Archive for May, 2010

MAY 4
Nine
The film follows the life of world famous film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he reaches a creative and personal crisis of epic proportion, while balancing the numerous women in his life; including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his film star muse (Nicole Kidman), his confidant and costume designer (Judi Dench), a young American fashion journalist (Kate Hudson), the whore from his youth (Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson) and his mother (Sophia Loren).

Special features include: commentary by director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca; “Behind the Look of Nine”; “Director Rob Marshall”; “The Choreography of ‘Be Italian’”; “The Choreography of ‘Cinema Italiano’”; “The Dancers of Nine”; “The Incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis”; “The Women of Nine”; “Making of ‘Cinema Italiano’”; and music clips: “Cinema Italiano” featuring Kate Hudson, “Take It All” featuring Marion Cotillard, and “Unusual Way” featuring Griffith Frank.

(more…)

Leon Trotsky was a Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist that advocated Red Army intervention against European fascism. He died in 1940. Leon Bronstein (Jay Baruchel) believes he is the reincarnation of Trotsky and is attempting to relive the major events in his life.

The film begins with Leon staging a hunger strike at his father’s factory in hopes of unionizing the workers. His sister and biggest supporter (Tommie-Amber Pirie) was cheerleading at the event. Finally at the end of his rope, Leon’s father (Saul Rubinek) refuses to pay the tuition for Leon’s private school, enrolling him in public school instead. Leon soon sees this as an opportunity to organize his greatest stand against fascism by uniting the students in a fight for a legitimate student union. Leon’s main obstacle is the students – are they experiencing apathy or boredom because only the former can be changed. In the meantime, Leon is attempting to court Alexandra (Emily Hampshire), a woman he believes will be his wife because she shares the name and attributes of Trotsky’s wife.

The Trotsky is a smart and witty film and Baruchel is definitely the ideal casting selection for the role of the young, delusional Leon. Having built his reputation in independent Canadian pictures, Baruchel can add another triumphant performance to his résumé. He appears to wholly believe he is destined to live out Trotsky’s biography; his determination never wavers. Amusingly, to help Leon in his task, he’s created a nine-step life plan of significant moments to repeat, including starting a newspaper and his own assassination “hopefully somewhere warm.”

The narrative relies on Baruchel to carry the story forward but the supporting cast is also important. In addition to those mentioned, he teams with three of his new schoolmates to begin a revolution: Ricky Mabe, Jessica Paré and Jesse Camacho. Leon’s fascist targets are Principal Berkhoff (Colm Feore) and Mrs. Danvers (Domini Blythe).

The students hold a dance with a social justice theme, which brings out Black Panthers, Maoists, guerrillas and a variety of other freedom fighters. The setup to the students arriving at the dance is striking as they march towards the school en masse. Another beautifully framed moment occurs as two of the characters kiss in front of a striking painting of a bedroom, hung on the wall of a bedroom.

A well-written script, good direction and great actors make The Trotsky an entertaining and thoughtful experience.

Ridley Scott appears incapable of making a film with a runtime of less than two hours. Robin Hood is no different at 140 minutes, but as with Scott’s other pictures you’d never know it.

Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is an expert archer in King Richard’s (Danny Huston) army against the French and interested only in self-preservation. Upon Richard’s death, Robin travels to Nottingham, a town suffering from the corruption of a despotic sheriff and crippling taxation, to fulfill a dying wish. It’s there he falls for the spirited widow Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett). Determined to earn Marian’s hand and salvage the village, Robin assembles a gang with lethal mercenary skills to prey on the indulgent upper class and correct injustices under the sheriff. In the meantime, England has been weakened from decades of war and now more so by the ineffective rule of the new king, making it vulnerable to insurgencies from within and threats from afar. Thus, Robin and his men are compelled to return to their posts and protect their country from slipping into bloody civil war and return glory to England once more.

Taking a different approach to the socialist legend (and notably dissimilar from the Kevin Costner portrayal in Robin Hood: King of Thieves), the story unfolds before Robin took to Sherwood Forest as a fugitive. This untold tale allows for more drama between the characters as well as captivating combat on the battlefield – the film opens in the middle of an attack and displays striking underwater arrow strikes during another. Furthermore, though relatively long, the film keeps a steady pace, reaching a critical plot point or action sequence every 20 to 30 minutes.

Crowe was simply made for these roles in which he takes a stand on behalf of the common folk, using his fighting abilities and rational thought to make his point and lead an entire people to victory while significantly angering those in charge (yes, that does sound familiar, doesn’t it? Gladiator anyone?). Nonetheless, it can’t be said there was any error in casting. Mark Strong continues to strive in the role of villain and Oscar Isaac is outstanding as the selfish Prince John. The supporting cast, which includes Max von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Addy, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Duran, Scott Grimes and Allan Doyle (of Great Big Sea), is also fitting; the latter three, Robin’s merry men, are particularly endearing.

The film is typical of Scott’s period pieces: drab colours and high production values recreate medieval times; wide shots display the large armies and vast countryside; and the actors infuse their characters with sincere personalities, breathing a fascinating life into each.

Robin Hood is a more than watchable new take on an old story.

Jack Abramoff made headlines when he was charged and convicted of the misuse of millions of dollars through fraud and “attempted” bribery of government officials. Casino Jack and the United States of Money shows how he attained the level of access and trust that allowed him the opportunity to commit his crimes.

The film is a fascinating study in the disruptive power of money and how it so effortlessly undermines the American democratic process. By plucking out the scandalous events surrounding Abramoff, including million-dollar swindle schemes, mob-style murder, and trips to the Marianas Islands to interfere with international labour laws, this spy-like drama is almost too bizarre to be believed.

Director Alex Gibney adopts a Michael Moore-style of documentary storytelling, employing a popular soundtrack that includes Metallica; clips from movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Manchurian Candidate and Patton; humorous animations and graphics; and an omnipotent narrator to string together the various interviews with “real” people (a patsy of Abramoff’s chosen to head AIC contends he was “really weirded out” by the large sums of money being moved around in his name). In addition, he uses clever intertitles to link events. However, his approach appears less manipulative as he is more simply recounting Abramoff’s history rather than creating an argument against him.

Having only skimmed the cliff notes of the scandal, this film was a well of information. To see Abramoff’s slow but purposeful rise to power is fascinating, as was his ability to convince anyone of anything; as one man says, “He could charm a dog off a meat truck.” In the end, it appears to be a simple combination of charm, greed and intellect that propelled him through life and eventually into a prison cell. Nonetheless, the missing voices of key players is felt significantly; namely Abramoff, his partner Michael Scanlon and Republican Senator Tom Delay (most recently seen on Dancing with the Stars). Conversely, it appears almost everyone else is interviewed, providing their piece of the puzzle.

The only notable failure occurs at the very end of the film when the filmmaker links Abramoff’s deeds, and those of people like him, to the recession. While the point that lobbyists and campaign contributions have significant influence on policy makers, including the market deregulation that led to the economic collapse, the message felt out of place.

Kings of Pastry is quite possibly one of the most delicious films ever committed to celluloid.

France’s highest chef honour, the Meilleur Ouvrier, is awarded once every four years and is every pâtissier’s dream. Sixteen top pastry chef face three days of back-breaking competition, creating round after round of fanciful, often gravity-defying confections while a team of meticulous judges time, inspect, and sample every morsel. This is the story of three of those hopefuls.

Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegadus were the first people ever permitted to view the competition, let alone film it, so watching this documentary is truly a treat. The sequences in which the chef explains the edible masterpiece he is creating is akin to watching a cooking show on the Food Network, but without the step-by-step instructions. However, when the slightly imperfect recipe causes the chef to drop an entire raspberry caramel dome-shaped cake into the trash, one’s stomach simply sinks.

The competition itself is viewed from the fly on the wall perspective of strictly observance. We are invited to watch as the numerous judges in each candidate’s kitchen intensely inspects and tastes the chef’s concoctions, often simultaneously like synchronized swimmers. Tension builds as the competition draws nearer the end and chefs must carry their incredibly delicate sculptures of molded sugar to the display area; having already watched various prototypes shatter at the slightest jostle, everyone in the audience is at the edge of their seats.

Pennebaker’s style of cinema vérité continues to strive in presenting an unbiased view into a previously unseen environment. His ability to simply be a camera in a room gives audiences the experience of really being there (wherever “there” may be). The only thing that could have enhanced this viewing experience is smell-o-vision.

Many of us grew up watching films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, or hearing tales of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, but what of contemporary mobsters? Thieves By Law shares the story of three “retired” Russian mafiosi.

With unprecedented access and archival footage, the film follows three former kingpins of the Russian mafia. It reveals the underworld’s formation in Stalin’s Gulag in the 1930s, establishing its codes of honour and hierarchical tattoos, continuing through the Soviet collapse to its coldly calculated ascension to legitimate control of Russian society in the 1990s and eventual global expansion. The ‘retired’ leading men are Leonid “Mackintosh” Bilunov from Ukraine, a strategist, businessman, and master of hand-to-hand combat; Alimzhan “Taivanchik” Tokhtahltounov, an Uzbekistani playboy famously accused of bribing a figure skating judge at the 2002 Olympics; and Vitaly “Bondar” Dyemochka, a cold-blooded thief now turned filmmaker.

The men in this film are so candid about their lifestyle and “deeds.” They of course avoid divulging any specific information, but even the generalities are captivating/disturbing. The men discuss how they became criminals, the means by which they’ve made their fortunes (extorting businessmen mostly) and the gang wars that bloodied Russian streets through the ’90s.

Of the three men, Bondar is very open about the violence he’s commited throughout his life for honour, status or business. He even has a casual conversation with an associate about breaking people’s faces with brass knuckles or knee caps with baseball bats. However, all the men view their actions as a necessity to their survival or success – it’s simply the way things work in Russia.

On a side note, the stories these men tell corroborate the accuracy of David Cronenberg’s film Eastern Promises as they describe the meanings of their tattoos and loyalties.

Iceland is a beautiful country, but their main source of income as revealed by Dreamland is made at the expense of the land – “sacrificing nature would do wonders for the economy.”

Iceland’s abundant hydroelectric and geothermal energy markets have resulted in more jobs, more kilowatts and more revitalization. What isn’t measured is the loss of landscape and lifestyle. Some of the world’s most magnificent and unique habitat is being sacrificed for clean, renewable energy to be used by the aluminum industry. Ironically, one of the world’s cleanest nations is being used as a dumping ground for heavy industry. The relentless march towards “progress” has put a price on everything from natural resources to political sovereignty to morality.

Through interviews with various experts on the environment, economy, politics and just Icelandic natives, the documentary discusses and demonstrates the damage being done to the country’s landscape. In addition, a neutrally-voiced narrator delivers the broader statements and gems like the quote above. Conversely, the other side of the story is poorly represented and when they are shown they’re framed in a way that makes them appear greedy and uncaring.

The repeated use of aerial shots sometimes feels excessive, but it also hammers home the preciousness of what is being lost. The appearance of a dreadful factory in the centre of a lush countryside is quite impactful. Additionally, the image of a mother bird losing her nest to the effects of a new dam is (calculatingly) heartbreaking.

The film makes many good points, but its argument could have been significantly stronger by giving a credible voice to the opposition and being a little less emotionally manipulative.