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Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: Baby Mama (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Michael McCullers
Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler

Baby Mama is a funny, if soft, film about one woman’s quest to have a baby. It’s not entirely successful as a film – its flaws are many and in some cases glaring – but it has its heart in the right place and provides a nice showcase for two female performers who know what most modern comedies seem to have forgotten – that when it comes to women “funny” and “clumsy” aren’t the same thing.

The story begins with Kate (Tina Fey), the 37-year-old V.P. of an organic food company who, after several unsuccessful attempts to conceive, decides to have a baby using a surrogate mother. She goes to Chaffee Bicknell, a company named after its eternally fertile head, played by Sigourney Weaver. Through the agency, Kate is paired with Angie (Amy Poehler), whose breakup with her ne’er do well boyfriend (Dax Sheppard) will result in her moving in with Kate. Kate and Angie have an Odd Couple-like (Odd Couple-lite?) relationship where Kate’s Type A tendencies come into conflict with Angie’s slovenly ways.

One of the disappointing things about this movie is that it consistently hints at how sharp it might have been. The scenes between Kate and Chaffee, especially, comment on the phenomenon of babies as business, two things which were once seen as diametrically and intrinsically opposed to each other. Chaffee refers to surrogacy as “outsourcing,” explaining that it’s essentially no different than hiring a nanny once the baby is born. This first scene between the two not only highlights the way that babies have become an industry, but also touches on the real life moral/ethical conundrum of women from prosperous nations using surrogates from developing nations because it’s cheaper. But the film only touches on these elements briefly, and then moves on to other things and becomes softer and fluffier and move Lifetimey with every twist of the plot.

Part of the problem with Baby Mama is that it’s a lot heavier on plot than it has to be. A large section of the story is concerned with the question of whether or not Angie actually is pregnant, and this part of the plot combined with Kate’s budding relationship with Rob (Greg Kinnear) leads to an ending that is absolutely predictable and a little unsatisfying. That the film doesn’t really need these elements is demonstrated by how well it works when it focuses on the relationship between the two women as they negotiate their differences and their situation. In their prenatal class they’re mistaken for “wesbian wovers” by the lisping instructor, whose suggestion that Kate help Angie prepare for giving birth by massaging her with olive oil is met with Angie’s idea to just “spray some Pam” on herself before the baby comes out.

Performance-wise, the actors in this film are all likeable enough that it makes you wish they were in a better movie. Poehler is appropriately wacky as Angie while also providing her with some much needed humanity so that she’s more than just a sketch character, although it must be admitted that she’s a little too old for this particular role. Steve Martin, in a small role as Kate’s boss, is wonderfully deadpan and Sheppard matches Poehler wacky for wacky as her dimwitted ex. But, ultimately, this is Fey’s movie and as a performer she really delivers. There aren’t a lot of women playing leading roles in movies who are as relatable as Fey, and that’s what really holds this particular film together.

There are a lot of laughs in this movie, but not enough that they distract you from the inherent problems with the way that the story is put together. Fey and Poehler are enjoyable as the two leads and it’s too bad they didn’t save themselves for a film more worthy of the effort.

Friday, June 27, 2008

LAMB Movie of the Month: The Big Lebowski (1998)

* * *

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore

A kidnapping gone awry, a bungled ransom drop, a cast of peculiar characters, and appearances by Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi – sound familiar? Not quite. The Big Lebowski is the polar opposite of Fargo, as light as the other is dark, as funny as the other is tragic. With a keen eye for absurdity, writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen deliver a film that is truly one of a kind.

The Big Lebowski begins with Jeff Lebowski, known to all as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) being mistaken for a millionaire also named Lebowski, whose wife is in debt to a pornographer. Two guys show up at Lebowski’s abode, rough him up, and ruin a rug before realizing that they’ve got the wrong guy. After relating his tale to his friend, Walt (John Goodman), The Dude is convinced to go to the Big Lebowski and ask for compensation for the rug, which he receives by simply taking one of the rugs in Lebowski’s mansion. Shortly after their meeting, Mrs. Lebowski (Tara Reid) is kidnapped (or perhaps not) and The Dude is recruited to act as a courier to deliver the ransom. The money is lost when The Dude’s car is stolen, a toe is sent to Lebowski as a means of encouraging him to deliver the money, and people keep showing up at The Dude’s demanding answers. The plot of the film is kind of nonsensical and a little meandering, which would bother me were it not for the fact that I think the story is being told this way intentionally. I mean, if a stoner was trying to relate this story to you, including the subplots involving him getting Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore) pregnant, and his bowling team’s quest to win the championship, you wouldn’t expect it to be entirely cohesive nor would you expect all the threads to tie up nicely.

There are a lot of quirky characters in the film – as there tend to be in all the Coens’ comedies – and a lot of truly bizarre moments (and I mean that in the best possible way). Walt is a Vietnam vet with anger issues who constantly steps in to help The Dude, but only manages to make things much, much worse each and every time; Maude is an artist with a penchant for flying over her canvas, flicking her brushes Jackson Pollack-style; the alleged kidnappers are a trio of German nihilists who don’t quite seem to understand why they shouldn’t get the ransom even if they don’t have Mrs. Lebowski – The Dude, himself, is actually the most normal of the bunch.

As The Dude, Bridges delivers a really well-realized characterization of a guy who always seems like he’s this close to expressing some great thought, but fails because his brain and his mouth are out of step with each other and because his ideas, once thought, drift away and can never again be recovered. Bridges isn’t an actor I’ve ever gone out of my way to see, but I’ve always found that movies he’s in are better for the fact that he’s in them. He’s a very naturalistic actor and slips so completely and easily into his roles, which is maybe why he’s never really been given as much credit as he deserves. The presence of Bridges, more than anything else, really grounds the film and keeps it from going too far over the top.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Fugitive Pieces (2008)

* * * *

Director: Jeremy Podeswa
Starring: Stephen Dillane, Rade Serbedzija, Robbie Kay

Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces is a lyrical and moving treasure of a film. Narratively elusive, it examines both the power and the fragility of memory, its characters haunted by what they remember – and what they’ve forgotten – as they attempt to reconcile the past to the present. Wonderfully crafted and beautifully brought to life both in front of and behind the camera, this is an absolute must-see of a movie.

The story centers on Jakob, played as a boy by Robbie Kay and as a man by Stephen Dillane. As a boy in Poland, Jakob is the only member of his family to escape the Nazis, watching from his hiding place as his older sister, Bella, is dragged away by soldiers. He’s eventually found by Athos (Rade Serbedzija), a Greek geologist who takes him to the island of Kefallonia and keeps him safe for the duration of the war. Athos becomes an anchor in Jakob’s chaotic life, a man who is gentle and protective, extraordinary for the way that he unflinchingly performs tasks which, in different circumstances, would be ordinary but during the Nazi occupation put him directly in danger. At war’s end, the two emigrate to Canada, where Athos has been offered a teaching position.

Jakob grows up, becomes a writer, marries and divorces then marries again, all while attempting to reconcile his first life to his second. Every new experience and each new language he learns (first Greek then English), seems to erase part of his past and drives him to record his memories before they can be lost. Over time he begins to realize that he can’t fixate on his past and that he must begin to let go. The catalyst for this realization is the relationship of his neighbour, Jozef (Diego Matamoros) to his son, Ben (Ed Stoppard). Jozef and his wife are concentration camp survivors whom Jakob will know for most of his life, becoming in a way a member of their family. Throughout his childhood, Ben seeks refuge in the apartment of Jakob and Athos, clinging to Jakob when it’s time to go home. Jakob sees how hard Jozef is on his son, berating him for throwing away a half-eaten apple (“Our son doesn’t know the value of things,” he laments to his wife, then questions why they lived if their son can’t understand how precious half an apple would have once been to them). The past has taken its toll on Jozef and Jakob, but they aren’t the only ones who suffer. Those who love them often bear the brunt of their memories.

The story unfolds in a non-linear, fragmented way, with past and present weaving in and out of each other across the delicate links of memory. Some of the most moving sequences of the film are simply images unfolding as Jakob’s voice-over reveals the contents of his writing. Generally speaking, adaptations that rely on voice-over narration come across as somewhat weak to me, denoting a filmmaker too in love with the novelist to make the work their own. However, in this particular case, I wasn’t bothered by it at all, partly because the story is told in such an intensely personal way that it seems wholly appropriate, and partly because the prose itself is simply so beautiful.

This is a really wonderful movie, a haunting meditation on how our past shapes our present even as our memories begin to elude us. This is the first masterpiece of 2008.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008)

* * *

Director: John Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn

It probably says a lot about the surreal nature of the times in which we live that the film which engages most effectively with the war on terror is a stoner comedy. In certain respects, this makes absolute sense because this is the only mainstream film dealing with these issues which unfolds from the perspective of people of color who are, by and large, more intensely affected by the policies enacted to combat terrorism than the white protagonists who litter the film landscape. But, on the other hand, it remains a sad state of affairs when one of the more successful post-9/11 films mixes politics in equal measure with bodily functions.

Here’s the thing. There are few things I like more than a smart movie. But, that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of enjoying a dumb movie so long as it knows it’s dumb. There’s not much to say about the plot of Harold and Kumar because, like the first film, its story is structured in the manner of “This happened and then this happened and then this happened.” Both films are picaresque in nature, a series of skits unfolding one after the other. The fun of both is watching Harold and Kumar as they escape from a bad situation only to find themselves in one worse, only to escape again and find themselves in another bad situation. In this film, the two will be taken into custody during a flight to Amsterdam after a misunderstanding involving the word “bong,” be sent to Guantanamo Bay, escape and return to the U.S. via a Cuban raft, end up in Birmingham where they encounter an inbred Cyclops and a Ku Klux Klan meeting, reunite with Neil Patrick Harris, be shot at by angry hookers, be detained again and parachute into President Bush’s ranch. In revealing this, I’m not really giving anything away because this is a film that’s less about what happens, then the jokes that can be made from what happens.

As the two leads, John Cho and Kal Pen play off of each other very well and both are very likeable, which definitely helps in terms of keeping the film afloat, as does the pacing. The various episodes of the film are all well-timed, with none going on so long that all the humour is drained out of any given situation. How much you enjoy this movie will depend a fair deal on whether you’ve seen the original, as many elements refer back to the first film, but by and large the gags are funny enough that they work even without having seen the original.

To return to the political aspect of the film – and I’m surprised to find myself writing this about a movie where the primary goal of the protagonists is to get to Amsterdam and smoke legal weed – the reason this film works so effectively is that it’s balanced. Harold and Kumar are falsely sent to Guantanamo through a combination of racial profiling, misunderstanding, overzealousness, and a heightened sensitivity to anything or anyone who might be suspicious; but, while imprisoned they meet admitted terrorists. Rob Corddry appears as a government official who is enthusiastic about punishing people he sees as threatening to America’s freedoms, but who also won’t think twice about using the Bill of Rights for something unmentionable; but Roger Bart is also present as another government official who is along to point out all the ways Corddry goes wrong and lament the way that people like him have hijacked national discourse through knee-jerk us-or-them attitudes. It’s a dumb movie to be sure, but in its political components it presents more shades of grey than most films that aspire to be smart.

All in all, this is a funny movie. You’re life won’t be changed by having seen it, but it’s effective insofar as it achieves exactly what it sets out to, which is to entertain you without straining you intellectually.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

* * *

Director: Andrew Adamson
Starring: William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley

I find myself in a difficult position as I try to sum up my feelings about Prince Caspian, the second chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia series. From an entirely objective standpoint, I can see that it’s a perfectly fine movie, one that’s well put together both in terms of story and production; but I found myself disengaged from it, its charms for the most part lost on me. As a child, I loved the books by C.S. Lewis. As an adult, I never quite got around to seeing the first film of the series, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and have, perhaps, been spoiled by the recent onslaught of films which take place in magical realms. Watching this film, it was sort of like “Been there, done that.”

The film begins with the attempted assassination of Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) by his uncle, Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). He flees into the woods where he is rescued by what remains of the supposedly extinct Narnians, whom he will convince to join with him to take back his kingdom and finally bring peace to the realm. Meanwhile, the Pevensie children – Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) – have been summoned back to Narnia and will eventually unite with the rag-tag Narnian guerrilla army.

The drama in the film plays out on both an epic level and on a smaller, more personal level. Peter, especially, has a well constructed arc as he learns that, despite being High King, he isn’t perfect and occasionally needs the help and advice of others. There’s a poignant moment in the film when he witnesses the slaughter of some of the Narnians following a failed attempt to take Miraz’s castle – a plan he insisted on carrying out despite Caspian’s reservations. He learns the hard way that his actions can have harsh consequences not only for himself, but for others as well.

My problem with the film basically comes down to two things. First, I found the character of Caspian to be less than inspiring and lacking in the necessary charisma, especially when directly compared to Peter, who is a much more fleshed out and fully-realized character. From the outset Peter and Caspian are set up as rivals and their attempts to out-macho each other drives a lot of the inter-personal drama. Next to Peter, Caspian seems a little two-dimensional, a little lacking. The other thing is the ratio of talk/exposition to action. The action in the film is very well crafted, top-notch in every respect, but there’s so little of it and this is supposed to be an epic adventure film. I found myself growing impatient waiting for the plot to move forward as the characters waded through dialogue that largely harkens back to the events of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or fills in the blanks between the two films, which take place 1,300 years apart Narnian time.

So, while I recognize that Prince Caspian isn’t a bad film, I have to admit that it just wasn’t for me.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

* * *

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf

Some things I learned from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:

1. You can survive a nuclear explosion by taking refuge in a lead refrigerator;
2. The ruins of South America are filled with indigenous peoples of various stripes just waiting for a nosy gringo to come by so that they can jump out at him;
3. The next big attraction at Disneyland is going to be a water ride involving a drop off of three consecutive waterfalls

The latest instalment in the Indiana Jones series is kind of silly but it’s also pretty entertaining as long as you’re willing to embrace the silliness. It’s no Raiders of the Lost Ark to be sure, but what is? Crystal Skull is a pleasant addition to the series, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is full of great action sequences. It nods to the original in various ways, most notably through the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (yay!), who proves that there’s something to be said for actresses aging naturally and gracefully, and a brief glimpse of the Ark of the Covenant at the beginning of the film when Indy is forced to help some KGB, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), in their search through an army warehouse. It also effectively passes the torch from Harrison Ford to Shia LaBeouf, laying the groundwork for an Indy-free adventure next time.

The story takes place in 1957, when Mutt Williams (LaBeouf) tracks Indy down after his mother (Marion) and father-figure Professor Oxley (John Hurt) have been kidnapped in Peru. Indy and Mutt head down after them and begin to uncover the secrets of the Crystal Skull – secrets which Irina would very much like to harness as part of a KGB plot to control the minds of the world. Indy and Mutt are eventually reunited with Marion and Oxley, leading to various escapes, recaptures, and chase scenes which will culminate in an ending that will leave you sighing in exasperation or simply shrugging and continuing to go with the flow.

There’s a lot that I liked about the film, not least of which is that it’s just a lot of fun – fun not only to watch but, by the looks of it, fun to make as well (Indy’s reunion with Marion looks genuinely joyful, as do all their subsequent interactions). It’s a little heavier on CGI than I would have liked, and there are moments that are a tad gruesome (Indy can be afraid of snakes all he wants but my biggest worry will now be ants) and some which are just plain ridiculous (Mutt swinging through the jungle with a band of monkeys), but so what? I didn’t go to this movie thinking that it would be some grand revelation about the art of filmmaking; I went to be entertained and I was. Harrison Ford is an actor I like a lot and it’s nice that he’s in a movie that I actually want to see after damn near a decade of making films you couldn’t get me anywhere near if you had a gun to my head.

This may not be a movie that will hold up a decade from now and it’s never going to become a revered classic in the style of Raiders, but it’s a very entertaining film and definitely worth the price of admission. Besides, how can you help yourself from smiling when you hear that theme music and see that fedora for the first time? Watching this movie is kind of like putting on a comfortable old sweater. It just feels good.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Wrapping Up 100 Days, 100 Movies

What began on March 10th as a kind of an insane challenge to myself to post for 100 days straight on my favourite movies has now officially and successfully come to a close. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did - though I have to admit that somewhere around day 60 I started to burn out a little; luckily I got my second wind.

In celebration of having finished the series I'll be taking a brief hiatus, but I'll be back with new content on Monday, June 23rd, catching up on all the movies I've seen since embarking on this project.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Final Selection

99 movies down and only one selection left, this spot reserved for the absolute best movie ever made (by which, of course, I mean my favourite). Drum roll please...

Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid

You must remember this, the enduring tale of love and sacrifice, of wartime politics and subterfuge, noble men and scoundrels, and Rick’s Cafe Americain – the original bar where everyone knew your name. Casablanca is a movie with a little something for everyone, a thoroughly satisfying film for the romantic and the cynic alike.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, the plot ought to be familiar to you: Casablanca, located in French Morocco, is one of the stops along the way for those wishing to flee the Nazis and take refuge in the US. Rick’s Cafe Americain is the local hot spot, owned by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and frequented by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines) and black market dealer Ugarte (Peter Lorre) amongst scores of others waiting and plotting their escapes from Casablanca. There are three new arrivals in Casablanca: the German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Isla (Ingrid Bergman). Strasser has come to ensure that Laszlo, a resistance figure and concentration camp escapee, doesn’t make it to America. Laszlo and Isla were meant to get the letters of transit which would allow their escape through Ugarte, who is arrested before he can sell them but not before he can give them to Rick for safe keeping. When Laszlo and Isla come to make the deal, Rick is confronted with his past, having loved and lost Isla in Paris. Now Rick, who until now has been determined not to stick his neck out for anybody, must decide whether it’s worth it to put himself in danger to help Laszlo, and Isla must decide what she’s willing to sacrifice (or not, depending on how you look at it) to ensure that Laszlo gets out of Casablanca.

Casablanca is about a lot of things, but it seems to me that above all else, it’s the story of desperation. The people in Casablanca are all desperate to get out, to get on to the States, and one of the film’s subplots involves a woman who agrees to a liaison with Renault in exchange for his agreeing to help her and her husband to flee. Laszlo is desperate to escape the Nazis and continue his work. Rick and Isla are desperate in their love for each other – but each is also desperate for something else, too. Isla wants to make sure that Laszlo is able to continue his work, for which she admires him so greatly, and Rick, despite his hard shell and his roguish pose, wants to do the right thing.

Isla’s relationships with Rick and Laszlo are, of course, the central focus of the story. Isla loves Rick, but worships Laszlo, whom she had thought was dead when she and Rick met in Paris. In certain respects, Isla is an empty character, an object to be bartered over by the two strong male figures who will determine her fate, but in the hands of the luminous Bergman, the character is given depth and dimension. Henreid, as Laszlo, has a role that ought to be thankless – the spotless hero and cuckold – but he, too, makes more of it than what is present on the page. There is a great scene early on when Laszlo and Isla discuss all the times when they might have gone their separate ways but instead stayed together, that demonstrates why Laszlo is a legitimate rival for Rick, rather than just a device of the plot.

Bogart has the film’s best role (though Raines runs a close second as the shady but ultimately sentimental Renault) as a man who puts on a tough show, but is really a romantic on the inside. He’s quick to tell people that he’s out for number one, that he cares about himself and himself alone, but what he consistently shows is that he cares a great deal about other people and wants to help them. Sure, he doesn’t lift a finger to help Ugarte when Renault decides to round up “the usual suspects” in an effort to track down those two missing letters of transit, but he does help the woman who was willing to prostitute herself to Renault by ensuring that her husband wins big at the roulette table, and he has a history of fighting the good fight, even if he does insist that he only did it for the money. Further, when he’s making plans to sell the cafe, he makes sure that his employees will all be well taken care of. Rick is a really well-rounded character and through the course of the film he truly earns the right to make that great and selfless speech to Isla, the one about three people whose problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things.

From a technical point of view, the film is perfectly crafted, unfolding at a brisk pace, without ever taking a wrong turn, without a single moment that is out of place. It’s one of the most quotable movies I’ve ever seen (from “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “We’ll always have Paris” to “We haven't quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape,” hardly a scene goes by without at least one priceless line) and its story is compelling, as demonstrated by the number of times it’s been cribbed by other films, television shows and stories. There isn’t a second of this film that I don’t cherish and adore. To me, this is absolutely and without a doubt, the best movie ever made.

Monday, June 16, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim

Sunset Boulevard is not a film that is easily defined. It features elements of noir (the voice-over by writer turned gigolo Joe Gillis is right in line with classic noir voice-overs), elements of straight drama, and elements of self-referential parody. When Joe (William Holden) turns up at the desolate mansion of silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Wilder creates a finely-crafted Gothic atmosphere. From the wind that whistles through the organ like a ghostly player to the abandoned pool and tennis court, the spectre of death seems to loom over the mansion. It begins with death – Joe’s death – when we meet him for the first time floating face down in Norma’s pool. Being a writer, Joe should have known better than to stick around given how many times the words “dead” and “death” crop up in his first conversations with Norma, whom he meets over the body of her dead chimpanzee.

Norma and her house both exist in a kind of paralysis, a form of suspended animation. Internally, both Norma and the house exist in the 1920s, when Valentino danced on the ballroom floor and Norma was the greatest star in the whole world. Time stops for her in the moment that sound is introduced to film, and she remains convinced that silent films are due for a resurrection, that sound is just a passing fad. She’s written an epic screenplay for her expected comeback and hires Joe to stay on at the house and do an editing job. Or so it seems. Really, she’s hiring him into the world’s oldest profession, a fact which Joe finds distasteful but which doesn’t stop him from accepting the gifts Norma insists on giving him. In between Norma’s romantic overtures, the talk is all about the good old days and Norma’s return to the screen, which she believes to be inevitable.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the best films to come out of the 1950s – this one and Singin’ In The Rain - preoccupy themselves with Hollywood’s silent era. By the beginning of the decade, the Golden Age of Hollywood was over and the studio system was dying. Never again would the studios have a stable of stars whom they would effectively own and whose careers they would dictate, and never again would there be so many big stars at one time. In light of this, it’s only natural that Hollywood filmmakers would take a look at the last bygone era with a mixture of nostalgia and cynicism, perhaps as a way to prepare for the changes yet to come.

Needless to say, Hollywood is mercilessly criticized in this film. The Great Star has gone mad in the absence of her former fame, the director is now a servant, the writer tells his best story after his death. Hollywood is characterized here as a soul-sucking machine that uses people up and leaves them shells of their former selves. The false realities created by Hollywood have generated a grotesque version of life where people don't live as much as they act out their narratives. Most obviously there’s Norma, who lives as if it is still 1927, in a house filled with photographs of herself – studio photographs, importantly (“How could she breathe in that house full of Norma Desmonds?”) – and “fan letters” written by Max (Erich von Stroheim), her butler, former director, and former husband. But there’s also Betty (Nancy Olson), the woman who captures Joe’s heart as they work together on a screenplay. They take a walk around the lot and she describes growing up at the studio, where both her parents worked. Her neighbourhood street was the lot’s false city block, the nose on her face is a surgical construction, created during a brief flirtation with acting. Even the most sincere characters are tainted by a degree of falseness.

Sunset Boulevard is like a gift for film buffs because it’s so self-referential, so full of little bits of trivia. From the first film Norma shows Joe, to the guests at Norma’s card game, Wilder stacks the film with elements of meta without letting those elements take over the story. Ever the master, Wilder skilfully controls the story, guiding it towards its conclusion. Holden, a Wilder favourite who would also appear for the director in Sabrina and Stalag 17, delivers a wonderfully understated performance, more or less allowing himself to take Swanson’s lead. As Norma, Swanson delivers an iconic performance (perhaps too iconic given that she said “I’ve got nobody floating in my swimming pool” in response to a question regarding the autobiographical nature of the film), alternately comic and terrifying. Her final descent down her staircase is a thing of beauty, breathtaking and chilling as her madness finally takes complete control and she utters her immortal speech:
I promise you I'll never desert you again because after Salome we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark! All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

No matter how many times I see this film, I’m always stunned by these final moments. It skirts so close to the edge - any closer and it would have veered wildly into the realm of insane comedy. And yet, between them, Wilder and Swanson pull it off.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston

To call Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans simply a film is to do it an injustice. This is poetry in motion, a graceful and haunting gift to anyone who loves the art of filmmaking. Even today, with technology so far advanced from what F.W. Murnau had to work with, it is rare to see a film that moves so fluidly and with such ease. This beautiful, atmospheric film is a must-see for any movie lover.

The plot of the film is straight forward. The characters are the Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor, who won the first Academy Award for Best Actress for this film), and a Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The story takes place in the countryside where the Man is a farmer and has fallen under the spell of the Woman, who wants him to kill the Wife so that they can run off together. “Spell” is the only way to accurately describe their relationship. The film begins with the Woman creeping near the couple’s home and whistling to the Man. He stands as if in a trance and follows her out to the woods. The scene that follows him through the woods to his meeting with the Woman is breathtakingly beautiful, one of many examples in the film of Murnau freeing the story from the conventions of contemporaneous filmmaking and letting it move. The Woman plants her idea in the Man’s head. He’s horrified at first but quickly acquiesces. He will kill the Wife so that he and the Woman can be together. He takes the Wife on a boat ride (another beautifully shot scene) and attempts to kill her but can’t bring himself to do it. She flees and he chases her, trying to convince her that it was all a mistake. They spend time together in the city and fall in love once again. This sequence is the most charming of the film, alternating between romance and comedy. Happy once again, they return to the country where tragedy strikes – the circumstances and resolution, I won’t reveal.

This is a very simple story, but it’s the way that the story is presented to us that makes this film brilliant. Murnau creates a mood here, not only through the seeming weightlessness of his camera and the tone set by the cinematography, but also through the inter-titles which, though spare, contribute a great deal to the style of the film. When The Woman suggests that the Man kill his Wife, it isn’t shown to us with a flat title, but rather she suggests that he drown his wife and the words run down the screen like water. Murnau also seems to use all the technology at his disposal in order to let the film glide from one moment to another. In one sequence the Man and the Wife are crossing the street, the shot dissolves to them walking through a woodland and then dissolves back to the street where the Man and Wife are kissing and bringing traffic to a stop. The ways that Murnau finds to engage us in the world on screen and convey the changing relationships of the film are wonderfully innovative from both a technical and an artistic standpoint.

I know people who shun silent films like the plague because they’ve convinced themselves that these films will be hard to follow (I usually find that these same people claim that films shot in black and white make things on screen more difficult to distinguish, a notion I find ridiculous), but that idea really couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a film that is better for not having dialogue because to have the characters speak to each other would spoil the dreamlike quality of the way the narrative unfolds. The dialogue would perhaps ring false, too sentimental, and therefore drag the film down; but freed from dialogue, the film is able to soar above what words would convey and present the emotions at play – desire, jealousy, love, fear, remorse – with an urgency and intensity that remains undiluted. There are many films that are great but flawed. Sunrise is a film that is perfect. A truly unqualified masterpiece.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Director: Guillermo Del Torro
Starring: Ivanna Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu

Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautiful work of art, a fantasy tale which blooms in the midst of war and all its horrors. It is a dark story that unflinchingly explores the brutalities of real life and of children’s imaginations, making for a film that is both touching and haunting.

The film takes place in Franco’s Spain and centres on 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivanna Baquero), who moves with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the countryside to join the Captain (Sergi Lopez), whom Ofelia is always quick to point out is not her real father. The Captain’s great concerns are himself, his soon-to-be-born son, and the rebels hiding in the mountains – more or less in that order. Unbeknownst to the Captain, two members of his household, the doctor (Alex Angulo) and Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) are collaborating with the rebels, one of whom is Mercedes’ brother.

The film is split into two connected narratives. One concerns the Captain’s quest to find and destroy the rebels, which he is determined to accomplish as viciously as possible, revelling in the pain that he is able to inflict on others. The second narrative is told from Ofelia’s perspective and takes the form of a fairytale. However, this story is no less dark than the other. As disturbing as scenes involving the Captain are, there are equally disturbing scenes involving Ofelia.

The fairytale part of the narrative adopts many of the tropes of the genre. There’s the rule of three (figured here as three tasks), the secret identity of the hero, the evil stepparent, magical helpers and, of course, the omnipresent spectre of danger. Before the coming of the full moon, Ofelia must complete her three tasks in order to return to her “real life” in the kingdom under the ground, where she is a Princess and her father is alive and waiting for her. Each task imparts a lesson meant to aide in the growth of her character. The first, which involves her crawling into a dying tree to rid it of a giant toad living inside, teaches her to be courageous in the face of her fears. The second, in which she is confronted by one of the most terrifying creatures ever imagined - and one who will only come to life if she disobeys the rule imparted to her by the Faun (“Under no circumstances are you to eat anything”) - teaches her when to obey authority. The last, when she’s asked to let the Faun cut her baby brother, teaches her when not to trust authority and instead trust her instinct. This struggle between choice and obedience, and knowing when to fight and when to acquiesce, also figures into the other narrative. Before he’s executed, the doctor tells the Captain that only people like him can go through life without questioning authority. To me, the doctor is the film’s most fascinating character because he’s someone who subverts the Captain’s authority and fights, in his own way, against the system, while also expressing some opposition to the rebellion. If the Captain is killed, another will be sent in his place, he argues. Independent thought is what people like the Captain want to put down, therefore it is through thought, rather than brute force, that they will be defeated.

Part of the reason the story works so very well is that it is open to interpretation. It can be read as a straight fairytale, in which case the ending is happy, or the fairytale elements can be read as a means for Ofelia to escape the brutal realities with which she would otherwise be unable to cope. Both readings are valid, but I tend towards the former. One reason that I lean towards this reading is the fact of Ofelia’s escape from the room in which she is locked and placed under guard towards the end. We can speculate, of course, as to how Ofelia could have realistically escaped (the guards abandoned their posts when the compound came under attack, for example), but the film itself doesn’t offer any realistic explanation. The only explanation it offers is that she used the chalk given to her by the Faun to draw a door on the wall that allows her access to other rooms in the house. And then there’s also the chase through the labyrinth, in which Ofelia temporarily escapes the Vidal when the walls shift themselves around her, hiding her from him. On the flip side, though, there’s the fact that when Vidal does find her, she’s in conversation with the Faun, who is invisible to him.

For all its narrative genius, this is a film that is also stunning on a visual level. The creatures who reside in the magic corners of this world and the labyrinth itself are wonderfully realized, sometimes beautiful and other times ugly. One of my favourite visuals from the film is during Ofelia’s story about the flower that blooms every day to bestow the gift of immortality, but can only be reached by traversing a mountain covered in poisonous thorns. Every day the flower blooms and dies because no one will risk climbing to it, as their focus is on the danger of death. The way the film shifts from the listener (Ofelia’s brother in utero) to the story, and the gloriously melancholy way that the story is dramatized for us, is beautiful. Also beautiful is the way that the story foreshadows the fates of the characters. The moral of the story is that to gain immortality you must focus on life rather than death (after all, if you climbed the mountain the poison wouldn’t affect you because you’d be immortal). Ofelia, when faced with her own death, is focused on life (specifically, that of her brother) and when she meets her end, gains immortality by being welcomed back into the other world. The Captain, by contrast, also faces death but is focused on death itself and loses his opportunity at immortality. “He won’t even know your name,” Mercedes tells him when he begins telling her what to tell the boy about him. The Captain will fade from memory, while Ofelia will live forever. So it is a happy ending, after all.

Friday, June 13, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharrif, Anthony Quinn, Claude Raines

Lawrence of Arabia is a film that shouldn’t work according to any traditional understanding of what makes a movie “work.” It’s long, there’s no girl to diffuse the tensions between the male characters, and the hero is deeply flawed and sexually ambiguous. There’s also the fact that much of its plot centers on issues of Middle Eastern autonomy, and that a great deal of the film is comprised on long, lingering shots of the desert. And yet this is a film that absolutely works, a visually stunning, fascinating (if not historically accurate) portrait of a man who became a myth. A lot of films are tagged as epics, but this one dwarfs them all.

From the beginning, we’re made to understand that T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an unusual man, troublesome, difficult to manage, but also strangely alluring. Before he’s even done anything, you believe that he can accomplish the impossible because that’s the way that he carries himself. At the request of Mr. Dryden (Claude Raines), a British politician, he’s sent into the desert to assess the situation with Prince Feisal’s (Alec Guinness) army of Bedouins, whom the British army hope to absorb into their own ranks. However, it doesn’t take Lawrence long to come up with his own ideas for the Arabs and talks Feisal into lending him fifty of his men, including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharrif), to travel across the desert and take Aqaba back from the occupying Turks. When the mission proves to be successful, Lawrence is promoted in the British ranks and is allowed to wage guerrilla war on the Turks with his army of composed of various Arab tribes. By this point, Lawrence the man and Lawrence the myth begin to conflict, and he begins to unravel in the face of his findings about himself, and his realization that the Arabs will never be given autonomy, no matter what they accomplish.

The primary theme of the film is identity (“Who are you?” is repeated throughout). Lawrence is British, though he doesn’t feel British, and can never really be Arab, even though he feels that he is. Similarly, while he’s embraced by people on both sides, he’s not fully accepted by either side (towards the end of the film, Feisal and the British General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) agree that it is in the best interest of both sides for Lawrence to be removed from the debate). Ali argues that Lawrence can be whoever – and whatever – he wants to be because Lawrence is a man who seems to transcend any traditional understanding of what is or isn’t possible. For a time, Lawrence believes this, rejecting his British uniform in favour of traditional robes and immersing himself in desert life. “Nothing is written,” he states, meaning that neither fate nor identity is predetermined and that it is possible to be the author of your own story. However, following a brutal attack after he’s captured by Turks, he’s more aware than ever that the divisions he thought he had transcended do in fact still exist. He points to his skin, informing Ali that it can’t be changed and he becomes a shadow of himself, a deflated figure inside his larger than life persona. That he would come to this is perhaps inevitable. When he says “Nothing is written,” it is specifically in reference to his turning around and riding back through the desert to find a man who had fallen behind. Later, the man kills a member of a rival tribe and, to keep the peace, Lawrence must execute him. “It was written,” Auda (Anthony Quinn) states when he learns that the man had already been given up for dead before. He was destined to die, sooner or later, in one way or another and Lawrence can’t change that, just like he can’t change his skin.

At the beginning of the film, we see Lawrence burning himself, which can be seen as a literal attempt to change his skin. “The trick is not minding that it hurts,” he says, giving us our first hint at the film’s other big theme, Lawrence’s love/hate relationship with violence. Lawrence is initially depicted as someone who is sickened by violence. After he’s executed the man he once saved, he throws his pistol away in disgust and seems unable to cope with what he’s done. However, he later confesses to his superiors that his abhorrence of violence stems from the intense pleasure he gets from inflicting it (“There was something about it that I didn’t like… I enjoyed it”). He’s horrified by this aspect of his personality, which essentially takes over following his beating and implied rape by Turkish soldiers, when he leads his army on an attack of a Turkish camp. “Take no prisoners,” he says, even though many of the opposing soldiers are ready to give themselves up. They are, instead, slaughtered by Lawrence’s army to the disgust of Ali and the American reporter Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), and Lawrence himself, who knows that he is now too far gone to be of much use anymore in this campaign.

What director David Lean accomplishes with this film is astounding. Its running time is about three and a half hours, but the pacing is so perfect that it doesn’t feel longer than an average film. And the way that Lean depicts the desert is genius, showing it at various times to be heaven and hell, wide open and suffocatingly constricted, beautiful and ugly. It is hard to effectively describe the scope and breadth of a film like this, which is so massive in what it undertakes that there’s not really anything else to compare it to. This is filmmaking at its most monumental and breathtaking.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Robert McNaughton

Maybe it was a simpler time, a time when a science-fiction blockbuster could be about an alien that wasn’t trying to destroy us. Maybe the world wasn't such a scary place and we didn't need to fear the unknown. Whatever the reason, whatever the attitudes which shaped E.T. and made it a hit, we should be grateful for the fact that it exists, because it isn’t just a movie. It’s a story that transcends boundaries of gender and age and genre, a story that comes from – and goes straight to – the heart. It’s a story about outsiders and belonging and, ultimately, finding “home.”

E.T. begins with an alien expedition to earth. When it is completed, and the aliens depart, one is left behind and eventually finds his way to Elliot (Henry Thomas), who hides him and helps him try to find a way to get home. In many ways, it’s a straight-forward family film, featuring plenty of precocious kids (including Drew Barrymore as Gertie, the most precocious of precocious kids), and focusing on friendship and the movement from childhood innocence into more grown-up knowledge. But it’s also more than that.

By now most people are aware that the film is Steven Spielberg’s meditation on his own parents’ divorce, and you can see that in the story and through its two protagonists. Elliot and E.T. are essentially mirrors of each other. E.T. is stranded in a foreign place and seeks home, and Elliot, too, seeks home, albeit in a different sense. The lingering pain of divorce is evident in the early scenes of the film and further alienates Elliot – who as the middle child would already occupy a strange and uncertain place within the family structure – from the rest of his family. Home isn’t just a physical place; it’s a mental/spiritual concept. By helping E.T. find home and reunite with his family, Elliot is also reconciling himself to his own family, and finding a place of his own to call home.

Although it’s a science fiction film, its greatest strength isn’t in its effects (which isn’t to say that its special effects aren’t good), but in its performances, which is amazing since the central performances are by children and a puppet. Thomas, Barrymore and Robert McNaughton all deliver finely wrought performances, a testament no doubt to Spielberg’s ability to direct children. They don’t come across as kids playing an adult’s idea of what kids are; they simply seem like kids, and very relatable ones to members of the audience who are kids. Thomas, especially, is very good as he carries much of the weight of the film and never overplays it. If you can’t muster a tear for the scene where Elliot and ET say goodbye (“I’ll… be… right… here.”), then film just isn’t a medium capable of moving you.

Much was made a few years ago when Spielberg decided to tinker with E.T. like George Lucas did with Star Wars. I’ve never seen the “remastered” version (as with the aforementioned Star Wars, I’m strictly old school when it comes to this film), but my understanding from people who have seen it is that the improvements simply… aren’t. Most seem to agree that efforts to CGI E.T. into looking more “realistic” have only had the opposite effect. As I said, I haven’t see it so I can’t really attest to that, but I can well imagine that that’s true because I generally find that CGI, which is meant to make things look more natural and organic, just makes everything look fake. I can however offer my opinion that Spielberg’s decision to remove the guns from the hands of government agents was a wasted effort, although I believe that his heart was in the right place. I saw E.T. a number of times as a kid and I don’t ever remember fixating on the guns but I do remember having nightmares about the scenes where the house is locked down by the government. I think any kid who can get past that probably isn’t going to be traumatized by the guns. I don’t know how difficult it is now to find the original, unremastered version of E.T., but I think it would be worth the effort of tracking down for anyone who has never seen it. It is, simply, a really great movie.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Jean Hagen

Singin’ In The Rain is not only one of the best musicals ever made (perhaps the best musical), but also one of the best films about Hollywood ever made. With a nostalgic and comedic eye, it looks back on the transition from silent to sound films (and what better way to look at that than through a musical?) at a time when Hollywood was still undergoing another transition – the one from the Golden Age of Bogart, Gable and Garbo to the era of the Method and Brando, Clift and Monroe. It isn’t perfect, to be sure, but damn is it ever entertaining.

It begins with a film premiere where we meet super stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). The studio and complicit movie magazines have created a romance between the two, and while Don can’t stand Lina, she believes the press and thinks that they really are in love. For both stars, these are the final moments free of anxiety because the advent of sound is about to be introduced to film. The reaction within the film community is negative – sound is a novelty that will quickly wear off and people will return to the old standard. But, as history shows, once sound crept in, the silents soon disappeared. Don and Lina make a talkie, and the film has a lot of fun depicting the early days of sound and how those accustomed to shooting silents had to completely reinvent the way they worked in order to adjust. The placement of microphones, especially, turns out to be problematic. The film is previewed and is a disaster, drawing laughter from the audience that is hearing Don and Lina speak for the first time. In order to salvage their film, it’s decided to turn it into a musical. This works perfectly for Don but Lina is still a problem. “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t dance. A triple threat,” says Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). Luckily, Don knows just the girl to dub her singing voice, an aspiring actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), with whom he also happens to be in love.

The musical numbers in this film are about the best collection ever assembled into a film, which is amazing since only two of the songs were actually written for the film and the rest are recycled from MGM’s storehouse. Everyone knows “Singin’ In The Rain,” even those who’ve never seen the movie, which also boasts “Good Morning,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Moses,” and the amazing “Make ‘Em Laugh” number where O’Connor gives everything a performer possibly could and leaves the audience feeling exhausted just by having watched him do it. This would be a good film on the strength of the musical numbers alone, but it also features a wonderfully self-referential and self-parodying story.

Singin’ In The Rain is one of the few films about making movies in Hollywood that manages not to take itself too seriously without edging so far into caricature that its moments of meta become too cutesy and winky. When it’s decided that Don and Lina will make their first sound film, studio boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) already has the perfect tag-line in mind: “Lamont and Lockwood: they talk!” which plays on the real-life campaign for Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, which was “Garbo Talks!” Similarly, when the film is previewed and the audience laughs at Don and Lina’s voices, it plays on the reality of what happened to stars who had to transition from silent to sound and found their careers effectively ended with those first words. The film also plays on the personas of actual silent stars, such as Clara Bow, the “It girl,” who appears here as Zelda Zanders, the “Zip girl” (Rita Moreno).

Of all the actors in the film, Jean Hagen was the only one to receive an Oscar nomination, and it’s easy to see how the Academy just couldn’t resist. Hagen gives us a character who is enjoyably ditzy, but who could have been overwhelming irritating. She gets many of the film’s best lines, although Lina the character wouldn’t know that they were the best or why. “Don’t you dare call him Don! I was calling him Don before you were born! I mean…” she says to Kathy. Hagen is great and utterly deserved that nomination. It’s a shame that O’Connor couldn’t get one as well, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

In spite of it’s overall greatness, there are elements of the film that don’t really work. As played by Kelly and Reynolds, Don and Kathy are great individual characters, but I’ve never really seen much chemistry between them as a romantic couple. I have the same problem with Kelly’s other great musical, An American In Paris and I think the problem is that when paired with an ingĂ©nue, Kelly simply overshadows her. Compare these romances to the one in Summer Stock, which isn’t an especially good film but finds Kelly playing opposite Judy Garland in a screen relationship that actually works.

The other problem is the “Gotta Dance” number, which is great as a performance but isn’t cohesive with the rest of the film. It’s so uneasily tacked-on that it’s jarring when the film segues into it. It is a beautiful sequence to watch, it just isn’t incorporated into the film very well. All that being said though, these are really just minor weaknesses easily eclipsed by the film’s many strengths.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” We never know exactly what Chinatown means to Jake, nor do we need to. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, we know enough to know that Chinatown stands for all that is corrupt, brutal and unforgiving in the world. Chinatown draws upon the archetypes of detective noir in both its literary and film forms but subverts many of the classic tropes, breaking free to create something distinct in itself. Here we have a hero who isn’t quite at home in his rough and tumble world, a femme fatale who isn’t as “fatale” as she seems, and an ending which leaves a distinctly bad taste in the mouth. It was, and remains, something different, something new, and something wonderful.

Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a private detective who deals mostly in catching errant husbands and wives in the act. When one such target - Hollis Mulwray - turns up dead and Jake discovers that the woman who hired him, whom he believed to be Mrs. Mulwray, was a fraud, he’s plunged into a mystery involving hidden identities, family secrets, municipal corruption and a plot to make millions by diverting water out of Los Angeles. Ultimately, Chinatown isn’t just one mystery, but several woven together, connected by a few key players. One such player is the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), with whom Jake quickly becomes enthralled even as it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s a lot she’s not telling him. By the time she gets to her final confession (“My sister! My daughter!”), it’s easy to understand why Jake doesn’t quite believe her and why he can’t be too sure of anything anymore. It’s Chinatown, a place that’s foreign to Jake’s understanding, where up is down, black is white, and dead men have just bought land that’s about to be worth millions.

Chinatown sets itself apart from traditional detective noir in several ways, most notably through the character of Jake himself. Unlike most screen detectives, Jake doesn’t quite seem to fit his role. There’s a distinct sense about him that he finds his job distasteful, that he doesn’t relish digging around in other people’s dirt. In one scene he’s called to account for some scandalous photos he’s taken and given over to the papers. He jumps up defensively in counter-attack, which is in contrast to detectives of the type you’d see played by Bogart or Mitchum, who would let such a remark roll off their backs with the briefest of witty remarks.

Further distancing Jake from the prototypical detective is the way that he fits into the narrative. By nature of the genre, no screen detective is really in control of the story, but most stories stack the balance of power in the favour of the detective so that you know that, ultimately, the guy is smarter, tougher and luckier than everyone else and will come out of it more or less in tact. Not here. Jake is at the mercy of the story, constantly being knocked around and always in danger. And in the end, there’s no relief for him, no satisfaction for a job well done, no knowledge that justice has been done, no girl, only remorse, bitterness and guilt. Few films are as pitiless to their protagonists as this one, which is perhaps why is seems so fitting that the character who cuts Jake up is played by director Roman Polanski.

Like Jake, Evelyn is a character who breaks free of the archetypes of the genre while also being firmly rooted in that genre. Her entry into the narrative is straight out of the classical story, the femme fatale walking into the detective’s office. But Evelyn is a femme fatale in only the broadest terms because she isn’t actually out to trap Jake or anyone else, but rather her desire is to save someone by ensuring that their identity and whereabouts are kept secret. She’s playing Jake to an extent, keeping him close so that he doesn’t get too close to the truth, but I’ve always thought that her intentions towards him were basically sincere. That she likes him and wants a relationship with him, but has to take care of business first. But his inability to believe that, his inability to take his own advice in the film’s opening scene and “let sleeping dogs lie,” will ultimately undo them both.

As the two leads, Nicholson and Dunaway are superb and play wonderfully off of each other, never quite relaxing in each other’s presence, as if always on edge waiting for the other to slip. Appropriately, given the genre, John Huston appears as Evelyn’s father, a quietly menacing man who informs Jake that "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” He looms here larger than life, seeming to occupy the entire screen with his presence. When Evelyn shoots him and it has little effect, it’s hardly surprising. He’s more than just a man, he’s a symbol of all that’s corrupt and wrong with society, he’s the epitome of “Chinatown,” and will carry on long after everyone around him as been destroyed.

This fatalist view of the world dominates the film so that this story which takes place in sunny California (with much of the action taking place in the daytime), seems darker than it literally is. The contrast of the mystery/noir elements to the lightness of the mis en scene further emphasises how disordered is this world that we’re seeing. The final scene takes place at night, the setting fitting the darkness of the tone. But by then, of course, we understand: it’s Chinatown.

Monday, June 9, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Millestone
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim

Very few films really succeed at being anti-war (and, strangely, many of those that do seem to be set during World War I), and this is one of the best examples of a film that depicts the horror of war not through excessive gore but through the humanity of its characters. Anyone who has read the novel All Quiet on the Western Front will be familiar with the power of this story, which isn’t much changed in the transition from page to screen. The final shot of the film, with the now dead soldiers looking back at us superimposed over a field covered with grave markers, is one of the most searing and effective indictments I’ve ever seen of the socio-political machinery that makes war seem not only necessary, but also seductive.

The film begins with teenage Paul (Lew Ayres) in school, where his class is whipped into a patriotic frenzy by their teacher, who takes the boys to enlist in the army. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into and we see shot after shot of hysterical boys already imagining the role they’ll play in their romanticized vision of war. Once enlisted, Paul becomes friends with Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), a man who knows how to get around, especially when it comes to black market goods. One by one, Paul watches his friends die needlessly while experiencing the harsh realities of trench life, which includes having inadequate equipment and insufficient food (some of the fiercest fighting in the film is between the soldiers and their mess cook). He becomes disillusioned with the war, but a leave which allows him to go home offers no respite. People congratulate him on doing his duty, telling him that they don’t mind going without because they know that the food they aren’t eating is going to the soldiers at the front. The way that Ayres plays these scenes is brilliant and makes Paul’s eventual death seem less like tragedy and more like relief. He could never have come back to live with these people, who experience a reality so completely divorced from the one that he himself knows.

Paul returns to his former classroom and is asked to address the students, but instead of loading them up with romantic tales, he says: “You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it’s better not to die at all.” He’s asked to leave and returns to the front where he finally feels at home among his comrades, relaxed in a way that he could never achieve when he was with his family. More friends die, including Kat and then Paul himself, who in his final moments reaches out of his trench in an attempt to catch a butterfly in his hand.

Much of the film is spent examining the political schema from which the war resulted as it is seen by soldiers at the front. When one explains that wars begin when one country offends another, a comrade breaks in, saying, “How could one country offend another? You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” They understand that they’re fighting for Germany because it’s their homeland, but they don’t understand why Germany is fighting and what the country will gain from the war. But Kat gets it. “At the next war let all the Kaisers, presidents and generals and diplomats go into a big field and fight it out first among themselves. That will satisfy us and keep us home.” This isn’t a war between countries, it’s a war between leaders who will sit far removed from the frontlines while the lifeblood of their nations is needlessly shed. The heart of the film is this examination of the nature of class in regards to war, with the upper classes getting into a dispute and sacrificing the lower classes to settle it; but it’s soul is in the relationships between the soldiers.

What is most amazing about this film is the way that it is still so affecting. It was made in late 1929 and early 1930 and given all the technological advances of the ensuing decades, it should look dated by now but it doesn’t. The battle scenes remain intense and realistic, with the camera in some cases filming from the point of view of the ground or the trench. These shots are terrifying, instilling in us a sense of confusion and fear that puts us right there. In addition to these very intimate shots, director Lewis Millestone also employs a variety of long shots and tracking shots which are wonderfully crafted.

All Quiet On The Western Front may be the best war film ever made because it so completely succeeds at what it sets out to do. The title card at the beginning informs us that this is not “an adventure” and it isn’t, though it easily could have been. Instead it provides us with a grim, harrowing look at the desperation, disillusionment and pointlessness of war. You will never watch any other war film the same way after seeing this one.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Killing of Sister George (1968)

Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne

The Killing of Sister George is one of the most bitter films you’ll ever see. It’s also endlessly entertaining even after multiple viewings, and prescient with regards to the place of women in the world of television and film. There can be no happy ending in this story about “a fat, boring old actress” who is being put out to pasture (in more ways than one) by the television show she helped make a hit. There can only be the desperate acquiescence to which June “Sister George” Buckridge eventually succumbs.

June Buckridge (brilliantly brought to life by Beryl Reid), known to all as George after the character she plays on a British soap, is one of the most fascinating characters you’ll ever encounter. She a drunk, she’s paranoid (quite rightly) about getting older in a medium that embraces youth, and she’s a lesbian. Her relationship with Childie (Susannah York) is interesting because it’s the type of relationship that you don’t often see portrayed. For one thing, there’s a large age difference between the two – which isn’t unusual for films which deal with a relationship between a man and a woman, but how often do you see an older woman/younger woman affair played out on-screen? – and Childie, despite having a job, is more or less kept by George. For another thing, the relationship is sado-masochistic, which you hardly ever see played out in films regardless of the sex and orientation of the characters involved. What’s amazing is the way that the film portrays the relationship in a multi-dimensional way. It never comes across as George taking advantage of and abusing the younger woman; instead both are portrayed as active and consenting participants. There is a scene at the beginning when Childie is made to demonstrate her submission by eating the butt of George’s cigar, but instead of playing along like she’s supposed to, Childie pretends to get joy out of the act. “You’re ruining it,” George tells her and begins to storm off. Childie is confused, asking if she doesn’t want to continue this in the bedroom – there’s clearly a give and take to this that both get pleasure from and it’s rare to see this kind of relationship explored in a way that isn’t judgmental and condemning. There’s a real sense of affection between the two – especially in a scene where George tells Childie a story about being infatuated with her before they’d gotten together – that makes the relationship all the more compelling. Despite George’s temper tantrums (and there are several), these are two people who also have a lot of fun together and that comes across to the audience.

George’s relationship with Childie hits an impasse with the introduction of Mercy Croft (Carol Browne), a network executive who also has quite an impact on George’s career. Sister George was once the most popular character on the show, but her place has recently been usurped. George the actress can sense that she’s about to be written out and when her character is given the flu, her behaviour becomes increasingly paranoid and she becomes more difficult to deal with. She’s convinced that Croft is out to get her, especially after finding out that she’s been meeting with Childie to discuss her poetry. When the flu turns out to be passing, George is ecstatic, only to learn from Croft that within a week the character will be felled in a car accident. “It so happens that your death will coincide with road safety week, a cause which we know is very close to your heart,” she informs the actress. Given Croft’s attitude towards George, and the eye she sets on Childie, it’s difficult to imagine that setting George up then knocking her down so brutally occurred as accidentally as she claims. Mercy Croft is, if anything, one of the most ironically named characters ever.

Contrary to convention (but, of course, this film is contrary to nearly every film convention), Croft, the villain, wins. Not only does she take Childie away from George and get George written out of the show, she inflicts on George perhaps her greatest humiliation through the offer of a new show… about a cow, whom George will provide the voice for. George refuses but in the film’s final moments, surrenders herself to the prospect as she sits on her empty, former set yelling “Moo!” The story makes no bones about the way actresses are treated once they’ve reached a certain age. Upon hearing of the show’s intention of writing George out, Childie states that she’s the most popular character. “Well, not quite,” Croft replies. George may have contributed to the show’s rise in popularity, and she may have given it the best years of her career, but she’s reached an age where she’s expendable and her prospects after the show are bleak.

The Killing of Sister George has a great deal going for it, including it’s compelling story and the astounding performance at it’s center. It is also a bitingly clever film and incredibly quotable (“Not all women are raving bloody lesbians” Childie proclaims. “That is a misfortune I am perfectly aware of,” George replies). Rated X when it was first released due to a sex scene between Croft and Childie which seems tame by today’s standards, the film went largely unseen when it was first released. It can be somewhat difficult to track down a copy even today, but it is completely worth it. Never before and never again will there be a movie quite like this one.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Awful Truth (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy

The Awful Truth is one of several films which find Cary Grant as a divorced man trying to get back his ex-wife – two other notables being His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story - and arguably the best. In Irene Dunne, Grant finds his perfect match, a woman just as classy, just as witty, and just as capable of being silly. Together they create one of the best screen pairings in what is perhaps the best romantic comedy ever made.

Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Dunne) Warriner are a happily married couple until suspicions of infidelity tear them apart. Lucy finds out that Jerry hasn’t been in Florida like he said he was, and Jerry is suspicious of Lucy’s claims that she and her singing coach, Armand Duvalle (Alexander D’Arcy), had car trouble and had to stop at an inn for a completely platonic evening. Jerry thinks the story unbelievable. “You’ve come back and caught me in the truth, and there’s nothing less logical than the truth,” Lucy replies breezily. They file for divorce, fight over custody of their dog Smith (played by Asta who also appears with Grant in Bringing Up Baby and in all the films of The Thin Man series), and wait for the end of their marriage to be finalized.

While they’re waiting, Lucy meets Dan (Ralph Bellamy), a businessman from Oklahoma with whom she has a quick courtship and becomes engaged. Jerry causes as much trouble in the relationship as he can but by the time it’s broken up, he has moved on to another woman. Now it’s Lucy’s turn to break up his next potential marriage. All this leads to an evening spent in a cabin, an adjoining door that won’t stay shut, and a final admission of love and a reconciliation – “Maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?” Lucy asks. This is all formula, of course; we all know that Jerry and Lucy will be back together by the end – it’s what happens in between that makes this film priceless.

Firstly, you have the contrast between the witty, urbane Grant and the sincere, corn-fed Bellamy. After being run-around by Jerry, Dan probably looks like a catch to Lucy (“How can you be glad to know me?” Jerry asks Dan, “I know how I’d feel if I was sitting with a girl and her husband walked in.” “I’ll bet you do,” Lucy retorts), but ultimately she and Jerry are cut from the same cloth and the relationship with Dan is doomed from the beginning. She likes Dan, to be sure, but there are things about him that give her pause. For instance, a poem he writes for her:
For you, my little prairie flower
I’m thinking of you every hour
It would make my life divine
If you would change your name to mine.

Dan doesn’t make Jerry jealous so much as he amuses him. Jerry knows that Lucy could never be happy in the long term with Dan, living in Oklahoma, and in breaking up the relationship, he sees himself as saving her from herself. Lucy’s Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham) ultimately agrees, even though she’s the one who arranged the meeting between Lucy and Dan. “I feel like I’ve just been given a crash course in women,” Dan tells Lucy after finding Jerry and Armand in her bedroom. “Here’s your diploma,” Patsy replies, handing him a letter Lucy had written to call off the engagement.

The film has a very sharp wit, but it also comes stocked with a great supply of physical comedy. There is a scene where Dan and Lucy run into Jerry and a date at a restaurant. Dan asks Lucy to dance and then engages in the most bizarre, hilarious and surreal interpretation of dancing ever known to man. There is also a scene where Jerry thinks he’s about to find Lucy in a compromising position with Armand and, after first engaging in karate with Armand’s butler, Jerry bursts into the room to find Lucy giving a recital. He sits at the back and falls off his chair, while Lucy attempts to continue singing through her laughter.

What makes this film really work though is the fact that it just looks like the actors had fun making it.In the restaurant scene, Jerry’s date gets up to sing a song which involves a fan underneath the stage blowing up her skirt while she tries to maintain her modesty. Dan, Jerry and Lucy all watch with a mixture of horror, embarrassment and amusement. “I just met her,” Jerry says, turning to Lucy. Later, Lucy will embarrass and amuse Jerry with the same routine when she crashes a dinner party thrown by Jerry’s potential in-laws. The give-and-take of Grant and Dunne’s onscreen partnership is very enjoyable to watch.

There is absolutely nothing about this film that I don’t love, although there is one element that has always given me pause. A great deal is made of the idea that Lucy has been unfaithful with Armand to the extent that Jerry continues trying to catch them together even after he and Lucy have decided to divorce. But no one makes a big deal about Jerry’s whereabouts when he was supposed to be in Florida. Even Lucy seems to have let it go after having found out about it. But I suppose that’s just the nature of the double standard. At any rate, this is a great movie, the perfect movie to watch if you’ve had a bad day, and one that can be watched over and over again without losing an ounce of zing.

Friday, June 6, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Meribel Verdu

Y Tu Mama Tambien plays on a number of levels. On one level it’s a teenage sex comedy (sometimes drama). It’s also a road movie. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a subtle exploration of a nation divided against itself by the politics of poverty. This is a film that is at times funny, at times sexy, but ultimately bittersweet in the way that it explores the ways and means that people come together and, eventually, come apart.

The film is well known for its nudity and sex scenes. It begins with Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his girlfriend engaging in an energetic tryst during which they discuss all the people of various nationalities that they won’t be unfaithful with while she’s on a trip out of the country. Soon after, there’s a scene between Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his girlfriend, who is also going on the trip, that is similar in tone and energy. With their girlfriends gone, the boys settle into typical teenage ennui, living lives where nothing really happens. They attend a wedding where they set their sights on Luisa (Meribel Verdu), an older and married woman. They try to interest her in a trip to a secret beach, but she politely declines. Later, when she learns of her husband’s latest affair, she decides to take the boys up on their idea, and the three embark in search of Boca del Cielo.

Like most road movies, the film isn’t as concerned with the destination as it is in what happens to the characters as they get there. Tenoch and Julio reveal their “code” to Luisa and tell her about their sex lives. She’s less than impressed and tells them that she feels bad for their girlfriends, who have to endure them. At one of the stops along the way, she invites Tenoch into her room. He seems surprised, but she points out that this was the whole purpose of her being invited on the trip in the first place. The next day when things become tense between Tenoch and Julio, Luisa warns Tenoch not to get full of himself – it could have just as easily been Julio in her room. She proves it, then, by having sex with Julio. The situation with Luisa is always threatening to erupt and secrets are revealed in anger which leads to more strife. Tenoch and Julio learn that each has been sleeping with the other’s girlfriend and their friendship begins to disintegrate.

Beneath the ever-heightening sexual tension is a tension of another kind. The film is quick to establish a difference in social ranking between Tenoch (who is upper class, the son of a statesman) and Julio, which it explores further as the film goes on. It also explores the divide between the rich, touristy version of Mexico and the poorer side of Mexico that the threesome encounter at various stops along the film. These moments are brief, commented on by the narrator but, tellingly, hardly even noticed by the three protagonists. At the beginning of the film Tenoch and Julio’s life is marked by their boredom and when they decide to make the trip, they have to track down Julio’s sister to borrow her car. She’s participating in a rally which appears to be rather large. Tenoch and Julio have nothing to say about it, nor its purpose, and it fades from their minds as soon as they get the car. Their wilful ignorance of the political situation that surrounds them is an interesting commentary on a general lack of political awareness in the rising generations. They are aware, vaguely, of the problems but don’t see themselves as part of the solution. Their lives are complete and separate from what’s going on in their own backyards.

The performances in the film are very good. Luna and Bernal both find the right mixture of cockiness and underlying uncertainty to make their roles wholly believable. The standout, however, is Verdu as the woman determined to teach these boys something about life. There is a wonderful scene in which Luisa calls her husband, informs him that she’s aware of his affair and has left for good, then tearfully reminds him to take care of himself now that she won’t be there to do it for him. It’s a brief but powerful scene, one of many in which the character becomes fully human and not simply a device of the plot. All three characters are, in fact, very real and it is a credit to the performers and the filmmakers that the characters are not muted by all the sex in the film, but rather become more clearly defined through those scenes. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a film that is memorable not because of how much flesh it shows, but because of how deeply it goes beneath the superficial level of skin to the souls of its characters.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Paths of Glory (1957)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou

Paths of Glory is an angry, powerful condemnation of the way war is fought away from the battlefield. It doesn’t argue against the necessity of war as much as the mentality of war, where one man’s heroism can be determined by the sacrifice of others, and morale can be built through the execution of one’s fellow soldiers. The story centers on three such soldiers, chosen more or less at random, to be executed for cowardice to teach everyone else a lesson, and one man’s doomed crusade to save them. In a simple, straight-forward way, director Stanley Kubrick captures the insane, heartless quality of war in a way that you’ll never forget.

The film begins with General Mireau (George Macready) being assigned the impossible task of taking a well-defended hill. His superior, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) believes that the success of the mission would raise the army’s morale in general, but Mireau knows that it is a suicide mission destined for failure. However, when Broulard suggests that a promotion would be in order were the task a success, Mireau jumps on board and goes to the trenches to give the order to Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Dax attempts to talk Mireau out of it, using the same arguments that Mireau employed with Broulard, but to no avail. The attack goes forward and is, of course, a failure. When the men attempt to retreat to their trenches, Mireau orders his artillery to fire on them. This monumental disaster cannot be allowed to go unpunished and Mireau decides to execute one member of each of the three companies for cowardice (a reasonable figure considering he originally wanted to execute 100). One man is picked because his senior officer has a personal vendetta against him, another is picked for being a social “undesirable,” a third is picked after having drawn lots. Somehow, this is meant to be justice.

The trial, in which Dax attempts in vain to defend the three soldiers, is a mockery. The basic argument of the military is that if the men weren’t cowards, they would be dead. The fact that they’re alive proves that they weren’t brave enough to leave their trenches. Dax defends them as best he can, given that he isn’t allowed to bring in any evidence to support the soldiers claims that they aren’t cowards, but it’s ultimately pointless. The court has decided that the three will be murdered and that’s all there is to it. “Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion,” Dax says angrily at the end of the trial. But even worse is yet to come. While the three are awaiting execution, two get into a fight in which one sustains a head injury that leaves him incapacitated and on the verge of death. He’s carried out on a stretcher and tied to the execution post, his death all the more pointless for the fact that he is, essentially, already dead.

But they aren’t the only casualties. The questions that Dax has raised – especially those regarding Mireau’s orders to shoot on his own men – cannot be ignored and now it’s Mireau’s turn to play scapegoat for Broulard. Broulard informs Mireau that he’ll be investigated and then congratulates Dax on what he sees as a masterful move to usurp Mireau’s position, completely misreading Dax’s character. When he realizes his mistake, he’s disappointed, branding Dax an idealist rather than a strategist. “I pity you as I would the village idiot. We’re fighting a war, Dax, a war that we’ve got to win. Those men didn’t fight, so they were shot. You bring charges against General Mireau, so I insist that he answer them. Wherein have I done wrong?” “Because you don’t know the answer to that question, I pity you,” Dax replies.

The army depicted here is basically an extension of the social/class hierarchy existing outside of the service. Officers like Mireau and Broulard would be members of the upper classes (we see evidence of this with Broulard, whom Dax confronts at a ball), while ordinary soldiers like the three who were executed would have come from the lower social classes. The way that the ordinary soldiers are treated as being not only undesirable in a social sense, but also disposable, at the mercy of what their being allowed to live will gain for their superiors, is what so disgusts Dax, who is caught somewhere in the middle. He’s not a regular soldier, though he does participate in the charge towards the hill, but he lacks the mentality to fit in with fellow officers who see nothing but their own potential for glory, while losing sight of the humanity that surrounds them.

The final scene of the film further emphasises the way that war drains humanity from the people who participate in it. The soldiers have gathered together in bar, where the owner brings out a captured German woman to entertain them. She begins to sing, obviously scared and confused, while the soldiers howl and catcall to her. She’s not a human being, but an enemy, at least until they begin to recognize the song and their howling segues into humming, their lustful looks into looks of sadness. A common thread has been touched between these French soldiers and this German girl, all of whom are victims of something beyond their control. Dax, watching from outside, allows his men to have their moment before giving the order to return to the front. It’s a simple scene, but deeply effective, perhaps even more so than any of the scenes that came before it, including the battle scenes and the executions, and it perfectly captures the essence of the film as a whole.