Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Freedom Fries!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman Gives An Astonishing Performance in "A Most Wanted Man"

By Nancy Chan

Review critic-at-large

     All spy movies worth their salt have to feature betrayal, given competing interests, geopolitics and the clandestine nature of intelligence gathering. 
A Most Wanted Man succeeds, with betrayals galore and confidences made and lost. Based on a John Le Carre novel, A Most Wanted Man is quietly absorbing with strong characters inhabiting their roles with aplomb.
 The film is the last one that Philip Seymour Hoffman completed before his untimely passing and it's a meaty one for him, playing Gunther Bachmann as  the Intel chief in Hamburg running a small shop of spies in the wake of September 11. With an uneven German accent Hoffman plays Gunther as weary but not jaded.   He's a hang-doggy, overweight spy whose obvious ease around whisky and ciggies seem all too authentic. 
The plot is clean and not as convoluted as one would expect in a spy film - we get a Chechen Russian who may be a terrorist threat, a refugee lawyer determined to help him, an Islamic academic suspected of funneling funds to jihadists, and in the background, German security operatives and a toothy CIA agent pushing our man in Hamburg for more intelligence than he is, at first, prepared to give.    
Despite his gruff exterior, Hoffman's Gunther is determined to do the right thing and protect the innocents and make deals in search of bigger and guiltier fish. At one point, he even says it takes a minnow to catch a barracuda. Somewhere along the way, personal connections and bigger fish than barracudas, lead to trouble.      
There are a few quibbles I have to mention - blond, glamorous Rachel McAdams as the lawyer doesn't persuade me for a second in the role, and her character's gullibility has to be seen to be believed (she is convinced of her client's truthfulness after he strips to review marks on his back - it HAS to be evidence of torture - by whom and for what reason she never questions). 
Willem Dafoe as the banker who gets caught up in the action is always reliably slick and edgy.  Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin plays the Chechen on the run. No fault of the soulful actor, who is mysteriously silent for much of the film, but why director Anton Corbijn asked him to play the character as a complete naif, passive to his fate is odd, and it would have been more satisfying , more subtle to give us a more nuanced Issa. 
Visually Hamburg is used well as a backdrop for all these machinations, the port, little shops and bars adding grit. Some shots of the city bring to mind the thought of how one how one small Intel unit is expected to monitor a city this large for terrorist threats. There are some smart visual metaphors - -Issa in an empty apartment throwing paper airplanes against a plastic tarp - the sense of impotence and opacity comes through. To beat the heat or boredom, get into the theatre and get your spy game on, to find out who really is the most wanted man.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Our Critic Says "Jersey Boys" Movie Soars

Like Frankie Valli’s falsetto, Jersey Boys soars. You know between the interstices of the brain where a snappy tune sticks, once heard, and you keep hearing it in your head?   Jersey Boys will do that to you, as it recreates the hits and tells the story of the boys from New Jersey in a smart and stylish way. 
Based on the Broadway hit and directed by Clint Eastwood, with a solid cast of actor/singers, Jersey Boys is pleasing to the eyes and ears.    There’s not a weak performance in the lot, with some standouts such as Vincent Piazza as the selfish but charismatic Tommy DeVito, Erich Bergen as hitmaker Bob Gaudio, Michael Lomenda as the amiable Nick Massi, and of course John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, he of the big range and the acting chops to match.    Then there’s Mike Doyle as music producer Bob Crewe and in a lesser but pivotal role, Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarlo, lending gravitas as local mob guy and father figure to Valli.
The Jersey accents and the strong characterizations are supported by the look of the film - the huge finned cars, the smoky little clubs, the unkempt streets of the old neighbourhood, the slick shiny suits of the men.  We see the clash of egos, money troubles and carelessness that lead directly to mob involvement, family angst and tragedy.  Despite the busyness, Eastwood makes us care about each of the characters.   In a film about the rise of a group of four young men, with a bevy of discarded band names before they light upon “the 4 Seasons” taken from the name of a local bowling alley, family decidedly takes a back seat – the strongest relationships shown are those between band members.  We get an idea of the human cost of touring and promoting.  Wives, lovers and children are afterthoughts to stardom.   It had me wondering what the family members of the band felt about their success and the dynamics between the members of the group. 
As a Broadway musical, breaking down the fourth wall conceit with characters periodically addressing the audience likely went over like gangbusters, but at first it was a bit disconcerting to have the band members talk to the camera at certain points, and I wasn’t entirely convinced that recreating these moments from the musical were even necessary.   However, that’s a minor quibble and it did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the story. There’s some clever or sly references:   at Valli’s parents’ home, the Pope and Frank Sinatra are literally framed equally and reverentially, in side-by-side photos, the other a scene where Joe is watching TV in a hotel room and who should pop up but something starring a young and virile Clint Eastwood.
The performances are high energy and will make you go to the Internet to see if Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons were rightly captured in their glory days. Recommended, but be warned – you will have the lyrics to ‘Sherry’ or “Big Girls Don’t Cry’  stuck in your brain for a week.

Joaquin Phoenix Shines in "The Immigrant" Movie

The Immigrant is a surprisingly generic title for what is essentially an old-fashioned morality play, ostensibly the story of a young Polish girl who comes to the New World in the twenties with her sister. Grey New York awaits if she can get out of immigration prison and spring her ill sister out of hospital. Almost immediate aid comes in the form of friendly, helpful Bruno, who seems to have some kind of pull with the immigration officials and gets our sad-eyed immigrant out of detention. 
Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Bruno,has a few good opportunities to shine (he can move from kindness to fury in a nano-second, and excels as the carny-like host of the burlesque) and one speculates whether the story should have focused instead on his tortured journey. As it is, we get a glimpse of a provocative character but not much more. 
The immigrant story, psychologically, is a rich vein to mine - what quiet or unquiet stories, what individual mind sets lead to someone taking the big step of leaving what they know for new and uncharted worlds?
Alas, I kept waiting for the drama to emerge from behind the shadow play. What we get instead are stock characters. Friendly Bruno turns out to be a pimp who uses a tawdry burlesque show to get customers for his girls.  His kindness turns to menace quickly but then dissipates. 
Marion Cotillard as Ewa is the archetypal heroine whose selfless devotion to her sister and purity seem to be borrowed from cinematic tropes of earlier times. 
It's not the actress's fault that the character seems so bloodless ‎ and passive.   Even when she's on stage and faced with crude insults, she is played as a martyr, stoic in the face of pain. Maybe the movie should have been called The Icon for it never tries to elevate itself above wooden depictions of character. We are supposed to believe in these characters but they seem curiously flat, and as a consequence you don't really find any moral ambiguity in their individual choices, or are persuaded of the redemptive power of love, or forgiveness, as depicted here.
Like the burlesque show Bruno hosts, it's all a pretty come-on. We get a magician, and the great Caruso, for goodness sakes! 
I would have rather had less sleight of hand and more authenticity though, for at bottom if you are going to make a film about The Immigrant, you need to show the dirt beneath the nails, not airbrush the squalor or the desperation,  with genteel sepia overtones.  
‎I won't say the actors are wasted but with the kind of talent they each possess, one waited for the film that could have been. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Review of Mandela: The Long Walk for Freedom

by Nancy Chan, Guest Blogger

For a film with such a title, you’d expect that some time would be taken in telling the story of  Nelson Mandela.  That’s not the case, in the first hour or so of the film.  Director Justin Chadwick keeps a frenetic pace going, and I’m sure this pace serves the subject  of this film biography well.  Given the recent passing of Mr. Mandela, the movie is timely, though it is doubtful that a more complex, well-rounded portrait of the man, rather than the saintly personage depicted in media, can be realized at this close a quarter.   Maybe a period of time and reflection has to elapse before we can see the whole man, with all his imperfections, not just the saintly veneer.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom moves quickly from the opening scene of a young Nelson running carefree through the fields, to an adolescent engaging in tribal rituals on his way to becoming a young man.  Then there are scenes of Mandela studying, lawyering, meeting up with future ANC founders, becoming politicized, meeting Winnie, becoming more radical, vandalizing, getting arrested, and then sent to prison for life.  It’s almost as if the writers of the film went through Mandela’s autobiography, highlighting decisive points in his life with a yellow highlighter, to feature in the movie.
Life has ebbs and flows, slow and quick moments.  I think the film misses the quiet moments, the lulls between the great actions or events, that go a long way to organically showing character development.  Even in the prison sequence, where time must have stood still for Mandela during those 27 long years, we get an abbreviated version of his experience.  We see Nelson go in as a relatively young man who is ill-treated by the prison guards, in a few short scenes later he is grey and referred to as an old man.  He appears to have developed a good friendship with one guard in particular.  How, why?  It seems the filmmakers missed some choice opportunities .   One longs for some slow moments, some way to understand how Mandela managed those slow long middle years in prison without succumbing to hatred or morosity.
Idris Elba as Mandela is fine, he has captured the rhythm of the man, his voice, his manner of addressing the crowd, his stateliness.  Naomi Harris does well too, exhibiting the emotional arc and maturity growth as a young and winsome Winnie Madikezela who becomes Nelson’s second wife and increasingly radicalized and embittered by the South African state’s treatment of Mandela and her family.   

 The depiction of Johannesburg and the townships where much of the violence there became a flashpoint for both supporters and opposers of apartheid comes across generally, though I wonder whether anyone can ever really capture in a film the chaos, the heat, the smells, the panic, the sense of standing on a knife’s edge of insecurity for those living as an underclass, without really having gone through the experience?

Samurai Movie Ronin 42 Offers Fantasy, Love and Action

by Nancy Chan/Guest Blogger

It seems dragons are the flavours of the season, what with Smaug’s desolation in the second installation of The Hobbit trilogy and now in47 Ronin, a retelling of the ancient Japanese story of the masterless warriors.  Whether you call it magical irrealism or folk legend, 47 Ronin has all the elements of a fairy tale, and a Hollywood action star to bring it together.
The film is based on the story of Samurai warriors in 18th century Japan who lose their master and thus their place in society, becoming outcasts or ronin.   They seek to regain their honour and their place and not incidentally, the right to die as a samurai, by committing seppuku
Keanu Reeves is Kai, a mysterious mixed-race outsider who excels in fighting but exists as a sort of servant to the proud samurai warriors.  There’s a beautiful princess, a beneficent and honourable feudal lord, a grasping and evil prince bent on seizing the overlord’s lands and his daughter.  And then there are the Ronin.  We’re never quite sure if there are actually 47, as few of them have distinct personalities nor does the film take time to develop their stories.
Reeves’s presence in films is often maligned as wooden; in this film, his stoicism serves him well.  As Kai, he is humiliated by the samurai, forbidden to join their ranks despite his obvious talents and bravery as a fighter, called a half-breed and eventually sold and forced to fight in a cage against various threatening combatants.  He gets one shirtless scene, several fighting opportunities and eventually the love and devotion of the princess. 
Other stand-outs: Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi, the head of the Ronin, who brings a steely soulfulness to the fairy tale, and Rinko Kikuchi as a witch who is suitably devious, insinuating herself into her scenes with all the skills of the serpent she eventually transforms into.
It’s not a pure samurai film as such, trying to be all things to all people: there’s the hopeless love between the princess and Kai, of different social stations, the quest by the ronin to obtain weaponry and meet various challenges along the way in a kind of fellowship of the ring parallel, and then the overarching theme, of regaining honour. There’s a white fox with one blue eye and one brown eye (the witch again), mysterious priests in the woods, and Kai, who has some superhuman powers of his own.
While there’s nothing too challenging intellectually in the film, viewers should let themselves be swept up in the legend, enjoy the visual sumptuousness of the costumes and the aesthetics of the set pieces including Kai/Keanu’s fight with the dragon/witch, and the final scene, the ritual suicide of the Ronin, with Kai now welcomed into their ranks as a worthy member.