Sunday, May 30, 2010

Homemade summer movie marathon: Stray Dog

No, this was not on the list I posted last week which presented a series of summer-type movies that I’d be reviewing over the next couple of months. Still, I hadn’t seen it in a while and I think it possesses at least some of the qualities one would expect from a summer movie: some cops, some drama, some chases, and sweltering heat!

Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)

On a scorching hot summer day, rookie cop Murakami (the indelible Toshiro Mifune, in one of his earlier silver screen roles) has his not so trusty Colt pistol stolen right under his nose while riding on the tramway. Panic and guilt surge through his slim body upon realizing this embarrassing and grim reality. Hopping off the streetcar, Murakami takes notice of a suspicious looking chap who also just descended from the vehicle. Under the blazing sun, the officer gives chase to the young hoodlum through the dusty streets, but to no avail. Disappointed and ashamed, he returns to headquarters and confesses his situation. While visibly shaken by this event, Murakami’s will and resolve in recuperating the weapon carries through a fascinating journey through the world of petty criminals, a world that shall open his eyes to some far greater realities about post-war Japan.

For some of you who read my ‘100 favourite films list’ from last year, you might recall that I had Stray Dog ranked very high. One of Japan’s greatest film directors (if not the greatest as some put it, plain and simple), Kurosawa, who also had a hand in this film’s script, was the force and often progenitor behind several films which today are heralded as classics. Seven Samurai, Yojmbo, Ran, Rashomon, Ikiru, The Hidden Fortress, these films and more have garnered endless praise over the past few decades. I’ve had the privilege of seeing but maybe a dozen Kurosawa films, but it always been his Stray Dog that captured my arrested my thoughts and senses the most. Almost everything in this movie, from the acting, the editing, to the camera angles, score and pacing has me nodding in approval. Such was the case when I first watched it a little over a year ago, and such was the case yet again as I watched just yesterday. There is something very basic to what Kurosawa does in the film, and I think it is the to the film’s credit. The samurai warriors, castles and armies are still a few years away. There are no kingdoms to save, family legacies to fight for or princess to protect here. The script serves a straightforward and simple story, but one that hides within it thematic complexities that had some serious heft to the movie.

Kurasawa’s directing and the script he is working with propel the film to greater heights than what the viewer appears to be given on the surface. Detective loses pistol, he then vows to search for as long as it takes to recover it with the help of an older partner named Sato (the great Takashi Shimura). Through his trial and error filled adventure, he comes to better understand the world he lives in and his job, or at least a better appreciation of how they function, cruel as they may be. He is young, perhaps a bit on the idealistic side, and certainly stubborn. His story transpires in the few years following the Second World War, a misadventure for which Japan paid a hefty price. While Stray Dog refuses to become a didactic thesis on the war that just passed and its after effects on the Japanese at large, it does venture into some interesting thoughts and possible after effects on certain people, more specifically the young men who partook in the battles and who have returned home. As Murakami and Sato discuss one evening while sharing dinner at the older man’s home, the protagonist and the crook Yusa who possesses his weapon are both product of the ‘après-guerre’ generation, or post-war generation if you will. The war undoubtedly had specific consequences on each of their psyches and philosophies, and one simple event (a stolen bag in the case of both) led to alarmingly different life altering choices for each man. Such dramatic choices made by both, with one, Murakami, opting to serve for the greater good as a detective, and the other, Yusa, recoiling away from honesty and hard work and choosing rather a life of petty crime. I enjoyed the duality of their roles tremendously and thought it pertinent how both men, while not operating on the same level in terms of lifestyle, are products of the same environment. To complicate the dynamics a bit more are the continuous hints that there might exist a softer side to Yusa (who the audience actually doesn’t see until very late in the story). The hoodlum appears to be committing some of his crimes for the sake of a beautiful dancer at a local club, the Blue Bird. He has committed some vile acts, murder being the most heinous, but by the time he and Murakami end their ultimate confrontation, we see that our hero has come face to face with a man who is, in many ways, just as fragile as himself. There are moments in the film, whether through the dialogue or the acting, that may lack a degree of subtlety but generally this theme works magic throughout the plot.

There are some more ideas explored in Stray Dog, such as the juxtaposition of Murakami’s and Sato’s philosophies on criminals and crime in general. Murakami at times feels sympathy towards his prey, understanding that the crook’s actions may result from things beyond his control. Sato denies any sort of pity or empathy towards those he locks away. That isn’t to say he is unkind towards them. There is in fact an interrogation scene in which Sato and an inmate are happily sharing cigarettes and popsicles together, but ultimately he does his duty (putting away the bad people) and moves on to the next case. The intricacies of petty crime are also explored in the early stages of the plot, with Murakami venturing into the seedier locations of the city in order to retrieve his fire arm. The organizing which makes all these crimes possible is quite intricate, with one thread always leading to another. The journey to simply retrieve his darn Colt takes Murakami to a great many places around the city where he faces a surprising variety of dishonest and slimy characters. Very few are noble, most wouldn’t even give him the time of day if he asked for it. This exploration of criminal world, a specific portion of the criminal world (we aren’t talking big time gangsters, this is small time stuff here) is deftly handled by Kurasawa. The heat wave which beats down on everybody adds another element to the entire process. Beads of sweat are shown dripping down everyone’s tired faces. Each step and simple movement seems to require more effort than usual for our heroes and villains. People may feel more glum when it rains, but is it really all that fun when simply taking a step out your front door has you greeted by a heat wave so thick it feels like a brick crashing into your face? I didn’t think so. Just as the case for the stolen Colt heats up, so do the streets (quite literally) where crime never rests. It’s a terrific framing device, one that would be adopted by other directors in the decades to come, most notably American Spike Lee in his seminal Do the Right Thing.

Should much time be spent on the performances, especially the leads? If you have seen any films which featured actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, then you already know that both are more than solid and always up to the task of inhabiting whatever characters the scripts demands. There is something interesting at play here however in that not only are the philosophies of each character different, but so is the overall behaviour of each, and therefore the acting style of both performers. Murakami being the younger, more gun ho detective, Mifune puts some intensity into the role. Throughout his career Mifune has played a great number of characters with very intense personalities, and this earlier role does possess some of that raw energy he is well known for. Interestingly enough, it isn’t only fury or anger along that drive, but also a deep sense of shame, something which struck a chord with me personally. Alongside him is the classy Takashi Shimura who showcases far more restraint, coolness and clever wisdom than his younger counterpart, whom he takes under his wing to solve the frustrating case. This dynamic would be used many times in film again and this specific example of it is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the very best.

I could on some more about the qualities of Stray Dog. The editing (specifically the ‘wiping’ from one scene to the next that would become famous with Star Wars), the fluid camera pans which lend several scenes great pacing and dynamism, the supporting cast, etc. Stray Dog is the result of a master filmmaker and storyteller at the top of his game, period. I don’t think I could ever put it more succinctly than that. The only thing left is for you to watch the movie.


Hello again faitful readers!

My Itunes library as well as my Ipod are just about as stuffed with film related podcasts as can be. It's all movies all the time with me! I thought it would be fair to award the podcasts I love some product placement space. Besides I think the members of the list bellow really deserve it. Some of these are well known to web browsers and film buffs, while others may be more like those hidden gems you couldn't believe you haven't discovered until now. Note: the numerical list does not denote any sort of order of 'enjoyment' or 'ranking by quality'. Without further ado:

1-Filmspotting. The godfathers of movie podcasts. A well produced, slick show with two hosts (Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson) who are articulate and intelligent at all times. Great variety on the show as well, both in terms of the type of films they discuss and the format.

2-Slashfilm cast: a trio of movie lovers (David Chen, Devindra Hardawar and Adam Quigley) who bring a lof of laughs but also insightful commentary to the table. Always an entertaining listen, even when they're reviewing a Hollywood bomb.

3-Battleship Pretension. Tyler Smith and David Bax tackle a specific movie topic each week (sometimes with a guest) and dissect it as best they can. Their film knowledge is quite impressive and while they can indeed sound pretentious sometimes, it's often just for show...but not always. Fun stuff.

4-Creative Screenwriting. Host Jeff Goldsmith interviews some of the best and brightest screenwriters in the business, from Hollywood and overseas, in this laid back show. I'm a fan of the screenwriting process (after my love for acting) and appreciate the different focus point this show is concerned with.

5-IFC podcast. Hosted by IFC critics and journalists Matt Singer and Allison Willmore share back and forth comments and remarks about a particular topic in film every week. Tremendously laid back podcast. The hosts have a great rapport, often sharing sharing some good laughs while they're at it.

6-The Film Programme. Francine Stock has conversations with the talented actors and actresses in British film, as well as with several film critics, historians and journalists who always keep a sharp eye on cinema from Britain and around the world.

7-Film Junk. Sean, Jay and Greg offer interesting and sometimes less interesting but just damn hilarious comments on the latest Hollywood releases, film news and whatever it is they have been watching over the past 7 days. One of the few Canadian based pocasts I've come across.

8-Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Film Reviews. Famous British film critics Kermode and Mayo review and sometimes shred to pieces the latest films released in the UK. Interviews also abound with some fascinating actors and directors from Britain and abroad. Lively and consistently witty.

9-Mad Hatter's Matineecast. A mysterious but friendly figure known only as The Mad Hatter offers film reviews with a guest each week. Very stylish in that each segment has a clever name. Good variety.

10-Left Field Cinema. Host Mike Dawson proposes some unique and non-mainstream films for your film palette. As he states himself, it 'is not film criticism, it's film recommendation and analysis.' I will warn potential listeners that Mike Dawson can be a bit pompous and snobbish in that stereotypical British way, but his commentary is ultimately worth the listen.

11-More than One Lesson. A film podcast hosted by Battleship Pretension creator Tyler Smith. It discusses movies from a Christian perspective. I'm not terribly religious (read: hardly at all) but I think that's partly why I enjoy the show: it simply offers a different take on some movies I love.

12-The Movie Dictator Podcast. The official podcast of The Reelists (who sport a fantastic new look these days) hosted by Corey Atad, Chuck Canzoneri and James Blake Ewing in which one host dictates a film for the other two to watch and discuss. The film is always thematically related to a recent Hollywood release. They're relatively new to the podcasting world, but they've been doing great so far.

The Lamb

Hello readers!

I think a lot of bloggers are familar with the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB), a terrific place to search for some of the most interesting, creative and clever movie blogs around the world wide web. It's a great way to build the movie blog community and I commend the site's efforts in bringing us all together. Well, about a month ago I submitted my application to become a member of their fine community and the request was granted. Between the Seats is offically LAMB member number 553! It just so happens to be my all time favourite number. Not really, but I can always pretend it is.

Strange feelings....

It feels a bit odd not posting anything Star Wars related for the first time in 2 months...Bill and I should do another joint marathon some time in the future.

Homemade summer movie marathon: Mad Max

Mad Max (1980, George Miller)

In the not too distant future, somewhere in Australian countryside, the police force and a gang of ruthless and despicable bikers rage an unforgiving war along the open road. When these two forces collide (quite literally at times), rarely does one side have the luxury of leaving the scene alive, or in one piece for that matter, as is terrifically exemplified in the film’s breakneck paced opening sequence. By the look of this world’s general surroundings, technology does not seem to have taken any significant leap forward and even the infrastructure is at times of dubious quality, such as the police station where our protagonist, Max (a young Mel Gibson), is stationed.

No, judging from what the viewer is privy to, about the only things awarded improvements and modifications are vehicles built for speed above all else. If you aren’t ready for the terrors and thrills that await you in this dystopian Australian future, you had better stay home. Such is the peculiar but strangely compelling cinematic vision of director George Miller and his creative team in the cult classic Mad Max, the film that truly started Mel Gibson’s remarkable acting career. The film was made with a modest budget, but the crew were adamant in wanting to give audiences something thrilling which would have them gasping in their seats. Stunts, stunts and more stunts are the chosen ingredients, but with a snippet of story and character development just to add some icing to this devilishly sweet but deadly cake. I greatly admire this kind of filmmaking. It is energetic to the tenth degree, with a pace that doesn’t let up whatsoever. Even though the movie clocks in at a customary 90 minutes, I honestly did not see that hour and a half go by while being transported to Miller’s racing adventure ride. To be perfectly honest, there isn’t much of a story. I don’t mean this in the way we in the world of critics often complain about such high octane action films in that the plot may be overly complicated or needlessly convoluted, what with a series of aimless plot threads making feeble attempts at holding some mess of a story together. On the contrary, Mad Max is as honest an action movie as they come. The opening sequence lasts a good 10 minutes and features about 3 huge crashes with adequately set up the tone and pace of things to come. Even when the movie is doing its best to give some character moments, everything is moving along briskly.

The funny thing about the entire endeavour is that while on the surface it looks like director Miller is more interested is showing off what his crew of filmmakers and very, very brave stunt people can do to earn the appropriate ‘oohs!’ and ‘ahs!’, he also gives the audience a hero, or anti-hero, that is genuinely likable and for whom we can sympathise with once things begin to go horribly wrong for him. Mel Gibson, at least this younger version of the famous Aussie, is pretty darn charming. The film teases us near the beginning that this cop might be a no-nonsense can of bad assery, but just as quickly shows a far more passionate and vulnerable side to the character of Max. He is a family man at heart, with a loving wife and a handsome young baby boy too. He and his partners in the force are hooked on speed and imposing looking vehicles that can help them get that extra edge along the highways, but the movie constantly brings us back to the reality about a man who has a heart and a mind. He is fragile and if you hurt him or his friends, he feels it. I mean it when I say Gibson gives a very nice performance in the film. Quite frankly, based on his Mad Max character and comparing it with some of the other performances of his I’ve seen, I’m fine with going so far as to say this is clearly one of his better acting gigs.

A hero is just as good as the villains he faces off against, and there is no shortage of crazed bikers for our hero to chase after, or be chased by. While lacking in any significant character development or depth, the biker gang’s purpose is to be evil incarnate on wheels. They rarely take any prisoners, are apparently obsessed on imposing their own sense of anarchy, and above all else are not the least bit frightened by the prospect of being chased by the police. Any opportunity to play high speed games of cat and mouse with the authorities seems to be relished by this delusional band. Everyone involved, from the leader to the lowest of the low, is missing some marbles. They babble on endlessly and seem like their hooked on LSD at all times. Subtlety was not on the menu when Miller was guiding the actors who portray the villains, but then again this isn’t a film for which an abundance of subtlety is required. I’m pretty sure we’re just supposed to find these guys weird (check) and appropriately evil (double check). Admittedly I did find some of their behaviour somewhat comical, but one might blame my own uniquely strange sense of humour. If you disagree, you know where to send the hate mail.

Naturally what the film really excels at is destroying cars at completely crazy speeds. For these types of films the camerawork is of utmost importance. It may be all fine and dandy if the stunt drivers rehearsed their performances over and over again until the point of perfection, but if the camera crew and editing department are unversed in the ways of portraying spectacular action on the silver screen, then it was all for nothing. I was more than pleased, and quite honestly thrilled, to witness some epic car and motorcycle crashes that had me reacting with some profanity and gasps the likes of ‘S**t, that must of really hurt’. Solid script be damned, this is for cinema goers looking for high octane action that refuses to pull any punches. I believe the source of my satisfaction from the action oriented sequences is twofold. First are the eventual and inevitable crashes, which are wild and deliciously violent. Second is the sense of speed that is so eloquently captured on film. These are modified cop cars chasing after some very impressive bikes and Miller’s camera is consistently place at strategic locations to convey a marvellous and exhilarating sense of speed that hit me in the face almost every time. Like in so many action films, what the director chooses to do with the camera will make or break a scene. Thankfully virtually every trick and editing technique is used to the fullest extent and provides the film with its some very memorable moments of adrenaline which I won’t soon forget. Oh, and a little bit of extra credit for the eye-popping effect that occurs a couple of times in the film. Funny but fitting as well.

Mad Max could easily be used in a driving instructor’s course. Everything that is done during the 90 minutes of this movie should never, ever be performed in real life while driving a car or a motorcycle. Safety first people, safety first. Who am I kidding? I’m sure you all knew that already of course. Still, I’m not so sure the stunt people thought of safety first upon performing their heroic duties on set. Come to think of it, based on a documentary on Australian exploitation cinema I recently watched on the tele, Not Quite Hollywood, I can confidently tell you that they most certainly did not think about safety first during the filming. In all honesty, if the drivers simply wanted to lend the film a sense of excitement regardless of the costs, they can rest assured that their broken bones were well worth it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Renoir marathon: La Marseillaise

La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir, 1938)

‘Nous sommes les enfants de la patrie.
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!’

One of the great turning points in France’s long history is, unsurprisingly, the French Revolution. A massive gathering of people from across the country who, along the years, grew weary and frustrated with the current state of affairs, a state which awarded the common people petty rights and privileges in the face of the monarch and the aristocracy. Jean Renoir’s elaborate film depicts the period of 1789 to 1792 when the people’s revolution forced King Louis XVI out of the Château de Versailles. We see the historic events through the eyes of many characters, most notably a group of volunteer soldiers from Marseille, the aristocrats, some who fear an impending calamity while other feel reassured by the presence of the Prussian army, and even the king himself, played by Jean Renoir’s brother, Pierre.

Even by late 1930s standards, there is little doubt that director Renoir was thinking big when creating this particular movie. The sets and locations are as varied as they come, the amount of principle characters and secondary roles is impressive, and the amount of costumes, and well as their authentic look, bring a unquestionable gravitas to the project. I was continuously impressed with the grand nature of several scenes, especially those near the end of the picture when the guns go blazing. Fun stuff, to be sure. The title of the film, La Marseillaise, plays a large role in the movie in that the gutsy soldiers we have the pleasure of following are from Marseilles, but that isn’t all. As our band of heroes sign their names on the subscription list, a familiar tune (well, familiar if you’ve ever heard the France national anthem before) can be heard sung from a neighbouring room. This being the first time it is ever sung, one of the soldiers curiously asks his friend who is also waiting in line ‘What’s that guy singing?’ A playful little nod to history in the making which produced a chuckle from me.

Renoir had more than just a few epic scenes to impress the viewers. Indeed, the director opts for a fine balance between small character moments and grand speeches and marches. Rather than concentrate strictly on the grandeur of the proceedings (and potentially getting lost in said grandeur), he delicately tiptoes into the thoughts and feelings of regular folk who chose to sacrifice their lives for the sake of liberty and equality by joining the militia. We get to spend the most time with Jean-Joseph Bomier (Edmond Ardisson) and his friends Javel (Paul Dulac) and Moissan (Jean-Louis Alibert). They are a lively bunch, with Jean-Joseph taking center stage as the more finicky and temperamental member of the band. His emotions may waver a bit much sometimes, but his heart is always in the right place and he chooses to fight alongside his long time friends to defend his beliefs and desires. Edmond Ardisson gives a very entertaining performance. It is a bit showy at times, but I suspect that had more to do with the nature of the character and how it was written. He has some wonderful facial expression with added some terrific range and dynamism to Jean-Joseph. I wouldn’t to say he had a plastic face, that might be going overboard, but the man certainly could inject significant energy into his performance. His patriots in arms are also given some depth by actors Paul Dulac and Jean-Louis Alibert, with Dulac giving his character an interestingly relaxed air given the surrounding circumstances. They make for a genuinely fun band to follow around, and therein lies another one of the film’s strengths: the ability to craft to attaching characters without an overly large amount of backstory. The performances and Renoir’s brisk pacing are sufficient to carry La Marseillaise in the first two thirds.

Love for one’s beliefs, be it country or king, is not only for the regular folk. The story allows the viewer to have a peek into the debates, sometimes heated, from within the aristocracy and the king’s inner circle. Not everyone sees eye to eye, and while most would not want to abandon their place in society if given the choice, some have begun to understand that there may just be some cracks in the system. These scenes are a welcome addition for several reasons. Firstly, it shows that Renoir has the sensibility to not make the antagonists a single minded entity hell bent on crushing the rebellion, which it wasn’t anyways, so we have some sense of realism. But these signs of discord from within the aristocracy also provide a sense of hope in that some people who will be involved in dramatic events which are to follow could opt for a peaceful resolution. History shall dictate otherwise for many others who vowed to defend the monarch, but these scenes in particular lend an interesting dynamic to those we could just as easily lump into the category of ‘antagonist.’ One of the more unique performances in the film is that by Pierre Renoir, who portrays none other than King Louis XVI. His presence is more of a cameo than anything, appearing but during the opening minutes and for about another 5 near the end, but his portrayal is that of a king who is clearly oblivious to the ongoing events within his kingdom and persists with his nonchalant attitude until he is asked to fire up the troops in the Versailles court just prior to the rebellion onslaught. He returns to his quarters a much quieter, subdued man, most likely shaken by the grim reality of what is to follow: a war, probably within his own court yard, with the possibility of his reign coming to an end. Perhaps it is the furious devotion some of the troop members display as he passes them by, a vivacity for something that even as a king Louis XVI has yet to fully understand. Whatever is it, his 10 minutes screen time are worth your time.

Something that embarrassingly failed to strike me as I watched the movie but that felt so obvious once I read a little bit about it afterwards was the timing of the film’s production and release, 1938. The Nazis have been in command of Germany for some years already and are putting remarkable pressure on Europe’s large powers, as well as already dominating some of the continent’s smaller nations. In many ways, and I’m almost certain this was intentional in certain respects, La Marseillaise functioned not merely as a bit of entertaining historic pulp, but also as a rallying cry for the French nation at large, what with the impending actions from Nazi Germany lying ahead. It makes the presence and depiction of the Prussians, who are clearly the most draconian defenders of the French monarch and therefore enemies of the freedom fighters, quite pertinent.

This was a different effort from Jean Renoir. His skills as a visual director are once again there for all to admire, with some fine and smooth camera work and editing giving some character to the storytelling, but Renoir chose to base his film in reality. It was a bold effort and the effort pays off nicely. It may have consisted of propaganda upon its release (and it remains a valuable piece of cinema history because of that), it also works as solid entertainment, with fun performances, some effective crowd rallying scenes and a deliciously action packed climax.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Star Wars marathon: The X-Wins!

Star Wars awards

Our marathon of films may be over, but there are still some scores to settle. After talking about Star Wars for two months now, let’s take a quick look back at some of the highs and lows of the saga in this once in a lifetime awards show: the X-Wins!
The X-Wins

Best Film: The Empire Strikes Back

Runner up: Revenge of the Sith

Best chase: Pod race from Episode 1

Runner up: Asteroid field chase in Empire Strikes Back)

Best action scene: Detention escape and trash compactor sequence from A New Hope

Runner up: Battle of Hoth

Best performance: James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader

Runner up: Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Episode IV

Best Force use: 'These aren’t the droids you’re looking for' from A New Hope

Runner up: Yoda lifts the X-Wing from Empire Strikes Back

Funniest line of dialogue: ‘I happen to like nice men’ from Empire Strikes Back
Runner up: ‘You don’t want to sell me death sticks. You want to go home and rethink your life’ from Attack of the Clones.

Best demonstration of bad assery: 'Apology accepted, Captain Needa' from Empire Strikes Back
Runner up: Mace Windu takes out Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones)

Best demonstration of heroism: Luke chooses not to join the Dark side in Return of the Jedi
Runner up: Han searches for Luke on Hoth

Best background character we wish we could have seen more/Bobba Fett prize: that jedi with the fucked face and the breathing mask from the prequel trilogy

Runner up:the fat X-Wing pilot from A New Hope (Porky, I think)

Best character/’The Force is strong with this one’ prize: Han Solo
Runner up: Obi-Wan Kenobi in prequel trilogy

Best score: The Empire Strikes Back
Runner up: The Phantom Menace

Best lightsaber duel/Duel of the Fates prize: Luke versus Vader in Empire Strikes Back.
Runner up: Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jin against Darth Maul in Phantom Menace)

Most ridiculous character/The Jar Jar prize: that stupid bug character sitting next to Lando in the Millenium Falcon in during the battle of Endor.

Runner up: More bug-like creatures: the Trade Federation leaders.

Worst line: ‘I’m haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me’ from Attack of the Clones
Runner up: ‘Do or do not. There is no try’ from the Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars marathon: Return of the Rebuttal

Return of the Rebuttal

For all full appreciation of this article, a proper reading of Bill's review of Episode VI over at Bill's movie Emporium is required.

Your review made for on peculiar read last week, Bill. You conclude by stating that Episode Vi is, ultimately, the chapter you favour the least in the entire saga and yet you award a higher grade than for Episode IV. 3 stars isn’t half bad for a film a film you supposedly like less than the one you bemoaned until no end a few weeks back.

Enough with grading systems though. Let us tackle the meat and potatoes of your dissection. It would seem that while we both experienced problems with Episode VI, our respective issues lie with different sections of the movie. You expressed disappointment at how the first two-thirds of the movie feel sluggish and tedious due to the story’s reliance on tying up loose ends. I can think of two loose ends that needed tying up before that climax commences: the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba’a clutches and Luke return to Dagobah in order to complete his jedi training. The former is necessary if the trio of heroes we’ve come to love wants to reunite ever again. It also leads to a solid action sequence where Jabba’s organization is obliterated. True enough, this storyline has next to nothing to do with what follows apart from the goal (rescuing Han), but it’s sufficiently entertaining to earn my attention. The setting of Jabba’s palace and all the bizarre characters inside displays some inventiveness that I find much of the rest of the movie lacks, so there is that. The other loose end concerns Luke’s jedi training and Yoda’s passing. This scene I am less a fan of pretty much for the same reasons you argued. It is a bit tedious, I also find it predictable and the drama found in the dialogue is rather boring. Apart from those two, what other significant loose ends are tied up in the first 2/3 of the movie which add to this tediousness you wrote about?

I was admittedly befuddled by your comments on the character of Leia. You compared her active role in Episode VI to that of Padme’s in Episode III. My opinion on this topic strongly diverges from yours. So much so that I felt that same way I had when reading your ‘slow pace’ comments on Episode IV. Like, wha? Those same complaints were warranted to a certain degree when we discussed Padme participation on Episode III plot. It is true that she did not do as much that time around (being pregnant probably had something to do with it. She was running around all over the place in the previous 2 chapters after all...). But Leia being set in a neutered state and becoming a meek character? She partakes in the rescue mission earlier in the film, gets directly back at Jabba for treating her like a piece of fine meat (oh so fine...), helps lead the rebel troops as they venture through Endor, actually engages in a speeder bike chase like a real hero (while Luke cries ‘Wait! Wait!’ like a little baby) and finally is in the thick of the battle when the Rebels and their teddy bears face off against the stormtroopers. Is it because she wears a dress at one point while the Rebels are resting at the Ewok village that Leia is a meek character? I certainly hope your opinions are not based on such trivial matters. I saw Leia do quite a bit in Episode VI for her to earn some serious style points in my book. Come to think of it, she does far more in Jedi than she did in Empire. Not to mention that the actress Carrie Fisher puts on a fine performance as well. I don’t think she had grown as popular as Harrison Ford at the time so she must have been pretty happy to be there and it shows in her acting. She’s really good. Meek? Hardly.

The climax of the film was showered with praise in your review. Words such as ‘action’ ‘wit’ and ‘epic’ are used, but I wasn’t convinced of 2/3 of those. Yes, there is action in the finale, just as there should be action in the finale of any space opera, but ‘wit’ and ‘epic’ are not two words I’d use to describe the final 30 minutes Episode VI. Try’ ‘uninspired’ and ‘dull’ instead. I went over my thoughts on the space battle already (main issue being the second Death Star) as well as the handling of the Ewoks in the forest battle, so I won’t march another parade about those two topics, but suffice to say that they are both large enough problems for disagreement to pit our two opinions on the climax against one another. I’m unsure as to where you saw ‘wit’ and ‘epic’ in the Ewok battle, especially given how poorly it is filmed, but whatever floats your boat...

I think things do get interesting in the final confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. I briefly touched on Palpatine’s taunting and the attempted seduction of Luke over to the Dark Side of the Force, but I omitted, embarrassingly enough, any thoughts on the actual lightsaber duel. It is a good duel, sort of hybrid between all the battles we’ve seen up until that point. With Vader being in the physical condition he is in one could never anticipate a fight with eye popping acrobatics, but we’re served with a competent sword fight with a decent amount of emotion for a backdrop. About a week after seeing it I can’t say I remember each and every move, but I do recall finding it thoroughly entertaining. I know we discussed the issue of Vader holding back in the comments section of your review, but it did get me thinking about that issue as I prepared this rebuttal. I feel as if the argument can go either way. Thematically, I can see how it makes sense why Vader would feel compelled to hold back (Luke is his son after all), but I think even that notion can be twisted on its head. If I understood correctly, you believe Vader holding back is a hint that Anakin Skywalker is being reborn during those few critical moments late in Episode VI. One can twist that notion around and argue that, yes, Vader did hold back so not to kill he can be used later when they turn on the Emporer and ‘rule the galaxy as father and son.’ Vader and Palpatine aren’t stupid, they both how Luke is uniquely powerful and after all those years of being Palpatine’s lapdog, why not go for the top prize when the potential of a powerful and very loyal ally stands right in front of him. Of course, that’s inserting an idea that is in no way hinted at in the film, but still. Or isn’t it? So Vader holds back, fine. What’s up with those few minutes as he watches Palpatine absolutely torch Luke with electric shocks? He wanted his son as an ally, and when that failed, Vader thought it wasn’t worth it anymore. The kid won’t turn so let’s fry him. I also still think the argument that Vader didn’t hold back at all holds water despite that ‘no amount of arguing will ever convince’ you. Luke is still powerful in the ways of the Force and his far more athletically skilled that Vader. Plus, it is there second encounter, so there is the supposition that Luke has learned from his mistakes.

There are no more battle fields for us to confront one another. All the movies have been reviewed and we’ve shared rebuttal articles for each one. Now is the time to dish out some hardware!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Summer is upon us

Hello fellow readers!

I hope you are all enjoying the weather outside. It's that time of year when the temperature rises, with spring turning into summer and those ice cappocinos tasting even more soothing than before. The battles will also be warming up at the box office, what with all the Hollywood mega productions rolling out for the next 3 months.

I thought I'd set Between the Seats' summer plan out right away. If Hollywood can dish out some balls to the wall action and sci-fi movies, so can we. This summer will be looking at some classic as well as some more recent action and sci-fi films. Some of these I have seen, others will be new discoveries, but most should be familiar to the vast majority of readers.

Of course, this being a movie blog of ecclectic tastes, we have to balance things out with some indi cred, right? The 'Jean Renoir marathon' will continue in full stride until I finish up that 3-disc box set I own, and once that is done I'm thinking of going back to a director we discussed for a brief period more than a year ago here...Satyajit Ray (February and March of 2009). That's right, the long-lost Ray marathon will make a comeback. We've already watched his famous Apu Trilogy, but let's explore what else this chap has done!

Below is a list of action and sci-fi films Between the Seats will be looking at all summer long (list is subject to change:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Ajami

Ajami (2009, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani)


Sneeking into theatres a few weeks ago was the Israeli film Ajami, a multi-plotline film which explores the tensions and rivialries, based on both enthnicity and religion, in the Jaffa neighbourhood of Ajami. A unique aspect of the filmmaking process, aside from the fact that it was filmed on location in Jaffa, is that it was written and directed by an Isreali Jew (Shani) and an Isreali Arab (Copti). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a couple of people from two solitudes, as well as creative talents, had managed to combine their forces and create a piece of work directly related to the bittereness which surrounds them everyday.

The trailer had me curious with the simple promise of a solid drama set in Israel and made by Israelis about the Arab, Jewish and even Christian conflicts. If anybody was going to tackle this difficult issue, it might as well have been them. Rather than opting for a simple storyline to drive home an onbvious point, Ajami travels through 5 different storylines and therefore 5 different routes to get to a similar notion: violence, suspicion and hate are unfortunately aspects to life in Ajami which are remarkably difficult to get rid of or avoid. The storylines are varied, but each is in some fashion or another intertwined with the others, be it thematically or because characters of one storyline literally appear in another. A Jewish Cop, a young Muslim man and the Christian girl he fancies, a Muslim boy who must resort to dirty deeds in order to pay for his mother's medical expenses, these are but some of the characters that populate the complicated but competently handled world of the film, a world certainly based on a stark reality.

It is here that I shall make a statement that some might find troubling. Ajami, its strentghs and weaknesses all combined, reminded very much of Paul Haggis' 2005 film Crash. Crash is considered by many people to be one of, if not the worst Best Picture winner at the Oscars, ever. I'm not going to turn this into a review of the Haggis film, but suffice to say that I find that movie to be just fine. Regardless, I couldn't but feel that Ajami was following a very similar strategy which Crash had in order to tackle a very similar if not identical theme: interconnected storylines to discuss and observe racism and ethnic tension. However, I would quickly wager that Ajami is a darker, more somber film than its American counterpart. Directors Copti and Shani do not shy away from showing us just how dangerous the streets of Jaffa can be, with any minute potentially being a person's last, whether or not that person even deserved their untimely demise or not (one of the storylines is set off by the assassination of a wrongfully accused boy). The film doesn't ever show any hints that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for the characters we follow, some of which are easily likeable and whom we would hope to see succeed in their goals. Copti and Shani are smart and more than aware enough that the world these people live in does not always reserve happy endings for them. There were a few moments throughout Ajami when certain characters would see their journeys meet grisly ends and I honestly hadn't seen it coming. I did enjoy this aspect of not knowing who was going to make it out alive or not, which is always a solid way of keeping one's interest in a film of this nature.

I'd also offer some praise to the filmmaking and acting, both of which did a nice job of really bringing a sense of authenticity to the film. Ajami has a documentary style feeling to it, but rather than come off as a gimick, it feels just right for the purposes of the storytelling. In a way it lends a sense that the viewer is right there with the characters on the streets of Ajami. We in the West often see images and videos on the newscasts about conflict in the Middle East and especially in and around Israel, so adopting a variety of cinematography akin to cinéma vérité was a wise and effective choice. The film is devoid of any musical score or soundtrack, notwithstanding any music that might be heard on and off in the background. While I happen to be a great admirer of scores, this would be a time when the absence of such a popular part of the movie watching experience was logical. There is a sufficient amount of tension, wonder and drama to be found in the actions and verbal exchanges of the characters without any music hinting at how the audience should be feeling at any moment. Given how the look and feel of the film was so close to a documentary, I'm not sure how the filmmakers would have fit in a score or soundtrack anyhow. I suspect it would have felt especially artificial in this instance.

The film is not without a few missteps. I wouldn't say they are major flaws in the filmmaking, but they did hold Ajami back from being a great movie. The first and most important were the frequent scenes of people shedding tears. More than once we witness an unfortunate soul learn of the death of a loved one. Of course they should feel sad and cry, but the camera seems to enjoy resting on those moments a bit too much, as if it were inviting the audience to cry along with those characters, which isn't something I buy into very often (read=never). Ajami, as good as it is at depicting the realities of Israeli society and difficulties the ethnicities within that society have in communicating with one another, didn't necessarily blow me away with the 5 storylines. They were all fine, my favourite probably being the one involving the Jewish cop trying to learn what happened to his brother who has vanished. None of the stories are bad, they work on one level or another, but none caught me by surprise with any stunning originality. As is the case with almost all multi-storyline films, you probably won't be as invested in some as you are in others, and this was a slight issue I had with Ajami. Still, I did not outright dislike any of them, it was only that some didn't earn the same interest I had in the others.

I don't know what the realease schedule for Ajami is. I recall seeing a trailer for it at one point in the winter season. I took note of the film's existence, but forgot all about it until I discovered it was playing at a local multiplex which is generous enough to show several international and non-English language movies. If by any chance you happen to stumble upon it, I'd invite you to give it a try. It's quite well made and acted and I have to assume it stays true to the realities on the ground in that region of the world. The message is not one we haven't seen or heard before, and anybody with the smallest interest and knowledge of the situation regarding the various cultures living less than harmoniously in the Middles East today won't find anything terribly new here. But as I've written on many an occasion when reviewing films with less than original plots, sometimes the quality in how a film is presented is more important and effective than what it is presenting.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Star Wars marathon: Episode VI

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand)

And so the circle is complete. Balance has been restored to the Force. At the start of this saga the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy, and a new generation of Jedi emerge at the tail end of our story. That, however, is merely a statement of facts. How the audience gets to that final point at which the heroes and their friends can celebrate their new found freedom, that’s an entirely different matter. It’s also no secret that several franchises, past and present, have begun in stride only to end in a disappointing fizzle.

In this final instalment, Luke, Leia, Lando (LLL, played by Hamil, Fisher and Billy Dee Williams respectively) and their sidekicks Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO must face off against the vile Jabba the Hutt in order to rescue a captured and very frozen Han Solo (Ford) from the gangster's clutches. Meanwhile, the Galactic Empire is equipping itself with a new, more powerful battle station, one they hope will finally vanquish the pesky Rebel Alliance when the two forces clash in a final battle on and above the forest planet of Endor. The war is approaching its climax, as is the father son confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones). This time however, Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) gets into the mix of things as well.

Episode VI is a challenging movie for me to watch. After 5 episodes, we’ve seen a lot of characters come and go. We’ve seen some highs and some lows, but overall, even when a given instalment caused some problems for me (such as Episode I), I still felt there was always enough for me to offer the movie in question some praise. Episode VI really, really puts that ability of mine to the test. As a chapter in a franchise I admire and more crucially as the concluding chapter, I find Return of the Jedi to be a disappointment. The issues I have pertain to the film’s surprising lack of imagination and problems with the script and acting. Things get off to a rough start right from the opening minutes, no kidding at all. The opening scrawl explains that the Empire is secretly working on a new weapon, even more powerful than the original Death Star. Immediately after the text dissolves into space, the camera pans down to reveal...a half completed Death Star. So the Empire ‘secret’ was another Death Star. I’m sorry, a Death Star more powerful than the original Death Star. Right, my bad. This lack of creative thinking doesn’t merely hurt the opening to the film, but the climactic battle as well. The rebels have found yet another weakness in the battle station via some blueprints. You guessed it, it’s another long corridor that ships can easily fly through with a huge core that not even the worst fighter pilot could miss. The film tries to create tension differently this time around by having the Rebel fleet depend upon the efforts of their fellow soldiers down below on Endor as the latter group, led by Solo and company, attempt to blow up a shield generator. Nice try, but I wasn’t feeling very much. There is also a strange and unintentionally funny scene during the climax when the Emperor invites Luke to behold the power of the new Death seeing it blow up a space ship? It seems to me the first Death Star did a lot more damage than that.

Of course, then there are the section of the story transpiring on Endor itself. After seeing some remarkable planets and locals in the previous films, Endor sort looks plain and boring. It’s a forest. I like forests, they’re nice to walk through and all, but I’m not terribly excited to see that as a major location for a Star Wars film. It doesn’t have the pizzazz of Bespin, Kamino, Coruscant or even Tatooine, which was populated by a host of bizarre and dangerous characters. The inhabitants of Endor are fuzzy little Ewoks. I shan’t go on a tirade about the annoying nature of these creatures, because I don’t find them to be terribly annoying to begin with. I honestly don’t. In fact, I have no qualms about Ewoks helping the Rebels in some small ways in their fight against the Empire. It’s the fact that the Ewoks completely demolish the Stormtroopers and their war machines that got under my skin. I’m pretty sure we see some Ewoks firing arrows from bows. Really? Is Stormtrooper armour that brittle? To be honest, the only action set piece which works on any sort of level for me is the assault on Jabba’s palace and hover craft. It offers some swashbuckling adventure, although even that sequence has some absolutely ridiculous moments. Boba Fett’s death? Oh please... There’s also a boring and, yes, annoying musical sequence which was crafted for the purposes of the special edition of the film released in the late 1990s. I have no idea what those 3 minutes are doing in the movie.

I think what gets me the most about the movie is Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo. Brash, pompous, egotistical but also charming and loyal in the previous two chapters, Ford just doesn’t look like he’s putting in as much energy in Episode VI. I recall watching the bonus features on the classic trilogy DVD set s a few years back and learning that Ford thought killing off his character at the end of Episode V was the best idea. Lucas and company eventually convinced the actor otherwise, but judging by the energy or lack thereof in his performance, you could have fooled me. It doesn’t look as if he was entirely convinced he needed to be there. He’s given much poorer comedic dialogue and moments this time around as well, which doesn’t help. I should point out that Carrie Fisher gives a strong performance however. She seems to really believe in the project and doesn’t disappoint at any moment in the film. It’s just unfortunate and her co-star and love interest wasn’t in the same spirits.

Episode VI offers a climactic faceoff between Vader and his son Luke, with Palpatine looking, fully expecting to take immediate advantage of whomever should emerge victorious. It’s a strange scene that plays out at an odd pace. Palpatine sits on his throne for the better part of the scene while tauting Luke about how he should try to strike him down and give in to the Dark Side of the Force. Our young Jedi Knight does his best to control his emotions and withstand the psychological and emotional onslaught. It’s an interesting way to handle the Light Side/Dark Side conflict, and I understand what it is the filmmakers are going for. I don’t think it results in a very fun scene, but it’s unique. Part of the problem lies with Marquand’s direction. It feels a bit flat, a bit uninspired. This affects some of the other moments in the movie, such as the battle between the Stormtroopers and Ewoks. For example, I can imagine how on paper the notion of ‘Ewoks pummelling Stroomtroopers with rocks’ might have sounded rather daring, but on film it looks absolutely ludicrous. Certainly from a visual standpoint, Episode VI is a downgrade from Episode V. The current film is not blessed with some of the brilliant cinematography and lighting that Empire had. It all feels rather plain.

It took quite a while before we got to a film in this marathon which I didn’t like very much, but here we are. As much as I had problems with Episode I, which was the last time I bickered so much about a Star Wars film, there a lot of important things going for it such as the action, the visuals, the story setting and Liam Neeson. Plus, it had some genuinely original elements, such as the pod race sequence. Episode VI doesn’t even always provide satisfactory action scenes, not to mention that it blatantly rehashes some major elements from Episode VI. If I were to make a James Bond reference, this reminds me of Diamonds Are Forever following up on On Her Makesty’s Secret Service. While the Bond example irks me on a far greater level due to my emotional investment in that franchise, this is eerily similar. By the time the movie ended, I wasn’t thrilled, nor could I immediately recall any moments that struck me in any particularly positive way. Interestingly enough, the position I hold on Episode VI is not a new one. In all honesty, even as a child I always felt something was amiss about Jedi. A second Death Star, those silly looking pig guards at Jabba’s palace, the Ewok battle, etc. I thought all that stuff pretty much sucked way back when I was 10.

It’s a shame the marathon couldn’t end on a high. We were on such a hot streak for a while. Only one more to go and we would have had one glorious marathon. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Even after a 5 year hiatus (approximately), Episode VI still leaves me rather bummed out. I say we don’t allow this disappointment to overshadow the fun we’ve had up until now. The Star Wars franchise is wholesome entertainment, with the exception of Leia French kissing Luke of course. The film display impressing imagination, character development and great action overall. I had a wonderful time revisiting these movies, even when they weren’t up to par. Bill, thank a bundle for doing this with me. When Between the Seats and your Movie Emporium join Forces, nothing in the galaxy can stop us. Only one question remains:

Sith or Jedi?

Done here? Find out if Bill got lost in Jabba’s palace at Bill’s Movie Emporium.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Renoir marathon: La Petite Marchande d'Allumettes

La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes/The Little Match Girl (1928)

Once more Jean Renoir transports the viewers to a visually unique world where the director’s understanding of complex shot set ups and editing assist in the storytelling just as much as the script as acting. Ah, and surprise, surprise: Catherine Hessling stars in this one as well. This time around she has the titular role of the little matchstick girl, a poor little thing living in northern France who, on New Year’s Eve, must walk the streets of her town and sell small packages of matches to any passerby she can. It’s snowing and her poor little body is getting quite cold, but she hasn’t permission to return home until she has earned some doe. The evening doesn’t start off very well, and the situation almost descends into chaos once two no good boys begin a snowball fight with our lonely protagonist, causing her to drop the box to the ground, leaving its contents scattered around in the snow. The only harmonious moment in the evening is when she takes notice of a rather handsome looking chap walk by her. But having failed to live up to the task bestowed upon her, the girl makes use of what little shelter she can find and stays out in the cold for the night.

An unfortunate cocktail of hunger, fatigue and illness due to her countless hours out in the cold produce a remarkably lifelike and fantasy laden dream in which our heroine travels to a toy shop where inanimate objects spring to life and a handsome general (directly inspired by the handsome fellow she saw earlier that evening) to a platoon of toy giant toy soldiers whisks the matchstick girl off her feet. Not all is quaint and rosy in this magical toy shop, as a villainous and shadowy character shall challenge their harmonious setup. I think up until now in the marathon Renoir has been quite adept at infusing his visual wizardry with earned emotional resonance. I’ve been continuously impressed with his ability to transmit to the audience what the characters are suffering through or perhaps what they are enjoying, all the while leaving me speechless with some truly noteworthy camera and editing tricks. I think a lot of this sentiment boils down to my respect and admiration to the filmmakers who pulled off tricks and illusions with god knows what methods and technology back then, while so many of today’s artists in the film industry rely heavily on computer graphics. I’m not going to turn this into a rant against computer graphics because I’m certain that I have already given high praise to said technology on several occasions on the blog. But I think that, as a 21st century movie buff, there’s something to be said about films from the 1920s that pull off some of the magic Jean Renoir was capable.

However, The Little Match Girl was a slightly different experience for me. I was acutely aware of the brilliant visual cues for which I have no doubt the director performed back flips in order to accomplish, but this time I wasn’t enveloped by the underlying drama and sadness I believe the director wanted me to feel. The matchstick girl’s dreamland adventure is unquestionably interesting to look at, and I also felt the early scenes which depicted the poor creature’s plight were effective in setting up the story and the central character, but as the movie evolved I was but the witness to a lot of flare with little emotional punch.

To be frank, the increasingly elaborate special effects, while pleasing to the eye, seemed to overshadow what had taken place before. Now, I understand that the entire purpose of the dream sequence could be (not necessarily is) summed up as some escapism for the matchstick girl, an psychological and emotional experience which takes her away from the miserable, rotten life she is cursed with, even though this is all taking place in her mind. Everything she fears, like death and loneliness, as well as everything she longs for, such as joy, a companion and love, is personified by various fictional characters and objects via the machinations of her mind. Something about the sequence, I’m not sure what exactly, was refused to let me get in touch with the emotional undertones of her dream. The more sophisticated the trickery, the less I was invested with what was transpiring. As odd as this is going to sound, there were moments in The Little Match Girl when I felt the movie was a bit empty, à la Pirate of the Caribbean, where the bells and whistles are mighty fine to behold but I can’t remember why we’re here in the first place. Renoir seems more interested in producing the greatest circus act he can while forgoing his primary role as a storyteller. Sometimes that sort of gamble can pay off, but a director can incur great risk when treading down that sort of path. Unfortunately that risk becomes a reality, ironically enough through a dream sequence. I know the short film is based on a book, so I have to wonder whether this notion of the dream sequence being an extension of the girl’s existence is developed more fully in the source material.

Which leaves me to the climax of the film. The girl’s ultimate fate is clearly supposed to the viewer reach out on a deep emotional level. It’s simply one of those endings from which the filmmakers, as storytellers, must of wanted to extract as much emotional juice out of. At that point, because there had been a significant disconnect between myself and the film for the past 20 minutes or so, any significant reaction on my behalf had little chance of coming to be. Rather, the final moments of the film felt forced, the film hadn’t earned them. I also don’t think this is necessarily one of Catherine Hessling’s best performances. Don’t mistake me, she’s fine in the role, but we’ve seen better from her in other Renoir projects.

Whereas last week we took a look at a short story which really handled that ‘story’ part exceedingly well, this time Renoir falls into a trap of attempting too much with too little time on his hands. Quite honestly, I would like to see a feature length version of this story. I think that might give the affair more time to develop the character of the match girl and the significance of her visions. As it stands, I think what Renoir has left us with is a significant film in how far he pushed the limits of special and visual effects in his time, but somewhat of a hollow experience in the storytelling department. Here ends the short film portion of the marathon, so let us hope Renoir returns to form with the feature length efforts we shall study next.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Star Wars marathon: The Rebuttal Strikes Back

For a a better appreciation of this article, a full reading of Bill's review of The Empire Strikes Back over at Bill's Movie Emporium is required.

Dear Bill,

I'd like to offer you a sincere apology for what occured last week in our respective reviews for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While my review made foolish attempts at dissecting the glory that clearly is the current instalment in our Star Wars marathon, you went ahead all blasters blazing and proclaimed your unshakable love for the film. While I commented on the movie's structure, character development and even its cinematography and lighting, you took the more awesome route and stated things the way they are: this movie kicks a ton of ass. It is epic in all sorts of ways oozes of Star Wars goodiness. Quite frankly, your blunt approach was apt, succint, clear and very entertaining. Now I know what it means to be 'owned.' Ass served.

Take care.
Your James Bond friend,

What follows is a fictional conversation:

Bill: The Empire Strikes Back is so freaking awesome. It is truly an epic film.
Me: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?
Bill: You don't do MMA, Edgar, so that doesn't count. Don't be foolish.
Me: Who's the more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows him?
Bill: What? Whatever...As I was saying, Empire is unequivocally the best chapter in the franchise:
Me: Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes.
Bill: Hey, don't fuck with me, buddy. I ain't no Sith Lord. And stop talking like that or I'll wish I could Force push you across the room. Either that or slice your arm with a lightsaber.
Me: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid
Bill: Ugh...Anyways, our marathon is coming to an end soon and-
Me: Always in motion is the future.
Bill: Well...yeah, but I mean we only have one more movie in the marathon. It'll be sad to see this come to an end.
Me: The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side.
Bill: Sure, okay...Maybe if we're lucky we could do another joint marathon at some point in the future.
Me: In my experience, there's no such thing as luck.
Bill: If you say so, Edgar. But really, is there a better thing than movie marathons in the world?
Me:If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from.
Bill: Well, I know there's lots crap going on in the world right now, I meant that more about the fun activities us film buffs like to do. We need escapism at least sometimes. It's not as though we have all the time in the world after all, you know?
Me: I do, yes, I do. Sick have I become. Old and weak. When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good you will not. Hmm?
Bill: Okay, now you're just creeping me out.
Me: Clear your mind must be, if you are to discover the real villains behind this plot.
Bill: What plot?!? You've been acting weird since the start of this marathon, dude. Maybe it's a good thing the marathon will soon be over. Anyways, gearing up for the concluding chapter, Return of the Jedi?
Me: I have a bad feeling about this.

See you next week at Jabba's palace!

Renoir marathon: Sur un Air de Charleston

Sur un Air de Charleston/Charleston Parade (1927, Jean Renoir)

Director Jean Renoir is certainly better known for his much beloved feature length films, less so his short films, which makes this section of our marathon a bit unique. Truth be told, I wasn’t even aware of any Renoir short films until a short while ago. Keep in mind that Sur un Air de Charleston was still made early in his career, so there are some familiar aesthetic, editing and casting choices. The primary familiar ingredient is of course one of the two lead actors in the film, Catherine Hessling, who, while I do think she could act, was obviously still benefiting from her marriage with the man behind the camera. Either that or Renoir still wasn’t supported by a large enough budget to search for any different stars.

Regardless, in this current entry of our marathon she plays something of a dancing hooker hanging around the streets of a post-apocalyptic Paris, known as Terra Incognito, with her pet monkey (played by someone in an adult sized primate costume). Somewhere in Africa, where civilization has survived and technology seemingly thrived, an explorer is sent to Paris where he encounters the young street dweller and is seduced by her energetic, impressive and sexual display of the famous Charleston dance.

Sur un Air de Charleston is a delightful little effort from Renoir. It is partly a clever twist on colonial history while also an exquisite dance video. Yes, I wrote that last part purposely, fully aware that director Jean Renoir could never have envisioned the MTV music videos that characterise pop culture in our day and age. I say that this short film functions as a dance video because of not only how the overall story is told mostly through dance, at first by the girl’s solo effort and subsequently by a back and forth duo performance, but also in how the director’s camera and editing simply admire the physical dancing prowess of the two leads. Much like with the previous film we looked at in the marathon, Renoir plays around joyously with the speed and editing of certain moments in the movie, and it’s all handled handsomely. For instance, upon first discovering the street dweller, the African explorer is stunned by the girl’s incredible and sensual abilities, which are shown in slightly faster speed than normal in a filming technique that suggests her skills are too complex for the protagonist to fully comprehend. Upon being invited by the girl to partake in a dance with her, we see the explorer make a few sloppy attempts at mimicking her moves. Once he grows more comfortable with the tempo and style of the Charleston, both characters are really getting their groove on, at which time the speed of the motion picture drops into slow motion. For a good few minutes the audience is awarded the pleasure of admiring the purity and joy of their dancing (dare I say the explorer even dances better than his young teacher). It’s a wonderful technique not only from a purely visual standpoint but also from a storytelling one: fast dancing equalled confusion whereas slow motion indicated that both were completely in their groove and feeling the vibe of the Charleston.

As I briefly mentioned at the start of the above paragraph, Sur un Air the Charleston serves as a neat twist on history as we know it. The film’s plot transpires at some point in the future in the years following ‘the next war’, a war that has reduced Europe, from what the viewer is allowed to see at least, to a poor and underdeveloped region of the globe. It is ironically in Africa where technology has continued to thrive as is suggested from the simple fact that a man is been sent off to Europe via some sort of sophisticated hovering sphere that can be piloted by one man. Apparently, and without giving away too much, the explorer can communicate with angels via telephone. So clearly, Africa is now in the driver’s seat when it comes to civilization in the universe of Renoir’s short film. The protagonist is also an explorer, looking for signs of civilization in another continent. Following his encounter with the street dancer and his appreciation of the ‘dance of the White people’, he opts to bring her back to his continent and show her off to his superiors. In this vision of the future, the tables between Europe and Africa have been turned completely. Is this a bit of social commentary on Renoir’s behalf regarding his country’s colonial past or might this simply be a clever creative device he chose to utilize in order to tell an amusing tale of two different people and cultures coming together? A case can be made for both, although I think one would be hard pressed to completely ignore the first notion. The film is of course too short to develop this notion of the world turned upside down any further (if it was interested in developping it at all in the first place), but I admired Renoir's attempt at doing something that must have felt at least a bit provocative back in the day.

I think that Sur un Air de Charleston is a very good example of a short film done right. To tell a complete tale with fully developed characters, story arcs and themes in such a limited running length must be quite difficult. Somehow Renoir manages to do just that within a brisk 20 minutes, and even then he makes the viewer think a little bit by constructing a near future in which the historically well established hierarchy of the continents as we know them have been entirely reversed. But even at its most basic level the film offers plenty of entertainment value, especially if you’re into dancing. And who doesn’t like movies in which an actor puts on a man-sized monkey outfit?