Films, 2000

  • traffic. usa. Steven Sodenbergh’s new hit, with one of my favourite actors, Benicio del Toro (the usual suspects, fear and loathing in las vegas). A well-told story; not quite as edgy as I’d expected from the reviews, but then I’m not too accustomed to American drug politics, I suppose. I liked the deep and philosophical stoner kids, and the human portrayal of the Mexicans. In the camerawork, the sepia tones did a great job of conveying heat, and the grainy film gave a nice roughness to the Mexican scenes. There was one great upside-down helicopter shot that I loved, too. A good film, all told – a bit weak from the two principals (Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones), but decent nonetheless.
  • wallace & grommit. united kingdom, 1990s. I’d long been warned that these animations were first rate, but I’d never had a chance to see any of them. Expectations were high, based on reviews of chicken run, by the same animator. And the series didn’t disappoint – hilarious material, brilliant animation, and no shortage of quirk. The DVD consisted of three half-hour shorts, of which the standout was clearly the wrong trousers, which had my rolling on the floor laughing during the fantastic train chase scene, taking place entirely on a model railroad. Other highlights included the trousers themselves, the breakfast routine, the quirky sheep in a close shave, and the sawing scene in the first animation. This is the best animated feature I’ve seen in recent memory.
  • the emperor’s new groove. usa. A Disney movie that I actually liked? What is the world coming to? Yup, this flick’s got enough wit and whimsy to keep me laughing from start to finish, mostly due to the elimination of Disney’s staples: crappy musical numbers and wanky sidekicks. Smart writing, fast pace, and loads of throwaway visual gags had me laughing. Sure, it’s still a kidsish movie, but it’s better than any Rugrats junk.
  • crouching tiger, hidden dragon. china / hong kong / taiwan / usa. The people’s favourite at the Toronto film festival this year, and a fine film. I saw Ang Lee’s excellent ride with the devil at last year’s film festival, and his newest film is even better. How can I complain when he mixes good drama with sizzling martial arts scenes, honestly? Everything I like in a movie, all mixed up together. Honestly, it could have been a disaster, but Ang Lee pulls it off. The acting is superb, the scenery gorgeous, the fights fantastic. Some of the characters’ motivations are a little doubtful, and it still follows the hong kong fu formula a fair bit, but it’s fun. When was the last time that an action movie had enough character that you could question their motivations, anyways? Even though the film is in Mandarin and subtitled to English, it’ll please crowds, I think. Sure, illiterate Joe off the street won’t like it, but… well, keep him away from cinema anyways.
  • a time for drunken horses. iran. I have wanted to see this movie for quite a while. I tried to get tickets during the Toronto film festival, but it was sold out. I saved it for use as a date movie, but a mixup caused that plan to fall through. I thought it would be out of cinemas, but by a twist of luck, the Carleton put it on after it finished its run at the Cumberland. The film’s title may be a little catchy, but everything else about this film is gritty reality. Set in the mountains of Iran at the Iraqi border, it tells the story of a family of orphaned children. One child needs an operation to save his life, and the others go to great lengths to try to pay for the surgery. The “drunken horses” of the title are in fact mules, who must be imbibed with alcohol in order to get them over the cold mountain smugglers’ route to Iraq. The force of this film lies in its truth – the struggles faced by these children are just day-to-day reality for much of the world’s population. The filmmakers brought cameras into a remote town, where many had never seen television, and left them running without an operator, in an effort to capture the children acting as naturally as possible. It’s a charm.
  • urbania. usa. Stranger and stranger. This was a last-minute film choice, after missing another film, and it was very spur-of-the-moment. All I knew going in was 1) something to do with urban myths 2) it gets better 3) there’s a québécois actor in it. It quickly became apparent that the central theme was homosexuality, which was not anticipated, and that it was a little strange. By the end, I had mixed feelings – the movie did have something worthwhile to say, it turns out, but it took a long time and a few awkward moments to get there. The individual parts (acting, direction, cinematography) are all fine, but the story could use a little work. And the urban myth theme still felt gimmicky, especially upon reflection. The québécois guy’s small role was decent, at least.
  • requiem for a dream. usa. Wow… what a ride. A very powerful film, and not for the faint-of-heart. Darren Aronofsky (pi) directs another movie with MTV style, and real content. The film is unrated in the USA thanks to its relentless depiction of drug addiction, but it’s even less glorifying than trainspotting by the time the credits roll. Mostly, it’s a story of addiction, but it touches on medicine, old age, dieting, television, con artists, the sex trade and even racism along the way, and the messages hit like a sledgehammer. Well worth the while, but don’t expect to come out in a good mood. I left with an urge to quit my drug habits: no more alcohol, coffee, or vitamin C for me!
  • don’t be a menace to south central while drinking your juice in the hood. usa, 1993? Ah, fine humour. Hyperexaggerated ghetto life, with some of your favourite Wayans brothers. This isn’t a film to show your parents, but it’s funny stuff. I doubt it’d stand up to a second viewing, but seeing the granny-walker mugging was worth the while. I probably should have seen boyz in the hood to get all of the jokes, but even without that context it was a good belly laugh. And besides – with a badass title like that, how can you go wrong?
  • muppet treasure island. usa, 1996? Nothing special here. This was the first Muppets film after Jim Henson died, and they were clearly still regaining their legs. There’s one good joke at the start, and the rest is fairly sad, with lots of poor musical numbers. There’s some very strange humour mixed in (starfish in my pants??) that really doesn’t work. Don’t bother with this, but I hear muppets in space rocks the house.
  • how the grinch stole christmas. usa. This film is the showcase for my current employer’s software, with 65% of the computer graphics generated with Houdini. And beautiful those graphics are, from snowflakes to some very Seussian cloudscapes and trees. The film itself is… mediocre. It’s quite funny at times, but mildly disturbing at others, especially since it’s supposed to be for kids. Expect typical Jim Carrey – if you like him, you’ll like it, if you don’t you won’t. The backstory that pads the film to 90 minutes is hackneyed and horrible, but the acting won’t make you cringe. The one thing that make the film worthwhile is the huge range of visual gags, from milk-and-cookies hats to Seuss noses.
  • ran. japan, 1985. Well, I’ve never seen any Akira Kurosawa films before, so this was a good experience for a cinephile. Kurosawa is a legendary Japanese director, best known for his 1954 film seven samurai, which is still on my must-see list. This film is derived from Shakespeare’s king lear, set in Japan. The film is epic, with battles as violent as braveheart, but doesn’t share that film’s tone at all. Where Mel Gibson’s battles are heroic, Kurosawa’s are silent, no music and sometimes even no sound at all. Kurosawa likes different shots: no closeups, no slow pans, just beautifully composed still shots, smoky battles, harmonious Japanese interiors. That said, I had difficulty absorbing this film – Japanese culture remains fairly alien to me, rife with formal rules and conduct of which I’m ignorant. And I can’t judge much of the dramatic performances – often they seemed either cheap or strange, but that’s probably just my western upbringing speaking; I have no idea what a Japanese lord would do in that situation. All told, a good film, but only for cinephiles I think. In that vein, the DVD came with English subtitles, but definitely no version dubbed for anglophones.
  • the legend of drunken master. hong kong? So now I can claim to have seen Jacky Chan. Good comedy, it must be said. You don’t go into this type of film with high expectations, but I can’t really complain about the film – it was a fun romp. It’s good to see the other side of racial stereotypes – after however many American films with lousy Chinese stereotypes, it was cool to see Chinese versions of the British, dressed up in African safari gear, pith helmets and all, smack in the middle of China. The Chinese traitors supporting the western imperialists all wore suits and often glasses, of course, while our noble heroes adopted more traditional gear… while engaging in most non-traditional drunken boxing. Ya know. Gotta roll with the punches.
  • mallrats. usa, 1996? Okay, I was once a Kevin Smith fan, but my patience wears thin. This is better than dogma (which was pretty crappy), but not a lot better. Once again, Jason Lee carries the picture, and once again the lead character is useless. The sight gags are good, the comic book references suck, the romances are unconvincing. He still can’t write a female role. I think chasing amy was a flash in the pan, and we’ll never see anything else good out of this guy. Sure, it’s funny; sure, you’ll enjoy it. But it’s not a masterpiece.
  • charlie’s angels. usa. Do I have to comment on this film? This was a “hang out with guys from work” film, not an “appreciate the art of cinema” outing. (Just in case that wasn’t clear…) The big issue in this film is not “Was that the right angle for that shot?” but instead “Is Drew Barrymore hotter than Cameron Diaz?” That said, it was still funny, in a post-sexist sort of way. If a film like this wasn’t over the top, I’d hate it, but as it stood… well, even I laughed when they used sexiness to entice the computer geeks away from watching the security system. And there were good action scenes, plus an appropriately villanous villain, and even an appropriate clip of Prodigy’s smack my bitch up thrown into the soundtrack. All pretentiousness aside – guys will find this movie funny, some (many?) girls will be uncomfortable, and it’ll sell a lot of Nokia cel phones.
  • the insider. usa, 1999. I never got around to seeing this in Switzerland, but my parents were big fans, so I tried it on DVD. Having just rewatched heat recently, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with Michael Mann’s last film: similar setup for tension shots, similarly glum appearance outdoors, Al Pacino again, and even the same artists on the soundtrack. A nice piece of film, with plenty to say: comments on mounties beating up natives in Oka, Québec were remarkably well placed, amongst other things. Mann appears to have a serious political bone to pick, which can’t hurt. It’s a compelling story, if a bit slow at times; I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, but it’s worth seeing.
  • girlfight. usa. I’ve never liked boxing, and I’ve never seen a rocky film. But this film caught my fancy, mostly thanks to its spunky-as-hell lead actress. The direction and editing of fight scenes are probably taken straight from the playbook of boxing films, but they’re still effective, and got my blood pumping nicely. The backstory is good, even if the row of annoying girls behind me thought the male lead was ugly. I found it refreshing to have such a true-to-life looking guy, to be honest, even if he’s no Leonardo DiCaprio. Worth seeing.
  • rocks at whiskey trench. canada. This was the final film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival. This National Film Board documentary deals with a secondary incident during the Oka crisis at the start of the 90s: a group of native women and children escorted to safety by police being hailed with rocks by local Québec residents. It’s powerful footage, and an important chapter in Canadian native affairs. Reviews were dismissive, but from a purely political standpoint, I think this film is worth seeing.
  • harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien. france. Bien, je connais assez peu du cinéma français – j’ai vu un film de Truffaut et c’est peut-être tout ce que je connaît. Mais il faut dire que c’est bien refraîchant à voir un film telment bon ces jours-ci. Je n’ai jamais aimé les comédies noir, toujours trop macabre. Mais celui-ci marchait; c’était vraiment drôle en même temps que les corps tombaient, sans que les caractères en réflissaient trop. (Euhhh.. je ne peux pas écrire en français aujourd’hui…) Bref, ça vaut bien la peine.
  • two thousand and none. canada. A comedy, firing on most cylinders, but not always right. John Turturro leads, and does a sparkling job. He plays a paleontologist who discovers he’ll die from a rare brain condition. In confronting his death, he decides to develop his long-neglected sense of humour, with charming results. This isn’t half bad as a “date comedy”, half serious and half quietly funny. Some of the sex jokes were a little too forceful and improbable for my taste, but I liked the rest.
  • la moitié gauche du frigo (the left-hand side of the fridge). canada. Encore un film de la politique; vous dévinez mes intérêts maintenant, peut-être? Celui-ci s’occupe de deux colocs, l’un chomeur et l’autre cinéaste. Ce deuxième fait un documentaire du premier pendant son recherche de job. Pour compliquer l’affaire, le cinéaste est fortement politique, et il prend l’habitude de intérroger les enterprises pendant les interviews, ce qui n’aide jamais l’interview. C’est bien drôle, les deux colocs s’entendent bien en scène. Le photographie est digitale, qui ne traduit pas bien au grand écran, mais … bien, c’est canadien, on manque l’argent pour des superprods ici. On s’habitue. C’est bon, mais pas formidable. Néanmoins, il a gagné le prix pour “meilleur film d’un premier réalisateur canadien” au festival.
  • smell of camphor, fragrance of jasmine. iran. According to film buffs, Iran is the source for real cinema these days. The AGO’s Cinémathèque had something like six Iranian films in its top ten films of the decade. Needless to say, this piqued my curiosity. I couldn’t get tickets for a time for drunken horses at the festival, so I took this film instead. The plot is pulled from real life: the director, unable to get film scripts past the censors for ten years, is ready to give up on making films. The fiction begins here, as he decides to make a documentary on Iranian funeral rites, and winds up thinking about his own death in the process. Parts of the director’s own life are woven in and out of the film, including his memories of his wife, his son-in-law’s abuse of his daughter; I suspect that many of the friends depicted are his actual friends. Aspects of Iranian life are also included, from the promised funeral rites, to a woman who miscarried due to her husband’s beatings. All told, it’s an interesting look at a different world. The filmmaking didn’t strike me as particularly spectacular, I must say… but then, that’s why I’m not part of the cinema élite, right? I’ll reserve judgment for the next Iranian film.
  • faithless. sweden. Truly a perfect film. The story deals with a director, inventing a film. His lead actress is in the studio, and they are spinning a story from nothing, talking back and forth, using photos as prompts. Slowly, a story of a love triangle emerges, a marriage broken with an infidelity, and the bitter aftermath that must follow. It’s a painful, wrenching story, and cleverly framed in the dialogue between director and actress, questioning motivations, reasons. The acting is truly first-rate, making the Swedish language more beautiful than I’ve ever heard it. The film legend Ingmar Bergman wrote the screenplay, then handed it off to his longtime lead actress, Liv Ullman, to direct. The director in the film is Bergman’s mirror, and, just as the actress weaves the story in the film, Ullman must bring a female voice to the project to make it real. Clever, and cleverer still if you get to see it – I won’t give away any of the surprises. Beautiful cinematography, with perfectly framed shots of Bergman’s cabin, moody lighting, mmm! If you like film, you must see this.

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