey, if you like the trailer, you will love the film itself.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ***1/2

Monday, September 13, 2010

Vanishing on 7th Street

Vanishing on 7th Street shows as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday September 13th at 2:00pm at AMC 2.

It is kind of appropriate that I am writing this review in near total darkness with the exception of my computer screen. Appropriate since in Vanishing on 7th Street, the latest film from Session 9 and The Machinist director Brad Anderson, the only light you can trust is the one that you directly control.

In what appears to be a mass vanishing in the style of the rapture (or possibly worse), 4 Chicago residents (but really filmed in Detroit) try to make sense of why everyone disappeared when the lights turned off. It seems to be that the darkness is literally taking people away and leaving behind only their clothing. The days are getting shorter and shorter and no one seems to know when or if the sun will even rise again. In what seems like a likely scenario, 2 of the 4 people remaining behind have different theories as to what might have caused the black out. Paul (John Leguizamo) is a projectionist who believes there is a scientific explanation for the occurrence despite the math not adding up. Rosemary (Thandie Newton), who just lost her infant son, believes in a more biblical explanation. Meanwhile, Luke (Hayden Christensen) is a news reporter who believes that being proactive and looking out simply for what comes in front of them is the best way to react. The fourth survivor is a young child, played by Jacob Latimore, who's mother owns the generator powered bar they all hole up in while trying to unsuccessfully devise any sort of plan. Essentially the film is a zombie movie, only you can't see the zombies. The film even goes as far as to make the point that once the darkness takes you, you in turn become a part of the darkness.

Brad Anderson is a very competent filmmaker and the cast is more than up to the task. At times Anderson, however, seems to be restaging set pieces from Session 9 almost verbatim and anyone who has seen that film might not get as much mileage out of this one. The script courtesy of Anthony Jaswinski unfortunately hits some sour notes with moments that seem woefully out of place even in a story as ambiguous as this one. Still, it is a pretty engaging and genuinely creepy film. The production values are actually pretty good considering the microbudget it seems to have been shot on. It is much better viewed on a popcorn entertainment level than any sort of philosophical level, but if you are looking for a fast paced easily scary flick, you could do far worse.

Rating (out of 4 stars): **1/2

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Town

The Town screens at the Toronto International Film Festival this Saturday September 18th at the Visa Screening Room at the Elgin Theatre at 9:00pm. It is also in theatres everywhere this Friday, September 17th.

It seems like every other week there is a new heist movie in theatres. After a while they all begin to blend together and they feel like an imitation of a film that just came out a few weeks earlier. Thankfully Ben Affleck's newest directorial effort The Town doesn't exactly fall into that same trap. Instead, The Town follows more closely to the crime saga Heat than it does the recent glut of sub par smash and grab films. And if you are going to ape someone's style, you could do a lot worse than Michael Mann.

Ben Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a leader of a gang of Charlestown, Massachusetts bank robbers who get in over their heads during a bank robbery and take a bank manager hostage. The released hostage, Claire (Rebecca Hall), becomes a liability in the eyes of the gang's resident hot head Jimmy (Jeremy Renner) thanks to the fact that she lives relatively close to their Charlestown hideout. In order to prevent any intimidation or worse, Doug agrees to talk to and befriend Claire as a means of getting information, but he soon realizes he has feelings for her and he beings to doubt his dedication to a life of crime. Along the way, Doug not only has to deal with his younger brother Jimmy, but also with a tenacious FBI agent (Jon Hamm) and a money launderer/wheel greaser known simply as The Florist (Pete Postlthwaite).

The film works on a simple level. It only really aims to entertain the audience and it does it more often than not. Sure, the script (co-written in part by Academy Award winning writer Affleck) has some groan worthy moments, but the good vastly outweighs the bad. The direction is competent, the action scenes (including a wonderful shootout at Fenway Park) are very well done, and the cast, especially Renner and Hamm, are on top of their game.

I guess in a way it is a bit of a step back for Affleck after something like Gone, Baby, Gone, but this in no way means that The Town is a bad film or a disappointment. That also doesn't mean it sleepwalks its way through its proceedings, hitting every beat along the way. It is predictable, but fun. Sometimes that's all you need to have a really entertaining film.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ***

Boxing Gym

Boxing Gym screens as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday September 18th at 2:00pm at AMC 2.

Frederick Wiseman is a documentarian in the truest sense of the word. He is called by many as being the best director when it comes to the art of cinema verite. His films are always fascinating to watch, quite simply because he doesn't really direct much of anything at all. Wiseman simply points, shoots, and edits it together in a fashion that makes the most sense. His films are often titled after the institutions in which they take place. Boxing Gym is quite simply that: a film about a boxing gym in Austin, Texas and the melting pot of people that inhabit it.

Boxing Gym focuses on the people who see boxing as an art form rather than a bloodsport. Sure, people are there to train, but just as many are there to get in shape or children learning how to box instead of learning another form of martial arts. Along the way the viewer sees just how much training and hard work goes into being a boxer (the numerous different exercises are something to keep an eye out for). We also see the members talk about their daily lives; everything from a young man waiting to be sent to Iraq to the fall out from the Virgina Tech shooting (which occurred during the shooting of the film). There is even an intellectual semantic argument over the nature of analogies. These people are not the meatheads you would probably think about when you think of boxers. In fact, a point is made that people that come in trying to act hard and with a bad attitude never last more than a few weeks.

Wiseman is kind of an acquired taste, but I love the man's work. He simply allows actions to speak for themselves much like a writer leaves the words on the page just simply breathe. If you have not seen a Wiseman film, this one would be a good place to start. It's hard to say if any of his films are his "best." For documentaries, Wiseman films are about as real as they get.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ***

Trust (2010)

Trust screens as part of the Toronto International Film Festival one final time on Sunday September 19th at 9:00pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Sometimes we see an actor only as the character they have played for the longest. David Schwimmer is no exception. After ten seasons on the hit television show Friends and a few modest (read: under performing) theatrical releases, it seemed as if Schwimmer would never be able to shake the fact that he played everyone's favourite doormat, Ross. Even after directing a television film, several television episodes, and the Simon Pegg feature Run, Fatboy, Run, it still seemed as if no one really would take him seriously as a filmmaker.

Trust changes all of that because, quite simply, Trust is the best film of the year thus far. It is a film so unsettling that I don't think I could ever think of Schwimmer the same way again.

Annie Cameron (Liana Liberato) is your average everyday 15 year old girl. She has loving parents who sometimes seem less than attentive, a brother on the way to college, a younger sister who looks up to her, a spot on her high school volleyball team, and a crush on a kid she met online that lives halfway across the country.

Only this kid isn't a kid. He turns out to be a 40 year old serial pedophile who has been grooming Annie simply to get her into a hotel room and into bed with her. Following the incident, not only does Annie have to deal with her own personal pain and conflicting feelings (despite the obvious rape she believes that this man still truly has feelings for her), but her father, Will (Clive Owen), starts to suffer from the same sort of post traumatic stress that Annie is going through. Will's overbearing nature and desire to learn the true identity of the man who raped his daughter is slowly smothering Annie to the point of madness and driving his wife, Lynn (Catherine Keener), who simply wants to move on without obsessing over things, to the breaking point.

Schwimmer once worked as a volunteer for a rape crisis centre and his knowledge of the material shows through at every turn. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and lesser writers, Trust could have very easily veered unhealthily into preachy movie of the week territory or even worse into yet another Death Wish clone. No matter what the very misleading trailer might make you think, Trust is about as far from a Death Wish clone as you could possibly get. Trust doesn't need to have a sense of bloodlust since the emotion that it runs on is more than enough.

Trust also doesn't give any easy answers. The relationship between Annie and her father is so complex and their communication breakdown is so wonderfully conveyed that it reminded me just how much complex familial relationships have disappeared from mainstream films. The ending is so sadly plausible that it doesn't let the audience off the hook. Sure, there is some catharsis, but all of the characters still have a long way to go before there is any sense of closure. The final two scenes of this film made me openly weep and physically uncomfortable and have stuck with me long after the film ended.

As for performances, I will be very upset if Liana Liberato does not get any award nominations for her work here. I have never seen a teenage victim portrayed in a more tasteful light. Annie isn't a slow burn or an explosive stereotype; she is quite simply human and prone to wild mood swings the fit the character brilliantly. Clive Owen has also never been better. Will's indecision and obsession lead him to some very dark places and he ends up having the same fits his daughter has. Their relationship is one of the best I have ever seen committed to film. Catherine Keener is as wonderful as always and has joined the slowly growing list of actors I could watch recite the phone book.

Trust is a movie that is unflinching and uncomfortable, but it is meant to be. It is full of raw, real emotion that so many films lack. And if you had told me Ross from Friends would have made one of the best films of the year earlier in the week, I probably wouldn't have believed it. Trust is a must see worthy of my highest praises.

Rating (out of 4 stars): ****

Saturday, September 11, 2010

I'm Still Here

I'm Still Here screens as part of the Toronto International Film Festival at Varsity 8 on Saturday September 18th at 8:30pm.

The question of the reality behind Casey Affleck's new film I'm Still Here really doesn't seem like the important one to be asking. Regardless of the film being real or being a hoax, one thing is for certain: his subject's career is over and it seems like the man couldn't possibly care less.

For those that have been living under a rock or that don't simply care what character actors with multiple Oscar nominations do in their free time, I'm Still Here chronicles "the lost years" of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who walked away from acting to pursue a career as a rapper. Joaquin started performing quite terribly at nightclubs (mostly in the Miami area, which I assume despite being a party hub, is still more low key than trying to do it in New York or Los Angeles), shirked his duties for promoting his film Two Lovers, and tried to unsuccessfully get a recording contract.

I'm Still Here plays with the time line a bit. For instance, a lot of the film leads up to the David Letterman appearance that so many people know about, but most of the events in the film that precede it actually happened after his on air weirdness. We are also introduced to all the people that try to keep a person like Joaquin in business, like his long suffering and abuse taking assistants and agents, one of whom gets so fed up with being berated that he quite simply shits on Joaquin in his sleep. Affleck occasionally appears in his own film looking beleaguered and haggard, almost as if he has gotten in way over his head.

In terms of a review, this movie is essentially critic proof. Much like a slasher film or a real life train wreck you have already made up your mind in advance if you want to see it or not. All I can say really is that while it isn't very well made on a technical level (which Affleck chalks up to the fact that he tried to do everything himself when he probably shouldn't have, such as shooting and editing), it is a great film to watch despite being too long by what feels like half an hour or so. Affleck lingers on things for so long that it really does get tiresome no matter if it is real or not. Also, this is definitely not a movie for the squeamish. In terms of the hard core reputation that follows this film, I can safely say that all the rumors you have heard are true.

If it turns out that I'm Still Here is a hoax, it is a brilliant hoax. If it turns out the film is true, then Affleck (who is Phoenix's brother-in-law) has captured one of the rawest portraits of madness and out of control ego ever committed to film. Fake or not, Joaquin knows how to play the character of Joaquin no matter how sick he says he is of playing him in the opening sequence.

Personally, I come down on the hoax side of the debate, but with a little caveat. I think Phoenix genuinely did want to retire and probably wanted to stop acting. This film gives Phoenix the actor the perfect swan song. If he never does anything again, he will never be able to top this performance of brilliant anti-comedy. If it was all real, Phoenix not only will probably never get work again, but should also probably be admitted to numerous mental health institutions that could better work out just what kind of an asshole he really is.

Rating (out of four stars): ***1/2

Friday, September 10, 2010

Score: A Hockey Musical

Score: A Hockey Musical screens as part of the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday September 12th at Varsity 8. It was also the opening gala of TIFF.

I'm not technically Canadian and nor do I claim to be. I describe Canada as my adopted country and I think that goes both ways. Canada has taken me in and I have earned a lot of great opportunities by being here. As a film junkie there really are few places I could think of that are better than Toronto (or even British Columbia). Next to New York and Paris I can not think of a better film city. Sorry, Boston. You are my hometown, but are still a solid 4th place when it comes to filming locations. I simply love the area and the International Film Festival that takes place in T-Dot is one of the highlights of my year.

Which is why writing this review is going to be so hard for me.

Score: A Hockey Musical attempts to combine three things that I enjoy very much into one overstuffed package: hockey, musicals, and Canadian culture. Sadly, it is too light and too wrongheaded on the first count, too inept on the second, and way too overbearing on the third.

Enjoy this trailer, sponsored by Swiss Chalet:

Noah Reid stars as Farley Gordon, a hockey prodigy (in so much as he has never even tried playing on an organized level before) who is drafted straight out of homeschooling by the owner of the Brampton Blades (played by Stephen McHattie in a really fun performance and one of the film's highlights) to play for him. There are only three problems standing in Farley's quest for success: his peace loving activist parents can't stand the game (one of whom is played by a dazed looking Olivia Newton John; still looking like she is high off Xanadu to this day), Farley himself abhors the violent nature of the game and its fights, and he is neglecting the girl next door who pines for him (played by Allie MacDonald, showcasing the best musical chops and looks in the film).

I am a firm believer that you can make a musical about pretty much anything and make it work. If there is something in life that can not be expressed or enhanced through the use of music, I don't know what it is. Maybe in the hands of a filmmaker like Bruce MacDonald a film like this could have been a subversive musical masterpiece. Sadly, Michael McGowan, the man behind the equally Canadian and better-yet-still-very-flawed One Week, is not that director. When you make a musical you simply need to understand the dynamics of how one works at a basic level. McGowan is in way over his head. The actors don't seem to know where they are half the time, the stagings are far too intense for his skill level (and it shows), and the musical cues range from meh to downright sloppy. Next to an unfunny comedy (which despite a few laughs, this largely is) there is nothing sadder than a musical that falls flat on its face.

But that really doesn't seem like the biggest problem with the film. Maybe I am cynical to some degree, but Score doesn't feel so much like a film that gives the audience exactly what they want as it feel like a film that is downright pandering for affection. Do you remember the maple syrup and Michael Buble drenched closing ceremonies to the 2010 Winter Olympics? If you do and you enjoyed just how over-the-top in its Canadianism it was, then Score might be the greatest film you have ever seen. This is really the TIFF equivalent of those very ceremonies.

I can understand the concept of making a film about Canadians for Canadians. This is a film that will very likely never be heard from again after the festival and outside of its home country and to its credit it seems perfectly fine with that distinction. It can inspire a feeling of national pride in someone, and it would work much better if it was written explicitly for the ten year old child in all of us. Sadly, this film feels like it was written not for our inner child, but for an actual child. But then again, with all the innuendo in the film, it really doesn't seem fit for a child either. So who is this film really aimed at? The hockey really sucks. All the musical numbers sound the same. The leads try their best, but their director is in over his head. Worst of all, other than trying to pander to a general Canadian sense of identity, this is a film without a real audience. Even the lead character seems so named because it just might be the most stereotypically Canadian name ever.

On the other hand, I do have to praise one thing that Score gets absolutely correct, and that is the film's subtle digs at turning young athletes into overnight stars. Those scenes are the ones where Score is at its best. Hockey fans who decry the Sidney Crosby-ization of the sport will likely enjoy this element greatly. The rest, sadly, is only good as a mild diversion. It is background noise for kids and harried parents warming up after a long day of sledding, snowball fights, shinny, and things far more exciting to do in Canada than watching this movie.

Rating (out of 4 stars): **

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Where the heck have you been?

So as you might have noticed, I have just been swamped with work that hit around the time of FanExpo and really isn't letting up leading into TIFF. On top of that, I am scheduled to go in for major surgery on September 21st, which will put me out of comission for about a month, during which time someone else will take over this blog until I have healed up.

In the next week you can look forward to a recap of everything that happened at the Toronto Underground Cinema over the past few weeks, including appearances by Adam West, I Spit on Your Grave star Camille Keaton, a Nerdgasm comedy show, and the Toronto Indie Film Festival (some of the films and shorts will also be written about here as time permits). You can also find reviews for the 15 or so films I will be catching at TIFF starting tomorrow night with my thoughts on Score: A Hockey Musical and I'm Still Here. These reviews will be different in the sense that if they suck, I will actually be able to bash them instead of just saying nice things about the films played at the TUC.

Full disclosure: I have really only disliked one film that I have written about in here. If you go back through my phrasing of some of the pieces, I think you will find it pretty obvious which one it was.