Madonna’s W.E., Reese Witherspoon in This Means War and short films vying for an Oscar
It's busy week what with Madonna, Reese Witherspoon and even Sita examining love problems, Arrietty trying to stay safe as a Borrower and Agnieszka Holland delivering a World War II survival ordeal. Also short films, a remake and a classic.
Here’s the list:
W.E. 2 ½ stars
This Means War: 2
The Secret World of Arrietty: 4
In Darkness: 3 ½
Oscar Short Films --
Ottawa Animation Festival 2 ½
Sita Sings the Blues: 4
Solaris a & b --
Ghost Rider --
W.E. There’s a scene well along in this film in which Wallis Simpson, the woman who lured Edward VIII off the British throne, is dancing to a Sex Pistols song. This is 1936 mind you and, unlike the musical anachronisms in A Knight’s Tale and Moulin Rouge, it’s not a joke. Madonna, director and co-writer, has it play to the end to let the lyrics make a point: “We’re petty vacant and we don’t care.” Pretty facile, I’d say. Later Wallis is seen twisting to Chubby Checker’s big hit but I didn’t detect a point there. Both underline how ridiculous this project really is. A good-looking one, though.
The film brings us two “Wallys”. Andrea Riseborough is convincing as the conniving Wallis, who when she wangles a dance with the then-Prince, whispers “You need somebody to keep you warm.” No shame; just ambition. Sixty years later, in New York, where the couple’s possessions are to be sold off, another Wally is obsessed with their story. Played by Abbie Cornish, a bit whiney and stuck in an unhappy marriage, she hangs out at the auction house previews and meets a security guard who just happens to be a Russian intellectual and pianist. The film intercuts the two women’s stories (which proves distracting) and even has them meet. Wallis, a ghost or fantasy or something, offers life advice along the lines of “do what you have to do”. Madonna, who brought essentially the same message in Filth and Wisdom, the first movie she directed, seems to be the real one taking inspiration from Wallis. She repays by taking her side, softening the scandal (including the Nazi sympathizing) and showing her world as beautiful and glamorous. The costumes are nominated for an Oscar. (Granville Theatre) 2 ½ out of 5
THIS MEANS WAR: Ah, yes. This is one of those tender romances with realistic overtones that Hollywood does so well. Reese Witherspoon is a Los Angeles woman with a great job and a giant apartment but no man in her life. Her best friend (Chelsea Handler) nags at her to get one and have some sex. She manages to attract two (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) but is unaware that they’re best friends and both CIA agents. Fun, eh? Also, because of a bungled job in Hong Kong, they’re grounded. That gives them lots of time to pursue her, and keep an eye on each other’s dates with her using CIA surveillance equipment, which by the way can look right into the bedroom. (No mention of the many laws they’re breaking, which would be a downer wouldn’t it?) Also no mention for most of the film, that one of the Heinrich brothers is coming from Hong Kong for revenge. There are quite a few funny lines and Director McG keeps things lively and moving along, as he did for Charlie’s Angels. A lot of Vancouver sights, the library, Granville Street, southlands, are a bit distracting but also show that we’ve advanced from just playing Seattle all the time. Breezy entertainment for the easily impressed. (International Village and suburban theatres) 2 out of 5
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY: You won’t find the noise of Shrek, Madadasgar and the other animation hits here. This is much more gentle storytelling from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which brought us the immensely popular My Neighbor Totoro and the Oscar winner Spirited Away. Again, they’ve made a beautiful film that rewards children with both adventure and imagination and above all respects their emotional needs. Themes of growing up, proving yourself, friendship, and even living with the natural world are effortlessly brought out in a story based on the first of Mary Norton’s Borrowers books. (With one character, Spiller, brought in from the second.)
Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) live below the floorboards of a regular family’s house. They’re so small, the framed pictures on their walls are postage stamps. They survive by “borrowing” small items and bits of food, never taking more than they need. A gathering excursion with her dad is a marvel of details and tension but because of one small mistake, Arrietty is seen by a sickly boy who wants to befriend her. Her father says no. It could force them to move away. A housekeeper (Carol Burnett) is trying to trap her and prove borrowers exist. There are many close calls and near-misses, some with a pesky cat and a scary crow, all rendered in lovely animation and water-color backgrounds and delivered at a comfortable pace. Studio Ghibli’s master animator Hayao Miyazaki wrote and produced this one but turned the direction over to a protégé. I can’t see a difference. His style survives. (International Village and suburban theatres) 4 out of 5
IN DARKNESS: When I saw this at the film festival five months ago, I found it grim and harrowing. Now on seeing it again, I found it a little easier to take as I concentrated more on one man’s change of heart and developing conscience. Both views are valid in this Holocaust-themed film co-produced in Poland and Canada. Agnieszka Holland is the director; Toronto’s David F. Shamoon is the screenwriter. The film is nominated for a foreign language best picture Academy Award.
The story is true. A group of Jews in L’vov, a largely Polish city just across the border in the Ukraine, escaped the Holocaust by hiding in the sewers. It’s hard to imagine but they were down there for 14 months. For 2 ½ hours we feel that ordeal, the dark, wet spaces, the rats, the constant fear of being discovered, arguments within the group and, remarkably, a childbirth. It’s a relief whenever the story moves above ground just for the light and the fresh air. Up there, the Ukrainian soldiers, under German orders, are moving Jews out of the ghetto. Sewer worker Leopold Socha is under strict orders to report any he finds hiding below. Instead of reporting them and even though he’s got anti-Semitic prejudices, he risks his life and helps them, for a price. Gradually his decency emerges. Robert Wieckiewicz is excellent in the role. A few scenes are too convenient to be credible as when the sounds of a Catholic church service drift down to the group hiding below. Or when one man comes up and sneaks into a concentration camp looking for his sister. Overall, still grim but compelling. (International Village) 3 ½ out of 4
OSCAR SHORTS: Here's a tip for your Oscar pool. Go to the Vancity Theatre and see the nominated short films. Both the live action and the animated. Most everybody in a pool has to guess when they get down to those categories because who after all has seen the films. For the VanCity this presentation has become one of the most popular of the year and has been known to sell out. Must be a lot of pool players out there.
With 10 candidate films, there are too many to detail here. Note though, there are two Canadian entries in the animated category: Dimanche, from Quebec, deals with nostalgia and Wild Life by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis is about an Englishman in 1909 trying to run a ranch in Alberta. On the live action side, Ciaran Hinds and Kerry Condon star in The Shore, a film from Belfast that's already proven a festival hit, and Time Freak which offers a comic view of time travel.
Both series play on five evenings, Fri, Sat, Sun, Mon and Wed. Details at http://www.viff.org/theatre/
BEST OF OTTAWA 2011: No not politics. Highlights from the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Nine award winners are being shown, raging in length from a few minutes to almost 20. As interesting as it is to see what young animators from the U.K. to Japan are up to these days, I didn’t have a lot of fun watching this batch. There’s a snappy music video from Japan early on and two entertaining films near the end, one that has Max Von Sydow narrating a very-clever Last Norwegian Troll and another very simple one of a woman trying to milk a goat and draw water from a well. But some seem to have be art school projects trying to be quirky. Others, like Quebec animator Frédérick Tremblay’s tale of two poverty-stricken bunnies trying to find food in a forest dangerous with leg-hold traps, are working hard to be gloomy. (Feb 22 + 23 at Pacific Cinémathèque) 2 ½ out of 5)
That show is playing on a double bill with SITA SINGS THE BLUES a joyously-colorful and entertaining work of personal animation.
Nina Paley made it all on her home computer. She tells three stories: her own (her guy split for India); the mythological tale of Sita that all Indian girls learn (she was wooed and then dumped by Lord Rama) and the universal one about all jilted women in a series of torch songs performed by Annette Hanshaw, a radio star of the late 1920's. All three strands are exquisitely animated and serve to comment on each other. The film also gets a solo screening Sunday afternoon. (4 out of 5)
SOLARIS: Also at the Pacific Cinémathèque, this Saturday and Sunday, science fiction fans get a rare chance to compare this classic and its remake. The classic is the 167 minute version made in Russia 40 years ago by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s been widely praised as a metaphysical masterpiece, although London’s Time Out film guide rather forcefully differs. Look it up. The remake is only 99 minutes long and was made 10 years ago by Steven Soderbergh. It stars George Clooney as a psychiatrist with problems of his own sent to investigate an outbreak of paranoia on a space station. Are you up for it?
You can find details about these two and the animated films at www.cinematheque.bc.ca/
Also now playing …
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE: When we last saw Nicolas Cage as the comic book character Johnny Blaze, aka the Ghost Rider, the devil told him words to the effect of “Ok, you win this time but I’ll be back.” Well, five years, nearly a quarter billion dollar at the box office, an almost total cast change and a location switch later, he is back. Ciarán Hinds now plays him in a battle for the soul of a young boy. Blaze has to protect the boy to free himself.The original film was bad. This new one hasn’t been shown to critics but the cool stunts and effects will draw the guys, and connoisseurs of manic Nicolas Cage performances, never mind the reviews. (Scotiabank and many suburban theatres)
NOTE: All the images are supplied by the movie studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.