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Category: Movies

The Adjustment Bureau: Fate, Love, and Clumsy Angels

Towards the end of The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon turns into a crazed, psychotic stalker and accosts a woman while she’s composing herself in the washroom. He tells her about all the things keeping them apart, and then punches a man who walks in the door because he’s wearing a hat. Even though he’s charmingly Matt Damon-ish, it’s still pretty damn creepy.

Rewind a bit: Aspiring politician David Norris (Damon) is planning his concession speech after an unsuccessful run for the Senate. He meets Elise, who’s in the hotel crashing a wedding. They talk. They connect. One might say they fall in love, if one believes falling in love can happen in five minutes. Then they’re separated, never to meet again. Until they do, several months later, by chance, on a bus. They talk, they connect, she gives him her phone number. He never calls her.

They don’t see each other for several years, until they have another chance encounter. This time they’re determined to be together, but things end even worse, particularly for Elise.

But since this is David’s story, we know that he has a good reason for treating Elise so horribly: He’s found out that his life, and the lives of others, are being influenced and occasionally controlled by mysterious hat-wearing figures. You could call them angels, even though no one does in the film. When possible, they adjust people’s destiny through small moves – a spilled cup of coffee was supposed to prevent David and Elise’s second meeting – and sometimes they’re more direct and modify or erase minds. They’ve determined that David and Elise’s destinies are incompatible, and they’re intent on keeping the would-be lovers apart.

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Sucker Punch: Freedom Through Sexiness

There’s something gloriously unhinged about Sucker Punch. Zack Snyder’s tale of mental asylums, nightclubs, fantasies, and general sexiness is utterly divorced from reality. Like Alice in Wonderland or Moulin Rouge, Sucker Punch has its own set of rules, and Snyder makes no apologies or accommodations. You can get on board or not, but you’re stuck in Snyder’s movie.

And there are times when Snyder makes you forget the real world. He’s an impressive visual stylist – the History of Superheroes montage in Watchmen was beautiful – and he seems to have devoted his entire career to making things look as cool as possible. The opening of Sucker Punch features a silent, fairy tale horror story set to a haunting cover of Sweet Dreams, and there’s almost no dialogue for the first five or ten minutes. Some of the fantasy sequences are marvels of imagination and special effects, particularly a raid on a WWI German bunker defended by zombie soldiers. There are plenty of “oooooh!” moments.

But just because you’re telling a story about dreams and fantasy doesn’t mean you can completely abandon logic, character, and basic human decency. To wit:

Pretend you’re a young girl. (You’re actually 20, but dress like a 12-year-old beauty pageant contestant.) Your mother has just died.  Your stepfather is an awful man, but that’s okay because your mother left you and your sister all her money. Except it’s not okay, because your stepfather, who is an awful man, tries to rape you and your younger sister. Then you end up in a 1920s-era mental asylum where your awful stepfather is planning to have you lobotomized.

It’s natural you’d try to escape. If you couldn’t physically escape, perhaps you’d concoct an elaborate fantasy as a coping mechanism, change your view of the world into something less threatening and more manageable. In this reality, you’d be… a prostitute? An indentured servant at a burlesque house ruled over by a mobster who uses violence and threats of rape to keep his women in line.

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Blue Valentine: Happily Ever After

Blue Valentine movie poster“If you want a happy ending,” Orson Welles said, “that depends on where you stop your story.”

Blue Valentine has a sweet story with a happy ending: It’s about a smart girl with an awful family and asshole boyfriend who meets a nice, caring guy who just wants to fall in love and make someone happy.

“Opposites Attract” is a standard theme in romance stories, from Romeo and Juliet to whatever movie Kate Hudson is starring in this month, and it’s at the centre of Blue Valentine: Cindy (Michelle Williams) is a smart, scholarly girl aiming for med school. Dean (Ryan Gosling) works for a moving company, and isn’t particularly career-minded. But he’s sweet and considerate – they meet when he’s helping an old man settle into his new home –  and given that almost everyone Cindy knows is a horrible human being – her father is Major Rawls (John Doman), for god’s sake – he’s a calm harbour in her otherwise stormy life. She’s reluctant to open up to his advances, but eventually accepts that he has no ulterior motives: He only wants to make her happy. They overcome the obstacles in their way and live happily ever after.



Biutiful, starring Javier Bardem, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez InarrituAlejandro González Iñárritu does not make light movies. They’re full of death, abandonment, trauma, and misery. In Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, Inarritu piles adversity upon adversity on his characters to see what happens. Sometimes they thrive, sometimes they collapse. It’s never easy entertainment, but it can be compelling, emotional filmmaking.

Biutiful is not short on suffering, though most of it is directed at one man. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) works with illegal immigrants in Barcelona, trying to find them jobs and keeping them away from the authorities. Uxbal is no saint: He always gets his cut, and it’s hard to deny the immigrants are getting screwed – two dozen Chinese immigrants sleep on the floor in a cold basement, woken every morning at six to be shuttled off to sweatshops. But he’s making the best of a bad situation, as he seems to be genuinely concerned about their welfare.

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Barney’s Version review

Barney's Version movie posterWhen overly-enthusiastic Barney Panofsky promises the love of his life that he’d do anything for her, she chastises him for his grand and unrealistic gesture. “Life is made of little moments,” she tells him. Unfortunately, there are very few little moments in Barney’s Version; it’s a collection of big, important life events that are meaningless without the lives they punctuate.

Barney’s Version suffers from the same problem as the Harry Potter films: It’s a lovingly made adaptation of a book that chokes on all the material the filmmakers couldn’t bear to leave out. The entire life of a man – in this case, Barney Panofsky, played by Paul Giamatti –  is a fine subject for a novel, but a tight fit for a two-hour film without some sharp editing. In trying to include everything from the novel, the film loses any chance at depth or focus. It’s tough to care about someone dying when they’ve only been on screen for five minutes, or a marriage falling apart when one character is a cardboard caricature, but Barney’s Version serves up tragedy after tragedy, deaths and weddings and adultery and more death.

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Fair Game review

At this point, there’s  no way to put a positive spin on the American invasion of Iraq. Even the spectre of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities can’t overcome the lies told to justify the war and the utter disaster it has become. Fair Game, in its dramatized fashion, tries to look at how the White House manipulated facts, flat-out lied, and then tried to punish those who disagreed.

The short version: When the Bush administration was looking for reasons to invade Iraq, the CIA sent former ambassador Joe Wilson to Niger to investigate the possibility Iraq buying uranium. He concluded there was no evidence of such a purchase, but the US invaded Iraq anyway. When Bush claimed to have evidence of the sale of uranium, Wilson wrote an article for the New York Times telling his side of the story. Soon after, a newspaper article was published that revealed Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative, effectively ending her career.

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TIFF2010: I Saw The Devil review

I Saw the Devil posterI Saw the Devil is a pretty dumb movie. It’s also insanely compelling, and one of the most intense films you’re likely to experience.

The plot is simple and relatively unoriginal: A brutal serial killer, played by Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi, is killing and dismembering young women. But his latest victim was a poor choice: She’s engaged to a Joo-yeong (Byung-hun Lee), a secret agent who reacts poorly when her body turns up. He takes two weeks off work to hunt down the man who killed his beloved.

Whether it’s because he’s awesome or the police are utterly incompetent is unclear, but he quickly uncovers the identity of the killer and tracks him down. But instead of the quick and brutal vengeance one might expect, Joo-yeong merely lays a beating on the killer before setting him free, only to track him down again.

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Inception: A Smart Movie for Dumb People

Like most of the rest of the planet, I enjoyed The Dark Knight. It was slick, had some great action sequences, a splendid cast, a story with some nice twists and turns, and a slight hint of moral ambiguity. It wasn’t a perfect film, and I’m not among those who thought it was snubbed at the Oscars, but as far as big-budget superhero spectacles go, it stood tall above its competition.

And yet, as the film went on, one got a nagging sense that Christopher Nolan felt he was getting too subtle. By the final act, every other line of dialogue was about what a hero should be, how to fight evil without becoming evil, and how even the most noble soul is only a bad day away from becoming a raving lunatic.

It was relatively easy to look past the clumsy commentary, since a movie about Batman fighting the Joker didn’t call for a whole lot of subtlety in the first place. But it was a worrying sign from Nolan, who got everyone’s attention with Memento, a challenging film that didn’t hold the audience’s hand through its twists and turns.

Unfortunately, Nolan’s magnum opus, the film he’d been wanting to make for several years, brings out all his worst qualities as a writer and director. Inception wants so badly to be an elegant, intelligent, and emotional film, but Nolan buried it under crushingly clumsy exposition, meaningless big-budget action sequences, and an egomaniacal desire to make sure everyone understands how elegant, intelligent, and emotional his film is.

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Big Dumb Action: Salt & Predators

predators.jpgBig dumb action movies get a bad rap. You’ll have to pry my Wes Anderson DVDs out of my cold, dead hands, but there is a time and a place for blowing shit up and kicking people in the face while jumping out of burning buildings. There’s an art to action that can easily be forgotten when you’re subjected to endless slow-motion sequences and rapidfire jump cuts, but when you see a really good action movie – James Cameron or Steven Spielberg in their prime, for example – you realize how great it can be.

The rules are simple: Do lots of cool stuff. Do it fast. Make sure the audience knows what’s happening and they know it’s cool, but don’t show off or dumb it down – slow motion is not a subsitute for coherent camerawork and editing. Try to come up with an interesting character or two, and throw in a few cool one-liners. And most important of all: If you have a lousy script, try to keep the audience from noticing.