Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

I’ve been waiting for this movie for eight years. Subconsciously, that is. Let’s face it – ‘Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen’ was not begging for a sequel. Sure, it was left open-ended, but it was a solid, finished story all by itself. The reason I was anticipating this sequel is simple. Back in 1998, director Shekar Kapur managed to reinvent a period piece genre – with more intrigue, politics, religion, medieval marriage, all kinds of hot issues thrown in. The film was great, but chronologically it only covered Elizabeth becoming the queen. The credits rolled after her coronation. I wanted to go back to that world, there was so much to mine there. So many conflicts, factual and ‘added for dramatic effects’. I fell in love with Kapur’s visual palette, his use of camera. And yes, I fell in love with Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as her advisor. And now they’re back. Right off the bat, you can tell the movie’s budget is bigger this time. Is it a good thing for a period piece?
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3:10 to Yuma (2007)

How do you re-invent a tired genre? Quite simple, really: treat the film as if this particular plot was never done before; create three-dimensional characters, put them into realistic situations, and give them just enough screen time to shine without taking away from the story. And finally, if your characters start going through familiar motions (i.e. cliches), treat them with a straight face, giving each of these actions solid motive and reason. Then an old tale will be fresh again. Such is the case with 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a typical Western movie, which at first glance has nothing new to offer. OK, maybe two things – Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. But only at a first glance. A few minutes into the movie, you know that this is something different, something intelligent, something engaging.
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Babel (2006)

Last year’s everyone’s favourite movie – a winner of many awards, nominated for dozens more, is Babel really that good? We’ve had our share of undeserved award-hype in the past – Brokeback Mountain, Shakespeare in Love, so does Babel fill the same over-hyped shoes, or is it actually worth watching? Well, if you are not intimidated by subtitles, huge cast and intertwining plot lines – you will enjoy this film. The imagery and morals might be a little too heavy, but then again, a project that spans multiple cultures and languages will not translate as poetically as intended. Babel is heavy, but so are its themes. Last year’s Crash is very similar – it touched on subjects that are very difficult to resolve – only illuminate. And it’s during that illumination that you start seeing people in the audience disagree. But, at least they’re talking about something of substance. As opposed to say “The Devil Wears Prada” – an entertaining and moving film about nothing.
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The Departed (2006)

Sometimes, when you put a whole bunch of male actors on the screen, you get drama magic. From 12 Angry Men, to Glengarry Glen Ross, to The Thing, to The Great Escape, the right combination of despair and testosterone will give you fantastic movie moments, filled with memorable quotes, crackling silences, and often-imitated facial expressions. But, you have to have your formula right. Too often, an all-male cast is lost in a heavy plot, or distracted by unnecessary effects. The Departed is a focused, plot-driven cop drama – and although Martin Scorcese’s fans will argue differently, it’s a movie well worth your time and money. Even for a remake of Hong-Kong’s Infernal Affairs, The Departed is fresh, and energetic, keeping you involved until the very last scene. So why all the criticism?
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100 top TV catchphrases

Yes, the end of the year must be here – all kinds of lists are popping up. Here’s one list we just had to share with you. The TV Land cable network has compiled a list of the 100 greatest catchphrases in TV, from the serious — Walter Cronkite’s nightly sign-off “And that’s the way it is” — to the silly: “We are two wild and crazy guys!” The network will air a countdown special, “The 100 Greatest TV Quotes & Catch Phrases,” over five days, starting December 11. You should tune in – and memorize all these gems. Meanwhile, here’s an alphabetical listing.
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Robert Altman RIP

Robert Altman is no more. The famous director of Nashville, Gosford Park, MASH, Dr. T and the Women (and so many more movies) has died. He never got his Oscar – sure there was that lifetime achievement handout earlier this year, but for all the outstanding work he’s done, none has earned him that ultimate honor. Of course, Altman was the kind of guy who cared little for awards and ceremonies. He frequently said that hie biggest achievement was being able to work on movies (and with people) he picked. No assigned contractual obligations, no back-room deals. He saw a story, he asked for it, and he worked on it. In today’s climate, that’s not an easy task. For a guy who’s been in business since the 50s – that’s true honor.
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For Your Consideration (2006)

When this film premiered at the Toronto Film Fest, the director brought out the cast on stage. After Christopher Guest announced the last person to appear, he proceeded to talk about the film, how it was made, and who inspired it. Suddenly, from back stage, Eugene Levy appeared, shuffling quietly and slowly, as if he got lost on a school trip. There they were – about 15 people on stage, right in the spotlight, and in the darkness – Eugene, slowly wobbling towards the light. Christopher Guest stopped for a second, did a double take, and quickly announced “and here’s Eugene Levy, the co-writer of the movie”. By that time, the audience was roaring with laughter. Sure, it was a prepared bit, but it looked natural, unrehearsed. Funny as hell. Right at that moment, instead of joining the cast at the center of the stage, Eugene ran back behind the curtains, a second later a new spotlight hit that curtain, and he emerged again, this time waving his hands, smiling, and walking with confident big strides. The audience was in tears of laughter. We may have expected a bit from Guest and company, but to make a good punchline, and within seconds, to deliver another guaranteed laugh – that was class. And that set the tone for the entire film.
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Syriana (2005)

Do you drive a car? The next time you fill up, consider the arguments of this movie, consider the kind of people that occupy it, consider their motivations. I’m not accusing you of anything, only suggesting a deeper analysis. Just think about where this gasoline comes from, how many lives it affects, and how. The movie, despite the backlash and promotional campaign, doesn’t accuse anyone either. It’s not pro-environment. It’s not anti-Republican. It’s not peacenick. It simply looks at the oil industry a little closer, revealing fascinating, shocking and compelling stories. It’s a marvel to watch, and even if you may not understand every plot-line all the time, you know you’re being educated, and this film comes with a lot of passion.

George Clooney has been very socio-politically involved lately. The guy has a few things to say. There was the black and white Good Night and Good Luck, there weer K Street and Unscripted, and now comes Syriana – written by Stephen Gaghan (Traffik, Rules of Engagement). It’s a complex movie, with intercutting plot-lines, too moany characters and muddled motivations. It’s difficult to follow, but the stuff you get blows your mind. Nothing really surprising, just drives the point: oil industry is a business, and government is very much a business. CIA, committees all have budgets, expenses, HR and deficits. And what do you do when you have a deficit? You either cut expenses (if you’re in a service industry), or raise prices (if you’re selling anything). That pretty much applies to everyone. Money is king in this film, and similar to Wall Street, greed is a good thing, because otherwise you will be trampled by someone just a little greedier.

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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.