Café de Flore (2011, Jean-Marc Vallée) – While not arriving in any sort of fancy packaging at all, one of the best Canadian films of last year makes its way to DVD this week. This multiple Genie award nominee (including a somewhat obvious nod for Best Picture) packs a real and undeniable emotional punch, and marks a new career high point for C.R.A.Z.Y. director Vallee.
A globetrotting and unconventional story of love gained and lost, Vallee’s latest tells the story of two different families from different eras linked by visions and the titular jazz standard. A jet-setting DJ and divorced father (Kevin Parent) has recently remarried a much younger woman to the disapproval of his children who can only sit and watch as their mother (Helene Florent) struggles with a possible nervous breakdown. While in late 1960s Paris, a loving young mother (Vanessa Paradis) watches her down syndrome afflicted son (Marin Gerrier) drift further and further away from her after developing a crush on a classmate.
Vallee uses his talented eye for visuals and his ear for music (the soundtrack might be one of the best ever) to craft the kind of film that’s hardest to pull off without losing audience interest. The connection between the two stories always seems tenuous and strange until the ending that will be sure to leave people talking (and don’t shut the film off once the credits start or you’ll miss the actual ending). The performances are uniformly powerful, especially from Florent and Paradis.
While there aren’t any special features to be found on the DVD or Blu-ray, it doesn’t matter and they aren’t really needed. A metaphysical and bittersweet love story for thinking people, Cafe de Flore speaks for itself with nothing superfluous needed.
Puncture (2011, Adam and Mark Kassen) – Showcasing a different kind of role for the more comedic and action minded Chris Evans, this independent film (which bypassed Canadian theatres before heading straight to video) based on a true life court case from the late 90s feels like a winning cross between A Civil Action and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. If that sounds like a strange comparison to make, you would be right, but darn if Evans and the Kassen brothers don’t make it work beautifully.
Evans stars as Mike Weiss, a personal injury attorney working in 1998 era Houston with an insatiable drug and sex addiction. Weiss constantly stymies his business partner (played by co-director Mark Kassen) by always being able to stay up all night smoking crack and shooting heroin in dingy hotel rooms before coming to work fresh, mostly focused, and almost always sharp as a tack. But when a former nurse (Vinessa Shaw) who contracted AIDS from a broken needle asks for the duo’s help in bringing about a class action lawsuit designed to bring retractable and hygienic safety needles to hospitals, Mike takes the case despite the protesting of his partner that they don’t have nearly enough money or funds to take on the high powered lawyers of the health care suppliers lobby. Mike drives himself to the breaking point for the case, but as his addictions begin to spiral more and more out of control it becomes apparent that something has to give.
If Nicolas Cage played a genuinely nice guy in BL:POCNO, you would get what Evans goes for in his performance here. Mike is the kind of character the audience wants to see succeed, but also wants desperately to clean up his act before it kills him. Evans turns in his best performance to date, and the film wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without him. The Kassens directorial style often involves shaky steadicam shots that alternate between realistic and amateurish. At best they make the audience feel like they are really there, but in courtroom sequences the camerawork doesn’t make as much sense.
The DVD, much like Cafe de Flore and two other films I have yet to get to this week, has nothing in the way of special features, but this one’s still definitely worth a watch.
Tower Heist (2011, Brett Ratner) – This reasonably entertaining but thoroughly implausible caper film from the most divisive genre director next to Michael Bay and Uwe Boll, marks a career high for the director in terms of visual acumen and presence of thought with regard to some pretty epic set pieces, but it still never makes full use of a great ensemble cast. There’s fun to be had, for sure, but it never rises above more than being a passing diversion.
Directing his first feature film to grace screens since Rush Hour 3, Ratner tells the story of a group of jilted workers in a posh high rise who’ve had their retirement funds wiped out by an indicted Wall Street swindler (Alan Alda), who seemed like a really nice guy at the time. Despite the tycoon being under house arrest in the building, the former head of security (Ben Stiller) teams with the head concierge (Casey Affleck), an elevator operator (Michael Pena), a depressed former tenant (Matthew Broderick), a cleaning lady (Gabourey Sidibe), and a neighbourhood con artist (Eddie Murphy) to steal back their nest eggs by hitting a hidden safe in the apartment.
Ratner’s tale of one-percenters rising up against a corrupt system manages to be timely and crowd pleasing thanks to some familiar faces putting in a good day at the office, but the final twenty minutes of the film stretches credulity to the breaking point before a somewhat muddled and nonsensical denouement. Also, the film rushes so fast that many of the cast members don’t get much to do, especially Murphy making his much lauded return to films that don’t involve him playing an animated character or eight people in different fat suits. Eddie has a couple of good moments, but the film is mostly owned by Stiller.
The Blu-ray comes with expectedly great sound and picture quality and chock full of special features, including a commentary track from Ratner and the tech crew, a second screen interactive tour of the film that doesn’t hold much more than the commentary track and featurettes (including a video diary from Ratner), a gag reel, some deleted scenes, and astoundingly, two alternate endings that work far better than the one that actually closes the film.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Sean Durkin) – The feature directorial debut of Durkin found itself curiously shut out this awards season despite numerous laudatory notices for the cast coming out of Sundance and TIFF, but a closer look at the film on DVD could make people take note that the script to the film does have one key logical flaw.
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in a brave, sparse performance) has recently escaped an enigmatic cult overseen by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes, acting as creepy as humanly possible). Martha escapes to the only family she has left, a sister she hasn’t seen in two years (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy). The rift between the previously estranged sisters keeps growing as Martha becomes increasingly paranoid that Patrick and his followers could be looking for her to either bring her back into the fold or to harm her because she knows too much about their operation.
The performances of Olsen and Hawkes, Jody Lee Lipses’ cinematography, and Zachary Stuart-Pontier’s all should have been recognized by some awards voting body this year, but they sadly got lost in the award season shuffle. These elements work, as does Durkin’s director which deftly balances Martha’s current dreamlike feeling of alienation with past feelings of happiness and uneasiness. Durkin’s script, on the other hand, never makes the relationship between Martha and her sister believable in the slightest, nearly sinking the entire film. If you had a sibling disappear for two years without so much as a phone call, and they returned home suddenly shell shocked, wouldn’t the first thing you would do is ask for some help from a professional? It’s this very tenuous conceit that leads to the scenes set in the presence to ring hopelessly false.
The DVD includes only one special feature, the original short made by Durkin that the film is based on, but it doesn’t add much and will really only appeal to fans of the film. Overall, MMMM looks and feels like a glorious disappointment.
Fireflies in the Garden (2008, Dennis Lee) – Oh my. Where do I really begin with this one? There’s really only so many ways to express just how awful this film truly is. It almost physically hurts to relive the experience of watching Fireflies in the Garden. Despite a cast made up of big names like Ryan Reynolds, Willem Defoe, Emily Watson, and JULIA ROBERTS, this film sat around unreleased for four years in North America and now arrives on a mercifully featureless DVD. Having seen this insipid and cruel exercise I know that I truly don’t give a shit how any of it was made in the first place.
Reynolds plays Michael Taylor, a writer of trashy romance novels that returns home for his sister’s graduation from law school. On the day of his return, his mother (Roberts) dies in a car crash because his asshole father (Defoe) was driving recklessly. This prompts some soul searching on the part of Michael (if by soul searching you mean teaching kids how to tie explosives to a small fish and skip them like stones), who wants to write a book about how awful his upbringing was. The film shows through flashbacks Michael’s upbringing at the hands of his uncaring writer/professor father and the mother who put her career on hold for the family. It also shows young Michael’s awkward and damned near incestuous relationship with his visiting aunt Jane, played by Hayden Panettiere as a young woman… but played by Emily Watson in the present… when Roberts and Defoe don’t age a single day between the past and the present.
Quite bluntly, writer/director Dennis Lee has created the dysfunctional family drama equivalent of torture porn. Not for a single second does anyone act or behave like anything more than a complete and utter asshole. Reynolds sneers and condescends everyone around him (including small children) just to emphasize that he’s the kind of damaged goods that would have sex in his father’s bed with his ex-wife (Carrie Anne Moss, in another bit of casting that makes absolutely no sense) immediately following his mother’s funeral. Defoe wasn’t this sterotypically evil when he played Norman Osbourne. Watson and Roberts are trying, but their characters are so bland there’s no saving them. Panettiere, on the other hand, shows that Watson’s character used to be an asshole and she comes off as being trucked in from a different movie altogether.
This film can’t even make it through a simple funeral sequence or one of the film’s dozens of pointless congratulatory speeches without some snide comment about how much a particular family member is a hateful prick. For a film advertised as being about family togetherness, it’s about as hateful and contemptuous of its audience as a later day Adam Sandler film. Lee also has the enormous balls to say that his film was in some way inspired by the famous Robert Frost poem of the same name, but I don’t remember that poem ever insinuating in its six line length a scene where a young child is forced to hold up paint cans until his arms nearly fall off and he has to be spoon fed that night by his hot aunt. Maybe Frost once said that the key to drama and poetry is to include a five minute sequence of Ryan Reynolds poring over years old phone bills to really ramp up the tension. I must’ve missed that in school.
At some point Lee had to know his movie was a disaster (aside from some good looking cinematography from Robert’s husband Danny Moder). Why else would he include a scene where a book critic (Ioan Gruffudd, playing the guy who was also screwing Roberts behind her husband’s back) approaches Michael at his mother’s funeral. That cad! How dare he?!? But Michael shows that he never forgets a terrible review by throwing it back in his face from memory. “After reading his memoir masquerading as a novel, I wanted to jump in the shower and scrub the slime away with a Brillo pad.” Now that I think about it, I should’ve just used that quote to sum up my feelings. It’s literally a critique that writes itself.
London Boulevard (2010, William Monahan) – Meanwhile, another direct-to-Canadian-DVD film with a big name cast and a featureless package fares far better that the movie listed above that I don’t care to mention again. The feature directorial debut of The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven writer William Monahan found release in the UK two years ago, which makes sense given its very British portrayal of celebrity and the criminal underworld. Thankfully, aside from some very thick accents that might require some viewers to watch with the subtitles on, the film’s quite solid.
Mitch (Collin Farrell), a former Southeast London mob member, has just been released from prison and comes out refusing to go back to his old lifestyle. To move as far away from the criminal element he used to associate with (including his brother Ben Chaplin and his friend Lee Evans), Mitch takes a gig looking after a young actress (Keira Knightley) who has gone into early retirement (as one person describes her, “She’s gone a bit Howard Hughes.”). However, Mitch’s loyalty to his brother and need for a place to stay bring him back into the criminal underworld and up against a ruthless loan shark (Ray Winstone, sporting the most indecipherable accent in a movie chock full of them) who wants to see Mitch do some more work for him.
The bits between Farrell and Knightley are far more engrossing than the underworld subplot (and it helps that David Thewlis plays her shlubby butler and assistant). It’s a story between two characters that feels fresh and engaging. The bits with Winstone and Chaplin feel half baked and cliched, but the actors make it work quite nicely. Monahan’s script feels about as hard boiled as it needs to be, but he does still have a ways to go as a visually powerful director. Some of the set-ups and stylistic flourishes feel like someone overcompensating for a weak story, but all in all London Boulevard achieves its modest goals of being an entertaining mob drama.
Also out this week: I didn’t get a copy of it in time for the column, nor did I see it in theatres, but Clint Eastwood’s bio-pic J. Edgar (with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as the infamous CIA director) comes out today. I can safely assume despite some mixed reviews that I probably would have liked it more than Fireflies in the Garden.
Also out for animation fans and the kids is the Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots, which stands streets ahead of the last two ogre based films in terms of quality. The plot doesn’t make much sense thanks to a baffling twist at the mid-point, but the voice work is memorable and the script very thankfully does away with the annoying pop culture references that marred its parent series.
There’s also a Catherine Zeta-Jones/Justin Bartha romantic comedy from the director of Catch That Kid that’s sat around for three years called The Rebound, and a tween snowboarding romantic comedy called Chalet Girl, starring Like Crazy‘s Felicity Jones and Bill Nighy. The latter is the vastly better option, probably because it didn’t sit around unreleased for several years. It also helps that everyone in Chalet Girl looks to be the age they’re actually trying to portray.