Happy Canada Day!!!

In celebration of July 1st and all things Canadian, here are 10 Canuck must-sees (in alphabetical order) if you’re looking to lie down and recover following the fireworks and festivities:

1. Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007)

Sarah Polley’s 2007 feature debut is a thing of beauty. Set against the snowy landscape is a tale of fading romance as Fiona (Julie Christie) suffers from Alzheimer’s and begins to lose her memory of her marriage to Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Pinsent and Christie give remarkable performances while Sarah Polley offers one of the best and most comprehensive portrayals of mental illness onscreen. Away From Her is sad and touching, but it is ultimately moving and uplifting.


Review: Knight and Day ★★

Knight and Day (USA, 110 min)
Dir: James Mangold; Writ: Patrick O'Neill.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano.
Makin’ movies is a risky business. Just ask Tom Cruise. Cruise, once the top megastar of Hollywood blockbusters and acclaimed awards baiting dramas, is now scraping the barrel in an attempt to resurrect a once-thriving career. It’s hard to sympathize with Cruise because his fall was due to his own reckless antics and not some career damaging bomb à la Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. This is frustrating because Cruise has always been a likable actor. He’s proven himself a great action hero in films like Mission: Impossible and Minority Report, and he’s delivered deep mature performances in films like Born the Fourth of July, Collateral, and The Last Samurai. He should have won the Oscar for Magnolia.

Unfortunately, if Cruise wants to make a comeback, Knight and Day probably wasn’t the best choice of project. Knight and Day, a fairly mindless action comedy, is by no mean’s an “actor’s movie.” The film mostly consists of stylized car chases and overly choreographed shoot-outs. In the hands of director James Mangold, whose haphazard resume includes Walk the Line, Identity, and 3:10 to Yuma, Knight and Day is almost a mechanical exercise in genre. Despite throwing in an assortment of explosive action sequences in an array of exotic locales, Knight and Day never really attempts to do anything new.


Review: The Square ★★★★

The Square (Australia, 105min)
Dir: Nash Edgerton
Starring: David Roberts, Claire van der Boom, Anthony Hayes, Joel Edgerton.

Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom) are having an affair. We know this because The Square opens with a couple rapidly going at it in the back seat of a car. Since there’s another car parked beside it, at the spot tucked away under the bridge, it’s obvious this is not a married couple that has pulled over for a quickie.

Both go home to their partners: Ray’s wife, Martha (Lucy Bell) is neither as young nor as sexy as Carla, but she is a sweet woman. Carla, however, returns home to find her husband, Smithy (Anthony Hayes), cleaning blood off himself. Smithy’s a rather dubious character, so Carla immediately pokes around the house and finds a bag full of cash that he’s hidden in the ceiling.


Academy invites!

Awardsdaily offers the full list of Hollywood's (mostly) finest who were invited to become the newest members of the Academy. Among the acting nominees are Mo'Nique and Gabby Sidibe from Precious, Christoph Waltz, Carey Mulligan, Saoirse Ronan, and (yay!) Vera Farmiga. (Also included are some head-scratching choices like Adam Sandler and Ryan Reynolds). Other names on the list are Lee Daniels and Geoffery Fletcher (Precious) and directors Lone Scherfig (An Education) and Jacques Audiard (A Prophet).

Congrats to all! May they have the good sense not to nominate The Blind Side 2 for Best Picutre this year.

RIP Tracy Wright

When I opened the Ottawa Citizen this morning, I was saddened to read that Canadian actress Tracy Wright passed away on Tuesday after her battle with cancer. Wright was 50.

Although Wright mostly found success on stage, she did have several memorable film roles. Her role as David Cronenberg's oddball secretary in 1998's Last Night (pictured) is one of the film's highlights. Last Night was directed by Don McKellar, Wright's husband. Wright also appeared in "Twitch City" and Miranda July's Me, and You, and Everyone We Know.

Tracy Wright completed filming of Bruce McDonald's Trigger in February. The film is expected to premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival and should be a nice tribute to the actress.


Review: Year of the Carnivore ★★★★

Year of the Carnivore (Canada, 88 min)
Written and directed by Sook-Yin Lee
Starring: Cristin Milioti, Mark Rendall, Linda Uyehara Hoffman, Sheila McCarthy, Will Sasso.
Sex in a Canadian film? And it isn’t Quebecois? How’d that happen?

No, I’m not talking about David Cronenberg’s Crash or Atom Egoyan’s Chloe. Rather, there’s a brave new filmmaker on the Canadian film scene: Sook-Yin Lee, the CBC Radio host and former Much Music VJ. Year of the Carnivore isn’t Lee’s first foray into film, but it is her feature debut. Lee previously contributed to the 2008 anthology film Toronto Stories, in which her segment, “The Brazilian”, was really the only part of the film that was worth seeing.

Lee is probably most famous for her performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s sexually charged film Shortbus (which I’ll admit, I still haven’t seen). As she did in “The Brazilian”, which, you may guess, was about a girl working herself up the courage to get a Brazilian wax, Lee delivers a frank and humorous look at sexuality in Year of the Carnivore.


Naughty Puppets Delight!

Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing Avenue Q at the NAC (thanks for the tickets Live 88.5!). Avenue Q is a hilariously raucous satire of all the useless things you were taught while growing up. The show features a group of naughty puppets that are residents of Avenue Q, which is kind of like the decrepit version of Sesame Street. The newest tenant is Princeton, who arrives in the Big City full of dreams and ambition. Unfortunately, Princeton has only a useless Arts degree and, therefore, no marketable skills (this sounds familiar). He soon finds himself amongst the many other puppets and people searching for their purpose in life.

Oscars in January?!

Ryan Adams at Awardsdaily reports that the AMPAS has discussed moving the Academy Awards to January. This means that studios will have less time to market their 'prestige picutres' and smaller films won't have the ability to gain momentum/exposure from the pre-Oscars awards circuit. Furthermore, awards such as the Golden Globes, SAG, etc may all seem redundant because they are largely viewed as precursors to the Oscars. The worst part, I think, is that the average moviegoer won't have seen many of the nominated films unless studios dramatically alter their release patterns.

A terrible, terrible idea!


Happy Birthday, Meryl Streep!

Meryl Streep turns 61 today - proof that some things do get better with age.


Adaptation Series 1.2: Eat, Pray, Love

Imagine yourself in a park. It’s a beautiful green oasis full of flowers and trees. It’s a warm 22 degrees and a nice breeze is blowing in from the pond. Now imagine that you are meditating in this park. As the peacefulness engulfs you, you slip into an early state of tranquility and your body relaxes. Now imagine that your serenity is interrupted by a crew of jackhammers working in the adjacent roadway. Despite the disturbance, you try to ease back into your state of inner harmony. Although you breathe deeply and count backwards from ten, you find yourself unable to regain your bliss because of the incessant intrusions, which reverberate in your head long after they’ve stopped.
    Such is the task of enjoying Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert recounts her one-year voyage of self-discovery. Gilbert had consecutive four-month visits to Italy, India, and Indonesia – or, as Gilbert astutely (and ominously) dubs, “the three I’s.” While regaling us with her newfound path to enlightenment, Gilbert basically takes a cue from Malibu Stacy and advises us to just forget all our troubles with a nice big bowl of strawberry ice cream – sorry, gelato.


RIP José Saramago 1922-2010

The New York Times reports the death of acclaimed Portuguese author José Saramago. Saramago's publicist offered no details about the author's death, but he is known to have been in very poor health the past few years. José Saramago is probably my favorite author. He had a unique, lucid, and original writing style that offered profound descriptions of ordinary human beings and he made it all thoroughly enjoyable with his playfully colloquial language. Saramago is probably most famous for his novel Blindness, which was made into a 2008 film starring Julianne Moore. In fact, Saramago was too ill to attend the Cannes premiere of Blindness, so director Fernando Meirelles flew to Lisbon and personally screened the film for him. Saramago also wrote celebrated novels including The Cave, Death With Interruptions, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and Seeing, a follow-up to Blindness. Saramago also wrote the controversial 1992 fictionalization of Jesus Christ, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which depicted Christ in a relationship with Mary Magdalene. In 1998, Saramago was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

José  Saramago’s final novel, The Elephant’s Journey, will be released in bookstores August 11.


Review: Micmacs ★★½

Micmacs (France, 105min)
Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Danny Boon, André Dussollier, Julie Ferrier, Nicolas Marié, and Yolande Moreau.

Micmacs, the latest effort from French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is a disappointment if there ever was one. Jeunet’s previous films, Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, were both enchanting features that displayed the director’s trademark peculiarity. Jeunet’s films are all filled with oddball characters and erratic visual motifs, and their originality was much of the films’ charm. In 2001’s Amélie, Amélie is a whimsical heroine with a wandering imagination, so the film benefited from the inclusion of bizarre aesthetics and a strange kinetic energy. Jeunet put similar embellishments on his adaptation of Sébastien Japrisot’s novel A Very Long Engagement and, like Amélie, the film had a quirky extravagant magic that blended well with the story. Micmacs, however, has the same flair for oddities, yet it all has an ugly macabre feel to it. Whereas Amélie’s idiosyncrasies were an essential part of her character, Bazil, the protagonist of Micmacs, seems eccentric just for the sake of it.

Bazil, played by Danny Boon (Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis), is a lonely clerk who gets shot in the head when a high speed car chase end in an frenzied shootout outside his Parisian video store. During his operation, the doctors are perplexed as to how to operate: if they remove the bullet, Bazil could become the vegetable; if they leave it in, he’ll be fine, but he could die at any moment. The doctors do the most logical thing – they flip a coin and leave it to fate.


All on a Mardi Gras Day

Treme \tr'ə-mā\ n 1. A borough of the Mid-City district area of New Orleans. 2. An HBO drama series from Eric Overmeyer and David Simon, co-creator of The Wire 3. The best new show on television.
This Sunday marks the season finale of Treme, which is easily the best new show on television. Treme takes place in New Orleans in the early months after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The series follows several residents of the Treme, one of the more ravaged areas of the city, as they return home and rebuild their lives.

One storyline depicts Janette (Deadwood's Kim Dickens) an acclaimed chef whose house and restaurant were all but gutted by Katrina. To pick herself up, Janette puts all her resources into reviving her once successful restaurant. Although her bistro is often filled to capacity with diners who rave about the food, Janette is so in debt from Katrina that she can barely afford to pay her suppliers, let alone her staff. To worsen her circumstances, Janette leaves her restaurant only to return to a home that is little more than exposed two-by-fours and wires. While Janette is continually beat-down by the hard times of New Orleans, her casual boyfriend Davis (Steve Zahn) is fed up with the government’s lack of response and begins a farcical bid for city council. Enlisting the equally impatient citizens of his constituency, Davis runs a “Davis Can Save Us” campaign by recording a new spin of “Shame, Shame, Shame” that articulates the frustration of New Orleansians. Not surprisingly, the song catches on.


Review: The Secret in Their Eyes ★★★½

The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina, 127 min)
Dir: Juan José Campanella

Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Guillermo Francella.

A mix of thriller and romance, The Secret in Their Eyes is both frustrating and fantastic. The film has a split narrative and weaves between past and present. Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) is a retired police officer haunted by an old case. He thus aspires to solve the case that has long perplexed him by transcribing it into a novel. Esposito visits his old coworker, Irene (Soledad Villamil), because he thinks she may be able to fill in some unanswered questions since they have never discussed the case directly. Esposito also harbors feelings for Irene and perhaps the greatest mystery of The Secret in Their Eyes is which dilemma has troubled him more for the past two decades.

    As Irene and Benjamin begin to discuss the case, the film flashes back to when Benjamin first landed it. The case is a brutal rape and murder of a young girl, Liliana (Carlo Quevedo). Benjamin quickly befriends Lilana’s husband, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago), who offers some personal insights that lead Benjamin to the chief suspect. The greatest flaw with The Secret in the Eyes is that the suspect is identified within the first fifteen minutes or so, and since the present-day narrative acknowledges that this man, Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino), was in fact the killer, the thriller aspect of the film is rather flat. Furthermore, Benjamin arrives at his conclusion of Gomez’s guilt too conveniently to be satisfying: when looking at old photos of Liliana with Morales, Benjamin notices Gomez lurking in the background of several photos and staring at Liliana with longing eyes.


Review: Get Him to the Greek ★★★½

Get Him to the Greek (USA, 109 min)
Dir: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Rose Byrne, P. Diddy, Elisabeth Moss.
All hail Russell Brand! Not only is the British comedian the best thing about Get Him to the Greek, he promises to be one of the funniest new talents in Hollywood today. Get Him to the Greek opens with a hilarious sequence that introduces Brand’s rocker Aldous Snow as his band, Infant Sorrow, releases a new record called African Child. In the provocative music video for African Child, Snow and his girlfriend, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), tromp about with malnourished African children in a song for aid. The record is quickly a failure both commercially and critically, with several people calling it the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid or AIDS.
    The music video sequence, coupled with Snow’s subsequent breakdown and break-up with Jackie, is an extremely funny spoof on celebrity self-indulgence. In an interview with an Entertainment Tonight-type show, Snow refers to himself as “a White African Space Jesus”, and in another, a drunken Jackie pulls a Britney while she trashes their relationship. Brand and Byrne pull off the audacious humor with such deadpan delivery it’s almost scary, and Brand in particular is so fearlessly over the top that his doofus rocker is just about the best thing on the fake music scene since Spinal Tap.


Adaptation Series 1.1: Barney's Version

One of my favorite movie-related pastimes is to check which upcoming films are based upon novels and then read the books before the film is released. I always enjoy seeing how filmmakers adapt diverse works to the screen and I am frequently intrigued as to why some adaptations fail to match their predecessor while other films excel beyond the source material and create the most beautiful and exhilaratingly cinematic experiences. I think the best page-to-screen triumphs of recent years are Joe Wright’s brilliant envisioning of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, and Precious, Lee Daniel’s visceral yet uplifting drama based on the novel Push by Sapphire, a novel whose poetic/Ebonics prose must have been extremely difficult to condense into a coherent screenplay (a task that screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher executed brilliantly). 2010 has several big screen adaptations that look promising, some of which I’ve already read the source material, namely Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Niki Caro’s gorgeous interpretation of Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck, which my brother and I had the fortune to attend the world premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. I hope to make this a regular series in which I discuss a literary work in the context of its upcoming production. I’ll begin with one I’m particularly keen for: Barney’s Version.


Review: Mother and Child ★★★★

Mother and Child (USA, 125 min)
Written and directed by Rodrigo García.
Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits.
“Blood is important, but it’s the time spent together that really matters,” says Lucy (Kerry Washington) in one of the opening scenes of Mother and Child. Lucy’s statement is repeated again during the film, and the sentiment becomes the constant conflict throughout. Mother and Child follows three women in different states of motherhood and childhood. Karen (Annette Bening) is a physical therapist who lives with her aging mother. There’s a coldness between the two that stems from Karen’s youth: Karen gave birth at fourteen and her mother forced her to give the child up for adoption. The trauma of losing her child has eaten away at Karen throughout the years. She is now a distant and often difficult woman, and she is consumed with guilt for missing out on her daughter’s life. Karen frequently writes letters to her daughter, but cannot bring herself to send them for fear her daughter may be equally bitter.


Review: Ondine ★★★★

Ondine (Ireland/USA, 111 min)
Written & directed by Neil Jordan
Starring: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea.

I saw Ondine at TIFF last fall. The film opened in limited release on June 4th and is worth seeking out. Colin Farrell stars as Syracuse, an Irish fisherman who snags a rare catch in his net: a woman. The young woman is frightened and disoriented, so Syracuse brings her back to his home to rest. Once she has recuperated, the woman, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), befriends Syracuse and his daughter Annie (Alison Barry). Ondine becomes a long-term guest in the household, especially when she turns out to be Syracuse's good luck charm on fishing trips. Whenever Ondine joins Syracuse on his boat, she keeps him company by singing; however, each time Ondine sings, Syracuse catches hoards of fish.
   Annie's interest in Ondine's power convinces her that Ondine is a selkie, a mermaid-like sea creature of Irish folklore. Ondine is thus very much a fairy tale, especially once Syracuse takes a romantic interest in Ondine. Like most fairy tales, Ondine takes a dark turn, and the sense of danger propels the film into a spectacular romantic thriller.


Review: Splice ★★★★

Splice (Canada/USA/France, 104min)
Dir: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Sarah Polley, Adrien Brody, Delphine Chanéac
A smart exercise in genre-splicing, Splice deftly combines elements of science fiction and horror to deliver an intriguing and innovative experience. The film begins in the vein of philosophical sci-fi films like Contact or Gattaca and soon evolves into a super-contemplative take on Frankenstein or Rosemary's Baby. In Splice, Dr. Frankenstein and Rosemary are replaced by Clive and Elsa, played by Adrien Brody and Canadian actress Sarah Polley.
Clive and Elsa are a research team on the verge of a scientific breakthrough in gene-splicing. Having been commissioned by a pharmaceutical company to create hybrid species in order to investigate new ways of combating human diseases, the couple's research is put at a standstill when their financiers order them to mine the commercial aspects of their endeavors rather than the scientific ones. Dejected at having come so close, yet so far, Elsa persuades Clive to help her continue their research in secret. The pair thus begins to doctor a new species by splicing it with human DNA. The trial is a success and the couple soon has a new breed in their lab.


Review: Sex and the City 2 ★★★

Sex and the City 2 (USA, 146 min)
Written & Directed by Michael Patrick King
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattral, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, and Chris Noth.

When "Sex and the City" aired on TV, I never watched the show and dismissed it as mindless girly fluff. When my brother and sister began watching the show regularly on DVD, I watched the occasional episode and was pleasantly surprised by how smartly “Sex and the City” looked at love and relationships. While I still haven't watched the series in its entirety, I must admit that my early assumptions about the show were way off the mark. So, when the first Sex and the City movie premiered in 2008, I was keen to see it and had my brother/friends fill me in on what happened in the show's final season. I really liked the first movie, although the ending basically undid everything that I thought the film did best: one of my problems with the series was that although it dealt with friendship, work, and family, I felt that it often advocated that one needs to be in a romantic relationship in order to truly be happy. Throughout the first film, I really liked how it depicted the four women coming into their own independently or as friends, but when Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) got back with Big at the end, I felt duped. Despite my quibbles about the ending, the first film did justice to what I thought of the show: it was far more substantial than the average chick-flick.

"Must See" Cinema!

Monday night, I had the pleasure of seeing The Red Shoes for the first time. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes is the story of Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a young ballerina who gains stardom when she lands the lead role in her ballet company’s ambitious new production, a bold re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Red Shoes”. The ballet is about a girl whose dream of becoming a dancer comes true when a mysterious shoemaker gives her a pair of red ballet slippers. The shoes transform the girl into a brilliant performer, except her fate takes cruel turn when the shoes decide they want to keep dancing and they force the ballerina to dance until her death. The narrative of The Red Shoes plays with Andersen’s fairy tale, as Victoria’s own career is similarly cursed by “The Red Shoes”. Released in 1948, the film was a huge success and a landmark film in terms of British cinema permeating the North American market. The Red Shoes is also noteworthy as an early Technicolor film and its striking color scheme will doubtlessly intoxicate any moviegoer. The centerpiece of the film is the spectacular performance of “The Red Shoes” itself, a silent fifteen-minute ballet sequence. The ballet number features breathtaking visual compositions and innovating editing skills that invest Victoria’s motivation and psychology into her performance. The Red Shoes deserves the legacy it has earned and is truly a must-see for anyone interested in classic cinema.


The 'Best' in Pictures

As I said in my first post, I recently completed my goal of seeing every Best Picture Oscar winner. As I scratched that item off my mental bucket list, I wish I had gone through the films à la Julie Powell, and written about them as I went through them chronologically. But fortunately, one of my friends was going through the list as well, so I always had someone with whom I could discuss the films and/or trade copies of the ones either of us needed to see (it was also funny how frequently we disagreed about some of the movies).

   Part of what made this a worthwhile film project was discovering how much some of these noteworthy cultural texts are not easily available. While all but two of the films have legitimate DVD releases (1933's Cavalcade and Wings, the first winner, are not available), many of them are hard to find. Their lack of availability in video stores probably stems from merchants being forced to reduce their stock of older films as they make room for Blu-Ray and gaming sections. Finding some of the older titles actually made this a lot more fun than I expected it to be, as I spent hours digging through second hand record stores to acquire some necessary titles. E-bay is also a great resource to find the Oscar winners, and I found it quite a novelty receiving sketchy Korean import versions of Wings and The Life of Emile Zola in the mail.
   Overall, most of the films I screened are worthy of holding the title of “Oscar Winner”. However, during the course of watching the films, I often made an effort to see other films that were nominated, and more often than not, I found that the Best Picture Winner was rarely the strongest film released in its respective year.

Anyways, here are my picks for the ten best Best Picture Winners:

1. Annie Hall (D: Woody Allen, 1977) Many fanboys quibble over the fact that Annie Hall bested Star Wars, but never has Oscar gotten it so right. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen blends his trademark portrayal of the neuroses of love and romance with a sharply satirical take on contemporary America. Inspired by the real-life relationship between Allen and Diane Keaton (Keaton's real name is Diane Hall), Annie Hall is one of the best examples of art imitating life, and the personal nature of the material allowed Allen to graduate to making more mature films from the humorous sex-comedies of his early career. Not only is Annie Hall still Allen's strongest film to date, it's still the best comedy ever made.