Where are the Benefits?

No Strings Attached ★★½
(USA, 108 min.)
Dir: Ivan Reitman; Writ: Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Olivia Thirlby, Ludacris, Cary Elwes.
Attention moviegoers: Judd Apatow wannabe alert! No Strings Attached, the latest “friends with benefits” comedy, stars Natalie Portman (she’s funny!) and Ashton Kutcher (he’s not…) as two friends, Emma and Adam, who’ve flirted with romance since their days at summer camp. Emma and Adam are now all grown up and do the mature thing by skipping love and simply having sex with no strings attached. Gee, where could that lead?


Prepared to be Scorched

Incendies ★★★★½
(Canada, 130 min.)
Written & directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Lubna Azabel, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard.
So many films rely upon the ideal that equates the discovery of truth with freedom. Incendies radically subverts this fairy tale ideology and suggests that truth is neither discernable, nor knowable, nor desirable. Based on the acclaimed play by Wajdi Mouada, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Incendies is a harrowing return journey through incomprehensibly dire politics and suffering.

The film offers two narratives, both of which send their protagonists on an emotionally draining odyssey. The present day story features twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan, played by Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette. Jeanne and Simon are in the process of reading the last will and testament of their mother. Their notary, and long-time friend Jean (Rémy Girard) offers them two letters from their mother: one is to be delivered to their father, the other to their brother. The existence of the two is a startling revelation for the twins, as neither received mention from their mother during her lifetime. Simon refuses to give in to his mother’s posthumous game, but Jeanne opts to search in hopes that meeting her father and brother will settle the troubles of the past. Her decision sends her to the Middle East, from which her mother fled during wars and political crises of the mid-1970’s.

The Days that We Have Seen

Another Year ★★★★★
(UK, 129 min.)
Written & directed by Mike Leigh
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, and Imelda Staunton.
It’s funny to review Another Year immediately after Blue Valentine. The latter film presents the exuberance of finding love, but it also depicts the difficulty in maintaining such interpersonal harmony forever. Another Year, on the other hand, proposes that finding love is a necessity.

Another Year, like Blue Valentine, focuses primarily on one couple: Tom and Gerri, played with jolly good humour by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, respectively. As the title of the film suggests, the story recounts another year in their marriage. Tom and Gerri seem quite happy together, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be: they are sweethearts from their university days, and both of them have found moderately successful jobs in which they’re happy (he’s a geologist and she’s a counsellor). More importantly, though, they have a grown-up son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), and they’ve grown old together making the best of things and enjoying life as a family. 


Love Hurts

Blue Valentine ★★★★
(USA, 112 min.)
Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams.
“You always hurt the ones you love,” goes the song in Blue Valentine. As Dean (Ryan Gosling) croons and plays the ukulele while Cindy (Michelle Williams) tap dances before a wooden heart that adorns a bridal boutique, Blue Valentine offers one of the cutest scenes of all movieland love stories. The story unfolds quite tragically, however, for Dean’s serenade appears roughly around the midpoint of the film. What frame the ballad are episodes from the beginning of Dean and Cindy’s relationship, as well as scenes from the present day of their marriage.

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance crosscuts between past and present throughout Blue Valentine, and the downward arc of Dean and Cindy’s relationship is absolutely devastating. The glimpses at their courtship offer plenty of tender moments that reveal a warm blossoming romance. In contrast, their relationship undergoes excessive strain in five years or so of marriage: their youthful bliss is overthrown by toxic pangs of jealousy, ignorance, and longing. When Cianfrance juxtaposes the two relationships, Blue Valentine embodies both the ecstasy of the sweetest love song and the sharp sting of Cupid’s arrow. The dissolution of their romance is painful, doubly so through the effective contrast.

Trailer for "The Conspirator"!

I always enjoy comparing how studios market a film after I've already seen itA trailer for Robert Redford's The Conspirator surfaced at Yahoo and gives a pretty good hint at what to expect. I saw the film at TIFF and liked it (Redford has reportedly tinkered with the film since). Either way, you can count me in for any awards campaign the studio runs for Best Cinematography!
Watch the trailer, see the film! The Conspirator debuts in theates on April 15.
The official site and Facebook page for the film are also up and running.


Oscar Nominations!!!

Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed the list of nominees for this year's Oscars. Last year's winner Mo'Nique joined Academy president Tom Sherak to unveil the nominees. The King's Speech leads with 12 nominations, followed by True Grit with 10, The Social Network and Inception with 8 apiece, and The Fighter with 7.  There are some surprises this morning...some good, some bad. The Best Supporting Actress category leaves me with mixed feelings: I'm thrilled that Jacki Weaver made the cut for her phenomenal work in Animal Kingdom. I'm annoyed, though, that Hailee Steinfeld is also nominated for True Grit - she's in 99.9% of the movie and the plot revolves around her. Steinfeld's category fraud means that worthier nominees missed out, but oh well...
Overall, the most noteworthy snub is Christopher Nolan from the Best Director list for Inception - WHAT?! I also thought The Town would be up for Best Picture. Let's not harp on the negative, though, and look and the good things: Black Swan has 5 nominations overall, and two Canadian movies are nominated: Incendies for Best Foreign Language film and Barney's Version for Best Makeup.

Best Picture
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

High Cost = Big Payoff

The High Cost of Living ★★★★
(Canada, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Deborah Chow
Starring: Zach Braff, Isabelle Blais, Patrick Labbé, Julian Lo, Aimee Lee.
I saw The High Cost of Living over the weekend as part of the “Canada’s Top Ten” series. The film stars Zach Braff as Henry Welles, an ex-pat American drug dealer living in Montreal. The High Cost of Living begins with an episode from Henry’s routine of lurking in dark alleys and seedy nightclubs, while placating frantic junkies and erratically driving around Montreal to meet the needs of his clients.

The opening features a parallel sequence that introduces Nathalie, played by Isabelle Blais, a native Quebecois who is extremely pregnant. That night, Nathalie experiences sharp pains and, in a moment of disorienting hysteria, she winds up in the middle of the road while searching for a ride to the hospital. At that fateful second, of course, the lives of Henry and Nathalie collide. 


Globe Winners!

The HFPA put on a decent show tonight. Ricky Gervais was also funny as the host, although I suspect he may be discovered in the trunk of a car by the night's end...As expected, The Social Network swept the Golden Globes with 4 wins including Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director for David Fincher. I'm very happy that Natalie Portman and Colin Firth won in the dramatic leads, and also with the wins for Carlos and the sensational Claire Danes in the Miniseries/ TV Movie Categories. The highlight of the night, however, was Paul Giamatti's Best Actor win for Barney's Version. Giamatti's performance is among my favorites of the year, and I expected Jake Gyllenhaal to take the prize for Love and Other Drugs. I'm also happy that Giamatti won because he gave a great speech that celebrated Canada - how nice to see Canadian film acknowledged for once!

As far as my predictions went, I did ok: I missed three, although two gaffs went to the nominee for whom I was rooting. The other was In a Better World for Best Foreign film, which I haven't had a chance to see. Winners after the cut.

Finally saw Carlos!

Carlos ★★★★½
(France/Germany, 165 min)
Dir: Olivier Assayas; Writ: Olivier Assayas & Dan Franck
Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Nora von Waldstatten, Ahmad Kaabour.
Just a quick one today (I need to cram in more reading before the Golden Globes tonight!) Actually, I can add another film to the “I’m rooting for list” – Carlos, the staggering crime epic by French mater Oliver Assayas. Carlos premiered at Cannes earlier this year, and there was considerable hype for Assayas’s film. Carlos originally runs at 330 min (5½ hours!) but it has also been released in a 165-minute theatrical cut, which I saw last night. (The complete version ran as a miniseries on IFC.)


Green Bees and Ham

The Green Hornet ★★
(USA, 119 min.)
Dir: Michel Gondry; Writ: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Christoph Waltz, Tom Wilkinson
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! Is that the sound of The Green Hornet buzzing into theatres to save the day? No! It is the sound of audiences, bored to death by this mindless superhero misfire.

Seth Rogen stars as Britt Reid, a drunken oaf who quickly assumes the role of the Green Hornet. Like most superheroes, Britt is an over privileged loner with daddy issues, but he gains some self-confidence by donning a mask and blowing shit up. The main problem with The Green Hornet is that Britt is neither hero nor anti-hero: he is just a fool. In films like Iron Man, the hero’s playboy antics are forgivable due to his unwavering desire to deliver justice. Alternatively, in films like the revamped Batman franchise, the interplay between good and evil is complicated by the fact that the hero possesses many of the same qualities as the foils he encounters. The Green Hornet, however, goes on an action spree just for the hell of it. Sure, the film tries to work Britt’s antics into a storyline about family honour and the integrity of the news media, but that all gets muddled during the Hornet’s incoherent rampage.


Golden Globe Picks and Predicts

The Golden Globes will be handed out this weekend, which means that Hollywood is officially entering the thick of Oscar Season. Do the Globes really matter, though? Well, yes and no. “No” because they are awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press, a group made up of approximately 80 critics who write for various trade publications. There aren’t any significant critics among the bunch (no Roger Eberts or Peter Travers); however, these folks have a bit of a reputation. They are the only group without a ban on favours, gifts, etc., which is something that studios and Sharon Stone often use to their advantage. The Globes, however, do matter because they offer the first awards seen by most of the public – since the Globes are the first to air on TV, the winners enjoy a higher degree of coverage and discussion, which usually results in a wider release and, therefore, more exposure and appreciation. That being said, in the past decade, only five films won both the GG and the Oscar: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, and Slumdog Millionaire.

How will the races shape up? Who knows? Part of what makes the Globes so enjoyable, regardless of their relevance, is their unpredictability – recall last year’s win of The Hangover over Julie & Julia, Nine, and (500) Days of Summer. This year should be exciting because there are several races that seem close. Which names are called might be predictable, but alternatively, some front-runners could be blind-sided by the competition (I promise to stop the Sandra Bullock jokes after this award season.)

My picks and predictions in the major film categories:

Two great movies open today!

Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Barney's Version
Opening in Ottawa today is the Canadian comedy Barney's Version. It's one of my favorite films of the year. Barney's Version plays at the AMC Kanata, the World Exchange Empire 7, and Silver City.

Also opening today at the Empire 7 is Rabbit Hole. I reviewed the film back at TIFF and was really impressed by it, especially so by the strength of Nicole Kidman's performance.

Finally, Enter the Void opens at the Bytowne today. As much as I like to support them, maybe you should just buy a bag of popcorn instead of a ticket....


Spike Lee at the CFC

To celebrate Black History Month, the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) offers an exciting conversation with acclaimed director Spike Lee. Not only has Lee produced some of the most important films about race in America (see Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X), but his innovative style and perseverance makes him a great role model for independent filmmakers. The CFC hosts the conversation on Tuesday, January 25th.The event will be moderated by Clement Virgo, director of films such as Poor Boy's Game and some episodes of HBO's The Wire. Virgo is also adapting Lawrence Hill's acclaimed novel The Book of Negroes, which is currently slated for a 2012 release.


Teardrops on My Guitar

Country Strong ★★★
(USA, 112 min)
Written and directed by Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester.
At approximately the same time last year, almost to this very day, Crazy Heart opened in wide release and treated audience to the performance of Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a down and out country star hoping to make a comeback. Twelve months later, Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Kelly Canter, a country star who has hit rock bottom after losing one fight too many to a flock of Wild Turkeys. Like Bad Blake, Kelly’s hoping for a return to fame and like Bad Blake (again…) she needs just one song to make things right.

The parallels between Country Strong and Crazy Heart are the largest impediments to the former film being a greater success. In terms of narrative, the films are not exactly twins, although the similarities are numerous: in Crazy Heart, Blake falls for Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young reporter who seems too good for him. In Country Strong, Kelly’s beau is a young country star named Beau (played by Garrett Hedlund), whose innocent star-potential risks being corrupted by Kelly’s toxic alcoholism. Similarly, Crazy Heart features a symbolic subplot of Blake trying to make amends by caring for (and losing) Jean’s son, while Country Strong features a more heavy-handed thread in which Kelly cares for a wounded bird that she names Loretta Limb. The pace and look are roughly the same in both films as well, albeit somewhat slower and cruder this time around. Heck, even the font of the opening credits looks the same! Despite the numerous overlaps between the two, Country Strong can still be appreciated as more than a Dixie Chick redux of Scott Cooper’s 2009 film.


Coming Soon in 2011

Saoirse Ronan in Hanna
Happy New Year! With a New Year comes new movies. 2011 looks quite promising. There are still a few holdovers from TIFF, so I'm starting the year off with a bar that's been set pretty high by films like The Whistleblower, Last Night, The Housemaid. 2011 has new offerings by directors Robert Redford (whose The Conspirator is great!), Joe Wright (Hanna), Lone Scherfig (One Day), and Martin Scorsese, who tries out 3D with Hugo Cabret. This year also features the second film by Madonna (W.E.), as well as directorial debuts by Angelina Jolie and Vera Farmiga. We also get to start the year with some Oscar holdovers from 2010, as films like Another Year, Biutiful, and Incendies slowly make their way to a theatre near year.


Natalie and "Other Impossible Pursuits"

A few weeks ago, whilst reflecting on Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan, my sense of wonder returned to a question that arose in my mind when the Black Swan reviews began trickling in from TIFF and Venice: "What is going on with Love and Other Impossible Pursuits?" The early praise for Portman’s perf in Black Swan frequently attributed the crazy ballerina as her first lead role. Not true. 

I saw Love and Other Impossible Pursuits at TIFF 2009. At the screening, I recall the MC and other patrons buzzing that Portman gave an impressive turn in the film and excelled in her first lead role, proving that she had grown up into a bona fide actress. As with Black Swan, the hype was true.