Monday, February 27, 2012

Better than James Bond

When I heard that Act of Valor (Mike McCoy & Scott Waugh) starred U.S. Navy Seals - and that the film in many ways had been exceptionally done - I decided to go out and see it. I haven’t seen such an exciting – sit on the edge of your seat, style – movie in quite some time. Yup, these are ordinary – or extraordinary - Navy Seals (the same guys who killed bin Laden) who had been given scripts to act. The film has been criticized for the stilted acting. I don’t think the audience I was with cared one bit. In fact go to the Rotten Tomatoes web site and take a look at the disparity between critics’ rating of the film and general audience reaction – today it’s 31% vs. 85%. And, wouldn’t you know it, Act of Valor turned out to be the top grossing movie of the weekend on its opening weekend! This makes me wonder if there should be a new way to evaluate films. That in fact the audience holds more credibility in terms of the overall impact of a film – essentially what movies at their emotional core are supposed to be all about - than cerebral, nuanced, biased, over-intellectualized critics. That’s certainly the case here. Another major criticism is that reviewers thought this was some kind of Armed Forces “recruiting” film. What a laugh. That thought never occurred to me at all. What we have in reality is a genuine action-packed thriller that combines real professionals, hi-tech warfare and real world plausible threats.....The plot: The film follows a group of Navy Seals who go “down range” to hunt and kill an assorted list of contemporary bad guys – Jihadists, narco drug lords – in this case the groups working together to exploit American border weaknesses and pull off terrorist attacks that would make 9/11 look like a walk in the park, as I think one character says.....The thing about this film, as opposed to a storyline in James Bond, is that the scenarios have a high degree of probability. Another is that we actually see the Seals in action (they apparently freelanced and the movie wasn’t sanctioned by the military; stuntmen weren’t capable of many of these scenes) with live ammo. This is stunning and emotionally gripping footage – almost non-stop, kind of like a video game, I guess – of Seals battling the bad guys.....The other great aspect of this film is there is a moral force at play. Since 9/11 we have not had many or any strongly patriotic movies, or at least once that don’t put the military or West in a bad light. The only one I can think of is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). Not that the filmmakers here go out of their way to evoke patriotism but that can be an effect. At least it was for me. In other films there are simply too many damn nuances if not outright condemnations of the West in the War on Terror (Fahrenheit 9/11, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah). Act of Valor is clearly a film about the Good Guys doing the Right Thing against the Bad Guys to Save Us All. Highly refreshing and hugely rivetting.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Woody's Oscar integrity

"I would not join any club that would have someone like me for a member." Okay it was Groucho Marx who said that. But it sure sounds like Woody Allen based on Woody’s attitude towards the Academy Awards. Woody, as most people probably know, has a policy of not only not showing up at the awards – even when his films are nominated - but not even acknowledging when he has received an award. That’s quite an accomplishment given the fact his films have won three Oscars and been nominated for 23 - 15 as screenwriter, seven as director, and one as an actor. He has more nominations than any other writer and is tied for third all-time for best director. Annie Hall won for best picture and three other awards in 1978. The last time any of Allen's films was nominated for the top award was 1986 for Hannah and Her Sisters.....In fact the only time he graced the awards stage was in 2002 when post-9/11 he urged filmmakers to keep making movies in NYC.....But now the critically and commercially successful Midnight in Paris starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams is up for four Oscars including best picture. Opened May 20 it is Allen’s best grossing film to date with more than $152 million in worldwide receipts.....The film is delightful on an artistic level but also has pleased a wider variety of moviegoers because of its whimsical nature and time-travelling story about presumed meetings with some of the most famous writers and artists of all time (Paris = artists – get it?).....But it's very hard to believe Allen will attend the ceremony. Because, as he says in last year’s Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert Weide (Nov. 21 post) he simply believes awards are not an objective definition of merit but merely opinion.....Allen has a kind of artistic integrity – or any professional integrity – rarely seen today. Lots of people give lip service but when there is some presentation that will polish their ego virtually everyone makes an exception and succumbs.....So come Feb. 26 Woody will probably be hard at work on another movie, spending the time with his family (not watching the awards), or famously playing his clarinet.

My recent films

CRAZY (2005) – by Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, whose most recent Café de Flore (2011) I reviewed in a Jan. 2 post. The more than two hour film is about Zac, a kid growing up sexually-confused in 1960s and 70s suburban Montreal. The acting is terrific in this family-focussed drama- comedy.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960) – George Franju’s horror/police mystery about a doctor perfecting plastic surgery who goes off the rails when his daughter is disfigured and he kidnaps unsuspecting young women to perform facial grafts. It’s worth two-and-a-half out of five stars for suspense but is not as scary as one might suspect.
THE COMPANY MEN (2011) – This Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones vehicle by John Wells is all about the Great Recesssion of the past few years. These top execs at a Boston shipbuilding company are turfed and have to figure out how to build back their lives. It’s one of the few films, Up in the Air (Jason Reitman – 2009) being another, that deals with the personal trauma of what has happened to the American economy since 2008. Affleck and Jones are good as is Rosemarie DeWitt as the Affleck character’s wife. Unlike Up in the Air, which I didn’t like for a variety of reasons, this ends on a hopeful note.
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED (2005). Liev Schreiber’s only directing role (he’s mainly an actor) based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jan. 27 post) starring Elijah Wood is various parts nerdy comedy and Jewish Holocaust memoir – goofy, hilarious and tear-welling poignant by turns. The overall word that comes to mind is “searing.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Short reviews for Oscar shorts

The list of Oscar nominations in animation and live action shorts, screened last weekend and next at the DFT, is a little underwhelming. In fact it’s surprising some of these got into competition. Oh, well, that’s the Oscars for you. Let’s start from the beginning.

 In animation:

- Dimanche/Sunday by Patrick Doyon, Canada. Add this to the collection of thousands of other weird nonsensical animations that line the vaults of Canada’s dusty National Film Board (NFB), which produced it. A young boy tries to survive a Sunday among his family, in laws and townsfolk in scenes which look out of 1950s Quebec but presumably are contemporary.
A Morning Stroll by Grant Orchard, UK (still shot above). This is the best animation by far. A chicken goes for a walk in three time periods in New York City. The movie perfectly captures at least two of the eras and, for the third, well, it’s in the future.
Wild Life by Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby, Canada. It’s a kind of Valentine to an older relative and the settlement of a proper English gentleman on the lonely Alberta prairie circa 1909. The absurdity is appreciated to a point.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce & Brandon Oldenburg, USA. Technically this is the most proficient of all. It’s got a great theme, one all the more poignant in the advent of digital readers. But it’s unclear what it’s exactly saying and too technically adroit for its own good, leading to boredom.
- La Luna by Enrico Casarosa, USA. From the studios of Pixar and Disney this is a child’s magical realist delight, as one might except from this production house. Best for kids and the adults can smile along.

In live action:

- Pentecost by Peter McDonald, Ireland. A black comedy aimed squarely at the Catholic Church. A generation ago this would have been considered sacrilegious. And in some other faiths today (I’ll leave you to guess) it would be more than that. But, yes, I did laugh. I always do until I think about the double standard.
- Raju by Max Zahle, Germany-India, (still shot above) is the best of the bunch, about a German couple adopting a child in Calcutta. This could have been an abridged feature film. It’s taut, emotional, gives us a realistic view of modern India (which looks better to my ignorant eyes that I would have thought) and deals with questions of morality.
- The Shore by Terry George, Northern Ireland, gives us a peek into the beautifully green but politically scarred country of The Troubles. The movie starts out benign enough but, not surprisingly, delves into old sectarian wounds, ending on an upbeat note. The picture is flawed by one long ridiculous scene.
- Time Freak by Andrew Bowler, USA, has the perfect format for a short film – an out-there premise, lots of gag lines, and you don’t know quite where you’re going within the short time frame. I’m not sure why it wasn’t really memorable.
- Tuba Atlantic by Hallvar Witzo, Norway, is the second best. It has delightful black humour, a send-up of the modern help industry, and a twist on Elizabeth Kübler- Ross,  which is hilarious. But it could have been slightly shorter and has a whiff of the ridiculous.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Preview Oscar-nominated short films

It’s Oscar-nominated short films time at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT). This weekend and next the beautifully-restored vintage theatre attached to the DIA will screen five animated short films and an equal number of live action. When we’re talking about Oscars we’re talking about this year’s Oscars as in Feb. 26. These films are in competition for the big kahuna that night. WARNING: Tickets get snapped-up quickly for these screenings – one Friday, one Saturday on both weekends at 7 pm. You might be disappointed if you show up at the door and the screenings are sold out. So make life easier and buy online from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ website. With a service charge tickets are $9 US – a bargain, if you ask me, to see these kinds of pictures....And, yes, some of my favourite films have been of the short variety. Why? Because of their brevity they have to pack a lot more in. That tightness often means visual stimulation from beginning to end. The great thing about the DFT’s presentation is that the public can actually see them. Short films get short shrift because they seldom play in a multiplex before a regular movie. Of course there are commercials – not the same thing!.....Here’s what’s on tap:
Best Animated Short Film
Dimanche/Sunday - directed by Patrick Doyon
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore - directed by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg
La Luna - directed by Enrico Casarosa
A Morning Stroll - directed by Grant Orchard and Sue Goffe
Wild Life - directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby
Best Live Action Short Film
Pentecost - directed by Peter McDonald and Eimear O’Kane
Raju - directed by Max Zähle and Stefan Gieren
The Shore - directed by Terry George and Oorlagh George
Time Freak - directed by Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey
Tuba Atlantic - directed by Hallvar Witzø
To buy tickets go to

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Extroardinary cinéma en français

I mentioned a few posts ago about stumbling upon TFO, the Ontario French public network or the equivalent of TVO, which used to own it. Little did I know we even had a French provincial public network! I always imagined TFO as a kind of Arts & Entertainment network, privately-run.....While channel-surfing I often would come across what looked like a fabulous movie or documentary on this network only to, alas, not be able to understand it since the audio was in French. Nevertheless some of this film material was so stunning I had to watch. And while TVO over many years has offered European and art house films TFO offers not only that but access to a vast collection of more obscure European and especially French films.....A French friend says watching a network like TFO would be good for learning French. I agree but wish there were sub-titles to help me along.....TFO spokeswoman Céline Pagnoud gave me a rundown of their cinema offerings. So, if you understand French, check them out. If you want to learn French, ditto. Or if you simply want to watch some stunning movies and follow along as best you can, here you go.....Says Pagnoud: “We broadcast many exclusive French language movies that have won prizes around the world and with no ads. Every Wednesday night, we also offer foreign movies from around the world and as of February, we will also have the Canadian exclusivity of the TV show Borgia. Our complete cinema programming is available in a tool called “LE PASSEPORT CINEMA” which is a mini paper guide that we send out to people who sign up for it 3 times a year (free of charge). It covers all the programming for 4 months and presents movies and detailed summaries on each”.....TFO’s website is

Friday, February 3, 2012

Foundation takes conciliatory approach to critical film

Last week Windsorites could see a preview of the film Pink Ribbons, Inc. by acclaimed Quebec director Léa Pool. (The film opens across Canada today but alas not here.) It was put on by the CAW and a national women’s health environmental network. The film’s screening was tied into an occupational workshop discussing the links between workplace carcinogens and breast cancer. I first wrote about it last year (Sept. 13 post) but still have not seen it. Yet I’ve read quite a bit of press material from the National Film Board (NFB), its producer, at least one review (which suggested an anti-corporate bias), the trailer and interviews with Pool and producer Ravida Din.....The Pink Ribbons campaign of course is pretty much ubiquitous in October. You almost can’t go into a store without seeing special pink ribbon products, a portion of the price going to fight breast cancer. But this campaign has much clout. Niagara Falls has been lit in pink, so has the Empire State Building and even NFL football players, of all people, wear pink. I’ve never encountered a charity with so much power.....Why is that? One hunch is that women, as advertising research has well documented, tend to be the chief spenders. So if you can tie in a campaign to consumerism companies can make a whole lot of money while wearing halos. I’m not sure if this was the genesis of the film. But Pink Ribbons, Inc. spends a lot of its time linking corporate greed or exploitation to a serious health issue. “It’s about like our disease is being used for people to profit,” says one woman. It singles out companies that are major pink ribbons supporters yet sell products that are carcinogenic. Noted feminist Barbara Ehrenreich says, “We used to march in the streets now you’re supposed to walk for a cure.” She says “the effect” has been to “deflect” women’s “militancy.” This might all be cant. But the film asks why, if there is so much spending on breast cancer research, there has been essentially no reduction in breast cancer deaths. 59,000 still die a year in North America. Director Pool says there has been “not so much progress.” And critics blame the campaign for dealing with the issue in isolation and not asking what causes cancer, such as whether the source is environmental.....I was curious as to the reaction of pink ribbon campaign officials to the film. So I contacted the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Here’s what Sandra Palmaro, CEO Ontario, has to say. “The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation welcomes a dialogue on breast cancer charities and breast cancer research.  Over the last 25 years, the knowledge that has been gained by CBCF-funded research has had tremendous impact on women’s lives.  Not only are we starting to better understand how to reduce breast cancer risk, we can detect it earlier, we can diagnose it more accurately, we can treat it more effectively, and we can improve the quality of life for those who have been affected.  But with one in nine women still being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, there is still a lot more to be done and, together, with our committed, passionate community, we will continue to be a part of that progress until we reach our vision of a future without breast cancer”.....Moreover, here’s what Nathalie Le Prohon, chairperson of the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation, said in part in an op-ed piece in the Montreal Gazette. “First of all, breast cancer research has paid off. Thanks to the many investments in research by organizations such as ours, the survival rate increased from 71 per cent in 1974 to 88 per cent in 2008. But in spite of this improvement, too many women still die from this disease. It is essential to maintain our investment in research in order to continue increasing survival rates. Moreover, 40 per cent of the money for research comes from non-profit organizations such as ours. Still, the film eloquently demonstrates that we must focus more closely on understanding the causes of breast cancer, which unfortunately are still unknown. To this end, we are proud to say that of the $8.1 million we donated to research projects last fall, 21 per cent of the grant money is to be spent on research into the causes of this cancer.....Obviously the fundraising establishment doesn’t want to get into a fight with its critics and is taking a non-confrontational approach. But whether the film will make any impact with them is the big question.