Winter 2009

Jan 15  Synecdoche, New York
Jan 22  Growing Op
Jan 29  Frozen River
Feb 5  Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)
Feb 12  I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále)
Feb 19  I've Loved You so Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)
Feb 26  Happy Go Lucky
Mar 5  The Class (Entre les murs)
Mar 12  Wendy and Lucy
Mar 19  Ballast
Mar 26  The World's Best Commercials: Cannes Lions Film Winners 2008
Apr 2  Pontypool
Apr 9  The Necessities of Life (Ce qu'il faut pour vivre)

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

January 15   Synecdoche, New York (USA 2008) 124 min.
Today, any movie conceived and directed by self-proclaimed neurotic Charlie Kaufman is a hype magnet. And any movie starring the staggering genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman (have you seen DOUBT?) is well worth the price of popcorn. Here, he is the oddly named Caden Cotard, a theatre director who ages from 40-80 in the course of the film: that's supposedly the stretch of a mature adult life, the period where our identity finally settles in for the long haul. Typical of Kaufman's scenarios (BEING JOHN MALKOVITCH, ADAPTATION, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, the only reality we—or his characters—have is the one we play in our heads, the conversations we have with ourselves, the illusions, delusions, dreams, and denials. If you have trouble understanding what's going on in SYNECDOCHE, then you need to remember that. Look inside. Some critics claim you need to see it twice, at least. Now that's a challenge worth testing. Start now.

January 22   Growing Op (Canada 2008) 95 min.
Have you noticed how much the popular imagination is taken up with cannabis these days? It's been pretty much normalized, partly because the generation that popularized and inhaled it has grown up and is now making movies and programming television. Guess it's true what they always said: smoking marijuana does lead to bigger things. GROWING OP is a charming, witty feature about a child of that boomer generation, an 18-year-old who longs for a life of straight parents and public schooling. Yeah, that's what rebellion looks like in these twisted times. Steven Yaffee stars in the role of Quinn (not the Eskimo but inspired by one), a young man in search of weedlessness. Director Michael Melski cleverly sends up a slew of genres—the high school movie; the rebel movie; the dope comedy—turning them inside out for satiric pleasure. Don't Bogart your time—check this out.

January 29   Frozen River (USA 2008) 97 min.
This is a brave, important film with astonishing performances. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2008, a measure of its independent status and moral and aesthetic strength, not to mention its low-budget realism. It is the story of two women, one native, one not, whose lives interlock out of necessity and instinct. Both inhabit worlds where men have proven to be unreliable, at best. Ray has kids and a deadbeat husband; Lila is a Mohawk with attitude and rage. Together they enter into a risky scheme to smuggle immigrants from Canada into the US, across the frozen river of the title, a forbidding landscape that frames the struggles of entire groups of people. The real achievement here is that in focusing on just two women this film manages to tell us so much about complex social realities and globalization. A marvelous example of the potential of cinema!

February 5   Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne) (France 2006) 125 min.
[IMDb] French with English subtitles. [IMAGE]
Well, you know from the title in English or in French (Ne le dis à personne) that we are in thriller territory here. And French cinema thrills like no other national cinema. As you might expect, the thrill is centred on a romantic liaison, this time a young, adorable sweetheart of a couple for whom things suddenly go terribly wrong. One of them is murdered and the other becomes a suspect, generating a pretty wild set of chases and plot complications, clues and surprises, the way any good thriller ought to be. TELL NO ONE won four Cesars, the French Oscars, and was nominated for five more, and made a huge hit across Europe, but yet was only recently distributed in North America. Word on the street is that the complicated plot was too demanding for audiences on this side of the pond. Donnez moi un break! If Hitchcock had been French this is the kind of movie he'd have made—sizzling with intrigue, gorgeous characters, mystery and meaning. Ooo la la all around.

February 12   I Served the King of England (Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále) (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006) 120 min.
[IMDb] Czech and German with English subtitles. [IMAGE]
If you are old enough and had time you will remember the director's 'sixties art-house hit, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS. Czech by subject and design, this oddly titled feature has really nothing to do with kings but lots to do with servitude, especially of Communists and Nazis, twinned objects of loathing. Jan Dite is the name of the hapless hero who wanders through the mid twentieth century like Buster Keaton in a black Euro comedy. An old man, Dite (means child) reflects on his hard luck adventures. First imprisoned by the Communists, he is released to find his fortune as a waiter in a town that is soon enough overrun by occupying Germans. All he wants is to get ahead as a hotelier, but those darn Nazis, a string of demanding women, and plain old ignorance sure have a way of conspiring against him. Rare is it to see a movie that so perfectly balances comedy and horror, a feat few directors could ever hope to achieve. I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND is a masterpiece of subtlety and modern politics.

February 19   I've Loved You so Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime) (France/Germany 2008) 115 min.
Everyone is talking about Kristin Scott Thomas's performance here as the hauntingly troubled Juliette. Recently released from a long stint in prison, she is a drab, soulless counterpoint to her defiantly flamboyant sister, Lea. The two sisters have not really ever spent adult time together, and so that's what the movie sets out to do—take its time with Juliette's awkward emergence into social relations, with family, the townspeople, men, and with children. The movie also takes its time revealing what horrible crime that Juliette has been serving time for. Filmmaker Claudel brings a literary (French!) approach to his characters, demanding an intelligent, patient reflection that we are not used to giving to American films. But what a pleasure to be in the hands of such a knowing director, and such brilliant actors. Ultimately, this is a film about the sheer necessity of moving on with life, no matter how heavy the past. And if Thomas doesn't get nominated for Best Actress we'll smoke some of those Gitanes they're all getting on with here.

February 26   Happy Go Lucky (UK 2008) 118 min.
We adore Mike Leigh and all the movies he makes, typically incisive critiques of our late modern world in which the rich get richer and you know the rest of it. But here he takes on an extraordinary challenge: the story of a woman who is happy. When was the last time, even in childhood, you heard anyone fictional described that way? You try it! Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is the subject of this fascinating experiment. She teaches school, lives in the same world that you and I do, but is inexplicably, perpetually cheery; in spite of road rage, theft, pollution, and the homeless, Poppy keeps on smiling (and we assume so does the actor who plays her after winning the Berlin Festival award for Best Actress). Lest you think this is a film told about an idiot signifying nothing remember who the director is and then ponder the possibilities of exploring where happiness comes from, what effect it might have on the world, and whether or not it is a force for good, confusion, or something even more complex than that.

March 5   The Class (Entre les murs) (France 2008) 128 min.
[IMDb] French with English subtitles. [IMAGE]
Winner of the 2008 Cannes Palme d'Or, heralded as one of the best films of 2008 by almost every self-respecting critic, THE CLASS tracks the working life of a teacher, François, in a multicultural Paris high school. Although the film is relying on fictional devices, it is deeply rooted in the actual, lived experience of the actor François Bégaudeau who has written extensively of his own teaching practices. Not surprisingly, the real interest of the film is not whether the students—all recruited from real Parisian high schools—can learn to conjugate their verbs correctly but how they interact with their often exasperated instructor. This is no "To Sir With Love" and François is seen to be not so much winging it as reacting in the moment to the very serious challenges of teaching such a diverse class of characters, many of whom are determined to make his life as miserable as possible. His instincts are strong, however, and he approaches the dynamic in the classroom like an open book—making himself available, exposed, and always human, although there is sometimes a big price to pay for such openness. Director Cantet uses three cameras and shoots in HD to lend a particularly documentary treatment of this pseudo-fictional tale. When the actors are all real and the situation can't be anything but, you have something even closer to the truth than you expected. Cantet deserves La Pomme d'Or, too.

March 12   Wendy and Lucy (USA 2008) 80 min.
Yet another Cannes and NY Festival success, WENDY AND LUCY is about a woman and her dog, respectively. You likely won't recognize Michelle Williams here as a kind of George W-era repression hobo on the road to some ambiguous goal. If ever there were a fable about the challenges of keepin' on truckin' this would be it. The backdrop of this smart, indie hit is the beautiful, open American northwest, as Wendy and her canine sidekick Lucy edge themselves through it and towards Alaska, Palin country, still a romantic frontier, especially if you've seen INTO THE WILD. As freewheeling and episodic as Wendy's journey might appear at first, it's clear that the only thing talking on the road is money. Without it in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there's no there there. There is a great movie in here, however.

March 19   Ballast (USA 2008) 96 min.
Another huge Sundance hit, BALLAST rocks with the ambition and guts of a young filmmaker's talent. Director Lance Hammer (he took home the Best Director prize) zooms us directly into the deprived environment of a Mississippi Delta 'hood. Three characters of different ages and needs are slowly drawn into a complex web of associations and dependencies: a brooding, older suicidal man, a struggling single mom, and her 12-year old son whose fascination with the macho bullying of older boys terrifies her. Shot in natural light and with stunning appreciation for the wider landscape in which these doomed characters are caught (watch for the amazing opening shot), BALLAST is dark and unsettling, like March in Newfoundland. But it is also poetic and graceful, more about a vision of place than a heavy-handed comment on social realism.

March 26   The World's Best Commercials: Cannes Lions Film Winners 2008 [IMDb]

April 2   Pontypool (Canada 2008) 95 min.
Dubbed "an ingenious little horror playlet", Pontypool is the thinking man's alt-zombie picture. The title is the name of the small Ontario town in which a strange virus is circulating. What makes this particular virus so postmodern scary (and fun) is that the source if the problem is language itself. And so it's not surprising that the story largely centres on a jaded early morning radio host, the kind of guy whose raspy voice owes a lot to booze and whose attitude draws on hard times and wasted moments. Into his otherwise tedious ritual of snow storms and traffic reports come weird reports of people talking gibberish, behaving like that ubiquitous figure of violence and vengeance, the good old zombie. Performed by the always persuasive Stephen McHattie, the character of Grant Mazzy is challenged to rise to the zombie occasion. But how to prevent yourself from being contaminated when your job is talking—and words are the source of the problem? Well, we all know the trouble words can get us into. The film is based on the highly original novel by Tony Burgess and extends the cerebral focus of the story to a vivid cinematic adaptation. Shot with a very special hi-res HD camera, Pontypool reminds us that maverick director McDonald just keeps getting better.

April 9   The Necessities of Life (Ce qu'il faut pour vivre) (Canada 2008) 102 min.
[IMDb] French and Inuktikut with English subtitles. [IMAGE]
If you have seen ATANARJUAT (The Fast Runner) then you will love this movie. Natar Ungalaaq has such a strong cinematic presence that you can't take your gaze off him for a second. Here he stars again as Tivii, a man afflicted with TB whose illness drives him into a Quebec City hospital. If the disease doesn't kill you then the culture shock surely will, especially in the Quebec of the 1940s, when a real TB epidemic broke out all over the north. The film gently explores the slow necessary adjustments that both Tivii and his non-native caretakers must make in order to ensure his (and their mutual) survival. Beautifully wrought, with a score by Robert Marcel Lepage, NECESSITIES OF LIFE shimmers with grace notes.