Oct 25, 2012

Interview: Ben Lewin on Portraying Sex and Getting the Right Cast

I realize that my coverage of The Sessions has been more extensive than any other film I've written about on the blog, but it's because Fox Searchlight was kind enough to arrange these interviews and events for me during TIFF. My final piece on the film is this interview with writer/director Ben Lewin. As you may remember I already posted my very favourable review of the film and an interview with one of the film's stars and one of my favourite actors, William H. Macy.

Head over to The Film Experience and join in the conversation!

Oct 22, 2012

Frances Ha

Grade: A

*A shorter version of this review was posted on The Film Experience during TIFF12.

Noah Baumbach’s exquisite Frances Ha was the brightest light of this year's Toronto International Film Festival. This is the filmmaker's funniest, most refined and personal work. Developed by himself and Greta Gerwig after the couple worked together on Greenberg, the film is about the 27-year-old Frances (Gerwig) who has yet to find her direction in her professional or personal life. She shares an apartment with her friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and works part time for a dance company, hoping to join on a permanent basis.

The film opens with rapid-fire banter between the two friends and despite it being genuinely hilarious, it immediately worries the audience that it might be too self-conscious. But the tone changes after Sophie, during a particularly well-constructed sequence on the New York subway, informs Frances of her intention to leave their apartment and move in with a boyfriend. Confronted with the prospect of loneliness and the lack of financial means to pay for the rent on her own, Frances is launched into a series of misfired attempts at detaching herself from Sophie and refocusing her life.

Oct 18, 2012

Oscar Horrors: Dogtooth

Over at The Film Experience, I've joined in on Oscar Horrors, Nathaniel's group series on horror films that have been nominated for Oscars. My first contribution is Dogtooth, which was nominated for a the Best Foreign Language Film award two years ago in what remains one of the Academy's most shocking decisions. There's more to come later in October when I take you back to the 80s for the nominated visual effects of a major blockbuster, but for now, have a read on why Dogtooth is one of my favourite nominations in recent years. You may also remember how highly I ranked the film back in 2010. It's a decision I don't regret in retrospect.

Oct 16, 2012


Grade: B

As you probably know if you have come across this space before, I’ve been anxious to see Argo for a very, very long time. This is partly because of Affleck’s two previous films, his growing stature as a capable director of adult dramas, and constant chatter about Argo being one of the frontrunners for this year’s Oscar race since its Telluride-Toronto premiere. But more importantly, as I’ve detailed here, I was dreading the film as an Iranian.

For the progressives in my generation, the attack on the American embassy remains one of the darkest, most indefensible moments of our history. Hearing about these events being prepared for a silver screen treatment in a major Hollywood film - no matter how smart and sensitive the talent behind it - automatically made me suspicious that the potential portrayal of some Americans as patriotic heroes and others as victims would inevitably lead to the vilification of Iranians. Irrespective of my personal and political opinion on the matter – the attack on the embassy is an absolute travesty; there’s no way around it – this is just one of those things I wish no one would ever care enough to make a film about. But alas, there is a film, and a very high-profile one at that. Having now watched it though, I’m equally surprised, disappointed and relieved about how politically toothless it is. Not that Argo is a bad film. It isn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes the complicated story of one of the most defining chapters in the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East and uses it as backdrop for a thriller – a superbly crafted, intensely exciting thriller – that doesn’t explore the rich world of potential at its disposal.

Oct 15, 2012

The Sessions

Grade: B

*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience as part of my TIFF12 coverage.

It's hard to think that a film about a man living in an iron lung could be labelled “the feel good movie of the festival.” But The Sessions beats the odds. For director Ben Lewin, who himself struggled with polio as a child, and his stellar cast, sex, disability, Catholicism and humour blend together to shape the unlikeliest of crowd pleasers.

The Sessions is centered on Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a poet who fell victim to polio in his childhood and lost his muscle strength from the neck down. His body retains its sensitivity, hence the ability -- critical to the narrative -- to achieve erections, but is unable to move and requires an iron lung to breathe. At the age of 38 and faced with the prospect that his days might be numbered before he ever gets to “meet” a woman, O’Brien decides to lose his virginity; and to do that, he’ll have to overcome two obstacles: an overwhelming sense of anxiety caused by his physical disability, and a fear of being sinful resulted from his devout belief in the Catholic church.

The second obstacle is easier for him to clear as he consults Father Brendan (a hilarious and poignant William H. Macy), an unconventionally forgiving priest who tells O’Brien that in his heart he knows Jesus will give him a pass. With that green light, O’Brien goes on to find Cheryl Cohen Greene (a top-form Helen Hunt), a sex therapist who is willing to take him through the mechanics of sex in six sessions.

Oct 12, 2012

On Julianne Moore's Performance in Boogie Nights

"If the definition of an ensemble cast entails that the characters get roughly the same screen time and have equal importance in driving the narrative, then Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest film to date) is the epitome of an ensemble film. Its cast has no shortage of strong performances, memorable characters or silver screen stars. Yet, it is Julianne Moore’s Amber “the foxiest bitch in the world” Waves who still manages to steal the show, for her presence on the screen is so radiant, so lively, that I can only see the others as they relate to her; and in her absence she’s constantly lingering in my mind. Moore’s performance is an unimpeachable example of nuance in expressivity. Her character is the emotional anchor for everybody else in the film. She’s the mother that Wahlberg and Graham never had, the one and only woman for Reynolds, the ultimate object of desire for everyone who sees her on tape, the one everybody goes to when they want something done. Yet, inside her there’s something badly and irrevocably broken. Moore makes a fine line of this grave emotional chasm. The beauty of her performance is the subtlety she brings to the role even though she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve. Not that she is any less impressive in the extremes, like her deadpan delivery of “This is a giant cock” or her sobbing scene after the court rules against her in a custody battle. But it’s the more delicate moments that make this one of my favourite performances of all time."
*Julianne Moore's performance in Boogie Nights was voted the best of the nineties in Andrew's 90s Showdown. As a contributor to his series, I selected the performance as the number one of the decade in my original top ten list and wrote the blurb above during the voting. I'm happy to see I'm not at all alone in my admiration for her work.

Oct 10, 2012

Short Take: At Any Price

Grade: B

*A version of this review was posted at The Film Experience during TIFF12.

At Any Price is Ramin Bahrani's first film to feature no immigrant characters, and perhaps subsequently, use Hollywood stars instead of amateurs. It’s an interesting change for a director whose films have come to be known for their intimacy and real life feel. At Any Price tells the story of a crumbling farming empire owned by Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid). Whipple, who's inherited the farms from his father, is failing to convince his two sons to enter the family business. His elder son has left America and gone on an adventure in the mountains of Argentina.

It is his second son, Dean (Zac Efron), an aspiring race car driver, whom we see more of as he gradually begins to confront his father over years of repressed emotions. Bahrani, whose previous features dug deep into the realization of the American dream, here looks at how that dream is falling apart. The crushing "expand or die" mentality of modern America is constantly contrasted with a nostalgic, some might say sentimental, view of a not-so-distant past when life was, to put it simply, easier, or more innocent.

America itself is without a doubt the most prominent character in the film. But while I, along with many others, found the strongly pronounced symbolism a bit much, the good still far outweighs the bad. The sensitive imagery of the film, the sweeping vistas, Dennis Quaid's curiously over the top but poignant performance, even Zac Efron's efforts to make the leap to a more serious side of acting all pay off handsomely in the end. Bahrani continuously builds momentum and takes his characters in unexpected ways. The ambiguity of his film remains more engrossing than messy.

This will surely become Bahrani's biggest hit, though that's not exactly a major financial achievement since his best selling film made less than a million dollars at the box office. But if 2013 is not a specially competitive year for actors, expect to see a push for Quaid in the Best Actor category. That's as far as I imagine the film can go in the awards season.

Oct 5, 2012

Short Take: The Place Beyond the Pines

Grade: A-

* A shorter version of this review was originally posted at The Film Experience during TIFF12.

Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to his marriage drama Blue Valentine is a three-part genre piece about a stunt motorcycle rider (Ryan Gosling) who enters a life of crime when he realizes that a short fling in the past with Romina (Eva Mendes) has resulted in a son. When a young cop (Bradley Cooper) gets involved with his case, his criminal activities take an abrupt turn.

Fans of Cianfrance's previous film and also those who were expecting "Drive redux" based on the minimal promotional material available are in for a surprise, though in my case the surprise was a very happy one. This robust story of complex morality and corruption is told with sensitivity and gravitas. It is intermittently a white-knuckle action film that keeps you squirming on the edge of your seat and a dense drama of Shakespearean gravity that explores father-son relationships. Think of it as a crime thriller with the emotional punch of Blue Valentine.

Gosling gives yet another superbly intense performance, and Cooper and Dane DeHaan steal the show with their surprising depth. Ultimately, though, the star of the show is cinematographer Sean Bobbit, whose graceful work in the film's more intimate moments makes for an interesting juxtaposition to the Grand Prix-inspired dynamism of its action-packed first half.

Given the presence of two major Hollywood stars and the potential to market the hell out of the genre elements, The Place beyond the Pines could become a big financial hit, even though it might be too far out of the comfort zone of awards bodies for recognition.

Oct 4, 2012

The Key to Winning an Oscar?

"You can't let yourself go free when you're speaking a foreign language... You're speaking a language that doesn't mean anything to you... You haven't had a life experience with it. Some of the words, many of words, they just have alphabetic meanings, rather than life experience meanings. Sometimes I've said lines that I didn't know what they meant. But I'm good at that. In No Country For Old Men I did that, also. And they gave me an Oscar. They thought I was doing my method acting of being blank because of the violence and cruelty of my character, but really, I didn't know what I was saying. That's the key to playing a psycho killer: to not know what you're saying."

- Javier Bardem (video link)

Oct 3, 2012


Is it bad?

As opposed to good?

Oct 2, 2012

Persian Treasures: The House is Black

Welcome to the first episode of my new series: Persian Treasures. (The background on the series is explained here) When I first proposed the series, my friend Andrew (Encore’s World of Film and TV) was quick to mention that while he appreciates the idea, he’s not sure if he’s seen any of these films or is even able to seek them out once he finds out about them here. I’m certain he’s not alone. To be honest, the reason I write so little about Iranian cinema despite my desire is that same concern. What interests me about blogging is the conversation, and if I’m going to be talking to myself, well, where’s the fun in that? So to make this easier for him and all of you out there, for the first episode I’ve chosen a short film that’s available in its entirety on YouTube. It may have been wiser to start the series on a happier note, but really, easy access is NOT the only reason I’ve chosen this film. It also happens to be one of my favourite films of all time and it even found quite some love on the newest edition of the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films ever made.

The film in question is The House is Black (خانه سیاه است, Khaaneh Siaah Ast) directed by famous Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad in 1962. House is notable not only for being the only film in her resume, but because the ever-controversial, iconoclast poet was at the height of her fame when the film came out. Forough, who is famous for the implicit sexuality and the openly critical feminism of her poems, had just finished her fourth and penultimate collection, and was faced with public criticism and negative pressure in a society where Islam and its problematic views on women were not only dominant, but intensifying rapidly as the country was moving toward the Islamic Revolution. Forough had always swum against the current, but The House is Black was a change in direction.