Liliath & Penumbra

Liliath & Penumbra

Diane Carol Harder, writer and filmmaker.

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The Wedding Ringer (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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It’s January, folks. After the glut of awards season hopefuls released in November and December always comes the month of release calendar filler. These are the movies that wouldn’t be released if the studios could find any other way to keep paying their overhead during this time of year. I mean, come on: we all know its January release date is the only reason Paul Blart; Mall Cop did as well as it did — it had zero viable competition in the box office.

And so we come to The Wedding Ringer, Jeremy Garelick’s film that was originally meant to star Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan, but now has Kevin Hart and Josh Gad in the leading roles. It really couldn’t be released in any other month aside from January.

The story is pretty straightforward and unimpressive: when shlumpy Doug Harris (Gad) finds himself engaged to a girl way out of his league (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), he hires Jimmy Callahan (Hart) — a professional “wedding ringer” — to pretend to be his best friend and best man. But since Doug has no friends, this is the biggest job Jimmy will ever have to do. With only two weeks until the wedding, he’ll have to round up a whole fake groom’s party. Basically, the premise is that guys are emotional nitwits and are no longer capable of making close bonds, and so Jimmy has hit upon a goldmine business strategy.

To be fair, there are some scenes that made me laugh (like a surprising twist in a scene involving dancing), but there were far more that made me cringe (like setting a grandmother aflame). This film was more like a montage of “hilarious” set ups, with barely any connecting tissue to make us buy what was inevitably going to happen at the end of the film. Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it, but I bet you can guess everything that will happen already. Kevin Hart and Josh Gad are two funny dudes, but I don’t understand why they let themselves get saddled with projects like this. That’s January for you.

(original post)

I Put A Hit On You (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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Opening tomorrow in Toronto, I Put A Hit On You is a story about a very dysfunctional couple. When Harper (Sara Canning) proposes to Ray (Aaron Ashmore) and he refuses, she gets drunk and puts an ad on Craig’s List offering her engagement ring in exchange for his death. Things get really tricky when someone actually answers the ad.

I’m a closet The Vampire Diaries fan (it’s gotten too convoluted lately — let’s not go there), so I’ve had my eye on Sara Canning for a while. She’s brought a lot of charm and presence to the roles she’s played, and she’s a great choice for Harper. It’s hard to make us believe that a woman who just proposed to her boyfriend would then immediately get drunk and hire a hitman to kill him — and then would turn around to save him when she sobered up and realized what she’d done. It could’ve easily been played too big and screwballish, but that’s not what she did. She made the character almost plausible. That believability for a character in a patently unreal situation is what makes the film so enjoyable.

And as for Ashmore, he’s a perfect counterpoint. He’s very good at doing that thing that drives partners in relationships crazy, which is saying everything’s fine when you absolutely know there’s something bugging him. It’s very easy to believe that these two are at the end of a long, sometimes stressful relationship, complete with nitpicky arguments about the sharpness of his kitchen knives. It hits a little close to home, actually, which also helps in the believability of this kind of dark comedy.

Putting aside for a minute the few little continuity errors (like when Harper runs out into a hallway that was supposed to be covered with broken glass in her bare feet), as well as some elements that are slightly less believable than others (like why not just call the cops?), this is a clever film made with a good cast that is worth seeing. Check it out at the Royal this weekend if you’re all caught up on everything else that’s out and you’ve run out of Oscar bait to catch.

(original post)

Shorts for The Shortest Day (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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Playing on the fact that the Winter Solstice (which is about to happen on Sunday) is the shortest day of the year, The Shortest Day is a free film festival taking place this weekend that celebrates short films (cute and appropriate, right?). The festival originally started in France, but has now spread to about 50 different countries; here in Canada, our version celebrates Canadian short filmmakers and is put on by the National Film Board of Canada, SODEC, and Telefilm.In Toronto, the three programs — Kids, Family, and Comedy — will be screening at the Carlton Cinema all week (again, it’s completely free).

The Kids program is less than an hour long and is advertised as being for children 8 years old and under. There was a bit of nostalgia for me watching it, since I remember watching NFB short films between programs on YTV while I was growing up (did anybody else wait and hope for their favourite animated shorts to come on before it was time forReboot?). There are a couple classics scattered in there, like The Cat Came Back and The Dingles, but I was pleased to see that most of the program consisted of newer films. My biggest criticism, though, is that there is no thematic through-line to these shorts. It’s just a succession of quick, random films — some of which make more sense than others. To be honest, I probably would’ve been confused by half of these films as a kid, but one could argue that it’s a chance to expose children to a form of art they don’t get to see every day, as well as give them a sense of Canadian culture. I mean, it’s not every day you get to watch a stop-animation Inuit story like The Amautalik.

The Family program runs about an hour and a half, and is for those who are “7 to 77 years old” (sorry all you 78-year-olds! You’re out of luck!). This was actually my favourite of the three programs, with some cheeky humour (Isabelle au bois dormant/Sleeping Betty, The Bear Facts), some touching personal stories (Josef et Aimée, The Danish Poet,The Magic Ferret), and even the most famous Canadian short film there is (The Hockey Sweater), thrown in for good measure. My biggest caution here is, though, that a few of the films are in French with English subtitles, so if you choose to bring someone who’s closer to the 7-year-old age of the spectrum and isn’t fluent in French, they might not be able to read the subtitles as quickly as they go by (and these films are about 10 minutes each, so there’s the possibility of squirminess happening).

Finally, the Comedy program is for those 13 years old and up, and is about an hour and forty minutes. Now, please understand, I’m that person that my friends like to bring along whenever they go to see a funny movie because I LOVE to laugh and I laugh VERY easily. It has actually been suggested that I should find a way to monetize this service. With that in mind, you should know that I only found the films in this program mildly amusing (if not downright offensive — we’ll get to that). Generally, they were just wacky, creative ideas that felt like they were trying too hard. And when it comes to a film like Infanticide!, which I get is trying to do a South Park sort of thing and use a dark joke to make a point about society, I just ended up feeling pretty uncomfortable. And don’t even get me started on Petit frère, in which a Big Brother is spending his last day before leaving for Russia with his Little Brother — and not only starts out by yelling “cunt” until everyone on the street is offended, but also ends up sexually assaulting a woman in the park and condoning the theft of someone’s wallet just because he was a douchebag. All because the Little Brother felt bad about himself and needed someone to not rag on him for once. Gross.

Overall, though, you can’t go wrong with free films, and this is a good chance to see what Canadian filmmakers might be up-and-coming. If you’ve got time this next week, I’d recommend at least checking out the Family program.

(original post)

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen the first two films in the Night at the Museum franchise, so I had no idea what to expect when I went in to Secret of the Tomb aside from the fact that it had a star-studded cast and took place inside a historical museum full of artifacts and colourful characters. I like well-made family films, though, so I was hoping for the best.

The premise is fairly simple: the magic tablet that makes the exhibits at the museum come alive at night is starting to corrode, causing them to lose control and go crazy. The only person who knows the secrets behind the tablet is exhibited in London, so the gang has to travel to the British Museum to find out what to do before the tablet is fully ruined and they’re back to being wax figures forever. Throw into the mix a set of new exhibits from the new location —and a particularly feisty Sir Lancelot who thinks the tablet is his Holy Grail that will get him back to Camelot —and you’ve got a blockbuster film.

Ben Stiller once again plays a reliable straight man to all the hijinx of his wacky co-stars, but also gets the chance to be silly himself, with the introduction of La the Neanderthal. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan get some good laughs in as Jedediah (a cowboy) and Octavius (a Centurion), especially when they realize they’re about to experience the volcanic destruction of Pompeii in one of the British exhibits (monkey pee is always a reliable source of laughter). And Rebel Wilson is funny during her few moments onscreen playing Tilly, the night guard of the British Museum. But my favourite was Dan Stevens as Sir Lancelot, especially his character’s frustrating obsession with chivalry that gets on everyone’s nerves; it absolutely made sense for his character (and he looked pretty dashing in that armour, too!). His comedic timing is impeccable.

But there’s another layer to this film for us grown-ups. It’s the final film for both Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams. There’s a tribute to them during the end credits that’s probably the best part of the whole film if you don’t have a small child with you. There’s a point in the film where Robin Williams’character, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, has to tell Larry that he and the rest of the gang have made peace with the idea of never waking up again. Considering what was about to transpire in Robin’s life, that moment is especially poignant. My glasses certainly got foggy.

Overall, though, it’s a fun film with some funny bits and excellent special effects (I especially liked the Constellations). Generally, it’s a good choice for a family outing. It won’t blow your mind or anything, but it will be a pleasantly spent 97 minutes.

(original post)

Cathedrals of Culture (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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Cathedrals of Culture is a 165-minute 3D film with six chapters that had its first iteration as a television mini-series aired in Europe, each segment helmed by its own director and giving voice to a different iconic building. It screens starting this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto as two part, big screen experience that can be viewed either as a whole or in parts with separate ticketing.

Beginning with Berlin Philharmonic Hall, directed by Wim Wenders, a loose pattern for the rest of the series is quickly set. The camera gives us beautiful, depth-filled shots of the structure, while first-person narration gives the building a voice. It’s interesting that Wenders gives the Hall a female voice, but the narration isn’t really as important as what’s on screen. Choosing to use the most flattering wide shots possible outside the building before switching to a Steadicam to trail individuals on their paths throughout the inside of the T.A.R.D.I.S.-like Hall (it’s bigger on the inside), it quickly becomes obvious that this film is architecture porn. Floating through the building, every shot is a lingering glance at a different aspect of the iconic structure. My architect friends will love this.

The second chapter, National Library of Russia, is helmed by Michael Glawogger, and is ambitious but confusing. Instead of using narration to voice the library’s thoughts, we instead hear a male voice reading excerpts from different books, first in Russian, then overlapped with the English translation. These have no context, and after a while create a sort of cognitive dissonance that can be hypnotizing. Especially while the camera floats through all the narrow maze-like aisles of books, lights flickering on as we reach new areas. We lose all track of where in the building we could possibly be. Perhaps it’s meant to hint at the spectral presence of the essences of all those works of literature? It’s unclear at any rate.

Halden Prison quickly wakes us from our hypnotic state, though. Directed by Michael Madsen (no, not the actor) and narrated by Benedikte Westin (the prison’s psychologist), this chapter is a reflection on prisons as small villages and the different kinds of people who live there. Some of the novelty lies in the beauty of this pristine white structure, which comes complete with its own wooded areas and is very different from the prisons you see here in North America. But it’s also the thoughtfulness and compassion of the piece, with the prison caring deeply for the inmates within its walls. It points out that the building is the only one who sees the prisoners when they cry alone in their cells. These inmates need help following the rules, and their humanity is central to everything. There’s a sense of gentleness to it all.

After a brief intermission, the fourth chapter, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is the one to break the most from the pattern. Yes, the cinematography is still beautiful, giving life to a building that strives to keep everyone else alive, but its narration is completely different. Every other chapter uses the narration as a kind of voice for the structure, but this one is instead an aural collage of excerpts culled from interviews with the researchers who work there, combined with archival recordings of Jonas Salk (the founder of the Institute and the man who discovered the cure for polio), all talking about the philosophy behind the buildings’ layout. Complete with a soundtrack by Moby, this democratically-narrated episode directed by Robert Redford (yes, the actor) is about as American in tone as the others are European. It’s also the first where the narration is just as important as the images onscreen.

Next comes Oslo Opera House, directed and narrated by Margreth Olin, and we return to the concept of a sentient building. Yet, at the same time, while the narration talks about how this structure is very much a house, this section chooses to focus more on the people who inhabit the building than the building itself. In one particular subplot, we follow the creation of a performance from orchestra rehearsal, to dance rehearsal (complete with emotional breakdown), to costuming and makeup, and finally, the finished product. Meanwhile, the building reminds us that it remembers and savours these details, even as one dancer or singer grows old and is replaced by a new, younger one. This is the cycle of life and of art.

Finally, Centre Pompidou, Karim Aïnouz’ reflection on the iconic French museum and performance house returns to the original pattern, with the building expressing its relief at finally being accepted by Paris and its citizens, all while the camera gives us a tour of the building and its fantastical structure.

All in all, this will be devoured by architects and lovers of the form everywhere, while also being appreciated by lovers of luscious cinematography and those curious to learn about places they’ve never experienced. But, unless you value 3D as just that — the addition of a third dimension to the film experience, understanding that the subtle inclusion of depth here emphasizes how these structures embody their space — you may tire of wearing those glasses for so long. In the end, it’s a beautiful art film, but if you’re someone who might get restless at the lack of a concrete throughline, you may want to spend those 165 minutes (plus intermission) elsewhere.

(original post)

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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Anthony Powell (or “Antz,” as his friends call him) has been working at both New Zealand’s Scott Base and the U.S.’s McMurdo Station in Antarctica since 1998. He, along with the wife he met there, are part of the small group that lives there full-time. Wanting to convey why he’d stay in a place that is not only cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year, but also experiences winters that are so cold he’s come to think -40ºC is a “pleasant” day, he created Antarctica: A Year on Ice.

It took over ten years to make, since a large part of the cinematography involves time-lapse photography; he wanted to capture views of things that couldn’t be understood properly in any other way. For instance, the sun stays up for four months straight, then slowly starts to sink further and further toward the horizon, until it disappears. Using time-lapse, we can feel the same dread the people who live there do when they see that happening. Yet, also using time-lapse, he illustrates how serene and crisp the night sky is — you can see the Milky Way so clearly, and Aurora Borealis is so beautiful! — so the fact that it sticks around for four months doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, after all. This, he explains, is the epiphany everyone has the first time they “winter over.” And now we understand.

For beautiful photography of an almost-untouched continent, as well as a chance to experience what it’s like to live there, I highly recommend this film. There isn’t any other look at the world’s most mysterious continent quite like this one. The decade Antz spent making it certainly wasn’t spent in vain.

(original post)

Bank$tas (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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My feelings toward Bank$tas wavered back and forth quite a bit as I watched it. Overall, I was impressed by the performances of its stars — aside from Alan Thicke, who really seemed to be hamming it up as corrupt investment banker Peter Hoss. Let’s say his performance was more Meisner and focused on external details, while everyone else was more Method and internal (though that’s already getting far too deep for this shallow comedy). But then, as a feminist, I got more and more uncomfortable with the structure of the whole thing.

Let’s put aside for a moment how strange it is whenever Canadian filmmakers make a film set in the U.S., with American characters, about a topic that is intricately American, and try to pretend that they definitely know what they’re doing. Let’s just put a pin in that. What made me most uncomfortable was the feeling that this whole film was some sort of wet dream come to life.

The two main protagonists are fresh out of university at the beginning of the film (meaning, they’re each about twenty-two years old). The story starts with Isaac (Joe Dinicol) pulling a bizarre prank to get him and his best friend Neal (Michael Seater) jobs at Hoss’ big-time investment firm (unpaid, of course). But then Neal overhears Hoss making a corrupt deal in the bathroom (immediately after his interview, no less), and there’s a good twenty minutes or so devoted to Neal and Isaac’s secret investigation into what’s going on. That’s actually all well and good — until they start breaking laws left and right, trying to gather (inadmissible) evidence to blackmail Hoss into undoing his bad deal, feeling as if they can’t go to the SEC because Isaac’s dad is the main (not-so-)innocent investor in the scheme.

But then we also get into young heterosexual male sex fantasy territory. After they sneak into the office to gather intel, Isaac is “forced” to distract Hoss’ hot assistant, Diane, by letting her have her kinky way with him in the copy room (She is an MBA student nearing graduation and on serious track to become partner. And apparently she’s willing to risk all that to get down with the 22-year-old unpaid intern who can rap about finance.) Meanwhile, Neal finds Hoss’ sexual-harassment-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen son having sex with his dad’s escort (ew) and records it on his phone for leverage. But that’s not all! After Isaac asks Diane to distract Hoss Junior (by teasing him with the idea of sex, since there’s no other way someone as smart as her could help them), Neal eventually gets his super-hot gal, too — he ends up with the firm’s in-house counsel, their “most photogenic lawyer,” as Hoss Junior points out, who just loves his sincerity. Because of him, she has the strength to chuck it all and pursue the career she really wants, as a photographer! Highly implausible, Your Honor. Not only are these strong, successful (and beautiful) women unlikely to be attracted to such immature young men, but it’s offensive that their only role in the story is to be the reward for said young men’s “good” behavior (which, again, wasn’t so good in the first place).

In the end, I decided that this film was a hot mess in terms of story and offensive to independent women everywhere, but the actors did their best with what they were given. Except for one (I’m looking at you, Alan Thicke).

(original post)

Copenhagen (for Dork Shelf)

November 5, 2015

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One thing I find kind of refreshing about Copenhagen is that, although there’s a huge age gap between the two main love interests (and his interest in her actually, legally, makes him a pedophile), at least it acknowledges that this is wrong.

William (Gethin Anthony) is an immature 28-year-old, while Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen) is a very mature 14-year-old. William is in Copenhagen searching for his absentee grandfather, to give him a letter his deceased father wrote him as a child. Effy is a very accommodating local intrigued by the mystery and adventure of finding him. It’s not long before there are romantic sparks.

There was an article a few months back on Word & Film, after the release of Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, that focused on its odd choice of romantic leads (Colin Firth is twenty-eight years older than Emma Stone). It then went on to discuss Hollywood’s strange lack of concern for such disparity – in fact, the article pointed out, it seems to be the norm in onscreen romantic pairings.

In this case, William and Effy are “only” fourteen years apart, but that’s twice her age (since she’s fourteen) – so she’s also illegal.

Is this where the boundary lies? Is it okay for the romantic leads to be thirty-two years apart (Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde in Third Person), just as long as she’s reached the age of majority? In An Education, the age difference was a problem (because she was underage), but in Lost in Translation it was not (she was old enough to be married – which was the actual problem, but I digress).

Copenhagen is a well-made indie film – from first time feature filmmaker Mark Raso – with very believable and natural performances from its leads. It makes the viewer question their own ethics when, in true romantic fashion, things start to get hot and heavy between the leads. Swept up in the archetype of the story, you might want the two characters to get together, but knowing Effy’s age you also don’t, because you know it’s wrong. It’s a very, very uncomfortable feeling, which is exactly what we’re supposed to feel.

There are so many coming-of-age stories for men in their late-twenties to mid-thirties now, but at least this film has the vagina to show that the twenty-eight-year-old dude in question is actually behaving like a fourteen-year-old – which is when his coming-of-age should have happened. It’s when he realizes this that he finally becomes less of a dick and starts to grow up.

Copenhagen shows a lot of promise for everyone involved.

(original post)

Penguins of Madagascar (for Dear Cast and Crew)

November 5, 2015

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Dear Tom McGrath, Voice Actor

Your career trajectory sort of came out of left field, didn’t it? Not only are you the voice actor for Skipper the penguin in The Penguins of Madagascar, the latest spin-off of the Madagascar franchise, but you’re also the writer of the original film. It’s certainly not every day that the folks who toil on the screenplay get to voice characters in the movie they’re working on! And, even if they do, so far as I can tell it has never before been the case that their minor characters became so popular that they got their own movie and TV series. Kudos must also go to Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, and Conrad Vernon — the voices of the other penguins — who have likewise contributed in very different ways: as story artist, first assistant editor, and creative consultant on the original film, respectively.

I have no idea how you all accomplished this achievement, aside from the fact that the penguins in the Madagascar movies are truly entertaining, not least of all because of your voice work. So, congratulations (even if every actor who has studied the craft of voice performance for years might secretly fantasize about squishing your head for achieving success by such a sideways path)!

You’re lucky, too; this movie is actually far better than the last entry in the franchise, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, which featured returning stars Ben Stiller, Jada Pinkett Smith, Chris Rock, and David Schwimmer (my apologies: I know you co-directed that one). What was a major weakness in that film — its randomness and lack of a solid story structure — actually works in the favour of such madcap characters as the penguins. It may have been a highly implausible story, but it nonetheless elicited a continuous chorus of giggles from the children surrounding me in the theatre (and from myself, let’s be honest).

So, go forth and enjoy the creation of Madagascar 4, which I see is already in the works for 2018. Maybe next time, you can find a best boy or a grip to add to the voice cast? I’m sure they’d appreciate it (though I’m sure they’ll never be abled to top Werner Herzog’s delivery of “bumbum” in the opening narration).

Sincerely,

Diane

Air Mail (4 stars)

Directed by
Eric Darnell
Simon J. Smith
Written by
Michael Colton
John Aboud
Brandon Sawyer
Starring
Tom McGrath
Chris Miller
Christopher Knights
Conrad Vernon

Left Behind (for Dear Cast and Crew)

November 5, 2015

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Dear Paul Lalonde, Co-Writer/Producer

You don’t know this, but you shaped my childhood in a large way. My father is super into End Times Prophecy, and my family used to watch This Week In Bible Prophecy (the show you co-hosted with your brother Peter), which disseminated how the weekly world news was actually fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation. My dad also read several of Tim LaHaye’s (co-author of the Left Behind series of novels) “non-fiction” works, so I am well-versed on your theological stance.

But I’m not here to debate that. I’m here to talk about your storytelling skills.

Somehow, I came into this movie without ever having read the novels or seeing the first trilogy of films based on them. I had fresh eyes. I also tried really hard not to let my now-atheistic beliefs bias me against your film.

But here’s the thing: despite the surprisingly competent – dare I say good – performances of the film’s stars, they really didn’t have much to work with. The only two things that really happen in the entire film are: 1) all the Christians and children suddenly disappear about halfway through, and 2) a plane almost crashes. That’s barely enough to sustain an episode of an hour-long television episode, let alone a 110-minute film (and I’m currently binge-watching the episodes of Supernatural dealing with the Apocalypse, so I should know).

Religious beliefs aside, both the Rapture (an event which, strangely, is never referred to in the film as such) and the Apocalypse are fascinating stories that offer a lot of potential. It’s a shame you wasted them here. Maybe that’s the fault of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins – like I said, I haven’t read the source material, so I don’t know what you were working with – but, as the co-writer AND the producer, you had the opportunity to do more.

One final aside: I know the producers make the final decision when it comes to the score, so you should know that it’s pretty shlocky at times.

Sincerely,
Diane

Return to Sender (2 stars)

Directed by
Vic Armstrong
Written by
Paul Lalonde
John Patus
Starring
Nicolas Cage
Lea Thompson
Chad Michael Murray
Nicky Whelan