Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Recommended Read: Lulu In Hollywood

Lulu In Hollywood
- Louise Brooks

Every year for Christmas my list includes at least one good, trashy biography that I can sink my teeth into during the post-holiday haze. Last year that book was Lulu In Hollywood, the memoir written by silent star Louise Brooks. While thoroughly entertaining – and occasionally gossipy – the book isn’t really trashy; it’s actually a very clever portrait of Hollywood in its infancy and of a woman who well and truly marched to the beat of her own drummer and refused to conform to anyone else’s standards of decorum.

Categorized as a memoir, the book is actually made up of a series of essays written by Brooks about her life in and out of Hollywood, all of them written with biting wit and incisive observations. Brooks is merciless in her depiction of the way the business worked and, in particular, the way that it treated women. One story describes a brief on location affair she had with a crew member, which was then used as a means of taking her down a peg by everyone else on set – including the girlfriend of the crew member she’d slept with, who apparently bore him no ill will. Especially interesting is her description of the transition from silent to sound films and her rejection of the idea that some actors couldn’t make the transition because they didn’t sound “right.” Brooks argues, quite convincingly, that actors who couldn’t transition owed it to sabotage by the studios, who saw it as an opportunity to rid themselves of some stars who, while profitable, had become too big and expensive to maintain.

While the book will probably be of greater appeal to people who are generally curious the silent era and its stars, it’s so well-written that I think even someone with only a passing interest in the backstage aspect of making movies would enjoy it. I would especially recommend it to fans of Humphrey Bogart, as one of the essays is all about Brooks’ relationship with him in the days before he was Bogie, when he was just another struggling actor coming out of the theatre. It’s a fascinating book from beginning to end, one that I couldn’t put down and have re-read a couple of times since.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Hank Williams First Nation (2005)

* *

Director: Aaron James Sorensen
Starring: Gordon Tootoosis

Hank Williams First Nation is a harmless and occasionally charming movie that seems to want less to tell you a story than to paint an open-ended portrait of a community. I couldn’t help but think while I watched it that while it didn’t amount to much as a movie, it would make for an effective pilot for a TV series. It wasn’t much of a surprise then when I learned that a year after the film was made, a TV series was spun off from it.

The film takes place on a reservation in Alberta and focuses primarily on one family. Sarah (Stacy Da Silva) and Jacob (Colin Van Loon) Fox are two teenagers being raised by their grandparents (Gordon Tootoosis and Edna Rain). Sarah excels as a student and longs for affection from her cheating boyfriend and her absentee mother. Jacob is a poet with dreams of getting away, though he knows that everyone on the reservation claims to want to get away but never succeeds. He gets his chance to get off the reservation when his grandfather asks him to go to Nashville to accompany his elderly Uncle Martin (Jimmy Herman) who wants to visit the grave of Hank Williams.

While Jacob and Martin make their way through the States, Sarah navigates her own personal turmoil. She had been looking forward to a visit from her mother, who doesn’t show up, and confesses to a teacher that she has no relationship with her father. She has a boyfriend but also engages in a tentative flirtation with Huey (Bernard Starlight), a student in name only whose focus is primarily on his business selling wood. Ever the opportunist, Huey also comes up with a way to use Jacob and Martin’s trip to raise money by convincing people that it’s a fundraising trip and having them sponsor it.

It’s difficult to give a really clear idea of what happens in this film, because the story is much more about establishing the feeling of a community than taking you from Point A to Point B. The film sort of wanders delicately around several plot threads but doesn’t have any narrative anchor. A film like this relies on the strength of its actors to center and guide it, which is where this film falls just short. For every solid performance, such as that delivered by Tootoosis, there’s another that’s just slightly off the mark. Truth be told, the most memorable performance comes courtesy of a character who is never seen onscreen, but only heard via his radio show.

Hank Williams First Nation is the kind of movie that will either speak to you or it won’t. Some will enjoy the gentle pace and folksy storytelling, while others will be irritated by the film’s slowness and the looseness of its story. While I didn’t especially like the movie, it did leave me with the impression that I would have enjoyed the TV series, which I think speaks to the unfinished feeling of the film as a whole.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Review: Tropic Thunder (2008)

* * *

Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black

Well played, Mr. Stiller. Tropic Thunder is the rare Hollywood satire that actually satirizes aspects of Hollywood and movie making rather than just taking light, easy shots that have already been well-trod by several other movies. It also manages to balance its elements, easily mixing comedy with action and plays kind of like a comedic version of Hearts of Darkness, the documentary which details the tumultuous filming of Apocalypse Now.

Tropic Thunder is the title of the movie within the movie as well as the book that movie is based on. The book was written by Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and relates the story of his rescue from a Viet Cong prison camp. Four Leaf acts as a consultant on the film adaptation and, when the cast starts acting like prima donnas, suggests to director Damien Cockburn (Steven Coogan) that he take them out to the jungle and shoot the film gorilla style. Shortly after being dropped off, a combination of Indo-China era landmines and drug traffickers brings the film to a halt, but the cast still thinks they’re making a movie. Following the lead by waning superstar Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), the cast makes its way deeper into the jungle, still in character and still acting out scenes they think are being filmed by hidden cameras.

The other four members of the cast are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug addled comedian, rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) whose greatest concern is promoting his energy drink “Booty Sweat,” Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a celebrated actor who engages in intense preparation to get into character, and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a young actor making his film debut and the only person who has actually read the script (“I don’t read scripts,” Lazarus informs him, “scripts read me.”). These four become separated from Tugg after an argument and later have to rescue him when he’s captured by the drug traffickers.

The actors in the film are all pretty much perfectly cast from Nolte down to Baruchel. Black is an actor I like a lot but, School of Rock aside, I think he’s better in supporting roles, as little bursts of spastic energy rather than as the chaotic force that drives the whole movie. Stiller, too, is pulled back in the best possible way, rendering a more restrained (and effective) performance than he has in a long time. As for Downey, he quite simply walks away with the movie. I don’t even really know how to describe the performance; I think his stunning dissection and deflation of full immersion method acting is something you just have to see for yourself to fully appreciate.

What raises Tropic Thunder above the more typical Hollywood self-mockery is Stiller’s control over the subject. So often movies like this edge a little too far over the top so that as a viewer you feel a real disconnect from the material because it bears no resemblance to what you’ve already seen for yourself. The trailers which precede the film and the Oscar ceremony that comes at the end, for example, are satirical without being ridiculous (I would totally see Satan’s Alley and I’m kind of surprised that The Fatties and Scorcher aren’t already movies). It’s a cleverly written movie and well executed both in front of and behind the camera.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Great Last Scenes: Queen Christina

Year: 1933
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Great Because...: From a purely aesthetic point of view, the film ends in a way that few other films can top: on a lingering close up of Greta Garbo's face. Nicknamed The Swedish Sphinx, Garbo's expression here is truly mysterious, telling us everything and nothing all at once.

After a lifetime spent subverting tradition, Queen Christina finally does what's expected of her: she finds the man she wants to marry. The only problem is that it's the wrong man as far as everyone from the royal court down to the populace is concerned. When forced to chose between love and power, Christina choses the former, abdicating her throne and exiling herself from her country in order to set off with her lover, Antonio.

However, before Christina and Antonio can sail into the sunset together on his ship, he has some unfinished business with Magnus, one of Christina's former suitors. Antonio finds himself on the losing end of the duel but lives long enough to bid Christina farewell. Having lost everything, Christina sets sail as planned, not knowing what lies in store for her beyond the horizon. As Christina takes her place at the bow of the ship, the camera moves in for an extreme closeup, letting Garbo's perfect face be the final word.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Get Smart (2008)

* * *

Director: Peter Segal
Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway

The TV version of Get Smart was before my time, but it’s one of my dad’s favourite shows so I’m familiar enough with the premise without being attached to the “purity” of the original. Although I enjoyed the film version, I think it falls prey to the same problem found in a lot of TV to movie adaptations, which is that it can’t seem to make up its mind about how to engage the source material. This inherent unevenness is a drag on the film, giving it an uneasy mix of action and comedy.

At the beginning of the film Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is an analyst whose reports run hundreds of pages, detailing seemingly mundane facts that the field agents mock but that the Chief (Alan Arkin) appreciates because it reminds him of old school spy work. Smart wants desperately to be promoted to field agent, but the Chief thinks he’s too valuable as an analyst until a break in at CONTROL headquarters means that the identities of all the field agents have been compromised. In order to stop the latest plot by KAOS, the Chief has no other option but to promote Max to Agent 86 and send him out with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), whose recent plastic surgery means that she’s still viable in the field.

Max and 99 are sent to the Ukraine where agents from KAOS, led by Siegfried (Terrence Stamp), are assembling nuclear weapons that they intend to sell to dictatorships which are hostile towards the US. The plot is set-up well enough, but it’s really the film’s secondary concern. First and foremost the film is about letting Max find new and interesting ways to injure himself, from a mishap with a mini-crossbow to his attempt to slip through a room secured with laser beams. Carell takes these moments in stride, as able at physical as verbal comedy.

When the film is focused on the comedic aspect of the story it’s quite good, but in when it tries to be an action movie it looses its way a little bit. Maybe I’m just difficult to please, but I found myself a little bored by the explosions, high speed chases, and cartoony violence peppered throughout the story. It’s not that it isn’t all well done, it’s just that it’s nothing that I haven’t seen before and I found myself thinking, “Get back to the funny stuff.” Another problem is the romantic storyline between Max and 99. While I know that their relationship is canon as far as the TV series is concerned and formula as far as film construction is concerned, I just didn’t feel any sexual tension between the two which made me believe that they could make the transition from friendly antagonism to love. I think that Carell and Hathaway have good “buddy” chemistry, they just don’t have romantic/sexual chemistry.

Get Smart isn’t an entirely successful movie, but I ultimately feel compelled to give it a pass. I laughed a lot and I think Carell is well cast even if the material sometimes lets him down. If there’s a sequel (and I’m assuming that there will be given the $100 million plus gross), I hope the filmmakers learn from the mistakes of this one and are able to work out some of the kinks.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: The Departed (2006)

* * * *

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson

I need to confess to a bad movie related habit: sometimes it takes me a really (really) long time to get around to seeing a movie that A) I want to see, B) I have every reason to believe I'll like, and C) has been much praised and talked about by others. Part of the reason I started blogging was to break myself of this habit. And so, like Eternal Sunshine... before it, The Departed, is a movie that I've only recently seen, loved and lamented having missed when it first came out.

The Departed begins with Jack Nicholson as mobster Frank Costello and if the openning doesn't remind you of Goodfellas then... you've never seen Goodfellas. However, while Goodfellas begins with the still star-struck narration of the protégée, Departed begins with the weary narration of the mentor. Frank will take Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) under his wing, grooming him to enter the police force and become his spy. Sullivan thrives, rising quickly through the ranks and passing on information to Frank so that he can stay one step ahead of the authorities.

While Colin is a bad guy pretending to be good, there's also a good guy pretending to be bad: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is rising in a different fashion as a cop tapped to infiltrate the mob. Years pass as this cat-and-mouse game is played with Costigan supplying information to Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Sullivan keeping Costello aprised. Both organizations are aware that there's a leak and both Costigan and Sullivan are on edge, under constant threat that the delicate balance of their lives will tip and leave them exposed and in danger. The plot itself is quite delicate insofar as any element revealed too soon would destroy the tension that's been building, but writer William Monahan manages to maintain the balance, keeping the plot from toppling over on itself and also keeping it from growing too heavy. This is a film with a complex plot and a two and a half hour running time, but it clips along at a great pace and that's as much a credit to Monahan as to director Martin Scorsese or editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

DiCaprio and Damon carry the weight of the film and both are able to convery the desperation both men feel. These two characters are in a sense rudderless, their identities so flexible that even they don't always know who they are, but neither actor ever seems lost behind their masks. The performance by DiCaprio is especially moving as Costigan's knowledge that not only is his false identity under constant threat of exposure but that if something were to happen to Queenan and Dignam, he could lose his "real" identity as well, takes a heavy toll on him both physically and mentally. It's a performance which displays a great deal of vulnerability, which you don't often see or expect in this type of movie.

There are many other reasons to see this movie, from the inter-play between Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin (Wahlberg and anyone, actually), to the performance by Nicholson, to the almost comical way that cops keep turning out to be criminals and criminals keep turning out to be cops. It's a great movie, a genre film in the best sense: one that embraces the conventions of the genre but rises above the cliches.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Shake Hands With The Devil (2007)

* * * *

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Roy Dupuis

Canadians love Romeo Dallaire. In the space of about five years, we’ve seen Shake Hands With The Devil the book, the documentary, and now the feature film. It makes me wonder if maybe Dallaire ought to throw his hat into the ring for leadership of the Liberal party, but I suppose that’s another subject entirely. Roger Spottiswoode’s film, adapted from Dallaire’s book, is angry and intense, exploring both the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the psychological effects of bearing witness.

The story begins in 1993, when the two sides of the conflict have agreed to a cease fire and it seems as if an extended period of peace is within reach. The U.N. peacekeepers led by General Dallaire (Roy Dupuis) are cautiously optimistic that a lasting agreement can be made, but it soon becomes apparent that a plot is underway to restart hostilities. The U.N. soldiers have several opportunities to prevent the situation from exploding but each time are given orders not to interfere, to simply stand by as the situation spirals desperately out of control and the slaughter of Tutsis and Hutu moderates begins across the country.

The film has two primary concerns. The first is to demonstrate how, in the name of diplomacy and self-interest, the U.N. left its soldiers impotent in the face of crisis. “If it’s genocide,” Dallaire explains, “they have to do something.” If, however, you call it something else – or ignore it completely – then you have no obligation to intervene. Troops are removed, supplies are too late in arriving, bodies litter the road, all while the U.N. soldiers make do with what little they have to work with and struggle to bring attention to the crisis. The second of the film’s concerns is with the effect that having to stand back and watch people being systematically murdered has on the soldiers. Dallaire himself is represented as being literally haunted by what he sees and by film’s end he recognizes that he’s no longer in any shape to be a part of this particular mission.

The performance by Roy Dupuis is extraordinary. There are so many instances when he could have descended into scenery chewing, but his performance is always restrained and controlled, hinting at Dallaire’s demons rather than hammering them out of the screen and at the audience. As for the film itself, it’s wonderfully assembled. The history of the conflict is complex but the film finds a way to provide a cursory overview of the build-up to the genocide without allowing the story to be burdened with being a mere history lesson. It’s a very well-balanced film, guided with a firm and able hand.

The U.N. doesn’t come out looking particularly good here but it isn’t the sole target of the film’s anger. The focus is actually less on laying blame – there’s far too much to go around to place it squarely on anyone’s shoulders – than on pointing out that hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with the politics of the situation were none the less punished for it. When Dallaire tries to arrange the transport of refugees behind RPF lines, he’s informed that the forces are too busy trying to save the country to concern themselves with refugees. “What is your country?” Dallaire asks, “these hills, those trees, that lake over there?” The people got lost along the way, transformed into symbols and statistics. Shake Hands With The Devil is a brutal film not because the violence it depicts is graphic (it’s pretty tame in that respect) but because the emotional and psychological chords that it strikes are so sensitive. It’s a searing indictment not of any one army or of the U.N. but of humanity in general and the preference for memorializing tragedy instead of preventing it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: Rachel Getting Married (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt

Rachel Getting Married is a film about the three “a”s of family get-togethers: awkwardness, agony, affection. A lot of things go unsaid in the film, and a lot of things are said that perhaps shouldn’t be. It can occasionally be difficult to watch but it really nails the complex and sometimes contradictory dynamics that play out between members of a family. At the centre of it all, Anne Hathaway demonstrates just how much she has matured as an actress.

Hathaway stars as Kym, a woman with deep emotional scars who takes a break from her latest stint in rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Although her reunion with her sister is happy, albeit a bit tentatively, tensions quickly begin to mount. Kym is accustomed to being the centre of attention and can’t bring herself to relinquish it, even on what should be Rachel’s day. This is par for the course as far as Rachel is concerned and there comes a point when she basically accuses Kym of holding the family hostage with her antics. Their father (Bill Irwin) tries to mediate, but makes things worse by seeming (to Rachel, at least) to favour Kym, about whom he is considerably and understandably worried.

Largely absent from the pre-wedding festivities is Rachel and Kym’s mother, Abby (Debra Winger), who even when she is around holds herself at a distance from her children. Her participation in the wedding is slight, even when Rachel tries to gently prod her into becoming more involved, and she remains largely cold and emotionless throughout the proceedings, save for one scene between her and Kym. The way that these three characters interact with each other explains a lot without actually spelling everything out. It’s a prime example of how to show rather than tell.

As Kym, Anna Hathaway really comes into her own as an actress. I’ve always found Hathaway to be a likeable but not particularly memorable actress, but here she renders a performance of incredible depth. There is one scene in particular which stands out for me, when Kym, who has allowed herself to become defined by a family tragedy, asks who she’s supposed to be if she stops being the family’s train wreck. DeWitt is similarly excellent as the frustrated older sister who at one point informs Kym that she wishes she’d either get better or die so that the family can finally be released from her chaos. The relationship between the sisters is fraught but not doomed – beneath all the old resentments that have been built up, there’s genuine affection and a desire for things to be better between them.

To navigate the audience through these relationships director Jonathan Demme uses a handheld camera, which gives the story an intimacy that is occasionally brutal. It should be said though that during the wedding reception scenes it does start to feel a little too much like watching a home movie, and as an audience you start to feel a bit anxious for the story to get moving again. When all is said and done, however, the good far outweighs the bad and this is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The War... On My Sanity

In the space of about a month I saw both Miracle At St. Anna and Passchendaele and found myself facing a conundrum: what I admired about both films was so good that I wanted to recommend them, but what frustrated me about them was bad enough that I just couldn’t bring myself to give either a better than mixed review. My problem with both films is essentially the same. I thought the battle scenes in both were top-notch, but the stories themselves were subpar. Given that a film’s longevity owes less to its theatrical run than to the various formats in which it will be available after it leaves theatres, and keeping in mind that the intensity of battle sequences will be lessened in the translation from big screen to small, my question is this: can a war movie stand on battle scenes alone?

There is no shortage of movies about war and even the worst can generally boast of some level of technical proficiency. For example, Pearl Harbor is an awful movie but it nonetheless possesses some impressive scenes of warfare. The skill displayed in these scenes isn’t particularly surprising because while Michael Bay isn’t good at much, he’s an expert at blowing shit up. However, these scenes are no match for everything which surrounds them, namely a listless romantic triangle, cardboard characters, and inane dialogue, including one line that sent me into a spasm of anger and annoyance (“I think World War II just started,” says Danny in 1941). Given all the bad things about Pearl Harbor, I’ve never felt compelled to see it again, not even for the good things hidden deep within it.

Battle scenes are the showcase of any war movie, but they can’t be the point of those movies. Those which are unsuccessful are the ones which focus all their efforts on staging explosions and firefights and then cobble together a story out of clichés to fill in the blanks. Movies like this rely on a false sense of patriotism to manipulate you into caring about characters who’ve been afforded no depth, who become little more than shallow symbols of what the film claims to be about. If the characters don’t stay with you, if their struggles are forgotten the moment the credits begin to roll, how can the film itself have any value? To borrow a line from a man whose characters have endured centuries and whose battles always took place off stage, these are stories “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The great war movies, the ones which really stand out, are the ones which combine strong battle sequences with compelling stories and characters. Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Downfall, The Big Red One or Lawrence of Arabia are as gripping in their quieter moments as they are during their scenes of combat. While these films aren’t without their flaws they do have something which the two films that inspired this post lack: focus. Movies like Miracle At St. Anna and Passchendaele want to be about everything and in the process of throwing plot threads at the wall to see what will stick, seem to lose their initial purpose. Passchendaele? Not really about the battle for Passchendaele. Miracle At St. Anna? Not really about the massacre at St. Anna. War movies cost a lot of money and the people who make them tend to have very personal reasons for doing so, but they should never become mere vanity projects. The reality they try to invoke and the horrors they revisit are too important and ought to be given more than cursory attention rather than be relegated to an afterthought by a filmmaker too mired in self-importance that he or she fails to recognize the limitations of effective storytelling. I guess what I’m saying is that I want a war movie to be about what it claims to be about because if all I wanted to see was stuff blowing up and limbs being torn off there’s no shortage of mindless action movies made to cater to that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

* * * *

Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan

I see a lot of movies. I’m fortunate that a lot of those movies that I see are also quite good, though it’s still rare for me to see a movie that genuinely makes me feel better about the world around me. As I walked out of Happy-Go-Lucky, I felt really, really happy. It’s as simple as that. This movie enchanted me from its first minute and held me rapt right through to its last.

Happy-Go-Lucky comes from writer/director Mike Leigh and, like most of his films, it unfolds at a natural, life-like pace rather than at a pace driven by plot development. Its focus is more on character than plot, which can make it a little hard to describe but I’ll do my best. Poppy (Sally Hawkins in an absolutely delightful performance) is a perpetual optimist who would like nothing more than to see other people as happy as she herself is. Her upbeat attitude and her willingness to really listen to people make her perfect for her job as a grade school teacher and for her role as unofficial mediator between her two sisters.

At the other end of the spectrum the film gives us Scott (Eddie Marsan), Poppy’s driving instructor. Scott is a dark, angry man, full of prejudices ranging from racism to homophobia to general hatred of every other driver on the road. He and Poppy get off to a rough start immediately when he criticizes her choice of shoes (“I don’t look good in flats,” she explains. “I don’t care how you look,” he replies, already at the limit of his patience) and continue to clash over their very different outlooks on life. At first Poppy simply tries to get Scott to lighten up and then she tries to get him to open up and reveal the roots of his anger. These scenes manage to alternate easily between being funny (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get into a car again without thinking, “En-ra-ha!”), scary and sad. It’s Poppy’s ability to navigate this complex and often volatile relationship that reveals the deeper shades of her character.

The success of this movie depends on the performance by Hawkins. In lesser hands, this character would have been totally insufferable, but Hawkins makes it work. I think the key is that Poppy’s sunny disposition is never made to seem like self-protective delusion or constructed facade; Poppy just is one of those “high on life” kind of people who can’t help but find something to smile about. It’s a winning performance and it’s surrounded on all sides by other great performances. From Marsan as the tightly-wound and obviously wounded driving instructor to Alexis Zegerman as Poppy’s best friend and roommate, the film is populated with very skilled and naturalistic acting.

Mike Leigh’s trademark is that his work comes largely from improvisation, but that isn’t to say that the final product ever lacks control or guidance. The film doesn’t simply meander from adventure to adventure; it has a nice, natural flow as it follows Poppy through various aspects of her life from her job to her driving lessons, from outings with friends and a trip to visit one of her sisters, and a couple of segments which take place in a flamenco class taught by a hilariously passionate instructor. With Leigh steering the story it manages a nice balance of elements and the end result is a film that is charming and compelling.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Great Last Scenes: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Year: 2003
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Great Because...: In a word? Awesome. At least that's the word my friend chose as the credits rolled when we saw this in the theatre. Sure, in some ways its a non-ending ending, but its purpose is not just to close one movie, but also to lead into another and it does that in an incredibly effective way.

So here's what we get at the end of Volume 1: after winning an epic battle with O-Ren Ishii, The Bride uses minor league henchman Sofie Fatale to convey a message to Bill: I'm coming, get ready.

We then cut to The Bride on a plane, making her Death List. With each name she puts down, we get a shot of that particular enemy with one exception: Bill. The man himself remains out of sight to the very end, a voice which nonetheless manages to create a presence in the film that it hard to escape. For all the intensity of the rest of the movie, I don't think there's any moment more frought with tension than when Bill walks up behind a disfigured Sofie, puts his hands on her shoulders and laments what has become of his "beautiful and brilliant Sofie."

And then of course there's the big moment, when Bill asks Sofie whether The Bride is aware that her daughter is alive. It is a brilliant moment, played to perfection. How could you not want to see Volume 2 after this?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Passchendaele (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Paul Gross
Starring: Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Dinicol

Passchendaele is a better movie than I thought it would be - but now would probably be an appropriate time to mention that when I saw the trailer for it, the first movie it made me think of was Pearl Harbor, so there was really nowhere to go but up. I'm really torn about this movie, which is so good in some respects, but so disappointing in others.

Paul Gross stars (and writes and directs and produces) as Michael Dunne, a shell shocked sergeant sent back to the homefront to recover and act as a recruiting agent. He develops a connection with a nurse, Sarah (Caroline Dhavernas), which inspires him to make it his job to ensure that her asthmatic brother, David (Joe Dinicol), is unable to enlist and go overseas. However, David is involved in a relationship with the daughter of the local doctor, who sees an opportunity to rid himself of an unsuitable suitor by giving him the clean bill of health he needs to get into uniform. When David goes over, Dunne finagles his way back to the front to keep an eye on him. Both men are amongst those sent to take Passchendaele in a bloody, muddy and, as the note at the end of the film reminds us, ultimately futile battle.

There's some good stuff here, but I'm not sure that it belongs all together in one movie. The battle scenes are outstanding, especially when the firefight at Passchendaele degenerates into hand-to-hand combat, a scene which underscores just how insane the whole concept of war really is. The chaos of the battle scenes combined with scenes in which military higher-ups are attempting to strategize while shells are blowing out the walls of their command centre, make for the film's strongest sequence. I would have liked to see more of this movie but, despite the title, the battle for Passchendaele doesn't actually occupy that much of the story.

In the homefront section of the story there are a couple of plot threads which have potential but aren't fully and satisfactorily explored. I liked that the film used Sarah and David to touch on a very real offshoot of warfare, which is the overzealous patriotism and xenophobia that can lead to people turning on their neighbors. Sarah and David are of German descent and at the war's outset their father broke with the family to fight on the German side. Even though they've denounced their father's actions, their house is vandalized, they're treated with scorn by their neighbors, and there's the vague threat that they'll end up in an internment camp. This is the sort of thing that actually happened and I wish that the film had explored it more deeply rather than folding it in as a plot contrivance. There's another thread (even more briefly touched on) which has to do with Sarah's addiction to morphine, something not unheard of amongst WWI nurses and doctors.

If I had to pinpoint my exact problem with this movie, I suppose it would be this: while I have no issue with Gross' acting or direction, I really wish that he had given someone else a pass at writing the screenplay, which is just so heavy-handed. I'm a little reluctant to rag on this because I know that this film was a labor of love for him, but when you produce, write and direct a movie in which you cast yourself as a character that is none too subtly equated with Jesus - complete with a trek across the battlefield while wounded and carrying a cross - it does start to feel like you kind of need to get over yourself and when you make the audience feel that way, it really deflates the impact of the final moments. For my part, when the film reached its conclusion I didn't feel sad as much as I did annoyed at the fact that instead of Passchendaele a more appropriate title would have been The Passion of Paul Gross.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Alphabet Meme

Rachel from Rachel's Reel Reviews tagged me for the meme started by Fletch over at Blog Cabins. The rules are simple: pick your favourite film for each letter of the alphabet. For me A, B, M and O were the toughest to whittle down, while Q, X, Y, Z were tough for the exact opposite reason. Here's the full list:

Annie Hall
Bonnie and Clyde
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Godfather, The
I Heart Huckabees
Jackie Brown
Kill Bill, Volume 2
Last Picture Show, The
Once Upon A Time In The West
Purple Rose of Cairo, The
Quiz Show
Raging Bull
Sunset Boulevard
Third Man, The
Untergand, Der
Very Long Engagement, A
Waiting For Guffman
Year of Living Dangerously, The

... and I'll tag:

Mad Hatter at The Dark of The Matinee
Alex at Film Forager
Ibetolis at Film For The Soul
Anh Khoi Do at Anh Koi Do and Movies

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Review: Persona (1966)

* * * *

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson

Continuing on yesterday’s theme, today I’m focusing on another Bergman classic: Persona. Like The Seventh Seal, this is a deeply psychological film concerned with heavy and ultimately unanswerable questions. However, this isn’t simply an academic exercise, it’s also a totally enthralling film. Long story short: I can’t wait to see more Bergman. Short story long:

Liv Ullmann stars as Elisabet Vogler, a famed actress who has suddenly, and without explanation, stopped speaking. Her doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests that she and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), spend some time at her summer home, hoping that the seclusion will help draw Elisabet out of herself again. However, the more time that Elisabet and Alma spend together in isolation, the more Alma is drawn out and, perhaps, into Elisabet. Elisabet remains silent, watching, listening, as Alma talks about herself, revealing deeply personal secrets, exposing herself completely.

In a letter to the psychiatrist, Elisabet confesses that she’s studying Alma – “devouring” might be a better word. There’s something vampiric about the way she relates to Alma, taking in Alma’s words while giving up none of her own. The two women are slowly becoming one, merging into each other. There is a scene which plays twice in which Alma exposes Elisabet’s greatest secret: the disdain she feels for her own son. During the first reading of this monologue, the camera focuses exclusively on Ullmann listening. During the second, it focuses on Andersson as she watches Ullmann’s reaction. And then there is a scene where the two faces are literally merged into one.

The quest in Persona is to find an authentic voice. Elisabet is an actress who is constantly taking on roles, immersing herself in artificial personas even in her personal life. Her decision to have a child, for example, is borne not of desire for a child, but in response to a challenge when it is suggested that the role of “mother” is one for which she is not suited. She is accustomed to wearing many masks, but knows that none of them are genuine and her sudden voicelessness is a direct result of her realization that the falseness of her words and actions make them meaningless in the face of real crises in the world. She lacks substance because she can become anyone and has no “self” to act as an anchor. Isolated with Alma, she does not attempt to become her but manages instead to absorb her, seeming to take the other woman completely into her consciousness.

In discussing these elements I’m only scratching the surface of what the film has to offer. Persona is a film very much open to interpretation and multiple readings, which makes it both fascinating and a little infuriating. On a technical level I’m completely enamoured with the way that Bergman constructs his shots, often using the actresses to frame each other, blocking scenes so that the profile of one is cutting off the other, so that the two actresses seem to occupy the same space at the same time. The ways that Bergman finds to visually express the idea of identity leave a lasting impression, as do the performances by Ullmann and Andersson, one so strongly silent and the other excessively vocal.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Review: The Seventh Seal (1957)

* * * *

Director: Igmar Bergman
Starring: Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Bjornstrand

I suppose I can now officially call myself a cinephile without hesitation because I’ve finally seen a film by Ingmar Bergman (two, actually, but more on that tomorrow). I wasn’t entirely clear beforehand about the plot of The Seventh Seal, although I knew that it featured a game of chess between a Crusader and Death and that I should be prepared for plenty of symbolism and meditation on the existence of God. What I wasn’t prepared for was how engaging this film would be, how easy it would be to lose myself in it.

The first scene is stark and bizarre, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), are sleeping on a beach. They have been away from home for a long time, fighting in the Crusades, and now Antonius has begun to question the existence of God. A man shows up on the beach and Antonius recognizes him as Death (Bengt Ekerot). He asks Death to join him in a game of chess, reasoning that as long as they’re playing, he remains alive to seek the answers to his questions about God. Elsewhere a trio of performers is also waking and preparing to continue their journey to the next village where they will perform. One of the performers, Jof (Nils Poppe), has an otherworldly encounter of his own, convinced that he’s seen the Virgin Mary crossing the field in the distance.

The Crusaders and the performers will cross paths in a village where the plague is taking a heavy toll and religious fervour dominates. The first real demonstration of this religious fervour actually interrupts the scene being played out by the performers, who find themselves transformed into members of the audience in mid-performance as the fanatics come moaning and flagellating themselves through the square. Religion figures in the film as performance, as something superficial and devoid of meaning when compared to the genuine anguish felt by Antonius and the serious questions he is asking.

Shortly after this religious demonstration, the performers opt to join the Crusaders as they carry on their way, travelling through the woods towards Antonius’ castle. The group is followed all the way by Death, who assures Antonius that time is running out not just for him but for everyone, including a girl from the village who will be burnt at the stake because the authorities are convinced that she has been in contact with the devil.

From a technical standpoint, the frequency of close-ups and the composition of certain shots reminded me a lot of The Passion of Joan of Ark, which also explores questions of religious fervour. However, the film is in no way derivative. It is distinct and original and totally absorbing. As Antonius and Death, von Sydow and Ekerot are probably the film’s most recognizable figures, but my favourite performance belongs to Bjornstrand. As the squire, Bjornstrand acts as a counterpoint to Antonius: where Antonius represents the high, Jons represents the low; where Antonius has questions, Jons is always ready with answers – though even he admits that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he says as much as he just loves having something to say, which is a good thing since he has some of the film’s most memorable lines. I think the performance by Bjornstrand is one of the reasons the film is so accessible even though it’s so heavy with symbolism and existential questions.