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Friday, October 31, 2008

Book vs Film: Dracula vs Bram Stoker's Dracula

Primary Differences: The film incorporates the legend of Vlad the Impaler as a back story for the Count. It also cuts the book’s afterward which details Mina and Harker’s married life and the birth of their son.

For The Book: There’s no question that the book has been incredibly influential. It introduced one of the most recognizable characters in fiction and, along with Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, it helped establish the hallmarks of a genre.

For The Film: What I love most about the film is that it’s not just an adaptation of the novel but also of the major vampire films that preceded it; it’s like an appreciation of the entire genre. It’s also a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously and, as played by Anthony Hopkins, provides my favourite version of Van Helsing. Hopkins has a lot of great moments in the film, delivering lines with admirable dryness (my favourite? “I just want to cut off her head and take out her heart,” said as if it’s the most reasonable and ordinary thing in the world). Gary Oldman also delivers a great and memorable performance.

Winner: Film. It may be a classic, but I really dislike the book. Partly it’s the style (it’s told in epistolary form, which I hate) and partly it’s Stoker’s preoccupation with emerging technologies (which Coppola’s film alludes to) which I find really disrupts the tension that the story proper is attempting to build. For me, the book was a total slog .

The film, on the other hand, is an absolute guilty pleasure of mine. It isn’t a great movie, or even the best vampire movie, but it’s a lot of fun to watch, especially with other people. I think it’s a brilliant homage to the classics of the genre (literary, filmic, and mythological), a movie which is obviously made by someone who loves movies. And even though it features some questionable accents (hello there, Keanu and Winona) and some blatant pandering to adolescent male fantasies (Harker’s seduction by the Brides of Dracula, and a kiss between Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost which is perhaps meant to suggest Carmilla), I still adore it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary (2002)

* * * 1/2

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Zhang Wei-Qiang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, Cindy Marie Small

Guy Maddin is a filmmaker whose work is kind of difficult to explain to the uninitiated: you really need to see it to believe it. He's an artist who exists so completely in his own realm that there's not really any other filmmaker that he can be easily compared to. His style is reminiscent of films from the silent era but is also so thoroughly post-modern in expression that his works can't be mistaken for anything but contemporary. As a viewer you will either find him maddening or exhilarating - I doubt there's much middle ground.

Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary is, essentially, a silent film though it transcends the boundaries of genre and, indeed, medium. It's a ballet performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but this isn't simply a filmed version a stage performance; it's very much a movie, very much in the Maddin style. Familiarity with Bram Stoker's novel helps, but isn't crucial. In many ways this is the most faithful adaptation of the story I've seen, perhaps because it's so overt in its analysis of the novel's themes. Dracula is played here by Zhang Wei-Qiang and in introducing him Maddin cuts between shots of him and shots of a map of Europe, blood trickling across it while words like "foreign" flash on the screen. One of the novel's major preoccupations is the idea of "pure" bloodlines being tainted, specifically by dangerous Eastern influence, and Maddin spells that out here in as clear a way as possible.

The other major theme of the novel, directly connected to the first, is anxiety about female sexuality. This adaptation engages with that aspect immediately, shifting the chronology of the novel so that the story begins with Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle), pursued by three suitors but seduced into darkness by Dracula. "Her blood is polluted," Van Helsing (David Moroni) declares after discovering that she has been visited by the vampyr. Vampirism as a metaphor for sex isn't anything new - it's as old as, well, vampire stories themselves - but the "pollution" of her blood isn't just attributable to Dracula. She receives transfusions from all three of her suitors and this is the heart of the matter, this literal exchanging of fluids with multiple people. Mina (Cindy Marie Small) is seduced by Dracula as well but she's also solely devoted to Harker (Johnny Wright) and that's why she can come to a different end than Lucy. It's Lucy's promiscuity which makes her unrecoverable in the wider societal sense and certain to die within the confines of the narrative.

The story is beautifully performed, the fact of it being a ballet giving it a dream-like (nightmare is probably a more appropriate word) quality. It reminded me quite a bit of Nosferatu, though that film is far more sinister. The thing I like about Maddin is that he's always in complete control of his style so that it never seems gimmicky or overwhelming. I don't know enough about ballet to comment on the skill of the performers, but I can say that Wei-Qiang delivers a memorable performance as Dracula, equal parts scary and seductive.

Maddin is an acquired taste and this film is no exception. If you think ballet is boring, don't see this. If films without dialogue can't hold your attention, don't see this. If you like your vampire movies with lots of gore, don't see this. This isn't the kind of film that has universal appeal, but if you've seen and enjoyed other Maddin films, you're likely to enjoy this one as well.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review: Little Children (2006)

* * *

Director: Todd Field
Starring: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley

“It’s not the cheating. It’s the hunger. The hunger for an alternative and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness,” Sarah explains, speaking as much about Madame Bovary as her own life. Little Children is a film full of unhappy people searching for a way out, another story in a long line of stories about suburban malaise. The problem with the film isn’t that its characters search for alternatives, it’s that after finding them, they opt to accept lives of unhappiness anyway.

Kate Winslet stars as Sarah, a stay-at-home wife and mother. She’s an outcast at the playground, existing on the fringe of discussion between the other mothers, who parent with efficient coldness, having finely tuned their children to very precise schedules which allow little room for variation. In comparison, Sarah is something of a mess, a mother whose style is perhaps best described as haphazard and, to a certain degree, desperate. The truth is that Sarah is unsuited for her roles as wife and mother, a fact driven home by the narrator who describes her as getting through her days by “counting down the hours.”

One afternoon a hush falls over the other mothers: the Prom King (Patrick Wilson), who figures heavily into their fantasies but to whom no one ever speaks, has returned to the park. His name is Brad and he and Sarah have an instant, albeit somewhat awkward, connection. Like her, he’s stuck, an emasculated stay-at-home husband and father who takes a backseat in all things to his wife (Jennifer Connelly), who holds tight to the purse strings and pushes Brad to take the bar exam for the third time, apparently unaware that he doesn’t really want to be a lawyer. The relationship which develops between Sarah and Brad is chaste until the tension between them explodes in a series of sexual encounters.

Running parallel to this story is the story of Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender whose release has stirred public indignation and widespread fear. Ronnie lives an isolated life with only his mother (Phyllis Somerville) to keep him company as he endures a barrage of harassment from an ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) who decides to make it his job to ensure that Ronnie never has a moment of peace. At various times, separately and together, both Brad and Sarah will come into contact with Ronnie, who indirectly impacts their lives in ways neither could have anticipated.

Throughout the narrative, Little Children alternates between bringing the audience right into the story with scenes of incredibly intimacy, and pushing us away with scenes designed to create an ironic distance. This mix gives the film kind of a lopsided feel, which is only exacerbated by the ending. Sarah and Brad are both unfulfilled in their marriages and manage to find something in each other which brings some light into their lives. In the end, though, they abandon each other and happily return to lives which made them miserable before and will, no doubt, make them miserable again. I’m not arguing that they should have ended up together, but rather that by having them return to where they started the film undermines its earlier message that it’s okay not to settle and to want more out of life.

Performance-wise the film is strong, though I’m at something of a loss to explain what attracted an actress as skilled as Jennifer Connelly to a character who ends up being such a non-entity. The two standouts are Haley and Winslet who, perhaps not coincidentally, have the two meatiest roles. Overall I’d say that the performances make the film worth seeing even though the film itself is a bit muddled.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)

* * * *

Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jim Carey, Kate Winslet

I have no reasonable explanation as to why it has taken me so long to finally get around to seeing this movie. Everything I’ve ever heard about it suggested to me that it’s the kind of movie I’d like and yet I managed to spend four years just never getting around to seeing it. It was, most certainly, my loss.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is a brilliantly conceived and executed post-modern love story – though on reflection it is perhaps better described as tragedy. Joel (Jim Carey) is a shy man who meets the extroverted Clementine (Kate Winslet) on a beach in Montauk, falls in love with her and then discovers one day that she has had him erased from her memory. Out of anger, Joel decides that he’ll erase her, too, and visits the Lacuna clinic run by Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). A map is created of Joel’s memories of Clem, each of which will be systematically wiped out as he sleeps. However, as she’s disappearing, he decides that he’d like to remember her after all and his unconscious self begins to rebel against the procedure.

Joel’s attempts to hide Clementine away in his mind are unsuccessful and he wakes up having forgotten her. When impulse compels him to go to Montauk, he and Clementine meet and fall in love again and then discover the lengths they had previously gone to in order to be rid of each other. It’s a bittersweet moment when, at the end, they quietly acknowledge that they’ll probably end up right back at Lacuna, but feel compelled to be together nonetheless. The idea that they’ve erased the details but failed to sever the connection brought to my mind a line from Memento: “I just can’t remember to forget you.”

The ways that director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman demonstrate the process of erasure is very well done, with memories overlapping and invading each other, losing details before our eyes, and with consciousness echoing into the unconscious and the unconscious trying to answer back. There’s a danger with movies like this, where the style is so pronounced, that everything else can seem muted in comparison, but there’s harmony in the elements of Eternal Sunshine... which allows the story and the performances to gain equal footing with the style.

Prior to this film, I never really believed in Carey’s ability to play straight, serious roles. I found him likable enough in both The Truman Show and Man On The Moon, but I never really felt like he rose above the broader strokes of those characters. Here he provides us not with a “character,” but with a person who seems genuine and realistic – no mean feat given the insanity that’s going on around him. Winslet, per usual, demonstrates that she’s one of the finest actors working today and adds yet another unique and layered performance to her ever growing repertoire. The supporting cast, made up of Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dundst and Elijah Wood, are uniformly good, operating at varying levels of zaniness.

What more can I say? This is a great movie, a funny, sad, and intriguing play on the adage that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Review: M (1931)

* * * *

Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Peter Lorre

Fritz Lang’s M is a taut crime drama which forgoes the usual preoccupations of the police procedural story to concentrate instead on larger social questions. This isn’t a film that’s about whether a criminal will be caught and how he will be punished, but is instead about the society which delivers such a criminal into the world. It’s an uncompromising film about a brutal, ugly world, and it’s a masterpiece of tone and storytelling technique.

The plot of M hinges on the search and capture of a child murderer played by Peter Lorre. We meet him first as a shadow looming over his next victim and in certain respects this is as close as we ever get to him. He gives an impassioned speech at the end which illuminates – to a degree – his psychological state, but we don’t really get to know him, nor are we meant to. The film is far less concerned with the hows and whys of his crimes than it is with how his crimes affect his community and with what that tells us about the community itself.

The police are, obviously, under pressure to catch the killer, but local criminals have a vested interest in his capture as well. With the heat turned up, the police are especially attentive to and disruptive of the underworld dealings which had previously carried on with relative ease. Using beggars as their spies, the criminal community discovers the identity of the killer and opt to bring him to their own kind of justice with a mock trial and plans for an execution. The scenes of the hunt and capture of Beckert (Lorre) are extremely well done, especially the sequence which finds him hiding in a storage area, trapped like an animal with nothing to do but wait for the hunters to find him. The notion of Beckert as animal is further explored during the “trial” when he insists that he can’t be accountable for his crimes because he was acting on an impulse he can’t control.

The world created for us in M is one of shadows and decay, corruption and hatred. There is no doubt that Beckert is guilty, his crimes reprehensible, but what of the people who want to bring him to justice? Lang contrasts scenes of the police strategizing around a table with scenes of the underworld figures strategizing around a table – if the two groups are so similar (almost indistinguishable, in fact), what hope is there for justice? When Beckert is captured, the tribunal takes the form of a court complete with prosecutor, defence, and jury. It isn’t the crime itself but the corruption of systems of justice that Lang is focused on.

Mob mentality plays a large role in this exploration. Spurred by fear, individuals who are otherwise reasonable find themselves swept up in crowds, turning on their neighbours at the slightest provocation and acting out their fear through violence. M was made on the cusp of Hitler’s rise to power but it presupposes the mentality that would pervade the nation under his rule and which would play a part in driving Lang out of Germany for good. Watching it in this context only makes it all the more fascinating.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Review: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

* * * *

Director: Jean Cocteau
Starring: Jean Marais, Josette Day

Jean Cocteau’s take on Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful fable that floats dreamlike across the screen and never falters even for a moment. Like the rest of Cocteau’s work – both as a filmmaker and in other artistic mediums – this story is brought to life in a surrealist style and with a great deal of attention paid to the aesthetic details of the mise en scene. It’s a wonderful, unforgettable rendering of the classic story.

In the film, a disgraced and debt-ridden nobleman wanders out of the fog and the forest and into a seemingly empty castle. He eats, he sleeps, he wanders the grounds, and then he plucks a rose from a bush, having promised one of his daughters that he would bring her such a treasure. As soon as he takes the flower, the Beast (Jean Marais) who lives in the castle emerges from the shadows. The roses, it seems, are the only thing he values in the castle and to have one plucked is the greatest of insults. He agrees to let the man leave alive on one condition: either he returns to pay his debt with his life, or he talks one of his daughters into taking his place.

He returns home to relate his tale and, essentially, to say goodbye before returning to meet his fate. Belle (Josett Day), the daughter who had requested the rose and the only of his children who is pure of heart, decides to sacrifice herself to the Beast to save him. She’s taken to the castle where she encounters the Beast and is overcome with horror. The Beast, however, immediately falls in love with her and instead of killing her, tries to overcome his beastly nature. Every night he asks her to marry him and every night she turns him down, though she does gradually come to care for him.

Opening the film, Cocteau makes a formal plea for suspension of disbelief, a plea which is a tad unnecessary because the world he creates is so magical and enchanting that it’s easy to slip into it completely. The Beast’s castle is a particularly wondrous creation, a place where hands and arms and faces are part of the furniture, where doors are opened and closed by invisible hands, and where a mirror can show you what is happening miles away. The way that Cocteau constructs scenes helps as well, particularly in an early scene where it’s made to look as if Belle is literally gliding through castle. The elements of the production are cohesive enough that no one element is ever distracting in its strangeness.

As the star-crossed lovers, Day and Marais (who does double duty as the Beast and Avenant, another of Belle’s suitors) play their roles in an appropriately simplistic way. Fairytales aren’t generally known for the depth of their characters and Belle and the Beast are as broadly drawn as any others, though the Beast is given some dimension due to the fact of his dual nature. What’s important is that they fit with the rest of the narrative – and they do, their seemingly effortless performances adding a great deal to the film’s charm.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Canadian Film Review: The Stone Angel (2008)

* * *

Director: Kari Skogland
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser, Dylan Baker

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a strong-willed old woman, teetering on the edge between life and death, looks back on her life as she fights against the inevitabilities of getting old and dying. The basic turns of the plot leave little room for surprises but the other elements of film are strong enough to overcome whatever feelings of déjà vu the story might impart. Central to the film’s success is a great performance by Ellen Burstyn.

The stone angel of the title refers to the statue which marks the grave of the protagonist’s mother, who died giving birth to a son. The result of this is that while the father lavishes love and attention on his daughter, Hagar (played at alternate points by Samantha Weinstein, Christine Horne, and Burstyn), he has barely disguised contempt for his son, Matt (Aaron Ashmore). Hagar, however, will earn her fair share of her father’s ire when she marries against his wishes to a man he believes to be beneath her. Eventually she’ll come to realize that her father wasn’t entirely wrong about Bram (Cole Hauser), whose finer qualities will be slowly eroded by years of alcoholism. She will also – though whether or not she’s really conscious of this is somewhat ambiguous – find herself repeating the parenting pattern set by her father as she openly favours one son over the other.

All of this is told in bits and pieces between sections which follow Hagar as an old woman battling against her son, Marvin (Dylan Baker) and daughter-in-law as they make plans to put her in a home. Unwilling to be put out to pasture without a fight, Hagar sneaks away to return to the place where she grew up and visit the places of her greatest triumphs and greatest disappointments and, perhaps, to make peace with the things that she cannot change.

The film is fortunate that the greatest part of its weight rests on the shoulders of an actress as capable as Ellen Burstyn, who renders a graceful and fully realized performance. Burstyn is tasked with playing Hagar at two stages of her life – as a woman of middle-age still battling with the mistakes of her youth, and as an old woman taking one last look at her life before taking her final bow. As the younger Hagar, Horne delivers a fine, solid performance, but it's Burstyn who ultimately leaves the biggest mark on the character. Of the supporting cast, Baker and Hauser are the standouts, though Baker isn't given nearly enough to do.

In the final analysis The Stone Angel is a decent if far from perfect film. The story spans many decades and, at times, feels as if it takes about a decade to watch and yet, at the same time, the story is compressed enough that you feel a bit cheated when it comes to certain developments, particularly the relationship between Hagar and Marvin. Writer/director Kari Skogland is a perfectly competant filmmaker but the film could stand to be a littler more tightly focused.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Great Last Scenes: Dangerous Liaisons

Year: 1988
Director: Stephen Frears
Great Because... it's a moment of comeuppance so completely deserved and yet so utterly merciless that it almost - almost - makes you feel bad for the reprehensible manipulator you've been watching systematically destroy everyone around her for the past two hours:

After a lifetime spent manipulating people and demolishing lives, Madame de Merteuil finds herself undone by her own game. Having set in motion the destruction of Cecile’s innocence in addition to the untimely deaths of Madame de Tourvel and former ally Valmont – all of it with a smile on her face – Merteuil finds her victory short-lived.

Booed out of the opera, cast out of the social world she was meant to reign over, Merteuil finds herself defeated, humiliated and utterly alone. Contemplating her future as she removes her makeup - leaving herself more exposed and vulnerable than she has ever been as she finally removes her mask - she seems to grasp the utter futility of the effort: there is nothing left for her anymore, the only direction to go is down. It is all over.

As much as I like Jodie Foster (who won Best Actress for The Accused), I cannot believe that Glenn Close didn't walk away with that Oscar for this one scene alone, let alone for her performance in the rest of the film. This is a scene of absolute perfection in every sense.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Flick Chick Turns One

One year ago today I decided to combine my love of movies, writing, and procrastinating on the internet into one venture and started this blog that you just so happen to be reading. 247 posts and 3 templates later, I'm happy to report that this time consuming project is going stronger than ever.

My blogging highlight would have to be finding the LAMB and its wealth of great movie blogs. Lowlight would be getting hate mail from some crazy Nicole Kidman fan who took issue with my referring to Kidman as boring (which she is) and suggesting that she's messed up her face with botox (which she has).

Anyway, I plan to celebrate this little anniversay by watching a movie (because God knows I don't watch enough of those), and hoping that the next 365 days are as satisfying movie watching-wise as the last 365.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review: The Visitor (2008)

* * * *

Director: Thomas McCarthy
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman,Danai Gurira

The Visitor is a tricky little movie: it starts by letting you think it’s going to be one thing and then it switches gears and becomes another, but remains wonderful nonetheless. Every once in a while as a filmgoer you’re fortunate enough to see a movie so rich and alive that its characters stay with you long after the story is over. The Visitor is one of those movies.

Walter (played brilliantly by Richard Jenkins) is a widower and university professor who has largely given up. He has no connection to anyone or anything, even his work which, after 20 years, has become meaningless to him, an exercise in repetition. He’s co-authored a paper with a colleague - though he confesses that she did all the writing and all he did was read it over for her – and when she’s unable to present it at a conference, he’s sent in her place. The conference is in New York, where he still keeps an apartment even though he’s never there. Arriving there he discovers that someone else has been making use of it: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira).

Walter lets Tarek and Zainab stay and Tarek teaches him to drum. I’m reluctant to reveal much more of the plot because it turns in some surprising ways, dexterously sidestepping the plot developments that you think you can see coming to set itself in a different direction. I will say that a fourth character is introduced, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who is Tarek’s mother and who has a profound effect on Walter. I will also say that the title has multiple meanings. Tarek, Zainab and Mouna are each, in a technical sense, visitors in the States and, at different times, in Walter’s apartment. But Walter, too, is a visitor, both in the way that he arrives at his apartment and seems more like a guest than a host, and in the way that he’s the only person able to go and see Tarek when a misunderstanding makes it impossible for either Zainab or Mouna to be with him.

Writer/director Thomas McCarthy is very smart in the way that he lets the story unfold. He allows scenes to develop their own pace and rhythm, allows the characters room to breathe and to grow in a natural way. There is not a single thing about this movie that feels forced, and that is as much a credit to McCarthy as it is to the actors, each of whom seems to fit so effortlessly into their respective roles. When you watch these four actors - and in particular when you watch Jenkins and Abbass, who light up the screen in their scenes together – you see minimalist acting at its best. A lot goes unsaid in this movie, expressed instead through gestures and body language.

The Visitor is a movie that is perfect in so many ways that I find it difficult to fully express my admiration for it. I can only hope that as the year comes to a close and awards begin to get handed out, that some attention can be paid to this film, which is so deserving of recognition for its screenplay as well as the performances by Jenkins and Abbass.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Best Years of Our Lives: 1927

1927 is a film year I’ve found myself especially interested in lately, partly because I’m still in the process of discovering it, and partly because it’s generally a landmark year for films. 1927 is the year that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded and also the year of The Jazz Singer, the film that made talking pictures the rule rather than the exception. Although studios would continue to produce silent films for a few more years, sound quickly came to dominate and the popularity of the new format sealed the fate of the old one. 1927 was the last great year for silent films and a great year in film full stop, with many enduring classics being produced and released:

Sunrise: My favourite film from 1927 and one of my favourites of all time. F.W. Murnau's graceful masterpiece won a special Oscar as Best Unique and Artistic Production.

Metropolis: Fritz Lang's seminal science fiction film continues to influence films even 70 years after its release. Echoes of Metropolis can be heard in Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and Star Wars amongst others.

It: Over the decades Hollywood has crowned a number of "It Girl"s with varying levels of success, but Clara Bow was the very first, so named for her role in this film. Unfortunately for her she was also one of the many actors who wasn't successful in making the transition from silents to sound.

The General: Buster Keaton was a master and made a number of great films, but I think this one might be his most perfect. Well crafted in every respect, this is a movie that I can watch over and over again.

Wings: The first Best Picture winner is a sweeping World War I epic that has it all: action, romance, tragedy, and a star making appearance by Gary Cooper in a small role.

Napoleon: Abel Gance's staggering epic about the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Employed some technical innovations, particularly in its use of handheld cameras.

October: An epic about the 1917 October Revolution, this film by Sergei Eisenstein had the unenviable task of following up his masterpiece Battleship Potemkin.

As if all that wasn't enough, 1927 is also the year in which the great Barbara Stanwyck made her film debut in Broadway Nights.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Canadian Film Review: Spider (2002)

* * *

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne

Spider is a creepy and challenging film from director David Cronenberg. I’m going to approach this one in a different way than I normally would, looking first at what literally happens on screen and then at what I believe happens beneath the surface. I do this for two reasons: first, our protagonist, through whose eyes we see everything, is not exactly a reliable narrator. Second, this is the kind of movie that just begs to be interpreted.

What we see is this: Spider/Mr. Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) has just been released from a mental institution and goes to live at a boarding house run by the fierce Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). He begins writing in a notebook, recreating for himself the events that led up to the death of his beloved mother (Miranda Richardson). His father (Gabriel Byrne) takes up with a local pub tart named Yvonne (also played by Richardson, though it’s hard to tell sometimes because she creates two such distinct characters). Mr. Cleg murders his wife and then moves Yvonne into the house. Spider is, obviously, disturbed by this and comes up with a plan to kill Yvonne by turning on the gas stove while she sleeps. Afterwards, he’s sent to the institution.

My reading: Spider (played as a child by Bradley Hall) is a disturbed little boy who lives in an insulated world of which his mother is the centre and his idea of perfection. He is disturbed by displays of female sexuality, particularly in two instances: first when he’s sent to the pub to get his father and is flashed by a female patron (Yvonne), and second when he looks out his window and sees his parents engaged in a passionate embrace in the garden. Seeing his mother in this way makes Spider equate her in his mind with women like Yvonne and thus his perfect mother becomes tainted. In order to purify her, Spider must destroy her, but he isn’t psychologically equipped to deal with this idea and so creates an elaborate fiction in his mind involving the affair with Yvonne and murder of Mrs. Cleg by her husband.

There are a few reasons why I believe this, not least of which is the fact that Yvonne and Mrs. Cleg are both played by Richardson. Richardson will also appear briefly in a third role, stepping in as Mrs. Wilkinson for a few scenes, which demonstrates how easy it is for Spider to project the image of his mother on other women. There’s also the fact that Spider “remembers” a number of events that he did not actually witness, these scenes encompassing both the affair and the murder. Finally, there’s the fact that the woman who falls asleep when Spider turns on the gas is Yvonne, but the corpse brought out of the house afterwards is that of Mrs. Cleg.

I’m of two minds about the effectiveness of Spider as a film. The story is well constructed and Cronenberg creates a palpably grim and grimy atmosphere, but there’s something kind of flat about the film as a whole. At times it feels more like an exercise in psychological immersion than a film, which gives it more of an academic than entertainment value.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Great Last Scenes: Sunset Boulevard

Year: 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Great Because... not only does it provide a fittingly dramatic exit for a larger than life character, it also manages a delicate mixture of tones: it's sad, flamboyant and creepy as hell all at once (you could also argue that it's triumphant, albeit as the triumph of madness over sanity). Most importantly, it's an ending that stands up to multpile viewings:

In a fit of desperation former screen star Norma Desmond has killed her lover, Joe Gillis. In the ensuing media circus, Norma’s tenuous hold on sanity is finally and definitively broken, and she comes to believe that the hubbub in her foyer is a cast and crew preparing for a scene in her comeback vehicle.

Seeing the cameras, Norma descends the staircase into infamy and insanity, stopping only to express how much the moment means to her:
I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again! You don't know how much I've missed all of you. And 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! There's nothing else - just us - and the cameras - and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up.

Finishing her speech, Norma begins to move towards the camera - and us. Looking directly through the camera to the audience, the message become clear: Hollywood may be partially to blame for breaking Norma, but the audience is just as guilty. Fade to black.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review: The Duchess (2008)

* * * *

Director: Saul Dibb
Starring: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Hayley Atwell, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper

I love a good costume drama, which is a shame for me since over the last couple of years there’s been such a dearth of really good ones, ones which seem to have a purpose beyond their costumes and art direction. The Duchess is an exquisitely realized film, beautiful in its costumes and art direction (special mention to the team behind Keira Knightley’s miraculous hair), and rich in its story and performances. It is also a film with a real and discernable purpose, one which it exploits to the fullest.

Knightley stars as Georgiana Spencer, who becomes the Duchess of Devonshire when her mother (Charlotte Rampling) comes to an arrangement with the Duke (Ralph Fiennes). Despite hardly knowing him, she’s happy with this development, having been raised to aspire to little more than a good marriage. It doesn't take long, however, for her to lose whatever illusions she once had: she and the Duke have nothing to talk about, he makes no effort to hide the fact that he has mistresses, and he brings an illegitimate daughter into the house. Georgiana takes all of this in stride; it isn’t what she expected but she can accept things for the way that they are and even comes to love the little girl as if she were her own.

It isn’t until Georgiana develops a friendship with Bess (Hayley Atwell) that the union is truly ruptured. The Duke makes Bess his mistress and insists on having her (and later her three sons) live with him and Georgiana. Georgiana’s anger is given multiple dimensions: the Duke is desperate for a son and seeing him with Bess’ three boys makes Georgiana feel like a failure, as all her surviving children have been girls; there is also the fact that it ruins her friendship with Bess, something which she describes as having been the one thing that was hers and hers alone; and of course there is sexual jealousy, though it should be noted that she seems more jealous over Bess than the Duke, the revelation of the affair coming shortly after a brief pseudo-lesbian moment between Georgiana and Bess.

Once again Georgiana tries to make the best of things, seeing in this situation an opportunity to have her own affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), whom she loves and who loves her. She attempts to make a deal with the Duke, only to have her proposition thrown back in her face. “I don’t make deals,” he tells her and then proves to her just how easy it is for him not to have to. At its core the film is a deep and thoughtful examination of the balance of power between the sexes, and of the role of women in society and in marriage. A lot of parallels have been drawn between Georgiana and Princess Diana, but I think that misses the point. The value of this film lies more in what its relevance to what's going on right now than what was going on 10, 20, or 25 years ago, and I think that all you have to do is look at the current US presidential race to see that. Georgiana has ideas and an interest in politics, but all people want to talk about is how she looks and even her political allies see her most important contribution as her ability to gather a crowd. Moreover, the criteria by which a woman (particularly one in the public eye) is deemed worthy hasn't fundamentally changed: Georgina becomes worthy once she gives birth to the next Duke of Devonshire; the Republican party seems content to build their campaign around the idea of a working mother as Vice-President (though, in fairness, Sarah Palin’s politics leave little else to brag about). Motherhood was and remains a defining factor in determining a woman's place in - and value to - the world.

The double standard is something that has been explored before but what impressed me most about it here was the balance the film managed to find. The Duke, while not a nice man by any stretch of the imagination, is not a monster either. When he sees the children playing and remarks to Georgiana that it must be nice to be so free, we know that he, too, is trapped by what society expects of him, by a role that he is being forced to play. Fiennes delivers a great performance as the Duke, the cold and weary center around which chaos ensues. It is Knightley, however, who carries the film so firmly on her shoulders. It’s a great performance and The Duchess is a film fully worthy of it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Review: The Last Laugh (1924)

* * * *

Director: F.W. Murnau
Starring: Emil Jannings

For a visual medium, film tends to rely a lot on words – from dialogue to voice-overs to inter-titles, words can play a large part in conveying and advancing stories. With The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau shows just how effectively a story can be told in the absence of words. This is a silent film with just one inter-title (officially, that is; at the beginning there’s a close-up of a letter and at the end a close-up of a newspaper article, both of which could qualify as inter-titles in a casual sense), which might sound daunting but the end result is a thing of absolute beauty.

The story is simple. Emil Jannings stars as a doorman at a fancy hotel who takes pride in his work and especially in his uniform. One day he arrives at the hotel to find another man - a younger, more virile man - standing at the door in the uniform and he’s informed by the management that he’s no longer seen as fit for the physically demanding job. Rather than being fired, though, he's simply demoted to bathroom attendant - a symbolic last stop if ever there was one given that the man he's replacing is being demoted from bathroom attendant to resident in a home for the elderly.

This transition is devastating to him because being a doorman isn’t just his job, but his entire identity; when they strip him of the uniform, they might as well be stripping the very skin from his bones. He becomes desperate and steals the uniform back, wearing it home so that his family and neighbours won’t know the truth. It isn't long, however, before the truth does come out and he finds himself the subject of derision by the people around him, who take great pleasure in taking him down a peg.

The doorman is thoroughly humiliated, defeated and demoralized as he's forced to accept that he's lost his uniform and his position. If the film ended here, it would be pure tragedy, but then there's that one inter-title, the one which introduces an epilogue that only works because it acknowlegdes that it shouldn't work at all. The filmmakers take pity on the doorman and allow him to have the last laugh and we the audience allow them to get away with it because after watching him get kicked around for the better part of an hour and a half, we want to see him turn it around no matter how fantastical the circumstances.

After seeing Nosferatu and Sunrise and loving both, I’ve been trying to seek out more Murnau and with just three films he’s solidified himself as one of my favourite filmmakers. Much like Sunrise, The Last Laugh unfolds in a graceful and dream-like fashion; at times it seems more like a ballet than a film, particularly a dream sequence in which the doorman imagines himself restored to his former glory. The film comes out of a period of time when movies didn’t actually move that much, when cameras didn’t have the same freedom that they do now. In this film and his others, Murnau consistently breaks free of the limitations standing in the way to create works of art that seem truly alive. His ability, as well as the performance by Jannings, which is so rich and full that it does not require words to support it, make it easy to forget about the lack of titles.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Canadian Film Review: A Stone's Throw (2006)


Director: Camelia Frieberg
Starring: Kristen Holden-Ried

One thing this movie gets right: when the police show up in search of the protagonist, who is in turn vague about the circumstances of their interest when question by his nephew, the nephew goes to his room, Googles his uncle’s name and finds out exactly what’s going on. I think I may have inadvertently clapped when that happened and, if I did, it would have been the first and last time during this ill-conceived exercise in cinematical regurgitation.

The plot is a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of a story, sewing together bits and pieces of You Can Count On Me, Erin Brockovich, and The Shipping News to little purpose. Jack (Kristen Holden-Ried), the wayward brother, shows up one day at his sister’s door and is less than forthcoming about his reasons for coming to town. His nephew (Aaron Webster), who idolizes him, believes that he’s come to town to do an exposé on the local mill, which may or may not be causing health problems for local residents.

The story branches off into several potential plots and subplots, none of which ever really takes off to become something substantial. Jack and his sister argue about their dysfunctional childhood, Jack takes up with his sister’s best friend (Lisa Ray), and the nephew – inspired by Jack – tries to take matters into his own hands and take down the plant on his own. But none of this really means anything – the film plants the seeds for several plots, but doesn’t really let any of them grow. There just isn’t a coherent idea here about what kind of movie this should be.

It would be helpful, at least, if the protagonist was someone you could root for – that’s kind of an essential element of an “activist movie.” Instead we have Jack, a photojournalist and environmental activist whose argument seems to rest solely on the assertion that he’s right and everyone else is wrong. He rails against the residents of the town, calling them short-sighted and “self interested,” for turning a blind eye to the problems stemming from the mill because it’s the town’s primary source of employment. Two problems: Firstly, Jack, as we later learn, is on the run after having set fire to some trailers at a mining site (his justification once again comes down to “I’m right, everyone else is wrong”). When he shows up at his sister’s door and when he later gets his nephew to lie to the police for him, he makes them his accomplices. If these aren’t acts of self-interest, I don’t know what is. Secondly, and I may be biased because I grew up in a small town where the local mill provided a great deal of employment, but I don’t think it’s wrong to not want to shut down the business that’s essentially keeping the town alive. There’s a long field between shutting it down completely and regulating it for the sake of the environment and the health of the workers and residents.

In the end, Jack sees the error of his ways and does the “noble” thing by turning himself in and it’s all very anti-climatic because the narrative just doesn’t build to it. The story is so scattered, the characters so flat and lifeless as they go through the motions, re-enacting scenes from other movies, that you really feel nothing for them either way.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Review: Hud (1963)

* * * 1/2

Director: Martin Ritt
Starring: Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, Brandon De Wilde

Hud Bannon is “the man with the barbed wire soul,” a man without principle, a man who never met a person he would think twice about being mean to. He also – inexplicably as far as his portrayer, Paul Newman, was concerned – became a figure of worship in popular culture, a man that younger men wanted to become (in Midnight Cowboy Joe Buck has the famed poster of Hud on his wall). This isn’t the absolute best movie Newman ever made (for me that would be Cool Hand Luke), but of all his performances, this one is my favourite.

Hud is a ne’er do well whose sole interests are women, drinking and fighting, and not always in that order. He lives on a cattle ranch with his father (Melvyn Douglas), his nephew Lon (Brandon De Wilde), and their housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal), with whom he enjoys a charged rapport. Hud and his father have a fractured relationship which seems to inform the way that he relates to all other people: fearing rejection, he keeps everyone at a distance, though he longs desperately for companionship.

Problems between Hud and his father reach a crescendo as Hud begins spending more time with Lon, passing on his bad habits, and after a cow dies under mysterious circumstances. The fear is that the cow has succumbed to foot and mouth disease and that the rest of the heard will have to be slaughtered to avoid an epidemic. Hud wants to sell off the cattle before the government can declare them unfit, but his father refuses and they eventually have a confrontation in which he reveals that his dislike of Hud doesn’t stem from the accident which killed Lon’s father, but rather from his lack of character. It’s this lack of character, the refusal to care about anything other than himself, that ensures that Hud will end up exactly where he does: all alone.

The performances make the movie, with all four of the principles delivering solid, nuanced portrayals. Newman ambles seductively through the film, alternating between easy going banter and angry sulking. Rejected by his father, he lashes out at him but remains desperate from some kind of approval from him. When his father makes his brutal proclamation, all Hud can do is throw up his hands and say with a mixture of anger and sadness, “My mama loved me but she died.” Newman hits a complex series of notes throughout the film, making for a character who is difficult to like most of the time, but also compelling in the way that someone who is his own worst enemy can be compelling.

As for the other three, De Wilde is solid playing a young man who finds himself caught between wanting to do the right things like his grandfather, but also seduced in a way by his uncle, who just seems so cool; Neal is wonderful as the no nonsense housekeeper who is drawn to Hud despite knowing better and the scenes between her and Newman crackle with electricity (“Don’t go shootin’ all the dogs 'cause one of 'em’s got fleas,” Hud drawls while lying across her bed); and Douglas is simply marvellous. He’s an actor I find myself consistently surprised by: the actor who plays the worn down old man here is the same as the one who played Garbo’s elegant romantic foil in Ninotchka and the difference can’t be attributed solely to age. Douglas won an Oscar for his work here, as did Neal, and Newman was nominated as Best Actor, but lost to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field. If you’ve never seen this movie, I can’t recommend it more. Rarely do you get the chance to watch four great actors, all at the top of their form, playing off of each other like this.