Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Portrait of Jennie

Portrait of Jennie (1948, William Dieterle)

Ghost, Stardust, Legend, these are but some famous and respected films that chose to combine two popular film genres: romance and fantasy. I for one generally shy away from both of these genres. Quality romance stories are, in my humble opinion, far and few between, and fantasy has really never been genre that poked my curiosity in any meaningful way. Whereupon learning that a Filmspotting message board member wanted me to watch a romance story laced in fantasy, I felt a bit uneasy, but since ‘I’m motivated by my duty!’, I figured I could at least make it through the film while only dozing off once or twice.

As the movie opens, a narrator (who subsequently disappears, never to return again after this opening scene) prepares the viewer with a rather ambiguous hint at things to come, that odd and fantastic events do, in fact, occur. The story of the portrait of Jennie is but one of these incredible stories. After this little intro, we are introduced to Eben (Joseph Cotton), a down on his luck and poor struggling artist living in Manhattan. A painter to be precise. Landscapes are what he claims to do best, but his works sell poorly. The many little art galleries are prone to shun his efforts and any occasion when a painting of his sells is a considerable relief. On this very day, he is fortunate enough to locate an art collector and seller, a certain Mrs Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) who takes interest in at least one of his efforts, and pays him an impressive 12,50$ (1948, remember). Content with his luck, Eben later takes a stroll through Central Park. It is there and then, during this cold winter evening in the park, that he meets a girl who will not only change his day, but his entire career as a painter.

Fate, or dumb luck, has him stumble upon a girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She is perky, friendly and sweet. But her comments about her parents don’t seem to ring true. She claims that her folks are part of some kind of circus act in a New York theatre that has been closed down for several years already. She is also wearing clothing the style of which is clearly from decades past. She leaves as abruptly as he met her. Struck by her character and revelations, he decides to paint a portrait of her based from memory. Mrs. Spinney the art dealer is struck by the sheer beauty of this new piece of art and purchases the said painting for a handsome sum. Content with his growing success (he begins to find work for a few people), he is nonetheless perplexed and fascinated by Jennie who returns to him, almost always in Central Park, every few months or so, but a few years older each time. With each meeting she blossoms into a real beauty of a bird. She likes him and he likes her. But where does she come from and is Eben the only person who can see her? He must find the truth not only because it is a great mystery, but because he falls in love with her more each time she ages.

To say that Portrait of Jennie surpassed my expectations would be a disservice to the quality of the film. My expectations were relatively low to begin with. No, it would be more appropriate to simply come out and admit that I really liked this film. Virtually all the pieces of the puzzle, no pun intended, were a perfect fit. Right from the opening shots, narrated by a booming male voice, it is clear that a great many lengths were taken to provide the film with a rich, mysterious and wondrous look. The clouds in the sky, the sun light rays, the bird’s eye view of Manhattan, the opening minutes offer splendid visuals. The theme of portraits and painting haunts several outdoor shots, which are layered with the texture and look of a painting canvas. It’s looks a bit odd, but then again, the story is so peculiar that I guess the filmmakers thought ‘Why Not?’ And why not indeed. The choice of cameras angles and lighting, particularly when Jennie makes a new appearance, are not only striking for their beauty, but memorable because that very style and beauty adds to the haunting nature of the story. There is a scene occurring during the daytime on the ice rink in Central Park when Eben sees Jennie approaching her. He looks on, in the direction of the sun, which partially blinds his view of her. She is but a dark figure approaching on skates, with eerie and fantastical music playing in the background. As she meets up with him, the viewer, as well as Eben, realizes that she has grown in age since that last the two characters met. It’s a highly effective sequence, both visually and for storytelling purposes. Eben is, despite the love he feels for Jennie, haunted by her. She appears and leaves as smoothly and quickly as a ghost. For all we know she may very well be a ghost, or a bizarre fabrication whose source is the lonely state of Eben’s mind and heart. There is always something in the score, the lighting and camera angles during their encounters which hint at the fantastic nature of their relationship. What I found to be a pleasant surprise was that the film doesn’t go too far with that style. It isn’t a science-fiction tale, or a ghost story per say. That is why I say the fantastic element is ‘hinted at’ in the visual style of the film. The film teases the viewer and it is arguably a better film because of it.

The acting is quite solid all around I have to say. Joseph Cotton is tremendously well cast as the hopelessly romantic and determined Eben. He embodies the character of the charming but empty artist in the early goings very well. He has some class and comes of as someone full of potential, but feels depressed by the apparent doomed nature of his profession. When things take a turn for the better, he exudes a lot of confidence. But of course his best parts of the performance come in the later stages of the film, as Eben is racing against time and fate (no spoilers) to unlock the mystery of Jennie life. Madly in love with her but fearing that they may not see a happy ending together, Cotten is excellent. Jennifer Jones inhabits the titular role with skill. Jones shifts the intonation of her speech, the words she uses and her posture during every new scene she is involved in. As the character of Jennie grows, the acting put on by Jones must evolve as well. Not an easy task necessarily. In fact, the nature of her character reminded somewhat of Benjamin Button, even though the secret behind their rapidly changing physicality is completely different. I though Jones understood how to change her behaviour to adapt to the changing nature of her character in impressive fashion. The only scene that rang a bit awkward was perhaps her introductory scene. The character of Jennie is portrayed by Jennifer Jones, but the viewer is lead to believe that Jennie is only a child. It comes of as a bit creepy to be honest. Other than that one scene, I really liked Jones in the film.

Director William Dieterle finds the right balance between romance, mystery and fantasy with all the tools at his disposal. One genre never really takes over the other. I never had the impression that I was watching a ridiculously sappy love story, nor was I led to believe that this was an outright science-fiction tale. The mood of the film is set right from the very beginning and rarely steers off course. There was perhaps a short bit in the middle of the story when I felt a bit of momentum was lost. By the time Jennie takes Eben to visit her Catholic school, I felt the novelty of her shifting age had worn off somewhat and was worried that the film would just series of new meetings for the next while. I didn’t find the Catholic school sequence all that interesting either to be honest, which is maybe why I felt a lull in the pacing at that point. However, the moment Eben finds Jennie in his apartment one night and decides to do a full portrait of her, things really kicked into high and the pace of the narrative remained exciting until the very end. In fact, the intensity of the climax is made even greater by a bizarre stylistic choice to show it in colour. And even then, the picture is mostly covered by a tint of a peculiar green colour. It’s quite strange, but, as I mentioned earlier in this review, with such a peculiar tale being told, these weird decisions by director Dieterle all seemed to fall into place anyways. Even the prologue (of sorts) has a different colour scheme to it, this time a warm shade of brown. There are in fact four three separate colour schemes in this single movie. It’s rather nifty.

A very good romance story overall.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review: Artists in Wonderland

Artists in Wonderland (1998, Sato Makoto)

Walking down the halls of a painting gallery can be a pleasant experience for many people. One observes the scenes and objects put to canvass, the technique used to create the piece (provided one understands such things), and in all likely will live some kind of emotive or intellectual response. What is the picture about? What do I think it is about? Why were such colours chosen? Why is she smiling at me? How come Goya likes drawing death and decay so much? What is that itchy feeling in my pants? Etc.

Of course, for the most part the paintings you and I study and observe at the gallery were created by respected artists, some of which are known the world over. Their art tells a story, releases or relieves frustrations, challenges. Whether the work be as clear as another one of those ‘Jesus on the cross’ paintings, or as abstract as that one with the spheres and the thingy, we can appreciate the effort.

Japanese director Sato Makato takes those ideas and documents them for the viewer to observe in a slightly different light with his film Artists in Wonderland. Makato visited several different mental institutions where patients were encouraged to channel their capacities and emotions towards creating art, most notably paintings and sculptures. The mind of a mentally challenged individual is fit only for the specialists to even attempt to understand, but by and large the regular societal members will agree in saying that a mentally ill individual simply doesn’t ‘think’ or ‘function’ as, or the lack of a better term, ‘normal’ people do. What kind of art would they create if given the opportunity? If a monkey can make art, then there’s no reason why a mentally handicapped person can’t. After all, it is said that the activity of creating a work of art can be a soothing and possibly a healing experience.

The concept of the film starts off in promising manner. The viewer witnesses a mental patient drawing an elaborate if somewhat confusing picture of a plant with one of the employees supervising him providing some comments which were recorded off screen and hence narrate this segment. Her comments are intriguing and give some insight into how these patients approach their work. She briefly comments on what techniques she, as a student, had been taught to adopt when drawing plants and various objects. Her educational background provided her with rather technical strategies and guidelines to follow and help channel whatever inspiration she had. What she notices is how the patient, lacking any formal training and probably with a radically different thought process, is creating what she sees as an impressive picture, full of detail and rich textures of emotions. Whereas she was instructed to begin a picture of a plant with a particular part of the organism, she explains that the patients tend to start their pictures with whatever leaves the biggest impression on them. It is the impression from whence the art is derived.

From there Makato takes us to a couple of other facilities, each one populated by patients who have struck a love affair with the arts. One in particular, an elderly man, invests his efforts in the moulding and solidifying of clay sculptures. He is a colourful character who, despite his overall good nature, consistently mentions ‘what a pity it is.’ What exactly is ‘a pity’? I’m not entirely sure, but it made the chap rather comical. His works are not representations are clear, easily discernable objects or people, but rather abstract shapes and forms. Yet another patient, who demands that all name him She-chan, is a bit of an eccentric (even for his condition) who shouts that he likes high school girls in mini skirts. Although it never occurs on screen, it is hinted that She-chan sometimes becomes a bit physically violent with those around him. Yet, he channels his emotions as well as love for beaches and bikinis on a very art-house-esque program which features him as the star narrating whatever he feels like. Each of these patients eventually sees the results of his and her efforts displayed in some galleries.

The crust of the film, as you can probably imagine, is the reality that impressive, curious and noteworthy art is emerging from these handicapped minds. I don’t think the film is trying to prove anything necessarily. There is no spoon fed message of ‘look you insensitive fools, these people can create beautiful things!’ The idea of simply following these people as they work on their respective projects in preparation for the expositions is a fascinating one. There is absolutely no intrusion whatsoever on the part of director Makato. He doesn’t interfere with any of the depicted moments. He lets the camera, and hence whomever the camera is capturing at a given time, show reality. There are a few shared moments with the family members or friends of these patients and even a glimpse or two of She-chan being told that shouting at and pinching people doesn’t leave a good impression of him with others. Mostly however, we see these outcast artists at work. For that reason, the film does put the concept of art in an interesting perspective. As I mentioned earlier, the movie isn’t hammering home any specific argument, but I was captivated by the art given life by these supposedly stupid people. What’s more I found the fruit of their efforts to be very beautiful, at least most of the time. I was particularly taken by the sculptures created by the elderly patient (we even see him one night working with a kiln, which is a fun scene). It was equally rewarding to see that the time and efforts put into the preparations were treated with respect by and large by those helping them at the institutes. The film never tries to make up a ‘villain’ in order to construct some artificial conflict.

And yet, despite that major strength, I was hoping for a bit more. By the end, I longed for some more comments and analysis, the likes of which the viewer is given at the beginning regarding technique and inspiration. It would have been nice to hear from some of the visitors to the galleries once all the works are put on display. Some comments from the friends and family members would have added some context to these talented people we follow around for 90 minutes. Anything to add some meat to what is on display in the film. The value of art, what is means to different people, what it can do for these mentally handicapped people, what it might mean for them, etc. There is absolutely none of that. It’s 90 minutes of them working in their projects and putting them on display, with a few scenes featuring them in interaction with family or the people working at these facilities.

The absence of any of the above elements doesn’t hurt the documentary all that much. I like the film. It has an interesting topic, it spends a lot of screen time observing the patients toiling away on their art and unlike some documentary filmmakers, Makoto chooses to remain impartial throughout. It could have been more is essentially my complaint. Good but by no means great.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides (1999, Sofia Coppola)

A few years prior to the much heralded Lost in Translation, the film director Sofia Coppola is most known for, she created and released her feature length debut, The Virgin Suicides. Transpiring in the often mocked setting of white suburban America, the film is the recollections of a group of young men who were fascinated by the 5 Lisbon girls, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon (James Woods and Kethleen Turner respectively) who were strict parents to say the least. Devoutly religious and quite protective of their daughters (Cecilia, Bonnie, Therese, Mary and Lux, the latter played by a young Kirsten Dunst), the Lisbons have fearful thoughts about the well being of their daughters once the youngest of them, Cecilia, attempts to commit suicide by slitting her wrists.

When little Cecilia’s second attempt proves far more effective (by jumping from her window and landing on a spiked iron fence), the protective nature of the Lisbons gets into maximum overdrive. The title of the film gives away, partly at least, the reason behind the fascination the four boys (one of which is acting as the narrator for the viewer) have for the Lisbon girls. They die by suicide. They were also eye candy for most of the young bucks at school. They seemed nice enough, despite the stuffy nature of their parents, even after the early demise of their youngest sibling. Why therefore did they choose to die? Our narrator mulls over the stories and anecdotes about the sisters and shares them with us.

There are some great moments in The Virgin Suicides. An evening of animal documentary watching at the Lisbons to which the hunky Trip Fontaine (Josh Harshnett) is invited (in an attempt to impress Lux, the apple of his eye) is quite well set up and funny, as is a scene in which Mrs. Lisbon, out of rage spurred by a recently disobedient Lux, orders her daughter to burn her rock records in the fire, with Dunst crying pitifully things like ‘Please, *sob. Sob* Not KISS!’ An ambiguous party scene near the end of the film featuring the theme of asphyxiation is equally gloomy as it is curious. The evening during which the Lisbon sisters and the four boys call each other and play music records on the phone. There are several more I could mention, but then I’d be spoiling too much of the picture, and so therefore shan’t. I recognized director Coppola’s strengths as a filmmaker, or at least those qualities that I deem to be strengths. Many individual scenes were very well executed, either due to their tone and mood (which consists of an amalgamation of factors), the edits, the camera angles, or even the music. The music is not something I often pay close attention to in a film, and when I do it’s usually the score, but I felt that the musicality of the film worked nicely. It never bordered on sentimentality, which could have easily been the case with such a story involving the downfall of 5 beautiful young sisters. Essentially, there were a lot of individual scenes that I liked quite a bit, plenty of moments that seemed perfectly constructed. Many included tiny bits of dialogue that I felt were quite sharp, either because they helped add some layers to the story and characters or just because they were darn funny (‘I thought you knew morse code…’) Coppola even manages to extract fine performances from actors who, for all intents and purposes, have gone on to be ridiculed for the most part by many audiences later in their careers. I’m speaking here of course of Kirsten Dunst and Josh Harshnett. Harshnett is the high school hunky boy that all the young damsels would love to get their hands on. Even though we don’t get to know him that much, I thought he was fine. Kirsten Dunst as Lux plays the sister the viewer gets to see perhaps the most of. It’s not as if we really understand her completely by the end of the film, but she is more than passable as the cute girl next door wanting to explore things behind her parents’ backs. The shy girl with a darker side to her if you will.

What’s all this about ‘not knowing the characters’ however? That’s the strange thing about Coppola’s debut effort. There is a detachment, for the lack of a better term, that permeates throughout. The film never makes a genuine attempt at exploring who the boys are even though they are the ones sharing this information with us, nor does the movie provide a clear picture of who the girls are and what may be troubling them. This was made all the more peculiar by the fact that several scenes actually take place within the Lisbon household. We do get to spend ‘time’ with these girls and yet by the end, I couldn’t really say that I was all that familiar with them, with the slight exception of Lux, whom we see the most of, although we never really dive into her psyche. By the end, I kept asking myself why was such a decision was made by the director. For such a dramatic occurrence, why keep the audience on the outside looking in? I wondered if the film would have been superior, or more engaging at least, had the focal point been the exploration of these 5 suicidal girls. I soon admitted that that was perhaps a bit pointless exercise since that wasn’t how the film was made anyways.

What struck me eventually was the actual fascination the young boys have with the Lisbons. They are young and impressionable and they have a certain accessibility to the girls since one of the boys is a front door neighbour and invites the others regularly to check up on them via a telescope (funny but a bit creepy). Much like all the other boys at school, they do take a certain liking to these sheltered beauties. They are seemingly unattainable, protected by the conservative iron will of their parents (especially their mother). However, by living close by, they do in fact have a limited access to them and do eventually, through some odd ways, come in contact with them. I’m sure they had their own ideas about the girls, just as we all do about people who we know a little bit but not enough. They eventually fell in love (puppy love) with them and want to know them more. The fact that the girls are heavily guarded makes the chase all the more important to them, it becomes the mean to a hopeful end. With that in mind, I thought about the ultimate and tragic fate of the Lisbon girls, that is, their apparent collective suicide, as well as the setting in which it occurs. Their sheltered teenage lives are restricted by not only by curfews but by the seemingly rigid structure of suburbia. The story is set in the 1970s, new things are emerging, America is changing, long gone are the days of innocence which evaporated with the death of President Kennedy and the fiasco of the Vietnam war (oh wait, I’m sorry, I almost forgot. The U.S. ‘didn’t lose’ that war, zoink!). What I concluded was that The Virgin Suicides was almost a different version of the story found in Revolutionary Road (the novel obviously since the film was released 9 years later). Revolutionary Road invited the reader to witness the deterioration of a couple’s life in suburbia from the inside. What the characters want in their minds and hearts and what their immediate surroundings and social setting expect of them cannot co-exist. They are two pieces of the puzzle that will not fir together. Their neighbours and friends see them as different, as the odd couple out, but we the readers and viewers know what’s happening within those walls. That doesn’t change the fact that the neighbourhood wonders about their behaviour. What the Virgin Suicides does in a sense is twist that a little bit. The Lisbon girls are younger and most likely more immature than the protagonists found in RR, but many of the similarities in their situations remain. A stifling suburban setting that does not encourage, and in fact shuns, specific behaviours that are considered by those who have happily adopted the suburban way of life as at odds with proper living. The twist is that the viewer does not have the privilege of witnessing much of in-house drama. Rather, our information is restrained to what those closest to the girls, outside of their parents, know. In this case, it is the boys who live in front and who have given into an innocent infatuation with them.

So why did they kill themselves? I think that’s the point of the film, or one of the themes of the film. The outsiders looking in and wondering what the heck happened. Suburbia, its concept, its nature and the eventual stereotypes that have derived from it have provided it with an almost mythic quality. There is a structure and certain norms that guide suburban life, or so say the stereotypes (I say stereotypes because I have never lived in a truly suburban setting I therefore can’t comment with absolute certainty). When something against the norm occurs, people take notice. When they happen to as fascinating people as the Lisbons, then people definitely notice. There is also the reality that this story is being retold by one of the boys. Had the story been told during the moment, that is to say, had it unfolded for the first time as the viewer witnesses it, I think it would have led to a different film. What we are left with are the recollections of a young man once obsessed by the Lisbons as a boy. His fascination is only intensified by the girls following their suicide. He’s of the few who, along with his 3 friends, knew the girls to a certain degree and yet he still can’t quite fit all the pieces together to understand what went wrong.

It’s a rather dark film when one thinks about it, and I don’t only mean that regarding the demise of the Lisbon girls. These young lads are probably scarred for life in one way or another. They were much closer to the girls than most (possession of one of their diaries helped needless to say) and therefore probably feel a certain connection to them, a connection that went beyond their puppy love. The success of the premise therefore rests, I presume, on whether or not an audience member is willing to embark on this journey with the boys. Does the audience member mind being on onlooker, an investigator and on the outside looking in as opposed to experiencing the heart of the matter? I suspect some may find themselves left out in the cold by director Coppola. To a certain degree, I did as well until I came up with the nature of the thematic and narrative twist I describe above. I could be completely off target from what Coppola had in fact intended, but I felt it was the best way for me to appreciate the chosen structure of the story because it is true that by the end, the mystery is still very much in the open. We simply haven’t learned enough to make a concrete judgement supported by absolute certainty, even though, yes I do concede it, the film does hint at a possible reason. In fact, one could even argue that it is strongly hinted at, but the juxtaposition of that hint and how the story is told (from an outsider’s point of view) didn’t encourage me to yell some kind of obvious explanation by the end. We never get anything from the horse’s mouth.

All this makes for a peculiar film. The narrative twist is to be admired, but I also felt that that same twist doesn’t invite me to feel very passionately about all of it. A fascinating story is told based on what some kids saw and read years ago. Is no reason not to suppose that their memories of the facts are suspect. I did get a certain vibe of detachment from it all. I think The Virgin Suicides is a film that, stylistically at least, succeeds on several levels. But for such a dramatic story with the potential to be quite gripping, I never felt fully engaged. Although a fine film, I think that I admired how it was made more than what it made me feel, which wasn’t too much. I certainly like it, but, like many of you reading this (if you are still reading this), I think that her sophomore effort, Lost in Translation, is a superior film, even though I won’t jump on the ‘this is a perfect film, how can you even think of criticising it?’ bandwagon. Overall, a pretty good film.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: Out of Sight

Out of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh)

Out of Sight is a heist and a romance story rolled into one. In theory, that doesn’t sound terribly unique, but then again, Soderbergh has a knack for finding fun, thoughtfulness and creativity in tried genres. Out of Sight is not as daring as, say, Schizopolis, Solaris, Kakfa or Che, but by looking through the director’s filmography, there is little doubt that the man is confident in approaching genres he has previously not adventured into. What’s more, it would only be a few years later in 2001, that Soderbergh would prove himself yet again capable of delivering a stylish heist flick with a fun cast of characters in the Ocean’s Eleven remake. Of course, one could put into question his ability to produce consistently high quality heist flicks, as the 2 Ocean sequels, in my book at least, offered diminishing returns each time.

But let’s stick with the film at hand, shall we? In Out of Sight, Jack Foley (George Clooney) is what one would call a professional bank robber. It’s all he knows how to do, even though the movie doesn’t hide the fact that he has been caught on numerous occasions. When it is assumed by a character that he has probably spent almost half his life in prison, cool Jack makes no attempt to refute the guess even. One evening while parked just outside the prison grounds, U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco’s (Jennifer Lopez) involvement in the plot is set in motion in true John McClean. Occupying the wrong place at the wrong time as Jack makes his latest escape from prison from a hole in the ground just outside the prison gates, she is thrust into the burglar’s life just like that. Outnumbered by both Jack and his partner in crime Buddy Brog (Ving Rhames) who was waiting outside not too far from Karen’s car, she’s thrown in the trunk of their vehicle along with Jack, who can’t be seen from the police and therefore needs a quick place to hide. Buddy drives while Jack and Karen are forced into an up close and personal situation.

It’s in the cozy confines of the trunk that Karen begins to see the charming side to Jack. Sure, he’s a thief, but he’s played with such suaveness by George Clooney that I’m sure Glen Close from 101 Dalmations would feel some sexual tension. This is where perhaps Soderbergh probably let’s the genre take care of itself a little bit. Really, can Karen take a liking to this man after a 5 minute ride in a car trunk? I don’t think so, but then we wouldn’t get the great scenes that follow. Therefore, as they say, so what? Karen, the good Marshall that she is, escapes her situation and vows to track down both Jack and Buddy as they head to Detroit to hit a big diamond score with the assistance of the treacherous Maurice Miller (Don Cheadle, pimping and loving every moment of it, but not with a British accent). The movie doesn’t play things so foolishly that Jack and Karen find love at first sight in that trunk of course. The scene is over just as abruptly as it began, but there is instant chemistry between the two. Jack has been around the ropes (he admits to being married once) and seen a lot in life. He’s also a very confident man, even when in tight spots. The rapport between the two key characters is therefore set up nicely.

Both Jack and Karen enjoy risky business. They’re both in risky businesses themselves and are putting their futures in jeopardy by giving in to their feelings. There is a superb, sexy, well written scene near the end during which Karen, sitting at a lounge bar refuses the advances of two gentlemen, only to offer a warm smile to Jack as he arrives a few moments later. She knows she can’t be flirting with this criminal, but the scene is played out with such confidence and sensuality by Clooney and Lopez they the viewer can’t help but want them to have at least a little but of fun, even though it’s the dumbest decision they could make. What makes the scene work as well is that earlier in the film when both were trapped in the trunk of Buddy’s car, Jack had begun dissecting the idea of what things would have been like had they met under different circumstances. The bar scene is essentially the pay-off for that earlier set up. Clooney, unsurprisingly, brings his A-game to the proceedings. I imagine that one could criticize Clooney for playing the smooth crooner too often in his career, the handsome man who just seems to have it will all the pretty women. Perhaps, but when I would argue Clooney has not only shown some versatility with other, more dramatic roles, but, when it comes down to it, he’s really good at playing crooners who have it with all the pretty women. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. One shouldn’t overlook Lopez however. It’s a shame she never went on to make more good movies because she does show at least some capable acting here. It helps that she looks elegant in almost every shot, but I really did believe she brought a sensibility to her role that I was not anticipating. I honestly only knew her from some of the few music videos of hers I had the displeasure of watching. I was therefore sceptical to say the least. The results were a nice surprise. Ving Rhames is arguably the least interesting character in the story. I can understand that Jack needs a helping hand, but Rhames, a fine actor when giving the right material, doesn’t do much here. It’s a shame because I do really like the guy, but I’d be lying if I said I gave a hoot about what happened to him. It’s Cheadle who steels scenes here, blowing away cool and dangerous lines by the minute. He’s not a terribly well developed character, but I couldn’t help but find him an amusing one.

Soderbergh, for one reason or another, enjoys toying with the chronology of scenes. The scene we see in the middle of the film may have taken place 2 years ago, as is the case on a few occasions here. In Schizopolis and The Limey the tool had a spectacular effect. Here, I wonder what the purpose of it was. It doesn’t hurt the movie, but doesn’t add anything substantial either. Can the argument be made that the story would have been a bit to stale had everything been told in the correct chronological order? Directors edit in and out scenes all the time during post-production in order to make their movies as effective as possible. I myself haven’t tried to replay everything in the correct order in my head, but I’d be curious to see what the results would be. Playfulness for the sake of it I suppose. I did find however that, as a complete cinematic package, Out of Sight looked very handsome. The colour schemes during the evening scenes, the playful editing within scenes, it all looks very stylish. I thought the score, while quite subtle most of the time, was very smooth and fit the film nicely.

Fun dialogue, fun characters, a brilliant opening scene (especially if you are a heist fan, it’s really clever) make for an entertainment movie. There is nothing exceptionally experimental, unique or quirky going on here, so art house lovers may not find that much to like, but as solid entertaining, Out of Sight delivers in spades. In fact, I like it more than Ocean’s Eleven. There is a greater intimacy to the characters in this film I find.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Disney Marathon: Fantasia

Fantasia (1940, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Fort Bebee, et al.)

Released in 1940, Fantasia origins can be directly linked to Mr. Disney’s desire to give increase the popularity of his much beloved character Mickey Mouse, whose profitability had dwindled somewhat in the few years prior. Inspired by the classic poem Der Zauberlehrling (Goethe), known in the English language as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the short cartoon would feature Micky Mouse as, what else, a sorcerer’s apprentice who, despite not being fully trained in magic, uses some powers to make a broom take care of the house chores with serious repercussions of the apprentice’s hastiness ensuing. Conductor Leopold Stokowski accepted to conduct the music for the film at no charge at all. A Paul Dukas piece, L’apprenti sorcier, would be the music that accompanied the on screen action. Fantasia would also be the first feature film to display its soundtrack in stereo sound, meaning that different sounds would emerge from different speaker in the theatre. It’s a rather standard quality of movie going to day (expected by most in fact), but back in 1940, the use of multiple audio channels and speakers to produce a more realistic audio experience was an impressive first.

The powerful development in sound design, coupled with intricate and impressive animation quality to bring Micky and supporting characters to life (this is 1940 remember, they ain’t making Bolt with computers here), rose significantly beyond what was normally needed to produce a short back in the day. With that in mind, it was deemed more prudent to augment the costs some more while making The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but one segment in a feature length musical program which would include several skits, each one accompanied by music for sound alone. A music conductor named Deems Taylor was even hired to narrate the program, thus providing a bit of context to the segments before each began. It was Stokowski’s suggestion in fact to name their effort Fantasia, which, as a noun, can mean either a ‘musical composition that does not follow a conventional form’ or ‘a musical composition based on several familiar tunes’ (both definitions from the Paperback Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2001.). A rather apt title given that not only are the musical pieces featured throughout the program quite well known but the program itself does not follow any conventional form. There is no story per say or evident overarching theme that ties everything neatly together, with the exception that all the music played is of the classical variety.

Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Schubert, all these and more are given the Disney treatment in Fantasia. Playing out like a concert in fact, the film opens with Deems Taylor welcoming the audience and explaining that for the next little while, conductor Leopold Stokowski his orchestra will play some classical music pieces while original cartoons, inspired from the said music in the minds of the creators and artists at Disney, play for all to enjoy. Essentially, this a marriage of music and animation, but more specifically, the marriage between famous classical pieces known the world over with the creative talent at Disney Studios and whatever ideas that music could evoke. Taylor provides an interesting tid bit about music before the concert begins however, explaining briefly that there are three varieties of music. A piece can tell a definite story, a piece can have a theme (but no story) and a piece can simply be there for the pleasure of the listener, the composer having not written it with any specific intent or plot in mind (absolute music). I thought this was a crucial bit of information because it prepared me somewhat to comprehend the onslaught of sights and sound that were to follow (if you haven’t guessed already, I had never seen Fantasia except for Night on Bald Mountain). I could therefore find my footing a little bit instead of constantly wondering why exactly certain images were chosen to accompany any chosen musical suites. I still did at times, but with the knowledge (or reminder I suppose since I think I already knew that) that music can just ‘be’, I was prepared to let myself witness what Disney had in store for me as opposed to over analyzing anything.

And then it began with Johann Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a piece I love. There is a power and majestic quality to it that almost brings tears to my eyes (I said almost, so don’t get any ideas). Visually it started a bit slowly I find, with shadows of the orchestra’s player splashed on a great wall with some colours added for style (interestingly enough since Taylor, only moments ago, suggested that absolute music might convey only blots of colour to the listener at first). The only element I found annoying about this segment was how Taylor actually gave clear hints as to what would appear on screen for this part of absolute music. Personally, I would have preferred to be completely whisked away since (or ‘gone in cold’, if you prefer). I thought Taylor was just fooling around with his description of what an audience member might envision in his or her mind when listening to absolute music. A few minutes later, I see that he was in fact telling us what visual treats the segment reserved. Still, I thought the animation quality was simply exquisite. Obviously, it’s quite abstract and I therefore shan’t go into the intricate details of what hits the screen. Discovering it is part of the fun after all.

Interestingly enough, the next segment’s soundtrack is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which is for a specific story (the Nutcracker ballet), but Disney decides to animate the short with original material, completely non-Nutcracker related. A peculiar but intriguing artistic choice if I may say so. I did think that the visuals, from the seductive fish underwater to the little pixy fairies, possessed a delicacy, a playfulness that suited the music. It’s a difficult short to get into if one can’t separate the fact that this immensely popular piece of music was written and conducted for an equally popular ballet, which is still played around the world till this day. If you just can’t think of anything other than the Nutcracker ballet accompanying the suite, then perhaps the second short won’t be your cup of tea. It took me a couple of minutes to grow accustomed to it, but I eventually enjoyed it a lot.

At this point I was merely content. If this was what the remaining 80 minutes or so were to be like, very well then, I would most likely end up thoroughly enjoying the feature without ever really loving it however.

Well, the whole ‘abstract/non-linear or plot driven’ animation was actually over by then. From there things are absolutely kicked into very high gear. From the third segment onward, the third being the now remarkably famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Dukas’ music, the program not only continues to feature music that I admire to the utmost degree, but displayed entertaining, thrilling, mysterious and funny animated stories and a ballet (hippos dancing with freaking crocodiles for crying out loud). Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (such a marvel, makes me so bloody happy when I hear it), Franz Schubert’s Ava Maria, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours (I was less familiar with it until now even though I knew it a little, so it was nice to get a better idea of what it sounded like), and of course the powerful, intimidating and ferocious Night on Bald Mountain from Modest Mussorgsky. Nothing modest about this piece of music, let me tell you that. It’s like the end of the world, or, at the very least, the kind of music that would accompany the most hideous, depressing situation I could think of it came to life. Pure darkness with no hope for respite. It’s a depressing but thrilling bit of music all at once. In the cartoon Chernabog, the giant demon-thingy, emerges from Bald Mountain one night and summons evil, ghoulish spirits to perform a dancing ritual. Chernobog, wtf?!? This creature of the night is, in my humble opinion, the most impressive and frightening ‘foe’ I have ever witnessed in any Disney film and probably in any animation film I have watched (except maybe hunger in Grave of the Fireflies. Yeah, no one should dies of hunger). He throws his minions into a fiery pit and the others still worship him afterwards!

Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with animation showing the ‘blossoming’ of life on earth, was another little gem to watch unfold. What was life on earth like all those millions of years ago (apologies to creationists on the boards)? Fossils, archaeology and several other sciences can provide us with good ideas of how life was back then, but I think that if I could physically travel back to that age, the sights would probably still freak me out nonetheless. Different landscapes, different eco systems, foliage, animals, etc. The short treats it at first like a mysterious science-fiction story and I felt it worked wonders. Then of course the dinosaurs appear (rejoice Spielberg fans), and that segment was equally impressive, if less mysterious. The part with the dinosaurs perishing of thirst while traversing a barren and desert like land was very impressive to see in a family cartoon. I almost want to say that this was my favourite segment. I felt the coupling of this particular piece of music and the telling of this particular story through animation held up remarkably well. I at least liked all, loved a few, but this one took the cake in my opinion (hi worm!).

This is an infinitely difficult film to write about because I think that, more than many of the other films we are to watch and have already on this Disney animation journey, Fantasia will split people the most. There’s no overarching story to grip on, with the film jumping from one segment to another every 10 minutes or so. Some will please you while others may leave you wanting for more. I think that it always a risk taken with anthology films. Of the three films we have watched thus far, I think this is my favourite and I’m not even certain the race is that close. I enjoyed our 2 previous films, but found faults in both nonetheless that hindered my ability to fall in love with them. This was less the case with Fantasia, even though I didn’t find it perfect (I never once liked the cuter, talking Mickey, so therefore hearing that annoying little voice congratulate Stokowski was freaking grating). Of course, one could argue that its success is a bit of a cheat since the filmmakers did not need to create original music. They took exquisite examples of classical music and classical ballets and added to the paper canvass what their imaginations could fathom. Personally, I don’t really care. The gut reaction is what I’m going with in this round and my gut is telling my Fantasia is a great experience with both forms of art combining together handsomly.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Disney Marathon: Pinocchio

Pinocchio (1940,Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen)

With Snow White being a critical success, Disney studios were anxious to beat the iron while it was still hot. A mere 3 years following their initial feature length hit saw the release of their sophomore effort, Pinocchio, based in the original story written by Italian author Carlo Collodi.

The cinematic adaptation of Collodi’s tale was not without its share of troubles. The original drafts had our wooden hero face off more enemies and visit a few more locales, as is the case in the source material ( a giant snake, Pinocchio as a donkey in a circus, the fairy acting as is sister at one point and then later on as his mother, etc). Not only were those ideas dropped, but the characterization, both physical and personal, was another point of contention in the studios. Collodi’s Pinocchio was not as audience-friendly as the finished product, acting more as a wise-guy brat almost. Physically, the boy reportedly resembled a true wooden puppet, complete with the awkward pointy ends. This was also changed as the Disney version makes the lad look (in my eyes at least) very much like a human with the exception of the joints (notice the very Micky Mouse-esque gloves). Jiminy Cricket wasn’t even part of the plot at first! Needless to say, the production on this film was a bit of a roller coaster ride.

And so it was that after much debate behind closed doors, a halt in mid-production and a host of changes from the original material that the film we all know saw the light of day. Although not as prolific among the critics or at the box office back in 1940 (WWII had begun after all and it’s very safe to assume that the minds of many North American and European citizens were on Nazis rather than on fantasy tales), Pinocchio is, today, regarded by many as a classic film, an exquisite example of Disney’s talent, with regards to both storytelling and animation quality. Precisely as with Snow White, this is a film I had of course heard much about without ever having sat down to watch it, until today.

The immediate and crucial element that struck me as I viewed the film was how the titular character is driven by a goal, which, to the best of my knowledge, was not so much the case with the main character in Disney’s previous instalment. Pinocchio is told by the fairy, this beautiful and gracious creature that only fairy tales can breath life into, that in order to become a red blooded boy with soft skin, he is to learn right from wrong, to become a gentle and kind young lad, just like we would like all young boys to be. Be nice and good things will happen. Be a brat and punishment and sadness will be your rewards. Nobody likes a jerk, so you shouldn’t expect good things if you opt to take that path. If he behaves like Bart Simpson, then the deal is off and he remains a decorated tree trunk. I found this a compelling challenge for him. There are no major antagonists per say in the story, only a series of smaller foes that are hurdles which Pinocchio must surpass in order to vanquish the real villain of the story: temptation. The temptation of earning skipping school, the temptation of earning money the easy way, the temptation to lie in order to hide one’s faults and mistakes. As mature cinephiles (except for a few of us), we understand this message, this is very clear. But as part of a children’s tale, I thought it was a clever idea. Don’t make the villain a monster, a ghost or an alien. Rather, have the hero challenged above all else by his own weaknesses. Have him learn from his own mistakes and acquire the ability to shun his sins. Through this process, he becomes a decent human being. By the end, Pinocchio, the fictional character, quite literally becomes a human boy. However, in a thematic and moralistic sense, he does genuinely become a decent human being. He learns what it is to sacrifice one’s well being for the well being of another, more specifically in this case for the well being of a loved one. To give and receive love in all its forms (and all the lovely perks that come with it), personal effort is required. To acquire comfort and success, effort is required. A simple little lesson, but one that fits the story very nicely.

Which brings us to the character of Pinocchio. He does behave like a young boy, eyes wide open to all the luxuries of the world. They are offered to him at the flick of a whim. Offer a child some chocolate or a toy and chances are they will take it without thinking twice or inquiring into your intentions for offering that goods in question. The fact that Pinocchio is a wooden boy is almost of lesser importance than the actual moral value in what the fairy asks of him. The point is that Pinocchio wants to be accepted, a normal person who can function in society as most of us do. Thinking about it seriously for a moment, Pinocchio didn’t even have to be made of wood at all. It adds to the fairy tale aspect of course, and in that respect works well enough, but the real matter of the issue is in what he must go through and hence what he learns along the way. He is a boy, but has to become a good boy, which, I’m certain you readers who are siblings or parents know every well, is indeed a big learning process.

I applaud the film for possessing this moral bedrock, this backbone. I’m not saying Snow White didn’t have anything decent in it, but I won’t deny that I always felt its plot to be driven mostly by the machinations of a princess fairy tale. The story of Pinocchio, while undoubtedly decorated by several fantastical elements, carries with it a deeper, more relatable core.The pacing of the film therefore has slightly more momentum than did its predecessor. There are more misadventures for our hero to venture on because he has to go on this journey in order to become a better person. Honest John, Stromboli, Pleasure Island and Monstro the giant whale are all formidable opponents and they all receive the right amount of screen time in the movie’s 84 minute running length. Even the musical sequences, albeit far and few between, seemed to serve the purpose of the story. Geppetto testing out his new puppet while teasing his kitten Figaro, and Pinocchio’s performance as a dance and singer in Stromboli’s theatre group are the two most notable musical sequences and both serve the plot fittingly. The former reinforces the jolly and nature of Geppetto and leads into his desire for his invention to become a real boy, while the latter shows Pinocchio in the admiring eye of spectators, just before he learns that he has actually been duped into slaving away for the nefarious Stromboli. Overall, things simply seemed to be moving at a quick pace, but one that still respected the story and its central theme.

While perhaps not offering the ‘wow’ factor that Snow White did in th animation department, I thought the film looked very nice. There are a lot of rich, warm colours, which makes sense given that Geppetto makes children’s toys, which tend on average to be bright and attractive. Character movements are all rather fluid and believable and there is a fair amount of artistic variety between the settings. There are a lot of night time and evening sequences that have a beautiful look to them as well. All in all, it is a fine looking film.

Of all the supporting characters, little Jiminy Cricket is arguably the most famous. He actually is, in a strange way, the most important character of the story. As the fairy bestows upon him the role of ‘official conscience’, Jiminy becomes a guide, a little big brother to Pinocchio. Sometimes big brothers fail to protect and guide their siblings, as is the case on more than one occasion in this film (Honest John tricks Pinocchio twice no less), which made me question his efficiency as a character. It was an odd situation in which whenever Jiminy would plead sanity, such as when Honest John huffs and puffs about Pinocchio’s acting potential, he failed. Near the end, when both he and his protégé learn of Geppetto’s dire situation, Pinocchio’s gut reaction is to rescue his father, whereas Jiminy, at least for a short while, tells him not to risk his life. The kicker is that the audience knows that Pinocchio, in this wild fairy tale world, has made the morally just decision to at least try to save his father from imminent death. Jiminy is ‘wrong’ and Pinocchio is ‘right’. When Jiminy is ‘right’ Pinocchio is fooled by temptation practically every time. And yet, by the film’s end, the fairy rewards the cricket for his efforts anyways with the shiny golden badge he asked for in the beginning of the tale. What have I overlooked? There must be something I didn’t get. Perhaps this was all a reverse psychology kind of test that Jiminy put his protégé through, half expecting him to fail the earlier, less threatening tests. When pleading some sense into Pinocchio when the latter chose to risk his very existence in order to save a loved one, perhaps Jiminy only reinforced Pinocchio’s will to make the morally just decision. Maybe, but maybe not. By the end I was slightly confused as to what Jiminy has really done to earn that nice badge. He does stick with Pinocchio through thick and thin, which must count for something and I am certain that it does, but that wasn’t what he was called upon to do however. Don’t mistake me, I did think he was an entertaining enough character. He was friendly, loyal and had a few pretty decent lines. I only put into question his effectiveness regarding the mandate he had been given in the early goings. Anyways…

Oh, and what kind of a freaking cricket is he supposed to be anyways? He looks nothing like one. Minor detail that I’m certain no will give a hoot about so I’ll move on. I just thought I should give a little shout out to that complaint anyways. I also came to conclude that there can’t be too many chubby, English-speaking female crickets since Jiminy seems to be really attracted to wooden puppets and other toys which have been given female figures. I swear, I think on 3 separate occasions, Jiminy shows signs of lust for female shaped and painted wooden toys. He dances with a female figure when Geppetto discovers Pinocchio is alive (‘How about sitting the next one out, huh babe?’), he tips his hat and gives a hoot of excitement to another female figure during the ‘conscience be your guide’ song, and finally has goo-goo eyes for one of the female puppets in Stromboli’s show. Really weird.

Another little detail that struck me as curious was how Pinocchio, having only a day earlier been given the gift of life, was knowledgeable of things such fame, school (he questions why he must attend school, not what school is) whales, etc. Perhaps the fairy had awarded him with general knowledge that the average lad his age would be familiar with. It’s never explained, and again, it’s probably another one of those details I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to question (why is Geppetto in the whale? How come after slaving for the Queen, Snow White is making those animals clean the house? Etc.). One last thing I’d like to point out is the existence of Honest John and his partner in crime, the mute cat. This is one of the rare occasions in Disney films (I haven’t seen all, and therefore will abstain from claiming ‘The one and only time’) when human characters and animals characters who behave like humans co-exist. The Lion King features talking animals but no humans. Bolt has talking animals and humans, but neither can understand one another. Robin Hood replaces humans with animals. But in Pinocchio, we have a cricket, a fox and a cat who dress, walk and act like humans do in a world populated by humans. I’d love for someone to point out another Disney effort in which this occurs because off the top of my head, I can’t think of one (I’m discounting Emperor’s New Groove because the titular character was transformed into lama as punishment while retaining te ability to speak). Oh wait, that parrot in Aladdin. Well, he doesn’t really behave like a human though.

I’ve rambled for far too long now. In an attempt to formulate a general opinion, I summarize my thoughts by saying that as a complete package, as a cohesive story, I enjoyed Pinocchio a fair bit. I dare say that on the level of narrative quality, the film surpasses Snow White. There were, however, more individual moments from Snow White that I’ll remember more in the months to come. HA ha! I love inconclusive results! Bollocks. The point isn’t to determine which one of the two is ‘better.’ Comparisons are fine, but one should be able to formulate an opinion on the individual product at hand. I liked Pinocchio, although I persist in believing that the real heavy hitters in the Disney cannon are yet to come.

Satyajit Ray Marathon: Apur Sansar

Apur Sansar (1959, Satyajit Ray)

And so the Apu trilogy comes to a close with The World of Apu. How often is that the third chapter in a trilogy of films is the weak link? Momentum is a funny thing for it can leave your story just as soon as it arrived. The creative process is sapped, the filmmakers are unsure of where to take the hero (or heroes). Does Ray’s closing chapter in the Apu saga fall into the same pitfall as, say, Alien 3 (Like, OMG! Like, you know, it sucked balls man! That David Fincher, he’s, like, you know, such a hack)?

The general answer to that question would be no. In fact, the film attempts to take Apu’s story, and by consequent Apu the character, to new and greater dramatic heights. As the film opens, our favourite aspiring author, now a young adult played quite naturally by Soumitra Chatterjee, is an unemployed graduate living in a 1 room loft in Calcutta. The landlord pays him visit one morning and calmly reminds the man the he is 3 months late with the rent (oh, the memories…). Things are decidedly not going Apu’s way. He’d like to be an honest worker to make a living, but his real passion lies in writing. If he could only finish his one true love, his semi-autobiographical tale, and get it published, he would be content. Of course, from what the viewer witnessed in the first two instalments in the saga, fate has a cruel and strange sense of humour. His old university pal Pulu, played by Swapan Mukherjee (who I suspect is the grown up version of the chubby school boy who hangs out with Apu in a few scenes during Aparajito). Apu, after explaining his plight and his dream, is invited to attend the wedding of Pulu’s cousin, the beautiful Aparna (love that name), portrayed here by Sharmila Tagore .

So far so good. Nothing groundbreaking has transpired, but then again, director Ray has handsomely proven from the previous two films that he can depict ordinary life moments without the necessities of forced dramatic beats. Even the lead up to the wedding, albeit brief, is a pleasure to watch. The family reunions, the dresses, the make up, it’s all compelling for a poor white boy as myself. As misfortune would have it however, it turns out that the arranged marriage (of course it was arranged. How silly of me to have thought otherwise) was hanging on a very thin string to begin with. When it turns out the husband to be is unfortunately afflicted with a mental illness, the string snaps and the wedding is off. Sad, no doubt about it, but I had the sneaking suspicion that all this was occurring for a very specific reason. It is here that, in my opinion, director Ray’s attempts to elevate the stakes in this Apu saga begin to wobble and show cracks in the armour. Pulu’s family mourns the waste of all the preparations that went into the wedding ceremony. Aparna must be wed during the auspicious hour or suffer the fate of remaining unwed for the remainder of her existence. Great drama, but out of that comes the family’s plead to Apu that he should marry Aparna. At first Apu makes the sensible decision and refuses the invitation. He knows nothing of this woman and obviously wasn’t thinking to much about marriage in his ordinary life to begin with. Upon further reflection however, Apu gives in to Pulu’s pleas and accepts to take Aparna’s hand in marriage. Wow, that’s a pretty eventful day. He came for the food and left with a wife. I didn’t fully appreciate this turn of events. Was there something about Bengali culture that I didn’t understand? Did Apu come to realize something about the failure to marry during the auspicious hour that nagged him? I have no clue. Had an explanation been provided for his dramatic change of face, then I would have digested the sequence easily. On the face of things, he simply rescinds on his earlier decision and marries Aparna. Okay…

Thankfully, Ray injects Aparna with a bit of life. The movie never teaches the audience very much about her character, but what little we see of her was nonetheless sufficient to establish her relationship with Apu. What began rather awkwardly flourishes into what appears to be a more or less healthy and loving marriage. They talk nicely to one another, they smile, she cooks, he writes, he likes to spend money on taxi rides home, etc. Nothing too deep in the character development department, but enough to give the viewer an idea of the happy times in Calcutta they seem to be having. All in all, Tagore works her best with what she is handed, which may not be much in the grander scheme of things, but enough overall for her to have at least some impact on my memory. That also might have just been the makeup that made her look good however, I haven’t decided which one just yet.

I knew it was coming. I didn’t want it to happen, but I knew it would. This leads to that and so on, and eventually Aparna, upon giving birth to their son Kajal back in her home town of Khulna, passes away. Apu, who had remained to work in Calcutta, is needless to say devastated when learning of this dreadful news. And this may sound harsh, but I wasn’t. Auntie, Durga, hooka dad, his mother, everyone is dropping like vampires sprinkled with garlic powder. Whatever King Midus touched turned to gold. Whomever Apu touches in their hearts passes away. One or two over the course of the trilogy is fine because that can had some extra dramatic weight to the proceedings, but by now the deaths were piling up to the point that I’m sure Jason would have been very jealous. Jason actually has to make an effort when splitting open those teenage skulls. Apu only has to say ‘hi’ or ‘I love you’ and poof! You dead sucka!

In an act of depression, our hero renounces his desire to complete his novel, tossing his manuscript into the wind. Rather than travelling to Khulna in order to attend to his son, Apu decides to travel in order to…I don’t know, escape from it all. I told myself, as I watched the movie, that perhaps by now Apu had indeed arrived at the conclusion that everyone he holds dear earns a tombstone earlier than necessary. It wasn’t necessarily his responsibilities as a father that he wanted to flee (although in essence he is fleeing just that, whether that is on his mind or not). Strangely enough, I did enjoy this sequence. The lonely man, the broken man, travelling hither and thither, earning some money to survive and exploring the regions. A mid life crisis that arrived all too soon. It’s played well, but of course it can’t last as Apu eventually comes to the right decision to become a real father and spend time with his son. The final hurdle Apu must overcome in the film is his son’s reluctance to accept him as his father. Try as he might, Apu can’t seem to pierce Kajal’s defences until the final sequence when he does a bit of play acting that convinces Kajal to join him.

All this made for a strange experience. The first episode in the cannon, Pathar Panchali, featured many scenes exploring the daily lives of the Rays as they lived in the country side. From there, the story took us to Calcutta in Aparajito, where again the director put on display many scenes of daily life, but inserted a few dramatic beats to get some kind of story moving forward. Now with Apur Sansar, Ray has for the most part put aside random scenes of daily life and almost exclusively drives home very specific, story-driven elements. I don’t believe this was un unwise choice per say, only that I felt that the trilogy feels unbalanced to a certain degree. Looking back, I feel as if nothing at all happened in Pathar Panchali, whereas too much occurred in Apur Sansar, the latter which seems overflowing with big events, perhaps too much for me to care about each one with equal emotional investment. Like so many movies I watch, the ideas are unquestionably there. The execution…fair at best.

I don’t mean to sound as if everything has gone awry in this third entry. I’m quite certain that director Ray had his heart in the right place when bringing these stories to the silver screen. I only doubt his abilities to plan the story out evenly over the course of the three films. Interestingly however, I noticed a dramatic shift in the more technical aspects. Whereas both PP and Apa felt oftentimes like random life captured on film with a camera, Apur Sansar looks and sounds like a movie, as if Ray had a bigger budget this time, or perhaps had attuned his directorial skills further. There is a gap of a few years between this and the previous instalment, which may help explain the technical leap in the movie. The camera movements feel more dynamic this time around, close ups, zooming in, zooming out, fluid fading in and fading out, Apu’s musical theme playing with an echo when he tells Pulu when his book will be about (a really nice little touch). In both the sound and visual departments, the final entry is clearly the most impressive.

With the trilogy now complete and fresh in my memory, I can say that I enjoyed spending time with these characters for the most part. Not everything hit the right notes at all times for me, but generally speaking the cannon is strong. Even though Apu himself may not have always been a contributor to the life changing events (things are often happening to him instead), there is little doubt that he lived an eventful life. I guess the story had won me over in the end, since as the final shot of Apu and Kajal closed the third movie, I did hope that things would work out for them.

Given that the Apu trilogy consist of Ray’s first films, his efforts demand some respect. Not only is his debut, Pathar Panchali, a very fine film, but his mastery of the technical aspects of filmmaking shows considerable improvement by the end of the third film. I’ll find some time to watch some of the director’s other projects. I’d like to see what he did with some other material. Even though I have watched three films, they were all chapters in the same body of work really.

Review: Schindler's LIst

Schindler's List (1993, Steven Spielberg)

One of his 2 1993 efforts, Schindler’s List, starring heavyweights such as Liam Neeson as the titular character, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, is the cinematic adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark, which itself was an adaptation of sorts of the life of the real Oskar Schindler during World War II as Nazi German who, despite being a rather ruthless and selfish business man at the start of the war, ended up dramatically changing his philosophy and intentionally hiring as many captive Polish Jews as possible to basically save them from the Final Solution. As the film opens at the start of the war (Jews have already been displaced into the Krakow ghettos), Schindler, with what money he owns and through various connections in the black market, begins a pots and pans type of manufacturing plant. As any intelligent business man should, Schindler takes advantage of all the cheap labour available with the Jewish prisoners. The little pin on the left breast side of his blazers may indicate an affiliation to the Nazi party, but at heart he is a profiteer. He isn’t abusing of the cheap labour because they Jews, nor is he keeping these people alive because he wants to protect Jews. He’s purely and simply abusing of cheap labour. To keep a tab on the machinations of his company, Oskar hires an accountant of sorts in Itzahk Stern, played by Ben Kinglsey. The latter takes care of the nitty gritty, the former takes care of the presentation through free gifts which help promote the quality of his company.

Events and emotions begin to take a drastic turn when a major SS representative (a Hauptsturmführer) arrives in the form of Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes). He is leading the construction of concentration camps in a suburb of Krakow. Goth has things start off with a real bang, with the SS hunting down and either capturing or murdering the Jews in the Krakow ghetto (Operation Reinhard). From his horse on an elevated hillside, Schindler witnesses from afar the brutality with which the prisoners are treated. And thus begins inside of him a change of heart. He finds Amon Goth in his villa overlooking the new concentration camp and bargains and bribes his way into hiring more prisoners for his enterprise. It’s bad business after all when your employees are taken away without notice! And thus begins the long and difficult journey of saving as many Polish Jews as possible in the hopes that they may live to see a day after the war.

I have read reviews and spoken to people who have seen Schindler’s List and confidently point to that very movie when criticising director Spielberg for being too sentimental and manipulative with the audience. No film is perfect, this one being no exception. There are, I would concede, a few moments when I felt Spielberg was asking me to shed a tear (which, just for the record, I don’t do easily when watching a film, regardless of the story or subject matter). There is a brief moment during Operation Reinhard when the camera concentrates on a little girl dressed in red walking through the streets filled with people who are subject to tireless assault and carnage from the SS. That was a little bit much since there are much subtler ways of reminding the audience that the children are also affected by the war and the Holocaust. It’s a Holocaust film after all, I think I figured that out about 30 minutes ago. I loath that abused criticism ‘it calls attention to itself’, but to be quite blunt with you, I really don’t know how else to describe what I felt with that scene. It’s a very famous scene, but I admit that I don’t like it very much. Another scene I had trouble digesting was the juxtaposition and intercutting of a lovely concert Schindler is attending with the Goth beating his maid senseless in the wine cellar. I felt that was a tad too obvious. Their different natures, their different positions, their different philosophies on power (a discussion both Schindler and Goth have earlier in the film). Yeah, yeah, I get it. To be honest, I just don’t like it when two obviously connected scenes are juxtaposed simultaneously in a movie in general, it doesn’t really matter that it happens here specifically. There were a few sequences as well, most notably when orders regarding the incineration of Jews are carried out, that the music felt intrusive and indeed, dare I say it, manipulative. This is a strange criticism for me to use against the film because just as music, I do believe that John Williams’ work is marvellous and beautiful to listen to. There are in fact moments when the music fits scenes perfectly. When the main theme plays as groups of people (usually prisoners) are marching onwards towards a place or participating in the construction of something, I really liked hearing the music. The main theme itself is a great piece of music and it accompanied the more general, ‘location setting’ or ‘scene setting’ moments better. There were other moments when I felt the music wanted me to feel very sad, as if what was happening on screen wasn’t sufficient. A usual big no no in my book, but especially in a film such as this one in which images truly are more than enough to tell this horrific story and set the mood appropriately.

Having said all that, I do think that the film is very, very good and, in my humble opinion, it is Spielberg’s masterwork. As you know now after having read the above paragraph, I do not think the film is perfect, therefore we can debunk that silly idea that Spielberg made a ‘critic proof’ film. Any director can misstep with any subject matter.

First and foremost, I do believe that the director handles the emotional and psychological journey of his main character handsomely. The transformation of a profiteering business man to an undercover saviour and finally to a broken man (for his transformation does not end, as many of us know, with him being proud and content with what he has accomplished) is played out with utmost care. We see much of what Oskar sees and the audience follows him from the very early goings up until Germany’s official surrender in 1945. Of course, with over 3 hours to develop and bring this man to life on screen, Spielberg uses the right amount of time to only show us Schindler in his different phases, but help us understand as well as witness his eventual change of heart. But Spielberg can’t, nor should he, be awarded all the praise. The actor at the heart of the project, in this case Liam Neeson, puts on an acting clinic. Charming, witty, devious, manipulative, sleezy, and then compassionate, but always hiding his ulterior motives from the SS, Neeson brings it all to the table. He is a fine, fine actor overall, but I don’t think, based on what I’ve seen him in, that he was ever or has been as good as he is in this film. It’s a role that demands such complexity for an actor. He’s not just a man who decides to do good for Jewish prisoners. He starts the film as an entrepreneur looking to strike it rich off the backs of sorry ass prisoners. He can’t simply have a change of face in front of everybody in the middle of the film, otherwise he would risk grave consequences from the Nazi authorities. He must strategize with subtlety and keep his true intentions in the shadows from those that would seek to destroy him and his plant if they knew the truth. Therefore he must preserve his lavish persona in front of SS officers. It is only in front of his plant manager Itzahk Stern, that he begins to show a different side to his character. Eventually he shows signs of compassion to a privileged few (Goth’s maid being among them), but only in short spurts when in front of them. It is often in his eyes that the viewer notices a different side to him. An actor’s eyes can provide a lot of depth to his or her character and I think Neeson is one of the better actors to have that talent of showing something deep and meaningful with a mere gaze. I simply find there are so many moments during which Neeson takes his acting to remarkable heights, and it is particularly noticeable upon repeated viewings (this was in fact my 3rd time watching the movie).

The strangest role in the film belongs to Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth. He is clearly a devilish bastard, there is simply no questioning it. However, he sometimes demonstrates these bizarre moments of reason and compassion. Granted, they are far and few between, and his character generally succumbs to his more evil instincts, but once Schindler, during an evening of food and drinks, explains his theory on power, which involves having the ability to forgive those to whom we seek to scorn for various reasons, Goth goes on these weird attempts at showing a different, dare I say, more humane side towards his maid and certain prisoners in the camp. It comes off as terribly awkward, but therein lies the peculiarity of Fiennes’ performance. For a few brief moments, the beast tries to discover a humanistic side within. He fails utterly, but it makes for some of the most strange yet compelling scenes I have ever seen, the most famous of course being when he attempts to make amends (somewhat) with his Jewish maid, for whom he has grown an uncomfortable infatuation. Ironically enough, this takes place only moments before that terrible beating scene I mention in my criticisms section above. One last shout out (although there are many other fine actors involved) should go to Ben Kingsley as Itzahk Stern. He is a stoic man at first, probably not comprehending what Schindler’s motives are or most likely afraid and unsure of what the near future holds for him. As the story moves along however he and Schindler grow closer and Stern opens up a little bit. Kinglsey is quite good in the role. He plays Stern as dedicated and rather intelligent, but at times a bit clumsy with manners and customs, although given that death was probably knocking at his door throughout the war, he should be forgiven for behaving with a degree of uncertainty in the early goings of his career at Schindler’s plant.

For a 3 hour + film, the pacing is surprisingly effective. I don’t have a problem with 3 hour movies per say, but of those that I have seen, many have tended to over welcome their stay. Not so with Schindler’s List. Of course, both the story, which is inspiring, and the acting, which is stellar, facilitate the viewing experience. This is however, where I think Spielberg does deserve a lot of credit. Finding that delicate balance between telling enough story with enough detail for viewers to understand the proceedings without becoming bogged down in too much detail is key in any film, but perhaps more so in a film like this one. It’s a rich story with intriguing characters involved in one of the most dramatic circumstances of the 20th century, which could have easily led to a director getting sidetracked with nitty gritty details or perhaps convoluting his film with too many plotlines, some of which wouldn’t receive enough room to breath. I never felt that the movie suffered from any of those issues. Spielberg really gives the audiences enough time to understand all the major players involved and the setting in which the story takes place. The ghettos, the concentration camps, the factories, the bribing of Nazi officials, the complex relationships of the players involved, all of these are treated with respect and the right amount of screen time. By the end, I wasn’t under the impression that something or someone I may have needed to know more about to understand the story was left unexplained.

To finish off, I would like to commend the filmmakers on the stylistic choice of filming in black and white. The obvious reason is that is looks beautiful. Along with Werckmeister Harmoniak, this is an excellent example of modern back and white movie making. There is a richness to the picture quality that brings out the images on display very vividly. I’ve always been a lover of black and white cinema for aesthetic reasons and I watch a lot of older films because of it. I felt the look lend the film a creepy atmosphere at times, and at other times offered a beautiful images among the horror and chaos that transpired. And although I won’t get into them because this verdict has been going on for way, way too long, I do think there are certain thematic qualities to having the movie in black and white. There are certain interesting thematic theories and possibilities that one can deduce from this artistic choice.