Well folks, I’m off to gobble up turkey and gargle some mulled wine, but here’s a rundown of films to see this holiday season. The list is long, but there’s certainly something for everyone.
When I return in the new year, The Screening Room will no longer exist in its current form. Come January, the blog will be folding up and my reviews will be found on our movies and nightlife page. Look for The Movie of the Week. I hope that you all come find me there.
In the meantime, happy holidays and merry viewing!
The only must-see film of the season is Guillermo del Toro’s haunting and sumptuous exploration of the nature of fantasy. The Spanish Civil War has just ended and the cruel and sadistic General Vidal (Sergi Lopez) has brought his pregnant wife and her young daughter Ofelia (a breathtaking Ivana Baquero) to the rural outpost where he is rooting out the last remnants of Republican resistance. As the grisly violence outside moves closer to their door, Ofelia finds herself invited into a darkly phantasmagorical world that claims her as its lost princess. Gradually, her actions in the fantasy world begin to have a serious bearing on the real one. Del Toro is a master at creating visuals that signify even as they horrify. Don’t expect to dream the same way again. Pan’s Labyrinth opens Dec. 25.
The Painted Veil
If a slow-burning period romance about the trials of English folk abroad isn’t your cup of tea, then steer clear of this film. If, however, like me, you miss the days when romantic films weren’t afraid to be intelligent, nuanced and dark, don’t miss it. Based on a novel by the once adored and now rarely discussed W. Somerset Maugham, John Curran’s (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) film stars Edward Norton as Walter Fane, an introverted Shanghai-based bacteriologist, and Naomi Watts as Kitty, the restless middle-class flake who marries him to get out of her father’s house. When Kitty bores of her bookish, hard-headed new husband, she jumps into bed with Charlie Townsend, the sly and very married Vice-consul (Liev Shreiber). Being the proud, self-castigating type that he is, Walter refuses to forgive Kitty (or himself) and forces her to accompany him on a trip into the heart of a cholera outbreak in the interior. Fane has no practical experience as a medical practitioner and there’s not much chance that either he or his wife will survive the experience, but as far as he is concerned, none of that really matters. A different kind of romantic film, one with brains and guts. The Painted Veil opens Dec. 22.
The Good Shepherd
If you’ve got three hours to spare and don’t mind sitting through the odd soporific sequence, Robert De Niro’s second film (as director) is a well-researched and intelligently constructed look at the early days of the CIA. Don’t stop reading, though; those with patience (and a passion what lurks in the shadows of US history) will find a lot to like here. A poetry-loving patrician, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) joins the Skull and Bones society at Yale in 1939. There he gets his first taste of the code of secrecy that will soon consume his life. During World War II, Wilson joins the Office of Strategic Services. Out of that office, the CIA is born. Told retroactively as a reflection on the botched Bay of Pigs landing, De Niro’s film explores not only the errors made that day, but also how paranoia and self-righteousness ruined Wilson’s life. It’s unevenly plotted, but the performances that De Niro elicits from Damon and Angelina Jolie (who plays Wilson’s wife) are fantastic. Whoever says Damon can’t act should make sure they see this film. Those who know nothing about the creation of the CIA and aren’t likely to pick up a book and learn about it, should probably do the same. The odd bit of fictionalization has been blended into the mix, but for the most part, The Good Shepherd is a pretty faithful history lesson.The Good Shepherd opens Dec. 22.
Curse of the Golden Flower
As the World Turns and General Hospital ain’t got nothin’ on Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower. Neither do Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Zhang’s film has everything. Gong Li is a 10th-century empress who’s having an affair with her stepson. Meanwhile, she suspects her husband is slowly poisoning her. I could go on to list the other wonderful and ridiculous plot elements that Yimou and his screenwriters have woven into the film, but it would take far more space than I have here. Expect garish colour and grand emotion (especially from Li), as egos collide against the backdrop of spectacular battles. It’s all much too much. Which in Yimou’s case, is just enough. Curse of the Golden Flower opens Dec. 22.
The Children of Men
What value does dystopian fiction have if it doesn’t make us reflect on current realities? Alfonso Cuarón’s latest proves that, provided you make the narrative ride gripping enough, who cares? It’s 2027 and, 19 years after a still-existent infertility epidemic, the world has gone to hell. The earth’s population has flooded into Britain, whose fascistic government is rounding up immigrants and throwing them into roadside cages. Meanwhile, terrorist bombs are going off around the clock. While the film doesn’t spend much time explaining this misery–read the P.D. James novel on which it’s based if you want answers–it’s still a thrilling and innovative narrative. It’s frustatingly vague at times, however, but excellent performances by Michael Caine (a pot-growing former cartoonist) and Clive Owen, as the jaded, whiskey-numbed civil servant who may save the world, helps things out.The Children of Men opens Dec. 25.