Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Shakespeare on Film: Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet"

This is a revised version of a review I posted on another blog in the summer of 2010

Four years after directing and starring in Henry V (1944), Laurence Olivier turned his directorial to what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, Hamlet. As in Henry V, Olivier both directs and stars in the film as the title character. While the character of Henry V presents his own challenges, the character of Hamlet, as well as the play itself, is one of the most challenging for actors and directors. Olivier manages both as an actor and a director, to craft what may be the finest screen adaptation of Hamlet.
It’s certainly one of the most condensed and efficient Hamlets on screen. Even at two and a half hours, the film glides through the action of the play. Gone are the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as Fortinbras. The “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” and “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquies are also cut. Terrence Rafferty points out in his essay for the Criterion Collection release of Hamlet that criticisms were directed at the elimination of the aforementioned elements. Olivier responded to these criticisms by stating that his film was “a study in Hamlet.” I believe this means Olivier wasn’t concerned with having everything from the play be in the film. He was mostly interested in exploring the basic ideas within the play and the character of Hamlet

Hamlet is at its core a psychological drama.  By being “a study in Hamlet” it by default becomes a study in the character of Hamlet. The study is so intimate that Olivier speaks some of Hamlet’s dialogue in voiceover. The “O that this too too sullied flesh” is delivered mostly in voiceover, with Olivier making a few exclamations. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy is also delivered partly in voiceover. There’s a part of me that wishes Olivier had delivered his first soliloquy without voiceover since it’s the introduction to the character. I would have liked to see a full performance. Still, I cannot deny the effectiveness of the technique. It helps makes the film cinematic and capturing the psychological intimacy for which it strives. I think this technique works best for the scene where Hamlet is about to Kill Claudius. It makes Hamlet would be thinking rather than speaking in this moment. Thankfully Olivier does not overuse the voiceover like Roman Polanski did in his Macbeth, which is not a knock against that film.

Laurence Olivier is a theatrical performer yet he also has control of his performances. Even his Othello started out more restrained before building up into a jealous rage. As Hamlet, Olivier is eloquent and understands that despite Hamlet’s sense of theatricality he is an inward character. The problem with the rest of the cast is that while they are all quite good, I can’t quite remember them as clearly as I would like. For me, the most memorable was Jean Simmons. She makes a wonderful Ophelia, very believable as someone with whom a man could fall in love. I found Terrence Morgan as Laertes a little too formal at first but when he returns near the end of the film I thought it was a better performance, more passionate. Basil Sydney doesn’t try to make Claudius evil. He plays him just as a man. Ironically, the killing of his brother seems less evil than when he tries to kill Hamlet. What I find most impressive about Eileen Herlie’s performance is that she was thirteen years Olivier’s junior yet has the aura of an older woman. She makes a strong choice, probably under Olivier’s direction, to make clear that Gertrude is suspicious of Claudius. It makes the drinking of the cup a stronger final action. If she is suspicious she sacrifices herself to expose Claudius.

Hamlet lends itself well to a cinematic interpretation. With its ghost story elements, a royal castle as its location, sword fighting, and intense psychological drama, a director has quite a bit to experiment with using the visual medium.  As a visual representation of the play, it’s evocative of the chilling ghost story element of the play and of the gloomy, vast yet claustrophobic castle of Denmark. Olivier successfully does give the audience a chill with his depiction of the ghost. In the closet scene, Olivier gives us a point of view shot for the ghost. This shot suggests that the ghost is real in this scene and is a unique way to scare the audience. Olivier moves his camera through the castle smoothly, creating an atmosphere of suspense and, as Rafferty describes, the feeling that the eye of God is watching the events of the play. This interpretation is similar to Akira Kurosawa’s view on his film Ran, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. 
One shot I like is the “balcony” shot that comes before Hamlet’s first soliloquy. It is both cinematic and echoes how an audience member may view the Olivier if this was on stage. Of course, Olivier does make it cinematic by using a crane shot to come down to the “stage” so to speak, then cutting to a close-up of Hamlet.  Olivier calls attention to how the action would look from a balcony then breaks the illusion by bringing the audience closer with the crane shot and then with the close-up
I also like the echoing shots of Ophelia from behind, looking at Hamlet in the dinner area and the shot of Hamlet from behind, looking at Ophelia as she walks away. In the middle is a medium shot of Ophelia looking at Hamlet, interrupted from behind by her father Polonius. These moments couldn’t quite be captured on stage the way they are on film. Particularly since Hamlet’s first soliloquy is followed by the dialogue between him and Horatio about the ghost, whereas in the film this conversation comes after the first scene with Ophelia.

The black and white photography is quite striking as well. Olivier’s film version of Henry V was what one could call a Technicolor epic. Its colour photography was appropriate for its upbeat tone (It was made in part to support British troops). I don’t think colour photography would have worked for Hamlet at this time, so I’m glad black and white was used.

I think the only part where Olivier goes wrong is the opening narration, in which Olivier says “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind. I think this misses a larger point about the character. I believe Hamlet knows what he wants to do, which is to avenge his father. The “making up his mind” part comes from not knowing how to do so or even if Claudius is guilty. Also, I think the “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy should have been kept. I just feel there’s something too essential about the soliloquy for it to be taken out. It displays how Hamlet is angry at himself for not acting against his uncle. The soliloquy is also a great lead up to Hamlet’s plan concerning the play.
Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet stands as a terrific example of how to do Shakespeare on screen. Visually and acting wise Oliver makes Shakespeare in to exciting cinema.

The Look on Their Faces: Some Thoughts on "The Prestige"

This is a revised version of a review I posted on another blog in the summer of 2010- Spoilers Follow

I think Christopher Nolan will always be closely associated with the Batman mythology due to Batman Begins, its sequel The Dark Knight, and of course the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. This isn’t a bad thing; the first two films are two of the finest superhero films of recent memory. Nevertheless, I feel The Prestige, along with Memento and Inception, are the films that I believe epitomize his interests as a director. Nolan likes narratives which work as puzzles, both literally and existentially.  Some dismiss his films as gimmicks and nothing more. I disagree.  Once the films reveal more about themselves, the viewer can find genuine depth, thematically and emotionally. In this review I want to focus on The Prestige.  This was Nolan’s first film since Memento where he was fascinated with creating a puzzle narrative. His previous two films were Insomnia, the remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, and of course Batman Begins, his biggest and most ambitious film at the time. The Prestige came out the year after Batman Begins. It was a good film to do before embarking on another Batman adventure. In some respects, despite the intelligence and craftsmanship of Batman Begins, Nolan needed to do a film which stood apart from any franchise expectations, to remind audiences who he was as a director.
The Prestige is an elegant and atmospheric film. It puts us into what is both an authentic and yet slightly stylized version of the Victorian era. I had a similar reaction to what critic A.O Scott felt about Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  He said the film captured the time period not exactly as it was, but as a heightened version of itself. Nolan and Wally Pfister, his cinematographer since Memento, create a look that immediately draws the audience into this world. You want to look at everything in detail, particularly since the opening line of the film is “Are you watching closely?”

 Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are the two magicians at the heart of the film. They represent the kind of protagonists which inhabit Nolan’s films. They are obsessive in regard to their profession and occupy a morally grey area. Jackman and Bale give very strong performances, creating two unique individuals that are always compelling. The last time I watched the film, I found myself more interested in the secret behind Borden’s identity, which is a twin brother- and his life with Sarah (Rebecca Hall), particularly with Sarah’s knowledge of when Borden actually means that he loves her and when he doesn’t.  The brother who does not mean “I love you” is the brother who eventually falls in love with Olivia (Scarlett Johansson). Sarah’s intuition works as a clue: both plot-wise and emotionally.  On repeat viewings these scenes carry even more emotional weight than they do the first time one views the film.
Borden seems to be the protagonist of the film. Unfortunately, the film seems to decide on this a little too late.  I want to focus on a moment that is simultaneously a little too obvious yet supports Borden is the protagonist. It’s when Olivia gives Angier Borden’s diary. She wants to get it back to Borden’s shop before he knows it’s gone but Angier needs to figure out how he does the transported man. Olivia tells him it won’t bring his wife back, to which Angier responds, “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his secret.” That moment seems a little bit too obvious, almost as if the film was trying too hard to say Angier had become an obsessive. Still, Jackman’s look of regret at his words saves the moment from being too shallow. It supports that Borden is the protagonist. Borden’s love for his daughter and Sarah, and the other brother’s regret for Sarah’s death, contrasted with this moment with Angier, emphasizes the ultimate difference between the two men. By the end of the film Borden can still deeply care for the people in his life, whereas Angier’s obsession with being the better magician trumps his anger towards Borden for possibly killing his wife. Angier’s speech at the end of the film about the look of wonder on people’s faces when an illusion is performed is one of the film’s finest moments because it both humanizes Angier and shows how much he has lost his humanity. The only people in his life who matter are the audience.

Another reason why Borden is the protagonist of the film is that, as some have pointed out, his trick does not cheat, and Angier’s does. Borden’s trick involves using an actual twin, whereas Angier goes outside the normal constrictions of doing illusions by using Tesla’s (David Bowie) machine. Many view the science fiction element of the film as a cheat; yet they may not consider the idea that the audience is supposed to take this a cheat, to see that while Angier is a great showman, Borden is the better illusionist. I also feel that Tesla and his machine are introduced early enough for the audience to have the seed planted that something beyond the realm of traditional Victorian era magic is afoot.  Moreover, if one takes the film too literally as a magic trick, one that has to have a rational explanation, then one misses the larger theme of science as a new form of magic. I also feel the sci-fi element actually goes well with the Victorian era setting; the film can possibly be seen as homage to H.G Wells or Jules Verne.
I think if the film had focused more on the themes of science and the Tesla character then it would have been an even stronger film, one that is clearer about the relation between scientific magic and illusionist magic. As it stands, The Prestige is still an effective mood piece, and on repeated viewings it becomes more than just a fascinating puzzle. It’s themes of obsession in terms of being the greatest magician relate to the issues of how far people go to be famous today. This, coupled with its horrific view of how science can fuel these obsessions, makes The Prestige a very contemporary film.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Some Thoughts on "Overrated"

If James Lipton of Inside The Actor's Studio were to ask me what my least favourite word was, I'm pretty sure I'd say "overrated." Everytime I see or hear the word, it just kills me inside. The fact that it's become such an overused word is what makes me hate it. When a word like "overrated," is overused, it doesn't lose it's meaning but the meaning does lose its power and its relevance. If every movie is "overrated" then what's the big deal? It's the same thing as calling a movie "contrived." SO many movies have been labelled with that word that it doesn't seem to matter if a movie is contrived or not. In fact, I think almost every movie is contrived- but that's a different discussion.

"Overrated" has become so overused that it's even been directed at film which haven't been universally praised. I've seen Hanna, Joe Wright's film about a teenage assassin played by Saorise Ronan, on a few "overrated" lists. This is surprising because while the film got mostly good reviews from critics, it didn't strike me as a film they loved with an intense passion. It had a pretty quiet release in April of last year. And it only started being talked about again at the end of the year when it appeared on some ten best lists, as well as the "overrated" lists.

My favourite film of 2010, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, also appeared on an "overrated" list.. Personally, I'd put that on my "underrated" list. I can't see why the film was overrated. While it wasn't a total critcal disaster, with Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper and Peter Travers giving it very positive reviews, Michael Phillips and A.O Scott both thought it didn't work, as did others. It seems that the only reason why Hanna and Shutter Island were labelled overrated was because some people thought that anyone liking either film was "overrating" it. If that is the case, there's a certain arrogance to this logic. If you didn't like a film then you didn't like it. That some people did doesn't make it overrated.

Even when a film does get universal praise I still think it's a little arrogant to say a film is "overrated." It suggests this person knows the truth about the film while others don't. It fails to consider the notion that film viewing is a lot of the time based on an emotional response as much as an intellectual response. I think the reason while many films are "overrated" is because critics or general audiences have a strong emotional reaction. It not's that they can't or don't think. It just means that whether or not the film is the greatest thing since sliced bread, the emotional reaction to the elements that really worked become the focus rather than what didn't work. Not everything about Inception was the most groundbreaking or amazing thing but certain scenes and moments, the shifting gravity fight, slow motion van drop, Paris street folding and the infamous ending, are what stick with the audience afterwards and are what really counts.

This is why "overrated" also strikes me as a somewhat reductive phrase. It almost wants in to reign in any emotional reaction or praise on part of the viewer. Again, every time people start liking a movie, it becomes overrated. Why can't a movie just be well recieved instead of being made in to the bad guy, being told it has no business being liked. The word also suggests a mechanical reaction to film viewing, as if a movie has to be "properly" rated. It's almost impossible to do this because people are going to have wildly different reactions to a film- things they liked, things they disliked. Two people can love a movie for different reasons.

I think my main gripe with the word "overrated" is that it doesn't really say anything about the actual film, it's themes, it's characters, it's actors or direction. It almost falls under "padding the word count." It's not direct or to the point about the film.

It's award season, which means this word is going around a lot, particularly in regards to The Artist. I think this has to do with people seeing the film after hype has been built up. Unfortunately, it's hard for anyone, including me, to go in cold to movies due to the hype, either positive or negative, which sometimes surround them. I sympathize with people who use the word but I hope one day people get bored using it. There's so much more exciting and interesting things to say about a film.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

I'll Give You Shelter From The Storm: "Take Shelter"

There's a moment late in to Take Shelter where the character of Curtis says "There's a storm coming." This phrase has been countless times in films and television but by the time it occurs in this film, it's an extremely compelling moment especially since the character has been so bottled up until this point. In fact the whole movie is similar to this moment in that it takes things which may seem like old hat- a family breaking a part, visions of an apocalypse and descent in to mental illness, and finds what makes themes like this so achingly human.

What I admired most about Take Shelter is how despite it dealing with this intensely dramatic idea about a man dreaming abut the end of the world, the film never loses its footing in the real world. Writer/director Jeff Nichols wants us to feel something like this could be happening right now. He achieves this effect by making it ambiguous whether Curtis is actually experiencing premonitions or if he is suffering from mental illness. We learn later in the movie that Curtis' mother suffers from schizophrenia. Either scenario is terrifying. Either there is an apocalypse coming, and everything he loves will be destroyed- or he is just hallucinating these things and he'll still lose everything he loves as he descends further in to madness. For Nichols, and by extension Curtis, mental illness is a kind of apocalypse.

Not only does Nichols instill this ambiguity in us but in Curits as well. He himself does not know if he is going insane or if the world will end. This makes Curtis a more complex character and allows us to be on the same page as him, doubting and then believing. Michael Shannon plays Curtis and he has a great face which is jut fascinating to watch. It's perfect for Curtis because it can suggest madness while still having a self restraint. This communicates Curtis' inner struggle and his attempt to keep this struggle from his wife Samantha and his daughter. Shannon plays this dilemma without words and when he finally has the outburst where he tells his co-workers that a storm is coming, it almost knock you over. Shannon deserved an Ocar nomination for his performance.

Jessica Chastain, who appeared in several films in 2011 gives an equally subltle and moving performance as Samantha. As in The Tree of Life, inhabits the kind of mother and wife we all want. Her and Shannon create a husband and wife relationship which feels really lived in. Her plea to her husband near the end of the film to open the shelter door, that "this is what it means to stay with us," brings the movie to its emotional climax soley with her voice.

I like the idea of Curtis and Samantha having a deaf daughter. It adds texture to their relationship and pays off right at the end of the film.

While Nichols' visual style is understated, it's very purposeful in the way he frames actors and holds shots for a certain amount of time. I liked how he visualized the dreams as if they real, then slowly making us realize we were in a dream.

For me, Take Shelter, while it was about the broad notion of a apocalypse, was partly about  post 9/11 paranoia. How do I protect my family against something which can come at any moment?

When Curtis and his family go in to the storm shelter near the end of the film, it was hard for me not to think of films like Hitchcock's The Birds or M. Night Shaymalan's Signs. I wish more of the film was spent down there. I have a mixed reaction to the ending. I'm not sure if takes away some of the ambiguity of the film or adds more layers to the film.
Either way, Take Shelter  is an immensely affecting film and one of the finest films of 2011.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Some Thoughts on The Oscar Nominations


On Monday night I posted some half-hearted predictions for the Oscar nominations. I rightly predicted Gary Oldman for Best Actor but missed out on Terrence Malick and The Tree of Life. I was hoping he and the film would be nominated and I felt he had a chance. Ultimately I put in David Fincher instead of him where I should have just gone for Malick. Here's a rundown of what I thought:

Some (quasi) surprises
While I knew who Demian Bechir was I didn't think he would make it in to Best Actor ahead of Leonardo DiCaprio or Michael Fassbender. Looking back at it, Bechir's SAG nomination was a strong indicator of his support from his fellow actors, which take up a large chunk of the Academy.

I almost put in Rooney Mara ahead of Glenn Close but I felt Close pretty much had a nomination locked. Mara ultimately knocked off Tilda Swinton. I think Mara can be considered the ingenue (I hate that word) nominee for the year, in the fashion of Jennifer Lawrence or Ellen Page.

Bigger Surprises
I thought Albert Brooks was a lock for his performance in Drive but he became this year's Andrew Garfield for me. Brooks lost out on a SAG nomination, which I guess was a foreshadowing of things to come.

While I thought Max von Sydow would have a decent shot at getting in for Best Supporting Actor, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close didn't seem to have enough steam to become a major player. Despite it's poor reviews, it scored a Best Picture nomination but broke director Stephen Daldry's nomination streak, being nominated for his last three films.

What I'm Happy About
While I haven't seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, It's really great to see Gary Oldman score his first Best Actor nomination.

I'm happy to see Terrence Malick recognized for his unique and personal The Tree of Life. Whether you love it or hate it, it provoked a reaction in people and will probably be the film that most people go back and watch, and talk about, long after this year's ceremony is over.

I really liked Bridesmaids and, while early on,  a nomination for Melissa McCarthy didn't seem like it would happen, she had enough support to make it in to Best Supporting Actress. McCarthy is really funny and human in the film and while she probably won't win, this gives more of a boost to McCarthy's career.

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a very charming and poignant film, one Allen's most enjoyable of his recent films. While he probably won't attend the ceremony, it's nice to see him represented.

What I'm Sad About
While I knew it wouldn't happen, it's unfortunate that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance in 50/50 never truly caught on. Even Will Reiser's autobiographical script didn't make the cut

While I've enjoyed some of  Leonardo DiCaprio's performances more than his work in J. Edgar, I would have like to have seen him in Best Actor.

Not only was Albert Brooks ignored for Drive, so was Ryan Gosling for his subtle but affecting performance as the man only known as Driver. Heck, he was ignored for Crazy Stupid Love. and The Ides of March as well.

Who I Think Will Win
If Michel Hazanavicious wins the DGA then I think he'll probably win the Oscar since history shows that whoever wins that award goes on to win Best Director- and if he wins the Oscar The Artist will probably win Best Picture. I can't see Hazanavicious just winning Best Director, particularly ahead of some of these other guys. I could see Martin Scorsese winning Best Director and Best Picture going to The Artist.

George Clooney seems to be the front runner for his fine work in The Descendants but could Gary Oldman take it? If it was any other year, it'd probably be his. Same goes for Brad Pitt in what could be considered a career best performance in Moneyball. If it wasn't for Clooney, I think Pitt would win. Between Clooney and Pitt, I'd probably vote for Pitt.

It seems to be a race between Meryl Streep and Viola Davis. I haven't seen either performance yet but something tells me I'd vote for Davis. If Streep wins the SAG award, I think the Oscar will go to her.

I think Christopher Plummer will win the Oscar. In another year it could be Nick Nolte or Max von Sydow.

Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, both nominated for The Help, could split the vote. This would open the door for the three other nominees. If Glenn Close isn't going to win for Albert Nobbs then I can't see Janet McTeer winning. Melissa McCarthy could go all the way. If there's enough love for The Artist then Berenice Bejo would get support. Still, Spencer seems to be the frontrunner and I think she'll probably win.

Only a month until the big show!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Final Ocar Predictions

Best Picture
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
The Help
The Descendants
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
War Horse

Best Director
Woody Allen- Midnight in Paris
David Fincher- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Michel Hazanavicius- The Artist
Alexander Payne- The Descendants
Martin Scorsese- Hugo

Best Actor
George Clooney- The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio- J. Edgar
Jean DuJardin- The Artist
Brad Pitt- Moneyball
Gary Oldman- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Best Actress
Glenn Close- Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis- The Help
Meryl Streep- The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton- We Need to Talk About Kevin
Michelle Williams- My Week With Marilyn

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh- My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks- Drive
Jonah Hill- Moneyball
Nick Nolte- Warrior
Christopher Plummer- Beginners

Best Supporting Actor
Berenice Bejo- The Artist
Jessica Chastain- The Help
Melissa McCarthy- Bridesmaids
Octavia Spencer- The Help
Shailene Woodley- The Descendants

Best Original Screenplay
Woody Allen- Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius- The Artist
Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig- Bridesmaids
Tom McCarthy- Win Win
Will Reiser- 50/50

Best Adapted Screenplay
John Logan- Hugo
Alexander Payne- The Descendants
Tate Taylor- The Help
Srephen Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin- Moneyball
Stephen Zaillian- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Friday, 13 January 2012

Midnight Madness: "Midnight in Paris"

Warning: Spoilers Below

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a slyly funny and charmy, as well as almost achingly poignant and nostalgic film. It's this combination that makes the film, despite its small scale, quite meaningful.

The film opens, appropriately, with images of Paris. As the images go by, the day progresses, until we reach...midnight. This opening will no doubt remind Allen fans of his 1979 film Manhattan, which opened with gorgeous black and white images of New York City. The difference between the two openings is that while Manhattan's opening was almost overwhelming and romanticized, Midnight in Paris's opening is rather low key. The images, in colour, as the rest of the film, are romantic but don't seem romanticized. This is a nice contrast with what our main character, Gil Pender thinks of the city in the opening lines of the film, in conversation with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams): 

Gil: This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was.
Inez: You act like you've never been here before.
Gil: I don't get here often enough, that's the problem. Can you picture how drop dead gorgeous this city is in the rain? Imagine this town in the '20s. Paris in the '20s, in the rain. The artists and writers!
Inez: Why does every city have to be in the rain? What's wonderful about getting wet?

From the very first lines, Gil is established as a romantic. While the opening images may not be romanticized, and we may be exhausted by the end of the opening montage, but Gil sees these images through a romantic's lens. Gil is a successful Hollywood screenwriter but Gil sees himself as a hack. While on vacation in Paris with Iznez and her parents, Gil wants to write a novel, which may have less to do with actual ambitions, than the romantic notion of being a writer in Paris.

Gil finally gets to live the romantic's dream when one night while walking through the city he is transported back in time to 1920s Paris. There he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddelston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill), as well as Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Stoll is subtly hilarious as Hemingway. While I haven't listened to a lot of recordings of Hemingway speaking,  I believe Stoll modelled his speech pattern for this film as the real Hemingway. There's a scene, during the second night Gil goes back in time, where a cab pulls up and Gil opens the door. We don't see who's in it but hear Gil say "Hello Mr. Hemingway." We then cut to a close up of Hemingway talking about war. After a while we cut to Gil's reaction and question. Another director or writer would have shown Hemingway earlier in this scene and would have inserted more reaction shots from Gil. By shooting it this way, Allen gives the scene a slightly off balance and humourous feel. As Hemingway keeps talking you're reminded of  Hemingway's sparse sentences and think to yourself, "Oh my God, did he really talk like that?

Gil goes back in time each night, getting advice on his novel, and escaping the annoyance of Inez's gushing over her old friend Paul (Michael Sheen), who is a classic Woody Allen type, the psuedo-intellectual. Sheen does a good job of not overplaying the part. He captures exactly what you'd expect from a guy who's probably smart but over compensates. While I've liked Wilson before I've never been as taken by him as I have here. Wilson does a fine job of blending the laid back nature we associate with his performances with a certain Woodyness that's not an imitation of Allen but rather a channeling of his spirit (I believe Allen has said he would have played the part in the seventies). 

While one of Rachel McAdams' most notable roles is that of Regina George in Mean Girls, we usually associate sweetness with her as an actress. I think it took me a while on first viewing for it to register that her Inez is kind of a...well...you know. Like Sheen, McAdams does a good job of not overplaying her role and while Inez could have been developed more (you feel her and Paul don't get proper payoffs), the point of the film is that there is always a disconnect between her and Gil. Whoever Inez truly is as a person,when she's with Gil, any positive qualities have a hard time coming out.

All the actors in the 1920s sequences are having a lot of fun, particularly Stoll as well as Adrien Brody, playing the surrealist painter Salvadore Dali. I would have liked to have spent more time with these characters. There are a lot of comedic possibilities which Allen could have explored. While it also would have been nice to further develop some of these characters, they're such vivid personalities that you don't seem to mind.

What I really admire about the film, is that the film is less about the famous icons of the period then it is about Gil's relationship with a French woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Cotillard is wonderful here, seductive yet vulnerable, filled with a yearning, like Gil, for a earlier time. This relationship growns the film and ultimately leads to what Allen is getting at in this film, which is nostalgia, can blind someone to their life in the present, particularly when its nostalgia for a different time period. When Gil and Adriana go back in time even further to the 1890s, Adriana wants to stay. Gil realizes that everyone, no matter what time period they live in, has their "golden age." Adriana wants to live in the 1920s, the people from Paris in the 1890s want to live in the Renaissance. Allen seems to be saying that we're the only ones who can appreciate the period in which we live, whereas people looking back at that period always view it through a romantic lens. While the world may never be perfect, we have to make the time we have, and the time we in live in, a golden age, because an actual golden age can never truly exist. It's a slightly sad but wise message.

 It'd be easy to label Allen as being hypocritical with this message due to how the film's 1920s sequences are romantic.  I don't think that's the case. I feel Allen is very sympathetic to Gil's romantic yearnings since Gil seems to be based, in some respects, off of Allen. Also, Allen doesn't demonize nostalgia but acknowledges it as part of human nature. He even gives Paul a line of dialouge where he describes the notion of "Golden Age Thinking," which people like Gil experience. Gil gets the rare chance to experience the time period he loves. It's through this experience that Gil is able to move on. The end of the film suggests new beginnings for everyone. I don't think Gil is no longer a romantic by the end of the film and I don't think Allen expects him to. It's going to be a process for Gil.  But it'll be okay. In one way or another, he'll always have Paris.

P.S. I still haven't seen Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, which also deals with similar themes. I need to get on that!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Desert Island DVDs

The volleyball named Wilson by Tom Hanks in 'Castaway'

Recently critc Matt Zoller Seitz asked fellow critics to pick the ten films they'd want to take with them if they were stuck on a desert island. The rules were to pick ten films, one season of television and one short. I posted mine on Jim Emerson's blog, Scanners. I want to post it here as well just for fun.

Films (In no particular order, except for number one)

1. Casablanca- When asked what my favourite film is I pick this one. Roger Ebert said of Carol Reed's The Third Man that it captures the romance of going to the movies for him. I feel that way about this film. Romantic, funny, heroic and ultimately a little tragic, Casablanca has never failed to entertain or move me.

2. Casino Royale (2006)- My favourite Bond film. It may not be a perfect movie but in it's own way it's a perfect Bond film in that it combines fantastical action sequences with a grounded humanity, never escalating in to camp. The romance between Bond and Vesper Lynd is heartbreaking and establishes why Bond is such an emotionally cold bastard sometimes.

3. The Haunting (1963)- A really fun and spooky haunted house film. The fact that you never see a ghost makes it all the more terrifying and surprisingly satisfying.

4. The Apartment (1960)- Billy Wilder's romantic comedy blends humour and tenderness with cynicism and interesting social commentary very well. I think I like this more than Wilder's film before this, Some Like It Hot.

5. Out of the Past- It really encapsulates the film noir genre/style. While romance may not be what one automatically thinks of when they think "film noir" but the doomed romances at the heart of this film are integral to the psychology of the film noir anti-hero.

6. Shutter Island- This may sound blasphemous but this may be my favourite Scorsese film.

7. Hamlet (1996)- I'd need my Shakespeare fix and Kenneth Branagh's epic is my favourite Shakespearean adaptation on film.

8. Rear Window- Hitchcock is my favourite director and it's insanely difficult to pick only one. I think I would go with this one.  It takes something which sounds uncinematic and makes it in to pure cinema.       

9.  The Godfather- Mafia life played at almost Shakespearean heights.

10. The Pink Panther Strikes Back- My favourite of the series

Television: Season Five of The Simpsons
Short: Someone on Emerson's blog picked Geri's Game, which played before Pixar's A Bug's Life. It's the short where the old man plays chess with himself. I think I'd have to pick this one as well.

This is a fun but very difficult game. There are so many more more films I could have swapped with the ones on this list. It would take me too long to list all of them. I encourage everyone to try this exercise. It gives you a sense of the films you really can't live without...and you realize there's a lot!

Friday, 6 January 2012

Auteurship and the Super-Hero Film

Over Christmas I discovered an interview with David Fincher where he talked about how he would have approached the Spider-Man reboot. Fincher's name was thrown around as a possibility for this film as well as the 2002 film. In the interview, Fincher says:

My impression what Spider-Man could be is very different from what Sam [Raimi] did or what Sam wanted to do. I think the reason he directed that movie was because he wanted to do the Marvel comic superhero. I was never interested in the genesis story. I couldn't get past a guy getting bit by a red and blue spider. It was just a problem… It was not something that I felt I could do straight-faced. I wanted to start with Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin, and I wanted to kill Gwen Stacy.

The title sequence of the movie that I was going to do was going to be a ten minute -- basically a music video, an opera, which was going to be the one shot that took you through the entire Peter Parker [backstory]. Bit by a radioactive spider, the death of Uncle Ben, the loss of Mary Jane, and [then the movie] was going to begin with Peter meeting Gwen Stacy. It was a very different thing, it wasn't the teenager story. It was much more of the guy who's settled into being a freak.

Fincher's vision for a Spider-Man film sounds incredibly intriguing, particularly since it zips through the origin story in an economic and unique way. After reading this interview I started to think about the role the director plays in regards to the Super-hero genre. While Batman and Spider-Man are certainly the stars of their own films, I feel that audiences and critics do focus on the director behind the film. Moreover, praise or blame of the film is sometimes laid at the feet of these directors.

When we think of 1989's Batman, we probably think of Jack Nicholson as the Joker or Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman but we also think of the film's director, Tim Burton. While this film isn't as Burtonesque as Batman Returns, Batman, with it's expressionistic visual style and gothic tone, fits in to Burton's rather nicely. From my knowledge, it was Burton's decision to have the Joker, back when he was just Jack Napier, to be the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents. This is one the biggest departures a superhero film has taken from its source material, one that doesn't please many fans of Batman. Personally, I think it's a interesting decision but one that's not that well thought out. Batman tells the Joker that he killed his parents near the end of the film but it never becomes an essential part of the film's climax.   

Before returning to direct Batman Returns, Burton reportedly was uninterested in returning to the character of Batman. bu Warner Bros. supposely convnced him to direct when they told him that instead of directing a Batman film, he could direct a Tim Burton film. Batman Returns is very much a Tim Burton film playing up the german expressionism influence from the first, and havng bizarre characters making up the supporting cast.

Burton's films have often dealt with what it means to be an outsider, something that Burton relates to:

If you've ever had that feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider, it never quite leaves you. You can be happy or successful or whatever, but that thing still stays within you.

The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is the quintiessential Burton outsider like Edward Scissorhands- Burton's Penguin is deformed and left in a sewer by his parents. He's a very freakish looking character. This is definitely not the more distinguished Penguin we know from the comics.

But while Burton imposes a personal visual style and mood on the film, as well as creating a Penguin more in line with his feeling a being an  outsiders, is Batman Returns a really personal film for Burton? Or is the personal aspect of the film or to do with Burton's visual style and sense of mood. Does it penetrate beyond the surface to make a personal statement about outsiders in society and in comic books? I'm not quite sure.

I think the same kind of questions can be asked of other directors' visions in regards to super-hero films. Sam Raimi directed the Spider-Man trilogy and is known for being a Spider-Man fan. While his love of the character definitely shows in the spirit of the films and they're also very humane films, beyond this, what is personal to Raimi in these films? What issues in the film are truly important to him?

Now, I'm not out to bash Burton or Raimi. I like the Spider-Man trilogy, particularly the first two, and I like Burton's Batman films, yes even the bizarro Batman Returns. I just feel that in the directors' visions somehow aren't complete.

I think this incompleteness of vision, among super-hero films can best be applied to Ang Lee's 2003 film Hulk. Hulk is a film that I like but I think it has the problem of being stuck between 2 worlds in regards to its style. On one hand, it's trying to ground the Hulk character in a psychological drama, exploring Bruce Banner's Jekyll/Hyde personality and his twisted relationship with his father. On the other hand, it embraces certain comic book elements- it has Hulk dogs, Nick Nolte as Bruce Banner's father turns in to an electroid monster- and Lee's use of split screens, which suggest comic book panels. I think Lee couldn't quite blend them in way where everything clicked. The film should have completely committed to it's psychological elements. Lee was probably attracted to what the script was doing with exploring the psychological aspects of Bruce Banner/the Hulk. If Lee was able to have more creative control, I think he could have had more influence on the script and made it less of blockbuster-style film. Unfortunately, a film like Hulk still has to have those blockbuster element to it. While these elements are compatiable with deeper themes and issues, in this case, it lead to a compromised vision. 

An example of a director being noted as directing the best of films of a series is Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men films.  Singer is an openly gay man and the X-Men films can be read as allegories for homophobia in modern society, as well as other forms of discrimination. The X-Men are essentially outsiders and I think Singer, being a gay man, knew what it was like to be an outsider and brought that personal knowledge to the films.

On a side note, Matt Vaughn, who directed the latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, brought his love of the Bond series to the film, making Michael Fassbender's Erik Lensherr/Magneto in to mutant version of James Bond.

Coming back to Batman, let's look at the Christopher Nolan Batman saga. Nolan has received much praise from critics and Batman fans for his two Batman films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Nolan is arguably seen as the auteur of this series. Nolan (and his creative team) have done a fine job of balancing this comtemporary and stripped down and stylistically realistic take on Batman while still crafting something which feels quintiessentially Batman . Nolan's vision for the series, as I said, is a stylistic rather than literal realism. Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister go for a photorealistic look for Gotham rather than Burton' expressionistic look or Joel Schumacher's neon Gotham.

The Dark Knight dealt with issues of heroism, terrorism, morality, sacrifice, all that junk. These themes certainly fascinate Nolan but they don't give me the sense of Nolan as a person, which could also be said of his other films. The Dark Knight  almost seems too large to be truly personal. That may be the difficulty in having a personal vision in a super-hero film. The large scale can overshadow a director's personal vision.

Coming back to the new Spider-Man, I hope Marc Webb, who helped give (500) Days of Summer  it's aching poignancy, will bring a human touch to The Amazing Spider-Man.  What I really want is this film to take the Spider-Man character in a bold new direction. I think Webb has it in him to go there. If not...there's always David Fincher.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Favourite Films of 2011 and Looking Ahead to 2012

I think doing top ten lists is probably the most difficult part of a film critic's job, whether professional or aspiring. This is the rough version of my top ten list. I like to think of this as a list of favourites rather than objectively "best" films. There are still films I need to see because I feel there are a number of them which could make this list. Anyway, here's my list!

1. The Tree of Life- Terrence Malick has created a film of contradictions- both cosmological and earthbound, distant and moving, odd and mundane, universal and personal, and while it may be Malick's most personal film, it's still very much part of his other work up until now. It's these contradictions which make The Tree of Life such a rich and unique experience. It shows us how an entire universe can be captured in a single household. It shows us how a father can be cruel but its that very cruelty which makes his children want to please him. It shows us the choice being living a path of either nature or grace is a choice between two people, a mother and a father. It also asks whether one can live with the choice they make or if its possible to live only one path. Malick supposedly is working on a six hour cut of the film. It's not too surprsing. Another contradiction of the film is while it feels self contained, it also has the feeling of continuely expanding. It's still developing and asking questions after it ends. That's why it haunts you.

2. Bridesmaids- Like most of Judd Apatow produced films, Bridesmaids has a somewhat messy structure and maybe goes on a little too long but with great performances which balance the comedic and the human, including Kristen Wiig's star solidifying and Melissa McCarthy's star making turns, some very funny set pieces, enjoyable characters, combined with an honest story about friendship, Bridesmaids still worked like gangbusters, or should I say bridebusters.

3. 50/50- 50/50's comedic elements may feel to some like "sugar coating'' the harrowing reality of cancer but it's the film's injection of humour which makes the quieter moments where Joseph Gordon Levitt's Adam has to face the implications of his illness all the more effective.

4. Rango- I had a real giggle (yes giggle) fest when watching this film for the first time recently. Not only is the animation visually beautiful, it's also visually very funny. There are shots where just the sight of Johnny Depp's chameleon Rango and other of the Desert town Dirt's inhabitants is just hilarious. While Rango may pack the emotional punch of films like Toy Story 3 or Wall-E, Rango's eccentric sense of humour and great voice acting elevates it outside its somewhat conventional plot and makes it one of the pleasant surprises of the year.

5. Drive- Film noir at its most brutal and stripped down. While I still have some mixed feelings towards Drive due to its violence and how it's almost too stripped down, not always developing its characters as much as it can, I still have love for a lot that's in this film. Not only is Ryan Gosling  great in the strong silent type role, ala Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen, but he and director Nicolas Winding Refn create a fascinating deconstruction of this kind of character. At the beginning they show us an efficient, calculated getaway driver, only known as Driver, but as the film progresses, and as soon as Driver beats a man's head in in an elevator, we know there's a much darker, unhinged personality in their. Think of it as Taxi Driver in reverse.

The (Roughly) Next Five:
6. Moneyball
7. Midnight in Paris
8. X-Men: First Class
9: We Need to Talk About Kevin
10. The Skin I Live In

Honourable Mentions: Attack the Block, Captain America, Crazy, Stupid, Love., The Descendants, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, Insidious J. Edgar, Melancholia, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Super

Still Need to See: A Dangerous MethodThe Adventures of Tintin, Albert Nobbs, The Artist, A Seperation, Contagion, Coriolanus, Friends with Benefits, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Help, The Ides of March, The Iron Lady, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Muppets, Rampart, Submarine, Super 8, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Young Adult, War Horse, We Bought a Zoo

Looking Forward to 2012: My most anticipated film of this year, as I've said before, is The Dark Knight Rises. What I've admired about Christopher Nolan's past two Batman films is how Nolan and his creative team have made Gotham City feel very contemporary. Moreover, I like how through this contemporary prism, the filmmakers are still getting at the issues which have always been central to the character of Batman. I'm excited to see if the film can manage not to feel anti-climatic in comparison to The Dark Knight, which was ambitious and epic, and had Batman and Gotham City pushed to its limits by the Joker. I think Tom Hardy as Bane will be a great successor to Heath Ledger's already iconic portrayal of the Joker and Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle/Catwoman will most likely be more interesting than the Rachel Dawes character. Third movies are tough for any franchise, particularly superhero films- think Spider-Man 3 or X-Men 3. But I think Nolan and his team are committed to this character and the specific interpretation of Gotham City they've established. I think this has a good chance of breaking the super-hero third movie curse.

I'm really mixed about The Amazing Spider-Man. I like Spider-Man and it has a strong cast. It's just that honestly I'm getting a little sick of Emma Stone. Believe me, you don't want me to start with my love/hate relationship with her. I'm also not sure if this film, even if it'll strike a different tone than Sam Raimi's trilogy, will offer anything new to the super-hero genre. There have been so many super-hero films in the last decade that it's arguably become overkill. Returning to Nolan's Batman films, The Dark Knight, as I said, was ambitious. It was this ambition as well as the willingness to go beyond pure escapism, to create something thematically dense and assertive- and psychologically intense, which always stands out when I think about the film. While I don't expect or want every super-hero film to be like The Dark Knight, since it's sometimes too serious and oppressive a film, none of the other superhero film released since The Dark Knight, not even Watchmen, have really grabbed me the same way that film did. Again, while The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't have to be like The Dark Knight, I hope it goes in a direction that really surprises and reaches an emotional high which resonates afterwards. I'm just afraid it'll like more of a set-up movie, where we have to wait until the second installment to get to the really good stuff.

While The Avengers aren't close to my heart the way Batsy and Spidey are, The Avengers is the first of its kind: it's a superhero epic which has been set-up through numerous Marvel produced films, establishing a continiuity similar to that of the Marvel universe and bringing together Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and Thor. It's sure to be a spectacle and arguably, if it's a success, it'll have more impact on future superhero films than even The Dark Knight Rises.

My most anticipated film after The Dark Knight Rises is Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond and the third starring Daniel Craig. I love Casino Royale, it's my favourite Bond film, and after seeing Quantum of Solace a few times, despite it being underdeveloped in some areas, I would argue it's one of the more underrated Bond films, economic and brutal. I also think Daniel Craig is perfect for this kind of Bond, cold, rugged, broken hearted and angry. It'll be interesting to see how the filmmakers deal with Bond being Bond after the last two films where about him becoming Bond. I hope he doesn't lose his humanity, that they strike a balance between the darker Bond established in the last two films, and the Bond we're more familiar with, preferably Sean Connery. Q is back! Ben Whishaw is playing the gadget master and I kind of love the idea of having a younger Q in this franchise. Sam Mendes is directing and I think he's bring a elegant visual style to the film, particularly with Roger Deakins as his cinematographer. While the Bond series may seem as overkill as the way I've described super-hero films, as I was saying about The Dark Knight, this new Bond franchise is going in interesting directions, which makes them still worth the audience's time.

Ridley Scott hasn't made a science fiction film since his 1982 classic Blade Runner. Along with 1979's Alien, Scott has made two of the most iconic sci-fi films of the 20th century. His new film this year, Prometheus, started as a prequel to Alien but from what Scott has said, it's won't technically be a prequel but will be part of the same universe, with the same "D.N.A" from the first movie creeping in. I'm facinated to see how it plays out. The prospect of Scott returning to the genre where he's arguably done his best work is exciting, particularly if it brings him back to the franchise he started with Alien.

 This new year brings a lot of exciting films to look forward to. Hopefully they'll live up to the hype!