Winter 1999

Jan 17  The Red Violin
Jan 24  Slam
Jan 31  Happiness
Feb 7  Lawn Dogs
Feb 14  Dirty
Feb 21  Gods and Monsters
Feb 28  Kurt & Courtney
Mar 7  Love is the Devil
Mar 14  August 32nd on Earth
Mar 21  Last Night
Mar 28  The Celebration
Apr 4  The Governess
Apr 11  American History X

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[IMDb] Follow the links to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for more information about the films.

January 17   The Red Violin (Canada) 143 mins.
[IMDb] English, Italian, French, German, Mandarin (subtitled).
Directed by François Girard.
Scripted by Don McKellar and François Girard.
With Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar, Carlo Cecchi, Irene Grazioli, Jean-Luc Bideau.
Check out the cast, the credits, and the multi-lingual multi-national settings, and you'll see why this Canadian co-production is sweeping the Must-See lists of the year. If you liked Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould you'll love Red Violin, also by Girard, also about music, also visually compelling. The film traces a violin through time and space, linking 17th-century Italy and modern-day Montreal, and spanning a wide range of countries and people in between. Divided into five sections, Red Violin makes sure that in spite of its stellar cast the musical instrument gets the feature role. Never neutral, however, the object brings tragedy and suffering to those who wish to possess it. You can see the potential here for an epic story about the influences of fate, culture, and history on social and individual experience. High production values and a hefty budget (over $10 million, a joke by Hollywood standards), serve this ambitious project well. Come hear the music.

January 24   Slam (USA) 100 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for pervasive language, a sex scene, brief violence.
Directed by Marc Levin.
With Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn, Bonz Malone et al.
This film has a strong following. Slam was a smash last year on the festival circuit--it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Audience Award at Cannes--and appeals to audiences curious about street poetry, and that strange postmodern intersection of urban violence and lyrical expression. It's a far cry from English 1080, although it's still much safer watching Slam in a suburban theatre than it is being a junky trying to recreate the spirit of beat poetry. `Slamming' is not something Michael Jordan does; it's what happens when poetry and rap confront each other (see Gap ads on the Internet). The lead-slamming role is occupied by Saul Williams who plays Ray Joshua, a talented young guy born on the wrong and wild side of Washington D.C. An upbeat commercial for getting educated, Slam takes Ray from nowhere to somewhere when his writing teacher notices his extraordinary talent. An emerging genre of street realism (Kids, Gummo) captures a documentary quality so lacking in the SFX tricks of today's Big Picture. A large cast circulates around Williams' performance (he wrote the pieces he performs and is a well-known poet in the US), many of them first-time actors with the authenticity of amateurs. If you like your Sunday afternoons gritty and a little but dangerous, this is the movie for you.

January 31   Happiness (USA) 134 mins.
[IMDb] Definitely rated R.
Directed by Todd Solendz.
With Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Laura Flynn Boyle, et al.
And you thought Slam was out there? Some critics have said that Happiness is the best picture of '98. Certainly it's the most audacious. The title is ingenious in its ironic simplicity because there is little here that is simple or happy. Three sisters anchor the story. Each has her hopes and problems. Joy still lives in her parents' New Jersey house, looking for love. Trish is happily married and Helen is a glamorous writer. Each pities Joy but they've got their own secrets. Helen flirts with danger for all the wrong reasons; Joy is married to Bill. If you haven't already heard, Bill is an apparently normal suburban dad who is also a flaming pedophile, preying on his son's classmates. As in his first acclaimed movie (Welcome to the Dollhouse) Solendz detonates myths of both normalcy and family values, but he also withholds judgement, preferring to let his characters and their horribly flawed souls speak for themselves. This is a devastating film in many ways, but not to be avoided because of it. Happiness is so subversive you'll be a mazed it broke through to the screen at all. But it's also funny in a dark and risky American way. Indeed, geek auteur Solendz is too smart to let us endure Happiness without it.

February 7   Lawn Dogs (UK) 101 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by John Duigan.
With Sam Rockwell, Christopher McDonald, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce McGill, Mischa Barton.
Fortuitously, Lawn Dogs follows Happiness, and not the other way around, because here we have a story about a man and a little girl that plays heavily with our more sordid cultural assumptions. Rockwell plays Trent, a down-and-out trailer guy who mows the lawns of the middle-class but lives alone, sequestered in the woods from the bland sameness of modern hypocrisy. Into his world stumbles a curious child named Devon who strays a little too far from her round of Girl Guide pursuits. Director Duigan (Flirting, Sirens) is interested in teasing out the possibilities inherent in such a meeting, but he ends up surprising us with a script that is more mystery than menace, more fable than realism. A quirky satiric film that might remind you of a younger Egoyan, Lawn Dogs never takes a predictable turn, daring to take us out of the mainstream box and into a hybrid genre of folktale and surrealism. If you grant the film its stylized look and feel, and understand its quirky blend of southern Gothic and magic realism, then you'll understand the apocalyptic ending as a radical necessity. Teased enough?

February 14   Dirty (Canada) 94 mins.
[IMDb] Rated R for you name it.
Directed by Bruce Sweeny.
With Tom Scholte, Babs Chula, Benjamin Ratner, Nancy Sivak.

Okay, so we're showing lots of stuff from the dark side this time around, but if you want easy viewing there's always You've Got Mail. Vancouver Director Bruce Sweeney's first effort Live Bait captured the $25,000 Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto Festival in 1995. Dirty is his second big film, a hit in Europe, controversially reviewed here. Openly in debt to the films of Mike Leigh, Dirty aims for the kind of improvisational spirit of Secrets and Lies, where the actors were encouraged to rely on their personal histories to weave their filmic tales. In Dirty, six Vancouverites cope with pre-millenium angst: sexual masochism, neurosis, anomie, and the usual collection of urban psychoses. At the centre of the ensemble is Angie (Babz Chula) a middle-age drug dealer who satisfies David's sexual fantasies, an MBA student who likes to be spanked: too many stats courses, we figure. David rooms with a lonely guy named Tony. Nancy whose financial life spins out of control lives in the basement of Angie's place, and is as lonely as everyone else. These characters and others all participate in one way or another with deviant sexuality, a theme as common to Canadian film as bacon. A nation of accountants needs outlets.

February 21   Gods and Monsters (USA) 105 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by Bill Condon.
With Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich.
Please see this film! It's fabulous. Everyone is talking about Oscars for the lead actors, and why not? Flamboyantly out English actor McKellen gives a profoundly touching performance as James Whale, the only then Hollywood out-director of Show Boat, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein whose latter stroke-ridden days in 1957 are richly imagined here. Haunted by flashbacks of his early life, Whale revisits, among other experiences and locations, the trenches during the Great War. Eager for company and feeling isolated, he vividly recounts many of these formative experiences to his hunky gardener, Clay Boone (`George of the Jungle' Fraser). Separated by class and age, an authentic friendship develops between them, nonetheless. Boone is persuaded to pose for McKellen in rather festishizing ways, and this device becomes the tableaux against which the reminiscences can unravel. A highlight: Lynn Redgrave is fabulous in the role of the harassing housekeeper on whom Whale depends for so much. And watch for the hilarious garden party scene, one among many pricelessly staged moments. George Cukor is spinning in his closet.

February 28   Kurt & Courtney (UK) 95 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by Nick Broomfield.
With Nick Broomfield, Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, El Duce, Tom Harrison, Tom Grant.
Well, you need not know a thing about Nirvana (the group, not the state of mind) or Love (the singer/reincarnated fashion maven, not the life experience) to find this record of the pop culture underworld fascinating. Broomfield's creepy indictment of Courtney launched a few lawsuits and kept the film from the honour role at the Sundance Film Festival, demonstrating at once the omniscient power of rock and roll and the heavy machinery of the music/fashion industry. Initially interested in documenting something about Kurt Cobain's alleged suicide, Broomfield was persuaded by Courtney's own dad to look further into his daughter's role in the junk-saturated death. Well, with a father like that it's no wonder Courtney has seemed a bit confused. Daddy Dearest, or wha? You may not agree with the film's strongly framed implications, but you sure won't mind going along for a ride with Broomfield's candid camera. It's not everyday we get behind the curtain of some good-for-nothing nihilism. It's only rock and roll but we like it.

March 7   Love is the Devil (UK) 90 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by John Maybury.
With Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton, Adrian Scarborough, et al.
This biopic of flamboyant British painter Francis Bacon focuses on his relationship with his lover, George Dyer, a former small-time crook. The acting genius of Derek Jacobi guarantees this film's appeal in the first place. But in the second, Bacon's troubled personal story is enough for a dozen movies. Set in the late sixties/early seventies, Love is the Devil delves into the tumultuously claustrophobic world of an artist, one commonly acknowledged as the greatest British painter of the century. Indeed, the film opens at the Grand Palais in Paris where Bacon is being hailed as such. His powerful paintings of isolated human figures--most modeled by Dyer--have always shocked, probably because of the intensity of their emotional fields. But less shocking is the trajectory of Bacon's love life. As his fortunes and reputation rise, Dyer's sense of purpose and ease in the sophisticated bohemian art culture diminishes, with unhappy consequences. Yes, as in most British films, it's always about class, isn't it? Note the ethereal Tilda Swinton in the role of Muriel Belcher, and Annabel Brooks as a young model and dilettante. A movie about images and art, Love is a Devil gives us what we expect, a stunning show of visual intensity, inspired, as they say, by a true story.

March 14   August 32nd on Earth (Canada 1998) 88 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
With Pascale Bussières, Alexis Martin, Serge Theriault, Richard S. Hamilton, Paule Baillargeon.
``Quebecois writer/director Denis Villeneuve's debut feature is a wonderful and completely preposterous story, which we are gently led into by the use of imaginary dates,'' says one critic. Starting with the title, we have to assume that anything is possible. The always gamin-sexy Pascale Bussières (When Night is Falling) plays Simone, a hi-performance model who experiences a road accident from which she miraculously escapes unharmed. Near death experiences will change anyone, so Simone ponders her future and decides she wants to bear a child. But with whom? The prospective father turns out to be her best friend Philippe (Alexis Martin) who isn't quite sure how to react. What follows is a balance of light and dark, silence and sound, the macabre and the humorous. The movie shifts from Montreal to Salt Lake City, the desert backdrop against which Simon and Philippe dare to test their love. Imagine what happens when two francophones go wandering off in an American road movie. ``How do you say `burnedup corpse' in English?'' Even the Toronto critics are raving about the intoxicating audacity of August 32nd on Earth. Watch especially for the hilarious scene when the two leads attempt to mimic weightlessness. Lots to keep you buoyant here.

March 21   Last Night (Canada) 90 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by Don McKellar.
With David Cronenberg, Tracy Wright, Geneviéve Bujold, Roberta Maxwell, Robin Gammel (II), Trent McMullen, Karen Glave, Jackie Burroughs, Arsinée Khanjian, Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie.
Yes, for a moment last fall, Last Night came to town, but if like most of us you missed it completely, you'll now have a second chance to see the end of the world in a theatre near you. Smarty-pants writer-director McKellar is obviously one of the nation's favoured sons, turning out and acting in features and tv (Twitch City), and taking home all the prizes. Last Night is his Canadian answer to Armageddon, a modest look at a Big Event. McKellar plays an architect who plans to meet the end alone at dinner. Others (Oh, Cronenberg) make a suicide pact, but are caught apart and struggle to get together before the end. Another man (Rennie) pursues final sexual conquests and a wimpy woman (Wright) strives to gain courage. Drawn together by their ordinariness, these Toronto characters are forced to assert personal values when the end is nigh and the stores on Bloor are Closed For Good. Deliberately unheroic, the plot traces the teeny practical questions one must make in the face of crisis, not necessarily the ones conjured by Hollywood, like `just where did I put my death-ray gun,' or `has anyone seen Bruce Willis'?

March 28   The Celebration [aka Festen] (Denmark 1998) 105 mins.
[IMDb] Rated R for strong sexual content and language, including references to sexual abuse.
Directed by Mogens Rukov and Thomas Vinterberg.
With Ulrich Thomsen, Henning Moritzen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Paprika Steen, Birthe Neumann, Trine Dyrholm, Helle Dolleris, et al.
Rogert Ebert writes: ``Imagine Eugene O'Neill and Woody Allen collaborating on a screenplay about a family reunion. Now let Luis Bunuel direct it.'' Vinterberg shot the film on video, then blew it up to 35-mm. film. He joined with Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and two other Danish directors in signing a document named Dogma 95, which was unveiled at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and pledged them all to shoot on location, using only natural sounds and props discovered on the site, using no special effects or music and using only hand-held cameras. The Celebration and von Trier's controversial Idiots are the first two--and may be the last two--films shot in this style which does work for this film. The movie, which ranges between comic farce and melodrama, is set in a big old house, the premise being a celebration of the father's 60th birthday. He had four children, but one died at the house not too long ago. As the film unravels, so do the remaining family members, alternately accusing the patriarch and each other of all manner of crimes and misdemeanors. Is seems that the Danes are as interested in family hypocrisy as the Americans; it's just that they show it with sarcasm and subtitles.

April 4   The Governess (UK) 109 mins.
[IMDb] Directed by Sandra Goldbacher.
With Minnie Driver, Tom Wilkinson, Florence Hoath, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Harriet Walter, Arlene Cockburn, Emma Bird, Adam Levy, Bruce Meyers, others.
This movie also played briefly here, once upon a time, but many have expressed an interest in again seeing the stunning Minnie Driver wear big hats and lust deliciously for feature-length time, and who are we to deny anyone such pleasures? It's 1840 and Rosina (Driver) is a Jewess living in London. Times are tough, especially when her father dies, so she fakes it as a gentile, arriving on a remote Scottish island to work as a governess. Her unhappily married boss is obsessed with the new attractions of photography, and before you can say `cheese' Rosina and Charlie are thinking about developments in the darkroom. The upright Charlie (you'll remember him from The Full Monty) has Protestant guilt in spades, and the darkly sephardic Rosina has her plate full of kosher secrets, so a complex web of ironies informs their heated attraction. Photography works as a framing device here, lending intellectual weight to a film that pulsates with desire. Late Victorian repression hasn't looked this sexy since Mr. Brown led all the Queen's horses.

April 11   American History X (USA)
[IMDb] Directed by Tony Kaye.
With Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Beverly D'Angelo, Avery Brooks, Stacy Keach, Jennifer Lien, Elliott Gould.
Don't say we didn't warn you. American History X is disturbing in its violence, and preachy in its message, but that doesn't mean it's not absolutely fascinating as an urgent explanation of why many white middle-class kids are seeing fascism as glamorous. Edward Norton stars as Derek Vinyard, an allegedly intelligent Venice, California, youth whose father, a fireman, is murdered by gangbangers. He is thus vulnerable to the influences of the demented and demonic rantings of a white supremacist no-goodnick, played almost too well by Stacy Keach. Lured into the racist world of crime and bad behaviour, Derek ends up going to jail for murdering two blacks. While there, his younger idolizing brother starts to follow in his combat boots. But prison changes Derek and by the time he is released he has rehabilitated all his terrible ways, much to the delight of his liberal mom and sister and the confusion of younger brother. If this all sounds incredibly dumb, rest assured that American History X is unforgettably visual, and that Norton's facial performance as a pre-enlightened skinhead is the scariest thing on screen since Jason wore a hockey mask.