Saturday, February 25, 2012

Movie Review: Goon

Liev Schreiber and Seann William Scott
Goon (2012)
Directed by: Michael Dowse
Starring: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Alison Pill, Liev Schreiber, Kim Coates, Eugene Levy and Marc-Andre Grondin

While the sports media and fans across Canada continue to  debate the pros and cons of allowing fighting in the NHL -- and hockey, in general -- Jay Baruchel has produced, written and co-starred in a film that focuses solely on the controversial role of the enforcer. Are they really essential to the success of a team? Or is it just an excuse to give bloodthirsty fans what they want? Goon never truly addresses these questions in depth, as it focuses more on being as equally violent and crude as its 1977 predecessor Slap Shot

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is a small-town Massachusetts bar bouncer with both a kind disposition and a killer punch. As one character puts it, "you are touched by the fist of God." After getting into a scuffle in the stands while attending a hockey game with his friend (Jay Baruchel), Doug is spotted by the head coach (Nicholas Campbell) of the visiting team from Oshawa. He convinces Doug to leave his hometown to play in Canada for the Halifax Highlanders, a struggling hockey club coached by his brother Ronnie Hortense (Kim Coates). The Highlanders are still reeling from last season's crushing injury of their star forward Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin) who was concussed by Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), the head goon of the St. John's Shamrocks. The Highlanders want revenge and, despite the fact that Doug can't skate and knows next to nothing about the game, he's warmly embraced by the guys -- all of whom can't wait to see him in action as their enforcer.

Goon is at times a biting satire -- a crude, rude glimpse at the bloodlust often associated with the sport of hockey. Like gladiators in the Coliseum, the central spectacle is often the two men duking it out with their fists at centre ice. While hockey can be a beautiful, graceful, high-speed game, it can also be a violent spectacle more akin to boxing -- and Goon doesn't hold back on the punches. The blood spurts, squirts and gushes in an increasingly creative (and bone-crushing) fashion. It's not for the faint of heart and there will likely be many who argue that it does little to improve the current state of violence in the game.

Marc-Andre Grondin
Where Goon truly excels is in its casting. Seann William Scott is hilarious as the charming doofus, Doug. His eager-to-please approach to adjusting to the sport of hockey and his new teammates carries the film. He gives a sympathetic edge to the role of the enforcer, playing Doug as a guy who loves playing and just wants to do whatever he can to support and provide for the guys.

As Ronnie, the Highlanders' charismatic head coach, veteran Canadian actor Kim Coates is all fiery venom. He embodies the very essence of a tough-love coach who just wants to see his boys succeed.

Marc-Andre Grondin (a familiar face in Quebec cinema) is excellent as Xavier LaFlamme, the surly superstar with a once-bright future who is struggling to overcome a nagging concussion and an overwhelming fear of being crushed into the boards again. The slow-to-blossom friendship (and mutual understanding) between Xavier and Doug is one of the highlights of the film.

However, the standout is Liev Schreiber (mastering a Canadian accent) as the aging enforcer, Ross Rhea. He perfectly balances the showmanship involved in the role of the goon while, in quieter moments, illustrating the hardships that men like him endure. He loves his role, yet he's aware that he's there for one reason only -- to spill blood. The role of a goon is ruthless, not only to the player on the receiving end of the punches, but to the goon himself.

It's an unapologetically violent critique of violence in hockey -- a feature that will likely prove too controversial to some critics and audiences. The film likely won't convert the uninitiated; however, for those who love hockey Goon is an entertaining glimpse into the world of the minor leagues.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Film Noir Series: Clash by Night (1952)

My latest Film Noir Spotlight entry for Next Projection. The ninth film on my list is Clash by Night (1952).

It would be easy to dismiss Clash by Night as a simple melodrama – one that shouldn’t be categorized as a film noir. And while the film – based on the 1941 play by Clifford Odets – is a domestic drama, it carries over familiar noir themes.

After a 10-year absence, 30-something Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her hometown of Monterey, a tiny fishing village in California. Tired of her life as the mistress to a married man, Mae decides to reconnect with her brother, Joe (Keith Andes), to help take her mind off her cynical outlook on relationships and love. When Joe’s girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), asks Mae why she decided to return, Mae responds, “Home is where you come when you run out of places.” After Mae meets nice-guy fisherman Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), she agrees to marry him after a short courtship, much to the surprise of the townsfolk. Enter Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), Jerry’s younger, hotheaded work colleague that Mae immediately finds herself drawn to. Shortly after giving birth to Jerry’s daughter, Mae embarks on a torrid love affair with Earl which isn’t kept secret for long.

In a departure from his usual dystopian fare (like classics Metropolis and M), Austrian director Fritz Lang opens his film with multiple shots of crashing waves, a foreshadowing of the domestic strife about to emerge. With his use of images from nature – screeching seagulls and clouds drifting swiftly over the moon – Lang reflects the ever-changing emotions of his central characters.

Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck
As Mae, Stanwyck shines. She easily draws men – and viewers – into her tangled web, moving effortlessly back and forth between being likeable and being despised. Even in this unconventional noir she remains the very essence of a femme fatale.

Monroe plays against type, sporting bulky pants and a rough and tumble attitude about relationships and gender equality as the adorably plucky Peggy. Constantly picking fights with Joe – both verbal and physical – Peggy admires Mae’s take on life, much to Joe’s concern. In 1952, Monroe was on the cusp of the stardom that would result in her icon status. Her portrayal of Peggy hints at the greatness to come.

Douglas gives a sensitive, if somewhat stagy and overacted, performance as the cuckolded Jerry. He depicts him as too soft to properly defend himself against Mae and Earl, but his intentions are always in the right place.

As the irascible Earl, Ryan gives a startlingly brutal performance. His character is hard to like and, instead of trying to make him more vulnerable, Ryan runs with it – the chemistry between he and Stanwyck is raw animal magnetism. It’s hard to believe there is any real love there, only a mutual understanding that they share commonalities of character.

More than anything, Clash by Night acts as postwar gender commentary, a familiar trope in noir. Mae tirelessly rants about the changing masculinity, resentfully referring to men as “little and nervous, like sparrows.” While talking to Peggy, Mae expresses her desire to wind up with a man who has confidence – confidence to allow her to have her own strength of character and independence but without feeling emasculated by it.

Unfortunately, the film closes with a moralistic return to “order.” The conclusion does little to truly resolve the issues at hand, instead leaving the audience to believe that Mae could suddenly embrace a reformed nature. Although not the finest example of the genre, the film’s central themes hit all the right notes.

Like many noirs before it, Clash by Night features a fundamentally decent man in Jerry, showing how a wayward femme fatale could lead him astray. The themes of betrayal and loss of power result in an uncomfortable tension simmering just beneath the surface so that, even without the criminal element, the film is justifiably classified as film noir.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Movie Review: This Means War

Tom Hardy, Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine
This Means War (2012)
Directed by: McG
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

With the release of This Means War, 2012 already has an early frontrunner for the top "award" at the annual Razzies.

It's already a challenge to craft a romantic comedy that avoids cranking out the standard genre cliches, and while director McG throws everything he can at the screen in an attempt to distract the audience from the nonsensical script -- everything from massive guns and high-tech gadgets -- there's no avoiding the fact that This Means War is yet another dud on his filmography.

Working with a script that apparently required four writers, McG tries for his own version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith -- yet he lacks the campy fun of Doug Liman's 2005 hit and the sexually-charged chemistry shared between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Two longtime best friends and CIA operatives, FDR Foster (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy, whose character apparently doesn't require a last name), live life on the edge -- taking every opportunity they can to flex their macho-cool on international assignments involving high-octane chases and flying bullets. After a botched mission in Hong Kong reduces them to desk duty, FDR and Tuck, quite accidentally, find themselves falling for the same woman (Reese Witherspoon) on their spare time. Divorced, single dad Tuck meets Lauren through an online dating website while playboy FDR and Lauren "meet cute" in a video rental store (these still exist?) This unexpected rivalry soon spirals out of control as FDR and Tuck use every piece of absurd technology available to them in order to track Lauren's every move in a desperate (and incredibly creepy) attempt to woo her.

And, just to remind the audience that Tuck and FDR have a very, very dangerous occupation, there's a baddie named Heinrich (Til Schweiger) who is hot on their trail, sporting a sleek car, dapper suit and an obscure Eastern European accent.

Pine and Hardy
This Means War relies heavily on the charisma of its leads. As Lauren, Witherspoon goes her usual cute-girl-in-an-awkward-sitaution route, gamely wrestling with her oh-so-tough dilemma of having to choose between two gorgeous men. With the help of comedienne Chelsea Handler as her loyal sidekick pal, Trish, Witherspoon can dish out the charm with the best of them. She is a pro of the romantic comedy genre, after all, and her scenes with the brash Handler are her strongest.

But make no mistake; the main draw is the feud between Tuck and FDR, their bromance thrown asunder by a woman they hardly know. The chemistry between Hardy and Pine is palpable, it's just a shame they weren't given a better picture to star in. They both manage to make even the worst lines of dialogue (and there are many) sound even remotely charming.

McG keeps the plot in a perpetual state of motion with one increasingly more ludicrous action sequence after another -- culminating in a finale that can only have been ripped straight out of Speed. Yet, despite all the explosions and back-and-forth banter, you're likely to have lost interest by the halfway mark as each subsequent scene becomes more plodding and implausible than the last.

This Means War is essentially a mediocre "romantic-explosion" movie that buries any brief enjoyable moments under a pile of rubble and cringe-worthy dialogue. While it might prove a somewhat amusing distraction to audiences, it's ultimately utterly forgettable.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Movie Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton
We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)
Directed By: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller

It's every parent's worst nightmare -- having the antichrist for a child; the very definition of a bad seed.

However, We Need to Talk about Kevin is not a horror film, which makes it all the more horrifying because it's believable.

Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) longs for her days as a travel writer, breathing in the sites and sounds from exotic locales around the world. Instead she's the wife of a simpering, eager-to-please photographer (John C. Reilly) and mother to adorable little Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) -- and 16-year-old terror, Kevin (Ezra Miller). It's not the life she desired, as she resentfully tells her toddler son in a flashback. From the moment of his birth, Eva and Kevin were enemies -- his every action, his every word, meant to spite his mother. After years of glaring at one another from across the room, everything comes crashing down -- with Kevin winding up in prison for a crime that is only slowly revealed to the audience.

After a nine year absence from behind the camera, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay expertly weaves together a narrative that hops around in time, yet manages to keep a sustained sense of suspense and dread. Although it can be cooly detached from emotion at certain points, it's a gripping family drama that will leave you feeling unsettled from start to finish. Based on the 2003 Lionel Shriver novel, the narrative is told entirely from Eva's point of view -- just how big a role did Eva play in moulding the young man that Kevin became? One thing that is clear is that, more often than not, she appears to regret his very existence. Although some of the films' motifs can be a little heavy-handed (the oversaturation of the colour red, as an example), We Need to Talk About Kevin is teeming with arresting visuals that, in their own way, propel the plot forward.

As Eva, Swinton is a revelation (and was robbed of an Oscar nomination). Not exactly the most nurturing of mothers, Eva's inner conflict is revealed in jagged fragments, in scenes both past and present. She's hard to read, much like her son. However, Swinton has the uncanny ability to build complex characters -- her Eva is both vacant and heartbreakingly tormented over her fear of her own child. She wavers on her feelings towards Kevin -- does she really loathe him or is there some love that can be salvaged from the wreck? Swinton draws you in, regardless of your feelings towards her actions. It's a powerful, subtle performance.

Ezra Miller
As Kevin, Miller is so good in the role, he'll make you rethink having children of your own. He vividly captures every small nuance of the character -- from his unblinking, hardened gaze to his sudden bursts of violence. We know so little about Kevin -- only what his mother knows, which is next to nothing.

Often clad in tiny t-shirts with cartoon characters across the front, Miller is a chilling man-child -- an impassive cipher that Eva circles around wearily, as though waiting for a bomb to go off.

The connection (if it can be called that) between Eva and Kevin is so intense that, more often than not, their interactions need little or no words.

When asked why he did what he did -- why he felt the need to commit acts of senseless violence -- Kevin responds: "I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure." 

As in real life, there are no answers. Like many other films on the same subject matter, it evades the "why?" to focus on how and when it came to a breaking point. One thing is for certain: they should have talked about Kevin.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Movie Review: A Separation

Peyman Moaadi (as Nader) and Sareh Bayat (as Razieh)
A Separation (2011)
Written & Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini and Sarina Farhadi

At first glance, A Separation appears to be an intimate glimpse at the steady decline of a 14-year marriage between a 30-something couple with a young daughter. The opening scene, where they each face the camera to plead their case -- she wants a divorce, he does not -- doesn't even begin hint at the domestic turmoil that is to come in this slow-burning narrative. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat domestic drama brimming with carefully guarded secrets and devastating misunderstandings.

Simin (Leila Hatami) boldly requests a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi). She wants to take their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) out of Iran so that she can experience a world outside the strict confines of her homeland. Nader refuses to leave -- not so much out of a sense of patriotism but simply so he can take proper care of his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Simin's urgency is understandable -- she has an exit visa that expires in 40 days. However, when her request for divorce is turned down by a judge she leaves her daughter in the care of Nader and goes to live with her mother for the time being. Nader, struggling to make ends meet, hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a female caretaker, to come and care for his father while he is away at work. A devout Muslim who brings her little daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), along with her to work, Razieh struggles with conflicting emotions over whether or not her religion would allow for her to care for an elderly gentleman alone without the permission of her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). That the plot later involves a shocking murder charge and feuding families is a testament to how Farhadi expertly weaves his intricate plot together -- everything that unfolds feels like a natural culmination of preceding events.

A Separation is a beautifully structured character study that uses its slow reveals and plot twists as a means to create mounting tension. It's easy to assume that the title refers simply to the separation between Simin and Nader. However, the film chronicles a variety of "separations" from ideological differences to religion and class division. All four of the adult lead are, at their very core, genuinely good people. It's a tragic and emotionally resonant example of how seemingly honourable decisions can result in a bitter domestic conflict that has the (often irreversible) ability to ruin lives and taint reputations. Farhadi's script ties together multiple narratives and character viewpoints -- yet he avoids painting any of his characters as villains. They each make very human mistakes.

Leila Hatami as Simin
The film may be set in Tehran, but the themes and issues at the heart of the plot are universal. It's partially about preservation -- protecting one's self and family from the attacks and slanders of others. It leaves the viewer questioning whether or not they would have done differently if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Where A Separation succeeds in its brilliant and beautiful storytelling, it also boasts a wonderful ensemble cast -- arguably the best of 2011. As a young couple on the verge of divorce, Hatami and Moaadi give genuinely powerful performances as Simin and Nader. Whether their scenes are shared or separate, their portrayal of a couple in turmoil feels so authentic you may catch yourself feeling as though you were watching a documentary on a real marriage. The supporting cast, led by a towering performance from Bayat as the quietly commanding caretaker Razieh, each create fully realized people who find themselves in a tough situation.

When we catch ourselves in a downward spiral -- when life suddenly gets too messy and complicated -- it's how we react to the situation that says a lot about our character. A Separation isn't only about the things that divide us, it's also about how we choose to handle the problem -- and how it can potentially unite us in the end.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Film Noir Series: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

My latest Film Noir Spotlight entry for Next Projection. The eight film on my list is The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

Coming off his 1949 Oscar win for The Treasure of Sierra Madre, director John Huston crafted a tightly coiled caper brimming with murder and corruption and told almost entirely from the point of view of its criminals. The Asphalt Jungle, a seminal work in Huston’s impressive filmography, has a gritty realism that sheds light on a dark corner of society.

Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle zeroes in on “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a German immigrant who masterminds the ultimate score during the seven years he spent in incarceration. Funded by Alonso Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a treacherous businessman with his own set of objectives, the jewel heist is meticulously plotted. Regarded as a flawless scheme by the diminutive Doc, the puzzle pieces finally fall into place once he recruits a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore) and a street-savvy hooligan named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) whose desire for wealth masks his inherent decency. When the heist backfires and the men retreat to their own separate hiding places, The Asphalt Jungle chronicles the descent of each of them as they struggle to survive both the police task force – and each other.

There’s an artistry to the film that only someone with Huston’s impressive credentials can bring to what is, essentially, a low-budget B-movie about tough guys and their dames. With its richly textured black and white cinematography, expertly lensed by Harold Rosson, and its sparse and rundown city streets, The Asphalt Jungle has a claustrophobic documentary style. Devoid of the contrived dialogue that is often a staple in the noir genre, there are times when conversations feel almost entirely improvised and natural. With a large cast on his hands, Huston, who co-wrote the script with Ben Maddow, weaves each plot point into a deeply absorbing – and dialogue-heavy – endeavour. Following a linear narrative (the rare noir without any flashback sequences), The Asphalt Jungle is a relatively quiet urban crime drama with only brief bursts of violence and action.

The jungle – that seedy underbelly of society that lies beneath city streets – is chock-full of corruption, backstabbing and dead ends.

Marilyn Monroe
Huston’s inspired casting is most notable with his two leads – Jaffe and Hayden, as Doc and Dix. As Doc, Jaffe is quietly commanding as the cool and collected mastermind of the failed heist. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Jaffe brings a softer approach to a role that is traditionally filled by a “tough-guy” thug. Meanwhile, Hayden stands out with his performance as Dix – an idealist whose life comes crashing down around him as the jungle swallows him whole.

A woman’s touch is keenly felt with two electric supporting performances from Jean Hagen and a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe. Hagen is the standout as Dix’s long-suffering girlfriend, Doll Conovan. In one notable scene, Hagen, in the middle of an emotional breakdown, rips her fake eyelashes off, while mascara drips down her face and mingles with her tears. Her nervous smile, always so eager to please Dix, is heartbreaking in its poignant honesty. Monroe is a knockout as the much-older Emmerich’s mistress, Angela. Beautiful and vulnerable, Monroe shines, giving audiences a glimpse of the star she was later to become.

One of the few downfalls in a film with a plot as crammed with characters as The Asphalt Jungle is that the character development of some of the other players falls short. There’s also the underwritten role of Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), a preachy moralist who is inserted into the film simply to counter the actions of its central figures. As Hardy sermonizes to his police troops: “Suppose we had no police force, good or bad …Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over.” It’s excess baggage that weighs down an otherwise tight script.

But those “predatory beasts” that Hardy rants against are very regular people making very big mistakes – tough guys and their dames, just trying to make it in the world by any means possible.

Welcome to the jungle.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Movie Review: Warrior

Tom Hardy (left) and Joel Edgerton
Warrior (2011)
Directed By: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte

Warrior is an emotionally rich family drama disguised as a film about a mixed martial arts tournament. To overlook director Gavin O'Connor's quiet masterpiece as just another "fighting movie" would be a mistake. Beneath all the masculine angst is a touching look at the ties that bind family together.

Skillfully built around meticulously constructed character studies, Warrior looks in on the family dynamics of three men -- two estranged brothers and their recovering alcoholic of a father. We're first introduced to Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte); a Moby Dick-obsessed former wrestler who is 1,000 days sober and looking to mend his fractured ties with his sons, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). More than 10 years ago, Paddy drove his sons away -- his debilitating alcoholism and abuse towards their mother resulting in severed family ties. Each son dealt with their pain separately -- Brendan by getting married and starting his own family and Tommy by joining the Marines and leaving his life behind. When Paddy learns that Tommy (appearing out of the blue after years of absence) wants his help to train for Sparta, an upcoming mixed martial arts event in Atlantic City where the winner takes home $5 million, he agrees -- seeing it as a chance to reconnect with his younger son. Tommy has his own personal reasons for needing the money -- reasons that are only slowly revealed to the audience. At the same time, in another city, Brendan is preparing for the same Sparta tournament; with his house facing foreclosure and having to support an ailing daughter, he decides to return to his amateur fighting roots, much to his wife's (Jennifer Morrison) disappointment.

Warrior is a performance piece -- each of the three leads carry the emotional weight of the story on their shoulders. O'Connor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman, slowly lets his story unfurl through intimate conversations between characters. It's only gradually that their secrets and their pasts are revealed; a fine example of character building. There are multiple open wounds in the Conlon clan and what the Sparta tournament ultimately becomes for them is a physical release for years of pent-up emotion and rage.

Nolte received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his complex portrayal of a once-brutal man trying to make amends with the sons he drove away so long ago. It's a wonderful performance that avoids taking the easy route by making him a completely sympathetic figure -- his actions towards his now-deceased wife were brutal and his sons are right to still be wary about forgiving him.

Tom Hardy (left) and Joel Edgerton
Edgerton (an up-and-coming Aussie actor) gives a breakout performance as the older Conlon sibling. A dedicated family man, he makes the greater effort to reach out to Tommy once his younger brother comes back into his life. It's a quietly commanding performance, one that will likely result in lead roles down the road.

As Tommy, Hardy is an angry and frustrated loner. A former Marine who returns home to the realization that the only people he has left in his life are a father and brother he severed ties with, Tommy's only release for years of anger and hurt feelings is the therapeutic release that comes with cage fighting. Hardy is the revelation here -- it's an underrated performance in an underrated film. He doesn't just look or sound the part (perfectly masking his British accent), he feels the part. It's the rare performance that makes you forget you are watching an actor and not a real, struggling human being.

Warrior avoids the cliches so common in tales about a struggling underdog. It's a film about blood, sweat and tears and, as a result, is one of the most emotionally engaging films of the year. O'Connor and his co-screenwriters bring a perfect balance to all three roles, allowing the audience to get to know each of them slowly. This balance is most keenly felt when it comes to Brendan and Tommy -- both are good, decent men trying to do the right thing. It doesn't ask the audience to choose between the brothers, likely because it would be next to impossible to do. Instead, it closes in on their journey to forgiveness and how their paths -- once so separated -- are finally coming together. Brendan and Tommy are tough guys, yet you like them so much because of their moments of fragility.

In the end, Warrior is less about the fight than the means of finding forgiveness and redemption. It's a movie about family -- specifically brotherly love. The climax is so emotionally resonant that it's impossible not to get invested in its outcome. It's more than just a sports drama; it's about the family ties that bind us together. Simply put, Warrior is a story well told.