The Vancouver International Film Festival usually begins with an Opening Gala of speeches and an airing of a Canadian Feature Film: usually from TeleFilm Canada. This year it is Guest Of Honour: the latest film from Canadian director Atom Egoyan. It was a good film to open with, but not a great one.
The film begins with a priest, Father Greg, consulting with a daughter who lost her father, named Jim. Greg asks her how to best remember him, but she can’t say because she doesn’t remember him that well. She can speak for what he does remember of him.
Jim was a health inspector for restaurants most of his life. He started as a restaurateur, but failed. He had since become a health inspector. He was very strict in his job, especially to ethnic restaurants. As a family man, he married a Portuguese woman and fathered a daughter named Veronica. Veronica possessed a lot of music talent. That all changed one day when Jim introduced Veronica to a new music school. He met the instructor and she met Walter. Walter would become her partner in her glass harmonica instruction and performances, and later her boyfriend. The instructor would eventually become Jim’s mistress. Veronica knew that as she saw Jim sitting between the instructor and her mother, who was dying of cancer, and saw Jim hold the instructor’s hand.
Moving on into the future, the last time Veronica met with her father was while she was in jail for a crime she wants to take responsibility for, even though she may not have committed it. Jim is willing to do whatever it takes to get her out of jail, but she is insistent in serving her time.
Jim has to go to past videotapes and past references in order to get her justice. Sometimes he even confides to her pet rabbit about his problems and issues. As we flash back to the past, we learn more. We learn something bothered both Veronica and Walter inside. It bothered Walter so much, he committed suicide. Veronica would grow up to become a music teacher for a private school. However she has taken aback with the drummer of the school band named Clive. Clive looks so much like Walter. It even appears that she is more intimate with Clive, including to the bus driver Mike who is in love with her.
Mike is upset that Veronica won’t develop a relationship with her so one day, he sends a lewd text to Clive’s phone through Veronica’s phone during one of their performances. Clive and Veronica notice this. They want to do something, but fear they might be caught and accused of something they don’t want to be accused of. However it all falls apart at the hotel as Veronica is reminded of Walter’s suicide. Whatever problem happened at the hotel, it led to Veronica being sentenced to jail time and stripped of all teaching duties.
Jim tries to think of a way to free Veronica. He gets an idea after he sees a video of a rat inside a restaurant he inspected. The owner claimed someone with hard feelings to the restaurant put the rat in there to fix him. Another time, he comes across an Armenian restaurant with dead rabbits. He is about to close the place down, but they insist it’s for a delicacy of rabbit ears to be served at a private party. They plead with him to have mercy on them, and he decided to go to their special party.
Before the party, it’s evident Jim is up to something. He takes rabbit droppings from Veronica’s rabbit and puts them in a tube. He then goes to a German restaurant appearing to order dinner, but then goes to the bathroom to drop the droppings around, and then alert the manager. While talking with the manager, the real reason Jim is here comes out. He wasn’t to speak to his grandson, who appears in conversation to be Jim’s own son. The grandson is Clive. Clive knows why Jim is here, and is not happy. The situation between him and Veronica is just as humiliating.
Then over at the party at the Armenian restaurant, he arrives and is impressed with what he sees. The owners even treat him as a ‘guest of honor,’ despite what almost happened days ago. They ask him to give a speech. Jim tries to give a nice speech despite being intoxicated. However Jim’s feelings of his intended vengeance towards Mike come out during his speech. The speech lands him in trouble with law authorities. After he finds Veronica’s rabbit dead, he decided on one last act, and this involving the Armenian restaurant to assist with it. It is through all Veronica has told that Father Greg is able to give his requiem to Jim at his funeral. The film ends with one last flashback.
Atom Egoyan is a source of pride for Canadian filmmakers. He is one of only ten Canadian directors ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director. Atom has been known for his unique style of filmmaking. At the gala, he flashed back to when he did his first student-film at a school in Victoria. He received a C- and a lot of complaints and ‘advise.’ Some even described it as ‘too artsy.’ Whatever the situation, it would pave the way for his style to have its heyday in the 1990’s and his Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay coming for The Sweet Hereafter.
Times have noticeably changed. His films have been consistently done well and good at telling a story in his own style, but they’re not as well-hailed. Some of the meaner critics could say he is yet another director that had a directing flare and it flared out. This film does feature a lot of mystique in terms of the story. The film mixes the story with a variety of themes like restaurant inspections, music and feeling, family secrets, technology, and rabbits. The film does so in a colorful way, but it’s imperfect. There are some things that don’t make a lot of sense. Sure, Veronica’s music talent would propel her to her career as a musician and teacher, but through glass harmonica? The theme of rabbits also appears to be done in a way that doesn’t make sense. Veronica has a pet rabbit she adores, but also a lucky-rabbit’s-foot keychain. The rabbit becomes a source for Jim to confide in, use his droppings to frame a restaurant for facts, and have the dead rabbit’s feet cut off? Even how his restaurant inspections go from simple inspections to him using them as a way to get justice for his daughter, but pave the way for his downfall? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It’s not just the confusing elements of those themes, but also the storyline itself. There are a lot of moments in the story that leave many questions unanswered. How did he die? What secret made Walter commit suicide? Did Jim’s affair with his mother have something to do with it? What exactly did Veronica get arrested or convicted for? Is Clive really Jim’s son, or did Jim just say that to the grandfather? What was the significance or Jim’s personal reason of having the rabbit’s feet cut off? Now don’t get me wrong. I know the film is a puzzle and it’s about getting the pieces to fit together. I also know filmmakers leave out certain things to get the audience thinking or even trying to draw their own conclusions or write their own stories. However most of the elements or scenes don’t make a lot of sense. I felt there were a lot of critical things that were missing and it worked against the film rather than for it. Atom does a good job of creating and directing a good story, but I feel he missed in a lot of areas.
Despite the film’s flaws, the acting was one area that did come through well. David Thewlis did a good job of working with his complex role as the inspector/father. He gives his character of Jim dimension and helps it to make the role work for the story. Laysla de Oliveira makes it look like she stole the show. She makes it look like the film is more about Veronica that it is about Jim. She too is able have her role of Veronica make sense and even justify scenes that appear confusing to us. The supporting acting was also good with Rossif Sutherland playing Mike with his hidden inner anger, as well as Luke Wilson as Father Greg and the actors playing the Armenian restaurant owners. The music of Mychael Danna also adds to the feel of the film.
Guest Of Honour is not the best work of Atom Egoyan and has some noticeable flaws, but it does have a lot of qualities too. Especially the acting.
NOTE: I know this is awfully late to post a review of Catching Fire but I’ve had another lack of ambition in terms of writing this year. Those of you who’ve been subscribed to my blog for more than a year will remember the six week gap that began after the Oscars and left me with a March of nothing. Fortunately this gap ends today. However it explains this review coming awfully late.
I’m sure most of you have already seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Heck, there are still people seeing it as it’s still in the Top 10 at the box office this weekend and about to pass the $400 million mark. In this review, I won’t focus too much on the nitty gritty as I normally do. However I will post my thoughts on it as I was watching. Being one who has not read the novels, I will have a lot to say from what I remember seeing.
Those of you who have read my review of the original Hunger Games may have gotten a sense I did not read the novels. Especially since I made guesses about what was to happen in future movies. The funny thing is in the first movie, I thought the new love between Katniss and Peeta was real. I should have known Katniss did it for the sake of both of them winning. If it was a real relationship, why would boyfriend Gale applaud at the end?
One thing about the ending of the first. It provides the catharsis for President Snow to visit Katniss and even threaten her. The funny thing about the beginning is that it tells the whole truth about Katniss’ love triangle. There’s Gale whom she truly loves. And there’s Peeta whom she faked love for the both of them winning but he truly loves her and is crushed with the truth. There’s also the whole Hunger Games charade. Champions have to tour year after year across the districts. That mean the Katniss/Peeta charade has to be kept alive. It’s not an easy thing to do as people see them as this thing and rebels are executed by militia. Even harder is Peeta adding to the charade by proposing marriage to Katniss.
As one who hasn’t read the novel, the Quarter Quell came to me as a total surprise. Each year you have kids killing for the win and now you have winners killing each other off? I’m sure there were others who thought: “Not another Hunger Games. Twenty-four winners competing to be the one still alive? Why?” I was confused by it all, even though I was made aware that this was part of President Snow’s plan. I was also thinking is this was going to be your typical movie sequel where they rehash the elements of the original.
The Quarter Quell does appear to be redundant as it involves a parade around the stadium and even the contestants introducing themselves to the crowd and showing off their costumes. Even the new high-tech training does appear to be a case of rehashing from the first. Having Heymitch back as their coach and Cinna back as their costumer didn’t make things that much fresher either. There was one new element. There’s Katniss interacting and even befriending some of the other contestants before the competition.
Then comes the actual competition. There comes deadly rivalry from some of the contestants. There’s even potential fatality from some of the virtual effects created by the games masters. The way Katniss reaches out and befriends some of the other contestants is only slightly repetitive of the first but it does have its own original moments with her befriending of Mags, Wiress, Beetee and even the obnoxious Johanna. The Katniss/Peeta relationship in this movie had me on the untrusting side. It left me wondering if this was real or fake for the show again. Even the addition of Finnick leaves me wondering about the love triangle as I wondered is he really helping or is he trying to get a piece of Katniss?
It isn’t until the very end of the movie that I learned that the real battle in this Hunger Games movie is not Katniss against the other competitors but actually Katniss against the whole Hunger Games institution. It was obvious she knew what President Snow was up to. It also gave Katniss a sense that the other contestants in the Quarter Quell were as much a victim of this whole Hunger Games system as she was. It was evident that they all wanted out and would be lucky to survive getting out. The ending of the movie left me with a lot of questions about what to expect for the final part of the trilogy. Make that ‘parts’ since the final novel will follow the examples of Harry Potter and Twilight and divide it into two movies. Way to go, Hollywood!
Now onto the technical stuff. Jennifer Lawrence was good but not that spectacular. I’ll admit that I compared it to her Oscar-winning role of Silver Linings Playbook and it just doesn’t compare. It’s hard not to now! Josh Hutcherson turned Peeta from a lonely homely boy to a boy now angry and hurting. Sam Claflin helped make Finnick the one fresh character that added to the movie this time around. Actually the characters of the contestants of the Quarter Quell were all quite good in terms of both their characterizations and in making their characters human and likeable. The characters of those pulling the strings of the Hunger Games like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie may have come across as irritating and stockish at times but they added to the story. Actually they added to the theme of the movie of how there are these cartoonish people pulling the strings of the show while the contestants are mostly the real 3D people in this game. Even though they have a show to put on and a game to kill for the win, they still feel and hurt.
Now onto the technical stuff. Francis Lawrence did a good job of directing, even though there was nothing fresh added. Actually he’s slated to direct both Mockingjay movies. We’ll see how he works it. Once again I admit I’ve never read the novel so I can’t say how good of an adaptation Simon Beaufoy and Michael De Bruyn did. I will say that it did seem too much like the first. James Newton Howard did a very good job in terms of the score. The visual effects team did an excellent job with the effects. Trish Summerville did a very good job with the costumes. It’s unfortunate that the first movie’s costumes didn’t get an Oscar nomination. I shouldn’t be surprised since the Academy normally favors timepiece costuming over fantasy costuming. But is it deserving, even again here.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is bound to get a lot of people who haven’t read the novel surprised, then questioning, then surprised and then guessing at the end what to expect next. The good thing about this movie is that even though there is some redundancy, it doesn’t resort to Twilight’s trick of focusing on hot guys. It knows it’s mostly about the drama and sticks to it. That’s the best thing and I hope they keep it up for the two Mockingjay movies.