Thursday, March 06, 2014

It's Cold Outside, so I Watched These Movies 

Marcello Mastroianni wooing his new bride via Alt Film Guide

It’s been a strange couple of months. Too many things happening to keep up a media diary, certainly. In two months, I went to see three films. I’m sure I would’ve see more if the city hadn’t been in a freezer-mode lockdown. Over 30 extreme cold weather alerts (and now over 86 days with snow on the ground - a new record for Toronto - which seems odd but there you go). Several times I thought about seeing a movie, only to give up when I thought of riding there and back in sub 20 C temperatures (plus the windchill on a bike is excruciating). What did I do in February? Clearly I didn’t watch a lot of movies or TV. But I seem to recall being glued to the television. Ah that’s right, the Sochi Olympics. I was glued to the set right up until we won both men’s and women’s hockey golds. In fact, I watched both of those games more than once. Despite all of that here’s what I did see. Here’s a strange thing, the first film I saw was an Italian film and the last film I saw was an Italian film. Così sia.


Divorce Italian Style
In 1960s Italy divorce was illegal, so it was easier to kill your spouse in a fit of rage while “defending your honour” instead. Which is exactly what Ferdinando played by Marcello Mastroianni plans to do in order to escape his loveless marriage and marry his cousin. By the way, Ferdinando is 41 and his lovely cousin is 16 when he concocts this scheme. It’s all camp and good fun in a way that could never be reproduced in a contemporary setting. The juxtaposition of the devout Catholic finding it morally easier to murder than to divorce is part of the set up. I guess the fact that Ferdinando muses that two years in jail would be perfect because by then his cousin would be 18 is also high on the satirical “ick” factor. In the end it almost works out. All the world is a pick-up joint, and all the men and women in it are merely cuckolds.

Inside Llewyn Davis
The latest from the Coen brothers is a drama with absurd and comedic moments but it is a drama more in the vein of their film A Serious Man. Llewyn is a talented folk singer who is down and out for the count in 1960s New York City. At the precipice of deciding whether to continue playing or simply “exist” in the world of work, Llewyn sets on a short journey of discovery in an attempt to eek out one more chance at a music career. Much has been said of the Coens mining both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses both in the past and here, but I think that is simply the hook. The circular storytelling is almost as moving as a wordless exchange between Llewyn and his father that pretty much gutted me.

Attack the Block
We went almost 400 years taking Guy Fawkes for granted but now it seems his eponymous night of bonfires is a favourite backdrop for British filmmakers. In this instance some rowdy Brixton residents and ruffians are out for a night of fireworks when they must protect their project housing complex from an attack from beyond Surrey or Essex. Way beyond. I’m sure the alien invasion is some kind of metaphor for change or something but it’s still fun watching street wise punks give vicious alien beasts the what for and so on.

American Hustle
What’s not to like? Christian Bale with a stunning comb-over. Amy Adams wearing only dresses cut down to “there”. Bradley Cooper smashing Louis CK with a dial phone. Jennifer Lawrence being Jennifer Lawrence. The plot of a small time FBI agent (Cooper) unsuccessfully manipulating two small time con artists (Bale and Adams) into catching a much bigger fish (mayor of Jersey played by Jeremy Renner) is certainly entertaining enough in its own right. Yet the characters and all that they stand for is where the meat is in this buffet, and director David O. Russell knows it. It’s really a classic American story of the little guy striving for more, the whole enchilada, the big payoff. The contemporary sensibility is that everyone wants to cut corners to get there in the quickest way possible. That poor work ethic speaks to the entitlement of so many people today. From the American Idol kids to the game show contestants to the people who are paid to do almost nothing while using someone else’s work to do it - namely “stylists” - that most vapid and unproductive and indicative of Western professions. Today everyone is creative, but no one creates anything. Well, that was my take from the whole thing.

Step Brothers
Are you a Will Ferrell fan? No? Then skip this reductive gross-out comedy. Oh, you are a fan? In that case, this is a perfect John C. Reilly meets Will Ferrell Freak Out Party and you should remove any pants that you don’t want to pee in, because that’s how hard you’re going to be laughing. See what I did there? No? Then you obviously are not a Will Ferrell fan.

Breaking Bad Final Season
This pretty much consumed most of January. I could have “binge watched” but I prefer my morphine on a slow drip. When people said this might be the best television show ever they may have really meant most addictive show ever (The Sopranos might still be top on my list). The journey of Walter White from high school teacher to Scarface is complete and ends appropriately with him finding some redemption from it all. Too bad it took so many bodies to get there. Then again, great television is littered with bodies.

Computer Chess
Odd and dull but I don’t think many films could authentically recreate an era as well as this film does. Like the film The Artist, filmed in an archaic aspect ratio without using sound to emulate the silent era of film, Computer Chess is filmed on low quality video equipment of the 80s. No one here even appears to be acting in this low budget puzzler about an 80s computer competition whereby teams do chess battle using early computers and low-level programming languages. The winner of the round-robin duels a human chess master. Curiously one programmer thinks he may have stumbled upon a machine struggling to achieve self-awareness — which would put it light years ahead of the people actually programming it.


Jep in his splendor via Swide

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
This is my favourite radio play, one of my favourite (inaccurately named) trilogies, television shows and one of my favourite movies. It’s a shame it wasn’t popular enough to warrant another one (or two). Sure they left out some bits and I didn’t care for casting Mos Def as Ford Prefect or Zoe Deschanel as the physicist/love interest, but like a great road movie this film has a lot more to like. And after multiple viewings Mos Def and Deschanel sort grow on you. Plus, it’s always worth the wait to see Bill Nighy as the award-winning designer of fjords.

The Act of Killing
It didn’t win the Oscar, but this could’ve been one of the best films of the year for me. Incredibly candid and surreal conversations and re-enactments of their crimes by Indonesian death squad captains is darkly comic because their disconnect is so utterly absurd. Not until they scare the crap out of some kids during filming does the primary subject of the film begin to realize to himself the weight of his past. Not until one of the final scenes of him visiting a place of some of his worse crimes where his stomach churns to dry heaves do you know his remorse is deep. Also, remind me not to travel to Indonesia as long as gangs of thugs in orange camouflage influence government ministers and terrorize neighbourhoods.

Prince Avalanche
Not sure what I saw in this movie. Apparently it was based on an Icelandic movie and filmed in sixteen days. It looks like it was based on an Icelandic movie and made in sixteen days. Large portions look like we’re watching the two leads, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, “workshop” an idea of two guys working on a road crew in an isolated part of the country as they come to terms with their stalled lives. I’m sorry if I made this sound watchable, it wasn’t, so don’t.

Sherlock Series 3
This contemporary take on the Sherlock Holmes story is fascinating and fun. The idea of the genius Holmes being essentially a social moron softened and improved via his friendship with Dr. Watson is proven to be the elixir of this series but it’s really made possible by the great talents and chemistry of the two lead actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. There are times (many many times) when Holmes’ deductions are ridiculous and some onscreen graphics showing his thought process look like rushed production (much subtler in the first season) but it’s all a rousing good time. The notion of the mechanism of Holmes immense knowledge being his virtual “Mind Palace” is another trope that gets so overplayed it almost becomes a running gag. I too have a Mind Palace but it’s really just a bike shed with a spare jerry can of kerosene.

The Great Beauty
Also known as La Grande Bellezza, this film just won the Oscar for best foreign film. Was it better than the other nominees? I have no idea but I will say it is beautiful and mesmerizing and dream-like. Yeah, so a bit dull in bits and there’s a whole middle portion that makes no sense and could’ve been cut out but still it’s the cheapest tour of the best parts of Rome you’ll ever have. The film is a nod to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita almost as if Marcello Mastroianni’s paparazzo character from the 1960 film had aged but never changed. Our guide through Rome’s hedonistic ennui (TIFF’s description) of endless parties and social events is an aging and jaded journalist, Jep Gambardella who wrote an influential novel in his youth and not another since. All this time he’s been looking for the greatest love of his life who may have been his first true love. In her place, he has Roma. Or something like that.

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