The Illusionist (2006)

Usually when Hollywood churns out similar movies back to back, there’s a lot of confusion. The second film typically suffers, even though it might be the better one. Or, in some rare cases, the second one does much better because the first one makes just enough people interested in the subject matter, and “builds up” an audience. In vast majority of the cases, both films get very different reaction from audiences and critics. This past summer, two movies dealing with magic have entertained us – The Illusionist and The Prestige (just wait until we post our belated Pan’s Labyrinth review). Surprisingly, both were embraced by the critics, and, what’s even more unusual, despite being rather philosophical in nature (as opposed to typical summer fx-travaganza) they did solid business. We saw both, but with Toronto Film Fest, and other events, completely forgot about these fine films. The Illusionist is coming out on DVD – why not review it now, and quickly follow by The Prestige – after all, both films are worthy of your time. In spite of their similarities.
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Hollywoodland (2006)

I saw Hollywoodland as a sneak preview to the Toronto Film Festival all the way back in August. At the time the director of TIFF, Piers Handling, told the audience to look out for this movie as it has Oscar buzz all over it. He was right. The movie left me slightly dazed as I was walking out of the theater. It left so many questions unanswered. Just like the death of George Reeves. No one really knows what happened, and instead of speculating and creating an alternate universe the movie stays true to its subject matter. Because really we don’t know and sadly will never find out how the man that played Superman died on June 16, 1959.
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Death of a President (2006)

This movie was one of my top choices at Toronto Film Fest. Unfortunately, the media blew the controversy out of proportion as soon as the film was announced, and I could not get a ticket to see it back in September. The good news, I was able to see it before it rolls out in movie theaters this coming Friday. The bad news is that the media is still desperately trying to bury/boycott/kill this movie, all without a valid reason. The movie theaters might be empty – a real shame. Death of a President is an odd film, but it has a point to make, makes it splendidly, and despite the volatile subject matter, deals with it in a mature way. Anyone, and I mean ANYONE who dismisses it as a liberal propaganda, or an invitation for a real assassination of the president has not seen the movie and clearly doesn’t know what s/he is talking about. It’s as if a review was based solely on the title. Why I never…
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The Fountain (2006)

Somehow Darren Aronofsky has become the next big hit in Hollywood. Along with JJ Abrams (his status I just have to question, after MI3) and Christopher Nolan (ok, this guy knows what he’s doing) Darren is hailed as this decade’s Tarantino. Now I understand that a formulaic, stagnant world of Hollywood needs a regular shake, a revolution. So when a new kid on the block directs something unusual, he’s naturally going to be labeled as the next big thing. But I just didn’t get why Darren is such an outstanding director. I could see his unique way of writing (his earlier hits, Pi and Requiem for a Dream were also written by him), but as a filmmaker, a genius behind the camera – I didn’t get it. Until The Fountain, of course. While Pi was a bit unusual throughout, Requiem for a Dream had a weird plot and soundtrack, but not direction. It was good, but not excellent. Compelling but not exceptional. With The Fountain, I think Darren has reached a new level of storytelling – a unique plot, amazing score and focused, concise visual mastery of the story. This is a simple, straightforward movie told in a fantastic and memorable way.
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Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

People keep saying that Abigail Breslin (she was also in Signs) steals this film. That’s not exactly accurate. Yes, she’s the main character of Little Miss Sunshine, and the film begins and ends with her. Her wide-eyed fascination with beauty pageants – so cleverly shown in the opening scene, and her off-the-wall talent performance at the pageant at the end of the movie establish a sweet, vulnerable, lovable character, Olive. But don’t for a second forget Olive’s dysfunctional, outrageous family – who manage to both support and let her down in one phrase. They are all supposed to be background (probably in the script they were), but when you have Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin in the same room – they’re anything but background. I’m glad that the camera stayed on them a little longer, and the editor left them in more scenes. Otherwise, you’d get a feeling their talents were wasted. This is an amazing ensemble effort, for a film where it’s not necessary – the story tells itself quite easily.
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TIFF 2006 – First few days

Wow, what a lineup this year. We thought Toronto Film Fest was outstanding in 2005 (Everything’s Illuminated, Mrs. Henderson Presents, A History of Violence, and dozens of other films), but so far this year we haven’t seen (or heard of) anything bad. Every screening we go to, every review we hear is just great. Stay tuned for in-depth reviews coming to the site, meanwhile a little tease. Babel is a multilingual drama, a tearjerker in today’s ever-shrinking world; Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fairytale, told in a background of 1944 fascist Spain, a fascinating parable of today’s evils…
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Thank You For Smoking (2005)

This movie is not about smoking. If you find you learned something new about smoking from this movie, you have been living under a rock for the past 7 years. Why seven? Because back in 1999 a little movie called The Insider came out. If you missed it, do yourself a favor, rent it, and go see Thank You For Smoking. The former movie is about smoking, the latter – is about public relations. It’s about perceptions, about power of argument. The main character, tobacco lobbyist Nate Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) says at one point that “if you argue correctly, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong”. And that’s exactly why this film came out of nowhere last fall at Toronto Film Fest, and has been quickly snatched up by a bigger studio. The current wide release is very small, but it’s building on word-of-mouth.

It’s appealing to people despite unpleasant subject matter. It’s appealing because the movie, just like its main character has “certain moral flexibility”. The film is very entertaining and extremely quotable. Even if you don’t like the characters or their motivations, you can’t help but side with them – they’re having fun doing this, and they’re succeeding. You know you’re rooting for the bad guys, but you go along for the ride, because it’s so much fun.

You see, Nate Naylor is a successful tobacco lobbyist, who’s going through a little life crisis. He’s about to visit his son’s school and give a speech on his job, when he realizes just how badly people think of his profession. Lobbyists are not popular people, especially if they argue on behalf of tobacco companies. Nate knows it, and doesn’t give a shit, except that look in his son’s eyes. “Don’t ruin my childhood”, he says, and Nate begins to analyze what it is he does, for what purpose and to what extent. The movie is a satire with a big heart. Nate knows right from wrong, but he’s so good at arguing, he’ll argue for anyone, even tobacco companies. Besides, it’s not like “we’re forcing cigarettes down people’s throats”. It’s a choice, and using this logic, Nate jumps from press conference to public appearance, protecting, and even saving the tobacco industry from public backlash.

Occasionally, he meets with other lobbyists – firearms (David Coechner), and alcohol (Maria Bello). Their meetings are usually in a dark, small restaurant, over a lavish meal and have a feeling of old mafia movies. I think that’s the point. What these three discuss after hard day’s work would have been considered plotting and conspiracies a few decades ago. Nowadays things are different. As these people discuss their latest “victories”, the audience chuckles, rooting them along – and knowing perfectly well that these people give more power to the big bad arms, booze and cigs corporations. More power and more money. Still, it’s a riot every time they meet to talk about the trade.

The movie almost has no characters with redeeming qualities (perhaps the son, and the former Marlboro man who’s joining the ranks of public outraged at tobacco companies’ shenanigans). Even these two cannot stand up to the rest of the cast (Rob Lowe – a sleazy film producer, trying to find a way to promote movie smoking even further). Wait a second, a movie that criticises smoking is in a way promoting it as well. Nevermind, I’m over-analyzing this. It’s still not about the subject of smoking. It’s about the power of debate. Even Katie Holmes, a journalist out to get Nate and spill his secrets onto newspaper headlines is eventually all about the headlines.

Good intentions get skewed, kind and moral people are fried in the process, and still the audience chuckles and laughs along. You know you got a good script when everyone’s rooting for the bad guys, almost for all of them. As long as the bad guys can convince you of their righteousness, you passed the exam. Come in, listen to the conversations, be a fly on the wall, learn a few things about debating, and if you happen to light one up because of the high energy, go ahead.

And thank you for smoking. We know EXACTLY how you feel, and what you need. Don’t forget your booze and bullets on the way out. This film is a bright shiny satire that makes the usually dark topics a little easier to bear. You can dislike these characters later, and think twice about your tax money, about your local journalists, and your city council. For now, watch how these people operate.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

NOTE: I have seen this movie just before the Oscars, after a long string of award wins. I’m posting this review late on purpose – waiting for the Oscar craze to die down, as well as all the hype surrounding the movie in the first place. Too much has been said about Brokeback’s loss to Crash already, and unfortunately, the loudest, most outrageous opinions stick around the longest. I’d like to correct them – some other time. Right now let’s go to Brokeback Mountain, let’s enjoy the movie for what it is, and let’s avoid cheap gay jokes for a few paragraphs. No promise on the last condition. While it’s an outstanding film, the last few weeks leading up to Oscars, and the subsequent backlash have been very-very illuminating for me. Showed the industry, the media and of course, the audiences in a slightly darker light. But i digress.

The movie has a lot of showbiz history. There was a positive, genuine buzz surrounding it at Toronto Film Fest last year, but I missed the gala, unfortunately. I had a feeling that I may need to see this film before there’s dozens of spotlights beaming across it. By the time it opened in wide release in December, it had enough attention, and managed to get on enough “top ten” lists to be qualified (IMHO) as hype. And I cannot stand hype, regardless of whether it’s deserved or not. If you remember, a year before, Sideways has done the same thing – came out of nowhere, and started collecting awards from all sides. Perhaps the two movies had the same marketing team, or same marketing idea – convincing people that they are the best movies ever made, instead of just being a movie. Sideways was a good, smart, honest film that unfortunately got over-hyped, over-extended, and over-praised. While I enjoyed it, it was somewhat disappointed by just how simple and compelling the story was. But then again, all great things should be simple.

To avoid the same disappointment, I waited for the hype to die down before I saw Brokeback. No such luck – January and February zoomed by, the movie was still playing in theaters, and every bloody day I’d read about yet another accolade. Time came to quickly jump into an empty theater and spend a few hours without any bias – so I can judge it, and our team here can make predictions for the Oscars. I think I succeeded, and came out of the theater an informed, entertained, saddened person. By the way, we ultimately chose “Crash” as the film of the year (among those nominated) and many of our contest entries fell short just in that one category. It’s good to be able to make informed decisions sometimes. Of course, the Oscars, or any other awards, or elections are famous for UNinformed decisions made by UNinmportant people, but that’s another rant altogether.

Basically, I liked the movie, DID NOT find it outstanding, and kept wondering how a dark horse like that got to grab so many headlines. It’s just a love story … between two men. What’s so groundbreaking about it? It’s not a cheesy romance (which takes away about a quarter of yearly new releases), and it’s not a soap opera (currently not playing in theaters). But it is very much a family drama – at least that’s the category it falls into. A family drama with some socio-political messages thrown in. North Country is the same kind of movie. Water, Pride & Prejudice, A History of Violence, Tsotsi. Sure, all of the above films have been nominated for this or that, but none have claimed (and been awarded) as much. Why? Because Brokeback is about gay men? What gives? I know that I may be inviting tons of critique by those who will immediately brand me homophobic, but I just don’t get why this subject can stand above others. It’s gotta be the subject of the film, because all other elements – directing, acting, photography are good, but not outstanding.

Here’s the good stuff. Amazing scenery – very romantic, incredible sequences of nature, wildlife, forests, rivers and of course, mountains. I have seen some of these places (as I traveled in British Columbia and Alberta), and they were captured without any tricks or FX – they’re really this overwhelming. You can lose yourself in a place like that – which makes many of the film’s ideas escapist and becomes so compelling and emotional, for so many people. You don’t need an exotic country to feel like a complete stranger, to turn inwards, and do some soul-searching inside – you just need to go fishing or camping. Either by yourself or with family or friends. I guess dragging the family up north every other weekend during the summer finally paid off now that it’s been glorified into a deep, spiritual, uplifting experience. Wait a minute, are we still talking about Brokeback Mountain Or March of the Penguins?

More good stuff – the performances. Jake Gyllenhall is the more sensitive, more adventurous of the two, always trying to bring their secret relationship into the open, to run a ranch together, and be comfortable with their lifestyle. As a cowboy in the 60s-80s America, it must have been tough to even consider a normal existence among others. But he keeps bringing it up, and the light in his eyes is so honest, so idyllic, it’s a real tearjerker. Heath Ledger – the more repressed, down to earth, full or self-hate and fear is also unbelievably good in his performance. He’s not quite the opposite of the two, but their time together on screen has so much love, and far beyond any combination of other actors. Ledger and Gyllenhaal upstage pretty much everyone in this film, and I would really like to see more of them, observe more of their times together, up there in the mountains. But, unfortunately, that’s not what the movie is about.

This movie has wives, relatives, the routine of work – that must be dealt with. There are other obligations, and any romantic escapism stops here. Homophobic attitudes, suspicious looks from behind the curtains, quiet sobs during the night – it’s the reality of a gay relationship in a repressed, male-oriented time. Delivered well, but with such a cold contrast to the first half of the movie, that I almost lost interest. Plus, the women are typically poorly written, and while Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams are trying their best, their lines are ridiculous, and they are best at not saying things. In fact, the second half of the film I enjoyed everything that was not being said – the silences. And you can’t build a compelling movie on a series of silences – unless of course they’re delivered by someone like Randy Quaid. His exchange with Jake Gyllenhaal set a very good tone early on by saying one thing and meaning something else – but that technique got diluted in the end.

That’s what it comes down to – many great elements – from actors, from script, from the cameraman, but overall it’s just not enough to be the best film of the year. Brokeback Mountain is a great-looking film, with a lot to offer. But it’s also a flawed, overly long period piece – it sets the elements in the right places, but doesn’t have much of a story beyond the “forbidden love” theme. A new twist – “forbidden gay love in the world of straights” doesn’t fly too far either. Watch it, but don’t expect much. It won’t stay with you the way all great movies do. The musical theme might stay, but the ideas, the emotions – they start strong, but fade out before the movie ends.

Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005)

They never closed. The famed Windmill theater in London prided itself on never closing its doors to audiences during the worst air raids of WWII. Yes, that is one way to remember the theater, but Mrs. Henderson Presents mentions this in passing, as a matter-of-fact. The movie is based on a tense and hilarious relationship between the theater’s owner, a recently widowed Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), and theater director, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) who was hired to assist her run the business properly. And although their stubborn and insightful dialogue gives the movie its backbone, there are many things presented here that go beyond the stoic theater performances, and beyond the nude scenes. Yes, the movie is also about nudity. You wanna read some more about nudity?…

Stephen Frears (director), when introducing the film to Toronto audiences back in September 2005 had said with elation: “I finally made my first nudie … my mum would be so proud”. Of course he was just getting the audience’s attention with the promise of naked women, just like I did above. In reality, the film (and the theater) deals with more serious issues. Deals with them light-heartedly, almost as if it all was a farce. Which takes away some of the weight of heavy themes, but doesn’t make them any less important. In a way, like Like I Beautiful, this film is about war that happens to everyday people – people who do have jobs, who may need entertainment, who may be entertainers. People who have to find laughter in everyday situations while everything is grim and hopeless. Laura Henderson is not such a person, and neither is Vivian Van Damm. They just run a theater (she, because she’s bored of being a typical widow, visiting friends for tea, exchanging innocent gossip, waiting for another close friend to kick the bucket); as for Van Damm, he likes a challenge. He almost walks away from the job, and that’s why he’s hired – he can tell it straight, and he won’t budge on principles. Despite Mrs. Henderson’s well-known eccentricities, he manages to keep the theater interesting, entertaining and profitable. They’re an odd couple, but somehow, their business works out. But then war happens.

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Everything is Illuminated (2005)

We are all immigrants. We all have roots elsewhere. Even if you think you’ve lived in the same little town for generations, keep digging and eventually you’ll find that somewhere, at some point in the past, your ancestors have come here, and decided to stay. They immigrated. Therefore you too are immigrants. Don’t argue with it, don’t rationalize it, just look long enough at your family tree and you’ll see where the roots come from. And if you don’t see them – aren’t you curious to find out? That’s the idea at the core of this movie. And you don’t have to be a nostalgic, odd-looking, Jewish boy to start looking for your roots half-way across the globe. You just have to be curious enough…

Everything Is Illuminated is a directorial debut of Liev Schreiber (Spinning Boris, Manchurian Candidate, Sum of All Fears, RKO 281) based on a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. A great novel, heavy with stories of a Ukrainian Jewish village that was essentially saved by one woman. Liev mentioned (after the screening) that he discarded most of the heavy material and concentrated on a “road trip” movie. I think it was a great decision – leave the heavy stuff for readers – tell a compelling story in less than two hours. And here’s the story.

A strange-looking American comes to town (Elijah Wood playing Johathan Foer), looking for his Ukrainian roots, more specifically a village that no longer exists on any maps. He’s escorted around countryside by Alex (Eugene Hutz), his grandfather (they run a business together – showing out-of-towners around – to find graves of their ancestors, archival records, etc), and grandfather’s seeing-eye dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. Elijah is the odd man out, a collector of memories – he has a wall in his room covered in plastic bags, each containing a piece of his family’s history, a piece of himself. The collection is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen – brooches, pens, pins, wrappers – it’s not your typical photos and letters. But then again, he’s not a typical kid. For instance, he also doesn’t eat meat – which not only provides a hilarious running joke for the movie, but also comments on our personal choices as individuals.
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