Thursday, April 26, 2007


Little Children is a tightly wound time bomb of a movie. It is full of ticking clocks, tense or nervous conversations, ill conceived actions and judgmental glances (welcome to the United States of the last 5 years). The film is an artfully structured satirical melodrama - and who really makes those - now or ever? It feels like an intimate hybrid of Todd Solondz ’s Happiness and Lars von Trier ’s Dogville and comes complete with droll voice-over narration.

It follows a cross-section of suburban dwellers in an anonymous upscale, likely gated, community. It follows two couples. First is stay at home mom and English Literature graduate (Kate Winslet), and her too-much-time-at-the-office husband who has a mild obsession for internet pornography. They have a temperamental five year old daughter who will not listen her mother, especially if it involves getting into a car seat or stroller. There is a stay at home dad (Patrick Wilson, who after Hard Candy is on the verge of being typecast in the role of sexy emasculated men) who is studying to pass his law exam, but is easily distracted by something as simple of teenage skateboards who hang outside the library, and his gorgeous, documentary filmmaker wife (Jennifer Connelly) who undoubtedly wears the pants in the family. They have a son who seems not to respect his dad, and sleeps every night in his parent’s bed. The film features a gallery of side characters including a released sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) whose face is plastered all over town by an ex cop (Noah Emmerich) who was pushed out of the force due to accidentally shooting a mall rat waving a fake gun around, but still needs to patrol the neighborhood. He mainly parks outside the sex offenders mothers house (her son recently moved back in after jail) honking his horn or issuing threats from a megaphone. And then there is the gallery of stay at home mothers who go to the park to more or less get a break from their children and gawk at Patrick Wilson, or pass judgment on various parenting choices.

The film revolves mainly around the affair started between the Wilson and Kate Winslet characters, Brad and Sarah, who have some trouble fitting into the neighborhood and too much free time on their hands. Sarah tries to hang out with the local women, who choose to surreptitiously glance and fantasize about Brad, dubbing him The Prom King, but do not want to put the effort to talk to him (“we would have to put on make up or be concerned about our clothes, that is too much work”). Sarah also finds their conservative and judging attitudes off putting, to the point where she feels the need to play devils advocate and be ultra liberal. The flirty kiss with The Prom King, executed in front of those women as an amusing way to get a rise out of them, starts those trains from the trailer (and constantly heard in the background in the film) rolling. As the affair begin to swirl with tension, secrets and lies the narrative thread involving the home life of the sex offender begins to get more developed. His mother is trying to get him out dating (to help him control those urges and be a good boy – he is 40ish), all the while scrubbing the hate graffiti painted on the sidewalk in front of their house, presumably by the ex-cop.

Little Children tries very hard to give you perspective on things while looking at how other characters in the film, which clearly lack perspective, make quick judgments based on few facts and their own hang-ups. It is also a thinly veiled parable of the current climate in the United States. One particularly scathing comment on the culture of fear is the reaction of the community moms when the sex offender decides to talk a dip in the public pool. The full on panic of the mothers, complete with children who do not understand what is going on, but can taste the fear in the air nonetheless is almost shot for shot the crowded beach sequence in Jaws. Not just content to attack the ‘moral majority’ right, there are many darts thrown in the direction of the ‘bleeding heart’ left. Todd Field's In the Bedroom painted complicated emotions with liberal wish-fulfillment fantasy the second half negated the first half. Here he has eradicated that flaw and taken Little Children to the next level, and one of the best (and sadly mis-marketed) films of 2006.

Things are never simple in the film, which is elaborately structured to yield maximum provocation. It is designed to manipulate; allowing empathy for the various characters in some scenes and encouraging you to despise them in others. The two actual children are sort of beside the point in the film, with the focus on the adults who are actually the little children in the midst of identity crises.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


The Return is a visually sparse Russian coming-of-age story that is deceptively simple and subtly complex. The opening scene is a shot of several boys daring one another to jump off a high tower into the water below. He who does not jump will be branded a coward and a pig. The pressure of potential ostracization, even (or especially) from his own older brother, is enough to crack young Vanya. This bold opener signals a narrative which will plays with the fear and confusion of youth raw to the bone along the lines of François Truffaut's 400 Blows and not the warm leavened nostalgia of something like Stand by Me. The story of a father returning to his young sons (13 and 15) after a dozen years absence (mom and gran are the role-models and caregivers) is played with an air of mystery and bewilderment. Vanya runs excitedly up stairs to find the only picture they have just to make sure it is him. The reason for their fathers return is as unfathomable as the reason he left - from the point of view of the boys. Most assuredly, every moment of this film is from the point of view of the boys. At first there is awe and surprise. Especially when, within 24 hours of being home, he tells the boys that the three of them are going on a fishing trip. Excitement quickly morphs into anger and petulance from Vanya, and loyalty and willful blindness from his older brother Andrey who none-to-subtly just wants to have a father figure in his life. This is because a seemingly innocent fishing trip slowly shifts into a 'now-is-the-time-to-become-men' trial by fire from Father.

The bonding language between fathers and sons can often be one of silences and rage. And the bonding of brothers can often be a mix of support, night-time confiding and fisticuffs. The opposite reactions of the boys as their father returns adds an extra element of friction. To further complicate matters, the father may have yet another agenda for the trip involving many phone call and a remote (deserted) island. The Return is told with a disciplined attention to detail in both the filming of lots of open natural spaces (oceans, rivers, fields) and confined man made ones (Sheds, Boats, Tents and Cars) as well as the intense musical cues and the sparse natural silences. With the collision of the intimate and the distant, the film communicates quite poetically that even if we have familiarity, love and constant proximity for our parents we will never really know them.

So accomplished (and burrowing) is the filmmaking, that it is hard to believe that this was a first film from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. In fact the wise people at the Venice Film Festival gave The Return the top prize in 2003 and justly so, it was one of the best films (worldwide) of that year.

If you are fascinated about the emotional language (or non-language) of men, then The Return is an experience not to be missed. Come out at 8pm Thursday Night (April 19) for drinks. Trailers and Showtime at 8:30.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Mexican fantasy horror maestro Guillermo del Toro has two careers. The first one is in English language features: smart mid-budget Hollywood blockbusters such as Hellboy, Blade II and even Mimic (which gets a bit of an undeserved bad rap, even from Del Toro himself). His second career yields dark, complex fantasy tales in Spanish which are not afraid to lay on a bit of gore, get under the skin, and tickle the brain. For Pan’s Labyrinth not only is he working with the latter hat on, he has done what I thought would be impossible. He has gone and made a feature even better than the sublime The Devil’s Backbone. It is possibly the most thematically complex, emotional, and stylish genre film you will see this year.

While many folks did manage to catch this Spanish language film theatrically, I recently got my DVD copy of the film in a pretty little set from (of all places) Korea. The film is not out in North America yet; and I've been itching to delve into the film once again to confirm whether or not the film is as good as I remember it, catching it in the heady blur of the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.
Set near the end of WWII, the film opens with Ofelia and her very pregnant mother traveling to an army outpost so that Ofelia’s stepfather can be present for the birth of their son. During a break in the travel, an innocent action from Ofelia reveals the presence of the faerie in the bright forested countryside. When they arrive at the outpost, crisply uniformed and neatly groomed fascist step-father awaits checking his pocket watch for timeliness. Captain Vidal is the epitome of European fascist warlord and is played by a perfectly cast Sergi López who perfected this sort of menace in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and the Hitchcockian thriller With A Friend Like Harry. Vidal hosts a sumptuous banquet as he discusses rationing of the locals food so any extra will not fall into the hands of the rebels. He casually shoots anyone who may or may not be helping the rebels. He only cares about his wife insofar as she is the vessel for the wellbeing of his unborn son. Vidal barely notices Ophelia who is left to freely wander the grounds which include a stone maze, and a particularly vaginal tree, as well as endless miles of beautiful Spanish forest. Ophelia is well read, and quickly picks up on who in the camp is helping the rebels and why, although still being a child, wanders innocently and seemingly powerlessly around in the world of adults. When the faerie visits Ophelia again one night, she follows it out into the stone maze and meets a spectacularly Gothic faun (the titular Pan) who tells Ophelia she is actually the princess of magical kingdom.

You will often seen Pan's Labyrinth far too labeled simply as a "Faerie tale for Adults." While that may look good on the marketing materials, the fantastic element of the film is less than a fifth of the running time. Often cited as a flaw in the film, I think this is exactly the right balance to maintain the sense of danger and tension. Too much fantasy would stomp on the films brutality. And there is nothing wrong with an audience left wanting a little more compared to being beaten over the head.

The films visuals take cues from decidedly non children sources such as Chinatown and The Shining. Fair warning that there are scenes of terrifyingly bloody childbirth and the film is fond of the phrase “sick with baby” to describe a mothers discomfort an impending childbirth. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that you might want to hold back from friends who are expecting. And perhaps you should let the kiddies discover this film into their teenage years; even then a nightmare or two will likely follow. It is a bit of a shame that such a rich story of innocence and and Christian sensibility (with a fantasy bent) is perhaps a tad too horrifying for the younger set who will have to stick pretty pablum like the Harry Potter or whitewashed non-events such as the recent Chronicles of Narnia film. Since Pan's Labyrinth similar lines to the C.S. Lewis tale, Pan’s Labyrinth exposes the Disney/Walden production as the thin hollow display of pageantry it is. Pan's Labyrinth goes all the way to celebrate the imagination, focusing on innocence lost upon entering adulthood (or a country in an unjust war) is worth fighting to regain at all costs, even if in the end this can prove somewhat elusive.

Is it better if Dorothy stays in Oz rather than return to Kansas, just so that someone is keeping the home fires burning? Pan’s Labyrinth is not by any means a film of despair, flowers of hope bloom after the passing of darkness.
Come out Thursday April 12th for a unique film experience and my personal favorite film at the end of 2006. If you managed to catch it in the theatres, here is hoping the film is worth a second look. Drinks (and home-made pizza) @ 8pm. Trailers and Showtime at 8:30pm.