Turn that Crowne Upside-Down!

Larry Crowne ★★★
(USA, 99 min.)
Dir: Tom Hanks; Writ: Tom Hanks, Nia Vardalos
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson, George Takei, Bryan Cranston, Pam Grier.
Need some knowledge? Get yourself to college! That’s the pat version of the lesson learned by title character Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) in this persistently likeable comedy. When the heartless suits at U-Mart give hard-working Larry the sack because he lacks higher education, Larry heads off to community college to further his career before his outstanding debt with the bank dips even farther into the red. At school, Larry tries to improve his social skills by enrolling in a class called “The Art of Informal Conversation.” Armed with a positive outlook, a fuel-efficient scooter bike, and a new friend Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Larry has already bettered himself by the first day of school. Learning can be fun, it seems. 


We're Halfway There!

Midnight in Paris is tops, but what else should be remembered come the year's end?

Well, we have approached the midpoint of 2011: how have the movies fared so far? Not bad. It’s been a good year for movies, but not a great one at this point. That could end up being a good thing, since the Randy Newman Fan Club once again switched the rules for Best Picture, changing the fixed number of ten nominees to a flexible range of five to ten. Regardless of the Academy’s potentially flawed system, a few gems should be remembered come December. Midnight in Paris, for example, is not only the best film to hit theatres thus far in 2011, but it’s also one of the Woodman’s best. Even though he doesn’t care about awards, it would be nice to see Woody in the Best Picture race, since it’s been 25 years since one of his films was up for the top prize (Hannah and Her Sisters). 

Like Midnight in Paris, Many of the other strong offerings of 2011 have been smaller productions; however, a few Hollywood hits really delivered (e.g. Bridesmaids). There are also some strong films looming in the release schedule, such as The Whistleblower and Project Nim, but I have omitted them from the lists because they have not yet had their theatrical release. They’ll surely be cited at the year’s end, though.

While the number of great films this year has been limited, I struggled to whittle this list down to ten. A few titles – The High Cost of Living, Glorious 39, and Somewhere – just missed the cut, but no amount of juggling could omit another film and yield a satisfactory ten. Anyways, here are my picks for the best films and performances for films released so far in 2011. ***One further caveat, Tree of Life has yet to open in Ottawa …feel free to rub it in.
So, in alphabetical order, the Top Ten films so far in 2011 are...


Miriam, Miriam, My Heart's Desire

In many ways the exemplary Canadian film, Barney’s Version rolls onto DVD and Blu-Ray today, just in time for July 1st. I reviewed the film back in December and loved it; however, after re-reading the novel this summer, I even more impressed by how well screenwriter Michael Konyves adapted Mordecai Richler’s gargantuan complex novel. Barney’s Version is a rare gems that fully captures the spirit of the novel. 


Send Me to Detention!

Bad Teacher ★★★½
(USA, 92 min.)
Dir: Jake Kasdan; Writ: Gene Stupnitsky, Lee Eisenberg.
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith.
Cameron Diaz earns herself a gold star for Bad Teacher, but some of the off-screen talent from the film might have fared better had they done their homework in film school. As Elizabeth Halsey, the naughty, hard-drinkin’, crack-smokin’, foul-mouthed schoolteacher, Diaz gives one of her funniest performances in quite some time. (It’s nice to see Cameron Diaz back in top form after a string of supporting roles in misfires like Knight and Day and The Green Hornet.) Bad Teacher might not be There’s Something About Mary, but like the raunchy 1998 hit, Diaz makes the film far better than it should have been.


Woody, je t'aime

Midnight in Paris ★★★★★
(Spain/USA, 94 min.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Corey Stoll, and Carla Bruni.
When Woody Allen unveiled Match Point in 2005, it seemed blasphemous that the cinema’s most devout New Yorker had made a film set in London. The result, as the Brits might say, had Allen come up smelling of roses: Match Point proved to be the Woodman’s comeback and subsequent films continued Allen’s European adventure much to the appeal of his devout fans. Allen’s latest stop finds him in Paris, and it’s a shame that Allen did not venture there earlier, as the Parisian cityscape seems ideally catered to the trademarks of his oeuvre: Paris suits his work just as well as Manhattan ever did in his best films of the Seventies. I think I enjoyed Midnight in Paris just as much as Julia Child liked butter. The joy of watching Midnight in Paris could be outmatched only by the experience of being in the great city itself, perhaps sitting on the patio of some small brasserie by the Seine, spreading pâté de foie gras onto a baguette while enjoying a healthy glass of Bordeaux and the sights, sounds and smells of Paris (the aroma of the city is a great mix of fresh bread, cigarettes, and dog poo … ah, Paris!).



Trailer: A Dangerous Method

The trailer for David Cronenberg's new film A Dangerous Method launched today on the film's website. It looks brilliant. Really hope this screens during my available days at TIFF!

High School: The Prime Suffering Years

The Art of Getting By
(USA, 84 min.)
Written & directed by Gavin Wiesen
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Rita Wilson, Elizabeth Reiser, Alicia Silverstone, Blair Underwood.
"High school, those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that."
-Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), Little Miss Sunshine
The Art of Getting By is a teen comedy so riddled with self-loathing know-it-alls that it makes me wish I could resurrect the body of John Hughes just so I could punch him in the face. The film obviously draws much inspiration from the offbeat comedies of the eighties and nineties that inspired young people everywhere to stand up and proclaim, “I am a unique and original person!” This feature debut by writer/director Gavin Wiesen, however, forgoes all the feel-good funniness of the Hughes films and instead aligns itself within the exclusive cinematic canon of films like Gigli, The Next Best Thing and, most appropriately, Kazaam due to the unspeakable badness of its male star.


Sorry Woody!

Exciting news! Midnight in Paris, the new Woody Allen movie, finally makes its way to Ottawa after a few weeks of booming success in major markets. Woody's my favourite director working today, and word on Midnight in Paris is that it's one of his best films in years. And of course I decided to go to Toronto this weekend.


Midnight in Paris plays at The Bytowne, the AMC Kanata, and Silver City. Since I can't make it out this weekend, please throw a few bucks in Woody's direction - and tell me how the movie is!!!


Timmy Fell Down the Well?

Super 8 ★★★
(USA, 112 min.)
Written and directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Bosso, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich.
Super 8 sounds like a match made in movie heaven. In the director’s chair is J.J. Abrams, helmer of the solid Star Trek reboot and the electrifying Cloverfield, which took the tried and tested Godzilla-style attack and turned it into something new by shooting it through the point of view of a handheld digital camera. Adding extra credit and awe to Super 8 is producer Steven Spielberg. One could call Spielberg the granddaddy of the summer movie extravaganza: not only did he deliver the first official blockbuster of all-time – Jaws – but he also made the entrancing extraterrestrial film ET, a film whose endearing charm still resonates with audiences today. Considering that Super 8 is a big screen adventure that puts at its heart a child’s fascination with the magic of movies, then why doesn’t the dream team combination of Abrams and Spielberg yield a more satisfactory result?


Pinocchio's Nose Grows and Grows

Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs) ★★★½
(France, 154 min.)
Written and directed by Guillaume Canet.
Starring: Marion Cotillard, François Cluzet, Gilles Lelouche, Benoit Magimel, Valerie Bonneton.
Take two plants and place them by the windowsill. Give each plant equal amounts of water and, if necessary, some plant food. After, take one plant and give it some good vibes: tell it it’s pretty, or comment on how well it’s growing. Do the opposite to the other plant: lie to it; tell it that it’s ugly and that it will never amount to nothing.

 According to the tales of old wives, the first plant should blossom thanks to all the positive energy, but the other plant should wither and perish. In Little White Lies, writer/director Guillaume Canet swaps the plants for two jars of rice, but he still provides a nice metaphor for all the seemingly innocent untruths that the friends tell one another to keep up appearances. These little white lies eventually plant seeds of doubt in the friends’ minds, and risk disintegrating the group.


X-Men: The Sophomore Series

X-Men: First Class ★★★½
(USA, 132 min.)
Dir: Matthew Vaughn; Writ: Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaugh, Story by Bryan Singer & Sheldon Turner.
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byre, Nicholas Hoult, and January Jones.
After the disappointment of Pirates 4 and Hangover 2, X-Men: First Class proves that a franchise film can still be a good film. Instead of continuing where the third X-Men left off, First Class starts at the beginning à la Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in order to explore the origins of the characters from the first trilogy. Thankfully, though, First Class is not the lumbering turkey of George Lucas’s woeful misadventure with Jar Jar Binks. Fans of both the comics and the original X-Men films will surely relish the opportunity to learn the backstory of their favourite characters. Those less in the know, however, will nevertheless enjoy the exhilarating escapism and non-stop action of X-Men: First Class


A Beautiful Voyage to Italy

Certified Copy (Copie conforme) ★★★★
(France/Italy, 106 min.)
Written and directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimmell.
A beautiful voyage through Italy and a talky odyssey that wraps up just before sunset, Certified Copy is a glorious throwback to cinematic love stories. Juliette Binoche stars as an unnamed woman who wanders into a book reading a few minutes late. Her tardiness is excusable, though, since the lecturer, James, is unpunctual himself. James (William Shimmell) opens the film with a lecture on his new book, Certified Copy, which meditates upon the distinction between artistic originals and their copies.

With this opening speech, writer/director Abbas Kiarostami makes the premise of his film quite overt. This is a film about originality or lack thereof. It’s a bit startling for a film that emphasizes art to make its objective so plain, but anyone familiar with Kiarostami’s breakout film Close-up should expect no less. (Certified Copy’s is far less blunt than Close-up’s debate of documentary and fiction.) Nevertheless, the discussion of copies and originals continues when James visits the woman and she takes him on a road trip through Tuscany to take in some of Italy’s finest art. 


WSFF: Awards and Best of the Fest

Well, the 2011 Worldwide Short Film Festival has come to a close. It's been a blast: I really enjoyed the screenings and had just as much fun reviewing them. A big thanks goes out to all the staff from the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) and all of the volunteers for putting on such a great festival!

On the last day of the festival, some awards were given to a few lucky filmmakers as selected by the jury of this year's festival. The winners are:

The Deluxe Award for Best Live Action Short: Agalée (Rudi Rosenberg, France)  
                Honourable Mention: Sleepless Night (Nuit blanche) (Samuel Tilman, Belgium).
The Bravo!FACT Award for Best Canadian Short: Cold Blood (Sang froid) (Martin Thibaudeau)
The Deluxe Award for Best Performance in a Live-Action Short: Aline Kolditz and Lea Kolditz in  FatherMotherChild (Daniel Karl Krause, Germany)
The Kodak Award for Best Cinematography in a Canadian Short: Ian Lagarde for Nowhere Elsewhere (Annick Blanc, Canada)  
The Panasonic Award For Best Documentary Short: I am a Girl! (Susan Koenen, Netherlands)
Best Animated Short: The Tannery (Iain Gardner, UK)
Best Experimental Short: The Death of an Insect (Kiitos, Hannes Vartiainen and Pekka Veikkolainen, Finland)
Screenplay Giveaway Prize: David Widdicombe, Wake
Telus Audience Choice Award: The Gruffalo (Jakob Schuh, Max Lang; UK/Germany)

Congrats to all the winners! My own picks for Best of the Fest are after the jump:

WSFF: Day 4 - Date Night!

Power of Love
Day 4 had one of the screenings that I’d been looking forward to most during the Worldwide Short film Festival: “Date Night”. Not that I planned to squeeze in a hot date during the festival, but the screening was by far the most original event listed in the programme. “Date Night” offered a screening of love-themed films and took place at the CN Tower. The event included a trip to up to the second level of the Tower, plus coffee and dessert at Horizons restaurant. Never having been to the CN Tower, this event was a lot of fun – and a huge bargain at only twenty bucks! In the spirit of the evening, I’ll discuss the movies first and end with dessert. 


WSFF: Day 3

A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation
Day Three of WSFF was lots of fun! First on the list of screenings was the “Silver Linings” portion of the Official Selection. “Silver Linings” begins with the brilliant Inception-esque roller coaster ride Rubika. Made by Claire Baudean, Ludovic Habas, and Mickael Krebs, Rubika employs dazzling 3D animation for a gravity-defying trip around the world. After Rubika, the series stays closer to home with the Canadian short Sang Froid (Cold Blood) by Martin Thibaudeau. Cold Blood is a touching story of sibling devotion. Riding high on the emotions offered by Cold Blood is the exhilarating animated film A Lost and Found Box of Human Sensation. Made by Martin Wallner and Steufan Leuchtenberg, Lost and Found is an affective odyssey through grief and despair. The film is narrated by Ian McKellen and features voice work by Joseph Fiennes, and the star pedigree enhances the great imagery and inspired storytelling. A different take on dealing with death is the black comedy The Life and Death of Yul Brenner. Louis-David Morasse stars as Benoit, a weary traveller who comes home to find his answering machine crammed with messages offering urgent updates on the declining health of his mother, and even more urgent pleas from a video store clerk demanding that Benoit return his movies. Enjoy this type of humour before Netflix wipes it out! 


WSFF: Day 2

Day 2 of WSFF has plenty more pics to gab about. First on the agenda was the Official Selection “Flora & Fauna”, which features shorts with a focus on the relationship between man and nature. “Flora & Fauna” is probably the lesser of the Official Selections (something has to be), although they aren’t any Wee Requiem’s in the mix. One film – My Tired Father – left me quite indifferent. So much, in fact, that when the time came to rank the films on my ballot for the audience award, I simply couldn’t recall the film and had to consult my programme to refresh my memory. More memorable are Inner City and The Death of an Insect. The former is a fun animated story of a young lovebird in a concrete jungle who tries to win the attention of a pretty girl, while the latter is a striking depiction of the life cycle of insects. Equally likable is We’re Leaving, the cinema-verité story of a man and his gator. “Flora and Fauna” also features the crowd-pleaser Hop the Twig by Canadian director Kyle Rideout, which uses a glorious mix of live action and animation to realize a child’s imaginative musings on the potential death of her mother. Hop the Twig is very well done; it is also very funny. 


WSFF: Day 1

Does Scenes from the Suburbs live up to the hype?

The first full day of the Worldwide Shorts Film Festival was a film-filled one! I began the day by seeing the “Choose Your Own Adventure” portion of the Official Selections. The series begins with an experimental short by Japan’s Yusuke Nakajima called I Stare Boiling. I think I missed the point on this one, ‘cuz it seems that if you put a skillet on the burner and throw on some ice, you have yourself a film! Second in the line-up is the Canadian film Three Mothers. Written and directed by Rafal Sokolowski, Three Mothers crosscuts three narratives of motherhood. The film is a bit heavy, but it features very impressive performances from actresses Kristin Booth, Camilla Scott, and Hannah Hogan; cinematographer Cabot McNenly also contributes strong work, as Three Mothers makes striking use of depth and focus. Three Mothers is followed by another tale of parent-child bonds: 1989 (When I Was 5 Years Old). An animated film by Denmark’s Thor Ochsner, 1989 uses dark abstract expressions to reconstruct the trauma of the death of a father. Third in the series is a much lighter short, the Canadian road movie/romance Jonathan and Gabrielle. Directed by Louis-Philip Eno, Jonathan and Gabrielle is a mature and talky story of love, adventure, and discovery during one quick stop on the road to life. 


WSFF: Award Winners From Around the World

Na Wéwé (You Too)
Last night I was the Opening Gala of the Worldwide Short Film Festival. After the usual opening night speeches, which paid special mention to the success of the fest’s “Charlie Bit My Finger” viral marketing campaign, the fest began with a screening of “Award Winners From Around the World.” The screening, held at the Bloor Cinema – it’s like Toronto’s equivalent of the Mayfair Theatre – featured seven shorts that scooped major awards during the past year. (There is even an Oscar winner in the batch!) After the screening, some friends and I made our way to the C Lounge for the after party. Unfortunately, our bus took the milk route to the venue… I don’t know how someone can get lost on his way from one end of Bathurst Street to the other, but it’s possible! I guess we got some free sight-seeing out of it?

Anyways, here is a quick rundown of the shorts screened in “Award Winners From Around the World”: