Reviews from The Vault: Vol. 6 — Quirky Gems

From 2005 to 2009 I was a programmer on CKDU 88.1 FM in Halifax, every Sunday morning hosting The Love & Hate Movie Show. I talked about what I was seeing and revisited some of my favourite films of old, pretty much what I do now here on FITI. I still have a lot of the scripts from those days, and thought I should share them here (with some editing and updating) for archival reasons—and just for fun. 

I’ve shared a few of these reviews already, starting in August 2015, probably for the same reason I’ve gone back to them now, that there’s little grabbing my interest in cinemas at the moment. Here’s reviews of the first batch, films that premiered locally at the Atlantic Film Festival, a few horror titles, five-star features and a few disappointments.

Here are reviews of some little-seen independent and international fare.

My Blueberry Nights

Directed by Wong Kar Wai, whose earlier films include Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, In The Mood For Love, and 2046, with In the Mood For Love the film of his that has the most international acclaim, and the most coherent storyline. These are mood pieces. The pleasure of his films is from how they feel, and that’s a very unique quality, to be able to produce a cinematic sensation using visuals and music, with actors and script somewhere in the mix, though maybe not even at the forefront. My Blueberry Nights doesn’t disappoint at all in this regard. 

Singer Norah Jones stars as Elizabeth, or Lizzy, or Beth, depending on where she is. She starts at a café run by Jude Law in New York, waiting for her errant boyfriend to show up. On the counter is a jar full of keys, and Law’s character is holding onto these keys, waiting for people to come back and collect them.

Does this sound whimsical? Allegorical? Sure is, like all his work. My Blueberry Nights wasn’t well received, but I have a theory that if it was in French or Cantonese or Mandarin, North American critics would have been a lot more forgiving. They’d have called it poetic and lyrical, not lacking focus and pointless.

It isn’t pointless. It has a meandering structure, with odd, endearing characters. Elizabeth winds up going to Memphis and gets involved in a lover’s spat between David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz, and later goes to Nevada and meets a miscast Natalie Portman, who plays a desperate, cocky card sharp.

It’s concise, sweet, and dreamy and even if it doesn’t amount to much, it took me on a trip in the movie and in my head, a trip I very much enjoyed.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada 

Tommy Lee Jones directs this modern day western, a film heavily indebted to the post-John Ford westerns of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah. Here he plays a rancher Pete Perkins in a small Texas town on the border with Mexico. The first act is disjointed, mixing characters and timelines and perspectives, sometimes revisiting scenes from the point of view of different characters, then leaving them, and later coming back. It’s a challenge to pick up the various story threads and characters as you go.

The film was written by Guillermo Arriaga, the Mexican writer/director of pictures as Amores Perros and 21 Grams, and he’s comfortable with this non-linear storytelling technique.

Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is a Mexican illegal immigrant who rides into Texas to look for work and is befriended by Perkins, and they share some good times together. Meanwhile, Barry Pepper’s Border Patrolman moves to town with his wife (January Jones). We’re also introduced to a local waitress, Rachel (Melissa Leo), who Pete is having an affair with, as is the sheriff,  Belmont, played by Dwight Yoakam. When Estrada is killed, Pete takes his body, as well as the remorseful killer, with him deep into the Mexican wilderness.

The film then becomes much more linear, and the Peckinpah elements come clear: masculine duty and regret, friendship above all else, and a certain dusty acceptance of mortality.

Tommy Lee Jones has really grown into one of the great, craggy tough guy actors of American cinema. After serving in the character actor trenches for years and years, it wasn’t really until the late 80s he started to be considered as star material and getting parts worth of his talent on a regular basis. As a director, he exudes confidence. The look of the film is superb and the performances excellent, and the balance between the non-linear and linear isn’t jarring, in fact, it’s melded seamlessly. The supporting cast who are so essential to the first part of the picture, you wind up missing them later on. It goes from being an ensemble piece to a two-hander, but the emotional core rests with the two living characters who make the journey into Mexico. 

I should say, this isn’t a film for the squeamish. There is some really grim, gallows humour here, another Peckinpah connection, reminding me of Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. But there are moments of real beauty as well. Towards the film’s end, Pete calls Rachel from a cantina deep inside Mexico, and, besides the electric Christmas lights and TV, you feel it is a magical moment completely out of time, that could have taken place any time in the last 200 years. 


This is the final film from actor/director Adrienne Shelly. Shelley worked in a lot of New York indie movies, became a minor star of the festival circuit thanks to her starring in movies by Hal Hartley. She was murdered in New York city, and she never got to enjoy the acclaim her film received at Sundance, nor the critical kudos that have come since the picture’s release.

Waitress is a charming little movie, but one that has a bit of a bittersweet quality to it, given the fate of the writer/director and that the film is about women struggling to be happy under the thumb of uncaring, sometimes violent men. Keri Russell, more recently of The Americans, plays Jenna, a young woman working at a diner in a southern US town, married to the selfish Earl, played by Jeremy Sisto. Her real talent is for making pies, a new one she dreams up every day. This movie will make you want to go out and get pie, so plan on it directly following the screening.

In support are two other servers, Cheryl Hines as Becky and the director herself, Shelley, as Dawn. Andy Griffith, who was older than baseball when he appeared in the film, plays Old Joe, the curmudgeonly owner of the diner, and Nathan Fillion is Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s gynecologist with whom she has an affair.

The film is a charming little low-budget comedy about women finding the strength to go for what they really want. I’ve read it compared favourably to Amelie, especially in the diner/café location similarities, but they really are very different films. Waitress isn’t quite in Amelie’s league, but it is a really sweet film, and shows a director who was just finding her voice.

My main criticism of it is in the lighting—whether indoor or outdoor it looks utterly artificial. I find that kind of thing a distraction, but that’s a pet peeve. Waitress is still very much recommended. 


Greg Mottola wrote and directed the film, and I have to think he got it made based on the success of his previous directorial effort, Superbad. But it was Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who wrote Superbad
the last film Mottola wrote was a terrific picture called The Daytrippers from the late ’90s. If you haven’t seen it, make a point of going and renting it. It’s a comedy drama about a family that drive into New York for the day to find out if the daughter’s husband is cheating on her. The daughter played by Hope Davis and the husband by Stanley Tucci, with Liev Schrieber and Parker Posey in other roles. Great, great movie.

Adventureland is another one of those rose-coloured glasses look back at a formative, coming-of-age period.  James (Jesse Eisenberg) lives in Pennsylvania with his parents and is about to go off to Columbia University. This is his last summer at home, or so he hopes. His father is about to lose his job so he needs to make some cash in order to afford to go to school, and so, not qualified for anything, he gets a job at Adventureland, the local amusement park. It doesn’t look at all like any modern amusement park, the filmmakers really did well to find one that had that lost-in-time look about it.

So the movie is about James’ dead-end summer job, his friends, some of whom work at the park too, and Em (Kristen Stewart) is the girl he falls for. She’s having an affair with an older guy who works at the park, complicating matters, and James is a guy who is just moving from that insecure, self-conscious teenage phase into being a young man. He’s starting to become self-aware but is still prone to making
stupid mistakes and letting his hormones get the better of him. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Martin Starr all offer sterling support.

Adventureland has a great feel in how it captures the ’80s teen experience. I didn’t work in a dilapidated amusement park but I did hang out, wear some of those clothes, play arcade games, and silently admire girls in stone-washed jeans and pink-and-black tops, their hair in scrunchies. I would say that the story does miss a few opportunities for real depth or real drama with the central love story/love triangle, but the mood of the piece is so warm and friendly, I can’t fault it for trying to stay a little light.

Be Kind, Rewind

Michel Gondry, the French director of The Science of Sleep and all those great Bjork and White Stripes videos. He has an almost childlike sense of wonder in his visual concepts, and also directed The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though that was written by Charlie Kaufman, a brilliant creative mind in his own right, and as such occupies a different strata altogether.

Gondry also wrote this picture, an ode to the communal joy of creation. Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) are two buddies in a run-down section of New Jersey. Mike works at a video rental store, working for Mr Fletcher (Danny Glover). Mr Fletcher likes to tell stories about the jazz great Fats Waller, who supposedly was born in the building. Mr Fletcher goes out of town for a few days, leaving the video store in Mike’s hands. Jerry is a bit of a troublemaker, and frankly, neither Mike nor Jerry are really on the ball. When Jerry gets himself electrocuted in the power station behind the trailer he lives in, and becomes magnetized, he erases every movie in the shop. Desperate, especially when Mr Fletcher’s friend Ms Falewicz, (Mia Farrow), comes in looking for Ghostbusters, they try and recreate the blockbuster themselves.

This is the best part of the film, when they find new and ingenious ways on a zero-budget to reshoot these popular Hollywood pictures, including The Lion King and Robocop. Of course, their replicas are hits in the neighbourhood, and more and more people want to see the new versions.

This is a very light comedy, with a nice sense of location and some very sweet moments, but what really works about it is this passion for the DIY aesthetic, something that Gondry embraces even in the way he’s making the movie.

The key relationship in the film is between Jerry and Mike, and unfortunately, in the third act, that goes into the background. It’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of production, but it will make you want to go out and make your own movie.

The Bank Job

Directed by journeyman filmmaker Roger Donaldson,  The Bank Job is the kind of stylish British heist picture they used to make in the ’60s and ’70s, with titles like The Italian Job, so it makes a lot of sense that they’d set this one in the early ’70s in London. Apparently, it’s based on a true story.

Terry (Jason Statham) is a working class guy with a pretty wife and a couple of kids trying to get ahead with a car dealership full of exotics, but he still owes bad people money. He gets a tip from an old friend Martine (Saffron Burrows) about a bank job that would be very, very easy to do with the right equipment and guys. Terry isn’t a pro, so he gets his buddies who aren’t pros either to give him a hand. What he doesn’t know is that Martine is working for some men with interests in protecting queen and country, to get their hands on some confidential documents that are stored in the bank vault.

So, what you get here are parallel stories, that of the bank heist and that of the powers behind the scene, the people who want the documents, the people who are using the documents to ensure their own freedom and wealth, and the cops, who start to get wind of this heist, a couple of whom are corrupt.

First off, the look of the film is perfect. The cars, the clothes, the way it’s shot, even the grain on the film is totally right, so after awhile you start to forget that this is a film made and released in 2008. Statham is great as the guy who smart enough to do this job and desperate enough to try it, and attempting to hold together his marriage and his life. Keeping up with the large ensemble of characters becomes quite a treat, and the payoff is hugely satisfying as it all comes together in the end.

I wouldn’t call it a classic of its kind, but a very, very solid genre film in a genre that you just don’t see done well very often. 

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

A lesson in American movie history here: In the ’30s there was a popular franchise called The Thin Man that featured a boozy but very witty detective couple, Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and the very lovely Myrna Loy. With their terrier Asta they wandered about solving crimes in the funniest, most entertaining ways possible.

This movie has nothing to do with that franchise, despite the name.

We are really in a new era when Michael Cera can be a star, the nerdy, soft-spoken actor known for Juno and Scott Pilgrim, who seems to play the same role in every film he’s in. In the age of John Hughes movies, his only archetype would have been Anthony Michael Hall’s painful dweeb, who was just too nerdy and insecure to ever be in the role of getting the girl. Though, I suppose, there was Weird Science.

I mention Hughes on purpose, because Nick and Norah has a lot of the qualities of his films, especially in the character work. High school scenario, lots of language and drinking and stuff that I think teenagers will be able to relate to. Well, they’ll wish they were as charming and funny as these characters, just like back in 1986 I wished I was like cool like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. Nick (Cera) is a goofy guy hung up on a girl in his New Jersey school, Tris (Alexis Tziena), who has been cheating on him and doesn’t really give him any respect. He makes endless number of mix CDs for her and she throws them away. They’re picked up by Norah (Kat Dennings), not knowing who Nick is, but she loves his taste in music. She and her friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) are headed out for the night, trying to track down a mythical New York band Where’s Fluffy. She also has an on-again-off-again guy, Tal (Jay Baruchel), who seems more interested in her for the fact she has a father in the music business.

The movie is basically a series of scenes in and out of New York nightclubs, bars and eateries over the course of one night, people getting in and out of cars, talking on cell phones. Solid soundtrack from Mark Mothersbaugh, and great work from the actors. But it really is Cera and Dennings who make the movie happen. There are a few teen movie cliches they run right into, but there are some other great things about the movie: It’s upfront about sex, the dialogue is sharp and peppered with great turns of phrase. I like that Nick is in a gay punk act, and his friends are gay, even though he isn’t, and it’s all no biggie.

And New York stars as itself. It’s full of possibility, just like these characters’ lives. They go all night and they just don’t stop. There are times I wished that they would shoot it with fewer close-ups, to better get a sense of the street and place, it. Nick and Norah is an unusual creature: a smart, thoughtful, teen movie, with great characters and story, and great music, totally plugging into the indie rock aesthetic.

The Band’s Visit

An Egyptian police band from Alexandria flies into Tel Aviv, Israel, in order to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural centre in a small Israeli town. Upon arrival, the baby-blue uniformed octet source bad directions through their youngest and horniest member and wind up in a very quiet community in what looks like the Negev desert. When they realize they’re lost, a few locals take pity on them and invite them to stay in their homes. What happens are a series of scenes over the evening they spend in this Israeli town. None of these Egyptians are terribly outgoing, except maybe the young guy, but especially their band leader, Tawfiq, (Sason Gabai), who is very rigid, unhappy and pretty much disliked by the rest of the band. The band is struggling under pressure both internally and externally—they may not have funding to continue, so this trip might be their last.

But all of that falls away as the band mingles with the Israeli locals. There’s really not much going on in this town, no one has cell phones, everything seems a bit archaic. It’s not clear, but I suspect it is set in the past, maybe 40 years ago? But the connections between the Arab musicians and the Israelis are very sweet. They discover a shared passion for music, of course, and there’s a great scene where three of the band members and a family of locals sing Gershwin. The uptight leader Tawfiq spends the evening with Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a provocative café owner. Actually both actors are great, sharing lots of chemistry in what winds up being a profound connection between the two of them.

I really enjoyed the film. It is directed with a real care to the sense of place. Having lived in Israel, the sound and dust and heat of the desert feels very familiar. The disposition and personalities of the Israelis and Arabs felt very authentic, too. 

It isn’t a hugely profound film with some big political statement to make. I think what it finds is that these very different people share something very common, that is a profound sense of loneliness, maybe even a sense of regret and disappointment, but it’s not nearly as dark because they’re sharing it together. 

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.