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Judge Adam Arseneau • Location: Waterdown, ON Canada
• Member since: May 2003
• 450 full reviews
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September 16th, 2007 9:12PM

Director: Takashi Miike

A frenetic loose re-working of Sergio Corbucci's seminal spaghetti Western classic Django, prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s newest film SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (all in caps) is as ostentatious and outrageous as the title might imply. A cross-cultural death match between samurai action films of the 1970s and spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, Miike pulls out all the stops and systematically dismantles two fine cinematic traditions, juicing them for all their pop culture sensibility.

A lone gunman wanders into a deserted ghost town, led by tales of a buried treasure hidden somewhere in the village. When he arrives, he finds the town decimated by two rival gangs—the Reds and the Whites—both in search of said treasure and permanently camped out on each side of the town. The villagers have mostly fled, been killed or enslaved by the gangs. Both gangs immediately try to recruit the new arrival to their respective side, but the enigmatic gunman has seen Yojimbo, so to speak, and will happily pair up with whichever side is prepared to offer him a larger cut of the treasure.

That’s all you really need to know about the plot, such as it is. Miike spins three tales, the War of the Roses in England, the Genpei War in Japan and a spaghetti western like a juggler, keeping all three afloat simultaneously at the expense of logic and common sense. This is an adventure, pure and simple, and the plot is a shifting superfluous thing, not to be taken seriously. This is a film about fun, the pure exuberant joy in reckless filmmaking, of being able to say, “Let’s give that guy a crossbow!” and not have to worry about the historical contexts or the logical fallacy, only on the inherent badassery of it.

Western audiences (the people, not the film genre) watching SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO might be a similar experiences of Japanese audiences going to see Tarantino’s Kill Bill, like a cross-cultural reversal of sorts. In both, you have a foreign pop-culture junkie (mis)appropriating a genre from another country, shoving it in the blender, and feeding it back to the country of origin. The end result, part homage, part utter retardation has little to do with the aforementioned genre, but is outrageously fascinating and entertaining all the same. This comparison is made all the more apparent by Miike casting Tarantino in SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO as a grizzled foreign gunslinger, a cute tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of Miike pandering to his North American audience and creative counterpart in crime.

In full parody mode, Miike seamlessly straps samurai swords to the sides of cowboys, melding two of the most testosterone-laden genres together in a no-holds-barred bloodbath, like Yojimbo versus the Man With No Name. To make things even stranger, all the actors perform their dialogue in phonetic English to outrageous results. Having Japanese actors miming in English, usually with horribly hammy delivery and outrageous enunciation gives the already surreal film an extra layer of absurd otherworldly alien activity, like dozens of test-tubed cloned William Shatners delivering their jilted dialogue en masse. It... is very… strange!

The odd thing about such an outrageous film premise is that SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO is surprisingly coherent, straightforward and enjoyable… three quantifiers not often applied in conjunction with a Miike film. But here, finally, is a film Miike could sell to a Western audience at large, doubly so if you slap a "Quentin Tarantino presents..." logo atop it. In truth, this bizarre hodge-podge of genres could only be pulled off by a director as dysfunctional and fascinating as Miike. But unlike past Miike offerings, a mainstream English audience might actually enjoy this film; or at the very least, not vomit and break out into tears en masse, the expected reaction to the average Miike film.

Though tamer by numerous levels of magnitude than his usual work, Takashi Miike still manages to cram in his esoteric touches here and there to make SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO worthy of his weirdness. From the castrated gunshot victims to the Shakespeare-quoting samurai to the mysterious coffin being pulled around throughout the town (fans of Django will know its contents), at no point do we forget who is directing this film. The difference here is, Miike clearly wants his audiences to enjoy this experience on a purely sensual level—he gives us explosions, gunfights, swordfights, every manner of action cliché run awry, and eschews on any deeper visceral explorations that hallmark his normal repertoire. This is pure surface level filmmaking at its most fun--simple plot, bad acting, outrageous action and violence, and nothing even remotely challenging about it. It goes no deeper. SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO does not challenge, or create controversy, expose anxiety in its audience. It simply is the ultimate expression of bubblegum pop-cultural cimena run awry.

This isn't Miike's best work by far, but the elements that hinder the film also make it one of his most enjoyable to audiences. By dropping the gore, the guts and the genitals, Takashi Miike has dummied things down for his audience somewhat, but in exchange, has produced the most straightforwardly enjoyable film of his recent career. You give a little, you get a little.

Verdict: 85/100

Review: Juno
September 12th, 2007 11:34AM

Director: Jason Reitman

Following up his debut film Thank You For Smoking at the Toronto International Film Festival two years ago, Jason Reitman (son of prolific comedic director Ivan Reitman) returns with his sophomore effort, Juno, a quirky teen comedy about open adoption. So, he goes from tobacco lobbyists, right into teen pregnancy? You gotta give it to the guy, he likes a comedic challenge.

Like Knocked Up set a generation back with sixteen year-olds instead of thirty-somethings, Juno thrives on embarrassment and teenage ridiculousness to fuel its comedic flames; not in the style of a typical profanity-laden gross-out teen comedy, but one that utilizes wit and panache, quick alliterations and wordplay to achieve its laughs. By today’s filthy standards, it barely even curses, which is unexpectedly refreshing in a comedy. Imagine instead a John Hughes film on methamphetamines, the coming-of-age quirks and teen angst sped up to lucrative speeds to keep pace with the current generation. The end result is a surprisingly tender and romantic comedy full of acerbic wit, snappy dialogue, outrageous performances and a tour-de-force performance from young Canadian actress Ellen Page (Hard Candy).

Sixteen year-old hipster Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) has a problem. After a night of exploration with her dorky boyfriend Bleeker (Michael Cera, Superbad) she winds up pregnant and completely unprepared as to what to do. She considers an abortion, but gets freaked out and decides to give the kid up in an open adoption instead. Except that she isn't about to give her baby up to dorks—she might be totally unprepared for motherhood, but she has standards, after all. Though a newspaper ad, she meets a young yuppie couple, Vanessa (Jennifer Garner, Elektra) and Mark (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development) looking to adopt a baby. Mark has mixed feelings about being a father, but Juno thinks she's found the perfect couple—Mark has great taste in music and bad horror films, just like her. But as her body begins to burst outwards, high school becomes a surreal experience, and she still needs to come to terms with her feelings for Bleeker.

For his sophomore film, director Jason Reitman has laid to rest any doubts about his cinematic and comedic talents behind the camera. The man has talent, a clear vision about his own voice as a director beyond the shadow of his father. He will be one to watch down the road. As for the cast, Page is perfectly attuned to Juno MacGuff and brings the character to life as one of the most charming and lovable comedic heroines put to screen in recent memory, a role that, having seen her in person at TIFF, seems in perfect harmony with her own natural, slightly spastic personality. In terms of acting and casting, Juno makes superb use of its talent base. Young Michael Cera is making himself a nice, lucrative career as the awkward, nerdy-but-loveable goof, a role here perfectly suited to his talents. Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman and Allison Janney all hold their own against the youngsters, the latter in particular knocking the crowd out with her dialogue.

From start to finish, Juno is outlandishly hilarious, balancing between cockle-warming family drama and zany teen comedy, diving deeply into the uncharted comedic waters of open adoption and teen pregnancy with steady resolve. At no point is the film exploitative; it treats the subject with a quirky blend of respect and sarcasm, pushing no agenda of any kind and avoiding any of the more “Lifetime Movie of the Week” plot points one might expect, given the film’s subject matter. After all, this is Juno, a sixteen year-old art-rock girl in a small town who listens to the The Stooges and The Moldy Peaches, plays the guitar, flips the bird to convention and makes every single male under the age of thirty fall madly in love with her wit and charm. Imagine a Daniel Clowes comic stripped of all the awkwardness and borderline cruelty to its protagonists, like a feel-good version of Ghost World.

The screenplay is spectacular, doubly so coming from a first-time writer. Dialogue is witty, fast and hilarious, with the kind of polished banter that practiced scribes struggle with for years to achieve in their work. Young blogger turned stripper turned author Diablo Cody is a natural, having given birth to wonderful, fully articulated and realized characters that are as eccentric as they are lovable. As a screenwriter, her voice feels fresh and new, an outsider’s take on how a Hollywood comedy should be, and it tore through the crowd like a chainsaw. People were tumbling from out of their chairs, split sides everywhere. The banter flows out like a torrential river, perfectly timed and riotous. As comedies go, Juno is as solid as they come.

I had to really rack my brain to find fault with Juno. Literally, the film got a standing ovation, and deserved every second of it. So here goes. Being a screenplay from a first-time writer, Juno is at times guilty of doing what all first-time screenplays ultimately do: cramming too much into too few pages. A subplot with Jason Bateman’s character struggling with his maturity paralleling that of Juno eats up an awful lot of screen time, probably more than it should. The two characters bond over their similar qualms about growing up—her, a sixteen year-old entering maturity too fast, him a thirty year-old refusing to mature at all—but his anxieties are perhaps best left for another film. You know; a film about a slacker Generation X-guy who must face his fear of maturity and childbirth. (Sound familiar? I already compared the two movies earlier. It starts with a “K”.) Worse, this subplot dalliance occurs at the exclusion of Bleeker’s character, who essentially vanishes for the entire second act. A minor criticism, this—after all, Bateman is perfectly cast in the role, and the sequences are laced with pop-culture goodness and great music. Still, in a film that feels so perfect and original in ever other way, Juno feels like it wanders off topic on this small point ever-so-slightly, like the tiniest unbalanced section of weight on an otherwise perfectly spinning comedic wheel.

Quirky, charmingly off-beat and heartwarming, Juno is a rousing success from top to bottom, and a phenomenal sophomore effort for Reitman. If there is a more enjoyable and hilarious film at the Toronto Film Festival this year, I probably won’t get to see it. Alarmingly, Juno is set for only a limited release in December, but this is but a temporary situation, I assure you. Thus far, reviews for Juno are universally glowing, and once the buzz picks up, Juno is going to landslide audiences, mark my words.

Juno effortless chalks itself up as one of the best comedies of the year. Teenage pregnancy should always be this funny.

Verdict: 95/100

Review: No Country for Old Men
September 10th, 2007 9:22PM

No Country for Old Men
Director: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Cormack McCarthy isthe kind of ill-fated Mellville-esque author whose minimalist, nihilistic prose sold about ten books per novel for a solid decade before audiences finally caught on to his brilliance. He writes cowboy novels (of a kind), allegorical and postmodern, books about the sparse desperation of the American Southwest with terse, punctuation-free prose to match. It comes as no surprise that the writer/director duo of the Coen Brothers would gravitate towards such material to adapt into film, so in sync with the cold noir-tinged of earlier films like Blood Simple and Fargo. No doubt the Brothers were particularly interested in this return to form, after recent disappointing offerings like The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty hemorrhaged money and negative reviews at the box office, but that is another snarky observation altogether best saved for another time.

Fortunately for all involved, No Country for Old Men does not disappoint in the slightest. Tense, brooding and darkly comical, this is the film that fans of the Coens have been wishing the brothers would make again after Fargo. Both films personify the rural eccentricities and disparate locations of America's hidden frontiers, as well as telling a darned good crime thriller in the process. But while the waters of North Dakota run only so deep, the waters of the deepest corners of Texas run darker and deeper than anything in recent memory from the Coens. As cinematic experiences go, No Country for Old Men is satisfying, gripping and just the slightest bit unsettling; a perfect blend of satisfaction and introspection that sticks with you like indigestion after the lights come up.

Off hunting in the desert, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon a strange scene: a convoy of off-road vehicles, a pile of bullets and dead bodies, and a large cache of heroin. Upon further examination of the scene, he also finds a black briefcase stuffed to the brim with hundred dollar bills. At that moment, his life flashes before his eyes, spreading down the rode like a lonely highway. He takes the money and returns home, and quickly sends his young wife into hiding. Llewelyn realizes that nobody is likely to stop looking for a lost satchel full of millions of dollars, and the kinds of people that could leave such a scene of carnage are people he’d prefer to avoid.

Soon after, an enigmatic figure escapes from a local police station and begins murdering people left, right and center on his journey through the desert. His choice of weapon: a stun gun from a cattle slaughterhouse, nothing more than a can of compressed air and a small metal rod that fires outwards, crushing the skull. He is a problem solver, here to clean up a mess of a drug deal gone sour. Arriving at the scene, realizing the money is missing, he sets off on his quest to track down the thief and recover the money. Meanwhile, a local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) surveys the carnage left in his small patch of land in Texas, and wonders to himself what the world is coming to.

No Country for Old Men is a hell of a ride; on the surface a straightforward crime drama with gunfights, long pensive scenes of silence and no dialogue, and a near-limitless brutality and self-destructive bent. Three men become inexorably linked through a sequence of events of violence, greed and fate, and from which a whole bad sequence of events is set to follow. From the first scene, we know exactly how things are going to play out, and any illusion on our part is our own fault entirely. This is a mature film, more in tone than plot or on-screen violence (though there is plenty of this). Rather, this is a film more concerned with the toll of a culture in decline than to its own protagonists; a testimony to the slow, inexorable downward spiral, the irrational fear that every generation gets about the upcoming one—that despite their best efforts, every day, things are getting worse.

A somber reflection on the decline of society and the pains of aging, Sherriff Bell is the soul of the film, despite his limited screen time in comparison to the rest of the protagonists. The film opens and closes with his narration, coming full-circle like the rise and set of the desert son. He is the last line of defense in his small corner of West Texas, and he slowly realizes the poetic truth of the film's title. His anxiety is given fleshly form in the body of Anton Chigurh, a sociopath who murders everyone in his path with the devout fanaticism of a religious zealot, if such a religion existed. He has a mission, and a task to accomplish, and the bodies that pile up are irrelevant. Yet there is a sophisticated complexity to his actions, a stern and unyielding code that cannot be violated by him, guiding his morally reprehensible actions. Unfortunately for his numerous victims, it is a code that borders on madness.

No Country for Old Men captures the austere stark beauty of the Western landscape like a blank canvas of dust, stone and tumbleweeds, a landscape that soon runs red with blood, greed and fatalistic ruminations on life and death. Composed of earthy browns and pale beiges, the cinematography and direction are top-notch. The dry acidity and dark humor of McCarthy's punctuation-stripped prose is fed through the black comedy machine that is the Coens, resulting in plenty of awkwardly hilarious moments. The humor works flawlessly, always sly and subtle, but such a welcome addition to the narrative. A fantastically wry performance from Tommy Lee Jones and an eerily comic Javier Bardem as the bowl-headed Chigurh steal every scene they are in.

Where things get sticky with No Country for Old Men is the final act. Here, the film sticks like glue to the source material, resulting in a final twenty minutes of introspective, cryptic dialogue seemingly disconnected to the film's overall straightforward plot. It isn't, of course, far from it; but the connection is oblique and abstract. The film’s denouement is subtle, quick and off-screen, leaving a film that keeps on rolling and musing past the point of expectations. In mirroring the novel so closely, the enigmatic dialogue McCarthy crafts is perfectly preserved, which may leave many cinema-goers scratching their heads. For such a masculine, violent Western, No Country for Old Men ends not with a bang, but with the faintest whisper of gun barrel smoke.

Brilliantly stylized, tense, violent and powerful, the Coens are back in beautiful grim form. A faithful literary translation of a bleak and nihilistic vision of the American Southwest, lovers of the Coen Brothers will be satisfied by their strongest cinematic offering in half a decade. And you’ll never look at a stun gun the same way again.

Verdict: 90/100

Review: Glory to the Filmmaker!
September 7th, 2007 6:22PM

Glory to the Filmmaker!
Director: Takeshi Kitano

Japanese stand-up comedian turned director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano is one strange duck. Alternating between ethereal drama, off-the-wall screwball comedy and hardened yakuza action films, his repertoire is as multi-faceted as a diamond and just as shiny. With every film a departure from the last, often the only consistency in his work is Kitano himself, usually front and center performing quadruple-duty as writer, editor, director and actor. But even within the context of Beat Takeshi, his latest film, Glory to the Filmmaker! is awfully strange.

Actually, using the word "strange" would be to perform disservice and insult to the word itself. "Strange" feels abstract and foreign in this context, a word that once had a wide scope of definition and meaning. Now, after viewing Glory to the Filmmaker! the word feels oddly meaningless; empty, as if stripped of relevance.

A 104 minute systematic dismantling of Kitano's eighteen-year cinematic career assembled incorrectly, like a dropped jigsaw puzzle, Glory to the Filmmaker! contains all elements of Kitano's past work—the introspective drama, slapstick comedy, gunplay, sword fighting, reminiscence of the innocence of childhood—but sandwiched together into a disorientating paste, shoved down the throat of the viewer in a single bite. Forget about plot, narrative, structure—these are all abstract concepts here. This is more Monty Python than Japanese cinema, a complete postmodern film in every way, deconstructing the director's craft into a Buster Keaton-esque nightmare of slapstick and demented sensibilities. Glory to the Filmmaker! is a film created for exactly one person—Kitano—but which Kitano is not made clear: the actor, writer, director, celebrity, best selling author, or the metallic replica dummy which stands in for Kitano during the film at odd times as a running gag.

The premise, such as it is: it is time for famous Japanese director Takeshi Kitano to make a new film, but the director seems thoroughly out of ideas. Having foolishly announced his departure from yakuza dramas for good, his films have been failing at the box office. So what next? An introspective retirement film in Ozu styled homage? A nostalgic film about the 1950's? Another chanbara? A J-horror film? He hasn't made one of those yet. Ideas take form and are shot down as quickly as they emerge. Perhaps a sci-fi apocalyptic end-of-the-world adventure, Hollywood style?

Kitano doesn't just break the fourth wall with Glory to the Filmmaker!; he uses it as the cornerstone to construct his house. In essence, Glory to the Filmmaker! is an hour and a half conversation between the director and himself about what his next film should be, realizing that a) he has no idea what people want to see, and b) what he ultimately settles on is so insane, nobody gets it. As the ideas unfold, Glory to the Filmmaker! takes shape as a jumbled collection of sequences combining all elements of previous Kitano films, both real and imaginary, with a never-ending stream of cameo appearances from past films reprising their "roles" (again, both real and imagined.) It is the Kitano movie to end all Kitano movies, quite literally, what with that comet still on a collision course with Earth...

With the possible exception of Woody Allen, few auters blend so thoroughly the line between writer and actor, director and movie star, human being and imagined character. In Glory to the Filmmaker!, Kitano is all of these elements and more, a cross-section of cutout characters, comedians, gangsters, fathers, old men, romantics and directors, with no distinction made between any element. The film exists in the real world and in the most impossible elements of cinema magic, complete with metal stand-in dummies, mad scientists, blind painters, professional wrestlers, millionaires, bullet-dodging superheroes and every other impossibility dug from mad Kitano's brain.

Equal parts hilarious irreverence to maddening frustration, Glory to the Filmmaker! may trump Getting Any? as Kitano' most aggravating and antagonizing creation to-date. For those familiar with his previous film, Takeshis', the description of this film will sound oddly familiar, for good reason. Indeed, in many ways, this feels like Takeshis' 2, a continuation of the deconstruction/annihilation of Kitano in celluloid form. But now, with this newest film, we can see both as spiritual kin; Takeshis' was to "Beat" Takeshi (actor) what Glory to the Filmmaker! is to Takeshi Kitano (director), each opposite faces of the same coin/person/whatever.

Like 8 1/2 put through a Japanese blender and spiked with LSD, Glory to the Filmmaker!is ultimately a film about the relationship between the filmmaker and their craft. Reality takes a permanent backseat to wild flights of imagination, illusion and ego, and determining where the filmmaker starts and the film ends is impossible. Are we watching a movie, or simply a loosely collected sequence of ideas sketched randomly on the screen? Is this a confession or a joke? Do we laugh, or demand our money back? To the latter question, I suspect the latter question would amuse him if the answer from his audience was "both".

When Glory to the Filmmaker! is good, it is full-out brilliant, tangy and acerbic in its wit, humor and good-natured deconstruction. When the film is bad, it is teeth-gnashingly infuriating, like a never-ending inside joke you are repeatedly excluded from. Worse, it is a joke made only for one, a number so inherently contrary to the art of film making. Frustratingly self-referential, obtuse, random and aggravating, Glory to the Filmmaker! can be painfully hard upon the audience, as if we, as beings who are not Kitano are unwelcome inside his private ego party. Comedic scenes of such bizarre taste and agonizing length run rampant throughout the film, so open in their lousiness that they must be deliberate. I admit to considering walking out at one point, an action I never take to any film, five minutes into a never-ending stuttering sequence of kabuki-clad dancers with gigantic red plastic penises strapped to their groin, thrusting and grinding, playing their "instrument" to the soundtrack, a furious guitar solo.

What saves Glory to the Filmmaker! from incomprehension (and the trash bin) is the humor, every fractured and disjointed bit of it It is the ultimate act of attrition, of self-sacrifice to reduce an entire career into a sequence of parody, physical comedy and sex jokes. Like the title suggests, this is a film that glorifies the filmmaker at the cost of his very existence, laid bare to all to poke fun at. Even during its moments of utter incomprehension and annoyance, the joy of the craft is obvious in every frame. Even when the audience isn't having fun, you know Kitano is—sure, he may have turned his entire career into a joke, but it's his joke, and he's having a ball.

Hilarious, disoriented and completely insane from start to finish, there is not a filmmaker alive making films like Takeshi Kitano, and after Glory to the Filmmaker!, I have no idea if this is a good thing or not. I suspect I was just witness to something subversive, brilliant and riotously original, but I can't quite get those gigantic red penises out of my head. What the hell was that about?

Verdict: 80/100

Bladder problems and blogging the TIFF
September 6th, 2007 2:45PM

Despite press passes falling through, a poor public box draw number and spending three hours standing in a line yesterday, things are on track for the Toronto International Film Festival this year. I and a few other DVD Verdict folk will be descending upon Toronto like suburban locusts, ready to take part in as many films as time and money will allow.

For me, the festival starts tomorrow, with an early morning showing of Takeshi Kitano’s newest film, Glory to the Filmmaker! This one was a tough choice. I eagerly lined up for his showing of Takeshis’ two years ago, expecting another masterpiece from the Japanese auteur, and instead got… well, crap. Reading the press blurb and watching the trailer for his newest film, I am eerily reminded of this previous cinematic experience.

Still, it’s a new Takeshi Kitano film. I am drawn like the moth to the flame. The fire burns, but what’s a poor moth to do?

After that, I shall try to sneak to the... ugh, the commoner theater to see Shoot ‘Em Up and rest for a few days, before the big showing of No Country For Old Men, which after seeing the red-banded trailer, I am wetting my pants in anticipation for.

No, seriously. Actual urine. As an English major with a Film Theory minor, the most cruel and exciting math equation ever conceived is as follows:

Cormack McCarthy + Coen Brothers = incontinence

See you in the lineup. Reviews forthcoming. I need new pants.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- Review
July 11th, 2007 9:31AM

Lean, mean and trimmed of all excess and fat, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix blasts through the most verbose Harry Potter novel in a scant two hours with surprising skill and ease. Like a roller-coaster ride, the speed is fixed and calculated to be exactly correct at all times; never too fast or slow, Phoenix moves at an exhilarating pace, easily making it the most exciting Harry Potter film yet.

Man, was I skeptical about this film. Standing outside at a midnight screening of Phoenix in a heatwave with hundreds of screaming teenagers dressed to the nines in scarves and wands, cloaks and witch hats (seriously) I kept wondering how the longest Harry Potter novel (and arguably the most complex) could be effectively told in a film that had nearly the shortest running time of the lot. Impressively, Phoenix succeeds by brilliantly editing the storytelling down to its most base, trimming all fluff, non-essential dialogue, characters and sequences and focusing on creating an exciting film, pure and simple, while still staying amazingly faithful to the heart of the novel and franchise. In a way, it is less showy, less CGI-laden than its predecessors, except that in reality, this is probably not even close to being true. It just feels that way. Maybe it's the total lack of Qudditch, thank God.

All Harry Potter films thus far are guilty of bloat in some form or another; either visually, spending elaborate time recreating sequences that fail to advance the drama (every Quidditch match) to the lip-service inclusion of sequences and dialogue that please the fans and stay true to the book. It is an inescapable reality that, after every Harry Potter film, fans of the novel inadvertently mumble about the sequences of note that should have, but failed to make it into the final film. Amazingly, Order of the Phoenix feels lean and proper; there isn't a single wasted sequence, bit of dialogue or scene amiss, nor does the film feel like it excluded anything critical or substantial. A lot got dropped on the cutting room floor, no doubt, but with Order of the Phoenix, all pretenses for detail and canon are put aside in the favor of pure excitement and solid movie making.

One thing that helps Order of the Phoenix immeasurably is that for once, a Harry Potter film has a proper villain. (Yeah, yeah, Voldemort. But he doesn't count, because he's never actually there, is he? He only shows up in the last ten minutes of any given film to growl and act menacing.) With the inclusion of Ministry of Magic crony Dolores Umbridge (played masterfully by Imelda Staunton), Harry has an on-screen nemesis to antagonize and inconvenience him and his Scooby Gang of Dumbledore's Army tag-alongs at all times. Staunton relishes the role with an almost Margaret Thatcher-ist glee, relishing her power over Hogwarts like a corrupt czar and turning the school almost overnight into a concentration camp. Her eventual comeuppance is a fantastic thing, and got cheers and applause from the audience.

Purists may be irked by the changes made to the film from the novel, some of them fairly massive—my wife who attended the midnight screening with me kept seething and twitching in her seat, muttering about “canon”, but having a blast all the same. By tweaking story elements, the writers have created a Harry Potter film that easily flows from point A to B, stripping away all back story or cutting sequences altogether unless they specifically contribute to the on-screen excitement. A substantial hunk of the near-800 page novel failed to make the final draft, but for the first time, we have a well-edited Harry Potter film that can stand on its own footing as a darned impressive summer blockbuster. However, there is a downside—anyone unfamiliar with the novels or previous films might suffer at the blistering pace of the film, since almost no time is given to flesh out existing characters or dynamics. No fluff or filler here, boys and girls. Characters like Hermione and Ron, previously stars in the drama, are given more backseat roles in this film to make way for Harry's rampage into maturity and anger about his lot in life, sick of constantly being tortured, blown up and having his friends murdered.

Since the departure of Chris Columbus from the franchise, every subsequent Harry Potter film has had something of a revolving door when it comes to the director's chair. Up to bat here is television director David Yates, who has very few cinematic credits to his name, so his inclusion in the project was something of a wildcard. Lay your fears to rest: the man knows how to create a fantastic film. Yates balances the raw artistic style of Prisoner of Azkaban with the doom and gloom dimness of Goblet of Fire and comes up with a winning compromise, creating arguably the most stylish and impressive-looking Harry Potter film yet. The art direction, costume design and effects are fantastic to behold, gritty and visceral but with surprisingly vibrant colors leaping from the screen. The final battle at the Ministry of Magic is like a Chris Cunningham music video gone awry, with smoke and hand-held cameras and flashes of light and twisting bodies, cumulating into a tumultuous finale that blows the socks off anything the franchise has achieved thus far. It's no surprise that Yates has been signed up to create the next film in the franchise, Half-Blood Prince. One you see Phoenix, you'll be very happy with this decision.

Dazzling and stylish, full of excitement, nail-biting drama, fantastic sight gags and impressive storytelling, Order of the Phoenix it roars through its material with confidence, humor and wit.. Fans may be disappointed to see how much material was changed from the novel, but the film itself succeeds in a way that other Harry Potter films have failed to. By editing the film down to its barest necessities, we get a bloat-free film free of excess and distraction. It may lack subtlety and some character development, but for sheer edge-of-your-seat excitement, Order of the Phoenix is the most satisfying film of the franchise thus far.

Verdict: 90

(Man, I love when you go into a film prepared to hate it, and get your socks handed back to you at the door when you leave.)

TIFF: Stargazing
September 16th, 2006 9:05AM

From left to right: Marc Forster, Zach Helm, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell at the world premiere of Stranger Than Fiction.

Note: Dustin Hoffman is indeed that short because, as he put it, he's "not wearing lifts tonight."

TIFF 2006 Review #4: D.O.A.P (Death of a President)
September 16th, 2006 8:10AM

D.O.A.P (Death of a President)
Director: Gabriel Range

For a small British psudo-documentary, D.O.A.P has become the hottest film this year at the Toronto Film Festival. Hundreds of people clamored outside a tiny theater vying to get in, and ticket scalping reached over $100 per seat based on sheer buzz alone. The film was so hot that extra security guards prowledl the crowd with night-vision goggles over piracy fears. There are over three hundred films screening at TIFF this year, but D.O.A.P is the only one where George W. Bush gets killed.

D.O.A.P starts with a simple hypothesis—what would happen if George W. Bush was assassinated?—and runs with it like a quarterback. In faux-documentary style, complete with dramatic music and tear-ridden testimonials, we are thrust a year into the future in Chicago, where an anti-Bush rally turns violent and the President is gunned down by an anonymous party. As the country scrambles to right itself after this traumatic event, the documentary chronicles how events unfold for the men and women affected by the killing: an Islamic woman whose husband is detailed, a Gulf War vet, an anti-war protester, etc. Also, President Cheney. Shudder.

The subject matter alone gives D.O.A.P a sense of exotic allure and danger, but the film is surprisingly tame, almost disappointingly so. The knee-jerk reaction from many conservative voices is sure to make the film an underground hit, but the film is careful to treat the serious subject with a respect that borders on reverence. It leans left, but not nearly as much as you might think. If anything, the film is sympathetic to the, ahem, late President, almost tenderly so.

What let me down about D.O.A.P was how little the film did with the material. Anyone with half a brain could see how events would play out in this hypothetical situation: speculative blame would fall on the Muslim man found near the scene, the administration would use the event politically to pressure countries like Syria and North Korea and expand the Patriot Act, etc. There is nothing particularly shocking, or electric about how things play out in D.O.A.P – it is surprisingly routine.

D.O.A.P is not a bad film; it runs with an idea with surprising skill, and creates an entirely plausible alternate reality with some clever editing and CGI effects. It simply fails to live up to the expectations of its own idea. There is so much more a film like this could have said, could have told us about the world we live in and how bad things could get. Instead, the film plays its hands close to its chest, focusing instead on a few individuals rather than the world at large, making D.O.A.P entirely forgettable.

Verdict: 68

TIFF 2006 Review #3: The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt
September 12th, 2006 8:49AM

The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt
Director: Ann Hui

Though most often known internationally for its stylish action films, Hong Kong New Wave cinema often has an elegant ambiguity, a failure to observe the traditional narrative structure of world cinema and focus instead on cultivating an emotional response from its films. Heavily grounded in social realism, The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt, the new film by critically acclaimed Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui (Boat People) is a film where worlds do not so much collide as they do bump into and testily berate one another.

Ye Rutang (Gaowa Siqin) lives alone in Shanghai, a cranky, surly woman who harasses others for failing to be polite and obsessed with appearing proper to her neighbors. She refuses to buy a cell phone, despite the fact that everyone else around her has one. Her young nephew comes to visit him, and she refuses to turn on the air conditioning due to her arthritis. Modern life in Shanghai seems at odds with her very being. She falls victim to scam artists and con men, including the handsome Pan (played amusingly by Chow Yun-Fat), who despite hustling her repeatedly she cannot feel attracted to.

We know little of her past, and we are not meant to. All we are meant to know is this woman in Shanghai who cannot seem to connect to anyone, to adjust to the pace of the modern world. As she ages, she becomes less able to care for herself, and soon is taken back to rural Manchuria by her teenage daughter. In Manchuria, she does chores and runs a dry goods stall with her estranged husband, freezing in the desolate wasteland. Here, the China of old is preserved forever, an unforgiving land where all the young want nothing more than to escape from it and never return. Here, she knows what is expected of her, but it brings her no joy.

A complex and subtle film, The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt is postmodern in the literary sense of the world, suggesting that humanity is perched on the precipice between the modern and the postmodern. A country like China, balanced between the old ways and the new cannot help but alienate those struggling to understand how they belong in the world. For the aunt, the new traditions seem hollow and empty, while the old traditions are irrelevant and pointless, leaving nothing in between for her to embrace. Composed of stark location shots in rundown, ramshackle buildings in Shanghai and Manchuria, The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt illustrates the Chinese life as a constant struggle of identity. As inhospitable and curmudgeonly as the aunt figure is, we cannot help but feel immensely sad for her inability to fit into the world around her.

Elegant and profound, The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt is a film inherently foreign in its pacing, structure and bleak sardonic wit, but immeasurably beautiful and applicable to the Western palate. Feelings of alienation and loneliness transcend cultural borders as effortlessly as a summer breeze. It may be directed by a Hong Kong director, but The Postmodern Life Of My Aunt lives and breathes on the mainland of China, immersed into its locations and its culture, and in the human desire to belong somewhere, and to someone.

Verdict: 77

TIFF 2006 Review #2: Fido
September 11th, 2006 9:09AM

Director: Andrew Currie

If Norman Rockwell was eaten by a zombie, you would end up with something quite similar to Fido, a surreal piece of Canadian cinema that turns an innocuous subject like zombies into wholesome family fodder straight out of Leave It To Beaver.

After “space dust” converted all the world’s dead into reanimated corpses, a corporation known as ZomCom stepped in to rescue humanity from the dreaded Zombie Wars. Barricading each town from the outside and affixing zombies with control collars, ZomCom preserves the idyllic lifestyle for all townsfolk, transforming the once flesh-eating zombie into a docile servant ready to wash your car, carry your groceries or walk your dog for you. Indeed, in this quaint little slice of 1950s Americana, one is judged by how many zombies they have in their employ, and whether or not they can afford a proper funeral.

Timmy is an unhappy and lonely child, alienated from his father (Dylan Baker, Spider-Man 2) and unable to connect with his mother, Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss, The Matrix). When the head of ZomCom security move into the neighborhood, Helen is mortified that her family has yet to acquire a single zombie in their employ. So, she goes out and acquires one. The zombie, Fido (played hilariously by Billy Connolly, The Boondock Saints) becomes the father figure to Timmy that his father never was, playing catch with him in the park, spending time with him, and only occasionally getting loose and eating a neighbor or two.

Surprisingly wholesome and sardonic, Fido plays its subject matter extremely straight, creating a surrealist 1950s suburban paradise with zombie milkmen and paperboys that feels as wholesome and normal as anything you could imagine. The inherent absurdity of the subject matter is the film’s ultimate comedic weapon, as the inhabitants of this small, peaceful community deal with the occasional zombie attack as routinely as ants invading a picnic lunch in the park.

Zombie and horror fans will be dismayed at how eerily wholesome and neutral Fido remains to the end, with minimum gore and blood and almost nothing in the way of conventional horror, but therein lay the film’s inherent charm. There is literally no movie ever created quite like Fido, a slice of suburban paradise riddled with the walking undead, except perhaps for the quirkiness and dreamlike quality of Edward Scissorhands, which comes fairly close.

Fido is a crowd-pleaser, a visual feast of exceptionally vintage automobiles, fantastic clothes and hairstyles and a dreamlike suburban landscape preserved forever in time. Also, zombies. Also of note is Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) playing a hilarious playboy neighbor with a young teenage zombie servant in his “employ”.

It may be a one-note film, but oh, what a note. There is little depth to Fido beyond its charm and quirkiness, but it is a splendid realization of an unexpected genre mash-up. This is Canadian cinema at its most appealing and original.

Verdict: 80

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