Archive for April, 2009

Hot Docs, the documentary film festival, is filling screens with 171 films from 39 countries over 11 days.

The real-life, real lives festival is celebrating its 16th anniversary and will be taking over screens across Toronto April 30 to May 10, 2009. The selection of films can satisfy any curiosity or bring to the surface a number of world issues in a true-to-life style. And the great filmmakers do this with an air of storytelling that engages audiences and induces post-screening conversations.

Highlights at this year’s festival include:

Act of God, the opening night presentation is a meditation on being struck by lightning;
Action Boys, about Korean stunt man;
Best Worst Movie, a look back at the unexpected cult classic Troll 2;
Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, an indictment of ExxonMobil’s irresponsibility;
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, the story of underground video journalists in Burma;
Carmen Meets Borat, a look at the aftermath created in a Romanian village;
Code of Violence, a look at urban violence;
The Cove, an intervention to the slaughter of dolphins off the coast of Japan;
Graphic Sexual Horror explores the effects of bondage-turned-art;
Invisible City, Oscar-nominated director Hubert Davis follows two Black teen’s in Toronto’s Regent Park;
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a powerful perspective on the 1990 ‘Oka Crisis;’
Orgasm Inc. provides behind-the-scenes access to a drug company’s race to develop the first FDA-approved Viagra for women;
Outrage, a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who actively campaign against the LGBT community;
Reporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chronicles the horrific humanitarian atrocities in the Congo;
Strongman, the Slamdance Grand Jury Award Winner – Best Documentary Feature is a real-life version of The Wrestler starring strongman Stanless Steel, who is able to bend a penny with just his fingers;
The Tiger Next Door follows Dennis, a former meth addict, convicted felon, biker, and animal lover who breeds the big cats in his backyard;
Zombie Girl: The Movie, chronicles 12-year-old Emily’s two-year struggle to complete her directorial debut – Pathogen.

This year’s Focus On programme is a tribute Ron Mann. For over 25 years, Mann has been creating award-winning documentary features that focus on alternative and dissident cultures, beginning with a look at the once-controversial free jazz movement of the 1960s in Imagine the Sound (1981). He examined “Dial-A-Poem” poets with Poetry in Motion (1982), the history of comics in Comic Book Confidential (1988), recreational marijuana use in Grass (1999), and most recently the world of fungi with the feature-length documentary Know Your Mushrooms (2008).

Reviews from the festival will be posted throughout so check back regularly.

The Wrestler is an honest, gritty look at what happens to the superstars of wrestling entertainment once the cameras and spotlights no longer smile down upon them. It’s also been a matter of hot topic in recent WWE shows featuring Chris Jericho.

Twenty years ago, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was an alpha dog in the world of wrestling. He was one of the good guys everyone could look up to and he finished off all his opponents with a “Ram Jam” from the top ropes. Now, crowds of a hundred chant his name as he beats idolizing unknowns in the amateur ring and sits among the other aged athletes at barely attended autograph sessions. A heart attack brought on by decades of abusing his body causes Randy to re-evaluate what’s important in his life. As a result, he attempts to transcend his business-only relationship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and tries to mend his relationship with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

Anyone who raised a wrestler to the status of hero when they were young will appreciate this behind-the-curtain look at the difficult choices and hardships these men face. Some parts are hard to watch even though we’ve seen the performance side of it countless times. A well-written, tragic script effectively pulls and drags at your heartstrings without feeling exaggerated or unreal. The downside is you may never look at a wrestling match as carefree again.

Rourke turns in a career resurrecting performance. Sin City put his name back on our lips, but this put it in our hearts and mind. Even though Rourke did not win the Oscar, the buzz and attention around this picture are well-earned. Rourke infuses “The Ram” with the charisma, energy and heart that these athletes addicted to the roar of the crowd bring to the show. On the flipside, he plays the beaten man trying to find his way to heart-wrenching perfection. Tomei also brings her A-game, portraying a woman past her prime in an industry that repels reality and values youth.

Director Darren Aronofsky doesn’t attach his usual bells and whistles to the movie’s appearance; instead, he lets the story speak for itself through drained colours and an unpolished look. Any other choice would have detracted from the chronicle.

Sadly, the only special feature included with a film of this calibre is the music video for Bruce Springsteen’s Golden Globe-winning title song “The Wrestler.”

The Batman franchise is one of the most successful in comic book-movie history; and it continues to thrive.

The Batman Anthology contains the first four film installments, starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney in the title role.

In Batman, the caped crusader (Keaton) faces off against Joker (Jack Nicholson). At the same time, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne tries to juggle a relationship with psychiatrist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) while keeping his secret identity under wraps.

In Batman Returns, the dark knight (Keaton) has his hands full dealing with Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The latter battle is further complicated by an undeniable attraction between the two adversaries.

In Batman Forever, the big bat’s (Kilmer) enemies join forces to put the odds in their favour. Two-face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler (Jim Carrey) scheme together to uncover Batman’s true identity and prepare a surprise attack. Meanwhile, Wayne tries to mentor a young man (Chris O’Donnell) and prevent him from going down the same path of vigilante justice.

In Batman and Robin, the masked crime fighter (Clooney) and his sidekick (O’Connell) take on Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman).

The first two chapters were directed by Tim Burton. His dark sensibility was perfectly suited to the story. The invention of Catwoman in Batman Returns is exceptionally well-done. Under Joel Schumacher’s wing, Batman Forever aimed for a somewhat lighter tone, particularly with the casting of Carrey; and although it wasn’t a complete disaster it was not up to par. The fourth flick is by far the worst episode of the series, with the weakest character development and lamest story arcs.

But this neat little package makes even the worst of the films worth owning. Taking the lid off the box reveals four individually packaged Blu-ray discs and each disc contains more than five hours of special features. The bonus elements explore every facet of the film from start to finish with countless interviews with cast, directors and crew as well clips from each film, arranged in character profiles, documentaries, featurettes and director commentaries. Then there are extras like the Prince music videos for Batman Returns, which add another angle to the Batman experience. The high-def presentations of the pictures, particularly the first two that highlight all the varieties of darkness used, are stunning. Finally, a digital copy of Batman is included in the package.

Woody Allen made a film without Scarlett Johansson. Coincidentally, it’s quite a bit better than his last few ventures.

Ian (Ewan McGregor) is unsatisfied with his lot in life. Instead of taking over his dad’s restaurant, he’s saving to invest in American hotels. He yearns to be like his well-off, exotic uncle (Tom Wilkinson). Ian’s brother Terry (Colin Farrell) is a compulsive gambler with a steady girl. But a lucky streak gets the boys enough cash to pay off their dream boat, which they fittingly name Cassandra’s Dream after the 60-1 long shot. But quick enough they’re in over their heads – Ian needs more investment money and Terry is in major debt. Their uncle has a solution to their problems, but it means a significant moral compromise on their part.

Allen returns to providing his intriguing character examinations, as well as an illustration of the great lengths a man will go to to keep a woman that’s probably out of his league. After several disappointments (with the exception of Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Allen has finally produced a film worthy of his time and ours.

Farrell and McGregor are wonderful; and Farrell once again displays his very competent acting chops. As they are very different people, their relationship as brothers is not based on how alike they are but on how they relate to each other, which they do in a very brotherly way. They match each other’s enthusiasm and melancholy nicely.

As with any Allen DVD release, there are no special features to evaluate.

When it comes to horror, you need look no farther than France.

In the early ‘70s, a 10-year-old girl who’d been missing for months is found running down an empty road. She looks like she’s been tortured for a long period of time but she has no idea from where she escaped. Traumatized, she is placed in a hospital to recover. There, Lucie meets Anna, a girl about her age and they become inseparable friends. Fifteen years later, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) appears on the doorstep of a well-to-do family with a rifle. She’s convinced this is the house of horrors she escaped all those years ago. And she wastes no time getting even. But when Anna (Morjana Alaoui) comes to help Lucie, she’s not so sure Lucie was right.

Blood and hideous injuries are a given in contemporary French horror. But this film attempts to give more meaning to the horrible afflictions being visited on these girls. Their pain is not a pleasure; instead, it’s meant to serve a higher purpose. But the reasoning is not as solid as the perpetrators believe.

This film is on par with other French thrillers, including High Tension and Inside. They’re bloody but the stories are very compelling. The violence is always leading up to some cataclysmic conclusion.

Sadly, there were no DVD special features to evaluate – except for couple of trailers.

This is an update of a 1951 film of the same name that maintains a very similar message.

A swarm of government agents show up at Helen’s (Jennifer Connelly) door and ”request” she go with them, leaving her to scramble for someone to look after her stepson (Jaden Smith). She and a group of other scientists are taken to a secure location and briefed about a space object on a crash course for Earth set to hit in just over an hour. But instead of a devastating collision, the glowing orb lands slowly in a park. A being emerges and it eventually takes human form – his name is Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). He is joined by a giant robot named Gort that responds to violence. Klaatu has a very important message for world leaders but fear and a need for control hinder his mission.

In the earlier version, Klaatu came to Earth to warn people their path of destruction will lead to extermination by the rest of the universe. This time around we’ve already done too much damage and Klaatu is here to set the universe’s solution into motion. And as a race, humans do little to prove we deserve better. The final message is that faced with our own destruction, we can change – but hasn’t that happened repeatedly to no avail – the Cold War and global warming come to mind.

Many may think an emotionless alien is the perfect role for Reeves and they’d be right. He does very well. His coldness is countered by the emotional performance by Connelly. Her pleas on behalf of humanity are heartfelt, however empty her promises.

The filmmakers’ take is a modernization of the original tale that works quite well. The CGl is not overwhelming, but rather appropriate to and supportive of the story. The orbs are very attractive.

The two-disc DVD special features are varied and interesting; except for the less than two minutes of deleted scenes, which are pointless. “Re-imagining The Day” featurette is a look at how the filmmakers approached the remake of such an iconic sci-fi picture; while “Unleashing Gort” looks at the variations Gort went through before production. “Watching the Skies” is a bit more of a documentary about UFO sightings and the “Green” featurette is about how everyone pitched in to make the production environmentally friendly. The commentary by writer David Scarpa is very sparse. The still galleries include concept art, storyboards and production photos – all of which are quite appealing.

The Reader addresses the void in films that address issues confronting the generation born after the Holocaust in Germany.

In post-WWII Germany, teen Michael Berg (David Kross) falls ill on his way home from school and is helped home by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a woman twice his age. Michael recovers and seeks out Hanna to thank her but instead begins a passionate, secretive affair. He discovers Hanna likes to be read to, deepening their physical relationship. Then Hanna mysteriously disappears, leaving Michael confused and heartbroken. Eight years later, Michael is a law student observing Nazi war crime trials and is shocked to find Hanna is one of the defendants. As Hanna’s past is revealed, Michael uncovers a deep secret that will impact both of their lives.

The Reader is a haunting story that spans 37 years. It’s about how one generation comes to terms with the crimes of another. The children born after the war were innocent of the atrocities committed but trapped under the dark cloud that hung over the population. They were ashamed of their parents and neighbours, even if just for tolerating the perpetrators in their midst. One character argues the trials are a diversion because everyone in Germany is guilty. Michael expresses his warring emotions, saying when he tries to understand Hanna’s actions, he feels he should be condemning it; but when he condemns her actions, there is no room for understanding.

Audiences will have very similar conflicting feelings towards Winslet’s character, which earned her a best actress Academy Award. First exposed to a warm relationship with a lovely woman, it is difficult to reconcile that image with an agent of death. Any hint of empathy or sympathy for Hanna feels wrong.

Kross is exceptional, portraying both the 15-year-old and 23-year-old Michael. His affection towards Hanna is palpable, while his revulsion at her past is equally blatant. Ralph Fiennes portrays the middle-aged Michael, who is remembering his history with Hanna. However, Kross’ characters are more significant to the story, somewhat overshadowing Fiennes’ representation. Winslet is sincere and credible as both the lover and the almost naïve perpetrator. Her performance at the trial is especially moving.
The DVD contains the usual special features. Deleted scenes further explore the relationship of the star-crossed lovers as well as Michael’s warring emotions; the most missed scene is a classroom discussion in which the teacher further provokes the students’ thoughts. The “making of” featurette includes interviews with various cast and crew, while there is a separate recorded conversation between Kross and director Stephen Daldry discussing his journey with the character and approach to the love scenes. A summary of the multi-hour aging process Winslet underwent is also provided, during which she shows she’s quite witty and down-to-earth. A shocking element may be the youth of the film’s composer Nico Muhly, who stars in his own featurette.