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Reviews of  Kinsey, Ray, Vera Drake, Around The Bend, Head In The Clouds, Being Julia, I (Heart) Huckabees, Stage Beauty, Wilby Wonderful, The Yes Men,The Motorcycle Diaries, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Maria Full of Grace, We Don't Live Here Anymore, Before Sunset and Intimate Strangers.

See the new ratings system for movies, at the bottom of the page!

Kinsey

For me, the strangest thing about this movie was that many of the people in the audience were laughing a lot. Apparently, they're the kind of people who find any candid talk about sex hilarious. Call me depraved, but it didn't affect me that way.

     I found the movie thought-provoking from a sociological point of view. It's esthetically appealing too, with some very touching scenes. There's a lovely flow to it, structured around Dr. Kinsey's answers to one of his own questionnaires. This provides a very effective device for telling his life story.

     Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, as Dr. and Mrs. Kinsey, both get the nod of approval from me, with some reservations. Ms. Linney bothered me, mostly at first, because she always seems a very contemporary woman. Without wanting to be pedantic about it, I think the way a person expresses herself in gesture and speech is very much shaped by the culture of her era. So I don't think a woman of the 1940s and 50s should sound like she just stepped out of her zen-yoga-consciousness-raising session. But you can't not like Ms. Linney for long. (The script soft-pedaled the face that Kinsey treated his wife pretty much as a slave, sexually and in every other way, as I understand it.)

     Ms. Linney's warm, comforting presence helped to offset Mr. Neeson's relentless intensity. He conveyed a convincing picture of an intriguing man but the way he hammered at every line really got to me. Granted, the script makes the point that  Kinsey was pretty obsessive. And I know it can be an occupational hazard for professors to sound like they're constantly lecturing, but it makes for tiresome listening after two hours.

     My main complaint with the movie is that it's too one-sided. Yes, it's important to know about all the hypocrisy and prudery around sex in previous generations. It did a lot of harm and it had to go. That was Kinsey's job. But I wanted the movie to go a little deeper, to ask more questions. Why does every society have sexual taboos? Mrs. Kinsey suggests at one  point that maybe sexual restrictions are there so that people won't get hurt. I wish that observation hadn't been blown off the way it was.

Rating: C (

Ray (Movie)

This was another case of a movie where the subject in itself didn't much interest me. Pop music is not my field. Come to that, is what Ray Charles did pop music? There, you see the problem. Put it another way: before seeing this movie, I couldn't have named one of Ray Charles' songs. But the previews made it look like this might be one of those star-is-born flics that I'm a sucker for.

     The trouble with telling somebody's whole life story in a movie is that lives are so linear. Just one damned thing after another. They don't naturally have a dramatic structure. To make a drama of somebody's life, you have to cut out all the ordinary bits. You're left with a whole lot of portentous scenes; everything's pointing to somewhere. You get great gobs of sententious speechifying. Cliches abound -- like the one about the celebrity dad missing his kid's baseball game. The women are all whores or saints.

    It doesn't help that the women playing the parts here never seem natural or real. You wonder how much experience they've had in movies. Nothing they say sounds spontaneous or tossed-off. They deliver every line of dialogue in italics which makes the dramatic meaning very clear.

    No such problem with the men. They're so laid-back, that it's hard to catch what they're saying much of the time. Not being an expert in the dialect, I missed the point of many scenes.

     But Jamie Fox, as the man himself, held my attention throughout. I always felt we were getting to know an authentic, complex person, a real hurtin' guy. And that guy's life story was plenty interesting without the melodramatic touches. Whether or not Mr. Fox was anything like the real Ray Charles, I wouldn't know.

     Surprisingly, I enjoyed the music. Not sure that it ever came clear what was so special about Ray Charles' style. Maybe that's more my fault than the movie's. At one point, it appeared that his unique contribution was to combine Rhythm and Blues with Gospel. Oh.

Rating: C

Vera Drake by Mike Leigh
 
 The previews made it perfectly clear what was in store: a mild-mannered woman is arrested in London in 1950 for performing abortions. The subject is extremely distasteful to me. I did not want to get drawn into what would probably turn out to be a "pro-choice" polemic. And I wondered how much clever writing it would take to make me believe that a nice wife and mother would defy the conventional morality of her day to such a horrific extent.
     And yet, it looked like the movie might be very good. The bang-on period detail, for instance: that grimy, brownish look of London in the 1950s, the clanky old tea kettle constantly making its way to the stove for another "cuppa". And where do the British get such real looking actors -- especially that apple-cheeked, scrubbed looking woman in the title role?
     So I braced myself and plunked down my money. At first, I thought Mr. Leigh was laying it on a bit thick in the attempt to establish Vera Drake's kindness: a virtual angel of mercy to the sick, the old, the depressed, inviting a lonely bachelor home for dinner, always compassionate, full of benevolence for everyone. Who are we dealing with here, St. Elizabeth of Hungary?
     Gradually, though, by the build-up of one authentic detail after another, the character of Vera Drake emerges fully-fleshed and believable. By concentrating on her, Mr. Leigh virtually side-steps questions of ethics and law; the film never wanders into abstractions. We become totally absorbed in Mrs. Drake's person and her life. One way that Mr. Leigh overcomes the credibility problem is that he makes Mrs. Drake very naive, as truly kind and selfless people sometimes are. Without revealing too much about one of the most intriguing plot details, let's just say that she is a pawn in a game that she doesn't fully understand.
     Imelda Staunton is astounding as Vera Drake. This is one of those performances where you can't believe you're seeing a contemporary actress up there on the screen; she is so totally the reincarnation of the egg lady who used to come to the back door of your family home in the 1950s. What fun it will be to see Ms. Staunton dolled up in the latest for the Academy Awards. She will surely be nominated. (Hope I've got her name right; it's not even listed on the ads!)
     The rest of the cast present the people in Vera Drake's life with the same authenticity. Every line of dialogue has the ring of truth. (Admittedly, the thick Cockney can be a touch impenetrable at times.) At one point, Mrs. Drake's family members are reminiscing about neighbourhood bombings during the war. Little do they suspect the catastrophe that's soon going to fall on them. The whole point is how a loving family copes in such a situation.
     And that accurate period detail does a lot to make everything real: the omnipresent cardigans, the badly -- or barely -- curled hair, the rarity of makeup. Wouldn't you know, Mrs. Drake keeps her equipment in a biscuit tin with a picture of an English country cottage on the cover.
     The attention to the period becomes especially telling in the scenes with the police. Those were the days when the law operated somewhat more casually, it seems. A frightened, timid woman could be taken to jail without the involvement of any family member of lawyer. On the other hand, the exchanges between prisoner and police could be liberally sprinkled on both sides with niceties like, "I'm sorry, dear," and "Thank you, luv."
     I was on the point of tears many times. What's even more rare for me: one scene made me laugh out loud. A droll marriage proposal, it has to go on record as one of the oddest ever seen on screen.
     Vera Drake just misses being a perfect work.Towards the end, some scenes threaten to lag: too much on-camera crying and sniffling. Once or twice, the dialogue barely sustains a scene. And, in an exception to the generally superb acting, the part of one pathetic young woman is over-acted.
     Eventually, there is brief reference to the two sides in the abortion debate. But the focus never strays far from the immediate concerns of Mrs. Drake and her family. Taking on one of the most divisive issues in our society, Mr. Leigh has made a film that is accessible to everyone because it speaks to our common humanity. Who is going to fault him for not taking sides?
 
 
Around The Bend
 
I could endure it for only half an hour. That could be partly because I'd just come from Vera Drake and the authenticity of that one spoiled me for the contrived superficiality of this one. In the part that I saw, Michael Caine played a grizzled old coot whose antics were supposed to be loveable. He lived with his grandson, Josh Lucas, who stood around looking like a greek god, except when he was limping. (Why are writers now giving beautiful people a bum leg? Is it supposed to be the one human flaw in an otherwise perfect specimen?) Mr. Lucas' little son is one of those movie cliches that has been around far too long: the cute, precocious kid who is, if the truth be told, somewhat insufferable. Christopher Walken crawls out from under a rock as Michael Caine's long lost son.
      At the part where I left, the Michael Caine character had just died (mercifully) and there was a lot of nonsense about his will, his ashes and the ashes of his dog (which had also just died) and some bags from a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. It might all have been bearable if it weren't for the musical score that was making a heroic effort worthy of Mahler's New World Symphony. Why do so many movies these days rely on an obtrusive score to try to convince us that we're having a good time when all it does is underline the paucity of the material?
     Maybe I should have given it a bit longer but I was beginning to be afraid that the Michael Caine character would rise from the dead and we would have to watch more of his repellent clowning.
 
 
Head In The Clouds
 
I kept wondering: is there any excuse for a movie like this? What are we supposed to get from it? What are the movie makers trying to do?
    Tell a story? Not very well. A rich, free-spirited photographer (Charlize Theron), based in Paris in the 1930s, casts a spell on a shy young Irishman (Stuart Townsend). His infatuation is incomprehensible, so it's hard to care much about their tumultuous affair. It's a long time since I've seen a movie that needed so much voice-over narrative and expository dialogue to keep us clued in. The scene shifts so often that titles keep informing us where we are and what year it is. Are we dealing with one of the sacred texts of English literature that requires such reverential adaptation to the screen? Hardly.
     Is sex the point of it all? Well, one scene offers a generous display of Ms. Theron's assets, but I want more for my $10.
     Scenery? I stopped going to movies for scenery when they killed Cinemascope. If I want scenery, I'll go to the zoo.
     Acting? Never mind that I've heard dialogue better handled in high school productions. Penelope Cruz does nice work as a waif-like victim but she's largely peripheral to the story. Mr. Townsend does two things well: blush and stare. Apart from that, any sense of a real person is lacking. Charlize Theron is a heck of a lot prettier than in Monster, but I liked her killer psychopath a lot more. In this movie, it's not the character's alley cat morals that turned me off. It's not her egotism or her abuse of other people. What incites my indignation is her complete lack of any sense of period style in her acting. This woman is straight out of the latest rock video. If any 1930s shy Irishman bumped into her, he would run straight home to Mommy.
     After an hour of their tedious falderol comes the Spanish Civil War, followed by the Second World War. We get a pastiche of Ernest Hemmingway, Mata Hari and the "Perils of Pauline" from the silent movies, train tracks and all. Heroism, bravery, self-sacrifice, spying and skulduggery of every kind bombard us like shrapnel. Finally some recognizable melodrama. What kept me hanging in? I was hoping to see that bitch played by Ms. Theron get what she had coming to her.
     One bit did grab me, though. After a desolate, wintry scene in the Spanish Civil War, we cut suddenly to a studio where ballerinas are rehearsing to tinkly piano music. The camera lingers lovingly on the dancers. To me, that juxtaposition said more by way of understatement than all the rest of the movie. Maybe Mr. Duigan has a great future ahead of him as a writer/director in silent movies.
 
 
Being Julia
 
This movie, based on a Somerset Maugham novel, recreates the London theatre world of the 1930s. That's why I went to see it. Dear old actor friends in Vancouver used to reminisce about beginning their careers in those glory days of the West End, when there was a steady supply of plays that just rolled on and on, in the days before tv and blockbusters. That was when theatres were plush with red velvet and gilt, bedrooms were awash in cream-coloured satin and supperclubs swam with champagne and crooners.
     Being Julia is a lot like the plays that were on offer then: corny, contrived, superficial, sentimental, melo-dramatic and over-the-top. I loved every minute of it. Everybody in it is gorgeous and very good. (If it didn't sound condescending, I would add: "including several Canadians in the cast".) Annette Benning plays an ageing doyenne of the stage who falls in love with a young American admirer. Ms. Benning totally convinced me that she belonged to the British theatrical aristocracy and I found her every bit as delicious as the young American did. Occasionally, her voice dropped to what seemed to me a somewhat more American-sounding growl, but what do I know?
     Actually, it's not fair to say the movie is as corny as those 1930s plays. There's a recurring theme about how the actress can't seem to distinguish between when she's acting and when she's not. That fascinated me. And, towards the end, the plot takes an unexpected turn that left me wondering what was going on. Turned out that a marvellous theatrical ploy was afoot and it was great fun. But, just so that you know I wasn't born yesterday, I first saw that kind of stunt pulled by Rosalind Russell in Gipsy.
     Just one scene struck me as a bit iffy. Would a young man come to his mommy's bedroom in the middle of the night to announce that he had just lost his virginity? I know the British are different, but really! Even so, the young actor played the scene so well that he made me believe it. In a later scene, he's superb when he confronts Mommy about her constant play-acting.
     It could be that nobody else will enjoy this movie so much but I left the theatre sighing that age-old lament: "Why don't they make them like that any more?" Come to think of it, they just did, didn't they?
 
I (Heart) Huckabees
 
This one I approached with only the vaguest idea that it was some kind of contemporary comedy with lots of Hollywood stars. Right off the top, their names appearing on the credits began to make me feel good. Maybe that's because I'd just suffered through the tony Brit theatricality of Stage Beauty. (See review below.) The wacky premise of this move also helped cheer me up. A guy (Jason Schwartzman) hires an "existential detective agency" to investigate some strange coincidences. The detectives (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) promise to find the meaning of existence for him but they'll have to infiltrate his life and spy on him in the most intimate ways. Already the movie has won lots of points from me, just by being so unlike most movies. I started thinking of Being John Malkovitch and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
     The goings-on here get pretty frantic at times. As with most farces, I couldn't follow all the twists and turns. Maybe you're not supposed to. At some point, Isabelle Huppert shows up with a competing theory of the meaning of life for the beleagured Mr. Schwartzman. He works for an environmental protection group (Huckabees) and there's a lot of palaver about saving a marshland and woods just outside town. But there's a bewilderingly commercial spin to this group. Like I say, you can't get all of it on first viewing. Jude Law seems to be one of the activists but he also appears willing to sell out to the capitalists.
     Usually one tries to separate the image of the stars from the appreciation of the movie. But we're dealing with big stars here and there's no overlooking it. In fact, that's what provides the major appeal of the movie. Take Ms. Tomlin and Mr. Hoffman: it struck me that there was something magnanimous about their lending their considerable weight to this goofy fluff. They come off looking like really good sports. Early on, Mr. Hoffman refers to himself as a guy in his sixties. That struck a chord with me. (Can't think why.) I thought: right, he's a rumpled guy with a face like a turtle and he's not pretending to be anything else. Ms. Tomlin pushes the sex appeal for all she's got -- which isn't much, inspite of four-inch spike heels and boobs busting out all over the place -- but, knowing Ms. Tomlin, you feel there's a self-mocking aspect to the tease.
    Did ever a camera drool more lovingly over male beauty than in the case of Jude Law? Here again, though, he plays against type. As the conflicted schmuck, he shows far more range -- and humour -- than in any of his previous roles. The key scene of the movie, for me, is the one where the detectives (i.e. therapists) force him to confront some unpleasant truths about himself. It's fascinating to watch the changing moods play across his gorgeous mug.
     But, for my money, the prize goes to Mark Wahlberg. Nowhere near Mr. Law on the beauty scale, he's the personification of the ordinary guy; yet he somehow makes his ordinariness so interesting and appealing. By no means a genius, his character still manages to show sensitivity and serious purpose -- all in a slightly skewed, comical vein. Who can not root for this red-licorice-chomping fireman who, for environmental reasons, refuses to ride the gas-guzzling fire truck, but insists on rushing to fires on his bicycle?
     Throughout the movie, there's constant reference to a big pop star who supports the push to save the endangered lands. She does eventually make a funny cameo appearance. Not to give everything away, let's just say that I think she sings a sort of country music and she's from Northern Ontario. I've never seen her before but she turns out to be very pretty. She apparently also has a sense of humour about herself.
 
 
Stage Beauty
 
It's the Restoration period in England and Billly Crudup is a male actor much celebrated for his portrayals of women. His livelihood is threatened when King Charles II decides to allow women to perform on stage. The scene keeps shifting back and forth from the opulence of the court to the grungy world of London theatres, with one idyllic break in the countryside.
     You'd think a movie with lots of royalty and theatre, with a fair dollop of history thrown in, would be enough to entertain an aesthete like me. So why didn't it? At first, it seemed to me that what was missing was a love story. Plenty of sleazy sex but no emotional follow-through. Mostly it's about the business of acting, the changes in the laws governing it and the plight of actors. I had the feeling that we were supposed to be satisfied with the spectacle and to congratulate ourselves on picking up a bit of culture. Too much theatricality and not enough drama. Not to mention an intrusive musical soundtrack that was trying to make up for the feeling that was lacking on screen.
     In the last half hour, the movie shows Mr. Crudup's character undergoing some pretty heavy crises in terms of identity, sexual and otherwise. If we'd not been distracted by so much pomp and panoply earlier on, we might have been able to sympathize with him more. Apparently, this movie is an adaptation of a stage play.The material might have worked better on stage. Given the limitations of the theatre, it would have been necessary to narrow the focus considerably and there might not have been so much distraction with all the possibilities that the opening-out of movies allows.
     Not to fault any of the actors. For a pretty-faced stud from Hollywood, it could be considered a bit risky for Mr. Crudup to take such a role. (He's not at all pretty as a woman, no matter what the script says.) Although he doesn't manage all aspects of the character's complexities, he carries it off with dignity. I'll never forget Rupert Everett's hilariously campy King Charles. Claire Danes comes off prettily, except that she conveys no sense whatever of period style. From the outset, it's obvious that she's a modern actress and it's pretty clear what that's going to mean an hour down the road.
     It's becoming something of a cliche to see bad acting that miraculously turns to gold. Still, the splendid ending of this movie made me wish that I had liked the whole thing more. Our horribly hammy and wooden thespians end up jumping about two hundred and fifty years forward in theatre history to anticipate the Stanislavsky method. Mr. Crudup, now playing Othello, becomes Marlon Brando, and Ms. Danes, as Ophelia, turns out to be who she was all along -- Gweneth Paltrow. I found the results quite thrilling. So did King Charles and his entourage. In my case, though, I couldn't help suspecting that it had something to do with the huge modern orchestra striving  mightly just offscreen to heighten the tension. 
    
 
 
Wilby Wonderful (written and directed by Daniel MacIvor)
 
They say a good movie or play should take you on a journey.This movie isn't great but the distance travelled in terms of my appreciation was huge: from utter loathing to mild satisfaction.
     It starts with a suicide attempt. A man gets out of his car and walks to a bridge. We get a shot of his shoes splashing through a puddle. Why? The ground all around is dry. But this is a movie, so we need portentous closeups. When his suicide attempt is interrupted, the man gets his foot caught in the girders of the bridge. There's no reason why this should happen to any moderately co-ordinated person; you can see the actor's pretending his foot is caught. But, hey, this gives us another dramatic moment.
    And on it goes in this relentlessly hokey and contrived way. The schtick of the constantly interrupted suicide attempt keeps recurring and yet we are supposed to take the man seriously. In this small island community (somewhere in Nova Scotia apparently), people keep muttering about some dastardly business at "The Watch", a rocky lookout by the sea. This plot element eventually turns out to be nothing but the most commonplace and trite of political/business scams. Sandra Oh runs around as a hyper-kinetic real estate agent who seems to think she's in Manhattan. For lack of great scenery, we get long, lingering closeups of Paul Gross (plus 30 pounds since his Mountie days). As the local cop, he represents decency, open-mindedness and fairness, as well as sex appeal. Not one of the people seems real, not a genuine note anywhere. A cutesy guitar accompaniment doesn't help.
     I kept wondering: how do people get so much government funding for projects like this? A cynic would say it's because they belong to a closed club of filmmakers and funding agencies who support each other's work loyally and blindly. But I tried to think of some other justification for the movie. Did it have anything to say? Was there any original thought offered? The movie seemed to be trying to tell us that boring, banal lives are charming because they're taking place in a small, remote community: this is Canadiana! But didn't we get out fill of that with the Beachcombers years ago? As far as I know, nobody made the mistake of trying to turn that fluff into a feature movie.
     Half an hour should be long enough to waste on a movie that isn't earning your attention. In an effort to be fair, I was still hanging in at the 45-minute mark. And then something made me want to stay.Maybe it was the cinematography. Every now and then, they'd all shut up and we'd see curtains blowing in the wind while chickadees cheeped outside. One very effective scene had the camera panning from room to room through an empty house and finding a man standing at a window crying.
     These people did turn out to be interesting and to have something to say for themselves. A gay encounter was handled very sensitively, in an under-stated way. A teenage girl, the mayor's daughter, caught the essence of every adult's nightmare of the diffident teenager: she so rolled her eyes at everything they said. You had to admire the truth of the acting. There were moments of reconciliation, forgiveness, self-discovery. Even the guitar began to work for me. I was touched. But I almost didn't get through the touristy kitsch to reach the good stuff.
    
 
 
The Yes Men
 
I went to this movie with only the vaguest idea of it: something about some guys making fun of corporate culture, or something like that. I didn't know whether it was documentary, mockumentary, comedy, fiction, reality or what, but it seemed like the kind of off-beat thing I was in the mood for that day. If you want to see it as unprepared as I was, skip the next paragraph.
     If, however, you want a bit of background, here it is. These "Yes Men" had set up a website modelled on the World Trade Organization's website but their purpose was to ridicule the WTO from a left-wing stance. They started getting emails and invitations from groups who thought they really did represent the WTO. Deciding to take up the invitations, they delivered some crazy speeches and stunts, pushing their own anti-globalization agenda. Pretty much nobody caught on. Oh yeah, all this really did happen. It's not fiction. At least, I think it's not. And a documentary crew followed the guys around on their antics.
     At first, the movie just irritated me. Was I simply too old, too comfortable, too complacent to enjoy the guerilla tactics of these young upstarts? But a scene about half way through won me over. The Yes Men visited a guy they had formerly conned in a tv debate, a leftist like themselves. It was fascinating to watch the realization slowly dawn on him that he'd been had. He broke into a hearty laugh and offered them his magnanimous congratulations.
     This isn't a great documentary with the kind of impact that Michael Moore's have. The movie-making is workman-like rather than inspired. The hand-held camera is annoying but not unbearable. The young man who spins out sanctimonious-sounding gobbledy gook to unsuspecting audiences, while posing as a WTO spokesman, shows himself something of a genius at improv comedy.
     But the movie raises some questions it doesn't answer. First, what's with the camera following these guys everywhere? Are people so inured to the incursions of the media these days that they accept a video camera in the corner at every private meeting? I would have appreciated some explanation of how the documentary came to be made. Without that, you can't help wondering if some of the scenes are re-enactments.
     More importantly, there's a huge question lurking just under the surface and these guys seem never to have noticed it: why do people tend to believe what they're told? (I think it has to do with context.) It's all very well to be sympathetic to the radical agenda of the activists, but that doesn't mean that the people who don't catch the satire are stupid or corrupt. Most people, through courtesy or the attempt to be fair, tend to reserve judgement when they hear suspicious-sounding pronouncements coming from the podium. Significantly, it was only a college crowd that openly rebelled against the platitudinous nonsense that the Yes Men were spouting. I think the documentary should have asked why.
 
 
The Motorcycle Diaries
 
In the late 1960s, Che Guevera was hot among the wild and crazy young Canadians who had fled west to find themselves on the beaches of Vancouver. You had to be big on Che if you wanted to establish your credentials as a radical among all those would-be actors and artists. I got to the point that I could recognize his image on a t-shirt. There was a play about him (at the Arts Club, I think) but all I remember about it was that an actress friend of mine refused to audition because her character, a female soldier, would have to get down on her knees in the jungle and perform oral sex on him. Although I've read about him in the years since, I can never remember what country it was that he was so keen on liberating. Didn't he have something to do with the Cuban Revolution? Was that where he died? Wasn't he assassinated?
     For me, then, going to this movie wasn't like paying homage to a personal hero, more like trying to find out more about somebody I thought I should know more about. The movie tells the story of Che's trip around the perimeter of South America in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado when they were in their 20s. We get their departure from their comfortable, upper middle class homes in Buenos Aires, the romantic farewell to Che's rich girlfriend, then their hitting the open road on a rickety motorcycle.
     About ten minutes in, the uncomfortable reflection hit me that I don't much like road movies. I prefer movies with narrower limits in terms of cast and settings, where people are forced to stand and deal with their problems, rather than just lurching from one adventure to the next. Would there be any reason for watching this particular odyssey if it wasn't for the fact that one of the men eventually became famous?
     At some point, the movie started working for me on its own terms, as a story about two men, regardless of the historical and political overtones. The first scene that really grabbed me was a dance in a town hall in Chile where the locals were whooping it up 1950s style; it looked like a lot of fun. Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Che, and Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto) are both good actors, with lots of interesting chemistry happening between them. Unlike most up-the-creek adventure movies, there's a realistic, natural feel to this one: just a couple of ill-prepared dreamers heading out on a foolish project where everything inevitably goes wrong. There's no attempt to make everything hilarious or overly dramatic.
     So I could identify with these guys. Reminded me of escapades with my wild Vancouver friends. True to my memories of those situations, the two guys are furious with each other more often than not. That makes for an awful lot of swearing; I kept trying to pick out the really bad words in the Spanish soundtrack but I could only identify one that I knew already.
     Gradually we begin to see the radicalization of Che as he meets indigenous people who have been kicked off their land by greedy landlords. Again, there's nothing melodramatic or sensational: just a series of small, quiet encounters, building slowly. The pacing of the movie helps. After lots of yelling between the two men, you get scenes that are almost totally silent. The really important stuff, you can tell, is happening in Che's mind. For a while it bothered me that Signor Bernal's rather pretty good looks didn't match the ferocious image of the t-shirt but he gradually won me over with his ingenuous, laid-back style of acting.
     I don't know whether Che was as nice a man as the movie makes him out to be (that business in the jungle after all!) but it did make me more interested in him as a person, not just a totem. One of the most humanizing things is his asthma. It's not often that you see a hero with such a debilitating weakness. (Don't talk to me about Superman and kryptonite, please.) And those asthma attacks were some of the most squirm-making scenes I've had to watch in a movie lately.
 
 
Napoleon Dynamite
 
     A friend of mine often chooses movies on the basis of how long they stay around. He may not be interested at all in a movie at first but, if it hangs on long enough, he figures it must be worth seeing. That sounds to me a bit like succumbing to mob rule. However, I was beginning to wonder about this one, given its four months of staying power. One afternoon when I was too tired for anything but silly escapism, this seemed the best thing on offer.
     All I could remember hearing was that it had something to do with a high school nerd. Does it ever. This kid Napoleon raises the perennial dinner table question around our house: what is the difference between a nerd and a geek? A beanpole with a mop of curly hair and large glasses, Napoleon (could be a touch of irony in that name) wanders around with his mouth hanging open and his eyelids lowered; he almost never makes eye contact with anybody. His older brother (dork or wimp?) spends most of the day on Internet chat rooms and when he wants to go to town, he dons his in-line skates and Napoleon tows him down the road behind his bike. Their uncle (sleazeball or scumbag?) dreams up schemes like selling women herbs to enlarge their breasts but he himself falls for a scam about buying a time machine. His dykey-looking mother goes in for extreme dune buggy riding.
     These people live in a tacky bungalow on the edge of some godforsaken town on the sunbaked plains of Idaho. It would be going too far to say they're the bottom feeders in the human pond but there sure isn't much transcendence going on. It's all very droll and presumably meant to be funny but it wasn't amusing me. I began to wonder: is it just that I'm too far removed from this scene? Is there anything in this movie for a snob like me?
     Well, yes. I could admire the excellent acting. The cast have definitely nailed the awfulness of a certain kind of people and their crummy lives. But why wasn't the movie working for me? Maybe the pace was too slow. It felt a bit like watching a Fringe play by some good actors who have created some weird characters but don't quite know how to whip them into an effective play.
     It's not giving much away to say that, given the way movies go, a guy like this Napolen has got to have his day. When it came, I enjoyed it very much. It showcased some amazing prowess on the part of the actor (can't find his name). Another surprise: after the credits, when nearly everybody had left, along came a five-minute scene that added a nice touch. It felt like it was wasted on the empty theatre, more or less the way lots of neat bits evaporated into that hot Idaho air without creating much effect.
    
Garden State
 
    Everybody was telling me this was the kind of movie I would especially like: genuine people in situations that are real  but not ones you see constantly in movies. Well, there's some of that. A young man attending his mother's burial notices that the grave diggers lounging on their equipment are old school buddies of his. A mother's burial is juxtaposed with a hamster's. (But didn't we get the funny speech over the family pet's burial in Steve Martin's Cheaper By the Dozen?). Sometimes, the movie strives too hard for quirky: a young millionaire drives around inside his furniture-less mansion on a golf cart.
    What bothers me most about this movie is the pack of repellent young people who lie around smoking, ingesting and swilling unknown substances in ways I don't want to know about. They also frequent secret corridors where they spy on prostitutes who are only doing their jobs in hotel rooms. There's some business about robbing graves; a highly implausible endeavour the way it's carried off, but we're supposed to accept it as an integral element of the sentimental resolution of the story.
     When the bereaved young man (Zach Braff) gets away from these obnoxious friends, we find out about some pretty heavy duty problems in his past. Mr. Brach needs to be told by a director that he is over-acting, especially with his eyes. But that observation isn't likely to be forthcoming because Mr. Brach is is own director. Still, the exploration of his character's psyche is compelling.
    Not so, his romantic entanglement. He and Natalie Portman are far too beautiful for the low-budget feeling that the movie seems to be aiming at. Ms. Portman is apparently meant to represent a kooky, somewhat marginalized young woman. For me, she's Hollywood all the way.
     So is the ending.
 
    Maria Full of Grace
 
    This is one of those cases where, thanks to previews and general buzz, you can't help but be aware of the premise. So you sit through a half-hour of setup, wondering when we're going to get to the main event: a poor girl's ordeal as a "mule" transporting drugs from Colombia to the US in her stomach. Dreading what was to come, I kept asking whether my social conscience demanded my attendance. Granted, we have to know about the horrible things some people are made to endure, but do we have to have our noses rubbed in them?
    The movie comes through in the crunch, though. Once the bad stuff starts, it's taut and suspenseful. Thankfully, we aren't subjected to too much gruesome clinical detail. The young woman becomes increasingly interesting as we watch her cope with each new twist of fate: a study in bravery and stoicism.
   
 
 
We Don't Live Here Anymore
 
    Two couples stumble around at a drunken house party. Both husbands are  college professors. Sex and treachery are in the air. If this brings Edward Albee to mind, that's too bad. The repartee in this group soars around the level of "I'm sick of this bullshit," and "Can we please not talk about this now?"
     Ok, so maybe it's not a movie about dialogue. Photography maybe? There are lots of arty close-ups, clever cuts from one character (if you can call them that) to another.  Anything else to like? Oh yeah, snippets of really good classical-sounding music. (A Beethoven quartet, perhaps but, for reasons which will become apparent, I did not see the credits.) And glimpses of some rather good looking paintings on the walls.
     A few years back, Marc Ruffalo thrilled me in You Can Count on Me. Since then, I have been counting on him -- with diminishing satisfaction. His roles have never been as good as that first one, but he always managed to bring something unique to each one. I don't think he can sink any lower than this. The one good thing is that it answers the eternal conundrum: which is more important, the actor or the script?
     It's not that I didn't try to like these characters. I was fine with the adulterous screwing around, the crude language, the boredom and the monotony of their lives, the stupidity and the banality of the dialogue. In the end, it was the smoking that did it to me. The smoking is more passionate than the sex.
     Are we suppposed to care about these people? One of the women mentioned watching a gorilla defecate in the zoo. It made her cry; he looked to trapped. (This was the most moving moment of the movie -- in more ways than one.)
     Unlike the poor gorilla, I could escape. I did.
 
Before Sunset
 
    Not having seen Before Sunrise, I may not have been in the best position to appreciate this one, but I enjoyed it very much. Amazing, how they keep the light, funny conversation bouncing like an iridiscent bubble on the air. My mind wandered occasionally, but that may not be a fault of the movie. I found myself marvelling at how well they met the technical challenge of filming over several days on the streets of Paris -- through changing weather and light, different traffic conditions -- and making it seem like a spontaneous conversation taking place in an hour and a half of real time. Essentially, it's light and amusing. What makes it work is the quirky charm of the actors, their humour and the chemistry between them. Yet, my mind keeps going back to certain things mentioned and pondering them. So maybe there are hidden depths lurking there (in the movie, not my mind). In the genre of romantic brief encounters, this is bound to be a classic.
 
Intimate Strangers
 
    Good thing I'd forgotten hearing anything about this movie. The narrative set-up works best if you don't know what's coming. A grim-faced woman stomps along the streets of Paris on her way to a doctor's appointment. An abortion? Cancer? Nothing turns out the way you -- or the characters -- are expecting.
    The result is a thoroughly engaging movie about one person gradually revealing herself to another. (Psychological striptease, anyone?) A witty film about character, it's not so sophisticated that it doesn't have some surprising twists and shocks. Some later developments stretch credulity, but they don't ruin the overall feeling of realness.
     For instance, a lawyer's secretary turns out to be an elderly, overweight woman in pantsuits. This isn't a typical film secretary. She is the way she is just because that's the way she is. Same with the male lead. (Sorry, I can't remember the actor's name.) An unpreposessing man, he has no star quality. You think it's going to be boring watching him. But it becomes fascinating to see his life unfold bit by bit: the way he cooks his meals, the toys he buys himself, his housekeeping habits. I kept thinking of an older Adam Sandler -- a somewhat nerdy everyman. There's not much similarity between the two actors, apart from a rather toothy smile. Maybe the comparison came to mind because of the quality of the acting: a certain blankness that hints at a depth of feeling which the clown mask is hiding.
 
 

My readers have been clamouring for a rating system for movies and videos. I strenuously resist the quantification of works of art. Why can't people just read the reviews and make up their own minds without resorting to the short-cut of some rating system? On the other hand, I can understand the desire for a quick check list that can be printed out and taken to the video store. So, being an inveterate people-pleaser, I feel it incumbent upon me to try to come up with some compromise that will serve both my artistic principles and the needs of my readers. What I've settled on, for the time being, is a list of qualitative comments. I feel that's fair since we're talking about my response rather than a supposedly objective score. (I realize it wouldn't take a lot of brains to convert my ratings into a quantified system. If you choose to do so, that's your decision. My conscience is clear.)
 
Here, then, are the comments:
 
A = Absolutely fantastic
B = Better than most
C = Certainly worth seeing
D = Divided: some good, some bad
E = Eh? (as in the Canadian interrogation), meaning iffy
F = Forgettable
G = Gawdawful
 
I don't expect the A rating to appear very often because they don't make many great movies. The G will probably not turn up often because it's not likely that I would stumble into such a movie unless somebody gives me a really bum steer or I am desperate. (An instance: one Sunday night in Saskatoon, when everything else was closed, even restaurants, I found myself in a theatre watching Patch Adams to get out of the cold. The cold would have been preferable.)
 
So....the ratings for the movies reviewed above are:
 
Vera Drake: B+
Around the Bend: E
Head In The Clouds: E
Being Julia: B
I (Heart) Huckabees: B
Stage Beauty: D
Wilby Wonderful: D
The Yes Men: C
The Motorcycle Diaries: B
Napoleon Dynamite: D
Garden State: C
Maria Full of Grace: C
We Don't Live Here Anymore: F
Before Sunset: B
Intimate Strangers: C
 
Please remember: These ratings are totally about my personal responses. I don't attempt to predict how anybody else will respond.