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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 naïve 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.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Best Actor & Best Supporting Actor

There are a lot of candidates in the lead actor race, and a few in the supporting race, although like all the other categories there has yet to be any kind of general consensus as to who is most likely, who is least likely to be nominated. At this point, as far as I can see, between Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War, Philip Seymour Hoffman will probably be nominated in either the leading or supporting category, maybe even both, and perennial Academy favourite Tom Hanks is very likely to be nominated for Charlie Wilson’s War . The leading actor candidates:

George Clooney (Michael Clayton): The buzz has started to drop off a bit but not to the point where it couldn’t be reignited during the major campaigning months. Chances are pretty good that he’ll be nominated for a Golden Globe, which should go a ways to keeping him on people’s minds.

Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood): Unless the Academy is more turned off than they are intrigued by his character in the film, I don’t see any way that he won’t be nominated. At this point, he’s my pick to win but I say that from the perspective of someone who is a huge fan of his.

Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd): He’ll show the Academy a different side of himself by starring in a musical but if the film is a disaster, it won’t matter. And even if it isn’t, but it simply fails to take the Academy by storm, he’d have to campaign for a slot and he doesn’t strike me as someone who cares enough about awards to actively seek them out.

Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl): He’s fantastic in the film and I would love it if he was nominated, even though I don’t think it’s likely. Unlike the actress category, which tends to skew younger, the actor category tends to be made up of men in their mid-30s to late 40s, and if a younger actor is going to be nominated, it’s going to be either Hirsh or McAvoy.

Emile Hirsh (Into The Wild): It’s a film that really seems to be capturing people’s hearts and I think his chances are only going to improve as the season carries on and more people go to see the film.

James McAvoy (Atonement): To my mind, this is going to be the film to beat. However, romantically themed films – even the ones that sweep the nominations – don’t tend to do much for the lead actor (think Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic or Joseph Fiennes Shakespeare In Love, both of whom failed to get nominations despite their respective films being nominated in nearly every other category).

Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James): The movie was a critical success but failed to find an audience. Like Clooney, I think his chances will be improved through the likelihood of a Golden Globe nomination (the Globes, traditionally, like to nominate as many bona fide stars as they can). I also think the odds of co-star Casey Affleck being nominated as Supporting will help him because the Academy tends to like having that kind of symmetry in its leading/supporting nominations, especially when overcompensating for a nomination that they think (rightly or wrongly) they have to justify (think Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix for Gladiator or Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke for Training Day).

Denzel Washington (American Gangster or The Great Debaters): On the one hand, his Gangster role is the kind of villainous, against type role the Academy likes to honour. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of role that won him his second Oscar (for Training Day). Debaters is getting the Oprah endorsement, but I’m still going to give Gangster the edge.

In the supporting category, it looks like Javier Bardem is a sure thing for No Country For Old Men, and I hope that the Academy is able to spare some love for Tommy Lee Jones (also No Country…) as well if they can’t find a place for him in the leading category for his performance in In The Valley of Elah.

Tom Wilkinson (Michael Collins) and Hal Holbrook (Into The Wild) both have a pretty solid chance of making it in, as does the aforementioned Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James…).

Paul Dano has a chance for There Will Be Blood, but his performance might be eclipsed by that of his co-star, Daniel Day Lewis. John Travolta was buzzed about early on for Hairspray, a nomination which might add some levity to an otherwise dark themed nomination pool. Ethan Hawke can make a play for a nomination with Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, but I think his chances of getting it are largely dependent on co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman being nominated for the film in the lead category.

So, that wraps up my thoughts (so far) on the way the race is shaping up. Nothing seems certain this year, everything is kind of a shot in the dark.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Best Actress & Best Supporting Actress

The races for best actress and best supporting actress are fairly weak this year. There are a few contenders for both but, other than perhaps Cate Blanchett for I’m Not There, there isn’t really anyone that people are rallying behind enough to make their spot seem like a guarantee. This time last year, the five Best Actress candidates were pretty much set; this year there’s still room for movement. Also in contrast to last year, where we saw the year of the grand dame (Mirren, Streep, and Dench), this year the ingénues look prepared to take over the lead category. The Actress contenders:

Amy Adams (Enchanted): She’s currently drawing raves for her winning, charming performance and the fact that she was nominated two years ago for Junebug could help her here. However, she’s also playing a supporting role in Charlie Wilson’s War and if that film takes the Academy by storm, it could result in a supporting actress nomination for her instead.

Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age): I love Blanchett but… that movie was really bad and she spent most of it yelling and looking longingly at Clive Owen. She’ll get a nomination for I’m Not There as supporting actress, but her chances in the leading category are ever slipping.

Julie Christie (Away From Her): It’s a small film, but she’s a legend and a well-respected actress, so I think her chances are pretty good. The fact that the film is already out on DVD could help her gain a larger audience amongst the Academy.

Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose): A spectacular performance in a difficult film. She has an uphill battle being that it’s a non-English speaking role, but that shouldn’t be enough to keep her out of the final five.

Jodie Foster (The Brave One): Started strong, then seemed to slip off the radar. A Golden Globe nomination will be necessary to get people thinking about her performance again.

Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart): Another performance that started strong then seemed to slip away. I think her chances are still pretty good, but I wouldn’t put money on.

Keira Knightley (Atonement): If the film comes out strong enough, I think her slot is all but guaranteed.

Laura Linney (The Savages): The Academy seems to like her (and why not?) and she’s getting good reviews so far. Between her, Adams, and Ellen Page, it could be a year dominated by actresses in comedies.

Ellen Page (Juno): Roger Ebert was the first to declare her a contender, and pretty soon others started to fall in line as well. The Academy usually reserves a space for a comedic turn in the Best Actress race, which could easily go to Page. Also in her favour is the fact that the film will enter into wide release at a prime time to keep her on everyone’s mind.

Nicole Kidman also seems to be getting some support for Margot At The Wedding, but she’s just so blah to me that I don’t really have anything to say about that beyond the fact that her face in the previews for the film truly frightens me. Now, as for supporting actress, as mentioned above there’s Adams and Blanchett and… not much else. We might see Susan Sarandon (In The Valley of Elah), Helena Bonham-Carter (Sweeney Todd), Catherine Keener (Into The Wild), Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton), Saorise Ronan or Romala Gari (both for playing the same character at different ages in Atonement).

I’m personally holding out hope for Amy Ryan, who was so great in Gone, Baby, Gone, and I’d be thrilled to see either Emily Mortimer or Patricia Clarkson for Lars and The Real Girl.

There’s a chance that Michelle Pfeiffer might make it for Hairspray, and Sigourney Weaver was buzzed about very early in the year for The TV Set but such talk has pretty much evaporated at this point.

All in all, I’m sad to say that it’s not a very exciting year for the actress races. Tomorrow, a look at the actors.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Best Picture & Best Director

With the Oscar race starting to pick up steam as we head towards the end of the year, I thought I’d take a look at some of the contenders in the major categories. Today I’ll focus at the Best Picture and Director races, tomorrow the Actress races, and on Thursday the Actor races.

As of right now, there isn’t any clear front runner for Best Picture. There are a few films coming out towards the end of the year that seemed poised to take the Awards season by storm but without any real sense of critical and commercial reception, it’s hard to gage just how good a chance these films really have. Here’s a look at the major contenders, as I see them:

American Gangster: A good film, not a great one – but a popular favourite, which might help. However, it might be hurt by thematic similarities to last year’s winner The Departed.

Atonement: Unless it proves to be a critical disaster, I think this is the closest thing there is to a lock for a nomination. Statistically speaking, it’s plot features three of the elements the Academy likes most in their Best Picture winners: a romantic storyline, scenes of or overt references to a war being fought or recently fought (examples of winners that featured both: Wings, Cavalcade, Gone With The Wind, Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, From Here To Eternity, The Sound of Music, The Deer Hunter, Forrest Gump, Braveheart), and inter-family conflict. The plot of the film is very Academy friendly if you look at the history of winners.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead: Good critical reception, but it’s being described as a “critics movie” and it doesn’t really seem to fit in with the overall Academy vibe.

Charlie Wilson’s War: There’s a lot of Oscar calibre talent here, but two things might work against it. First, the Academy hasn’t been kind to director Mike Nichols over the course of the last twenty, or so, years – although the Tom Hanks factor alone might be enough to secure the film’s spot. Secondly, it the wake of a veritable orgy of Middle East war related films, the Academy might find itself as over the subject as audiences seem to be.

Eastern Promises: Started strong coming out of Toronto and then seemed to drop off of everyone’s radar. It could come back during the hardcore campaigning time, but I have my doubts.

Into The Wild: A word of mouth movie, this one just keeps building its audience as it goes into the critical period of awards season. Working in its favour is the fact that it diverges from the rest of the pack by not being a crime film or a war film.

Juno: It’s a small film, but it’s got a couple of things going for it. It had strong critical reception coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival and, perhaps more importantly, in a season full of adaptations, this is an original piece. It’s also much lighter fare than the rest of the contenders, which could work in it’s favour.

The Kite Runner: This one has potential but, traditionally, films whose casts are predominantly composed of people of color don’t tend to fare well with the Academy. There’s also the fact of early controversy surrounding scenes involving child rape, which could work against it.

No Country For Old Men: A brilliant film, but very dark and violent, and its ending is polarizing audiences. Still, it’s got a shot.

Sweeney Todd: I’ve stated my thoughts on this before. It could be the most brilliant artistic achievement of the year… it could also be this year’s candidate for bloated, over-hyped film of the year.

There Will Be Blood: Those who’ve seen it are describing it as good, but not Oscar friendly. I still think it has a chance, but now I’m thinking that it will be either this film or No Country For Old Men, possibly neither, but not both. This is one where we’ll have to wait and see.

As for Best Director, since Picture and Director usually go hand in hand, the potential nominees are those whose films have the best chance at Picture, which means that Joe Wright (Atonement), Sean Penn (Into The Wild), Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men) and Mike Nichols (Charlie Wilson’s War) currently have the best chance.

Jason Reitman (Juno) is likely to be left off even if the film is nominated as Picture because lighter films are generally (if not necessarily rightly) considered “easier” to make, and because of his age (he just turned 30 and this is a category that heavily favours middle aged men).

Ridley Scott (American Gangster) is a director the Academy seems to like, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get a nomination if the film’s popularity holds out.

Sidney Lumet (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) and Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) both have a fair shot even if their respective films don’t get Picture nominations.

David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd) are directors that the Academy doesn’t seem to care much for, as is Marc Forster (The Kite Runner), even though his films have garnered major nominations in the past (Finding Neverland for Picture amongst many others, Monster’s Ball most notably for Best Actress). It might be Forster’s year to be included, and it might be the year that the Academy changes it’s mind about Burton, but we’re just going to have to wait and see how the pre-Oscar awards onslaught pans out and whether it favours either enough to give him the extra boost.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review: No Country For Old Men

This is easily the best Coen brothers film since Fargo. This is a bloody, suspenseful epic with an ending that will have people talking – you’ll either love it or hate it; it’s nature leaves little room to wander in between. In the audience with whom I saw this, reaction to the ending varied between silence and audible displeasure. It isn’t a movie that’s going to please everyone, but those who like it will really like it.

No Country For Old Men opens with a monologue by Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) which is reminiscent of the speech by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) at the end of Fargo. The character of Ed is like Marge in a lot of ways – they’re both smart, level headed individuals with a keen eye for putting details together, and both have well-meaning deputies who are always this close to putting things together themselves, but ultimately require a little extra push. Like Marge, Ed has difficulty understanding the senselessness of what he sees. A lot has been made of the performance by Javier Bardem, whom I have little doubt will receive an Oscar nomination for this film. I hope that the Academy also recognizes Jones’ work in this film, because he’s the force that steadies the story and keeps it grounded.

The story itself can be easily summarized: In the middle of nowhere Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug transaction gone wrong and finds the money that about a half a dozen people have been killed over. After taking it home, he does something fundamentally stupid, which results in the people who want that money knowing who has it. The person who wants the money most is Anton Chigurh (Bardem), one of the cruellest and most relentless villains ever committed to film. Llewelyn goes on the run, with Chigurh coming every moment closer, while Sheriff Bell tries to put the pieces together to save Llewelyn and catch the killer. The relationship of Bell to Chigurh is the heart of the film. Chigurh is a brutal killer who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Wandering into the crime scenes Chigurh leaves behind, Bell is simply at a loss to explain how a human being can be like this. He comes to believe that it is a generational thing, that society is simply going awry. However, his brother points out to him that people have always done harm to others senselessly – it isn’t just a sign of the times. This is why the ending is appropriate – Bell is the old man for whom there is no country. The world to which he has always belonged (law enforcement) no longer makes sense to him and, leaving it, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to relate to the rest of the world either. The dream he describes at the end is the essence of what the rest of his life is going to be like – there’s nothing for him to do now but stay on the trail and catch up with his father in the hereafter.

This is a film that’s being described as a crime thriller, but I think it has a lot in common with the westerns that came out in the 60s and 70s that centre on the idea of the “dying west,” the wild west that’s tamed by the coming of railroads and society, and which leaves no room for the hero – only here the trope is reversed. Instead we get a hero who is part of civilized society and is pushed out and set adrift by the breakdown of that society into violence and chaos. Chigurh is the character representative of that chaos, a killer who believes that the lives he takes aren't taken as much by his hand as they are by the hand of fate. Twice he leaves the fate of potential victims to a coin toss. "This coin got here the same way I did," he explains. His last victim refuses to accept that and tries to force him to accept responsibility by refusing to call the toss. But, this isn't a man who can be reasoned with. This is a man who seems to think that if you happen to cross paths with him, then you were probably meant to die. And even though it will be by his hand, it is also ultimately out of his hands. And what is that kind of thinking if not chaotic?

This is an excellent film. The Coen brothers, who have been a little hit and miss with their output over the last decade, are at the top of their form and the entire cast is pitch perfect. The performance by Bardem is likely to be the thing people talk most about, but hopefully the quiet, solid performance by Jones will get some recognition, too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Canadian Film Review: Touch of Pink (2004)

Director: Ian Iqbal Rashid
Starring: Jimi Mistry, Suleka Mathew, Kyle MacLachlan, Kristen Holden-Ried

Where to begin describing this movie? It’s a romantic comedy. A gay one, in fact. And it’s a family drama. And it’s the story of a lonely little boy who took solace in films and grew into a man for whom Cary Grant is the ideal imaginary friend. But, when you look at the film as a whole, you see that these things are just the beginning, the starting point for a story that runs deeper.

The beginning of the movie sets up a juxtaposition of the real and the artificial. Cary Grant (MacLachlan) addresses us, the audience and then skates with Alim (Mistry) on a frozen pond. But, it isn’t really Cary Grant who is addressing us, it’s Alim’s vision of Grant (who, incidentally, employed a little artifice of his own when he changed his name from Archibald Leach to the more movie star sounding name by which we know him), the one he’s built up and created in his head. And the ice that they’re skating on is part of the set on the film where Alim works. The interplay of real and unreal continues as we watch Alim create an artificial life for himself for the benefit of his mother, Nuru (Mathew), in order to hide the reality of his relationship with Giles (Holden-Ried). When his mother flies from Canada to London to meet his “fiancée,” his pretend life becomes more elaborate and he presents Giles’ sister as his bride-to-be. Of course the truth eventually comes out and the romantic relationship breaks up – all standard movie stuff. But, in the process of this happening, we begin to see beneath the surface story to the real story that’s being told.

After Nuru’s husband died, she left Alim with her sister and brother-in-law in order to go to London herself to try to make it. Young and full of life, she wanted to be like Audrey Hepburn, only to discover that London didn’t want an Indian Audrey Hepburn. During the course of an afternoon spent with Giles, we get a greater sense of her resentment and her disappointment and even to a certain extent her fear of being rejected (again) by a predominantly white culture (this last is most apparent in the scene where she shows reluctance to even go into a store to try on the “Audrey Hepburn outfit” displayed in the window; she doesn’t feel like she belongs in that outfit, in that world). Her anger is made evident in an early speech to Giles after he eats the breakfast she was preparing for Alim. He asks if they can start over, be friends. She says no, she’s reached her quota of friends, ending, “People like you probably don’t hear that often.” You could say that Giles is wrong for assuming that the breakfast was for him, but think about this: why did she let him eat it? Why didn’t she tell him that it was for Alim only? She obviously isn’t shy of him. Has she gone out of her way to create a reason to be angry with him? I think that’s a strong possibility.

And look now at Alim. In many ways he has succeeded where his mother failed. He’s made a place for himself in a predominantly white world, but in doing so he’s had to reject many aspects of his own heritage. He’s distant from his family, not just geographically, but psychically, and the person he most identifies with is a white movie star. If the Cary Grant character is a projection of his own thoughts and point of view, what to make of the following scene: Alim returns to Canada to attend his cousin’s wedding. In a darkened hallway, Cary Grant appears to him dressed in an elaborate costume, explaining, “It’s an Indian wedding, so I thought Gunga Din…” Does he only see his culture as filtered through depictions in Hollywood films and, thereby, from the point of view of white men? Alim’s struggle in the film isn’t really with coming out, it’s with trying to balance the two sides of his psyche.

This is a very funny film (my favourite scene: Alim’s uncle sees him and Giles hugging. He shrugs, hugs them both then asks, “Was there a hockey match? Did Canada win?"), and also a moving one. Watch the scene where Alim comes out to his mother by showing her a photo he’s taken of Giles. He does this out of anger because he’s irritated at the bond his mother has started to make with Giles, but underneath that you can see that his anger is just a cover for his fear that she’ll reject him. He’s rejecting her first. Watch the way that she understands what he’s getting at without him quite saying it, and then… lives up to his fears and rejects him. Mistry and Mathew give solid performances as the son attempting to break away, but longing to be pulled back and accepted, and the mother who, for all her faults, is really just being protective of him, afraid that his failure to assimilate will wound him as deeply as it did herself. MacLachlan, too, should be noted for his performance. His Cary Grant impression isn’t perfect, but it’s not supposed to be - he’s not playing Cary Grant the man, he’s playing Cary Grant the persona, the idea that Alim has of him from his movies (the title of this movie, Alim’s movie, if you will, is a play on the title of a Grant film, That Touch of Mink). It’s perhaps fitting, then, that this film has a conventional movie ending. For someone as wrapped up in the magic of Golden Age Hollywood as Alim, it couldn't be any other way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Thoughts On Sweeney Todd

I’ve noticed that a few Oscar watching sites have started predicting a Sweeney Todd sweep. Admittedly I haven’t seen the film (though I am looking forward to it), but I’m… not convinced that this is going to be a film that the Academy embraces outside of the technical categories, and I've got a couple of reasons:

1. In recent years the Academy has decided that it likes Johnny Depp, but I wouldn’t expect that same amity to extend to Tim Burton. Burton’s too “weird,” too focused on style, too whatever. Maybe if Depp gets nominated as Best Actor the film and its director could get nominations as well but it’s a very crowded year in the Best Actor race and Depp isn't exactly one to campaign for awards, so I wouldn't be shocked if he was left out.

2. Although a musical revival was declared after Moulin Rouge! was nominated for 8 Oscars in 2001 and Chicago dominated the 2002 Oscars, the Academy hasn’t exactly been latching onto musicals since. The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, and Dreamgirls were all released at about this time in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively, and all failed to connect with the Academy in the big categories. All were also (like Sweeney) stage to film adaptations, which isn’t in and of itself bad news – Gigi (1958), West Side Story (1962), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), and the aforementioned Chicago all made their way from stage to film; in fact, the only two original musicals to win are The Broadway Melody (1929), and An American In Paris (1951) – but the Academy’s rejection of stage musicals in recent years could be an indication that they don’t necessarily care for recycled Broadway hits. It should perhaps also be noted that of the 8 musicals to win Best Picture, only three of them (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oliver!) are dramas, and Sweeney will most definitely be a drama.

3. Hype. Dreamgirls was hyped as the film to beat all last year… until people actually saw it. The year before, Memoirs of Geisha was much talked about and anticipated only to fail to meet expectations. Sweeney released its teaser trailed during the Super Bowl, which means it will have had nearly a year of advance hype before being widely seen. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this film ended up being built up so much that it can ultimately do nothing but fail.

4. Competition. I sincerely doubt that we’ll see two musicals nominated for Best Picture in a single year any time soon. I also doubt that Hairspray or Across the Universe have a serious chance, but Once could very well be the little film to beat this year and if a strong enough campaign is mounted for it, I think Sweeney will be in trouble. Once is an original musical that had fantastic critical reception, and which will have had nearly an entire year to build its audience by the time of nominations are being made. Once is the antithesis of Sweeney, the David to its Goliath… and who could resist that story?

I’m holding out hope that Sweeney will live up to its hype, but I think that ultimately the things that are going to make it so great – the moodiness, the style, the usual Tim Burton hallmarks – are also going to be the things that snuff out its chances at Best Picture.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Review: Lars and the Real Girl

There are comedies that work because they have contempt for their characters and openly invite us to mock and scorn them, and there are comedies that work because their love for their characters is so absolute, that the audience can’t help but fall in love with them, too. Lars and the Real Girl is a film full of such warmth and kindness that you never want it to be over.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a shy and awkward person who lives in the garage beside the family home where his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), live and are expecting their first baby. Lars keeps to himself to such an extent that Karin is convinced that something is wrong and is constantly urging him to come over to the house to spend time with them. He politely declines, always with a lame excuse. One night he comes to them. He has a visitor, he explains, and he’d like to bring her over. Gus and Karin aren’t quite sure what to make of Bianca, a Real Girl sex doll that Lars has ordered over the internet – not for sex, but for companionship. Lars treats Bianca as if she’s a real person. The local psychiatrist (Patricia Clarkson) encourages Gus and Karin to go along with his delusion because it isn’t hurting anyone, and soon the rest of the town is going along with it as well, embracing Bianca as part of the community (at one point Lars is asked what his plans are for Friday and he says, “I have a school board meeting. Bianca got elected, so…”).

This is a plot that could go wrong in so many ways – it could be too twee, too broad, or turn crude – but it manages to hit all the right notes. Lars is never treated like the town freak – some citizens are hesitant, at first, to accept Bianca, but soon she’s a regular at church services and “volunteering” at the hospital while Lars is at work; and we slowly come to understand why he has created this delusion for himself. We also come to understand that what he’s doing isn’t objectively that weird. Yes, he is carrying on conversations with a doll, but look at two of his coworkers: one has a collection of action figures around his desk, another keeps small stuffed bears. A war of sorts breaks out between them as each messes with these things that are so precious to the other. Is Lars’ attachment to Bianca fundamentally that different from their relationships to their toys?

Another reason why the film works so well is that every actor is exactly right for his or her role, especially Gosling. We believe that he thinks Bianca is a real person, that they’re having a real relationship, but we don’t think that he’s crazy. We see his despair and his loneliness and we come to understand him, rather than judge him. There are not a lot of actors who could have played this role and found so fine a balance between comedy and tragedy. Schneider is good as the brother, worried about what the town will think and worried also that he’s to blame for Lars’ predicament. Mortimer and Clarkson are excellent in quiet, gentle roles, each trying to help the brothers come to terms with the still unresolved past.

There is sadness in this film, but there is also comedy and there is hope. You’ll leave the theater feeling good because you’ll know that Lars is going to be okay, because he lives in a place where people will help him make it so. This isn’t a film that toys with you or manipulates you with cheap sentiment. This is a film that approaches its material with such sincerity, such natural laughs and such natural heartbreak, that you simply let yourself be carried along with it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review: La Vie En Rose

They say that when you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Those of us who’ve never had such an experience tend to think that this means a chronological account of events, but why should it be so? The unconscious mind works in ways we don’t understand. It makes connections that might at first seem absurd, it holds on to things we think unimportant and lets go of things we’ve vowed to remember. Knowing this is the first step to understanding La Vie En Rose, which is told less as a story, and more as a series of moments feeding into one another.

The film follows the life of Edith Piaf, her rise to fame as a singer, and her death at the age of 47. It’s amazing to realize that Piaf was only 47 when she died. In the film we see her crippled by arthritis and other illnesses – some of which naturally befall her, others she brings on through hard living – barely able to move, but insisting that she’s well enough to go onstage. For Piaf, not being able to sing is tantamount to being dead, so there’s little point in living if she can’t be onstage. By the end of the film, we understand why. Most of Piaf’s life is spent being abandoned by the people she loves, or otherwise torn away from them. But when she’s onstage people come to her, people want her, and it gives her a reason to carry on. Why else would she push so hard to get back in front of her audience, killing herself to share her gift with them?

I’ve heard the film described as being “jagged” and “jarring,” and so it is. You don’t leave the film feeling like you know the life of Edith Piaf, so much as you leave feeling as if you know the person of Edith Piaf. Large portions of her life are omitted from the film – there is no mention, for example, of her resistance work during World War II – and there are characters who depart in the early stages of her life (her mother and, later, her sister) and reappear later without any explanation as to how such a thing came about, but that’s in keeping with the central element of the film’s structure. “I’m losing my memory,” Piaf laments on her deathbed. “There are things I’m trying to remember, and other things keep coming to the surface.” What we’re seeing are her memories as they come back to her, and memory doesn’t flow according to our understanding of time or the principles of storytelling. Instead of giving us the story of a character, director Olivier Dahan has given us the essence of a character so that she’s a person existing in her own right, rather than as the center of a narrative.

Even if you’ve never heard of Piaf, there is a very good reason to see this film and it goes by the name of Marion Cotillard. This is an absolutely astonishing performance. Two other actresses play Piaf at various stages of childhood, but Cotillard carries the bulk of the picture, playing Piaf from the age of twenty onwards. It’s difficult at times to believe that the same actress who plays Piaf at twenty, singing on street corners in order to avoid having to turn to prostitution, is the same actress playing Piaf at the end of her life, looking decades older than her actual age, the life slowly fading out of her. It isn’t a trick that can be attributed to makeup; it’s all in the performance. Cotillard doesn’t simply play Piaf, she completely embodies her. It’s in the eyes, so large you can’t help but be drawn to them, at once hopeful that finally happiness is on its way, scared that some new tragedy will befall her, and yet defiant of anything or anyone that might stand in her way. She wants to be liked, but if she isn’t, that’s not as much her fault as it is the failure of her audience to appreciate her. The film itself can perhaps be described in the same terms. Those seeking a traditional biopic may leave disappointed. But those seeking simply to see a showcase for the most exhilarating performance of the year, will leave very satisfied indeed.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Canadian Film Review: Punch (2002)

Director: Guy Bennett
Starring: Sonja Bennett, Michael Riley, Meredith McGeachie, Marcia Laskowski

“Do you know what the sign out there says? Topless. Female. Boxing. That makes me the entertainment.” So says Julie (McGeachie), a boxer and anger management candidate in Guy Bennett’s intense drama Punch. Julie finds her job empowering and gets some satisfaction out of the fact that she’s never lost a match. However, there’s little doubt about why the patrons of the bar come to watch her, and it isn’t to appreciate her athleticism. Is she empowered or exploited? And, more importantly, is the film itself about female empowerment, or simply about exploitation?

The story centers on Ariel (Bennett), a teenager who has been expelled from school for fighting, and who has a relationship with her widower father, Sam (Riley), that’s just a little too close for comfort. When Sam brings Mary (Laskowski), whom he’s been quietly dating, home to meet Ariel, tensions mount until finally exploding when Ariel punches Mary in the face. Julie, Mary’s sister, is initially bent on revenge but is willing to settle for an apology – from both Sam and Ariel – to Mary. How the terms of the apology are met, or fail to be met, brings about the climax of the film, which culminates with two knock down, drag out fights.

The strength of this film is not in its story – which is thin in places – but in its characters. Ariel is angry and resentful (more so than most teenagers), but not without reason. The circumstances of her mother’s death, and the way that her father has allowed her to become accustomed to being the only woman in his life for so long, contribute to the ways in which she lashes out with physical violence, and with inappropriate sexual advances (at one point she talks Sam, who is a doctor, into performing a breast examination on her; at another, she crudely attempts to seduce her tutor in Sam’s bed). Julie, too, has a reason for her anger, though she channels it better, if not necessarily more constructively, than Ariel does. She also intends, at some point, to stop whereas Ariel seems intent on being angry forever. Julie informs Mary that she’ll stop boxing as soon as she loses. “You and your rules,” Mary replies, shaking her head. As for Mary and Sam, they’re both essentially good, nice people who find themselves overpowered by the stronger personalities possessed by Julie and Ariel. The trajectory of their relationship is believable, given the circumstances of the film. Also believable is the way that Ariel and Julie resolve their differences. Ariel makes a proposition which Julie declines – not because she doesn’t want to accept, but because she’s come to recognize the unhealthy patterns in her own life. The only thing left for them to do is fight it out in what proves to be an incredibly brutal scene.

The film is interesting in the way that it balances power amongst its characters. Julie and Ariel are the most active and dominant characters, while the primary male characters, Sam and Irwin, the bartender where Julie boxes, are passive characters who take on caretaking roles with their families. Sam, certainly, is not a fighter. In a confrontation with Julie, he threatens to find his bat rather than imply that he’d be a match for her in hand-to-hand combat. This is a film that is continually subverting traditional gender roles.

It is also a film that uses nudity and sexuality to challenge the audience. One of the hurdles that must be overcome in watching this film is the knowledge that Guy Bennett and Sonja Bennett aren’t a director and an actress who coincidentally share the same last name. This is a drama about a girl who has sexually confused feelings about her father, in which the lead actress is being directed by her father. Knowing that will make you uncomfortable, but even when you don’t (as I didn’t before seeing the film), the film will still make you uncomfortable. Initially I thought that this was because there was a lot of nudity in the film. However, upon reflection I’ve realized that it isn’t the quantity of it, but the in-your-face quality of it. There is a certain degree of brutality in the way Ariel disrobes for her attempted seduction, and (obviously) in the boxing scenes. Women aren’t “supposed” to behave like this and to see it at all, let alone in a film written and directed by a man, is somewhat shocking. This isn’t a film that’s concerned with being “sexy” or that exploits the female body by teasing and titillating. This is a film that deals with its nudity in a very matter of fact way, almost daring you to find something about it that could be taken as a turn on.

This isn’t an easy film – it challenges the viewer, and the viewer’s expectations, in many ways – but it is a good, albeit flawed, one. It’s the sort of film that stays with you after you’ve seen it, which is exactly how you should judge it: not immediately, but after taking a few days to consider it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


When Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005 and nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, it was hailed as a watershed moment in Hollywood history: finally, mainstream cinema was embracing films with gay characters in the lead, and gay love stories at the center. Given that Capote and Transamerica were both released in the same year (and earned acting nods for their leads, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Felicity Huffman), it might have seemed for a moment like Hollywood was ready to come out of the closet. But, two years later, where are the gay characters in cinema? (and, no, 300 doesn’t count)

There is no doubt that Brokeback is an important film, primarily because it is a mainstream Hollywood picture, and because it stars two rising young actors – both of whom conform to mainstream ideals of masculinity – and it subverts conceptions of one of the most traditional and revered of American icons, the cowboy (more on that later). However, it is also apparent Brokeback’s impact on Hollywood is - and was even at its release - fairly small. Consider that some members of the Academy, most notably Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis, refused to even watch the film due to its subject matter (I mean, Tony Curtis, of the Spartacus bathtub scene? Come on). Brokeback is certainly a good film and definitely deserved to be nominated (and win, in my opinion), but if 2005 had been a stronger year for films, I think that it would have been left out of Oscar’s top five. It was lucky enough to be released in a year when the Academy had too few choices, and so grudgingly accepted it as a nominee, and then handed the award to Crash, a film that’s about as subtle and nuanced as a bullet in the head.

The problem for Brokeback is that it centers on two characters who aren’t stereotypically gay. These are “straight acting” (well, except for the gay sex part) guys, and that makes straight guys nervous. For a gay male character to be diffused in cinema, he has a) be so flamboyantly gay and over-the-top that no one would think he was straight, b) be the best friend to the female lead in a romantic comedy, c) have HIV, or d) be evil and die at the end. There isn’t any place in mainstream cinema for gay men who might look straight. For lesbian characters, it’s the exact opposite. In mainstream films lesbians are always the femmy, straight male ideal of a lesbian, and always paired with another femmy chick. The only time you ever seen a butch lesbian in mainstream film is when they’re the punch line to a joke. What does all this show? That the only lateral move that Hollywood has made in terms of gay subject matter is to capitalize on straight male fantasies.

In the wake of Brokeback subverting ideas about cowboys, we’re now seeing a re-emergence of the Western genre (which has been periodically re-emerging and fading away again since the 1980s) and the reclaiming of the cowboy character as an icon of straight masculinity (not that I think this can be entirely contributed to Brokeback; after all there’s a self-styled cowboy in the White House, and it’s only natural that at a time when the U.S. is feeling threatened on all sides and from within, that Americans would drift back towards the archetype of the solitary figure standing up for what’s right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds). Meanwhile, gay characters elsewhere in Hollywood are… back to where they were before Brokeback: non-existant.

I hold out hope that someday mainstream films will feature gay characters as prominently as they do, say, klutsy/neurotic romantic heroines. Until then, however, I’ll continue to make do with smaller, harder to find films that are willing to show gay characters as complex human beings, rather than an assembly of stereotypes and jokes. On that note, here’s a heads up for likeminded Canadian film fans: later this year will see the release (maybe even in a theater or two!) of Breakfast with Scot, a drama/comedy centering on a gay male couple, one half of whom is the most Canadian of cultural icons: the NHL hockey player.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Review: Lust, Caution

The key to this film is patience. It unfolds itself slowly, taking its time and allowing the story to be buoyed by the emotions that have been built up underneath it. Part spy thriller, part erotic drama, and part tragic love story, this is a beautiful and thoroughly engaging film, a subtle masterpiece.

It takes place in Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II. A young student (Wei Tang), known as Wang Jiazhi to her friends and later as Mrs. Mak, joins a handful of other students in an effort to undercut the Japanese hold on Hong Kong by going after Chinese collaborators. Posing as Mrs. Mak, the wife of a successful importer-exporter, she’s able to befriend Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), the wife of their target (Tony Leung). It becomes apparent quickly that Mr. Yee is attracted to his wife’s new friend and as he drifts closer to her, so too does he drift closer to danger. One day, without warning, the Yees depart, and something brutal and tragic happens, causing Wang/Mak to flee. Three years later, her old friends catch up with her. They’re now part of a larger, better organized resistance group which they bring her into. Soon Wang/Mak is reuinted with the Yees and staying as a guest in their house. Soon after that she becomes Mr. Yee’s mistress.

The film has been rated NC-17 for the graphic nature of its sex scenes, but these scenes are not gratuitous. In the long build up to their first encounter, we see Mr. Yee only at a distance, far removed and mysterious. It is during their sexual encounters that we begin to get an idea of Yee’s real character, and sense the ways in which both characters are letting their guards down and becoming more invested in the relationship than either can afford to be. This isn't sex for sex's sake; it's to show us how these two people are connecting in spite of themselves and their desire to remain unnatached to each other.

This is a game of cat-and-mouse, and we're never quite sure who is playing which part. She is spying on him, but there’s a suggestion that he might suspect her and has already turned the tables, most effectively conveyed in a scene where he fondles her in the back of a car while telling her about the resistance cell that was broken up that afternoon, which is his excuse for being late. Earlier in the film she invites him into her house. He resists, which saves his life. Did he suspect her that early, and is that the reason for his sudden departure? We don't find out. Later we're forced to ask ourselves if he really suspected her at all, or if he just buried his suspicions under his feelings for her. Mahjong is used as a metaphor for the larger game that is being played. “I always lose,” Wang/Mak tells Mr. Yee, “except when I play with you.”

This is a wonderful film, beautifully photographed, well-acted, and featuring a haunting score by Alexandre Desplat, who was nominated last year for scoring The Queen and will hopefully be recognized again this year. Ang Lee proves himself once again to be a masterful, powerful storyteller. He’s not a director who relies on a lot of flash; instead he carefully crafts quiet images that stay with you. The final shot of the film tells you everything you need to know: these people are shadows, always playing some version of themselves – to be themselves is the most dangerous thing they can do.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Review: American Gangster

This is a good movie that could have been two great movies. As it is, the film is so packed with all the stories that director Ridley Scott wanted to tell, that it’s difficult at times to fully engage with it. And to top it off, it just sort of… ends, as if Scott came to the final scene and said, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And even at the end, it’s still trying to tell you more story.

There are two main storylines that run parallel to each other, that of rising gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), and that of an honest cop, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), out to stop the drug trade. There’s also a smaller sub-story (which feeds into both of the main ones), which follows a gang of crooked cops led by a Special Officer named Trupo (Josh Brolin). The film stretches itself thin by trying to follow all these plots, so that we’re barely comfortable with one set of characters before we’re thrust in with another, and we’re left feeling like we didn’t really get to know any of them more than superficially.

That’s the downside of the film, but there’s a lot of good in it, and a lot which makes it worth seeing. Washington gives a fantastically layered performance as a man who is good and kind to his mother and his wife, and capable of the most brutal violence when it comes to others. He’s a man who wants to be seen as a provider to his community when he hands out turkeys at Thanksgiving, but fails to see how he’s also destroying that community by sending drugs out into it. To him, the bad things are just a part of business, and that’s the meat of the story, the thing that gets lost somewhat at the end when the film turns its focus to police corruption.

The film begins in 1968 with Frank’s boss lamenting the evolution of mom-and-pop stores into chain stores which cut out the suppliers by buying directly from the source. When he dies and leaves Frank to pick up the pieces of the enterprise, Frank tailors it to fit the changing market place. Frank, too, will cut out the suppliers and make his fortune and gain his power by buying directly from the source. He goes to Bangkok where his cousin is stationed and they make an arrangement to buy pure heroin and ship it back to the United States in the coffins of dead soldiers. Frank sells his product for half of what other dealers are charging, and soon he’s got a monopoly on the market. He’s a capitalist in the fullest sense of the word. If it weren’t for the fact that his product was heroin, he’d be considered just another businessman (and a very good one, at that), rather than a gangster.

The thing that keeps him going for so long is the fact that he does look like just another businessman. He dresses in nice suits and looks respectable and advises his brother not to dress flashy because “it’s like saying, ‘Arrest me.’” The most dangerous people in this film are the people like Frank and the high level police officers: criminals who are hiding in plain sight. When Frank fails to take his own advice by donning a flashy fur coat (a gift from his wife), it leads to his downfall. People notice him in this coat – the good cop who wants to stop the drug trade by getting the major dealer, and the bad cop who is suddenly made aware that there’s someone out there who hasn’t been paying him off. Frank announces himself to the world, and then has to face consequences from all sides.

What’s good about this film is very, very good, but it simply tries to be about too much. It’s about the rise and fall of a gangster, and it’s about an honest cop trying to deal with crime on the outside and the corruption that surrounds him while also trying to fight a custody battle with his ex-wife, and it’s about social issues (there are a lot of shots of people shooting heroin and open sores and overdoses, and there is also a lot of talk of heroin and opium addicted soldiers in Vietnam), and it’s about race (part of the reason Frank is able to lay low for so long is that no one believes that a black man could gain that much power, and everyone just assumes that he’s working for someone even more powerful). There’s just so much in it that the film doesn’t explore any of it as effectively as it otherwise might have.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Elusive Canadian Film Industry

Every once in a while I find myself wondering if the Canadian film industry is dead, or if it was ever actually alive to begin with. There's certainly no shortage of Canadian films being made, but how many Canadians are actually seeing them? According to the Canadian Film and Television Production Association and Canadian Heritage reports as of 2006 only 4.4% of Canadian made films are shown in Canadian theaters. Why is it that Canadians have so little opportunity to see their own films?

The Canadian television and radio industries are guided, in part, by Canadian content policies which ensure that a portion of airtime is devoted to Canadian programming. Our film industry has no such guidelines, which means that theaters in Canada are not required to show Canadian films. There have been attempts in the past to establish content policies for the film industry, but all have come to nothing largely due to the power and influence of the American film industry. It’s no secret that a large number of American films are produced in Canada, giving them a cheaper way to produce their films and giving us a boost to our economy. The suggestion of developing content laws for the film industry brought with it the threat of fewer American productions taking place in Canada. I’ve never fully understood why there was such a strong reaction when, firstly, Canadian content policies in television and radio haven’t stopped Canadians from watching American shows or buying American records; and secondly, if the content policy was, say, ten percent, that would be perhaps one theater in a multiplex devoted to showing Canadian films, and in smaller theatres it would likely be little more than one showing of a Canadian film per week. Would it really be that big a deal, and would that much revenue really be lost? Apparently, no one wants to find out.

Of course, just because Canadian theaters don’t have to show Canadian films, doesn’t mean that they can’t, and herein lies the bigger problem, and the root to the reason why there will never be Canadian content policies for the film industry. Canadian theater owners don’t want to show Canadian films and would oppose a content law just as strongly as American film producers. This is because there’s an idea that Canadians won’t come to see their own films and, therefore, the films won’t make any money. There’s something to this, of course, because Canadians tend to think their own product inferior to that of the Americans (and there is an abundance of American film product easily available to us, which only makes it more difficult for Canadian productions to compete), until and unless the Americans embrace it first and then Canadians begin to proudly proclaim the object as theirs. When a Canadian film is celebrated in the United States then, and only then, does it begin to gain mainstream recognition in Canada. This is the major obstacle that the Canadian film industry must somehow overcome.

There’s no easy solution to this problem. Canadian films perhaps suffer in comparison to American productions because Canadian films, generally, don’t have budgets on the scale of those produced in the States. Canadian films don’t get big budgets because they tend not to make money back, they don’t make money back because they don’t get played often (or sometimes at all) in theaters, they don’t get played in theaters because they don’t make money, they don’t make money because they don’t have bigger budgets and stronger production values, which is because they don’t get enough play in theaters to set money-making precedents, and around and around. This isn’t an issue that’s likely to be resolved any time soon and if it is, it will have to be because Canadian viewers have proved that there’s a demand for their own films. Whether it’s by supporting local film festivals, or encouraging your local video store to carry more Canadian films, or even just watching the Genie Awards (which, incidentally, is a great way to find out what’s happening in Canadian cinema). We have to actively show an interest in cinematic expressions of our own culture, otherwise we will always be at the mercy of the American cinema’s stranglehold on our theaters.