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Feb 25, 2015

Wild Canaries

Grade: B+/A-

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

The opening two scenes of Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries set the absurdist tone for the wry suspense and hilarity to come. In the first, a glove-clad man mysteriously enters the apartment of an old lady and eerily caresses her face; the setting portends violence, only for the woman to wake up and smile at his familiar face, which remains hidden to us. In the following scene, Noah (Levine) enters his own apartment, calling for his fiancée, Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine’s real-life partner) without a response. The setting again suggests a bloody discovery just around the corner until the fiancée jumps out and yells “I got you” repeatedly. This dichotomy between mystery and slapstick comedy pervades the Brooklyn-based hipster neo-noir.

Although the young and engaged Barri and Noah put a ring on it, they lack the financial means or the emotional will to get married, and still share an apartment with Jean (Alia Shawkat), their lesbian friend. Barri is jobless and Noah is a filmmaker with a never-ending series of rejected pitches. He works closely with his former girlfriend, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), who left him for another woman, and is now being set up with Jean by Barri and Noah. Their neighbor, Sylvia (Marylouise Burke), is an old lady whose age—at least 80—is a matter of dispute, a disagreement that becomes rather significant after she’s found dead in her apartment. When her son, Anthony (Kevin Corrigan), begins to act strangely, Barri becomes suspicious of foul play, leading to a rapid conversation with Jean, who concocts various scenarios for his possible motives. Noah is unimpressed, but the plot only thickens further when Damien (Jason Ritter), the womanizing artist who owns their building, gets involved. He thereby becomes a secondary suspect to Jean and Barri and the object of Anthony’s separate photographic investigation.

Feb 20, 2015

2014 Oscar Predictions

The Oscars played a significant part in my obsession with the medium of cinema in my formative years. I think the experience is more or less similar for a lot of people in my generation, particularly those who live outside of major film markets, where awards can look like a real barometer of quality at a distance, to people of a certain age. The Oscars also played an equally important part in my becoming a blogger and in gaining some of the opportunities that I did. But I've moved on, not because I'm looking at such awards from above or because I condescend to those who care about them -- I'd be the first defend the importance and influence of the Oscars -- but because my taste and the Academy's has been so drastically different over the years that I've grown weary of caring and thinking about them. I take no joy in writing about the machinations of "awards season" if I don't find the films or the discourse surrounding them appealing, and frankly that discourse has become aggressive and toxic to the point of complete alienation. I used to feel that the shenanigans about awards were the tasty, spicy side dish to the cinema's delicious main course, but that side dish is rotten now and tastes bitter. I've stopped mulling it over.

Under the Skin, my favourite English-language film of the year, was completely shut out.

Still, one Oscar column a year is something I can handle, and because I'm a betting man, I'll make this one post about predictions. Either this is an uncharacteristically tight year in too many races, or my obliviousness to the whole charade has kept me in the dark about what pundits are feeling confident about. Either way, put your money on these predictions at your own peril! If you're interested in knowing what I would have voted for were I given a ballot, your answer is here. If you're interested in knowing how well I did on my predictions last year, I went 17/21, having not made predictions in the three short categories. Without further ado...

Feb 12, 2015

List: Quentin Tarantino's Films Ranked


1. Jackie Brown
2. Pulp Fiction
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. Kill Bill Vol. 1
5. Kill Bill Vol. 2
6. Death Proof
7. Reservoir Dogs
8. Django Unchained

Feb 7, 2015

Best of 2014

Best Film
1. The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)
2. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
3. Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kambozia Partovi)
4. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund)
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
6. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn)
7. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
8. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
9. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
10. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)
Honorable Mentions: Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt), Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)

Best Unreleased Film
1. The Look of Silence
2. Timbuktu
3. Silvered Water: A Syria Self Portrait
4. Girlhood
5. Black Coal, Thin Ice
Honorable Mention: Fish and Cat 

Best Director
1. Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin)
2. Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man)
3. Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure)
4. Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
5. Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Honorable Mention: Dave Mackenzie (Starred Up)

Feb 5, 2015

Lovesick

Grade: D-

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

"I should have gotten a haircut,” the mop-headed Luke Matheny said to uproarious laughter upon winning the 2011 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short for God of Love. That line exhibited the same kind of quirky allure that likely gained the whimsical, black-and-white short its golden statue. The film is about a crooner and darting champion who faces difficulty in attracting the girl of his dreams. Played with a goofy sense of naiveté by the big-haired Matheny and infused with a subplot involving magic, God of Love’s simple look at romance was quite charming. Four years later, Matheny delivers his feature film debut with Lovesick, which stars Matt LeBlanc as another man who has everything in his life but love. But Matheny struggles to stretch that brief but potent whimsy into feature length. Underserved by a paper-thin script and tepid humor, and stripped of any fantastical elements that could conceal the premise’s childishness, Lovesick is as disappointing a return as one can imagine for this formerly auspicious young filmmaker.

LeBlanc plays Charlie Darby, an elementary school principal who is a true American hero in the eyes of the students. Charlie is funny, loving, and compassionate. Everything in his life seems to be going well, but his luck with women is rotten and all his past relationships have ended in bitter breakups. Charlie, with his disarming smile and graying hair, is ripe for settling down—a notion that the film will not stop verbalizing ad nauseum in its opening minutes.

But at this stage in life, Charlie has decided never to fall in love again and only spend time with women he doesn’t find attractive. Thus, Lovesick launches an avalanche of putrid and contrived comedic set-pieces—the most egregious of which is a painfully unfunny and grotesque scene where his companion at a wedding – a woman who has no issues discussing her bowel movements loudly in public – happens to be racist; she calls the brown waiters “Bin Laden” and pats them down in search for bombs. After this charade, Lovesick moves on to the inevitable: as Charlie reiterates to his best friend that he has given up on romance, the perfect woman appears in the form of Molly (Ali Larter). And because no romantic-comedy cliché can be left untouched, no matter how heinously misogynistic it is, she happens to be a woman whose life needs saving by a man. Charlie seizes the opportunity to become Prince Charming.

Feb 2, 2015

Screening Log: January

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu


Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Lowney, 2013, A-)
Relentlessly hilarious; and at a certain point, after the umpteenth laugh, all critical considerations can be thrown out the door.

Snowman (Mirbagheri, 1995, B+)
One of the most significant (and notorious) post-revolutionary throwbacks to the Tough Guy (jaheli) film, the most important pre-revolutionary Iranian genre; this neo-Tough Guy dark comedy was banned for three years mostly because its plot revolves around a man dressed as a woman, hence ensuring its status as a cult film before it was even released. Shrill, convoluted and hilariously overacted by the film's only actress, Azita Hajian, Mirbagheri's Istanbul-set film combines the verbose, low class poetry of jaheli parlance with the mercurial energy of three superb actors -- Dariush Arjmand, Parviz Parastui and Mehdi Fathi -- and the unparalleled comic genius of Akbar Abdi to paint a portrait of post-war Iranian diaspora that is at once unflattering and endearing. Mirbagheri is painfully (and gleefully) aware of the racist and chauvinistic tropes of the genre that inspires his film, but recalibrates those tropes to concoct a vibrant, absurd and deliberately archaic art work -- though it does succumb to a curiously sexist ending. Snowman is sharp sociopolitical commentary dressed as overblown genre fare; and one of the essential films of its era.

The Postman (Mehrjui, 1970, B-)
Mehrjui bites off more than he can chew in his thematic reach here, leading his film to tonal inconsistencies that undermine its rhythm. Still, The Postman's study of sexuality and male impotence is both frank and confrontational -- visually and because of its unprecedented power in Iranian cinema -- and symbolic: the impotent man who loses his wife to her infidelity with a bourgeois man who has just returned to Iran from the west is representing the traditional Iranian society crumbling under the weight of technological advances and the West's cultural influence. He is emasculated (figuratively) and dehumanized (literally). One only wishes these ideas had been served by a tighter film.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Amirpour, 2014, B-) (podcast)
The problems with the film are more evident on a second screening. Style seems to be the raison d'être for several of the film's scenes, hampering and slowing down the flow especially in the third half. Still, it's an impressive debut film with a clear vision, and one that makes me very excited for whatever Amirpour cooks up next.

Timbuktu (Sissako, 2014, A) (review)
Sissako's first film in eight years is a rich and nuanced portrait of Muslims living under the pressure of extremist violence. This is a sensational, deceptively simple film that reveals its depth over repeat viewings.

Mr. Gullible (Mehrjui, 1970, B)
Mehrjui's immediate follow-up to his classic film, The Cow, is rather blunt in its presentation of themes and extremely predictable in its plotting, but Ali Nassirian's iconic performance as the titular character -- a villager in the big city for the first time who is duped by everybody from train station robbers to a dancer he falls in love with -- carries the film. Nassirian's background in performative arts and the theatricality of his work in this film becomes a tool with which Mr. Gullible's demeanour and dialect reach perfection. This is one of the most important (and formally impressive) entries in the regrettable Iranian sub-genre of films devoted to the misfortunes of villagers upon traveling to Tehran. 

Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014, B+/A-)
On second viewing, Chazelle's film remained an exquisitely directed, sharply edited and relentlessly entertaining piece of bravura filmmaking. Whatever the film "gets wrong" (read: whatever dramatic licenses it enjoys) about the history and spirit of jazz is of little importance to the specific story it is telling and the visually and sonically exciting way it tells it.

The Babadook (Kent, 2014, B+)
The increasingly rare horror films whose scares come from personal, primal, palpable human feelings. Without resorting to gore and with an almost childishly simplistic design for its monster, Kent's brilliant film feels at once simple and complex, and effectively entertaining.

The Boxtrolls (Stacchi/Annable, 2014, B)
Consistently entertaining despite a plot that feels neither fresh nor particularly inventive; and designed and decorated to complete, detailed perfection.

Red Carpet (Attaran, 2014, C+)
Attaran's comedy -- about a struggling Iranian actor who travels to Cannes to pitch his screenplay to Steven Spielberg while he's presiding over the festival's jury -- gets repetitive and allows the jokes to overstay their welcome, but those repeated jokes are still really funny.

Jan 28, 2015

Timbuktu

Grade: A

*This review was originally published at Movie Mezzanine

Islam is a topic frequently viewed through a limited lens in contemporary cinema, particularly what is produced by and catered to North Americans. Such is not the case with Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako’s first feature film in 7 years. For audiences accustomed to seeing demonized, one-note portrayals of a small, extremist faction of Muslims on screen, Timbuktu’s insight into the religion feels like a momentous breath of fresh air. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria, the latter of which is still sidelined by mainstream media, it’s hard to think of a moment when conversations about Muslims and their relationship to fundamentalism would have been timelier than now. Sissako has said he was inspired to make Timbuktu a few years ago, when he opined the lack of attention given to the stoning of an unmarried Malian couple, who were charged with adultery. Timbuktu is his attempt at dramatizing their story, along with other paralleling plots, and it’s a rich, politically nuanced, and painterly portrait of life in rural Mali.

Timbuktu‘s kaleidoscopic structure cross-cuts between the unmarried couple and a large cast of characters connected by the virtue of their geographical proximity. A man, his wife, and daughter pass their days in a tent, taking care of their small herd of eight cows. A fisherman sets up his nets in the same lake as the cows drink. Islamic militants force themselves onto public spaces in nearby towns, making announcements about religiously acceptable behaviour. A local imam pleads with the mujahedeen to refrain from violence in the community. Local women fight against fanatical intolerance as kids fight for their passion for football. All these stories are loosely tied by a tenuous link to the decentralized and vigilante local justice system. Timbuktu‘s first half is devoted to running these paralleling narratives in rapidly cut, short segments, but the film never loses its fluidity as the dots begin to connect and the characters inch closer toward one another.

As Sissako traverses between stories, languages, and religions, the tone of the film shifts as well. A sequence in the first half shows a group of young boys playing football without a ball, because having footballs, or any element of earthly joy, is banned by the local militia. The boys play as though they’re unaware of the absence of the ball, passionately tackling and celebrating, thus giving this sequence quite an incantatory feel. This scene is immediately succeeded by one in which the audience witnesses a murder. The gruesome display is shot in a lush, extreme long shot. Its awe-inspiring beauty is at stark odds with the violence at its heart.