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Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Movie Monarchs (British Edition)

#5: Robert Shaw as Henry VIII (A Man For All Seasons)

It's only a supporting role, but Shaw definitely makes his presence known. His charismatic and layered performance keeps the execution-happy King from being an out-and-out villain, instead making him a flawed and conflicted antagonist.

#4: Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II (The Queen)

Most actors playing monarchs have it easy, in that they're playing figures from a past before film and television and have a greater degree of freedom in "creating" the character. Mirren had to balance her vision of the character against everything a contemporary audience already knows (or thinks it knows). Needless to say, she did it brilliantly.

#3: Judi Dench as Victoria I (Mrs. Brown)

"The grandmother of Europe," ruler for 63 years, Queen Victoria is a massively daunting historical figure. In Mrs. Brown, however, Dench makes her a very human and very accessible character. Playing that other Queen is what won Dench her Oscar, but it really should have been for this performance.

#2: Peter O'Toole as Henry II (Becket and The Lion In Winter)

A character so nice, O'Toole played him twice. Well, "nice" might be pushing it. Still, there's no doubt that of all the great roles O'Toole has played, this is one of the very best. So great, in fact, that he received Oscar nominations for both films.

#1: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age)

Actually, I'm not terribly fond of The Golden Age, but Blanchett's portrayal of the first Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth remains a favourite of mine. The Queen has been played by many great actresses (including Helen Mirren and Judi Dench), but for me Blanchett's performance is the definitive one.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Act of Dishonour (2010)

* * 1/2

Director: Nelofer Pazira
Starring: Nelofer Pazira, Marina Golbahari

A Canadian crew comes to Afghanistan to make a film and in the process completely disrupts the lives of people in a small village, acting as the catalyst for a tragedy they never anticipated. That is the premise for Nelofer Pazira's Act of Dishonour, an ambitious film that falls just short of its goal but nevertheless crafts a few golden moments out of its narrative.

The director of the film within the film is Ben (Greg Bryk), a liberal guy of the type who thinks that being a liberal means explaining the female experience to women and the Afghan experience to people living in Afghanistan (or the experience of any "other" people). His crew includes Mejgan (Nelofer Pazira), an Afghan-Canadian who comes expecting to reconnect with her cultural roots and finds that the reality of Afghanistan is different than the Afghanistan of her imagination. Still, she begins to develop a friendship with Mena (Marina Golbahari), a bride-to-be whose contact with her fiancée, Rahmat (Masood Serwary), is limited according to local custom.

Knowing that a burka is one of the items Mena needs to obtain before her wedding, Mejgan convinces her to participate in the film by promising her that she can keep one of the burkas from wardrobe. Mena, who is not supposed to leave home without being in the company of a male relative, very reluctantly agrees and all hell breaks loose. The men of the village agree that by leaving the house, Mena has brought shame on her family and her father is encouraged to carry out an honor killing. In a scene of incredibly well-constructed suspense, he attempts to murder his daughter but ultimately can't bring himself to do so. He then seeks out Rahmat and essentially passes the buck to him. Meanwhile, the film crew has no idea just how much damage they've done as they've already high tailed it out of town without looking back.

There's more to the film, plotwise, than this one thread but that's the dominant narrative that carries the film. There is also a subplot involving displaced people who return to the village to find that their ancestral homes are now occupied by others, but this story exists at the margins of the story, fleshing out the setting without necessarily being a plot thread the film is concerned about resolving. The main plot, meanwhile, can sometimes be very heavily didactic and the dialogue very stilted, but there are times when it breaks free from this, resulting in moments that feel very true and honest (much of this comes courtesay of Golbahari's very skilled performance).

Act of Dishonour's greatest strength, I think, is ultimately in the beautiful cinematography by frequent Atom Egoyan collaborator Paul Sarossy. There is a painterly aspect to many of the shots that Sarossy captures and the images are incredibly striking. Unfortunately, the film itself very rarely gets much deeper than the surface and rarely rises above the level of a morality play. It isn't a bad movie, it just doesn't quite reach its potential.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book vs. Film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vs. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Plot: 40 years after the disappearance of Harriet Wagner, her uncle Henrik, certain that she has been murdered and that her murderer has been taunting him, hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist to investigate. With the help of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Mikael begins to unravel the mystery, discovering in the process that a serial killer has been at work in the area for decades and may now be targetting them.

Primary Differences Between Book and Film: The film compresses the story as presented in the book and also alters the timeline (for example, in the film Mikael serves his prison sentence at the end; in the book he serves his time in the middle of the story). The film also makes Lisbeth a more active character and involves her more deeply in the solving of the mystery, and it alters the resolution of the mystery somewhat.

For the Book: The book, by virtue of the fact that it has the luxury to take longer to tell its story, is also able to give us more direct insight into the characters and flesh out the relationships between the large cast of characters. There is also a different tone to the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth in the book which makes it eaiser to see them as a potential romantic couple, whereas I never really felt they clicked that way in the film.

For the Film: Lisbeth is the story's most fascinating character both in the book and the film. By giving her a bigger role, the film centralizes the story's most compelling aspect and gives the story a stronger energy. Also, Lisbeth as a character is (somewhat) softer in the book than she is in the film and I liked the harder edges that Noomi Rapace's portrayal gives her. Oh, and did I mention that Rapace is just generally awesome? In all likelihood I don't even need to but, for the record, there it is.

Winner: Film. I prefer the streamlined version of events as told by the film and found that when I read the book, I spent a lot of time waiting for Lisbeth to come back. I like the book a lot, but to me the film is a lot more powerful and compelling.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ebert's Greats #5: Victim (1961)

* * *

Director: Basil Dearden
Starring: Dirk Bogarde

Seen today, Basil Dearden's Victim seems almost quaint in its delicate treatment of sex and sexuality. It was, however, a groundbreaking film, the first (at least in the English language) ever to use the word "homosexual," which resulted in it being banned in the United States. Given that you couldn't even acknowledge the existence of homosexuality in a direct, uncoded way without causing an outrage 49 years ago, it's perhaps no wonder that the NOH8 Campaign is necessary today.

Dirk Bogarde stars as Melville Farr, a successful barrister with a bright future ahead of him and a seemingly happy family life with his wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms). But beneath the surface, Farr is keeping a secret: he's been carrying on a very intense (though unconsummated) relationship with a young man named Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery), who has become the victim of blackmailers who know about the relationship. In order to pay off the blackmailers, Barrett has stolen £2,000 from his employers and now the police are after him. Upon finding him, the police also find out why he stole the money, leading him to commit suicide in order to protect Farr.

Farr's guilt about what has happened to Barrett is great and he decides to go after the blackmailers and stop them from ruining any more lives. Farr discovers the identities of other victims and tries to get their help, but their preference is to pay off the blackmailers and go about their lives (understandable given that in 1961 homosexuality was still criminalized and reporting the blackmail may have in turn opened them up to prosecution). Farr's crusade, however, has not gone unnoticed and his relationship with Barrett is exposed, leading to the collapse of his marriage and his career. Tired of being a victim, Farr decides to see the fight through to the end and opts to testify against his tormentors in order to obtain justice for himself and others.

Victim is obviously a message movie, but it's a message movie in the best possible way as it dramatizes the situation rather than simply doing a lot speechifying about it. Its a story rooted first and very firmly in character and builds its political context from there, making it easy for us as an audience to feel sympathy for and anger on behalf of Farr. In spite of the strong reactions it inspired upon its release (it was originally rated X in the UK), it is not an explicit film. We never see the "incriminating" photo, nor does Farr ever share so much as a kiss with Barrett, but it is nevertheless very direct regarding its subject. To put it in the proper context, Victim is as bold for 1961 as Brokeback Mountain was for 2005.

Though the world is a different place now than it was in 1961, Victim does not play out like a relic of the recent past. It's an effective thriller about a man who is essentially being hunted and who fights through his inner torment in order to figure out a way to turn the tables. Bogarde's performance is not simply good, it's also very brave given both his status as a leading man on screen and his sexuality off screen. He carries this film and plays a large role in its ultimate success and durability. It is not a perfect film - the ending suggests that Farr and his wife will ultimately reconcile, for one thing - but it's an important one and certainly one worth watching.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: Fair Game (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn

How you respond to Fair Game may ultimately depend on the politics that you bring into it (and probably on how tired you are of narratives centering on the war on terror). Likely, it's a film that can do little more than preach to the choir, but as a member of the choir I have to say that I liked it quite a bit. It's a solid political thriller in the tradition of All The President's Men with two absolutely fantastic performances at its centre.

Based on the books Fair Game by Valerie Plame and Politics of Truth written by her spouse, Joseph Wilson, the film details the upheaval and chaos of Plame and Wilson's lives following the very public revelation of Plame's work for the CIA. The story begins with rumors of a sale of uranium to Iraq by Niger. Because Wilson (Sean Penn) once held a diplomatic position in Niger, Plame (Naomi Watts) suggests that he might prove helpful in investigating the claims and he embarks on a fact finding mission. He returns certain that there's no possible way that the rumors are true, both because of politics (the millions of dollars in aid that has been given to the country by the US) and because of logistics (that much uranium would be difficult, if not impossible, to sneak out of the country). However, a narrative has already started to be developed by the White House to justify going to war and Wilson's conclusions are ignored and the information he's gathered is manipulated to support their intentions.

Wilson writes an op-ed for The New York Times revealing that the intelligence being relied upon is wrong, which results in Plame's name and occupation being leaked to the press in retaliation. Her career in shambles and her work diminished by the press, feeling guilty about the contacts around the world who may now be in danger, and fearful for the safety of her family, Plame's life begins to spiral and her marriage looks to be a casualty. Wilson wants to fight, Plame wants to lay low - they are fundamentally at odds over how to deal with the situation and the film is as much about how their marriage almost failed as it is about the scandal itself.

Wilson and Plame are not perfect heroes but their flaws are what makes them such fascinating protagonists. Wilson is an extremely aggressive character who, even when you agree with what he's saying, sometimes seems like a total jackass (in this way he's perhaps the closest Penn will ever get to playing himself in a film). He's a man whose greatest strength - his fierce intelligence - is also his greatest weakness because when he knows something to be false, he cannot keep quiet about it and develops a kind of tunnel vision about making the truth known which blinds him to the potential consequences of pursuing that truth. Plame, meanwhile, is a sometimes maddeningly interior character (which is one of the things that makes her such a good operative) and surprisingly passive. When her cover is blown, she's prepared to tow the line and keep quiet, refusing to speak to the press. She's an extremely intelligent person who has been shown to be very quick on her feet, but in this particular instance she seems to be stuck and always second guessing herself.

The screenplay by Jez and John Butterworth is very strong, balancing the story so that it works both as a political thriller and as an intense character study, and director Doug Liman keeps things moving at an efficient pace, but the film really belongs to Watts and Penn. Penn's role is perhaps the showier part and he brings a lot of fire to the film, but Watts is equally good (if not better) in her more muted role. As Plame, she's cool-headed and strong; her own loyalties never waver. The crisis for her is in realizing that those she's counting on are perhaps not quite as loyal to her. She's angry at Wilson for not considering how his actions might affect her and their family, and she's shocked to discover that the CIA has turned its back on her, refusing her requests for protection after she begins receiving death threats. The way she slowly begins to break under the pressure and then rallies and rebuilds herself in order to fight is very compelling and Watts' performance is one of my favourite of the year so far.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Cinematic Prison Escapes

#5: Escape From Alcatraz

Clint Eastwood stars in the story of the only successful (well, if escaping and very probably dying shortly thereafter qualifies as "successful") escape from Alcatraz.

#4: The Fugitive

The escape from the bus and path of the on-coming train, the jump from the storm drain, and a damn lot of chasing in between. The much-revisited story of The Fugitive remains an exciting and all around entertaining thriller.

#3: The Silence of the Lambs

7 words: "I'm having an old friend for dinner." Stay crazy, Dr. Lecter.

#2: The Shawshank Redemption

Do I even need to say anything about this one?

#1: The Great Escape

The tunnels, the motorcycle, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, James Garner, and Charles Bronson. In a word: awesome.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Reel Injun (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge

Reel Injun is a documentary that is as much about the history of film generally (and changing social attitudes over the last hundred plus years) as it is about the depictions of aboriginals on film specifically. It's a thought provoking and very well-made film, though it does miss a couple of opportunities to push the discussion to the next level.

The film is divided into sections, each one dealing with a decade of film from the medium's invention to the present day (though the 1980s are skipped due to a dearth of westerns). The early sections are the most interesting in the film, particularly as it points out that the technology enters the world just as the American frontier essentially disappears, the territory having been settled. Native Americans, the ultimate victims of Manifest Destiny, were popular subjects for film in its infancy and Reel Injun very effectively argues that the immediacy of the medium allowed filmmakers to mythologize Native Americans and the concept of the Old West in a way that was more or less concurrent with the violent process of settlement (for example, the film Buffalo Dance is made just four years after the Wounded Knee Masacre of 1890).

The first sections are also interesting for their exploration of the way that depictions of aboriginal peoples changed around the mid-30s/early 40s. In the early decades, Native American characters were figures of fascination but not representative of danger. By the 1930s, when westerns really started to reach their stride, there was a shift in the general characterization of Native American characters, who became violent antagonists on film, often out to destroy the white establishment (John Ford's Stagecoach is cited here as being particularly harmful). It gets progressively worse from there and even when it begins to get better, as with the sympathetic depiction of Native Americans in films like Dances with Wolves, it's actually still harmful, just in a different way. Dances is a film that indulges in exoticization and though it's sold on the idea that it's about Native Americans, it's actually about a white guy who's coded as "good" by his ability to put race aside and live amongst "the other."

Guided by Neil Diamond, the co-director and also the film's narrator, Reel Injun effectively charts the way that social changes evolved alongside depictions of aboriginals on film. It has particular fun with the way that hippie culture appropriated many facets of the culture they thought of as Native American, but which was largely a false culture perpetuated by film. Reel Injun also goes to great lengths to show how this false culture, dictated by white filmmakers, informed actual aboriginal communities. The disconnect between real people and their fictional representatives is never more apparent than when Diamond talks about playing "Cowboys and Indians" when he was a kid and not understanding that he wasn't a cowboy.

For the most part, Reel Injun does an excellent job at charting the negative effects of depictions of aboriginals on film. However, it doesn't quite push itself as far as it could. For example, at one point Diamond states that he wants to see the reactions of children when they see an old school western and the film watches them as they watch Little Big Man. They appear rather disturbed by what they're seeing but the film doesn't follow-up or explore it any further. It shows us their faces as they watch the film but there's no discussion with them afterwards and it's problematic that we don't actually hear what they think about what they've just seen. It sort of undercuts the idea of the documentary giving voice to people who went without one for so long in popular culture.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ebert's Greats #4: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

* * * *

Director: Bob Rafelson
Starring: Jack Nicholson

Like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson is one of those actors who is both revered for his abilities and chastised for spending the past two or so decades coasting on former glory. It's easy to think of Nicholson as a parody of himself in movies like Anger Management or Something's Gotta Give, but when you see a movie like Five Easy Pieces, you realize that he's more than earned the right to coast.

In Five Easy Pieces Nicholson plays Robert Dupea, easily one of his best and most challenging characters. Born into a family of musicians, Dupea is a skilled classical pianist but works in an oil field. His complicated relationship with his family and what they represent, their legacy, colors many of his actions; to him, family is something that must be escaped. Unfortunately for him, his family is about to get bigger: his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black) is pregnant.

After finding out that his father has had a stroke, Dupea is talked into returning to the family home and even more reluctantly talked into taking Rayette along with him. Embarrased by how rough around the edges she is, Dupea leaves her in a motel while he returns to the family fold, where he meets his brother's fiancée, Catherine (Susan Anspach). Like him, Catherine is a pianist, and his attraction to her is immediate and reciprocated but their fling is cut short by Rayette's sudden arrival at the house. Dupea is irritated but only until Rayette becomes the subject of ridicule by other people in the house, at which point he becomes her fierce defender and protector. Eventually they leave together, but Dupea's continuing struggle between the intellectual world of his roots and the blue collar world where he's been residing makes it impossible from him to move forward.

Directed by Bob Rafelson and written by Rafelson and Carole Eastman, Five Easy Pieces is a film with a very secure place in pop culture thanks to Dupea's infamous lunch order, but it's so much more than that one scene or line of dialogue. It's a film that rings with authenticity, that draws its characters so solidly it's as if they stepped off the street and onto the screen. Dupea's struggle to belong (and his belief that he can never belong anywhere) is what makes him such a compelling character, a guy you root for even when he disappoints you. Nicholson's performance is masterful, ensuring that Dupea, who essentially adopts whatever persona best suits the company, nevertheless always seems consistent.

The screenplay is very strong, stacking memorable scene on top of memorable scene from beginning to end. The lunch scene is perhaps the best remembered, but the scene in which Dupea comes to Rayett'e defense in front of his family, and a monologue in which Dupea expresses his disappointment in himself to his father, who has been left unable to communicate by his stroke, are incredibly powerful. "I'm trying to imagine your half of this conversation," he tells his father, "My feeling is, if you could talk, we probably wouldn't be talking." His pain, his intensely negative view of himself, is beautifully expressed here and in the film's finale. The last scene (a "great last scene" if ever there was one) is remarkable both for its honesty and its daring and for confirming what we've come to know about Dupea. It's a strong ending to a strong film, one of the best from what is arguably the best decade for film.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Unsung Performances: Melanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds

Melanie Laurent's performance in Inglorious Basterds occupies that ambiguous place between "lead" and "supporting" that so often causes frustration at Oscar time. Given that her Shoshanna Dreyfus is the heart of the film, the character around whom the rest of the narrative is built, it feels natural to consider her the lead character. On the other hand, her somewhat limited screen time means that you might justifiably consider it a supporting performance. She was campaigned (properly, I think) as lead but given how tight last year's lead actress race was and how open the supporting category, this would have been one instance when I would have been quite happy to see a bit of category jockeying.

As Shoshanna, Laurent is tasked with grounding Inglorious Basterds, acting as a counterbalance to Brad Pitt's delightfully hammy Lt. Aldo Raine and Christoph Waltz's charmingly psychotic Col. Hans Landa. Those two characters, though well-played, are larger than life and just a little over-the-top. By contrast, Shoshanna is a much more human and identifiable character. The mission that Raine and his Basterds are carrying out drives much of the narrative, but Shoshanna is the story's true hero figure, the one whose success we root for hardest.

As I said at the top, her screen time here is fairly limited but when she does appear, it makes an incredible impact. There are a couple of key scenes that really demonstrate Laurent's skill as an actress: the first is the dining room scene in which Shoshanna comes face-to-face with Landa, the man who slaughtered her family but allowed her to escape. There is a sense that Landa is toying with her (credit for the success of this scene is obviously shared with the magnificent Waltz) but Shoshanna maintains her composure... right up until the second after Landa walks away. Her quick, intense collapse - a mixture of relief and fear - feels very real and mirrors the emotions of the audience watching her.

The other key scenes takes place towards the end and unfold concurrently. One is her pre-recorded speech to the gathered Nazi bigwigs when she declares herself "the face of Jewish vengeance." It's bittersweet because of course we know that her plan to exact revenge will also cost her her life, but Laurent sells that speech so thoroughly that you really can't think of it as anything but an absolute triumph. Meanwhile, up in the projection room, Shoshanna has to deal with an unwanted guest, making it necessary for Laurent to make a quick transition from playing Shoshanna to playing Shoshanna adopting a persona, flirting and seducing in order to distract Zoller and then take him out. When she dies in the process (killed by Zoller rather than in the explosion, as she'd planned), it provides the film with its emotional highpoint.

As Shoshanna, Laurent provides Inglorious Basterds with an emotional center that helps elevate it beyond cartoony violence and slick dialogue (not that those aren't enjoyable, just that those alone don't make a movie great). Laurent's performance is nuanced and incredibly skilled, making Shoshanna a character who resonates despite her minimal screen time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: Morning Glory (2010)

* * *

Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton

The trailer for Morning Glory really didn't do it any favours. I believe my exact thought after seeing it for the first time was, "Not even with a gun to my head;" it just made it seem very generic and instantly forgettable. However, when I saw that it had gained a number of glowing reviews (including one from Stephanie Zacharek, who never likes anything), I decided to give it a shot. I'm glad that I did because I liked it quite a bit and I hope that other people give it a chance, too - after all, this may very well be your only opportunity to hear Diane Keaton duet with 50 Cent on "Candy Shop."

Rachel McAdams stars as Becky, the perpetually sunny producer of a basic cable news show who loses her job and then gets an opportunity to try her hand as Executive Producer of Daybreak, the lowest rated morning news show on network tv. After quickly establishing herself amongst the staff at Daybreak by firing the male co-host, she sets out to replace him with her hero, Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), a grumpy but legendary newscaster currently under contract with the network but not working. She manages to get him on the show thanks to a loophole in his contract, but things get off to a rocky start. His prickly demeanor puts him at odds with Colleen Peck (Keaton), the female co-host, and his refusal to do anything but hard news makes Becky's job twice as difficult as it might otherwise be. Even worse, the show is on the verge of cancellation unless the ratings get a considerable boost.

All of that would probably provide enough story for a feature film (and, if that was the whole story, the film might actually be better, more focused), but there's also a romantic subplot shoehorned in. Shortly after landing her job Becky gets involved with Adam (Patrick Wilson), a producer at another show on the network. The attraction is instant but actually having a relationship proves to be difficult since Becky's job is not only her first priority but an all-consuming obsession.

Morning Glory is a film that survives largely on charm. Its construction is shoddy, relying on a few well-worn cliches and a surprising number of montages of McAdams walking or running as an upbeat song plays in the background in order to give the impression that the story is being pushed forward. Further, the romantic plot is problematic in that it's neither well-developed nor particularly compelling, and McAdams and Wilson don't have much in the way of chemistry. What ultimately saves the film is that McAdams is so great and has fantastic chemistry with everyone else, especially Ford. The story is much more concerned with Becky's relationship with Mike than her relationship with Adam - so much so that the big "break up" and "reconciliation" scenes that mark the story's crisis and resolution are between the former rather than the latter.

McAdams, as I said, is great and so is Ford. The film really plays to his strengths and a lot of the biggest laughs come simply from his reactions to the goings on around him. Keaton doesn't get a ton to do here but at least she gets to take a break from the hyper-neurotic character she's been stuck playing for pretty much the last decade. All in all, there's more good to the film than bad and though it's incredibly lightweight, it's still very enjoyable.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday's Top 5... World War I Movies

#5: The African Queen

A great movie for which Bogart won a much deserved Best Actor Oscar and one of those rare WWI set films that ends on a note of triumph rather than desolation. The making of the film proved to be just as adventurous as its plot and inspired a book by Katherine Hepburn and Clint Eastwood's 1990 film White Hunter, Black Heart.

#4: Paths of Glory

A ferociously angry film about the casual willingness of military higher-ups to sacrifice enlisted men, both for glory and for the purpose of saving face. Kirk Douglas delivers a great performance and director Stanley Kubrick is at the top of his game.

#3: All Quiet On The Western Front

A moving film beautifully adapted from the classic novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It's set for a remake in 2012, but the original set the bar pretty damn high.

#2: Grand Illusion

Jean Renoir's film is not just about war, it is also about how the war would help usher in massive social changes (both good and bad), marking the end of one way of life and the beginning of another.

#1: Lawrence of Arabia

Few films have ever had the scope and sweep of David Lean's epic about soldier, writer and eccentric T.E. Lawrence. The grandeur of this film is still utterly staggering and it remains one of the greatest films ever made.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Silk (2007)

* *

Director: Francois Girard
Starring: Michael Pitt, Keira Knightley

You win some, you lose some. Just two weeks ago I raved by Francois Girard's The Red Violin and now I'm writing, let's say, less enthusiastically about his follow-up, 2007's Silk. An airless period piece that travels from France to Japan and back again, it's a beautiful looking film that fails to live up to the potential of all the talent involved.

Set in the 19th Century, Silk follows Herve (Michael Pitt), a French military officer who longs to leave his position in order to marry Helene (Keira Knightley) and start a family. He's given such an opportunity by Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), an entrepreneur who has entered into the silk business and wants to hire Herve to go to Africa and obtain healthy silk worm eggs after European eggs become plagued by pébrine. Unfortunately the eggs from Africa are similarly affected and so Baldabiou sends Herve on a dangerous mission to Japan, where disease has never been known in silk worms, and which is entirely off-limits to foreigners. Herve is smuggled into Japan, makes the trade in a remote village, and finds himself intrigued by the concubine of the baron Jubei (Koji Yakusho). When he returns to France he marries Helene and the village enters into a period of great prosperity thanks to the eggs he's brought back.

Some time later he returns to Japan for more eggs and becomes more deeply enthralled with the concubine, who sends him home with a note she's written to him. He goes to Paris to have the note translated into English by a Japanese-born Madam, who advises him to forget its contents and live a happy life with his wife. His desire is too strong, however, and he returns to Japan despite the danger presented by the Meiji Restoration. The village where he bought the eggs has been razed, its occupants have fled. He returns to France heartbroken and his futile journey brings financial ruin to the village. Eventually he begins to recover from his experiences and even comes up with a way to keep the villagers employed, but the mysteries of his sojourns to Japan continue to haunt him.

To start with the good stuff, the cinematography by Alain Dostie is gorgeous, particularly in the scenes which takes place in Japan and during Herve's long journeys to get there. This is an exquisitely photographed film but, unfortunately, not a particularly good one. It's stiff and overly formal and, for a film about tortured love, oddly passionless. The emotions at play are so muted that they barely register, which makes it difficult to care about Herve's plight or the great revelation he comes to at the film's end.

As far as the acting goes, only Molina really emerges from this unscathed, finding a way to bring some vitality to his role. Neither Pitt nor Knightley - both of whom I generally like - are at the top of their game here. As the conflicted hero Pitt does little more than whisper and gaze longingly into the distance in order to convey Herve's profound sense of loss and Knightley (usually so good in period pieces) just seems adrift in her admittedly thankless role. It's disappointing to see so many talented people work together and come up so short, but Silk just doesn't quite measure up.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review: Infernal Affairs (2002)

* * *

Director: Andrew Lau, Alan Mak
Starring: Tony Leung, Andy Lau

I finally saw it! Infernal Affairs is a film that's been on my "to see" list for... uh, ever and now I've finally seen it. And now for some sacrilege: I liked the American remake better. Perhaps given the prestige of The Departed that's not so horrible, but given how fiercely I tend to dislike the idea of English-language remakes of foreign films, it feels a little strange to admit. Anyway...

As with The Departed, Infernal Affairs is about two men. One is Lau (Andy Lau), a police officer who is really a mole for a gangster named Sam (Eric Tsang Chi-Wai). The other is Yan (Tony Leung), a cop working undercover to take down Sam's gang from the inside. Yan has been undercover for 10 years, so long that there remains only one person in the department - Superintendent Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) - who knows his true identity; so long that sometimes he feels more like a criminal than a cop.

Sam knows that there is a spy in his organization and the police come to realize that there is one within their ranks as well. In a fortuitous turn of events, Lau is promoted to Interal Affairs and given the task of finding the double agent. The promotion, along with the continued pressure from Sam to find the rat, makes him increasingly desperate to end his double life. As the war between the police and the gang escalates, he gets his chance to choose a side - but only if he can keep Yan from discovering the truth and blowing his cover.

Many plot points, and indeed scenes, were carried over when Infernal Affairs was adapted as The Departed, though the two films are ultimately fairly different. The original doesn't have quite the same level of urgency that Scorsese gave the remake and it occasionally slips into melodrama (mostly due to the score whenever there's a death scene/flashback montage), but there are things that I think Infernal Affairs actually does better. One of those things is that it doesn't feature a shared love interest for the two protagonists, opting instead for a love interest for each. On the one hand this means that there isn't really room for a major female role in the story (this one being about an hour shorter than the remake), but on the other hand I found it a little too coincidental that the two characters in The Departed, in addition to all the other ways their lives were intersecting, would also find themselves involved with the same woman.

The film also does a wonderful job at building tension for the scenes of cat-and-mouse where Yan and Lau try to carry out their official duties while at the same time trying to keep their unofficial bosses apprised of what's going on. As the two divided men, Leung and Lau are excellent, their layered and very well-tuned performances help give the film a feeling of robustness despite its lean running time. All in all, Infernal Affairs is a solid and engrossing film, I just didn't find that it reached the transcendence of The Departed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Munich (2005)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Geoffrey Rush

"You'll do what the terrorists do." Any doubt you might have had regarding the position the film would take to the story of the Israeli government's retaliation against the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics is pretty much set to rest in that one line, spoken by a Mossad official. That position made Munich controversial in certain circles when it was released, but the questions it raises shouldn't be ignored.

The film begins with the events at Munich, when members of the Palestinian militant group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage in an attempt to force Israel to release 234 "political prisoners." The scene at Munich is pure chaos and results in all the athletes and most of the terrorists being killed. The film does not elaborate a great deal on the events at Munich, but rather allows it to haunt the periphery of the story (for a more comprehensive discussion of just what a gong show the whole thing was I recommend Kevin Macdonald's documentary One Day in September), helping to drive the protagonist towards madness through frequent flashbacks. There is a sense of obligation for him to avenge those lost men that never goes away or lessens no matter how his feelings about his revenge mission start to change.

That man is Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), the leader of a top secret squad of Israeli assassins out to kill 11 men connected to Black September. His team includes Steve (Daniel Craig), Hans (Hans Zischler), Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), and in Paris he makes contact with Louis (Mathieu Amalric), an informant who puts him on the track of the men they're hunting. With the first few targets Avner is more or less content to accept the government's word that these are justified killings, but as time goes on he begins to question that and to ask for proof. He also becomes angry as he realizes that they're killing terrorists only to have them be replaced by worse terrorists. This isn't a solution after all, it's just an escalation.

Given the politically fraught subject matter, Munich makes for a provocative film and director Steven Spielberg (working from a screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) doesn't shy away from the big questions or from taking a solid stance. It's important to Avner that he only kill people directly involved with Black September and not collect any collateral damage (though this become less of an issue for him as time goes on). On one mission he realizes that the daughter of one of the targets has gone back to the house and he rushes to stop the bomb from being detonated so that she won't be killed. Since the film is from the same director who brought us Schindler's List, it can't be meaningless that the little girl is wearing a red sweater in this scene. Blood for blood is still blood, murder for murder is still murder.

Spielberg tells the story in an efficient and engrossing way. The scenes in which the team carries out its assassinations (and attempted assassinations) are incredibly well-crafted, Spielberg at the absolute top of his game. The ending is a bit limp compared to what comes before and that's really the only issue that I have with the film (well, that and the fact that I think Marie-Josée Croze is wasted in a minor role). Bana, who has never really made much of an impression on me, delivers a great performance that expertly navigates the moral dilemma and competing emotions and loyalties that Avner is facing. Overall this is a very strong effort from one of our greatest living filmmakers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ebert's Greats #3: Wings of Desire (1987)

* * * *

Director: Wim Wenders
Starring: Bruno Ganz

Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire unfolds like a dream, emphasizing mood over story and flowing at a slow, easy pace. It's a film you'll likely hate if you dislike "art" movies, and you'll probably be left frustrated if you go into it with only City of Angels, the Nicolas Cage/Meg Ryan starring remake, as your point of reference. But this poetic masterpiece is a deeply rewarding film if you're in the right frame of mind for it.

Set in West Berlin, Wings of Desire follows two angels: Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander). The angels are there to observe people, to listen to their thoughts, to bear witness. They come together throughout the course of their travels to share what they've seen and heard and to reminisce about the history they've watched unfold. In one scene they recall watching the river find its bed, seeing the arrival of the first humans, watching as society took its shape. They have been content in their roles since the beginning of time, but Damiel starts to want more; he wants to experience life rather than simply observe it.

Damiel's revelation is brought about by two people. The first is Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeeze artist whose loneliness (and loveliness) touches Damiel. The second is Peter Falk, playing himself - or, rather "himself." In Wenders' vision Falk is still the man who played Columbo, but he's also a former angel who can sense the presence of Damiel and Cassiel though, like other humans, cannot see them. He speaks to them, encouraging them to attain physicality so that he can see them and once Damiel does so, he gives him a couple of tips about existing in the human world.

The narrative threads involving Falk and Marion provide the film with shape, giving the story a destination (though its ending is "to be continued" and the story picks up in 1993's Faraway, So Close!), but it really isn't the kind of movie that's about what "happens." Yes, we want Damiel to find Marion and live happily ever after, but we'd also be happy to float along as we have been, following Damiel and Cassiel from subject to subject. Wenders submerges us into this world, taking us from vignette to vignette, showing us bits and pieces of the lives of people in West Berlin, and creates a viewing experience that is truly entrancing.

Not everything in Wings of Desire works - there's a scene between Falk and Dommartin that is strangely stilted and sticks out amongst the other scenes in the film which are so carefully and beautifully crafted and executed. I also think that in general Falk's presence is a bit distracting and somewhat tempers the film's spell. In spite of that, however, Wings of Desire is still a magical film experience that I most highly recommend.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Road Trip Movies

#5: Little Miss Sunshine

Crazy grandpa, suicidal uncle, fighting parents, and an entirely inappropriate dance routine. Just remember: it's the journey, not the destination.

#4: Midnight Run

Few action comedies manage to be effective both as action movies and comedies, but Midnight Run pulls it off. Plus, unlike the comedies De Niro has been making since the late 90s, his character here isn't merely a parody of his best-known characters.

#3: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Endlessly watchable, this one boasts a terrific comic duo in Steve Martin and John Camdy and is about as perfect as comedies come.

#2: Easy Rider

This counterculture classic was one of the harbingers of the New Hollywood phase and remains a touchstone film today.

#1: It Happened One Night

One of my favourite movies ever. Capra. Gable. Colbert. Perfection.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Canadian Film Review: The Timekeeper (2009)

* * *

Director: Louis Belanger
Starring: Craig Olejnik, Stephen McHattie, Roy Dupuis

There's something about The Timekeeper that feels quintessentially Canadian. I can't quite put my finger on it, but maybe it's the "hey, no hard feelings" tone of the ending. Given what comes before - including murder and what is essentially slavery - it's an odd note to end on. Don't get me wrong, it's a good movie; it's just a little strange.

Set in the early 1960s, The Timekeeper follows the fortunes of Martin Bishop (Craig Olejnik), who heads to the Northwest Territories and takes a job working for a railroad that's being laid down. Martin will be taking over as timekeeper, keeping track of the number of hours the men work - or so he thinks. He's quickly informed by the foreman, Fisk (Stephen McHattie), that he's not expected to keep accurate time but simply to record the amount of time Fisk decides that the men deserve to be paid for. This means that they might work 17 hours but will only be given credit for 12, something which does not sit well with Martin. Nor does it sit well with him when he discovers that several men have been exiled from the camp and forced to fend for themselves in the woods, fighting for the food scraps the camp tosses away.

Martin takes a stand against Fisk which results in him being tossed from the camp to join "the garbage eaters." Though initially hostile towards him - another exile means another person fighting for scant resources - the exiles, including the former timekeeper Grease (Julian Richings) and mildly psychotic Scully (Roy Dupuis), eventually join forces with him, first sabotaging the rail line and then making a break for it, trying to escape from the remote region where the camp is located and make it back to civilization. Escape, however, is futile because Fisk is determined to track them down, bring them back to camp, and punish them for their insubordination.

The story is set up along the lines of a David and Goliath narrative, with the lone, brave crusader standing up against a seemingly insurmountable force of corruption, and there aren't a ton of surprises in terms of the way the plot develops (though there are a few). The cast, however, is very strong and their performances, and the clashes of personality that take place throughout the film, make it very compelling. As Martin, Olejnik manages to be earnest without being insufferable and McHattie makes for a great villain. Dupuis doesn't get much to do, but he manages nevertheless to make an impression.

Directed by Louis Belanger, who co-wrote with Lorraine Dufour, The Timekeeper ends up being as much about the scenery as about the characters. Belanger explores the landscape from multiple angles, making it at once a place of freedom, cut off from the rules and laws of society, and the walls of a prison which keep the exiles under Fisk's thumb. The setting is at once a place of startling beauty and unspeakable savagery, the work being done there a signal of progress, but progress achieved through draconian means. Nature is at once Martin and Fisk and the film's exploration of this duality helps keep the tension high and the story moving along. I don't know that the film quite achieves what it sets out to, but it's still an interesting and very well-made endeavor.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: The Stranger (1946)

* * *

Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young

Writing about The Lady From Shanghai yesterday prompted me to rewatch another of Orson Welles' films, this one a taut crime thriller about Nazis. When I first saw The Stranger a few years ago it didn't make much of an impression on me, but I liked it a lot more on rewatch. If nothing else, it adds a new dimension to Welles' clock speech from The Third Man.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Mr. Wilson, an investigator with the United Nations War Crimes Commission on the hunt for Nazi fugitives, one in particular. He's searching for Franz Kindler (Welles), a top level Nazi (of whom no photographs exist) who has eluded the authorities and assumed a new identity in the United States. Posing as Professor Charles Rankin, Kindler has settled into a nice life in Conneticut and even married Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.

Wilson follows the trail to Connecticut and begins to connect the dots, however he can't find any hard evidence to back up his suspicions. Mary might be able to help the investigation, she being the only person who can connect Kindler/Rankin to a man named Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former Nazi associate, but she refuses to believe that her husband isn't who he claims to be. By the time she does start to realize that there's something to what Wilson has been telling her, Kindler/Rankin is pretty desperate and she may well become his next victim.

The Stranger unfolds with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine and Welles does a terrific job at building tension and creating memorable set pieces. The big climactic scene, which takes place in a clock tower is memorable and, in a word, awesome. Welles makes for a great villain in this film and, as a director and one of the writers, crafts a really terrific death scene for himself. I don't want to spoil it, but it's really perfect - Welles is a great filmmaker for a lot of reasons, but he's particularly good when it comes to providing satisfying payoffs.

On its release in 1946 The Stranger proved to be Welles' most financially successful film, though it was also reportedly one of his least favourite of his films. It's true that it is not as ambitious as his best remembered films - in fact, it's a pretty conventional thriller in a lot of ways - but it is, nevertheless, quite good. Although, I do wonder about one thing: before Wilson knows for sure that Rankin is Kindler they have a conversation about Karl Marx in which Rankin/Kindler, with a hint of aggression, says dismissively, "He wasn't a German, he was a Jew." It isn't until much later that Wilson has a lightbulb moment and realizes that something is very amiss about what Rankin/Kindler said. Even if 1946, would a comment like that have passed without immediate notice? By a guy hunting down Nazis? Seems like ignorance for the convenience of the plot to me and a bit lazy.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Great Last Scenes: The Lady From Shanghai

Year: 1947
Director: Orson Welles
Great Because...: The final sequence, which takes place in an amusement park fun house, is surreal, containing one brilliant, beautiful shot after another. The film itself is deeply flawed but the finale is a thing of warped perfection.

The plot of The Lady From Shanghai is a bit complicated but, in short, it involves Michael O'Hara who signs on to pilot a yacht owned by Arthur and Elsa Bannister as they journey from New York to San Fransisco. During the voyage Michael is approached by Arthur's law partner, George Grisby, who asks for his help faking his own death so that he can collect the insurance money. Michael agrees, planning to use the $5,000 Grisby offers him to run off with Elsa, but things of course go horribly awry. For one thing, Grisby and Elsa were actually working together and trying to set Michael up for Arthur's murder. For another, Grisby is actually killed and all the evidence that Michael helped plant back when he was helping Grisby fake his death has now come back to haunt him and he ends up on trial for murder.

Michael escapes from custody during the trial and runs off with Elsa, hiding out in Chinatown. There he discovers the extent of her betrayal and is knocked out. When he awakens he's in the fun house and after stumbling his way into the hall of mirrors, he's finally able to confront Elsa. However by this time Arthur has caught up with them with the intention of killing them and, suffice it to say, a whole bunch of mirrors and two angry people with guns is a bad combination.

Through the hall of mirrors scene Welles is able to visually express the layers that the story (and film noir in general, really) is playing with. It's layer upon layer of deception, layer upon layer of maneuvering, layer upon layer of identity, and in this final scene all these layers are at once stripped away, leaving the characters and the situation bared to their basic essences, and emphasized through the multiplicity and overlapping of images. Further, by using distorted images and framing shots so that they're slightly askew, Welles leaves the audience feeling just as out-of-step and off balance as Michael feels.

Laying aside the technical brilliance of the sequence, the ending is also strong from simply from a character stand point. Arthur and Elsa are both rendered fatal wounds, Arthur taunting Elsa as he dies, Elsa trying in vain to crawl away from the scene of the crime before collapsing and begging Michael for help. Like most noir heroes, however, Michael has had enough and just keeps walking. It's a great, strong ending, see for yourself:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (2009)

* * *

Director: Daniel Alfredson
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nyqvist

It's over! The first round of films based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium series comes to an end, which means it's time to say goodbye to Noomi Rapace's version of Lisbeth Salander. All in all, I think The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest is a decent end to the series, not really in the same league as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but an improvement over The Girl Who Played With Fire.

This one picks up where the last left off, with Lisbeth (Rapace) and Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov) being rushed to the hospital to treat the critical injuries they've sustained at each other's hands. Lisbeth is quickly charged with attempted murder and The Section, the secret government agency that has been working with Zalachenko since his defection from the Soviet Union, works to cover his tracks and keep their existence under wraps. Zalachenko is less than willing to cooperate, however, which quickly leads to his death and an attempt to kill Lisbeth. Failing this attempt, The Section's plan is to have Lisbeth committed and placed in the "care" of Dr. Telleborian (Anders Ahlbom), her childhood psychiatrist, and discredit and/or kill Mikael Blomkvist (Mikael Nyqvist) in order to keep him from revealing all their secrets.

Mikael's plan is, of course, to blow The Section out of the water and reveal the extent to which Lisbeth has been victimized by the state. He has plenty of documents, obtained through Lisbeth and one of her hacker pals, and enlists his sister, Annika (Annika Hallin), to represent Lisbeth at her trial. His persistence on Libseth's behalf makes him a target, but also makes the other members of the Millennium staff targets and his tunnel vision ultimately leads to issues with his business partner and sometime lover Erika (Lena Endre), who begins to believe that he doesn't care who gets hurt as long as he can vindicate Lisbeth. You can see her point but, at the same time, you can understand where Mikael's coming from given that Lisbeth is the kind of character who would rather to suffer the worst of consequences than go to the trouble of helping anyone to help her. The story's primary concern is with giving the bad guys their comeupance, but it is also about Lisbeth, so damaged and bitter, learning how to trust people.

Like its immediate predecessor, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest doesn't have the ambition of the first film or the book series, but I found that less problematic here than I did in The Girl Who Played With Fire. I think this is partly because Hornet's Nest was my least favourite of the books, and therefore I wasn't expecting too much from the film version, and also because this film isn't as violent as the other two. Part of the problem I had with the second film is that I felt it removed the violence from its context, reducing the events to violence for the sake of violence. Hornet's Nest doesn't have that problem, which is very much to its credit.

The screenplay by Ulf Ryberg trims a lot of fat from the novel, allowing for the film to unfold at a quick and engaging pace. This particular part of the trilogy has an uphill battle from the outset simply because its most dynamic element, Lisbeth, is out of commission and relegated to the sidelines for much of the plot. Ryberg and director Daniel Alfredson manage to put the pieces together in such a way that Lisbeth's absence isn't so glaring and they give Rapace enough to work with that it doesn't feel like the film is wasting her presence.

The film ends on a quiet note - a scene between Lisbeth and Mikael that acknowledges their complicated history and suggests a possible future - that brings a sense of relief to the viewer. After everything the characters have been through over the course of three films, it's nice to think that they may finally get to know the joy of an uneventful weekend at home.