Brief Reviews: The Perfect Host

When I saw that David Hyde Pierce was going to be in a movie where he got to play a villainous dinner host, I thought it had everything going for it. When, later, I saw the trailer for the film, I found myself very much interested in seeing it.

And then nothing happened. I never saw it released in theatres. It didn’t even make the local rounds as a limited or art house theatrical release.

Then, one day, I’m walking through Queen Video and I see it on the shelf. Hot damn, thinks I. I take the tag to the counter and the cool video girl says I really want to see this. I then comment on the fact that I never saw it released in theatres, that this is typically – certainly not in this movie’s case – the mark of Cain. I think we both looked at each other for a moment, then I settled up and took the DVD home.

The Perfect Host has a great premise: a bank robber (Clayne Crawford, eerily reminiscent of Ray Liotta), fleeing capture, takes shelter under false pretenses as a guest of Warwick Wilson (Pierce), a rather elegant, if odd-mannered home owner who is about to throw a party for friends. However, the thief discovers that his host is more than he seems – that he is in fact a sadistic bully who wants to have fun with his prey.

The problem, and this becomes apparent quite soon, is that Warwick’s impending dinner party is all in his head. His guests are imaginary. That’s right: HE’S INSANE. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that the trailer didn’t really make this apparent, and suddenly what promises to be a suspenseful nail-biter (a thief hiding in a crowd of strangers sizzles on the page, after all) turns into a ho-hum, sometimes awkward two-hander. While David Hyde Pierce (who many will know as Niles Crane, from TV’s Frasier) is certainly up to the job in the role of Wilson, the script hits an early dead-end after the initial setup, leaving him and Crawford to play in a lame version of Sleuth as directed by Quentin Tarantino.

What’s worse is that, despite the low-budget compromises and lack of other real characters to impact upon the action (after all, who gives a shit about what imaginary house guests think), The Perfect Host shows promises of becoming a better film via flashbacks of the thief’s backstory, but by the last act (and certainly the ending) the logic is stretched beyond respect for the intelligence of the viewer, with far too many plot holes. Considering the talent wasted, this is sort of tragic.

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Brief Reviews: Incendies

For someone like myself, who makes his living working in film, it would seem perilous to declare a “favourite” Canadian filmmaker. However, it’s a no-brainer that one of them is Denis Villeneuve. Ever since I saw his Genie award-winning Maelstrom, I knew I was watching someone who was not burdened by the shackles of mediocrity so commonly on display in the end-product of so many emerging or established Canadian filmmakers.

Incendies, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards, is devastatingly good. It tells the story of fraternal twins who, while coping with the death of their mother, are handed two envelopes by the estate lawyer. One is to give to their father, whom they presume is either dead or estranged. The other is to give to their brother, whom they’ve never known existed. Neither know what any of this means and what follows is a side-winding story that is equal parts tragic and breath-taking.

Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film spends most of its time in a Middle Eastern country that is never identified for the audience. It’s a curious technique which may frustrate some, and yet it was refreshing for a film to sidestep our cultural preconceptions or prejudicial baggage by focusing strictly on the unfolding of its complex tale and its toll on the characters, past and present. At the core of Incendies is the devastating journey of the twins’ mother, played by Lubna Azabal, told in flashbacks.

There are moments of heightened violence in this film. Moments where you say to yourself: no, no, no – please don’t show us what I think you are about to show us. And yet, to Villeneuve’s credit – something I noticed in Maelstrom – he is one of a short list of directors capable of portraying material which may be extremely unsettling in ways which are neither insensitive to the audience nor disrespectful to the spirit of the story. Yet, the weight of what is ultimately revealed in the circuitous route of the twins will certainly haunt the audience long after the film is done.

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Brief Reviews: Certified Copy

Certified Copy is certainly in the running for one of the best films I have seen in 2011. You would not guess this by looking at the poster or the anonymity of its title. Two things do stand out to me immediately: actor Juliette Binoche and director Abbas Kiarostami. Binoche is one of the greatest of her generation, able to transform herself at will. Kiarostami is not a household name but is nonetheless a master of intimate cinematic storytelling (A Taste of Cherry). Certified Copy is about an English writer (William Shimell) and a French art dealer (Binoche) who spend the day in Tuscany together. He is there on a book tour, and she is there ostensibly as his handler.

What transpires requires some delicacy in explaining. While having coffee in a small village, a presumption is made about them by a local: that they are a married couple. The presumption and all that follows lies at the heart of what is a masterful piece of work by Kiarostami. Cutting is kept to a minimum, but that’s fine because often the actors are staring right at us (rather than each other), and what actors: Binoche displays such a range of emotion and depth of feeling in her role as the conflicted half of the presumed couple, and Shimell – an opera singer in real life (believe it or not, this is his first film) – is hypnotic as the edgily self-consumed, emotionally opaque other half.

I am tempted to compare this film in some respects, stylistically at least, to Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché), with whom Binoche has collaborated many times. And yet, Certified Copy lacks the brutality, the near-misanthropy of Haneke. Which is not to say that you won’t be kept on the edge of your seat wondering just what is going on between the two leads, and within them. A must-see for anyone looking for depth in their drama.

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Two TIFF Reviews

The Keyhole world premiere at TIFF went over quite well (see here for more). I had the opportunity to catch two other films over the same weekend:

360: Fernando Meirelles’ latest film is a continent-spanning, Wim Wenders-esque meditation on fidelity and perseverance in a world whose inhabitants’ stories are increasingly inter-threaded. The cinematography is beautiful, with exquisite long shots which accentuate each locale intimately, while the characters sort out their broken hearts and wandering eyes. The cast is solid: Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz, and many others, with yet another gritty, soul-churning performance by Ben Foster. It is a movie with a clear moral conscience at its core, which may disappoint some who are looking for a string of happy endings, and others who alternately want the world to conform to a cynical philosophy. One to elicit discussion, for sure.Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, in a scene from "360"Jude Law & Rachel Weisz in "360"

Anonymous: It’s weird to see a movie at TIFF which you know will be rolled out into movie theatres soon. Weirder still to stand in line and see a massive-sized poster for the movie you are about to see across the street from you, telling you that it will premiere in a month’s time. The tickets were comps, so I didn’t let this hang me up. Sam Reid as the Earl of Essex, in "Anonymous"

Anonymous isn’t a great film, I will say that now. In an effort to dramatize its thesis – that our notion of Shakespeare is based on a ruse, and that The Bard’s works were actually written by a nobleman, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) – it crams in so many plot points to justify its theory (and it is a leading Shakespeare-alternate theory, for what that’s worth) that I felt separated from the characters (and eventually the story) on the screen. And this is a shame, because it’s a gorgeous-looking film and the filmmakers obviously spent a dear load of time making everything look authentic. The performances as well are quite strong, with a cast which also includes Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I and David Thewlis, who all but lives beneath the skin of the calculating William Cecil. The great tragedy, if you will pardon the pun, is that Rhys Ifans’ affecting lead performance, an actor who for so long has held films together in often comic-serving supporting roles, seems sacrificed to some degree – scattered across a time-spanning storyline – so that we only see him intermittently. Pity. Still, for those who love movies with codpieces and horse hooves clop-clop-clopping on cobblestone, you could do worse.

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Brief Reviews: The Town vs. Animal Kingdom

When Ben Affleck’s The Town came out, many praised it as a powerful crime drama/action film. And yet, the shine seems to have come off of that project, probably as a result of people chasing the hype and actually watching it.

First, let’s discuss its poster. In recent years, I’ve become sensitive to bad marketing. A good example of this is the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall: the ad campaign (in Toronto at least) consisted of anonymous black and white bus and streetcar ads, with hand-scrawled “I HATE YOU SARAH MARSHALL!” (and the like) written on them*. In short, the campaign was cheap-looking, lame, and soured any potential expectation I had for the film – it wasn’t until much later, at my wife’s urging, that I caught it on DVD and found it to be one of the highlights of the year.

Similarly, the poster for The Town (displayed here) is a marketing mystery to me: it looks like a horror movie. It’s directed by and stars Ben Affleck, yet the poster is covered in evil nuns with automatic weapons. In short, I don’t get it: sure, it’s a “serious movie” but what were they thinking? Was it reverse psychology? Who knows. If it were me, it would be a close-up photo of John Hamm licking Ben Affleck’s unshaven face, with the caption: “Holy shit! It’s the guy from MadMen with Ben Affleck! And they  shoot weapons!”

Then there’s the film itself. Technically, it’s very impressive. Affleck’s direction is solid. The performances are gritty and engaging. It’s free of stunt-casting. Camerawork, editing, sound: great. But when the credits rolled, I realized what was wrong. The story’s been done a hundred fucking times before – twice by Michael Mann. So, for me, there was nothing being risked as a viewer because, having watched more than one crime drama in my life, there were no surprises in the script. Believe me when I say that I wanted this film to be as good as it promised – and, in fact, it is good. Just not as good as it clearly could’ve been when you take into account all that it has going for it.

So what did I want The Town to be? I wasn’t sure…until I saw the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom on DVD. It has all the grit, tension, and complexity of The Town, with less overt style and more substance, and no actors recognizable to most North American audiences (outside of Memento‘s Guy Pearce). Its poster? Have a look:

It reminds me of a Jeff Wall photograph. And in the middle of it all is the crafty look on the face of actor Jacki Weaver (nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2011 Oscars).

Animal Kingdom is a film fluent in the crime drama language – it even shares some of the tropes of The Town (the nervous druggie robber, the dutiful police detective) yet never once feels as if you are watching a re-treaded story. It is unpredictable and the performances are naturalistic and subtle.Its lack of artifice keeps us watching, whereas with The Town, each successive car chase weighed it down with Hollywood cliché. Where one carries broader tension, the other is quietly disturbing and takes a more nihilistic view of the cops and robbers game.

The good news is that both are available for your perusal on DVD, and both are extremely watchable. Neither, ultimately, will disappoint: it depends on where your expectations are set. I feel that Animal Kingdom is the film The Town wanted to be.

* I admit I’m particularly sensitive to ads which don’t make it clear that they are ads, especially if they look like actual public messages of hatred.

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Film Review – Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

[july 13 – I’ve updated the information on the game played in the film. Thanks “SM”!]

I don’t normally do film reviews – so many other places provide this (for better or worse) – but I thought the following would be of interest…

When I heard that the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was playing a one-night show at the Bloor Cinema, I couldn’t resist getting tickets for myself, my wife, and my good friend – let’s call him “SM”.

My friend and I both work in film/TV and both are big soccer fans, so there was potentially a lot here for us to appreciate (or at least make fun of afterwards). I’d separately heard the Mogwai soundtrack beforehand and thought it was interesting – very meditative. A short synopsis on the film: it recounts French soccer star Zenedine Zidane’s club game with Real Madrid, in a match with Spanish cup rival Villareal on April 23rd, 2005.

After the screening, we stood on the street, slowly coming to the conclusion that we all had problems with the film. Yet, rather than write it off as a “bad film” and drink with purposeful abandon, we found ourselves talking about it – trying to make sense of what it was that did or didn’t work.

What follows are a set of emails I exchanged with “SM”, which I feel demonstrates better than a formal film review our thoughts on the film. I am “MC” and my wife shall be known as “G”.

—-
From SM:

I now think that I really didn’t like the film beyond a technical
appreciation, especially for the sound design. I have slept on it and feel
fairly strongly about this.

It could be that I brought too much baggage to the film, or perhaps as
“G” suggested, it didn’t lend itself well to the theatre environment
(even if only on that day). But during the film I found myself missing the
wide screen coverage of the action at least for some sense of geography. Or perhaps more variance on the close up detail of ZZ – ie, exaggerated time stretching of actions to capture muscle tone/movement. Perhaps something to break the tedium. And that was perhaps the biggest frustration – the tedium. If the point was to study someone performing a Sisyphean task so closely that you really couldn’t tell what the task was at any given time, then that mission was accomplished. But for me it didn’t inform or entertain but left me detached, distracted and unmoved.

Also, it became a side issue to see what kind of possible image rights
issues they may have had to deal with. The animated sideboards were all in English – Kellogg’s “Frosties”, Gillette razors. In Madrid? Perhaps that is so. But it stuck in my mind. As did the peripheral existence of Michael Owen. I’m positive I saw him running on the fringes of the screen, but no image of him straight on lasted long enough for recognition, neither did his jersey name or number. But there was a lot of everyone else. And so I started to wonder, hmm, what if some players were not willing to lend their image to the film? But I don’t think I should have been thinking that. In fact I was frustrated that I was doing that. But the film left me little else to think or feel.

—-
From MC:

I do agree with your after-sleep assessment – in particular what you wrote about rights clearances. I must admit, the exact same thing was going through my head the entire time: did they need permission from Beckham? Did they need permission to show the Frosted Flakes ad? What about Zidane’s clothing sponsorship (Adidas)? However, two questions arise from this:

1) If we’re asking ourselves those questions in the first place, is that not indicative that the film has problems?

2) Again, to take the “naive media soul” approach, would the average person ask those questions? Are we being too savvy/media-aware? Mind you, considering our tastes and how potentially this film could have catered to them, if *we* were thinking about rights clearances what the hell was the Annex chick with the $200 haircut and the flip flops focusing on (that would be the “proverbial Annex chick…” not anyone in particular)?

I must say that I would like to see it again (not soon) on home video. I think that, aesthetically speaking, it would/could be a better experience seeing it in an intimate environment.

At least we’re talking about it! Maybe the director just wanted to make something people could chat about?? Eh?

—-
From SM:

Yeah, but the director of “The People Under The Stairs” had me talking after the film too. Just not anything I can repeat in mixed company.

The “naive media soul” might not drift to the kinds of thoughts we were (image rights) but perhaps instead might think “do I need to pick up some eggs?” or “hey I need to Lemon Pledge my tables this weekend” to help fill in the void left by watching this film

on imdb there’s two polar opposite reviews (see below)

POINT

“This is the most affecting, profound piece of documentary film I have seen in years. That said, it is a challenging work that doesn’t fully reveal it’s power until well into the viewing. As much a meditation as a film, the net effect is similar to that of watching “Winged Migration”. Watching the simple, relatively unaffected actions of Zidane over the course of a match begins to work on you. I pondered politics, commercialism, world conflict, fame, economics, the media and more over the course of my first viewing. There is no easy way to encapsulate the overall feeling, the ebbs and tides experienced while watching the film, but afterward you will view the world in as if with new eyes. It is also a masterpiece technically. I couldn’t help but admire the precise and exquisite sound design and music, how they blended to the action and psychological state being portrayed to the moment. The cameras seamlessly take the viewer from sprawling, epic points of view to the most intimate. The use of subtitle without voice over narration used to portray Zidane’s thoughts is nothing short of revolutionary. This film may disappoint a soccer fan simply seeking a piece of sports entertainment, but for a lover and student of film it is groundbreaking, important work that must be seen.”

COUNTERPOINT
“The guys who made this movie got it so wrong. They actually show Zidane as a tired static player and not the football god he is. Zidane is my idol for many years and what makes him a great player is: 1. his absolute vision of whats going on on the football field 2. His abilities to make the players around him better. Yes, he’s got amazing control of the ball and elegant movements that wont put to shame even a ballet dancer. But thats not it. For example, to show the amazing abilities of the conductor Zubin Mehta, you wont film him waving his hands for an hour of a silence movie. You must record his orchestra and show the connection between the conductor’s brilliance and its outcome on his “TEAM” of musicians. The same goes to Zidan. It is pretty obvious that the film makers here, do not understand football and what really made Zidane the amazing player he is. They showcase a too long, too static performance, mostly in close ups. Most of the time you don’t know where Zidane is located on the pitch, or how does he reacts to the opponents formation or plays. Sorry. Nice try but the results are poor and boring.”

BACK TO ME

The frustrating thing is, I agree and disagree with both of them. The first guy is a bit lofty with his praise, but I agree with his assessment of it being a technical masterpiece (well maybe not that high up, but you know). I don’t however think “it is groundbreaking, important work that must be seen.” I miss not really being able to see the attributes that the second reviewer describes. But I think too that it would then verge on “highlight reel” stuff.

I wondered if it would have been more engaging if this had been a vocal midfield general like Roy Keane or someone who saw more of the ball (maybe a Beckham). I really would like to hear an honest opinion of a professional footballer to this film. Not that they’re better players, but perhaps there’d be more range of emotion? And maybe that’s what I was missing. By the time Zidane’s emotions showed (smiling with Roberto Carlos, getting in the brawl), it was too late; I had stopped caring at half time.

—-
From MC:

I fall between the two points also.

I do think there is a mantric quality to the film which, combined with the half-time segment and the sound design, provides a larger (albeit arguably more “wispy”) palette for the viewer – it becomes less about soccer and more about…well, who the fuck knows. Spin the wheel. However, this last point starts getting more into the territory of Art and Art Appreciation – the lack of a fixed message isn’t the point. However, not to let the director off the hook, I’m not entirely sure his intent was clear or if it was, whether it was achieved.

On the other hand, yes, anything else probably would’ve become a sports-porn highlight reel. I wondered if, instead of Zidane it would’ve been more effective to choose someone else – either a name or another position – but that too poses just as many problems. Zidane isn’t a Chatty Cathy and his largely mute performance works because it’s all about his focus or lack thereof. You could say the same about most goaltenders, but then again if you thought the focus on Zidane was static, imagine someone standing within two goalposts for 90m would be? Keane…that would be interesting. Certainly more dynamic, but would it have the same quiet grace and reflectiveness?

Yes – I would like to have a pro footballer’s perspective on the film. I’m hoping the Guardian or someone else thinks of this. Better still would be a moderated discussion between the director, a professional footballer, and an interviewer. Unfortunately this would only ever be shown on television in France. Still…

—-
From SM:

Yes yes and yes.

The intention was unclear.

The quiet grace and reflectiveness works for a moment for me. But it became ironically grating over time. A shorter film would probably achieve more.
Or more accurately, if this approach were applied to a smaller scene in a film where the protagonist is followed like this in a climactic match or just an fairly important match this would be quite effective as a montage.

Reminds me, if memory serves correct, of the Raging Bull fight where LaMotta finally wins the title – the camera stays mostly on him/his face throughout the fight. But with Raging Bull, there had been a connection to the subject previous to this – mostly thanks to it being a narrative form and that the subject was an expressive actor – as well as throughout.

With the Zidane film one’s only connection was any expectations you brought to the film based on your knowledge of the subject from your reality (World Cups 98 thru 2006 etc etc). And the silent disconnect experienced here can only lead to a let down from that expectation.

Here’s the stick, you want one last go?

I decided not – I think we both had our turns at it. Yet, irregardless of whether Zidane was a success or failure, any film which can elicit these sorts of thoughts is worth a mention.

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