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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Review: Atonement

This is one of the most moving films I've seen all year. Well-crafted, well-acted, beautiful to look at, and featuring a fantastic score, this film worked for me on every level. Easily one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen, this is a film that I absolutely loved it from beginning to end.

The fim is faithful to the book on which it is based not just in terms of the plot, but also in the way that the story is told, going back and forth, splintering between one perspective and another.It begins with Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan), a thirteen-year-old girl who is too smart for her age, and not mature enough for her intelligence. She tells a lie which results in the separation of her sister, Cecelia (Keira Knightley) from Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of their family's housekeeper, when Robbie is taken away to prison. There are a few reasons why she tells the lie, all of which feed into each other. First, she's seen a few things during the day that have gone on between Robbie and Cecelia (an incident at a fountain, a letter mistakenly sent, a tryst in the library) that she doesn't really understand, though she believes that she does. What Briony is lacking is the ability to really discern the context in which she is seeing these things and so rather than seeing the various shades of gray, all she sees is black and white.

Second, Briony has a crush on Robbie and is obviously jealous of what she sees transpiring between himself and Cecelia. If Robbie isn't going to be Briony's hero (and Briony's alone), then she will make him into the villain. Third, and perhaps most important, is the fact that Briony is an aspring writer and sees the situation as a story for herself to guide. The problem is, she lacks the maturity to guide it properly (i.e. honestly) and doesn't seem to understand the consequences of what she's doing, the fact that once “written,” her conclusion cannot be erased.

The early scenes establish Briony perfectly. Despite her age, she obviously considers herself very grown up, already thinking of herself as a Capital A artist as she completes the play she hopes that she and her cousins will perform that evening. Part of the reason why she begins developping her “Robbie is a sex maniac” story is to gain the upperhand on her cousin, Lola who, like herself, is young but attempts to behave and carry herself as if she's older. Being the story teller gives Briony power and allows her to play at being more grown up than she is.

Following Robbie's arrest, the story jumps ahead four years, to when he's a soldier in France, Cecelia is a nurse, and Briony (now played by Ramola Gari) is training to become a nurse and finally beginning to grasp the nature of what she's done. She wants to make amends, even though she suspects that it's too late. These scenes are also effective, conveying a different side of Briony, as she begins to see herself as we see her in the first act of the film. The end of the film, where Briony is played by Vanessa Redgrave, is heartbreaking on a number of levels, not only because we know what becomes of Robbie and Cecelia, but also because we know how deeply Briony regrets what she's done, how much she wants to take it back, how greatly she's punished herself for it, and how much it has come to define her life.

Although this is Briony's story, the central character is actually Robbie; and although Briony is the character who must atone for what she's done, the atonement of the title can also be seen as referring to Robbie, who is the Christ figure of the story and will suffer for Briony's sin. One of the more obvious visual allusions for this is when Robbie, ill from an infected wound (his wound, too, can be read as an allusion to Christ) and having walked a long distance to the beach of Dunkirk, hallucinates that his mother is washing his feet. This scene comes towards the end of the film, shortly after a tracking shot that lasts nearly five minutes and can only be described as epic. The shot follows Robbie and his two companions across the beach at Dunkirk, where thousands of other soldiers are waiting to be evacuated. In the background there's a ferris wheel turning, in the foreground we see the various ways that the other soldiers are killing time, including a group that's gathered to sing as a choir, a handful who are playing around on a carousel, and the unlucky ones who have to shoot the horses that won't be transported back. All the scenes of Robbie in France are great, but this shot is particularly beautiful, one of the most memorable ever to grace the screen. It should also be noted that it was apparently accomplished without the use of CGI.

This is an incredibly engaging film, one that brings you right in rather than holding you at arm's length. By the end, I found myself emotionally exhausted, the ending able to move me even though, having read the book, I knew what was coming. It is rare in my experience to see a film that so exactly evoke its source material right down to the minute details (the best example I can think of is the tryst in the library. See the film then read that section of the book: it is exactly the same, right down to the way Cecelia turns her head) without the source seeming almost like a crutch, like the filmmaker was so in love with the way it was originally written that he or she can't bear to make a change that would otherwise soften the transition from page to screen. Atonement the film manages to exist in its own right, becoming its own entity separate and apart from the book even while staying faithful to the book. This is an absolutely excellent film.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has all the hallmarks of a Tim Burton film: it’s visually stunning, it’s dark and ghoulish, and centers on an outsider. It’s also curiously soulless and kind of disappointing. There’s a lot of dramatic material that could be mined here, but it’s all glossed over and the result is a film that is lacking in depth.

Sweeney Todd is probably the goriest musical you’ll ever see - it’s actually more like a horror movie that happens to have music in it. As for the music, I enjoyed the numbers “A Little Priest,” where Todd (Johnny Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) devise their plan to turn the residents of Fleet Street into meat pies, “By The Sea,” where Mrs. Lovett imagines herself and Todd getting married and going to a sea-side resort, and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” which sees Todd pitting himself against rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Coen); but otherwise found myself fairly indifferent to the soundtrack. Admittedly, this isn’t meant to be a toe-tapping, sing-along musical, but I do find that musicals, by and large, are more effective when the songs move you as you’re watching the film, and stay with you after you’ve left the theatre.

I think my problem with the film is that I didn’t believe in the characters’ relationships with each other. It’s hard to really grasp the full tragic potential of the last act when you don’t really believe in the characters feelings about it. After being falsely imprisoned in Australia, Todd returns to London to exact revenge on the man who sent him away, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), and supposedly to avenge his wife and daughter, both of whom Turpin has ill-used. However, Todd seems more intent on punishing Turpin than on rescuing his daughter, obsessing more on when he’ll get to kill the former, than on wondering about the safety of the latter. I know that the point of the story is that Todd is so blinded by hate that he can’t see the bigger picture, but we have to first believe in his adoration of Lucy and Johanna before we can feel the force of the tragedy he brings about when he finally gets his revenge. Johnny Depp does what he can with the role, but the film ultimately limits it to one dimension. Sweeney Todd is angry. Sweeney Todd will have vengeance. Sweeney Todd is ridiculously self-centered and kind of tiresome.

Mrs. Lovett, as played by Helena Bonham-Carter, fairs a little bit better. Bonham-Carter brings a shade of humanity to the role, especially in scenes with Toby (Ed Sanders), the ward she takes in. She’s just as bad as Todd in terms of murderous misdeeds, but she still comes across as sympathetic. It’s perhaps because Bonham-Carter is allowed to play her character at various levels – she gets to be happy and sad, devious and regretful, lonely and later fulfilled in a pseudo-familial relationship with Todd and Toby – while Depp is limited to playing Todd as bitter/angry throughout, that she seems to come out better. Sacha Baron Coen is also good, adding a brief burst of color and life to the dark and drab world of the film, before becoming the first victim of Sweeney Todd’s blade.

Visually speaking, the movie is very effective. If there’s one thing you can say about Tim Burton, it’s that he fully conceptualizes his worlds before committing them to film. His vision of London is dark, full of dirty, narrow streets where vermin run free. There’s a running visual motif of Todd not being able to see clearly through glass – his mirror is broken, the windows of the shop are dirty and make the people outside look blurry – it’s the visual representation of his being blinded by fury. But, again, it lacks depth. It’s there, but it isn’t explored. There’s a lot of subtext to this story – the residents of Fleet Street avoid Mrs. Lovett’s shop until she starts baking her pies with her new secret ingredient; it literally demonstrates the figurative concept that not only are people willing to eat their own, they secretly want to – but it just lies there underneath the story, touched on then forgotten.

All that being said, Sweeney Todd isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just not the movie that it could have been. It’s mostly entertaining, it’s just not very filling – a snack rather than a feast.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Canadian Film Review: Away From Her (2007)

Director: Sarah Polley
Starring: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis

This is quite simply a fantastic film, and one that treats its characters with a lot more respect than the vast majority of films. Consider how often characters in their sixties are allowed to be the focal point of films, and consider also that though those characters may be allowed to be in love, rarely is enough consideration given them that they’re allowed to feel lust. This is a story that knows that life carries on beyond the age of forty and that feelings don’t become fossilized and forgotten and die away in later age. That the film is guided by the hand of a 27-year-old director is astounding.

The film is adapted from a short story by Alice Munro called The Bear Came Over The Mountain and is true to the original without relying on viewer’s having read it to provide depth to the film. The movie is very carefully paced, allowing us to get to know the characters and get some sense of the history that exists between them. The film also makes excellent use of the surrounding landscape, using it to complement the development of the story and the characters. Most of the film takes place during the winter, literally taking place around Christmas time, and figuratively taking place during the winter of Fiona (Christie) and Grant’s (Pinsent) life together. There are moments when the landscape is so vast and blank with snow that we get a sense of the loneliness that these two people, torn apart from each other by nature, must be feeling.

This is a film without pretence. It doesn’t pretend that a marriage that has survived for some forty years has done so easily or without obstacles. It is established fairly early that Grant used to have a roving eye, that Fiona forgave him and they managed to make the marriage work afterwards – which, of course, doesn’t mean that the business was ever forgotten. After Fiona is checked into a care facility and develops an attachment to another patient, Grant wonders if perhaps she’s just playing a game with him, punishing him for the affairs that he had in the past. Later, in a conversation with a nurse who has become a confidante, he remarks that in spite of their problems, things were never that bad. She replies (in what is one of the best scenes in the film) that in her experience, it’s always the husbands who think things were never that bad, and wonders if the wives would agree.

The performances in the film are excellent across the board. Olympia Dukakis, as the wife of the patient Fiona develops a relationship with, brings a wonderful mixture of stability and fragility to her character. There’s a scene where she leaves a message on Grant's machine, asking him out on what is officially not a date, even though it kind of is a date, and then sits alone in her kitchen waiting for him to call her back. Her loneliness is tangible, and Dukakis plays it without vanity. She has no illusions about her life or the potential of a relationship with Grant. She’s informed by a lifetime of experience, and she’s entering on this new adventure with clear eyes. It’s a brave performance, playing as she does a character who could easily veer into being pathetic, but never does. Dukakis brings a solidity to her that helps ground the film.

Christie is wonderful as Fiona, and absolutely deserves all the praise she’s gotten. There are scenes where she doesn’t speak, but simply looks at her surroundings and we sense her grasping for understanding even as she disappears deeper and deeper into herself. The performance is never showy and never rings false. However, for me, it’s Pinsent who really carries the film. He spends much of the film in denial – convinced that she’s just forgetful, convinced that she’ll only be in the care facility for a short time, convinced that she’ll get better – and then slowly comes to accept things for being the way that they are. We know that he’s behaved badly in his marriage, but we also believe that he cares about Fiona’s happiness. When he first approaches the Dukakis character at the beginning of the film, we think maybe that he’s come to ask her to remove her husband from the facility. Later, we find that she’s already done that and Grant has come to request that she put him back in, because Fiona is depressed without his company. Grant is jealous of the relationship, but willing to encourage it if it will help keep Fiona from getting sicker. Like Christie, Pinsent never rings a false note and it’s a shame that he’s been largely ignored in favour of his co-star.

This really is a great character film, one in which people are allowed to speak and interact with each other in ways that feel utterly natural. The acting is great and the direction is solid and sure-footed. Polley will have a lot to live up to, should she decide to step behind the camera again. Here’s hoping that she does.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Awards Watch: Toronto and Austin

Critics out of Toronto and Austin announced their picks today. Both groups diverged from most of the other critics groups in a couple of categories, most notably Best Actor, for Toronto, and Best Supporting Actress for Austin. In the Best Actress race, Ellen Page is picking up steam and giving Julie Christie a run for her money.

Toronto Film Critics

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her) and Ellen Page (Juno)
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Screenplay: No Country For Old Men
Best Foreign Language Film: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Best Documentary Feature: No End In Sight
Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille

Austin Film Critics

Best Picture: There Will Be Blood
Best Director: P.T. Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Ellen Page (Juno)
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney (Juno)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Original Screenplay: Juno
Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men
Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille
Best Foreign Language Film: Black Book
Best Documentary Feature: King of Kong

Monday, December 17, 2007

Awards Watch: Southeastern Film Critics & Dallas Fort Worth Film Critics

Two more critics groups announced today, with the usual suspects coming out on top (although Dallas-Fort Worth did go against the grain in their Supporting Actress selection, a pleasant surprise).

Southeastern Film Critics

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Original Screenplay: Juno
Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men
Best Foreign Language Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Best Documentary Feature: No End In Sight
Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille

Dallas Fort Worth Critics Awards

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Screenplay: Juno
Best Animated Feature: Ratatouille
Best Cinematography: The Assassination of Jesse James…

Friday, December 14, 2007

Canadian Film Review: When Night Is Falling (1995)

Director: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Pascale Bussieres, Rachael Crawford, Henry Czerny, David Fox

This is a film that I really like even though I know that objectively, it falls just short of being good. It’s well-acted and gracefully directed, but the content just doesn’t quite measure up, resulting in the good stuff being dragged down by the bad stuff. However, there’s enough good stuff that I never notice the bad while I’m watching, and only tend to think about it afterwards.

The film centers on Camille (Bussieres), a professor of mythology at a Christian university. She's engaged to Martin (Czerney), and one day meets Petra (Crawford) in a laundromat. Later, she discovers that their clothes have been switched (not accidentally, as we know, though Camille does not), and soon Petra is pursuing Camille, who pushes her away with one hand while pulling her closer with the other.

One of the things I like about the film is that it actively engages with religious ideas. Camille’s conflict isn’t “am I gay or am I straight?” as it is in a lot of similar films; her conflict is in trying to find a balance between what she feels for Petra, and the religious ideals that she’s always held. This aspect of the story rests heavily on the scenes between Camille and Reverend DeBoer (Fox), a character I always find myself wishing that we got to see just a little bit more of. He’s not your typical depiction of Christian authority. He disapproves of Camille’s relationship with Petra, but he doesn’t denounce her for it. There’s some slight suggestion that Reverend DeBoer himself might be gay. “People like you” is a phrase that is said twice in the film. The first time is at the beginning of the film, when Camille asks Petra if “people like [her] have friends.” The second time is towards the end, when Revered DeBoer tells Camille that maybe the Church has been unfair to “people like [her].” Is he just more liberal than his post would suggest, or is he so gentle and understanding with her because he really does understand where she’s coming from with regards to her feelings and her religion?

Aside from religious issues, there are also issues of race. Petra is black, Camille is white. This fact never arises between them, nor is it commented on by other characters in the film. On the one hand, this is good because the interracial aspect of their relationship shouldn’t be a big deal. However, subtextually there is some commentary on this aspect of their relationship which is troubling. Petra is a circus performer, a fact which has negative connotations all around. The chemistry between the two actress – and, for that matter, between their characters – is strong enough that it’s unnecessary to exoticize Petra in this way. Also troubling is a scene where DeBoer finds Petra and Camille together and Camille describes Petra as “a street kid.” Petra is no more a kid than Camille, and certainly doesn’t look like a street person. There are any number of ways that Camille could have explained Petra’s presence in her apartment, and the fact that her mind went straight to “street kid” is telling about how deeply she feels that this relationship is taboo.

The chemistry between the two actresses is very good, and so is the development of their two characters. In the beginning, Camille is tentative and guarded, and then begins to let go and open up. Petra when she’s in pursuit of Camille is quite aggressive (not in a bad way, just in a way that her intentions are quite clear), but becomes more guarded as the relationship progresses, afraid that she’s allowed herself to feel too much for Camille when there’s a chance that Camille might stay with Martin. The ways in which they dance towards and away from each other ring very true, though the film lets us know fairly early that there will be a happy ending for Camille and Petra. Consider the two sex scenes, one between Camille and Martin, the other between Camille and Petra. The scene with Martin takes place in the dark, and the sex is energetic but emotionless, and we know that Camille is thinking of Petra. The scene with Petra takes place in the light, is softer and slower, and intercut with shots of two gymnasts performing a high-wire act (as an aside I must admit that seeing the film again recently I was distracted during this scene by the realization that Rachael Crawford must have had a “no nipples” clause in her contract, given the lengths the film goes to not to show them). Camille’s connection to Petra runs far deeper and we know, even if Petra doesn’t, that Camille will choose her.

There are a lot of things about this movie that I feel I can defend, but there’s one thing that occurs at the end that always takes me right out of the movie. Camille’s dog dies at the beginning of the story. At the end, after she’s buried him in the woods, he crawls out of his grave and takes off running. The film begins with Camille giving a lecture on the mythological trope of humans transforming into animals and vice versa. It ends with Camille running away with Petra (and the circus), and the dog running away to… wherever. You could argue that this scene is symbolic of Camille breaking free, that the dead dog coming back to life is symbolic of Camille’s soul or something, but even as symbolism, the scene seems misplaced.

That being said, this is a film that is very watchable from start to finish, and one that stands up against multiple viewings despite it’s problems.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Awards Watch: Chicago Critics and Golden Globes Announce

The Chicago Film Critics revealed their picks today, going against the grain in a couple of places. Today also saw the announcement of the Golden Globe nominees, with Atonement leading the pack and yet another demonstration of why the "Musical or Comedy" categories are ill-conceived. To wit, the nominees for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy:

Amy Adams (Enchanted)
Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray)
Helena Bonham-Carter (Sweeney Todd)
Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)
Ellen Page (Juno)

... one of these things is not like the others.

Chicago Film Critics Awards

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Julie Ellen Page (Juno)
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Original Screenplay: Juno
Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men
Best Foreign Language Film: The 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Best Documentary Feature: Sicko

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Awards Watch: San Fransisco Critics Announce

The San Fransisco Film Critics weighed in today. A few of their choices are surprising (Picture, Adapted Screenplay), and a few are in keeping with the choices of their critical brethren (Actress, Supporting Actress). Their picks:

Best Picture: The Assassination of Jesse James…
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: George Clooney (Michael Clayton)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone)
Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James…)
Best Original Screenplay: The Savages
Best Adapted Screenplay: Away From Her
Best Foreign Language Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Best Documentary Feature: No End In Sight

The Broadcast Film Critics also announced their nominees today, with Into The Wild leading the pack.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Awards Watch: New York and Washington Critics Announce

New York Film Critics Circle, Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, and the New York Film Critics Online have released their picks. Looking at critics picks from across the board, There Will Be Blood and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are giving No Country For Old Men a run for its money as Best Picture, Julie Christie is emerging as the frontrunner for Best Actress and Amy Ryan is absolutely dominating the Supporting Actress race.

New York Film Critics Circle Awards

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Screenplay: No Country For Old Men
Best Foreign Language Film: The Lives of Others
Best Animated Film: Persepolis
Best Documentary Feature: No End In Sight

Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
Best Director: Ethan and Joel Coen (No Country For Old Men)
Best Actor: George Clooney (Michael Clayton)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Original Screenplay: Juno
Best Adapted Screenplay: Charlie Wilson’s War
Best Foreign Language Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Best Animated Film: Ratatouille
Best Documentary Feature: Sicko

New York Film Critics Online

Best Picture: There Will Be Blood and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (tie)
Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)
Best Screenplay: The Darjeeling Limited
Best Foreign Language Film: The Lives of Others and Persepolis (tie)
Best Animated Film: Persepolis
Best Documentary Feature: Sicko

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Awards Watch: Boston and L.A. Critics Announce

Today the film critics in Boston and Los Angeles announced their picks for the best of the year. Between these two and the National Board of Review, which announced on Wednesday, it's shaping up to be a diverse year in terms of winners. Their picks:

Los Angeles Film Critics Association

Best Picture: There Will Be Blood
Runner Up: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Runner Up: Julian Schnable (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Runner Up: Frank Langella (Starting Out In The Evening)

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)
Runner Up: Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead)
Runner Up: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There)

Best Supporting Actor: Vlad Ivanov (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)
Runner Up: Hal Holbrook (Into The Wild)

Best Screenplay: The Savages
Runner Up: There Will Be Blood

Best Foreign Language Film: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Runner Up: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Animated Film: Persepolis and Ratatouille (tie)

Best Documentary Feature: No End In Sight
Runner Up: Sicko

Boston Society of Film Critics

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men

Best Director: Julian Schnable (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

Best Actor: Frank Langella (Starting Out In The Evening)

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby)

Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men)

Best Screenplay: Ratatouille

Best Foreign Language Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Documentary Feature: Crazy Love

National Board of Review

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men

Best Director: Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd...)

Best Actor: George Clooney (Michael Clayton)

Best Actress: Julie Christie (Away From Her)

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby)

Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James...)

Best Original Screenplay: Juno and Lars and the Real Girl (tie)

Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men

Best Animated Film: Ratatouille

Best Foreign Language Film: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Best Documentary Feature: Body of War

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Review: Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

This is a fantastic film. Tightly plotted, well acted, and compelling, this is easily one of the best films of the year – and in a year full of great movies, that’s really saying something. It’s a crime film, but one that’s less concerned about the crime than it is with the consequences of it. The two perpetrators, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), don’t just spend the movie trying to get away with it; they also contend with their remorse and regret for having done it in the first place.

Hoffman and Hawke play brothers – which might not sound believable on paper, but in the film it works. In their conversations leading up to and following the crime, you get a feel for the history that exists between them. You believe that Hank would let Andy talk him into the heist because you get the sense that all their lives, Andy has been coming up with ideas and getting Hank to follow through on them for him. There’s a very natural older sibling/younger sibling dynamic at play between them.

The plot itself – two people need money, they plan a crime, something goes wrong, and mayhem ensues in the attempt to cover it up – is standard, but the way that director Sidney Lumet presents it is not. We follow a character towards a plot point, reach it, and then the film doubles back to go towards that point again from a different perspective. The narrative structure is one of the film’s many strengths because we see things from every angle, and it allows the film to focus less on the crime itself than on the people who have to live with its fallout.

The performances in this film are excellent, especially those of Hoffman and Hawke. Hank is a guy who just can’t seem to get it together, who owes his ex-wife (Amy Ryan who between this film and Gone, Baby, Gone could carve out a nice niche for herself as women with chips on their shoulders) three months of child support, and his inability to pay for his daughter’s field trip leads her to declare him a “loser.” There’s an assumption on Andy’s part that Hank was always the favourite of their parents, though their father (Albert Finney) disdainfully declares that Hank has always been “such a baby.” Desperation surrounds Hank: he’s desperate to pay off his debts, he’s desperate to do something with his life, but mostly he’s desperate for love.

While Hank is a character who seems to have already lost control of his life before the film begins, Andy is a character who seems much more controlled, though in reality his life is just as chaotic. His marriage to his wife, Gina (Marissa Tomei) is troubled, the IRS is about to catch up with him for embezzling from his company, and he has a drug addiction that seems to have taken over his life (there is a scene early in the film where Andy cuts up some cocaine and emits a long sigh. This, too, has become a routine chore in his life). While Hank looks scruffy and nervous, Andy is cool and calm, his hair always perfectly slicked back. When he lets out his frustrations at home, he doesn’t manically trash the place but instead methodically goes through the house displacing things, going through the motions of anger that he doesn’t quite want himself to feel because he might not be able to control it.

As I said before, this is a crime film, but it isn’t an action film. This film takes its time, it slows the action down, distils it. We listen to the characters talk and sometimes we simply follow them through rooms, getting a feel for their lives. We understand their relationships with each other. One of the more interesting aspects of the film, to me, is that both brothers assume that it’s Hank, the perpetual screw up, who will do something to blow their cover. However, it’s something that Andy does which brings about the final scene and an act that falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill.

See this movie. I can’t recommend it enough.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Garbo (2005)

Directors:Christopher Bird, Kevin Brownlow

This documentary produced by Turner Classic Movies is a nice companion to the collection as a whole. It doesn’t tell us much about Garbo’s life (we do get tidbits here and there), but instead focuses on how the Garbo legend was created and took on a life of its own, and why we still remain interested nearly 20 years after her death, and some 60 years after her retirement from the screen.

The film opens with grainy footage of Garbo crossing a street in New York. Immediately we feel distanced from her, like we’re spying. This first shot sets the tone for the rest of the film: we aren’t being let into Garbo’s life; we’re intruding on it. We never really get a sense of her personal life. There’s some discussion of her relationship with John Gilbert, but only in broad strokes. The film doesn’t go into details about it, but rather demonstrates how it was used to help propel Garbo into stardom and establish MGM as the studio of the stars (Garbo became a bona fide star following Flesh and the Devil. She and Gilbert then starred together in a silent version of Anna Karenina, which MGM renamed Love so that the title credit would read “Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Love,” thus capitalizing on the relationship).

The most interesting thing about the film is the way it dissects and disabuses the myth that Garbo was reclusive in her later years. She didn’t like being hounded for pictures and autographs, but she wasn’t exactly a homebody either – every day she was out in New York walking and shopping, and she travelled around the world. This section of the film also discusses her reasons for leaving Hollywood, which in reality aren’t quite as simple as her growing tired of being a movie star and living the Hollywood lifestyle. Around the time she started making movies like Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, Conquest and Camille - films which have a distinctly European flavour – her popularity domestically began to wane, and profit from her films came mostly from overseas. At the time of her retirement, 1941, there was of course a war going on overseas which would naturally take its toll on her ability to draw the audience. The plan, as this film sets out, was for her to pull out of her contract and wait out the war and then return to the screen. But, the war ended and the work just wasn’t there for her afterwards. She did make one screen test after the war but it came to nothing, which is a shame judging from the footage, which is included in the film. She still had it, that thing that makes her so watchable, and she still wanted to make movies. It’s a shame that the movies decided they didn’t want her anymore.

All in all, this is a very interesting film and worth checking out for any Garbo fan, as it’s loaded with clips spanning her entire career and clips from an interview with Clarence Brown, director of several of her films, goes into fairly great detail about the way that Garbo worked and built her performances. If what you’re looking for is an in depth discussion of her personal life… well, you’re out of luck, especially in terms of her relationships with women - which the film all but refutes, briefly bringing up the possibility then quickly pushing it aside by asserting that her most important relationships were with men. But, like I said, this isn’t a biography of Garbo, it’s an examination of the conflict between Garbo the person and Garbo the star, and a look at how she became a star, and why she remained one long after leaving the screen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Ninotchka (1939)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Also Starring: Melvyn Douglas

Ninotchka, Garbo’s first forray into romantic comedy (the second, and last, was the disasterous Two Faced Woman, her final film), was advertised with the tagline, “Garbo Laughs!” as if the act of laughing was unusual for her. The fact is, Garbo laughed in all of her films, even in tragedies like Camille and Anna Karenina. But this is the first time she made us laugh and it was the first time she was able to demonstrate her considerable comic timing. This is a terrific film, easily the lightest and happiest of any Garbo ever made.

There are two Ninotchkas in the film. The first is the Ninotchka who is sent by the Soviet Union to Paris. She’s cold and analytical (she’s like a Garbot, and I mean that in the most complimentary way) and has no use for frivolity, only function. The second Ninotchka, the one who returns to the Soviet Union from Paris, is warmer, more human, still able to distinguish the silly from the serious, but finally able to embrace it. The transition is officially marked by the purchase of a hat. On seeing it for the first time, Ninotchka shakes her head in dismay, declaring that any society that would allow women to wear hats like it are not long for this world. Later, after having fallen in love and had some fun, we find out that she’s bought the hat. She tries it on and looks happy. And then she looks sad because she knows that after her experiences in Paris, she’ll never be able to look at her life in the Soviet Union the same way again.

The film is a little strange in terms of how it views the Soviet Union, given that it was made well before the Cold War and the McCarthy era, and at a time when the West was still somewhat enamoured with socialist ideas. When Ninotchka arrives, she informs her comrades of the success of the latest purge, stating that “there will be fewer, but better Russians.” The film doesn’t shy away from coming right out and expressing a critical view of the brutal conditions under Stalin, although it couches these criticisms in comedy.

This is a very funny film, two sequences in particular. The first involves Count D’Algout (Douglas) trying to make Ninotchka laugh. He tries to tell her a series of jokes, which she dismantles by asking questions (for example, “Two men are going to America…” “On what boat?”). He quickly becomes frustrated and finally says, “Maybe the problem isn’t with the joke, maybe it’s with you.” Ninotchka, ever so detached, doesn’t even look at him as she replies, “I don’t think so.” Garbo and Douglas both play this scene perfectly as he attempts to charm her, each attempt seeming to make her more immune to him than the last. Finally D’Algout gives up, leans back in his chair and falls to the floor. When he looks up, he realizes that he’s made Ninotchka laugh. It’s a fantastic scene.

The second sequences comes shortly thereafter. D’Algout and Ninotchka go out and she drinks champagne for the first time. She excuses herself to go to the ladies room and a moment later the manager approaches D’Algout to inform him that they’ll have to leave because Ninotchka is making a drunken speech, urging the powder room staff to go on strike. D’Algout takes her back to her hotel, they drink more champagne. “When I kissed you,” she tells him, “I betrayed a Russian ideal. I should be stood up against the wall.” He agrees. He stands her up against the wall and blindfolds her. He crosses back to the other side of the room and pops the cork in another bottle of champagne. She falls to the floor, “executed.” The timing in this scene is perfect and it only gets better as they carry on to drunkenly search the room for a radio.

Of all Garbo’s on-screen love interests, Melvyn Douglas is hands down my favourite. He’s such a ridiculously underrated actor, so skilled and versatile (if you need proof, watch Ninotchka and, say, Hud back-to-back) and he plays off of Garbo so well, complementing her rather than attempting to upstage her. Neither is really the straight man or the funny one; they’re both funny, but they approach comedy in such different ways, Douglas swaggering towards it charmingly, and Garbo sneaking up on it, making it funny by seeming to take it so seriously.

This is one of those comedies that you can watch over and over again without it getting stale. It remains funny and absolutely charming with each viewing. The 1930s were a great period in Hollywood for comedies (the great period, in my opinion), and this film deserves to be considered one of the decade’s best.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Camille (1936)

Director: George Cukor
Also Starring: Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Daniell

Of all the films she made, this one was Garbo’s favourite. It is at once a melodrama (it was jokingly referred to with the line, “Garbo Coughs!” – a parody of the tagline from Anna Christie: “Garbo Talks!”), a great romance, and a cynical look at the perilous position that women can have in high society. Director George Cukor juggles all these pieces effortlessly and Garbo shines in the role, for which she received an Oscar nomination (she was previously nominated for Anna Christie and would be nominated again for Ninotchka).

Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a 19th Century Parisian courtesan who lives for pleasure even as she’s dying of a terminal illness. At the theatre one evening she meets the Baron de Varville (Daniell) by design, and love struck Armand Duval (Taylor) by chance. Armand and Marguerite are instantly smitten with each other, but the Baron’s wealth and position prove more tempting and she becomes his mistress. Months pass before Armand and Marguerite come back into each other’s orbit. He eventually talks her into spending the summer in the country with him, arguing that it will be good for her health. She agrees and for a time they’re happy, until Armand’s father (Barrymore) pays her a visit, imploring her to let his son go. The love scenes between Armand and Marguerite may be the soul of the film, but the scenes between Marguerite and Mr. Duvall are the heart of the matter. Marguerite’s reputation is well known. Mr. Duval worries that because of her his son’s reputation will be tarnished, though Marguerite points out to him that “a man can always go back,” meaning of course that only women, never men, forever fall from grace through illicit affairs. Nonetheless, Marguerite agrees to give up Armand, and pushes him away as brutally and heartlessly as she can. The next time they meet, she is once more with de Varville, only this time her need of money has made her entirely submissive to him and he treats her badly because he knows that he can, that she has no choice but to let him. A duel between de Varville and Armand ensues, Armand is exiled for a period of months and returns in time for Marguerite to die.

The film makes no secret of its opinion with regards to the people Marguerite associates with. They’re vain and silly, they degrade Marguerite behind her back and then manipulate her good nature in order to get money and other goods from her (her friend/rival Olympe uses Marguerite’s dire financial straits to buy her jewellery from her cheaply, and then goes to the theatre to show it off and brag about the bargain she made). Her “friends” only care about her when they can get something from her – she knows this, but thinks she deserves them (“I’m no better than they are”). They hardly seem to notice when she’s dying, still manipulating her out of money and jewels even as she’s on her deathbed. Only Armand truly cares for her.

This is one of Garbo’s better screen romances. Taylor is perfectly cast as the handsome, inexperienced younger lover, and Garbo finds the right balance in Marguerite’s conflicting feelings for Armand. At first she keeps him at arm’s length, protecting him from his romantic idealism. But his attention flatters her and she lets her guard down and allows herself to fall in love with him. Certainly she’s known more worldly men, men of greater stature and wealth and experience; but it’s Armand’s innocence that attracts her. He has a youthful, romanticized view of the world in which her past, and his relative poverty don’t matter, the only thing that matters is their love. Marguerite knows that this line of thinking isn’t practical and that his promises of eternal love are perhaps short-sighted (in her confrontation with Mr. Duval he points out to her that in these situations the man always grows up and leaves the woman “worse than she was before”), but she wants so badly to believe in the possibility of being loved. And, besides, despite frequent claims that she’s just a little bit sick and bound to get better, she knows that she doesn’t have long to live. The final scene, when Marguerite dies in Duval’s arms while he talks about the future they’ll have together, is one of the greatest screen deaths ever filmed.

Garbo is simply wonderful here. The whole film, in fact, is wonderful. This is a story that could so easily have gone over the top and look dated and mannered today, but instead it rises above the trappings of its genre and stands apart as something worth looking at.

Monday, December 3, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Anna Karenina (1935)

Director: Clarence Brown
Also Starring: Frederic March

This is a fantastic adaptation. It remains relatively true to the novel on which it is based (Anna’s child with Vronsky is absent, and the Levin-Kitty relationship is reduced to a few scenes and hardly missed), retaining the elements of plot and character which make the novel so compelling and which, here, makes Garbo’s performance so very compelling as well.

The film begins by establishing Vronsky (March) as a man’s man who is firmly entrenched in army life. When he goes to the train station to meet his mother, he comes face to face with Anna Karenina who is introduced in the greatest of all Garbo’s entrances (perhaps one of the great film entrances ever), as she emerges through the steam coming off the train. It’s love at first sight for Vronsky, though Anna attempts, at first, to keep him at arm’s length, steering him towards Kitty until he makes it clear that it’s of no use; he’ll pursue her no matter how fruitless. Of course, it isn’t fruitless at all. Anna is in a cold, sterile marriage made tolerable only by the presence of her son.

The main conflict of the film, as in the novel, isn’t Anna’s choice between her husband and her lover – that’s the stuff of routine. The thing that has always set this story apart is that Anna must choose between her son and her lover, between one kind of happiness and another. That she can bring herself to choose Vronsky is what makes her one of the more complex figures of fiction. That she comes later to realize her mistake, and knows that it cannot be undone, only adds to that complexity.

Garbo is excellent as Anna, a role she was perhaps born to play. It’s strange to think, seeing how well she plays off the actor portraying her son, that she not only didn’t have children in real life, but didn’t interact with many on film either. Her inner turmoil is effectively conveyed. She adores her son and when she’s away from him, she aches from the separation. But, when she’s away from Vronsky, she longs to be with him. Her situation is impossible. She knows it. We know it. The other characters know it. And yet it remains absorbing. One of the best scenes in the film finds Anna at a fountain in her garden. Vronsky approaches through an ivy covered archway. He pleads with her to leave with him and then storms off when she refuses. She follows him to the end of the archway, where he has disappeared off screen to the right. Off screen but to the left, Sergei calls to Anna. She stands there for a moment, looking to the right, and to the left. She’s absolutely trapped, either choice bound to lead in one way to her unhappiness.

It must be admitted that Garbo and March don’t have the best chemistry. Whatever we might feel for that relationship must be supplied largely from our memories of the novel, and if you haven’t read the novel, you may find yourself at a loss to understand how Anna can leave her son to run off to Italy with Vronsky. However, it’s Garbo’s performance that really makes this movie. She manages to convey the conflicting emotions inherent in the character. We feel for her, even if we don’t necessarily care for the central romance.

A large part of what makes this film work, aside from Garbo herself, is that like the novel, it explores the double standards that seem naturally to apply to women of Anna’s wealth social position. Anna, once she leaves with Vronsky, is lost forever. Vronsky, of course, can always return to polite society. He can leave Anna, marry another woman, and be accepted back into the society that shuns him while he’s with her. Anna’s brother can philander and then turn around and tell Anna that she’s wrong to engage with Vronsky and destroy the harmony of her family. It isn't the act of sex that makes Anna irredeemable, it's the fact of her sex; and her knowledge that she’s unsalvageable, that she’s trapped no matter what choice she makes, is part of what makes her so fascinating.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Queen Christina (1933)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Also Starring: John Gilbert, Lewis Stone

Forget anything you know about Swedish history or the historical Queen Christina. This isn’t a film of historical truths, it’s an excuse to cast Garbo as a Queen and play with the androgynous aspects of her persona. Like Grand Hotel which was made the year before, it echoes Garbo’s personal love/hate relationship with fame and celebrity, but expands on it so that we get a more complete view. It is also, arguably, the film in which Garbo is most lovingly photographed. She looked gorgeous in all her films, but here the cinematography seems especially attuned to her beauty.

The best thing about Queen Christina, aside from Garbo and the cinematography, is that it was made on the right side of the Hays code. Although the code was adopted in 1930, it didn’t become strenuously enforced until 1934, the year after this film’s release. If the film had been released one year later, certain aspects, suggestions and scenes would have been cut or made more ambiguous, so the timing of the film is fortunate because those things that may have been censored help to highlight the duality of the character and her portrayer.

The film plays on Garbo’s sexual appeal to men, as well as the androgynous nature of her looks and sexuality. There is a scene early in the film where Christina greets one her ladies in waiting with a kiss on the lips. They proceed to have a conversation which casts Christina as the loving, but busy, husband and her lady as the adored but neglected wife who complains that they never have time together anymore. There’s never any explicit statement that the two are lovers, but there is the suggestion that the relationship runs deeper than friendship. The balance of power that’s displayed in their scenes together certainly suggests two women who have adopted a marriage-like relationship.

The scenes between Christina and Don Antonio (Gilbert) further develop the dual nature of Christina/Garbo’s sexuality. When they meet she’s dressed as a man and Antonio mistakes her for one (this the part of the film where you really have to suspend your disbelief because though Garbo might carry herself like a man, she certainly never looks like one). He discovers his mistake only after fate has caused them to seek shelter in the same inn where a shortage of rooms leads to them sharing. They spend the night together and what follows is one of the most captivating moments ever captured on screen – when Christina floats around the room, caressing various objects. She’s “memorizing” it, she tells Antonio (“In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”). The night spent with Antonio is a turning point in the film not just in terms of the plot, but also subtextually. Prior to this scene, Christina is always garbed in pants. She concerns herself with the running of her empire (which she technically rules under the title of King, despite the film’s title), her love interest is her lady in waiting (there is also, during the time spent at the inn, a scene where a girl has been provided by the inn to keep Christina - whom the innkeeper has also mistaken for a man - company. Christina dismisses her but… would she have were Antonio not there?), and she boasts (again, as the man people keep mistaking her for) that Queen Christina has had twelve lovers in the past year. After the night with Antonio - with the exception of a brief scene at the end where she dons pants to go out riding – we see her only in dresses, her primary concerns become matters of love rather than matters of state, and she tells Antonio that she was lying about the twelve lovers. She essentially becomes a more “traditional” woman through her relationship with Antonio.

The main theme of the film seems especially prescient today, not only when considering Garbo but when considering celebrity culture in general. The film is primarily concerned not with Christina’s relationship with Antonio, but with a public figure’s relationship to the public. In the film, the relationship between Christina and Antonio is hotly debated amongst the populace, nearly inciting a riot. Christina gives a couple of speeches through which she declares that her private life belongs to herself and expresses her refusal to have her life dictated to her by popular demand. In theses speeches you can hear echoes of Garbo herself, and in the frenzy that arises from the people, you can see a commentary on the celebrity culture that has not only continued, but intensified, since the film was made. The peasants storming the palace might seem melodramatic, but it’s really only a literal vision of what we’ve seen figuratively in the past few years. Consider, for instance, the public outcry over Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles and the suggestions boarding on demand that he be passed over in succession because of it. Consider also the hysteria surrounding the relationship of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It seems silly but it is the sort of thing that matters to some people, and it is something that people can be easily worked up over.

This is a very good film, made so perhaps by the extent to which Garbo seems comfortable in the role. It has almost nothing to do with the historical Queen Christina (who, by most accounts, was not a beloved ruler), but that’s not the point. The historical setting is used as a metaphor for the culture contemporaneous with the making of the film, a culture which has carried on and deepened in it’s “importance” to people’s lives, which is perhaps how the film still seems fresh over 70 years later.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Grand Hotel (1932)

Director: Edmund Goulding
Also Starring: John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Wallce Beery, Lewis Stone

Grand Hotel is far from the best film to ever win Best Picture, but it is one of the more charming winners. This is a movie that could be remade today, set at any time and in any place. There are aspects to the film which date it, but the overall arc and themes of the story are timeless.

This is a film about lonely people seeking connection. Grusinskaya (Garbo) is a prima ballerina who longs “to be alone” not because she isn’t lonely, but because she’s surrounded by people who want only to use her for personal gain. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a dying man who has decided to spend his last days spoiling himself with the best that life has to offer, but finds that the best things are nothing when you have no one to share them with. The Baron (John Barrymore) has turned to a life of petty theft now that his funds have run out. People seem drawn to him, though he confesses to Kringelein that he has no friends.

The film begins with a series of establishing shots, showing the various characters on the phone, each stating his or her purpose in the Grand Hotel. There’s much talk about Grusinskaya, a famous ballerina in the midst of a depression. This is a character who is built up for a while before we actually encounter her, no doubt because Garbo is the biggest star in the film. Her early scenes evoke sadness – playing to half-empty houses where no one applauds, knowing that people are more interested in her the person (the side of herself that she doesn’t want to share) than her the artist (the side of herself that she does). This is one of the more autobiographical roles Garbo ever played. The laments seem to come easily to her, probably because she made them in real life as well. Later, Grusinskaya and the Baron will spend a night together talking (the Baron has broken into her room to steal jewellery and reveals himself in order to keep her from committing suicide). They fall in love and make plans to start fresh together somewhere else. Suddenly there is lightness to Grusinskaya’s scenes – Garbo dances around the room, full of joy. She and Barrymore play well off each other, though she eclipses him in all their scenes together. However, since he’s the thread that weaves all the stories together, it doesn’t much matter that he plays second fiddle to Garbo in their scenes.

Barrymore and Garbo have good chemistry, but so do Barrymore and Crawford as Ms. Flaemmchen, a secretary for hire whose hard luck will eventually lead her to accept an indecent proposal from the film’s villain, Preysing (Beery). The Baron and Flaemmchen become friends, and so do the Baron and Kringelein, the former bookkeeper at Preysing’s factory. Kringlelein is all at once the saddest, happiest and funniest of the characters, which is no small feat and a credit to the abilities of Lionel Barrymore. He’s a man who has scrimped and saved and denied himself all his life and now that he’s dying, wants to spend all his money. He demands the largest room in the hotel, he buys new clothes, he orders champagne… then discovers that happiness isn’t so much what you have, as who you share it with. His attempts to live the high life seem gauche when compared to the Baron, who is so smooth and elegant. However, when compared to Preysing, who is rich but a lout, Kringelein almost seems debonair. Preysing uses his wealth to bully people; Kringelein uses what is left of his money to try to make people happy – he does nothing in this film that he doesn’t want to share with someone else and you don’t get the sense that he’s trying to buy companionship as much as you think that he finally feels that he’s worth spending time with.

This isn’t really a Garbo film, as such, though she shines in all of her scenes. This is truly an ensemble, which is the only way the film could possibly work. The major theme of the film is expressed in the last lines, by the doctor who lives in the hotel (Stone): “Grand Hotel, always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” The characters that we’ve gotten to know have left the hotel, and we’ve watched a new couple check in. The doctor utters the last words, and then the film cuts to a shot of a revolving door. The film is about people so caught up in their own dramas that it seems as if nothing ever happens to anyone else as they come and go from each other’s lives, sometimes without even realizing their connections to other people. When they leave the Grand Hotel, so too do they leave the audience. We don’t find out if Kringelein and Flaemmchen find happiness after they leave the hotel, if Kringelein finds a doctor who can cure him, or what happens to Grusinskaya when she learns the fate of the Baron. They came into our lives and then went, and life in the Grand Hotel goes on.

Friday, November 30, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Mata Hari (1931)

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Also Starring: Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone

This isn’t a film about the person Mata Hari, as much as it is about the legend of Mata Hari. The film does a good job at playing up the elements of her mythology and although there are good pieces to the film, these pieces ultimately don’t work very well together. Part of the problem is that the film tries to go in too many directions, so that we don’t really get a sense of what it wants to tell us about Mata Hari.

Garbo, naturally, plays Mata Hari – spy, dancer, enchantress. The costume designer Adrian (who dressed Garbo in all of her films from Anna Christie onwards, and played no small part in helping to create the Garbo image) gives her a variety of hats and headdresses in the film, drawing focus to her face and giving us a sense of the character, one who is always hiding, keeping things under her hat, as it were. Her costumes are also very exotic, which help to establish her as someone that other people in the room would instantly find intriguing because she’s so different from their experience.

Garbo is good as Mata Hari, even if the character herself seems a bit directionless. She’s believable in her scenes with Russian General Shubin (Barrymore), playing a flirtatious double cross with him – these scenes are the best in the film because Garbo and Barrymore play so well off each other and seem so comfortable together. The scenes with Navarro as a Russian pilot who falls for Mata Hari are good – Navarro is certainly believable as a na├»ve and inexperienced man who gets in over his head with such a worldly woman – but we never really believe in the relationship. When Mata Hari is using and toying with him to get information, it’s believable (there’s a scene where he tells her about his statue of the Madonna, revealing that he promised his mother that he would always keep a candle burning in front of it. When he afterwards professes his love to her, she challenges him by asking him to blow out the candle. He eventually acquiesces and there’s a certain degree of cruelty to the scene, seeing how broken up he is about doing it and how helpless he is when he’s around her – and how she knows that and uses it against him). When she risks her life and her freedom to see him, it’s not as believable.

While the film doesn’t present an accurate version of history (although perhaps it should be credited for at least getting Mata Hari’s fate right instead of trying for a happy ending), it is an interesting example of Hollywood history. Released in 1931, this is a pre-code film, which are always fun to look at just to see how far movies went before the Hays office tried to squeeze all the fun out of them. Mata Hari dances seductively, uses men for sport and treachery, and spends the night with a man in bed. There’s no ambiguity about this last part, as there are in some films from the Golden Age – at night all the lights go out. In the morning, Mata Hari emerges from the bedroom. A few minutes later Rosanoff (Navarro) follows in his dressing gown. The overtness of these scenes can perhaps be attributed to the fact that Mata Hari was already fairly notorious and the fact that she dies in the end. It’s acceptable for her to be a woman who uses sex as a means to an end, because she’s going to be punished for it in the most brutal way possible.

This isn’t a great film, but it is entertaining and a good showcase for Garbo. It plays to the strengths of the Garbo image – the exotic/special character of her beauty, the mysteriousness of her nature and the sense of danger that both of those things entail. Just don’t take the film too seriously and you should be able to enjoy it for what it is.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Anna Christie (1930)

Director: Clarence Brown (English version); Jacques Feyder (German version)
Also Starring: Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, Marie Dressler (English version); Theo Shall, Hans Junkermann, Salka Viertel (German version)

There are two versions of Anna Christie, both starring Garbo. One is in English, the other, filmed directly afterwards, is in German. The English version has been better preserved and restored, but in nearly all other respects the German version is superior.

That Anna Christie is adapted from a stage play is obvious – the films are predominantly composed of long scenes of dialogue taking place on a handful of sets (namely: a bar, a fair, the inside of a barge, and the outside of a barge). This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but it does make them seem less cinematic and more like stage performances that have been filmed. This is especially true of the English version, which is very static. The English version also uses title cards in order to mark passages of time and move the story from one scene to another, which is problematic in that it gives the impression of the story being stuck somewhere between a silent and a sound film, between stage and screen. The German version has no inter-titles and moves more fluidly than it’s English counterpart.

Garbo is, of course, Anna Christie a Swedish immigrant who has grown up on a farm in Minnesota and goes to New York to see the father she hasn’t seen since childhood. What we find out early in the story - but is kept from Anna’s father and her love interest Matt – is that she was raped on the farm and ran away to the city where she became a prostitute. Garbo gets a couple of great monologues and does well in this de-glammed role. Her performance in the German version is better than that of the English one, perhaps because she was more comfortable speaking in German than she was in English, or because, filming the German version directly after the English one, she had grown more comfortable inhabiting the character. As for the rest of the cast, the English version has one thing the German version doesn’t: Marie Dressler (playing the drunken, live-in lover of Anna’s father). Dressler, who is always fabulous, brings a warmth and depth to the role that Salka Viertel is lacking in the German version. As Anna’s father, Chris, Hans Junkermann is much more understated than George F. Marion, who is more a caricature of a Swedish sailor than anything else. As for the actors who played Matt… I’m of two minds about this. One the one hand, I thought that Garbo had better chemistry with Theo Shall, but on the other hand, I thought Charles Bickford was more believable as the loutish sailor. There’s something about Shall that’s just too soft to pull off the role; at times he almost seems as if he’s scared of Garbo.

Aside from the unglamorous nature of the role, the film departs from other Garbo vehicles in a couple of other keys ways, specifically in that it doesn’t involve a triangular love story (although it does involve a triangle of sorts), and no one dies as a result of their lust for Garbo. Chris and Matt do fight over Anna, Chris because he doesn’t want her to get involved with a sailor who will shatter her innocence and take her away from him, and Matt because he’s fallen in love with Anna and wants to marry her. At the beginning of the film, Chris is reluctant to take Anna out to sea because he’s worried that exposure to that kind of life will be dangerous for her and that she’d be safer on land. The irony is that Anna’s innocence has already been taken from her on land, and the time she spends with Chris at sea is the only time she is “safe” from other men. And then Matt comes along and, despite her claims that she hates men, Anna falls in love with him. You can chart the progression of their relationship through the cinematography and Garbo’s wardrobe. Matt and Anna meet in the fog and he’ll maintain an indistinct vision of her (he sees her as a delicate, untouched flower) until her confession to him (the fog will return again at the end, as Anna and Matt are planning for their future happiness). During the primary romantic scene, which takes place at a fair, Anna is wearing white, drinking milk instead of alcohol because Matt doesn’t think she drinks. She’s living up to his vision of purity and goodness, at least on a superficial level. Later, when she reveals her past to him, she’s wearing black, a sign of her “badness” and perhaps a sign that she’s already mourning her relationship with Matt, which she knows must end once he learns the truth.

Chris and Matt fight over Anna, each wanting to possess her and maintain their pure images of her, until Anna can’t take it anymore. “What am I?” she asks, “a piece of furniture?” She refuses to be the object of either. “I belong to myself,” she tells them just before relating her sordid history to them. Her relationship with Matt is interesting in that he tries to be so possessive of her (he doesn’t so much ask her to marry him as inform her that they’re going to get married) but she simply doesn’t allow him to succeed. The balance of power is maintained in her favour perhaps because while he has certain illusions about her, she doesn’t have any illusions about him (when she informs both men of her prostitution she states that she worked “in a house like the kind you’d go to.” She knows these men, but they only have ideas about her).

This is an adequate film, if not an especially good one. However, I highly recommend it on the strength of Garbo’s performance.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: The Mysterious Lady (1928)

Director: Fred Niblo
Also Starring: Conrad Nagel, Gustav von Seyffertitz

The Mysterious Lady is a film that is perhaps best left a mystery. Thin on plot and characterization and heavy on melodrama, the only real reason to watch this is to look at Garbo. She’s absolutely luminous in this film, clearly more comfortable than she was in her previous collaboration with Niblo (The Temptress), and settled into the “Garbo” screen persona.

The plot, such as it is, features Garbo as Tania, a Russian spy in Vienna who seduces Captain Karl von Raden (Nagel) in order to get documents detailing military plans and give them to her superior/lover General Alexandroff (Seyffertitz), but problems arise when Tania falls in love with von Raden. This is a very standard and predictable plot, although there are some good moments hidden in here. The sequence of Tania and von Raden spending a day in the park is well done, and so is the scene where von Raden confronts Tania on the train and she goes from loving to loathing him. Overall, it’s the story that’s the problem, and not the direction. Niblo does an excellent job at establishing Tania as someone who is not to be taken at face value: we see her first at the theater, where von Raden spends the entire show looking at her. She’s framed here as the performer, someone putting on an act. Later, she takes von Raden home and sings for him – again, she’s performing. When her worlds finally collide and she, von Raden and General Alexandroff all occupy the same room, we’re not quite sure (at first) which of her lovers she’s playing. Garbo does a good job balancing what is essentially a dual role, part romantic heroine, part villain. The other actors don’t fare quite as well. Nagel is adequate in a thankless role and Seyffertitz makes a really lacklustre villain (I was never particularly worried for Tania’s sake because General Alexandroff never seemed sincerely menacing).

There were two things that I found particularly interesting about the film. The first is that Garbo gets a happy ending despite the fact that she plays a woman who uses sex for the sake of villainy and despite the fact that she kills someone. Even in films made today female characters who engage in either activity are usually punished by the narrative, and it was certainly true of films made during the 1920s, and the films Garbo had made up until Mysterious Lady. The second thing is that von Raden, who is basically a sap and kind of wimpy, is never redeemed through heroism at the end. It’s Tania who saves him by killing Alexandroff, when in a conventional narrative it would be von Raden who would kill him in order to free Tania of his clutches. It’s perhaps the saving feature of this film that the female protagonist is so active.

There really isn’t anything else to say about this film except to reiterate how good Garbo looks in it. She’s absolutely stunning in here, frame after frame.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Director: Clarence Brown
Also Starring: John Gilbert, Lars Hansen

Despite plot points you can see coming a mile away, this is an incredibly watchable film. Gilbert and Hansen play Leo and Ulrich, two childhood friends who find themselves at odds when they fall in love with Garbo’s character Felicitas. It’s a standard story that is salvaged by the chemistry between Gilbert and Garbo, and by the subtextual relationship between Leo and Ulrich.

As in The Temptress, Garbo appears here as a young woman married to a much older man (Marc McDermott who, incidentally, played her lover Fontenoy in The Temptress) and falls in love with a younger one (Gilbert). The discovery of the affair leads to a dual in which Leo kills the husband and then is sent by the army to spend five years in North Africa as penance. Before he goes, he asks Ulrich to look after Felicitas, not explaining the true nature of their relationship, instead letting Ulrich think that he simply feels guilty about making her a widow. Three years later, Leo returns, his sentence having been reduced through some intervention by Ulrich. He arrives at the train station and is met by Ulrich and Felicitas… and finds out that they’ve married. The rest of the film focuses on Leo’s struggle between his desire for Felicitas and his love for Ulrich, and Felicitas’ struggle between the comfortable life Ulrich can provide for her, and her supposed love for Leo. The film culminates with another dual, this one between Leo and Ulrich.

The interesting thing about this film is that, despite the fact that both Leo and Ulrich purport to be in love with Felicitas, it is Leo and Ulrich who are the real romantic couple of the story. Several times they embrace and each time it looks as if they’re a second away from kissing. Early in the film Leo and Ulrich are on a boat sailing home. Leo is contemplating a flower that was given to him by Felicitas, whom he met briefly at the train station. Ulrich looks at him longingly and points out an island in the distance, calling it The Island of Friendship. When asked by Leo’s mother why they call it that, the film flashes back to when they were children. Leo, Ulrich and Ulrich’s sister, Hertha, went to the island where Hertha was adorned in garments made to look like the white robes of a priest or minister. Leo and Ulrich have her bless them, then cut themselves to become blood brothers (at the risk of being crass, it’s their first consecrated exchange of bodily fluids). Then, under the watchful eye of Hertha/the minister, they exchange a vow to be together until death. This is a marriage ceremony. When Felicitas comes between them, she’s not simply breaking up a friendship, she’s breaking up a marriage. Later, after Leo decides that he can’t be around Ulrich and Felicitas because of his feelings, she comes to him and says, “Leo, you must come back to him.” Later still, Leo and Ulrich are back on the island about to engage in a dual. Ulrich comes to his senses and they move into an embrace. In the same place where they exchanged vows, Ulrich now tells Leo (whose hand he is holding) that he feels as if a veil has just lifted. The film ends with the two of them, still embracing, on the island.

Garbo gives a solid performance (this one is much more vibrant than her performance in The Temptress, perhaps because she’s playing a more active character), as do Gilbert and Hansen, and the chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert (who began a tempestuous affair during filming) is electric. Their early scenes together, before the duelling and before Ulrich gets involved, are especially good. There is a beautifully lit scene where they’re in a garden and share a cigarette – they way they look at each other, the way the cigarette passes from her lips to his, the way she blows out the match that illuminates them – it’s all perfect. He may not have survived the transition from silent to sound, but there is definitely something about John Gilbert that is commanding enough that he shares the screen with Garbo, rather than being dwarfed by her presence.

As with The Temptress, there is an alternate ending to this film. In the other ending, Leo ends up with Hertha. Once again, the alternate ending rings entirely false when considered against the rest of the movie. The film ends as it should – Leo with Ulrich, true love prevailing.

Monday, November 26, 2007

11 Days of Garbo: The Temptress (1926)

Director: Fred Niblo
Also Starring: Antonio Moreno, Lionel Barrymore

This is a very busy film. Aristocrats party in Paris, dams burst in Argentina, men fight with whips, and with swords, and at the centre is a woman on whom it will all be blamed. Garbo, of course, is the woman (Elena), the temptress to whom several men succumb, more often than not leading to their deaths.

This isn’t an especially good film – the biggest problem is perhaps that you can’t really imagine Garbo going out of her way to get any of the men who accuse her of tempting them (this maybe isn’t the fault of the actors - Garbo simply has a presence on screen that is difficult to match). There’s also a problem with the flow of the film (the first two acts plod along, the third rushes to its conclusion) and there’s a sense of a couple of key scenes missing, the holes they leave in the plot filled by the device of characters leaving letters for each other to explain things.

But there are good things here as well. The dinner party scene at the beginning features two great tracking shots: first from overhead, starting with the host then panning down what turns out to be a massive dining table full of guests, so that when it finishes the host is now just a speck deep in the middle of the shot; the second is a pan underneath the table, showing the feet of the guests, some playing footsie, one woman trying to fix a run in her stocking, one nervously tapping her feet, a few stretching out their legs. There is joy in these scenes – until the end when Elena is pronounced a temptress by the host, her former lover, who then commits suicide.

Throughout the film men will accuse Elena of being a temptress. Following the dinner party, her husband accuses her of destroying the host – whose affair with Elena also served to provide income for himself (“He sold me to Fontenoy,” she later explains). The leading character, Robledo (Moreno) accuses her of tempting not only himself, but also the men he works with in Argentina. The vehemence with which the men in this film damn her is interesting because as a temptress, she’s actually quite passive. There’s less a sense that she’s going after these men than there is that she’s going through the motions of what they want and expect of her. Often men see her for the first time as she’s descending a staircase, as if she’s both literally and figuratively lowering herself to where they want her to be.

It’s also curious that there aren’t any women in the film who condemn her. It’s only the men, the ones who project one image onto her and then are disappointed upon finding that it’s false, who accuse her of villainy. Robledo tells her that men die for her. “Not for me,” she replies, “for my body.” How can a woman who is viewed as an object, and is therefore inherently passive, also be accused of actively driving men to their deaths? They aren’t dying for her, they’re dying for themselves, for the idea they have of themselves through the dream of having her. The lighting is indicative of the way the men see her: she’s lit so that she seems to glow in contrast to the men occupying the room with her, who aren’t lit so softly. We’re seeing her as they see her, as an alluring, angelic being who stands out against everything else in the room. But none of these men see Elena the person, the thinking, feeling being behind the image. She’s just a body and a face for them to obsess over.

Garbo is very effective in the role, even though she apparently hated making the film. Her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, was the original director and was fired after two weeks of production. Niblo replaced him and he and Garbo had difficulty communicating. He also re-shot all the scenes previously done by Stiller and made the cast and crew work brutal hours (watch the flood scene and you can see how exhausted Moreno and the extras are) in order to complete the film in four months. But Garbo remains luminous – you can understand why these men fall all over themselves for her. Her best moments, however, are at the end of the film when Elena has fallen on hard times and is a drunkard wandering the streets. As an actress, she pulls these scenes off very well.

The ending is stark and sad – Elena, the temptress, is punished for her wanton ways even though she voluntarily gives up Robledo so that he can focus on rebuilding the Argentine village. She’s punished, essentially, for what other people have projected onto her, rather than for how she actually behaves. There’s an alternate ending as well, a happier one which sees Elena end up with Robledo. It rings false in comparison to the other ending, the one that’s sad but fits the overall arc and attitude of the film.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

11 Days of Garbo

I recently bought the Greta Garbo Signature Collection which, unlike many "signature" collections out there (which seem to be comprised of 50% movies you want, 25% movies you don't want, and 25% movies you've never heard of) actually seems fairly representative of her work and her image. I've been enjoying the collection so much that I've decided to dedicate the next 11 days to looking at the 11 films included in the collection: three silents, the pre-code films which helped establish her as a star who could continue into the sound age, the films made towards the end of her film career for which she is perhaps best known, and a documentary feature produced by Turner Classic Movies.

Starting tomorrow with The Temptress and ending on December 6th with Garbo, with some Queen Christina, Camille and Ninotchka in between.

The Temptress
Flesh and The Devil
Mysterious Lady
Anna Christie
Mata Hari
Grand Hotel
Queen Christina
Anna Karenina

Review: Enchanted

Only Disney could send up it’s own animated films and their tropes without making it seem malicious, and Amy Adams is one of the few actresses who could pull off the role of the displaced would-be-princess of the animated land of Andalasia. She’s sweet without being saccharine, she’s a romantic without seeming foolish, and she’s so effortlessly charming that you can’t help but feeling, well, enchanted.

The key to Adams’ performance is her commitment to the limits of the character. If she played the role while seeming to wink at the audience as if to say, “Can you believe this?” it simply wouldn’t work. Instead she plays the character as someone who only knows life inside the fairytale universe (the whole of the fairytale universe, it seems, given that she’s familiar with the seven dwarves and the story of Little Red Riding Hood, albeit not the version that the rest of us are familiar with) and finds the real world as unbelievable as a real person would find a fairytale land were they transported to it. Her character doesn’t stay this way, she grows and changes as the film progresses, and Adams’ signals these changes in subtle and believable ways. She is very good in this role and is being justly praised, but attention should also be paid to James Marsden, who plays her fairytale Prince and brings many of the same qualities to his role as Adams’ does to hers.

The film references many of the classic Disney films, most notably Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Susan Sarandon is cast as the evil Queen who sends her would-be successor into the real world, and she seems to have a lot of fun playing the Queen in both her regal form and in disguise as an old crone to tempt the princess with an apple. She also appears later as a dragon, in reference to Sleeping Beauty. Idina Menzel, who has a basically thankless role as the girlfriend of Patrick Dempsey’s character, at least gets to have the Cinderella/glass slipper moment at the end. The songs in the film also serve as references to the older films: “Happy Working Song” is a riff on “Whistle While You Work,” and “That’s How You Know” reminded me at least of “Kiss The Girl” from The Little Mermaid.

All in all, this is a good, entertaining film with a nice twist on tradition in that at the end it’s the girl who saves the boy from the monster instead of the other way around. It isn’t a movie that’s going to change your life, but it’s a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Canadian Film Review: Last Night (1998)

Director: Don McKellar
Starring: Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie

How do you know this is a Canadian film? Well, for one thing, there aren’t any characters running around, trying to defeat the insurmountable threat. For another, look at the scene where Sandra (Oh) goes to the supermarket to pick a bottle of wine. The store is a mess, having already been looted and ransacked but she finds two bottles. She considers both then, deciding on one, puts the other back on the shelf.

Most apocalypse movies are about the threat (the asteroid in Armageddon is far and away more interesting that any of the film’s characters), but this is about how people cope with the knowledge that the threat is imminent and can’t be stopped. The film doesn’t explain to us why the world is going to end – the narrative starts after everyone in the film already knows about it, has panicked over it, and has ultimately begun to make peace with the knowledge. This isn’t a film that explores what the end of the world will be like as much as it explores the things we value as human beings, the traditions and experiences that we wish to hold on to even when we know it’s pointless. A woman makes Christmas dinner for her family, even though it isn’t Christmas, because they’ll never experience it again. A DJ counts down his top 500 songs of all time (“Don’t bother calling in. This time it’s my choice”). A woman runs through the streets, keeping time for anyone who will listen. Craig (Rennie) is going to have as much sex as he can with as many people as he can. Sandra wants to be in love. And Patrick (McKellar) seems to wander from one person’s last night to another.

This is a film full of small, poignant moments. Sandra and Patrick, whom circumstances have essentially stuck together, try to know each other and make whatever relationship they can create matter for whatever time is left. Sandra has spent the day trying to get across town to be with her husband, but as it becomes increasingly apparent that she won’t make it on time, she begins to focus her attention on Patrick. She cautions him to hurry up and make her fall in love with him. To face the end without someone you love, and who loves you, seems tragic. They make the best of it and, when the end does come, they face it kissing each other.

The scenes of the Christmas dinner are the ones that have always stuck with me. Patrick and his sister (Polley) are given as presents the toys they cherished most as children. Later, one character begins to lament on behalf of the children of the world, who are going to miss out on so much. Another replies that she shouldn’t feel bad for the children – they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s the older people, those who know all that is about to be lost and swept away, for whom she should feel sorry.

The film finds a nice balance between drama and comedy, with most of the comedy surrounding the character Craig. Patrick goes to Craig to borrow one of his cars so that Sandra can get across town. Craig refuses because his cars are antique, still clinging apparently to the idea that life goes on even though he’s been engaging in an end of the world marathon of sex. After refusing the car, he offers Patrick a chance to be his gay experience. When Patrick expresses reluctance, Craig tries to reassure him by explaining that he’s already had anal sex so it could come in some other variety. There is sadness in Craig’s scenes, but for the most part they add levity to the film.

To really appreciate this film, you must know that it was made and released as the millennium loomed over our heads. It might seem silly now, but at the time there was a sense of unease about what would happen when the clock struck twelve and ushered in the year 2000. The more extreme end saw people readying bunkers and preparing for nothing short of the complete breakdown of civilized society. Of course, nothing happened. The clock struck, one millennium passed and another began and life went on. The film itself isn’t about the millennium, but it is very much about how we feared it and what we were afraid might happen at midnight. In the film, the clock strikes. “It’s over,” declares the marathon woman and then… fade to light.