Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Impossible (2012)

A woman sits down next to young Lucas, one of the members of his family to survive the tsunami that shook Thailand on Boxing Day 2004. They gaze at the stars and she tells him that some of the stars are still alive and some of them died thousands of years ago, but their light travels longer than they live. When Lucas asks how you can tell, out of so many stars in the sky, which ones are alive and which have died, she tells him honestly that there is no way to tell; it is impossible.

The Impossible tells the true story of the Bennett family who are on vacation in Thailand and are swept away by the Tsunami right from the back yard of their vacation resort and separated from one another. They have to find ways to survive, not knowing who is still alive and who is not. It is a sweeping emotional epic and shook me in a way that I have not experienced in the theatre for a long time.

The film starts off quite tranquil, much like the family's vacation no doubt. We're given a sense of the characters and just enough time to come to like them before things get chaotic. In fact, I almost wish that one could go into the movie not knowing that it's a natural disaster picture so that when it happens it is a shocking twist rather than an inevitability. But of course, people want to know what movies are actually about before going to see them so that would be hard to pull off. That being said, when the tsunami approaches, it was an extremely effective portion of the movie. But I would encourage people to not watch the trailer because I feel there are some reveals in the film that are spoiled from it and to go in with some element of mystery would have made my watching the movie even better.

Back to the tsunami. That was an incredible spectacle to behold. No splattering horror film could prepare you for these scenes. This is a real life horror and the idea that real people were caught in it makes it all the more disturbing. One has to give major credit to the special effects team behind the disaster. I think from this side of the world it is easy to see something on the news and think it's devastating, but be able to turn off the news and carry on with our lives relatively unaffected. What director Juan Antonio Bayona and team achieve is putting you in the eyes of the victims, and in the heart of the overwhelming chaos the waves create.

What makes this film even better is that I think that it shows the victims of this relatively recent event a fair amount of respect. I won't say who lives and who dies in the film, but it doesn't unfairly show us a happy story of survivors without also having us take in the losses of countless others. It is based off a true story after all, and it wouldn't be true without the moments we see of loss and mourning from many other survivors.

But at the same time, while this is a very emotional film, it does not focus on tragedy. After watching it, I did not feel emotionally drained and discouraged. In fact, it is a story that reaffirms faith in either a higher power or the compassion of humanity. It is not a story of sadness without a sense of hope and I think that is one of the most important aspects of this film. It does warm the heart and inspire the soul. I think it important to see the kind of film where people genuinely struggle and overcome adversity which, yes I know, can describe almost every screenplay ever written, but in this case it is far more real and of epic proportions.

Naomi Watts plays Maria and gives an Oscar calibre performance, particularly while in the midst of the disaster and fortunately she has been given a nomination. She and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are being swept away by the wave and unable to reach one another. It is as distressing to watch as it sounds. Unjustly, Holland hasn't been overly acknowledged for his performance in this movie, though I feel it is one of the finest performances from a new actor I've seen in a long time. Ewan McGregor also does an amazing job as Henry and hasn't been given the credit that I feel he's due. In fact, I can't help but feel that this whole movie isn't getting the attention it deserves. It only had a small number of Oscar nods and I thought it was better than a number of the best picture nominations. There is a perfectly good best picture empty slot which could have been filled with this film. To not do so seems insulting to me, but it's too late now.

The Impossible is some amazing film making. I have to confess that there were portions of the movie that moved me to tears and it didn't even feel like that is what the film makers were trying to accomplish. You know, sometimes you know that they're gunning real hard to make people cry. The visuals and the story itself were so moving and emotionally stirring that it couldn't be helped. It never felt false or forced. It just lets you experience the disaster and feel the losses and gains of those who survived. And if a film can show us a glimpse of someone else's life and alter our perspective just enough to make us a little more grateful for our own, then that is something worth celebrating.

5 Stars

The Dirties (2013)

It's that time of year again! That time when I get excited and go see a handful of films that I may not get a chance to see any other time. It's the Vancouver International Film Festival, where film makers from all over the world are represented in a showcase of over 100 something films. It tends to be quite different from Canada's more famous Toronto Film Festival, showcasing less commercial picks and more artistically focused films. I tend to to quite like the shows that I see there so I'm taking this opportunity to jump back into reviewing movies after a three month hiatus.

The first film I was to cover is The Dirties, easily my favourite film of the bunch that I've seen this year at VIFF. Matt and Owen (Matt Johnson and Owen Williams respectively) are not the popular kids in high school and find themselves bullied by their peers daily. But the two of them are inseparable friends and share a vision of making movies. But when their video project that they make for a class is so poorly received from their classmates, they dream up their next film project which blurs the line between fact and fiction. Matt's plan is to really shoot up the bullies in the school, but only the bullies of course, and film that to create an actual real climax for his film. Owen... well, he's got reservations about it.

What's great about The Dirties is that it is designed to make the audience wonder about how much truth there is in the story. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred for the audience, just as it is Matt. Matt is so plugged into cinema and its culture that he does not have a healthy grip on reality. Matt Johnson, who also directs the picture, sells his character well; the success of the film depends on this. The audience is along for the ride because it is presented as raw footage of their movie. It looks and feels like it and is even played with and edited in the movie as Matt works on the fictional “The Dirties” movie. It's a clever way to make a believable film on a shoestring budget.

This is their debut feature film and they wanted to make something that would draw some attention to them and this is a great route to take. It deals with some pretty heavy issues that is humourous, but thankfully not in a way that is disrespectful. In fact, it really puts a human face on kids that are pushed to the edge and consider taking matters into their own hands. School shootings are no laughing matter, but I think drawing the connections between man and monster brings some clarity to the subject allowing some deeper understanding into what makes youth hurt to the point of wanting to hurt back.

Meanwhile, it also shows the dangers of being too plugged into media. One of the problems with Matt is that he doesn't have a grip on reality. Life is a movie and everything in life should reference his favourite movies. There are no safe boundaries between fact and fiction. We don't get too much a picture of his home life apart from some distant and out of touch interactions with his mother, but you get the sense that he was raised by a television. His parents are blissfully naive, but you get the sense that they aren't listening to Matt about his bullying problem. Owen is a little more grounded, even finding some joy in reality as he starts to warm up to a pretty girl at school named Chrissy (Krista Madison).

You know, The Dirties is actually a pretty good representation of modern high school. It looks and feels very real and very familiar. That realism is crucial to the film's success and I think that these two lead actors have a very natural screen presence that never feels like 'acting.' While this film is inherently hilarious, there is a sort of darkness about it. The comedy keeps you watching, but it's the deep emotional resonance of the film that makes it stay with you.

I'm excited to see where these film makers go next. The Dirties has had a pretty successful festival run and I imagine that it will become a bit of a cult success after that. I look forward to seeing this movie again and sharing with others. It should be seen by all indie film makers who want an example of great film making on a low budget. It's worth getting excited for.

5 Stars

The Blob (1958)

We've all heard about The Blob and some of the images have become some of the most iconic scenes in classic horror history, but I haven't talked to too many people who have actually watched the whole movie. I decided to review this film for Halloween because I like to discuss many horror classics to see how well they hold up today. Besides, last year I pretty much just reviewed vampire movies and I wanted to do something a little different. I mean, you have to admit that a giant blob isn't a typical horror monster. I don't know of any other movies that have featured this kind of monster except for the 1988 remake, which I haven't seen as a whole. But I remember quite a few years ago I saw the beginning on TV and it was quite gruesome and I was asked to turn it off. Hard to imagine it stemming from this 1958 classic, which was quite tame even by 1950's standards... at least I think. I just remember 1958's Horror of Dracula, which I reviewed last year which was a fair bit darker and grittier than this movie. Though, maybe that one was just really edgy for the time and The Blob was more the norm.

The story is as basic as it gets. Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corsaut) are having a romantic night together in his car on some romantic spot, as so many 20-something teenagers do in these films, when they see a rock from space hit the ground near their town a fair ways into the woods. They decide to go investigate. Meanwhile, over in the woods, an old man (Olin Howland) goes to investigate the crash and finds a rock, which splits and has a small blob of goo inside of it. It quickly crawls onto him and engulfs his hand. In pain, he panics and runs out to try and get help. He runs into Steve and Jane who take him to the town doctor (Stephen Chase). But whatever that blob is... it seems to be getting bigger with everything and everyone is eats! Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnn!

The Blob is kind of a fun b-flim by today's standards, but truthfully a little bit underwhelming and even at times a bit frustrating. It's a lot lighter than the 80's version which disturbed me, though I don't know if that one will fulfil me in any way either, and I struggle to see much of a connection between the two other than the name and basic concept; Blob attacks people and gets bigger. That one at least showed us the action, where this one, likely due to budget and technological constraints of the time, hardly shows us anything. Sometimes we just see Steve McQueen reacting to something that the blob is doing and then he awkwardly explains it. A big rule of cinema is show, don't tell, and I guess that's tricky if you can't actually show what's going on. I suppose there may have been more graceful ways around this issue, but nothing springs to mind other than better writing.

I like how innocent this movie is all in all. It's a cute snapshot of the 50's, or probably how people want to remember the 50's, and how everyone knew everyone else and kids were trouble makers but they were good at the heart and stuff like that. It's all really quaint, and then some jerk blob from outer space shows up and starts eating people. Every death is off screen and there is nothing gory which is interesting for a film with a pretty sizable body count. Apparently this creature devours 40 – 50 people and you wouldn't know it if they didn't say it. While I can understand the reservations of the film makers, I have to confess that the stakes didn't often seem very high and I wasn't often emotionally invested in the well being of the characters, except for the good doctor Hallen, who was caring and genuinely wanted to help. Jane's little brother, on the other hand, was clearly there to be cute and get into trouble, but I kind of wanted the kid to get eaten. If not for his bad acting, then just because he was an idiot. Seriously, it's was obvious that he was introduced so that he could get in trouble near the end of the movie. Little brat.

The real star of the show was the actual Blob. The effects on it were actually pretty decent for the day and showed a great deal of ingenuity when it came to making the scenes with it. They were used sparingly, but very well and I think that's why people remember this movie today. Not to mention that the idea of the creature is pretty creepy. It's a relentless and unforgiving opponent, with no concept of reasoning or mercy. There is no humanity to it as it is literally just a flesh eating blob. Vampires, ghosts, and werewolves all have a human characteristic. There can be motive behind their actions and as such, one can begin to determine their weaknesses, but here you have an alien creature with no obvious mind and seems to be driven entirely on the instinct to eat and grow. It's actually kinda scary... in concept anyway. I suppose that's what makes The Blob really worth watching.

By the way, it's pretty obvious that Steve McQueen was way too old to be playing the 17 year old Steven Andrews. He was 28 at the time and he looked it. It's... well, it's the movies for you.

3 Stars

The Bling Ring (2013)

Sofia Coppola was a name to remember ten short years ago in 2003. She wrote and directed a compelling film called Lost In Translation that landed both her and Bill Murray Oscar nominations. Her nomination was particularly impressive because the world of directing is pretty widely dominated by men and very rarely do women earn even a nomination. Coppola was the third woman in Oscar history to achieve this, though she did not win. Then she released the bizarre and flamboyant Marie Antoinette which was poorly recieved, though I didn't think it was as bad as some made it out to be. The following film did well at festivals but didn't make too much of a splash in the mainstream and it seemed that Coppola's flame had already burned as bright as it was going to. Then, seemlingly out of nowhere, she returns in full form with a story as modern and relevant as you can get boasting Emma Watson in a lead role hot off of the Harry Potter saga. Seems like all the cards were in the right place for a comeback.

And while this has actually been her most successful film financially, the critical feedback has been... lukewarm, let's say. I'm a little torn myself to be honest. I think that knowing the actual story behind these kids is just as informative and interesting as actually watching the movie itself. I don't think that I really got any more insight into the situation from it and perhaps that's where it fails. Perhaps I will get you up to speed on the film...

The Bling Ring is based off a Vanity Fair article which was about a group of high school students in LA who decided that it was easy to break into celebrity houses simply by following them through social media, finding out when they're out of town, and walking into their homes and helping themselves to whatever they like. And that alone has paragraphs to say about the state of the western world right now. That says so much about celebrity idolization and the dangers of having so much immediate information on people's whereabouts and what they are doing in the moment. It also looks into materialism and the totally uneven overabundance of stuff that the wealthy have and how it is all essentially useless. It also delves into the sense of entitlement that some youth have when they grow up in an overly privilaged environment.

There is a lot to explore in the ideas of The Bling Ring and in that sense, it feels a bit like a wasted opportuntity. Often it felt like it didn't tap into the subtext of the story and stayed in the shallow surface of its characters. Rather than exploring them, the audience just sort of hangs out with them and goes on their hapless misadventures with them. I do appreciate that for the most part Coppola tries to keep things relatively sublte and not hammer in a moral into the audience, but often it just felt like the film was just going through the same motions over and over again until the third act when things started to get interesting and we saw the reprocussions of their actions, but the truth is that it just took too long to get there.

I would have liked to see more relation between the characters because we get a good sense of who they are and only a little bit about how they relate or, even more importantly, who they become. I don't get a sense of a personal arc for any of these people and for a movie like this, it should be very character arc based. I get the sense that the intent was there for this to be that kind of personal character film, but things didn't progress. It was only touched on a bit through Marc's monologues, which were few and far between. I would have liked to see the tension increase and the stakes being raised with every burglarly. And while I understand that Coppola was going for realism, it doesn't make for really interesting fiction. Though she certainly did succeed at the realism because it did often feel like we were right in the real story and not looking at actors playing characters. In that sense, it is a superbly performed film.

I hope this movie does well, but not necessarily for the sake of The Bling Ring, but because I support a lot of the talent behind it. I think that the young actors did very well and I'd like to see where their careers could go. And I've become quite an Emma Watson fan and of the roles she's been taking on. And of course I like that Sofia Coppola is tapping back into the audiences radar because I believe she is a talented film maker and I like that a female director is getting recognition for her work. But... I think that The Bling Ring doesn't capitalize fully on the talents of its director and actors. It doesn't equal the sum of its parts. And the more I think about the film that was vs. the film it could have been, I become more and more disappointed.

1.5 Stars

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Avengers (2012)

There is every likelihood that this review will not determine whether or not you see The Avengers because chances are, you already have. This film is well on its way to becoming one of the highest grossing movies of all time and broke the US domestic opening records set by The Dark Knight and the most recent Harry Potter film. I'm not here to tell you that The Avengers is the greatest film ever made so if you want to read a review that says that, I'm very sorry, you'll have to read some fan boy's blog. But I will say that it was a brilliant marketing set up that had a pay off that does feel well worth it. Marvel never shied away from the fact that they were planning this big move since they released the first Iron Man movie back in 2008. And it was a brilliant plan to connect the movies together, teasing audiences for this big moment. It was a big risk because if The Avengers underwhelmed moviegoers in any way, it damages the possibility of not just a sequel to this movie, but the separate characters as well. But all of the Marvel films connected to it were all fairly well made and financially successful. I actually enjoyed all of them to some extent.

When I heard that they were bringing in Joss Whedon in to direct the project, it made sense and didn't in different respects. Joss Whedon is a respected figure in the industry and is well connected to the world of comics. He has the admiration from that audience from his hit show Buffy The Vampire Slayer as well as the cult sensation, Firefly. He isn't a stranger to the world of feature film writing as he wrote the screenplay for the first Toy Story, which is a lesser known fact about him. He also penned Alien: Resurrection, but I don't think he likes to talk about that one. However, he is a strange choice in some other ways. Despite the popularity of the show, I never liked Buffy The Vampire Slayer and believe me, friends of mine have tried to get me into it. His other two shows didn't even stay on the air past their first season, and don't worry, that isn't a jab at their quality. Also, the only feature film he directed before this was 2005's Serenity, which pleased the eager Firefly fans, but didn't buzz too loudly at the box office. You would think that Marvel would bring in a more financially viable film maker on board. But he must have presented something to them that brought him on board because he both wrote and directed The Avengers, keeping loyal to his style and the movie universe that has already been established at this point.

Ultimately, his strength as a writer are why the film succeeds because it isn't from the plot. From a story standpoint, the film is unimpressive. To summarize, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is on Earth and just can't wait to be king. He's answering to some mysterious aliens in another dimension though. He steals a super powerful alien technology called the Tesseract which will summon the alien army to take over Earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) isn't okay with that so he starts to gather up some super heroes to capture Loki and retrieve the Tesseract. He brings in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who are Iron Man, Captain America, and The Hulk respectively. And Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up to track down Loki, who is his brother. Plus there is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And from that point on there is a lot of fighting and action. It's not a plot so much as a series of celebrities in colourful suits.

I don't believe that in order to make an accessible big budget film you need to have a simple plot like this one because I think that movies like The Dark Knight and the Harry Potter series have had complex and very compelling stories. However, as far as films with thin plots go, this one does its job with quite a bit of finesse. This is where Whedon's strengths come in. He clearly knows these characters and is very loyal to them. These super heroes are why people are watching this movie and have become iconic over their many years in comic books and now in the Hollywood mainstream. He gives them each a personal stake in the story, and while they don't all get time to be fleshed out ideally, there is an understanding that most who see this film will have seen at least most of the previous movies. Like real people, they don't instantly become friends and work well together, but their distinctive (and often flawed) personalities clash. This tension keeps the second act interesting, which is when it had the most opportunity to fall apart. I mean, when you have super heroes who disagree, it can't help but get physical, which intrinsically adds entertainment value.

Whedon's other main strength was what made me enjoy the movie during its entire duration. He has a knack for writing strong comedic dialogue. The sense of humour in The Avengers is what keeps it together. Because the film is not a complex or intellectual blockbuster like The Dark Knight, it runs the danger of becoming a shallow, special effects laden, bore like the Transformers movies. I have already read some reviews that compare it to them. But the humour is not juvenile and senseless, but comes from the truth of the characters as well as an acknowledgement of what kind of movie we're watching. It is able to have fun with itself without talking down to the audience. It shows that thin plots can be executed well.

The other most noteworthy aspect of the movie is the final half hour. At this point it's safe to say that audiences deserved a great action packed payoff for their years of loyalty to Marvel and their films. The trailers haven't hidden the fact that there is a huge battle in the middle of New York city and I will assure you that it's a remarkable spectacle of blockbuster entertainment. Unlike the Transformers movies (sorry for all the comparisons), the action is clear and avoids being overly redundant. This is arguably one of the best action sequences in the history of cinema and in a lot of ways it makes sense why. Each of these heroes have unique abilities and personalities that have been in development for years so it's clear why the action works as well as it did. In Transformers, many of the characters just looked like a big jumbled mechanical mess, but none of these heroes could be confused with one another. The big green Hulk can't get mixed up with the red, white, and blue Captain America. They all have a distinct fighting style, weapons, and mobility. This is also likely why the comics maintained success for as many years as it did.

On the subject of the Hulk, I have to mention that he winds up being one of the most entertaining characters in the film. The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner was very good, but this is the first time I've seen the Hulk portrayed in such a fun manner. Don't worry, he is menacing, but I like the Hulk the most as an ironically comedic character. It's the combination of stupidity and strength; it doesn't fail to make me laugh. And I have to say that while I would have liked Edward Norton as Banner for the sake of consistency, I do like Mark Ruffalo's performance. He plays the character to be a little more under control, but still haunted by the lurking monster that he has in himself. He also brings out more of Banner's intelligence, after all, he is a scientist when he's not mean and green.

Whether or not you enjoy the movie, and personally, I think it's hard to hate, one has to admit that The Avengers' success is a game changer. Other studios are likely raising their eyebrows and plotting over how they can also have a cross marketed movie like this one. I know that Warner Brothers is wanting to follow with the DC Comic universe, leading up to an eventual Justice League movie, but they'll need better films than The Green Lantern to get that off the ground. This also means that Joss Whedon might get a big break and be given a blank cheque for a passion project feature, but of course this is all speculative. What's clear is that the Summer movie season is off to an intimidatingly big start and I'm curious to see how the other top films dodge the shadow of The Avengers.

4 Stars

mewithoutYou - Ten Stories (2012)

mewithoutYou's latest album, Ten Stories is a significant release, but not just on a musical level. The band has joined the ranks of many great artists this day and age who have gone independent and self released their music. While they left their long relationship with Tooth & Nail records on good terms (unlike Radiohead and EMI), they felt it was time to move on and try something different. And why not? Their fan following was strong enough that the record label was no longer the source of security that it was. So, first I want to acknowledge to accomplishment of going independent and taking on the additional task of self promotion. It's no doubt a lot of work, but probably very rewarding.

One of the things I mentioned about their previous album It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright, was that taking that dramatic stylistic leap meant that they could go anywhere with their music. I imagine that it was very freeing. In Ten Stories, we reap the benefit from that decision. Though, unlike the last album, the scope of the album is not as easy to pinpoint. As such, my first impression of the album was admittedly a bit underwhelming. It wasn't just me though. I spoke with Jacke Karashae, a musician and fellow music reviewer, and after listening to it once he wasn't that impressed either. But I had enough faith in the band to give it another listen and found the second time was far more rewarding (as did Jacke Karashae). And by the third time, I came to really love it. This is something I find quite regularly with mewithoutYou's music; it rewards time and time again for the faithful listener. I am now a very big fan of Ten Stories. It is easily their most diverse and adventurous album that they've produced yet.

They definitely drifted back away from their folk sound, which they fully indulged with It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright and at times have returned to their hardcore rock roots, though as refined as it was in Brother, Sister. Though, it only appears on occasion in this album, starting with the opening track, “February, 1878” which seems like a followup to “January, 1979” off of Catch For Us The Foxes. I suppose the initial worry with this opening track is wondering if they would be playing it safe and defaulting back to their old style. I would say that worry leaves about half way through the song. Instead of playing folk songs, they explore various avenues of rock, which is actually a pretty diverse pallet to paint with. The songs drift flawlessly into one another, telling the story of a circus train which crashes as an elephant tries to free the other animals. They are no strangers to stories about animals as there have been consistent parables and metaphors with animals in the last two albums and even a little bit in their early work, but this is the first times that it has been a really clear and consistent story through the album. The story of Brother, Sister was very loose and more of an emotional arc than a real concept album.

The album never really drags. The structure is quite well thought out as every time the energy begins to wind down, it picks up again and goes through somewhat of a journey again. The fast paced songs are well spaced out and we travel through all sorts of moods and tempos. Some of the albums finest moments are the songs with the higher energy though. I am a big fan of “Cardiff Giant,” which has a light groove to it but takes some dramatic turns. I also thoroughly enjoy their fast and emotionally intense “Fox's Dream of the Log Flume.” “Elephant In The Dock” tells the story of the elephant being put on trial. It's actually quite dramatic and amusingly quotable. It seems a bit goofy at first glance, but it seems like the song is taking the subject matter very seriously. “The elephant refused to swear the oath, said 'I don't know anything about truth, but I know falsehood when I see it and it looks like this whole world you made.'”

Ten Stories finishes with the fantastic song, “All Circles” which doesn't journey far from its main hook, but it's so catchy and the simple lyrical loop is so addictive and clever that it leaves a great final impression on the album. I mean seriously, this is great: “All circles presuppose they'll end where they begin, but only in their leaving can they ever come back 'round.” It sounds terrific.

Ten Stories is an album that flows very naturally and feels remarkably sure considering how unfamiliar much of the territory is. With their last album, it was new and adventurous, but didn't always feel like the natural path for the band. I thought that they played folk rock well, but I think that the shortcomings of It's All Crazy... become more apparent because of how well this album succeeds. They play relatively more tame music than their old work, but it feels really natural and eased into. It seems that the band has found themselves in a comfortable place, not only in how accessible their music now is, but also it seems that they've found a way of blending their sounds into something that works for them. I've often enjoyed Aaron Weiss' vocal style, even though he doesn't come across as a naturally gifted singer. But I really feel like they make music that works for how he sings. And they haven't abandoned his shouting poetry style, but have found ways to fit it into their new accessible style. Often it's used as a way to elevate the emotion and drama near the end of a song. It actually works really well.

Brother, Sister is still the album that I hold very dear to me and I think the truth is that there isn't as much to connect to emotionally in Ten Stories, but I have to admit that from a songwriting standpoint, it holds up just as well. This is a really great album and I'm glad that they took this direction. This will probably go down as one of their best releases, but then again, I have no idea what they will do next. But I am looking forward to it. That much can be said for certain.

I also want to reflect a little bit on my overall mewithoutYou project that I've taken on this month. I think it was a good journey to look at their music in depth. I wouldn't do that with every artist, but the good part about their music is that it has a lot of substance and seems worthy to delve into. Hearing how they have evolved over the last decade is rewarding in that it's given me the opportunity to hear a band that has been willing to take risks, but still keep their music and lyrics uncompromisingly honest. I've come to appreciate them a whole lot more. They have become one of my favourite bands through this. So, if you haven't checked them out, I couldn't recommend it more. Thanks for reading.

5 Stars

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

At some point in the 2000's, it seemed that the Star Trek franchise, which had been a strong and memorable presence in both film and television for many years, was starting to jump the shark. Voyager has come to an end, the Next Generation crew hadn't had a genuinely good outing since 1996's First Contact, and the prequel show Enterprise was not well received by fans and was even cancelled early. I personally thought the show wasn't as bad as people thought, but I could see why they were frustrated with it. With viewers dwindling and popular opinion of the franchise being at its lowest, Paramount knew that they had to breathe life back into Star Trek. So, they brought in J.J. Abrams, the man who brought back Mission: Impossible back from the tomb where John Woo buried it.

The new Star Trek brought back Captain James T. Kirk, Spock, and the remaining crew of the Enterprise with a whole new cast and a fresh new time line, opening up a whole new universe of possibilities. The first film in this reboot was a lot of fun, flawed as it was, and was a pretty big hit, bringing the franchise back successfully. And now we have the sequel with Mr. Abrams back at the helm. And Into Darkness feels like a natural follow-up to the 2009 Star Trek, only the stakes are not as grand in scale, but instead much more personal.

Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), while on a mission, break the grand federation rule, the Prime Directive, landing Kirk in hot water. He gets demoted and Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) takes the Enterprise again with Kirk as his first officer. But before they even get to take the ship into space, there is an emergency on Earth. Starfleet Headquarters has been compromised with a large explosion taking out one of their archival facilities so they gather up all of the captains and first officers to debrief them on the man behind the attack, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who they plan to hunt down and capture. Through a turn of events that I would rather not reveal, Kirk gets command back of the Enterprise and tracks Harrison to Kronos, the home world of the Klingons, who aren't on good terms with the Federation right now.

Star Trek Into Darkness is mostly entertaining, but ultimately a very flawed movie. It has the sort of flaws that aren't obvious at first, but once the ride is done and you think about how it all played out, there is a level of disenchantment that happens as you start asking yourself questions. That being said, it's not a bad movie. First, let me talk about what really works.

Much like its predecessor, Into Darkness is a very well polished and professional looking work. Abrams has made a beautiful movie, colourful and shiny. He has a good tone too, balancing humour and drama without it seeming forced or artificial. It comes in part with the crucial understanding he has of the characters. Sometimes just by them being true to themselves, it winds up being kinda funny. Major props also goes to the talented cast who are filling in the big shoes of the original Star Trek cast. Particularly, the on screen chemistry between Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, which feels legitimately like two companions building up a realistic friendship. I think that this cast is so good, I could probably watch a movie of them trying to bake a cake and still think it's worth watching.

There are some legitimately tense scenes in the film, often leaving me to wonder how the Enterprise and its crew are going to get out of it alive, which is a good thing to wonder. Although, there were some plot points I was able to predict, there were also some turns that I didn't see coming. It's balanced well enough for me.

But onto some of the bad points. One of the problems is that I don't want to reveal too much. I would hate to spoil the movie for someone. But to vaguely get into it, there is a big betrayal of the Enterprise and its crew and in a lot of ways, I feel like there was a great opportunity missed to see the ramifications of that. It seems like a lot of the crucial stories were tied up and then swept under the rug. In fact, I can't help but feel like most of the third act was a bit clunky. This is where the flaws started to show. There were a few too many awkward parallels with a past Star Trek film. It seems like they were too busy trying to pay homage to please fans that they weren't really focused on the best way for the movie to play out. The end results might result in ticking off more fans. 

The big villain of the film seemed to me to be a bit over hyped. Perhaps he would have been more effective if he wasn't the front and centre of the marketing campaign, then his real identity might be more of a surprise. As it is, a lot of people apparently knew who he was going into the film, but it plays like it's a big plot twist. I heard rumours, but was surprised enough when it was revealed. I don't know if I should say too much more, but I feel that they were playing too much on people's previous knowledge of the character, and that he didn't actually do anything that made him more than just perhaps another homage. To Cumberbatch's credit, he did his own version of this character, but ultimately I felt that he wasn't well developed enough to be an interesting villain if you, say, didn't know what the name meant to the franchise. What would have been more interesting is if at some point we actually don't know if he's a bad guy or not. With Starfleet doing the things that it does as this movie plays out, there was opportunity for Cumberbatch to be in that grey area and possibly even win the audience over so that we can have even more interesting surprises. I feel like there were some lost opportunities in that respect.

That being said, Star Trek Into Darkness is never a terrible film and is often really good. The packaging is fine, but the hard truth is that the story does not hold up to scrutiny. It just isn't deeply considered enough and focuses too much on action sequences and not enough on fulfilling the promises it makes. At least the overall direction of the franchise still holds a lot of promise and will likely be taken into exciting places. You know, boldly go where no one has gone before... and all that.

2.5 Sour Grapes

Sufjan Stevens - Silver and Gold (2012)

I can't believe it's been six years since Sufjan Stevens released his collection of Christmas EPs called Songs For Christmas. I reviewed it a couple of years ago and found it to be one of the most diverse, encompassing, and even interactive Christmas albums. In a time where buying CDs is not really the norm, it was a package that was well worth picking up. And this year, seemingly out of nowhere, Sufjan announces a follow-up of five more Christmas EPs made over the last six years in a collection called Silver & Gold. Unfortunately, I can't discuss the physical contents of the album too much because I was only able to afford the digital copy this year, but all the music is there and that's the main feature of the album. The fact that there is more than that is really just a bonus to make it worth the investment of the physical purchase.

One thing I noticed right away about this album is that it starts to really reflect a departure from the format of the earlier Songs For Christmas as far as appearance goes. The first disc art is reflective of it, but by the second one, it starts to get a lot more diverse and eccentric in its art style. I can't say I'm too surprised considering the radical departure that Sufjan would take musically between Come on Feel the Illinoise and Age of Adz. One can't expect the same sort of output from one year to the next when an artist grows musically and personally.

Disc 1: Gloria

Like many of the previous discs from the last collection, there is a mix of original and classic material. It opens with a rendition of “Silent Night” which doesn't seem too adventurous at first, but it certainly transforms into something strange. Well, basically they play it with a theremin at the end and I don't think that song has ever been played with that instrument before. Apart from that, Stevens doesn't depart too much from what we have come to expect from his Christmas albums. His sound is diverse and playful and Christmas songs translate well into that style. It seems that this one was very much a collaborative effort as Aaron and Bryce Dessner, two founding members of alternative rock band The National, have co-writing credit on four of the songs.

The highlights of this collection is "Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You From Christmases Past" which is goofy, fun, and has a country twist, which is a precarious line to be walking, but somehow they pull it off. Also, there is the beautiful and tender "Carol Of St. Benjamin The Bearded One" which works as well as it does because of the poetic lyrics and Sufjan's singing. The cover songs for the most part are quite unusual choices, as he redoes really old British folk songs instead of the typical Christmas fare.

Disc 2: I Am Santa's Helper

This is a big change of pace in that out of all of the discs, this is the only one that is big enough to be a full LP. It has 23 songs, and while many of them are quite short, it is still over 40 minutes of material. It seems like most of these songs are smaller ideas that were collected together in an attempt to make a bigger better whole. I think it worked for the most part. The smaller and more simple songs make for much more raw material, which is a departure from Stevens' typical well polished and intricate songs. He also continues to cover really old folk songs, like he did in the last disc. Perhaps he felt that he played the other more typical holiday songs to death in the last collection. Sometimes though, I must confess that I wish some of these songs were a little more finished sounding, but I guess this time he went for quantity over quality and I suppose that's okay.

The winner of this collection for sure is “Christmas Woman” the longest song on here by a lot and, as such, the most developed. It is a pleasant mix of synthesized music and classic instrumentation and is overall just a really great song. It's also great hearing short musical solos of original music from Sufjan, such as “Mysteries of the Christmas Mist,” a primarily piano piece that wanders and explores some simple ideas, while sounding grand in delivery. And I don't know what is going on in "Eternal Happiness Or Woe," but it sure is fascinating.

Disc 3: Christmas Infinity Voyage

And as the cover art might suggest, Sufjan takes some radical turns in Christmas Infinity Voyage. If you look at what kind of music he was make at the time of this EP's creation, it makes a little bit of sense though. This was likely around the same time as the inception of Age of Adz, his still most recent studio album. And he changed quite a bit musically for that album and that is reflected in the music in here. It doesn't start off too different from most of his previous work as it opens with an expanded adaptation of “Angels We Have Heard On High” which eases us into some of the sounds we'll come to hear throughout. By the next track, we are thrust into a full electronic rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear” complete with glitchy beats and beeps and blips.

Actually, though this is only 9 tracks long, it has a longer run time than the last disc because it ends in the fifteen minute long “The Child with the Star on His Head.” That song is really hard to wrap your head around because it goes through a lot of different movements and some of them work better than others. It's one of his most experimental songs I've heard, that much can be said for sure, so he gets points for ambition. The most successful track on this one is the smart and deep “Christmas in the Room.” It really hits the mark because it most seamlessly integrates the different sounds of Sufjan's music, blending the heavy synthesizers with the calm guitar plucking.

Disc 4: Let It Snow

He brings the music a little closer to home with Let It Snow, which I am thankful for. Not to say that I didn't like the music on the last disc, but it sure was hard to take in at first. What makes this one unique is that Sufjan takes a back seat to a couple of the songs to let singer and song writer Cat Martino take the vocals for two tracks, one of which she wrote the music and lyrics for herself. There are a lot more of the popular classic Christmas songs on this one and only one single original song written by Sufjan, but his renditions are quite good and creative, often mixing some of his electronic sounds with the more traditional music that he does.

The highlights of the disc are first the song that Stevens writes, “X-Mas Spirit Catcher” which has fun with a jolly, festive sounding piano and jingle bells. Second is “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” which is a surprisingly dark sounding version of the song, which usually sounds so jolly.

Disc 5: Christmas Unicorn

It seems by this point Stevens has figured out the best way to integrate his love for electronic music in with his more traditional style. It takes a back seat for the most part and is used to accentuate moments that might otherwise not have the same impact. It actually sounds really good. It's a little more scaled back and seems to have a bit of a theme to it, which I haven't really caught in any of the other discs, at least not lyrically. In some of the original songs as well as the darker cover songs, it seems to portray a disenchanted vision of Christmas. "Justice Delivers Its Death" is the most dark and deep Christmas song I've ever heard, as it builds on the classic song “Silver and Gold” and takes it in a completely different direction. It's a sobering and sad song and well worth listening to.

The best tracks are “Up On The Housetop” which is a surprisingly dramatic version of the old song about Santa's journey. It's a complete re-imagining of the song and it works way better than I would have imagined. And of course there is the title track, which was the promotional song for when the whole collection was put up for presale. It was the ideal way to finish everything off as it is an epic twelve and a half minutes in length and again, seems to properly mix the best of Sufjan's musical styles. I think the lyrics are clever and often truthful and... I just like the image of a Christmas Unicorn. At first it seems comical, but if you think about what the symbolism is, it's not as funny. Perhaps what the “Christmas Unicorn” is supposed to be is the myths of Christmas in a physical form. Musically the song takes a few interesting turns, including mixing in a portion of Joy Division's classic new wave song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which I did not see coming. Can't complain though. That song is awesome.

Silver & Gold is a bit of a different experience than the previous Songs For Christmas. While in that one you hear the natural progression of Sufjan Stevens' music, in this one you hear the huge leaps he took from one year to another. Sufjan has really become kind of a strange guy, at least it feels that way through his music. Perhaps he got a little caught up in his eccentricities and has gone a little crazy. Or maybe he was always kind of crazy. I mean, I can't argue with the results though. Crazy and brilliant don't really contradict one another. It can be a little jarring at times, but musically it is still quite pleasing. And I'm glad he's kept up this tradition. It is by far one of the best Christmas music purchases you could make. It's over two and a half hours of music and even the digital copy comes with some art work to admire. It might be a little too much Christmas music to play this back to back with the previous Songs For Christmas collection, but if you space it out, Silver & Gold is definitely worth it.

5 Stars

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Silent Night (2012)

In my search for some alternative Christmas movies, I remembered a movie that came out last year called Silent Night. Apparently it's a very loose remake of a 1984 Christmas slasher film called Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was panned back when it was released, but has since garnered a cult following. Back in the day it was controversial to have a killer in a Santa suit, but nowadays nothing is sacred I guess. Audiences have seen it all and if there isn't a horror movie made about a holiday, it's only a matter of time.

I'm not really a horror movie fan in general. When done well I really appreciate them, but for the most part I find them ridden with clichés or just aiming to hit a gore quota or body count which gets pretty old fast. But I've seen a killer Santa movie or two in my time and they tend to pretty tongue in cheek and I like it when horror films are like that. Part horror, part comedy. But it didn't take too long into watching this movie that I quickly discovered that Silent Night was not going to be a fun, rollicking wink to the audience.

It takes place in a small town where a killer dresses up like Santa Claus and... kills people who he deems to be naughty. Enter Aubrey Bradimore (Jaime King) who is a widow and a police officer. She gets called into work on Christmas Eve despite trading the shift. Anyway, people are getting killed and they can't find the guy and they learn he's dressed up light Santa Claus, but so is everyone because it's Christmas Eve and there really isn't much more to it than that.

So, I think I'll just say it; this is a horrible film. It's not that it's particularly poorly made because as far as slasher movies go, it works. People die and it doesn't look cheap. The problem is that it's just so mean spirited and dreary. Even down to the look of the movie. All the colours are muted and given a cold blue treatment. I suspect this was intentional, but it really sucks the soul out of the movie. I think we underestimate what a colour pallet can do to the mood of a movie because it happens on a very subconscious level. It took me a while to figure out why I didn't even like looking at the picture, but I think that's the main reason.

The film lacks a subtle touch as we're forced to feel like the people Santa kills were okay to kill. I get that this is the idea behind the killer in that he only kills 'naughty' people, but they cram it down our throats that these people deserve to die so they act in ways that aren't realistically bad. For example, there is a priest who is so over the top in how sleazy he is. He emphasizes that he's a bad person with every word he says. Poor, poor performance. I couldn't have played it worse. Also there is a young girl who yells at her mother, smacks her heart pills out of her hand and demands a trip to the mall. Look, I get that some teenagers are materialistic, but this is just silly. It's like it's supposed to cushion the blow that she's about to get disembowelled by a killer. Well, no, it just feels like a writer trying to manipulate me into his narrow vision of morality and justice. And look, I know how movies work. It's all manipulation of audiences emotions, that's how films and any form of storytelling work. But skilled film makers do so without it feeling like you're being played. They do it with grace and dignity.

Actually, very few characters seemed to be likable to any degree. It's like a whole cast of shady characters so that we don't feel bad when they get axed, literally or figuratively. The few exceptions are Aubrey and her father (John B. Lowe), the latter being likeable to the point where it feels forced also. But I have to admit that Jaime King does a really good job carrying this film and makes for a smart and confident female lead with realistic vulnerabilities. They did a good job of developing her character and she played it with restraint and intelligence. That is a good thing to get right so someone knew what they were doing. It's a shame that she's the only well rounded person in a town full of clichés. I guess that's not fully accurate. One of the girls at the police station, Brenda (Ellen Wong) was a good character as was... umm... maybe that's it. Even Malcolm McDowell's character was oddly irrational at times despite the legendary actor giving the role a little bit of gusto.

I suspect that the reason Silent Night, Deadly Night was so hated by critics back in the day is for the same reason why 2012's Silent Night is dreadful to watch; it's no fun. It's gruesome, mean, and completely unoriginal. If you want some better alternatives, check out Christmas Evil from 1980, or the much sillier Santa's Slay from 2005, which has a lot more fun with a killer Santa. This movie made me appreciate that one all the more. Or you could skip killer Santas all together. I think I'll take a break from this genre for a while... Silent Night spoiled it a bit for me.

1 Lump of Coal

Peter Gabriel - So (1986)

Peter Gabriel has been one of the most creative and innovative figures in the music industry since the early 1970's when he was one of the founding members of progressive rock band Genesis. In 1975 he left Genesis for a number of reasons and pursued a solo career. He released four studio albums in the late 70's and early 80's, but things changed when in 1986 he released his most popular album So. I decided to review this album on a whim because I was listening to it and felt that I had a lot to say on it. Also, there happens to be a recent re-release as a 25th Anniversary edition so why not reflect a bit on the album and how it has endured over the years?

When I first heard So I wasn't very impressed. I liked the radio hits, but not much else caught my interest. I don't know why I kept coming back to it, but I did and it started to grow on me in a big way. It was one of those cases where track by track you realize that you like more songs than you don't. This isn't to say that this is a perfect album or even Peter Gabriel's best album, but one can certainly see why it has left an impression on pop culture. Gabriel's work has always varied, but that issue is really encapsulated in So. For all that it has to offer, one might argue that it's too ambitious for its run time and at times focuses on the weaker qualities of his music. It makes for a very imbalanced experience, but worth it for the rewards.

It opens with “Red Rain,” a killer of an opening track, filled with passion and confidence. It draws your attention with a terrific rhythm section, with the prolific player Tony Levin on bass, lending his talents to Gabriel's music as he did for all of his albums. What's great about this song is how well the pieces fit together. It's difficult to explain, but it can be at times difficult to pick out the different instruments and sections because of how well they are pieced together. There is a definite 80's stamp on the song, but in a good way. It's a promising start to the album.

It's followed by “Sledgehammer” which has a much more shameless 80's sound to it. I will certainly say that it is a fun song and an understandable hit for the era. The song is still well known for its music video which had groundbreaking effects when it came out. It's still an impressive display of artistic wizardry. It's curious, now that I have some more context of where Gabriel came from, that an innovative progressive musician such as he would create such a shameless pop hit like this, but its hard to argue with the results.

“Don't Give Up” is a duet sung with Kate Bush. How much I enjoy this track really depends on my mood. Sometimes I find it strangely boring, while other times I've grown to appreciate its tenderness. A lot of what works is Kate Bush's vocal contribution, which is really beautiful. I didn't like this song at all for a long time, but there is a genuine uplifting nature in it that can be encouraging at times. It's not my favourite, but I know it's a very moving song for a lot of people so the problem is likely with me. I do believe it's a bit too long though.

Well into the middle of the album we have “That Voice Again,” a somewhat uneven song with a strong chorus and relatively uninteresting verse section, but I think that works in the favour of the song overall as it helps amplify the better parts of the music. I enjoy it quite a bit.

“Mercy Street” is not a song I enjoy very much, and like “Don't Give Up” it is an uncomfortably long track. It's not horrible I suppose, it's just uneventful and lacks any significant hook to draw me in. And then it jumps right into “Big Time” which is a little jarring to be honest. It goes from one of the most subdued songs (probably ever) into a jumping 80's pop hit with heavy synthesizers and thumping bass. This song is very similar in tone to “Sledgehammer” and basically feels like a follow-up single. It's not one I love, but it's a fun track. It definitely lacks a subtle touch in the lyrical department, but it does what it supposed to I suppose.

After that the album takes a bit more of an artistic turn. “We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)” is a fascinating dark track, lead by eerie synthesizers and piano with very little vocal contribution until the very end. It's a real mood setter and feels like a truly unique entity. I really enjoy it. Then comes “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” which is a strange, groovy art piece. This is another track that grew on me quite a bit. There is something about the unusually synthetic synth sound used in it that reminds me of old video games, but also holds an element of mystery to it. In many releases of the album, this is the final track.

I bought the remastered version of the album in which “In Your Eyes” was moved from the fifth track to the final track. This was apparently what Peter Gabriel originally wanted so all versions will have it like this from this point forward. I decided to review it like this because it actually works a little better for me as well. And I can't express my love for “In Your Eyes” enough. I believe that it is the single best love song ever written, full of honesty and a truly earnest sorrow. It's one of his most famous songs and still gets occasional radio play, and I think that it's because it really captures what Gabriel is able to do right when he makes pop music. It's quite simple in construct, but delivers because it is accessible, memorable and honest.

So is an album that I find quite fascinating and feel compelled to revisit often, even if I feel that overall it is imperfect and could be so much better. Mostly the issue is that it is really inconsistent, at times delivering flamboyant pop hits, at other times passionate ballads. But sometimes I find myself drawn to albums that have clear imperfections. In some ways it is more transparent and you can see the artist more clearly. The ideas and ambition of the project are more obvious. I sometimes wonder if So would have benefited from some additional songs, maybe just one or two more, because at times it feels like it could have accomplished more than it does. Then again, at the time the album was in the age of vinyl and so it had to play within the confides of that medium.

This is a classic 80's album by many critics standards and I would agree that it has some absolutely brilliant moments. Peter Gabriel in general is a talent that I never get bored of and my respect for him and his music only grows with time. At times So is a bit dated, but for the most part the spirit of his music endures.

4 Stars

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Scrooged (1988)

Christmas movies are something kind of special because when they're any good, they really last and get watched year after year. And you know what? They often don't even have to really be any good. If you see them as a kid, one almost feels a sense of obligation to fulfil the holiday nostalgia quota in order to function through December. I've tried to remain as objective as possible toward the Christmas classics that I indulge in through the holiday season. What are classics for me aren't what everyone grew up with and felt attached to. For example, so many of my peers grew up with A Christmas Story, a tale about a young boy who wanted a toy gun for Christmas and has many misadventures at school and home. It warms their hearts and makes them remember when they were a kid so they will likely share with their children the movie and the chain will continue. Me? I watched A Christmas Story for the first time in my twenties and found it to be not particularly funny and poorly paced for a family film. This is a controversial opinion, I know, and I have nothing against the movie or any of its fans. I just don't like it. Sue me. I have a Christmas classic between my brothers and I though. When I first watched this film, it was on a VHS tape recorded off of TV so there were a few missing scenes filled in with commercial tails as my mom did the best she could to cut the ads out. So, every year my older brother and I would dig out from the collection of tapes full of old Star Trek: TNG episodes and Wonderful World of Disney specials the tape of Christmas specials. And we would often skip right to Richard Donner's Scrooged.

While I wasn't sure if I really could have an objective opinion of this movie, in reality, I think I can. There are a number of reasons. First, I have seen tons of adaptations of A Christmas Carol through the years and only a few of them I would watch again, especially over and over again. Next, when I first saw this movie, I wasn't the target audience. That's worth taking into consideration. This is a much more adult version of the movie compared to say, the Muppets version or Mickey's Christmas Carol. But I saw it when I was in my single digit years and I found it hilarious then. And I continued to find it hilarious the older I got for some of the same and different reasons. My perspective and understanding of the movie has changed but, most importantly, it is still funny. Funnier than before, in fact.

It follows Frank Cross (Bill Murray), the youngest Television Executive in the world who is known for making cut throat decisions in order to boost ratings. This includes showing a graphic and violent ad campaign (not to mention completely unrelated) for his live broadcast of A Christmas Carol on Christmas eve, firing an employee on Christmas eve for voicing a concern, and just generally being cheap and greedy. But that night he gets visited by his old dead and zombified boss who tells him that Frank needs to change in order to save his soul. He tells him that he will be visited by three ghosts. One will take him to his past, one his present, and one will show him his future.

Scrooged is a clever mix of satire and an honest retelling of the classic Charles Dickens story of A Christmas Carol. The events and the message are essentially the same so it is very true to the heart and soul of the story, but it takes place in a modern (well, late 80's) world where the story of A Christmas Carol exists and is over done like it is in real life. There is a layer of irony that Cross is trying to profit on playing the show and that he doesn't see his spiritual visit coming as he is more of a Scrooge than Ebeneezer is in the book. Who would? It's one thing to know the story and another to experience it. But I think what makes it very true to the book is near the end as Frank is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, the film really steers away from the comedy and takes its message seriously. It's a very surreal and grim picture that shouldn't have been turned comedic and Richard Donner knew that.

While the circumstances are very outrageous, they do well mixing that with the real world. There is a lot of very true humanity in many of the characters. So, even when Frank is over the top, he gets brought down to the real world and responds very honestly to what he sees in his employees and family outside of how they act around him. And, much like the classic story, we start to understand his motives and his character the more we see of his past. That leads to some very heartfelt moments which are crucial to invest the audience into the picture. Comedy is great, but the story needs heart to flourish.

Bill Murray is fantastic in the role of Frank Cross. What he is really great at portraying is a strangely realistic madness. Not to mention that, as the night progresses, Frank really starts to lose it and no one can lose their mind on screen quite like Bill Murray. Cross is a complicated man, with a tender heart, but hardened and corrupted by greed, just like Ebeneezer Scrooge. But as he starts to get closer to his past, by revisiting his lost love Claire, we see him trying, unprompted by the spirits that visit him, to make amends and rekindle that relationship. Naturally, she doesn't like what he's become and that's where the ghosts come in. But Murray is a great leading man and is able to make Cross, despite all of the despicable things he does, strangely charming and always fun to watch.

He is joined by a pretty capable cast including Bobcat Goldthwait, who plays the employee that Cross fired who quickly degenerates from a working man into a complete lunatic. He gives a stupendous and hilariously over the top performance. Karen Allen of Indiana Jones fame plays Claire and is a charming and very down to Earth love interest. You can see why Frank fell in love with her right away. Also of note is Alfre Woodard as Cross' assistant Grace, who counter's her boss' over the top personality with a very relateable and realistic woman who is just trying to work her best for the sake of her family. I'm leaving people out, but the whole cast is great, making a very colourful group of characters.

Scrooged seems to have some haters, so many I'm missing something. I don't know. I love it and I know I'm not the only one. That's fine; people can stick with A Christmas Story if that is what they prefer. Me? Apparently I like seeing rich businessmen go completely mad for the holidays, as is the holiday tradition for many. Who am I to break tradition anyway?

5 Stars

Sarah préfère la course (Sarah Prefers To Run) (2013)

I always make sure that every year at the Vancouver International Film Festival I see at least one Canadian film. This year I saw two, the other being The Dirties, and the second one was a Quebec film called Sarah préfère la course or Sarah Prefers to Run. I haven't seen a lot of French Canadian cinema, but I admire what I have seen. And Quebec has it figured out as far as making local films that their population actually wants to watch. You see, unlike the rest of Canada, the Quebecois actually go out to see locally made movies just as much, if not more than the typical blockbuster. Most of the rest of Canada watches American movies and ignores what we make, though it doesn't help that our films are really poorly marketed. Who even knows when the last Canadian produced feature got distributed in theatres? I don't know. I try to see them when I know their out... but I digress.

This film follows Sarah (Sophie Desmarais), a remarkable athlete as she finishes high school and has big plans to go to McGill University in Montreal where she can continue her competitive running. Her mother is not particular supportive and feels that the financial burden would be too much for them. Sarah does get support from a coworker named Antoine (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne), who wants to get away from his life also. He proposes moving to Montreal together and getting married for the sole purpose of receiving the financial assistance from the government for young couples that are going to school. And yeah, of course that's his only motivation.

Sarah Prefers to Run looks and feels like a festival sort of movie, appealing to art film fans and doesn't hold much mainstream appeal. This isn't a bad thing because it has seen a fair bit of success at the festivals its gone to. And I like it. I enjoy movies like this, but I know when I see them who they could draw in as an audience. But hey, that's why I go to VIFF. It's my chance to see films that I might not get the chance to see at multiplexes. Not to say that there is anything particularly challenging about the film, it just is slow and contemplative rather than obviously hilarious or dramatic. It is a film full of nuance and forces very little on the audience. This is because Sarah is a character of subtleties. She doesn't talk much and rarely does she really open up about herself.

I think that was the idea behind the film; to have a protagonist who is not particularly charismatic. In some ways we find ourselves in Antoine's shoes in that we feel great affection toward Sarah without much of an understanding why. We want to see her succeed and want to love her as a character, but she is closed off and as such, it makes the process a little bit frustrating. Sarah finds fulfilment in running and in some ways that is how she defines herself. So, while it is difficult to get close to Sarah, there is something to admire about her. She loves running and excels at it. She has found the thing in life that liberates her soul which is something that a lot of people in life do not find. We often define ourselves by our work or our family situation, but Sarah has found what it is that she wishes to pursue in life and to some degree she is single minded about that. Perhaps that's something to admire. I haven't decided. On another level it is a little bit sad that she doesn't find much else in life to enjoy.

Sarah is played by Sophie Desmarais who is a wonderful actress. Not many could play this part with this level of competency and I believe that a main reason this film works at all is because of her. Because this is essentially a character piece and Sarah is such a quiet character, Desmarais was a good choice in that she acts with her eyes. She communicates so much without using any words and despite playing a character who isn't very charismatic, she is very charming. In fact, I kinda find myself crushing on her. She is so fascinating to watch and is unbelievably beautiful in a modest and reserved way. It took me by surprise.

Sarah Prefers To Run is the feature film debut of Quebec City native Chloé Robichaud and at only 25 years old, she has a very promising career ahead of her. It is a confident and in depth piece she's written and directed here. And like I mentioned earlier, unlike many Canadian film makers, by being a Quebecois director, she actually could probably make a good living making films like this. I wish her the best of luck and am looking forward to seeing what she comes out with next.

3.5 Stars

Samsara (2011)

One of the most unusual releases in recent years is Samsara, which probably wasn't made for the mainstream market. Fair enough. The concept of the film is interesting enough. There is no obvious story for the film or even an obvious narrative. It is neither fiction nor documentary, but rather a visual journey through the world put entirely to music with no narration or cohesive story. Over the last few years, director and cinematographer Ron Fricke travelled the world and shot footage with 70mm film. Now, for those of you who don't know, standard film which most Hollywood films are still shot on is 35mm film. The bigger the film, the higher the resolution and the better the picture. Now, with digital cinema being much more common place these days, the picture would not have to be condensed nearly as much in a typical theatre as it would have been if it was transferred into 35mm, which it likely would have been if this movie came out even 6 years ago. Of course, even digital projectors can't play it at its full resolution; only IMAX cinemas can. What does this mean to the casual movie goer? Not that much, but I doubt the casual movie goer will have much interest in Samsara.

It is in some ways comparable to Life In A Day. That one showed different parts of the world in a single day through the eyes of common people. Samsara sees sees the world through the eyes of a single film maker through the course of a few years. It's interesting how we can see so many countries and similar places in the world, but the vision of the project is completely different. Perhaps they are the antithesis of one another. This one has professionals and a budget, where the other one had contributions from everyone and essentially was budgetless. Not to say that this is a big budget picture. I think the entire budget went toward flights and film stock. Very expensive film stock. Other than that, everything else was just capturing the world as it is.

And it does do that very well, for the most part. We get crisp and clear pictures of stunning architecture and natural beauty from all over the world. In fact, one of the things that bothers me about the movie is the fact that it doesn't tell you what you're seeing or where it is. You just are supposed to know... or not worry about it. To contrast, there are also many disturbing imaged throughout the world that we see, like how some foods are mass produced and marketed. Even with only the visuals, it's a pretty vivid picture and helps me appreciate my job all the more.

While watching the film, it at first seemed like a film that simply captured the world with the nonjudgmental eye of the camera lens, but it didn't take long before I saw that, while the camera lens may not be judging, I think that there was an agenda in the editing room. I think it's impossible to make art without some sort of loose agenda or bias of some sort. Not to say that this was loose either. There is a clear push against mass marketing and the treatment of women as sex objects, and rightfully so, but I'm not sure how enlightened we feel after just being inundated with the pictures. It can be frustrating to watch and be completely unable to actually help toward a solution. Though I suppose it isn't their responsibility to give us the solutions, but just bring a jarring awareness to the problems. These are of course, complicated problems where there is no clear solution. As you can see, even just by reflecting on the movie it leads the mind to wonder.

Samsara is certainly a film of vision and superb professionalism, handcrafted so that we can see the world through Ron Fricke's eyes for an hour and a half. Whether you appreciate what he sees is up to you, but I think at the very least there is some beautiful imagery. So, who is this movie for? A few people will love this one for sure. Cinematographers will appreciate it and may want to take notes. Cinephiles who are all about resolution and picture quality will want to see this if not simply because it was filmed entirely in 70mm film. Artsy people will love it because it's pretty and different. Me? Well, I was worried going into the film that I would be bored, but I certainly wasn't. Did I enjoy it? Perhaps. At the very least it was fascinating and offered some food for thought. That's more than I can give many other movies these days.

3.5 Stars