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Archive for the ‘Film Hidden Gems’ Category

Hidden Gems: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet

Posted by film On September - 7 - 2010

Hamlet
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996

Hamlet is probably William Shakespeare’s most revered play and has been the basis for the most film adaptations of all his work. This version, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is one of three such film adaptations to be released in my lifetime, the other two being the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli version staring Mel Gibson and the modernized 2000 version staring Ethan Hawke. With the Blu-Ray release of Branagh’s version, I thought that I would like to spend some time to talk about what makes this is my preferred adaptation of the play. Read the rest of this entry »

Julie & Julia Reviewed

Posted by film On August - 24 - 2009

Julie_JuliaJulie & Julia
Directed by Nora Ephron
Columbia Pictures, 2009

By Brian Last

Often in television, films, and real life, people bond through food. If not through cooking together and realizing you are in love with this person who is cramming sauce down your throat, it’s over a nice meal with friends or family. Food definitely brings people together, but rarely does it inspire. Well, for one Julie Powell (Amy Adams), food changes her life. In this charming and inspired film, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep (as Julia Child) star opposite each other — literally at opposite ends of a fifty year gap. And in spite of the fact that they don’t appear in a scene together, their parallel stories coalesce into a creation as rich as any of Child’s. Read the rest of this entry »

Hidden Gems: Interim

Posted by film On June - 27 - 2008

Editor’s Exposition: Though still relatively anonymous, Stan Brakhage (1933 – 2003) was one of the most influential post-war filmmakers in America, utilizing a number of different styles and techniques to create hundreds of experimental pieces. Among his works, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) was in retrospect his most important; without a crew, he filmed the water birth of his daughter, in full graphic detail. Such unflinching intimacy shocked audiences, but paved the way for a more enlightened view of the physical process of birth, particularly for men who were at the time usually kept out of the delivery room.

Brakhage’s influence can be seen strongly today, particularly in the D.I.Y. and viral videos that saturate the modern internet. Enjoy this essay on his first film, Interim (1952).

-J. Skinner

Oh to Be Young: Thoughts On Interim

by Jaclyn L. Katz

Stan Brakhage speaks a bold dialect of film language in his directorial debut, Interim (1952). The experimental yet romantic narrative is expressed without a word of spoken dialogue between the two main characters, a nameless teenage boy and girl. In lieu of a traditional script, the filmmaker chooses to convey his ideas on adolescent emotion through camera movement, editing, sound, and softly expressive acting. Like the film’s title – which means ‘temporary’ or ‘in between’ – the film is short and bittersweet for both the viewer and the inhabitants of the on-screen world. The quality of the film is shy and understated, its naivety making it a charming piece, void of pretension. It oozes realism as a result of its simple form and authentic nature.

The narrative is a representation of the film’s title, depicting an interim, or, the meantime. It represents what young people do during their spare time, carefully telling a story of wandering, observing, and the search for excitement in the midst of adolescence. The film itself is a product of such a time; Brakhage started to piece together this quaint film at 19 years of age. With no intention of making money or a political statement, he took two years to finish what is ultimately a smear of young thoughts upon pieces of celluloid. While discussing Interim in an interview that took place in 1967 Brakhage stated that, “With the clarity that is real presumption in the young, I said: ‘Well, I’m an artist and I’m going to make a film’” Thus began the start of an oeuvre that would eventually include 373 films.

The beginning of the 24 minute film is captured without music, but with natural ambient noise. A young man is smoking a cigarette and staring at a winding staircase that leads to a grassy plain below the freeway he is leaning over. A shaky camera follows the boy’s gaze, tilting slowly and caressing the vertical length of the staircase. The wooden staircase is also a motif that appears at the end of the narrative, too, maintaining shape and structure.

The sound in the film is divergent, either diegetic and natural, or classical music that is quite obviously not being heard in the on-screen world. As previously mentioned though, the audience is not privy to hearing the words being exchanged between the male and female actors. Instead, the viewer sees signs such as ‘Street Closed’ and ‘Do Not Park Here’ that the characters casually bypass and ignore. This mindless breaking of the rules enforces the theme of the film, the empowerment and entitlement of youth with hearty appetites for sedition.

The audience sees the boy and a lovely girl stroll side-by-side, talking and ogling each other, the director capturing some very voyeuristic takes of them in long shots, with the pillars of the overpass surrounding them and from behind trees. Eventually the boy and girl sit on a landing, resting their hands on a rock that separates them. With nothing to distract them but their jittery, lusting minds, the two make eye contact. The young pair is uneasy with the intimacy, and each shakes off the moment, shown through a long shot. The cautious emotion in the scene is a statement about their unrushed approach to their days, and of course, to each other. The dramatic close-up of their hands touching is also in a way of mocking the emotional flood of pubescent feelings that teenagers take too seriously. Although this moment may be remembered for the rest of the characters’ lives, it could also be a fleeting hour that one night of experimenting with drugs will erase from their memories, maiming it and letting it sink into the satchels of adolescent memories. It is possible that they are having mere interim feelings.

In an interview about how he financed Interim, Brakhage explains the thrifty approach he took to making his first film. “And here’s the financial side of it: we got some war-surplus out-dated Dupont gun-camera film in fifty foot spools. And we had to sit in the dark with pencils and unreel in onto spools and make a splice in the dark so we could get hundred foot rolls. And we then borrowed several cameras; also we rented a camera for a couple of weekends”. The multiple cameras result in differing visuals throughout the film. Interim is interesting to watch because the film stock changes along with the amount of light able to reach it, so the images are skewed. This traditional technique is as fancy and fascinating as it might be if every single frame in a film had noticeably different settings, costume changes or computer manipulations. The creative spirit Brakhage maintained while shooting and editing this film is incredible to observe. Mentioning particular hairs and particles that dance around on the image from being stuck to the old celluloid is perfunctory. Not only might they have been unintentional, but over the past fifty years the film may have been meddled with by outsiders.

Still though, they add to the fragmentary charm of the film. Although Brakhage’s very first film is haggard and amateur, it remains charming. Interim is meant to paint youth as a triumph, revealing that in-between period in life when things seem completely complicated, yet are actually relatively simple. The film in itself is a picture of the director’s youth and budding artistry. At 19 years old he had nothing but creativity and fervour for film coursing through his veins. This short film is a captivating look at the blooming vision of one of the premier American experimental filmmakers of the 20th century.

Tales of Earthsea Hidden Gem’d. Kinda

Posted by film On June - 24 - 2008

Tales of Earthsea
Directed By Goro Miyazaki 
Studio Ghibli, 2006

By Rachel Kahn

It’s amazing that Hayao Miyazaki’s son somehow acquired rights to Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea trilogy (now in five parts). I’m  not sure how this happened, since the last movie made from it was so bad that Le Guin disowned it entirely. Ghibli must have wooed her with the most scenic clips from Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro

That said, if there is one thing this movie accomplishes effortlessly, it is the pure magic of the landscape, and the character designs look like the work of someone who had at least skimmed the books, and key details that stood out to me as a reader manifest on screen. If you haven’t read the books, you will find it easy to tell characters apart, if not much else about them, but you will still be confused because none of the wizards look like Gandalf.

You will also be confused by the hundreds of little references throughout the film to concepts, places, and people that are explained thoroughly in the novels but are given almost no context in the film. This is because, for some reason or another, Miyazaki has chosen to adapt the third book in the series, not the first. 

I can think of many good reasons for this: the third book has a strong moral, the third book has a larger conflict, and the third book has more dragons. However, the third book relies on two full novels of lead-up and backstory, and there was no room in the already-rushed plot to fill in many of those gaps. If you’re the kind of viewer who is okay with the occasional non-sequitur in your movies, though, you should be alright. The basics of the plot are explained clearly enough, and the villains are stereotyped enough, that you should be able to follow the conflict. And thankfully for the slower viewers, the movie wraps up with a Ghibli-patented exposition speech where every character gets a chance to tell you the moral of the story. Courtesy of Leguin, of course, it’s a very heady moral, but, regardless, everyone spells it out in their own special way in the last half hour of the film.

As far as the plot goes, it’s a pretty standard good-wizard-versus-evil-wizard set-up: a rogue prince, an eccentric little girl, some evil guards, and a dragon-powered deus ex machina. Leguin’s tweaks on the fairy-tale plot do show up in the film, but that’s largely where the non-sequiturs come in, and this is what makes me sad. Those familiar with anime will write off much of the unexplained in this film as cultural artifacts, but there are fantastic plot moments left untold behind many of the monsters, dreamscapes, and cameos, and these blank spots leave the plot of the film feeling weak and superficial at the best. Subtle story moments end up recounted bluntly and didactically by characters who have minimal dialogue otherwise, and much of the exposition time is wasted on cliché pursuit scenes and action sequences. From a studio that is known for movies that build worlds, Ghibli fails to set the scene much beyond painting the pretty backgrounds.

As a lover of the books, this film was a let down, and as a follower of Ghibli, this film was a let down; but if you come to it expecting a pretty fairy tale, you might almost be satisfied.

Hidden Gems: Woody Allen

Posted by film On May - 2 - 2008

That odd fucker sure has made a lot of movies.

By Leo K. Moncel, Doug Nayler, and Ian Passy

(Editor’s note: It has come to our attention that there has been some confusion between the work of Woody Allen and that of Woody Harrelson in the construction of this article. While this is regrettable, deadlines are deadlines, so we have been forced to publish this article with all errors uncorrected).

Woody Allen place as a key figure and contributor to the American film industry is without question. His charming southern drawl, overcoming his apparent inability to jump, descending from a proud lineage of assassins, a fondness of hemp and hemp related products, and the occasional nude workout session with the Wilson family all reinforce the almost universally recognized importance of Allen’s work. He also made, like, fifty films as well. And a lot of them were pretty good too. We all know Annie Hall, and Manhattan, and Deconstructing Harry, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, and especially Cheers. However, consider for a moment, Woody Allen films that have been overlooked by most. When your body of work is as extensive as Allen’s and this is bound to happen, and every so often it is worth it to take a look and re-examine some hidden gems. With this intention in mind, MONDOFilm presents three lesser-known films written and directed by Allen worth a second look.

Sweet and LowdownSweet and Lowdown
Sony Pictures Classics 1999

A particularly well done, but often forgotten, Woody Allen film is Sweet and Lowdown, released in 1999. While the film received relatively high critical praise and even had two Oscar nods, unfortunately, all of about the population of Sarnia ever actually got around to seeing this film. It’s a shame because although, I willingly admit I am not the biggest Woody Allen fan, I find this film particularly enjoyable.

It’s the story of Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a fictitious 1930s jazz guitarist and his struggles, both internal and external. Utilizing a retrospective fake documentary style the story follows Ray through a Fellini-esque arc as he moves throughout the American landscape trying to find his way. Ray eventually meets a mute named Hattie (Samantha Morgan) who soon becomes the Gelsomina to Ray’s Zampanò a la Fellini’s La Strada (1954). In this homage to one of his favourite filmmakers, Allen pits the brutish and crass Ray against the sweet and unassuming Hattie and it is the relationship between these two characters makes the film.

While I think Allen is a talented filmmaker, seeing and hearing him annoys the hell out of me, and in Sweet and Lowdown, he graciously forgoes the lead role in order to focus on more important matters. Penn excels as Emmet, the obnoxious, self-involved, self conscious, neurotic, abrasive, and emotionally retarded world’s second best guitarist with women troubles. Emmet’s character lies, drinks, gambles, steals, shoots rats, uses and abuses the people around him, and cries whenever he hears the music of Django Reinheardt — the one guitarist more talented than him. The music of Django consumes him, and Django’s very existence terrifies him. Essentially, Penn plays a prototypical Woody Allen character, but he does it well without ever becoming too grating. He is a frustrating, yet interesting character; extremely talented, but also extremely flawed. Much like Fellini’s Zampanò, he is a character you hate to hate.

— Ian Passy

Zelig
Warner Bros. Pictures 1983

The mockumentary format is overused today, and sometimes used as an excuse for sloppy filmmaking (sorry, For Your Consideration), so it’s a genuine delight to come back to Woody Allen’s sharp and hilarious Zelig. Brilliantly recreating all the tropes of an historical documentary (archival footage with commentary from scholars and aged family descendants) the film introduces us to the incredible story of Mr. Leonard Zelig.

Zelig (Woody Allen) was discovered at dinner party in 1929 by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald observed Zelig hobnobbing with millionaires and found him moments later standing in the kitchen ranting about the tyranny of the idle rich. Zelig had completely transformed his speech, his mannerisms, and, most significantly, his facial features and body type. Later, Zelig learns that he has no control over his ability. Rather, he is like a chameleon, transforming into the likeness of any males in his vicinity. News of Mr. Zelig’s bizarre ability travels the United States and this human chameleon becomes a national sensation. Zelig even gets his own fad dance at the height of the hysteria. After stints touring as an oddity, he comes into the care of Doctor Eudora Fletcher, who sees Zelig’s ability as a condition and seeks to cure him. Fletcher and Zelig begin to fall for each other, but is their love strong enough to overcome the freakish circumstances?

The hilarity of Zelig is in its ability to handle incredible absurdity with a totally straight face. The tone of the archival documentary is held so consistently that the desire to “buy in” to what’s happening on screen becomes tremendous. The sense of time and place that is sketched on screen is so sharp, so specific, it makes the perfect backdrop for the madcap story. What the film ultimately does is present a perfect caricature of the late 1920’s — here in this land ruled by the zany fad, the greatest oddity of all is paradoxically the greatest conformist in America’s huge, wacky melting pot.

— Leo Moncel

Interiors
United Artists 1978

Ask anyone even vaguely familiar with Allen’s work for his most familiar works, and you will immediately be told Annie Hall and Manhattan. Released in 1977 and 1979, respectively, these two works cemented Allen’s legacy as a major American filmmaker, and planted his neurotic, witty comedy into the collective consciousness. Allen’s wry observations and skits dissecting relationship hangups proved wildly popular with both films, a popularity that has made them iconic today. However, in between Allen released Interiors, a very dark drama about a family no more comfortable with each other than they are with themselves. At the time audiences greeted the film with an overwhelming sense of disappointment, expecting more sex jokes and less crippling insecurity and suicide attempts. However, hindsight has proven much kinder to the film, finally proving influential to some of America’s strongest modern filmmakers.

Interiors follows the lives of Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), artistically driven but at a loss to explain how, and her sister Renata (Diane Keaton), a successful writer, as they watch their father (E.G. Marshall) divorce their frigid, meticulous, and obsessive mother (Geraldine Page) and deal with the turmoil inherent therein. The resulting film is a sharp, insightful, and squirmingly honest look at very smart people who can’t understand why they can’t hold their lives together more effectively.

In recent years the film has begun to develop some very high profile fans. One of the most notable of these in Noah Baumbach, whose films The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding have drawn from a similar cast of affluent New York intellectual elite undermined by pervasive insecurity. Anyone seeing Interiors for the first time with a familiarity with Baumbach’s work can easily see the influences both formal and thematic.

— Doug Nayler

Bug: A Hidden Gem

Posted by film On January - 29 - 2008

BugBug
Directed by William Friedkin
Lions Gate, 2007

By Jess Skinner

There is no great sense of ambiguity in most horror movies. The audience, in the end, wants to see what is supposed to be frightening them, unobstructed. How many went to Cloverfield just to see the monster? Exactly. The monster in William Friedkin’s Bug (2007) is more concept than visible creature; it is forever under the skin of the two main characters, who claim to see an invasion of aphids but find no support among those in their immediate social perimeters.

It is a story about the abandonment of reality, of two people falling apart, seemingly of their own accord. We begin with Agnes (Ashley Judd), living in a motel room on the eve of her husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) returning from jail. That night, her only friend (Lynn Collins) introduces her to Peter (Michael Shannon), a stoic drifter who claims to be seeking nothing but companionship. The audience’s impression of this fellow may vary from eye to eye; he obviously hides shady deeds but seems physically harmless. These people are drawn to each other. Agnes seeks attention without judgment, Peter wishes for someone to tell his story to. As he tells it: he is an Army guinea pig on the run, the patient of a particular doctor, which seems a fabrication until said doctor shows up at their door and makes no attempt to appear benevolent. At mid-point the characters have disintegrated into a savage paranoia, self-consciously over-the-top. They are convinced bugs have invaded their room, and eventually coat everything in blue tinfoil. The confrontation with the enigmatic Dr. Sweet (Brian O’Byrne) is a perfect sequence, as its tense-beyond-belief execution belies other more ridiculous segments. Watching the showdown between these three characters, I see the actor’s recognition and comprehension of just how fucking mad things have gotten. In their great performances, they keep the black humour and the horror in balance.

In conjunction with a highly idiosyncratic script, Judd gives her character a particular arc. When the film begins, Agnes is wounded by the past – an abusive marriage and a missing child – and perhaps waiting for something to take the worst of life away. She is smart and strong, but up against a wall of emotional turmoil. Insanity, in many ways, provides that kind of safe harbour. Despite the strange gallows humour in the story, the performers approach the material with relatively straight faces. This decision allows Judd to give some of the best screen acting I have seen this decade, with conviction and dedication giving a sense of pathos to the absurdity. Peter is probably the only person in however many lonely nights who has shown genuine interest in Agnes. Their attraction also makes sense, even in its final stages of co-dependant alienation.

Although based on a stage play, Bug is conscious of (and perhaps even exploits) the drawbacks of theatricality. The reality of being in a single setting for 100 minutes is that the outside world must be avoided. There is little effort to illustrate the “big picture,” as the point is that to these characters it is becoming less and less important. Here is horror of the interior: physical and mental. Here is a film that, unlike many in its genre, does not require suspension of disbelief to be effective. It is inarguably daring, scary, subversive, and a provocation of the withdrawn – a cautionary tale for hermits.

What makes Bug such a disturbing display is its microcosmic staging – Agnes’s abandonment of reality mirrors any societal de-evolution you could care to name. The result is a general flushing of logic, reason, and stability. The characters’ psychosis is a self-conscious mishmash of fantasies – encroaching government bodies, human experiments, invading insects. At no point is there any palpable indication that all of this is not just going on in the characters’ minds. The physical and emotional violence, therefore, is self-inflicted. Or is it? Who is this Dr. Sweet, and what is he hiding? And what of the noise of helicopters?

My Holiday Favourite

Posted by film On December - 25 - 2007

Gremlins (1984)

By Jess Skinner

Ponder on whatever supremely unfortunate Christmas gift you’ve received in your life, and take pleasure in the probable truth that it never tried to claw your face off. This cannot be said for Zach Galligan’s holiday, circa 1984, which resulted in nothing less than vicious monsters running amok in his once-idyllic town. This is Gremlins, a movie beloved by many but analysed probably only by me. I find it one of the most curious of movies, one of those pop-culture artefacts that seem designed for nobody; in this case too grotesque for children, too cartoonish for adults. I love it for precisely this reason; it is a self-conscious middle finger to any potential mass market. But it was successful anyway, proving once again that moviegoers are sometimes smarter than I think they are.

Gremlins takes place during Christmas but has little to do with the holiday, instead cheerfully exploiting it as a counterpart to the mayhem of the creatures. This is a particular kind of mayhem, as unlike a lot of movie monsters, these ones are conscious and articulate in their destruction. I particularly enjoy the scene in which they drive a snowplow into a house. Or when they ambush a mall Santa and (presumably) slay him. So inappropriate, and yet sublime. Another reason why I should never have children: I’d probably make them watch this annually.

Favourite Films of 2007:

10. Juno
09. Ratatouille
08. Ils (Them)
07. Paris, je t’aime
06. Rescue Dawn
05. Once
04. Michael Clayton
03. Zodiac
02. No Country for Old Men
01. I’m Not There

Review — 3:10 to Yuma

Posted by film On October - 16 - 2007

3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold
Lionsgate Films 2007

By Doug Nayler

Johnny Cash is completely responsible for 3:10 to Yuma. For many years, director James Mangold had been toting a script from production company to production company to remake a 1957 western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. Nobody wanted it. “Are you crazy?” the studios said. “We’re going to lose so much money on a western. Nobody goes to westerns!” And, with no contrary examples more recent than 1994, Mangold had no other option than to give up and move onto some other projects. However, one of those projects Mangold ended up doing was the Academy-Award winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. After that, suddenly anything Mangold wanted to do was a great idea. And those exact same studios were suddenly lining up to throw money at 3:10 to Yuma. So the legend goes, anyway, such is the business.

The 3:10 to Yuma is the train murder and bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is to be sent off on to Yuma prison. Following a big, flashy robbery of his twenty-somethingth stagecoach Ben decides to push his luck by sneaking into the town the posse has just left from. Ben laughs, has some drinks, and finds a lady companion (in what is easily one of the weirdest seduction scenes I’ve seen in quite awhile). However, Ben is soon captured in part thanks to his being distracted by one-footed sharecropper Dan Evans (Christian Bale). Dan has had a rough time recently, with his landowner trying to drive him off the farm to sell the land to the railway. Dan needs to find some way to get some cash to get the family through the next few months. And when the opportunity suddenly arises to transport Wade to the Yuma train, Dan takes it. However, Ben, Dan and everyone else know that his gang is coming back for him.

The central focus of this film is the strange relationship between Wade and Dan, and that was a very good decision to make. Crowe and Bale are both ridiculously talented actors, and both carry the sort of quiet intensity that works very well in a western. The film’s most interesting moments come from the times when Ben and Dan are trying to get a handle on one another. Though their goals and values are completely opposed, there’s something that the two seem to truly begin to respect about one another. The complexity of this developing relationship is the through-line of the film and always what the viewer is eager to keep following.

The tragedy of the film, however, is that it’s rather schizophrenic. Because set against this very interesting, grounded central relationship is a series of very flashy, modernized action sequences. Perhaps I’m just a little hyper-sensitive when it comes to gunfights in westerns. Does it not seem over the top to have a man riding a horse be shot right in the bag of dynamite he’s carrying and thus explode mid-canter? Did the filmmakers really have to put that much effort into finding out a way to make a horse explode? You can’t have a high-speed chase on horseback, so it’s probably best to not even try. And yet all the gunfight sequences are shot in a very slick, high-octane manner that doesn’t really jive with the rest of the film. What makes this discontinuity so frustrating is the fact that it undercuts the more engaging aspects of the film. And it does this so consistently that about two thirds of the way through the viewer stops expecting the film’s strengths to come out on top. So in the end 3:10 to Yuma is not a great film, but a film with flashes of greatness that eventually get drowned out. So if you’re okay with that, I’d say it’s worth checking out.

Hidden Gem — In the Mood for Love

Posted by film On July - 31 - 2007

Fa yeung nin ma (In the Mood for Love)
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Block 2 Pictures, 2000

By Miles Baker

There is really only one word to describe this movie: Pretty. Sure, I could talk about how the movie is sexy and heart-felt and sad, but I’m going to go with pretty. The combination of cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee, with the production design by William Chang, with the beautiful actors, with Wong Kar Wai’s guiding influence, results in a film that is so beautiful it’s impossible to criticize.

Set in 1950s Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love is about the relationship that grows between Mrs. Chen (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chan (Tony Leung), neighbours who realize that their respective spouses are cheating on them. What follows is a series of conversations about marriage, slow motion walking shots, and dresses — Maggie Cheung wears about 40 different, completely beautiful dresses.

What I love about Wong Kar Wai’s style is that at any given moment he is — at least in terms of exposition — ignoring almost half of his frame, instead filling it with scrumptious, colour-coordinated sets. He ever so artfully uses soft or out-of focus elements (sets, props, characters) to balance his frame and to wonderfully frustrate my expectations for what I should be looking at. That, and oh… the slow motion. You know how action films use slow motion to let you savour an explosion or an awesome kick? Well, Wong Kar Wai does the exact same thing with sadness. He lets you savour the sad by using slow motion while his characters walk from one end of the frame to another — it enhances that feeling of the slowness of grief, when life seems to be going in slow motion.

So crack open a bottle of red wine and enjoy a subtle, but more importantly pretty, movie.

Hidden Gem — Sexy Beast

Posted by film On May - 7 - 2007

Sexy Beast
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
FilmFour, 2000

By Jessie Skinner

The scene most important to appreciating Sexy Beast involves a report from Don (Ben Kingsley) to Gal (Ray Winstone) about Teddy (Ian McShane) and his happening upon a lucrative opportunity. The event is shown in flashback, but has already been delivered to several different people beforehand. Gal is just the last in a long line. The anecdote is relayed several times over, giving the impression that those making the film must know they tread over cliches. At this point, the flashback is a somewhat banal narrative device. The joy and value of the film is that it is smart enough to walk the line between faithfulness to the crime genre and self-parody; Glazer adopts the device, but uses it with a sense of irony. The limey heist picture of old is mixed with the imagination of the modern independents; the figure of Gal’s nightmares is a rabbit with a machine gun, after all.

But really his nightmare is Don Logan, a monstrous character who sweats unhappiness and agitation; spews hostility at the world. Don probably doesn’t want to be in Spain, giving messages to the “retired” gangster Gal. He probably doesn’t want to look at all this man has accumulated, including a beautiful wife. He lacks power over what is probably a very shitty life, but he has mental strength over lesser men. Even a local boy notices the evil inside of him.

Don’s job is to get Gal to say “yes!” to one of those jobs only experienced gangsters can do, but the heist is not really the point. The point is to watch these two men display how much their primal will can be used to get what they want. Gal lives a new, comfortable life after excusing himself from the crime world. It’s not unreasonable to think that Don would like out, too, but his lack of an outlet adds fuel to one of modern cinema’s most volatile temperaments.

Kingsley’s performance is already remembered beyond the film itself. It is one of total abandon; the veteran actor readies every part of his form for the role. Essentially, he is playing a man who lives for intimidation, striking fear even while stationary. The film’s funniest early scene involves Gal and his friends sitting uncomfortably in silence after Don has just arrived; he is a wolf in a room full of sheep, and as they crack the silence with idle conversation he repeatedly throws it back at them.

Glazer’s past as a music video director is evident throughout. His shorter works were simple and surreal, such as a hapless fellow being chased down by a mad automobile (Radiohead’s “Karma Police”). This willingness to experiment, coupled with the restraint of a professional, is what allows him to elevate Sexy Beast above the clutter of violent gangster cinema that surrounds it. It is one of the most completely satisfying British films of this decade so far.

Besides its aesthetic novelty, the film also succeeds with another quality absent from similar fare: the presence of the feminine. Gal’s wife Deedee (Amanda Redman) is not simply physically attractive to him, she is alluring in the truest sense. A former porn star, she gave up her ugly profession some time ago, and wishes the same for her husband. If Don is a magnet pulling the man towards his old life, towards thievery, then she is trying to force him in the opposite direction — the life of comfort and civility that eludes typically hopeless criminals. There is a point being made here. When we are of two minds concerning our moral path, we should not underestimate either one, which becomes clear upon the fate of the wrathful Don Logan.

Hidden Gem — Laker Cake

Posted by film On March - 12 - 2007

Layer Cake
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Sony Pictures, 2004

By Miles Baker

Posted March 12th, 2007

Last Tuesday I watched Layer Cake. Rachel bought it for me to foster the affection induced by Casino Royale and the hunky-ness of Daniel Craig. This seemed like the next logical progression in my man-crush — and it was.

Layer Cake follows Craig as Mr. X, the never-named drug dealer at the centre of a lot of shit. That shit is pretty complicated — Layer Cake is an intricate gangster story loaded with double-crosses and secret plans, as any good crime story should be. Essentially, Mr. X is brought into a bad drug deal and now has to get out of it while keeping his head and shoulders —both literally and figuratively. It’s a solid crime story that should have most viewers engaged from beginning to end. There are twists, but not so many that you’re tired, angry, and frustrated with the story by the end.

What I like about Craig’s Mr. X is that he isn’t your typical drug dealer in a film. He doesn’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about the nature of evil and drugs and his role in it all — he just sells drugs to make money, no biggie. He’s also uncomfortable around guns. He doesn’t like them and freaks out when he’s first handed one. This is a character that is good at selling drugs, but he isn’t a killer or a violent man — unlike Craig as Bond. Who knew the two weren’t mutually exclusive? He remains, however, a stellar example of a man wearing a suit to the full potential of hotness.

Craig is also helped out by a cast of likable gangsters like George Harris as Morty and Colm Meaney as Gene. Any film with Colm Meaney is going to win my favour from the start. Apart from his long career as Miles O’Brian on Star Trek (yes, the only Star Trek character to share my name), his role as Jimmy Rabbitte Sr. (even if he wasn’t called that) in the film adaptations of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy have an impenetrable place in my heart. Craig, Harris, and Meaney’s relationships are compelling and organically change throughout the film, which keeps people like me — who will never deal cocaine — attached to the film.

Even if you don’t like crime stories, this film is worth watching because of the awesome scene transitions. While they do nothing to advance any plot or theme, they are really cool. I guess they advance the theme that this is a cool movie and you’re cool to be watching it. Cool.

Review — The Good German

Posted by film On February - 18 - 2007

The Good German
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006

By Johanna Craig

There are two ways to bring a novel successfully to the screen. One method is to remain true to the novel, thus pleasing the fans of the book. Alternatively, filmmakers can go in a completely new direction in order to bring in new fans. The Good German, based on Joseph Kanon’s mystery novel of the same name, accomplishes neither of these goals.

Kanon’s novel is a portrait of a broken city. He portrays a place that has become a microcosm of conflict on both an individual and global scale. He grapples with the cost of survival in war, the question of accountability for the Holocaust, and the Allied powers’ imminent descent into the Cold War, by presenting the reader with characters who are struggling with each of these issues themselves. The mystery provides an intriguing storyline that gradually brings everything together and leaves the reader in a constant state of suspense. The result is an entertaining story, but more importantly, a rare perspective on the aftermath of war from the losing side.

In the film, the ageing but still studly George Clooney plays Jake Geismar, an American journalist who has come to post-WWII Berlin to report on the Potsdam Conference and to seek out Lena Brandt, his lover from before the war. Brandt, played by Cate Blanchett, had worked for Geismar and had been married to genius scientist Emil Brandt – who may or may not have had Nazi affiliations – but her husband was conveniently killed during the war (or was he?). Most likely in an effort to make her film character more interesting, and to compact the many original storylines, screenwriter Paul Attanasio melds two of the book’s characters into Blanchett’s Brandt. This completely changes the story’s ending, which would be fine if not for the fact that the screenplay still leaves the depths of the main characters largely unexplored.

One exception is Tobey Maguire’s short-lived Patrick Tully, who presents himself as a fascinating and horrifying mix between apple-cheeked all-American lad and brutal, sadistic soldier. Maguire proves to be the most interesting display of moral ambiguity in the entire movie. Overall, however, the weight of the moral and political struggles that made Kanon’s novel so intriguing is lost in translation to the big screen. Rather, these issues appear as more of an afterthought to the director’s stylistic choices.

What stylistic choices, you ask? Well, in an interesting venture, Soderbergh decided to film The Good German in the tradition of 40s style cinema, à la Casablanca. He does this to perfection, complete with an urgent score, courtesy of Thomas Newman; crescendos at every important discovery; side-wipe scene changes; and highlighting important pieces of paper to direct the audience’s attention. The colourless, shadowy atmosphere gives the movie an ominous, stereotypically historical feel (yes, World War II happened in black and white), and the sets and costumes are impeccable.

Unfortunately, all of this attention to aesthetic detail seems to have distracted the moviemakers from other, more important aspects of the film, like character development. As a result – as much as I was rooting for them – Clooney and Blanchett’s performances left me feeling utterly unmoved. The pace of the film moves too quickly to properly flesh out their roles, and when the most vital discovery about Blanchett’s character is finally revealed, the movie comes to an abrupt end.

On the bright side, The Good German makes for a good drinking game:

Every time Clooney flicks a cigarette into the street – drink once,

Every time Clooney gets the crap beaten out of him – drink twice,

Every time there’s a side wipe – drink thrice,

If someone says the ending seems like it was stolen from Casablanca (or maybe it’s an homage…?) – drink up!

TAG CLOUD

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