…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “big screen challenge

Vimy Week Movie: Gallipoli


War movies use the image of the young man through exaltation. It’s a cinematic method that wouldn’t seem fitting for a genre with a predominantly masculine audience unless we realize that this male-on-male gaze, more dominant in the last three decades’ box office returns, is a fantastical version of the innocence we thought we used to have. Similarly, contemporary filmmaker Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, co-written by David Williamson, starts with the picaresque backyard stories of blonde Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee), who would have otherwise existed if Katharine Hepburn and James Remar had a love child. In his Australian home turf he gets challenged twice, by his uncle training him to be a medal-winning runner and by a cowboy who conventionally thinks that he can ride a horse faster than Archy can run.

The second face is young Mel Gibson’s as a Archy’s tougher and more cynical counterpart Frank, who goes through multiple transformations, job titles, states of dress and occasional undress depending on situations he faces mostly without reluctance.

The two of them meet in a running competition and become unlikely friends, both craving the adventures that bigger cities like Perth and Cairo can offer. Archy treats the war as a way to see the world like his grandfather did, despite his uncle’s protestations of a world that has changed for the most dangerous. Nonetheless they race more than once in the movie, each challenge becoming more fraternal, treating, as the cliché would say, the world like their playground which is more of Archy’s philosophy than Frank’s.

Our first impressions of these epic actions are, again, Archy’s face and the surprising determination from his lean figure that we forget that he didn’t want to wait for the train and made Frank cross the desert to Perth with him, a difficult feat that in which he succeeds effortless. Frank stumbles before Archy does and the latter comes to save him and continues to do so no matter what country they’re in. It’s a character building experience yet both men survive that trial almost unscathed – instead of chapped lips and un-moisturized faces like those in Sergio Leone movies, all they have are dusty clothes. And during the trip he convinces Frank to join up, inadvertently promising women’s admiration and his prolonged friendship.There’s a subtext of class warfare more voiced out by supporting characters and minor plot lines and I even watch out for times when one young man is winning a race over the other but these two major characters disregard that, belonging within this story which is simply about two people who make each other happy.

In other words Archy has the same spirit of his English forebears, that optimistic underestimation that they try to hold on to for as long as they can. Their titular destination isn’t as well-known in their and this part of the world, bearing a name that the characters can hardly pronounce, which surprisingly attracts them to conquer it. They don’t heed warnings of their superiors of Cairo’s liquor and women, as if that’s the only source of their downfall. Weir thankfully allows them to have their fun, accusing a store for overcharging them for Egyptian knickknacks and hiring local prostitutes, bearing this philosophy that they should do these things if they die the next day. Both runners race again to the pyramids. Ironically, Weir sees Egypt as Australia’s twin country, both being arid locales. Because of the heat he outfits his characters with light pastel colours and later with uniform shorts, looking more like boy scouts than military men.

Being one of Weir’s earlier work  it’s easy to see his signature, more of an epic movie and a more colourful tribute to David Lean thanks to Russell Boyd’s cinematography. Instead of choosing to portray destruction, Weir is more concerned more about the myth of invincibility. His depiction of the desert or the sea his glossy yet mostly survivable for the men of our past. Even when he gets to the movie’s perfunctory ‘waste of war’ section, he directs his actors with care, playing off Lee’s smiles with Gibson’s blossoming expressiveness, one of the only directors in memory who doesn’t satirize and instead, lets complexity shine through a mask of optimism, which is a mask we can live with. Image via horroria.


Vimy Week Movie: Passchendaele


This is the second installment of Vimy Week and the first movie of the series that I saw on the big screen that is not a new release and therefore fits into John’s Big Screen Challenge. I promised to watch a safe number of 26 non-new release movies on the big screen but since I’m almost halfway I know I can totes do more than that. Come join us!

As a 1.5 generation Canadian the country’s curriculum exposed me of its generation rift. Its youth, though increasingly becoming centre-right, still look like multicultural pot-smoking passive hippies to our old teachers so they’re trying to educate us that when this country was still full of just integrated Europeans, we were the world’s fourth biggest military. We educated of the former glory that is the Great War and the Franco-Germanic names where our troops have fallen and risen again, Ypres, the Somme. The movie is cyclical in nature, beginning and ending with Michael Dunne (Paul Gross, who also wrote and directed) in European battlefields, the first time in Vimy and the second in the titular Passchendaele.

That title is a misnomer since its first half takes place in Michael’s home town of Calgary, where he finds himself being treated by a nurse named Sarah Mann (Caroline Dhavernas), these characters expressing their love through drug withdrawals and battlefield sex, scenes of which are automatically ridiculously awesome. Not by intention she poses problems for him because her German father fought for the other side. The movie magnifies race and ethnicity, as Sarah gets fired from her job. Her brother David (Joe Dinicol), ridden with Daddy issues and too effete for a barely legal lower middle class boy, is guilt-tripped into signing up for the war by a English-descended Canadian to be his bride. Neighbours vandalise the Mann home with red paint spelling ‘HUN’ – the movie intermittently shows drawn Asiatic caricatures of Huns, curiously enough. This anti-Germanic plot line’s similarities to the one in East of Eden which would be distracting if it didn’t have roots in reality. The front lines eradicate those issues – the Englishman, First Nations and Québécois have their archetypal one-liners before they get painted in with the rest of the Canadians, all of them muddy due to days on the trenches. And the enemy, which they kill in glorious hand-to-hand combat, look just as dirty as they do! But despite of how many bodies get flung in the air or close-ups of decent looking men one second before dying by gunshot, this still feels a bit shiny and CGI’d for a war movie. Image via Guardian.


Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings”


The Bible is renowned for its simplicity but it’s more complex than Christopher Hitchens or most people give it credit for. I’ve ruminated about Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings, not to be mistaken with de Mille’s version. And it’s always been my obsession to know the differences between the four Gospels and its relation to the film adaptations.

I watched the movie when I still had TCM and couldn’t distinguish it from the other, overlong epic period movies at the same time. I didn’t give it a chance and I changed the channel, regrettably. Thank serendipity for the second run-in, when I saw Ray, through Orson Welles’ Godlike voice over contextualizing Jesus’ rise with Roman imperialism, infrastructure building and the burden of oncoming tribal hostility between Jews and Arabs.

I will say that the movie’s depiction of the historical figures somehow contradicts Biblical accounts and sometimes, one woman’s spirit is captured more so than the other. Mary (Siobhan McKenna) has a soldier-like loyalty to God, willing to ride an improvised steed to Egypt to run away from a Herodain onslaught, She also returns to Nazareth and showing to a Roman official named Lucius that Her young son is the only one who survives. The book and movie fork into the interpretations of the Virgin, as the Gospel of Luke already shows Her, in pregnancy, as an indoctrinated, militant woman poetically reciting Her knowledge of Her purpose in the Father’s master plan. Although the movie’s portrait of Her is delightful enough, the Mother learning from the Youth and His lessons of peace of love which counters the warlike ideology of the area and period. She shares these lessons with Magdalene, a possessed woman in the Bible but commonly depicted as a prostitute in adaptations.

Salome is also maligned as well as her family. In the movie’s first scenes, Herod Antipas ousts his ailing and genocidal father, the son having respect for his enemies like the unknown Saviour and His cousin who grows up to be John the Baptist (the interestingly cast Robert Ryan). Antipas marries Herodias, bringing her daughter Salome in tow. Salome dances her way into getting John beheaded, the texts portraying her as Herodias’ weapon. Ray’s version subverts these women’s characteristics. Salome becomes a lustful young woman, having her stepfather’s father’s violent streak, ending her dance by sitting on the same thrown that Antipas himself has stolen. It’s easy to joke that her similarities with Herod exposes Antipas’ subliminal lust for his own father. Herodias, on the hand, isn’t as scheming as she’s depicted in the Bible, the film actually placing her as one of the audiences on the Sermon on the Mount with Lucius, both authority figures attracted to the message that tries to destroy the system that makes them benefit.

Lastly, there’s Judas Iscariot, the Bible characterizing him as a thief and traitor. Contemporary interpretations of him have always wondered why Jesus would include Iscariot into His fold, most likely knowing that he needs someone to help Him sacrifice Himself. Norman Jewison has a black actor for Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and we can add whatever symbolism we can to the colour blind ensemble, keeping in mind the racial tensions in the 70’s. Ray also paints Iscariot as a Zealot but chose a different strategy in his casting. It’s already strange and absolutely typical of Hollywood to hire the all-American Jeffrey Hunter, who does his best as the quote-worthy preacher. For Judas he picks another dirty blonde, Rip Torn, showing these two men as mirror images, Iscariot’s double loyalties haunted by Jesus unwavering sympathy, a part of a complex, political rendition of the Saviour’s life and world.


Nicolas Cage: And Laura Dern


Ugh I hate having to write about movies that I can’t prove with words but that’s David Lynch for you and besides, I’ve been procrastinating writing about Mulholland Drive ever since I saw it (and rewatched the ending after my ongoing depress-athon). Here’s what I have to say, as I have originally typed on Ryan McNeil‘s blog:

a) I told you this in person but I’ll do it again because I’ll probably never end up writing about it in my space. Despite the incoherent fuctory that is Wild At Heart it’s probably the only movie of his – or any movie ever – that simultaneously conveys all emotions of funnysexyscary, mostly thanks to Laura Dern’s performance. Even in his better work, he can only manage to convey one of those three tones, or compartmentalizes them from one scene to another.

b) Gitch?

Don’t worry, this post will get slightly smarter.

I feel it juvenile that I hate to compare Dern’s Lula Fortune to other actors with more well-known movie quotables, and nothing beats those originals but we have seen de Niro’s bravado or Judy’s childlike demeanour through multiple imitations. And I suppose Dern also gets it easy with some of the one liners that we first hear on the trailer, like ‘You make me hotter than Georgia asphalt.’ We can do that as an inside joke, add a head or shoulder roll or two, remembering Lynch’s innately referential nature as he pays perpetual homage to post-war camp Americana. Slick greaser hair and jackets and antisocial behaviour are particularly more present here than in Lynch’s other movies, given a contemporary flavour through Sailor’s affinity to epilepsy-inducing metal music. Her love-making non sequiturs and narratives astound – ‘And I swear, baby, you got the sweetest cock. It’s like it’s talking to me when you’re inside. ],’ ‘You [Nicolas Cage’s character Sailor] remind me of my daddy. (I shouldn’t judge),’ ‘One time, [my aunt] found [my uncle] Dell putting one big cockroach on his anus.’ She says those lines with the borderline childishness that some girls put on in front of their boyfriends. They say that the portrayal of gravitas lessens over time and yes we can laugh at these lines but there’s this timeless earnestness in Dern and Lynch’s delivery of lust that I simply cannot negate. Who knew that the gaunt actress only needed her blond locks and a silver tongue to be sexy? Can she do it again?

And as Lula and her Sailor elopement gets bumpier and more crime-ridden, Dern’s performance gets its equal rocky footing. There’s also a scene where she find herself alone with Willem Dafoe’s grilled character – that’s never turned well in 99% of that actor’s movies. He sexually intimidates her and tells her to tell him to to ‘Fuck me.’ At first she resists but she does it, putting fear into a mix that cannot be duplicated. She’s Lynch’s instrument for better or worse and I don’t even see anything wrong with her bravery and vulnerability, while most of the leading actresses Lynch hires only has either. I wonder how her dad was like as an actor, if he could produce such a great here.

There are also Wizard of Oz references for some reason, Lula’s mother (Diane Ladd), the venomous woman from whom they;re running away, conjured through hallucinations as the Wicked Witch. Lula clicks her heels like Dorothy but Sailor doesn’t seem like any of Dorothy’s companions. Scarecrow maybe, for participating in failed bank robberies? Anyway, both the stunted feminine and masculine body politic is within the escapist Lula and she solves it by…marrying a dude? This is a man’s perspective of a romanticized female pathos, after all. And I keep talking about this movie as if I’m bored with Cage’s histrionics but Sailor does have death threats to avoid. And I just don’t want to see him as sexy with all the implications of that title, which this movie insists and almost succeeds on doing.


Bloc Sci-Fi: “Solyaris”


For style guide’s sake, I will call this movie Solyaris while the supposedly misunderstood masterpiece by Steven Soderbergh will be Solaris, which I’ll write about in that Viola Davis retrospective that I’m too lazy to do. I also heard that it expands on the original’s love story.

Despite beginning by looking into a wide lake’s reeds, Solyaris is a breeze compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s other work. Rublev is comprehensible and straightforward enough despite its three-hour running time, Stalker devastating in its showing of the longest non-magic tricks ever. It makes me feel like a young luddite not remembering anything plot wise from Zerkalo but do you?  What probably makes me think that this movie is fast paced – clocking in at two hours and forty-six minutes – are the quick cuts in the sequence portraying a non-hostile interrogation of a man who has previously been to the space station near the titular planet. It also adds to this eerie aura because the witness can’t corroborate his testimony with video footage, subverting the ‘show, not tell’ adage and successfully heightening the mystery.

Yes, despite its big budget, it has cheap sets, a grievance I have in other classic movies, but that criticism tries to make the movie sound like it also features Gondry’s cardboard box aesthetic. I treated this lightly. The protagonist, Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), travels to a space station near a planet with strange magnetic waves, throwing rules of physics and even life off-kilter. Everything is grubby and made of plastic, buttons are unlabeled and look similar, other characters stuck in the station smoke and light candles and tobacco occasionally, there are master bedrooms and flammable books. But what makes the movie enigmatic is the resurfacing of Kelvin’s wife, either as wishful thinking or a gift from the planet. Mrs. Kelvin’s love towards her husband adds to her heart wrenching pleas to prove herself human to the space station’s men. Her conundrum can be seen as an allegory of prejudice but how can we sympathize when her existence crosses the boundaries that science irreverently crosses.

The romance in Tarkovsky, in my humble opinion, is enough and even surpasses its Western equal in the well-crafted but overrated 2001:A Space Odyssey. Solyaris will no longer be showing for now. But I hope that this post goes live just in time for the last movie featured in TIFF’s Attack the Bloc retrospective, Piotr Szulkin’s film rendition of the Golem story, screening at the Lightbox tonight at 9PM. Images via TIFF and cine y literatura.


Road to Hollywood: Last Picture Show


The Last Picture Show, the title of what could be Peter Bogdanovich’s only good movie, begins in the early 1950’s with a teenager named Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) trying to have a smooth drive in his heap of junk of a truck while the Hank Williams on his radio fills in between the sound of tumbleweeds and violent dead wind. The scene develops, he gets out in front of a pool hall, meets the owner Sam (Ben Johnson), the latter’s son, and Sonny’s best friend Dwayne (Jeff Bridges). Methodically the grubby cinematography and the camera’s closeness is almost un-cinematically counter-intuitive but it also feels like a welcome change, like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren chronicling the smutty lives of straight rural Texans. It’s a good old evocation of mood while simultaneously cutting the BS.

These men are in between stages of feral wolf-boyhood and foreshadowed deep-voiced manhood. The older men see them as members of their incompetent football team but within the same day they neck with their girlfriends in the dark while watching an Elizabeth Taylor picture. The Last Picture Show, like many late 20th century young adult texts, is about sexual awakenings and missteps. Sonny meets an older woman named Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman, looking her best in a deserved Oscar-winning performance) and stands her for a few more minutes. While their friendship gets uncomfortably close, Dwayne’s girlfriend Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd, a more girly version of Faye Dunaway) does her own exploring. Both characters repeat the patterns of the previous generation, Jacy taking after her mother Lois (the versatile Ellen Burstyn being hilarious and foxy). All of these are going on while these teenagers, walking slowly into being roughnecks, express their cynicism for a school and town that isn’t worth saving.

The audience knows what’s going to happen when Sonny takes out the trash with Ruth the same way that they react negatively to the relationships and friendships that the insufferable Jacy ruins. And yes, you’re allowed to use that and the phrases in the previous paragraph as euphemisms as long as you give Bogdanovich and co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry some credit. Anyway, the impressions that these characters take in their worst and most shocking scenes are so strong that we forget how Bogdanovich and McMurtry plants the seeds for these outcomes to happen. The movie doesn’t give us alarum bells when Sonny’s coach asks for him to drive Ruth to the clinic the same way that we don’t see Jacy’s layered reaction to Lois’ lessons of shrewdness. These pivotal moments and decisions occur in seventeen seconds instead of minutes.

It has echoes in others tackling post-Western desolation but it also references past movies like the magnum opus directed by Bogdanovich’s idol Orson Welles. It has delightful moments, like a Western-styled non-standoff between Sonny and Sam, referred by the latter’s diner cook/hamburger expert Genevieve (the tough Eileen Brennan). Or real standoffs when its frank characters squeak their voices and destroy the English language, not that I’m one to talk. Then there’s all the awkward sex in between and all the scenes everyone else has talked about because this movie deserves it. The Last Picture Show is part of the Road to Hollywood, its next dates being April 3 and 5, promoting the TCM Classic Film Festival in LA between April 12 and 15. To the two people I know who are going to the festival, I am extremely jealous of you.


Ghibli: “Laputa” and “Spirited Away”


It’s difficult for my mind to stray while watching Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, especially the bombastic sound work in Tenko no Shiro Laputa (the English title is Castle in the Sky. Laputa is an unfortunate title if you know a bit of Spanish but we’ll use it for brevity’s sake). I’ll never forget the dimensional feeling of the air crafts. But as the characters started to sink in I realized that I grew up with anime, especially ones that portrayed ‘Western’ narratives. This cross-cultural storytelling is interesting in the visual sense. I know the young arms catching Sheeta from the air, starting their puppy love – are just plain slabs of white meat between penciled borders but somehow I felt the characters’ sinewy qualities on-screen.  I also like its accuracy, capturing how the European build is more muscular, dense and square shaped although that’s probably just my ignorance talking.

Also, older women such as Mama are booby but not in a sexual way. Speaking of which, the sexuality in Laputa is a bit disturbing, as Mama’s crew are metres away from preying on Sheeta although they do blurt out the subtext that the innocent-looking Sheeta might grow up to be a good witch like Mama. But it’s not just about the human characters, the robots and the plot also showing how Miyazaki influences Brad Bird and Chris Miller. Puss in Boots also has the same plot and imaginative spirit but the latter tucks in and lets out. Think about it.

Spirited Away begins with a family uneventfully moving into the smaller suburbs, makes a detour to what looks like an abandoned amusement park and turns into a ‘introduction to work and adulthood and its pitfalls’ metaphor. It also shows more slender Asian bodies in Chihiro and the other cynical bath house servants she joins. It’s a more Japanese narrative but that doesn’t mean that European visual tropes are completely absent. Chichiro’s father has the same stocky European build before he and his wife eat the amusement park food – where are the guests? – and magically turn themselves into pigs. The Mama lookalike of a matriarch, Yubaba, and her overgrown baby almost turn the exception into the rule, as well as the visitors of Yubaba’s resort for the gods, spirits and monsters, most of them looking like characters from Where the Wild Things Are. I’m not saying that Miyazaki relies too heavily on Western influences as he also includes river dragon gods into the mix and actually makes these characters, whatever they look like, into his own.

I’m also probably in the minority that likes the simple structure and the complex characters in Laputa although I do admire the consistent menace of Spirited Away‘s matriarch. I also like Laputa‘s three different visual textures while depicting the landscapes. Spirited Away, however, also marks a digitized aesthetic, especially in depicting objects and characters moving through vegetation. What does make the latter film special, in an Berlin Film Festival and Academy-award winning way, is its unrelenting and inexhaustible imagination, introducing more fantastical creatures and mises-en-scene like the hand lamp greeting them after a trip on a train that crosses an ocean, coming just after me thinking that Miyazaki must have run out of them.

Spirited Away has two screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, on April 1st at 7:00 PM and April 7th at 1:00 PM. You can also catch Laputa one last time on April 7th at 6:30 PM.