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300: Rise of an Empire (2014), directed by Noam Murro

Need for Speed (2014), directed by Scott Waugh

Well devoted readers, I haven’t been doing many written reviews of wide release movies lately and for that I apologize. I’ve been film festivalling. I’ve been podcasting. I’ve been Oscaring. I’ve been doing real work (lame). Now it’s time to get back to basics. I’m talking Double-Shot.

I was not a fan of the original 300 when it came out in 2006. I haven’t seen it since so I can offer no take on whether it would have grown on me or not, but I remember at the time finding it ugly, cruel and depressing.

The sequel is perhaps no less cruel and is assuredly some form of war porn, even if of the Greek variety, with its fascination with slow motion blood splattering and decapitations, all highlighted in hero-worship tales of battlefield glory.

It’s a zany, intense film which never lets up in its trudging march through battle and death. In many ways it is as dismal as the first film, but I must admit I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

It’s not a great film, by any means, but there are things within it which are great and made it worth watching.

Eva Green has been getting a lot of attention for her role in the film, as Artemisia, the naval commander of the Persian army. Green is easily the best thing in the movie, as the tough, vengeful war commander. It’s a meaty role, with Green strutting about topside, fire in her eyes, ordering failed commanders to their deaths, balancing her thirst for revenge and power with her public role as puppet leader of the kingdom.

Okay. I’ll talk about it now. There is a sex scene in the movie which has been all the talk. I haven’t read much of the talk, but I know it’s out there. I’ll weigh in by saying it has to be one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ll tell you why: it is a crucial, defining moment of the film.

The coitus is between her and the leader of the Greek army, Themistocles (who I thought throughout the movie was named The Mistocles). She invites him to talk truce, they end up, er, doing more than talking it out.

One reason I like the scene is power dynamics. I don’t think women playing tough roles is the only or the best way to encourage feminism in film, but it’s hard to deny the play with gender roles in this scene. Artemisia is both dominating and submissive, she initiates the tryst, she controls much of it, and she ends it before it can, er, climax.

Themistocles leaves her presence looking like he’s witnessed a car crash he can’t quite make sense of.

It’s unlike anything one typically sees in a mainstream movie. Beyond that, I liked how it worked so well to define both characters and to act as a microcosm of the entire struggle the film is about, including the thirst for power, the desire to dominate, the violence of it.

Unfortunately one great set piece does not a great film make. The rest of the movie is occasionally riveting, often spectacular to look at, but also numbingly garish and overblown. It’s turned up to 11 the entire way, and that’s a hard level to sustain.

It also lost some of its feminist points with the rapey bits, including a lingered on pair of 3D breasts early in the film as two shadowy enemies drag a topless woman away, with the eventual result heavily implied. Another lingering shot shows Artemisia watch her family get murdered and presumably her mother get raped. Unnecessary. We got the point in the first few frames, no need to linger, especially in a film which celebrates every other act of violence it portrays.

Overall I was impressed by much in 300: Rise of an Empire and it made me appreciate how much more Eva Green we need on our screens, but it still left me feeling the way the first film had: that I had just witnessed something rather rotten ugly, despite how good it looks. It celebrates violence in a intentional way even slasher movies would have a hard time pulling off. It’s grand, beautiful and heroic, in the way war is portrayed to young men and women to convince them to join up.

Sure it’s mostly irrelevant because it pertains to ancient wars with little resemblance to today’s conflicts, but still, something about it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Need for Speed, on the other hand, left me with drool in my mouth as I enjoyed a quick nap during it’s ludicrous running time and pathetic attempts at drama.

Mean? Maybe. But here’s the thing, I went in with so very little in the way of expectations, and even those were not met.

I love car chase movies. I love ’70s carsploitation, any film related to racing and even the Fast and Furious franchise. I came in to the cinema already a believer. But Need for Speed has to be the flimsiest, most pathetically put together car movie ever. I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of it.

The film is based on the video games, early versions of which I was a big fan of as a child. But the movie is painfully full of itself and takes no joy at all in its own ridiculousness, leaving the entire affair a dreary mess.

It’s a story about an elite illegal car race featuring some of the fastest cars in the world. It’s also a revenge tale, about a driver seeking vengeance for the death of a friend. All of this is played straight faced, with brooding music, sweeping statements about life and the “high art” of racing, slow-motion fires of hell explosions and men revelling in brotherly love.

All of it, as poorly written and carried out as it is, comes of as pathetically serious and unintentionally ludicrous.

One thing I found interesting was how much collateral damage feels different in a movie versus the video game. In the game it’s no big deal, in fact it’s fun, to run regular cars off the road, take out police cars and cause general mayhem. In the movie it felt terribly wrong.

For one thing, nobody dies in the games and the cars even barely get damaged, no matter what you put them through, so there are no consequences. It is a fantasy world with no resemblance to the real one.

In the movie people clearly are able to die and the crashes are real: glass shattering, metal scraping real. Every time these characters cause two regular Joes to smash into each other at highway speeds it’s jarring and unsettling. At least for me it was.

The worst part is when one of the characters hits a homeless person’s shopping cart filled with their belongings, an incident which is played for laughs not once, but twice in the film. I get this is a movie, and a movie designed for perhaps jockish gear heads, but are we not past the point yet where terrorizing homeless people is no longer funny? As I read somewhere else, in car chase movies you hit fruit carts, not homeless people’s carts, otherwise it just comes off as cruel.

All this nitpicking is maybe indicative of a larger problem: Need for Speed doesn’t know what it’s fighting for.

Even in the classic 1970s car movies, the wanton destruction of human life is not taken flippantly. The heroes of those movies are driving for the common man, kicking against a system which is hurtful for all. And the movies themselves have a tragic understanding that these characters are ultimately doomed, they will not be the ones to move society forward. They are cool for their rebellion, but they ultimately suffer for their isolation.

I love Super Soul in Vanishing Point as he cheers on Kowalski, a man who has had enough and refuses to be a part of the system which has let him down. He calls Kowalski “the last American hero.” But Kowalski can’t survive for the system to move forward. He must die in a fiery explosion.

Why is Michael Keaton’s modern Super Soul, the Internet broadcasting Monarch, so much less effective? I could have done without his character entirely. Is it because we no longer feel that distrust of authority? We no longer cheer for those who push against conformity?

The thing is neither Monarch nor Aaron Paul’s Tobey, the film’s defacto Kowalski, are fighting against the system; they’re a part of it. Monarch is a rich man-child who puts on the main race of the movie, little more than a wingnut version of John Cleese’s character in Rat Race.

And Tobey’s quest for revenge is hard to take seriously when he is putting so many ordinary people at risk for his own personal vendetta. I don’t see Tobey stopping to see if any of the drivers in the crashes he causes are OK, as Kowalski did. I don’t see him thinking twice about running anyone off the road, figure of authority or otherwise, to get what he wants. I don’t see him fighting a system. Instead we see him buying into that system, winning the film’s finale race in the very multimillion dollar car which killed his friend. His eventual elevation to the ranks of the very assholes who tried to kill and humiliate him is celebrated. Kowalski would have never crossed that finish line.

Tobey is no hero, no figure of rebellion. He is hard to root for. And the film doesn’t understand this, which makes it impossible to enjoy. I haven’t even written about the chase scenes here, which frankly should be all that matter. But the film is such a bore no amount of vehicular stuntwork can save it.

300: Rise of an Empire and Need for Speed are in cinemas now.

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Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!

No, it’s not Monster Truck Madness at the Tacoma Dome. It’s something far more dirty and overinflated. But also, for a movie nerd like me, a lot more fun.

It’s Oscars time, y’all.

The yearly tradition where everyone and their half-brother gets to pretend like they know anything about movies and complain how Iron Man 3 was clearly the best movie they saw out of the three movies they saw last year and what the hell is Her anyway? I didn’t see any commercials on TV for them. What a load of crap.

They sure are, but I enjoy them, and I also enjoy complaining about them too, so I get it. Complain away you strangers of the cinema who for some reason still watch the Academy Awards every year. Shine on.

Does none of this make any cohesive sense? No? Who cares, it’s the Oscars!

So every year I tend to write this little preview to weigh in on what I think will win, should win and should have been nominated at the Oscars.

We all know they are but one test of the best movies of the year, and a highly flawed one at that. Both huge commercial successes and mass critical darlings tend to get left out, though occasionally those worlds converge. None of my Top 5 Films of 2013 are nominated for Best Picture, and many other critics could say the same.

That being said, it’s a pretty good crop this year. I don’t absolutely loath any of the Best Picture nominees, so that says something. There’s no War Horse, no The Help, no Les Miserables.

Let’s just get to it shall we.

Here we go:

Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay

Will: 12 Years a Slave (John Ridley) – Getting over the fact that Before Midnight is not an adapted screenplay (which I never will), this is a category where I think the early overall favourite in the Oscar race is going to take it. 12 Years a Slave managed to build a magnificent movie out of what I hear is some pretty sparse source material. The movie’s power is in its performances, direction and music, but the story itself is also meticulously and expertly constructed.

Should: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hunt) – I would have zero problem with 12 Years a Slave winning, but if I had my way Before Midnight, my favourite movie of 2013, would receive some love in the only category it is nominated in. Even if it doesn’t belong in that category. It’s a film of words, magnificent words which hold so many insights about life and love in them, while seeming so natural and effortless. Linklater and his actors did a wonderful job constructing them and wouldn’t it be nice to see them recognized.

Missed: I have no strong opinion over a missed opportunity in this category. Sorry.

Best Writing – Original Screenplay

Will: American Hustle (Eric Singer and David O. Russell) – This year’s race towards Oscar love appears to be a three-way split between Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, so one of the keys to figuring out your predictions is figuring out which of those will take the top categories. I don’t think it will be American Hustle, hence why I think it will receive love here. It’s a popular movie with lots of support, and its screenplay is full of colourful, interesting characters and scenarios. Why not?

Should: Nebraska (Bob Nelson) – When it comes to film writing I’m a person who appreciates subtlety and silence. Nebraska is rather broad in its comic appeal, but its characters are perfectly balanced against its setting and tone. It’s a film which rises from its script. It would be a well deserved win.

Missed: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen) – I may become a broken record here, but I love Inside Llewyn Davis more every time I think about it, and its screenplay is a big reason. Rich characters, biting dialogue. An unfortunate snub by the Academy.

Best Documentary Feature

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Will: The Act of Killing – I’m willing to admit I could be very well wrong about this one. The race seems to be between the popular favourite (20 Feet From Stardom) and the critical favourite (The Act of Killing). It may be just that I’m plugged into the critical world a bit too much, but there has been so much talk about how outstanding The Act of Killing is as a doc, and it truly is, that I can’t imagine it not winning. Only, well, I can.

Should: The Act of Killing – I have never seen a doc quite like The Act of Killing, and I mean that in a good way. I must admit docs are not my first love in cinema, so to see one break away from the form I often find holding them back was inspiring to see. It’s a great film, and deserves to win.

Missing: Stories We Tell – This is my most anger-inducing missed opportunity by the Academy. Maybe it’s the combination of being a film lover and a Canadian, but Sarah Polley’s doc not being nominated makes my blood boil. It made my best of the year list, is another doc which really stretches the form, and manages to make non-fiction incredibly personal, while managing to say so much about the nature of truth, family and storytelling. #$@( you, Academy.

Best Foreign Language Film

Will: The Great Beauty (Italy) – This is a close race, but The Great Beauty seems to be the favourite, what with the Golden Globes win and all. It’s a little bit on the abstract side for the Academy though (which is to say it’s ever-so-slightly abstract), whereas The Broken Circle Breakdown or The Hunt might appeal more as straightforward story-driven narratives. Nonetheless, The Great Beauty has been very well received by all, so I think it will take the award.

Should: Tie: The Great Beauty and The Broken Circle Breakdown – I saw The Great Beauty recently and I loved so much about it, but did feel it dragged in the middle and covered the familiar ground of a rich, aging white man all of a sudden discovering there is more to life than money and power. All the same, it is a beautifully wrought movie, especially in its depiction of it’s true main character: Italy. So really, I’m split. I also really enjoyed The Broken Circle Breakdown, especially the music, but found that too got bogged down, only in melodrama. Both are basically wonderful movies though, I would be happy to see either win.

Missed: I have no strong opinions in this category for what was missed. But I did rather enjoy a French film called Grand Central I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival which I really haven’t heard anything about since. I’m not sure what its release history is, but the film, starring Tahar Rahim (The Prophet) and Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), is a captivating look at a romantic triangle which arises among a group of nuclear power plant workers. Keep an eye out for it.

Best Animated Feature Film

I honestly don’t really pay much attention to this category and haven’t seen any of the nominees. Frozen will probably win and The Wind Rises probably should win. That’s all I have. Animation ain’t really my thing, especially the Disney-fied animation the Oscars tend to focus on.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Will: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) – For all the work Hollywood still has to do to include well-rounded LGBT characters in mainstream movies, Oscar sure does love a sick gay guy played by a straight guy (Tom Hanks, Sean Penn). And while that may sound glib, and it is, it could be worse. And Jared Leto is impressive as a transexual AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, getting into the role with his usual dedication and depth.

Should: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) – I would support most of the actors in his category (except maybe Bradley Cooper), but I think Fassbender put in a marvellous, largely underrated turn in 12 Years a Slave which helped the film articulate its point of how slavery hurts everyone. He is a vile, tormented man, with demons his own way of life stokes. It’s a searing, ravaged performance.

Missed: James Franco (Spring Breakers) – Oh come on, how cool would that have been to see Franco’s bizarre yet infinitely engaging performance as Florida scumbag Alien nominated for an Oscar? He could hoist the statue and tell the audience to look at his sheeyit.

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Will:  Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) – I said June Squibb on the CinemaSpiel podcast I’m a part of, but now, with further reflection (and Google searches) I believe the award will go to Nyong’o for her brave performance in 12 Years a Slave. For one thing, I think voters will feel guilty for not giving any of the other marvelous performances from that film awards and, for another, she deserves it. Jennifer Lawrence is a contender for American Hustle, but she won last year and Oscar don’t play like that.

Should: June Squibb (Nebraska) – I will be cheering if Nyong’o wins, but I loved Squibb as the delightfully foul-mouthed matriarch of the quirky family of Nebraska. She gets the tone just right, and it’s a fun, charming performance. It’s a heavy year for Oscars, be nice to see a comedy get some love here.

Missed: Scarlett Johansson (Her) – I didn’t love this film as much as others did, but Johansson turned in an extremely impressive performance, considering we never actually see her. As the voice of a personal operating system who falls in love with her owner, Johansson hits all the right notes, capturing all of the longing, confusion and disappointment of love all in her voice.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Will: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) – Another strong performance from a film I liked but didn’t love which will see success come Oscar night. McConaughey is picking up all the right hardware on the road to Oscar glory and is the talk of town ever since he reinvented himself as a dark, intense character actor. He is great as AIDS patient/medication smuggler Ron Woodroof and people love them some McConaughey, so it’s all but sewed up here.

Should: Bruce Dern (Nebraska) – I’m extremely split over whether I’d like to see Dern or Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave win, but I’m a fan of comebacks and it is just so good to see Dern getting some late career recognition that I can’t help pulling for him. Nobody has played a quiet, grunting, curmudgeonly old man better.

Missed: Robert Redford (All Is Lost) – Another category where Inside Llewyn Davis could have got some love for Oscar Isaac, but I’m a fan of the strong, silent performance, and none was better than Redford in the largely dialogue-free All Is Lost. He manages to elicit all the survival, fight-for-life sympathy Sandra Bullock does in Gravity, only without the cheesy backstory and overinflated dialogue. Now that’s a performance.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Will: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – Another seemingly locked up category, Blanchett will win for her turn as a mentally-strained divorce survivor in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. The film isn’t great as a whole, but her performance is what holds it all together. Allen is buried in controversy right now, but Blanchett’s performance speaks for itself and she will win on her talent alone.

Should: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – I don’t disagree with anything I said above. While I wish I had an actress to root for in a film I loved, this will do.

Missed: Julie Delpy (Before Midnight) – Delpy is a force to be reckoned with in Before Midnight. Sweet, smart, passionate, sexy, fierce, confused and outraged, Delpy passes through all these modes with talent and intense commitment. Anyone who can perform a nude scene like the one in Before Midnight is an actress worth her weight in Oscar gold.

Best Director

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Will: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) – People be lovin’ some Gravity, am I right? While I’m not one of them I can objectively see the wave of support this film is getting and while its performances were (rightly so) left out of contention, Cuaron’s use of dazzling special effects will be honoured here. It’s one hell of a film to look at, I must admit, it’s just too bad it’s not as impressive to actually watch. Nonetheless, this is the one to beat.

Should: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) – I’m sorry, y’all, but I feel like the lone wolf who didn’t fall in love with Gravity, and I don’t believe grandeur for its own sake should win a Best Director Oscar. It deserves every technical award it will surely win, but when it comes to the direction of its actors, I found Gravity to be disappointingly heavy handed. 12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, manages to take already heavy material and find effectively subtle ways to get it under your skin. From the long-shot of the hanging, to the power and grace of the graveside singing, 12 Years a Slave goes for both the head and the heart and hits every note just right.

Missed: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis) – Here we are again, but Joel and Ethan Coen are at their best when tackling understated tales of doomed characters living in flabbergasting worlds, as in A Serious Man, and here with Inside Llewyn Davis, one of their best movies. The use of colour, music, pacing and tone are exquisite and the film as a whole is a worm burner of a masterpiece.

Best Picture

Will: 12 Years a Slave – You never know, Gravity may just split the difference between 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle and take the win, but I think the Academy is going to go with the early favourite this year, after last year’s momentum winner (Argo over Lincoln). Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but love for American Hustle seems to have lost steam and the Academy still typically loves drama over pure entertainment, so 12 Years a Slave will inch out a win.

Should: 12 Years a Slave – For once, I agree. 12 Years a Slave is a rare picture which manages to be Oscar bait, due to its heavy, American-historical content, but is also marvellously made, with stunning performances, one heck of a story and the impressive vision of director Steve McQueen. This is the black history film America has been in need of, and it deserves all the accolades it gets.

Missed: Inside Llewyn Davis – Broken record much? I’ve said it all already: I loved this movie, critics loved this movie, it deserved a nomination at least, over Gravity, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, in my occasionally humble opinion. Like I said, I don’t detest any of the nominees this year, but Davis is such a strong picture, it would have just made this category all the more impressive. Before Midnight, too.

So there you go. In other news, look for Gravity to sweep up technical awards and a bunch of films we’ve never heard of, even if sadly so, for short films. Oh, and dresses and stuff, whatever. The main point is: have fun.

Look for me on Twitter @CineFileBlog to get into some live reactions to the awards this Sunday night (March 2) at 4 p.m. (that might be red carpet stuff, I’m not sure).

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Well folks, as they say in the business, that’s a wrap.

The Victoria Film Festival came to a close for its 20th year of operation this Sunday, and out of Victoria’s cinemas stumbled a zombie-like hoard of bleary eyed movie fanatics in desperate need of sleep, fresh air and food prepared in ways aside from popped.

I know. I was among them.

I have to say, in all honesty, this was a fantastic year for the festival. There were amazing guests, an impressive number and variety of films of mostly high quality and a general ambiance of real cinematic love. I had a great time.

And so did others, it seems, with a truly impressive number of sold out screenings and a general hubbub in the air around the whole thing. The Odeon was alive with lineups of folks from all walks of life talking about the last film they saw and waiting to see the next.

Wonderful.

In total I saw 19 movies, which could be seen as bragging if it also wasn’t kind of sad.

I’m not going to get into all of the films I saw since the first weekend but I would like to point out a few notables.

Out of the final batch of films I saw, I have a couple of favourites.

The first is a film I loved for the simple pleasure of it. We tend to see a lot of heavy material during a film festival, so it was a welcome respite to merely laugh my way through a lovely little Irish film called The Stag.

The Stag is about just what you think it would be about: a stag. Five Irishmen head into the woods and hills for a weekend hiking trip to celebrate the upcoming marriage of one of the group. Everything is set to go splendidly until something goes wrong: The bride’s brother, named The Machine, shows up. Nothing will be the same.

Again, the film is a simple, light comedy, but genuinely funny and, at times, sweet, and wonderful proof that a movie can be progressive, reasonably clean, and still be a riot.

Another favourite of the festival was the last film I saw, Vic and Flo Saw a Bear. This is a weird one, no question, which starts off as your typical indie family drama, full of natural scenery and stifled conversations, but ends up veering wildly off into areas touching on horror and revenge exploitation.

I had to shake my head as I left the cinema and heard a group of about eight older folks complaining about what a terrible movie they had just seen. They hated it. They were reveling in their mutual hatred. But their main criticism seemed to be “well THAT was different.” Which, and forgive me if I’m way off, sounds like a good thing to me, especially at a film festival.

It made me angry to see them all tearing “one” on their voting ballots, because we don’t want to discourage the festival from bringing in demented little films like this.

It’s very uniqueness is what made the film so enjoyable, and, again, especially in the middle of a film festival, where it’s not hard to fill your boots with straight laced indie dramas, even if some of them are excellent. Vic and Flo doesn’t go for that though. It goes midnight movie on us, delighting one (perhaps twisted) half of the audience while obviously alienating the other.

I was a firm member of the former group, and for those who think they would be too, Vic and Flo Saw a Bear is a film to look out for.

That’s not to saw a “weird” movie can’t go too far.

I had A Field in England pegged as one of my more anticipated films of the festival, a decision I regret now having seen it. In retrospect I should have seen this coming, as I based my anticipation on the only other film I have seen from director Ben Wheatley, Kill List, a movie with a lot of interesting things going on in it but which ultimately left me frustrated as a viewer.

But I saw a lot of potential in Wheatley as a director, based on his visual prowess, and hoped his output would improve with time.

Sadly, I was more than disappointed. A Field in England is a shallow mess of a film with very little to say it seems and with little point other than to broadcast psychedelic, albeit masterfully edited, sequences of utter visceral vomit. It has all the subtlety of a laser light show.

I knew as soon as the main characters started taking magic mushrooms, initiating a drug trip sequence, this was not the film for me. While I admire much of what Wheatley achieves visually, he offers little to back it up as being anything beyond purely self-indulgent directorial flourishes.

And it just got worse. Story and characters are minimal, and the films seems to have no particular point to make, that I could decipher. Just trippy visuals and drug sequences. And lots of violence and bodily functions.

I did enjoy much of the dialogue, written by Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump.

Look, I love a highly visual film with a strong directorial presence, but only when it’s for a purpose beyond merely indulging in what the director deems as looking cool. What are his viewers supposed to get out of this? It seems to me Wheatley isn’t overly concerned.

Ultimately it’s a personal thing. If I identified with Wheatley’s style, I would probably like his films a lot more. If Nicolas Winding Refn, another highly visual director, made it I would probably find a lot more to like in the movie because I appreciate his style (although Only God Forgives was unforgivably self-indulgent as well). You could even argue that I didn’t like A Field in England for the same reason the old folks didn’t like Vic and Flo Saw a Bear. It was too different.

But I don’t buy that. I like different, if it’s for a good reason, if it has something interesting to say or do. Endless drug trip sequences couldn’t be more redundant. Drugs are weird. Got it.

Obviously, I simply don’t connect with Wheatley as a filmmaker. I find him pessimistic and his movies ugly and pointless.

My other big disappointment of the festival was the documentary Nicky’s Family, about an Englishman who helped to save hundreds of Czech children from the scourge of the Nazis at the outbreak of the Second World War.

What was so frustrating about the film is how such a great story is ruined by truly heavy handed and embarrassingly amateurish filmmaking. I mean really, the movie looked like a Canadian Heritage Moment, or some educational VHS doc we would have watched in elementary school in the early ’90s.

Sepia-toned reenactments, archival footage “enhanced” with sound effects, off-topic meanderings into subjects only remotely related to the subject and a shocking lack of depth from the subject himself, do not make for a good doc.

There’s really no point in going into the ins and outs of what worked or didn’t work in the film, because really the whole thing was flawed from the start. Truly disappointing.

I also wanted to mention who much I ended up enjoying Tide Lines, from local Victoria director Andrew Naysmith, along with Arwen Hunter. This is a doc which works and which manages to find its voice even with a limited budget and some technical challenges, in contrast to Nicky’s Family.

What separates Tide Lines from the environmental documentary genre, which I generally dislike, is it’s just as much about the people as it is the issue. Equally important to the filmmakers is the personal relationships and personalities of the three men who head out to sail the world, surf and investigate the impact plastic use is having on beaches.

That they thought to included the parents and girlfriends of the main subjects really works to the film’s advantage as it draws us in as human beings, not just as concerned citizens worried about environmental degradation. And when you connect on that level, your film is going to work on multiple levels. Tide Lines achieves this and is all the richer for it.

On the whole I had one heck of a good time at the festival, watching some amazing films from around the world and spending time with people who love movies. See you all there next year.

Find me on Twitter @CineFileBlog

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Well after a fabulous, and fabulously busy, opening weekend, the Victoria Film Festival is in full swing as it heads through its 10-day schedule of local and international films, documentaries and narratives, shorts and longs, guest speakers and art installations.

So far it has been a blast.

I’ve managed to catch 10 movies in the first four days of the festival, along with three speaker series presentations and one gala party featuring absinthe. My friends and family are wondering where I am and I’ve forgotten what they look like, but it’s a film festival, you know?

I present here some brief impressions of some of the films I have seen.

The first film I saw is probably thus far my favourite of the festival. I missed the gala screening of the Alan Partridge movie purely because I knew I had to see the one and only screening of Ari Folman’s new film, The Congress.

Folman is the director behind the 2008 animated memoir Waltz With Bashir, which was one hell of a film. He’s back with a part-life action, part-animated, all-captivating dive into the deep end.

This is one of those movies where I wasn’t immediately sure of what I had seen, but I knew it had been something incredible. It’s a movie which really comes with its own cinematic language, nothing in my background of film studies really felt applicable to helping me approach this movie. Which is exciting.

I was asked by someone who hadn’t seen The Congress what it was about. This is not an easy question. It’s about an actress named Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, who, in the twilight of her mostly-failed career, is convinced to sign away, well, herself, as an actor and an image.

She is scanned so the studio can use the young Robin Wright, without the need for the real Robin Wright, in movies for all time. It is her final role.

But that really isn’t what the film is about. It’s also about family, about choices, about age, reality, corporatism, love, totalitarianism, entertainment and technology. At least I think it is. That’s what I got out of it, anyone else may have walked away with a completely different impression.

And that’s the beauty of this film. It’s wildly ambitious in scope, but also comes off as a deeply personal project and one which is, despite its lofty ideas, emotionally available. I didn’t always understand why I was so emotionally involved, but I was, undoubtably.

With beautiful animation, great performances (particularly from Wright and, in one scene in particular, Harvey Keitel) and stunning scope, The Congress is one to watch out for as it is rolled out this year.

Next up was Sarah Prefers to Run, from Quebecois director Chloé Robichaud, a real grounded movie (literally about feet hitting the ground) to follow The Congress with.

Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) is a high school track star, who gets accepted to McGill and moves to Montreal to continue her track career. She has little money so agrees to marry her friend and roommate Antoine (Jean-Sebastien Courchesne) to increase bursary eligibility. The arrangement leads to complications as Sarah explores her sexuality and faces a health concern.

It’s a compelling film primarily thanks to the performance of Desmarais, who is stunningly beautiful but manages to pull off a painfully believable portrayal of a shy, uncertain girl who is only sure of one thing: she likes to run.

Unfortunately, as with most things, life gets in the way of this simple desire and by the end of the film we have no idea of what is going to happen to Sarah.

The film is a great character study but I found the end puzzling. After what has so far been a straight-faced film the tone turns shockingly dissonant and fractured, leaving a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth as the credits role. It’s not that the ending is bad in and of itself, it’s just nothing in the film has led to its tone, it feels out of place and dishonest to what has preceded it.

But it’s a small grievance I had with what was otherwise a captivating film, with the highlight being the performance from Desmarais.

After a fascinating speaker series with Atom Egoyan where he spoke of his childhood in Victoria, the beginnings of his obsession with secret lives and a rare screening of parts of his unreleased 2004 documentary on his trip with his wife to her homeland of Lebanon (which were fantastic and Egoyan should release the film), we were treated to a screening of his newest film Devil’s Knot.

The film, about the West Memphis Three murder, is, as Egoyan explained, a look at truth and tragedy and their fickle nature. The title is in reference to a knot which the more you pick at it, the tighter it gets, with suggested similarity to this case, which remains mostly unsolved.

The problem with Devil’s Knot, and unfortunately there is one, perhaps lies in approach. Egoyan shows an intense commitment to the facts of the case, which I admired, with an attention to detail and a procedural approach to the investigation and subsequent trial. What was missing for me was an emotional connection, perhaps corrupted by the film’s choice to treat the movie as an ensemble piece, with no real protagonist through which to enter this world.

Colin Firth is about the closest we come to this, as an investigator working for the defence, but his performance is also cold and calculating and while I understood his obsession, I never became invested with him as a person. Perhaps he wasn’t a cinematic enough character for me, I’m not sure, but something about the performance and the portrayal kept me at a distance.

Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the murdered boys is also meant to establish an emotional connection, and while Witherspoon does her best, she is perhaps asked to do too much with too little, particularly in regards to screen time.

The material has been the subject of four previous documentaries, none of which I have seen. Egoyan said this film is for people like me. Honestly, I walked away feeling I would have got more, or the same thing, out of seeing the docs. It’s a fascinating case and the film often captures that, but in the end it felt more like a calculated exercise in investigative filmmaking, which didn’t make for a good movie.

Our Man in Tehran has the opposite intentions of Devil’s Knot, in that it is a documentary hoping to clear up some of the inaccuracies present in a fictionalized, highly entertaining movie about the Iran hostage crisis.

The film was in the works before Argo, but the filmmakers all but said outright in their speaker series presentation that Argo’s failures were their gains.

The film’s title refers to Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran during the crisis, whose role in helping Americans attempting to escape the country after their embassy had been taken over is largely glossed over in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning take on the subject.

I was not a huge fan of Argo, partly because I found it entertaining but vapid, and even more so when I realized just how much of it was complete nonsense, historically speaking. Our Man in Tehran is proof that often the true story is the greater one, with the diplomatic and political wheelings and dealings of the crisis just as captivating as a made-up runway chase scene.

As someone born after the crisis, with little knowledge of it beyond ArgoOur Man in Tehran proved to be essential viewing. I learned about the events, felt privy to a compelling look at the roles and rules of diplomacy and came to understand the importance of the crisis to Canada’s international role, to the changing face of warfare and revolution and to the role of journalism, and film itself, in history.

Our Man in Tehran is a straight-laced, clear-headed look at an important event, expertly made and effectively presented. Much better than Argo, let’s put it that way.

Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy couldn’t be more different from his first English-language feature and USA breakthrough film Prisoners, which will be a good thing for some, and a baffling disappointment for others. A bizarre little movie, Enemy is a claustrophobic, menacing film which constantly blurs the line between reality, dream and nightmare.

On its surface it’s about a man who discovers his exact doppelgänger in a movie and becomes obsessed with contacting him. But it’s also about identity, sex and spiders. It’s a dark, brooding film, but keeps its pace tight and manages to be fascinating while perplexing. I can’t say I loved it, but it has stuck with me and I certainly enjoyed the experience of watching it.

First time English director Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is a stark narrative feature about misfit youth who get involved in the world of illegal scrap metal dealing. The linear narrative film is full of rich performances and has a devastating outcome, leaving the overall impression of having seen something important to the discussion of the current state of England, the shortcomings of the education system and the importance of family and friendship.

Richie Mehta’s Siddharth is another look at family and hardship in tough economic conditions, but despite the tragedy of its story, is as much about the kindness of community and the human will to keep going.

It’s an emotional film, following a father attempting to find his abducted son in India, but appropriately so. As Mehta, who is attending the festival, explained to me, it is a true story and a real issue in India, where abduction of children is common.

But Mehta wasn’t out to merely capture misery, and the more powerful aspects of the film are found in the kindness of strangers, a wonderful ensemble of characters who help the father on his quest. So many movies would have presented obstacle after obstacle, with menace and indifference at all corners, but Mehta sees the good in people. His film is all the more powerful for it.

Finally, Stranger By the Lake, my Number 1 pick for the festival, proved to be one heck of a movie, though I don’t believe my praise would equal the fever pitch of the European critics.

This homoerotic tale is heavy on the sex and nudity, and also on the intrigue and violence surrounding the investigation into a murder at a popular lakeside cruising spot in France. The entire film is confined to the one location and it plays out as a theatrical Agatha Christie-type thriller, only we know whodunnit and we’ve also seen his penis.

As much an important film to normalize actual gay sex, as opposed to the eunuch type homosexual characters we commonly see on TV and in Hollywood movies, Stranger By the Lake is pornographic in content, if not intent. It’s akin to 9 Songs (2004) in its graphic detail, but, unlike the Winterbottom film, is also affective as pure narrative.

I enjoyed the commitment to the setting, the exploration of the borders of the beach and woods, the connections found and lost of the characters which inhabit the various areas. Sex, love and the desperate longing for connection motivate these characters, influencing them to commit or ignore horrible acts. It’s a boiled down microcosm of human interaction.

It’s not a political film but a personal one, where the homosexuality of the characters is treated as commonplace as the heterosexuality of characters in most movies, helping our connection to the characters be as fellow humans, with the usual flaws and fascinations.

Compelling, erotic and entertaining, Stranger By the Lake will likely be marginalized due to its graphic content, but those who have the chance to see it, should.

So there we are, a far-too-long check in. The festival continues, and so to will my coverage, until Feb. 16. Visit VictoriaFilmFestival.com for showtimes and ticket information. Follow @CineFileBlog on Twitter for ongoing coverage. Hope to see you there.

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That Awkward Moment (2014), directed by Tom Gormican

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), directed by Kenneth Branagh

It’s been a lot of Academy Award catch up lately, along with prep for the Victoria Film Festival, so new release Hollywood movies have somewhat fallen by the wayside for me lately.

So time to catch-up.

January/February is typically a pretty lean time for new flicks, studios have stopped the flow of Oscar contenders and have yet to ramp up into Summer Movie Season mode. That being said, I find there are often gems released this time of year, slightly strange movies studios didn’t really know what to do with.

Not diamonds in the rough, necessarily, but maybe, like, topaz? Or tanzanite?

Unfortunately That Awkward Moment does not fall into this category, unless a movie about emotionally-disabled dude-bros trying to navigate the ins and outs of their unnecessarily complicated lives is your thing.

Bringing hope to the film was the casting of some of todays most promising young actors, including Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Friday Night Lights) and Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Sundance-darling Whiplash). Oh and Zac Efron, who is trying desperately to be taken seriously but still hasn’t proven his worth to me beyond a pretty face.

Alas this does not help the film, which is so very, very flawed

What am I supposed to get out of this? I guess it’s a story about how young men need to mature in order to move forward in life and discover the rewards of a meaningful relationship.

But let’s be honest, only d-bags need to “learn” this.

And that might be judgemental, but honestly, who are these late-20s people who have seemingly zero idea of how a relationship works or how to connect with women as, I don’t know, human beings?

Which brings us to the women in the film. I get this is a film about guys geared towards men, but why do the women have to be so underdeveloped? Daniel (Teller) falls for his friend Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis), a character who is never really introduced, appears to have no backstory, career or life outside of her interactions with Daniel, and does nothing but be cool by liking his emotionally-shallow banter.

And she’s the best of the bunch.

Vera (Jessica Lewis), Mikey’s (Jordan) ex-wife is portrayed as nothing less than awful for cheating on Mikey and then even more awful for not wanting to get back together with him. We are offered little insight into why she feels this way.

And then there’s Jason’s (Efron) sort-of-girlfriend, Ellie, who clearly has no self-respect as she, for the second time, gets back together with him, even though he’s clearly a selfish, pathetic user of people.

My favourite part is the scene in which he realizes he has been selfish and goes to win her back. How? By crashing her book event, interrupting it, and potentially embarrassing her publicly. Because surely her event is trivial and unimportant compared to the feelie feels Jason must tell Ellie RIGHT NOW before they fade and he instead gets hungry or something and forgets.

Skipping her father’s funeral, an unforgivable act in anyone’s book, isn’t bad enough apparently, he has to once again disrupt her life even though she has clearly asked him to stay away.

This only works in the movies, folks. In real life this behaviour would be reprehensible.

And I get that it’s only a movie, and it does have some genuinely funny moments, but ultimately I would have even preferred some dumb dude comedy like The Hangover over a faux-serious mess like this. That Awkward Moment thinks it’s a modern, relevant take on love and young men and is perhaps as self-centred as its pathetic characters. I simply could not have cared less.

More up my alley was the latest Tom Clancy incarnation Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a return to the character previously played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck.

Shadow Recruit is part spy thriller, part action flick, all pretty ridiculous but a lot of fun nonetheless. It’s nothing amazing, but it manages to be a solid action film in an era where more-is-better reigns supreme.

Listen, does the plot make much sense? No. I mean, it sort of does, but I’m sure someone with only the most basic knowledge of international economics could find gaping holes. But do I care? Not really. At least it’s confined to a couple of locations and a finale which really only involves a mid-level explosion, in movie terms.

Even Clancy’s novels are not exactly known for their realism (see this Vulture article) and that never stopped me from soaking them up like a sponge around age 12 (and yes I was a weird child).

While my reception to this film was perhaps less…porous, I still mindlessly enjoyed the heck out of it. The action is tight, reasonably well shot (mid-level shaky cam usage) and not too outrageous, keeping in the spirit of the material. Chris Pine (Star Trek) makes for a decent Ryan, not quite as average-man as Harrison Ford, but certainly less smarmy than his Captain Kirk.

And Kenneth Branagh plays a delightfully smarmy Russian baddie, which I fully approve of. I long for the simple days of the Cold War, when you had a ready, go-to villain. No fuss, no bother.

So there we go, I feel I am slightly more in the loop on new releases. Here’s to the film festival not letting that last.

That Awkward Moment and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit are in cinemas now.

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Well Victoria, B.C. film fans, it’s that time of the year again. The main event. The big show. The Run for the Roses. Film festival.

While it’s not the biggest or most important film festival going, VFF is nonetheless high in quality. It’s generally too early in the year and too small to premier anything, but organizers do an excellent job of bringing together some of the finest features from the previous year’s festival circuit, giving us all a chance to catch up, look ahead and enjoy some of the world’s finest.

Plus with an amazing slate of guest speakers, documentaries, short films and limited release movies which otherwise would never be screened theatrically here, it’s not to be missed.

But time is money, am I right? So what to see, what to see?

For those of you looking for a little guidance as to what’s worthy and what’s worth missing, here are my humble picks for 10 films to make the effort to go see over the festival’s nine days. Keep in mind I’m more partial to narratives than docs, and that I haven’t actually seen any of these. I will, however, explain why each has me excited.

In alphabetical order:

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A Field in England (2013), directed by Ben Wheatley

Why: Mainly because Wheatley is a name to watch in UK cinema for original, edgy and slightly crazy movies, especially 2011 horror flick Kill List and 2012’s Sightseers (which I haven’t seen yet). The film itself is a historical thriller, shot in black-and-white and set during the English Civil War, but it promises to be anything but dry or “normal.” It was well received in Europe and has played at only a few North American festivals, including Vancouver.

 

The Congress (2013), directed by Ari Folman

Why: Again this choice (as many will be) is based on the strength of the director, whose previous film, Waltz With Bashir, was one of the most inventive and engaging animated films in recent years. With his second major release, Folman is returning to animation, this time with a meta-level actors-playing-themselves-type affair which looks equal parts inventive and mesmerizing. Not yet released beyond the festival circuit, this is one not to be missed.

 

Devil’s Knot (2013), directed by Atom Egoyan

Why: While Devil’s Knot has had a limited release, including a run in Vancouver, this will be the first chance to see it in Victoria (before the Americans no less) and, most importantly, presented by the director himself at his speaker series on Saturday. Even if you can’t make the special event, the film, starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, a crime thriller based on the West Memphis Three case in the States (also the subject of the Paradise Lost series of documentaries and West of Memphis), looks dark and riveting. Victoria-raised director Egoyan is one of Canada’s greatest filmmakers and if his last feature, Chloe, is anything to go by he is still at the top of his game.

 

Empire of Dirt (2013), directed by Peter Stebbings

Why: The Canadian Gala choice this year is a film about three generations of First Nations women dealing with the past and their relationships to each other. Written by Cree screenwriter Shannon Masters, the film got notice at Toronto’s film festival and unless you’re tired of all the movies centred around First Nations women (sarcasm), this Canadian feature sounds like a breath of fresh air.

 

Enemy (2013), directed by Denis Villeneuve

Why: Because Villeneuve (Incendies, Polytechnique) is the most interesting and talented Canadian filmmaker working today. Because his partnering with Jake Gyllenhaal is worth getting excited about, if last year’s Prisoners is any indication. Because the plot, centring around a man seeking out his exact double after seeing him in a movie (with both roles played by Gyllenhaal) sounds like a lot of fun. And because you’ll get to see it before the rest of Canada does on March 14.

 

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Sarah Prefers to Run (2013), directed by Chloe Robichaud

Why: Part of the festival’s commendable Women in the Director’s Chair series, this French-Canadian film looks like a delightful coming-of-age type film about a young female runner. Robichaud’s feature film debut has played in Quebec, but this is one of its first forays outside of the belle province into our Anglo world.

 

The Selfish Giant (2013), directed by Clio Barnard

Why: This UK film got a lot of notice on last year’s festival circuit and made the cut on more than a few best of the year lists, including that of prestigious British film magazine Sight and Sound. The film follows two English youth who get caught up in the criminal world of scrap metal dealing. The film looks heavy, but powerful. And hey, another female director being featured is always a good thing.

 

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Stranger by the Lake (2013), directed by Alain Guiraudie

Another Sight and Sound pick for one of the best of the year, Stranger by the Lake is getting massive amounts of critical praise and has a good chance of making some North American lists this time next year, having just had a limited release here. This film, an erotic thriller about a summer tryst between two men in France, is worth seeing based on early reception alone.

 

Tide Lines (2014), directed by Andrew Naysmith

Why: Because you gotta support the hometown folks, you know? This is the only full-fledged local feature film of the festival, and it looks like a good one, following two Victoria brothers over three years as they sail the world to surf and spread the word about environmental issues related to beaches. So it’s got that whole environmental doc thing going on, which seems to be what people like. I might like this one too.

 

Young and Beautiful (2013), directed by Francois Ozon

Why: What’s a film festival without at least one erotic French movie? And with respected director Ozon (In the House, Swimming Pool) at the helm, this one, about a teenage prostitute, looks particularly captivating, if the critical acclaim and Palme d’Or nomination are anything to go by. And if the trailer is anything to go by, it also looks scintillating and thought provoking.

 

Also of interest: Alan Partridge; Big Sur; Cas and Dylan; Finding Vivian Maier; Il Futuro; Like Father Like Son; Me and You; Our Man in Tehran; Siddharth; Strange Little Cat and The Stag.

PS: Oscar nominated documentary The Square is also playing at the festival. But it’s also on Netflix. So if you’re making some hard decisions on what to see and what will have to be missed, well, that’s something worth knowing. Just saying.

So there you go folks, I’ll see you at the festival. Come say hi. I’ll also be doing capsule reviews throughout the festival online for Monday Magazine and here at CineFileBlog. For updates follow me on Twitter @CineFileBlog.

I, Frankenstein

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I, Frankenstein (2014), directed Stuart Beattie

When most people think of Frankenstein they picture a lumbering, enormous green monster with bolts coming out of his neck.

Few realize the original monster could speak rather well and enjoyed spending time in the woods reading the Bible and Paradise Lost.

Fewer still ever realized he is a super fit martial arts master named Adam. Who knew?

Well I didn’t. Turns out he’s pretty handy with a pair of metal sticks or something.

Following in the footsteps of the new wave of revisionist historical and literature-based movies (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Hansel & Gretel: With Hunters), I, Frankenstein: Demon Hunter updates the tale of Modern Prometheus, sort of picking up where Mary Shelley’s novel left off, but throwing in demons and God-powered gargoyles into the mix.

And I do mean throwing.

The biggest problem with this, let’s face it, terrible, terrible movie is how slapped together it feels. I could be on board with a Frankenstein 2 type of movie, picking up where the book left off, bringing the monster to modern times and having him engaged in a battle with scientists out to capture him or something. It doesn’t have to be uber-serious for me to like it either. Unlike the book, Frankenstein movies are traditionally nothing if not fun

This film seems to set something like that up and then just says ‘Oh, by the way, there are demons and gargoyles now and they’ve been at war for centuries and it has something to do with God. Deal with it.” This element is explained in about 3.5 seconds, around the three minute mark of the movie and you just have to swallow it and move on.

But why would you want to? There’s simply no reason to. Listen, with a movie like this, with a ludicrous plot, zero character development and a devotion to action set pieces completely devoid of reasonable context, the least a film can do is have a bit of fun. And that’s ultimately what makes I, Frankenstein a bad movie.

It could have been so bad it’s good, but the entire ridiculous affair takes itself so seriously, without anything even remotely resembling humour, it makes it impossible to enjoy. With straight faced lines about gargoyle queens and demonic warfare, all spoken with the drama turned up to 11 by a gravelly, Batman-voiced Aaron Eckhart, the movie is all too intent on being taken seriously.

And that’s simply impossible, so what’s left?

Mid-movie I decided in order to get through it I would have to follow some sort of “if you don’t have anything nice to say” type approach and look for something worthwhile in this mess of a movie.

Here’s what I came up with:

It has great use of colour. Some of the special effects are pretty spectacular, mainly because of the use of colour. The set piece with the dead bodies is kind of cool.

And with that the well of kindness ran dry. Back to shaking my head and laughing, not with the movie, but at it.

Also feeling jittery from the constantly driving, building score which never actually gets anywhere but makes you feel as though you want to run from the theatre to get away from it. Dum-dum-dum dum-dum-dum dum-dum-dum.

And that’s about all there is to say. I, Frankenstein is one of the worst movies I have seen in a long time. Although I already want to see Eckhart’s rooftop finale again. Someone on Twitter the other day was talking about movie titles as the last line of the movie. This has one of the best.

I, Frankenstein is in cinemas now. I beg you not to see it. You’re better than that.

Lone Survivor

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Lone Survivor (2014), directed by Peter Berg

What exactly is the point of Lone Survivor? What are we supposed to take away from it?

This is the question I could not stop mulling over as I left a screening of the new Peter Berg film shocked and shaken, feeling slightly lost and downtrodden.

I certainly hadn’t enjoyed it, I knew that much. There is much in the film to be admired, from the incredible landscapes and cinematography, to Berg’s opening montage from real footage of Navy SEAL training, to the attention to detail and the obvious intention to portrait events as accurately as possible.

The score, from Texan instrumental band Explosions in the Sky, was impressively emotive, reminding me of the best of their work with Berg on his movie and TV series Friday Night Lights, one of my all-time favourites. Berg’s usual flourishes were also enjoyable, he’s one of the few working directors who seems to be able to use handheld camera work effectively.

But none of this helped me to overcome the feeling I was watching something I really didn’t want to watch, for any reason, entertainment, enrichment or otherwise.

The problem with the film is in its focus. It’s essentially two hours of the hell these guys went through. I get the intention to make us realize the hardships and brutal deaths by rubbing our noses in it, but it’s gruelling to watch and in the end does little to make us care more about these characters as people.

There seemed to be a lost opportunity to show the audience who these men, these names on the page, really were, beyond some perfunctory photos of wives back home and some macho boys-being-boys camaraderie before heading out on mission.

The impressive opening montage gave us a brief sense of how these individuals are shaped into a band of brothers and the film could have been better served by much more along this vein, rather than bullet after bullet thwacking through arms and torsos.

Without the character building film played like an episode of Friday Night Lights with only football. And football was never what made that show great.

For another comparison, the film feels like a Passion of the Christ for military worshippers. It’s exhausting watching the soldiers shoot Afghani after Afghani, get shot themselves, fall down cliffs, take shrapnel and, for all but the titular hero, die. Much like Passion, we are expected to feel more for these characters by understanding the pain they experienced.

Maybe it’s because I knew nothing about these events before seeing the movie, but I found the film had the opposite effect. It was hard to watch. I didn’t want to watch anymore. I covered my eyes at one point. And all because I knew so very little about these guys, beyond a couple were married and one was getting married and Ben Foster’s eyes are like glacial lakes I get lost in every closeup he has.

It was sad seeing what happened to them, of course, and it made me shake my head at the pointlessness of war. And that’s fine if it was the point of the movie, but in this case the point seemed to be the characters, the real men who fought and died, and the approach worked against the intent.

It was honestly numbing, an outcome I doubt Berg had in mind. It’s so intense and overwhelming I found it very hard to stay engaged. My mind had to retreat. And I’m not sorry for it, because I never felt the intent was worth the hardship, as it is in a film such as 12 Years a Slave, or something similarly difficult to watch.

I will say I’m glad Berg gave the Afghanis who helped save the US soldier the credit they deserve. So much of the film is an angry Arab people shooting gallery (which is accurate, so it’s OK? I’m not sure), that it was a welcoming relief to see other Arab characters played with humanism and compassion.

Thinking and writing about it now I am still conflicted, because it is so well made and Berg is great at what he does. I appreciate the dedication with which the film was made. But I didn’t enjoy watching it, I don’t feel I am richer for the experience and I have no desire to ever see it again. That’s not a great outcome.

Lone Survivor is in cinemas now.

CineFile’s Top 10 Films of 2013

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And what a year it has been.

I probably spent more time in cinemas and saw more movies this year than any other before. My friends and family knew not to bug me Tuesday nights because I would be in the theatre for cheap night. At least a couple of other nights of the week I was likely at promo screenings. I went to two film festivals, using my holiday time for one. Some might call it a lack of a social life, but I call it devotion and integrity. I knew at the end of the year I was going to have to write a list of best movies for the people and that I would be held accountable. Imagine the pressure.

That being said there’s still a number of movies I haven’t had a chance to see, mainly due to limited releases being hard to track down in Victoria. Highly praised movies I’ve thus far missed out on include: Blue is the Warmest Colour, Short Term 12, The Act of Killing, Her, The Great Beauty and others.

Those I did see, and there were many, helped convince me 2013 has been an extraordinary year for film. Sure it was a lousy Summer Movie Season but the number and variety of impressive films this year has been staggering. This is the first year in many where I believe every film on my list to be truly great.

Anywho, off we go:

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10. Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne

For a year full of movies about excess (an excessive amount, some might say) the strong, silent and quietly hilarious Nebraska was a welcome break. A great late-career performance from Bruce Dern and a wonderfully colourful supporting cast helped Alexander Payne tell this heartwarming, but never sappy, tale of a father/son road trip, small town quirks, one hell of a good punch to the face and one million dollars. Actually, now I think about it, Nebraska is sort of the Spring Breakers for mid-western Americans over 80.

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9. The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright

Among disappointing blockbuster summer fair (Man of Steel, Elysium) actually came some great mid-budget entries, including this third film in Edgar Wright’s so-called Blood and Ice Cream, following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The third turned out to be the best, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost out to conquer a 12-pub crawl and a force bent on taking over the world. Fast-talking Pegg is a wonder to watch and the movie as a whole is wonderfully silly, well written and full of laughs.

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8. The Conjuring, directed by James Wan

James Wan’s The Conjuring is about as good as a mainstream Hollywood horror movie can get and holds the distinction of  being one of the few I wondered if I would be able to get through. Its set up is simple, but its pace is unrelenting, taking the house of horrors trope to new, frightening levels. This isn’t a bump in the night, this is an explosion, full of gripping tension and horrific sights. In other words, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

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7. The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese

Ah yes, the most divisive film of December, if not the year. Is Martin Scorsese’s three-hour, hell-bent-for-leather opus of drugs and Wall Street scamming in the 1990s a brilliant satire or a deplorable celebration of depravity? Can’t it be both? The power of this astounding film is in both its epic, ridiculous, mind-numbing scale and its resistance to assign blame. Yes, it’s more entertaining than it has any right to be,  leaving viewers with a ‘what did I do?’ type hangover, but in so being the film raises questions of how much our own American Dream culture, and therefore ourselves, promotes and props up wolves like Jordan Belfort, who is now developing a reality TV show. You decide.

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6. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen

2013 was a big year for movies about the struggles of African-Americans, with three major releases, including the commendable Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Fruitvale Station. But the best of the bunch came from British director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger), whose no-holds-barred look at the soul-crushing depravity of slavery made for one of the most powerful films of the year. Featuring a staggering performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave isn’t a film I particularly want to see again, but it’s one everyone should see once.

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5. Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley

Technically a 2012 release in Canada, Stories We Tell is Oscar eligible for 2013 and I didn’t have a chance to see it until this year, so I’m counting it. We already knew Sarah Polley as a great narrative director (Away From Her, Take This Waltz) but with this fascinating and touchingly personal documentary on her only family secrets she proved even more her capacity for thoughtful, inspired takes on what it means to be human. In turns funny, thought provoking and compelling.

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4. Stoker, directed by Chan-wook Park

I love me a seedy little Hitchockian crime movie, and Chan-wook Park put out one of the best since, well, Hitchcock, with Stoker. Beautifully filmed but a nasty bit of work all the same, Stoker is a captivating watch, one part film noir, one part erotic coming-of-age tale, all parts engrossing, filled with lovely cinematic flourishes and knock-out performances from Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman.

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3. Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by the Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers are, rightly so, rated highly amongst contemporary directors, and in my opinion they’re never better than when making simple, character-driven tone pieces of hard-luck souls trying to navigate a baffling world. A Serious Man is perhaps the best example, and Inside Llewyn Davis follows a similar path. Davis is a great film for its performances, especially Oscar Issac, for its music and for Ulysees the cat, but mainly for the grace and patient, puzzling beauty the Coens bathe it all in.

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2. Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine

I must say I thoroughly enjoyed thinking of all the teens and tweens unknowingly lining up to see the new Selena Gomez movie Spring Breakers, totally unaware of the nightmarish, dubstep drenched vision of youthful decadence Harmony Korine had lined up for them. Some mistook the film for vapid exploitation, but I have trouble understanding how anyone could see Spring Breakers as anything other than an intense, troubling, invigorating piece of confrontational art, and the most modern film of the year.

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1. Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater

How lovely that the best film of the year also be one of the simplest. The third film in the Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy Before… trilogy, turned out to be the best, a loving portrait of a committed couple working through the complexities of romance and life. It is a film of conversations, primarily between two people, but in its maturity and honesty the movie finds beauty, depth and, of course, a love truly invigorating to watch. An inspiring use of cinema.

Worst Movie of 2013:

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Tie: The Hangover Pt. III and A Good Day to Die Hard

Even in an amazing year for movies, some, er, crap still managed to rise to the surface. These two films proved to be the absolute low points in their respective genres: the third Hangover film being a comedy with no jokes, unless a swearing Korean man and a decapitated giraffe are your thing, and the fifth Die Hard movie being an action movie with completely indecipherable action and only the worst in genre cliches. These films are the pinnacle of Hollywood driving once great ideas into the absolute ground.

Well there we go folks, another year down the hatch. I’d say we should meet up soon, but I’ll probably be at the movies.

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Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by the Coen Brothers

The end of the year always ends up being a bit of time for catch-up for me. It’s kind of a strange system really, because the expected time period for a best of the year list always coincides with the release of most of the films likely to be on said list.

So it can be a bit of a scramble. And one you can never really win, because so many of the films other critics, who live in bigger cities with more limited releases and press screenings, list as their favourites films won’t even open to the general public until January.

Sad.

Regardless, I do my best and it always ends up I see a few late-in-the-game list-changers. These two may just prove to be them.

Of all the quiet quirky indie directors finding critical success right now (Jason Reitman, Noah Baumbach) I would likely count Alexander Payne as my favourite. About Schmidt is an underrated gem and a revisit of The Descendants this year once again proved its worth to me.

While I find the style of some of his peers rather cold and detached, I believe Payne uses his somewhat aloof style for good rather than hipster. A love for his characters shines through in his films, even as he presents them in a rather straightforward, un-sentimental way.

Nebraska is up there with his best. It’s funny, touching, interesting, full of great characters, all the things you want out of a quiet indie. In both setting and character it’s a sparse film, its black-and-white cinematography saying so much with so little, much like its main character.

Bruce Dern has been largely forgotten in the world of cinema until this comeback of sorts. Dern has been around forever it seems and had memorable roles in Coming Home and The King of Marvin Gardens in the ‘70s. I know him best as The Detective in Walter Hill’s The Driver, where Dern plays the hell out of a know-it-all cop who doesn’t know much at all.

Anyway, he’s a great actor, with an expressive high gravelly voice and a gaze which can burn through film. In Nebraska he’s an absolute delight to watch. Never sure of just how “with it” Woody is, Dern speaks little but expresses much through intonation, body language, a look. a grunt. Dern, as he often does, makes sure to have some fun with the role.

The tale itself is a road trip, a father/son story, a loving satire of small town American living and more. Never condescending, Payne handles his yokel characters with a Stephen Leacock-level of love and bafflement. This spirit is infectious for a viewer.

Another quiet, infectious film is the Coen Brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a film I admire more every time I think about it.

It’s the tale of a folk singer in the Greenwich Village scene in the ‘60s, before Dylan blew up and folk became mainstream. Davis is a singer devoted to artistic purity but suffering its economic side effects, sleeping on couches and bumming cigarettes.

This is the Coen Brothers in their best mode, as far as I’m concerned, with its closest relative being A Serious Man, another film I admire more as time goes by. Both films surround a character trying to do their best but running into the roadblocks of the world and their own personalities and limitations.

If anything Llewyn Davis is the serious man. There is a sombre tone to the proceedings, driven home by its subdued colours and tear-jerking soundtrack. We are meant to feel sorry for Davis, but we are also asked to understand him, whether we agree with his approach or not.

So many movies in this vein try to raise unworthy characters to sainthood (Frances Ha, Greenberg…Like all the Baumbach jabs I’m getting in these reviews?), whereas the Coens presents Davis as a contradictory man, allowing nuance to be the entire point.

With Davis, an opinion of the character is never shoved down the viewer’s throat and I don’t believe we’re ever asked to love him more than we want. He is in many ways unloveable, which, to me, makes him, and the film, even more endearing. Maybe I’m weird.

It’s also a warm and typically funny movie from the Coens. Few directors have such a lovingly baffled view of the world and, much like Payne in Nebraska, they find joy in pointing out and celebrating the odd intricacies and foibles of humans and society, while recognizing the absurdities. It’s satire to a degree, but with much more patience.

Inside Llewyn Davis is amongst the Coen Bros’ best and among the year’s best too. But that’s a subject for my next post… Tune in around this time next week.

Both Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis are in cinemas now.