…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “war

90’s Showdown: Ralph Fiennes

I know this is a conflict of interest because I vetted for Juliette Binoche last week, but vote for her or for Ralph Fiennes here as the better performance of the 90’s at Encore’s World. Now to my write-up…

Ralph Fienneslets his audience fill in the blanks to his character in Schindler’s List Amon Goeth, subverting our assumptions about Nazis, despite the latter’s necessarily constrictive place within the movies boundaries of good and evil. At first glance there’s no way he could have gotten his job as an SS captain without nepotism – just look at how incompetently decadent he is. On the other hand, a man who has that posture, with or without riding a horse, cannot possibly belong in the upper levels of old Germany.

The way he looks at entrpreneur and eponymous hero Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), like an older brother who drives him to both jealous admiration and protective fascination can hint to either provenance (Here’s his reaction when Oskar kisses a Jewish girl). Maybe he’s piling on his daddy issues towards him, whether it’s the father who thinks he’s never right or the one he never had.

A sequence in the movie’s second half takes us to three locations within a concentration camp in Plaszow. A Jewish couple gets married. A Polish singer performs and sets her eye on Oskar. But the encounter we’re going to focus on is between Amon and his maid/punching bag/ sex slave Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz, the Princess of Accents, in a performance that should have guaranteed a better career). Amon talks to or talks at her, a logic-defying four-minute monologue.

I keep trying to place him in different contexts, like if both wars didn’t happen. His awkward creepiness with make him barely survive my context. But his flustered way of speech is opposite of his supposed evil nature. It’s easy to prove that he’s evil – he just played target practice on a bunch of Jews. The one-on-one encounters, however, show his humanity.

The sequence’s shot-counter shot relationships shows Amon’s real place within his mangled relationship to Helen. He extends his arm the same way the singer does to Oskar, making him a less successful seducer than the Polish woman. The kissing and the glass breaking symbolize how he cannot consummate his relationship with Helen and deflects his lust to more destructive emotions.

Let’s go back to the monologue, seeming to have of different emotions, conveying waves instead of arcs. A lesser actor would have said his lines quickly and jarringly, it’s the first instinctual conclusion that we might see on paper.

Fiennes, however, delivers the transitions smoothly because he sees just one emotion instead of many. He sees disgust, its many syllables and its many targets. It’s disgust towards himself, towards the world that has both joined him and Helen and has been violently keeping them apart, disgust towards her. Only Fiennes can see not just love as the opposite of hate but within hate.

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.

Robert Bresson: A Man Escaped

Despite the title sequence in the beginning of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, he limits the scope of his story, about a German-run French prison during WWII, incarcerating thousands, including our protagonist Fontaine (Francois Letterier). I’m not saying it’s a worse movie for that but it’s unconventional, the form loyal to its cagey content. It’s a pathway connecting different eras of European cinema, the bare walls and close-ups evoking Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc while its narration is a precedent for Truffaut’s episodic storytelling. This undecorated approach however doesn’t stop its audience from finding details, helping us scrutinize the world that the movie presents as well as the characters within it. Assuming that the Germans are using French prisons, why aren’t they improving on the infrastructure to keep the inmates in? Does this mean that French prisons are easily breached at the time? This movie also presents questions on what would happen if this kind of subjugation, God forbid, happens again, and whether and how it would help both the guard and the detained.

That doesn’t mean that the weak security is doing most of the work. Much of the film are close-ups of Letterier and his gaunt yet brilliant face. He’s our voyeur, looking at the objects and people around or outside him to decide which ones will help him escape. And as he forges and bends metal with his own hands this movie also turns into a love letter of proletarian ingenuity and he makes it look both effortless and skilled.

With his actions and bragging to the other prisoners come the expectation for his escape, that pressure escalating when, as more French men get captured, the inmates have to bunk up including Fontaine. His roommate (Charles Le Clainche) is an overgrown urchin. The two are symbolic of the dual reactions occurring within a conquered people. Fontaine sticks to his guns as the elder man attached to his nation’s sovereignty while the younger, more malleable man chooses resignation, that this situation can happen, accepting his inevitable death. His character’s introduction also subverts the Darwinist pecking order worldview that most war/apocalyptic movies have. In any other movie this cellmate would die like any character showing weakness. It instead follows the adage that who people know is as important as what they know. Their unlikely friendship actually helps the cellmate’s education, giving him the instinct to fight that he couldn’t have learned otherwise.

Chick Flick Remix: Cold Mountain

ph. Miramax

In order to get a newer perspective in a repeated viewing of the Civil War romance film, Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain – dubbed in French, for some reason – I decided to read the book. So if you read any of my poetic tweets that was author Charles Frazier and not me. The time span between my rewatch of the film and the time when I read the book’s last word was less than six weeks, so remind me never to do such a thing again.

This film adaptation sticks to the story’s general idea but there are inevitable scenes and themes in the film that aren’t in the novel, which doesn’t lessen the film, mind you. I noticed that twice in the film, Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) turn away men like Strobrod (Brendan Gleeson) and Inman and tell them to go back where they came from, those men coincidentally are ones closest to them.

If anyone out there does screenings of older movies and sets them to different soundtracks, someone should use this film while playing Fleet Foxes‘ first songs. It’s better than the Enya-like OST. It somehow goes well with the film’s enthralling cinematography that takes advantage of nature’s changing deep and bright colours, from green to brown to white, adding to the film’s region-specific lyricism.

Bringing up a band who became famous half a decade after a movie with, theoretically, the same qualities reinforces my strange feeling that Weinstein made this movie too early, that other actors could have played Ada and Ruby (arguably interchangeable), Inman and Sara (Natalie Portman) competently. This strange feeling also weaves into the biggest criticism against the film, that the Miramax’s star casting got talent from the four corners of the English-speaking world, only for the inconsistencies in some of those actors’ Southern accents to stick out like sore thumbs.

But this casting still works, as Kidman brings her signature cold-hot self-imposed repression perfectly describes Ada – both are age-appropriate as ‘spinsters’ and romantic leading ladies. Law is small and exhausted as Inman would be. I imagined for Ruby as someone with a deeper voice than Zellweger, but she portrays Ruby as childlike, working for the character’s stunted younger years. This movie is also my introduction to Gleeson and Ray Winstone, playing the villanous Teague, the two will play mirrored opposites of each other or even fighting brothers, if there isn’t already a movie just like that hiding between my gaps of movie knowledge.

TIFF 100: Andrei Rublev

Andrei Tarkovsky‘s first film Andrei Rublev, like his later films, is known for his impressionistic environments inhabited by characters who exist as poetic entities. He’s also known for making movies with a long duration period. Both elements don’t make the best combination for me, but the film does have a lot of merits. Also, watch the film on the big screen if you can. The tenebrism and the close-ups look better in that format.

ph. Criterion

Nonetheless, the film for me doesn’t really start until three icon painters, Kirill (Ivan Lapikov), Danill (Nikolai Grinko), and Andrei (Anatoli Solonitsyn) set off and stop their rainy journey on a barn where a jester (Rolan Bykov) is performing for other townsfolk. His performance is physical, lively, lewd. The townsfolk repeat awatered down version of his song. Andrei stares and observes the jester like every other kid who didn’t know that staring is bad manners. He sees the man after the performance, tired but not necessarily in agony. He might even feel a camaraderie with the man, unappreciated for his talents that he exhausts himself for. Kirill steps in and says that the devil brought jesters into the world, although Andrei doesn’t show that he agrees with Kirill. The content of the jester’s song reached to some authorities, who have him arrested.

Kirill enters Theophanes the Greek‘s home. Kirill praises him and criticizes the man Theophanes has asked about – Andrei Rublyov. This is pretty much where I drool and bring up my art history background. Fifteenth century Russian icons were at the tail end on the Medieval chapter. All I knew about the era were Italians. Another impression I had of the Byzantine/Orthodox art was its rigidity, and that the image was more important. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention about the superstars of the era, which Theophanes has been and Andrei, at this part of the story, could potentially be. Anyway, Kirill’s main criticism of Andrei is that the latter didn’t seem to believe. Imparting his ‘opinion’ to the master, Kirill pleads for a public appointment to be the latter’s apprentice.

Theophanes hilariously – just to me – chooses the younger, more handsome Andrei instead, making Kirill really angry and denounces the monastery where they all live. Andrei then embarks on a second journey, the beginning of a new section in his life where he’ll see memorable sights and events along the way. These demonic moments eventually follow him through the town of Vladimir, where he’s commissioned. At least one does he take part in the lustful, violent world he only knows through theory, a Russia he hasn’t really been exposed to. He neither becomes lustful nor violent, but his experiences in this part of the plot posts the film’s real conundrum. Whether he’s passing through hell, passing through the real Russia, wondering how human beings can let a world become this degenerate and if all this exposure, participation and sympathy for evildoers makes someone a good or bad person. Tarkovsky doesn’t answer the questions more easily for us by depicting these devilish images with beauty, the long takes used to capture them letting his audience contemplate on moral dualities.

The Tatars raid Vladimir, and more than a decade later, many of the characters around Andrei have died, and those who haven’t are destroyed. The jester has little sense of humour left in him, and his bitter towards Andrei and accuses the latter of putting him in jail. He points out that Andrei has lost his looks, which isn’t Andrei’s biggest problem since Andrei has turned down work for a decade. The two are opposite a young bell maker’s son Boriska (Nikolay Burlyaev) trying to fill his father’s shoes, energizing the town in the process. Andrei observes the kid as he ha observed the jester in the past, as the audience wonders how the child’s efforts affect Andrei and his rusting talents.

100: Birth of a Nation

The TIFF Bell Lightbox first screened Birth of a Nation appropriately enough on Veterans Day 2010, since the movie remembers and aims to convey that ‘war may be held in abhorrence,’ an inter title apparently removed in the film’s online public versions. They showed the George Eastman print. No blatant colour filters like the warm sepia tone in the DVD copy I rented. The DVD also shows the Lincoln or Northern  scenes with a purplish tone as well as fires and deaths with a red filter with a bit of pink. Also, the Lightbox screened this with NO SOUND ACCOMPANIMENT. They’re showing it with sound next week called “Rebirth of a Nation.”

Writing every review or post isn’t easy, but writing about this movie feels like a monumental task. Half of this entry is probably gonna seem like an apology for the movie or a more erudite, example-filled wording of ‘but this film could have been MORE racist.’ The first parts I’ve seen of the film is the last scene between Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and the mulatto Lt. Gov. Silas Lynch (George Siegmann). I can argue that the scene, out of context, makes the depictions of both black and white races more even-handed – he IS capable of everything that white men are. I also I wanted to write said argument just to be contrary. However, I can’t call the rest of the movie even-handed. And of course, there’s the Ebert ‘we must deal with this‘ position.

The movie about the Civil War, the racial tensions during the Reconstruction while also telling the story of the Northern Stoneman and Southern Cameron families – the latter eventually founding the Ku Klux Klan – depicts most of the black and ‘mulatto’ characters disparagingly but, pardon the cliché, not everything is black or white. The inter titles of the film’s first scene say that ‘The bringing of the African in America planted seeds of disunion.’ At least it shows that the problem is centuries older than the Abolitionist movement and the Civil War. It also recognizes the inevitability in presenting an ‘other’ into the dynamic of a certain civilization and if it didn’t create tensions in 1671, it might by 1871.

That little scene also uses real black extras just like the rest of the film, although yes, Siegmann and other credited mulatto and black characters are in blackface. The scenes depicting black people in both acts of the film are the most fascinating ones, like the scene showing the idyllic antebellum lives of the Camerons, living in harmony with their slaves. When the Camerons give the Stonemans a tour of the plantation, showing the slaves on a two-hour dinner on a twelve-hour workday, which would be nicer if they paid those people. That scene’s also reminiscent of Seth McFarlane’s depiction of the Mexican quarters in Mr. Pewterschmidt’s mansion. Anyway, there are also black extras cheering the Confederate soldiers and the Uncle Toms who stick around serving the Camerons in the second half during the Reconstruction including their Mammy whose blackface makes her look like she’s in drag.

Of course, the film lives up to its reputation by exaggerating its version of history and omitting certain factors that led to the Civil War. Apparently Lincoln wanted to enforce federal rule into the states, which is the official and diplomatic wording of the cause of the war. There’s also some bitterness in elections, a theme that would be carried out into the second act of the film. There’s also the omission of slavery and abolition’s role in the war and a pretty big omission at that. and don’t even get me started on the film’s second act, with an apocalyptic revisionist history of black people ‘taking over’ South Carolina.

The film also shows the North and the South were actually friendly in the antebellum, and I don’t know how to feel and process this alternative scenario. In the Stonemans’ visit to the Camerons, the tension between North and South is reduced to boyish horseplay that has its roots with a childlike level of xenophobia between two family friends, which isn’t good enough of a reason for two sides to go to war. During the war there are also moments of humanity and kindness between soldiers in combat, when the eldest son Ben Cameron (Henry Walthall) brings a Unionist some water. We see both sides at the home front mourning the dead instead of being angry at their enemies. After the war, Elsie’s brother Philip asks her to take care of Ben, keeping in mind a friendship that might be mended between both sides.

Speaking of the home front, the film also shows women’s role and response during and after the war, and there’s a give and take in the positive and negative depictions of these female characters. The Cameron women are mostly conservative, having to sponsor the men’s war by giving up and selling their possessions. The ‘pet sister’ is also affected, and for some reason the war and even at the home invasions of the negro militia excites her. She expresses anger about the deaths and injuries of her three brothers. The film doesn’t explicitly say if she’s angry at the North, although she does take it out on her sister a bit. She gets her fire from her mother, who is brave enough to speak against a Unionist. The men again ask for their loyalty after the war, having to make costumes for the Klansmen and keep quiet about their brother’s involvement with the terrorist group. There’s also the eldest daughter, dead inside and incapable of love because of the war.

Elsie is more three-dimensional, thanks to Gish’s performance conveying personality. She has a sense of humour and uses that to hide her resentment of her brothers going to war. As a nurse she keeps the men in check while looking after and petitioning for the life of her favourite patient, Confederate Colonel Ben. When she finds out about her fiance Ben involvement with the Klan, there’s a mix of emotions and loyalties. Her desires for Ben quashed by her obedience towards her father, a wish to keep Ben out of trouble, an implied disapproval of violence. The film also depicts her naiveté especially as a war nurse facing wounded veterans and the monstrous lust of black men she eventually faces when she moves south to Piedmont – cough bullshit. I’m not sure if those are character flaws or just bad, biased writing.

The second part of the film’s reputation involves its narrative techniques and use of camera angles. I wouldn’t know how it revolutionized the art of filmmaking, since this is the oldest movie I’ve ever seen. Anyway, the camera angles show the spatial relationship between the characters and their mise-en-scene. The camera captures Ben on the right hand side of the screen facing the audience’s left side on a 45-degree angle, and the audience understand that the Camerons and the slaves, off-screen, are to his right and to the audience’s left. The camera is also placed either left or right of centre at Lincoln’s office, the hedges in the Stoneman estate or the pillars on a street in the Camerons’ city of Piedmont, efficiently expressing those spaces’ dimensions. There are also, occasionally, black spaces on-screen to focus on certain objects and faces without having to give them a close-up. Griffith’s inter titles are also very poetic like ‘While youth dances away, childhood and old age slumber,’ and minimal, letting the characters and the acting do most of the narration. Griffith’s films are my first silents, and for a longtime I considered minimal inter titles as a standard for a great silent film. Occasionally there are close-ups shown just after wide shots when certain characters are having a moment and it calls for a visual of their facial expressions, then going back to a wide shot to return to the general mood of the scene.

With the exception of a few shots, this film isn’t as visually awe-inspiring as it might have been perceived in its time. Its values, worldview and revisionist history doesn’t strike a chord with the mainstream movie watcher. The film insists that white men shouldn’t respect black people’s rights. It doesn’t even offer a solution but aggravation, showing the lack of willingness to learn on both sides. Nonetheless its reputation as an essential film for any movie geek to see persists. It shows, for one, the epic storytelling what Hollywood was capable of and will be capable of showing. We have to see it to know what the fuss is about, which side you think the film is on, which side you the viewer are on, and that the belief of the freedom of speech and expression means having to contend and preserve relics of past prejudices.

Birth of a Nation and “Rebirth of a Nation” are playing today and tomorrow at various times.


ph. Paramount

I only watched this film is because of Abbie Cornish. Her most famous role yet is that of a romantic lead, but here she both plays lover and fighter. As Michelle, she’s known the boys in this film since third grade, and she won’t stop reminding Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Philippe) that when the both of them get in trouble. When Brandon tries to road trip to DC to petition his stop-loss, it’s her car he’s using and she’s on the driver’s seat. Some detractors might see her performance as a bit Aileen Wuornos, but she’s very convincing as a tequila drinking, pool playing tough girl, and I’m a sucker for characters like hers.

I guess I shouldn’t judge a movie that I’ve only seen in parts, but many clichés are scattered in this film. For example, a hoe-down scene when almost everything that happens seems like it’s part of a checklist of what Texan veterans do. I have to remember that these characters are based on living persons, so I don’t know how racist these real people really are. And God forbid one or these characters weren’t written as Sorkinian deus-ex-machinae. It’s better to leave characters to speak and acting in their own vernacular. However, there’s no consistent rawness in the script nor in the acting. The said scene, and others after that, portrays them as textbook racists and shooting, fighting drunks doesn’t work, and instead of making the audience pity or deride them, the film makes me feel like it’s questioning my intelligence. When Brandon makes his way to DC, everyone he meets and everyone who tries to call him back seem more like allegories instead of fully fleshed-out characters. Those characters’ terribly delivered speeches are accompanied by slow electric guitars I’ve heard in every Iraq war film. I reacted more ambivalently to the way the male characters have flashbacks of their tour in Iraq, which again are very clichéd but the actors unhesitatingly go to those dark places. By reenacting those traumatic moments in their home country, it kinda lessens the images of the atrocities these soldiers have done to the Iraqis. Because we needed more of those.

P.s. Lame actor trivia/shpiel: In the early 2000’s, I had this opinion that Philippe was gonna be the best actor of his generation, seeing his roles and performances were showy in the late 90’s and all. He still did a lot of interesting stuff after that time, but he’s two inches short of being an A-lister. Philippe was born in 1974, just like Christian Bale, Michael Shannon, Joaquin Phoenix and Leonardo di Caprio. All five have different career trajectories, only Christian and Leo went ‘big’ so far as well as competed for the same roles, and none of them look like they were born the same year.