Sunday, April 25, 2010

Renoir marathon: La Fille de l'Eau

La Fille de L'Eau/Whirpool of Fate (1925, Jean Renoir)

And so we begin another marathon. This time we go way, way back in time to the mid 1920s when famous French director Jean Renoir was only at the earliest stage of his illustrious career. Having not made a big name for himself yet was not much of an issue. La Fille de L’eau is not the film that would make him the reputable director he eventually became (his most famous film is probably The Grand Illusion), but it obviously hinted at some of the man’s praiseworthy talents as a filmmaker.

Simply put, the film is about a young lower class woman named Gudule (played by Renoir’s then wife, Catherine Hessling) who lives in the countryside with her kind father and brutish uncle. The story begins with the three of them working on their boat. The father has a terrible accident and drowns in the lake. While Gudule is clearly shaken by this turn of events, her uncle Geff is a far more suspicious breed of person. Very soon after this tragic event, a hung-over Geff attempts to rape Gudule on their boat. Thankfully she makes it out unscathed and chooses to run off. Her adventure leads into the path of several strange people, but not all whom she encounters is as kind as one would hope...

The structure of La Fille de L’Eau is very much in the same vein as a road trip or quest film, even though Gudule’s only real quest following her uncle’s attack and father’s death is to find comfort in a world that has let her down. She goes from location to location, encountering several people along the way, some of which are helpful and friendly, others which are seemingly just as cold inside as her uncle Geff. We never spend any significant amount of time discovering who these people are, with the exception of perhaps Georges, the young buck who will fall in love with her. For that reason it was a little bit difficult to fully invest myself into the movie and those who populated this world. Whether due to budgetary constraints or creative choices La Fille de L’Eau clocks in at a tiny 72 minutes, and therefore it becomes obvious that not much time will be spent with character growth, particularly among the supporting players. Some characters seem to be just ‘there’. They are seen for a couple of scenes and never again, such as a barman inflicted with a serious toothache and the mother of a young thief who picks up Gudule and trains her in the art of theft. Having seen some of Renoir’s later work such as The Grand Illusion and The River, both of which feature some tremendous character development, I sometimes expected some of these creations to garner some more heft, but it wasn’t meant to be unfortunately. For this reason the brisk pace is both a curse and a blessing for the film. Gudule goes (and is sometimes forced) from place to place in rapid succession, thus giving Renoir’s movie with a sense of excitement because we don’t know what mess Gudule will find herself in next. I did enjoy that aspect of the storytelling. I’m not going to sit here and say that La Fille de L’Eau has a ‘bad script’ or anything of the sort, only that the entire affair feels somewhat rushed at times.

Speaking of Gudule, the performance from Catherine Hessling is one I’d like to offer some praise. One should consider that the 1920s were a completely different age of filmmaking and acting. With no voices to rely on, much of the performance rests on the actor’s ability to convey emotion and thought purely through the physical aspect of acting, both with the overall body movements and especially with the face. In that respect Hessling is pretty good. There is indeed an innocence about her that worked well for me and I did get the impression that the weight of her strange and dire situation was pulling down on her. Granted, it was also an age where the makeup was gushed onto the face of actresses as if there was no tomorrow. Hessling looks quite theatrical at times, which may not necessarily jive well with her supposed status as a lower class girl, but she can act through the thickness of the makeup, which is all I would have asked for anyhow.

Of all the directorial gifts Renoir was blessed with, it is mostly his capacity to bring impressive visuals to the screen that is featured most prominently in La Fille de L’Eau. There are several instances when the camera is either perfectly placed to convey whatever emotion Renoir wished to extract from the viewer, be it laughter or fear. Shots of Hessling face as she stares at menace in the form of her uncle or greedy townsfolk are beautiful to behold and would make for some sublime poster art. There are sequences when the director adopts an editing technique which would only grow in popularity in the decades to come: the quick cut. I’m thinking mostly of the night time scene when some townsfolk have decided to burn down the trailer of the family of thieves Gudule is staying with. The look of horror on her face and the piercing gazes of satisfaction and malice on that of the townsfolk as they all observe that bright fire rip through the night are showcased through rapid editing.

Arguably the one sequence that must not go unmentioned is the Gudule’s nightmare which propels the film into the final third. Following the burning of the shack, Gudule is split up from the boy thief and her mother. Alone and feverish in the woods, she lies down and dreams about all the mean spirited people she has seen, a storm, a giant lizard, ghosts riding on horseback... I don’t want to reveal too much about this sequence otherwise much of the pleasure in discovering Renoir’s exquisite editing, cinematography and trickery. Film is the art of visual trickery after all. It might not be real, but if it looks real enough, or if it is conveyed in a manner that captures the imagination of the viewer, then the mission is accomplished. What devilish imagery Renoir concocts for the dream sequence is not merely impressive when one considers that this was made in 1925. It just looks really cool, simple as that.

In a film that doesn’t possess the most engaging of plots nor the most memorable of supporting characters (although Geff the uncle is quite effective as the chief villain), Renoir’s nonetheless succeeds in giving his audience the sense that they were transported into a world, whether real or not. His storytelling abilities would improve with the more movies he made, but I felt the immediate impact of his visual sense. He understood how to capture the face of actors with the frame and, at this very early stage in his career, was already quite adept at producing striking and memorable imagery, whether for story purposes or simply for the sake of looking like a genius.

Star Wars Marathon: A New Rebuttal

A New Rebuttal

For a full appreciation of this article, a proper reading of Bill’s review of Episode IV at Bill’s Movie Emporium is required.

‘I find your lack of faith disturbing.’

And so the battle finally commences. After a series of films for which our opinions diverged only slightly and sometimes not at all, Episode IV, surprisingly, brought about significantly different reviews from you and I. No one, not even self proclaimed fans of the Star Wars franchise, is required to love Episode IV. There is no litmus test dictating that to be part of the Star Wars fan base or community one must proclaim their unshakable appreciation of the original film. Granted, very few people who admit to being fans of the franchise don’t like Episode IV, but that’s another matter altogether. There’s little denying that you are in a unique position with your review of the current film in our marathon, but I doubt that need make you any less of a Star Wars fan.

No, it is not the overall nature of your article that puzzled me. As they say, the devil is in the details, and it was rather your individual points which had me shaking my head, sometimes in disbelief and other times in laughter (I will admit as much that some of your snarky comments produced some laughter as I read). What is this ‘not caring about the characters’ business all about exactly? As I recall, prior to viewing Episode IV, we had just revisited the prequel trilogy which sets up the events and characters as we meet them at the start of the film. Ben Kenobi as an old man who Luke knew for a few days who never did a single thing to heighten him in your eyes... Okay, what in heaven’s name was the prequel trilogy, which you praised on a consistent basis I might add, for in that case? The Episode IV Ben Kenobi is our famous Jedi Knight living his final days, attempting to do good for peace and justice one last time before he kicks the bucket. We just saw him for 3 freaking movies kicking butt, sweating his ass off for everything he felt the Old Republic and democracy stood for (for good or ill). Now, with the road of the son of the one who was supposed to bring balance to the Force finally finding its way to Ben’s cottage, or whatever it is he lives in, he sees his chance to fight back at the Empire in any way he is capable of. He knows his days are numbered, he’s not stupid. He also knows exactly who Luke Skywalker is, what he represents and what can come about him with a little bit of training. I think Ben knows full well he is not going to finish off the job. His time is over. Now is the time to develop justice’s new hope: Luke. Added to that bit of rich storytelling is the fact that Ben is portrayed by the ever classy Sir Alec Guinness. He’s like Sir Ian McKellen. You could have cast him as the cook at a burger joint and he would have made the role gold. Those few moments when he explains to Luke what happened to the Jedi and who Darth Vader is resonate even more now that we have watched the prequel trilogy. I honestly think they worked before anyways before the existence of episodes I, II and III because they hinted at this terrible event, the Clone Wars (which got us all excited for the eventual prequel trilogy). But now, as a part of the complete saga, I think those couple minutes are brilliant.

The comments about Darth Vader are more understandable. Even in my own review I briefly mentioned that Vader seems to play second fiddle to the nefarious General Tarkin. Vader is not the main villain of this instalment until perhaps the final 30 minutes because we really don’t see much of him until that point. Was his iconography earned on image alone? I think you may be on to something. On the other hand I don’t see why that is a bad thing necessarily. He does look ferocious after all. There is also the vocal performance by the great James Earl Jones that adds some real strength to the character. Nonetheless, Vader becomes interesting and more prominent in the film once he orders the Stormtroopers to inspect the Millenium Falcon because he senses a familiar presence within the Force. Right away we have a hint of back story, which culminates in the lightsaber duel shortly afterwards. I am not going to sit here and type that the duel between Vader and Ben Kenobi is exciting, because it isn’t really exciting, but I don’t agree at with any notion that the confrontation does not carry any emotional weight. Because of that the fight is a mixed bag, but I think the character elements to it prevent it from being so awful as you proclaim it to be.

I also had trouble assessing your statements about exposition and the frivolous nature of the film. Boring exposition? I don’t know, based on the fact that you liked the political scenes from Episode I, I suppose your comment makes sense?... The movie begins and we are immediately dropped into a space chase and then a shootout, introductions to Darth Vader, Princess Leia, C3PO and R2D2. The movie then, admittedly, does lag for a few minutes with the droids walking around the desert and then being purchased by the Skywalkers, but it picks up with great pace once Luke meets Ben Kenobi. A few minutes about the death of the Old Republic (really, it’s a brief scene. I hope you’re not actually including that in your argument of useless information. Anyways, it isn’t useless, it partly convinces Luke to join in on the Rebellion), and we’re off to meet with Han Solo. The rest is a bunch of actions scenes and witty banter until the end of the film. Where in heaven’s name is your ‘snail’s pace’ and ‘unnecessary information’? Frivolous nature? I imagine because you wanted more politicking about disbanding the Senate? Uh, no thanks, this is Star Wars, not Congress or the House of Commons (Canada represent!). Who cares anyways, Palpatine is the freaking Emperor! He wants to disband the Senate? Go right ahead. He wants pepperoni pizza? On the double my Lord! The only segment of the series that I would characterize as frivolous thus far would be the opening minutes of Episode I. We don’t know what the heck the Trade Federation is, why they’re important, why they want Naboo specifically (although that is sort of explained later) with two Jedi visiting about 4 places in maybe 15 minutes.

You and I are typically on the same page when it comes to dissecting films. On the rare occasions when our opinions differ, I generally get what it is about said film that you didn’t appreciate. This was truthfully and honestly one of the unique times when I really ‘didn’t get’ what you were saying. This isn’t intended to be mean or condescending (I have nothing but respect for you), but as I type this rebuttal article I’m still under the impression that I watched Episode IV whereas you watched Episode I again, only this time you actually came to your senses. Just as you apparently read my Episode III review multiple times, I did much of the same with your Episode IV review, trying to fit your comments with elements of the film. I failed every time. I’m still trying to figure out the ‘don’t care for the characters’ comments and the ‘snail’s pace’ comments.

I’m going to leave it at that. It looks as if we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. It’s unfortunate the Episode IV segment of the marathon is going to end like this because I typically understand people’s opinions of given films even if I don’t quite agree with them. This really was not one of those times sadly. Bill, I’ll see you on the Hoth battlefield.

Friday, April 23, 2010

10 movie inspired facts about me

In Between the Seats' 19 months of existence, not once have I ever revealed anything about myself. Adopting a little game many other bloggers have as well, such as Miss Topanga at Breathing Movies and M. Carter at M. Carter @ the Movies, I present to you 10 movie related facts about me, my life, personality, etc.

10-Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott) showed the power of movies. The backlash against the film has never detracted from my enjoyment of the film. I'll love it till death. I saw this movie on opening day with some friends back in May of 2000. At that point in my life I enjoyed movies a lot, but the scope, drama and action of this Ridley Scott effort was what began my true, deep love for the art of film.

9-I was an actor. Not really, I'm exagerating the facts of the case of course, but when I was a kid a friend called me once with the proposition of being in a movie. His family knew somebody who somebody who somebody...Anyways, the movie, the title of which I've embarassingly forgotten, was a silly kid's film. I was a student in a classroon (not a peasking role, mind you), but when we rented the video (VHS!), all we saw was the corner of my desk...

8-My mother introduced me to James Bond. A lot of people I know who grew up with the Bond movies discovered them through their fathers, or uncles, or some other male relation. Not me, no sir! I still remember the day I was staying at home from school due to illness, when my mother said she was going to the video store to rent a film she thought I'd like. She said it was nothing like those pathetic cartoons I watched. No, this character had some class, she claimed. Since then I have been a die hard Bond fan. That first 007 movie? My mother's favourite of course, Octopussy.

7-I love special edition DVDs. I own maybe a handful of DVDs that aren't 'special editions', no more. I love commentary tracks, deleted scenes, 'making-of' documentaries, etc. Now, I never find the time to watch or listen to every single feature of every single DVD I own, but I do try. And even if I don't, I just like the idea that I can get the most of out the DVDs I purchased.

6-I am absolutely in love with film scores. There's something about what a film music composer does to add an extra layer to the storytelling and themes of a film that makes me so happy. I even used to buy film scores back in the day (I don't so much anymore). I'm always curious to listen to a great film's score after I've watched a movie I love for the first time.

5-I'm not big on soundtracks. I don't know why exactly. It isn't that I don't like them. On the contrary, when the music fits a scene I appreciate the cleverness and work that went into choosing the right song. Soundtracks have just never carried as much weight in my warped mind as film scores. The latter is original work done from A to Z to compliment the storytelling. The former is a job fitting in songs that already existed.

4-When watching movies at home, nothing beats a good bowl of cereal. When it comes to cereal, nothing beats a good bowl (or 3) of Reese's Puffs.

3-I don't like dubbed versions of Non-English or Non-French language films. If I don't understand the original language in which the film's dialogue is spoken, then I'll happily read the subtitles. In fact, and this is going to make me look like a bit of a jerk, if there is another person who wants to watch the same movie but feels more comfortable with the dubbed version, I'd just assume not watch the film at all.


2-I really like seeing big films on opening weekend. I know that's nothing extraordinary (although I didn't garantee that this was going to be a list of 'extraordinary' movie inspired facts about me), but there are a handful of people who prefer waiting for the crowds to die down or even wait for a film's release on DVD. For some movies, like smaller indie films or Foreign language stuff that I usually go see alone, I'm not usually in any rush to see them. Those movies tend to be in half empty rooms anyways. But the big Hollywood stuff that attracts crowds on Friday and Saturday nights...I love going out with friends to see those.

1-This is less of a 'fact' and more of a 'fantasy.' You know us cinefiles/movie buffs/movie maniacs all wish we could do something in the movie business, or something movie related. I know a few people who would like to direct, others who like to write. Some of us would like to play in the editing room. If I were part of the movie industry, I'd be an actor. I'm not saying I have the talent required to be one, only that that is the one role I'd like to have were I part of movie making magic. I've always been an actors and actresses kind of guy. Directors bring what they have to the table, so do the writers, cinematographers, visual effects teams, etc. None of them can be a character in a film other than an actor. Agree to disagree if you feel like it, but in my book, you don't have a movie without the actors.

Next Marathon

Sneek preview time!

In order to keep our marathon mania going on strong, the next marathon theme will be the work of French director Jean Renoir. Some of you may remember that back in December of last year I reviewed Nana quite favourably. Well, there's a lot more where that came from because I own this box set:

I haven't even watched all of the films in the set yet, so many of these will be new discoveries for both you, the readers, and I. I hope you'll enjoy this exploration of the great director's work. Stay tuned for the first review this weekend!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)

As the famous saying goes: ‘And now for something completely different.’ Kick-Ass the movie is directly based on a modern cult classic graphic novel (I’m always tempted to just call them comics, but apparently that irks certain folks) of the same name.

There are some films studios love to make and one of those particular genres is the superhero/comic book movie. Another thing studios love to put into their films is plenty of action, with epic battles pitting valiant heroes against nefarious and deadly villains. A slick, polished look as well as a clever editing to heighten the experience, funny dialogue, memorable supporting characters, all of these are equally staples of what Hollywood enjoys churning, especially when producing films based on superheroes. Most, if not all of these elements are ready and present in Matthew Vaughn’s latest endeavour, Kick-Ass. However, the search for financial support within the studio system proved a bit more challenging than usual. The reason? Kick-Ass, for all its strengths and weaknesses is easily different from the many comic book inspired movies we’ve been accustomed to over the past decade.

Things start off quickly, with an immediate hint at the tone the film will adopt for the next 120 minutes or so. A little of irony and self-referential humour mixed with some unabashed violence. The plot, which from what I understand is an amalgamation of the printed miniseries, revolves around teenager Dave, a very average young man with not a lot to show for himself until the day he inexplicably decides to purchase a scuba diving suit online in order to dress up as a hero and protect the innocent at night. His athleticism is limited at best, his planning for such a scheme is a tad leaky, but what he does possess is a lot of courage and heart. To his knowledge no has ever attempted to play the role of real life superhero before, so he has decided to carry this mantle as the aptly named Kick-Ass. Unbeknownst to him however is the existence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) who are after revenge against the terrible crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Events will force Kick-Ass and the father-daughter duo to band together and take on D’Amico as well as the latter’s son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) .

Unquestionably one of the principle elements that put fear into studio’s at the thought of financing Kick-Ass was the level of unfiltered violence featured throughout. Witnessing bullets ripping through flesh is nothing knew for anyone who has paid attention to recent action films, and experiencing the slicing and dicing of body limbs with a shiny sword should sound familiar to those who have seen the Kill Bill films, but it is the way the violence is handled at times in Kick-Ass that I believe differentiates it from many other movies. Certainly in the early going of the film there is a brutal realism to the violence depicted on screen which produced a very visceral reaction. Kick-Ass the character is nothing but a little chump who is in far over his head. Ill equipped and ill prepared for the task he has wilfully burdened himself with, Dave’s early outings frequently end in great physical pain, even though his persona is earning popularity via YouTube. The injuries aren’t of the comical variety either. They are serious and life threatening. For all its brutality and the foul mouths of the teenagers (some lines are genuinely funny, but I felt they cussed a bit too frequently), I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the movie. It was certainly going for something different than with other masked crusader efforts. Dave was a young buck with quite literally no powers whatsoever trying to establish himself as a hero for New York. Johnson, while not breaking any new grounds in the acting department, does a fine job portraying this eternally average Joe vying for something really quite extraordinary.

The pacing and tone of the film take a different turn near the halfway mark once Kick-Ass unites with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I won’t say that it takes a turn for the worse, because I honestly don’t think that’s true. It’s just...different. I still enjoyed the second half of the film a fair bit despite some criticism I'll share with you shortly. Once Hit-Girl makes her presence known to the audience, the portrayal of the characters and especially of the violence changes. Dave, in an attempt at assisting a girl he has the host for, dresses as Kick-Ass and arrives at a dingy apartment where some goons live. These germs have been causing some trouble for Dave’s would-be girlfriend, and when his half-assed attempt at intimidating the thugs fails him, the ever heroic and deadly Hit-Girl bails our protagonist out by stabbing and cutting the gang members into little packable portions. I had only seen a few television spots for the film and had only read a few articles on the film, so my knowledge of how far Kick-Ass supposedly stretched the limits of acceptable violence was vague at best. I won’t deny that the surprise of Hit-Girl’s abilities and methodology in crime fighting got to me. I had an idea that a little girl partook in some gruesome violence, but I didn’t expect her to completely make sushi out of people. Much has been said about this offbeat character played with nice energy by Chloe-Moretz, and it is true that, in some ways, she does steal the show somewhat. I mean, Kick-Ass is a fun character and I enjoyed seeing him do his best at something he should never have tried in the first place, but there was something uniquely pleasing and plain odd about seeing a 11 or 12 year old just destroy everybody in a room (on multiple occasions).

I wasn’t entirely on board with some script elements however. Without getting into specifics, the Christopher Mintz-Plasse character Red Mist was not terribly well developed. At first he admires Kick-Ass while feeling left out of the family business of drug dealing. Then he accepts to help his father by laying a trap for Kick-Ass, then he pleads his father to spare him, then he and Kick-Ass are mortal enemies... There seemed to be a lot of back and forth character beats with Red Mist, as if the screenwriters and director Vaughn were never entirely sure of what exactly they wanted to do with him. I wouldn’t fault Mintz-Plasse however for I did enjoy his performance. There is a lot of screen time reserved for the flowering romance between Dave and the girl he likes, and while I appreciated the notion of a love interest which starts off in highly comical fashion, she is nowhere to be found in the final 30 minutes of the movie. It felt like a lot of screen time that led to nothing. Finally, there is the issue of the depicted violence in the latter stages of the movie which I briefly mentioned earlier in this review. Kick-Ass seems to, what is that that expression, want its cake and eat it too. It starts off as a story of an ordinary kid who makes a crazy decision to become a masked vigilante without the requisite skills. By the climax, we witness some entertaining (I want to stress this before people start believing I didn’t like the ending) if completely different action sequences. Kick-Ass gets in on the action in a rather ridiculous way and overall tone of the violence is very stylized, dare I say, very ‘comic booky’. The spirit of the early goings essentially left behind once Big Daddy and Hit-Girl gain more prominence in the story. Again, I enjoyed the movie for the most part. I wouldn’t want my criticisms to dissuade anyone from seeing it. It does take some unique turns for a comic book movie and even when I felt the tone had changed, I still thought the overall result was fun to watch.

So there we have it. While Kick-Ass the character is a loser, Kick-Ass the movie isn’t. It gets pretty wild at times, offers a fun spin on the superhero film, showcases some well executed actions scenes and makes it to the finish line in pretty good shape despite some reservations I have with the script. With the onslaught of comic book films being released these days, it was nice to see something a bit different.

Review: We Own the Night

We Own the Night (2007, James Gray)

In James Gray’s police drama We Own the Night, a family unit is deeply split. On one side there is Bobby, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who manages an undeniably hip Brooklyn night club named El Caribe whose Russian owners have ties to an organized ring of drug importers. On the other side of the fence are his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) and their father Burt (Robert Duvall), both highly regarded members of the police force. The relationship between Bobby and his immediate family is heavily strained, with the former having gone down a path which the latter frown upon. This family tension has reached the point where Bobby goes under the family name Green rather than his true name, Grusinsky. As fate would have it, the authorities are on the hunt for the very same Russian mob with ties to Bobby’s club. When a police raid on El Caribe is answered by ruthless reprisals on the family from one of the mob’s leading men, Vadim (Alex Veadov), both sides are forced to cooperate, using their skills and knowledge of the Russian organization in order to bring an end to the violence. Perhaps through the fog of tragedy the dim lights of reconciliation can be spotted.

I read an online article not long ago which applauded the sincerity with which writer director James Gray tells his stories. In the worlds he creates (all of which could easily be seen as part of the same world), there is no room for irony, for anything ‘tongue and cheek’ nor for any hints of self-deprecation. He brings real drama to the table and his films tend to take themselves very seriously. The lighting, the camerawork, the editing, score and even the line delivery add a weight of emotions to We Own the Night. Phoenix, whose family and girlfriend Amada (Eva Mendez) is hit hard during the police investigation due to the mob’s incessant attacks, delivers much of his dialogue as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Every word and every hush is uttered with difficulty and with the pain of broken heart. But as the stakes kept getting raised, is that not precisely how he should feel? Many of the scenes take their time in developing, almost begging the viewer to remain patient and feel the agony that has befallen the four principle characters. Even Mark Wahlberg gets in on the act with some line delivery one must lend their ear a little bit in order to fully comprehend. It’s not a style suited for just anyone’s taste, but I took it as just another variation on film noir dialogue.

I find it very unsurprising that Gray’s effort came and went like the wind from the multiplexes a few years ago. One might be led to believe that We Own the Night, based on a plot synopsis, is a run of the mill family/cop drama with its own decent serving of obligatory action sequences. After all, that is, in many ways, exactly what the film has to offer. It’s hardly original and does serve some of the requisite scenes of violence and carnage. And yet James Gray is skilful enough to craft a film that doesn’t really feel like something terribly mainstream, and by extension he dances circles around those expectations we had coming in. Being sombre does not equal being ugly or repulsive. What Gray has in store with We Own the Night is a testament to the man’s attention to detail in the cinematography, lighting and shadow. Even the colour palette sprinkles the visual experience with something dark and attractive. This being the second Gray film I experience (the first being last year’s Two Lovers) I think he has quite the distinct style. The attention paid to the lighting of scenes is very interesting. It often feels as though the characters are washed in shadow, even when light is spread all over them. It’s like a reminder that behind every corner there is the endless possibility that things can go from bad to worse. I can see how this aesthetic may be a turn off for some. The space and mood in plenty of Gray’s scenes can feel almost oppressive at times, but it’s all handled very carefully and the end result is a memorable, if downbeat, experience. It’s quite enveloping really.

The editing and sound mixing play an immense role throughout the film and should also be commended, especially for the action scenes. Everything is exquisitely constructed to provide a visceral experience. I’m thinking most notably of a car chase in the middle section of the film when the police are escorting Bobby and his girlfriend from by car during a terribly rainy day. Naturally the Russian mob are well aware of the police’s strategy and opt to intercept the vehicles. It is a dark and stormy day when the assault kicks into high gear, and this is when director Gray puts into motion a thrilling audio and visual 5 minute sequence. The violent crashing of the raindrops on the roof of the cars, the crackling of shattered glass caused by shotgun bullets ripping through the windows, the point of view from inside Bobby’s car, etc. It really is a uniquely realized chase scene. Rather than offering a great number of exterior shots (even there are some at least), the frame gives the viewers a point of view from Bobby’s driving seat. There is a surprising moment even when, after zigzagging through the lanes, an approaching truck suddenly appears mere meters ahead. It only lasts a moment before Bobby showcases some risky manoeuvres in order to avoid oblivion, but I felt, in those few seconds, as if I were in the car with Bobby and Abba staring at death in the face. Even the incessant sound of the windshield wiper caressing the front window possessed something ominous.

If there is one element about We Own the Night that doesn’t reach the same heights as the sound and cinematography, it would have to be the script. The plot follows some dramatic beats which will surprise only those uninitiated to police dramas. As the story evolved, I was increasingly under the impression that James Gray had essentially written a very basic story as a launching pad for his aesthetic experiment. It’s not a bad story, it works well enough as a cop drama, only that everything feels very predictable. I appreciate the honesty found in the film, and a part of that comes from the performances of Phoenix, Wahlberg and Duvall. Another comes from the dialogue the actors deliver. Finally there is the story, along with all the individual plot developments, and they do suffer from a ‘been there, done that’ syndrome. I’d go so far as to say that without its aesthetic qualities, We Own the Night would only be a completely different movie, but one that wouldn’t be as remotely interesting as it stands now. The flatness in the script hurts some of the more dramatic twists and turns which directly affect the protagonists. Some of them did in fact cause the requisite emotional response from me, so I don’t want to give the impression that every single beat left me unimpressed (the film does have one surprise which I didn’t see coming at all near the beginning), but many others didn’t. It’s a shame because I think there was potential for a very unique and dynamic film somewhere, but the script, one of the most important ingredients in almost any film (except The Holy Mountain), just didn’t have that ‘oomph’ factor.

What we’re left with is somewhat of an experiment. There is no question that We Own the Night has a different feel, look and sound than many other films belonging to the same genre. Its uniqueness in that department does elevate it from other entries the likes of, say, Running Scared or Pride and Glory. Director James Gray is a man with a very interesting vision and this effort possesses is a clear indication of what he is capable of. His filmmography is by no means extensive, but he has certainly proven his worth as a director with artistic aspirations. Film, after all, is so much about what we see on screen, and Gray gets that part right. He just needed to work a few twitches into his script.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Star Wars Marathon: Episode IV

Star Wars Epiosde IV: A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)

Picking up a couple of decades after the events of Episode III, the galaxy is now governed by the ruthless dictatorship that is the Galactic Empire. Hoping to overthrow the regime is what the Rebel Alliance, who, rumour has it, is gaining popularity in the Senate. At the moment, the Allliance’s first priority is to bring about the destruction of the Empire’s most feared weapon, the Death Star (a battle station that is quite literally in the shape of the sphere and that can blow up planets with a single shot of its powerful laser ray). When Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) star cruiser is viciously attacked at the beginning of the film, she hides the blue prints of the Death Star inside a familiar robot, R2D2, and sends him off to Tatooine where he along with BFF C3PO will come in contact with another recognizable, if now much older, character, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), but not before fate has them meet young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). An adventure begins.

This is the most straightforward episode in the series thus far. If one were to boil down the plot synopsis down to the most basis of elements found in Episode IV (something I never do well, forgive me), it would be ‘young farm boy rescue princess from clutches of evil Empire and becomes a wartime hero for the crusading Rebel Alliance. With Episode IV, Lucas attempts to offer a purer swashbuckling adventure with charismatic characters , witty dialogue and plenty of action to boot, all of this equipped with a brisk pace. Gone are the political debates that characterised many scenes in some of the first few films, gone is the ambiguity in the leading man, gone is the darker mood of the previous instalments for which most of the protagonists failed to make it out alive. One might also say gone are the intricate and complex computer effects of the first three films, but there is an obvious and logical reason for that. Still, George Lucas made do with what he had at the time and I’d say he pulled off a pretty good job, save for a few awkward moments. Episode IV is a fully realized universe, if a very different looking one from what we’ve seen up until now.

The simplicity in the setting of Episode IV is an adequate one for the purposes of the film’s story. Rather than having the villains come from within the ranks of the protagonists, the villains are already set up and the protagonists merely have to go after them. Having not watched this one in a few years, I had forgotten how rapidly it moves along. The movie was over before I knew it. It many ways this is a tremendous strength, but it also exposed some weaknesses at times. For the most part, I was entertained by what I saw and Lucas always kept throwing a new setting or new hurdles towards the heroes every few minutes or so, which certainly kept grabbing my attention. On the other hand, the brisk pace made some moments actually feel rushed, such as when Luke discovers that his aunt and uncle have been burned to a crisp by Stormtroopers. I always feel as if he gets over that loss rather quickly. The only section of the movie for which the pacing is affected by a sluggishness is near the beginning when R2D2 and C3PO are crossing the deserts plains of Tatooine and are eventually purchased by the Luke and his uncle for the farming season. It’s difficult to point my finger on the exact reason, but that 5-10 minute span feels a lot slower than the rest of the movie and not very interesting.

Oddly enough, another passage of the film that has always irked me is the climax. I’ve heaped on a lot of praise for the climaxes in the first three films, so perhaps it was just bound to happen that I’d be dissatisfied with one of them at some point, and here we are. I should point out that I like the stakes presented for the climax, that is, the need for the Rebel Alliance to destroy the ‘technological terror’ that is the Death Star’ before the latter has in plain sight the moon on which the Alliance has taken refuge. It is essentially a race against the clock, always a fun and rousing way to add an element of suspense into an action sequence. No, it is more with the setup and presentation of the climax that I have a bone to pick. Up until that point the film, despite owning the smallest budget in the franchise, had done a more than admirable job at creating a lot out of perhaps not so much. However, the exterior shots of the Death Star during the climax look very, very cheap. I don’t mean that in the ‘ah shucks, it’s an old movie and they did what they could back then’ sense. It just looks cheap. There is the question of Darth Vader’s mini squadron who hunt down the Rebel star ships. Are they equipped with stealth or something? How come nobody is going after them? Worse still, all the Rebel pilots keep claiming that they can’t see them. Suddenly, presto! They’re behind me again! Finally there is the issue of the Death Star’s weak link. Really? One long, straight corridor which reaches into the space station’s inner core? That’s a pretty silly way to build a Death Star if you ask me, which evidently you are if you’re reading this review.

At risk of pouring on too much negativity on a film I said I enjoyed only moments ago, I should reveal my general dislike for Mark Hamill. I’ve never felt that he was a capable actor. A bit wooden at times and a bit too forceful at other, Hamil is not an actor I feel can deliver a genuine performance. I will admit as much that he was better in Episode IV than I had recollected, but only once he is united with some of the more charismatic and lively performers in the franchise, namely, Harrison Ford (as Han Solo) and Carrie Fisher. Somehow that trio works quite well together. The banter they share is witty and comical. They are a group of people who under any other circumstances would have ripped each other’s heads off but at the moment are forced to band together and make it out of the Death Star alive. Yes, there is something about near death experiences that bring out the best in all of us. It is a tremendous bonding experience after all. In all seriousness however, Hamil does work reasonably well off Fisher and Ford, but in the early goings of the film he falls rather flat unfortunately. I don’t mean that as a knock against Alec Guinness however, who was one of the finest British actors to ever grace the stage and screen. His Obi-Wan is an intelligent mixture of maturity, elderly wisdom, with a little kick of gun ho attitude to boot, even though he isn’t as quick on his feat as he used to be. But he also much quieter than the rest of the cast, meaning Hamil has to carry his share of the load in the earlier scenes, which I don’t think he does very well. With Ford and Fisher, both of which are clearly having tons of fun in the role, he can sort of melt into the boiling pot of lively and rambunctious energy. Speaking of wit, energy and funny line delivery, I had almost forgotten how funny the scenes with Luke, Leia and Han running around inside the Death Star were. The first few films made appalling attempts at humour with the atrocity that was Jar Jar Binks and even C3PO in Episode II, but nothing ever quite made the cut in my opinion. The prison cell and trash compactor sequences in Episode IV are absolutely hysterical. How or why I had forgotten the entertainment value of those 10-15 minutes I do not know, but by golly are they ever funny.

As was the case in Episode II and III, there is a supporting character that stole the show over the leading man. Han Solo as played by Harrison Ford is a joy to watch. Cocky, funny, quick to make rash decisions, cool...the list can go on and on. In his later years, Ford has earned the reputation of being a bit of a wooden actor, but anyone who wants to see the man give a performance with a lot of spunk need only watch this movie. There is a reason why most people want to be Han Solo and not Luke Skywalker. Sure, manipulating the Force and learning to become a jedi sounds swell, but you can be a great anti-hero instead. Why not?

The one character whom we might have expected to see a lot of but in fact don’t is Darth Vader. After the rousing downfall of Anakin Skywalker in the previous chapter, Vader takes a bit of a backseat in Episode IV. Don’t get me wrong. When on screen his presence is felt, sometimes in very pronounced fashion, such as in the ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’ scene, but is an Imperial general, General Tarkin, played with the appropriate iciness by Peter Cushing, who is calling the shots this time around. Even emperor Palpatine is nowhere to be found, although he is briefly mentioned at one point. Vader may be but the watchdog, but he is of the most intimidating sort. Of course, with only a black mask to show to the galaxy, it is the voice of the character that must carry the weight of the character. Hiring James Earl Jones was an inspired choice. The actor’s voice is pitch perfect for the role, lending not only authority but dare I say a certain amount of class to villain. I only say this because I love Earl Jones’ articulation. It’s very precise and sharp.

Something Lucas does exceptionally well in Episode IV is give his galaxy a lot of life. He is excellent at filling scenes with great extras and small speaking roles. Some of my favourite scenes are the ones for which plenty of alien costumes were created or several small bit actors were given some lines of dialogue. Any mention of aliens certainly conjures up the Mos Eisley cantina scene. There are so many fantastic creatures to look in that bar, some of which look fearful, others more comical, but let it be known that the art and costume design apartment put a lot of cleverness and work into bringing that bar to life for the movie. Another one of my favourite moments is the conference room scene in the Death Star, during which two Imperial general bicker about the strengths and weaknesses of their battle station. I like it for two reasons, the first being the two actors involved, both of which memorable performances. The second reason is that it gives a certain dynamic to the Galactic Empire. There aren’t just a bunch of faceless soldiers and generals, all joined together as one entity. I enjoy the notion of inner rivalries and bickering from within the ranks. There are even some brief moments when we can hear some Stormtroopers talk amongst each other and there again, it adds a bit of flavour to the villains and by extension the universe that Lucas has created.

For those watching the films for the first time, Episode IV can easily feel like a downgrade from some of the previous chapters in the series. It certainly looks older and more cheap and some of the action scenes aren’t as dynamic as what we’ve seen thus far in the marathon. But it is very difficult to ignore the charm found in the performances of Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Darth Vader, while playing second fiddle to General Tarkin, is a pretty cool villain. A lot of the exchanges between our heroes are wildly funny (even though they don’t like each other much at first) and much of the film moves along at a breakneck pace. Personally, I also like how this film works as a standalone picture. It has a beginning and an end. Had Lucas decided not to make any sequels, we still would have been left with a fine film in its own right, not one chapter in an incomplete saga. It doesn’t have a great climax, Mark Hamill is a bit whiny and too forceful in his dialogue at times and I’m not the biggest C3PO fan, but those criticisms are not enough to take away from my enjoyment of the film. For the first time in this marathon we witness a decrease in score, but that doesn’t mean we have a bad film on our hands. Anyone who still hasn’t checked out the original Star Wars should do so now.

Done Here? Find out what Bill's new hope is at Bill's Movie Emporium.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Revenge of the Rebuttal

For a full appreciation of this particular article, a reading of Bill's Revenge of the Sith review post at Bill's Movie Emporium is required.

The title of this article could easily pass as false advertising. I honestly don't have any sort of meticulously planned revenge in store (save for your pitiful comments on the Christopher Nolan Batman films), nor will today's Star Wars marathon article be seen as much of a rebuttal. You and I were very much on the same wavelength when assessing the pros and cons of Episode III. There are a few little details I'll try to iron out, but writing an extensive column about how you're wrong about 'this, this and that' would come off as forced and disengenuous.

Episode III is about the fall of a hero, absolutely. I am clearly not as versed as you happen to be in what you call the 'expanded universe' (which I have to assume encompasses all the stories found in continuation novels, video games and comics) but I agree that the film does enough to portray Anakin as a hero of sorts, at least during the first half of the film. He protects his teacher Obi-Wan from those little insect droids during the opening space battle, hacks his way through tons of droids in the submarine space ship, kills Count Dooku and rescues both Palpatine and Obi-Wan while the latter is unconscious. All in the name of the Republic! If that isn't performing like a hero, I don't know what is. We already know Anakin is a conflicted character, we saw that during key scenes of Episode II. We know he has trouble correctly aligning his allegions towards the Chancellor or the Jedi Council. I think of it as working a 9 to 5 job where you don't like the boss or some of your colleagues, but the work itself it fine and you enjoy doing it. You're aware of your duties and you're getting paid, but there are days when you aren't certain whether or not you should really be there anymore. When you perform well however, it is recognized and you get better, mor important tasks and maybe even a raise. That's sort of what Anakin is experiencing in Episodes II and III, minus the raise in pay.

I'm not going to agree with you entirely about the 'I hate you' line near the end however. I do think the intent of that scream is to scold Obi-Wan. I've always viewed that scene as the final character transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader. Obi-Wan was the last jedi Anakin felt he could trust. Even before the battle begins he utter something in the nature of 'don't force me to kill you' or something of the like. The realization that now Obi-Wan himself, even after the fall of the Jedi, is still acting as a beacon for what the Council and the old Republic stood for, is not going to join Anakin in the creation of this new Empire...that's too much for the young sith to bear. That is the final straw. I think he really despises Obi-Wan for what in his skewed vision of things is the latter's treachery.

Regarding Padmé, I can understand your sentiments about her presence in the film, which seems far more limited and less important than in the previous two instalments. While that is true, I wonder what exactly Lucas could have done to provide her character with more screen time. She's pregnant and therefore her concentration is focused on the upcoming birth of their children and what she and Anakin will do once the war is over. In Episode II she was running around all over the place with Anakin, but that surely weasn't going to happen this time. She could have been allocated more scenes in the Senate perhaps, but I fear that would have bogged down this movie like the Coruscant sequence had slowed down the pace of Episode I. I am not going to sit here and argue that this is the prequel film in which Padme is the most interesting character. I think and hope we can agree that that was in Episode II, but for the purposes of Revenge of the Sith, the focus of which needs to be on Anakin's downfall, the greater part of which is due to his foolish insistance that Padme is going to die, she does what is required of her.

I'm at a loss of things to discuss really. Yes, the Anakin/Obi-Wan fight near the end of fantastic, the digital effects are brilliant, the score is excellent, etc. I liked how you compared the richness of the colours of that often found in comic books. Even the dialogue, as you wrote yourself, is reminiscent of the self-important and overtly dramatic delivery in many old serials and comics. All that works very well. I was never quite clear as to why people always complained about the dialogue in the prequel trilogy and yet remained silent on how silly most of the lines are in the classic trilogy. Neither showcases worse or better dialogue per say, it all fits into that prism of swashbuckling serials from ages ago. It's all essential dialogue while coming off of as a bit silly.

There was no epic lightsaber clash this time around, Bill. If I know what is to come next Sunday, I think I can predict that the rebuttal articles in 2 weeks time will be far more entertaining and contentious than they were today.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Three Colours marathon

Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski)

All good things must come to an end. A truer statement was never made. Movie trilogies often run out of gas by the third and final instalment, which makes it very difficult to find the ones made up of three genuinely good chapters. Of course, with Polish writer director Krzysztof Kieslowski at the helm of this Three Colours trilogy, I think it could have been guessed from the outset that the game would be played differently. With Three Colours: Red , Kieslowski remains faithful to the blueprints which made the first two films successful and memorable, while adding some extra layers of character complexities and a thematic resonance that not only helps the film stand on its own, but also feel like a satisfying and logical conclusion to the trilogy.

The colour red as found on the famous French flag signifies fraternity. Friendship, understanding, respect, support, love, and all those mushy things that we all hope to give and receive from our fellow community members. But those don’t always come with the territory. They can, provided that one lives in a nice neighbourhood and is brought up by good parenting, but even those ingredients cannot guarantee that fraternity will be found and felt with every person one meets. Sometimes the bonds that tie us together have to be discovered. They have to be dug up, dusted off and given a new paint job before we can safely say that our sense of fraternity is truly there, holding us together. In essence, it has to be worked on, not only to build, but also to preserve.

Valentine, played by the indelible Irène Jacob, is a model working in France. At the start of the film, she feels alone in her apartment, what with her partner away travelling for business, although they speak by phone occasionally. She also contacts her family by phone, although communication between them is not always simple as she would like. One night while driving home after a fashion show she accidentally hits a female German Sheppard. The injured dog’s collar reveals her name, Rita, and where her owner lives. Valentine arrives soon afterwards at the home of a strange elderly man named Joseph, who seems to not care much for either the sudden appearance of Valentine or his pet’s health. Valentine's curiosity is struck upon learning that this emotionally detached man, a former judge named Joseph, listens in on the telephone conversations of those living in the surrounding neighbourhood. Out of this uncomfortable first encounter begins a simultaneously odd but almost necessary friendship. This plotline is intercut with scenes of a young judge and the soon to be expired relationship he has with his current lover.

Might there be a connection between the two storylines? Fans of Kieslowski’s work, forgive me for posing a question to which the answer should appear as clear as daylight. Knitting together stories, characters and ideas together within the same films in order to build thematic and emotional connectivity is not unheard of in a Kieslowski film. Anyone who has seen La Double Vie de Véronique (ironically enough also staring Irène Jacob) can attest to that. Just like in the case of Double Life, there are two characters who are, in some obvious and subtle ways, images on one another. While in the earlier film it was the two principal characters of Véronique and Véronika, in the case of Red it is the old and younger judge, the latter whom does not know that the former is in some ways influencing his life by listening to his telephone conversations. But Irène Jacob’s character, Valentine, is no less affected by this connection. Her relation with the older judge, Joseph, is destined to shift towards her encounter with the younger judge that we the viewers are constantly teased with throughout the film but never actually see happen until very, very later on.

Three Colours: Red is my personal favourite of the three films we’ve looked at in this trilogy marathon, but I feel as if my tongue were tied in explaining why exactly. There is a strange complexity to Red that wasn’t quite present in either Blue or White. While neither of those two films was necessarily obvious to fully dissect for the first time viewer, they both felt easier to digest for those were simply interested in enjoying good stories with good acting. With Red, Kieslowski, goes hunting for fraternity with the bizarrely constructed duo of Valentine and Joseph. There is absolutely no reason, at least on the surface, as to why they should form a bond (fraternity). She is in her heart of hearts a good person, whereas Joseph participates in an activity that would make anyone shudder. Our initial impression is that he is amoral to the bone. But just as the previous entries in the series demonstrated with their respective themes, fraternity can be found in the oddest places and between the least likely of people. Irène Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays Joseph, have some of the most unique chemistry I’ve ever seen in a film. Given the age difference, they obviously don’t have the sort of chemistry that actors portraying lovers would, but nor is it the sort of father/daughter chemistry one might expect from this sort of situation (lonely old man meets lonely young woman). It really is just a case in which two completely different souls, at different points in your lives and dealing with different personal issues coming together for reasons that are hard to understand in some ways but also quite obvious: basic human connections. As different as we are from city to city, region to region, from country to country, there is always, always, something that can tie us together.

The dynamic between Valentine and Joseph would have never been the same as we see it were it not for the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Irène Jacob. There is something so sweet and delicate about Jacob’s presence on screen that I cannot take my eyes off of her. She has magnetism that only the rarest of actors and actresses have, part of which comes from her natural beauty, but another comes from the naturalistic acting style she puts on display. The little stares, the smiles, the head shakes, everything feels perfectly natural, although who knows what was practiced and perfected by Kieslowski and the actors during rehearsals. I think that’s part of what makes great acting however, that is, the ability to make something that for all intents and purposes must have been moulded before the camera rolled look like a natural, spur of the moment act. Trintignant also gives an excellent performance as a fairly stoic man who seems to have lost the ability to stay in touch with humanity in any decent way. Their conversations together make up the best scenes in the film. Interestingly enough, their conversation scenes are quite lengthy. This may not seem like something of great importance in the grander scheme of things, but I very much enjoyed how the scenes featuring the two of them sitting and talking about life, morals and everything in between were given time to unfold. Those same scenes also include some odd comedic choices, such as Joseph offering Valentine to pull his shirt straps because it makes a funny sound, or such as when the former judge first accidentally spills some hot water on the floor and then, after hearing something from Valentine he may not like that much, seems to deliberately poor some more.

The story, the acting, the themes, all these do indeed make me love this film very much, but the same criteria resulted in me gushing over the first two movies in the trilogy. Why do I like this one more than the other two? I think what it finally boils down to is the vibe of positivity I sense when watching Red. Blue was an excellent film, but it was a sad film about a woman setting herself free of the past after tragedy, only to discover that by setting herself free she had to confront that same past. White, while boasting a charming performance by Zbigniew Zamachowski which tilted on the comedic side at times, was a revenge tale, and one that arrives at an ending I personally see as a rather dark. Red begins with some sadness and loneliness for the two principal characters, but their destined encounter brings about the best out of both of them. Even the ending, which in many ways in mired in tragedy, gives me the impression that much good has happened. Then again, it may be yet another brilliant Priesner score which has put a spell on me again. Who knows.

The Three Colours trilogy can be considered cinema in one of its purest forms. Writer director Krzysztof Kieslowski stamp is all over each instalment, each one a testament to his skill as an enigmatic storyteller. It’s something to be able to construct not merely a feast for the eyes and ears, but also to find inventive ways to convey a deeply emotional viewing experience. This is a fraternity of films that put on some of the best of filmmaking. I’d rather not even call it filmmaking, but rather film craftsmanship. Just like a good movie, so do liberty, equality and fraternity need to be crafted, otherwise they can easily wriggle and come apart. If there are any readers to this blog who rarely venture into international art house films (And it doesn’t matter for what reason. To each his or her own) but wouldn’t giving it a try if they knew where to begin, pick up the Three Colours trilogy. I can think of no better place to start.

P.S. I noticed that there is a second direct reference to Three Colours: White in this movie. For those who have seen the films, did you notice it too?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Episode III

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005, George Lucas)

Just as Attack of the Clones revealed the origins of the infamous Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith tells the story of the Old Republic’s ungraceful destruction. What we saw in Episode I as the last glory days of the Republic and the golden years of the Jedi is all turned to dust by the conclusion of Episode III. Heroes, friends, lovers and even democracy itself meet an untimely demise in George Lucas’ final Star Wars film. A bit like with the start of the pervious chapter, Revenge of the Sith skips ahead a good few years in the saga’s timeline, opting to show the viewer the tale end of the Clone War. Obi-Wan Kenobi, still played by Ewan McGregor, and his partner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent into a vicious space battle above the city planet of Coruscant in a dangerous rescue mission. A droid army general named Grievous and familiar foe Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) have kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and hold the latter captive in one of their space submarines. Rescuing the Chancellor will prove to be the single worst successful mission for our two heroes, as Palpatine shall slowly reveal his true nature to young Skywalker. The brash and now very powerful jedi cannot think of a more important duty than that of protecting his secret wife and pregnant wife Padmé (Nathalie Portman), about whom he has nightmares in which she dies in childbirth. With his emotions still getting the better of him (as was often the case in Episode II) and with knowledge that his strength with the Force has grown considerably, Anakin soon becomes the perfect pawn for Palpatine’s horrific machinations.

As far as space operas go, Revenge of the Sith is plenty fun. At the outset of this more recent prequel trilogy, questions were raised about whether or not writer director George Lucas had it in him to give audiences a dark enough tale about the fall of the jedi that would satisfy movie goers and long time fans of the franchise. If Episode I had me worried in that regard, and Episode II reassured me, then Episode III screams the true answer at the top of its lungs: Oh abso-freaking-lutely! Episode III is unique in the sense that we rarely get to see adventure stories made for masses in which the villains win. The typical fashion in which movies like the Star Wars films conclude is with the protagonists pulling out daring and exciting victories, thus restoring peace and security to their communities, their countries or the world. Not so with this movie. Palpatine and his newly created menace, Darth Vader, get the better of those characters who fight for the side we consider good. It might be stating the obvious in saying that prior to this film’s release, The Empire Strikes Back was considered the ‘darkest’ Star Wars film, thematically and in its storytelling. We’ll get to that film in due time throughout this marathon, but at least for now, I’m calling Revenge of the Sith the best Star Wars film. Even 5 years ago upon its theatrical release I was no longer the Star Wars fans I had been in my youth, but Revenge of the Sith still carried a weight of importance in that it had to fulfill a wish I had for the longest time: I always wanted to see the Star Wars in which the good guys get their asses kicked. The villains in the original films were always among my favourite characters. I loved Darth Vader, I thought the Stormtroopers were pretty cool, I loved the weaponry and artillery the soldiers of the evil Empire employed (such as those mammoth-like walkers on the ice planet), Boba Fett, etc. Yeah, yeah, good must prevail over evil, but once, just once, I’d like to see the Dark Side give the Light Side a good run for its money.

In that regard, Episode III succeeds very well. Much like how Lucas brought an interesting mood and tone to Episode II, he definitely packs a heavy punch in this film. Granted, the first 30 to 40 minutes have more of a good old fashioned swashbuckling feel to them (in essence, Obi_Wan and Anakin’s rescue of Palpatine). There’s nothing wrong with that however. I happen to find the opening sequence, which includes a space battle, lightsaber fights against, droids, a lightsaber fight aganst Count Dooku, a lightsaber fight against General Grevious, a drop down an elevator shaft, and the crash landing of a flaming space cruiser, very entertaining. They remind us how well Obi-Wan and Anakin can work together even though they don’t always approach things in the same way. There is a respect and a friendship that exists, strained as it may be at times given how different the two men are emotionally and psychologically. But once the action moves to Coruscant’s surface, the plot and drama thickens considerably. Anakin’s difficulties in following and trusting the Jedi code resurface, and these hardships are only doubled by his fear of losing Padme. His long standing bond with Palpatine, which is being frowned on by the rest of the Jedi, is put to the test as the Council orders him to function somewhat as a spy against the Chancellor. Trust everywhere is substitute with mistrust, fear and frustration as the Jedi try to discover Palpatine’s real intentions, the politicians, Padme among them, witness diplomacy take a back seat for military action in the Clone War, and the Chancellor puts the final pieces of his plot into motion. Many of the smaller character moments prove to be interesting, such as the conversation between Palpatine and Anakin at the theatre where the former shares some disturbing tales and thoughts on both sides of the Force. It’s a surprisingly creepy scene.

The pacing from that point on is furious, but never too fast. Once the Dark Side of the Force, propelled by Palpatine himself and by the exploitation of the Jedi’s weaknesses, begins to take over things get even more exciting, culminating in two appropriately over the top battles. One pits Yoda against Darth Sidious/Palpatine (now resembling the disfigured monster we remember from the original trilogy) and the other being the dramatic contest between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. While the Episode II Yoda lightsaber scene left to be desired, this one makes perfect use of the little schmuck’s abilities. It doesn’t last particularly long, but it is one heck of a fight. The Obi-Wan/Anakln duel is, however, much longer but also one heck of a fight.

It might be time to briefly discuss Anakin’s fall from Jedi grace (even though he was never very graceful) into the shadows of the Dark Side. I think that its overall arc works very well. He was the first Jedi to wilfully go against the Jedi ways. I think I briefly touched on this in one of my previous reviews, but as impressive as the Jedi are when jumping around and Force pushing objects around like pillows, they are a bunch of hacks when it comes to life and love. Sorry if you disagree readers, but Jedi are stupid and they are jerks. They have utterly failed to comprehend what it means to love and respect one another. What is the purpose of living if one cannot love and be attached to people? That’s completely ridiculous. The existence of Anakin is fascinating in that sense because he specifically goes against the grain and the Jedi have no way of turning that ship around. They simply don’t have the tools or knowledge to do so. They’ve been teaching the same gibberish for centuries and when someone comes along with a considerable amount of potential and strength but without the discipline (although I really believe ‘stubbornness’ is the proper term) to follow the rigid and emotional vapid Jedi Code, bad stuff is bound to happen. That doesn’t make Palpatine the good guy obviously. He is the worse than the Jedi in the sense that, while he encourages Anakin to tap into his emotions, he does so for all the wrong reasons. In many ways, the Sith and the Jedi are just as bad and as good as one another. The prophecy was to restore balance to the Force, but because neither the Jedi nor the Sith possess any balance in their manipulations of the Force, everybody screwed up.

Regarding Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader within this film more specifically, I’d say it’s handled reasonably well. It’s a Star Wars film, I’m looking for Shakespear, but there should be some sort of emotional resonance, which I’m happy to report there is. I enjoyed the notion of Anakin knowing that turning against the Jedi could very well be in the worst interest of his friends and allies, but he just can’t help it. He was fooled once by his nightmares, but he refuses to be fooled again. The problem is, but taking a course that he hopes will save Padme, he is in fact playing the role of a fool. It does indeed turn out to be the worst decision in terms of the fates of his allies, but also for the very person he was trying to save. If I may moan just for a moment, it would be about the actual scene in which Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice. It’s a bit...quick. I would have liked Anakin to struggle for a few more scenes with the decision he has just made. As it stands, I have to admit that his travelling from one spectrum of the Force to the other seems a bit like turning a light switch on and off. Nonetheless, it makes for a great scene on the lava planet of Mustafar (which is a great name for a planet), in which Anakin attempts to talk Padme into ruling the galaxy together. It sounds so cheesy, but it works in a pulpy sort of way. Maybe I’m just very forgiving when it comes to reviewing movies, but I loved the dialogue heavy moments just before Anakin and Obi-Wan engage in a lightsaber battle to end all lightsaber battles.

A bit of credit should go to Lucas’ directing. I admire how, in an age of fast cuts and frantic cinematography, this director still chooses to rest the camera on faces, places and creatures. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, a cut is not made. Lucas is often disregarded for his directing abilities, but I would argue that his scene setups and editing techniques are actually quite good and a breath of ‘old school’ fresh air in the sea of this generation’s action films. The viewer can easily admire the intricately constructed galaxy Lucas and his team of designers have moulded together.

And so we are already halfway through this Star Wars marathon. Things started off slowly but we’ve witness a dramatic improvement in the quality of the movies in recent weeks, not to mention a turn to a darker, more unjust society in the universe of the movies. With the Republic and Jedi now dead, what new hope can the galaxy place its bet on?

P.S. The movie earns some style points for featuring a character's hands been severed off, a beheading, a lightsaber thrown into someone's chest and the burning of a live human body. None of these are things I would wish upon anyone in real life, but it was certainly something to see them in a Star Wars film.

Done Here? Now see what Bill thinks of the Dark Side over at Bill's Movie Emporium.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon (2010, Dean Deblois and Chris Sanders)

Dreamworks’ ventures into the realm of feature length animated films have produced mixed results. While the Shreks, Madagascars, Antz and Kung Fu Panda are earned the benefit of box office success, my feelings towards each vary greatly. The trailer for How to Train Your Dragon caught my attention for the setting of the story and its lead actor, Jay Baruchel (who grew up not far from where I live), of whom I’ve been a fan of for many years.

To put it bluntly, were I a 7 year old boy, I would have been performing back flips while parading out of the theatre room after having seen How to Train Your Dragon. I’m not 7 years old, so that shot of pure joy and excitement did not result in any acrobatics on my part, the film left me very happy and with the sense that solid family entertainment and quality storytelling can be derived from relatively simple plots. In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, the story is very simple, but it holds the right degrees of emotional depth within the characters and presents some timeless but nonetheless well utilized themes that can serve as lessons for all. No child or teenager wants to be an outcast, relegated to the outskirts of their community or circle of peers. The challenge to fit in while still retaining one’s individuality and uniqueness can be a trying task, and that’s the exact situation young Hiccup (Baruchel), a teenage Viking whose awkward and nerdy demeanour leave on the outside looking in when it comes to none other than Dragon killing. His hometown of Berk is frequently attacked by armies of fierce dragons, thus continuing the vicious and endless cycle of Viking-dragon warfare. Not being much of a hunter or warrior, much work needs to be done if he wishes to earn the full respect of his father (Gerard Butler) and the beautiful and heroic Astrid (America Ferrera). During one eventful battle however, Hiccup miraculously shoots down the most feared dragon in existence. Very soon, his notion of who he is, who he should be and what it can mean to be a Viking will change when, a few days later, our hero finds the wounded beast lying in the forest.

I’d be hard pressed to say what How to Train Your Dragon does that could be considered groundbreaking or stylishly original. Part adventure, part love story, part story of friendship and acceptance, the film offers a character driven journey that is, while a tad predictable, still emotionally satisfying. Much of the film’s success rests with the filmmakers decision to remain storytellers throughout and to respect the nature of characters they have set on the stage. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless (named the hero’s dragon is baptised with) develops with at first out of fear, but then melds into caution, followed by curiosity, discovery, respect and ultimately friendship. The relationship between the teenage Viking and the beast is, essentially, the beating heart of the movie even though there always remains the issues of the boy’s father and would be love interest. The link between this unique duo is explore at a proper pace, with the script opting to explore what can come of their flowering bond rather than jump to easy jokes or the next action sequences. In fact, there is a series of action sequences involving dragon killing training with Berk’s youth, Hiccup being one of the many students taking the classes. These are very nicely integrated into the overall story and some plot points that occur later on, but they also serve to further develop the character of Hiccup and his growing understanding of the long thought enemies to his society. All of the major and minor story elements flesh together with ease and a little dose of cleverness.

This is no small character study drama however. Once Hiccup has earned Toothless’ trust, he makes several attempts at strapping on the prefect saddle to ride the dragon into the clouds. From this point onward, their friendship begins so soar, quite literally. The moments when, at long last, Hiccup gets to be like a bird and explore the skies and geography of the land all the while riding on the relative safety of Toothless’ back are spectacular and had me forget that I’m currently XX years old. As a film lover I was returned to a purer state of mind, or at least a far more innocent one. At the risk of breaking my personal rule by which I refrain myself from utilizing hyperbole in my reviews, I felt the magic which the character of Hiccup was blessed with. The sense of wonderment and adventure that I was teased with in the earlier scenes of battles and dragon training suddenly increased tenth fold. More impressive still was how the filmmakers kept the adventurous quality of the experience rising, with bigger, more sophisticated dragon riding sequences, concluding in one of the best action scene climaxes I’ve witnessed in quite some time. There is a sense of scale to the flying scenes and to the overall world in which the story takes place that feels just right.

To help provide this sense of epic sweep to the adventure is John Powell’s brilliant score. Powell has worked on a tremendous amount of films throughout his career and I would consider him one of my favourite composers for his skill in consistently crafting something fresh and very appropriate for whatever material he is working with. His work here really does add that Norse type of flavour to many of the scenes. It’s catchy, thrilling and I more than glad to consider it some of the artist’s best work ever.

Finally, there is the voice acting, without which none of the characters really would come to life on the screen. It’s no secret that Jay Baruchel is playing an animated version of himself. Hiccup is small, skinny, nervous and sort of nerdy, much like some of the characters Baruchel has played throughout his career. While I do hope that he isn’t typecast into the same role over and over again in the years to come, I was convinced by his performance. He plays all of his character’s personality traits very well, as do many of the other voice actors. Gerard Butler (a mighty Viking), Jonah Hill (a cocky and annoying rival to Hiccup) America Ferrera (as the battle ready and beautiful Astrid), Craig Ferguson (as Hiccup’s teacher at dragon killing school) all play versions of their real life selves, which I don’t mind per say. It would have been interesting had some less obvious casting been done for the film, but as long as the actors are doing a good job, I’ll be more than willing to hop along for the ride, no pun intended.

There is more than enough entertainment value to be had here. How to Train Your Dragon is exactly the type of family adventure film I would have loved to see as a child. The setting, the fantastic flying sequences and the splendid voice acting all make for a worthwhile experience and, if I may add one last little comment, it was the first time I watched a film in 3D in which I was completely immersed. There was great depth to the picture and the sequences in which Hiccup takes to the skies were stunning to see unfold.