Winter 2004

Jan 15  Madame Satã
Jan 22  Elephant
Jan 29  Sylvia
Feb 5  My Life without Me
Feb 12  Casa de los Babys
Feb 19  Falling Angels
Feb 26  The Station Agent
Mar 4  Les invasion barbares/Barbarian Invasions
Mar 11  Emile
Mar 18  9.11.01
Mar 25  Republic of Love
Apr 1  Gaz Bar Blues
Apr 8  Les Triplettes de Belleville

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

January 15   Madame Satã (Brazil/France 2002) 105 min.
[IMDb] Portuguese with English subtitles. Rated R. [IMAGE]
Directed by Karim Ainouz
With Lazaro Ramos, Marcelio Cartaxo, Flavio Bauraqui, Felipe Marques, et al.
Here's the story. We would have opened with the award-heavy Lost in Translation, but Empire Theatres happily beat us to it and promises to be showing Sophia Coppola's little masterpiece early in January, for at least a week of opportunities. If they don't bring it in we encourage you to protest loudly. Please see that film on any night but Thursday. For the MUN Series opener please see Madame Sata, a gorgeous piece of cinema about the real Brazilian transvestite singer, João Francisco dos Santos. This directorial debut feature film tracks the early transformation of João from a poor but proud queer living in the nineteen thirties of Rio de Janeiro's most sordid underworlds to the famous cabaret singer, Madame Sata. This journey from one dark sphere to another involves a fascinating set of violent twists and turns, some fated, some chosen. By the time the famous João/Madame Sata died in the seventies he/she had lived about 27 years behind bars, endured all kinds of brutality and prejudice (of the class, race, and sexual variety) and generated a world of adoring fans mourning a remarkable life. Most impressive here is the stunning performance of the lead character, brilliantly enacted by actor Lázaro Ramos who brings a determined, erotic, and sweaty realism to the character, and whose image you will conjure every time you ever hear a salsa beat.

January 22   Elephant (USA 2003) 81 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, brief sexuality and drug use - all involving teens. [IMAGE]
Directed by Gus Van Sant
With Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, et al.
Gus Van Sant's approach to his art is such that in order to make the experimental works he prefers (Gerry) he has to turn out a schlocky piece of drama every now and then (Good Will Hunting). Elephant falls in the preferred category, to be sure. Small-scale and determinedly not star system material, Elephant is largely about the horrific shooting of a bunch of high school students by a couple of their gun-toting peers, shades of --if not actually about-- Columbine. Elephant looks and feels like a documentary because the kids are fresh and real, improvising lines and going with the director's general directions, not a tightly controlling script. This kind of stagy realism is interesting when compared with Michael Moore's massively edited and somewhat contrived documentary on the same subject, a film that masked its own strategies and convinced an entire planet that Moore was catching the real thing. Buffalo fur. Elephant is deliberately not documentary pretense, but it does aim at getting something essential about the Columbine experience. Who are these kids and what are they up to? Played with eerie menace by Alex Frost and Eric Deulen, the two murderers are not clearly motivated. Van Sant implies that it's not just guns that make these kids kill; indeed, there are no discernibly obvious or satisfying motives for their behaviour. Perhaps this explains why it won a Palme d'Or for best film at Cannes this year but has been largely buried by American distributors. Elephant doesn't pretend to have the answers, and that's why we are interested in its intelligence questioning. The kids aren't all right, so what's up with that?

January 29   Sylvia (UK 2003) 110 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for sexuality/nudity and language. [IMAGE]
Directed by Christine Jeffs.
With Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon, Amira Casar, et al.
What becomes a legend most? Sylvia Plath is such a cultural icon she doesn't even need a last name anymore. And so finally we get to see not only her but also one of the most interesting love stories of the last century on the big screen, the one between the icon and her rakishly handsome beloved, Edward (Ted) Hughes. Fortunately, enough time has passed since Plath's suicide (1962) and Hughes' own death (1998) to allow for a calmer rendering of their tumultuous and much analyzed life together. Who needs another finger-pointing whine about who did what to whom and why? One fact is clear and unavoidable. Sylvia Plath was one depressed woman, and in the late 'fifties the treatment for such an illness was not as easy as popping a pill or getting good therapy. Another fact is that she clung to Hughes like ivy to brick. Their relationship was hot, explosive, and doomed. The foundational core of any good love story is a young couple's quicksilver attraction, the ensuing dynamic of such passion and its often troubling consequences, but when the characters are legendary and charismatic the effect is spellbinding. Sylvia doesn't pull any punches but it is resolutely even handed. This is more of a study of a period and a woman caught in literary history's grip than an indictment of any one person or issue. The cast is superb, including the pearl-choker perfect Paltrow, and Daniel Craig is a fabulously appealing match as the compelling Hughes. Watch for talented Blythe Danner paying Plath's mother - yeah, you know it, she is also Paltrow's own mother. Gimmicks aside, our interest in the myth of Plath is revived here like (Lady) Lazarus.

February 5   My Life without Me (Canada/Spain 2003) 106 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for language. [IMAGE]
Directed by Isabel Coixet.
With Sarah Polley, Scott Speedman, Deborah Harry, Mark Ruffalo, Leonore Watling, et al.
Sarah Polley has yet to do a dull part, and here she practically invents herself all over again in her most brilliant turn to date. What an actor! You might have heard that this film is largely about a young woman with a terminal illness, but in many ways it is really about class and the ability--or not--to transcend it. Polley plays Ann, a twenty something mother of two who works as a night janitor at a local college. Can it get more bottom rung in film than this? She is married to a nice guy who doesn't seem to do too much. Her mom helps out. Life is measured in slices of white bread. The dramatic turn is a cancer diagnosis, sudden and inevitable. When she gains her composure, Ann decides to make every day count, but differently. She compiles an ambitious list, including a desire to fall madly in love (enter the always interesting hunky teddy bear Ruffalo). Of course, Ann must also think about caring for the family, raising her daughters, and so on, and so she has a lot on her mind. She works through her list like a woman with no time on her hands and a firm sense of purpose. My Life Without Me is always hovering on the sentimental but because it is also a character study of a woman with a certain working class history and a modest sense of what is possible we are also caught up in a bit of interesting sociology. There is a curious mix of Canadian and Spanish elements here, since the film was a co-pro and involves both an Amanda Plummer (as Anne's friend Laura) and an Alfred Molina (as her father). Consider that Pedro Almodovar executive produced and you can practically hear the cultures cross-pollinating.

February 12   Casa de los Babys (USA/Mexico 2003) 95 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for some language and brief drug use. [IMAGE]
Directed by John Sayles.
With Daryl Hannah, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Susan Lynch, Rita Moreno, et al.
From Return of the Secaucus Seven to Matewan and Lone Star, John Sayles has accumulated an impressive reputation as an independent, uncorruptable director with passion, humour, and a coherent vision of the world. Sayles has also been interested for some time in the way America borders so intimately on Mexico, a fact it both exploits and denies. In this, his latest wonderful film, six middle class women are holed up in a hotel, waiting to adopt a South American baby. The women are well meaning bourgeoisie, chatty and needy. Sayles never condescends to them but he does manage to write the kind of dialogue you know that only they would speak. It's not clear how this guy channels woman-speak but he sure does it convincingly. Casa de Los Babys is obviously working a terrific conceit. The conversations between these sometimes emotional women open the film up to a range of political and social commentary, all persuasively presented in a drama about waiting for babies. Perhaps the most important virtue of this film is its sympathy to the differences in cultures, American and third world. The waiting US women are held up by bureaucratic necessity. The Latino women are eager to relieve themselves of too many children. This film is short and sweetly efficient in its execution and is characterizations, and, as with all of Sayles' smart fictions, resolutely provocative.

February 19   Falling Angels (Canada 2003) 109 min.
Directed by Scott Smith.
With Miranda Richardson, Callum Keith Rennie, Kristin Adams, et al.
Ever wonder how much novelist Barbara Gowdy must have made on selling her works to movie producers (see Kissed)? Okay, even if you haven't, consider that Falling Angels is also based on one of her novels and captures the typically off-centre kookiness of her characters. Under Gowdy's pen, Toronto and the stable middle class life it boasts never looks normal. We like that in a movie, too. This one focuses on the wacky Fields family. Dad is played by a grisly Rennie as a frighteningly autocratic loser; Mom (Richardson) is suffering from the same depression as Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven, something having to do with the numbing 'fifties, we suspect; and their three daughters are caught in emerging womanhoods, as if conceived by Emily Bronte but crossed with Erica Jong. Each daughter copes with her demented parents in one way or the other, as she must, and the film follows their 'fallen' condition as the natural effect of a family under psychological siege. The movie is gloomy and fatalistic but it is also wisely punctuated by bright performances, unpredictable bouts of humour, and a strong sense of the mysteries of the psyche. Callum Keith Rennie can't really ever make a false move and so even when he is playing a wildly nutty tyrant he redeems the role with a sympathy borne of insight. This is a performance of the highest order. And this is Canadian, so come see what all the darkness is about.

February 26   The Station Agent (USA 2003) 88 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for language and some drug content. [IMAGE]
Directed by Thomas McCarthy.
With Peter Linkage, Paul Benjamin, Jase Blankfort, Paula Garcés, Josh Pais, et al.
We are warning you - come early for this multi-award winning indie gem because everyone wants to see it. This is the kind of film we love. Nothing happens except the drama in character. The plot can best be described as a story about three characters becoming friends. A lot of attention has been poured on one of the actors, small (dwarf) person Peter Dinklage who plays Finbar McBride. Plagued all his life by annoyingly curious people, he spends his adult time repairing model trains and watching the real big ones go by. Happy circumstances involving yet more trains take him to a place called Newfoundland, New Jersey (could we make that up?) where he encounters an eccentric local artist, Olivia (the indomitable Patricia Clarkson), and a cloyingly needy guy, Joe (Bobby Cannavale). These three near freakish creatures add up to a triangle of lonely misfits, with Finbar desperate to be left alone and the other two desperate for his company. Inevitably, however, Finbar finds himself drawn into this community of strangers, and comes to recognize the need for human interaction. You can see how so much depends on the script and the interaction between the three, and, indeed, Station Agent is at times gloriously moving and hilariously funny. It is, above all, a very centered human story, with nary an Orc or a hobbit or a Zellweger in sight.

March 4   Les invasion barbares/Barbarian Invasions (Canada/France 2003) 99 min.
[IMDb] Rated R for language, sexual dialogue and drug content. [IMAGE]
Directed by Denys Arcand.
With Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Dominique Michel, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Toni Cecchinato, Mitsou Gélinas, et al.
As we write this bets are on that Arcand's wonderfully comic film will find a berth on the foreign Oscar list. It is astonishing that Invasion hasn't had a full run in the main theatres, but this is Canada, hey, and the film is doing amazing box office in Europe and the States, not in the home country which has trouble supporting its own artists. But enough lecturing. Let's celebrate the appearance of this one-time screening that picks up where Arcand's Decline and Fall of the American Empire left off. It is some 17 years later and the playfully intelligent characters, some more neurotic than others, have since acquired a string of lovers and friends and ailments. In particular, the animated professor with ants in his pants is now dying, and so the friends and exes have assembled to observe the rites of passing, even while celebrating his life and all its glorious mistakes. Girard plays Rémy with his typical brio, borrowing his own name and, no doubt, bringing many aspects of his own character to the role. The device is clever, sure, but the script is awesome. Themes range from the Quebec health care system to the human condition itself, enlivened by a joie and a lust for life in spite of time passing. Invasion is a gorgeous hymn to the spirit of life and you'd have to have the heart of a hammer not to appreciate its vigorous appeal.

March 11   Emile (Canada 2003) 95 min.
[IMDb] Directed by Carl Bessai.
With (Sir) Ian McKellen, Deborah Kara Unger, Theo Crane, et al.
It's great to see Ian McKellen in a role that tests his real acting ability - not that Gandalf isn't a great construction. But in this ambitious low-budget release McKellen gets to play someone we actually recognize from our own experience. Here he plays the title character, a complex man with not so much an identity crisis as an identity puzzle. We first encounter him in British Columbia, receiving an honourary degree from U. Vic for a distinguished career way across the pond in England. He camps out for a time with his only living relatives, a niece, played with her typical gorgeous edginess by Deborah Kara Unger, and her precocious daughter (Theo Crane). Emile is dragging around a past with so much baggage we're amazed the authorities ever let him on the plane in the first place. Turns out the quintessentially English professor is actually a good old Saskatchewan farm boy who reinvented himself in order to escape the oppressions of his childhood and a particularly dreadful brother. Sure, you can go home again, but you might not recognize yourself in the mirror. Emile is a wonderfully wrought piece of understated cinema, intensely moody and emotionally charged. Most appealing is the outstanding intelligent performance by one of the world's best actors.

March 18   9.11.01 (UK/France/Bosnia-Herzegovina/Egypt/Israel/Japan/Mexico/USA 2003) 134 min.
[IMDb] Documentary. [IMAGE]
Directed by Youssef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Ken Loach, Sean Penn, et al.
You might already know about the ingenious approach to this documentary. Eleven well-known directors were asked to each produce a short movie of 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame on the subject of September 11th. The result is a fascinating reading of the world itself. The entries are all interesting, with some more compelling than others, of course, but the overall effect is a collage of genres, styles, politics, and moods. Directors Sean Penn, Ken Loach, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Mira Nair and seven others of note contributed their takes on the event in a variety of ways. Some are banal, some haunting, some comic, some angry and some anti-American. Clearly there is no one way to remember or make sense of what happened, and the strategy of producing a team effort was obviously worthy of the complexity of the experience - both of being there and of recalling it. Come see how it all adds up, in many languages with subtitles wherever necessary.

March 25   Republic of Love (Canada/UK 2003) 95 min.
Directed by Deepa Mehta.
With Bruce Greenwood, Emilia Fox, Edward Fox, Connor Price, Martha Henry, Claire Bloom, Gary Farmer, Rebecca Jenkins, Jackie Burroughs, et al.
The cast doesn't get any more Great Canadian® than this, and when you add a few British super actors you are bound to have something worthy of attention. Based on the beloved Carol Shield's novel of the same name, Republic of Love is not so much a great film as a rich experiment in literary adaptation with a strong directorial hand. At the center of this story is the yummy actor Bruce Greenwood playing a three-time divorced romantic whose life is changed when he falls for an artsy type (Emilia Fox). Bonus points: she is an expert on mermaids. Can it get better than this? But into this explosively delicious new relationship a little darkness must fall, and the drama then twists like a fishtail on the tensions occasioned by unpredictable turns. Mehta is a fine director (Bollywood/Hollywood) with a daunting challenge - that is, transforming an accomplished novel by a cherished novelist into the stuff that screens are made of. It's not a perfectly executed act but it is stunningly beautiful and full of the kinds of well-acted performances you want your favourite fictional characters to inhabit.

April 1   Gaz Bar Blues (Canada 2003) 115 min.
[IMDb] English sub-titles. [IMAGE]
Directed by Louis Bélanger.
With Réal Bossé, Gaston Caron, Sébastian Delorme, et al.
Recently reviewed with glowing critical approval, this gentle comedy perfectly captures life on the run. More precisely, it captures life at the pump. Set in a small traditional Quebec town, the kind you drive through on the way to Montreal, the movie is all about the gas/gaz station and the family that manages it. The 'Boss' has three sons, each with his own attitude and dream. Rejean resents working the pumps and longs to be a photographer. Guy has equally arty notions about himself, yearning to make music. The youngest, Alain, simply wants to be a man. Life has its gentle rhythms; townspeople come and go to fill 'er up and chat about anything and everyone. Their dialogue, fueled by nicotine, is familiar and hilarious. But nothing stays the same: the kids age and get restless, the pace of life accelerates, computers threaten to transform the local operation, and the family patriarch must cope with modernity whether he wants to or not. Critics love this film because it shows so effectively how a small-town focus can be about universal experience It takes a clever director, a good script, and great sense of the important daily details to produce such an effect. Gaz Bar Blues is a model of independent filmmaking; perfectly executed entertainment for the thinking auto mechanic.

April 8   Les Triplettes de Belleville (France/Belgium/Canada/UK 2003), 81 min.
Directed by Sylvain Chomet.
With the voices of Michelle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas, Beatrice Bonifassi and Charles Prevost Linton.
Nothing less than an international sensation, a tour de force of animation that breaks the mould, The Triplets of Belleville is a masterpiece. Sure there's a plot, something involving a French cyclist named Champion who is abducted by a gang of mobsters, but it's all about the telling, not the story. The cyclist's grandmother, the brazen Madame Souza, seeks to rescue her grandson with the force of a hurricane. With her beloved dog Bruno and the three titular singing sisters by her side, Souza sets out to satisfy a heroic quest. There is hardly any dialogue -this ain't no Nemo-- but there is movement, movement, movement. There is also serious location, location, location and attendant social realism, astonishing for an animated film with such fantastic happenings. Madame Souza and Champion are working class and their lives are informed by small needs and big dreams. But what really elevates this film to the circles of Oscar-worthy attention is the cinematic exuberance of it all. That said, the style is impossible to describe. We have never seen anything remotely like this in all its magical, haunting, grotesque, dark, comic, melancholy, spooky, gorgeous fullness, and on the big screen it will simply blow your mind. Fasten your dentures: Les Triplettes de Belleville is a wild wild ride.