Everybody in Mexico wants to be in a monster movie!

Before I saw Gareth Edwards’ film, a friend told me that he’d heard some advance reviews said it rocks and others said it sucks. As one who falls into the former camp, I suspect that those who fall into the latter are folks who went into it expecting one thing but getting another. And I can’t blame someone for going into it with the wrong expectations…

It’s called “Monsters”, after all.

You can't get there from here

But it is more interested in telling the story of the human characters, nicely played by Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy. Andrew (McNairy) is a professional photographer whose employer asks him to escort his daughter Sam (Able) out of Mexico, where she was vacationing when aliens attacked and demolished her hotel. The aliens have been on Earth for 6 years, at this point, and populate several areas around the world, which are referred to as “infected areas”–including northern Mexico. Right in between where Sam is and where she needs to be.

That makes this a road movie. And, like most (all?) road movies, it’s more concerned with the developing relationship between its lead characters than it is about the journey, itself. The titular characters are supporting ones. And I’m alright with that.

The script is strong and the performances are too. At a Q&A after the screening, Able, McNairy, and writer/director Edwards explained that the dialogue was all ad-libbed. The script gave the actors a scene’s setup but the words came from them. And Edwards also explained that he’d spent considerable time trying to decide how to cast the film… pondering two options: hire 2 strangers and hope they could develop chemistry, or hire a couple and hope they could pull off being strangers at the beginning of the film. In the end, he went with the latter and hired real-life couple Able and McNairy. I think it was the right decision. I enjoyed both performances. I cared about these characters. Able and McNairy are the only professional actors in the cast; the rest are amateurs, easily recruited from the shooting locations because, as Edwards explained, ‘Everybody in Mexico wants to be in a monster movie!’

I guess my only complaint would be that the script’s politics were a little too obvious. That means the ending is telegraphed from too far away, but one thing that I thought was a surprising and nice touch was the final revelation that the narrative was circular. I liked that!

And I was actually a little surprised at how much we do see of the aliens. I was also surprised that they looked every bit as good as anything Hollywood puts onscreen for budgets 7,500 -10,000 times the size of Monsters’. I make no secret of being okay with a “monster movie” that plays hard-to-get. Because the film had a very low budget (a shooting budget of, allegedly, only $15G!), the director took his cue from such filmmakers as (early) Steven Spielberg (with his oft-hidden mechanical shark) and Robert Wise (with his emphasis on the horrific sounds of Hill House)… being very choosy about when and how and why to use his special effects budget to show the amphibious aliens. More often, we just hear them. And that’s creepy enough!

Shot with minimal crew (2!) and cast (2!) on a minimal budget, Monsters is a pretty big accomplishment.

→ originally published 2010-09-22

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TIFF 2011 shortlist

Every year, in the runup to the Toronto International Film Festival, I poke through the (typically logy) website, looking through the 300 or so programmed films for a few I think I’d like to see.  So, in addition to the 3 films I chose for this year’s Chasing the Buzz, here’s my shortlist for TIFF ’11 (TIFF synopses in italics and my reasons for choosing follows)…

 

Starting a few months after Hurricane Katrina, Jonathan Demme follows a strong matriarch from the Lower Ninth Ward named Carolyn Parker as she struggles to rebuild her home over several years.
It is the Demme name that draws me. He’s made quite a number of films I admire, including documentaries such as Man From Plains.

This shocking investigation into the world’s water crisis, draws upon the work of scientists and activists including the real Erin Brockovich, from Academy Award-winning director Jessica Yu and the producer’s of “Food, Inc.”
Yu’s Protagonist was one of the most interesting films (form-wise and content-wise) that I saw at Hot Docs ’07.

Exploring the rough and tumble world of hockey, Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) looks at the world of the NHL enforcers and specifically the career of Chris “Knuckles” Nilan who helped the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup.
On May 13/11, Derek Boogaard died of an accidental lethal mix of alcohol and oxycodone. On Aug. 14/11, Rick Rypien committed suicide. And last week, on Aug. 31/11, Wade Belak did, too. All of these guys were so-called “enforcers” in the NHL–guys whose role it is to enforce what Don Cherry refers to as “The Code”–and at least two of them (Rypien and Belak) admitted to suffering from clinical depression. Don’t know if Boogaard did, too, but he did have substance abuse problems for which he had sought treatment. I am not sure I’d want to link these personal issues to the role these guys played on their teams, but it is, certainly, a discomforting coincidence. Here, director Gibney looks at Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who managed to make the transition from “NHL enforcer” to “retiree” that these three did not.

Acclaimed maverick Michael Dowse (FUBAR, FUBAR 2, It’s All Gone Pete Tong) returns to the Festival with his latest, Goon, a raucous, hilarious take on Canada’s one true national obsession — hockey — and the divisive topic of violence in the game. Co-written by and starring Jay Baruchel (The Trotsky, Tropic Thunder) and boasting a truly great cast including Seann William Scott, Nicholas Campbell, Liev Schrieber, Alison Pill, Kim Coates, Eugene Levy, and Marc-Andre Grondin — Goon is the Canadian comedy counterpart to Jimi Hendrix’s version of the “The Star Spangled Banner”: sacreligious, twisted and, somehow, perversely patriotic.
Not sure how funny this is going to seem, what with recent events… but I’m curious not just because it’s a movie about hockey but also because I loved Dowse’s It’s All Gone Pete Tong (which you can watch here).

Continue reading

Buzzed

As is often the case, it’s not whatcha know as much as it’s whoya know… and, in this case, it means I was invited, again, to participate in The Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell‘s annual pre-TIFF feature called Chasing The Buzz, wherein li’l film-loving bloggers like me get to throw our 2¢ into the pot along with the pocket change from professional film columnists and reviewers, critics and professors, festival programmers and assorted muckety-mucks (Hello, Piers). What’s in the pot, you ask? Well, Pete wants us to explain–in a single sentence (although a garrulous few get away with more)–which three films we are most excited about seeing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols wrote and directed one of my happiest discoveries of the past year, Shotgun Stories (2007), which also features the star of Take Shelter, the estimable Michael Shannon. (Okay, full disclosure: I have an extreme case of the h-h-hots for Mr. Shannon. Fair ’nuff?  In fact, Shotgun Stories may have been the Shannon performance that hooked me. You might know him best as Agent Van Alden Awesome in HBO‘s “Boardwalk Empire”.)  It is a quiet but devastating little film about a feuding family that I highly recommend–the writing and performances are beautiful.

It is on the basis of Shotgun Stories that I am keen to see Take Shelter.  Again written by Nichols, it is the story of Curtis–a young husband and father and a crew chief for a mining company in the American Midwest–who may or may not be taking a frightening trip around the proverbial bend.  I expect it will be up to the viewer to decide which is the case… as Curtis struggles to understand the same thing onscreen.   Continue reading

Not another film about penguins

…however, in a film filled with Werner Herzog’s typically absurd observations, perhaps the funniest (both funny-haha and funny-weird) were those that had to do with penguins. ‘Deranged’ penguins, no less. In one of the many loosely-connected sequences in Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog trains his camera on a lone penguin who resolutely refuses to follow the herd (flock?) and stalks (or, rather, waddles) away from the coastline towards the centre of the continent towards certain death. Was it deranged? Suicidal? Is there such a thing as insanity in penguins, he wonders.

And that penguin may not be the only one (possibly) ‘deranged’ in Antarctica.

Well, the Beatles did it...

The people who find themselves drawn to life in Antarctica do, indeed, seem to have something in common with that penguin… And they have something in common with the sorts of people that Herzog is frequently fascinated with: loners who are obsessed, who may seem a bit ‘off’ because of that obsession, and who often seem to be oblivious about their ‘offness’. They are poets, linguists, philosophers, and probably a few of them are even fugitives from the law. They are thoroughly fascinating, often delightful, sometimes a little bizarre. Kind of like Herzog, himself. Continue reading

Man From Plains

cool retro poster for Man From Plains

Coming out of this film, I again wondered why so many Americans look down their noses at their 39th president. Jimmy Carter was well-regarded by the rest of the world, after all. He has always had the persona of a humble, gracious, honest humanitarian and I don’t think it’s just a facade. The seemingly indefatigable Nobel Peace Prize winner is in almost every frame of Jonathan Demme’s film. And he seems quite comfortable there; he has nothing to hide.   Continue reading

In Berlin, by the wall, you were 5′ 10″ tall

Towards the end of a rambling introduction to the North American premiere of his film late Tuesday night, director Julian Schnabel said he wanted to introduce his friend Lou. “Lou, stand up.”

Lou Fucking Reed. In the audience. Now, there was something I’d not counted on! In fact, just a few minutes earlier, I had been pondering the idea… and had decided that hell would likely freeze over before Lou Reed would sit in a movie theatre audience and watch himself perform onstage onscreen. Shows you what I know, eh?

Let me admit right up front that Berlin has never been one of my favourite Lou Reed albums. I know, I know… that makes me a heathen. I agree. But, damn, it’s just so full of anger and sadness and loss… and drugs… and violence… and death. And, (again) honestly, I have just never really been into “concept” albums. They strike me as hopelessly cornball.

Nevertheless, I must say I loved the experience of watching this album being performed onstage in this film. It really turned me upside down in my opinion of the record. The arrangements were lush, the musicians looked like they were really enjoying themselves (even Lou cracked a smile or two!), the set (designed by Schnabel, himself) was dreamy and mysterious, and he used snippets of what were meant to feel like home movies of “Caroline”–shot by his daughter, Lola. And I’d never heard of this guy before, but backing vocalist Antony has an incredible voice and does a fabulous job on one of the encores in duet with Lou. I just wish the performance were longer–I’d’ve happily sat there for another coupla hours.

I’m told by a friend who saw it that Schabel’s other film at TIFF07, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (for which he was awarded the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year), is quite brilliant.

→ originally published 2007-09-13

Battle for Haditha

A veteran documentary filmmaker, Englishman Nick Broomfield has brought a dramatic treatment of a true story to TIFF this year. And his experience in documentary filmmaking serves the film well: it feels so authentic that you forget it’s drama. Battle For Haditha tells the story of what happened in Haditha, when Iraqi insurgents planted a roadside bomb that killed one marine and injured two others. The marines reacted by killing 24 Iraqis–none of whom had anything to do with planting the bomb.

Lending authenticity is the shooting location in Jordan and the cast–most of whom are non-professionals–which features two major characters who are played by ex-marines who served in Iraq. It really couldn’t feel more real.

The beauty of this film (if I can use that word to describe a film about such a horrendous event) is that it is perfectly balanced. It shows the perspectives of all three sides (the American marines, the innocent Iraqi citizens, and the Iraqi insurgents), and I didn’t find the story pitched in any particular direction. It’s as honest and admirable a look at war as I’ve seen. Very nice work by Broomfield.

Broomfield's Haditha

→ originally published 2007-09-12