Tag Archives: film reviews

Film Reviews from January-March

It’s been a busy year. Here’s a collection of my writing so far!

Individual Reviews:

The End of Time: Painfully slow, this documentary looks at our concept of time, though never really says too much.

All in Good Time: A contrived film about newlyweds with problems in the bedroom.

Weekly Reviews on Netflix Documentaries:

Craigslist Joe: Boring, awkward, and ultimately pointless.

Payback: The Shadow Side of Debt: Fascinating look at society’s ever evolving concept of debt, based on Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name,

Freakonomics: Takes on a number of varied topics and brings to light some interesting data, though fails to give an in-depth explanation.

Vegucated: A great film that follows three New Yorkers as they undertake a vegan diet for 6 weeks.

The American Scream: Entertaining and quirky documentary about “home haunters” in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

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Crazy 8’s and Story of Burqa

Hello everyone! I’m planning on putting up some fresh reviews this week, but in the meantime I figured I should share two other reviews I completed for Vancouver Weekly.

The first was a review of the Crazy 8’s Screening here in Vancouver at the beginning of April. It was tons of fun and there was some great talent on display.

The second was for a film I just watched last week called Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan. It’s a very informative, though flawed documentary that looks at the history of the burqa in Afghanistan. It makes it’s debut at this year’s DOXA festival!

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New Reviews!

I recently started contributing to a local online publication called Vancouver Weekly! So far, I have reviewed two films for them: Jess + Moss (dir. Clay Jeter), a beautiful and surprisingly unpretentious art film, and You All Are Captains(dir. Oliver Laxe), a mostly failed attempt at self-reflexive cinema.

Both of these films start playing at The Pacific Cinematheque here in Vancouver. You can catch Jess + Moss March 2-3, 8 and 12, and You All Are Captains March 5, 7 and 8.

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Thor

Shakespeare meets a hammer wielding Norse God. Sounds like an interesting combination, and it is for the most part. Kenneth Branagh takes the helm of Thor which leads this summer’s pack of comic releases (soon to be followed by X-Men: First Class and Captain America) and deviates from the regular fare of superhuman characters to something more divine. Branagh focuses the film on his characters inner struggles against self and identity and thus shies away from the obvious choice of making Thor an explosive action flick. It’s an interesting gamble, and it succeeds to a certain degree. Unfortunately, Branagh is contending with a script that does not have the writing or character development to allow for a very interesting story. Furthermore, while there are a few action scenes to raise the audience’s collective heart rate, they feel uninspired and fail to give Thor a much needed spark. Thus Thor is an odd chimera, sitting in a no man’s land, wedged between an action film and a Shakespearean-esque character drama. The film’s main plot revolves around Thor’s redemption after he breaks a long standing truce between the Asgardian’s (his people) and the Frost Giants. After this little indiscretion his father, Odin, banishes Thor from Asgard faster than you can mispronounce ‘Mjolnir’, in the hopes of teaching him humility. He lands on Earth, befriends a ragtag group of humans led by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and from here hilarity ensues as Thor is thrust into everyday earthly activities armed only with his Asgardian know-how. Typically, I think redemption storylines work quite well in comic adaptations (i.e. Iron Man), however it feels as though the writers didn’t take much time developing the plot or characters, focusing more on the jokes then the overall story arch. Thor’s path to redemption does not feel like a journey of personal growth for as soon as he hits earth, he quickly sheds most of his arrogance and becomes the perfect gentleman. Furthermore, the subplot regarding Thor’s treacherous brother Loki feels even less loved as it is both dull and predictable, culminating in a very anticlimactic ending.
The films strongest points are definitely in the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth. Hopkins brings a restrained power to his character and makes good of his limited screen time as the ruler of Asgard and Thor’s father, Odin. Hemsworth is a lot of fun to watch as Thor, infusing the character with the perfect amount of passion, aggression and good humour. Co-stars Natalie Portman, Stellen Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings prove capable in their roles though like the story their characters feel a little undercooked. Although Portman is an intelligent woman, she is not scripted as a believable scientist, for while she can pronounce complicated theorem she spends most of her screen time giggling in a tizzy over Thor.
Thor is a fun summer film but its weak storyline and unsteady character development amounts to only a slightly above average turnout for Marvel Studios, landing it firmly between Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk on my Marvel meter.

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The Fly

Horror and sci-fi fans alike rejoiced with the 1986 release of The Fly, a remake of the 1958 horror classic. David Cronenberg both directed and wrote this reimagining, fusing together his usual cocktail of techo-paranoia and body horror. The Fly begins at a science convention, with writer Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (played by Geena Davis) hitting it off with scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum). He quickly lures her off to his lab where she soon discovers that Seth is no ordinary lab rat, but rather a certified genius on his way to creating the world’s first teleportation device. Ronnie is desperate to write a story on him and brings her idea to her editor, ex-boyfriend and borderline stalker creep, Stathis Boran, who is quick to dismiss Seth, assuming his work is an elaborate hoax. Undeterred Ronnie works out a deal with Seth to follow the progress of his work and create a book about the project. All seems to be going well in their professional and personal relationship until Seth unwittingly turns his teleportation device into a gene-splicer. Seth’s transformation into “Brundle-fly” is simultaneously repulsive and tragic. In the end, Cronenberg creates a film that delivers both the grotesque scenes befitting any of his early body horror films and a critique on man’s use and abuse of technology and nature.
Although a little corny at times I really do love this film (and not just because I worship the Altar of Cronenberg). First, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis have fantastic chemistry. They were married shortly after The Fly was released so it’s safe to assume their onscreen romance was fuelled by off-screen passion. Davis handles her character with intelligence and avoids becoming another simple female horror drone. Goldblum is of course the star of the show, spewing frenetic energy in the role he plays so well, that of the rambling smart and somehow sexy scientist (yes, he is still able to pull off sexy in this film despite the terrible hair and various states of decay). Cronenberg is able to create a relatively smart sci-fi horror. He questions mankind’s drive to push technology to its limits and manipulate nature. In his films this manipulation always tends to lead to some unpleasant mishap, as seen in The Fly where Jeff Goldblum experiences the consequences of his failed experiment as a wasting disease. Whether you want to ponder the message of this film or just revel in the fantastic gore (it didn’t win an Academy Award for Makeup for nothing…) The Fly delivers on every level.

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Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude may not have appealed to audiences when it was first released in 1971 but it has since become a cult classic held close to the heart of many film lovers. The strange yet simple tale follows the ultimate odd couple: Harold, a young man obsessed with death, and 79 year old Maude, an eccentric with a lust for life. These two apparent opposites fuse a tender and beautiful friendship which forms the glittering heart of this film that explores themes of alienation and existentialism.
Harold is an awkward young man who drives a hearse, stages mock suicides and attends funerals for amusement. His mother does not seem to understand him, nor make much of an effort to, being concerned mainly with surface appearances and the façade of normalcy. She attempts to set him up on blind dates and strives to ignore him. Harold’s life is fairly sombre and without meaning until he spots Maude at a funeral he has crashed. When he sees her at yet another funeral, Maude takes the opportunity to introduce herself and sows the first seeds of their friendship.

The performances in the film are fairly simple, yet engaging. Although he was rarely cast as a leading man in subsequent films, Bud Cort delivers a fantastic performance as Harold, drawing both laughs and compassion from his audience. The story is at once touching and darkly humourous as viewers are simultaneously presented with seemingly opposite views of life, the dark and the beautiful. For instance, while Harold enjoys watching cars being destroyed in a junk yard, Maude revels in nature and has no qualms with liberating trees from public property. Harold’s obsession with death and oblivion seem to stem from the fact that he has no stake in this world, and feels no personal connection to anyone around him. Maude is able to curtail Harold’s obsession for destruction by showing him the beauty of nature and the fulfillment life can offer when lived with vitality.

This being said the film carries with it a very existentialist perspective. Maude constantly reminds Harold that all in life is transitory, enjoy it while you can, but never trick yourself into thinking that you have true ownership of anything in this realm. Not much is revealed about Maude’s past in the film other than her recollections of being involved in social protests and the fleeting glance Harold and the audience is able to catch of a Auschwitz ID number tattooed on her forearm. Maude clearly has a history and allows Harold to see that if he is willing he can create a meaningful future.
If you have yet to see this American film classic, I suggest you correct that unfortunate condition!

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Well two months later I return with another post.  Apologies for the long wait which is due to extreme stress from moving, being without internet for most of September, and then just general laziness on my behalf.  But I press onwards!  Here is my latest review on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, hopefully still available for viewing in a theatre near you!

I was initially sceptical about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.  As a fan of the original graphic novel by fellow Canadian Bryan Lee O’Malley, I was wary when I observed the cast list.  Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim?! Horrifying; Keiran Culkin as Wallace Wells?! Highly doubtful!  My hopes picked up when I discovered that Edgar Wright would be directing.  Excited and anxious I entered the theatre to have my expectations blown out of the water.  Wright dives fast and hard into the world of Scott Pilgrim in the opening sequences, offering audiences a visual feast and full submersion into O’Malley’s erratic imagination.  The story is ridiculous.  Scott Pilgrim, a geeky bassist, meets the girl of his dreams, American courier Ramona Flowers.  However, in order to date her he must defeat her 7 evil exes.

While there is not very much in the way of character development, that is not what this film and O’Malley’s original vision is about.  The film embodies a look and sound that is comparable to an electric shock with the visual style of the material borrowing heavily from video games and anime.  The film is often hilarious, with several of the most entertaining moments taken straight from the pages of the comic.  Besides the humour and the pitch perfect performance of Keiran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Scott Pilgrims long suffering gay roommate, the soundtrack is one of the strongest elements of the film.  The fictional bands which appear in the film such as The Clash at the Demonhead and Crash and the Boys, all have music provided by top selling artists Metric and Broken Social Scene respectively.  The music for Sex Bob-omb, Scott Pilgrim’s own self proclaimed ‘terrible’ band, is all penned by Beck Hansen, who is able to channel the grungy early punk sounds of acts like the MC5.  The only downside the film carries with it is its run time.  Like Edgar Wright’s other ventures, Hot Fuzz in particular, Scott Pilgrim out stays its welcome by roughly 20 minutes.  The final scene’s of the film seem to lose their wind and feel too long and stretched out.  However, this is a small concern, for the price of admission allows audiences entrance to a wildly entertaining movie-going experience. 

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Inception

Ever since viewing the teaser for Inception nearly a year ago I have been eagerly awaiting its theatrical debut. I caught an early matinee screening one week after it opened in order to avoid a critical mass of human contact, and excitedly submerged myself in Christopher Nolan’s cinematic dreamscape. The story is simple enough: a group of information thieves, each with a specific job, plan to enter the dream state of a young businessman in order to plant an idea in his head (the act of ‘inception’). The film takes us into several layers of the dream realm and ends up creating an interesting lattice of storytelling rarely seen in summer blockbusters. The film mashes together genres such as action, film noir, fantasy, and mystery to create an entertaining and smart film.

Inception was worth the wait, and although it has been over-hyped (I believe that The Dark Knight is Nolan’s superior film) it still delivers with memorable visual effects and a creative storyline which was reportedly ten years in the making. The film is well cast, made up of performers that are so irritatingly good looking the film borders on reaching ocular nirvana. The character banter is quick and interesting enough to maintain the attention of the audience over the course of the film’s 148 min run time. Leonardo Di Caprio does well as Don Cobb, the film’s tragic hero, whose ability to do his job is compromised by the projections of his dead wife which plague his subconscious and create an element of danger for the other dreamers. Hands down the most interesting elements of the film are its action sequences, particularly one spectacular fight scene involving a rotating hallway. Joseph Gordon-Levitt reportedly spent 6 weeks filming the brawl which is perhaps one of the most visually mind boggling and creative fight scenes to grace the big screen in recent years.

The film does have its pitfalls of course. While the dialogue between characters is often sharp and entertaining it easily becomes bloated when used to describe the processes of the dream and other concepts Nolan is trying to explain. Although Nolan feeds each of his characters with enough explanatory data to hold the audience’s collective hand through what they are witnessing, some of the scenes are laughable, particularly when attempting to describe the many levels a dreamscape can contain. Even with these blunt attempts of translation some audience members will still lose their bearings of whose dream is whose or lose interest completely (on a second viewing of this film I saw two people walk out and several surrounding me whisper to friends in confusion). Perhaps Nolan’s most remarkable feat with this project is that Inception broke the world record for the most amount of times the word ‘dream’ can be uttered in one film. Finally, Nolan introduces philosophical issues regarding the nature of dreams, reality and human perception to the plot. Although he attempts to touch on the subject several times, Nolan never makes a clear statement and instead leaves the ideas floating without many thoughtful connections. Overall, Inception offers audiences a beautiful and action oriented trip into a dream land, though it lacks a deeper reading into the bigger philosophical questions brought up throughout the story.

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Splice

Splice is Vincenzo Natali’s delightful and disturbing concoction of science, absurd humour, dark sex and of course a monster.  An update of Frankenstein in the era of genetic manipulation, Splice takes us into the lives of Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) who are the rockstars of the scientific world.  The film begins with them having spliced together pink sluglike blobs named Fred and Ginger from whom they can harvest proteins for the pharmaceutical company funding their experiments.  When Clive and Elsa try to request funding for a project that involves splicing human DNA into their creatures they are quickly shut down.  Not easily deterred Clive and Elsa decide to go ahead with their project in secret and in a series of escalating dares and temptations, they allow their creature, Dren, to grow into a big problem.

            The film had its ups and downs and although the conclusion proved to be a little absurd it ends up going down easy as Natali navigates his audience through strange terrain, all the while maintaining a healthy balance of disturbing plots twists and dark humour.  It is able to tackle issues such as genetic manipulation, cloning and definitions of humanity with varying degrees of success.  The film’s more unsettling elements spoke to the Cronenberg lover within and had me squirming in delight.  Natali’s inclusion of quirky jokes and absurdist situations allows viewers to settle in for an amusing, albeit dark ride.  The real element that works in the film is Brody and Polley’s chemistry.  Each handles their character with a dark intensity and is able to breathe life into their onscreen relationship in a very believable way.  Another definite highlight in this film was the creature, Dren.  Created with an almost seamless blend of makeup and CG, Dren is a fascinating and simultaneously skin crawling sight to behold.  Dren’s ‘not quite human’ existence is the moral centerpoint of the whole film and serves as a stunning example of what can happen when moral judgements get blurred and situations slip beyond our control.

            Although Splice is entertaining and perhaps one of the most creative films in recent years it definitely will not be everyones cup of tea.  The film rests firmly in the science fiction/moral parable genre and is not a typical horror film .  However, what this film lacks in scares and suspense it more than makes up for in its disturbing storyline which puts an innovative twist on a classic tale.

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Filed under David Cronenberg, genetics, Horror, Monster, Science Fiction, Vincenzo Natali

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers takes an insightful look into one of the most shocking revelations in the history of American government.  The film takes a historical account of Daniel Ellsberg’s life and how he reached his position within the Pentagon.  Ellsberg narrates this documentary and details how after years of disagreeing with US tactics in Vietnam, he decided to smuggle out and leak a top secret report regarding US involvement in Vietnam to the press in the hopes of ending the controversial war.

            The most standout aspect of this film was the ease in which filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith were able to break down complex historical events as well as reveal the consequences of Elsberg’s choices through an array to archival photos and video, interviews and some creative reinterpretations.  Running parallel to the historic story is the tale of Ellsberg’s own life in which he is portrayed as an individual who always stood by his choices no matter how they conflicted with his previous endeavours.  In one of the many interviews Ellsberg makes it clear that he began the next chapter of his life (as an infamous whistleblower) after he saw Vietnam draft dodger Randy Kehler give a speech and proclaim that he would rather go to prison than fight in the war.  Ellsberg acknowledged that he felt the same way and since he believed he had the power to stop the war, set out to do so by copying and releasing the Pentagon Papers to the NY Times and several other major publications. 

            Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s film did an excellent job in aligning the scandal of the Vietnam war with the current US led war in Iraq, such as how the US government spread misinformation in order to get the support of its people.  Ellsberg, even in his old age, is still portrayed as an advocate for peace and makes clear his disappointment in the lack of public action against government tactics which he views as morally unjust.  While Ellsberg’s actions may have led to the end of the war, the film makes it clear that unless there is a vast social movement to prevent war and hold governments accountable for their actions, the state of things will remain very much the same.             

 For all its good elements the film still showed some weak spots.  Several of the interviews with Ellsberg seemed choppy as they had very little linking context to the story.  The interview between an aged Ellsberg and Kehler in particular comes out of no where and feels wasted.  The audience witnesses a short emotional speech from Ellsberg but there is no interaction shown between the two men, and no context is provided for Ellsberg’s statements, such as his claim that Kehler changed his life.  It also would have been interesting to get some interviews from Ellsberg’s main opponents in the government.  The film would have benefited from more careful integration of material but despite the cut and paste feel of some interviews overall the story progressed fluidly and Ellsberg’s character and history provides a fascinating subject for the film.

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