Tuesday, October 16, 2007

NOW PLAYING: Big & Small Screens

Soul Food and other notable movies currently onscreen in Vancouver, plus recent arrivals at the video shops
Updated Oct 20 2007

Big Screen

I saw INTO THE WILD yesterday, and wow. Wow. I'd heard strong reviews, so I figured it would be good, but I guess I expected NEVER CRY WOLF meets GRIZZLY MAN or something. This film goes way beyond that. its shooting style is unique, using split-screen and a crazy variety of filming techniques to tell a story that ends up pure soul food. You get the sense that this was a pilgrimage of sorts for director Sean Penn. Part road movie (marvelous characters, exceptional - and exceptionally truthful - performances), part survival film, ultimately an affecting, authentically spiritual odyssey. I seriously considered going to see it again today. Wow.

And here's one I hadn't heard anything about, but which gets raved at CT Movies: "GONE BABY GONE, the directorial debut for Ben Affleck, is a difficult-to-watch but immensely powerful morality play that asks plenty of questions—couched among plenty of profanity—about situational ethics. It doesn't offer any easy answers, but leaves the viewer to ponder these issues on his or her own. Oh, and it's one of our few four-star reviews this year."

Now a week old, THE DARJEELING LIMITED has Wes Anderson fans psyched, a spiritual exploration in India by three wacked-out Wes Anderson-type brothers – Bottle Rocket Goes East? NYFF: “As exquisitely poignant and emotionally nuanced as movies get. One year after the accidental death of their father, three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Anderson-newcomer Adrien Brody) board the Darjeeling Limited train and travel across India on a self-proclaimed spiritual journey. They make all the appropriate stops along the way but their jealous (often hilarious) bickering and one-upmanship displace any possibility of enlightenment. And then, something happens. Anderson is, as always, surprising, prodigiously inventive, and utterly masterful in his daring modulation of tones and emotions. He has achieved something quite magical and astonishing here: a grand pageant, a vibrant portrait of a place and a people, a quietly intricate look at sibling love and rivalry. Above all, a Wes Anderson film—and a great one at that.”

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is getting lots of crit cred – an arty movie western, running time even longer than its title, “contemplative” feel.

I lost my tingle about moon landings around 1970, but a VIFF viewing of IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON brought it all back – edited down from about a zillion hours of previously unavailable archived NASA footage, it actually inspires a certain awe, even gets metaphysical. Practically launched the Christianity Today reviewer into orbit.

I was so shaken by HOTEL RWANDA a few years back, I haven’t been able to bring myself to view SHOOTING DOGS, which is now on dvd, but maybe I better get on that, with the Romeo Dallaire biopic on our local big screens. SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL is the fictionalized account of the Canadian general who headed the U.N. mission to Rwanda and watched, nearly helpless, as that country’s terrible genocide took place. A committed Catholic Christian, Dallaire writes in his biography "After one of my many presentations following my return from Rwanda, a Canadian Forces padre asked me how, after all I had seen and experienced, I could still believe in God. I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God."

MICHAEL CLAYTON may be nothing more than a John Grisham-ish legal/corporate thriller, but it’s the Platonic Ideal of John Grisham-ish legal/corporate thrillers. The screenplay is smart, smart, smart, and Tom Wilkinson steals the show as a manic-depressive lawyer who goes off his meds and decides to blow the whistle on Big Agribusiness – which gives screenwriter/director Tony Gilroy access to the kind of fiery language you’d usually only see in a stage play. George Clooney plays George Clooney, but plays him very well indeed, and Tilda Swinton astonishes as a litigator pulled way too taut – she makes the White Queen look laid back. Even the editing is exhilarating: a time-juggling sequence with the Swinton character psyching up for a video interview is nonpareil. Genre perfection.

Genius Julie Taymor’s ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is outasight, an eye-candy musical that uses Beatle songs, musical theatre style, to tell a love story set against the backdrop of the late Sixties: I wish it had gone darker (I'm thinking TITUS, here), and must admit some of it’s a bit too “on the nose,” but it's wildly creative, and I'll take anything Julie dishes out.

3:10 TO YUMA riffs on all the classic western motifs, has strong performances, is shot full of Bible quoting, prayers, and crosses on sixgun handles, but goes wildly stupid in its final half hour: how come bad guys who never miss can't land a single shot once they're within range of the closing credits? Darn, that bugs me. And let's just say the psychology of that home stretch is, well, a stretch. Rent UNFORGIVEN or OPEN RANGE or THE BIG COUNTRY instead, or maybe even SHANE.

Still in Vancouver theatres, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM – which roused enthusiasm at Christianity Today with its soul searching battle between cycles of vengeance and the hope of new beginnings – in among plenty of murders, people crashing through windows and only-in-the-movies car chases (Manhattan cabbies can’t get across town that fast!).

The new Cronenberg, EASTERN PROMISES, is a far more conventional film than his stylish A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE – which means many audience members will like it more, but I liked it considerably less. Russian mob expose, nice work by Viggo Mortenson and Naomi Watts.


THE BOTHERSOME MAN arrived at Videomatica October 2! This odd-sounding Norwegian release is the latest from Film Movement, the International Film Festival By Mail Order gang that brought us HAWAII OSLO. “Forty-year-old Andreas arrives in a strange city with no memory of how he got there. He is presented with a job, an apartment - even a wife. But before long, Andreas notices that something is wrong. Andreas makes an attempt to escape the city, but he discovers there's no way out. Andreas meets Hugo, who has found a crack in a wall in his cellar. Beautiful music streams out from the crack. Maybe it leads to "the other side"? A new plan for escape is hatched.”

THE CAMDEN 28 is also a recent add to the Videomatica collection, a documentary study of Catholic priests and lay people who protested the Vietnam war. Not sure how long INTO GREAT SILENCE has been on their shelves, but if you’ve got a big screen and an uninterrupted evening for contemplation, it’s straight up Soul Food to be sure.

SWEET LAND is in at the Vid. People love this one: it took the Audience Award at the Hamptons festival, the story of a German mail order bride who encounters suspicion from the Norwegian Lutheran farming community to which she travels in Minnesota, shortly after the end of the First World War. Questions of faith, love, and the true nature of marriage emerge in this gentle romance whose cinematography is compared by both The Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly to that of the masterful Days Of Heaven. Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) calls it "a treasure, one of those films that keeps me going back to the art houses."

THE REAPING is more likely to be on the shelves at your local video rental shack, but seems less likely to be worth renting – though it does star the very fine Hillary Swank. A horror flick, part of the uninspired trudge of aimed-at-Christian-audiences fare spawned by Hollywood’s lust for some of those PASSION OF THE CHRIST faith-based bucks. Chattaway dubs it “a dull, plodding, cheesy apocalyptic thriller.” Variety opines “Few recent studio horror pictures have courted (or, depending on one's perspective, pandered to) a Christian audience as blatantly as THE REAPING. Revisiting the book of Exodus in a feverish Southern-gothic context, this lurid, often ludicrously entertaining slab of Biblesploitation builds an earnest case for spirituality in a skeptical age. As demonstrated by the thematically similar THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, there's an audience for this kind of faith-based sensationalism, and the chance to see righteous acts of Old Testament payback spectacularly re-enacted on the bigscreen should help Warner Bros. reap solid theatrical turnout, with an even richer ancillary harvest.” Of course, I happened to like EMILY ROSE, flaws notwithstanding, and liked quite a lot BLACK SNAKE MOAN, which might also be dubbed Biblesploitation. So maybe I ought to have a look after all...

EVAN ALMIGHTY (sequel to BRUCE ALMIGHTY, which I liked a lot) seems the very exemplar of Hollywood’s misguided efforts to cosy up to Christians. It’s on video now, but I can’t even muster up the enthusiasm to see it on the small screen.

Moving away from the putative Soul Food flix to just-generally-worth-watching titles, JINDABYNE is also new at Videomatica, and it’s a darn fine film. Kenny B’s direct-to-dvd AS YOU LIKE IT hit the shelves last week, with the talented Bryce Dallas Howard (Opie’s kid, who was spectacular in M. Night Shyamalan’s spectacularly bad THE VILLAGE) playing Rosalind in a 19th century Japanese setting. Don’t know if Trevor Nunn’s TWELFTH NIGHT is new to DVD, but it just arrived at Videomatica: what I do know is that my VHS copy has been viewed a lot of times, since this is tied with Julie Taymor’s TITUS as my favourite filmed Shakespeare. What do you know, a Shakespeare comedy that’s actually funny!

Not quite as fresh at the Videomat, but featuring significant Soul Food interest are summer arrivals IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (Tarkovsky), FAY GRIM (Hartley), MANON OF THE SPRING / JEAN DE FLORETTE, and Set 2 of the PBS FATHER BROWN series.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN, AFTER THE WEDDING, THE LIVES OF OTHERS, AWAY FROM HER, PERFUME (Tykwer) and WE ARE MARSHALL all reached the shelves of our local neighbourhood video stores since summer began, and all have Soul Food content of one sort or another, to one degree or another. Also notable (if not particularly, um, religious) are TAXI DRIVER, the under-celebrated CARLITO’S WAY, and ZODIAC – shaping up to be one of the top films of the year, from SEVEN / THE GAME / FIGHT CLUB director David Fincher, it puts less emphasis on the serial murders than on what happens to the cops and journos who investigate them.

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