Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Another Earth Review: If you had the chance, would you go to Another Earth?

We all have questions about things. About our past, our future and how the things we do affect our lives and the people around us. But most of all we wonder if we had made different choices would our lives be different? Could we live in a world in which we could do that? These types of ideas are so often considered by time travel stories. After all, it is the perfect medium to explore such an idea as that kind of ability remains beyond our reach. Dramas too have it in them to talk about the consequences of actions and how we deal with the world. To combine the sci-fi and the drama then can often be one of the best ways of telling a story.

Another Earth is one such story. It’s one of those smaller, independent films that got a bit of traction but never managed to materialize as a strong contender in its theatrical release. I think it’s because of the sci-fi element that it had more trouble then it probably should have. Despite the emergence of fan culture in recent years and a vested interest in sci-fi fantasy as a more respected form of entertainment, largely thanks to recent portrayals of superheroes in big blockbuster films coming out of Hollywood studios, sci-fi fantasy is still generally looked down upon in the filmmaking community. Unless it comes out of Hollywood, or sometimes despite that fact, it’s seen as popular with a specific group of people but not respectable with a larger audience.

What’s interesting about Another Earth is that it in some ways attempts not to be a sci-fi film despite the basic premise of it. The story follows a young girl who makes an unfortunate mistake in her youth and struggles to come to terms with how she can live with herself afterwards. That in and of itself is a story worth its weight in gold if told properly in the independent film community. However where it most likely loses a lot of people is the fact that it’s set against the backdrop of a world where another earth has been discovered in space near our own. Even though the concept of the film isn’t hindered in any way by the idea of another earth and in many ways is not central to the story, I think it keeps people from considering a really great film.

Yes, the film did fairly well at the box office for what it did. With a budget of $200,000 the film made $1 million plus, but when I talk to non-filmmakers about it they haven’t really heard of it, and in some cases even filmmakers have no idea what I am talking about. I even failed to see it in theatres even though I heard about it months ahead of time and had planned on it since the beginning. And that’s a real shame, because having finally found a copy of it on Blu-ray, I can say that it was well worth the money I paid for it.

The story is simply told and the characters are pretty solid despite the fact that you don’t really get to know much about them. What sells it is the fact that the two main characters are very much focused on a single event, an event which we witness in the film so we understand exactly where each of them is coming from and why they do the things they do.

I actually had an idea that was somewhat similar to this in that it was a sci-fi fantasy story which centered around a single event or idea but I wasn’t certain it would work. After watching this film, I can honestly say my opinion has changed and I am going to have to take a crack at it.

If you had the chance, would you go to Another Earth? I think I’ll leave the bigger question up to you, but maybe this film will help you make up your mind.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Machete Review: Would you like a Machete?

Film can be a ridiculous medium. There are essentially no limits to what you can do with it if you have the vision and the determination to accomplish it, particularly in today’s world of CGI and visual effects that can be done quickly and cheaply if you know what you’re doing. It’s kind of mind boggling the things that you can do. Essentially you’re only limited by your imagination. So then of course the only question becomes, how good is your imagination? Sometimes what you envision doesn’t hold up when you put it into practice. I’ve seen that happen more than a few times. A film can also exceed the vision originally thought of, whether it’s by the filmmakers themselves or the audience’s expectations of those films.

Then you have those films that you’re not entirely sure how to feel about them. The films that you know have a good reputation and a loyal fan base but you never really got around to seeing. I have a number of such films on a rather long metaphorical list, some of which I have actually checked out after starting my blog. One of those films is Machete and I recently got a chance to see it thanks to my ongoing quest for content I can provide to my blog. It feels really good to get that kind of stuff off my “to do” list.

Perhaps to begin, I think it’s worth saying that I am a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work. Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2, as well as Inglorious Basterds are high up there on the list of films I really admire as both an avid film fan and a writer/filmmaker myself. I wouldn’t count myself as one of his biggest fans though. While I enjoy his films I sometimes have trouble dealing with the gratuitous nature of the violence in his work. I’m not opposed to violence in film. I’m not even necessarily opposed to excessive violence in films as long as it serves the story. What often bothers me is when the violence is a little too over the top for it to serve the story. Suspension of disbelief is a necessary part of watching a movie, but unrealistic violence, even the kind that is intentionally created within the world of the story, can be just as damaging to my ability to believe something as a character or an actor acting unnaturally in a given situation.

Robert Rodriguez is someone I am less familiar with as a storyteller, although he did make two films that I very much enjoyed, namely Sin City and The Faculty. Watching Machete however, I think it often came off like a Tarantino film directed by another director, and that’s not always a good thing. This is not to say that Machete isn’t a well done film. By all accounts the story is relatively solid, the acting was decent and the political angle is pretty much right up my alley. Where I think the film loses me though is that it’s just not my kind of film. Grindhouse films aren’t something I really ever got into at any point and Machete was an off-shoot of the whole Planet Terror/Death Proof double bill. Not every great film from the past catches my fancy. About a year or so back I managed to catch Scarface for the first time and I got kind of bored watching it.

By no means was I bored watching Machete, however it feels like they made their point early on in the film and then just kept going, and going, and going. The only thing that kept it going is the increasing need for violence to solve people’s problems. That and beautiful women going around doing stuff. As a guy, that’s worth watching, but as a storyteller it just doesn’t keep me going. So…

Would you like a Machete? Because I am thinking I might just pass on the sequels.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Ballad of Hugh Review: Have you heard the Ballad of Hugh?

Music is a huge part of people’s lives. I don’t think I know anyone who couldn’t name some song they love or that inspired them in some way. You just have to look at the popularity of the iPod and other music platforms to see just how important it is to most people. And then there are those people who become so inspired by music that they decide to get into it professionally. Spending hours, days and years at a time learning an instrument of some kind or training their voice to do what most people would kill to be able to do as well as they do. Some even do both.

In some ways I know exactly how that feels. When I was younger I studied piano and found that I had a natural talent for it. Where my siblings would spend every day working and trying to get the practice music right, I would sit down with the instructor and somehow be better than I was last week without really trying. As the years went on and things got tighter though, I found that my passion for music was overshadowed by my passion for writing, a talent that requires its own version of rhythm and flow which I found to be something of a challenge to figure out. I still find it something of a challenge. I couldn’t see myself going through the struggle of booking stage performances and attracting people to come and see me play.

Though I have a lot of respect for those that do put in the time and effort to put themselves front and center the way many musicians do in the music scene. So when I had the opportunity to see a documentary about an 80 year old Toronto area musician named Hugh Oliver who has spent his entire life trying to make it in the industry, the words “impressed” seem somewhat lacking to express things. It’s a tragic reality of any type of creative industry that people spend years of their lives trying to rise to the top of the industry, or at least get themselves noticed. Hugh Oliver has spent more than most and so the idea of a documentary about him seems like a natural fit.

You would think that a documentary about and elderly citizen of our fair country would be a problem to watch. It’s not. He has had quite the journey and this has been set against the backdrop of him finally getting the opportunity to record an album. That along with animated snippets of his narrated poetry and songs which talk about things that are not your typical subjects (his songs about Facebook and Harry Potter are particularly enjoyable) will definitely make you smile.

Ultimately, this film is about perseverance and the desire to succeed. Something that Hugh Oliver has in spades. You wouldn’t know it from the way he talks about himself and other subjects throughout the film but anyone who has even made a passing attempt to succeed, whether in a creative industry or not, will recognize the focus and drive that they have felt in this man. Anyone who has ever had to question their dream of making it in a creative industry will see a reason to keep going. If Hugh can spend a half century of his life chasing a dream, anyone else has no excuse.

Not that this is the message of the film, but I certainly feel that way after having seen it.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Lost Rivers Review: Where do we find our Lost Rivers? - Documentary Reviews, Documentaries, Documentary, Movie Reviews, Movies, Film, Film Reviews, Environmentalism, Entertainment, Film Entertainment

Documentaries are not something that I tend to go for traditionally, and it’s not from lack of interest. I make a point to be informed about the world and the way people live. This is far from a perfect world and there are a lot of issues to deal with. When I want to do that I go for the news and talk/debate shows which analyze the details and give them context. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t depending on who is doing the analyzing but even from people I don’t agree with I tend to learn something. But the fact that I stay informed doesn’t necessarily mean I need to know everything about everything. In some cases I am just looking for entertainment, and that’s often the case when I go to a film.

So a documentary usually has to have something really special with it to make get me in a theater. On occasion though I get tired of the traditional way of getting information and I look for something new. When I got the chance to go to the Planet in Focus film festival recently, I got just such an opportunity. The first of such films that I got to see is called Lost Rivers. A film about the way we view water in our modern age and how that relationship is changing in recent years. Enter a group known as The Drainers, more a collection groups with a similar name that have sprung up to explore the nature of water in urban areas and how we can help solve some of the problems we have with it. They do it by exploring rivers that have disappeared from view in most major cities because the population around it has changed.

And this is where the film kind of loses me a bit. It’s true that this is an important issue and people should know about it but doing that requires a certain amount of heart string pulling that seems somewhat lacking in the film. Narrative films and documentaries are different beasts to be sure. One is the invention of emotional and physical stakes and the other is a portrayal of a real world situation. But if you look at the best of both you see some basic similarities. Usually there’s a specific focus to the film, which in narrative films refers to a main character, and there is almost always an antagonist of some kind with which to contrast the focus of the film.

Somewhat ironically, Lost Rivers is missing that contrast. Of the three major focuses in the film, none of them come up against any serious constraints to their journey. Quite the opposite is the case with one in that they went from outlaws breaking city laws to an officially recognized group before the film even started. Another group being followed seems to avoid conflict in the film because the contrast is never actually seen, just referred to. Now I am not saying that all documentary films necessarily require contrast or conflict in order to move it forward, but as an audience member I just didn’t feel emotionally connected to the characters because things don’t necessarily happen to any of them.

We follow them and learn about them and the issue they have but we don’t really care about them in any serious way. I can think of only one point in which I was really emotionally invested in the film and it was created by two people who were not the focus of the film in a strange detour into random people. To me, that’s a problem whether you’re doing a narrative or documentary film and it’s one that Lost Rivers doesn’t really overcome.

Where do we find our Lost Rivers? They are all around us, we just have to have the courage to go and look.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Lars and the Real Girl Review: Which one is more real? - Movie Reviews, Film Reviews, Movies, Films, Film, Entertainment, Film Entertainment, TV, Television, Television Reviews, TV Reviews

I have had the privilege recently to see quite a few examples of great acting in my pursuit of content to review for my blog, but I think one of the best so far has to be the performance of Ryan Gosling as the socially inept Lars Lindstrom in the strangely honest Lars and the Real Girl. Traditionally, when a person talks to an inanimate object like a life-size doll in film or television it tends to be the very strange or often disturbed sociopaths who are portrayed on screen doing it. In many ways Lars and the Real Girl attempts to challenge our ideas of what normal is and how we should deal with it and it’s done really well.

Probably the only aspect of this film that disturbed me in any serious way was the fact that I could see much of myself in the main character up until about 15 minutes into the movie. The best way to describe the character of Lars is as a functional recluse in that he has a job, he has friends, but by in large he keeps to himself and spends a lot of time alone. It’s completely understandable by the time the ‘real girl’ shows up why he felt the need to buy one. For obvious reasons, people are very much concerned about him when he starts taking the mannequin out places with him as if they were a real person, but what quickly becomes apparent in the film is that this is not a ‘sex doll’ for Lars.

He doesn’t use it for what most people would assume. To him, this is a real person with a whole life, back story and personality. Now one might assume that something like that would come off as weird and somewhat off putting. Ryan Gosling however manages to make it work. He doesn’t overplay the interaction between him and the doll he refers to as Bianca. He doesn’t come off as psychotic or having broken entirely with reality. In most cases, Lars Lindstrom comes off like a man in love with a real woman. You might even be able to say that the doll is as much a character in the film as any of the actors who worked with it.

Yes, I know that sounds really strange, but I recently had someone tell me that after seeing the movie they actually got emotional about the doll. To avoid spoilers I will refrain from saying what emotion that was, however if that isn’t a testament to the acting ability of the people involved, then I don’t know what is. A film like this tends to get sidelined from a wider audience because of the content or controversy it might create, and that can be a real shame. But one of the benefits of the online market place and DVD/Bluray is that those who go looking for it can find it.

Actors should definitely go looking for this film. You’ve heard the term “Can’t act their way out of a paper bag”? The actors in this film acted their way out of a difficult situation with this film. Lesser actors and filmmakers would have made this story about a creepy man who develops a strange relationship with a weird fetish. But they proved that you don’t always have to go there with stories to get attention. You don’t always have to be the guy in the corner who doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes you can find a way to make it out of your problems and transform yourself into a better person. Even if the way you have to do it is with a life size mannequin you treat like a real person.

So which one is more real? Lars or the Read Girl? I honestly don’t know, but the question itself is great to watch.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Informant Review: Would you hire The Informant? - Movie Reviews, Film Reviews, Movies, Films, Entertainment, Film Entertainment, TV, Television, TV Reviews, Television Reviews

Back in 2009, one of the first films that I went to see at the Toronto International Film Festival was The Informant, starring Matt Damon and Scott Bakula. I had never really checked out a film festival before and so the experience itself was rather strange. It’s interesting then that one of my first films at the festival was a pretty strange film itself. First and foremost is the fact that Matt Damon almost disappears into the role of Mark Whitacre as a bio-chemist at a middle-American corn producer known as ADM.

There are a number of actors who can’t really move beyond their fame. Actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Robert DeNiro and Woody Harrelson are the kind of actors who I can only ever see as the actors they are and not the roles that they play. There are exceptions to that rule, for instance, Woody Harrelson in ‘Defendor’, Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in ‘Fight Club’, and George Clooney as Everett McGill in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Matt Damon on the other hand can sometimes be a bit of a wild card in the roles that he takes. Roles like ‘Dogma’ or ‘Ocean’s 11’, while incredible, are roles in which he seems to have been cast for the fact of his status as an actor whereas a role like Jason Bourne or Will Hunting, he finds a way to disappear into the role he is playing and you almost forget who he is.

I would put ‘The informant’ in the category of one where he disappears, the subtle way in which he portrays a nervous yet simple man who believes in doing the right thing despite his co-workers views of things and business practices is nothing short of brilliant. But the portrayal is not the only good thing about the film. As the story progresses, you start to realize that things are not entirely what they seem in the world Mark Whitacre inhabits. This begins a series of twists and turns to the plot that would normally be seen in a crime drama or a political thriller but feels right at home in this rather strange and quiet comedy.

Perhaps it’s the fact that so many of the characters seem genuine and honest in the way they deal with the situation at hand, the question of price fixing in the international markets of corn, that makes some of the eventual betrayals so damning and difficult to watch yet so very funny at the same time. The film ultimately becomes one in which there is no clear bad guy in all of it. Not because people haven’t done something wrong, but because you end up caring about the characters despite what they’ve done. None of the characters really seem underhanded or angry in what they do. Perhaps that’s why when things start to go wrong you don’t really see it coming.

So much about this movie is understated and unexpected. From the acting to the camera work and the storytelling, which I think is what makes it work so well. This isn’t a movie about clear lines between right and wrong, or good versus bad. It’s about people, and the way in which people go wrong in their pursuit of success.

Would you hire The Informant? I probably wouldn’t, but I would definitely hire the people who made the film.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Switched at Birth Review: Could you live with being “Switched at Birth”? - TV Reviews, Television, TV, Television Reviews, Movie Reviews, Movies, Film, Film Reviews, Entertainment, Film Entertainment

Quite a few TV shows recently have taken something of a soap opera approach to storytelling when it comes to creating their basis for their ideas. Most notably there are shows like Pretty Little Liars which focuses on the problems you run into while lying coupled with a murder mystery plot, Ringer which was about a twin who took over her sister’s life to escape her own problems, and Switched at Birth, the story of two families who took home each other’s daughters, only to discover the truth almost 16 years later.

This sets up an interesting twist on the concept of family and how it is defined in the modern world that you don’t generally see in a lot of places outside the soap opera genre. How does one define family? Where does the connection between you and the family you were born into begin and where does it end? This idea is taken on in many different genres and stories but it often takes a backseat to the other themes within the shows. It seems to be a foregone conclusion by most storytellers these days that family is what you make it, not what you were born into.

And that’s where this show is different. Switched at Birth takes the concept of how to define family and puts it front and center. From the very beginning, the show focuses on the two young girls who were switched, Bay and Daphne, whose life has been turned upside down by the chance decision of Bay who questioned her place in her own family. After a DNA test reveals the truth about their birth, two families attempt to deal with how their lives are changed.

Everything stems from that one moment and the way in which they deal with the fallout. The families develop all sorts of insecurities and fears because of the new dynamic between all of them. Bay and Daphne start to question who they are and who they want to be and the friends they spend time with, but also who they would be if they hadn’t been switched the way they were. Their parents, Katherine and John Kennish, and Regina Vasquez have to deal with each other and figure out a way to parent their respective children together without crossing any boundaries.

As things progress for the Kennish and Vasquez families, we are introduced to other friends and family members who have their own problems with members of the two families and this helps to broaden the characters and the way they deal with each other. That in and of itself would be enough for most television shows to sustain itself for several years, but Switched at Birth adds another dynamic to the mix which makes it fascinating for me and fans of the show. About half of the characters and some of the cast themselves are hearing impaired or deaf.

Watching the show then becomes even more interesting for someone like me as a writer, because so many of the scenes are told without any audio dialogue. It relies heavily on the actors to show the story and the character’s stress in the moment rather than tell it. They do have subtitles for those of us without a working knowledge of sign language but rarely do they tone things down for people who can’t read them as they go by. I’d also say that I have picked up a sign or two from watching it and I love that they have managed to do that for the hearing and hearing impaired alike. Ultimately they never lose sight of the truth of the show, which is the characters and the question they often ask themselves either figuratively or metaphorically.

Could you live with being Switched at Birth? I probably couldn’t, but I love watching it play out on TV.