Normally in films the audience has to wait five minutes to suck us in, but instead Nowhere Boy ‘wows’ us in the beginning with its cinematography, and we have director Sam Taylor-Wood and cinematographer Seamus McGravey to thank for that. This is the fifties, after all. I also kept imagining the film in black and white because of the photographic quality of the shots. Yet colour fits better in capturing the bright, breezy energy of a much younger John Lennon (Aaron Johnson). The film depicts beauty without making its contemplation necessary, since the audience follows a rebellious schoolboy around his hometown at the same time.
Then comes characters with emotional resonance and dimension. John is funny, selfish and gives and gets love unconventionally. The darkness within his cheery mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) appears within her first real encounter of her son in years, as Duff’s impresses with her characterization of Julia as a broken vessel of repression. John’s aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) is stern while trying to please a teenager who sometimes takes her for granted. All three powerfully contend with changing allegiances, portraying human irrationality brought on by love without making their characters seem inconsistent.
I also like how they can sometimes miss other characters’ cues. When John’s new friend and band mate Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) talks about how the latter’s mother ‘would have loved’ his music, he doesn’t at first understand what he’s hinting at. Or when Paul plays the banjo in a solemn gathering at Julia’s house. The script perfectly captures the fragmented relationships. The young (and young at heart like Julia) who have strong feeling and angry impulses, innocent, sometimes ignorant about others which, thankfully, doesn’t stop them from trying to connect with each other.
Lastly, this movie is secretly about the 80’s, or what might have influenced English-speaking culture decades later from the film’s setting, although I don’t really have enough space here to explain that. Of course, it was interesting to watch John dressing up like Elvis or Buddy Holly. The British borrow from American rock ‘n’ roll icons, and as we watch this film we remember that it shows the first stop to John and Paul’s evolution, their sound and look changing within and after their seminal band’s run.
Merry Christmas: Die Hard
Bruce Willis is just like Jennifer Aniston – both were in sitcoms but did art on the side. And yes, I just called Die Hard art. Yes, there are a few things that I appreciated from this crowd pleaser that played at the Bloor Cinema on December 15th. The print they played is obviously not a reprint, making the Los Angeles sky look reddish. And no, I’m not complaining.
Both Officer John McClane (Willis) and Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) find themselves on opposite ends, Gruber trying to forcibly take $620 million in bonds from a Los Angeles branch of a Japanese company, John trying to stop him. They behave in this film and try to defeat each other like walking blindfolded, and this they make the best foils for each other.
Hans accuses John of the latter comparing himself to John Wayne and Rambo, but he’s performing too. This is probably just me putting 1988 in context with 2010, but is Hans loosely based on Carlos the Jackal? Kicked out from his terrorist group, has experience in Germany. Something always goes wrong with their plan, which only John’s wife Holly Gennaro McClane notices. Besides, what kind of terrorist owns a ‘John Philips’ suit? (p.s. I’ve never heard of this designer, I’m not familiar with London designers who weren’t CSM freaks. Anyway…)
He’s stealing from a corporation that’s trying to help infrastructure in the Third World. While making demands with the FBI, he tells them about random terrorist groups imprisoned around the world, including ones from Quebec, which got a rousing reaction from the Torontonian crowd. About an Asian group, Hans privately tells the right hand man that he’s heard of them on Time Magazine. When he faces John for the first time, he pretends to be an American.
Nonetheless John’s journey into this story’s more fascinating because well, it’s funnier. It’s hilarious to watch his face wince and repeat ‘Think,’ a sign of a man in panic. Besides, Bruce Willis probably knew how to say the lines better than the other actors whom the movie was offered to.
In the film’s first scenes, John tells the other characters how ‘he’s been a cop for eleven years’ or that he has a backlog of scumbags he has to put to jail. I suppose I’m being unfair, hinting that his bravado can’t possibly prepare him for what’s to come. However a) no one knows how to prepare for terrorism and b) even he knows that his victory against them would be miraculous, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Another condition to his challenge is that he begins it by simply wearing a wife-beater and is barefoot. A constant variable in his process is various stages of undress, while a less constant variable are the weapons he gains and loses throughout his exciting mess. He’s practically a video game protagonist.
He actually does something interesting in the beginning – he escapes, retreats and tries to spy on the terrorists. He bungles up a few things while he’s away from all the action, yet despite the accusations Hans throws at him, his invisibility is the opposite of performance. He makes sure he’s away until he has to inevitably meet the villains.
The film is also well thought out in a technical sense, as Mark Hasan writes here. There are also the showcasing of heights – ‘I swear I’ll never be in a tall building again.’ – the most real explosions in film I’ve seen in recent memory, non-CGI helicopters flying around a real city which will never happen in a movie again…
Of course, John flies all the way to Los Angeles is to meet his wife and hopeful resolve issues about their marriage and her career. She’s not the only woman there, but she’s second in command. I was ready to roll my eyes in what I thought the ending was gonna be. ‘You’re so hot and shirtless John McClane. I’m going to give up my career and cook bacon and eggs in a sexy French maid outfit for you. Take me!’ Which is exactly what I would do if Bruce Willis married me, mind you. Anyway, I thought I was going to be right because eventually John, in trying to rescue the hostages that include Holly, unintentionally contributes in the destruction of her workplace. Holly has two obvious choices now, move to New York with him and finding a job will be difficult because her references are dead. Or stay in Los Angeles and ride the publicity train. The two don’t talk about it, grateful just for being alive. If it’s any consolation, she’s very assertive in trying to protect her boss and coworkers. She gets to call Hans out as a thief, and Holly’s the character who makes the film’s last act of aggression.
Albert, the Modern King
I found two brilliant starting points in The King’s Speech, both marking many of the film’s themes without overselling them. The first is the microphone, modernity, technology, what Prince Albert (Colin Firth) must overcome. On the surface, the radio is another way to scrutinize the volatile monarchy, especially with Albert who has a stammer. His father George V would say that the wireless means that they have to ‘invade people’s homes with our voice.’ George’s words also imply that the king’s job now needs interpersonal skills. Connecting with the commoners.
The royal court doesn’t realize that modernity is Albert’s best friend. Speaking to the microphone with his ears covered in headphones, his stammer’s gone. The phonograph is a mirror-like device, making him see his potential. There’s another modern innovation that helps him – psychiatry. His wife Queen Elizabeth (the charming Helena Bonham-Carter) hires a speech instructor, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who actually asks why he has a stammer instead of yelling at him or making fun of him. That’s what he needs to overcome his impediment and helping him out of being an ‘incompetent’ king, or worse, being self-destructive.
Leading me to Firth’s performance. His Albert has a temper and the things he yells might make him sound like a spoiled brat. He even puts a heart at moments when he can be unsympathetic, like telling Lionel he’s a nobody. Instead he reacts to Lionel and to the other characters like a person constantly prodded, a man with a secret world where he’s funny, personable, a good king.
My second favourite moment is when Lionel walks on the stage to audition for “Richard III.” This shows an improvement on Hooper’s earlier work, where a male friendship has main and supporting roles. Her he has his own failures, which is why they relate to each other. Instead of Albert predictably hilariously talking Lionel’s ear off, Lionel equally reveals his own pathos, thus helping each other to be stronger.
The Richard III audition thematically brings about the ‘monster’ who wants the spotlight. Like the Shakespearean character, the characters here openly discuss how wrong it feels for Bertie to be kingly. His brother David, or King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) finds something malicious in his speech therapy and even antagonizes him for it, leading him to regress. Lionel also brings up the possibility, which leads to the most devastating argument they would have in the film. Nonetheless, they know it’s inevitable and they have to accept him despite his imperfections.
Nonetheless, Bertie’s doubts creep on him. In one of those scenes, he argues that he has no power yet he has to do all this publicity work. The film had to make a stance, either lying to the audience that the king was the most influential, politically powerful figure in the war or stick to self-improvement and make that Bertie’s outlook, no matter the ramifications. That final self-doubt scene adds either ambivalence or ambiguity. I’m picking the latter even if it’s still a minor problem.
Kudos to the acting, hair and make-up because I didn’t realize until the final credits that Michael Gambon plays George V and Timothy Spall plays Churchill, both of whom add subtle performances of a solidly acted, layered and funny film that humanizes the royal figure. While everyone else is quoting Black Swan, I’m quoting this movie. 4.5/5.
A blogger once said that you need life experience to be a critic. That’s not true. You need life experience to be a great artist.
Zangiku Monogatari – or translated in English, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums – is about a young actor named Kikunosuke Onoue (Shôtarô Hanayagi), an adopted child of a fifth generation actor, Kikoguro (Gonjurô Kawarazaki). The rules of the game are nepotism instead of meritocracy, and Kikonosuke gets critiqued behind his back while praised in his presence. His brother’s wet-nurse Otoku decides to break that chain by telling him that her aunt doesn’t like his acting. From this revelation, the audience knows that these kids are gonna end up being together through thick and thin, but this isn’t your typical love story. It’s just as much about Kiku’s career, the battle and benefits of both nepotism and meritocracy as they unfold in 19th century Japanese metropolises.
Mizoguchi makes the decision here to use wide shots and long takes. Yes, those long takes lost my attention span a few times, but they depict a city street or a room as a way of reminding us of the old form of the theatre. The characters are in the environment and we’re watching them for minutes without blinking, like we would on a stage. Their emotions radiating through the volumes of their voice, making close-ups unnecessary. Some of the low angles remind us of a view that a lucky audience member would have in a real theatre. Or medium angle shots between walls or tree trunks or plants, from the view of someone peeping into Kiku’s relationships and interactions with others. The most obvious instances of close-ups are of Otoku, either getting fired or reading a flyer promoting Kiku’s performance, and seriously thinking about going even if she’s forbidden.
Kiku chooses Otoku, making his surrogate father disown him. He has to go to Osaka where the competition for actors isn’t as bad. He leaves the theatre with no fans to greet him unlike the other actors. When Kiku’s family make a stop in Osaka for a performance, Otoku pleads for them to give him a chance. Kiku plays a geisha and kills it. The further the camera is from the characters, the more public the place is. That doesn’t stop Kiku from showing his joy to his father, as everyone else watches.
The actors recall the Kabuki acting of the era they’re portraying, complete with gestures and physical restrictions due to their costumes. Hanayagi’s acting choices are an acquired taste, being lifeless and wooden in the first act of the film, keeping in mind that he was playing naiveté and convinces the audience that he’s more than half his real age. He eventually evokes either mean-spiritedness or insightful pathos depending on his fortunes. The actress plays Otoku is the most consistent, caring and emotional, which counts for good acting I guess. Her heart breaks when he’s away from her, which physically manifests through illnesses. I do find her character too passive, altruistic, and distressed. Her sacrifice to petition for a better job for him doesn’t feel earned. What good does it do her that she’s a martyr?
TIFF: Machete Maidens Unleashed!
The Marcoses have supported the arts including, shockingly, subversive B-films that put his dictatorship in question. One of the first voices we hear in Mark Hartley’s documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! is director John Landis, poking light fun at the taglines that got people in the drive-ins screening those B films. The film is the story of American B film-making in the Philippines. B directors, American and Filipino ones mostly under Roger Corman reminisce about the golden age of the B film, talking about large breasts as selling points for these films. Touchy, off-putting conversation, but hang in there.
The film also paints Corman as someone who goes through phases of genres lasting a year. It’s hard to find differences between genres because the cast looks the same, but there are war films to horror to jungle prison films where the Stanislavsky trained Pam Grier got her start.The female leads feel ambivalent towards their work, from Grier’s humourous take on it to others shocked at how DVD’s will put their past into permanence to one who points out how these films gave more decent work to black actresses in the 70’s.
I also wanna point out how little interference Hartley has with the tone, keeping it groovy even if the subject is exploitation or violent conditions in the Philippines. He doesn’t force a bleeding heart over the death of a stuntman. The ones interviewed have honest reactions of maturity about the films’ accident prone shooting conditions. I call it refreshingly educational. 4/5.
- Fantastic Fest 2010 Honors ROGER And JULIE CORMAN! (geektyrant.com)
TIFF: Peep World
The narrator (Lewis Black) talks about a large family sitting on a table to celebrate their paterfamilias’ (Ron Rifkin) seventieth birthday, describing every one of the father’s children as a series of mistakes. The civility and silence break when the unemployed singer/actress/dancer Cheri (Sarah Silverman) bellows at her younger, successful brother Nathan for writing a novel, also named Peep World, too accurate for her taste. This is best scene of the film, although the scene isn’t finished.
The body of the film is a flashback eighteen hours before this dinner, unsurprisingly revealing this fictional book’s secrets and more. Jack (Michael C. Hall) has a wife (Judy Greer) who faintly swears at him during her sleep, Joel’s (Rainn Wilson)’s big SUV breaks down in the middle of nowhere, Peep World the film is filming in front of Cheri’s home and Nathan is very condescending to his PR agent (Kate Mara). Every sibling has a sexual Achilles’ heel, all used for effective comic relief.
This film also has sincere moments, like the falling out when Jack’s wife finds out he frequents an adult theatre, a scene both well-shot and well blocked. The film eventually heads to the restaurant where cruelty, revelations of decades of hurt feelings and comic reliefs are the main dishes. The cast elevates this funny film, also including Taraji P. Henson who delivers the film’s best line and Geoffrey Arend, the luckiest man on earth. This is lowbrow entertainment at its classiest and best. Rating – 3/5.
TIFF: The Debt
A remake of an obscure Israeli film, John Madden‘s new film, The Debt, starts in 1965 with Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) being congratulated for killing a Dr. Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau, a composite of three real Nazi leaders. These perfect-looking Mossad agents carry their celebrity spy status thirty years later. Rachel’s daughter writes a book about them, unfortunately only Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) survive, and elder Rachel comfortably makes the people think the story ends there.
What proceeds and dominates the film are both a flashback and a solid balancing act. Rachel’s the new girl in the field, David welcomes her as his wife, the three learn martial arts and live and eat with each other, cabin fever included. Chastain is the heart of her section of the film. Worthington portrays a multi-faceted David, loving fake husband, butt kicker, wounded soul. Csokas is a believable group leader without trying to mug for the camera. We also see great glimpses of Vogel (Jasper Christensen), who conveys empathy despite being an irredeemable monster.
We forward to the older, bitter versions of Rachel and Stefan, and both learn that they must correct their big mistakes in the mission in different ways. The willing suspension of disbelief is slightly lifted since the elder and younger versions of the characters are never perfectly in sync. Comparisons with Boys of Brazil will be inevitable. I gave it a 4/5, but yes, I was being too nice.
TIFF: Black Swan
Black Swan fits director Darren Aronofksy’s other work, with an obsession with the body and performance, close-ups of Nina’s (Natalie Portman) feet and ballet flats being warmed up. There’s CGI, grainy digital photography, and uncompromising close-ups of her face. Like other Aronofsky’s protagonists, she embraces quick success without anticipating her antagonists, like rival Lily (Mila Kunis), choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel) Nina’s mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), and all the voices in her head.
The actresses also do great work here. Portman interestingly interprets her character as a virginal girl without confidence, panting at every step, obeying Aronofsky’s pendulum swing vision of her character. It’s probably the first time I’ve seen Portman attack cruelty in its basic form, scratching and clawing away at herself, as if a demon is possessing her. Kunis is smooth and elastic as she dances and seduces everyone, deserving the Marcello Mastroianni award she got this past week.
The inconsistent characters, are my big complaint. I don’t mean the other dancers’ double pronged admiration and bitchitude, from what I heard normally directed to women from women. I’m talking about malleable Nina, mentally unready to become Swan Queen, despite having a ‘flash’ of it in her. Or how the ‘prick’ Thomas still has his job. We are perceiving them through Nina’s warped state of mind, but I’m not sure if that’s justifiable enough. The film’s ending feels invigorating, but still, 3/5.
p.s. Just realized that the douche-y blonde guy from Hot Tub Time Machine is one of Nina’s dancing partners.
- Black Swans’ difficult takeoff (theglobeandmail.com)
TIFF: The Whistleblower
The Whistleblower doesn’t start with our lead, police officer Kathryn (Rachel Weisz), but with Luba and Raya, two local girls in the Ukraine partying it up. Luba tells Raya that she can get out of the latter’s job at her mom’s photocopying place and join her to a hotel job in Central Europe. And you already know where this movie is going.
Based on a true story, in trying to earn money in a short time, Kathryn’s doing peacekeeping in Bosnia for a British contract company called Democra, her family’s in the States. Kathryn thus has a strained relationship with her children, the eldest of whom is as old as the girls being trafficked. She has to be reminded of how ‘not motherly’ she is. Apparently saving young girls from pimps isn’t motherly. The tribulations in Kathy’s Bosnia occupies her mind so much, she and the audience sometimes forget about home.
I’ll stop yelling at my iPod now, where I’m writing this section of the review. Yelling not because of the movie but because of the jerks stopping Kathryn from helping these girls. The peacekeeping forces are a man’s world, most of them are demons but it would seem fictional if they show a vulnerable side. Besides, she only has one female ally (Vanessa Redgrave) out of the handful of female characters in the film. Yes, we still are unaware of ever so prevalent human trafficking. The film tackles the material with impact-filled storytelling – that’s all we ask for. 4/5.
Ready For My Best Shot
As part of Nathaniel R’s Hit Me With Your Best shot series, this week features Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg‘s A Face in the Crowd.
Marcia (Patricia Neal) is all smiles in this dank jailhouse but for some reason, she looks at a drunk prisoner Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), both moved and saddened. I watched this movie cold and for the first time. This movie begins with bucolic acoustic guitar music, the first scene acted out in this room. Misinterpreting Elia Kazan’s reputation as a theatre director and ‘Budd Schulberg’ meaning this movie was probably based on a play. It would also be a challenge to the filmmakers to create cinema in such theatre-like spaces. Mix those Rube Goldberg tangents with how I liked the way these characters are in this scene, I was assuming that this movie’s gonna stay put in this room and in this small town. But nooooo…..
Kazan was the closest thing North America ever had to a Roberto Rossellini, or is he?
This is what I imagine every pre-1967 B-movie would feel like.
Then he became a sellout douche. The best comparison I can come up with for this director and movie is Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry. This movie’s also about the advent of television and celebrity politics, with the TV set within the frame.
But here is my best shot, even if it doesn’t encapsulate the film. None of my best shots yet are like that. It’s probably yours too, which makes it boring, but I hope my write-up seems more ‘original.’
I call this the Reverse Norma Desmond Shot. Marcia reminds me of Norma’s insane, destructive impulses. A member of Rhodes’ sound crew blurted out how he would like America to see what the real Lonesome Rhodes is really like, or more correctly, has become. This little wish turns into a sinister idea that possesses her, thus the obvious but probably one of the most effective noir-like close-ups ever put to film. There’s also a little of Joe Gillis in her in wanting to unmask the truth to and about a delusional person, yet what she does to him is more cruel that what Joe says to Norma in person. She destroys him, and in doing so has to both lament and defend that rash decision.