Begin Again

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
July 23rd, 2014 No comments

Begin Again, 2013, USA

Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is having the worst day of his life. He’s just been fired from the record label he co-founded and his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener) are angry with him. He stumbles into a bar and hears Gretta (Keira Knightley) sing a song that mesmerizes him. Little does he know that Gretta is also having the worst day of her life. He offers to make an album with her, and after sleeping on it, she agrees. The album is produced outdoors, making use of the natural noise of New York City. Through this process, Dan and Gretta become close, and discover what they want in life.

The film was written and directed by John Carney, who also wrote and directed the wonderful film, Once. Like Once, Begin Again is a musical, though it feels a little larger in scope than the very intimate Once. That’s not a bad thing, because Begin Again is a warm and touching film about being true to yourself and discovering your path in life.

Knightley and Ruffalo have wonderful chemistry on-screen. And who knew Knightley could sing so beautifully?! She is a lovely singer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ruffalo as a contender during next year’s award season – his performance was the broken down and beaten-up Dan was inspirational work. He was just excellent.

Adam Levine makes his acting debut in the film, and he wasn’t terrible, but he was one of the weaker links in the film. He was essentially playing a version of himself. They needed someone who could sing, and they likely wanted someone who had experience performing on-stage as a musician, so I understood why they casted him in the role. Rapper CeeLo Green also has a role in the film as a recording artist made famous by Dan. I’m glad the role was essentially a cameo, because his acting was cringe-worthy. He was also basically playing himself, but it was painfully awkward and uncomfortable to watch him attempt to act. He should definitely stick to rapping.

It is essential for a musical to have a catchy soundtrack, and the songs in Begin Again were wonderful. I’m expecting “Lost Stars” to receive award nominations at the very least – but there were a few other songs that could receive recognition as well. I’ll be purchasing the soundtrack, for sure.

Begin Again is excellent, and very much worth seeing. It’s in theatres now.

Like Father, Like Son

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
July 19th, 2014 No comments

Like Father, Like Son, 2013, Japan

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono) are parents of six-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota is a traditional Japanese father: he’s strict, and sets a rigid schedule for his son to follow. They get a phone call from the hospital Keita was born at and receive devastating news: a mistake was made at the hospital and Keita is not their biological son. Ryota and Midori meet the parents of their biological son shortly thereafter. Yukari (Yôko Maki) and Yudai (Rirî Furankî) live in a village and are poor, compared to the successful Ryota and Midori. Yukari and Yudai’s son, Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) is the biological son of Ryota and Midori. Both families must come together and decide whether to switch their sons, or continue raising the sons they brought home from the hospital.

Like Father, Like Son is a story of contrast. One family is wealthy; the other is poor. However, Yukari is a warm and affectionate father who values spending time with his children over working hard to make ends meet; the exact opposite of Ryota. Ryota is cold, and looks down on the other family, especially Yukari, over what he perceives to be flaws in their parenting styles.

The film is a moving one, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, despite having a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Ryota is a flawed character, and it’s difficult to like him, or, sometimes, even understand why he is doing what he is doing. Part of it is certainly a difference in culture: Ryota represents very traditional Japanese values. But, I would argue that his character is also a critique of the mindset that he represents. Yukari and Yudai were portrayed in a far more positive light, in my opinion, and the film ultimately shows Ryota’s growth as a human being.

I read that the film is being remade for an American audience. I can’t see it working – again, for cultural reasons. In my mind, there’s no question what I would do were I in this situation: I’d never consider swapping a child I’d raised for six years. I get the sense that most in my culture would share my point of view, and as the main plot concerns the question of whether such a swap should take place, I just don’t see it working. Which brings up another point: why can’t English-speaking audiences just watch it with subtitles? The film was wonderfully moving, and it was an interesting glimpse into another country’s culture. This need to constantly remake foreign films drives me up the wall, because I’d like to see people seeking out the original film instead. Then again, I suppose it’s easy for me to talk, as I’ve never had any trouble reading subtitles and following subtitled films – almost 50% of the films I’ve watched this year have been foreign films.

Like Father, Like Son is available to rent off iTunes.

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No Regrets

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 16th, 2014 No comments

No Regrets, 2001, Germany

Having just graduated high school, Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is still pining for his classmate, Luca (Jessica Schwartz). Daniel has avoided dating, saving himself for Luca, based on something she told him at a camping trip they took years before. He attempts to woo Luca using increasingly terrible love advice from his friend Dennis (Denis Moschitto). After a stunt to get her attention goes wrong, Luca goes to America for three weeks and Daniel begins doing community service work under the watchful eye of Anna (Marie-Lou Sellem). Anna is older, and makes no secret of her affection for Daniel. But Daniel finds himself torn between Anna, and his ongoing love for Luca.

I found the film very interesting, from a cultural standpoint. In North America, films about teenagers and sex are generally comedies, whereas this film was more of a drama, despite featuring a few comedic moments. In my experience, most North American films about young people discovering and having sex are comedies. What does this say about our culture? That the notion of young people discovering sex for the first time is so taboo that it is a topic that must be played for laughs? After I watched the film, I did a lot of thinking and the only American film I could think of that even touched on the idea of teens and sex in a serious manner was the film Kids, which is one of the darkest and most depressing films I’ve ever watched.

So, needless to say, I appreciated the hell out of the fact that the film looked at the troubles of youth, and the exploration of sex in a serious way, without being especially depressing, either.

Daniel is a very flawed protagonist: he’s very much the typical 19-year-old; he’s selfish, makes idiotic choices, and has some pretty flawed ideas about love, sex, and relationships. But he remains fairly likable, and all of that credit goes to Brühl, who is an absolute genius at making you root for characters you might otherwise dislike. I also thought Sellem was wonderful as Anna, who is easily the most sympathetic character in the film. I loved every scene she shared with Brühl.

Throughout the film, Daniel breaks the fourth wall numerous times, providing commentary on his thoughts and experiences directly to the audience. It was an interesting storytelling technique and I quite enjoyed it. In many ways, it reminded me of the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I got the sense that breaking the fourth wall as they did was a direct homage to that film.

It took a bit of effort to track down a copy of No Regrets. I ended up finding it on Amazon.co.uk under its German title, Nichts bereuen.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4.5
July 13th, 2014 No comments

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 2014, USA

Ten years after the events of the first film, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is leading a peaceful life in the forest with his wife (Judy Greer), teenage son (Nick Thurston), and newborn. He is the leader of a colony of apes, and is close friends with Koba (Toby Kebbell), who serves as a close adviser. A small group of humans have an encounter with some apes in the forest, and Caesar chases them away, before going to the humans’ colony and intimidating them. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is one of the humans, and is amazed by Caesar’s ability to speak, and wants to meet with the apes in order to gain access to a hydro dam that is key to returning power to the city. The leader of his colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), reluctantly gives him 3 days for his mission, but holds extremist views against the apes and blames them for the virus that has killed off most of mankind.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes builds on the story its predecessor told, and is actually the better film overall (which is saying something!). It features rich and wonderful characters, both human and ape, and it’s a surprisingly thought-provoking story about setting differences aside, conflict, and what it means to be a leader.

I was blown away by the acting: Oldman has a reasonably small part, but in one scene of his, he managed to make me weep. He has such a presence throughout the story, despite his limited screen time. And Serkis is such a remarkable actor. I’ve been saying this for awhile, but it’s well overdue that motion capture performances be recognized with their own category at award ceremonies. There are now more than a few films a year that feature such work, and it’s time the actors get recognized for it. How difficult must it be to accurately portray the movements and sounds of an ape? Serkis (and Kebbell – and all of the motion-capture actors, in fact) portrayed the apes perfectly. I often forgot that it was the work of humans that I was watching, and not actual apes! That also speaks to the beauty of the CGI animation – it is truly some of the best work I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing how far animation has come in even ten years.

The apes communicate with each other primarily through sign language, which means subtitles are used through much of the film – something that is unusual for a blockbuster film. I was impressed that the filmmakers had the confidence to make this decision: I don’t believe it would have been realistic for the apes to be speaking fluent English to one another at this point in the film series’ timeline.

In a summer that has been a bit lighter on quality films than usual, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really stands out. It’s easily one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

In Tranzit

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 8th, 2014 No comments

In Tranzit, 2008, Russia/UK

This film, based on true events, is the story of a Russian transit camp run by women following World War II. The camp is meant to hold women on their way to Russian gulags, but they mistakenly receive a shipment of German POWs. Pavlov (John Malkovich) decides to leave the POWs in the camp, and orders the camp staff to gain the trust of the prisoners. In the group of approximately 50 prisoners, there are war criminals, including one who committed particularly heinous acts during the siege of Leningrad, and he orders Natalia, the camp doctor (Vera Farmiga) to be on the look out for him. Pavlov threatens to transfer her brain damaged husband (Evgeniy Mironov) should she fail. The prisoners in the camp struggle in the cold Russian winter, but slowly some members of the camp staff warm up to them. Natalia herself is attracted to Max (Thomas Kretschmann), who, along with Max’s associate, Klaus (Daniel Brühl), is held under suspicion by Pavlov.

I’d never heard this specific story prior to watching the film. I’d love to do some research about the actual story behind the film, because the idea of German POWs being guarded by female Russian guards is fascinating. The film doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the post-war period, or of the tremendous wrongs committed by some of the German soldiers during the war. In many respects, In Tranzit is a study of human nature. How would you react to being tasked with guarding soldiers whose countrymen were responsible for killing your families? And how do you find a war criminal who is lurking in the shadows under a false name?

Farmiga was absolutely wonderful as Natalia. Her character struggles to care for her disabled husband, and in many respects, acts as the moral centre of the film. I thought her Russian accent sounded quite good, as well. Malkovich commands the screen during his limited screen time. Pavlov is a man on a continuous power trip and Malkovich is appropriately menacing. Brühl plays a character unlike any I’ve seen him play, and he does fine work, along with Kretschmann.

In Tranzit is not a particularly fast moving film – it’s slow, but the strong characters and intriguing storyline are enough to keep you invested in it. I quite enjoyed it. While I don’t believe it’s a particularly well known film, it is available here in North America on Amazon (no need to purchase an imported copy!).

The Campaign

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
July 5th, 2014 No comments

The Campaign, 2012, USA

The Campaign satirizes contemporary American politics, and takes aim at everything from attack ads, debates, and the notion of posing with babies.

Cam Brady (Will Ferrell) is the longtime congressman of District 14 in North Carolina. He’s running unopposed, and was heavily favoured to win until an affair becomes public through a crass voice mail Cam left on an answering machine. Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) is convinced to run by the wealthy Motch brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd). Little does he know, but the Motch brothers are looking to sell District 14 to China so they can build a sweatshop. Cam quickly grows desperate in light of a genuine challenger, and both parties turn to increasingly wacky tactics in order to win the election.

Corporate sponsorship and influence is a running theme in the film. It takes a damning look at campaigns being financed by corporations, even if the very premise of this film is a little ridiculous. I think that, despite the ridiculousness, The Campaign does have a lot to say about the nature of contemporary politics. A film like this one will appeal to a younger audience on the basis of the cast, and I think if young people can come away thinking about the problems there are with politics, then the film will have made a difference.

The film is undeniably crude and potentially offensive. In many cases, they go for the easy joke instead of a sharper, more intelligent joke, but that doesn’t surprise me. I did laugh quite a bit, and there were some truly hilarious moments. Ferrell is as outrageous as ever, as is Galifianakis. Both actors are playing to their type: Ferrell is the over-the-top asshole, and Galifianakis is the awkward, but harmless oddball. As an aside, I’d love to see Galifianakis in a role that is different from the ones he’s been pigeon-holed into over the last few years. The Hangover has done wonders for his career, but it has typecasted him in a serious way.

At times The Campaign does drag on, which is problematic as it is only about 88 minutes long. This is especially true towards the end, when I really found it struggled to hold my attention. But, when the jokes are landing, The Campaign is hilarious and worth watching.

The Campaign is available on Netflix.

Cargo

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
July 2nd, 2014 No comments

Cargo, 2006, Spain/UK/Sweden

Chris (Daniel Brühl), a brash young German traveler in Africa gets himself into trouble after trying to steal a bracelet from a merchant. After the police take his passport, Chris runs off and finds himself in a bar full of crew members of a ship. He sneaks onboard the rusty old cargo ship, and hides in the cargo hold, which holds cages full of smuggled birds. He’s discovered, and dragged in front of the captain (Peter Mullan), who reluctantly allows him to stay on board in the care of Baptist (Luis Tosar). The crew soon reveals itself to be hostile and even dangerous, and Baptist urges Chris to mind his own business for his own safety. But Chris insists on getting involved, and soon finds himself in a precarious situation when more stowaways are found.

The vast majority of the film takes place on the cargo ship, which sets a gloomy and chilly tone. It’s a fascinating set piece. There’s no privacy, and there’s no escaping the impending sense of doom. The crew members of the ship represent some of the darker aspects of humanity; on the ocean they’re completely on their own and maintain their own moral code aimed at protecting their home from intruders at all costs.

I found the premise of the film to be very interesting, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before. It’s not a horror film per se, but it almost feels like one much of the time. It’s a commentary on isolation, greed, and the loss of humanity. As a film, it’s an unrelentingly dark depiction of humanity.

Mullan was excellent as the captain, a man who may be the worst of them all, but who maintains an odd sort of affection for Chris. And Brühl was wonderful as Chris. He manages to make Chris likable, despite his thoroughly unlikable introduction in the opening moments of the film. Chris is arrogant, and rather stupid at times, but you can’t help but sympathize with him. Despite his flaws, Chris is a man who is desperate to get home safely, and has found himself in over his head on the boat from hell. Gary Lewis has a supporting role as an emotionally traumatized crew member named Herman, and I wish his part had been larger. His character was fascinating.

Cargo is almost entirely in English, however it is not easy to find a copy of it, as it was never released in North America. You can order an import copy from the UK, which is what I ended up having to do!

They Came Together

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 1.5
June 29th, 2014 1 comment

They Came Together, 2014, USA

They Came Together is a satire of romantic comedies. Director and writer David Wain has tried to inset every single romantic comedy trope into the film, with limited success.

Molly (Amy Poehler), and Joel (Paul Rudd) are telling the story of how they met to their friends over dinner. At first, they loathe each other, but slowly they begin to fall for each other. However, there are obstacles in their relationship, notably the fact that Joel works for a corporate candy company that is trying to put Molly’s independent candy shop out of business.

They Came Together just doesn’t work. It’s impossible to make a satire of a genre that has essentially become self-satire at this point. There are a few excellent romantic comedies out there, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Instead of being clever, They Came Together too often relies on crass sexual jokes in an attempt to be edgy. Ooh, a rude French server with a pole in his ass – how clever! There are a few funny moments, but they are few and far between. In fact, the only scene I’d say is worth watching is the climax of the film, which features a very funny cameo.

I love both Poehler and Rudd, so it’s a shame to see them in a film that was this genuinely terrible. I got the sense that they understood the intention of the film, and had high hopes for it, but that they were screwed over at some point during the filmmaking process. Rudd plays his role with this schmaltzy, over-the-top eagerness, and Poehler is gleefully absurd. At first it’s quite funny, but by minute ten of the film, it has grown stale.

It is absolutely possible to poke fun at romantic comedies, but I don’t believe a full-length movie is the way to go. Had this premise been turned into an SNL sketch instead, I think it would have been hilarious. Instead, as trope after trope gets “mocked”, you begin to feel like they’re being referenced for the sake of being referenced. There’s no witty commentary – instead it’s more like “Hey, they work at rival companies, because that’s what happens in all romantic comedies! Haha!”. Satire is meant to be clever – this is not clever in any sense of the word.

They Came Together is currently in limited release in theatres. I saw that it was available to rent on Apple TV, so, for the sake of frugality, I rented it on there instead of waiting to see it in theatres. I’m so grateful I didn’t pay money to see this in a theatre, but I wish I hadn’t bothered at all. It’s 90 minutes of my life that I will never get back, and I strongly urge you to stay as far away from this movie as you can.

Winning Streak

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
June 26th, 2014 No comments

Winning Streak, 2012, Spain

Gonzalo Pelayo (Lluís Homar) has spent much of his adult life obsessed with beating the roulette table. After a heart attack sidelines him and prevents him from re-entering the casino, he ropes his musician son, Iván (Daniel Brühl) into putting his roulette scheme into action. Iván gets his dim-witted cousins, Marcos (Oriol Vila) and Alfredo (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), as well as his uncle, Balón (Vicente Romero) in on the plan, and together, they form a team called The Pelayos. The plan is to go to the casino every night and bet on the same numbers; numbers that have been statistically winning more often due to notches or cracks in the table. Then, once a pattern has formed, they increase their bets and win big. However, their activities draw the ire of the casino boss (Eduard Fernández), putting the plan into jeopardy.

I have to give a ton of credit to both Brühl and Homar – without them, the film really would not have worked. As it is, it was a little weak. The characters were weakly written, and relied far too heavily on tired tropes. There were the idiot relatives, the mistress (played by Huichi Chiu), and a lazily written villain. But Brühl and Homar were interesting. There was something so pathetic about Gonzalo, a man who has wasted his life trying to beat a casino game, to the point where he ropes his entire family into doing his bidding for him. But Gonzalo knows how to manipulate his son, and Iván, however reluctantly, follows his father’s every command, even giving up his dreams of touring with his band (how did he get out of his commitments to his band?! It’s never shown or explained.). So Iván takes his father’s dream on as his own, and becomes the obsessed leader of his group of gambling misfits.

The plot was fairly predictable, and lacked the tension that is generally required in a movie like this one. But the story itself was interesting enough, and apparently based on a true story! I’m not a gambler (I’ve never even been inside a casino), but I found the prospect of beating a roulette wheel simply by studying the numbers the ball lands on to be a fascinating concept. Similarly, I’ve also found the idea of counting cards to be fascinating. It’s apparently quite difficult to do, but it’s not illegal (though you’re liable to get banned from the casino if you are doing it and winning a lot of money!).

Like many of the films I’ve been watching recently, Winning Streak never received a North American release. While it kept me entertained, I’m not sure I’d recommend making the effort to obtain a copy of the film here in North America, unless, like me, you’re making you’re way through Mr. Brühl’s entire filmography (in which case I’d recommend visiting Amazon.com).

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
June 23rd, 2014 No comments

How to Train Your Dragon 2, 2014, USA

Five years after the events of the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is all grown up. The villagers of Berk all have their own dragon companions, and Hiccup and his dragon, Toothless, have been traveling around mapping out the surroundings. His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) wants his son to take over as chief, but Hiccup is reluctant. During his travels, Hiccup and his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera) come across a group of dragon trappers. They trap dragons for Drago (Djimon Hounsou), which are then forced to do his bidding. In his rush to rescue his village from Drago, he is captured by Valka (Cate Blanchett), a mysterious dragon rider.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 builds on the first movie, and doesn’t retread on ground already covered in the first film. In the first film, Hiccup grows into a confident young man who is able to stand up for what he believes in. In this film, he grows further: he becomes a leader, and he discovers who he is meant to be.

The tone of this film is different, as well. While there’s still some of the humour that was present in the first film, this one is darker, and sadder. It’s a remarkably mature film, and there’s an absolutely devastating scene in the film that really impressed me. I was blown away by the courage of the filmmakers to do what they did in this scene. It’s a difficult scene to watch, and I think years down the line, it is one that will be remembered for its sheer emotional impact. Bring tissues to the theatre.

As with the first one, the animation was beautifully done. There was excellent attention to detail – Stoick’s beard in particular looked amazing. You could really see the texture in the hair. Hair is particularly difficult to animate, so I’m always impressed when I see a great example of animated hair. This film features many different dragons, and the design of all of the dragons is quite inventive. I didn’t see the film in 3D, which I sort of regret, as there are many flying sequences that would have looked beautiful in 3D.

Baruchel does fine work as Hiccup, as does Butler and Blanchett. I thought Hounsou was excellent as Drago – he was perfectly menacing, though a bit underused, in my opinion.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is one of the best films of the summer so far. I highly recommend catching it in theatres.

Toothless

Toothless’ design is based on a number of animals, including cats and bats. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but see my little cat, Sylvie, in Toothless. She’s not the most photogenic cat – she’s always bouncing around and the camera makes her nervous, but you can see the resemblance in this photo I took of her a few weeks ago!

sylvie

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