To Rome With Love (2012)

If you’ve been writing and making one movie every year, you’re faced with a greater challenge after each production. It’s an annual increment of difficulty. You need to create something original and not recycle old jokes, not a clone from your previous works but still imbued with your own style and signature.

A movie a year, that’s what Woody Allen has been doing for over four decades. Hats off to him for his creative energy and motivation. I’m more than willing and ready to overlook the ones that are not so great in his repertoire. For me, his misses are still better than some others’ hits.

And for those who still linger in the Annie Hall/Manhattan trance, I’d say, move on. His recent works may not be as unique and stylish as those in his earlier days, they are still entertaining and funny in their Woody Allen way.

Last year’s Midnight In Paris is an Oscar worthy hit. First you think, then you laugh. This year, Allen brings us To Rome With Love. You can just laugh. It is not as cerebral as Midnight. You don’t get to meet Hemingway or Dali, instead, you see the vignettes of ordinary folks who happen to be living in or visiting Rome.

An interesting film structure here, and in the hands of an auteur, it looks alright to tell four totally unrelated stories at the same time. The plots are interwoven well, albeit the ending, or endings, seem a bit abrupt.

Here they are, simple stories in the hands of a veteran writer/director…

A prominent American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisits Rome where he  studied architecture in his youth. He encounters a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) and is most ready to offer the young man his advice, not on his profession but relationships, as he sees the young man succumb to the lure of his wife’s (Greta Gerwig) best friend (Ellen Page) staying shortly in their home while recuperating from a failed relationship.

It seems in every Woody Allen film, there’s a pseudo-intellectual. This role falls surprisingly on Ellen Page, giving us a fresh view of the young Canadian actress, a departure from Juno, Whip It, and Inception. Jesse Eisenberg is dreamy and sweet, unlike his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. And Alec Baldwin is… Alec Baldwin.

Six years after Scoop, Woody Allen comes back on screen in his own movie as a reluctantly retired opera director. He travels with his wife (Judy Davis) to Rome to meet his daughter’s fiancé and his family. While in their home, he can’t resist the talent he finds as he hears the father sing in the shower. The real-life, acclaimed tenor Fabio Armiliato has many chances to sing in this movie, but in a very different setting. Some hilarious scenes, albeit they look like they are made in the expense of culturally stigmatizing. But I admire that Armiliato is willing to go along with the wacky Woody scenarios.

A third story line is a mistaken identity subplot with a newly-wed couple moving to Rome from a small town. As the wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) steps out of the hotel room to get her hair done, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) drops in, to the horror of the husband (Alessandro Tiberian). His relatives are just outside the door soon after so the two have to improvise.

The fourth story is very funny and could well be Allen’s commentary on the making of celebrity by paparazzi. An ordinary citizen, well-played by the animated Roberto Benigni (Won Oscar for his role in Life is Beautiful), is turned into a celebrity for no apparent reason. He is chased everywhere by the paparazzi, interviewed on TV, asked the most trivial questions like what he has for breakfast, shaver or razor, boxer or brief… Uncanny parallels of what social media make of us, everyone can be readily exposed, everyone can be a celebrity if only one has enough followers. The simple lesson here is, they can drop you as quickly as they pick you up. Unfollow by just a click.

A breezy summer treat. The scenes may seem episodic but they are smoothly woven. Again here, the actors are the major assets, especially when you need to improvise as some scenes look like. Every character likable, and the overall effect enjoyable. Not epic but still an entertaining piece of Allen humor. After all, you don’t churn out an epic every year.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.


Whip It (2009)

Whip It

I can’t recall how many times I’d watched roller derby on TV, years back, maybe just a few times.  When I asked my niece who watched the movie with me, as a twenty-something, she hasn’t even seen it once.   But Drew Barrymore, in her directorial debut, has effectively captured the human side of a sport not many know about.  And with it, she has poignantly woven in some relevant issues her audience could relate to, no matter what demographics they’re in: coming-of-age, finding love, confronting parental expectations, searching for personhood and empowerment, parenting and letting go.

After watching Juno (2007), I knew I must see more of Ellen Page.  Here in Whip It, Page has proven that she’s not just impressive as an actor, but also as an athlete.   She plays Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year-old small town Texas girl, bored, docile, shuffled from one beauty pageant to another by her overbearing mother Brooke, a former beauty queen turned middle-age mail clerk (sensitively played by Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River, 2003; Pollack, 2000).

After she watches a roller derby game with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), and successfully tries out for the team Hurl Scouts in Austin, Texas, Bliss, now Babe Ruthless, sees her life take off with high octane energy.  She has passionately fallen for the high contact sport and a new boyfriend, rock band member Oliver (Landon Pigg).

The head-smashing, rowdy derby culture is probably the farthest away from the frothy and genteel beauty pageants of Texas, thus forms the great chasm between mother and daughter.  Of course Bliss tries to hide all her activities from her mother, until it can’t be covered anymore.  For she has become the poster girl for the final championship.

There are cliché sequences that we’ve all seen before, the light version of physical prowess as in Million Dollar Baby (2004), the get-back-up perseverance of Rocky, and, reminiscence of Shall We Dance (2004) in the final championship.  But, it’s all fun and even exhilarating.  Thanks to a great cast, the humor comes through naturally.  I must mention some great deadpan act from diner manager Birdman (Carlo Alban), who reminds me of Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite (2004).   Another great support is Hurl Scouts coach Razor played by Andrew Wilson.  His performance makes me feel like I’m watching a Wes Anderson movie.  Later I find out he’s older brother to Owen, then it’s all clear to me… it runs in the family.

[picapp src=”6/4/3/c/Whip_It_Los_86ef.JPG?adImageId=5337308&imageId=6660163″ width=”180″ height=”250″ /]  Barrymore has effectively created some powerful and touching scenes that make the comedy worthwhile.  It’s scenes like these that propel a comedy into the realm of meaning.  She has balanced the comical with hard reality, for it’s not simply about a girl choosing what she wants to do, purely from her own point of view.  Often our choices are entangled in a web of relationships.  Yes, we may have the autonomy to choose, but our choices also affect others.  Some gratifying moments are sensitively performed, between mother and daughter, father and daughter, and a 36 year-old derby teammate who openly shares her heart with Bliss in the car, with her young son in the back seat.

Into its second week of screening, Whip It has not fared as well as expected at the box office.  But for screenwriter Shauna Cross, who has turned her own novel Derby Girl into screenplay, I trust this is just another blow she’s got all too used to, as a roller derby girl herself from Austin Texas, before moving to L.A.  She knows how to get back up and keep on skating, even in the aggressive arena that’s L.A.

(Top Photo Source: USA Today, Bottom:

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Stone Angel (2007): Book Into Film

** The following review contains spoilers**

Since its publication in 1964, this is the first time The Stone Angel is adapted into a movie. As I mentioned in my review of the book last week, whoever that attempts to do this has a formidable task. This classic Canadian novel by Margaret Laurence is a depiction of memories encased in deep inner turmoil. The fleeting and random reminiscence of 90 year-old Hagar Shipley juxtaposing with the present would also prove challenging to bring on screen.

Director, screenwriter, and producer Kari Skogland has made a bold attempt at filling this tall order. Filming the movie in rural Manitoba, The Stone Angel delivers some nice shots of the prairie backdrop, even though Manawaka is a fictional town in the story. The sequences of flashbacks are aptly dealt with quite seamlessly.

The movie has its greatest asset in the cast, in particular Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974) as Hagar Shipley, and Christine Horne as her younger counterpart. Canada’s own Ellen Page also plays a minor role as Arlene, the girl Hagar’s son John (Kevin Zegers) wants to marry, and of course, against the wish of his mother. The two Ellen’s have some tense moments together. Page’s screen time may be too short though to gratify her fans.

Any fine actor, however, can only perform within the confines of the script. Here lies my major concern: the alteration of the crux of the story, maybe to appeal to a contemporary or a younger audience. The film is a much more mellow and sexed up version of the book. The fiery, ingrained pride of Hagar is much subdued. In fact, she has been changed to an even amiable character. Further, I feel the shifting of the time from the 60’s to modern day somehow trivializes the story. Who would have thought Marvin (Dylan Baker) would be talking on the cell phone and Hagar smoking marijuana…one item off her bucket list?

What author Margaret Laurence has depicted is not just any ordinary stubborn, grumpy old woman, but Hagar Shipley, the tragic heroine, however disdainful. She rages against the dying of the light and doesn’t go gentle with just about everyone because of her deep-seated hubris…even while facing death. The book’s final image of her wrestling the glass of water from the nurse, drinking it without help, wraps up the life of this fierce character. And it’s pathetic to see her pride leading her to make decisions and to act in ways that could well have caused the tragedies in her life.

The scene at the abandoned shed should have led to the poignant, climatic revelation. In the book, Hagar tries to run away from the fate of being confined to a nursing home. She spends a night in this derelict shack and encounters a stranger. During their conversation, she unknowingly verbalizes the pain and guilt she has been carrying all her life by talking about the tragic end of her beloved son John. The name of this newly formed confidant, Murray F. Lees, yes, Flees, points to her perpetual running away from constraints, or maybe even from herself.

But in the movie this stranger is Leo (Luke Kirby), who uses the shed to make out secretly with his girlfriend and then goes on to discuss forbidden sex and share a ‘joint moment’ with the 90 year-old woman.  In the theatre, I heard laughter.  The pathos that should have accompanied this pivotal scene either did not materialize or has been much lessened.

The portrayal of young Hagar played by Christine Horne, while proficient, may have also missed the gist of the story. We see a beautiful red-hair Hagar and a romanticised Bram (Cole Hauser) immersed in blissful courtship and marriage, at least in the first part of the movie. In the book Bram Shipley, a widower-farmer fourteen years her senior, is as rough and callous as Hagar is proud and obstinate.  Their marriage is rocky even from the start, reinforcing the notion that in defying her father, Hagar has made a decision that would later bring her great torments.

By depicting a softer Hagar, and toning down her abrasive pride, the film has diluted much of the poignancy and intensity of the conflicts. The strained relationship between Hagar and her favorite son John has not been sufficiently developed to elicit the emotional impact of the tragedy. Hagar has long placed her hope on John, whom she has esteemed to be worthy to wrestle with the angel, but he ends up breaking her heart. The swift dealing of the mother son relationship in the film fails to depict Hagar, like the stone angel, has been blind to her circumstances. Fortunately, the film has kept the authentic scene of Hagar reconciling with her elder son Marvin, who has taken care of her in her old days. It is Marvin who has wrestled with the angel and won.

The final scene with the Pastor Rev. Troy (Ted Atherton) singing the hymn, touching even the ‘holy terror’ in her death bed, draws the film to a poignant and peaceful close. The audience sees a yielding Hagar going gently into the good night. The voice over of Dylan Thomas’ quote seems inconsistent with what we see.  If Laurence could have her way, she likely would have concluded with the last image of the book where Hagar stubbornly tries to drink from the glass without the help of her nurse, defiant to the end.

I have a reader, a student apparently, once asked me whether he should skip a book he was studying in class and just use the movie version for his course work.  My advice is, watch the movie for entertainment, but read the book for your assignments… the two could be very different entities.

~ ~ ½ Ripples

Smart People (2008)

Smart people is about ordinary people. But unlike the movie Ordinary People, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also about dysfunctional families, but then again, a look around us can testify that the term “dysfunctional’ has more or less become a cliché, or the norm even. So, the story line and characters in Smart People may well be the story about many of us.  We can relate to their situations, or maybe know someone that’s in similar predicament, smart or dumb.

Smart People

The title is an apparent sarcasm. Coincidentally, in my last post I wrote a review on A Room With A View (2007)…imagine the highly-educated but socially inapt Cecil Vyse now a modern day academic, 30 years older, scruffy, paunchy, and ever grumpier… that’s the main character in this movie, professor Lawrence Wetherhold, vividly portrayed by Dennis Quaid. Wetherhold teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, an expert in Victorian literature.  Like Cecil Vyse, he is smart with ideas, but utterly unfit for human relationships. Or, maybe a more accurate way of looking at it is, he has given up being a nice person. He’s self-absorbed, overbearing, and maybe himself a victim too, let us not judge so harshly, for he is a widower drenched in self-pity, who leaves his wife’s whole wardrobe untouched some years after her passing.

Living with such a character is his teen-aged daughter Vanessa, played by Ellen Page. Repeating her impressive performance as in Juno, Page portrays an over-achieving high school senior, who aims at nothing less than a perfect SAT score. Little does she know that underneath her pragmatic and vigorous academic pursuit and Republican stance are her youthful curiosity and desires. So, when Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), the wayward adopted brother of her father’s veers into their lives, she is whirled into a pool of confusion. Adding to the complexity of the family relationship is Vanessa’s older brother James (Ashton Holmes), who aspires to be a poet but his Dad doesn’t even know it. James lives on campus where Wetherhold teaches. Despite the physical proximity, father and son could never be more alienated and distanced.

Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page

All of their lives begin to take a turn when Wetherhold’s car is impounded for illegal parking and he tries to climb over a fence to retrieve his brief case in the car. His toneless middle-aged physique is no match for the 10-foot wire fence, and so he ends up in the ER with a ‘trauma induced seizure’ after he falls over. That’s where he meets Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker). A former student of his, Janet had a crush on him while a student, but due to his harsh marking and pompous air, decided to change her major from literature to biology. Now years later, Janet has the chance to forge a real and meaningful relationship with Wetherfold, a task she soon finds to be too formidable and senseless for anyone in her right mind.

Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker

But isn’t it true…we’re matched up with impossible people at work, deal with obnoxious clients whom we have to serve, live with incompatible housemates, and stuck with eccentric and embarrassing family members… Smart People’s smart screenplay offers us the chance to laugh at ourselves, and empathize with other’s deficiencies and shortfalls. By learning to put up with them, we might just be learning to live with ourselves. And in the process, as the movie happily winds up, the characters gain a new perspective on themselves and come out as changed persons.

Screened at Sundance earlier this year, the film is teamed up by the relatively new screen writer Mark Poirier and director Noam Murro. It is rated R in the U. S. and 14A in Canada. Certain scenes may be objectionable to some. But with watching any movie or reading literature, for that matter, they have to be taken in context, and the overall spirit considered.

And, for those looking for smart aleck humor, or fast-paced sequences and an intriguing plot are bound to be disappointed. However, I have precisely appreciated (Professor Wetherhold would be quick to correct me, it should be “appreciated precisely” he’d say) the slower paced story lines that are well-developed along the main characters. The witty dialogues and superb acting from the stellar cast are enjoyable and engaging. A delightful 95 minutes of quiet and intelligent entertainment.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Independent Spirit Awards

Some pleasant results from the Independent Spirit Awards held in Santa Monica today (Feb. 23). This is the dressed-down film awards ceremony honoring low-budget indie films, which takes place in a tent, and has gone green, completely environmental friendly according to host Rainn Wilson. For a full list of winners, click here. Some results I’m happy to see:

Cate Blanchett and Ellen Page

Juno: Winning Best Feature, Best Actress Ellen Page, and Best First Screenplay Diablo Cody. Ellen Page’s awestruck face and shaky voice as she gave the acceptance speech is the icing on the cake…sweet.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Best Director Julian Schnabel, Best Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.

Also, there are some very pleasant moments seeing:

  • A very pregnant Cate Blanchett winning Best Supporting Female for I’m Not There.
  • A still attractive Marisa Tomei, nominee for Best Supporting Female in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
  • And last but not least, Darcy in jeans, yes, Colin Firth, the man himself, presenting the Best Screenplay Award.
Colin Firth

Great momentum, great spirit, all charged up for the grand movie award of the year, tomorrow’s Oscars Ceremony. And, Colin, we’re ready just the same to watch Pride and Prejudice after that, for the…ooh…I’ve lost count how many times.

(Photo Sources: Cate Blanchett and Ellen Page from Gossip Girls, Colin Firth from Wikimedia.)

Canadian Content at the Oscars

Ellen Page Ellen Page


Sarah Polley

Update Feb. 25: Diablo Cody won the Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars last night. To read my Oscar Results post, click here.

Update Feb. 23: Juno just won the Best Feature trophy at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica today. Ellen Page won the Best Actress Award and Diablo Cody won the Best First Screenplay Award. To read my Independent Spirit Awards post, click here.

I’m glad to see some significant Canadian representation in this year’s Oscars Nominations:

  • Toronto’s Sarah Polley, the now 29 year-old director of Away From Her, getting the nod for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • Ellen Page, the 20 year-old Juno star from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for Best Actress.
  • Jason Reitman, Montreal-born director of Juno for Best Director.
  • The film Juno, directed by a Canadian, starring two young Canadians Ellen Page and Michael Cera, and filmed in B.C. getting a Best Motion Picture nomination. (Even though it isn’t classified as a Canadian film due to its American producer Fox Searchlight)
  • Of course, others like directors David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and Paul Haggis (In The Valley of Elah) both have Canadian roots.

To read my review of Juno and Away From Her, just click on the movie title. (Update: To read my review on Ellen Page’s new movie Smart People ( 2008 ), click on the title.)

Also, while some call 2007 “Oscar’s Year of the Man”, it is all the more exhilarating to see the two young Canadian females Ellen Page and Sarah Polley acknowledged in a very male-dominated industry in the U.S.

Who cares what country they’re from, you may ask. Well, I do, because I once had to correct someone who strongly believed that Michael Ondaatje, the writer of The English Patient (1996), was an American author. And for that matter, just for clarification, Sarah Polley’s screenplay of Away from Her is adapted from Canadian writer Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain”. And, watch for another Canadian literary icon Margaret Laurence’s novel now being turned into film, The Stone Angel (2007), also with Ellen Page.

Just a little clarification, Canada is more than just Margaret Atwood.

Juno (2007)

Update Feb. 23:  Juno just won the Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica today. Ellen Page won Best Actress and Diablo Cody the Best First Screenplay. 

Update Feb.11:  Diablo Cody just won the Best Original Screenplay for Juno at the BAFTA (British Academy for Film and Television Arts) Awards last night in London.

Update Jan. 22:  Juno has just been nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. 

Just 13 days into the New Year and we’ll have the 65th Golden Globe Awards…so little time for so many movies to watch before then.  But, I’m glad I got a glimpse of a few of the nominees and I’ve to say, so far, my time well spent.

By now, Juno is no surprise.  This little indie film has been nominated for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for a Golden Globe.  Not bad for the young cast led by Canadian actress Ellen Page from Halifax and Michael Cera of Arrested Development fame, to be up against Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts of Charlie Wilson’s War, or for first time screenwriter Diablo Cody getting the Best Screenplay nod.  That she has already won 6 awards for Juno could well lead her way into the Oscars.

The pleasant surprise about Juno is not just the stylish motion graphics in the opening title sequence, the hip music and witty dialogues, the affable characters, or the teenage culture it depicts, but the implicit message this film is getting across.  Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, 2005) has again created another social commentary, but this time, making a more powerful and affective statement.

Juno is a 16 year-old high school girl, very forthcoming, very lively, very self-assuring, and…very pregnant. What she intends to do about her predicament and how her Dad and stepmom react form the backbone of the story.  And…what a fresh and welcoming perspective the plot brings to the screen in this day and age.  I’d say, a very brave movie indeed.  In the story, the young characters may not have their act together, at least they have the fundamental element to deal with their situation, their genuine humanity, and their respect for life.

In contrast, the character that Jason Reitman (Arrested Development, The Kingdom, 2007) plays shows that adults may still need to grow up, or, that the road to maturity is a life-long journey.  Let’s not judge so quickly…

A heart-warming and pleasant movie for the new year.  No, it’s not promoting teenage pregnancy, but a viable alternative and a very humane solution to the problem. In an imperfect world, a close to perfect scenario.

~ ~ ~ Ripples