Review – I Am Love July 22, 2010

This flick was my first time at an honest to goodness press screening. Not going to lie, it was pretty great. I could do that often and have no complaints.

I Am Love will be one of the best films of the year that no one will watch. It has a lot going against it, Oscar-winning lead Tilda Swinton or no. It’s entirely in Italian (Swinton learned to speak the language with a character-specific Russian accent). It’s a two-hour hard drama, devoid of levity, and North American censors are notoriously squeamish when it comes to shots of female genitalia. Yes, shots — plural. It’s this abandon and seeming disregard for North American box office take that makes I Am Love not only a shocking achievement, but one of the most fearless dramatic films in years.

The film tells the story of Emma Recchi, an immigrant inductee into the powerful Recchi family of Italian aristocrats. Embarrassingly wealthy owing to a thriving textile concern, the film apes Tennessee Williams and joins them celebrating the birthday of the family patriarch who finds himself approaching death. While at this point it could easily devolve into a straightforward heir battle, the thread of the family’s future only serves as a frame to describe a situation where Swinton’s Emma will never belong. As her utility to her husband ends at her uterus, a chance encounter with her son’s chef friend draws her slowly into an affair. It’s a tale of life, death, renewal, and stumbling forward, clothed or not.

Director Luca Guadagnino has put together an impressive package with his biggest production to date. His direction of frequent collaborator Swinton is expertly done, an advantageous situation given that she forms the centre of gravity for the film. There is nearly nothing else in the film. I Am Love hangs its entire being onto her capable, angular shoulders and she responds to the weight expertly. His mastery of shot choice and his clear respect for cinematography makes I Am Love an absolute treat to look at, inspiring an instant desire to catch it again on Blu-ray (an odd trait for such a tense dramatic work). In another life, Guadagnino could direct food commercials: a good portion of this film imbues sensuality into food and cooking. This is a skill that most directors wish they could attach to their love scenes.

The script is incredibly strong, juxtaposing Emma’s lovers expertly. Her husband pointedly clothes her, zipping a dress, and clasping bracelets and other expensive armour, while her lover unwraps her like a present for the world and the audience to see and admire. In an effort to help along her journey into adultery, Emma stalks her prey like Gatsby (that is to say with class, not the creepy kind of stalking). Here, Swinton masterfully introducing a girlish fluster into her encounters. Sub-plots about another unwelcome inductee include her son’s fiancée, and the plans to sell the family business to foreign concerns at the cost of the company’s humanity weave into the narrative with ease. The affair unfolds with shades of Dawson’s Creek, the “will-they or won’t-they” factor becoming stifling right before its logical release (which sets up a hilarious visual gag that may be the film’s only funny moment). The unpredictable pacing of the film — plodding, with sudden octane infusions — suits the unpredictable nature sudden, traumatic family events, and sets up a climax that will knock you flat.

While it has flaws, they are nitpicks at best. A sub-plot regarding Emma’s daughter coming out as homosexual is tainted by the unintentionally hilarious choice she makes to cut her hair short, a cliché obviously meant to compare with her mother’s similar choice upon deciding to divorce her husband. Similarly, Guadagnino’s choice to make the face of the antagonist attempting to purchase and corrupt the family business an American Sikh is a blunt and artless comment on the changing economic and social face of the United Kingdom and the European Union. It’s a vaguely racist moment that comes from nearly nowhere. Combine those with what amounts to a huge amount of “Italy porn” — lavish shots boasting the natural beauty of the Italian landscape — and it results in comparatively minor gripes about a solid film.

I Am Love will have nearly no domestic impact commercially, but will continue the Oscar tradition of populating the “Best Foreign Film” category with some of the best work no one cares about until they get a statue. Swinton keeps marching quietly forward in her campaign to be regarded as one of the best actresses of her time with this challenging, awe-inspiring work she carries effortlessly. If she hasn’t already earned a star on the Walk of Fame, this will probably do it.

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Review – The Last Airbender July 15, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. This was a major personal blow, really. People close to me know how serious I am about Avatar: The Last Airbender, and how often I call it one of the most enjoyable, well made pieces of fiction I have ever encountered. It’s funny, romantic, exciting and one of my favorite things ever. To see it so poorly interpreted was hard to watch.

M.Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender blows.

But seriously folks, to talk about this film is to talk exclusively about its utter failure. By now the entire planet has come down on Shyamalan and is loudly plotting his violent demise, both for committing a Hague convention-worthy crime against filmmaking and for the full-ceremony desecration of a franchise that many have strong feelings for. Those attached to both the series and to good filmmaking are going to be reaching for the nearest halberd and dialing for airline tickets post-haste.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a series on Nickelodeon that ran for three seasons. While aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, it is easiest to categorize the achievement of co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (and head writer Aaron Ehasz) as a kind of small-screen Pixar. While aiming at a young demographic, they created a series that is not only completely entertaining, but empirically well made. Between its canny sense of humour, outstanding character work, and grand scale, it’s a fantasy series that not only deserves the title of Tolkien-esque, but demands it. Shyamalan managed to take something that would have been fine as a word for word reenactment with real people and sucked every ounce of life from it. It’s art murder and he is a criminal.

The Last Airbender tells the story of Aang (said like “hang,” which the director seemed to miss), a 12-year-old airbender monk born as the latest incarnation of a super-being that can manipulate, or “bend” all four elements — earth, fire, water, and air. Told far before his maturity level could have allowed him to understand his responsibility and rushed due to a worldwide military struggle, the plot finds its most ready analogs in stories of Superman and Jesus Christ: what did these messianic figures do before they became saviours? While that question is mostly understood with those two examples (according to Superman: Birthright, saved oppressed Africans to impress a girl and none of your God damned business, respectively), the original Nickelodeon series speaks to its audience by admitting the imperfections of his humanity. Aang ran away, and when he came back, he just wanted to have fun, be a kid, fall in love, and grow up. What follows is a painfully American tale, Aang bootstrapping himself to greatness with the help of his friend Sokka (said like the foot garment, which Shyamalan got wrong too) and primary love interest Kitara. While his birth had a factor in his greatness, it is a story of learning, failure, and a willingness to follow the structure of the original Star Wars trilogy almost exactly. It is also some of the best television of the last decade, and certainly a contender for best children’s show ever. I have to make all this painfully clear to explain the colossal failure Shyamalan’s adaptation is.

The film has no heart. The characters have no soul. There is not a single humorous moment in the live-action version of a show that is more than half comedy. The action is muddy and poorly shot. The romantic angle that dominates the story is castrated and non-existent. The script sounds like it was written by Dr. Nick Riviera, or maybe Michael Bay after a stroke. Any talent Shyamalan has as a visual artist (and he does, though that talent is buried time and time again under everything else being terrible) is buried by everything else being terrible. It’s an insulting, witless, and unacceptably bad interpretation of something great. While it could be argued that it’s difficult to condense eight hours of the first season into a feature film, there wasn’t even an obvious attempt. Shyamalan cut this one down to a mercifully short hour and a half, though I doubt it was his idea.

The Last Airbender possibly represents the end of big studio franchise starters, and not a moment too soon. Instead of deigning to the thoughts and experience of the creators and director (M.Night being an unabashed fanboy of the original series), the finished product seems like it took every note given by a suit with no experience with the material as gospel. If the original leads were mostly non-white, pretty much a Tibetan monk and some Inuit (they were), make them white. Villains are white? Make them brown. Heavy overtones of Eastern philosophy and religion? Soccer moms do tai chi, just make them do that. Then, because unrelenting grit is the current tone du jour, don’t include a single moment of levity. Instead of exploring the complexities of adolescence, just hire Industrial Light and Magic to make things look pretty (they don’t). Slap some of that terrible post-production 3-D on there to artificially inflate the opening weekend take. That’ll teach them to be optimistic.

The Last Airbender is the worst film to come out in a summer season full of total crap, and I doubt even Step Up 3-D could be worse. If it has a single success, perhaps it will become a silver bullet killing three awful things: adaptations without creator controls, cynical use of awful 3-D, and the career of M.Night Shyamalan. Like an abused spouse, this is it for me, M.Night. Cut all contact, delete from Facebook, hit the gym.

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Review – The A-Team June 24, 2010

The following originally appeared in The Peak. This movie was a quarter good. I really wanted to like it.


That this movie exists to be reviewed is a depressing fact, but that such a ridiculous premise could not be leveraged into a thoroughly ridiculous and entertaining package is even more so. The A-Team is an oddly appealing film, one that could easily be dismissed as yet another of this summer’s string of cinematic abortions, but defies becoming a total write-off. Unfortunately, being within arm’s reach of fun is just another one of its many crimes.

The A-Team follows the titular group — Hannibal, the idea man (Liam Neeson); Face, the charmer (Bradley Cooper); Murdock, the driver and pilot (Sharlto Copley of recent deserved District 9 fame); and B.A., the muscle (Quinton Jackson) — in what amounts to the exposition of how the group came to be the mercenary organization explored in the original television series. Their betrayal by the United States Army (represented by Jessica Biel, someone people keep confusing for an actress) and Central Intelligence Agency (moreover a rogue agent, played convincingly as always by a strong Patrick Wilson), force them to use their particular and varied skills to bust out of incarceration and clear their names, dismantling a shady conspiracy, and doing some spectacular property damage along the way. The central MacGuffin revolves around some thinly explained plates used to press greenbacks, but they serve only to facilitate a string of even thinner stunt set-pieces.

Perhaps even more perplexing than The A-Team’s existence is the way it entered kicking and screaming into the world. Helmed by the (previously?) promising Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, Narc), the film clips along in a familiar way: its lack of interesting plot developments is masked expertly by sharp editing and an eye for bombast. Neeson remarks that overkill is underrated, a tagline that clearly influenced the production, but after over 10 years of development hell that saw half of Hollywood take a crack at writing a script, that excess reads like too many cooks spoiling the broth.

The A-Team defies almost every expectation it could muster. First, it is not completely terrible; its entertaining moments come from some fairly ridiculous action sequences that take the material just as seriously as possible. While trying to weave in some sobriety, the film forgets itself. It is at its best when spouting one-liners and putting the charm and insanity of Cooper and Copley centre stage. The comedy and action are almost enough to plough through painful attempts at drama and a patently horrible final climax, but it falls just short of being dismissible summer fun. Further, Carnahan is totally wasted on the film. After having made a name for himself on the spectacular Narc and the confused but wildly compelling Smokin’ Aces, he dumps his trademark analog brutality in for some half-baked CG. On its own, this wouldn’t sink him, but it is compounded by the fact that he fails to be himself. The A-Team is an almost perfect xerox of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films, but with enough Carnahan flair thrown in to defy the plagiarism charges. Right down to the excessive extended flashbacks to fill in twists, Carnahan phones in the direction and tries a bit too hard to be the arguably more appropriate director.

Neeson, Copley, and Cooper are all charming and suit their roles perfectly, but are failed by a production mired in its own excesses and greed. Part of that greed was to truncate a search for an actual actor to fill in Mr. T’s role as B.A. Baracus and instead try and tap into the UFC market with the casting of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He is a dead physical ringer for the character, but his screen presence peaks at grating.

Like so much this summer, The A-Team reeks of a bunch of well-meaning people working on a project their studios could care less about. They see an established franchise and decide that any amount of meddling is unlikely to affect the box office take. If there is any bright side in the release of The A-Team, it is that this is likely a major nail in the coffin of these quick cash-in adaptations. Perhaps we are only a few more of these types of summer movie seasons away from some original creations, or, at the very least, adaptations made with a little more care. We can dream, can’t we?

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Review – Splice June 17, 2010

This originally appeared in The Peak. The movie is great, I wholly recommend it.


It’s great when good movies are failed by the marketing departments of their studio partners, as it always makes success all the more satisfying. Splice is thus afflicted in spades; its trailers and promotions billing are a lame science-run-amok horror cash-in with a low IQ, and the entire merit requisite that genre. While the former is mostly correct, the latter characteristics are absent, resulting in one of the most interesting and entertaining science fiction films since Aliens.

Splice follows the exploits of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), a scientific Brangelina and the current darlings of their field. Their work, involving the recombination of various animal genetics, has resulted in a viable new species that produces a commercially valuable protein of some sort. On the edge of even greater achievements and medical breakthroughs, their research is threatened with being turned into an expensive farming operation, their ambitions to work with human DNA being shut down before they start. In an act of rebellion, Elsa and Clive disobey the law and their company, bringing a life form with part human and part animal DNA to term. Their interactions with what they create, the sentient and semi-lethal Dren (Delphine Chanéac, heavily modified with makeup and CG) and their struggle with creating something they cannot control, form the basis for the film’s second and third acts.

Like the trailers, this summary is a poor reflection of what this film is. On paper, it reads like any other sci-fi/horror film, which is to sell it short entirely. In actuality, it is a deep, layered film exploring paternal and maternal interplay with the couple’s new “offspring.” While it occasionally falls short of delivering compelling dialogue between the characters, its subtexts and intricacies are enough to put you on the edge of your seat. Every moment comprises some instance where a lesser studio thriller would shy away, hiding behind banality to inflate box office take or reach the coveted PG-13 threshold. Splice revels in these moments of shock, but never comes off as exploitative. Each is surrounded by a disturbing rationality, its character failings and instances of sheer horror coming only on the coattail of a well-constructed logic. It is this understanding that director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Paris Je t’aime) instils on his audience that makes Splice so terrifying. There is no moment of emotional or physical brutality that is senseless, and the audience can nearly sympathize (or at the very least see the reasons behind each, be they animal or cerebral). This makes for a psychologically chilling experience and one that will walk out of the theatre with you.

Polley and Brody picked a winner with this film, one that balances with ease its interest in Dren as the “monster” and the monstrosity of its creators. Both characters attack their roles and any frailties in the script dissolve in their performances. Polley expertly projects her character’s own mommy issues onto Dren: her motherly instincts taking on a frighteningly casual tyranny, the relationship between mother and teenage “daughter” finding a new, awful context. Just as deft is Brody’s struggle with a rapidly-aging Dren. An animal, an experimental subject, and ward of his protection, Splice shows its true fearlessness confronting him with Dren’s most problematic characteristic — the body and desires of an adolescent human female. Delphine Chanéac does exactly what is needed in her role, balancing a total animalistic streak with enough humanity showing through as to raise the question: Where does the animal stop and the human begin?

Its direction (and, particularly, art direction) are top notch, with the film’s drama never seeming tired and its action cohesive and smooth (take notes, Paul Greengrass). So tight is the experience, that to divulge much more than a brief synopsis is to start a domino effect of spoilers that would utterly undo its multiple satisfying twists and turns. Splice is science fiction without pandering, horror without restraint, thrilling without relying on pop-out scares, and infinitely exciting. It’s solid almost without exception and is one of the first truly great films of the summer. You’ll be shocked, disgusted, horrified, and happy with every cent spent on your ticket.

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A Delightfully Tipsy Response to Generation Why? November 6, 2009

Please excuse the slapdash nature of this response. I am privileged to know the filmmaker in question, the lovely Brendan Prost, so it seemed a little impersonal just to do a review, and besides, who the fuck am I to judge, right? Objectivity is out of the question, so this piece will be formatted as a hybrid collection of thoughts and response directly to an auteur as talented as he is short (which is to say, very).

I.The Skinny

Generation Why? (from here on referred to as GW) is ostensibly a movie about rebellion. Not the wet slap rebellion of adolescence, absent the multicolored hairstyles and Juggalo face paint. It is more a rebellion at an age where rebellion is seen as not just juvenile, but pathetic. Patience is relatively boundless while a person is in high school with a society at large conditioned to expect a certain degree of ridiculousness out of a person aged 13-19. GW attempts to understand an the disconcertingly immediate change in expectations following the graduation from that age bracket, and is fairly effective in doing so. However, I am of the opinion that that is not where the greatest philosophical strength of the film lies. I’ll get back to that.

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Zack and Miri Drop The Ball November 17, 2008

What on earth happened here?

As if only to demonstrate the adage “much ado about nothing”, it seems the pomp and circumstance surrounding Zack and Miri Make A Porno has turned out to be the most compelling feature of the work. Simultaneously prodding ridiculously squeamish aspects of American culture and pointing out gross inequities within the MPAA (like its anything new), Kevin Smith has successfully created the greatest pre-release circus since Troy Duffy committed ritual career suicide over The Boondock Saints. The fantastic documentary Overnight clearly documents this reality, and sadly I feel it is my job in this review to attest to the same in regards to this latest effort from my favorite purveyor of fine vulgarity.

Kevin Smith and I have a history that extends beyond a striking physical similarity. My entrance to the View-Askewniverse came in the form of 1999’s Dogma, and it for a long time held a special place in my heart as a convenient alternative to independent thought in a time of personal religious upheaval. Perhaps predictably, his films gained a certain prestige in my mind through high school, and their charm persists with me to this day.

Which makes Zack and Miri so hard to understand.

Zack and Miri Make A Porno is not a bad film by any means, and is by no means worse than, say, Mallrats or Jersey Girl. But it does represent what I perceive to be a crisis of voice for Smith. Half of the movie feels like fan service (which is expected and, as ardent fans will attest, appreciated) and the other half feels like it was written for the lowest common denominator. Not exactly poor, but written in a way I would expect the Farelly Brothers to write. The relationship between the title characters just never flies the way you would expect between the solid pairing of Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks. No scary layers or complexities here, which is odd considering Smith’s pedigree of having a subtle hand for relationships despite the trademark fifth. The keystone relationship comes off more 27 Dresses than Chasing Amy.

Aside from the marquee attraction, the movie hums with characteristic – if not a touch under par – Smith wit, with Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson taking on roles other than their seminal Jay and Randal. The Office’s Craig Robinson is just OK in what many billed as a show stealing role as porno producer Delaney, and other cameos include Brandon Routh, Justin Long and a somewhat inexplicable cameo by Kenny Hotz, of Kenny vs. Spenny fame. They’re all capable, but like the film, they come into your house, have a cup of tea and a nice chat, then leave. All together its a somewhat unmemorable experience, even with the 16 frame “shit shot” that gave the MPAA the vapors.

For his next comedy, Kevin Smith needs to channel some of the charm and wit he exhibits in his live Evening with series. With his next film, the apparently “bleak as hell” Red State, it might be awhile until his next comedy, but after Zack and Miri, it might be a time to recharge.

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