Archive for March, 2008

WINNER, WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!: Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess in a scene from 21 (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).A blur of neon lights, hip clubs, and thousands of dollars in cash and chips – that is the simplest summary of Robert Luketic’s 21.

The film is based on the true story of a group of math elite M.I.T. students that took Las Vegas casinos for millions in the mid-1990s by counting cards and ‘crushing’ blackjack tables. The team’s big player and basis for Jim Sturgess’ character was Jeff Ma. But if you want to know what really happened, you should pick up Ben Mezrich’s book, Bringing Down the House.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) lives out the archetypal rags-to-riches-to-trouble story seen in most gambling movies. Ben works in a men’s clothing store to pay his way but sees no hope when he discovers his dream to attend Harvard Med will run $300,000. When he’s approached by a classmate and invited into the fold by Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), his life changes and doors open. Spending weekends in Vegas, the team makes their wages then parties like rock stars. The only thing in their way is “loss prevention” specialist, Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), whose biggest threat is more painful than banishment.

Within a culture obsessed with gambling, filmmakers seem to have hoped the contagiousness of counting cards and the idea of beating the house would be enough to keep audiences engaged. Unfortunately, despite the use of dramatic license to add a love interest (Kate Bosworth) and increase the danger, the story is weak and the novelty fades.

Luckily, Sturgess has an inherent charm that leaps off the screen, dominating scenes (even with Spacey), and his task of carrying the film is helped by Aaron Yoo’s joker Choi.

21 never really explores the seedy underbelly, devious tactics or helpless addiction that actually shapes Las Vegas. Instead, it is a flashy ride whose sole purpose is to entertain – just as a casino would have you believe is the purpose of its existence – and in that it mostly succeeds.

Cinéfranco is entering its 11th year in Toronto as the largest celebration of French cinema in English Canada. Francophone films will again begin illuminating The Royal cinema’s screen on Friday, March 28 to Sunday, April 6. Boasting 46 films this year, the festival features fair from not only Quebec and France, but also Belgium, Chad, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Switzerland.

“We passed an important landmark with the 10th Anniversary of Cinéfranco in 2007”, said Executive Director Marcelle Lean. “Toronto audiences have grown along with Cinéfranco and we are happy to present them with another richly varied program of French films.”

As audience attendance continues to grow, the appetite in Toronto for a French-dedicated festival is undeniable. In addition to the mostly R-rated presentations, organizers are bringing back matinees with kid-friendly flicks between March 31 and April 4. “Students can come and enjoy these films with their schools every day of the week at noon. To further create a culturally resonant milieu for the students of French,” said Lean.

The opening night film is Toi (You), a dramady by Quebecois director François Delisle starring Laurent Lucas, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Marc Béland and Raphaël Dury. Director François Delisle will also be in attendance.

The program will close with a new film by one of France’s best-known filmmakers: Claude Miller. Un Secret (The Secret) is a drama starring Patrick Bruel, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier and Julie Depardieu who was awarded the 2008 Cesar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

This year’s Cinéfranco is putting a spotlight on films from Morocco, selected for their strong messages on prejudice, oppression, exile and peaceful co-existence. In Samira’s Garden, a young woman is trapped by tradition and culture; Où vas-tu Moshé? (Where Are You Going Moshe?) is a bittersweet comedy set against the historical backdrop of the Jewish exodus from Morocco; Adieu Mères (Goodbye Mothers), set in 1960’s Casablanca, holds out the possibility of communities living together harmoniously despite government interventions; and Islamour is a contemporary drama about a Moroccan-American family who move to Morocco and are torn apart by the events of 9/11.

In addition, on Sunday, April 6 a special roundtable discussion with visiting Moroccan filmmakers will be held at the Hot Pot Café. Participants will include Mohammed Ismaïl (Adieu Mères), Saâd Chraïbi (Islamour) and Hassan Benjelloun (Où vas-tu Moshé?).

Cinéfranco is co-presenting the English Canadian premiere of DP 75 Tartina City with Journalists for Human Rights. Chad filmmaker Issa Serge Coelo’s film follows a young journalist’s attempts to expose human rights violations but ends up himself incarcerated in one of Chad’s overcrowded prisons.

France remains at the centre of Cinéfranco’s line-up with exciting new filmmakers like Céline Sciamma (Naissance des Pieuvres) and celebrated filmmakers like Jean Becker (Dialogue avec mon Jardinier), Claude Berri (Ensemble c’est tout), Claude Lelouch (Roman de Gare), Thomas Gilou (Michou d’Auber), and Claude Miller (Un Secret).

Aspring to all tastes, comedies such as Eric Lavaine’s Poltergay, Ivan Calbérac’s On va s’aimer (Cheating Love) and Gérard Pirès outrageous parody of James Bond films Double Zéro (French Spies) can also be found at the festival.

Cinéfranco will be paying tribute to Jean-Pierre Cassel, one of France’s most loved actors who passed away last year. In memorial, organizers will screen the 2007 musical comedy J’aurais voulu être un danseur (Gone for A Dance) starring Cassel as a video store manager’s father, whose son becomes obsessed with musicals as the two generations of men before him.

Cinéfranco will also be presenting highlights from the past year in Quebecois film with a dozen films including Les 3 P’tits Cochons (The 3 Little Pigs), a comedy from popular actor turned first time director Patrick Huard (Good Cop, Bon Cop); La Capture with Carole Laure; Fernand Dansereau’s touching drama La Brunante (Twilight) starring Monique Mercure and Patrick Labbé; Richard Jutras’ La Belle empoisonneuse, a drama starring Robert Lepage; and Pascal Bussières in the thriller Guide de la petite vengeance (The Little Book of Revenge).

Summarizing this year’s program, Lean said “Close to my heart at Cinéfranco 2008 are themes of personal, political social identity that are explored in stunning thought-provoking films on the right to live, on the right to love and the right to be.”

The full list of films and schedule can be found at the official Cinéfranco web site.

Legend of the Black ScorpionOriginally released as The Banquet, The Legend of Black Scorpion exudes ability, boasting many of the same talents involved in the epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.This is one of two Chinese versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet produced in the same year. Director Feng Xiaogang’s vision of the story varies from the original but the heart of it remains the same. The Crown Prince’s (Daniel Wu) uncle has murdered the Emperor, claiming the throne and the Empress (Ziyi Zhang) for himself. Some members of the court openly oppose the new Emperor (You Ge) while others bide their time. After receiving the news, the Prince returns from his sabbatical to take revenge but must also contend with the emotions of the women he left behind.

Wu’s Hamlet is much more subdued than most interpretations, requiring much of his turmoil to be expressed subtly through facial expressions and body language. Zhang gives a typically good performance, convincingly displaying a spectrum of emotions by the end of the film. Together, the actors perform a mesmerizing dance-fight sequence that is harmonious and graceful.

The film’s art direction is stunning with the set built to scale in a building large enough to house a jumbo jet; the same man (Timmy Yip) designed the backdrop for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And Xiaogang let no part of it go to waste when filming. Furthermore, famed action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (known for several Jet Li films, The Matrix trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) also lent his skills to the production.

If you’re a little rusty on your Hamlet or wonder how the scenes relate to the original text, feature commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan will fill in the gaps. In addition, he sheds some light on the identity of the mystery killer. Conversely, the supplementary interviews are somewhat repetitive and provide minimal enlightenment.

The MistFrank Darabont’s collaborations with Stephen King have not failed to date, achieving acclaim nearly 15 years ago with The Shawshank Redemption, then The Green Mile in 1999 and now The Mist. Darabont has the ability to transfer the core of King’s stories to the screen without diminishing the horror. David Drayton (Thomas Jane) was only going to the supermarket for essentials after an intense electrical storm the night before; his eight-year-old son and obstinate neighbour accompanied him. In the meantime, a strange mist is rapidly rolling in over the lake. Soon, the shoppers are holed-up in the supermarket while hungry creatures emerge from the soup-like mist seeking food and shelter. However, it is not just the monsters outside they have to worry about but also the fear-crazed ones that begin to materialize inside.

The creatures developed by KNB Effects and CafeFX are noteworthy and explored in two separate featurettes. Furthermore, the short feature introducing movie poster artist (and occupational-basis for the Drayton character) Drew Struzan is intriguing.

Those that have read King’s novella will appreciate the closeness of Darabont’s screenplay to the original narrative but if you are wondering where a couple of scenes may be in the theatrical version, they are likely in the deleted scenes section with an explanation of their exclusion. On the other hand, Darabont’s feature commentary will only appeal to those interested in the minutia of filming this picture.

An interesting inclusion on the second disc is “The Director’s Vision: The Complete Feature Film in Black & White.” This extra will please admirers of the anti-realism of mid-60’s black and white creature features.

The real horror of The Mist comes not from what is waiting in the parking lot but what is lurking inside the store. Marcia Gay Harden is brilliant as the religious doomsayer and the addition of a scene later in the film reinforces the idea that people can be scarier than anything that lurks in the dark. Conversely, the ending differs from the literary one and is controversial but memorable.

Love in the Time of CholeraLove in the Time of Cholera (Alliance)

It took 22 years to transfer the Oprah-endorsed and much-loved literary romance to the big screen; however, even at 138 minutes, their still seems to be holes in the story.

Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem) fell in love with Fermina Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) the moment he laid eyes on her in 1879. But when the pair is kept apart, he vows to wait as long as necessary to be with her. Florentino clings to this love for 51 years, nine months and four days until circumstances once again give the couple the opportunity to live out their romance.

The plot jumps several years at a time with no indication of how much time has passed. The characters age through the use of makeup and prosthetics, but the South American heat is not kind to this classic movie effect which makes it look sloppy at times.

Although the story is charming, the translation moves too quickly through their lives causing the narrative to appear incomplete. The deleted scenes/alternate opening fill in some of the gaps but is still unable to redeem the picture. On the other hand, the recreation of turn of the century Columbia is beautiful and “The Making of” feature sheds light on the reception they received in the precarious country.

The SickhouseThe Sickhouse (Alliance)

Halfway through watching this movie, I gave up asking my couch-mate ”What’s going on?”

The gist is fairly simple: An archeologist’s (Gina Philips) excavation of a 17th century plague hospital is about to be shut down so she sneaks in the night before to try and gather evidence proving the existence of the Cult of the Black Priest. They are legendary plague doctors said to have done horrific things. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers take refuge in the old building after one is injured in an accident. But when midnight strikes, the hospital becomes no place for the sick or well.

However, as the movie progresses, the audience is never given enough information to assemble the pieces themselves; instead, they are left in constant confusion, unsure of how one event connects to another. The veil is only lifted when the archeologist explains an item she has uncovered in a hidden room. Then the overall picture becomes clearer but individual onscreen events still make little sense.

The atmosphere is generally creepy and particular scenes are disturbing but anyone knows good horror movies have more than just ambiance. The filmmakers developed a lucrative idea but the director’s attempts at stylization results in overkill and perplexity. Furthermore, there are no extra features to provide any clarification.

Nick Stahl and AnnaSophia Robb in a scene from Sleepwalking (Photo courtesy of Alliance Films)Sleepwalking is film fest cinema at its best: it’s indie, star-powered, celebrity-backed and bleak.

The snow-covered landscape of Saskatchewan subs for the oppressing environment of Northern California and, later, Utah. This setting is home to a young man lost in a state of numbness.

Joleen (Charlize Theron) is a restless single mom worried her unstable lifestyle is damaging her 11-year-old daughter’s (AnnaSophia Robb) outlook on life. With no place to live after a drug raid, Joleen calls upon her younger brother for help. James (Nick Stahl) is more than willing to offer his modest apartment, but the living arrangements prove trying on everyone. In lieu of a solution, Joleen takes off with her new beau.

In her absence, James is deemed an unfit guardian and Tara is put into foster care. As their lives spiral out of their control, the pitiful pair joins forces in an attempt to take power back. But as the road grows weary and their money runs out, James takes Tara to the only other place he knows – his father’s (Dennis Hopper) farm. As Tara lives through the horror of her mother’s childhood, James is forced to confront the source of his cowardly existence.

The actors never give the impression of a manufactured moment: everything feels real and as it could be. Joleen and Tara have a strained relationship but each ultimately wants to please the other; meanwhile, Joleen uses James because he allows it, although she feels guilty afterwards. In the end, James tries to be the father Tara never had without angering his own. These are not cookie-cutter characters and their stories are not delivered wrapped in a pretty little bow. Unfortunately, they are not conveyed very strikingly either.

Theron is still recognizable but she once again plays down her beauty to take on the role of a flawed woman. While her screen time is limited, she also contributed behind the camera as a producer. Stahl is a talented dramatic actor and this film allows him to demonstrate his ability; at the same time, even at her age, Robb grasps the complex feelings her character is experiencing and conveys them accordingly.

But no matter how nice everyone says he is, onscreen Hopper can scare the bejesus out of anybody.

Nonetheless, more than competent acting is usually part of the indie package; if only the same were true for directing. Bill Maher (not the politically outspoken one) fails to bring anything new to this story type, sticking to the traditionally dreary style – except for a vibrant dreamlike scene of a poolside Tara.

Ultimately, it is the acting that stands out in this film – but that does not change with screen size.

Two films led the way at Quebec’s Jutra film awards on Sunday night, with Continental, un film sans fusil and Silk picking up four awards each.

A Toronto International Film Festival Group Canada’s Top Ten selection, Continental was the big winner of the night, claiming the honour of Best Picture. Filmmaker Stéphane Lafleur also took home awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay. The film’s final award was presented to Réal Bossé for Best Supporting Actor.

Silk, which was also at last year’s TIFF, was François Girard’s first film since 1998’s critically acclaimed The Red Violin. Its purse was filled largely with technical awards, winning for cinematography, art direction, sound and costumes.

Quebec native Roy Dupuis scored the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Roméo Dallaire in the Rwandan genocide drama Shake Hands with the Devil. He dedicated the award to his recently deceased mother, as well as the people of Rwanda and the real-life retired general.

Guylaine Tremblay earned the Best Actress honour for her starring role in Contre toute espérance, in which she played a woman whose life falls apart. Laurence Leboeuf took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her depiction of a troubled young stripper in Ma fille, mon ange.

Other winners included:
Best makeup: Diane Simard, L’Âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness)
Best editing: Éric Drouin, Nitro
Best documentary: Le Peuple invisible
Best music: Catherine Major, Le Ring
Best animated film: Isabelle au bois dormant

The risqué comedy Les 3 p’tits cochons (The 3 Little Pigs) went into the ceremony with 13 nominations, however the only honour bestowed upon them was the Billet d’or (Golden ticket), which is given to the most successful domestic film at the Quebec box office. It grossed about $4.5 million in 2007. Patrick Huard’s directorial debut received a similar prize at last week’s Genie Awards in Toronto.