Saturday, May 25, 2013

Madcap Review Party

I have done a shitty job keeping on top of my reviews lately. The fact remains that the late-winter/early-spring season gives us noting but dregs. One-time festival favourites whose aftertaste has worsened usually find its release date in March or April.

Anyway, here are the films I have seen recently with some positive (though mostly negative) criticism:

Stories We Tell
Director: Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley was a household name for me growing up. Before she was even a teenager she played the role of Sara Stanley on Road to Avonlea. Now she has made a name for herself as Canada's foremost up-and-coming female director. Her first directorial feature, Away From Her (2006), also earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Six years later she is back with her first documentary film. It screened in Venice and at TIFF in the fall before opening in Canada late in the year. Now she is gaining notoriety again for Stories We Tell, as the film is just opening in American markets. It currently has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Stories We Tell is a deeply personal film for Polley. She interviews members of her own family and close friends of her mother to undercover the truth of her paternity. The basis of the film is that everyone involved has a specific and slightly altered view of the facts. Polley weaves together these stories to create a compelling narrative. Michael Polley, the man who raised Sarah, narrates the film, complete with Super-8 recreations of her childhood. These home movie creations caused a bit of nauseous unease for me visually, but I felt that it fit with the theme of the film.

Stories We Tell has potential to be a major contender come awards season for Best Documentary Feature.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Spring Breakers
Director: Harmony Korine
I was considering seeing Spring Breakers at TIFF last year, but the presence of Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez swayed me the wrong way. The film had some positive word of mouth, especially for James Franco's performance of a wannabe gangster and rapper. Director Harmony Korine is no stranger to controversy, as he is responsible for writing the screenplays for Larry Clark's films Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002), both dealing with adolescent sex.

Spring Breakers is absolutely the worst film I have seen since being subjected to Patrice Leconte's Le Masasin des Suicides at TIFF in September. The story involves four college girl who cannot afford to go on spring break in Florida. Faith (Gomez) is a practicing Christian and is the most innocent of the group, so after Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Hudgens) rob a fast food restaurant, she joins them and Cotty (Rachel Korine), on a spring break adventure. The girls find themselves surrounded by drugs and alcohol, and eventually end up in jail. They are saved by Alien (Franco), drug dealer and rapper, who draws them into his circle.

Halfway through the film I found that I could no longer stand to pay attention to the screen. And to avoid rush hour subway traffic, I stayed in my seat.

My rating: 0 stars out of 4.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Director: Derek Cianfrance
It took Derek Cianfrance ten years to create 2010's Blue Valentine, a beautiful and harrowing film about a crumbling marriage that starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Two years later he arrived at TIFF with his third film, The Place Beyond the Pines, featuring Gosling once again. It is a long film, with a running time of 140 minutes. The length is necessary, considering that the film is told in three very separate, distinct arcs.

The story opens with Luke (Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman, learning that he has fathered a child with Romina (Eva Mendes), a girl with whom he had a brief relationship while working in a traveling act for state fairs. In an effort to provide for his son, he quits his job and takes up work in an auto repair shop. His boss Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) reveals that he used to be a bank robber and with Luke's skills with a bike they could be successful together. This choice eventually leads Luke into the line of fire when Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a young police officer, happens upon him fleeing from a bank.

It would be unwise to reveal too much about the plot. The Place Beyond the Pines unfolds much differently than I had anticipated. It is not quite a great film, as I think that the story is too heavy and involved, but it is incredibly ambitious. Derek Cianfrance has demonstrated once again his unique gift for storytelling and I hope that he takes a little more time to polish his next film.

My rating: 3 stars of 4.

Director: Danny Boyle
Trance is Danny Boyle's first film since the back-to-back success of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and 127 Hours (2010). If only Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh had joined Boyle in making this film. It has too many similarities to Nolan's The Prestige (2006) and Soderbergh's Side Effects (2013). And then there was the gratuitous and disappointing nudity of Rosario Dawson.

Trance is heavily stylized, but it crumbles with the old cliche, style over substance. Simon (James McAvoy) is a fine art auctioneer in London who becomes involved with Franck (Vincent Cassel) in an art heist. In the midst of the robbery, Simon attacks Franck and is left with amnesia after a blow to the head. Franck is beyond angry to learn that the frame Simon had stolen from the auction was empty. His solution is to seek help from a hypnotherapist to recover Simon's memories. The hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Dawson), becomes involved with both Franck and Simon, and her intentions become to decipher.

Trance is based on a 2001 British telefilm, written by Joe Ahearne. Rosario Dawson is the weakest link in the film. She is not the most dramatically-enabled actress. Let's just say that Trance is much better than Spring Breakers.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Siobhan said it all in her review of the film, but I thought I would throw my nickel into the pond.

Sure, Romeo + Juliet (1996) was good, but I am not a huge fan of Leonardo DiCaprio. I have never been able to give him credit for a performance. Let's call it the Titanic effect. Luhrmann's best film is clearly Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby must be compared to it in terms of performance, style and music.

The performances are not on par. Leonardo DiCaprio may do a decent job as Jay Gatsby, but Tobey Maguire came off as too whiny for Nick Carraway. And as someone who has not read the book, why is Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) even in the film? I was also disappointed by Carey Mulligan's lack of presence. Stylistically, the film is beautiful. It is needlessly shot in 3D, and may have been why I fell asleep for a good fifteen minutes. The sets are lavish and the costumes are immaculate. Jay-Z had a hand in the film's score, acting as executive-producer alongside the Bullitts. I do not think the soundtrack has the audacity of Moulin Rouge!, but I do love André 3000 and Beyoncé's cover of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.

Is The Great Gatsby a disappointment? Probably. But I did not have much faith to start. I will be shocked if it finds itself among the Best Picture nominees come January.

My rating: A very week 2 out of 4.

I have also seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, but I defer to Siobhan, who has already reviewed both films. She has a much stronger appreciation for both superhero films and the entire science fiction genre. My only complaint about Star Trek is that J.J. Abrams deleted Benedict Cumberbatch's shower scene!

As the summer approaches, there are many more films opening that will pique my interest. I am waiting for my cinematic libido to be turned on!

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