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Midnight in Paris – Review

Midnight in Paris costarred Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams

Midnight in Paris
Review by Ralph Lucas – Publisher

I need to begin with an admission or two. First, I dislike Woody Allen and have trouble separating the man from the artist. I believe that a bevy of apologists cannot fix the man who married his adopted child. Second, once upon a time I was a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, but especially his memoirs of Paris in the 1920s compiled in the slim book A Moveable Feast and published three years after he took his life. Finally, I used to be a fan of Ray Bradbury way back when, and always enjoyed his literate approach to science fiction and fantasy storytelling. And so with that baggage I trotted off to see Midnight in Paris primarily because it costars a couple of Canadian actors, Rachel McAdams and Alison Pill.

Fully prepared to not like the movie simply because of its writer and director, the opening act quickly establishes Gil (Owen Wilson) as the Woody Allen character, which he plays to perfection, and Inez (Rachel McAdams) as the woman he is supposed to marry but should escape from as quickly as possible. Gil is a highly successful screenwriter who is trying to leave that and the Los Angeles lifestyle behind. He has written his first novel. But, as McAdams has been quoted as saying, "Inez is used to having her way. Gil wants to stay in Paris. Inez wants Gil to keep writing lucrative screenplays so they can have a comfortable life in the United States. McAdams effectively transmits the spoiled brat bitchy fiancée she is playing so well you actually become uncomfortable every time she opens her mouth to deliver Allen’s lines. To my surprise I was beginning to like the film, which was, after all, selected to open the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

The relationship between the two lead characters becomes jeopardized with the appearance of an old pal of Inez, the know-it-all Paul (Michael Sheen) who is one of those show-off intellectuals. Inez has had a crush on him since college but Gil thinks he’s the pompous ass he really is. After a trying night out together, Gil opts to walk home.

Instead of going on to a night of dancing, Gil, lost, tired and a little confused, sits for a while and watches the traffic flow up a narrow, winding Paris street. A clock nearby strikes midnight and the next car coming up the hill is a 1920s limousine. It pulls up opposite Gil and the people inside coax him into joining them. Now the magic begins.

Midnight in Paris, Alison Pill, The romantic comedy shifts subtly into fantasy or sci-fi but never strays too far from its core. We know before Gil does that he has slipped in time. When the couple introduce themselves as F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), Gil thinks he’s at a costume party. Then he’s is introduced to his hero, Ernest Hemingway, acted with impeccable bombast by Corey Stoll. Stoll presides over some of the funniest scenes in the movie and his over-the-top macho dialogue captures the essence of the man that has come down to us through some sort of intuitive understanding of the famous writer even if you’ve never read a word he has written.

When Gil wakes the next morning he thinks at first it was all a dream. When he tries to drag Inez along she just doesn’t have the patience and splits for their hotel just as the clock strikes midnight again. Gil now understands he has found a portal to the past, which he visits again and again to the point where his future father-in-law has become suspicious of his midnight ramblings and hires a local detective to follow him. That leads to another funny but unnecessary scene toward the end of the movie.

The key to Allen’s marvelous portrait of Paris is Paris itself. Largely unchanged for decade after decade, the ease of moving from one era to another – and at one point to another – using real locations is seamless. If you didn’t know it was impossible, this film goes a long way to convincing you otherwise and more importantly, almost makes you wish it were possible. As Gil makes his nightly escapes into the past we get to meet and spend time with Gert (Gertrude Stein) played superbly by Kathy Bates, as well as with Pablo Picasso and a whole list of famous people from the past. The most important one is Adriana, a girlfriend of Piccaso’s played by the exquisite and beautiful Marion Cotillard. When she first meets Gil she comments on his tie. When Picasso met a girl named Marie-Thérèse Walter who would become his mistress and model she did not know who he was but supposedly made a comment about the tie he was wearing. The portrayals, these sorts of details and the timeless beauty of the city itself lend credence to the idea behind the film. I can’t spoil the film by revealing the truth that time travel is impossible, but in the end Gil gets to live the life he wants in the present and that is Allen’s greatest message here.

Poster for the movie Midnight in Paris
Ultimately it dawns on you that this gentle masterpiece is not so much about escaping the life and times you live in but learning to accept these times as some future generation’s ideal destination if only they could get back to where we are now. Global warming, excessive gas prices, unpredictably destructive weather, politicians who follow the polls instead of leading by the courage of their convictions, it is difficult to think this might be anyone’s ideal time to be alive, but it is our time, the only time we have and we had better make the best of it before it – and we – are gone.

The other thing we have is great filmmakers, and with Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen reaffirms his genius as a writer and director. I may never be able to change my opinion of the man, but I plan to see this film again. There is a timelessness about this instant classic. It’s like some new version of It’s a Wonderful Life or Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine says, "We’ll always have Paris." I think we’ll always have Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Midnight in Paris is distributed in Canada by Mongrel Media. It opened in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, June 3, 2011.

Northernstars, logo, imageRalph Lucas is the founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in 1976.

Stills from the production by Roger Arpajou © 2011 Mediapro, Versátil Cinema & Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Used with Permission.

Barney’s Version – A Review

Barney's Version, movie, review,

Barney’s Version
Review by Wyndham Wise

(December 29, 2010 – Toronto, ON) Richard J. Lewis’ Barney’s Version is the third screen adaptation of a Mordecai Richler novel, and in terms of quality, it rests somewhere between Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, widely acknowledged to be a classic of Canadian cinema, and 1984’s Joshua Then and Now, also directed by Kotcheff, which by all accounts was judged to be a failure.

The movie begins with a flashback to Barney Panofsky’s (Paul Giamatti) misspent youth in Rome in the early 1970s. In the novel, the setting is Paris, but Richler’s loveable curmudgeon has a cult-like following in Italy and producer Robert Lantos had no trouble securing Italian financing for this co-production. Among Barney’s gang of carousing layabouts is a hard-drinking aspiring writer named Boogie (Scott Speedman) and a loopy, free-spirited ‘hippy chick,’ Clara (Rachelle Lefevre from the first two Twilight movies). Barney, the responsible one of the group, has already launched a reasonably successful business enterprise, exporting olive oil back home to Canada. His idyllic existence is suddenly cut short when Clara becomes pregnant, and he believes the child is his. This leads to a shotgun wedding, the birth of a stillborn mixed-race baby (the father turns out to be another of Barney’s buddies) and an unpleasant end for everyone involved.

With this set-up complete, the movie jumps to the present with Barney back in Montreal. He is a now a successful television producer with a company called Totally Unnecessary Productions (TUP), which is apparently a satirical poke at Alliance Communications, the company co-founded by Lantos in the 1980s. To deepen the in-joke, TUP’s most successful series is something called O’Malley of the North, and Paul Gross makes a cameo appearance as a Mountie dressed in full Red Serge, recalling his most famous role in Due South, a series produced by Alliance. In one brief scene, David Cronenberg has a comic turn as an exasperated TV director. (Directors Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand and Ted Kotcheff also make cameo appearances throughout the film.)

Barney might be successful but he needs a wife to complete the picture. He unwisely chooses a high-maintenance Jewish Princess for the ‘second Mrs. Panofsky’ (Minnie Driver), but on the day of his wedding he falls head over heels for the beautiful Miriam (Rosamund Pike) whom he pursues relentlessly until she finally gives in. In the meantime, Boogie, now a serious alcoholic and drug addict, wanders in and out of his life until Barney catches him fucking the second Mrs. Panofsky. After a blowout between the two, Boogie dies in mysterious circumstances and the second Mrs. Panofsky leaves him, giving rise to the suspicion that Barney might have killed Boogie. Certainly a dogged Montreal cop (Mark Addy) thinks so, and Barney is haunted by Boogie’s death and hounded by the cop throughout the rest of the film.

His divorce clears the way from him to finally marry Miriam. They start a family and live in bourgeois bliss for a while, until Barney’s philandering manages to screw things up again and she eventually leaves him for another (Bruce Greenwood).

Director Lewis and first-time screenwriter Michael Konyves faced a tall order in adapting the popular, Giller Prize-winning novel, and they have met the challenge with uneven results. Certain characters are rendered in cartoonish proportions that are way too aggressive. For example, Driver, as Barney’s ill-chosen bride, is directed to play her Jewish-Princess role to the hilt. It’s an unpleasant caricature and often difficult to watch. Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, appearing sporadically as Barney’s rough-edged but warm-hearted ex-cop father, is wonderful. He steals every scene he’s in, and Hoffman and Giamatti seem wholly at ease with each other, together comprising a miniature story within the movie.

Barney's Version, movie, poster,
Poster for Barney’s Version © 2010 Serendipity Point Films − All right reserved.
But taken as a whole, Barney’s Version is too much of a sprawl, with too much to say about the ephemeral nature of relationships, Jewish guilt, politics and the television business, even hockey, to have much of a lasting emotional impact. There’s something wandering and indistinct about the picture, and you’re often not sure why you’re supposed to be investing time and interest in this guy, who, while charming and likeable, is a self-absorbed jerk.

The cinematography by the veteran Guy Dufaux is superb, the art direction by Michele Laliberte and production design by Claude Paré is first rate, and it’s perhaps the best film ever made about the television business in Canada. Look for it to clean up at the Genie Awards in 2011, and Giamatti (who already has a Golden Globe nomination for best actor) and Hoffman are serious Oscar contenders. Unfortunately, Lewis (whose only other feature as a director is Whale Music) has a knack for turning the movie’s various story strands – a murder mystery, a bittersweet romance, a buddy comedy – into the equivalent of an expensive, up-scale movie of the week. The film lacks a certain cinematic flare. Even if you can forgive the crude caricatures and the shameful way it attempts to make you weep, you’re still left with great actors stuck in a too-cautious script with pedestrian direction.

Also see: The Cast & Crew of Barney’s Version.

Northernstars, logo, imageThis review was written for Northernstars.ca by Wyndham Wise, a contributing editor at Northernstars.ca.

The Top 10 Canadian Films of the Decade

The Top 10 Canadian films of the Decade, 2000-2009

The Top 10 Canadian Films of the Decade
by Ralph Lucas, Publisher

(December 31, 2009 – Toronto, Ontario) – The first decade of the new millennium was quickly drawing to a close when we first published this article in early December. Northernstars had started life in the late 1990s and we had built an intimate, if not encyclopedic knowledge of the Canadian film industry over that time. We felt we owed it to our readers to look back over the decade and choose just 10 Canadian films that for various reasons stood out from all the rest. And so we announced the Northernstars Top 10 Canadian Films of the Decade.

The process was rather simple. Without consulting any previously published list, I asked our Contributing Editors "Which 10 Canadian titles first come to mind when you think back over the past 10 years?" The results were remarkable, given differences in age, location, and personal preferences. All of the films on our final list were on at least two of the lists submitted. Many of them showed up on all submissions.

Only after the final 10 films were selected did we measure them against their performance following their initial release. This included box office take, length of time in release, and awards history, but those criteria were less important in the final analysis. Some films that were highly popular didn’t make the list largely because although they were well-made, competent films that found an audience, they didn’t quite offer the "something special" the final 10 films brought to the screen.

Following are the Northernstars.ca Top 10 Canadian Films of the Decade:

An authentic recreation by director Zacharias Kunuk of an oral tale told over thousands of years, the film demystifies the exotic, otherworldly aboriginal stereotypes by telling a powerful, universal story.

AWARDS: Genies – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, Musical Score, Claude Jutra Award; TIFF – Best Canadian Feature Film; Cannes – Caméra D’Or; Toronto Film Critics – Best Canadian Film, Best First Feature.

Away from Her is made all the more poignant by the impressive cast and Sarah Polley’s sensitive direction. It’s Gordon Pinsent’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and Julie Christie is simply magnificent. A heartbreaking masterpiece.

AWARDS: Genies – Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Pinsent), Actress (Christie), Supporting Actress (Kristen Thomson), Claude Jutra Award; Oscar nominations – Actress (Christie), Adapted Screenplay; Golden Globes – Actress in a Drama (Christie); Screen Actors Guild – Female Actor in a Leading Role (Christie); New York Film Critics – Actress (Christie), Best First Film (Polley); Los Angeles Film Critics – New Generation Award (Polley); National Board of Review – Actress (Christie); Toronto Film Critics – Best Canadian Film.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
Brimming with humour and bittersweet drama, C.R.A.Z.Y. is the best film about Quebec’s chronically dysfunctional families since Léolo. Director Jean-Marc Vallée makes brilliant use of fantasy passages to mimic the boy’s fantasies and beliefs.

AWARDS: Genies – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Michel Côté), Supporting Actress (Danielle Proulx), Editing, Overall Sound, Sound Editing, Art Direction/Production Design, Costumes, GRA; Prix Jutra – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Marc-André Grondin), Supporting Actor (Côté), Supporting Actress (Proulx), Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound, Costumes, Makeup, Hair; TIFF – Best Canadian Feature Film.

David Cronenberg’s Russian mob movie is set in London, England, and features some powerful performances, specially Viggo Mortensen who was nominated for an Oscar. It’s an intense and masterful crime thriller with a fight-to-the-death sequence in a bathhouse that’s a splendid tour-de-force piece of filmmaking.

AWARDS: Genies – Supporting Actor (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Musical Score, Sound, Sound Mixing; Oscar nomination – Actor (Mortensen); TIFF – People’s Choice Award.

Like its predecessor, Le Déclin de l’empire américain, Les Invasions is brilliant entertainment, full of bemused skepticism, and Arcand’s evident love for these people and their vanishing lives.

AWARDS: Genies – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Rémy Girard), Supporting Actor (Stephane Rousseau), Supporting Actress (Marie-Josée Croze); Prix Jutra – Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress (Croze); Oscar – Foreign-Language Film; Oscar nomination – Screenplay; César Awards (France) – Film, Director, Screenplay; TIFF – Best Canadian Feature Film; Cannes – Screenplay, Actress (Croze); National Board of Review – Foreign-Language Film.

The storyline is bit far-fetched and the scenes on the home front in Alberta are sentimental and somewhat clichéd, but the battlefield action is credible, recreating the muddy hell of northern France with gut-wrenching authenticity. An unusual Canadian war epic, which proved a critical and box office success for Paul Gross.

AWARDS: Genies – Picture, Art Direction/Production Design, Costumes, Sound Editing, Overall Sound, Golden Reel Award.

As Guy Maddin films go, The Saddest Music is relatively easy to follow, and yet, given its convoluted narrative connections, it resists easy synopsis. At times it sags under the weight of its ambitions, but Maddin’s inventiveness outweighs his weaknesses. The lasting impression is of mad ingenuity without a hint of arrogance.

AWARDS: Genies – Editing, Costumes, Original Music.

SPIDER (2002)
Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson give exceptional performances in a cast that is uniformly excellent. Spider is starkly austere and asks the audience to question what is fantasy and what is real as it moves to its shattering conclusion.

AWARDS: Genies – Director; TIFF – Best Canadian Feature Film; Toronto Film Critics – Best Canadian Film.

It playfully alludes to Jacques Tati and acknowledges influences from Betty Boop to 101 Dalmatians to Windsor McKay, but in reality Les Tripletttes de Belleville is one of the most bracingly original animated films to come along in a long time. It’s comic, touching and a visual knockout.

AWARDS: Genie – Picture; Oscar nomination – Animated Feature; Toronto Film Critics – Best Canadian Film.

WATER (2005)
Water is director Deepa Mehta’s richest, most complex work to date and completes her self-described ‘elements trilogy’ that includes Fire (1997) and Earth (1999). It’s the work of a deeply committed humanist, made with tenderness and a true concern for the plight of all her characters.

AWARDS: Genies – Actress (Seema Biswas), Cinematography, Musicial Score; Oscar nomination – Foreign-Language Film.

There were a number of films that would have made the list had we extended it to the top 12 or 15 films, but we decided to draw the line at 10. As Contributing Editor Wyndham Wise pointed out with his usual hint of sarcasm, "The Times of London ran a list of the 100 top films of the past 10 years on its website. 100? In this digitally-saturated, rollercoaster-thrill-ride universe of today’s movies, can there be 10 worthy of note?" We decided not to name the films that came close to making it into the Top 10, as that would be just like putting them on the list.

As we were preparing this story for posting, Wyndham Wise sent a follow-up note, making the observation that we had… “Two films by David Cronenberg, indisputably Canada’s finest, most ambitious filmmaker, and there would have been a third film on this list, if A History of Violence were a Canadian film, which it isn’t. Like The Fly and Dead Zone, it’s one of his American films. Perhaps surprisingly, a film by Atom Egoyan doesn’t show up on this list, reflecting the fact that he hasn’t made a real impact with his films since The Sweet Hereafter, which was more than 10 years ago. It remains to be seen if Chloe will be his comeback film.”

Contributing Editor and Inside Québec columnist, Maurie Alioff made the observation that "despite diversity of genre, content, and setting, all these Canadian films – including the ones with a big canvas – are at least partly driven by the drama around relationships between father and son in one film, or husband and wife in another, or a group of friends, or a criminal and potential victim, and so on. Each has at its core an intimate relationship." Glen Russell, our West Coast Contributing Editor found a unifying force at work in films like Water. "This is one of the reasons I loved this film, it was a chance to learn more about the history of Indo-Canadians, an act of unification."

We set out to find a handful of films based not just on their awards or box office performance but whether or not they were memorable. All great films have survived because decades after they were made people still remember them. We believe that will be the case for the 10 films we have chosen.

Northernstars.ca congratulates everyone involved in the creation and distribution of these Top 10 Canadian Films of the Decade.

Poster images are copyright by their respective distributors.

Manufactured Landscapes – Review

Poster for Manufactured Landscapes courtesy of Mongrel Media.

Manufactured Landscapes – Review
by Paul Townend

(September 29, 2006 – Toronto, ON) Jennifer Baichwal’s latest award-winning feature-length documentary is on the life and work of Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer who specializes in large-scale photographs of "manufactured landscapes" – quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, dams. He travels throughout China to such sites as the controversial Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world, and a Shanghai electronic-parts factory that is literally a kilometre in length. Manufactured Landscapes’s visual beauty is greatly enhanced by the cinematography of Peter Mettler (Gambling, Gods and LSD), who accompanied Baichwal and Burtynsky on their search for areas of large industrial waste and serves as a creative consultant on the film. Mettler also provided some of the synthetic score that is used extensively throughout the film.

Production still courtesy of Mongrel Media.
Production still courtesy of Mongrel Media.

In many ways, Burtynsky is a classicist, looking for beauty even in the worst toxic wastes. His photographs are stunning works of landscapes or abstract art, and he can make a large pile of computer parts resemble a Jackson Pollock painting. In one revealing scene, Baichwal and her crew are filming while Burtynsky is negotiating with a site manager who is reluctant to let him photograph the piles of coal slag. The Canadian translator is telling the manager – who wants the cameras turned off – that he will make it look beautiful. Metter stops filming, and the rest of the scene is shown in a series of still photographs and voice over. Burtynsky has brought along a book of his work, and convinces the manager to let him take a look. The resulting beautiful photograph is shown on screen.

Manufactured Landscapes opens with an extraordinary, uninterrupted eight-and-a-half minute dolly shot inside the huge factory. The voice over by Burtynsky is about Nature (with a capital N) and industrial landscapes, and this immediately presents the film with its fatal flaw. There is nothing in Burtynsky’s generalities that is not obvious, yet said in such a way that suggests he thinks he is imparting received wisdom of the ages. The first time we see him at work, he is high on forklift overlooking the factory from the outside, setting up his camera and fussing

Production still courtesy of Mongrel Media.
Production still courtesy of Mongrel Media.
about the light. As he is doing this, Mettler’s camera is prowling through the orderly crowd, listening in as section leaders berate their work units (all carefully numbered) for poor performance and sloppy work. Mettler’s camera takes in the whole scene and the details.

Ironically, and probably not intentionally, this scene dramatizes the limitations of photography in capturing the truth of the moment. Photography, like painting, is a two-dimensional art form that doesn’t benefit well from the cinematic treatment. Film is photography plus time and motion. There is a close up of a young girl working with minute parts, smaller than her finger nails, as she repeatedly puts them together and squirts water over them, all in the matter of a spilt second, which is simply breathtaking.

Much of the film is composed of close ups of his photographs and Burtynksy explaining himself on or off camera. Mixed in with Metter’s work, there is some footage of him on earlier trips to China and Bengladesh. In the filthy shipwreaking yards of Chittagong we get some pseudo-profound nonsense about ships and globalization, and how Western waste comes to be dumped in this dreadful, toxic place. It’s the sort of white man’s burden rubish you can get from certain leftish Canadians who travel the world to point out the faults of their own culture. Burtynsky seems blissfully unaware that ships and globalization go back as least as far as the Phoenicians, some 3,000 years ago.

It would seem the longer mankind lives on this earth, the more and nastier waste he is going to dump on others. Burtynsky travels the globe to show us how truly beautiful this can be made to appear. Manufactured Landscapes won the top Canadian award at this year’s TIFF and the top documentary award at the Atlantic Film Festival.

Also see: Jennifer Baichwal’s filmography.