Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Best of Black Sheep: Black Sheep interviews Javier Bardem

A Biutiful Man
An interview with Javier Bardem

I don’t often get to interview Academy Award winning actors. If this is going to become a more common occurrence though, I should probably learn to mind my place a bit better. For instance, when Javier Bardem sat with me at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his heartbreaking role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s BIUTIFUL, we began our conversation by discussing Iñárritu’s impressions of the actor that led to him writing this role with Bardem in mind. He described Bardem as tough on the outside but soft on the inside, to which Bardem replied, “Like a melon, like Melon Brando!” comparing himself of course to the great method actor, Marlon Brando, but crossbred with the popular fruit.

Who knew Bardem was so cheeky? So I made a note of his witty little quip in my journal and he shot me a look. “Are you going to write that?” he asked, as if surprised that I was there for any other reason other than to take note of his every word. This is when, without thinking at all, I replied, “Oh, but I am,” and shot him a knowing look right back. “Let me see that!” he said, as he went for my notepad. Who also knew that Bardem could be so playful? And here he was, playing with me.

I was actually quite happy to see that Bardem still had the ability to laugh after playing in BIUTIFUL. In it, he plays Uxbal, a father of two who is estranged from his unstable wife, is involved with a number of illegal activities that exploit those who are even less fortunate than he is and, for reasons unbeknownst to him, he has the ability to communicate with the recently departed, if their souls still linger in unrest. As if that wasn’t enough to balance, he also learns at the on-set of the film that he has prostate cancer and not very long to live. Iñárritu’s first turn as both a writer and director is a haunting, evocative experience that leaves an indelible mark on all who see it, but what kind of scars did it leave on those who were in it?

For me it was very important to learn to detach myself from what I was doing. Otherwise, you get lost in your own thing,” Bardem confides about his process. Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? How do you do it? How do you get so lost in this character and yet still manage to find your way back afterward? “Getting lost doesn’t help creativity at all. It is not about feeling what you’re doing; it is about pretending like you’re feeling what you’re doing. Some days are harder than others, of course.”

Bardem is no stranger to difficult roles. He has been perfecting the art of playing complex characters ever since he first appeared on Hollywood’s radar with an Oscar-nominated lead turn in Julian Schnabel’s BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, the first acting nomination in Oscar history for a Spanish actor (Bardem is from the Canary Islands). He went on to win the Oscar for his unforgettable supporting turn in the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (the first acting Oscar win for a Spanish actor). In fact, it wasn’t until playing in Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA that audiences actually got the chance to see Bardem loosen up a little. Incidentally, this is where he met his now wife and mother of his first child, and Academy Award winner herself, Penelope Cruz. The couple recently had their first child together, little Leo Encinas Cruz. A few days he was born, Bardem received his third Oscar nomination, as Best Actor for BIUTIFUL, a feat that many thought he would not be able to pull off.

Bardem is never to be underestimated though. The layers he brings to his performances are delicately nuanced and clearly leave lasting impressions. How does he find these convincing facets inside himself? “I think it’s on the page,” he explains. “When you do the wrong character, there is no way you can do it good. 50% of a good performance is the character that you are portraying. If he is well constructed, then you have 50% of a good performance already, just doing the lines. Then you have to add the other 50% on your own.”

Bardem is not only modest but apparently a realist as well, giving credit where credit is due. In this case, that would be for his director, Iñárritu. The two have been friends for almost ten years and have talked about working together all that time because they have a great respect for each other and each other’s work. (Iñárritu likens Bardem to a minotaur even!) “I am an admirer of his. You see all these amazing performances in his movies and you wonder what happens there,” Bardem proclaims. “With Alejandro, the material is so powerful that you really have to commit. It’s going to be a journey and you have to be aware of that.”

In recent years, Bardem seems to be allowing the journeys he takes to be a little less emotionally consuming, or at the very least he seems to be oscillating between more relaxed fare and films like BIUTIFUL. He appeared opposite Julia Roberts, a friend who helped campaign for his current Oscar nod, in Ryan Murphy’s summer hit, EAT PRAY LOVE, which he shot immediately after BIUTIFUL (“Take me to Bali!” he said when he put Uxbal to bed.) The contrast has allowed him to see the importance of incorporating both the light and the dark into his life. “As much as you have to bring some seriousness to a comedy set, you have to bring some laughter to a drama like BIUTIFUL. It is the balance that always makes things more enjoyable.”

This balance has Bardem attached to a number of upcoming projects, as varied as a new Terrence Malick film and a potential villain role in the next James Bond movie. Either way, Bardem will bring his almost signature brand of intensity to any project he takes on, just as long as he doesn’t have to die this time. “My mother doesn’t like that very much. She always asks, ‘Are you dying in this one?’”

Even if he does, BIUTIFUL teaches us that death is not an ending. It is just the beginning of a long, hard road ahead. I'm not sure if that is meant to be uplifting but if anyone can find the hope in that, it will be Bardem.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Michael Sheen

Inez: The studios adore you; you’re in demand. Do you really want to give it all up just to struggle?

Every time I review a Woody Allen movie, it seems I address the same issues time and time again. This is likely because Allen always chooses to tackle the same themes – class, art and commerce, American values, inferiority and infidelity, to name but a few. Often times, he falls flat, which is entirely reasonable when one takes into account that he makes a movie every year, but once in a while, his recurring neurosis come together so perfectly, they reveal his true genius. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, Allen’s 41st feature film, embodies this culmination brilliantly and is perhaps his most enchanting film in years. It is unmistakably “Woody Allen” but for some cinephiles out there, that is cause for celebration and not reason to run away.

Allen opens MIDNIGHT IN PARIS the way he always does, with plain white titles on a black background and a plucky jazz track playing. Suddenly, he interrupts himself and goes into a montage of Paris postcard shots, spanning a day that sees all the sights, a heavy rain fall and the kind of charm that only an evening in Paris can provide. It isn’t that the montage itself isn’t also quintessentially Allen-esque that is striking; it is the interruption that announces that Allen is alert and making choices instead of just letting everything play out naturally. It also allows the viewer, or any remotely sentimental one anyway, to get fully sucked into the clichéd idea of Paris as the most romantic city in the world. The images themselves are stunning yet subtle, thanks to cinematographer, Darius Khondji (who has worked with Allen once before on ANYTHING ELSE, but we probably shouldn’t talk about that), allowing Paris to be its grand self and showing us very clearly how much Allen is in love with the city.

Owen Wilson is Gil, the Allen figurehead in this story (and a very suitable one at that). He is a successful Hollywood screenwriter who considers all his success to be built on the production of meaningless material. He and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams, who does materialistic and shallow all too well) find themselves in Paris on her parents’ dime, just as he has decided to try his hand at writing a novel in hopes of achieving a more respectable level of artistry. Their priorities are clearly at odds; she prefers to go out and party while he prefers to soak in the city’s elegance. More importantly, she is of the moment and he cannot help but long for a simpler time, when life was rich and not empty like the constantly moving present. Then one night, Gil gets exactly what he has been longing for. He is mysteriously whisked away to the Paris of yesteryear when the clock strikes midnight. Here he meets artists he has always admired and finds romance he has only dreamed of. If only he wasn’t from another era.

It may sound a little “je ne sais quoi” but MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is truly a magical experience and meant to be absurdist and surreal. The cast is delightful, from Marion Cotillard as Gil’s other world love interest to Michael Sheen as the pedantic windbag archetype Allen loves to mock so much. Paris, past and present, also presents Allen with an opportunity to showcase exquisite production designs and lovely costume pieces. The literary references may go above some heads but aside from that, it is practically impossible not to get caught up in the glamour of it all. Despite all of this allure though, what most distinguishes this work from so much of Allen’s previous work, is Allen’s shift towards resolution. Infamous for being trapped by the past, Allen now moves towards letting go of his illusions of the past, allowing for a catharsis that his films rarely ever achieve.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Written by Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong and Todd Phillips
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis

Alan: I wish monkeys could Skype. Maybe one day.

I must begin by stating that I was not a big fan of THE HANGOVER, the 2009 comedy sensation that would go on to become one of the biggest R-rated successes in history and put director, Todd Phillips, on the map. My expectations going into the highly anticipated sequel were pretty low, as a result. I feel very confident in saying that this time around, I will not be in the minority with my distaste.

THE HANGOVER PART II opens exactly the same way the first one does and essentially plays out the same from there on in, except with significantly less laughter. This time out, Stu (Ed Helms) is getting married and his happy cohorts, Phil and Alan (Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis) are on board to attend the impending nuptials. An innocent beer on a beach in Thailand turns into a night of cataclysmically irresponsible and morally reprehensible behavior, that finds them all waking up in a Bangkok hotel room with zero recollection of how they got there and even less remorse for the damage they've done. It is then of course time to piece the evening back together again in order to find Stu’s future, teenage brother-in-law, Teddy (Mason Lee), whom the threesome have misplaced.

The original works because we’ve all been there before – well, maybe not quite there but at least some variation of that experience, where we cannot quite remember what went down the night before. Despite not being terribly likable characters, the audience can relate and wants to forgive them their foolishness, thus forgiving themselves. The fact that it has happened to them again only portrays the guys as people with serious drinking problems who have no regard for anyone other than themselves. By the time Stu declares that he can’t believe this is happening again, I would be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t agree while shaking their head in shame. I think it's time to get off the sauce, fellas.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Best of Black Sheep: THE HANGOVER

Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galafinakis and Heather Graham

Stu Price: Why are you peppering the steak? You don’t even know if tigers like pepper.
Alan Garner: Tigers love pepper. It’s cinnamon they don’t like.

I think its fair to say that anyone who will see THE HANGOVER knows the pain of waking up to the birds chirping cheerfully outside and the sun shining brightly through the curtains, all the while wishing that it would all go away so you can sink into the hell you brought upon yourself. I myself have certainly shuffled back and forth between my bed and the toilet more mornings that I care to recall. What I don’t understand though is why anyone who does know this excruciating pain would choose to visit it voluntarily on the big screen. While watching THE HANGOVER does not inspire the same kind of nausea as a night of serious drinking, it does capture the subdued tone of the dreaded morning after pretty well. I stopped drinking excessively specifically to avoid this tone and THE HANGOVER is nowhere near a good enough reason to go back there.

From the moment THE HANGOVER begins, the voice is unmistakable. A wedding is being set up, from the flowers at the ends of the aisles to the frilly icing on the cake. As we know that we are about to watch a buddy movie where four guys get wild and rowdy on a Las Vegas bachelor party, there is no question that director, Todd Phillips, is speaking distinctly to the men out there and that the beautiful floral arrangements and final wedding details are meant to be ridiculed. Look at how preposterous all these finishing touches are, men. Aren’t women completely out of their heads for spending so much time on all of this? Let’s go get drunk already. If you’re the type of man who thinks that tired and immensely ignorant setup is hilarious than you may very well love THE HANGOVER. After all, it isn’t long after this that you get to delight in the demonizing of women as every one we meet is controlling, manipulative and callous. It’s all very modern bride.

THE HANGOVER is not about the women though; it is all about the men and their bond. The trouble is that I didn’t see anything remotely redeeming about this sad pack of losers. The groom himself, Doug (Justin Bartha), is completely uninteresting but that doesn’t matter as he is misplaced for the majority of the film. His impending brother-in-law, Alan (Zach Galafinakis) is a fat, furry troll of a man who is socially inept to the point of extreme discomfort – painful awkwardness is always a pleasure to watch on screen. Doug’s buddy Phil (Bradley Cooper) is ruggedly handsome but he steals field trip money from his elementary school class to spend at the tables and has zero respect or appreciation for his wife and child so it isn’t so easy to find him endearing. In fact, the only one of the bunch that is remotely winning is Ed Helms as Stu Price. Of course, Stu is completely whipped so you’ve got to love the guy. Poor thing has to answer to someone else; it is so horrible that people should be expected to be held accountable to the person they claim to love.

Frankly, I couldn’t have cared less what happened to these guys as I wish that less guys like this actually existed. Really, how am I supposed to root for guys who are so dumb that they would leave a baby in a parked car alone? While Philips is savvy enough to structure THE HANGOVER so that we piece the mysterious evening together at the same time as they do, it all amounts to these unappealing characters going from scenario to extreme scenario asking people if they remember anything about their interactions from the night before. It also doesn’t amount to very many laughs so maybe the real hangover isn’t from a heavy night of drinking but rather an excessive indulgence in overdone average dumb guy comedy.


Monday, May 23, 2011


Written by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst and Frank Langella

The trouble with ALL GOOD THINGS starts in the title. We know full well from the very onset of Andrew Jarecki’s first narrative film that the loveliness we are lavished in to begin with will inevitably disappear. After all, the old adage is pretty clear about good things; they must at some point come to an end. And so we watch the happy couple meet, fall in love and run away together, out from under the thumb of an oppressive family and off the road that would lead to nothing but heartache, waiting for the moment where everything turns Fortunately, the turns it takes are unexpected and worse that you would imagine.

If you are familiar with the life of Robert Durst, the millionaire heir to a real estate fortune who stood trial for one murder and was suspected in his life of two others, then you might have a very good idea of what to expect. ALL GOOD THINGS is loosely based on his life and he is portrayed in the film by Ryan Gosling, renamed David Marks. Ideally cast, Gosling is able to play happy yet hesitant and transition smoothly to unnerving and disconcerting without blinking, catching us all as off guard as his co-star, Kirsten Dunst. She plays his wife, Katie Marks, who went missing in the 80’s after their relationship became abusive and she threatened to leave. As solid as Gosling is, he is outdone by Dunst, who is surprisingly subtle and has a strong grasp on how internalized the plight of a battered spouse truly is. As facile as the execution of the film is at times, their performances give it the weight needed to pull it off.

Jarecki is the Oscar-nominated director on CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, a truly disturbing documentary about a family with secrets so dark they should only be shared with those strong enough to face the atrocities man is truly capable of. It would seem a natural fit for him to take on one of the most infamous family dramas in American history but he never gets to the real root of the issues. The ugly truth worked for him before but here, Jarecki is either afraid of it or just not aware of it. Either way, ALL GOOD THINGS comes to its own end, proving that the proverb doesn’t just apply to things that are good.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Written by Ted Eliott and Terry Rossio
Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane

Barbosa: You haven't changed.
Jack Sparrow: Implying the need.

It’s fitting really that the fourth installment in Disney’s PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series, ON STRANGER TIDES, finds everyone’s favourite captain, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) searching frantically for the fountain of youth. The franchise itself has not exuded any true vigor since the first time it sent sail and, now serving under the new direction of Rob Marshall (CHICAGO), it simply drifts aimlessly at sea while trying to recapture its former glory. Drastic changes were made to the format, most notably a major cast overhaul, to rejuvenate it and allow it to stand alone as a one-off story in hopes of keeping Disney’s treasure chest plentiful. The only strange thing about these tides though is that anyone is still watching and waiting for them to come in.

Some of the aforementioned drastic changes include the shedding of previous series regulars, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, to make room for fresh blood, Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane. Also gone are the overly complicated plot lines incorporated into the second and third installments to justify their existence. All they managed to do was infuriate audiences and suck all the fun out of the franchise anyway so that’s no loss. Instead, this adventure is meant to exist unto itself and it most certainly does this. It just doesn’t bother having any fun in the process. Depp returns as the character he has brought nothing new to for years now and he joins a bunch of other pirates, including Cruz, whom he had some sort of sordid affair with way back when, as they search for the location of the fountain of youth. Aside from an encounter with some of the most vicious mermaids I’ve ever seen, this amounts to little more than a lot of walking and talking in the jungle.

The truth is there is nothing strange about these tides really and this is why the film doesn’t work. A new director and a new approach were supposed to thrust some fresh gusts of wind into the aging franchise’s sails but all it truly manages is to raise this sunken ship to the surface again and leave it there to rock monotonously back and forth, in unnecessary 3D no less. (This by no means applies to McShane, who is the only point of interest past those scary mermaids.) Considering previous pirate complaints centered around how confusing it all got, I am surprised that Marshall leaves us with more confusion this time around too – more specifically, why is this series still going? Oh right, treasure.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Black Sheep interviews Naomie Harris

An interview with Naomie Harris

In 2003, the government of Kenya announced that primary school education would be free for anyone interested in learning. They might have considered being a bit more precise in their wording though. When the gates opened and the children flooded in to take their seats, one man straggled behind them hoping for the same opportunity. His name was Kimani Maruge; he was 84 years old and he wanted to learn to read.

Maruge’s inspiring story has been adapted for film in Justin Chadwick’s THE FIRST GRADER. His triumph would never have been realized though if it weren’t for one strong teacher. Jane Obinchu defied her employers and stood up to the public outcry to ensure Maruge would realize his dreams. Obinchu is captured delicately on film by British actress, Naomie Harris.

“Obinchu really took a stand for this man’s right to education,” Harris tells me in between nibbles of her danish, when we meet in Toronto for yet another stop on her lengthy publicity tour. “It just made me question what I would be willing to put myself on the line for in that way and whether I would be brave enough to do it.”

Harris is extremely proud of her work in THE FIRST GRADER, as well she should be. The actress is perhaps best known for her work in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER and her appearances in the second and third PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. After such large productions, Harris was happy to return to a smaller scale shoot. “I had done some big budget movies where you feel like you’re just part of a machine. There were only nine of us though that flew out to Kenya. We were going to live amongst the community. That really excited me.”

The 36-day Kenya shoot may have been smaller but it was certainly not any simpler. Not only did Harris have to act like a teacher (for which she received coaching from her mother, her own personal and unofficial acting coach) but she actually had to be a teacher as well to a class of dozens of children. “It was tough with those kids. It took me a long time to get them to loosen up and that’s what we needed for the film. The film only survives if the children and their personalities shine through.” She confides as well that she thought it was going to be easy.

Of course there is one other light that shines through that Harris hasn’t mentioned yet – the man who plays Maruge, her co-star, Oliver Litondo. Up until now, Litondo has only played smaller parts and most of those on television. THE FIRST GRADER marks his first time in a leading role and his performance is remarkable. “He is brilliant. He is really open and really warm,” Harris gushes. She goes on to describe what it was like to work with him. “Whenever you’re working with an actor, it is all about them being generous and he has that quality.”

A smaller movie can also mean a more intimate experience with the audience. THE FIRST GRADER took home the runner-up slot for audience favourite at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (right behind another crowd pleaser, THE KING’S SPEECH, which you might have heard of) and touring with it has given Harris a new perspective on her profession. “Seeing people just sitting there and crying their eyes out and standing up to say how much the film really touched them – it’s just been really moving to me.” Harris, who is distractingly beautiful, was almost glowing at this point. “I had forgotten just how much a film like this can affect people.”

Kimani Maruge passed away in 2009 but thanks to Harris and THE FIRST GRADER, he will continue to inspire for years to come.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Black Sheep interviews Will Ferrell

An interview with Will Ferrell

When I think Will Ferrell, I think two things right away. The first thing I think is hilarious. Whether it’s back in his Saturday Night Live days or from films like ANCHORMAN or TALLADEGA NIGHTS or even one-off projects like his one-man show on Broadway, where he took on George W. Bush in You’re Welcome America: One Final night with George W. Bush. The other thing I think of instantly when I think of Will Ferrell is how freakishly tall he is. After meeting him in person though, I can say that everything I thought I knew about Will Ferrell is wrong.

First of all, he is only 6’3”. Sure, that is still tall but for some reason, I always imagined him as a giant. Maybe it’s the whole ELF thing. More importantly though, sitting down to interview Ferrell is actually quite a sobering experience. That said, this might have something to do with the tone of the film he is promoting. EVERYTHING MUST GO is most certainly not a comedy and Ferrell wants to ensure we are all clear on that ahead of time.

“I think there was some confusion with STRANGER THAN FICTION. I kept talking about it being a drama that was funny,” Ferrell explains of his 2006 film when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival. “All the marketing people were like, ‘Stop! It’s a comedy.’ So I want it to be clear this time.”

I’ve seen EVERYTHING MUST GO. It’s definitely clear. Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, an alcoholic whose drinking problems have gotten him fired from his job after many years of service. On the day he loses his job, he stops off at a convenience store to make sure he has plenty of beer and then heads home to his wife. When he arrives though, he finds all of his belongings strewn across his lawn, the locks changed and his wife long gone. Nick has had better days.

When one thinks depressed boozer, one does not automatically go to Ferrell in their head. Ferrell on the other hand, sees this departure as a natural progression. “A rock band wants to make their second album different than their first and their third different from their second and I think that’s what you’re always seeking as an actor too,” Ferrell tells me. And what of that pesky audience expectation he has been building all this time? “I don’t feel burdened by that. It is actually refreshing to do such a low key performance.”

When Ferrell says “low key”, it might help to contextualize a bit further what he means. After Nick realizes what is going on, he proceeds to spend the next few days sitting out on his front lawn amongst all his belongings, drinking constantly. It requires him to play fairly subdued the majority of the time. “Most of the stuff I’ve done has been heightened and overplayed at times,” Ferrell says, although to be fair, we all knew that already. “To get to be more subtle, to be more real, that was a gift.”

The gift of Nick Halsey originated in a short story by Raymond Carver, entitled “Why Don’t You Dance?” It was adapted for film and directed by first time filmmaker, Dan Rush (shown with Ferrell above). The story was drastically expanded from its original form and finds Nick selling his stuff to anyone who will take it and finding solace in two unlikely and completely different neighbours (Rebecca Hall and Christopher Jordan Wallace), both just as lonesome and lost as he is.

It’s this incredible skill to tap into this emotion that I don’t really have. It was fun to be able to get there and surprise myself in this movie,” Ferrell tells of his darker moments in the film, certainly a great feat for any funny man. “I really loved this experience. This was one of the most gratifying movies I’ve gotten to work on.”

Not to worry Ferrell fans. He returns to comedy later this year in CASA DE MI PADRE, as a Mexican rancher navigating his ranch through financial peril. (I’m already laughing.) In the meantime, EVERYTHING MUST GO rolls out into North American theatres this summer. And about that insistence about it being a drama thing from earlier …

I refuse to label it like that even. I just think it's a great story. It’s a story that is true to life and life has moments that are funny, life has moments that are sad and life has moments that are ambiguous. It’s not a neat, little package and that’s what this movie is.”

Friday, May 13, 2011


Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
Directed by Paul Feig
Starring Kriten Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd and Jon Hamm

Megan: You're your problem and you're also your solution.

For years now, the boys have been yukking it up at the movies for our enjoyment and they have been doing it as crassly as humanly possible. These male bonding pictures have relegated the girls to the background as nagging wives, naïve love interests and/or sexual throwaway characters. Well, not anymore. In BRIDESMAIDS, Kristen Wiig and her gaggle of gal pals kick the buddy genre hard in the nuts to prove that anything the boys can do, they can do better, and more often than not, in more gross a fashion. Girls being girls though, they are sure to bring a little heart to the table too.

Wiig, a co-writer on the project, is Annie, a single girl who is not at the best juncture in her life. Her bakery business fell flat; she has to live with the most irksome roommates imaginable (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson); and she has seemingly lost all faith that her prince will one day come, accepting instead to fall into the bed of man with whom she clearly has no future (Jon Hamm). Now, while she can certainly do worst than Hamm as far as friends with benefits go, her declining stock hits a new low when her oldest friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph, herself an old friend from Saturday Night Live), announces her engagement. Ordinarily this would be a joyous occasion but when you’re aging and single and your oldest partner in crime is leaving you to fend for yourself in the desolate desert that is dating, news like that takes on much grander implications.

Annie proceeds to buckle and break down amidst the pressure of putting together the perfect bridal parties and the prospect of losing her best friend to the other side. Fortunately, Wiig negotiates a meltdown like no other and she does so in BRIDSEMAIDS with great care, allowing viewers to truly see how complex a person can get the longer they are subjected to the games single people play. Of course, she is also backed up by a hilarious ensemble, most notably Rose Byrne as a classic “frenemy” and Melissa McCarthy as a big girl who isn’t afraid to cry (or take a dump in a sink for that matter). And while I was mildly disappointed to see the film affirm that true happiness cannot be achieved on one’s own, I was too busy laughing hysterically to care.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best of Black Sheep: BLUE VALENTINE

Written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams

Cindy: How do you trust your feelings when they can just disappear like that?
Gramma: I think the only way to find out is to have those feelings.

When they say, “For better of for worse,” in wedding vows, I believe they are referring toBLUE VALENTINE in regards to the worse part. Novice feature filmmaker, Derek Cianfrance’s latest is a very particular snapshot of a very specific place in a relationship that far too many people know far too well. And only few of those people live to tell the tale with their wits still about them. In reality, this space is an incredibly difficult test of the mind, the spirit and the heart and every effort is usually made to avoid getting there. It is one of the darkest stages a relationship can reach but Cianfrance is not the least bit afraid of the dark.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, an indie dream couple if I’ve ever heard one before, are Dean and Cindy, a young couple with a little girl, living their married life in rural Pennsylvania.They have been together for six years but those years have been far from kind. At the moment we meet them, Dean is feeding his daughter breakfast while Cindy is getting ready for work – an ordinary morning for many a couple, I’m sure. The difference here is that this kitchen is weighted down with a crushing tension that is evident in every look given and every word spoken. She seems appalled by his every action and influence over their daughter and he seems to know it. The room is rotten with the stench of hatred.

Dean and Cindy know they don’t have much time left and decide to get a room at a cheap motel in New York City for the night in hopes of working through their issues and rekindling their romance. Their intentions are sincere but the fight is so insurmountable at times, they each struggle with their resolve. Gosling, while somewhat overwrought in his character’s intensity, must be commended for the amount of evident effort he made to make Dean real and not just a bad husband. That said, Williams is heartbreaking every moment she is on screen. Even the manner in which she clasps her fists during one of the film’s many sexual moments is emotionally devastating. Together, they genuinely feel like two people who have been oscillating between love and hate for years, so much so that it can be too much to take at times.

Cianfrance is a brave man for going to as many places of despair in BLUE VALENTINE as he does but he’s not stupid. He knows that an audience needs to breathe so he tells the entire story of their relationship in moments so that we can see that there once was a time when these two knew happiness, that there is another reason other than their daughter that they are fighting to stay together. The device is somewhat manipulative at times as its obvious point is to make us feel even worse that their relationship doesn’t seem to be salvageable. BLUE VALENTINE did make me feel pretty bad. I had been in some variation of that relationship in my life and it was hard enough to deal with then so, as fantastic as the film is in its most candid moments, I’m not sure everyone is ready to go back there again.

Best of Black Sheep: THE ILLUSIONIST

Written by Jacques Tati
Adapted and Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Voices by Jean-Claude Donda and Eilidh Rankin

The Illusionist (written on a card): Magicians do not exist.

It can’t be easy to be an aging magician, especially one who has to work so tirelessly just to get by. The title character in French director, Sylvain Chomet’s latest work of pure artistry, THE ILLUSIONIST, can fit his entire life into a few, tiny pieces of luggage, which he carts from one dilapidated theatre to the next, so that he can play to near empty houses whenever possible and at least afford lodging and a little to eat. Night after night, he performs the same tired tricks he’s been peddling for years, still trying to trick the world into thinking that magic can happen, when its clear from his sullen expression that he stopped believing in magic long before. It’s no wonder really that the curtain doesn’t even open for him when we first catch his act.

One day, a gig brings the illusionist (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) to Scotland, where he meets Alice (Eilidh Rankin), a young girl who works at a local inn. She catches his act and then catches him backstage for a private encore and with that, she is convinced. Suddenly, there is someone standing in front of him who believes he is actually magical. From this point on, he becomes an illusionist of a different sort, trying to maintain her beliefs and mask his own true reasons for wanting her in his life. It isn’t clear whether he has ever had a daughter but it is clear from the way he takes care of Alice, that love has been absent for some time. Together, they get a small place at the Little Joe Hotel, which houses a variety of starving artists, from a suicidal clown to an alcoholic ventriloquist. For Alice, the whole situation is bigger than anything she’s ever known and cannot see how truly hard it is to keep up with. For her, nickels really can be found behind her ear whenever she needs them.

THE ILLUSIONIST is based on an unproduced script by French mime and comedy legend, Jacques Tati. It is said to be a letter to his daughter but there is some disagreement amongst admirers of his work, as to whether it was written for the daughter he barely saw or the daughter he never knew. Chomet certainly fills his adaptation with plenty of parental woe and disappointment but also rounds it out with complex issues like mixing art and commerce and the evolution of taste as it descends the generations. Like his last great accomplishment, LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE, Chomet works a little magic of his own, creating mostly two-dimensional art that comes to life without having to rely on effects or even silly dialogue as the film is mostly silent. So without having to resort to its own form of trickery, THE ILLUSIONIST is a truly unique and enchanting experience, which should have all who see it believing in magic by the time the curtain closes.