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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review: The Reader (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes

The Reader is a well made film in every way but, watching it, you can’t quite escape the feeling that you’re experiencing something that’s good for you rather than something that’s necessarily good. It’s the kind of film where history is revisited, important questions are asked, and people come to terms with things – all very heavy stuff, all beautifully handled, and yet the film seems somehow too aware of its heaviness, too academic in its observances.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink that uses an affair between a teenage boy and an older woman to explore post-war guilt in Germany. That boy is Michael, played as a young man by David Kross and as an adult by Ralph Fiennes, and that woman is Hanna, played by Kate Winslet. They meet in the late 1950s when he falls ill in the street and she helps him get home. When he’s sufficiently recovered, he returns to thank her and they begin their affair, which is at first purely sexual (they don’t even learn each other’s names until they’ve had a handful of encounters) but deepens after Hanna begins asking Michael to read aloud to her as a prelude to sex.

One day Hanna abruptly disappears, which leaves Michael confused and despairing. Nearly a decade later they come back into each other’s orbit when Michael is a law student and Hanna is on trial with five other women for their actions when they were guards at Auschwitz. Michael is devastated by these revelations about Hanna and feels guilty for ever having loved her. This guilt will inform his relationships with women ever after, as he can never really bring himself to connect with anyone because he no longer trusts his own judgment. The section of the film which deals with the trial is the strongest both in terms of performance and narrative because it explores the issue of guilt and complicity in both intimate and more general terms. Hanna’s life is defined by a secret she finds shameful and which leads her to pursue a job at Auschwitz, leads her to abandon the life she was leading when she was with Michael, and eventually leads her to take the fall for her co-defendants so long as it means that she doesn’t have to admit to it. Michael comes to realize her secret and knows that it could save her from spending the rest of her life in prison but chooses to remain silent. Guilt here is not defined as action but inaction, as silence - the same silence that made the holocaust possible.

There is a conflict between Hanna and Michael’s generations centered on the legacy of the holocaust. When Hanna asks “What would you have done?” she voices the essential question of her generation, of people who were complicit either actively or through their very passivity in the face of the Nazi nightmare. It’s a question that Michael’s generation cannot comprehend because to acknowledge it as legitimate is to admit that in the worst of circumstances, they themselves might not do right. There is black and there is white and the guilt by association felt by the younger generation breeds contempt – one of Michael’s classmates suggests that the only thing to do is wipe out the previous generations and the stigma that surrounds them.

Director Stephen Daldry approaches the story with a necessary detachment - Michael is a very detached character, one who carefully compartmentalizes his life to keep any one thread from meeting another, and the narrative is moved forward by the practice of wilful ignorance, of pretending not to know or see. Fiennes is well cast as the older, haunted Michael and Kross is excellent as the younger Michael who slowly closes himself off. Per usual, Winslet is wonderful, her very movements and bearing suggesting the weight of her guilt and her shame. Her character is tricky because she at once owns her actions but doesn’t think of them as extraordinary. When asked towards the end if she ever thinks about the women from the camps who died as a result of her decisions, she shrugs. “The dead are still dead,” she says, adopting a very Leni Riefenstahl-esque attitude in noting that she can’t change the past.

For all that’s right about the film – and there’s a lot of things that are – it doesn’t quite push itself from being good to being great. It’s ultimately lacking in heart, which I think is a result of it wanting so badly to teach you important lessons. It comes so close but doesn’t quite get there.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

* * * *

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful, glossy epic about enduring love, the inevitability of loss, and the futility of fighting against the current of time. I can see from other reviews that this is proving to be a divisive film, one you either love or hate. Well, I loved it and let me tell you why:

The film traces two lives, one going backward and one going forward. First we meet Daisy (Cate Blanchett), on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital as hurricane Katrina bears down, and then, in flashback, we meet Benjamin (Brad Pitt), whom doctors give up for dead as soon as he’s born. Benjamin suffers from a strange affliction which makes it appear that he’s an old man when he’s just a baby and as time carries on it becomes clear that he’s getting physically younger with each year. He’s raised by Queenie (Taraji Henson) in a home for the elderly where he seems to fit right in and where he meets Daisy, who appears to be decades younger than him, though in actuality they were born only a few years apart. Benjamin grows down and Daisy grows up and they drift away from and back towards each other until the time finally comes when they’re about the same age.

The success of the film rests largely on the ability of Pitt and Blanchett to play the span of decades, which both accomplish with admirable skill. Obviously makeup and computer graphics have been used to aid in their physical transformations, but these are performances that add up to a lot more than visual trickery. Pitt’s role is especially difficult because the younger he looks, the older he must seem and he imbues Benjamin with the quiet wisdom of a man who has seen and experienced much and solemnly accepts that things change and that sometimes holding on to the past does more damage than good. Blanchett is luminous, particularly as Daisy attempts to negotiate the shifting balance in her relationship with Benjamin as he becomes more youthful and “perfect” while she grows older as less perfect.

The film is based on the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald but departs from it pretty significantly. In fact, the only things the two works really have in common are the premise, the name of the protagonist and the title, which isn’t a bad thing because while Fitzgerald’s piece is well-written, it’s ultimately quite frivolous and lacking in resonance. The film, on the other hand, is very moving once you get past the fact that it’s been built on a template borrowed from Forrest Gump (both screenplays were written by Eric Roth). There were moments when I felt that Button was a bit derivative, but it ultimately won me over, which is no mean feat given that it reminded me of a movie that I loathe. But while Gump is hung on a maudlin string of too clever by half pop culture references, Button doesn’t spend half its running time winking at you.

I doubt that even the greatest champion of this film would argue that it’s without its flaws. With a running time of nearly 3 hours it’s long and there is a lot of fat that could have been trimmed from it. You could also argue that the longest section of the story concerns Benjamin and Daisy when they’re at their least interesting – during that sweet spot where they’re level with each other in terms of age. I would certainly agree that both Pitt and Blanchett are at their best as the elderly versions of their characters, and I would also agree that it occasionally wanders too far into the realm of sentimentality. All that being said, however, it struck a chord with me and I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

* * * *

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel

It’s strange that a movie which begins with scenes of torture, which traces a life of poverty and brutality, can end up being so uplifting, but that’s the magic of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did; I figured I’d react in much the same way I reacted to Juno, another movie I didn’t get the chance to see until after it had received a mountain of praise: it’s good, but it’s not that good. Well, Slumdog is that good.

The story is cut up into two threads which will eventually merge. In the present day Jamal (Dev Patel) is a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, being viciously questioned by the police on suspicion that he’s cheated his way to the million dollar question. As they go through the questions he’s been asked, he explains how he knew the answers, relating the story of his life in the process. This method of storytelling isn’t particularly groundbreaking but Boyle breathes life into it, running many of the flashback scenes at a frenetic pace and a sometimes startling intensity. The present day scenes act not only to break up the story into digestible pieces, but also offer the opportunity to catch your breath.

Jamal has had a hard life. Orphaned at a young age, he and his brother, Salim, live a vagabond lifestyle, having various adventures as they try to survive and make a place for themselves in the world. Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), a fellow orphan, becomes a point of contention between the brothers and the driving force in Jamal’s life. She proves elusive to Jamal, always, somehow, slipping through his fingers. The older they grow, the further away from him Latika seems to drift and Boyle consistently films her to emphasize that distance and the mirage-like facet of her being, showing her reflected in mirrors, through glass which distorts her image – she’s more dream than reality for Jamal.

Though the fairytale romance – with Jamal cast as the pauper turned prince and Latika as the captive princess – is the driving force giving shape to the narrative, underneath the romantic sheen is the harsher reality. The film never looks away from the poverty which surrounds Jamal and the very ordinariness of children playing (and living) in heaps of garbage makes it all the more jarring. As Jamal grows and Bombay becomes Mumbai and globalization takes hold, transforming the skyline with big, modern buildings, the poverty remains. When Jamal and Salim meet again as adults at the top of a building under construction, Salim points to an area of the city below them and states that their slum used to be there. It’s a business district now, a sign of progress sweeping through the city – but with all this progress the people at the lowest echelons of society haven’t been raised out of poverty, they’ve just been moved further to the fringes. Things are just as bad as they’ve ever been; you just have to look for it in a different place now.

This movie reminded me a little of Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God - though Slumdog is about ten times less depressing, perhaps because its ending is less realistic. The optimism of the film’s conclusion works, though, because rather than deriving from material gains (Jamal never seems like he cares much about the money), it stems from the connection between one human being and another, which has no monetary value and which I think everyone can relate to on some level. It’s a fantastical story, but also very human and that’s what makes it so powerful.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Last Scenes: Gone With The Wind

Year: 1939
Director: Victor Flemming
Great Because... This scene pretty much encapsulates everything I love about Scarlett O'Hara. She loses Rhett, feigns being helpless, cries for a moment and then pulls herself together, picks herself up and starts to formulate a plan. That's the scrappy heroine I love!

Scarlett goes through a lot in this story: she loses Ashley to Melanie, she's widowed twice, escapes Atlanta as it burns, kills a Union soldier, loses her daughter, and realizes that she loves Rhett only when it's too late. Rhett, fed up with Scarlett's mistreatment, walks out on her, refusing to hear her out as she declares that things will be different now. When asked what she's supposed to do without him, he utters those immortal words: "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."

If the film had ended right there, it would be great, but it goes a step further to become classic. Rhett walks out the door and disappears into the mist, leaving a tearful Scarlett behind. She collapses on the stairs, lost - but only for a moment. She remembers her father's words about Tara, the family home: "Tara! Home. I'll go home. And I'll think of some way to get him back. After all... tomorrow is another day."

I love this scene because it demonstrates what I think is really admirable about Scarlett: for all her scheming and manipulation and general petulance and entitlement, she's never one to wallow in her misery. No matter how dire the circumstances, she always finds a way to pull herself through, possessing the kind of strength that female characters aren't often allowed. She might want a man, but she doesn't need one because she can take care of herself. It's the optimism, the unyielding belief in herself that is expressed in the last lines which makes Scarlett such a great character and makes this such a great ending.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Lucid (2005)

* * *

Director: Sean Garrity
Starring: Jonas Chernick, Callum Keith Rennie, Michelle Nolden, Lindy Booth

If you’ve ever wondered what you’d end up with if The Sixth Sense and Vanilla Sky had a baby, this might be the movie for you. Lucid is a technically solid and well-made mystery/thriller, albeit one that tips its hand a little too early. That being said, even if you can put the pieces together before the film intends, you can still appreciate the way that writers Sean Garrity (who also directs) and Jonas Chernick (who also stars) have constructed their story.

Joel Rothman (Chernick) is a therapist with a plethora of problems: his wife has left him, his 9-year-old daughter doesn’t understand and has taken to sleep walking, roads prove to be hazardous whenever he’s behind the wheel, he’s convinced that he hears cursing in his daughter’s cartoons, and he’s suffering from insomnia. He’s a therapist in name only; his job is to discharge patients to other doctors. When his boss informs him that he’s being transferred from Winnipeg to Gimli, he comes up with a way to stay by insisting that his latest trio of patients is in need of his assistance. His three patients – Victor (Callum Keith Rennie), Chandra (Michelle Nolden) and Sophie (Lindy Booth) – are all showing signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They’re suffering from delusions, unable to distinguish reality from dreams, convinced that they’ve been encountering “repeaters” – people who seem to replicate so that you see them everywhere, sometimes twice in one place. His boss warns him that all three have the potential to become violent, but Joel is certain that he can help them, even as the situation begins to spiral out of control.

Victor is convinced that he, Chandra and Sophie are the objects of a mass conspiracy and that Joel is either part of that conspiracy or another victim. Joel struggles to convince Victor, who is becoming increasingly violent, otherwise while also trying to keep Sophie from committing suicide, and trying to keep his daughter from wandering away in her sleep. Things come to a head in a big way when all the mysterious occurrences in the story are solved one by one and Joel realizes that he himself is the key.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this movie. In certain respects this is a story that it very effectively told – the screenplay is tightly constructed and unwinds itself at a quick pace – but certain choices made by the filmmakers severely detract from it. I’m thinking in particular of the film’s prologue, which finds Joel’s wife and daughter busting him with another woman. At worst, the inclusion of this scene at the beginning of the film gives a lot of things away; at best it tips the viewer off that something is very off-kilter in Joel’s life and that his point-of-view can’t be entirely trusted. This scene plays out again at the end as a means of explaining things and the film itself would be much better if it only played at the end, rather than acting as bookends.

The relationship between Joel and his three patients also presents something of a problem, depending on your perspective. What these three people are, or are not, is left open to interpretation which some viewers will like and others will find maddening. Personally, the openness is one of the things I appreciated about the film because I think it adds dimension to the story. Overall, despite its problems, I think this is a fine film – a genre film to be certain, but one of higher than average quality.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

20 Actresses Meme

Another meme is making the rounds, in this one you choose you 20 favourite film actresses. Thanks to Ibetolis over at Film For The Soul for the tag. After much deliberation, here are my picks:

#20: Mary Louise Parker

#19: Jane Lynch

#18: Juliette Binoche

#17: Elizabeth Taylor

#16: Cate Blanchett

#15: Diane Keaton

#14: Queen Latifah

#13: Frances McDormand

#12: Faye Dunaway

#11: Marilyn Monroe

#10: Emma Thompson

#9: Catherine Deneuve

#8: Naomi Watts

#7: Audrey Hepburn

#6: Vivien Leigh

#5: Meryl Streep

#4: Ingrid Bergman

#3: Kate Winslet

#2: Bette Davis

#1: Greta Garbo

Since I'm coming into this a little late I'm not going to tag anyone (it seems like it's spread pretty thoroughly through blogdom anyway), but if you haven't been tagged yet and want to play along, feel free to join in. And if you want a little extra challenge I see that Wendy over at Movie Viewing Girl has extended the challenge to include 20 favourite actors.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Review: Milk (2008)

* * * *

Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsh

As wonderful as Gus Van Sant’s film is, it’s sad to think that its subject is still so very relevant. Harvey Milk was assassinated 30 years ago, but gay rights remains a battleground issue and ignorance and hatemongering are still tools powerful enough to disenfranchise an entire segment of the population in a society founded on the principal of equality. Though Milk’s untimely end was tragic, the film itself is triumphant, a celebration of the power that people have to make a difference. With its message of hope and unity, Milk is the right movie at the right time.

The film begins with Milk (Sean Penn) dictating a message in the event of his assassination. Throughout the story Van Sant will cut back to this scene, using it to tie the segments of the film together. In the story proper we first meet Milk in New York, where he celebrates his 40th birthday by picking up Scott Smith (James Franco) in the subway. Together Milk and Smith move to San Francisco, where they live a hippie lifestyle and open a camera store. Faced with the threat of discrimination from other shop owners in addition to the police and local government, Milk takes his first steps into the realm of activism, first organizing the gay community to boycott shops that aren’t gay friendly and later rallying the community to support striking teamsters, who would in turn agree to hire more gay drivers.

Milk runs for office on a number of occasions and comes a little bit closer to victory with every campaign. His political life, however, takes a heavy toll on his personal life, and his relationship with Smith becomes a casualty of his ambition. Since Smith was one of the driving forces behind the earlier campaigns, a replacement must be found and Milk shocks his crew by choosing Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill). The scene is brief, but it does something important: it acknowledges the rift between men and women within the gay community (“My girlfriends say you guys don’t like women. Just asking, is there a place for us in all this, or are you scared of girls?” Kronenberg asks) and emphasizes Milk’s desire to unite and speak not just for gay men, but for all people who aren’t represented in government. This time Milk wins, gaining a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Also elected to the board is Dan White (Josh Brolin), who at first appears to be a potential ally but grows increasingly hostile to Milk, whose political star shines while White’s quickly fizzles out.

The relationship between Milk and White is complicated, to say the least. Even as he’s trying to form a political alliance with Milk, White tries to make it clear that he’s a “family values” kind of guy - though Milk thinks that perhaps he doth protest too much. The defining factor, though, seems to be less homophobia than simple jealousy. Milk gets things done, accomplishing things which make his constituents happy and elevating him to heroic status, while White finds himself in the political wilderness, without allies and entirely ineffective. Brolin is excellent as he shows White’s growing desperation; it’s a subtle performance in which many things are suggested rather than spelled out. However, much like White exists in Milk's shadow, Brolin's performance is dwarfed by the stellar turn by Penn. Penn is someone I think of as a capital “A” actor, someone whose off-screen persona suggests a high level of seriousness and intensity, a dourness that often carries over to their characters. Here, however, Penn renders a performance that is absolutely joyful. When was the last time you could say that? I have to think back to 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown to even come close to the kind of elation which he radiates in this film. Penn doesn’t simply make you empathize with Milk, he makes you understand why others look to and follow him.

A lot of biopics fall into the trap of relating the story in the manner of a laundry list of events that must be touched on, and while Milk isn’t entirely able to sidestep this element, it does manage to keep the story moving without halting over a series of “this happened and then this happened” moments. Van Sant knows the story that he wants to tell and he relates it smoothly, intercutting between dramatization and news and documentary footage, and managing to avoid becoming soggily sentimental about his subject. The Milk presented here is heroic, yes, but not perfect and not without his flaws, and the film is unafraid to point those flaws out, usually through Smith who remains an important part of Milk's life even after they've broken up.

In light of all the anti-gay legislation which passed in the United States in November, it’s hard to watch the section of the film which deals with the defeat of Proposition 6 without it feeling a little bittersweet. At the same time, however, I do feel encouraged that things are changing for the better. I remember when I saw Brokeback Mountain and there were groans of distaste at even the slightest moment of intimacy between the two men. I saw this film – which is a little more explicit than Brokeback - in a full theatre and nothing of the kind happened. In fact, the only time the audience expressed distate was every time Anita Bryant openned her hateful mouth. It’s a small thing, but progress is progress.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Best Years of Our Lives: 1960

The year 1960 falls during a period of transition in American film, coming along as the studio system was on its last legs and before the MPAA replaced the Hays Code, allowing for bolder narratives from rising auteur filmmakers. It’s a great year for film and produced a number of enduring classics, made both in America and abroad:

For starters, there’s The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s ode to the lonely that would go on to be crowned Best Picture by AMPAS.

Psycho, one of Hitchcock’s very best (and that’s a very long list indeed).

The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges’ retelling of Seven Samurai and the film which made Steve McQueen a genuine star.

Inherit The Wind, a personal favourite of mine and a showcase for top notch performances by Spencer Tracy and Frederic March.

Spartacus, written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten. A blacklisted screenwriter, Trumbo worked on the film under a pseudonym, but the film’s star Kirk Douglas would later reveal his involvement, kick-starting the beginning of the end of the blacklist period.

The Misfits, a film released in 1961 but made in 1960 and which has the distinction of being the last appearance of two bigger than life stars: Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe

Coming from the other side of the Atlantic:

Peeping Tom, the controversial horror thriller from Michael Powell that was initially lambasted by critics but has since been championed by Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert, amongst others.

L’avventura Michelangelo Antonioni’s incredibly influential masterpiece.

Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s French new wave tour de force.

Two Women, which won Sophia Loren an Oscar as Best Actress, the first time a woman had won the award for a non-english speaking role.

La Dolce Vita from the master Federico Fellini.

The Virgin Spring from that other master, Ingmar Bergman

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Mon Oncle Antoine (1971)

* * * *

Director: Claude Jutra
Starring: Jacques Gagnon, Jean Duceppe, Helene Loiselle, Lionel Villeneuve

Mon Oncle Antoine is a Canadian classic, revered in many circles as the best Canadian film ever made. I’d heard about it for years but hadn’t seen it until recently and I must say that the praise which has been heaped on it over the years is very much deserved. This is one of those quiet little movies that weaves a spell on you without your even realizing it; a film that seems simple but has hidden depths. I couldn’t recommend it more.

The film follows 15-year-old Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), who lives in a rural Quebec town circa the mid-1940s. He lives with his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) an aunt Cecile (Oliviette Thibault), as well as Carmen (Lyne Champagne), a boarder about Benoit’s age who works at Antoine and Cecile’s general store. Benoit’s life is relatively simple, seeming to consist solely of work, church, and thinking about women and ways to see them in various forms of undress. His life seems happy enough, though there’s an underlying restlessness. Benoit is on the threshold of becoming an adult, still a child in many ways but, as the film approaches its conclusion, events will transpire which will hasten his maturity. The turning point is when he accompanies Antoine, who is the town’s undertaker in addition to being the proprietor of the general store, to retrieve the body of a boy about his own age who has died of pneumonia.

The dead boy is part of the Poulin family, who figure prominently in the film. Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) is the head of the family, a proud man who resents the monopoly that English-Canadians and Americans have on the local industry. When we first meet him he’s working in the asbestos mine (which looms ominously over the town), engaged in what we assume to be a not uncommon quarrel with his boss, an Anglo who won’t speak french and wants his employees to speak english. Despite having a large family to support, Poulin walks away from the mine and accepts a position at a logging camp, insisting that things will be different now. His wife (Helene Loiselle) is doubtful and worried because it means that he’ll be away from home for months at a time, but she accepts his decision and carries on as best she can and tries to hold the family together.

Though ostensibly about Benoit’s coming-of-age, the film is also tracing the coming-of-age of the Quebecois through the Quiet Revolution and the subsequent increase in Quebecois autonomy within the province. While the film takes place prior to this period of massive social change, the attitudes which precipitated it can be read loud and clear in the story. Aside from Poulin’s troubles with Anglo authority, there are also hints of the coming change in Benoit’s relationship with Antoine. During their journey to retrieve the Poulin boy, Antoine breaks down, confessing to his nephew about the unhappiness in his life, revealing a passivity that seems to disturb Benoit. This increasingly fraught relationship between uncle and nephew is representative of a generational divide within Quebec society, when the coming generation would become active and bring about major changes at every level of society. The tragic figure in all this though is Poulin, caught between the outgoing and incoming generations and seemingly doomed to a lifetime of restlessness and discontent, waiting for the rest of society to catch up to him.

The film is written and directed by Claude Jutra (who also appears in a supporting role as a clerk at the general store) and unfolds at an easy pace. The picture he paints of this small town ruled by the mine and its owner, who in one scene rides through town magnanimously tossing Christmas gifts to the towns people until Benoit and a friend pelt him with snowballs, is finely etched, giving a firm sense of the community surrounding these characters. Gagnon is solid in the lead role, rendering a more nuanced performance than you would expect for someone so young, though the soul of the film is Loiselle. She infuses Madame Poulin with a quiet dignity and a sorrow that is haunting. For all the troubles expressed by the men in this film, it’s Madame Poulin’s mournful face that stays with you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Closer Look At Jezebel (1938) Part II

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I’m continuing with my look at William Wyler’s Jezebel. With its focus on the fall and redemption of its protagonist Julie (Bette Davis), the element that stands out is its treatment of gender. However, its treatment of race and slavery is equally interesting and directly linked to its representation of women.

Golden Age Hollywood isn’t exactly known for its sensitive and positive representations of people of color, but there are things here that particularly stand out. There are four slave characters who get to play prominent roles: Uncle Cato (Lew Payton), Zette (Theresa Harris), Gros Bat (Eddie Anderson), and Ti Bat (Matthew Beard). Each of these depictions is problematic on one level or another, especially for the way that they work to underscore the innate “badness” of Julie. The treatment and use of Zette, Julie’s maid, is particularly troubling because it links so directly to the establishment of Julie as corrupt. Julie’s red dress is the visual manifestation of her wickedness and the characters around her, including her Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) and Preston (Henry Fonda), recognize it as such. Zette, however, does not and gushes to Julie about its beauty and then agrees to help Julie in an attempt to manipulate Preston in exchange for Julie’s promise to give her the dress after the Olympus Ball. Zette’s enthusiasm for the dress is a sign of how inappropriate it is and how negative Julie’s subversion really is. In choosing the dress, Julie isn’t simply setting herself apart from other women, she’s also setting herself apart from her class and race. Julie’s dealings with Gros Bat have similar consequences. It’s Gros Bat who shows her how to sneak across the fever lines so that she can return to New Orleans, thus undermining the white, male authorities. In a world ordered according to black and white, where black is equated with bad and white is equal to good, Julie’s behaviour, which ties her so closely to the black characters, is a mark of her immorality.

Generally speaking, the film is guilty of infantalizing the slave characters. Cato, for example, is given a title of ironic deference in being called “Uncle,” but he’s also shown to be child-like in his fear of ghosts, which amuses Julie and her circle, who are themselves beyond such superstitions. Prior to this, there’s a scene in which Cato and Ti Bat are on the lookout for arrivals at the plantation in the country. The film can’t really be accused of infantalizing Ti Bat, as he is in fact a young boy, but the behaviour of Cato is indistinguishable from that of Ti Bat in this scene, implying that intellectual development amongst slaves is arrested at childhood.

Later, in what is perhaps the most egregious moment of racial insensitivity, the plantation’s slaves are gathered together to sing for the entertainment of Julie and her guests. In this depiction of slaves as jolly and carefree, the film supports anti-abolitionist justifications for slavery which hinge on the idea that not only are slaves far from mistreated but they are in fact being “protected” by their white owners. This attitude that one segment of the population is incapable of caring for itself and therefore needs to be taken under the protective wing of a stronger, more able group that will guide it with a firm hand, is an attitude applied as much to women during this era as to people of color.

In the grand scheme of the film, race and slavery play a very small role but one which is important for the way that it informs how Julie as a character is coded. In linking Julie so closely to characters that are consistently characterized as child-like, the film suggests that what Julie is ultimately lacking is maturity. Her defiance, her petulant outbursts, her scheming and plotting are not part of a genuine battle for autonomy, but an indication that she needs the guardianship she so desperately fights against. Her narrative arc, then, is not just one of redemption, but of coming-of-age. To achieve this goal she must break away from the child-like manners associated with the slave characters and align herself with the more mature minds of men like Preston without actually seeking to become the equal of men like Preston.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Closer Look At Jezebel (1938) Part I

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda

Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve never been inclined to see Bette Davis as the villain of Jezebel. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call her a hero, but at the very least she’s a victim of rigid societal rules and expectations which guarantee that no matter what she does, she’s bound to lose in some way. William Wyler’s film is interesting on a number of levels, but particularly in its exploration of the fuzzy morality which makes the oppression of entire sections of the population feasible. The picture it paints of a woman’s place in the world is bleak, but it deftly illuminates the often fraught relationship between women and “society.”

The film begins on a theme which will inform the rest of the story: Antebellum Southern chivalry. When Julie’s name is brought up in a bar as a way of teasing Buck Cantrell (George Brent), Buck takes offense to it, deeming it disrespectful. Buck challenges his rival to a duel in order to defend Julie’s honour, though he later admits that as far as he’s concerned the duel has nothing to do with Julie and everything to do with the fact that he just generally dislikes his rival. This is the first glimpse we get of “chivalry” as a means of healing wounded male pride disguised as protecting the delicate sensibilities of women, but it won’t be the last. This first scene also establishes the general opinion that Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) will need to keep “a tight rein” on Julie, his intended bride. When we first meet Julie, she’s riding a colt that hasn’t yet been broken. The implication of this is pretty clear: like the colt, Julie is wild and must be broken before she can be of any proper use.

Preston and Julie are an on-again, off-again couple who are currently on and engaged. Julie’s headstrong ways, however, are a constant stumbling block and their battle of wills comes to a head the night of the annual Olympus Ball. It is customary for all unmarried women to wear white to the ball, but Julie decides that she will wear red. Preston reluctantly escorts her to the ball and, as expected, her dress creates a scandal. People literally shrink away from her as if she has a contagious disease. There’s an interesting shot in this sequence, as Preston and Julie dance, where Davis, who is wearing a low-cut dress which leaves her shoulders bare, is framed in such a way that it appears as if she’s wearing nothing at all. She might as well be naked, she’s so indecent to the people around her. Mortified, Julie wants to leave but Preston insists that they stay, thus prolonging Julie’s humiliation. Afterward he leaves her and goes to New York to attend to business. A year later he returns to find a chastened Julie, who declares herself ready to submit to his will and judgment. There’s just one problem: he’s returned married to Amy (Margaret Lindsay), a New Yorker. Julie, however, isn’t deterred and is convinced that his marriage is only a small obstacle impeding their reunion, which she believes to be inevitable.

The relationship between Preston and Julie is closely tied to and influenced by the traditions of chivalry, which the film shows to be very contradictory in nature. Time and again the concept of a woman’s honour is invoked in order to justify bad behaviour towards women. Preston’s friend, Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp) decries the lack of “respect for Southern womanhood” in Preston’s generation by telling him that the only way to deal with a difficult woman is to beat her then buy her some jewellery to put her in her place. Following this conversation, Preston pays Julie a visit, making sure to bring a cane, which he abandons when he sees her. As the scene progresses, she puts him in his place and remarks as he leaves that he “forgot [his] stick.” It’s a scene of emasculation which suggests that a man who can’t “control” his woman isn’t really a man at all. Julie’s desire to think for herself, which means undermining the traditions and conventions of her society, is not just a sign of her “badness,” but also a reflection of Preston’s weakness.

The key scene in the film, the one which solidifies Julie’s badness, is the duel between Buck and Preston’s brother, Ted (Richard Cromwell). With some prodding from Julie, Buck and Preston spend an evening circling around each other, setting the stage for a fight. When Preston is called into the city to tend to business matters, Ted steps in to take his place and he and Buck agree to a duel. Julie, realizing that things have gotten out of hand, tries to talk them both out of it, but both stubbornly insist on following through with it. When all is said and done and Buck ends up dead, Ted rails at Julie, placing the blame firmly at her feet. What is actually a matter of obstinate male pride is chalked up to Julie’s “evil” streak. Buck and Ted are given multiple opportunities to walk away from this fight, both of them know that the reason behind it is fraudulent and contrived, and yet they’re determined to go through with it and this is Julie’s fault. Despite the fact that as a woman in 1852 she has no tangible rights and whatever power and influence she has rests precariously on her ability to live up to societal expectations, she’s held responsible for the actions of two independent men.

Even though the film endorses patriarchal norms by structuring its story around the tried and true formula of an unconventional woman who overreaches and is punished and ultimately redeemed, I think that in the final analysis, the film is on Julie’s side. Yes, she is penalized for her initial refusal to conform and for her later manipulations, but her redemption directly arises from her disobedience. Sneaking across the fever lines, she returns to New Orleans to tend to Preston and then accompanies him to the island where fever victims are being sent, an island populated by lepers. It isn’t simply a moment of redemption, it’s a moment of incredible courage in which her contravention of the rules is presented as admirable.

Since this has run on a bit long and there’s still so much I want to touch on, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Tomorrow my focus will be on the film’s problematic treatment of race and how it ties in to the film's view of gender relations.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Changeling (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich

Changeling is an effective drama from director Clint Eastwood and, like much of his work, it is a very dark film with a resolution that rests heavily on the heart. This tale of massive police corruption is, chillingly, based on a true story and one with which the filmmakers have taken relatively few liberties. At the centre of the storm is Angelina Jolie who renders a performance that mostly works but occasionally falters.

The film begins with Christine Collins (Jolie), a single mother with a 9-year-old son named Walter, whom she adores. In March of 1928 Walter disappears and for five months Christine waits on pins and needles, praying for his return and doing her own legwork, calling around to surrounding police precincts to find out if any children have turned up who match Walter’s description. When police finally locate the boy, the reunion is not a happy one. “That’s not my son,” she tells Capt. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who replies that she’s just in shock and ought to take the boy home and “try him out” for a few weeks. But the more time Christine spends with him, the more obvious it becomes that he isn’t Walter. He’s three inches shorter for one thing, circumcised for another. But the police have people on hand who can explain these things away and they begin planting stories in the paper to discredit Christine and make it seem as if she’s trying to rid herself of her son, whose absence gave her the opportunity to lead a party lifestyle.

At first Christine is just a minor irritation, but when she joins forces with Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a preacher with a radio show who has made it his goal in life to expose the corruption of the Los Angeles police department, drastic measures must be taken. Capt. Jones arranges for Christine to be committed to a mental hospital, where she meets other women who have found themselves on the losing end of a battle with the LAPD. Meanwhile, another investigation is taking place in which several missing boys are identified as the victims of a serial murderer, one of those boys being Walter Collins. This development makes things sticky for Capt. Jones, as well as the Chief of Police (played by the always welcome Colm Feore) and the Mayor, both of whom want the story to disappear as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassment and public outrage. Christine, however, is unwilling to let it go and is unconvinced that Walter is really dead.

All told, I found Jolie’s performance a little uneven. She’s very good in the film’s many quiet scenes but there are a couple of moments when she degenerates to hysterics and the performance starts to feel overly stylized. Furthermore, I didn’t really feel like she fit the role. As played by Jolie, Christine seems a little too... glamorous, even in the asylum scenes (I couldn’t help but notice that despite the fact that when she’s admitted she’s is given a bath with a firehouse, Christine’s eye makeup somehow remains intact). When Amy Ryan shows up about half-way through the film, I started to think that she would have been a better choice for the lead role, possessing as she does the “average Jane” quality that Jolie lacks.

The film itself has a few problems as well. While I found it quite effective overall, I do think that the story ends up running itself into the ground. A great deal of tension is built up during the film’s first two or so hours, but during the last half hour the story seems to wind itself out, as if it doesn’t quite know where to end. The result is a film that looks beautiful (the costumes and cinematography are especially noteworthy) but bleeds itself dry of intensity.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

* * * 1/2

Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotton, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead

The Magnificent Ambersons has the dubious honor of being Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, a film so great that it was destined to cast a long shadow over whatever came next, and so disasterous in terms of box office that it pretty much guaranteed that the studio would feel it necessary to undermine the artistic vision of its boy wonder director. Ambersons is famous for having been chopped up by the studio, which not only cut 50 minutes from it, but tacked-on a happy ending that's about as out of place as a musical number would be at the end of Saving Private Ryan. All that being said, Ambersons is still a really good movie, which is a testament to the power of Welles' vision and skill.

Adapted from the novel by Booth Tarkington, Ambersons charts the decline of a wealthy midwestern family against the changing face of America, marked by the invention of the automobile and the subsequent shift from small, cloistered communities to sprawling suburbs around urban hubs. At the head of the family is Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), whose daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello) is much sought after by the young men in town. For a time, it seems as if she will choose Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), but his wildstreak proves to be too much for her and she turns instead to the staid and dependable Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), whose eventual death is met with the declaration that he was so quiet, no one will even realize he's gone.

Isabel and Wilbur have one child, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), who runs through the town like a holy terror and knows he can get away with it because he's an Amberson (he's never referred to as a Minafer and frequently other characters call him "Mr. Amberson" and then have to correct themselves). By the time George is college-aged, Eugene returns to town and reconnects with the Isabel. Now a wealthy man, he also has a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), who falls in love with George despite his overwhelming arrogance. Although George and Eugene clash from the beginning over both the Eugene's familiarity with Isabel and his introduction of the automobile - an invention George believes to be a "nuisance" - to town, things are relatively cordial between them until George is informed of rumors that Eugene and Isabel are in love. Isabel, bound by love for her son, agrees to go away to Europe with him and breaks off her engagement to Eugene. This is the beginning of the end for the Amberson family.

I've yet to read Tarkington's novel so I don't know what to attribute to him and what to credit to Welles, but I really love the way that this story is constructed to show the incredible transition not just in this one family, but in the organization of society as a whole. It begins with a delightful voice-over by Welles, who sets a scene of Old Worldesque gentility, where everyone in town lives side by side along a handful of streets, all close together, all very much involved in each other's lives, with the Ambersons and their enormous mansion at the centre. With the introduction of cars, the population becomes decentralized; people move out and into the suburbs (getting there, incidentally, along streets named for the Ambersons), and the community becomes less closely-knit. Throughout the film it is said that people can't wait for George to finally get his comeuppance and the tragedy of the story is not that George eventually does get it, but that there's no one left who cares because everyone has forgotten about the Amberson family.

When you hear that the studio cut nearly an hour from the film, you're inclined to think that it must have been really long to begin with, but Ambersons wasn't. The original cut ran about 2 and a half hours, not an exorbitant running time at all when you consider that many "prestige" films today run to about 3 hours. The final cut of Ambersons is 88 minutes and covers a lot of ground. I could easily have sat through another 50 minutes of this movie - I would have loved to see another 50 minutes of this movie. Save for the ending, I enjoyed every moment of this film, which sparkles with life although there is the sense as it reaches its conclusion that pieces are missing. While I would never argue that it's a better film than Citizen Kane, I would say that I like it more, perhaps because it carries less academic baggage. Welles said that if the studio had left it in his hands, Ambersons would have been at least as good as Kane. I totally believe that.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Jesus of Montreal (1989)

* * * *

Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau

Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal is a thoughtful and well-constructed film which attempts to examine the relationship between people and religion, between ideas and practice. In it a passion play is staged which adheres perhaps too closely to Jesus’ teachings, starring an actor whose life begins to parallel that of the character he’s playing. It’s a film that takes religious teachings very seriously but casts a critical eye at the politics of organized religion.

Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) is an actor much admired by other actors but whose career has never taken off due to the years that he’s spent abroad. A Montreal church, recognizing that the passion play that they stage every year has become stale, hires Daniel to direct and star in a retooled version. To do this, he gathers four other struggling actors to help him: Martin (Remy Girard) and Rene (Robert Lepage), actors he finds doing voice-over work, one for a porn film and the other for an educational film; Mireill (Catherine Wilkening), an actress more appreciated for her looks than her abilities, and Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), a veteran of the passion play whom Daniel learns has been carrying on an affair with the Father Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier).

The play that the troupe puts on is not the play that the church is expecting, leading Father Leclerc to attempt to shut it down. It’s too literal, it’s too radical, and the response it provokes from the audience is too impassioned. There are members of the audience who speak to Daniel as if he really is Jesus and he himself begins to exude a different aura as events in his life begin to echo biblical stories about Jesus. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the movie is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the parallels that it’s making. Arcand obviously has a firm handle on the subject, but he never lets the material become overbearing. There is an ease with which the film puts Daniel through the paces so that it doesn’t seem contrived or forced.

Existing on the periphery of the story, orbiting around Daniel like distant satellites, are characters whose purpose is neither to follow nor to impede him, but to distort his legacy. One is a member of the media who records and shares whatever facts or rumours about Daniel will make for the best story. The other is an attorney who takes the role of Satan to Daniel’s Jesus and sees a way to use Daniel’s memory to pervert his message and make a profit. These two characters, along with the church leaders who want to shut down the play, are like shadows steadily crowding in on Daniel, obscuring the light he is trying to impart.

Anchoring the film is the quiet central performance by Blutheau. He plays Daniel with a great deal of subtlety and grace, the full scope of which didn’t even really hit me until days after I’d watched the movie. The direction by Arcand is equally assured and engaging, though I do have one qualm: the music in the film dates it ridiculously. I mean, nothing says 1980s like a soulful electric guitar solo segue from one scene to another. Other than that, though, it’s a great film from top to bottom.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: A League of Their Own (1992)

* * * 1/2

Director: Penny Marshall
Starring: Genna Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty

A League of Their Own is one of the movies that I love unconditionally and without apology. I wouldn’t ever claim that it’s one of the best movies ever made, but it’s one that I can watch over and over again without my enjoyment of it being at all diminished. It’s a sports movie rife with the usual sports movie clichés, but it’s also more than that which is perhaps why it means so much to me.

In 1942 the men are away at war and women are recruited to keep America’s national pastime alive. Two of these recruits are Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), who are sisters as well as rivals and both of whom become Rockford Peaches, joining Doris (Rosie O’Donnell) and “All The Way” May (Madonna), amongst others. The Peaches’ coach is former baseball player Jimmy Dougan (Tom Hanks), whose alcoholism makes him unfit to play anymore and whose lack of cartilage in one knee makes him unfit for service. At first Jimmy wants to coach women about as much as spectators want to see women play – which is very little, indeed. But, slowly, he and the spectators begin to come around and by the time the team is in the World Series, everyone is fully invested. However, problems between Dottie and Kit steadily increase as the season wears on, especially when it’s decided to promote Dottie as the team’s star and Kit finds herself still in her sister’s shadow.

What’s interesting about this film isn’t really the aspects of the game itself, but the feminist current that runs through it. When the men are called to war, women who until then had been socialized to marry, have children, and stay in the kitchen, are suddenly called upon to do their part and keep industry running. Women are given a purpose that was once considered solely masculine and then, at war’s end, are expected to just walk away and go back to the kitchen - the owner of the Peaches (Garry Marshall) even says as much, though the league’s promoter (David Strathairn) disagrees, arguing that the women have earned the right to continue working. The problem that all the women are facing is the struggle between social ideas about what’s expected of women and what they themselves know that they can do and be good at. Jimmy tells Dottie that she “plays like [she] loves it,” but she denies it, insisting that the moment her husband (Bill Pullman) is back, she’ll just give it up - which she does before deciding to see it through to the end of the season by playing in the last game. Dottie chooses domesticity and seems happy with it, but that’s not the choice all women want to make, and one of the points the film makes is that you can’t shift the culture into one direction when it’s convenient and then expect it to bounce right back afterwards.

Even though the women get to play baseball, there’s still an attempt by management to make sure they maintain their “femininity.” All are required to attend charm school, their uniforms consist of skirts rather than pants, and the league promotes games by doing things like offering a kiss from one of the players to anyone who catches a foul ball. These women might play like men, but they certainly aren’t treated that way. And even though by going en mass to work women made strides towards equality, the film subtly acknowledges the way that equality rarely comes to everyone at once. Women of color, after all, aren’t being afforded the same opportunity at the white women who make up the four teams of the league.

There are too many things about this movie that I love for me to really express my full admiration for it. I like the performances (even Madonna is good here) and the story and the way that the story directly addresses issues of importance. In short, it’s just a really great movie.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great Last Scenes: The Graduate

Year: 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Great Because...: There's a reason why the image of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus is one of the most iconic in film history. The ending of this movie is completely fitting, perfect right down to the expressions on Ben and Elaine's faces as the adrenaline wears off and they begin to realize what they've done.

Ben and Elaine's relationship is something of a rollercoaster ride. Neighbors since childhood, they're pushed together as adults by their parents - with one important exception. Elaine's mother, Mrs. Robinson, is adamently against the relationship but can't say why because then everyone would know that she is having an affair with Ben herself.

Ben reluctantly takes Elaine out only to fall for her in earnest and lose her when she finds out about his relationship with her mother. When Elaine runs off and goes back to school, Ben follows her but finds out that she's become engaged to someone else. In a last ditch attempt to win her back, Benjamin crashes the wedding. His emotional display incites the anger of the guests, but moves Elaine who takes the opportunity to run off with him. They flee the scene together and catch a bus and then... well, then they start to realize that they've probably just done the most exciting thing they'll ever do and it's all down hill from there.

This quiet moment of contemplation after the climactic church scene plays a large part in elevating the film from being simply good to really great. From the beginning, Benjamin has been little more than a bored suburban kid trying to avoid becoming a boring suburban adult like his parents. In this final shot he seems to realize that turning into his parents is his destiny regardless of how hard he tries to fight it. It's a moment that both funny and poignant.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Boy A (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Crowley
Starring: Andrew Garfield

Boy A is one of those intimate, tightly-wound little movies that gets under your skin and stays there. Using a handful of characters, the film examines the sometimes volatile relationship between the legal system and the concept of justice, and forces the audience to ask difficult questions. The subject matter is difficult on a number of levels, but the film is easy to sink into and its characters stay with you long after the film itself is over.

Boy A refers to Jack (Andrew Garfield), a 24-year-old man who has just been released from prison for a crime he committed when he was about 11 and went by the name Eric. In many respects Jack is still a child, still socially awkward, shy and unsure of himself. He’s also haunted by the crime he committed – the murder of an 11-year-old girl – and the suicide of his accomplice, whom he believes was actually murdered. With the help of his social worker Terry (Peter Mullan), Jack settles into his new identity, getting a home and a job, making friends and even finding love with one of his co-workers (Katie Lyons).

The performance by Garfield as Jack attempts to negotiate all these new experiences is incredibly compelling. His uncertainty and trepidation is palpable and expressed both in body language and in speech mannerisms, and the way that he allows Jack to transition into a more comfortable and self-assured person is seamless. You can still see in him traces of the little boy, desperate for friends and validation and easily led, but you can also sense that he is beginning to take control of himself - not that this does much good for him when his identity is exposed in the news, prompting outrage from those around him, who believe that he should spend the rest of his life in prison.

Through flashbacks we see the events leading up to the murder and parts of the trial. Jack/Eric (played as a child by Alfie Owen) is bullied and friendless until he meets Philip (Taylor Doherty), an intense little boy with a violent streak. It’s Philip who initiates the attack on the girl and we never really know the extent of Eric’s involvement in the crime. It certainly seems, from what is shown, that Eric is little more than a follower who takes orders from Philip – but, of course, we’re only seeing this from Eric’s perspective and a story featuring Philip as protagonist might tell a different version entirely. At the trial the Crown argues that both boys are essentially and inescapably evil and that there’s no hope of either being rehabilitated. His argument seems cruel because they are, after all, just children and both come from unhappy, abusive households that have left deep psychological and emotional scars on them. To argue that they could never hope to be rehabilitated as they grow up seems unfair. On the other hand, they did kill another child in cold blood and her parents no doubt think it’s cruel that they should get to grow up and live their lives, experiencing the things their daughter will never get the chance to.

Boy A is an incredibly effective film, one that relies not on the shock value inherent in the crime (which isn’t shown onscreen), but on the complexities of human interaction and emotion. It isn’t without its flaws, especially as it nears the end, but it makes for an intense and engaging viewing experience. I anticipate seeing more from Garfield in the future, as he demonstrates here that he’s an incredibly skilled young actor.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Recommended Read: Lulu In Hollywood

Lulu In Hollywood
- Louise Brooks

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Hank Williams First Nation (2005)

* *

Director: Aaron James Sorensen
Starring: Gordon Tootoosis

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Review: Tropic Thunder (2008)

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Great Last Scenes: Queen Christina

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Get Smart (2008)

* * *

Director: Peter Segal
Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: The Departed (2006)

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

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

* * * *

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Roy Dupuis

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

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

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

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

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