Archive for July, 2007

A History of Violence

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007—Film

A History of Violence (Germany/USA 2005, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer: Josh Olson; Director: David Cronenberg

[Spoiler Alert: I give away a few plot points here, although none that aren’t revealed in about the first half of the film.]

My love affair with Viggo Mortensen began sometime between The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and when I first saw A History of Violence. I noticed him in A Perfect Murder as Gwyneth Paltrow’s artistic, criminally inclined lover, and was impressed to learn that he’d done all of his character’s paintings for the film. I’d seen some of his other work, like GI Jane (he’s the only good thing about that movie). And it would have been impossible to miss him in the first two The Lord of the Rings movies. I can’t imagine a better Aragorn. That scene where he’s first introduced, sitting in the corner in his cloak… so hot.

But I wasn’t hooked until I read an article about him in the theatre waiting to see The Return of the King. Mortensen is amazing. He’s a published poet and photographer (Perceval Press is his own publishing shingle) and speaks several languages. He has an intense work ethic that borders on obsessive, but it’s what makes him give 110% to everything he does. For years, he responded personally to every one of his fan letters. When he no longer had time for that, he had the integrity to cease and desist his fan mail account because he didn’t want someone else writing on his behalf. He wouldn’t accept the role of Aragorn without his son’s blessing because he didn’t want to be away from him for the eighteen-month shoot. He shuns Hollywood every chance he gets, and is utterly fearless about speaking his mind.

After learning that and more about Mortensen, I started renting some of his other films. Most notable among them is The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s directorial debut inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s song Highway Patrolman about two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Mortensen is incredible in this film. If you’re a fan of his, or of Penn’s, you should rent it today.

On top of my Viggo obsession, I’m a David Cronenberg fan. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I first heard about A History of Violence, and it has since become one of my favourite films.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. On the surface, the plot is quite simple. It tells the story of Tom Stall (Mortensen), a family man who runs the local diner in small-town Millbrook, Indiana. His life appears peaceful and “normal” until two thugs try to rob his diner at gunpoint. Tom snaps into action and violently comes to the rescue. When his heroic efforts garner the attention of mobsters from Philadelphia, his family and friends start to question who Tom really is—an upstanding man with strong values, or Joey Cusack, a former mobster and hitman.

But just beneath the simple plot lies a strong undercurrent and that for me is where the power of A History of Violence rests. It’s in the tension between what we present to the outside world and what really beats in our hearts. What Cronenberg presents to us initially, and what’s really going on.

The film’s opening shot lasts several minutes. The camera dollies along the side of a motel as Leland (Stephen McHattie) and Billy (Greg Bryk) leave the building and load up their car. Cronenberg’s decision to capture the action in one long take allows the tension to build. Everything is still. We hear crickets in the distance, the drawn out whine of electrical wires. The men amble slowly toward their car. Billy even stops to adjust a chair as he leaves the motel.

But you get the distinct impression that something isn’t right. When Leland returns from checking out, Billy asks him what took so long. “The maid gave me some trouble,” he responds. It isn’t until Leland tells Billy to go in and fill up their water bottle that we find out just what he meant. As Billy wanders into the lobby, he steps over two slain bodies to reach the water cooler.

The stillness with which Cronenberg captures the first deaths in the film is in stark contrast to the violent scenes that follow. It serves to show how easily violence comes to Leland and Billy. It’s second-nature to them—or maybe first. When Billy finds a young girl trembling in the motel doorway, he pulls out his gun, tells her “shhh,” and then, cool as a cucumber, shoots her point blank.

We cut from there to Tom’s daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayes, unfortunately not up to the task), waking screaming from a nightmare. The family comes running to comfort her, and Tom tells her that there’s no such thing as monsters.

But that may not be entirely true. After Tom shoots the men in his diner, you see the monster start to come to life again. You see Tom realize that it’s still inside him. He later tells his wife Edie (Maria Bello) that he spent three years in the desert killing Joey, killing the monster within. But it’s an impossible task. Violence is a part of him, just as are love and compassion.

This dichotomy is best evidenced in the film’s two sex scenes. In the first one, Edie and Tom steal away from the kids for a sweet, passionate evening that begins with Edie in her high school cheerleading outfit. They are tender, loving and intimate with one another. In the second one, Edie has recently learned about Tom’s past—about Joey. She lashes out at him, and he responds by grabbing her throat and slamming her against the wall. She tries to run up the stairs, but he pulls her back by the ankle. She struggles while he holds her down, but when he starts to back off Edie pulls him roughly back to her and they engage in hurried, violent sex on the stairs that leaves her back covered in bruises.

It’s important to note that this is not a rape scene. Edie is turned on by Joey, by her husband’s violent side. She wants him to take her on the stairs.

When it’s over, Tom and Edie lie still holding one another before she pushes him away. It’s an interesting moment. Amid all the chaos and Edie’s newfound doubts about whether she ever knew her husband, there is still love between them. The violence in Tom’s past doesn’t make him a different person; it’s simply another dimension to him.

In the DVD’s special features, Cronenberg says that the sex scenes weren’t in the original script and that he asked screenwriter Josh Olson to add them. That’s hard to imagine, because the film wouldn’t be the same without them. They are certainly two of the most memorable scenes in the movie, and are pivotal to the story. They beautifully contrast the different aspects of Tom’s personality, and make a strong point about Edie’s appreciation of, if not capacity for, violence.

Tom’s episode at the diner affects the family in other ways. Once it’s introduced, the violence starts to grow roots and spread. Tom’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), fights back against the high school bully and ends up putting him in the hospital. Tom tells him off: “In this family, we don’t solve our problems by hitting people.” “No,” Jack says, “In this family, we shoot them,” to which Tom responds by hitting him hard.

Unfortunately, the subplots involving the children detract a bit from the film. The scenes with the high school students are weaker than the rest, and the two child actors (Hayes and the girl who dies in the opening sequence) aren’t strong, which is too bad because they play in some of the film’s pivotal moments.

But the movie’s pros far outweigh its cons. The fight scenes are extremely well-choreographed, although a little too graphic for me—I still look away during the goriest moments.

William Hurt is a fun addition. As Joey’s brother and lead mobster Richie Cusack, Hurt brings levity to the film with a hammy performance. He has one of the best lines, delivered when he and Joey finally reunite: “You always were a problem. When mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids do that.”

On the whole, A History of Violence is a powerful film that features some fine performances—from Mortensen and Bello in particular—and leaves you thinking after the credits roll. When Edie begins to realize that Tom is not who he says he is, she confronts him: “Tell me the truth. What are you?”

It’s a question for all of us.

Shortbus

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007—Film

Shortbus (USA 2006, Comedy/Drama/Romance), Writer/Director: John Cameron Mitchell

This post is another special request from BD. (You’ve got great taste in films, BTW. I’ll bring you mine tonight to see what you think!)

Shortbus’ working title was The Sex Film Project, which sets the stage well for what you can expect from the movie. It follows the interconnected lives of several New Yorkers who meet at Shortbus, a salon that celebrates art, love, communion and sex. The patrons come together to talk politics, wax philosophical, and engage in various carnal acts.

Technically, the film is a great achievement. It was made on a relatively low budget of $2 million (it pains me to call that a low budget—I could make eight feature films for that amount!) and was funded by some unusual sponsors, including Moby and Canadian writer Douglas Coupland (I love his work). The film is well shot, and features creative editing that doesn’t rush but takes some liberties with chronology to make certain scenes flow better. The soundtrack includes a great mix of fun and touching music. The script is excellent and betrays as great a sense of humour as of humanity on writer/director John Cameron Mitchell’s part (I’m thinking of the gay three-way scene when one participant sings the Star-Spangled Banner into another’s ass). Mitchell developed the script using the same approach that British writer/director Mike Leigh made famous in films such as Secrets and Lies; he had the actors improvise their scenes as a means of developing and exploring their characters’ histories and motivations.

These technical components come together to allow Mitchell to explore what Shortbus is really about: sex. Sex in the film is notable not because of how graphic it is, but because it is completely desexualized. In Mitchell’s world, sex isn’t about eroticism so much as it is about people connecting, expressing, bonding and laughing. Sex is treated as a language, a way of communicating. For the people at the salon, the act is safe and trusting; they’re like children playing in a bathtub, when sexuality was still innocent and no one had told them it was wrong.

Most of the main characters in Shortbus are unable to feel or connect in some way. It’s as if there’s a physical blockage that prevents energy from flowing through them—either sexual, spiritual or emotional energy. Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee of CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera) is a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm. Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix who can’t connect with other people. James (Paul Dawson) can’t let anyone penetrate him, emotionally or physically. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, he describes his depression by saying: “I see (happiness) all around me but it stops at my skin. I can never let it in.” It’s a beautiful moment and a beautiful performance from Dawson.

Throughout the film, Mitchell cuts to a gorgeous computer-generated model of New York, which serves as a metaphor for his characters’ blocked energy. As the story progresses, we see the lights in the model city go out one by one. After several brown-outs, the energy is completely cut off, culminating in a blackout near the film’s conclusion. The electricity only returns to Manhattan when Sofia finally reaches orgasm and the other characters have begun to open themselves up, releasing their own energy and letting other people’s energy flow through them.

In one of the film’s opening scenes, we learn that James and his boyfriend Jamie (PJ DeBoy) are thinking of opening up their relationship. That sums up what all the characters want (and need)—to open up and let others in.

What touched me most about Shortbus is the complete lack of judgment with which the characters are treated. Gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgendered… Mitchell treats each of his characters with the same love and respect they give each other. All of the characters have pure intentions; there is no malevolence in any of the relationships, no desire to hurt. It’s almost the opposite dynamic from the one in Bad Education. Both films feature people who can’t connect, but Shortbus’ characters are filled with real love—the unconditional desire for another person to find what’s best for them. James’ stalker, Caleb (Peter Stickles), doesn’t want to break up James and Jamie; he wants them to be happy together. When Jamie sees James through the window and realizes he’s been with Caleb, he isn’t angry; he’s overjoyed that James is alive and safe.

It’s interesting that Douglas Coupland played in role in getting Shortbus made. Before I learned about his involvement, I’d already been thinking about how the film reminded me of a short story from one of my very favourite books, Coupland’s Life After God. Here’s an excerpt:

“I had recently begun worrying about my feelings disappearing more and more—noticing that I had seemed to simply be feeling less and less. These worries became more focused and stronger as I was driving… I tried to forget what I was thinking about and just listen to the radio… The radio stations all seemed to be talking about Jesus non-stop, and it seemed to be this crazy orgy of projection, with everyone projecting onto Jesus the antidotes to the things that had gone wrong in their own lives. He is Love. He is Forgiveness. He is Compassion. He is a Wise Career Decision. He is a Child Who Loves Me. I was feeling a sense of loss as I heard these people. I felt like Jesus was sex—or rather, I felt like I was from another world where sex did not exist and I arrived on Earth and everyone talked about how good sex felt, and showed me their pornography and built their lives around sex, and yet I was forever cut off from the true sexual experience. I did not deny that the existence of Jesus was real to these people—it was merely that I was cut off from their experience in a way that was never connectable.”

Coupland taps into the same feelings of emptiness and disconnect that Mitchell explores in his film. Shortbus is set in a post-9/11 Manhattan.* The host at Shortbus explains that young people come to New York because of the World Trade Center attacks: “It’s the only real thing that’s ever happened to them.” They arrive in the city desperate to feel something, to find something to believe in.

Coupland’s reference to sex and Jesus and forgiveness brings to mind another line in Shortbus. An elderly male patron explains that: “People come to New York to get laid… People also come to New York to be forgiven.” The characters in Shortbus come to forgive each other and, most importantly, to forgive themselves. In Mitchell’s words: “Everybody’s there. Every sexuality. Everyone’s welcome. Food. Drink. Art. Sex. Friendship. Love. They are all on the table, and there’s talent, and there’s mercy.”

I want to end with a line from another favourite novel of mine, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees: “Kathleen is truly and utterly and completely Kathleen in New York. That’s what the city does for you if it’s meant for you.”

* It strikes a personal chord for me because I temporarily moved to Manhattan just three days after the WTC attacks. While I was there, I started writing notes on a feature script that I finished when I returned home to Canada. The scriptexplores some of the same themes as Life After God. What happens when people no longer have anything to believe in? I had the premise in mind before arriving in New York—it came to me in a dream, actually—but the theme of the loss of, and the search for, faith came about while I was living in Manhattan.

Blindness – Teaser

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007—Film

Blindness (Brazil/Canada/Japan, In Production, Drama/Thriller), Writer: Don McKellar; Director: Fernando Meirelles

This post is premature given that the movie won’t be released until 2008, but I just found out that not only is the film adaptation of José Saramago’s Blindness finally in production, but it stars Gael García Bernal (and Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore)! I was pretty excited about David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen re-teaming for this year’s Eastern Promises, but I’m even more excited about Blindness now that I know Bernal has been cast. Although I’m slightly disappointed because apparently Daniel Craig was originally cast in Ruffalo’s role as the doctor; it’s too bad he pulled out.

Blindness is one of my favourite books. I first heard about the adaptation at the 2000 Summer Institute of Film and Television. Don McKellar—one of my favourite Canadian filmmakers—was there teaching a writing workshop, and during one of the panels he talked briefly about his process for adapting Blindness to the screen. (According to McKellar, Saramago insisted that he read all of his novels before approving the adaptation.) I’m pretty sure that at the time, McKellar said he was planning to direct the film as well as write the screenplay, so I don’t know what happened there because Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles is now attached to the project.

Anyway, that was seven years ago and I hadn’t heard about the film since then—until today. It’s funny; just this weekend, I was telling someone about the adaptation that never was, and, by coincidence, this morning I stumbled on an article about it while researching information on Sook-Yin Lee for a post about Shortbus (to come).

Blindness was written in 1995 in Saramago’s native Portuguese. It won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Here’s the write-up on the back of the book:

“A city is hit by an epidemic of ‘white blindness’ which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses—and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.”

I’m curious to see how McKellar adapted Blindness. When I heard about the project in 2000, it seemed to me that it would be a hard adaptation to write. The novel isn’t very descriptive, and Saramego seems to have an aversion to punctuation which makes the dialogue hard to discern. And I couldn’t envision how McKellar would capture the disorientation that comes from blindness without filming the entire movie with the lens cap on.

But now that I think of it, the premise lends itself really well to film. The doctor’s wife (as she is known throughout the book) is the main protagonist, and also the only character who retains her eyesight. That makes her the ideal guide not only for the characters in the story, but for the film viewer.

I can’t wait for this to come out! The main casting is pretty trendy, but at least they’re all great actors. And there are some Canadians in the cast, including McKellar and Maury Chaykin (Whale Music, The Sweet Hereafter). Stay tuned for this one! It should be interesting, at the very least. In the meantime, you can pick up the book at almost any major bookstore, and probably most of the smaller ones.

Bad Education (La mala educación)

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007—Film

Bad Education (Spain 2004, Drama/Thriller), Writer/Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Bad Education is the second Almodóvar film I’ve seen (I rented All About My Mother several years ago), but I’ve heard so much about the writer/director lately that I feel as though I’ve seen more. I’ll have to make that happen.

This post is at BD’s request, as I’m getting the feeling will be the case with many upcoming posts. Although if anyone else is out there reading my blog, please feel free to submit film requests of your own.

From the opening credits, you get the idea that things in Bad Education will not be as they seem. I honestly can’t remember the opening credits from All About My Mother, but the stylized and sinister title sequence wasn’t what I was expecting from the opening of a sensitive Pedro Almodóvar film. The rapidly changing graphics accompanied by jarring music reminded me of the opening credits for a modern-day Hitchcock movie or jazzed up film noir.

This is, in a way, an apt description of Bad Education. It’s a dark labyrinth of a thriller that catches you off guard more than once. Almodóvar reportedly spent over a decade building the story structure, which, as a fledgling filmmaker, makes me feel better. The story is so clever and complicated, and the characters so richly developed, that it’s comforting to know Bad Education isn’t one of those scripts that was whipped up in a matter of days (like, say, Rocky).

Ignacio (Gael García Bernal), an actor looking for work, brings a script (called The Visit) to his long-lost love and former classmate Enrique, now a film director. The script is part fact, based on their formative years at the all-boys Catholic school where they fell in love, and were sexually abused by Father Manolo; and part fiction, detailing Ignacio’s imagining of his future encounters with Enrique. Bad Education cuts between present day, the boys’ time at school, and The Visit, the film within the film which Ignacio and Enrique eventually begin shooting. The Visit stars Ignacio, or Ángel as he is now known, as transsexual Zahara, which further complicates matters and adds to the film’s complex fabric of interwoven lives—and lies.

More than anything else, Bad Education is about self-deception and unfulfilled love—desperate people using desperate means to fill a void that can’t possibly be filled. It reminds me of a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough: “Lie to me, I promise I’ll believe.”

Except for the love Ignacio and Enrique share as young boys, every relationship in Bad Education is destructive and one-sided: Father Manolo and his sick obsession with Ignacio, and later, with Ingacio’s brother Juan; an older Enrique trying to recapture what he and Ignacio had in their youth. There are many more examples, but it’s hard to go into detail without giving away too much about the plot. Suffice it to say that the story and its characters continuously pile one lie on top of another: they lie to each other, to themselves, and to the viewer.

Bad Education is very moving. It has slow, reflective moments and incredibly beautiful, passionate ones. Those that feature Zahara’s scenes from The Visit are especially touching. Bernal is an extraordinary actor with astonishing depth and range (not to mention almost unbelievable beauty). He gives himself completely to a role that ends up being even more multi-faceted than you realize at the beginning of the film.

Surprisingly, I didn’t find the scenes with Father Manolo and the young Ignacio as upsetting as I expected. What was more disturbing, and sad, is the impact that Father Manolo’s abuse has on the boys throughout their lives. It creates in them a disconnect that plays a big part in their inability to find happiness as adults, and sends them chasing after destructive, sometimes dangerous fantasies.

The film ends with Enrique finally learning the truth about the lies around him. As he shuts the door on the deception that has informed his life, closing text tells us what becomes of some of the film’s main characters. Enrique, we learn, “is still making films with the same passion.” With all Bad Education’s interplay between life and art, it makes you wonder how much of the film is autobiographical, especially when you consider that, as a child, Almodóvar was sent away to study at a religious boarding school. And, like Ignacio and Enrique, Almodóvar survived by escaping into the world of movies. In his words: “Cinema became my real education, much more than the one I received from the priest.”

Bad Education is a brilliant, poignant film with exceptional writing, directing and acting. I recommend it—and, by extension, any of Almodóvar’s films—to anyone who appreciates fine filmmaking. But Bad Education isn’t for everyone. It’s upsetting and features several explicit homosexual sex scenes (it’s hard to call them love scenes given the selfish nature of most, if not all, of them). If this sort of thing bothers you, I recommend trying to find the theatrical release instead of the uncut NC-17 version that I saw.

If you’re homophobic, I highly recommend that you see this film. If you open yourself up to it and let the characters in, maybe you’ll realize that of all the terrible things people can do to each other, loving someone isn’t one of them.

Transformers

Saturday, July 7th, 2007—Film

Transformers (USA 2007, Action/Adventure), Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman; Director: Michael Bay

I’m surprised that I’m posting something about Transformers. I didn’t think I’d have much to say about it other than it has good special effects.

I grew up watching the show during stolen moments on the concrete floor of my elementary school cafeteria. My parents didn’t want us watching television, so that was pretty much the only time I got to see it. I spent the first half of my lunch break getting lost in Astro Boy, ThunderCats or Transformers, and the second half wandering around the playground imagining that I was part of their worlds. And probably being branded as a freak by the other kids playing in the yard, but that’s a post for another blog.

The thing about the cartoon that stayed with me most was the cool mechanical sound the robots made when they transformed. I think that would make an awesome cell phone ring tone. Not surprisingly, the sound effect was carried over to the live-action version of Transformers.

So I went into this movie under completely different circumstances than those under which I went into Away From Her. I saw a 10:30pm showing on a weeknight (and I’d been up since 5:00am that morning). I knew that Transformers was nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and had heard only bad things about it—such as that it was best described as a “geekgasm.” I was worried because what I dislike most in a film is being bored by it. I’ll choose a typical popcorn movie over a thoughtful, artistic film if I know that the popcorn flick will be more entertaining or engaging. I just don’t want to sit there feeling like I’m wasting my time and money. So I had visions of sitting there, struggling to keep my eyes open, willing the damn thing to end so I can go home and get some sleep before my meeting the next morning.

That didn’t happen. I’m not going to pretend that Transformers is a ground-breaking movie, but the filmmakers got a lot right. From the opening scene, they set an appropriately hokey tone for an adaptation of a cartoon that was an adaptation of a toy commercial. The film starts out with a narration by Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots—the “good” Transformers who are sworn to protect humans: “Before time began, there was the cube. We know not where it comes from, only that it holds the power to create worlds and fill them with life.”

“We know not…”? Yikes. But that kind of cheese is completely at home in a movie like Transformers. If the writers had tried to make the film subtle and profound, it would have failed.

From there, we’re introduced to a group of US soldiers doing battle with an unidentified aircraft—a helicopter that turns out to be one of the Decepticons, the “bad” Transformers who are determined to destroy human life. Transformers features some of the most blatant product placement I’ve seen, and the US military is its biggest sell. I think it’s also one of the movie’s weakest points. There are too many characters in Transformers, and the film would be better off without subplots like the one about the soldier whose wife has given birth to a daughter he’s never met. It’s an unnecessary distraction and you couldn’t care less when he finally reunites with them.

It’s in these moments that Transformers veers into director Michael Bay’s traditional territory, like the corny animal cracker scene in Armageddon or the blowing sheets in Pearl Harbour’s love scene. These moments feel out of place in Transformers, a film that is otherwise quite light-hearted and often comically self-reflexive. One of the best lines comes from protagonist Sam (Shia LaBeouf) when he tells his true lust Mikaela (Megan Fox) that there’s more to her than meets the eye.

The movie would be better served if it cut the military scenes down to only the parts that are necessary to further the plot. (But then I guess Transformers wouldn’t be nearly as effective an army recruitment vehicle.) And it could stand to lose the insincere subplot about Mikaela’s convict father.

In addition to tighter story editing, the film would do well with fewer characters. The blond computer scientist, for example, could have been merged with one of the government officials or military experts. But then there would only have been one hot chick in the film. Sigh.

I have one other overarching compliant about Transformers. The movie ramps up pretty slowly—largely because it bounces between too many storylines—and takes so long to reach a climax that it winds up being a little disappointing. It’s sort of like making out all night instead of going all the way. It’s nice, but it doesn’t quite get you off.

The Transformers trickle into the film gradually. I think it’s Mikaela who notes that the mysterious government agents from Sector Seven don’t seem surprised to see the Transformers. That’s because they’ve seen them before, and maybe that’s part of the problem for the viewer. Most people in the audience have already seen the cartoon, so we can’t expect the same kind of hit we get from, say, seeing the creature in Alien for the first time. But this is the first time we’ve seen the Transformers in live action, and Bay could have built it up a bit more. The closest the movie comes to a big unveiling of the Transformers is when Sam follows Bumblebee to a tire yard and sees him in robot form for the first time. But it carries less impact than it could. Even when we first see Megatron, frozen and held captive in an underground military base, it’s anticlimactic.

Probably my favourite aspect of Transformers is the relationship between Bumblebee and Sam, which the writers clearly had a lot of fun developing. Bumblebee, the Autobot who doubles as a beat-up Camaro, communicates using songs on the radio. (It’s a cute idea. I tried writing something once using only song lyrics and it comes out sounding like really cool free verse.) Early on in the film, Bumblebee tries to help Sam hook up with Mikaela by playing The Cars’ Drive and Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing as he attempts to drive her home. There are plenty of other comic moments between Sam and Bumbleblee as they try to work through their communication problems. It turns out that Autobots can actually be very sensitive.

I don’t think you have to be a hard-core fan of the cartoon to enjoy Transformers. There’s enough comedy and fantastic special effects to keep most viewers interested. And watching the Transformers transform is so cool. I recommend watching this movie in the theatres, and sooner rather than later because seeing it in a packed house adds to the excitement.

Away From Her & Crank

Monday, July 2nd, 2007—Film

Away From Her (Canada 2006, Drama/Romance), Writer/Director: Sarah Polley

Crank (USA 2006, Action/Thriller), Writer/Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor

I’ve been meaning to write a post about Sarah Polley’s feature directorial debut, Away From Her, since seeing it several weeks ago. Adapted by Polley from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, the film tells the tale of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), a couple who have been married for 50 years and are trying to face the fact that Fiona suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

I was expecting more, but that’s largely a reflection on the high standard Polley has set in her other work and the insanely positive reviews I read, rather than a reflection on her achievement with Away From Her. There was so much hype about the film that I came in expecting a flawless work that would leave me weeping in the aisles. But despite reviews that made reference to choked sobs coming from the audience throughout the entire film, there was only one moment when I felt completely overcome with heartache—the kind of sadness that grips your throat and chest and instantly brings tears to your eyes.

That said, that one moment holds more power and raw feeling than most movies generate as a whole. It takes place early in the film, when Grant first leaves his ailing wife at Meadowlake, a retirement home for Alzheimer’s patients. He brought Fiona to Meadowlake at her insistence; he would rather keep her with him. (As he says: “I never wanted to be away from her.”)

After arriving in her new room, Fiona tells Grant she wants him to make love to her and then leave her. (“If you make it hard for me,” she says, “I may cry so hard I’ll never stop.”) They lie together spooning in silence after sex. It’s a position you imagine they’ve been in countless times before, completely at ease, trusting in one another’s love and acceptance. They don’t even have to look at each other to know what the other is thinking.

And then she says it: “Go now.”

Fiona’s memory has been fading, and she is less and less the woman Grant has known and loved for the past 50 years. They both know that when he gets up, they will never be the same again—either as individuals, or as a couple.

Grant lies there in stillness, not going. As if he’s willing that moment to be frozen in time. You wonder if he even wants time to exist beyond that moment. Pulling away from her then would mean leaving his wife in every way that he has come to understand. In essence, she will die the moment he leaves their embrace.

But eventually, he does. You see Grant fighting everything in his body that tells him to hold on to her and never let her go. He does it with such stillness and restraint, but you can feel the pain that wracks his core.

Polley employs that same restraint as a director. She lets the camera linger on the couple, allowing the heart-wrenching tension to sink in with the viewer. It shows a lot of confidence on her part, to cast away the quick cuts and other gimmicks used in most films that try to deliver a jolt every three seconds. Instead, Polley relies on her formidable actors to capture one of the most poignant film moments I’ve ever seen. Two people lying still in bed, barely saying a word. It speaks volumes.

Polley got off to a great start by committing her friend Julie Christie to the cast. I can’t say enough good things about Christie. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one of my favourite films. (Leonard Cohen’s music creates an atmosphere you can taste and smell and feel. He is brilliant.) Don’t Look Now, Hamlet… I’ve never seen Christie be anything less than spectacular.

An exceptional thespian herself, Polley clearly understands how to work with other actors. But she has much more than her acting experience to draw from. As a director, she shows great appreciation for imagery and the role that cinematography plays in motion pictures. There’s a lot to look forward to from Polley; I’m certain she’ll only get better with each new film.

More recently, I rented Crank. It’s in the same vein as Away From Her, except it’s an action movie that races along at breakneck speed and features a lot of violence and some gore. Crank opens with hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) discovering that he’s been poisoned in his sleep and has one hour to live. Chev spends the movie racing around Los Angeles seeking an antidote, revenge on the people who poisoned him, and various ways of keeping his adrenaline high, which appears to be staving off the drugs and prolonging his life.

Writer/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor reportedly wrote the script in four and a half days, and it shows. The opening sequence really put me off; it’s too fast, too in-your-face, and features too many cut-aways to Chev’s failing, but still pulsing, heart. Ew. But somewhere along the way, the pace slows down a little bit and the stylization started to work for me. Any action movie whose hero spends a good chunk of time running around with his ass and perma-erection poking through a hospital gown wins points for going balls out and not taking itself too seriously. And Chev’s need for adrenaline leads to a couple of the most whacked-out sex scenes I’ve ever seen. One of them lends new meaning to the words: “Stay down!”

Statham is starting to make a name for himself in these kinds of off-beat, tongue-in-cheek action movies (e.g. The Transporter). And he’s also starting to make a name for himself on my list of hot actors worth seeing a movie for.

I recommend both films. Crank is a fun popcorn movie with a perverse sense of humour that’s best enjoyed with a group of rowdy friends. Away From Her is not. But it is well-worth seeing, if only so you’ll know what everyone else is talking about come awards season.