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Monday, March 31, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: King Kong (1933)

Director: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Shoedsack
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot

There’s a certain purity to this film that can’t quite be described. The special effects are primitive, and it is thematically problematic, but it’s also a prime example of great fantasy and great filmmaking. If it wasn’t, it couldn’t have inspired two remakes, and the story would have long ago lost its fascination for us. But King Kong is a film firmly rooted in the collective imagination and regardless of the technological advances of the last seventy-five years, there’s just something about the original that’s worth going back to again and again.

The titular monster, for those who don’t know, is a giant ape found by filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) on the mysterious Skull Island. When the natives of the island sacrifice actress Anne Darrow (Faye Wray) to the beast, he becomes infatuated with her – so much so that after being captured and taken to New York, he goes on a rampage through the city to find her, culminating famously in his climbing the Empire State Building and eventually being felled by planes. I saw the most recent version of King Kong before seeing the original and it’s kind of amazing to me that both films can feature all the same major plot points and yet the original is told at a brisk pace, running about 100 minutes, while the latest clocks in at around three hours. Admittedly, that’s because Peter Jackson’s version spends more time establishing Kong as a character rather than just a monster, but there are also a lot of needless additions to the new version which fatten it up. The original Kong more or less runs on three characters – Denham, Anne and Anne’s love interest Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) – and one monster. There isn’t much dimension to either the characters or the monster, but that’s okay. The film perhaps works because of, not in spite of, this.

I opened by stating that the effects are primitive - and they are - and yet this version of Kong seems more… real, somehow to me. It’s not that I’m unaware that it’s an effect – this fact is hard to miss – it’s just that those strange, jerky movements have a certain charm which is lacking in films that rely heavily on CGI to make things “realistic.” It works maybe because the story exists so firmly in the realm of fantasy, making it easier to accept this strangely moving creature who doesn’t look like he belongs in the world he’s set-up against. The original King Kong is a film I didn’t bother to see for a long time because I assumed that it would be lost on me, growing up as I did with films light years ahead in terms of the sophistication of special effects. I was surprised at how effective I found this movie. Kong doesn’t blend in seamlessly, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the power of this film is the degree to which he stands out, the degree to which he looks so “unnatural.”

Thematically the story is problematic and probably always will be. We are talking about a story that hinges on a giant, black creature’s infatuation with a white, blonde woman, which plays pretty obviously into societal anxieties that date back centuries. The newer version of the film softens this somewhat because the relationship between Kong and Anne is more… consensual and requited. However, that still leaves the portrayal of the residents of Skull Island. In this respect I actually find that the original is less problematic than the newer version, perhaps because the original doesn’t dwell so long on it. It establishes the islanders as “savages” (although, to be honest, they look a lot less “savage” in the original than they do in Jackson’s version), has them sacrifice Anne, then moves on from them.

However, even though the racial politics of the film are suspect, the film itself ultimately does work. Yes, the characters are thin and the plot only holds together as well as it absolutely has to, but this remains nonetheless of masterpiece of it’s genre. This is the standard for monster movies, and I doubt that any CGI smorgasbord that comes out in the years to come is ever going to usurp it. There’s just something very special about this movie that you can’t really understand until you’ve seen it.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

A nervous romance. It might just be the most accurate tagline a film ever had, perfectly summing up not only the relationship between Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton), but also the on-screen persona of Woody Allen. This is an unusual romantic comedy, running counter to many of the conventions of the genre. It’s self-aware and self-reflexive, it’s non-linear and, most importantly, it ends with the couple apart. What Allen gives us is not a fairytale about why love works, but a deconstruction of the ways that sometimes love doesn’t work.

It begins with Alvy telling us that “‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.” It’s most certainly true of his relationship with Annie, the end of which he is lamenting as the film opens. We see the entire relationship play out, from their first meeting and the fun, getting-to-know-you days, to the impasse point where the relationship is either going to become serious or isn’t, which is when Alvy begins to get nervous. He loves Annie (“I lurve you, I loave you, I luff you”) but doesn’t want to make the commitment, although he tries to keep her from realizing it. She moves in with him, then realizes that he didn’t really want her to move in with him. He deflects his own neuroses by making her self-conscious, encouraging her to take adult education and start therapy. However, these two things only serve to make the relationship more unstable because she becomes more assertive, less malleable and he begins to loose his grip on her. They break up, they get back together and, eventually, break up again. In a lot of ways, they’re perfect for each other (this fact is apparent in a scene between Alvy and another woman in which he attempts to recreate the experience of cooking lobster with Annie, to less than stellar results), but she’s still discovering who she is as a person while he already knows who he is, and so they become less compatible as the relationship progresses.

Allen wholly eliminates the fourth wall, making us more confidante than audience. He directly addresses us several times, imploring us to back him up. He breaks down the barrier between the characters and the story by having them wander into flashbacks and fantasy sequences, observe them as they’re going on and comment on how they’re going. He makes reference to the way this film is structured, telling us at the beginning that his mind tends to jump all over the place (as the story will in terms of chronology), and making the first time we see Alvy and Annie together a scene from the middle of their relationship. They’re going to a movie but find out when they’re buying tickets that it has already started. Alvy is distraught and calls it off, reminding Annie that he can’t start a movie in the middle.

But even without it’s self-reflexivity, this is still a film that can be set apart from other romantic comedies in terms of tone and characterization. Allen perfectly captures the awkwardness of trying to have a conversation with someone you just met when Alvy and Annie carry on a conversation about photography while subtitles show us what they're really thinking; and he’s effective at showing how Alvy pulls Annie closer with one hand, while keeping her at arm’s length with the other, usually using passive-aggressive humour to mask what he’s doing (“Whose idea was it?” he asks with regards to her moving in after she accuses him of thinking she’s trying to trap him. “Mine,” she says. “But I approved it immediately.”). The characters are nicely layered, with humanity and intelligence sandwiched between various neuroses. Annie, as played by Diane Keaton, has become a touchstone for female characters in comedies, although the “Annie Hall type” has mutated through the years, retaining the fidgets and foot-in-mouth moments but losing much of the intelligence and charm. Keaton is perfect as Annie, which in a sense is a shame because she’s a great actress but has sort of become stuck in this persona, still playing variations on this character today, although now the character usually comes in the form of a meddling mother.

It goes without saying that this is a very funny movie, the funniest parts coming when it moves out of it’s New York locale to Los Angeles, where Allen mercilessly satirizes Hollywood. He has a friend who drives around in his convertible with a special hood in order to keep his skin youthful. He goes to a party where the guests only talk about arranging meetings (“He gives good meeting,” one says to another with admiration), and one (played by Jeff Goldbloom) makes a phone call in order to be reminded of what his mantra is. Allen’s feelings on the soullessness of Los Angeles in general, but Hollywood specifically (“They give out awards for everything. Adolf Hitler, Best Dictator”) are obvious, but nonetheless funny, just as his love for New York is obvious but nonetheless touching, and it’s telling that the city is so adoringly framed given that Annie – now gone Hollywood – tells him that he’s the human equivalent of New York. This film, which reverberates with touches of autobiography, is perhaps just one giant exercise in mental masturbation (“Don’t knock it,” Alvy tells Annie, “it’s sex with someone I love”) on Allen’s part, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for his brand of self-deprecating narcissism.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Metropolis (1927)

Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich

It’s hard to imagine the cinematic landscape without Metropolis. The influence of Fritz Lang’s science fiction classic can be seen in such films as Frankenstein, Star Wars, and Blade Runner, amongst many others. It isn’t a perfect film, but it is nonetheless a masterpiece of the genre, a groundbreaking moment in cinema, and a visually stunning work of art.

The world is divided in two: below ground are the workers (the Hands) who toil at senseless tasks, and above ground are the thinkers (the Head). It’s uncertain what, exactly, the thinkers are thinking of, but it seems to involve a lot of running around with half-dressed women (the more things change, the more they stay the same), which is how we first encounter the protagonist, Freder (Gustav Frohlich). His revelry is interrupted by Maria (Brigitte Helm), who appears with a group of children from the world below. Freder is smitten with Maria and becomes curious about life below ground. What he sees in the depths are men compelled to accomplish tasks which are pointless (what, exactly, does the machine that Freder briefly takes over, the one with the two clock hands, do?), and an industrial complex that is sucking the life out of the people who literally built and maintain the city with their own hands. At one point Freder imagines a machine coming to life, looking like a demonic head which consumes the workers.

The divide between worker and thinker, rich and poor, between those who labour and those who benefit from that labour, is the primary focus of the film. Maria, in a speech to rouse the workers, uses the Tower of Babel as a metaphor: “Those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it.” What is missing in this world composed solely of Head and Hands is “the Heart” which will mediate between the two and make life better for all. It’s a simplistic message, and Freder (if not necessarily Maria) is exactly the kind of wide-eyed innocent who would believe that that’s all it takes.

While Freder is learning how the other half lives and Maria is trying to incite revolution, Freder’s father (Alfred Abel) has teamed up with the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has developed the technology to build a robot which will look like a human. The birth of the robot is probably the most famous sequence of the film, with beams of electricity running along the robot’s frame, bringing it to life. The robot is made to look like Maria and displaces the real Maria in order to subvert her work. The robot distracts the workers from any revolutionary ideas and almost leads to their destruction in one of the film’s best sequences, as the depths of the city flood and the people underneath rush to safety. These scenes are nothing short of massive and in and of themselves make the film worth watching.

Although Metropolis was visually ahead of its time (in certain respects, perhaps even ahead of our own: has a city ever looked so sinisterly futuristic as this one?), there’s something about the film that I find difficult to reconcile with its technical innovations. The characters are conveyed in a way that seems very stilted and pantomimic. I know people who consider this simply an attribute of silent film in general, that the lack of sound makes exaggeration necessary, but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. Metropolis came out in the same year as Sunrise, a film that is much more subtle and fluid in the way that it conveys emotion. The overwrought style of the acting may have been a deliberate choice on the part of Fritz Lang, but it results in a film that is decades ahead in one sense, and about a decade behind in another. That being said, however, it should be noted that Brigitte Helm delivers an excellent set of performances here, creating distinct “personalities” for both Maria and her robotic doppelganger.

As I stated before, the message of this film is incredibly simplistic which is perhaps why, if it was deliberate, Lang directed his actors towards an overly stylized, exaggerated form of acting. If the characters were more complex, the film wouldn’t work because the message would seem to be delivered with sneering irony instead of hopeful sincerity. But regardless of what you take from it’s message, this is ultimately a film of images, many of them startling, many of which you recognize from countless other films that this one influenced. This is a must-see film because it represents the roots of science fiction filmmaking as we know it today.

Friday, March 28, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: North By Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint

It’s one of the most iconic images in film: Cary Grant running for his life as a crop duster bears down on him. But seeing this scene is only one of the many reasons to see this wonderful, thrilling film. Like many Hitchcock movies, it is pure escapism at first glance and something deeper and darker on subsequent viewings. It’s a story lodged deep inside the paranoid Cold War era where there's governmental conspiracy around every corner and identity is nothing if not unstable.

Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill (the “O” stands for nothing, he says). A case of mistaken identity begins a chase which has him running for his life from both the police and the agents of a mysterious organization. The police are looking for Thornhill, the organization, led by Phillip Vandamm (George Mason), is looking for George Kaplan, a government agent whom they believe Thornhill to be. What no one knows is that there is no George Kaplan. He’s a figure made-up by the American government in an effort to trap Vandamm. This fact doesn’t save Thornhill, however, as the government is willing to let him meet his inevitable end at the hands of Vandamm in order to protect their operation and their real agent. It isn’t until they realize that Thornhill isn’t going to die easily that they decide to step in and help him and, doing so, reveal that Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), Vandamm’s girlfriend who appears at alternate points to be with and against Thornhill, is a double agent. No one is who they appear to be, or who people think they are, in this film and the story centers largely on the idea of identity as performance. The person who is best at playing his or herself will ultimately emerge victorious. “The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead,” Thornhill declares early in the film, foreshadowing a scene towards the end when Thornhill/Kaplan does act out a death scene for Vandamm’s benefit.

There’s a lot to love about this movie, not least of which is Cary Grant. Often accused of simply playing himself, he is on closer inspection one of the most versatile and underrated actors ever to grace the screen. Few other actors are so at home in comedy – where he played both the straight man and the funny man – and drama, and few actors can so effectively mix the two in one role. There’s a lot of drama attached to this role, but some wonderful comedy, as well. Watch the auction house scene as Thornhill makes a fool of himself to cause a distraction which will allow him to escape. In the hands of another actor, this scene might seem out of place, a misstep in an otherwise finely etched film; but in the hands of Cary Grant, it works.

North By Northwest is a showcase for many of Hitchcock’s favourite tricks. You have the MacGuffin, in this case microfilm that everyone wants for reasons that aren’t exactly clear and don’t really matter. You’ve got the “wrong man” trope that plays in many of Hitchcock’s films, the latent sexual undertones (here supplied by Vandamm and his henchman Leonard, played by Martin Landau) and sexual suggestiveness (the film’s final shot must be commended for hilarious lack of subtlety). You’ve also got suspense in the way that only Hitchcock could do it. Take the crop duster scene, for example. Laying aside the fact that most people wouldn’t think to have their hero terrorized by a crop duster, look at the way it’s set up. Thornhill isn’t immediately attacked by the duster; the build-up is slow. He gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere. Across the road is another man, perhaps the man he’s meant to meet. In the background, the crop duster is flying over the fields. Thornhill approaches the other man and finds out that he’s not the person he’s supposed to meet. The man remarks that it’s funny that the duster is out, seeing as there are no crops to dust, and then gets on his bus. The bus leaves and the duster begins to change its course, heading now towards Thornhill. The rest is history. If for no other reason, Hitchcock was a masterful director because he was so patient. He didn’t just throw things at you; he put as much effort into the set-up as the pay-off, which of course only makes the pay-off even sweeter.

North By Northwest isn’t the best film that Alfred Hitchcock ever made (for me that honour goes to Rear Window, though compelling arguments can and have been made for Vertigo, Psycho, Notorious… as a matter of fact, you could probably compile a Top 10 list of Hitchcock’s films without including North By Northwest and still end up with a list that’s hard to argue with), but it’s one of his most entertaining. You can’t go wrong with this film; it’s got a little bit of everything, and all of it done to perfection.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Schindler's List (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Schindler’s List is one of the heaviest films ever made, weighed down with an inescapable sense of grief, anger and regret, but ending on a note of bitter-sweet triumph. If you can make it to the end of the film, when it transitions from narrative fiction to documentary, without crying, I commend you on your willpower. Personally, I can’t even think about it without my eyes misting up. This isn’t just a good movie, but an important one. It is unflinching and powerful as it puts names and faces to the Holocaust, a word that is itself massive with meaning and something of which it is easy to think in monolithic terms, rather than in terms of individual people.

The film follows Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who plays at being a Nazi collaborator in order to hide the fact that he’s saving Jews from the Nazi killing machine. However, Schindler is no cardboard hero. His primary motivation at the beginning is to make money where he sees an opportunity. It is only later, as he has gotten to know some of the Jews working for him, particularly Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), that his motivation shifts to saving lives. He plays a cat-and-mouse game with the Nazis, pretending to be loyal, pretending to be doing work for them, when in actuality he’s working against them. “If this factory ever produces a shell that can actually be fired, I’ll be very unhappy,” he tells Stern.

In contrast to Oskar, the film produces Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a sadistic SS officer who kills the inmates of Auschwitz randomly, in one scene firing at them with a rifle from a balcony. There are moments when he seems almost human, when the common thread of humanity seems not to have been cut from him, but these moments are brief and, snapping back from them, he becomes worse than he was before. Take, for instance, a scene between him and Helen (Embeth Davidtz), one of the women in the camp. “I would like to reach out to you and touch you in your loneliness,” he says, carrying on in a way that it’s clear there is conflict between his attraction to her and his Nazi ideals, before finally concluding with, “No, I don’t think so. You Jewish bitch, you nearly talked me into it, didn’t you?” Goeth is a point of reference, a way of understanding how something like this could ever have happened. Whatever good ever existed in him is buried under so much hate - some of it natural, some of it incited and inflamed by vile ideology - that it will never see the light of day again, and his hate is expressed in random, unpredictable ways. “There are no set rules you can live by, you cannot say to yourself ‘If I follow these rules, I will be safe,’” Helen tells Schindler of Goeth. He hurts not as punishment, but for the sake of hurting, because he has been granted that power.

But if Goeth is a character of condemnation, so too is Schindler, in a way. What is condemned through Schindler is not the sadism of Nazi ideology, but the failure to dismantle it before millions of innocent people could be murdered. If Schindler – one man – could save eleven hundred people from death while working right under the nose of the Nazi party, imagine how many could have been saved had there been ten more like him, one hundred, an entire nation, the entire world. The character of Schindler is a condemnation of the wilful ignorance of the rest of the world with regards to the Holocaust. The girl in the red coat provides the same function. The red of her coat symbolizes not just the blood of the Jewish people but also the voluntary blindfolds donned by the rest of the world. In a black and white film, the red coat stands out, it is unmistakeable, just as the rounding up of Jews in nations under Nazi rule was unmistakeable, was known, and was ignored.

Schindler's List is a memorial for those lost in the Holocaust, but its impact isn't merely emotional. Laying aside the story, this is a very strong film on a purely technical level. Shooting in a documentary style, Steven Spielberg deliberately limited what he brought in his director’s bag of tricks. There are no crane shots here, no zooms; it is shot in a simple style, largely with handheld cameras. In doing this, Spielberg gives the film the intimacy necessary to really tell this story. His stripped-down direction is aided in no small part by the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski and the score by John Williams and Itzhak Perlman. This isn’t a flashy, bombastic film, and it doesn’t need to be. Spielberg’s knowledge of and trust in that is one of the film’s greatest assets.

Schindler’s List will break your heart, but it will also lift your spirit. In the final moments, a title card informs us: “There are fewer than 4000 Jews left alive in Poland today. There are more than 6000 descendants of the Schindler Jews.” 6000. Amazing what one person can do.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Ride The High Country (1961)

Director: Sam Peckinpah
Starring: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott

Ride The High Country, like many Westerns to come out during the 1960s, is about the transition of the West from “wild” to “civilized,” and the men who get lost along the way. Steve (Joel McCrea) and Gil (Randolph Scott) are two former lawmen who know that they’re past their prime but want one last adventure before it’s too late. There is a kind of desperation that surrounds them – this is their last chance and it has to matter. They bring along a young upstart named Heck (Ron Starr), who thinks he’s going to show them a thing or two, and Elsa (Mariette Hartley), a rancher’s daughter who is running away to get married.

Age plays a big role in this film. Steve and Gil are aware that they aren’t the men they used to be, that their bodies aren’t up to life on the trail and that this will be their last hurrah. They talk a lot about the old days and the new aches and pains in their bodies, about the things they just can't do anymore. Steve wants to make the most of this job and go out knowing that he was as good as when he came in, but Gil has other plans. He and Heck are plotting to steal the gold that they’ve been hired to transport, and maybe kill Steve if he gets in the way. Gil feels guilty about betraying his friend, but sees this as the only way for him to gain financial security for the days when he can’t ride out anymore. Steve, when he foils the heist, isn’t having any of that and can’t be talked into sharing the loot or letting Gil and Heck go free. Pretty soon he’s transporting the gold, two prisoners and a runaway bride through the dangerous territory while being pursued by an angry husband and his brothers.

True to its genre, it ends with a shoot-out. Steve, Gil and Heck, now reconciled and back on the same side, are running out of bullets and getting ready to face off against the Hammond brothers. The remaining Hammonds are holed up inside Elsa’s farmhouse and agree to come out and face the other men for a proper showdown, but one wants instead to wait for them to stand from their cover and ambush them. His brother shakes his head. “Ain’t you got no sense of family honour?” he asks. It isn’t just the unspoiled nature of the West that Peckinpah is lamenting, but also the change in the character of the men who live there. It’s no longer the place for brave, honest men (idealized though that image may be), but instead it’s for the cowards and the cheaters and the conmen. In the end, the Hammonds are killed, but so is Steve. Gil promises Steve that he’ll see their job through, and Steve takes a last look at the mountains in the distance before dying and taking the West with him. Steve is the ideal man for Peckinpah’s ideal West and neither can survive without the other. It’s the Gils and the Hecks of the world, men who are basically good but can talk themselves into being bad, that will see the West through its transition.

Though the film is ostensibly about “manly” men, simpler times and supposedly nobler values, it is also, strangely, almost feminist in its treatment of women (or, rather, the woman). Elsa is shown to be a smart and capable woman, and the film rejects the idea that her father should be allowed to dictate her love life (he’s your basic cardboard cut-out religious fanatic and there’s some suggestion that his feelings for his daughter aren’t completely… fatherly), and the idea that a wife is the property of her husband and relinquishes her rights once she’s married. The only reason I say “almost” is because Elsa is continually putting herself in situations with potential for danger (usually of a sexual nature) and leaving it up to one or other of the men to come along and rescue her.

Ride The High Country is many things at once. It’s an action movie, a buddy film, a drama, and a comedy. But above all, it is a eulogy for an idealized way of life, for the image of the Old West and the men who helped to shape it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bad Education (2004)

Director: Pedro Almovodar
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez

Anyone who thinks that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were "brave" to make Brokeback Mountain should go out and watch Bad Education and see the limits pushed by Gael Garcia Bernal. In this movie about making a movie, where life and art overlap, where truth and identity are things that are malleable, and sex is used as a weapon, Bernal shines as a sexually ambiguous actor willing to do anything to become a star.

The plot of the film is complex, weaving together three stories involving variations on the same set of characters. It begins with two young boys at a Catholic boarding school. They love each other and are both sexually abused by a priest who catches them together in a bathroom stall. But this, as it turns out, is a scene from a film being directed Enrique (Fele Martinez). The boys are based on himself and his childhood friend, Ignacio (Bernal), who has written the screenplay (or has he?). In the film, Ignacio and Enrique meet again as adults. Ignacio is transgendered and goes by the name Zahara; Enrique is drunk and doesn't realize that Zahara is not only a man, but also his childhood friend. They go home together and have a sexual encounter that is surprisingly explicit if you’ve never before seen a Pedro Almodovar film. Later, Zahara will return to the school and attempt to blackmail the priest, resulting in death.

In real life, Ignacio shows up at Enrique's office with a script. He want Enrique to direct, but also wants to play the part of himself/Zahara. Enrique is sceptical about his playing the part, but allows himself to be convinced once the two become lovers. However, by this point Enrique has begun to suspect that the man claiming to be Ignacio is actually an impostor. In truth, the man is Ignacio’s brother, Angel, and the real Ignacio is dead. Whether or not Enrique ever actually believed that Angel was really Ignacio is somewhat uncertain. In their first meeting, Angel/Ignacio tells Enrique that he now prefers to be called Angel, rather than Ignacio. Wouldn’t Enrique know that Ignacio had a younger brother named Angel, given how close they once were? In the scenes that follow, it doesn’t seem like Enrique really believes Angel’s claim, or that Angel believes that Enrique has fallen for it. Rather, it seems as if both men have agreed to conduct themselves according to the pretence that Enrique believes Angel is Ignacio, as a way of getting what they want (for Enrique, it’s the truth about Ignacio; for Angel it’s the role in the film). When they have sex, it seems less like an act of desire than an act of necessity. If Enrique and the real Ignacio were reunited, they would have sex. Therefore Enrique and Angel have sex in order to protect the narrative they seem determined to act out.

Soon after production on the film has begun, Padre Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), the priest on whom the story is based, shows up. He asks Enrique how the script, which shows Ignacio/Zahara being murdered and the crime being covered up, came to mirror so closely the real situation. This begins a third story in which the real Ignacio/Zahara (Francisco Boira) blackmails the priest in order to support her smack habit. When Manolo pays her a visit, he meets and becomes smitten with Angel, and begins giving him gifts in exchange for sexual favours. Eventually, Angel decides that the time has come to put Zahara out of her misery – in part because of what her drug habit is doing to their family, and in part because he wants to pass off the stories that she’s written as his own. He enlists Manolo’s help, a bad idea since once Angel gains fame from his performance in the film, Manolo begins blackmailing him.

Almodovar weaves the three stories together seamlessly. We aren't aware, at first, that we're watching Enrique's movie, and even once we do know that he's directing a film, we aren't always sure of where the fiction stops and the "reality" begins. The performance by Bernal is amazing as he plays, essentially, three different characters, each one not quite what he (or she) seems. He manages the task of at once putting everything out there, but also keeping the character close to the vest. Is Angel gay or does he just use men and their desire for him as stepping stones to get closer to what he wants? In the end we find out that he's married, but is his marriage just for the sake of the stardom he's attained in the film industry? We never find out, and that's part of the beauty of the film. We never really know for sure what part of the story is real, and what part of the story is being told and embellished, distorted for the sake of telling. That it moves us nonetheless is a testament to Almodovar's power as a filmmaker.

Monday, March 24, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the few films that can be accurately described as timeless. It is a film that’s as powerful today as it was when it was released in 1946, when it was both a critical and commercial success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is a film about coming home from war and finding it changed, returning to a life that fits like clothing you’ve outgrown. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, joyous and sad, it is above all a powerful statement about the cultural narratives and myths surrounding the idea of war.

The story centers on three ex-servicemen: Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell), who meet, discover that they’re from the same home town, and get back to it together. Homer is the first to arrive home and his reunion with his family is marked by a mixture of happiness and uncertainty. He’s lost both hands and he and his loved ones are tentative as they approach each other. No amount of training could prepare him or the other men for the human element of returning home, for the way people will treat them and the ways that they’re almost strangers to people they’ve known all their lives.

Al is the next to go home, and his return is one of the great moments in cinema as he walks in the door and puts his finger to his lips so that his children won’t announce his presence. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), calls from the kitchen to ask who was at the door and slowly realizes that it must be Al. She goes into the hallway, looks at him for a moment, and then runs into his arms. Fred has a less welcoming homecoming when he finds that the woman he married before going overseas is nowhere to be found.

Soon after returning home, the intensity of these domestic scenes becomes too much for all three men, and they find themselves at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle. After Homer leaves, Fred and Al, along with Milly and their daughter, Peggy, (Teresa Wright), spread the party over the rest of the town until Milly and Peggy can finally convince the two men that enough’s enough and bring them home to get some sleep. Fred ends up at Al and Milly’s house after being unable to gain entry to his own (his wife is still MIA), and when he’s awakened the next morning by Peggy, it’s the beginning of a love affair, though neither knows it yet.

The lives of the three men are irrevocably altered and each struggles to be relevant in a changed world. Al was a banker before and returns to his job now charged with the task of granting or refusing loans to men returned from overseas. A conflict arises in him because the banker in him knows that his first client is a bad risk, but the serviceman in him wants to give him a chance. He grants the loan and is forced to explain himself. “I tell you this man Novak is okay. His ‘collateral’ is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This is one of many instances where the film is critical of the treatment of veterans, expressing that anyone who risks their life for their country has the right to return to it and be repaid. Another moment comes when Fred returns to his former workplace, seeking a better job than the one he had before. The manager tells him that since he has no applicable training, he can’t be promoted to a higher position. Fred points out that he was fighting in a war during the time he might have had training, but the manager is unmoved. Fred walks out but is eventually forced to return and accept his old job working as a soda jerk in order to support himself and his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). The scene where the film is most critical of public reception of veterans comes when a stranger expresses to Homer that he lost his hands for nothing, that the war was pointless and driven by corrupt governmental powers. This is a striking moment, especially when seen today, and one of many which keeps the film seeming so fresh.

Director William Wyler guides the film with a light touch, guiding it towards the right notes and never allowing the material to become heavy handed or preachy. When Fred reconnects with his wife, we sense immediately that both were so caught up in the romantic idea of Fred going to war and coming home to Marie, that neither really bothered getting to know the other. Marie likes Fred’s uniform, which he of course no longer has a reason to wear. Fred wants a down-to-earth wife, which Marie, who likes to party, certainly is not. What Fred wants, he discovers, is to be with Peggy. She wants the same and announces to her parents one night that she intends to break up Fred’s marriage. Her parents are understandably unhappy about this, but receive the news calmly and the scene leads to a great speech by Loy about the struggle to maintain a relationship. Frederic March gets a number of scenes in which to show his considerable talent, my favourite coming after Peggy’s announcement, when Al goes to meet Fred. They sit across the table from each other and have a clipped conversation in which a couple of things are established: 1. Al doesn’t like the idea of Peggy running around with a married man; 2. Al wants to remain friends with Fred, but not if he puts Peggy in a compromising position; and 3. Al ultimately recognizes that Peggy has become an adult in his absence and understands that he has to let her make her own mistakes.

This is a wonderful and moving film with too many fantastic moments to name. If forced to choose the most powerful, I would have to say it’s the scene where Homer shows his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) just what his night time ritual entails, when he must remove his hooks and be “helpless as a baby” until someone can put them back on for him again in the morning. This scene transcends mere fiction because it was a fact of Harold Russell’s life. I dare you to try to watch it without getting misty.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Show Me Love (1998)

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Rebecka Liljeberg, Alexandra Dahlstrom

Few films about teenagers have this much respect and understanding for their subjects. While most films centering on teens are painted with broad strokes, favouring crude humour over real emotion, Show Me Love pays exquisite attention to the sometimes manic fluctuations in the ways that teenagers relate to each other and themselves. This is a coming-of-age story and a love story that is achingly – sometimes brutally – honest.

The film centers on Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) and Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom). Agnes is an outcast at school with only one friend. Her mother pushes her to be more social, while her father is more understanding of her enforced solitude, relating to her that he wasn’t very popular when he was her age, either. When he counsels her to hang in because when she’s grown it won’t matter as much, she responds the way most teenagers would by stating that she doesn’t care how she’ll feel when she’s his age, because she’s stuck in the here and now. She’s lonely and has a hopeless crush on Elin, which only adds to her feelings of alienation and otherness. Elin, on the other hand, is popular and restless, bored and not quite in control of her burgeoning sexuality. She half-heartedly enters into a relationship with Jonah (Mathias Rust), the best friend of her older sister’s boyfriend. Even though she’s fourteen and he’s seventeen, we never feel that she’s being taken advantage of because she’s always clearly in the power position. Eventually tiring of the way that Jonah agrees to everything and seems to have no opinions of his own, Elin dumps him in a spectacularly casual fashion which only highlights the extent to which she was going through the motions of teenage romance with him.

Agnes has a birthday party – a sad event to which her only friend shows up and which results in Agnes lashing out at her, declaring that they’re only friends with each other because no one else will be friends with either of them – and Elin and her sister, both drunk, crash. On a dare, Elin kisses Agnes then runs off with her sister, laughing and joking about their prank. Agnes’ despair at being made fun of by the girl she longs for, and the pain of her isolation from other people, brings her to take a razor to her wrist. However, before she can make the cut, Elin begins tossing pebbles at her window. She feels guilty about what she did and wants to apologize. They go for a walk, make plans to run off to Stockholm together, and kiss as Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” plays on the radio, an appropriate choice given Elin’s earlier lament that she hates living in Amal because by the time anything cool gets there, it’s already uncool everywhere else. This sequence tells us a lot about both girls, but Elin especially. “Is it true that you’re a lesbian?” she asks, “If you are I understand, ‘cause guys are so gross. I’m also going to be one, I think.” While it’s fairly clear that Agnes is gay, Elin’s sexuality remains more ambiguous. She relates to Agnes that her biggest fear is that she’ll never leave Amal, that she’ll get married and have kids and live a dull, meaningless life. The idea of running off to Stockholm with Agnes excites her (“We are so fucking cool!”), but it’s hard to say whether this is because she feels some genuine emotion/attraction to Agnes, or because she just wants something to happen in her life, something different and unlike what goes on in the lives of other people.

However, even though Elin is willing to commit to the fantasy of running off with Agnes, when night becomes day and they’re back at school, little has changed. Elin still hangs out with her clique, struggling over whether it’s worth jeopardizing her popularity by admitting her relationship with Agnes. For Agnes, on the other hand, the experience has made her less afraid of who she is, and makes her less willing to play the role of outcast at school. When some boys put a pin-up on her locker in an effort to taunt her, she refuses to be made embarrassed and confidently asserts her opinion on the woman’s attractiveness. The way that both girls react in the aftermath of their declarations to each other – Agnes with quiet pride, Elin with self-doubt, is part of what makes the film so real and honest.

When it was released, Show Me Love became the highest grossing film in Sweden, knocking Titanic out of the top slot. Given that it’s a film about teenage lesbians, this speaks volumes about universality of its characters, and the emotions and relationships that the film explores. This is a film where people talk to each other in ways both direct (as when Agnes admits to her mother that she’s gay) and evasive (as when Elin informs her mother that she’s gay, and then says she’s just joking, testing the waters of her mother’s reaction and then pulling back), and relate to each other in ways that are very believable and reflect a history that extends past the limits of the narrative (Elin’s relationship with her sister, for example, is a typical older sister/younger sister dynamic of fighting to the death one minute and hugging the next). The film has an ending that is ambiguously happy. Elin and Agnes brave the gauntlet of the school hallway holding hands, Elin declaring that Agnes is her girlfriend. We have to wonder, though, give Elin’s behaviour throughout the film if this is just another way for her to rebel and break the cycle of boredom of life in this small town. And even if she is sincere in her desire to be with Agnes, the final scene – which shows the two drinking chocolate milk – reminds us of just how young these two people are and how much they have yet to grow, perhaps together, but perhaps apart.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kier Dulea

2001: A Spacey Odyssey is a film that has almost ceased to exist as film and become instead myth. It's unwatchable, it's confusing, it's all symbols without story, it's inaccessible, it's the kind of movie only a critic or a film snob could like - these are a few of the ideas that surround it. How much you get from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece depends wholly on how tightly you cling to traditional narrative forms. It is, in it's way, anti-narrative. It is a movie of ideas and symbols but it is wrong to ever describe it as inaccessible because the question it is asking is, perhaps, the most human question ever asked: why are we here and where did we come from?

The film is divided into sections, the first taking place at the dawn of time, before apes gained the knowledge to evolve into men. The ape-men are vegetarians and ill-equipped to fight off their predators. They travel in herds and their existence is characterized by boredom - all they do is live from one day to the next in the face of ever-present death (carcasses and bones litter the landscape all throughout this sequence). They wake one morning to find a black, humming monolith. They know somehow that it was made and the one ape-man who stands almost erect reaches out to touch it, and so gains the knowledge to become man. Importantly, the knowledge necessary to evolve into man is the knowledge of violence - the ape-man learns how to use bones as weapons to destroy his enemies and turns from a vegetarian into a carnivore. This sequence is full of biblical/religious allusions. The moment when the monolith is touched, for example, is lifted from Michelangelo, who depicted man reaching out to touch God in a panel of the Sistine Chapel. The apes are reaching out to touch God, this thing that they don't quite understand, but know is more powerful than themselves. The sequence can also be read as an allusion to the Garden of Eden, with the apes living a simple (albeit not idyllic) life which changes drastically at the moment that they gain knowledge. They are thrust out of one mode of living - to which they can never return - and sent into another that it completely different, one that is more savage.

The enlightened apes become dominant in their environment and then comes the famous shot of the bone thrown into the air, twisting and turning and we fast-forward over a few million years of history to the year 2000, where this shot will be echoed by a shot of a pen suspended in the air – another symbol of man’s progress towards enlightenment and dominance. In this sequence, another monolith has been discovered on the moon and is sending signals to Jupiter. A team led by Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) is sent to investigate and eighteen months later another crew is sent to Jupiter. The Jupiter crew exist in a way not unlike the ape-men: they eat and sleep and their only real function is to take care of the ship so that the HAL 9000 can complete the mission. This section is full of reproductive imagery, foregrounding the act of creation, emphasizing that man has made something. By making something capable of thought and speech and "feeling," man essentially become God, elevating himself to yet another plateau of enlightenment. However, man has also become passive in the face of his creation. They have become less human in its presence, the vitality of life having been drained out of them. HAL is programmed to feel "genuine" emotions, while the human crew members appear to be devoid of emotion, become themselves robotic

The Jupiter mission is probably the easiest of the sequences to follow. Only HAL knows the real mission; Dave Bowman (Kier Dulea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) have been given a cover story in order to prevent a press leak on Earth. HAL begins to malfunction (as it must because how can something be infallible if it is created by something wholly fallible?), and Dave and Poole have to reassert human dominance. In one great scene, they attempt to have a conversation without HAL hearing them and HAL reads their lips. The subtlety with which this is conveyed to the audience is amazing. Many filmmakers, to ensure that the audience "gets" it, would have done something like shoot the scene from HAL's point of view and provide subtitles to let the audience know what he was "hearing." Instead, Kubrick intercuts Dave and Poole talking with a shot of HAL's red eye, which becomes increasingly ominous. To save himself, HAL must destroy the human crew members. After a memorable struggle, Dave succeeds in destroying HAL, providing the film with it's only moving death scene as HAL begs for his life. "Stop Dave. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can fell it. I can feel it. I'm afraid." HAL is both the most sinister and the most human character in the film; his death is heartbreaking. With the death of HAL, Dave learns the real purpose of the Jupiter mission, and his knowledge gives him renewed relevance. The final section takes Dave to Jupiter and beyond as he travels through a wormhole and sees himself at different stages of his life. He sees himself as an old man, reaching out for a monolith standing at the edge of his bed. When he touches it, he dissolves and is reborn as the embryonic Star Child who can travel unassisted through the Universe, having reached the ultimate plane of existence.

What is amazing about this film is how it was designed to keep itself from becoming dated. Many science fiction films rely on a "fantastical" idea of the future which can come to seem ridiculous decades after their making, and divorce later audiences from the narrative. The technological advances shown in this film are feasible; one of the advances, for example, is video-phones, something which we do now have. The question at its centre also ensures that the film retains its relevance. The monoliths mean something, they were made by something, they tell us something. To ask what the monoliths are is to ask who we are, to ask why we're here and who created us. These questions are timeless and by asking them, the film itself exists out of time as well.

Friday, March 21, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

The modern romantic comedy has its roots in this film, but after seventy years has not improved on the effortless charm of It Happened One Night. Propelled forward by the theory that opposites attract, and various romantic misunderstandings, this is not simply one of the best comedies ever made, but one of the best films ever made. Well acted, tightly plotted, and sure-footed in its direction, it offers everything you could want in a cinematic experience.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is an heiress whose father has just annulled her hasty marriage to a fortune hunter. Tired of having her father dictate her life, she runs away (by jumping off a yacht) and goes on the run, determined to teach her father a lesson. On a bus she meets Peter Warne (Clarke Gable), a reporter who agrees to help her reunite with her would-be husband in exchange for an exclusive. Various things happen on the way to New York, including an overnight stay in a cabin divided down the middle by a sheet Peter refers to as the Walls of Jericho, an attempt at hitchhiking (probably the most famous scene of the film), a night spent sleeping under the stars, and a misunderstanding which results in Ellie thinking that Peter has abandoned her and agreeing to go home, then passing him on the road as he’s on his way back to her.

The chemistry between Gable and Colbert is great, with him playing your average Joe, and her playing a pampered princess. The film is at its best when its just the two of them onscreen, whether it’s the aforementioned hitchhiking scene (“I’ve proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb,” she tells him after stopping traffic by showing a little leg), the scene where Peter shows Ellie how a man undresses, or when he schools her in how to dunk a donut (“Where’d you learn to dunk? Finishing school”). The best is the sequence when they camp out under the stars and she wakes up alone and thinks he’s gone off without her. He returns, revealing that he went looking for food, because he knew she was hungry. In this scene we see them begin to realize that they’re in love with each other (although we realize it long before), even thought neither is prepared to inform the other of this fact. Ellie still thinks Peter sees her as a ditzy, spoiled brat, and Peter still thinks Ellie believes she’s too good for him. After Ellie finally does admit to Peter that she loves him, he sneaks out while she’s sleeping to go to New York and sell his exclusive story in order to get enough money to propose to her when he returns. He returns to where he left Ellie and realizes too late that his car has passed her father’s limousine – with her in it – on the way home. Mr. Andrews has agreed to let Ellie marry the fortune hunter, but is hopeful that he can prevent the marriage when he learns that she’s fallen in love with someone else. Mr. Andrews appeals to Peter to stop the wedding, but Peter refuses.

Peter: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty. She’s my idea of nothing.
Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter: Yes! But don’t hold that against me. I’m a little screwy myself.

Gable and Colbert are wonderful here, each providing depth to characters who could easily have been little more than cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. In the camping under the stars sequence in particular both actors are able to convey the complexities of what their characters feel for each other, both the push and the pull. As a director, Frank Capra succeeds by seeming to sit back and allow the action to take place. Nothing in the film feels forced; it all flows so easily. Compare this film to other romantic comedies, where it can occasionally seem like a monumental effort must be made in order to get the lovers together. Here it just seems so natural, the plot moved forward with a lightness of touch that is amazing when you consider how precisely structured the film actually is. It begins and ends with Ellie eloping, and with her running away (in the first instance, she runs after eloping, in the second she runs away to elope), and the ending recreates the Walls of Jericho scene, which takes place at the campground which previously kicked Ellie and Peter out because they weren’t married. There’s a lot of repetition/recreation in the story.

There’s so much to love about this movie. It’s smart and funny and perfectly cast. It succeeds because it allows you to get to know Ellie and Peter as people, rather than just as vehicles for comedy, and it’s one of the film’s great strengths that the comedic moments between Peter and Ellie arise naturally out of their different experiences, rather than being forced on them for the convenience of the script. There’s a reason why seventy-four years after it’s release this film still seems so fresh: it’s just that good.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bound (1996)

Director: Andy & Larry Washowski
Starring: Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Pantoliano

The Wachowskis hit it big worldwide with The Matrix, but it’s the film they made three years earlier which holds my deeper admiration. Part noir, part camp, part “look-what-I-can-do” stylistic romp, and all entertainment, Bound is one of the best – and most underrated – films to come out of the 1990s.

The set up: Corky (Gina Gershon) has just been released from prison and moves into an apartment next door to Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and her mobster boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet sets her sights on Corky and soon they’re plotting to steal the mob’s money and pin it on Caesar, effectively removing him from their equation while putting themselves on easy street. They come up with a plan that can’t possibly go wrong… until it goes horribly, horribly wrong and suddenly Corky and Violet aren’t looking to get away with the money, they’re just looking to get away with their lives.

The film walks a tightrope of style and tone. This is a visually stunning film in terms of both cinematography and direction - there isn't a shot that the Washowskis don't make the most of. The important thing is that the style doesn't distract from the story, but instead serves to enhance it, helping to heighten the natural instensity of the story by underscoring certain actions and events (mostly acts of violence). In terms of tone, this is a film that could go very wrong very easily if the filmmakers didn't have such great command and control over the material. Bound consistently goes right to the edge - creeping towards that line that separates the serious from the ridiculous - and then restrains itself, pulling back ever so slightly. It’s fortunate that Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are two actresses who know how to do camp properly, because the over-the-top moments wouldn’t work if the two played it with an undertone of “God, can you believe I just said that?” nor would they work if played completely straight. It’s a very fine line that’s being walked here. The best example of this comes during the scene where they’re plotting and Corky expresses reluctance about working with a partner because she doesn’t want to get screwed. “I wouldn’t screw you,” Violet says, and the two cock their heads towards each other to give each other a look while the camera swoops in to catch it up close. It’s funny and sexy and silly all at the same time.

Putting Gershon and Tilly together in these roles is simply inspired, with Tilly playing the ultra-girly femme fatale, and Gershon as the Hollywood (read: heterosexually acceptable) version of butch lesbianism (honestly, though, how butch can you be with a name like Corky?). They have fantastic chemistry and each has a great handle on her character, especially Tilly. Violet is a character who is consistently underestimated because of her va-va-voom appearance and her high-pitched voice. “This is the part where you tell me what matters is on the inside, and that inside of you there’s a little dyke just like me,” Corky says challengingly when Violet tries to talk her into bed. “No, she’s nothing like you. She’s a whole lot smarter than you are.” And it’s true. In fact, while Violet may initially seem like little more than an accessory for Caesar, she is in fact the smartest person in the whole movie, the one who seems to have the best grasp of the entirety of the situation even as it continues to shift and change and mutate. She herself is always shifting and changing, not only dressing differently when she’s with Corky as opposed to Caesar, but also speaking in a lower register. Of all the characters, she's the one most capable of adapting to new sets of circumstances.

The shifts and changes faced by Violet and Corky come in the form of a story that is incredibly well-plotted and executed by the writers/directors. They build up to the crime slowly, letting Violet simply prowl around Corky for a while before the plotting is set in motion. We see their plan unfold as they’re discussing it – they’ve thought out the steps, but left little room for the life’s little accidents, as they discover when the plan is actually set into motion and people start dying left and right. Violet and Caesar’s bathtub fills with bodies, police show up and are stalled just long enough to cover up the massive amount of blood on the floor, and then Caesar gives Corky ten chances to tell him where they money is hidden – with each missed opportunity resulting in Violet loosing a digit. This section of the film unfolds at a fast clip, but not so fast that you can’t keep up with it – it runs at an intensity to match the growing confusion and fear being experienced on-screen.

The portrayal of women, specifically queer women, in this film is unusual when you consider that it was written and directed by two men (although, perhaps not, since one of the brothers is transgendered). Not only does it center on two lesbians – neither one of whom ends up with a man in the end – but it centers on two “bad” girls. Bad girls and lesbians hardly ever get a happy ending in mainstream/male dominated cinema – in fact, both usually end up dead because they’re threatening in some way to the male psyche. But here, nearly all the men are killed and Corky and Violet are left together.

“You know what the difference between you and me, Violet?”
“Me neither.”

And then they kiss and ride into the sunset in Corky’s red pick-up truck. Brilliant.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: An American In Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron

An American In Paris holds a special place in my heart because it marks the moment when I fell in love with the musical as a genre. It’s a flawed film, and certainly a distant second to Gene Kelly’s best musical, Singin’ In The Rain, but it remains nonetheless a great film and a great entertainment. When you watch Kelly, who simply exudes the pure joy of performance whenever he’s on screen, you can’t help but feel happy. This film is no exception.

Kelly stars as Jerry Mulligan, an ex-G.I. who has stayed on in post-war Paris in order to establish himself as a painter. He meets two women: Milo (Nina Foch) who is wealthy and wants to be his patron, more because she wants him in her bed than out of love for his work; and Lise (Leslie Caron), a young woman with whom he’s instantly smitten, but who is already romantically entangled. She likes Jerry, but is engaged to Henri (Georges Guétary), an older man who kept her safe during the war. Jerry and Henri know each other, but neither knows of the other’s relationship with Lise. The journey towards discovery is marked with some of the best song and dance numbers you’ll ever see.

Kelly is, of course, a masterful dancer and he and Caron have great chemistry as dancers (the “Our Love Is Here To Stay” number, which finds them dancing away from and towards each other by the side of the Seine is one of the film’s many highlights), but as characters, Jerry and Lise’s relationship doesn’t quite hold up. The problem stems perhaps from the age difference (in real life Kelly and Caron were nearly 20 years apart in age) and from Lise’s similarly structured relationship with Henri. Lise comes across more as a scared girl seeking a father figure than she does like a woman burning with passion for either man. And Jerry doesn’t help things with the way he charmingly harasses her into going on a date with him after she’s already turned him down. In their conversation leading up to the “Our Love” number, Jerry tells Lise that he’s “not sure if you’re a still water that doesn’t run deep” and remarks that “with a binding like you’ve got, people are going to want to know what’s in the book.” He says these lines in an adoring/romantic tone of voice but when you actually listen to what he’s saying you see how shallow this relationship is. Jerry not only doesn’t know who Lise is as a person, but actually thinks that there isn’t much to her – the attraction is purely superficial.

I mentioned the age difference between Kelly and Caron as part of the problem, but I’ve never actually been entirely sure whether or not Jerry is meant to be much younger than Kelly himself. It would certainly make sense for Jerry to be younger, not only because of his relationship with Lise, but also because of his relationship with Milo. Milo is portrayed as a predator who wants to use and control Jerry, but that doesn’t entirely work because Kelly and Foch seem pretty evenly matched. In their initial scenes, Jerry is surprised to realize that Milo is after him because such a relationship hadn’t occurred to him. It seems less like Jerry is a naïve young man who wouldn’t give an older woman a thought, and more like Jerry is a proud man who wouldn’t give a thought to being with a woman who had more money than him. The idea that Milo would want to “keep” Jerry as a boy toy seems silly, because Jerry seems too old to be kept.

These are the biggest problems with the film, but what works are those elements which root it intractably in the musical genre (i.e. the singing and the dancing). Singin’ In The Rain is, without a doubt, the Gene Kelly movie, but in one particular aspect that film falls short where An American In Paris succeeds. Both films feature an extended dancing sequence at the end. In Rain the sequence, though great, feels tacked on and doesn’t flow easily with the rest of the film. In Paris, however, the ballet at the end fits seamlessly with what has come before. Lise has left Jerry. He’s heartbroken and imagines himself in a picture he’s just drawn. The picture comes to life and what follows is a ballet sequence lasting about fifteen minutes and which effectively summarizes the various emotions Jerry has felt in his relationship with Lise. It’s alternately funny and sad and romantic, but above all it’s gorgeous from beginning to end. It is, without a doubt, my favourite musical sequence in all film and it completely makes the movie for me.

The film ends happily (if there’s a girl to be had, does Gene Kelly ever not get her?), concluding only moments after the exhilaration of the American In Paris ballet, which is wise because any extended scene following that would feel like an anti-climax. Although the central relationship leaves me somewhat cold, the film as a whole makes me so happy that it’s easy for me to overlook that and be satisfied with the ending. Jerry gets his girl. Who could ask for anything more?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty

Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is a hard guy to feel sorry for. He’s paranoid, he’s mean and he’s abusive and, yes, it all stems essentially from his own insecurities, but still. This is a guy who just won’t help himself, who makes the same mistakes over and over again, who shows control only when he’s in the boxing ring and spends his life outside of it relentlessly punishing himself and the people around him. And yet, by the time you get to the scene where he’s alone in a prison cell, crying and uselessly punching the concrete walls, you do feel sorry for him. Credit due to De Niro and Martin Scorsese for making that possible.

Raging Bull is easily the most poetic of all Scorsese’s films, which is surprising because LaMotta isn’t a poetic character. But when LaMotta is boxing, the film takes on this transcendent sense where even the way blood spatters looks beautiful in its way. The film is never kinder to LaMotta than when he’s in the ring, where no one, even Sugar Ray Leonard, can knock him down. Out in the world, LaMotta is getting knocked down every day – by the mobsters who want him to take a dive and keep the title shot just out of reach until he agrees, by his troubles with the law, his battle with his weight, his paranoia over the fidelity of his wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) – he only ever gets a moment of peace, a moment of grace, when he’s pummelling an opponent and being pummelled in return. He enjoys the punishment of his job, seeing how much he can take and still stay standing. In the scene where he takes a dive, he just stands there against the ropes, letting the other boxer punch him over and over while berating him for not being able to get the job done. Afterwards, he sits in the locker room crying because the guy was “a bum.” He didn’t fall down, but he still lost face in the place where it means the most for him to have it.

We see LaMotta at different periods of his life: at his height, where he’s one of the best boxers in the world, and afterwards, when he’s left boxing, gained weight and begun to trade on his past life for the sake of his new one as a nightclub proprietor. His marriage, which was always strained by his inability to trust Vickie, falls apart. His relationship with his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), falls apart, due primarily to LaMotta’s suspicion that Joey slept with Vickie, but it was probably only a matter of time considering the amount of abuse he’s heaped on Joey over the years. He gets arrested for having a relationship with an underage girl. He comes up with a plan to pay his bond by pawning the jewels in his title belt, which he mercilessly removes from the belt… only to be told that the jewels themselves aren’t worth as much as the belt would have been if it was intact. For me, that scene more than any other is the one where I really start to feel for LaMotta. He just doesn’t get it.

People always talk about De Niro’s physical transformation from young, fit LaMotta, to older, fatter LaMotta. It is definitely impressive, but this is a performance that amounts to more than just gaining weight. This is a fully fleshed – no pun intended – performance by De Niro, who more or less wears LaMotta’s thoughts right on his face. When he’s suspicious, we know it. When he’s struggling to understand, we know the extent to which he is struggling and the direction in which his thoughts are straying. There is never a moment when you think to yourself, “That’s De Niro.” It is always LaMotta and, essentially, two versions of LaMotta: the controlled, intuitive LaMotta in the ring, and the dangerous, out-of-control LaMotta who exists everywhere else.

Pesci and Moriarty also give excellent performances, each playing a character who loves LaMotta but becomes increasingly exasperated by his moods and inability to trust. There’s an especially great moment for Pesci at the end, when LaMotta catches up with Joey after years of estrangement and insists on a hug and Joey just stands there waiting for him to be finished with it. Pesci and De Niro play off of each other wonderfully, really giving the sense of two people with a lifelong history together.

But the acting is only half the battle, and I would be remiss if I didn't emphasize the masterful direction of Martin Scorsese, the cinematography of Michael Chapman, and the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, who quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Editing. This is a technically beautiful movie, filmed with incredible grace and intimacy, both inside the ring and out. We're given insight into LaMotta's psyche through the way that the film always slows down whenever shooting from his perspective, as if he's memorizing details (most of the slow motion shots involve him looking at Vickie's interactions with other men). We're given further insight into LaMotta's frame of mind through the general narrowness of the composition of the shots. Everything always seems very tight, very closed in, as if to suggest the narrowness of LaMotta's vision. It's a very effective psychological movie and, without a doubt, it is my favourite of all of Scorsese’s films, perhaps my favourite of all of De Niro’s films, and probably the best film to come out in the 1980s.

Monday, March 17, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom

Each of the three Lord of the Rings films are distinct and strong enough in their own rights as films, but taken together you get a story that is epic in every sense of the word, a visual and narrative experience that is almost beyond imagining. The films transcend the boundaries of genre, becoming not simply a standard for fantasy films, but a standard for filmmaking period. They aren’t perfect films to be sure, but even their flaws are lovable when considered as part of the overall experience of watching this story unfold.

The story centers on a group of heroes determined to destroy the one Ring that could rule all of Middle Earth. The Fellowship of the Ring sees the group formed and, at the end, separated; The Two Towers charts their parallel journeys as the dark forces grow stronger, threatening to become unstoppable; and The Return of the King finds them back together again and triumphing over evil. The usual tropes of the genre are present here, but they’re also given a twist. For example, instead of one hero who must battle the exterior forces of evil and the interior forces of self-doubt in order to realize his destiny, here we have two such heroes. Frodo (Elijah Wood) is the hobbit who must travel across the darkest spots of Middle Earth in order to save it, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the man who must accept the destiny he has always tried to avoid, and become the ruler who will unite the kingdoms of Middle Earth. Their journeys are equally compelling, each offering a different take of the idea of heroism. The supporting characters are compelling as well, from the hobbit sidekick Sam (Sean Astin) to the Elvin princess Arwin (Liv Tyler), and of course the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan).

Much has been made of the special effects in the films, and rightly so. What is presented here is CGI at it’s most breathtaking. While I often find CGI distracting and overused, here I find it fully engrossing because it’s done so well and fits so seamlessly into the world where the story takes place. There are many great examples across all three films, but the best use of CGI is in the creation and portrayal of Gollum (Andy Serkis). This is a character so fully realized, so completely fleshed out and three dimensional (both literally and figuratively) that you can watch the films and forget that this is an animated character. Admittedly I’m biased because just about anything involving Gollum qualifies as a favourite moment of mine from the films, and because I’m one of the people who thought Andy Serkis should have been able to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination (what he does here goes so far beyond voice-work and it’s s shame he couldn’t get more recognition for it). One of the most visually and psychologically powerful scenes from the films comes in The Two Towers when Gollum and his other/better side Smeagol confront each other. Smeagol is the side that is still somewhat human, Gollum is the side that has been destroyed by his obsession with the ring, and the interplay of the two – both of whom are separate and distinct characters – is fascinating to watch. And even though Smeagol “wins,” there remains that darker undercurrent, the danger of Gollum (the Gollum in all the characters which represents greed and lust for power, and which we occasionally see peeking out of Frodo) that runs through all three films.

This is a story of amazing scope and action and features some amazing battle sequences, but the power of the films isn’t simply and solely in the sword play. There are moments in these films that are incredibly moving and which lie at the heart of the story. Some of my favourites include the scene in Return of the King where Pip (Billy Boyd) sings a mournful ballad to a king, whose only surviving son has ridden into battle on a suicide mission in order to please him; Sam’s determination in the end to ensure that Frodo realizes his goal, even if he has to carry him on his back; the arrival of Gandalf on the horizon when the battle for Helm’s Deep seems lost; and the scene in The Two Towers where Arwin and her father discuss her future with Aragorn, and he describes to her a life that will only result in heartache for her when Aragorn inevitably dies while her own life will carry on. But she sees the future herself and won’t be swayed. There is death, “but there is also life.”

Like the vast majority of films, these ones have their flaws. To me the most glaring is the off-screen defeat and comeuppance of Saruman (Christopher Lee) which takes place between the end of The Two Towers and the beginning of The Return of the King, but I know other people who think that about the only thing wrong with any of the films is that fact that Return of the King has about eight different endings. However, regardless of these and other minor quibbles, the trilogy can be seen as nothing less than a masterpiece of technical and artistic achievement. Few filmmakers have ever dared to aspire to the lofty heights to which director Peter Jackson soars with these films.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Two For The Road (1967)

Director: Stanley Donen
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney

“What kind of people just sit in a restaurant and don’t say one word to each other?” Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) asks. “Married people,” Mark (Albert Finney) replies. Two For The Road is a romantic comedy/drama about how two people can at once want the same and different things. It centers on Mark and Joanna and shows us their relationship in a kaleidoscopic way, jumping back and forth through time so that we meet them at various stages of their relationship, always while they’re on vacation in the same parts of Europe. It’s a narratively innovative and clever story against which Hepburn and Finney deliver charmingly complex performances.

Mark and Joanna meet as college students. She's travelling with friends, he's backpacking through Europe, planning to sleep outdoors and spend as little money as possible. She's smitten, he's not... quite. They end up travelling the rest of the way together and, in the process, she wins him over. Later, they're married and travelling with friends - his ex-girlfriend, her husband, and their precociously annoying daughter. Later still, they have a child of their own and he's working for a French businessman. And finally, their last trip together on their way to get divorced. These various timelines are woven together so snugly that occasionally we enter a location with the Mark and Joanna of a later timeline, and exit with the Mark and Joanna of an earlier timeline, or vice versa.

We follow them through the ups and downs of their relationship, as they fall in love, and out of love, and back in love, as they both have affairs, and as they have the same arguments over and over again. We can see from the beginning that they'll have problems. For example, she wants to get married, he doesn't. Later, when they are married, she wants to have children, but he doesn't. “We agreed before we were married that we weren’t going to have children,” he reminds her. “And before we were married we didn’t.” The chemistry between Hepburn and Finney is easy, not forced. When they flirt, we believe that they want each other, and when they fight we believe that they're angry... but at the same time would like nothing better than to forgive each other and forget. For a brief time she leaves him for another man and when she returns they have a conversation that is short and simple, but manages to convey the various emotions at play for both of them. “You humiliated me. You humiliate me… and then you come back,” he says. She nods, saying, “That’s right.” “Thank God!” In this one scene we get a picture of their relationship in miniature, of the ways they play off and against each other, the ways they’ve hurt each other, and the ways that they still need each other.

The direction by Stanley Donen, who is more widely regarded for his work in musicals (Singin’ In The Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Damn Yankees among them), is superb. There is drama and comedy, neither of which seems out-of-place, so perfectly mixed are they. The third and forth timelines, during which the marriage is falling apart and ending, is heavy with drama for obvious reasons. The first and second are charming and funny, the trip with the other couple, especially. At one point the couple's daughter throws a tantrum which leaves them stranded by the side of the road. "Do you still want to have children?" Mark asks. "Not that one," Joanna replies.

Donen has said that at the time of its release a lot of people didn’t “get” Two For The Road due to its non-linear, back-and-forth timeline. Today the tricks he used have been employed in so many other films that we're familiar with them and this type of narrative is as much a part of film language as any other. The style of the film doesn’t detract in any way from the story, it only enhances it and contributes to the way that the film still seems fresh and charming, rather than dated. Each timeline is used to mirror the others in some way, so that we anticipate in the early timelines the issues that will have emerged later, and see in the later timelines the things that are still keeping the relationship together, and those things causing cracks to emerge in the foundation. What we end up with is a three-dimensional picture of this relationship and the people in it. Neither one is perfect, but that's what makes them so compelling and what makes their story so emotionally engaging.

There's a running joke throughout the film: he can never find his passport, and she always knows exactly where it is. The film ends with them stopped at the border – a significant fact given that they're on their way to getting divorced and neither one seems totally resigned to going through with it. He's looking frantically for his passport. She holds it up for him and waits for him to notice. When he finally does he takes it from her and says, "Bitch." "Bastard," she replies, both uttering their epithets with affection rather than malice. These final moments more or less sum up their relationship: they’re pulled together and pushed apart in equal turns but, ultimately, they’d be lost without each other.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Searchers (1956)

Director: John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood

Westerns in general fight an uphill battle because there exists an attitude towards them that they’re “B” movies, films made for entertainment and not as art. This is especially true of John Wayne movies, even though he made most of them with one of the greatest artists of his own or any other time: John Ford. I know people who’ve avoided John Wayne movies, thinking that they’re all the same, that they’re “genre” films in the most confining sense of the word. I myself was one of them until I saw The Searchers. Anyone who doubts the ability of a Western to really mean something – and anyone who doubts John Wayne’s ability to act – should see this film.

The story centers on Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Civil War veteran who returns home shortly before most of his family is murdered in a Comanche raid. The only survivor is his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by the Comanche, and whom Ethan and his pseudo-nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) will spend the next decade searching for. As they finally come near to finding her, Martin realizes that Ethan is planning to kill her because by now she’s been assimilated and become one of “them.” He (and we, the audience) doesn’t know what will ultimately happen when Ethan and Debbie are finally reunited.

John Wayne is generally thought of as an archetypal all-American hero whose films framed him in the same way, even thought the evidence doesn’t always support that. Ethan is the protagonist and he is a hero in the classical meaning of the word, if not in it’s more modern meaning. By classical I mean heroes of the type found in Homer and Virgil, the Greco-Roman archetypes who fought as heroes, but were deeply flawed as human beings. In many ways he fits the archetype of the classical hero. Like Odysseus, he returns home from war years after the fact and is at once an insider and an outsider (note the way the film consistently frames him in doorways – he belongs “out there” not “in here”). By modern conceptions of the terms “hero” and “villain,” this is a character that skews more toward the latter than the former. He’s racist and cruel and hateful (one of the most memorable scenes in the film is him shooting out the eyes of a dead Comanche because, he says, they believe that without their eyes, their spirits are destined to forever wander the earth). But what’s important about this film is that it knows that about him. If the film wasn’t commenting on Ethan’s racism, it wouldn’t stand out so much. He’s not a perfect character, he’s not “good” in a traditional sense, but that doesn’t automatically mean that he isn’t a hero or that he isn’t capable of doing good.

There is a lot of complexity to the character of Ethan, and Wayne shades it in nicely. When he returns home (his brother’s home), it is clear that he’s in love with his sister-in-law – Wayne makes it clear through his eyes, the feature of his to watch in this film. When the family is murdered, he and Martin are off with a posse. From a distance, they can tell that all is not well at the Edwards home and everyone rides back towards it except Ethan. He knows it’s too late, that they’re too far away to help, and he stays behind to rest his horse for the long journey back. You can see everything written on his face in this scene.

Adding to the complexity of Ethan is his relationship with Martin. Martin was raised by Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law, but Ethan refuses to let Martin call him “Uncle Ethan” like the other children do. Martin is part Native American, enough to make him one of “them,” and Ethan treats him that way through most of the film. But what, exactly, is it about “them” (Martin included) that Ethan hates so much? There’s a sexual connotation to Ethan’s racism made explicit by his determination to kill Debbie once he realizes that she’s become a concubine to the Comanche Chief Scar (Henry Brandon). But there’s also a sexual connotation to his relationship with Martin. Consider this: in his meeting with Scar, Ethan comments that he speaks English well. When Ethan says something in Comanche, Scar comments that he speaks that well. If the implication is that Scar learned English from Debbie, then who are we to suppose that Ethan learned Comanche from? And why is it that Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law took Martin in and raised him as their own? If Martin is Ethan’s son by a Comanche woman, Ethan’s racism takes on a new dimension, stemming at least in part from his own self-loathing for having engaged in something he thinks taboo.

The Searchers is both literally and figuratively a journey. It’s a journey across the West to find Debbie, but it’s also a journey of the soul for Ethan, who travels from being a man would kill his niece after she’s lived as one of “them,” to being a man who can take that same girl in his arms, saying, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” But, ultimately, for Ethan there is no home. He doesn’t fit – or he’s not fit for – home and it’s not long after he’s brought Debbie back that he goes away again, back to the wide-open spaces of the American West. It’s the perfect ending to a film that is unequivocally a masterpiece of this or any genre.