Thursday, December 30, 2010

Musings: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010. By Bansky)

The following article assumes that the reader has seen the movie we are about to examine in detail.

Over at the Filmspotting message boards (have you been there lately?), it was noted by one of its community members how 2010 was marked by one debate in particular that stirred our passions. Art criticism: is more of a subjective activity or one for which one may actually take an objective stance? Does the director, writer, painter or historian’s opinion carry greater weight than that of the amateurs, the fans, the general movie going public? Do previous experiences, especially those professional and academic in nature, mean that one genuinely has greater insight into a piece of art, thus whose word carries a more valuable and objective standpoint? Of course, any sort of discussion about art criticism must begin at an even more primitive stage, namely, what consists of what?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blogging Around (December 29th 2010)

Hello readers!

A year older, a year wiser. I very much like that expression. In the coming days, a flurry of 'memories of 2010' articles shall be published in newspapers, magazines and blogs. The world of cinema is not exempt from this exercise and yours truly has already written a couple of 'end of the year' lists in the past couple of days, with maybe a couple more to come...

End of the year part 2: Top performances

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Comparative review: True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010)

The Battle of True Grits
While I would have loved writing an epic comparative article about not only the 1969 and 2010 movies of the same name but also the original novel authored by Charles Portis, but I have yet to read his book. Therefore, today’s special edition review will be restricted to the two aforementioned films.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Year in review part 1

End of the year lists

2010 is running its final lap to the finish. Those who visit Between the Seats either regularly or on occasion might have noticed that we are easy graders. We like to dig up the positives in movies rather than hamper on the negatives. Unsurprisingly, the consensus here at the blog is that 2010 was a good year for film. Whether you were escaping to local art house cinemas, exploring the multiple film festivals which invade cities every year or spending your weekends at the multiplex in anticipation of the latest Hollywood offering, the past 12 months were half bad. If you dabbled in a little bit of all three movie watching choices mentioned above, I don’t see how one could have had a bad time at the movies.

Oh, but I can hear the favourite complaints already:
‘It was a terrible year for film,’ and the close runner up, ‘Last year was much better,’ (This despite that I distinctly recall you saying last year ‘It was a terrible year for film.’).
If you really insist, well, in that case I’m sorry to hear that. Better luck next year, I suppose.

With out of the way, the hour is upon us to commemorate some of the best of what the class of ’10 gave us and later on, because such lists can also ignite discussion, some of the worst/disappointments of 2010 as well.

Top 10 films of 2010

10-Curling (Denis Côté). Côté’s strange yet beautifully lyrical world revolving around an antisocial father-daughter couple is my ‘movie that nobody saw’ pick for the list. There are a host of awkward moments and the performances are fantastic.

9- Let Me in (Matt Reeves). Terrifically well acted and exquisitely well shot, this English-language adaptation of the Swedish horror novel is a testament to how good horror films can be when character development is the film’s primary concern. Of course, none of that matters because it was a box-office dud.

8- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright). Fun, fun and simply more fun. While the actual chemistry between the two leads, the romantic crux of the film, is somewhat unfulfilling, virtually everything else is stellar. The film’s repeat viewing quotient is ridiculously high as well.

7- Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese). Being moved out of its original October 2009 slot to February 2010 might have been a cause for concern, and while the film’s plot is a wee bit predictable, Shutter Island was a beautiful assault on the senses.

6- The Social Network (David Fincher). Many, myself included, thought the notion of making a feature length movie about the creation of Facebook sounded like a joke. In some ways, we are still waiting for the movie about the creation of Facebook since Fincher gave us one of the most interesting, poignant and funny films of 2010. 

5-Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky). My favourite Aronofsky movie, which is saying something since this chap also directed Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. Its melodrama and visceral qualities rise to almost overbearing heights, which was exactly what made the entire ordeal so effective.

4-The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke). Perhaps the controversial pick of the bunch since most consider this to be a 2009 film. I can’t do much about the fact that its theatrical release in Montréal was February of this year. It’s also freakishly haunting.

3-Incendies (Denis Villeneuve). A family drama draped in a rich emotional and psychological texture. Villenueve’s tale of how the past can come back to haunt us (as well as our progeny) lingers with me still. Lubna Azabal gives one of the best performance of the entire year.

2-Inception (Christopher Nolan). A clever concept is taken to epic proportions under the confident and intelligent guidance of Christopher Nolan, which is a guarantee for success. But Inception didn’t merely end up being ‘rather good’, which itself would have left me happy anyhow. It was freaking awesome.

1-Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich and the Pixar family). Never has an animated film been ranked so highly in any of my lists, but the conclusion to the Toy Story trilogy really did have a little bit for everybody, all the while tying up the journey of our favourite characters with a perfect bow ribbon.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

End of the year

Hello readers!

The holidays are upon us,  as is the end of the year 2010. I'm quite grateful to have about a week and a half off starting tomorrow. Not only do I get to rest a bit, but it means that I can take care of the some important business here at Between the Seats. End of the year lists, reviews of both True Grit films (the 1969 Henry Hathaway directed feature and the brand new Coen Bros. version), finishing off that damn Glory of Rome marathon with reviews of Caligula and Spartacus still waiting, and of course an end of the year version of Blogging Around. There will be plenty of action during the next 10 days or so, rest assured.

While were at it: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Edgar Chaput.
Writer, editor, manager and mother/father of Between the Seats.

review: Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinski)

Hollywood often reserves movie lovers a significant blockbuster gift for the holiday season. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), King Kong (2005), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Avatar (2009) are some of the more memorable ghosts from Christmas past. Big actors, big special effects and big, big hype during the months leading up to each and every one of the films mentioned above. Now comes Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, a movie whose marketing and fanboy buzz alone are legacies in of themselves, what with the first ever footage emerging at the 2008 Comic-Con convention. That’s right, 2008, a cool 2 ½ years ago. A unique aesthetic design which stays true to the 1982 original, a story involving computers and state of the art technology, IMAX, 3D, etc. with the cherry on top being logo of the company promoting this mammoth: good old Walt Disney studios.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Far East Specials: Invisible Target

Invisible Target (2007, Benny Chan)

There are ‘action films’ and then there are ‘action action films.’ It is a distinction that perhaps I alone make, but one that appears clear as daylight to me. An ‘action film’ serves up a solid dose of thrilling and impressive sequences in which the characters engage in intense brawls, gunfights, chases or jaw-dropping stunts, but which also have something resembling a script. Beneath the sweat and blood dripping from the abused bodies of the characters is a minimal amount of development of plot and emotional arcs. First Blood and The Bourne Identity are ‘action movies.’ ‘Action action movies’ are so concerned with the stunts, chases and gunfights, that by the film’s end, caring for the characters and, most of all, plot have taken a back seat. The Protector (reviewed here) and Invisible Target are ‘action action movies.’ Sometimes the unthinkable happens. Sometimes, you’ve had enough action.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Films du Fleur de Lys: Curling

Curling (2010, Denis Côté)

Québécois filmmaker Denis Côté has a penchant for art house cinema. Slow moving stories, elliptical situations, worlds that say a lot when once the viewers peers closely but which seem almost mundane upon first look. The opening scenes to Curling, Côté’s latest effort, exemplify this nicely. The camera (and an eerily bright light) rests on a young girl, 12 years of age, visiting the eye doctor, the latter of which, having determined that the child’s eye sight is weak, begins to comment on how difficult it must be to understand what the teacher writes on the chalk board in class. The girl, reserved in a non-chalant kind of way, lets the adult know that she doesn’t attend school. The second scene has the same girl, this time with her father and again filmed with a single shot like the first, waking back home in the midst of blistering wind along a lonely road somewhere in the countryside. A policeman stops them, curious as to why they would want to walk in such frigid weather. The father replies each of the lawman’s queries, but always with hint with defensiveness. He doesn’t want to talk to this man. He doesn’t like talking to many people. If he knew he lived in a movie world and that an audience was watching his every move, he probably wouldn’t want to talk to us either.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review: Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)

Critically acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky is at it again. After a series of films about tortured souls in which the torture was often both self-inflicted and driven by forces outside of the protagonists’ control, he returns with a tale directly inspired by the classic ballet tale Swan Lake. I don’t know why Aronofsky is so keenly interested in stories about people who aren’t happy and on the rare occasions when happiness should lift them, they cannot grasp it. Nevertheless, he’s rather good at this sort of tale, so why not give it another go? Whereas his previous effort took viewers inside the wrestling ring, this time it’s behind the scenes of a ballet, the famous story of Swan Lake, prepared by director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who has awarded the lead role of the Swan Queen to Nina (Nathalie Portman), member of the group for some time already but who only now has earned a significant place in the spotlight. Thomas explains to his troop that this ballet has been practiced and performed aplenty but not like under his direction. For the supremely talented but highly introverted Nina, those words shall bear unforgettable meaning.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: Bigger than Life

Bigger than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

Bigger Than Life, one of director Nicholas Ray’s most famous and highly regarded films, is a family drama whose story takes place in a small suburban town. Having grown up as a lad in something strongly resembling a stereotypical suburban neighbourhood, stories, especially dramas, that find their inspiration in suburbia have long held my interest. To conform or not to conform, that is the question. Films that put a spin on the familiar ideals of this way of life are the ones I hold the highest esteem when done well.  Ray had already dabbled in similar themes with Rebel Without a Cause a year earlier, although that film’s plot concentrated on the place of youth in 50s U.S.A.. Bigger than Life tackles the larger nuclear family structure as is often described in such settings. What thrusts the drama in the film is less any character’s natural desire to be different, but a drug that releases some undesirable side effects in Ed Avery (James Mason), a family man who would do anything to help sustain his son and wife Lou (Barbara Rush), provided they subscribe to his ‘new and improved’ tactics. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rambo Marathon: Final rebuttal

To the top of the mountain of burned flesh.

To better appreciate this article, one might want to pay a visit to Bill’s Movie Emporium to read his original review of the film at hand, Rambo.

Small town U.S.A, the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of Afghanistan and finally Burma, these are the global regions where you and I have gone to battle with a series of reviews and rebuttals for each successive entry in the Rambo franchise. With each passing week it became increasingly clear that rather than engage in memorable titanic clashes of film debate, we were in fact allies in our admiration for the series. Even when I spewed out with terrific vitriol words of hatred towards that forsaken second chapter, it turned the same movie didn’t sit well with you either. Rambo, the last testament to a memorably violent protagonist didn’t change much. I absolutely loved it, and you clearly enjoyed it quite a bit, even if your praise wasn’t exactly on the same level as mine. Since you and I have begun these joint marathons, the single time when writing a rebuttal served any considerable jolt to my creative and argumentative juices was for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Bill, we are doing another marathon together in the future, and next time we must imperatively choose a genre, director, actor, anything for which we know our opinions differ.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Far East Specials: Blood and Bones

Blood and Bones (2004, Sai Yoichi)

Takeshi Kitano is one of those actors who is endlessly watchable, regardless of the overall quality of the films he is in. Unlike most, I was not a big fan of Battle Royale (2000), but his smart part was both hilarious and intimidating. Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (2003) was a blood soaked and thrilling retelling of the famous samurai’s story, and again Kitano was the main attraction, notwithstanding the crazy dance sequence at the end. He is an actor who brings an uncommon energy to his roles time and time again. Were I too venture a comparison with an American actor, I’d say that he is a bit like Jack Nicholson in that Kitano the man has taken on a persona which often finds its way into his individual performances. He interprets characters, but they are all undeniably Kitano-inspired characters, and much of the same can be said for so many of Nicholson’s performances, both the good and the bad. There is an undeniable charm and attachment to the actor, but oftentimes they are covered in brashness, brutality, or cockiness.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Films du Fleur de Lys: Polytechnique

Polytechnique (2009, Denis Villeneuve)

Not long ago we reviewed another Denis Villeneuve film, Incendies, which offered a sprawling family drama that not only covered 3 separate generations but also took the protagonists half way around the world. Polytechnique, while concerned with an event whose emotional, psychological and historical ramifications are as dense as they are unforgettable, is a far more contained film, the thrust of its plot occurring really in only one location. On December 6th, 1989, a very disturbed young man entered Montréal’s École Polytechnique with a Mini-14 rifle, chose a random class in which he separated the male and female students, and proceeded to gun down the latter group. His deranged vendetta against women and feminism at large continued as the killer walked the hallways of the school, on the prowl for more female students. After slaughtering 14 women and injuring several others, he finally took his own life.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rambo marathon: Rambo

Rambo (2008, Sylvester Stallone)

After a wait of almost 20 years, one of the most popular American action movie heroes (second to maybe only Bruce Willis’ John McClane) was ready to return to the silver screen. After several attempts at finding the right story, writer, director and star Sylvester Stallone once again got down and dirty against some of the world’s most ferocious enemies by interpreting the role of John Rambo one last time. As with the three previous instalments, the plot and, more specifically, the story’s location has a distinct topicality about it, sending John and a group of mercenaries off to Burma in a desperate rescue mission for a group of Christian Missionaries and doctors who wilfully chose to venture into the war torn  country  to come to the aid of poor civilians. In of itself the plot to this latest chapter in the franchise sounds good enough, but with so much time elapsed between episodes, would the character hold up to par with what action fans expect in this day and age. More importantly, would we at long last be awarded with something resembling a satisfying conclusion for this character we have come to love despite some of his more reprehensible qualities?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Blogging Around (November 24th, 2010)

Hello readers!

It's time again to browse around the other film blogs for all the little treasure troves that some of you may have overlooked. Fear not, that's what this recurring blog column is all about, making sure you don't miss because we at Between the Seats have done all the work for you. I may not live in the United States, but they are a neighbouring country and I hear that this week is Thanksgiving in their neck of the woods, so let's just say I'm doing this in the spirit of things. Enjoy!

Laura at City Lights is all giddy about the new 127 Hours film, especially for the structure of the story and for lead actor James Franco's performance. Check out the full review.

We've all had those discussion (or arguments) about whether or not the movie or the source material on which it was based on, usually a book, was the superior product. Well, Norma at The Flick Chick is comparing the first novel and film in the Millenium trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Read to find out what her verdict is. The conclusion may surprise you.

I'm not the biggest Tony Scott fan (Man on Fire is the only movie of his that I'm ready to say that I love, much of the rest is rather 'meh'), but Mike Lippert makes a solid case for the merits for the director's latest collaborative effort with Denzel Washington, Unstoppable. Read the full review here.

This has nothing to do with film, but Sarah at Sarah's Kitchen Adventures (who is also a fellow Filmspotter. Represent!) is sharing a recipe for Red Velvet cupcakes. The name alone made me check out her blog post and quite frankly, I think I will eat some as I watch some films over the upcoming weekend.

And to my American neighbours and fellow bloggers: Have a fantastic Thanksgiving! Hey, it gives us NFL football in the middle of the week, so it must a great holiday!

Review: Mean Streets

Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese)

Mean Streets is one of American director Martin Scorsese’s earlier films that, for an entire variety of reasons, tends to get overlooked over by many devotees. Merely off the top of my head, I can name three of those reasons: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. All three have been declared, time and time again, as masterpieces of American cinema and many a film buff holds those three critically lauded efforts dear to his or her heart. I also have a strong fondness for those movies, with the highest honours going to Taxi Driver were I to say which one I like most. Mean Streets is Scorsese at his most raw, a film that is gifted with such a sense of purity in terms of storytelling  it is small wonder that much of what we see on screen was inspired by what the director witnessed himself as a young boy living in the lower economic class, Italian-American neighbourhood of New York. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rambo marathon: Rambo III rebuttal

Rambo III: Second Blood Part 2.1: When helping the Mujahidin was cool: rebuttal

For the uninitiated, your should read Bill's review of Rambo III to fully appreciate the genius of the text below.
A Russian helicopter is on the hunt for John Rambo as our hero is trying to stave off an onslaught from a crazed Russian general obsessed with the idea of vaporizing a small Afghan community. John, god-gifted with the predatory instincts of a velociraptor à la Jurassic Park (sans fangs however), gages the direction from which the machine approaches and quickly gathers his weapons of choice to create one of the most objectively awesome weapons in the franchise, if not all of the 1980s: the exploding arrow. Just as the Russian pilot believes to have John right he wants him, Rambo, with the precision and swiftness that would make Cirque du Soleil jugglers blush, finishes off his bow and arrow, raises the weapon in the direction of the oncoming enemy and launches. Dosvedania, you cock sucker!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rambo marathon: Rambo III

Rambo III (1988, Peter MacDonald)

From the ashes a phoenix rises. After a hero’s downfall he or she must be redeemed, either by their own actions or the grace of some higher power. Perhaps this elusive force is called God, maybe fate, or studio executives, who knows?  When we last saw John Rambo, he had embarked on a redemptive mission in Vietnam in order to finally do some genuine good and prove that ‘the system’ sucks. With regards to plot, that all worked out by the time the end credits rolled. From a qualitative point of view, that movie blew up in its own face. Money is the most likely answer as to why a third film was put into production just a few years later, but the creation of a third instalment was nonetheless an opportunity to give Rambo a solid action movie. Replicating the story of First Blood was impossible because it was unique and contained, but Rambo could still, hopefully at least, be part of a rousing and worthwhile war film.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

The act of upholding one’s beliefs, especially those of religious nature, when under the pressure of that which seems to contradict those beliefs and possibly dangerous to them, can be viewed in very positive light. In the worst circumstances, the encounter of two strongly held belief systems can, and has in the past, lead to suspicion, antagonism and seclusion by choice or by force. Religion is one of those subjects than stir up passionate actions and reactions, sometimes dangerously so. Such is the case in the story of Robin Hardy’s directorial debut, the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. Upon arriving at the station one day, Sergeant Howie  (Edward Woodward) receives an alarming letter from a woman living on Summerisle. It seems that her daughter has gone missing without a trace. A picture is attached to the letter.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Hello readers,

If you visit the site frequently, you've noticed that activity has been low in the past couple of weeks. Well, as has happened in the past, I tend to enter brief periods during which the work load, social life and by extension just general fatigue set in to the point where I neither have the time nor the energy to write a series of reviews. I just escaped that little slump a couple of days ago and now Between the Seats is ready to hit the ground running again. Next weekend the 'Rambo' and 'Glory of Rome' marathons continue, and be sure to keep your eyes open for some random reviews throughout the week, starting with the 1936 gangster movie Bullets or Ballots, for which I posted a review in the previous post.

It's good to be back!

Review: Bullets or Ballots

Bullets or Ballots (1936, William Keighly)

In the early 1930s, Warner Bros. film studios produced a series of hits in which the protagonists of the stories were in fact society’s antagonists. That’s right, the era of the gangster pictures in Hollywood was in full swing during thus particular decade, a decade in which names such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson quickly became synonymous with tough, steadfast, exciting and larger than life characters who hunted for what they wanted and took what they liked. The mid to late 1930s were an example however of what can happen when direct pressure and influence from society is applied to the studio system. The Haze code in particular dictated what could and couldn’t be seen in action movies and, along with consistent complaints from vocal portions of the movie going public, stars just like Robinson eventually took on the roles of the heroes. Rather than witness a steady decline in quality in the gangster films (which could have easily been the result of such intrusive middling), some of the best entries in the genre saw the light of day.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blogging Around (October 30th, 2010)

Hello readers,

It is Halloween weekend and it seems that with each passing year Halloween takes on smaller and smaller significance for me. There are little decorations around town and none of my friends have mentioned about doing anything Halloween related this weekend. I guess that's what happens in those funny years after childhood but before one has children of their own, in which case Halloween will probably become super important once again.  Not many of my blogging brethren have gotten into the spirit either it seems. Regardless, there were still some interesting nuggets of gold to be discovered this week. Here we go:

-Laura at City Lights believe that the recent sci-fi drama Never Let Me Go deserves some serious Oscar consideration. Find out why.

-Peter's amusing Gimme 5 column at the Magic Lantern propose a top 5 list of movies with animals in starring roles.

- Mike Lipper is not one to shy away from the tough questions, as is proven in one of his more recent articles in which he questions the direction the Criterion Collection is taking for their upcoming DVD releases.

-Bill's Splatter Time Fun Fest is coming to a close with his first annual Machete awards at his Emporium. No, that's not right, it's the second annual award celebrations, isn't it? But the article's title clearly says first...Bill, what have you done this time!?!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Far East Specials: The Protector

The Protector/Tom Yum-Goong (2005, Prachya Pinkaew)

There are films that exist to provoke, to make one ponder and provide intellectual stimuli. Other films are better suited for the purpose of entertainment, while still preserving some sense of deeper layers and resonance. Maybe ‘thought provoking’ would be serving them too much credit, but we know there is a little bit more to them than meets the eye. Then there are the movies which, whether by design or for lack of strength in the departments of writing, acting or direction, that are solely available for people to rejoice in the fun, the zany and the visceral. The Protector falls in this last category, given how it lavishly displays its star's remarkable athletic talents all the while abandoning everything else which is supposed to make a movie, well, a movie.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Far East Specials: Kill Zone

Kill Zone (2005, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen)

There are good cops and bad cops. The former make a vow to serve and protect those innocent of any crimes in dutiful and lawful manner. They live and function by a precise code which regiments their behaviour when wearing the badge, forcing them  to apply their power in honourable fashion. The latter have done away with such a strict application of their obligations. That isn’t to say they do not live by any code, only that theirs’ is vastly different. Whatever is necessary to get the bad guys is a viable route. As the old saying goes, ‘The ends justify the means.’  How this plays out in the real world is the stuff of headlines, whereas how it unfolds in the world of movies is the stuff of great entertainment, if you’re into those sorts of themes (such as abandoning one’s principles of playing fair and being honourable in the hopes of doing what feels right). It was not so long ago that Between the Seats embarked on the Long Arms of the Law marathon, and had we watched Kill Zone at that point, it would have been a fantastic entry.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Glory of Rome: Centurion

 Centurion (2010, Neil Marshall)

I love a good chase movie. More precisely, I like chases in films, period. Whether the characters are racing through the streets of large cities, through canyons, forests, whether they are engaged in the chase by car, plane, horseback or even on foot, all of these variables can result in a thrilling and satisfying sequence.  I need only point film lovers to George Roy Hill’s western classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to support my feelings.  When word got out that Englishmen Neil Marshall was working on a project set in the time of the Roman Empire, I think the curiosity of his fan base had been aroused. When I learned that much of the film would consist of a chase involving Roman soldiers and warriors of a ‘barbarian hoard!’ (I’m still working on a buzz from seeing Gladiator last week), I was absolutely on board with the upcoming movie. In the end, what audiences were served with was precisely what I had wished for, which, ironically, proved to be problematic in some ways. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glory of Rome: Synchronization in Battle (Gladiator)

Synchronization in combat
Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)

In our review of Gladiator, we reserved most of the discussion for the impact of the drama and the weighty sense of history driving much of what the characters do in the story.  The film is more than just an example of how good writing carries the overall plot and themes of its story however. Ridley Scott’s ambitious effort balances rich drama and epic spectacle with deft, but upon closer inspection one might notice how the emotional evolution of Maximus’ character filters into the action sequences, thus enabling them to fully resonate with the advancement of the plot. There are five gladiatorial fight sequences which play out in the movie, and each one, be it through the stakes at hand, their outcome, or the opponents the protagonist confronts, is extension of where Maximus sits, emotionally that is, at a given time in the adventure. The film therefore not only satisfies the viewer with rousing fights, but consistently remains faithful to the stakes and drama at hand. Let us explore each one in some detail.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Glory of Rome: Gladiator

Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott)

Friday, May 5th 2000. That is day that will long live in my memory. Ten years onwards and it is still more than fresh in my mind. My high school mates and I had that day off and, having seen the television ads for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in recent weeks, decided that it would be ‘cool’ if we saw the movie on opening day. I recall that we went to see a relatively early screening, but the theatre room was nonetheless packed to the brim. One could detect that there was a unique sense of anticipation hanging in the theatre room air. An epic adventure movie at the time of the Roman Empire was something we hadn’t seen in quite some time (and something I myself had never seen at that age). 2 and a half hours later, me, my friends and almost everyone other ticket owner left the room with a buzz of exciting. My, oh my, had it ever been worth the wait.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Glory of Rome:Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)

William Wyler’s Ben-Hur is one of those films that almost everyone recognizes, even those who aren’t self described film lovers. The two elements that consistently stick out the most when this movie is being discussed are typically Charlton Heston and the chariot race that occurs about three quarters of the way through, and there is undoubtedly a solid case to be made for both. Another thing I have come to notice when stumbling upon articles and reviews is how the movie appears to be synonymous with words showering it with high praise such as ‘masterpiece’, ‘glorious’ and ‘epic.’ After viewing it for the first time in at least 5 years if not more, I concluded that the most accurate description among the three key words mentioned above was ‘epic.’ In several respects but not all I can agree with the sentiment that Ben-Hur is glorious, but I must refrain from calling it a true masterpiece. More on that later. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Blogging Around (October 5th 2010)

Hello readers!

Time for another edition of Blogging Around, where we browse around the blogging world for interesting and well written material. With the first half of the final Harry Potter movie only weeks away, one can assume that several writers have their blogs buzzing with plenty of spells and HP talk.

Corndog at Corndog Chats Cinema is in the midst of a Harry Potter book and film marathon, as is Corey Atad at The Reelists.(Harry Potter Days).

Reviews for The Social Network are overflowing. Some of the best I've read were at The Flick Chick, Surrender to the Void (welcome to The Lamb, Void!) , while the Reel Fanatic is wondering just who exactly is ranting over David Fincher's glorious parade.

Until next time!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ben-Hur review delayed

Hello readers!

I know I said a Ben-Hur review would appear this weekend at Between the Seats, but certain time constraints have prevented me from even watching the movie and I'd rather not write an article relying solely on what I can recall from the last time I watched the film, which was probably close to 7 years ago. The Glory of Rome marathon will indeed kick off this week, but it's looking far more like it will be on Tuesday or Wednesday. In the meantime, I delivered reviews of The Social Network and Let Me In for your reading pleasure.

Thanks for our patience and don't worry, we will see how glorious Rome was in the days to come!

Review: Let Me In

Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves)

I’ve always found movies starring child actors to be dicey projects. Few actors as young as Let Me In co-stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz can carry a film with sufficient gravitas and maturity that older performers can rely on, but sometimes a movie comes along that catches the viewer by surprise with some unexpectedly good work by child actors. For my money, if the actors can pull off a stellar show which is rich in human drama and emotionally complete, then as an avid movie goer I can only sing but the highest of praise.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: The Social Network

The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

How many friends do you have on Facebook? 10, 25, 150? How many of those people do you consider to be actual friends? The question is an interesting once, although ultimately pointless. Like it or not, the invention of Facebook changed the way people with an internet connection (which is a lot of people in many parts of the world) come into contact with one another. Is our fascination with and dependence on Facebook an evolution or de-evolution of human interactivity and our communicative skills? Again, the answer to that question most likely won’t make a lick of difference in the grander scheme of things because almost everybody uses Facebook in some fashion or another. Individuals, web sites, corporations, the list of Facebook members is seemingly endless. However, even the greatest of inventions can have the humblest of beginnings. David Fincher’s The Social Network explores the human drama that boiled amongst the many creative minds which had a hand in the birth of Facebook.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Coming up this weekend

Hello readers!

September now turns to October. The past week here in Montréal has seen a small but noticeable drop in temperature. I've been seeing my breath at night recently...

The movies coming out these days are piping hot however as some of you may have noticed with my review a few days ago of Denis Villeneuve's Incendies. This weekend offers movie goers two much awaited movies, The Social Network and Let Me In (I particularly enjoy weekends with 2 releases of interest: more excuses to go to the movies!), both of which will be looked at with a fine toothed comb here at Between the Seats. On Sunday the 'Glory of Rome' marathon commences with the 1959 epic, Ben-Hur.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Films du Fleur de Lys: Incendies

Incendies (2010, Denis Villeneuve)

To say there was buzz surrounding the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, one is forced to put things into perspective. I haven’t the faintest clue if this film will receive any sort of wider North American release and if it does, it will most certainly quite limited. What’s more, I’d be curious to see how many our neighbouring English Canadian movie goers will have a chance to see the film. Here in Québec, however small a market that may be, there was indeed some moderate hype and anticipation regarding this drama based on the critically acclaimed play from Wajdi Mouawad.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

First Blood Part II rebuttal

Bill, why you didn't you tell me that the horror marathon was starting early this year?

 I think the strongest point you made in your review is that the Rambo franchise should have ended with the first film. First Blood may have been about the downfall of a war hero in a thematic sense, but Part II represents the downfall of that same character in wholly different sense: quality. Watching the first film caused me to wonder where the caricatures of the Rambo character came from. Watching Part II told me exactly where they came from.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Review: The Descent

The Descent (2005, Neil Marshall)

In a very short time span, writer director Neil Marshall has made quite a name for himself. With some directors more time is required for them to hone their skills and fully express themselves through the medium of film and gain a reputation. Marshall’s first film, Dog Soldiers, did him some credit, but it wasn’t until 2005 when his horror film The Descent was released that people really started to take notice. With this second outing, the Englishmen had provided some life into the horror genre at a time when many, including myself, were mostly shunning the supposedly scary motion pictures that studios were releasing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

October plans: The Glory of Rome

'Rome is the light.'

Between the Seats often goes against the grain, sometimes willingly other while other times not. Take for instance the plethora of blogs and sites that spent the better part of September covering the always exciting Toronto International Film Festival. The event sounded like plenty of fun and many of the blogs I trust did a splendid job of providing the willing readers with insightful commentary. Time and work proved to be the enemy in our case, so we stayed home and wrote about Rambo and random Asian dramas from the 90s instead.

October is only days away, and I suspect that many of my friends from the blogosphere will be offering reviews an commentary on their favourite horror films (Bill at his Movie Emporium makes it a yearly affair in fact). Well, in this instance, Between the Seats is doing its own thing, but completely on our own will. We all get movie cravings from time to time, and right about now I feel like watching a bunch of action and dramas set in the time of the ancient Roman empire. Some of my favourite films are set during this remarkable and equally savage of human history. There are however some glaring blind spots on my 'watched' list regarding these kinds of movies. So how about we visit a period and place which offered so much beauty and sophistication while also showcasing some Man's most disturbing and grotesque features.

These are the films I'd like to get through so far. Further suggestions are much appreciated!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rambo marathon: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos)

The sequel. For many film lovers, sequels are the bane of their existence. For studios, they are the opportunity to cash in on a familiar property which resonates with the paying movie goers. However, unlike what those who snub sequels would prefer to believe, there is planning and execution required in making a sequel. A studio just doesn’t ‘churn out’ another installment in a franchise. However much one might frown on sequels and prequels, there is a writing stage, a pre-production stage, filming, editing, etc. It’s still a movie and it has to get made before shown to an audience. Someone down the production line people (or someone) has to say ‘Alright, this product seems good enough, let’s release it.’ Questions must be posed when facing the challenge of a continuation episode in movies. Do the filmmakers up the proverbial ante? Do they give more of the same? Do they take the characters in a radically new direction altogether? Like I said, it remains a movie and therefore requires time, money and effort in getting made.

Hence, the disappointment that crept in with every further minute of Rambo: First Blood Part II’s running time.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Far East Specials: Christmas in August

Christmas in August
(1998, Jin-ho Hur)

I was thinking long and hard about some witty and clever sentence I could use to begin this review of Jin-ho Hur’s romance drama Christmas in August, but such things rarely bear fruit for me. The best I could come up with is that sometimes the best romances are the ones that never were. The notion that two people feel a connection, a bond that perpetually brings them together is something you, I, we can all relate too. In certain instances that bond will develop slowly, taking little baby steps as you and that special someone carefully reveal more about yourself through brief encounters. In other examples, it feels like love at first sight and things move along quickly and passionately. Then comes that first kiss and the declaration, in some fashion or other, of a person’s affections for the other. The end result, we hope, is love. What of those stories that are clearly driven by love but in which the central characters are prevented from ever fully rejoicing in their hopeful union?

In Christmas in August, the two bashful non-lovers are the owner of a photo studio in his early thirties named Jung-won (played with irresistible charm by Suk-kyu Han) and Darim (Eun-ha Shim), a twenty something traffic cop. On the day Jung-won returns from attending the funeral of his friend’s father, he finds Darim waiting impatiently outside his store. She needs some very specific photos enlarged. What image is captured by the photograph is not important, but there is something, a tiny little something that ignites between the two. It’s quite subtle, and when Darim returns the next to pick up her photos, she and Jung-won begin a little bit of small talk. He rides a moped when travelling to and fro and encounters Darim from time to time, and they share some friendly chit chat. He even offers her a ride one day as she carries some terribly heavy parcels. I think most of you can guess where this is heading, and you’d be correct. They clearly enjoy each other’s company and there are hints that the feelings they hold for one another may run a little bit deeper than mere friendship.

It should be noted that director Jin-ho Hur developed story in a very specific way with what I believe to be a very specific intention. He doesn’t simply want to tell a love story. Rather, he wants to tell Jung-won and Darim’s love story. Their romance blossoms in slow fashion, very slow fashion in fact. Both characters are comfortable with one another, but seem to proceed with baby steps when it comes to true love. We know that Jung-won had a true love at one point in the past (she visits him briefly early in the film), and maybe it is this broken past love that constantly sets up some imaginary barriers whenever the opportunity arises. Let it be known that I don’t refer to ‘imaginary barriers’ in that Jung-won clearly prevents himself from taking any extra steps in order to woo Darim. He just seems bit reserved and bashful at times. I think he really likes Darim but is of the type who believes he had one chance at true love and it failed, so he simply isn’t willing enough to embrace something new. Of course, Darim isn’t much more ambitious in her mannerisms, although she’s the one who asks the more questions (about who is and all) and gives hints that she’d like for them to be something of a couple. So Jin-ho Hur has these two adorable characters come in and out of contact tons of times throughout the film, each time there being a stronger and stronger connection between the two, but again, the increases are incremental. Every once in a while, the viewer sees Jung-won taking some pills and visiting the hospital, so we are warned, rather early on in fact, that all is not quite right with him. When it seems as though he and Darim are about to take the next step, well, the forces that regulate Jung-won’s health have other ideas unfortunately.

I think it’s rather easy to lump Christmas in August into the category of films deemed ‘tearjerkers,’ especially for its final 10 minutes or so, and I should add that it isn’t a category of films that I’m terribly fond of. That being said, I was charmed to a certain degree by this movie. Much of that has to do with Suk-kyu Han’s performance and Jun-ho Hur’s directing. Suk-kyu Han’s Jung-won is such a lovable guy that it’s pretty hard not to like the guy. He isn’t incredibly handsome, he isn’t terribly athletic and doesn’t even show off any kind of remarkable intelligence, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t want to hang around with him for an afternoon (provided I knew how to speak Korean). This man loves to laugh and smile. In fact, he almost reminds me a little of myself in how he reacts to people and things around him. He’ll often shrug or giggle things off in a very nonchalant type of fashion. Not a whole lot gets this guy angry and especially excited, he often just enjoys being nice and cool, all the while showing off that smile. Happy-go-lucky I believe is the term, but thankfully not like Happy go Lucky. The moments when the reality of his health kick in or when people are really trying his patience are jarring because we witness Jung-won’s attitude change dramatically. They don’t occur frequently, but when they do it seems as though he takes on a completely different persona, one diametrically opposed to the one we had explored up until those points. I’m not sure each one works, but at the very least they showed a different side to Jung-won, one indicating that he can be broken down if pushed too far by frustrating circumstances (or when drunk).

As a director, Jun-ho Hur offers a quite affair. In a style reminiscent of so many Korean and even Japanese films I’ve seen recently, he’ll often invite the viewers to saviour the moment, any moment, precisely because the finer details of people can be discovered in those seemingly random and unimportant periods. One can discern much about the psychology of a specific character in these instances. A glance here, a smile there, a sigh of relief, etc. If you enjoy the type of films where some scenes, on a surface level, come across as mundane because they only show someone taking a photograph or preparing a meal in the kitchen, but in reality you know that all the details in the characters’ movements and gestures add to the ‘character building’ aspect of a film, then I’d say Christmas in August is right up your ally. As for myself, it’s a style that only a few years ago I would not have found appealing, but that has quickly won me over. I think it’s a style that, rather than try the audience’s patience, is in fact paying respect to the audience. Movies which are directed and presented in the way Jin-ho hur gives us Christmas in August ( or in the way Kohei Oguri gave Sleeping Man, or how Sang-soo Hong presented The Power of Kangwon Province) know that audiences are more intelligent and discerning than are often given credit for.

Does anything make Christmas in August truly stand out however? I don’t think so. It’s well paced, well acted- nay, really well acted (again, I was struck by Suk-kyo Hun’s charm) and offers plenty of cute little scenes that offer tidbits about who Jung-won and Darim are. The film’s conclusion is…satisfying in many ways, although if one is looking for a more traditional ending to a romance drama, they might leave a bit disappointed. Never did I think the film broke any new ground, but nor did it have to. It sets out to tell a very specific kind of love story, one that reminds how oftentimes ‘life’, in its harsh and unexpected ways, will get into the way of the rosy plans we had.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blogging around (September 15th 2010)

If you are serious movie buff, then it should be no secret that the Toronto International Film Festival (or TIFF for short) is currently taking place. It's arguably one of the most interesting film festivals around in that it successfully balances all sorts of films, from documentaries, to smaller indie films, all the way up to the bigger budget Hollywood dramas that come out in the weeks and months after the festival closes. Plus, it's one of the few notable film festivals which takes place in Canada.

Not being from Toronto, you'll have to forgive me if I don't get the opportunity to follow the festival with a fine toothed comb. However, I have several Torontonian blogger allies who are doing their very best to provide intelligent, fun and thorough coverage of the event, so this week's Blogging Around column will be dedicated to them:

-The Dark of the Matinee, who has some early reviews of such highly anticipated films the likes of Let Me In and 127 Hours.

-Our buddy Corey Atad is also writing away about some of those same movies over at The Reelists.

-The guys from Sound on Sight have plenty to share about. These guys are in fact based in Montréal but, unlike me, invested time, money and effort in getting to Toronto to see the movies.

Far East Specials: After the Rain

*Participation in the 1990s Far East Bracket over at the Filmspotting message boards has opened up an entirely new world of Asian cinema was that non-existent to me only a couple of years ago. Not all the movies I stumble upon in this tournament of films prove their worth, but every once in a while luck will share her pretty smile and hand me a little gem, or at least something of note that is inspiring and stays with me for days and sometimes weeks afterwards. Much like I did in the fall of ‘08 and winter of ’09, I’ll be offering some brief thoughts on the noteworthy films I discover throughout the bracket in the hopes that you, the readers, will also be encouraged to dig up some previously unheard of cinematic gems from the Far East. This will hopefully be a recurring article called Far East Specials.

Ame Agaru/ After the Rain (1999, Takashi Koizumi)

For comparative purposes, I would liken the curious beast that is After the Rain to 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Steven Spielberg’s unfairly maligned sci-fi drama contained several ideas and story elements that were in fact the brainchild of a great American film director from the past, Stanley Kubrick. In the case of today’s movie, the screenplay was the very last written by Japan’s all time cinema master, Akira Kurasawa, before he passed away. The director, Takashi Koizumi, was Kuroswa’s assistant director for many decades, so one can foresee that there may be stylistic similarities between what this movie shall reveal and the works of Kurosawa.

The story of After the Rain focuses on the travels and small adventures of one ronin (master-less samurai) named Ihei Misawa (Akira Terao), a man with a decidedly uplifting look on life who, while unquestionably talented in bushido, prefers to settle whatever conflicts may arise through gestures of kindness and a warm smile. He stays at an inn with his beloved wife Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazaki) while a heavy rain floods the region. Given the poor weather outside, several other travelers are temporarily stranded at the inn, prompting Misawa to lighten the dour mood with a feast. The importance of these early scene consists mostly of showing off how nice of a guy Misawa is. Shortly after the rain has subsided, our benevolent ronin takes a lonesome walk in the forest, where he encounters a few agitated young samurai students who are about to engage in combat. In the nick of time Misawa defuses the conflict, earning the attention of the clan’s lord, Shigeaki (Shiro Mifune), who was standing not far away. The lord invites Misawa to dinner and offers employment as the clan’s sword master, much to the ire of the other teachers and experienced warriors of the clan.

I haven’t seen all of Akira Kurosawa’s films (that would literally require a few more years at the rate I watch movies), but I have seen a decent amount, and I find the screenplay to After the Rain, which he wrote, to be refreshing. A lot of characters in his films are quite violent and many a time the central figures of his films have had a propensity to violence or agitation. Rather than continuing the tradition of rough and tough samurai heroes, here the hero is shining a different kind of light. I’d even say that with After the Rain, we get the opposite. Ihei Misawa possesses all the skill necessary to dispatch any antagonists in the blink of an eye, much like the great samurai characters of Kuroswa’s previous stories like Sanjuro, but this movie’s protagonist seems naturally gifted with something more important: compassion. He is not a violent man at all even though he could be if he chose to. He smiles a lot, keeps his composure at all times, and often makes an effort to be helpful and decent. The guy is as cool as a cucumber. There is a tenderness to the character of Misawa that was a pure joy to watch because it brought such a different flavour to the samurai genre. I absolutely love samurai films with a heroic protagonist who slices and dices his (or her) way through hoards of villains to restore peace and justice, but the central character of After the Rain is such the antithesis to that formula that I was instantly compelled and charmed by what I was seeing. Even when faced with no other choice than combat, his swiftness and stunning reflexes allow him to avoid his challengers’ blades and subdue them with quick hand to hand moves. I think the one time we see someone actually die by the sword it is accidental and the result of ‘friendly fire.’ There are scenes in which his close rivals are taken aback by his demeanour (which is an odd one for a samurai), only frustrating them more so while Misawa cautiously avoids getting confrontational.

Misawa’s natural inclination to show decency and kindness towards others not only applies to people at the inn or lord Shigeaki, but also his loving wife. Both don’t see eye to eye with regards to Misawa’s use of his skills. Tayo doesn’t necessarily want to be the wife of a ronin, but she loves him for who is he and he often times looks for her forgiveness whenever she learns that he was, willingly or not, involved in some sort of conflict. The film tries to balance these two parallel plot points, the ronin’s involvement in Shigeaki’s clan and his life with Tayo, and I thought it accomplished that rather nicely. Of the Kurosawa films I’ve seen, the women were either not of any significant importance or were actually pretty evil, so here again there was a refreshing change of pace to the plot. Everything returns to this initial idea that Misawa is not your average ronin looking for chumps to gut in order to make a buck…or yen. Even when others take their chances and try to pry some sort of aggressiveness out of him, he just keeps his blood at regular temperature because that’s the way he is, no more and no less.

Koizumi’s direction is controlled and assured, which can be viewed two separate ways. The first is that such a reality comes as a welcome surprise given how he hadn’t been a feature director very often in his career. On the other hand, he was under the wing of Akira Kurosawa for about 28 years, so one would hope that Koizumi acquired some sort of directorial skills after all that work. Still, one can’t lose focus on the fact that this is Koizumi solo, it’s his movie, and his efforts are not bad at all. The film possesses a more classical look and feel to it. The framing in many shots is carefully chosen to focus on very specific objects or people in a given scene, many times remaining static for several minutes so the viewer can inhale the sights and sounds of where conversations are occurring. Whenever the camera performs more dynamic moves, such as panning, I noticed it was very subtle and its intention was merely to follow the action more properly, not necessarily to inject any sort of ‘adrenaline’ into the picture. For a film with a story which develops as calmly as is the case here, After the Rain moves long at a really brisk pace. Of course, it doesn’t quite reach 90 minutes in running length (87 to be precise), so that might have something to do with it, but I was acutely aware of how director Koizumi was handling his scenes. He liked to linger on certain moments, but rarely, if ever indulged. It was often just enough for elements to sink into the viewer’s mind and then move on.

The beauty of the movie is also found in its score, which at first comes across as too sentimental. Hmm, maybe I should choose my words more carefully. I think the score might feel too ‘romantic’ at times, and not in the sense we understand romanticism today. There is a majestic quality (that kind of romance) to the score that required a bit of effort from me to become accustomed to it. I don’t know if it always suited every single scene, but I wouldn’t want to begrudge the film because of it. I do think that, simply as music, it makes for a nice listen, but I hesitate to call it a really good and suitable score.

After the Rain
is more than just a curiosity. It shouldn’t merely be viewed as ‘that Kurosawa screenplay somebody else directed.’ It truly is a very nice movie, which, yes, brought to life Kurosawa’s final script, but also gave Takashi Koizumi to take the spotlight as director for one of the few times in his career. More importantly, it’s a samurai tale that isn’t afraid to give the viewer a radically different vision of what such warriors could be.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

'First Blood' rebuttal

‘You drew first blood, Bill. You drew first blood.’

A commonality between our reactions to Ted Kotcheff’s 1982 First Blood was in how the film blindsided us with its earnest and dramatic tackling of the subject of Vietnam War veterans in the early 1980s. First Blood is not concerned with stereotypical violence as is often found in Hollywood productions featuring actors the likes of Sylvester Stallone. In fact, when the violence erupts, it is atypical in that the character of John J. Rambo is involved in a battle of wits and might against his own countrymen in his own backyard. This alone made for a unique viewing experience, not to mention how, as you put it in your review, Stallone provide some gravitas to Rambo that would have been sorely lacking otherwise. I liked seeing Stallone in an early performance. His youth really lent to his being a disgruntled Vietnam vet who got the proverbial shaft upon his return home from the battle fields. That typical deep voice of his only reinforced Rambo’s unfortunate state of mind and heart throughout the film. The movie works in many ways as a social commentary, one that must have hit American audiences hard back in 1982 when the subject of the Vietnam War was still fresh. The conflicting emotions of the American public towards this infamous war and those who served in it are set on a dangerous collision course in First Blood. For those reasons Kotcheff’s movie is a challenging one, far more challenging than one’s run of the mill action movie, and I think we agree that First Blood is far more than a mere ‘action movie.’

There were a couple of details you mentioned in your review last week that caught me by surprise however, the first being how First Blood ‘isn’t a particularly well made film.’ You go on by briefly mentioning some poor post-production dubbing and the underwhelming direction from Kotcheff himself. With regards to the first point (poor dubbing), I must admit that it flew over my head. Perhaps I was so absorbed in this dark, gritty and challenging world that the fact that dubbing had been performed was too slight detail for me to take notice. I haven’t watched the film since, but I’ll keep that issue in mind the next time I give my disc a spin. It seems to me a lot of older pictures have dubbing, so it could have been that I just took it for granted. More importantly however were your less than complimentary comments towards Ted Kotcheff’s directorial style. I thought his camera did wonders for the film, especially in the action sequences. It certainly has a more ‘old school’ feel to it, with the camera being pretty static in many instances, but oftentimes I thought the frame was perfectly placed and awarded the viewer with some really intriguing images. One of my favourites occurs early on when Rambo is hanging from the cliff over the river. The police have called in a chopper (in which the crazy cop with the rifle is riding) and the hovering vehicle is approaching Rambo’s location along the cliff. The camera is placed very near Rambo, but on his right side, so the rest of the frame showcases the remainder of the canyon and the grey sky. In the background we can see the chopper approaching as Rambo scrambles to keep his grip. I thought that shot was really cool. Not flashy, but really effective at telling the story of an action scene. That was Kotcheff’s most important contribution to the film in my opinion, that is, the ability to carefully frame the shots during moments of tension and action. This might sound ludicrous but I felt there were hints of some Hitchcockian inspiration at times during the action sequences.

The only other point on which we disagree somewhat is the usefulness of the Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) character. His importance at the end of the story is of the utmost, that we agree on I believe. However, his introduction around the midpoint of the story does serve some purpose, even though it may not be totally essential. The point I’m about to make has much to do with the type of characters we are dealing with up until the moment Colonel Trautman makes his presence known, so let’s rewind things a little bit. So far, we’ve seen Rambo try to find an old friend, only to discover of his shocking demise. This completely warps Rambo’s attitude, from somewhat decent bloke to cold and distant. When the cops pick him up, they’re aren’t much better. In fact, they’re clearly worse for a short while, mistreating him in some surprising to say the least. This in turn activates ‘killer/survival instinct’ mode in Rambo, with the latter going all army on anyone who dares approach him. The momentary flashbacks tell us one of the main reasons why Rambo is behaving this way, but for some audience members it might not be enough for that knowledge to make Rambo terribly relatable. I mean, we have a United States war veteran maiming small American town police officers in the woods. While I did find the conflict interesting in its oddity and shock value, and while I believe that I could have still found it interesting without the introduction of Colonel Trautman, the Colonel’s presence instils a sort of structure to the chaos that has taken over. We understand a little bit more who Rambo is and why he might be behaving the way he his. In fact, I think the night time scene in which Colonel Trautmen tries to reign Rambo in via radio is top notch. Rambo’s semi-psychotic state is put into some harsh words during their radio conversation (‘They drew first blood’). And anyways, I really enjoyed Richard Crenna's performance, so there.

I was relieved to learn that you found First Blood to be a mostly pleasing viewing experience. It certainly takes the action genre by the horn and gives it good shake. I was listening to the extra features on the disc in which the author of the novel David Morell expresses some of his thoughts. It was quite interesting to hear him reveal that in the book John Rambo really does start gunning people down in small town U.S.A. I think there are some obvious reasons why the decision was made not to have Rambo do that in a mainstream motion picture adaptation, but it had me wondering what sort of movie that would have been like. Regardless, First Blood is far smarter than I foolishly had given it credit for (without having seen it), and you were smart enough to realize this as well. Seems as though things mostly evened out in our reviews. Maybe the real bloodshed will commence next week…

Read Bill's rebuttal over at his Movie Emporium.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Lebanon

Lebanon (2009, Samuel Maoz)


High concept movies are a tricky bunch. Naturally, they always begin with an interesting idea, one that grabs the interesting of the audience immediately because it makes them question how exactly the story will unfold under the unique, well defined and often peculiar circumstances the filmmakers have determined. In the case of 2009’s Lebanon, from Israeli Samuel Maoz, the viewer, much like the film’s four central characters, are stuck in an old, greasy tank during the Lebanon war in 1982. Under the guidance of Gamil, a captain who is patrolling the urban warfare areas with his troops by foot, our young and weary foursome of tank dwellers are asked to protect the foot soldiers as their platoon performs what they think is cleanup duty in a Lebanese town which has already been the victim of significant air raids.

Shumlik, Herzel, Yigal and Asi, the tank’s captain, are the protagonists who must witness the devastation and stress brought upon by modern warfare from their aging, cluttering and clanking steel made contraption. Early on in the movie the camera shows a small crest plastered on the inside wall of the assault vehicle that ironically states how men are made of steel whereas tanks are merely junk. It’s an interesting and à propos little nod to the emotional and psychological build up that is surely emphasized on in the military and before combat to get the troops’ adrenaline running. Ironically enough, it would appear that the crest which decorates the filthy wall was placed there by the previous team who manned the tank because from early on the audience is given clear indications that this foursome is not so fearsome after all. Whether it is due to their youth or perhaps some false pre-conceived notions of what warfare is all about, from the moment trouble begins to stir the team’s capabilities of functioning adequately are put into serious doubt. Botched opportunities to wipe oncoming enemies, incompatible personalities and an overall lack of composure are but some of the evil seeds which plant themselves firmly in their claustrophobic little bit of breathing space.

Lebanon had the making of a film that would grab the audience straight from the get go with some high tension scenes and not let go until the very end. The idea that the entire story would be told from the interior of a military tank held a lot of promise for several reasons. The camera, which serves as the audience’s eyes are ears, cannot leave the confinement of the vehicle, so there are several moments when the tension mounts due to the mostly hidden nature of what transpires on the outside. The only eye to the outside world the viewer and the characters are privy to is the tank driver’s cross air. The zoom factor for the cross air also served for some interesting visual cues that were at times borderline voyeuristic. The restrictive vision to the outside world made for some very intense scenes when trouble was brewing in the surrounding areas. These searches for the source of oncoming enemy fire during the battles scenes do a decent job at putting the viewer in the shoes of the tank’s crew. The sequences when the driver is just observing the remnants of the destroyed urban area were far less convincing however. The cross air (and thus the camera) will sometime rest on the face of an angry Arab who stares at the cross air as we are looking at him and at one point the driver keeps following a naked woman who has just survived the bombing of her apartment which resulted in the death of her husband and young daughter. In these moments the film was trying too hard to elicit some sort of emotional reaction from the viewer. A lot of it has to do with timing in instances such as these and I felt as though the camera would rest on the bystanders or the victims of violence for too long, almost as though it didn’t trust the audience enough had to make things as obvious and didactic as possible.

The character relations are of interest in Lebanon given how Samuel Maoz keeps them nice and tight with the tank. It’s pretty obvious that the crew is relatively young, with oldest perhaps in his early to mid thirties at most. Most of them don’t really want to be there at all, especially Shmulik, who consistently questions Asi’s authority, thus creating some strain between the two. I suppose we could designate Shmulik as the smart ass, or obnoxious one of the bunch. Whatever decision is taken, be it by Asi or Gamil who transfers his own orders via radio communication (although he does pop in from time to time to speak to the crew directly), one can be certain that Shmulik will show at least a minimal form of resistance. The only other crew member however who is given any significant characterization is the so called leader, Asi. At first he does his best to impose his authority, although with Shmulik around it often falls on deaf ears. Then again, Asi rarely, if ever provides discernable reasons for some of the decisions he opts for, which therefore invites to question his true abilities as a leader. The other two crew members feel quite superficial. An opportunity to build up some memorable characters in a memorable setting is therefore somewhat lost. They aren’t total blank slants, the movie does try to give them some simple traits, but there isn’t a whole lot to chew on. A shame.

Overall, I would argue that Lebanon’s first half is really decent despite that I felt the characters were a bit under-developed. The set design was superb with all the steam and filth infesting the tank and I enjoyed following Gamil’s platoon from the inside of this ancient vehicle. The movie started out with a certain ambition that caught my attention and was playing its cards well overall, but, much like the crew members themselves, the film loses its way somewhere during the second half. It was a bit odd because it felt as though director Y, for right or wrong, suddenly thought ‘Oh gosh, I set my entire film in a tank and we’ve mostly just been patrolling a decimated Lebanese town with a few incidents here and there. I had better start throwing more things into the mix otherwise this will get boring.’ While not completely blown away (no pun intended), I though the first half was interesting enough and I wouldn’t minded at all had Lebanon simply continued down that same trajectory. Director Y clearly felt otherwise and thought it best to include several new variables during the last 30-40 minutes of the movie which don’t necessarily make the story any better. In fact, I felt things got a bit clunky near the end. A Syrian prisoner of war is thrown into the tank, a Falangist (Christian Arab) comes in on occasion to taunt the former in Arabic about how he is going to cut off the prisoner’s balls, Asi’s mental stability seems to melt away and he begins to talk strange à la Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and the film’s climax and final shot feel rushed, sadly. The focus of the film is lost at some point and I’m not sure director Y knew exactly how to get things back on track. The addition of the Syrian prisoner is a prime example because that character is brought into this confined space but only seems to be a factor on and off. The POW’s presence doesn’t add anything, but every once in a while the movie will takes a few minutes to have a scene that is concerned with him. That, in essence, encapsulates my sentiments on the director’s storytelling decision during the latter stages of the film: things are adding just for the sake of adding them. These things might happen during wartime, I wouldn’t contest that, certainly not with my limited knowledge of the Lebanese war of the 80s. But some things can’t just be done in a film to add authenticity, they need to serve the story.

Despite its weaker second half, I still believe Lebanon to be worth recommending. The premise might sound more promising than the end product, but that isn’t to say the product in question is unworthy. There are a number of solid scenes, some of which study the character relations of the crew members while others are more action-oriented and concentrate on the fury that rages outside. I just think the script required some more polish before all the shooting, both literal and figurative, began.