Thursday, September 19, 2013


Denis Villeneuve is a director that I've adamantly followed since the beginning of his career in Quebec more than 15 years ago. It took a while for this great director to finally hit it big. In 2010 he released an incredible masterpiece called Incendies. It garnered an Oscar nomination, critical acclaim and then the world finally knew about him. Too bad they haven't seen his earlier stuff.Maelstrom was a sexy, film-noir narrated by a fish and starring the lustful Marie-Jose Croze and Polytechnique was an artful black and white re-creation of an infamous college shooting in Quebec.

In Prisoners Villeneuve doesn't soften his style or adhere to any Hollywood conventions. He is still the Denis Villeneuve I've always known. It helps that he has an impressive cast that includes 5 Oscar nominees. This is an ambitious, sprawling, fascinating and -yes- flawed 158 minute movie about a missing kids case. Jake Gyllenhall and Hugh Jackman deserve a nomination, so does Villenueve for his impressive direction. Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Octavia Spencer and Maria Bello complete the cast. An incredible cast having a go at a screenplay that was on the “black list” for the longest time.  

Jackman plays Keller Dover who ends up facing every parent's worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki arrests its driver, Alex Jones, but a lack of evidence forces his release. As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child's life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Alex.

The film takes so many twists and turns that it threatens to derail, by the film's last act that's what happens. I wish they could have tightened this film up in the editing room and cut 15-20 minutes of it. That's a minor quibble because there are powerful moments here. Many will recall Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and Todd Field's In The Bedroom. They wouldn't be wrong but I'd go a step further and say this is very much akin -and owes greatly- to David Fincher's Zodiac. Both are 150 minute tales about missing kids and the obsessed people trying to solve the case. 

The scenes of torture here are sometimes tough to watch. Is Keller stooping down to the same level as the abductors? How much is too much in exacting revenge? These questions have been asked before in the cinema but deserve to be asked again. Here's a big studio picture with a lot on its head and an ambition you don't see much of these days at the movies. 

It helps that -like Fincher- Director Villeneuve has a great visual flair, he gives us some of the most powerful scenes of the entire year. Jackman, fresh off his “Les Miserables” nomination, could get a second nom for this one. He delivers a passionate, relentless performance, easily the best work he’s ever done.  Gyllenhall is ferociously good and might have found a great director to work with (wait until you check out what Gyllenhall and Villeneuve have done with Enemy, due out in 2014.)

Suffice to say there's a lot to chew on here and the expertise at work is top notch. I wouldn't be surprised if this catches on in the years to come as one of the go to films in the murder-suspense genre. It really is phenomenal work from real pros. 

"Noah" A short movie that has people talking

When I was in Toronto I had overheard people talking about this short film that had premiered there called Noah, the raves coming out were phenomenal. Someone even uttering it's the "Citizen Kane of short movies". Yikes, talk about expectations. Well anyways I got a good look at it the other day and suffice to say it really is damn good. Well, maybe not Citizen Kane good but pretty damn spectacular in its depiction of this generation's communication breakdown. The film really is THAT ingenious, all shot through the eyes of a high school teenager and his computer. Our protagonist Noah suspects his girlfriend is about to cheat on him and sets out to get back at her through Facebook. But it's so much more than that. It's about the way we live these days. Noah navigates through his Iphone, Skype, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google and Chatroulette -multiple task bars open- with the attention span of a 5 year old, always distracted by the next thing in line. It takes a ChatRoulette girl to put things into perspective and her arguments are deep enough to have you want to quit Facebook this very instant.

Directed by two first time filmmakers out of Ryerson College in Toronto, Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg, Noah is a powerful depiction of contemporary technology and its role in relationships.What is stupendous about it is the way that it tells its timeless story of suspicion and heartache in a way that is only possible through the filter of its technological approach. Betrayal takes the form of logging in to your loved ones Facebook. Getting over things means seeking out a stranger on Chatroulette. It’s familiar, but different, and a recogntion that our interactions follow the same patterns even as they are mediated differently. But there is the specter that those interactions are inferior, the way Noah is doing 4 things at once when Skyping with Amy -his ex-girlfriend-,  or the way that his Chatroulette connection is dropped so easily, so unceremoniously.

This is as relevant as Fincher's The Social Network was. These are the times we live in. It is sometimes very hard to watch Noah, because there are many things here that you and I can relate to in one way or another. It's funny how the breakup the film portrays happened not through conversation but through online betrayal and hacking. There ended up being no closure for both parties, just blocking on Facebook. For the film's 17 minutes and 29 seconds you are transported into a world that is eerily similar to yours. It took two college students from Ryerson, Woodman and Cederberg, to remind you that this is us today in 2013.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chaplin in "The Kid Auto Race"

Many people neglect Chaplin's earlier stuff. I'm not talking about his feature length movies, but more the fact that he started out like many others did, doing short films when the medium was just bursting out. In 1914 the character he would popularize as "The Tramp" in such classics as "City Lights" and "Modern Times" made his big screen debut in " Kid Auto Races" directed by Henry Lehrman. A peculiar debut for Chaplin's character, considering how -although the Tramp here is the main character- he is quite an annoyance to the centrality of the plot and to the audience. Especially given that he is intruding at a kid's event with the parents as the onlookers. Chaplin's Tramp would eventually be much more sympathetic in the later, more popular pictures, but it's intriguing to see him act contrarian to what we would expect from him.

Chaplin's Tramp is a spectator at an auto race in Venice, California. He  keeps getting in the way of the camera and interfering with the race. This causes great frustration to the movie going public, who just wants him to already get hit by one of the race cars. It's a small feat in filmmaking at a time when movies were only getting started and the narrative was only starting to develop into some sort of coherent form. The 11 minutes of "The Kid Auto Race" were a sign of greater things to come for the silent movie star and the memorable persona he would eventually flesh out. This is slight Chaplin, but it's still fascinating to watch "The Kid Auto Race" since this is where it all started.  It's an immaculate moment in cinematic lore.

Andy Warhol's world

I was never really ecstatic about watching Andy Warhol's 1960's film experiments because a) They would mostly consist of experimental film-making that was made to test its audiences patience and b) many of these movies were not really made with any substantiated idea or protocol behind them. There are many out there that will disagree with me and say that Warhol was in fact the film genius that many made him out to be. I respect that opinion and I do believe he had some kind of imprint in film history by pushing boundaries for better or for worse.

His factory which developed many of these films had more or less the same crew working in and around the clock. One film I do particularly find interesting that came out of the "factory" is "Blow Job" which was filmed in January of 1964 and depicted the reaction of an un-credited actor named DeVern Bookwalter while he was getting fellatio. As our patience gets tested and we wander in and out of this perplexing film, a few questions start to pop into our heads:  1) Is Bookwalter getting a blow job from a male or a female? Warhol's crew had many bi-sexuas and homosexual people at the factory and 2) When does the moment of Orgasm actually happen?

Bookwalter is seen moaning, tilting his head back and staring desirably at the camera throughout the film's 30 minute running time. That's right, the film is close to 30 minutes long and focuses just on his face. No worries, you might find yourself dosing off at some points but -for some reason- you do come back and focus again. Is it because we are curious to see the orgasm happen? Warhol does show it, but again only through Bookwalter's facial gestures. We never, for one second, see the "giver" only the "receiver". It's a bold, frustrating film that is worth a look -and patience- just to gather your own reaction to what exactly Warhol was trying to achieve.

It's a bit more watchable than Warhol's infamously dull screen tests from the 1960s where he'd tell his participants to not blink and stare at the camera. Warhol was a fascinating man that went through many ideas to try and capture the many different ways art could be conceived. He was a groundbreaker, but not without dulling our senses in the process.

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