Sunday, June 27, 2010

Poll results!

Thanks to all those who voted in the poll that has been up for about two weeks. The results are in, so let's see what you fine people would like to direct if you had bags of money and creative control.

In first place, with 31% of the votes, the readers of Between the Seats would like to direct a drama. We should all do an Oscar bait picture and see what our chances are of taking the gold.

In second place with 25% of the votes was Super indie/contemplative/abstract. This wouldn't be the first time the art house related option in a poll question here at the blog performs well. I have a sophisticated audience!

In third place with 18% of the votes was sci-fi epic. It's time for a proper remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still!

Trailing in fourth place, ouch, with 12% of the votes was an action film. Geez, are some of you readers finding my summer marathon tedious?...

There is no single last place loser! Tied for last, both with 6% of the votes are horror and historical epic. So, we're afraid of the dark and history is best left to the teachers apparently.

Thanks again for voting!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Sanjuro

Sanjuro (1962, Akira Kurosawa)

With the feverish success of Yojimbo , writer director Akira Kurosawa was convinced into quickly making a followup to the 1961 hit which continues the adventures of the brash, bold and master-less samurai Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) as he is compelled to aid a small band of young, hot-headed but well meaning samurai who want to purge the corruption which has begun to infect their clan, but find themselves outnumbered and out-armed by those within the clan who driven by the vile intentions in question. This dastardly band is lead by superintendent and his top enforcer, Muroto (Tatsuya Nakadai). The race against the clock is tight, has the villains are hoping to force the chamberlain Mutsutu ( Yûnosuke Itô) to force a bogus letter of confession. Either that or they kill him. Lest it be omitted that the chamberlain is uncle to one of the nine bucks who strive to restore order to their clan. The stakes have been set, now let Sanjuro create havoc!

So, Akira Kurosawa the great art house dramatist, the genius behind poignant character studies and the progenitor to countless exquisitely made action adventure films has chosen to make a sequel. It just sounds so strange to me, but when business is booming, you continue pumping that oil to see just how much mileage you can extract, brother. The ronin Sanjuro was so well received that I imagine there is a given logic behind the creation of a second adventure. How often do we say that the sequel to a given film just wasn’t up to the par set by its predecessor? Other than with The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather part II and For a Few Dollars More, not many examples jump out off the top of my head. It is even feasible for the maestro Kurosawa to fall into the familiar trap of sequel blues? Heresy! Blasphemy! Oh, I can hear some of you crying in apoplectic rage already.

Let us set some things straight before I risk my skin. Sanjuro is competently made. I’ll do you one better: Sanjuro is a fun, rather well paced and generally satisfying movie experience, but very generally. Mifune reprises his famous role and produces yet another entertaining performance that held my attention from start to finish. There is an indelible charm to his scruffy but oh so intelligent samurai for hire. He fine tunes a delicate balance between a character that, upon first glance, could not possibly demand any sort of respect from a passerby, but who rapidly demonstrates bravery, intelligence and a killer instinct, no pun intended. There is even a slight attempt at awkward humour in the scenes when the chamberlain’s wife (who has escaped captivity thanks to an intervention by Sanjuro and the young samurai he is helping) begins questioning his bushido ways. She does so in the most innocent and sweetest manner, and this seems to annoy Sanjuro, but he never retorts back at her in any direct and confrontational manner. Rather, his face shows a painful mixture of provocation but of understanding. These moments don’t happen often and don’t last particularly long, but they were intriguing even though don’t produce any great impact on the course of the story.

The character of Sanjuro once again displays his talents as a fantastic tactician, although one may be forgiven for starting to think most of the foes he toys around with and dispatches are more buffoons than anything else. He comes across as a little more brash and impolite than before and I suspect this has something to do with the writers trying, as is the case in so many sequels, to give audiences what they enjoyed the first time, only in double doses. Does it always work? Not necessarily. I did begin to wonder why exactly Sanjuro had to be a prick so consistently (it’s like the guy can’t lighten up in the slightest), but it does lead to some funny lines, I’ll give the film that much credit.

One other thing I want to applaud the film for is its brilliant cinematography and editing. The film looks incredible and the camera pans provide the film with a visual dynamism that I personally think surpasses the cinematography on display in Yojimbo, and if you’ve read my previous review, you know that I didn’t think that film was a slouch in the cinematography department either. The camera often dances around with precise and adventurous pans that I couldn’t get enough of. For Kurosawa fans, this is something we’ve known for some time now, but I really think the visual style of Sanjuro is some of the best work Kurosawa and his crew have delivered.

But, I am honestly sad to report, Sanjuro is not without some issues which prevent it from reaching the same heights as the first film. The first being the large band of samurai he has chosen to assist. 9 is a lot and I can’t say I ever really cared for any of them, even the one whom the film makes out to be the leader’s position and whose uncle is the chamberlain. I think the film would have been better off with just 1 or 2 dissenting warriors, which probably would have allowed for the viewer to latch onto to them better. As it stands, they’re just a ‘bunch’ of idealistic and unproven kids whom Sanjuro taunts and insults continuously. Another issue I had with the film, and this one bothered me a little bit more, was the lack of danger to Tatsuya Nakadai’s Muroto. Anyone who has seen Yojimbo or Sword of Doom knows all too well how powerful an actor Nakadai can be, especially when living and breathing the role of the villain. Here however, I simply didn’t feel that gravitas. The film makes him out to be the superintendent's enforcer, but by the end of the movie I wasn’t sure how he went about this task. We seen him peering through doors to update the superintendent and his allies more than anything else. I shan’t put any blame on Kakadai’s shoulders for this, for I think he gives a fine performance, but even an actor of his caliber can only do so much with the material awarded to him. A big, big misstep in my opinion.

There are also times when the script and dialogue become prone to a dangerous symptom which plague many sequels, be them from Hollywood, Toho studios or anywhere else in the world: self-reference. Now, when done well, self-referential humour can be funny and entertaining, but in those instances when it is handled adequately, which it mostly is here, I can never help but feel as though the script is running thin on ideas. There is a moment in the movie when the young samurai are entrenched in an argument Sanjuro’s fidelity (minutes ago he walked out of the room saying he was going for a job application with Muroto’s crew). We in the audience know perfectly well that the hero is infiltrating the enemy’s midst in the hopes of giving his side the advantage, but the band members back home bicker to no end about Sanjuro’s nature, attitude, and the potential for him to actually abandon them or help them in the end. At this point, even though some of what is said is funny and had me chuckling, it still felt as if the script was copping out, if only the tiniest bit. There are a few other instances of this type of humour and dialogue where characters will discuss and comment on the man that is Sanjuro, and while I love the guy to death, I liked the quieter, more mysterious aura about him in the previous movie that nobody dared question.

And there we have it. A Kurosawa movie that did not entirely satisfy me. That being said, I want to reiterate the point that, overall, Sanjuro is well made and ultimately an enjoyable entry into the samurai genre. Think of it this way: a B- Kurosawa film is superior to 80% of action films I’d award with a B- or even a B. Nonetheless, it’s still a B- Kurosawa film.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Yojimbo

Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa)

After a flurry of wildly successful films in the 1950s, Japanese director Akira Kurasawa chose to go even further in his blending of Western culture with Japanese sensibilities. The path he tread in 1961 was a dusty and dangerous one, figuratively speaking, as the great master created one of cinema's most influential characters in the master-less samurai (or ronin if you want to start learning some cool Japanese words) Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) who wanders the countryside, traveling from town to town in the hopes of earning a living, temporarily, as a sword for hire. Near the beginning of Yojimbo, our seemingly calm but powerful anti-hero arrives in a town which for some time now has been under the constant threat of two rival gangs, one led by Seibei (Seizaburô Kawazu) and the other by Ushitaro (Kyû Sazanka). Gambling, brothels, silk factories, there is a lot of money involved in their battle of the wits, and whomever should control the most territory shall emerge victorious. Both the mayor and constable are helpless against the situation and, quite frankly, are cowardly and easily corruptible. Sanjuro sees an opportunity to play one group against the essentially playing both for the fool, constantly shifting his allegiance from side to the other in a risky strategic manoeuvre.

This wouldn't be the first time Kurosawa mixed up styles and cultures together. A few years earlier, he and star Toshiro Mifune collaborated in their to produce their own version of Shakespeare's Macbeth set in feudal Japan. This outing would prove to be vastly different, with the plot, setting, pacing and even the cinematography strongly suggesting that this was a western, only set in Japan with the hero being a samurai rather than a lone gunmen riding into town on horse. Sanjuro himself is nothing like a kind and noble cowboy who saves the townsfolk at the last moment however. There is undoubtedly a degree of nobility about him for he opts to rid the town of people who are, for all intents and purposes, nothing but trouble. But the film doesn’t hide the fact that there is a darker side to his character than we’re used to in these types of movies. As the character himself puts it ‘I get hired to kill people.’ That’s his job. It’s what he does best. He’s also a pretty rough and tough bloke when push comes to shove and whips his samurai blade with a lethal precision, grace and quickness that makes others quiver and quake in fear when he approaches. Kurosawa wisely avoids bogging the film down with lengthy exposition for the plot at hand or any significant back story for his central character. Rather, Sanjuro, the man and the film, get right into things at about the 5 minute mark. Our devious protagonist serves as a vehicle for a film in which some people are simply good and others, such as Onu (Tatsuya Nakadai), member of the Ushitaro clan, are unquestionably evil. These suckers must be dispatched with if the town ever wishes to return to a period of stability.

This is where the significance of Mifune’s performance comes into play. Without much knowledge of who this guy is exactly, it is dependent on the actor to provide any sort of gravitas about him. Mifune, having already established himself as a star of Japanese cinema, proved to be an excellent choice for the role for he gives a very full performance. There is a mannerism about him that I’ve come to like. He can be quite energetic at times, with subtlety thrown out the window, while others times playing with quick gazes and nods and even a softer spoken voice. There appears to be a little of everything in his interpretation of Sanjuro. His behaviour in the early stages is reminiscent of a predator observing his prey, weighing his options and remaining patient while his time to strike approaches. I like the fact that the character isn’t past his prime but has lived enough battles and jobs to speak and act with experience. There are other moments when he is laughing about at the comical behaviour of certain clan members. He even permits himself to mock them in front of their own faces. Of course, by that point he has already proven his deadly skills by slicing into a few gang members, so it isn’t as if there is anybody ready and willing to do anything about it...until Onu comes back to town.

Onu is described as looking as docile as a rabbit, but his possibly innocent exterior hides an animalistic instinct to act out violently whenever his allies in the Ushitaro clan are threatened. Tatsuya Nakadai, who would go on to collaborate with Kurosawa in some of the director’s later works such as Kagemusha and Ran, gives a delicious performance which, while lacking in subtlety, doesn’t lack anything in the fun department. This man doesn’t even look to be entirely sane when we are forced to stare into those intense eyes of his. What makes this character’s presence so crucial to the film is that up until his appearance, Sanjuro was essentially having his way with almost everyone in the film. Add to that the reality of Mifune’s undeniably strong presence as an actor, and the viewer is served with what may feel like a slightly one-sided affair. The addition of Onu to the mixture evens the odds a little bit however. Nakdai is one of my favourite actors of all time and he can turn up the intensity in his performances on command. There is a brooding rivalry which immediately builds between Onu and Sanjuro, and their on and off confrontations make for some of the most compelling moments in what was already a pretty darn good movie.

Kurosawa’s gives us the full package with Yojimbo, even dropping in some very funny elements. The moments when genuine terror and suspense are felt are rather far and few between (although the scene when Onu unravels Sanjuro’s true intentions when both are sitting at the restaurant is appropriately chilly), but the director more than makes up for that by making everything seem like so much fun. The giant with his large hammer, the insults that are tossed between stressed out gang members, the juvenile nature and behaviour of other clan members, etc. There was a lot that produced some chuckles from me, more so than I remembered from my first viewing experience a few years ago. Sometimes the comedy is slapstick in nature, other times is tainted with a more macabre tone (the dog scene, anybody?), but there is little doubt that Kurosawa wanted to award movie goers with a true crowd pleaser. Even the score by Masaru Sotah is often playful rather than action packed or suspense-oriented.
The cinematography is another strong point to the film. It is very, very rich and sharp, with several shots displaying fantastic contrasts between the light and the darkness. The scenes occurring in the middle of the town when both clans face off against one another offer shots that only reinforce the notion that Yojimbo is but a thinly disguised western adventure film. Much credit should go to the cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa who put out all the stops to make a handsome looking film in stunning black and white.

Yojimbo would go on to influence many future films, both western and not, some which became quite popular themselves. It also became one of the director’s most successful films, both critically and at the box office. As the movie closes with Sanjuro leaving town, his violent work complete, we would like to walk away with him. He was a fun character who had a sense of humour but who could destroy the opposition with calculated professionalism. What do future adventures hold in store for this wandering samurai?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)

What, Between the Seats is too cool to pass up the chance on reviewing one of the summer’s most anticipated blockbusters? I think not! My father took my sister and I to see the first Toy Story film 15 years ago and, while it was not my favourite movie of all time, I liked it a lot. The sequel didn’t do as much for me although it certainly had its fair share of moments enough for me to recommend it to most people (except, ironically, my father). 11 years onwards and Pixar Studios release a conclusion to the story of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang. Truth be told, I was not excited to see the film. I like Pixar, they’ve made some great stuff, but I’m not head over heels in love with them as many are, and the prospect of a sequel rather than an original storyline had me ever so slightly disappointed. Not completely, just a little bit. Seeing the movie was in fact more of a ‘spur of the moment’ type of decision. I wasn’t doing anything for a few of hours after work, and given how the movie was playing on perhaps 4 or 5 screens at the local multiplex, there was most likely a presentation starting pretty soon, so...

So I went to see it. And enjoyed it. Nay, enjoyed it tremendously. The opening 5 minutes alone had me laughing until it hurt, as was everybody in the audience, from the elderly, the parents to the children and babies. It was hysterical, well thought out, well written and exemplified the wild and crazy imagination children have when they play with their toys, only it was Pixar doing it with top notch animation and some wicked Dolby Surround audio. The transition from that opening scene, which is in reality just Andy as a child playing with the gang of toys we know so well, to the present day when Andy is a young man preparing for college is very well done. It’s storytelling through montage, but actually done well, with just the right amount of emotion. Pixar doesn’t pour it on, but they sprinkle just enough for this scene, as well as most emotional scenes throughout the movie, to feel just right. They’re aren’t forcing you to choke up, they aren’t pleading for you to choke up, they simply want to you to understand that these characters, the boy and his toys included, are living things who can be affected by what goes on around them. A trilogy of movies literally based on toys that I can give a hoot about, really give a hoot about. Fancy that.

With Andy off to college, Woody and his band need a new place to ‘be toyed with’ as Rex the dinosaur so eloquently (and creepily) puts it. Through a complicated series of events that I shan’t spoil, the toys eventually land at Sunnyside Daycare, where they first meet a large group of plush and plastic characters who have been there for some time, including Ken of Barbie fame (Michael Keaton), a baby doll and the self-appointed ring leader, Lotso (Ned Beatty) a purple teddy bear who smells of strawberries. Most of the gang are entirely satisfied at first, except for Woody, who is convinced they should have stayed back home, regardless of what Andy would have done with them, such as keep them in the attic. The rest remain unconvinced and can hardly wait to be used by kids again. There is a catch however. Sunnyside Daycare has two different rooms for the children. While Lotso and his supporters spend the days in the room with the gentler, kinder kids who play in more civilized manner, our protagonists are sent to the room where the wild things are. Woody in the meantime is trying to find his way back to Andy, but through the process inadvertently spends a day at a young girl’s place. A young girl who loves toys and treats them with the love and respect that toys, as we all know perfectly well, deserve. With Andy now growing up, maybe there is a new place for our gang... But first they must be rescued from Sunnyside!

Toy Story 3
proves to be a more than satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The pacing is very tight, the new characters are given the right amount of screen time so we can remember them and find them cool, but the stars of the show are the same who were stars 15 years ago: the original protagonists. The humour is spot on almost every time, and I was consistently interested in seeing the toys explore and navigate the real world once again. Being only a few inches tall, they of course must tread different paths than humans to get where they need to go, and their excursions outside of children’s playrooms are one of the elements to the trilogy that I enjoy the most and always have. They are inventive, showcase the individual characteristics of each toy, and are often quite comical. There is plenty of that in Toy Story 3, with Woody and company visiting, be it by choice or necessity, tons of new locations that put their durability to the test.

Arguably what holds the entire film together, and this seems to be the case with most Pixar films, are the characters and the journeys they go through. Pixar always fall back on that one thing that typically makes or breaks a mainstream film: the writing. A good script which respects its audience and the characters which inhabit the film’s world are crucial for a movie of this nature, and the screenwriters do a great job not only tying up the loose ends and providing a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, but also giving audiences a fun standalone adventure as well. The movie doesn’t feel as though its sole purpose is to end the journey. The Sunnyside daycare and Lotso plotlines are a lot of fun and consist of entirely satisfying elements to the story in their own right. Of course, this being the final entry, room must be made to bring the full journey to an end. Without saying too much, I will at least share my admiration for a interesting decision the filmmakers made for the final 5 minutes of so of Toy Story 3. Rather than being a very big moment for the actual toys, the emotional resonance in the final moments is found in the interaction between two human characters via the toys in question. I didn’t entirely see it coming and when it transpired I thought it was a really nice choice.

Given how the movie just opened and that almost every critic, podcast and blogger will be talking about it for the next few weeks, I won’t go any further. Between the Seats does its own thing as you know. Still, I did want to take a few moments to share some thoughts on Toy Story 3. It’s a big movie that hits all the right notes and, even though I never would have predicted me saying this, it is my favourite movie of 2010 thus far.

Renoir marathon: Le Caporal Épinglé

Le Caporal Épinglé/The Elusive Corporal (Jean Renoir, 1962)

Even the greatest directors can be caught guilty of plagiary sometimes. What interesting is that in the history of cinema we have at times seen a single director return to familiar themes and plots when making their cinematic paths in history. Recently I watched a double-disc set of Yasojiru Ozu films in which one film, Floating Weeds (1954), was a direct remake of one of the filmmaker’s previous efforts, Story of Floating Weeds (1934). Certain elements were given some tweaking, such a setting and the length of specific scenes, but overall the film in very similar. Jean Renoir, in his 1962 war prisoner film set in World War II Le Caporal Épinglé, did not go quite that distance, but one may be forgiven for believing this final entry in our marathon to be somewhat of a remake of the director’s 1937 masterpiece The Grand Illusion, another film about French POWs attempting to free themselves from the clutches of German prison camps.

But other than with the overall plots of the two movies (prison escapes), Le Caporal Épinglé can and in fact does stand on its own two feet. The film opens with our hero, known only as ‘caporal’, or ‘corporal’ (played by Jean-Pierre Cassal) and his friends already withering away in a prison camp under the torrential rain. France has recently surrendered to the Nazi forces, and while things are looking glum for these sorry saps, there are certain rumours saying that the British might come to their rescue. Some believe these bits of information, preferring not to incur any great risks and wait for help to come, while others, such as the Corporal, are unwilling to remain passive. His is a freedom that shall be earned via escape and it will come sooner rather than later. Not one to be deterred by the unquestionable odds, the Corporal spends the entirety of the film executing several escape plans in motion in the hopes that one of those times he will finally makes his way back to Paris where family awaits him.

Le Caporal Épinglé is arguably one of the more entertaining films we have seen in this marathon. We have seen a lot of energetic and worthwhile material over the past month or so, but this entry possesses a fun gene that is honestly very difficult to deny. Of course, this is a 1962 film and therefore a older, more experienced Renoir is behind the camera lens, one that may not have been awarded the same budgets he once was or one that is quite as present in the conscience of film goers as before, but I believe his point of being at this stage in life awarded him with a fantastic sense of playfulness, creativity and intelligence which helps elevates Le Caporal Épinglé to something more than just a rehash of a previous movie. There is a confidence which exudes from the film that rewards the viewer with a brilliantly paced movie offering a little bit of suspense, a little bit of comedy, some weighty character moments and even a cute and aptly handled love interest.

The film explores the notions of freedom and happiness, although never too deeply as to get bogged down in didacticism. Some of the war prisoners, whether out of cowardice or some other deep seeded reason, have opted to find their way through life from within the camp walls. Work for the Germans, maybe you’ll get by. You might even get some wine and cheese for dinner if you’re particularly loyal. Can anyone really blame those who prefer this route? After all, when it pays off, things in the prison camps aren’t too bad after all, no? We see some of the Corporal’s friends earn special places within the German army (not as soldiers obviously, but translators, cooks, even prison guard assistants) all the while retaining their ultimate status as war prisoners. They’re getting by, and of course there are those rumours saying that their allies will come and rescue them... This is a reasoning the Corporal cannot abide by. Nothing will convince him of the benefits of not taking action. There is a drive in him that refuses to be dormant, a drive that will get him to Paris regardless of how many attempts are required or what the punishments are for being caught. Consequences be damned. Jean-Pierre Cassal lives this character like only the best leading men can. Along with Jean-Louis Barrault’s work in Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, Cassal gives one of my favourite performances in the marathon. He has leading man qualities that one doesn’t see often in movies. Some actors are sold as leading men, but when it comes down to it... Not so with Cassal. He has a range, a maturity, a depth that make him a terrific actor. The frustration of living within prison camp walls, the exaltation once freedom seems to be just around the next corner, the look in his eyes when seeing the beautiful assistant to the German dentist he visits to remedy savage tooth ache, etc. There are a handful of interesting and fun performances throughout the movie, but I was massively impressed with Jean-Pierre Cassal, an actor whom I was not familiar with up until now. There is little doubt that from now on when I see his name on the cover of a DVD box, I’ll think of picking up the movie.

Renoir provides a lot of differing elements to the proceedings without ever hurting the movie with a unfocused tone. Some moments are genuinely funny, intentionally so, such as when the Corporal and another friend make an escape by riding in the back of a dumpster truck, only to quickly realize the truck is going to a construction site in another area of the same camp. When a German guard finally spots them and demands what in heaven’s name they’re doing, both quickly reply that they are working and join their fellow camp members in piling bricks. Other time the escape attempts are more suspenseful or action oriented. Through it all Renoir makes it very clear that the dangerous endeavour of a prison escape can be quite unforgiving. We see plenty of characters for a matter of minutes, thinking that they will become significant supporting players for the rest of the movie, only to quickly be shown their capture by the German authorities. Other times it is the Corporal who is eventually caught while the other escapee continues his solitary road to freedom. I very much liked this aspect of the movie. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not on the part of Renoir, but it made me think of how in war, whether on the battlefield on in prison camps, it is difficult to make friends because you never know who is going down and when. One moment you think that the coast is clear, and the next the journey is over, at least until the next escape attempt. I thought it was a bit of a bold move on the director’s part. Rather have a regular cast of supporting characters (although some do make brief recurring appearances), many players are only seen for a few minutes and never again.

The final scene is one of hope but with our hero’s ultimate fate still up in the air. I won’t give it away, but I will say that I enjoyed it tremendously. It’s not big and it’s not flashy. As a matter of fact, the ending is really quite abrupt. We come to understand that while this was a trying episode in the Corporal’s life, the war is far from over and much more work needs to be done. It’s simple, and while it closes a specific chapter in this great character’s life, we are left to wonder what he does next.

*And so the Jean Renoir marathon comes to an end. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I can understand that the topic might not have been as popular as some of the other things going on right now on the blog, but I got a at least few readers interested enough to check out the director’s work, then I’ll consider my job done.

I spy...

Hey guys!

How about I do a billion plugs in a single post? Alright, let's get right into it then, shall we?

Over at the Filmspotting message boards, me and a fellow message board member, Adam (who goes by the name Corndog over there. You fine folks might also be interested in visiting Corndog Chats Cinema) are tackling the James Bond franchise. All 22 films will be reviewed and we even have a few surprises in store for the willing readers.

This exciting marathon had another message board members interest peaked. Non other than James Blake Ewing (who is called lots-sam0711 over there), writer at Cinema Sights and co-host of the entertaining Movie Dictator Club podcast has chosen to join our quest in exploring the Bond franchise.

We all have work and social lives (I think) so I highly doubt we'll breeze through the 22 films in a couple of weeks. We've already been doing it for 1 week and only 2 films have been looked at thus far, so this might take a while, but I can assure you it will be worth it.

So come join us over at Filmspotting, watch some Bond, take a glance at Cinema Sights, and give the Movie Dictator Club podcast a chance.

That should keep you occupied for a little bit.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Joint marathon topic!

Hey readers!

As I briefly mentioned last week, Bill from Bill's Movie Emporium and I are developing a new 2 blogger marathon, and now the topic has been chosen. Starting in late July (the exact date shall be determined in the near future), we'll both load up our machine guns and sharpen our machetes for a Rambo marathon.

'Live for something or die for nothing!'

This should be sweet.

Review: Splice

Splice (2009, Vicenzo Natali)


I like the movies that deliberately attempt to do things differently. There are times when the filmmakers attempts at bringing edgy and unexpected to the fold comes back to bite in the backside. There are other tries that produce exquisite results, films that one could never soon forget. Then there are the attempts that leave the viewer thinking, and thinking, and thinking...Was the movie honestly that good, or am I under some sort of spell concocted by a few genuinely intelligent and edgy facets of a movie that overall probably won't make much of a dent in film history? This sort of film is the most interesting to write about because we know we saw something special, but at the same time were are still wrestling with what we have witnessed. Will the second viewing hold up or will what I thought I saw crumble under my newly found expectations?

In Vicenzo Natali's Splice, two young scientist lovers named Elsa (Sarah Polly) and Clive (Adrien Brody) take their research in the field of splicing (forging together DNA from different species) and venture well beyond legal and moral limits when they give birth to a brand new creature containing human DNA. This new and unique being, a female which they eventually name Dren, physically grows at a remarkable rate and demonstrates some fascinating and even potentially dangerous qualities, most notably a predator-like agility and a tale with a sting containing a lethal toxin. Working under no auspices other than what their minds and hearts tell what to do, Elsa proclaims early on that the purpose of their breakthrough is strictly for scientific purposes. She is very quickly stricken by a deep attachment to the creation, which at first worries Clive a great deal. Having no naturally born children of their own, Dren becomes something of a baby, a progeny for Elsa. As this surprising creature continues to grow and develop to the point where a certain form of sophisticated communication can be established between the parties, things naturally become increasingly complicated for the protagonists, who, while trying to avoid plummeting their company into turmoil with this thing the world would not immediately understand, also wish to see it grow and form some serious bonds with their experiment.

There are a number of things Splice has going for it. For starters, it is far more sophisticated and deliberately thought out than its strangely constructed trailer proclaims. The advertisements would have one believe they are to witness a serviceable but terribly familiar creature feature, with Dren running amok and eating her way through those unfortunate souls who so choose to cage her from freedom. I’m more than happy if that sort of trailer people to purchase tickets to see the movie. Whether or not they end up pleasantly surprised by the true nature of the movie is another matter altogether, but at least people will end up seeing the film and therefore I can remain hopeful that at least some minds and hearts will come to appreciate just what it is that director Natali has conjured up. The story moves at a far slower pace than I had anticipated, but the reason for this can be found in the nature of the tale itself. This is an emotional and psychological character study, a story about upbringing, about love for one's children and most of all about tampering with things us humans are not fit to entirely understand and control despite out best efforts (resulting in some of our clumsiest efforts when one looks back in hindsight).

The close bond that holds Elsa and Dren together a motherly one, with Elsa playing the maternal role in the hopes that she can make something of a human being out of Dren. What makes the entire situation confusing is that many of Elsa’s and Clive’s attempts at teaching are in actuality limited by the confines of the environments in which Dren is subject to. She is their child in some ways, while in others she is still very much a pet. It is revealed at one point that Dren’s life cycle is functioning at an accelerated rate, one in which a minute is like a day for her. All the love in the world won’t change the fact that she is an experiment, a creature that will not, or at least, should not see the general public’s face. Yet Elsa and eventually even Clive have been clouded by their attachment to Dren. Science has been substituted with love of a certain kind, which naturally places the two central characters in a morally ambiguous posture. There is the issue of Dren’s true nature which complicates matters more so. Director Natali teases the viewer with hints that perhaps Dren is in fact more human than beast. There is undoubtedly a strong connection linking her to her two foster parents, a connection that one would be forgiven for likening to that which holds biological parent-children bonds sealed tight. However, on several occasions Dren’s other side rears its ugly head, be it via her physical characteristics or her proclivity towards instinctively bestial reactions to the world around her, small as her world may be. This perfect dichotomy forces the individual audience members to question how they might react towards the miracle that is Dren. Foster child? Pet? Dangerous and regrettable mistake? What exactly is Dren? Even then, due to her varying behavioural shifts, the answer never really becomes clear. Therein lies much of Splice’s quality: its ability to make the viewer work a bit while watching this bizarre sci-fi tale unfold.

Vicenzo Natali explores the ambiguous depths of Dren’s personality and nature even further as the story develops. As the baby morphs into a child and subsequently into young adulthood, she experiences her sexual awakening, which places both Elsa and Clive in an embarrassing position. It is at this point that the director turns the screws even tighter than in the preceding build up. With the viewer’s conclusion on Dren’s true nature still in doubt (which is logical since the filmmakers preserve her intentionally ambiguous true self), the final third takes the triad into territories that, while on a surface level might come across as gratuitous, are in fact a fitting extensions of everything that has already transpired. Certain anecdotal hints which were dropped earlier in the movie begin to have significant impact on what Dren does and becomes during the final third, a segment that fulfilled my expectations for the most part.

Splice takes a vastly different route than most monster movies. I would strongly encourage people, especially sci-fi and horror fans, to take a mere 1h40 of their time and discover this summer’s surprise film. The performances, makeup, tone and pacing are all of high calibre and Natali’s story is rich in emotional and psychological texture, elements that are often amiss in today’s sea of horror slugfests.

Let the best play!

Hey guys!

I basically never mention anything non-movie related on this blog, but if there is one thing other than movies that I love dearly, it is professional sports. Among all the professional sports I watch, football is the one I hold dearest to my heart (go Arsenal!). Of course, with the World Cup starting yesterday, you can imagine how pumped I am about the coming month.

Let's get this party started!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Back to the Future

Hello readers!

We haven't put up any polls in some time here at Between the Seats. I thought it could be interesting to bring that feature back on a semi-regular basis. Say, 2 polls per month. Sounds good? I knew you guys would agree.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior

Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior (1981, George Miller)


Following the reasonable success of their original Mad Max film (although that success was not tasted in North America), writer director George Miller, star Mel Gibson and the rest of the crew launched themselves towards the logical next step in the movie business: it was time to make a sequel. By the closing scenes of the first instalment, our hero is a changed man. His war against the biker gangs may have resulted in a victory in that each member was nothing more but a rotting corpse, but he left the battlefield with a broken heart having lost everyone dear to him. To be honest, for an action-packed adventure thrill ride, Mad Max offered quite a downer for its conclusion, with Max riding off on the highway, unsure of what the future had in store for him.

The opening of Mad Max 2 features a clever fictional montage of archival footage depicting how the world we know it entered a post-apocalyptic stage. A narrator provides some context to the footage, although the identity of said narrator remains a secret. Mankind, in its never ending lust for power and resources, turned on itself in major warfare and rebellions to control the world’s resources, most notably oil. The aftermath has resulted in humans fending for themselves either in small bands or alone (guess who’s doing it solo) in a world where might is right. Max, now with a dog as his partner, roams the open road in search of resources too and oftentimes encounters some rather nasty and unsavoury characters reminiscent of the freaks who populated the first film, only crazier and more evil of course. His travels lead him to a desperate and whimsy autogyro pilot (Bruce Spence) who takes him to a settled community where people are working oil refineries. Naturally there is a hefty squad of marauders, led by the imposing Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson). The community and Max need each other if they are to survive on approaching onslaught.

The rule of thumb with sequels is that bigger is necessary because bigger is somehow better. George Miller does apply this famous rule to The Road Warrior, which in many respects surpasses the original , especially in terms of scope, cinematography and the intensity found within the action sequences. Dean Semler was the cinematographer on set and worked some kind of magic that is rarely found in action films. The Australian outback is gorgeously captured on film, with sunsets and sunrises displaying an incredibly rich golden texture to the picture, the terrain is appropriately harsh and dusty...everything looks very handsome in the film. We don’t often witness action oriented films for which it is plain to see that time and care went into the cinematography as is the case with The Road Warrior.

As far as the action goes, almost everything we see in this outing trumps what occurred in the first film, notwithstanding a few solid head bumps that I’m still thinking about over a week after seeing them. The film offers pure, unadulterated violent road smashing. The stunt work, on almost every level, surpasses what we’ve already seen. The chases are possessed with a frenetic pace and a sense of desperation, of urgency. What the film does so well is consistently build up the scale of the action, with each and every sequence providing more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ than the last, but also unabashedly showcasing more intense and shocking violent deaths. The buildup for each sequence is also quite deliberate, particularly in the first half when the direction allows all the time necessary to set up the context of all that is to follow. This eventually culminates in a 13 minute marathon of a tanker truck, car and motorcycle chase which serves as the climax. There are so many instances of brilliant camera and stunt work which forced me to hunch my back forwards, with my hands wrapped together as I eagerly anticipated the next moment that would blow my mind. Not one to disappoint, the climactic battle on the road delivered every single time. I was stunned at how consistent and present the tension was, especially when one considers this is in a chase 13 minutes in duration. How often do we see that? What’s even better is that there are some brief character moments which hit the spot as well. This being the climax, not everyone is left standing by its end, but almost all the protagonists earn some special moments.

Larger scope in a sequel also equates to a greater number of characters, yet another rule the movie abides by. This is perhaps the one department for which I was slightly less thrilled with. I thought it a bold move to have a Max as a broken man who finds a variety of redemption by coming to the aid of the community living in the oil refinery, although his actual arrival at the decision to help them does not occur until late in the film. But unlike in the first film in which I felt Max’s character resonated clearly, here there are several stretches when it felt Max was playing second fiddle to his new acquaintances. The gyro pilot, the leader of the settled community, even Lord Humungus, who is surprisingly articulate and charismatic for a guy who looks like a WWE wrestler, are given some terrific scenes which explore their characters. All the while Max is typically watching these players engage in exchanges, and at one point is literally tied down and unable to go anywhere. There was a point where I was under the distinct impression to be watching a post-apocalyptic tale that just happened to have Mad Max as one of several characters. I’m sure there are those who adore the movie (and there are plenty of such people) that are ready to disagree with me, and they’re more than welcome to. Truth be told, this wasn’t a major gripe I had with the film. For one thing, I did like the new characters written for this sequel, so it wasn’t as though I was stuck with a cast of misfits while Max stands idly aside, which he doesn’t quite do either. Whenever the action ramps up, Max is always front and center, but I did find that his character was not as deep as in the previous chapter. The script is also a tad formulaic and it was relatively easy to predict the direction in which the plot would venture, It’s a redemption story about a glum man who believes he has lost everything, there aren’t many places for such a plot to go. Still, the individual character moments were more than strong enough to carry the movie.

While the setting and central character may be identical, a lot feels different and quite frankly better in The Road Warrior. There are some very intense moments throughout, but the film also reminds us that we are experiencing just a darn fun adventure story.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

New joint marathon!

Hello readers!

I've been in contact with Bill from Bill's Movie Emporium and we are very close to agreeing on a new joint marathon. The topic has pretty much been chosen, we just need to iron out some details.

Stay tuned.

Renoir marathon: Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier

Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier/ The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959, Jean Renoir)

And so are marathon takes us a long 2 decades following the sweep and romanticism of La Marseillaise, to a time when Renoir’s immediate importance within French cinema was perhaps beginning to wane somewhat. Younger, more contemporary directors who used to look up to the great craftsmen, such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, were finding their own way into popular culture in France and soon it would be their own films that captivated film lovers the world over. Renoir was not running out of steam however. The young, ambitious storyteller and visual artist was now experienced and adept at blending genres and adding his own visual flourishes. Working on a smaller than usual budget, Renoir chose to retell Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but set in present day (late 1950s) Paris. The names of the two iconic characters were also changed to Dr. Cordelier (Jekyll) and Opale (Hyde). The actor chosen to star was famous French theatre performer and mime Jean-Louis Barrault.

Told mostly from the point of view of Dr. Cordelier’s long time friend and notary Maître Joly (Teddy Bilis, lovable), Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier, as one can already imagine, follows the tragic end to a great researcher’s life and career as he tampered with his own inner dark side via extreme medical experimentation. Curious about man’s demons, the doctor Cordelier produced a liquid formula which not only unleashed a more brutish emotional and psychological facet of his self, but also physically mutated him into a more bestial version of himself. The viewer’s inside view into this tragedy begins the day the good doctor brings his testament to Joly, the latter whom is positively puzzled upon reading that his friend’s belongings and estate are to be left in the hands of a certain Opale. One evening shortly after this curious discovery, Joly looks outside his window to witness a strange and terrifying site: an odd looking man with a cane viciously attacks a young girl across the street (ironically, just prior to this harassment, Joly was shaking his head at the very thought of a child left to walk the streets alone at night). He and some other pedestrians race to protect the girl and give chase to the hideous madman who, despite moving with a certain limp, seems nonetheless gifted with considerable physical grace and strength, not to mention that he swings his cane like a club. The predator becomes the prey and takes refuge inside doctor Corderlier’s residence. The simple fact that this man, or thing, had a key to access his friend’s home is enough to have Joly worried sick and upon learning that there is indeed a connection between Cordelier and Opale, he begins to plead for the doctor to rethink his plan of leaving everything he owns to Apole. Things go from bad to worse once this social outcast Opale begins to attack and even murder more and more people, sometimes in broad daylight!

Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier
is very different from the other films we have studied in the marathon thus far, at least from a purely visual standpoint. As discussed on the documentary-featurette on the DVD I own, Renoir was working with a budget and overall production value of a television show, not a feature length silver screen project. This certainly shows in some of the lighting, which doesn’t come off as nearly dynamic or cinematic as, say, La Marseillaise or any other popular Renoir movies. Truth be told, it did requite a few minutes for me to grow accustomed to the visual style of this effort, but I eventually became comfortable with it. In fact, it does succeed in making Cordelier a bit of a unique experience, almost as though we were watching some live footage of everything that transpires on screen. Granted, a pseudo-documentary style is at odds with a sci-fi/horror film (and the few films I’ve seen which adopted such a technique I haven’t enjoyed), but Renoir does give the viewer something of interest nonetheless. The cinematography and editing certainly give the onscreen action a ‘in the moment’ feel and rush of energy that is at times quite surprising. The impact of the violence is aided by Jean-Louis Barrault’s strong performance as the vile Opale, whose physicality is peculiar and frightening all at once. He hops around with a slight limp and yet in actuality is rather nimble on his feet when the circumstances require him to be so. There is a false sense that Opale might not be capable of producing such sudden acts of aggressiveness, therefore when they do in fact occur, the effect is doubly shocking since the viewer isn’t sure how he mustered such a forceful and effective attack and the attacks themselves are oftentimes especially violent. No blood is shown onscreen, but Renoir also does not shy away from demonstrating the rage and lunacy of Opale’s violent streak. Both Jean-Louis Barrault’s performance and Renoir ‘s directing shine in these brief but sometimes explicit scenes. The music which accompanies Opale as he stalks his victims is oddly playful, as if he were performing some sort of circus act, which is somewhat fitting given how his abnormal movements make for a physicality resembling acrobatics.

The grade I have awarded this film, B, is a different from the usual B I give movies I watch and review. Cordelier is not a case in which ‘a few things here and there didn’t quite work but overall is the movie was good.’ Rather, the resulting grade is due to an entire section of the movie which I didn’t find particularly compelling and another which I find tremendously rich with character development and thematic texture. Most likely unique again is the fact that is it isn’t the first two thirds which thrilled me only to be left wanting for more by an underwhelming conclusion. It was the opposite. There are moments of brilliance throughout the first hour of the movie and I want to stress that so as to not have people believe I was bored to tears for 60 minutes. Most of these moments were due to the eerie presence of Opale. Overall however, I felt the movie was going through the motions of a Dr. Jekyll and Hyde tale. There was no mystery really, even though Joly and other side characters are confounded by all the happenings. Was it because I knew that this was a retelling of a story I very familiar with? Had it something to do with the pacing of the first two thirds, which showed a lack of momentum in a section of a mystery story that should never have been missing such a critical ingredient? Then again, if there was to be no mystery for the audience, then I also felt the writing in the first hour failed at building any emotional and psychological links between Dr. Cordelier and his darker half which resonated with me. This void reaching the tipping point with me in a scene where Cordelier reads a newspaper article describing the recent events involving himself and the infamous Opale. His reactions to each sentence in the article, although explained later on, made me care very little for the character of Cordelier. In other versions of the tale I feel empathy (or is that sympathy?) for the character of Dr. Hyde, something I failed to muster for Cordelier. I wouldn’t want to fault Jean-Louis Barrault for this however, who gives a fine enough performance as the doctor. I think it was more the script during this section of the movie that didn’t I didn’t find compelling.

Oddly enough it was the final third of the movie that grabbed me. The reason I say this revelation is odd is due to the fact that the last 30-35 minutes consist of either Joly listening to a recorded message from his friend Cordelier who confesses his sins or Opale, who seems to have suddenly controlled his urge to maim and kill, doing some explaining himself with re-enactments of the doctor’s past playing onscreen. If there is anything in movies, especially thrillers and horror films, that can kill pacing and momentum, it is scenes of exposition or explanations. And yet it is the voice over and flashback scenes of how and why the doctor began his horrible experiment, as well as how his testing subsequently corrupted his conscience, which inject some depth into Barrault’s interpretation of Dr. Jekyll and makes Opale come across as all the more a sad and pathetic experiment. Call me crazy but it was this nearly half hour of back story which held my attention the most. It’s strange, violent and even sexual at times. There was an added layer of depth when, based on what I was seeing and learning, I figured Cordelier never really was a great guy to begin with.

Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier gets a pass, but mostly due to Barrault’s Opale and the bizarre but compelling final 30 minutes of the film. Saying the earlier parts tried my patience would be too harsh, but I did find they lacked a certain dynamic. It was as though the movie, while it knew perfectly well that the audience had clued in on what was going on (even if you haven’t read the original story), was still attempting to build s sense of the mysterious. That never quite worked for me, but the few elements I positively highlighted in this review were strong enough for me to give the film a recommendation, although not with my usual enthusiasm.