Tokyo Olympiad

Tokyo OlympiadIt was with much spectacle and national pride that Tokyo hosted the now-legendary 1964 Summer Olympics, and this extensive documentary by Kon Ichikawa details the ceremonies and events in meticulous fashion. Presented here at its original 170-minute length, Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad is a stunning testament – both to the Olympic athletes it focuses on, and the craft of artistic documentary filmmaking.

Presented with Japanese narration (and newly translated English subtitles), Tokyo Olympiad offers the viewer lengthy looks at just about every angle imaginable. Opening with a detailed history of the modern Olympic games, the focus promptly switches to the current ones (well, current at the time, anyway): Following a long absence, the city of Tokyo was thrilled to host the Olympic games, and Tokyo Olympiad is almost as much about the city as it is about the games and athletes.

Though this documentary may move far too slowly for the taste of most 21st century viewers, there’s something almost hypnotic about the way Ichikawa allows his camera to linger on a flapping banner or a competitor’s feet for over a minute at a time. (Indeed the film was dubbed ‘too long’ by the Olympic Committee, and the director was asked to also submit a truncated version.) Perhaps better suited as a movie you watch in large chunks, as opposed to all at once, Tokyo Olympiad is one of the most intense and realistic depictions I’ve ever seen dedicated to the art of sport.

Boasting breathtaking photography (which absolutely shines when seen on DVD in anamorphic widescreen format) and footage of record-breaking athletic performances, Tokyo Olympiad is an impressive and fairly all-encompassing memoir of these celebrated games.

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Umberto D.

Umberto D.Umberto D. is often cited as the last film produced in the post-war Italian neo-realist style. Shot on a very small scale, with a tiny rostrum of mostly unnamed characters (man in hospital, landlady, sister, voice of light), it’s the sad but ever-hopeful story of a destitute retiree whose only claim in this world is his dog. Director Vittoria de Sica (The Bicycle Thief) has crafted something akin to a “found film” in that the actors are almost exclusively amateurs, the sets whatever was available on the streets of Roma, with large portions of the story dedicated to simply observing the daily routines of the characters who inhabit this film.

Umberto is a man who is determined to lead the last few years of his life with dignity, but who is assailed by a society that, if not hostile, is at best, uncaring. While Umberto scrambles to find a way to avoid being evicted from his one room suite, we observe how difficult it is for a man in such a trying situation to retain dignity and hope. For long stretches of the film we simply observe people walking down streets, playing in parks, working in the kitchen, and witness how they sometimes can be ground down by life. Umberto is no exception, as everything in his life has been, as we might say in modern parlance, downsized. He appears to have neither friends nor family, neither work nor money, and soon he will no longer have a home. Consequently, it makes perverse sense that even his name is downsized; he is no longer Umberto Domenico Ferrari, but simply Umberto D.

The end of Umberto’s diminishing life is set in contrast to and direct conflict with his landlady, a woman whose upwardly-mobile ambitions result in her forcing Umberto out of his suite. For her to rise, he must fall. She’s a member of the same social class as he, but has pretensions of grander things. While the film toys with Marxist dialectics, it does so in an interesting way, pitting members of same social class against each other; just as contemporary urban ghetto dwellers kill each other at alarming rates, the figures in this story end up at each other’s throats.

There is elegance to the film’s choreography that is reminiscent of movies from the silent era, particularly during a sequence when Umberto roams the streets contemplating whether or not to debase himself by begging for money. It is exactly this point – determining when we’ve stepped over the line where desperation strips of us all dignity – that marks what is most profound about Umberto D. Carlo Battisti, a retired university professor, plays Umberto with an unaffected charm and dignified determination that is terribly touching, while de Sica underscores these qualities with a score that is stirring without being maudlin, and by employing quiet and gentle editing rhythms that allow us to sink into the reality of this character and the world he finds himself struggling through.

Like David Lynch’s The Straight Story, a brilliant evocation of an aged man trying to come to peace with his life in the broad open air of middle America, de Sica’s film is one that may find itself embraced by members of a rapidly greying boomer generation who discover that they can identify all too well with the main character’s marginalization and dehumanization in a society that finds his sort little better than parasites thrashing madly in its bloodstream. Umberto D. courageously and magnificently champions the life of an apparently insignificant man in a difficult time.

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How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysCannibalistic of the romantic comedy genre in all its stages of development, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days takes any hold it has around those conventions (quip-laced dialogue, socially-wrought obstacles, a three-act plot structure that builds to a crescendo of ironic identity-wisdom all in an incubator of humorous amusement), and releases too early. Disjointed throughout, the film offers glimpses of a movie that might have been an effectively updated 1940s-style comedy.

Tired of selling sports advertising, Ben (Matthew McConaughey) staunchly applies himself for the highly coveted jewellery account. In order to land the sale, he must get rid of the deterrents that are his jealous fellow employees (Michael Michele and Shalom Harlow). Ben gets his chance at promotion when the women, in accordance with their boss, set the edict that he must make a girl fall in love with him in ten days. Consequently, they choose as his target n randomly out of a nightclub crowd n Andie (Kate Hudson), a how-to columnist who just happens to be working on iHow to Lose a Guy in 10 Daysi n an assignment counter to her ideological principles. Typical of Hollywoodis pattern, Andie is a down to earth journalist waiting admission into a more substantial league of craft, a conspicuous way to set up conflict on a variety of levels.

Thereis a moderate showing of wasted potential here. The concept in general is spent carelessly as seen in the final act n a dinner party during which both Andie and Benjamin are aware of each otheris frolic. The sequence is ready for great hi-jinx and comedy n the perfectly pitched clatter n but the pile that is the story-arc fails in its stack arrangement. Instead of achieving its perfect pitch, a film that heretofore is straddling the dualistic qualities of entertainment and inferiority decidedly lands in the territory of the latter.

Nevertheless, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is thematically attractive in its submission of an illusion-based motif. The illusion involves the courtship between the male and female leads n one that calls to centre the honest perspective that new relationships always incorporate delusions of grandeur. In the beginning phase of an intimate partnership, most couples partake in modes of escape n with seldom any absolutes.

The performances are fine n not much self-consciousness to speak of. But the music is culturally digested to the point of futility. The filmis Staten Island scenes contrast with the rest of the plot in that they lend plausibility to the binding elements of the relationship on display. Alas, corresponding elements detract from this plausibility. Benjaminis love for Andie seems only remotely probable when one considers the cloying personality that she displays n in a conscious effort to get rid of him within the requisite ten days, of course. His reasons for remaining in the mock relationship are clear n he wants to win the competition with his co-workers n but his yearning for her in a genuine sense is cryptic. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is fun to watch, but if its writers had taken their avidity for putting forth forced jokes, and applied it to character evolution, the film would have surpassed a brand of entertainment thatis dissatisfying intellectually and formulaically.

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ChillicotheIndie flicks that find their way on to the bottom of the film festival list are generally not that great. But there is always room for good films with smart dialogue, and the best format for young filmmakers to showcase their talents on a limited budget is to perfect the Richard Linklater/ Kevin Smith Generation-X drama-comedy formula. That is, get a bunch of unknown but halfway decent acting students desperate for a little exposure, throw in a few family members and friends to cut down on costs, get it made, and then through word-of-mouth at small screenings at festivals in dinky small towns, gradually get noticed.

Chillicothe follows exactly that formula, and the best news is that it is a good movie. The story centres around Wade, played by writer/ director Todd Edwards, who just wants to get out of his one-horse town, namely Chillicothe. His friends provide the backdrop to this coming-of-post-college-age story that owes a lot to films like Slacker, Dazed & Confused, Clerks, Chasing Amy, and the Swedish film Show Me Love. Take a Kevin Smith movie, add a dose of John Mellencamp and a few farms, and you sort of get what Chillicothe is all about. It is rooted in the Generation-X tradition, but because it has its origins in the suburbs and the east coast of the United States, Edwards can play a little bit with dialogue and throw in pop-culture references that will appeal to people the same age as the characters onscreen.

Chillicothe reminds me of the small indie film Whiteboyz by Marc Levin. In that movie, Iowa farm kids escape the doldrums of small town life by immersing themselves in hip hop culture. Chillicothe‘s characters don’t quite sink into oblivion, but they do long for something more than their Midwest roots and community. Not quite as polished or as good as a Linklater or Smith film, this one is right at home among the films of Tom DiCillo and it can be compared with Box Of Moonlight and Living in Oblivion or Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming.

Linklater, Smith, Spike Jonze and particularly Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, are carving names for themselves as the Scorseses and Coppolas of the future. Let’s hope Todd Edwards can join them, as this first effort shows some serious potential. Thirtysomethings will appreciate the popular culture references and indie flick fans will enjoy the sharp and witty banter.

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Dont Look Now

Don't Look NowGrief stricken parents encounter a ‘mala bambina’ in Venice after their own good little girl meets a tragic end in this classic ‘70s ‘psychic thriller’ that pulls out all the creepy stops in order to ensure a tense time is had by all.

Donald Sutherland stars as John Baxter, an architectural historian working in Venice on a church restoration with his wife Laura, played by Julie Christie. We’re thrown straight off balance in the disorienting opening sequence, showing two scenes of indeterminate connection cut together in a frantic fashion. The scenes collide in horrific style as the pair’s little girl Christine accidentally drowns while playing in the yard, and then things really start going downhill.

Later in Venice, John begins to lose it, seeing a little figure, always in the distance, running around the city, who eerily brings to mind his daughter. Laura, meantime, has an impromptu consultation with a psychic who very convincingly lets her know that Christine is with the couple and happy, but that they must flee the mysterious danger that awaits them in Venice. Hearing this, John starts lashing out in confused anger as he and Laura both struggle to accept Christine’s death and the other weird stuff that’s occurring.

Director Nicolas Roeg expertly hits on almost every accent that makes a thriller thrilling and engaging. Don’t Look Now sustains a high level of tension through brilliant characterization, white-knuckle set pieces, and a pervading fear of the unseen that’s seriously unnerving.

Stylized scenes of John and Laura, sometimes arguing about their dead daughter, other times just sitting around relaxing, subtly sketch in their personalities, motivations, and inner-lives. The lack of detailed exposition strengthens our bond with the characters and enhances their believability through a relaxed naturalism. That means that the many tense set-pieces surrounding John’s work, for instance when John helps place a 1000-pound gargoyle on a parapet without safety harnesses, are that much more effective. While playing on our primal fears, these scenes play upon our sympathies as well.

A luscious sense of dread pervades the movie, as romantic Venice at night becomes a surrealist’s nightmare of tiny, directionless alleys and long shadows. When not in the shadows, John and Laura stand in front of mirrors, stare at reflections in the water, or are seen, distorted, through warped glass. The potential to see what one couldn’t, even shouldn’t, see – if not for all the reflections – both ties in with the movie’s psychic theme and has you ready to jump at any moment, fearing you’ll suddenly see the worst. Complicating matters is Roeg’s disorienting technique of inter-cutting from scene to scene in such a way as to make the connection totally indistinct.

Roeg, working from a story by Daphne Du Maurier, takes a realistic pair of suffering characters living something of a dream life in Venice and shifts things into nightmare territory with a healthy dose of unsettling fear fog. A kind of post new-wave realism makes Don’t Look Now a harrowing journey into the realm of creeping dementia.

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I Killed My Mother

I Killed My MotherIt’s tempting to get caught up in the backstory of this film and focus on the fact that Xavier Dolan was only 17 when he wrote this film, 19 when he directed and starred in it, and had never produced so much as a 30 second short film before making this one, funded largely by inheritance money. Fascinating, yes, but don’t let that story obscure just what a terrific bit of filmmaking I Killed My Mother is entirely in its own right. Plainly put, except in the most extraordinary years, a movie of this quality most certainly rates among the year’s best.

So, put on the backburner the mindboggling realization that Dolan has done at 19 what the vast majority of us will never accomplish, that is, produce a legitimate work of art that communicates to its audience in innovative, challenging and affecting ways and instead consider what makes I Killed My Mother tick. The storyline is instantly recognizable to any post-Holden Caulfield society. Hubert, an artistically-inclined, edgy and rebellious, gay 16 year-old, has a series of increasingly angry confrontations with his (to his mind) tasteless and decidedly middlebrow, lower middle class single mother over just about every aspect of their existence.

Things reach a breaking point when the mother, played beautifully, without affectation or condescension, by Suzanne Clement, decides that Hubert must go to a boarding school in the middle of nowhere. Hubert revolts and matters, which had bordered on black comedy up until this point, take a darker turn.

It is not the story so much as the methods Dolan uses to tell his story that are so memorable. Clearly a keen student of both literature and film, Dolan wears his influences on his sleeve. Some of the film’s most striking scenes are clearly indebted to Wong Kar-Wai, and in particular his adoration of slow motion to heighten both our sensual delight in the setting and our emotional response to key moments of intensity. Dolan also borrows from Truffault’s 400 Blows, particularly in a scene where he tells a teacher his mother is dead, only to have the angry “corpse” appear at school to castigate her son publically for his ruse.

Hubert’s secret boyfriend (how his mother learns of his homosexuality is one of the film’s many wonderful, darkly comic moments) is named Rimbaud (coincidentally, another “tortured” artist producing high quality work as a teenager.)

Dolan is able to pay homage to his predecessors without it feeling too much like theft, because he has crafted around these references a film that clearly expresses Dolan’s ideas in his own distinctive voice. The scenes between Hubert and his mother, which are the film’s emotional centrepiece, are examples of just such a strong sense of voice.

Dolan portrays this raging conflict in an honest and open manner. Even though the characters are obviously based on himself and his mother, Dolan is even handed in his treatment of their clashes, allowing us to alternately sympathize with and shake our heads at each character. In the end, you end up feeling great empathy for both. It is a tricky tightrope walk, yet Dolan masters it with apparent ease.

I Killed My Mother is an impressive debut effort. That it is the product of a 17 year old’s imagination and a 19 year-old’s hard work is a minor miracle. It is exciting to imagine what Dolan may have up his sleeve in the decades to come.

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JindabyneIf filmmakers deserve marks for establishing and maintaining a consistent atmosphere, then Ray Lawrence (Bliss) scores well with Jindabyne, a dark, almost morose film that never lets up in its exploration of alienation, troubled relationships, and how people respond when thrust into difficult situations. Itis a shame that Lawrence has made only three films over more than two decades as a director, as he has a clear vision and a fascinating, distinctive style.

A troubling story based on a Raymond Carver short story, Jindabyne stars Gabriel Byrne n in one of his best performances n as Stewart Kane, a man who discovers a dead body floating in the remote Australian river to which heis hiked with his three buddies for a fishing trip. Laura Linney plays Stewartis wife, Claire, who is deeply disturbed when she learns that Stewart and his buddies carried on fishing through the weekend after discovering the body, and only reported it when they were done with their weekend away. These events spark the unearthing of a serious rift between the couple, and also has implications for their friends, and the larger community n as it happens the young woman whose body they found was an indigenous person. Tensions between indigenous people and the white community are understandably exacerbated by the apparent insensitivity and disrespect of the menis actions.

Jindabyne is a dark, brooding film, and it seems that we discover more angst and dysfunction at every turn. Claire and Stewart are alienated from each other, Claire had serious problems upon the birth of their child several years previously, and itis not clear as to whether the two have the resolve to repair things. With Claire powerfully motivated to make things right with the family of the dead girl and the aboriginal community, and Stewart just wanting to put the entire incident behind him, the makings of a disastrous end to their relationship are there, just waiting for a flare-up. At the same time, we also know what happened to the young woman n we witness the lead-up to her death right at the start of the movie n and we also get to see that aspect of the story playing itself out in the background.

While itis most certainly not light viewing, and itis entirely devoid of eHollywood momentsi, this is a fine, intelligent, troubling film. Linneyis typically smart and honest performance leads the way, and Byrne n who so often seems to be sauntering through his other roles n is right there with her, simmering with unexpressed unhappiness that eventually boils over in an entirely convincing manner.

While the two main characters here are an American woman and an Irish man, this filmis setting in Australia is also a refreshing aspect, as Lawrence manages to add distinctively Aussie themes that are important n such as the gulf between aboriginal and white society n to the story. This further enriches it, making it additionally compelling and authentic.

I mentioned Lawrenceis distinctive style. In this case, itis apparent not only in his choice of dark subject matter and his uncompromising adherence to a consistent tone; itis also apparent in his one-take, eletis see what happensi directing style n which can be terrifying for actors, but elicits spontaneous, truthful performances n and his decision to film Jindabyne with available light. This last decision may not even be noticeable to many viewers, but it adds an authentic real-life look to the film while also enabling the filmmaking process to move quickly (without all the set-up and takedown involved with extensive lighting), thereby further enhancing the momentum of filmmaking and the authenticity of the final result.

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Ghost Ship

Ghost ShipYou’d be hard-pressed to find a horror movie free of plot holes. This is understandable, since the emphasis is on shocks – and often gore – rather than an airtight plot. And since these movies tend to count on characters doing dumb things to get themselves into peril, well, sound judgement by horror movie characters simply isn’t in the cards.

When you’re watching an average or better horror flick, these plot and character problems aren’t a big deal. After all, you spend most of the movie on the edge of your seat waiting for the next fright; you hardly have time for much analysis. And then there are fright flops like Ghost Ship that have far too few scary moments, and as a consequence, give you all sorts of time to think about how ludicrous the story is and how stupid – and inconsistent – its characters behave. The result – a sad excuse for horror that drifts more aimlessly than the ship in question, which has supposedly been floating about the high seas for 40 years.

The premise is pure B-movie goofiness – a hotshot salvage crew is offered the chance to take possession of a huge ocean liner that’s adrift in the Bering Strait. Imagining great wealth, the group, led by the wizened Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) and sparked by the fiery Epps (Julianna Margulies), heads its tugboat north in pursuit of this ghost ship. Once they find it, all Hell breaks loose, and the crew is soon splitting time between gloating over a huge wealth-inducing haul and running for their lives.

Since the scary moments here come far too rarely and are far too predictable when they do occur, we’re given lots of time to ponder the utter stupidity of this crew – one minute they find a bunch of dead bodies, and the next their giggling over the discovery of an old car in the ship’s cargo hold; one minute they’re screaming about some weird unexplainable occurrence, and the next it’s totally out of their minds as they deal with the mundane chores of salvage work. It’s as if two entirely distinct movies were spliced together – a horror movie and a Discovery Channel documentary on salvage work. Since the crew doesn’t seem too worked up about the supernatural events that seem to be enveloping them, it’s no surprise that the audience isn’t particularly engaged either; the group that I sat with through an advance screening sat ins tone silence through almost the entire movie, and this wasn’t because they were too scared to utter a peep.

The thrills – when they come – are standard stuff , as a crew member falls through the floor of the old ship, another gets blown up, and others encounter spookiness of various sorts. With a total of about three minutes of screen time devoted to character development, it’s no wonder that we don’t care a whole lot for this crew or their fate. And when the source of all the trouble finally is revealed, it’s hard to even work up enough interest to say, “Who cares?”

Ghost Ship is a lame horror movie that’s weak enough that you probably won’t worry about the awful dialogue and won’t bother wondering out loud how someone could have photos taken on the doomed vessel during its ill-fated 1962 voyage (they didn’t exactly have one-hour photo processing on board ships in that era), nor how someone could float in the Bering Strait over night and be rescued the next day alive and not looking the least bit like the ice cube they’d really be.

It’s dumb, but more importantly, it’s just not scary.

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Wild in the Country

Wild in the CountryMuch like Eminem in the first decade of the 21st century, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Elvis Presley was one of the worldis most recognized entertainers. Expanding beyond music and into movies, Presley might have been dubbed ethe King,i but if Wild in the Country is any indication, he wasnit very good at playing the king of his own little sing-song world.

Presley plays Glenn, a troubled lad living in the precarious world of probation. Looking for some direction, Glenn turns to the pen. Irene (Hope Lange), a teacher and mentor sees hope in the young manis desperate writing. Urging Glenn to shed his cocoon of solitude and shyness, and to continue to develop his writing voice, Irene makes some headway. But itis not long before real life takes over and sends the rebel with blue suede shoes back into his lonely life.

Offering a blend of ultra-sensitivity, bad boy toughness and golden-voiced minstrelling, Presley shows that he is neither an actor, nor simply a singer. He embodies the title eentertainer,i no matter if heis not particularly good at either. What Presley has going for him here is his good looks and magnetism. What he doesnit have is a script that harnesses his hip-swinging energy or the enthusiasm of his audience. The filmis title refers to the fact that Glenn is a free spirit, like an animal, following his instincts rather than a programmed set of morals. There are several moments in the film where this comes through honestly and with passion. But just as a rainbow depends on the rain, these moments are almost always followed up by something that goes over the top rather than straight to the heart.

Wild in the Country is filled with corny action and melodrama. Perhaps the film is symbolic of its times, when morals were showing the first signs of being loosened, but people still had to dance around a topic like sexuality, while being free to explore the world of teenage alcoholism. Director Philip Dunne doesnit touch on any of these issues with great detail, but at the very least he brings them up. Unfortunately, theyire mixed in with moments where the emotions are so high I wanted simply yell at the screen that melodrama to this degree is unbelievable. Judging by Presleyis seriousness throughout the film, my guess is that this was unintentional n a script that looked good on paper but when it came time to produce it, things came apart more than they came together.

I must admit that Iim a little too young to fully appreciate the myth left by Elvis. I wasnit around when Wild in the Country hit the theatres, so I donit know how people responded to the singer and the actor playing both roles at once. However, after watching my first Elvis movie, Iid have to guess that his appeal came from his smile and shaking hips more than it did from his skills. Here he might have played a bit of a rebel, but the numerous awkward moments where he slips into eElvis Presley, pop stari only exagerate the screaming melodrama.

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Sarah Silverman Program – Season 1, The

Sarah Silverman Program - Season 1, TheWhy in the world Sarah Silverman isnit one of Hollywoodis biggest stars, I donit know. Sheis beautiful, quick-witted, charismatic, and savvy. Of course, maybe sheis too smart for her own good, or at least her own success in the land of sucking up.

Aside from supporting roles in a large handful of films, Silverman has been largely known for her work on the live comedy circuit, with her appearances on television the one piece of evidence that perhaps her profile is growing (even if her Saturday Night Live stint was way back in the early e90s). Well, with Comedy Centralis The Sarah Silverman Program, she suddenly started getting a lot more attention, and critical accolades like never before. Heck, even Maxim Magazine decided that she rated eHot 100i status for 2007.

Given Hollywoodis tradition of essentially filing attractive female actors in the epast their best-before datei unemployment line around the age of 40, it will be interesting to see how Silverman makes out as she moves into that age range. Sheis certainly got the brains to make aging-phobic criteria irrelevant, but Hollywoodis not known for favouring womenis brains ahead of their looks anyway.

Given Silvermanis style n smart, taboo-challenging, rude and non-conformist n itis no surprise that her television sit-com is something of an acquired taste. Take the very first episode n in which Sarah consumes large quantities of cough medicine, only to find herself hallucinating her way into a car wreck or two n and youill see Sarah sweet one moment and crudely spiteful the next, bantering with her sister (Laura Silverman is Sarahis sister both in real life and in this program) one moment, and then breaking into song (rudely, of course) when she encounters a little boy on the sidewalk. Thereis garishly bright coloured animation that takes off out of the blue, and jokes about relationships sexuality, and the life of a slacker (which is what Silverman plays).

The Sarah Silverman Program is unconventional and edgy, and itis hilarious. Silverman, who co-writes with Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab (who also directed most of the seasonis episodes), has infused this program with her uncompromisingly devilish sense of humour, taking advantage of her egirl next doori looks to shock us with her foul mouth n and always to make a point.

The stories are built around the life of Sarah, a young woman who essentially saunters through life, living with (and supported by) her nurse sister, and stumbling into all sorts of minor trouble. Brian Posehn and Steve Agee play neighbours Brian and Steve, whose relationship provides additional grist for Silvermanis social commentary mill.

The six first season episodes cover everything from homelessness and Sarahis pondering that perhaps sheis a lesbian to shopping for batteries and taking an AIDS test just to spice up her day. Itis off the wall, sometimes twisted, occasionally outrageous, and always perceptive.

The program is fast-moving (which itis got to be, given that a half hour sit-com only gets 22 minutes of actual program time) and itis most certainly quirky. Simply put, if you like Silvermanis perceptive, potty-mouth, social commentary style of comedy, then youire going to like The Sarah Silverman Program. If you arenit comfortable with Silvermanis comedy, well, youive been warned.

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