Archive for July, 2011

Tim Robbins

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011—Film

While the cakes are cooling, while I’m icing (some of) what ails me, and before the dark prevents me from walking through the farm… I’ll take a few minutes to write about someone who’s been on my mind lately.

Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band is what it took to finally get me out to the Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest. A very special experience; thank you KG for the ticket. For some reason, Robbins kept popping up in the weeks prior, even before I realized he was lined up to play. A dear friend leant me Mystic River, which I eagerly re-watched. Two other close friends swept me off to a cottage getaway and played The Shawshank Redemption, which I saw for the first time. After that, I almost popped in Dead Man Walking, a long-ago gift from someone close to my heart, but as outstanding as the film is, it’s a little hard to watch sometimes… Not that the other two make for light viewing.

I’m hesitant to write about Robbins’ film history because he seems so keen to promote music at the moment. But his acting, directing and writing are what I know and what I’m so taken by. So I’ll be brief and say this about his music:

He looked so happy to be onstage. In fact, so did all the members of his band, including the John Lithgow look-alike on the accordion. The songs were upbeat, for the most part, and many had a Celtic feel. To be honest, I skipped out for a bit to catch some of The Tea Party on another stage, but it was a thrill to see Robbins perform live. It’s been almost 10 years since I last (and first) saw him in person; I heard him speak at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, along with Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon, and it was one of the best nights of my life. I’d make a point of watching him and his Rogues Gallery again. I doubt they’d have the same appeal for me if I wasn’t already such a fan of Robbins, but then again, if the music didn’t pass muster, I wouldn’t have wandered back to his stage after making the rounds at Bluesfest.

About his films, as that is the topic of this blog, I’ll also say a brief bit:

The three films I mentioned above are three very fine examples of Hollywood filmmaking. Robbins wrote and directed Dead Man Walking, which includes a devastating Academy Award-nominated performance by the astounding Sean Penn (and is scored by Robbins’ brother David). In both Mystic River (from director Clint Eastwood) and The Shawshank Redemption, Robbins gives brilliant performances, both times as someone wrongly convicted and horribly punished.

On top of being amazing, those three films are also very disturbing. So I’ll throw a fourth, much lighter Robbins film into the mix, which, like the others, is fantastic and holds sentimental value for me: Robert Altman’s The Player, featuring Robbins as a movie exec in an eight-minute opening shot that’s analyzed endlessly in film school.

Too much to say about the films, not enough daylight remaining… Rent all four, with the caution that the first three, especially Dead Man Walking and Mystic River, deal with very upsetting subject matter (murder and the death penalty; sexual abuse and violent vigilante justice). They’re exceptional films made by some of the best American filmmakers in recent history.

As for Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band, I hope it keeps Robbins smiling for a long time to come.

The Tree of Life

Friday, July 15th, 2011—Film

The Tree of Life (USA 2011, Drama), Writer/Director: Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is that rare breed of artist whose works always offer something worth seeing. He’s known for making films infrequently, but that are many layers deep: Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World and now The Tree of Life.

Some people find Malick’s latest film to be pretentious or overly ambitious. With its whispered voice over and narration, which are more like snippets of a poem than of a conversation, its lingering attention to imagery, its contemplation of the creation of the universe and of the afterlife, and its sheer length, I can easily see why some people are put off. But I wasn’t. It felt long, for sure, but there was a rhythm to it that I wouldn’t want to interfere with.

This is the thing about The Tree of Life: Malick allows it to show life happening, to flow and turn in the direction and at the pace it needs to take to flourish. He made a perfect choice in highlighting Smetana’s composition The Moldau somewhere in the heart of the film. I was so happy to hear those first notes; I’m no classical music expert, but this was a piece my sisters and I danced and composed ballets to as little girls, and its opening immediately takes me back to a world of make-believe, where everything seems possible. It depicts the Moldau River, the longest in the Czech Republic. Beginning with the tender breaths of the flute, gentle slivers of water stream over pebbles, then build and pulse into a powerful force that gushes over everything in its path and grows stronger with each beat. Water—the source of life from which the tree can take root.

On a narrative level, The Tree of Life centres around the eldest of three brothers (Hunter McCracken, who grows up to be Sean Penn) and his relationship with his sweet, gentle mother (a spectacular Jessica Chastain) and bitter, severe father (Brad Pitt). But the film’s strength isn’t in its narrative focus; it’s in its vision and scope. Malick does no less than explore how life is formed, on a cellular level as well as on emotional, psychological and spiritual levels.

As the film weaves its few scenes with dialogue in and out of long unspoken moments accompanied only by ambient sound and music, of montages showcasing a feast of beautiful images that often render the everyday abstract and feature light spattered across subjects in such a gorgeous way, it steps very close to the line dividing experimental and narrative film. It has to be the least expository movie I’ve ever seen. So much is said with looks and actions rather than words.

The Tree of Life is about the forces of nature (human and otherwise), about birth and death, love and hatred, joy and sorrow, creation and destruction. It’s stunning and moving, and I wish there was some way to frame it so I could wander past some of its most beautiful moments and absorb them again, even when I don’t feel up to settling in for the film’s entire run.


Saturday, July 9th, 2011—Film

Beginners (USA 2011, Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Mike Mills

I really liked this bittersweet piece about love and its many flavours.

A near-middle aged cartoonist named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) has never been able to make a relationship work. Actually, to be more on point, he doesn’t really believe they can work, so he does everything he can to make sure they won’t. That’s his estimation, anyway. He attributes it to his parents’ lack of intimacy throughout their 44-year marriage. But when his newly widowed father Hal (Christopher Plummer) reveals the truth—that he’s gay—it sheds a new light on Oliver’s views about love.

Beginners is told through flashbacks to Hal’s last years, as he finally falls in love and enjoys life as he was meant to, but also falls prey to cancer; through present-day moments as Oliver tries to make sense of a rare and strange connection he has to French film actress Anna (Mélanie Laurent); and through funny little quirks and devices, such as a “talking” dog who communicates via subtitles, and sketches and scribbles drawn by Oliver to illustrate some of the film’s musings (like The History of Sadness, which includes the first gay man, who was diagnosed as mentally ill, and the first couple to get married for the wrong reasons).

The film drew me in with its outstanding cast. McGregor is an all-time favourite of mine, an actor with great depth, charm, versatility and humour. He’s awesome. Plummer is as dapper and nuanced as ever. I love seeing him so strong at 81; I hope he lasts forever. Laurent is extraordinary. I’ve been eager to see her again since being blown away by her performance in Inglourious Basterds, and she doesn’t disappoint.

But Beginners is more than just a terrific ensemble piece. Writer/director Mike Mills mixes and matches styles, moving from fast-paced photomontages to more standard fare, and incorporating a “talking” dog and cartoon strips, all the while jumping back and forth in time. It would have been easy to overwhelm or annoy the audience with a recipe like that, but Mills strikes a good balance and creates something that is at once funny, sad, odd, sincere and resonant.

Hal’s storyline is made all the more effective because it’s partially based on Mills’ own father. References to the late gay politician Harvey Milk and Allan Ginsberg’s poem Howl aren’t cloying; they’re spot on and entirely relevant. That was the world Hal existed in, where openly homosexual men were shot and shunned. If he wanted a career and a house and a family, he had to be straight.

Beginners gives most of its attention to Oliver and Anna, which is fine because the pair has a very special chemistry. But Oliver reveals some interesting truths—about his world, Hal’s world and our world—in his quest to make love work and to truly be himself in a relationship. The film is sweetly and touchingly summed up with a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit:

“It doesn’t happen all at once… You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

A wise friend once said to me, “Everyone wants a framework in which they can love and be loved.” Here’s to finding that framework, no matter what its shape.

[For the next time you’re in a renting mood, here are a few other films that feature homosexuality and are well worth a viewing: Bad Education, Shortbus, Milk, The Kids Are All Right and Howl, which I never reviewed but should have… a stunning piece of art.]

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To DB and new beginnings.

The National Parks Project

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011—Film

The National Parks Project (Canada 2011, Documentary), Writer: Joel McConvey; Directors: Various

A few months ago, I interviewed the creators and producers of The National Parks Project—Joel McConvey, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth—for my website You can read the article (please do!) for more on the project’s genesis, but in a nutshell:

Last year, on the eve of Parks Canada’s centennial, these three wunderminds sent 13 crews of filmmakers and musicians to a national park in each of Canada’s provinces and territories. The artists recorded the sights and sounds that were experienced and inspired in the natural landscape, and their footage and audio was used to create 13 short films. Together, these shorts comprise the feature documentary The National Parks Project.

While catching up with Joel and Geoff this Canada Day weekend, I picked up a DVD of the film and watched it the first chance I got. I was mesmerized throughout almost every short. What a way to celebrate the nation’s 144th birthday!

Some aspects of the documentary surprised me. I knew the shorts were largely experimental and featured mostly music, ambient sound and park footage. I was expecting ethereal shots, breathtaking scenery and transcendent instrumentals, and there was all of that in abundance.

What I wasn’t expecting was the unique artistic slants taken for several of the shorts. Many incorporated effects, titles and voice-over, often to create a somewhat linear story. Some of the shorts I wouldn’t necessarily classify as documentaries per se, but rather as experimental fiction shot in national parks. (In particular, Quand j’aurai vu les îles, shot in Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, Quebec.) But I guess it depends on how strictly you define “documentary,” as almost every film has a story or slant, to some degree.

I won’t get into specifics on all 13 films, but suffice it to say that I very much liked almost every one, and loved three in particular: Night Vision, Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan; Sirmilik, Sirmilik National Park, Nunavut; and Kluane, Kluane National Park and Reserve, Yukon.

In Night Vision, you don’t see a great deal of the park, both because of the night vision shooting and because of the fact that what is shown are often close-up or abstract glimpses seen through the eyes of the young female narrator. But the film has a certain magic to it and ends with a lovely point about preserving the land (and the dream-like experience of visiting that land) without hammering the message home.

Sirmilik makes a similar point concerning climate change, but again, not throughout the entire piece and not with a heavy hand. I loved Sirmilik in the way it contrasts the stunning natural environment, both in close-up and landscape shots, with touches of civilization (e.g. polar bears spray-painted onto a corner store by the outskirts) and glimpses into the region’s culture, language and music.

Kluane makes it clear from the opening shot that it’s going to turn perspective on its head. It opens with an upside down tracking shot of the rocky terrain and frequently revisits that technique, along with jump cuts, fast motion, abstract imagery, underwater footage and spectacular landscapes, to create a moving still life of the unique and staggering beauty that is Yukon’s National Park.

That feat is something all the films collectively achieve. They take beautiful shots of the parks and bring them to life with motion, music and ingenuity, creating the most incredible album of moving portraits. The artists involved in The National Parks Project have empowered the parks with a voice, letting the landscapes do most of the talking. They’ve imbued each piece with their own flavour and ideas, but on the whole it’s the parks that shine through as the undeniable stars.

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I proudly dedicate this post to Joel, Geoff and Ryan. You’ve done a wonderful thing. Bravo!

For more on The National Parks Project and a full list of the filmmakers and musicians involved, please visit The documentary is playing in Ottawa, Waterloo and Winnipeg this week. Click here for details on those and other screenings.