Book Review: Moments That Made the Movies

images

The book “Moments that Made the Movies” is a wonderful easy read and highly recommended for film aficionados everywhere. In the introduction, author and film critic David Thompson asks the reader “Do you remember the movies you saw, like whole vessels serene on the sea of time? Or do you just retain moments from them, like shattered lifeboats?” It is with this book, Thompson decides to focus on those shattered life boats, which even though they remain fragments, they can leave a lasting impression on the viewer.

We are taken on a journey through some of these moments Thompson has handpicked himself, and more often than not, he gives us ones not commonly discussed. For instance, when he speaks of “Bonnie and Clyde”, he doesn’t go for the obvious analysis of the iconic shoot out that ends the picture, but rather he describes an early scene in a diner where Bonnie first decides to rob banks with Clyde. Thompson describes it as “a seductive little scene”. It’s a character moment, but it’s also a moment for the actors of the film Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He describes movements and gestures, how Beatty’s Clyde is talking like a producer which was what he was for the actual film. Thompson takes this pocket of a scene and is able to fill it with context for the entire film itself.

Unlike most critic’s book, we are not just privy to deconstruction, but Thompson is giving us a look into his own tastes in movies, and some which might surprise a casual movie goer. One such case is a somewhat revisionist take on the work of Meg Ryan; an actress who, it could be argued had her best days behind her after her reign as romantic comedy queen came to an end. Thompson does focus on her most iconic scene in “When Harry Met Sally” where she fakes an orgasm, but maybe more importantly, he highlights her under seen Jane Campion directed film “In the Cut”. In this film, she plays largely against type, and is far more dangerous and sexual than is usually given credit for. After reading these two entries, one could get the impression that Ryan is one of our great Hollywood actresses who got a bad break when she no longer became bankable. You may have the urge to re-watch some of her work to see the talent Thompson eludes to with his two essays.

I was far more curious with the hidden gems highlighted in the book rather than the usual suspects commonly found in these types of retrospectives. Notably there is the Danny DeVito directed 90s film “Hoffa” which starred Jack Nicholson as the infamous teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. There is also the foreign film “Celine and Julie Go Boating”, directed by French new wave icon Jacques Rivette which was a hit when released but has since been little seen in North America.

The book goes chronologically starting with a handful of early silent films moving into the modern era. You might be shocked to see some films left off his list such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Even “There Will be Blood” which Thompson chose to be the cover of his most recently published edition of his “Biographical Encyclopedia of Film”. But as he comments in the book’s introduction “Don’t be troubled about what is left out. The selection is, of course, personal.”

With his selections, Thompson challenges the reader into viewing films the way he sees them. Sometimes all people care about in a movie is the plot or the story, which is all fine and good if that’s what you’re looking for. But films can work on another level as well, as Thompson points out. They are moments caught on film, literal motion pictures, edited together with sound, music, and performance. Once viewed they can leave indelible marks on us that can last forever. Sometimes we don’t have to remember a whole movie,  it only takes one shot to stay with us. Thompson makes this idea most apparent with his  selection that ends the book. It’s not a shot from a film at all, but a photograph. It was taken in 2014 in Vancouver Canada after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. For those who don’t remember, there were massive amounts of damage, riots, and injuries throughout the city that night. Yet among the chaos, an iconic photo was taken of two young people spread out in the middle of the street embracing each other and kissing. As Thompson mentions “A moment can be an instant” and confesses how he was “struck by how movie-like it was….It could be the first shot of a movie, or the last”.

His statement is a testament to the ever-changing medium of film. It started out as a something that was fed through a projector and illuminated onto a giant screen. But since then it has transformed into digital media, YouTube, and streaming services. Film is basically anything you can imagine it to be and is now available for anyone to use.

Thompson is a realist, he doesn’t waiver to the nostalgia of 35mm projection, even though it’s a nice thought. He sees it as a tool which is ever-evolving, but one constant his book illustrates is how the images can remain memorable and even life changing. They can reflect memories of time, or waking dreams. It speaks to the power of film as an art form, and how it can become a personal and profound experience. You’ll want to think of your own moments in movies after reading this book.

 

 

Advertisements

Glow Season Two

GLOW_208_Unit_00615R2

I was a bit skeptical coming into the new season of “GLOW”. When the show premiered last summer on Netflix it was a sensational crowd pleaser. Loosely based on the actual 80s wrestling program of the same name, “GLOW” used its backdrop as a clever gimmick to incorporate women’s empowerment ideas within the plotlines. I was afraid the concept wouldn’t stretch any further and the series would end up being one of those “one season wonders”. I was wrong to doubt, as I’m delighted to say this new batch of episodes is even more fun and innovative than the first.

We pick up where we left off from last season, with the “GLOW” wrestling show being sold off to a small local television network and the ladies now under contract. Their jobs seem more secure but there is some uncertainty in the air concerning their new bosses. Some things haven’t changed however, as the heart of the show Ruth (Alison Brie) still brings her passion and support to the team, contrasting with the sometimes crabby, burned out director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron in a role he was born to play). One of the beautiful things about season 2 is how the prickly relationship between Sam and Ruth grow from mutual appreciation to a real friendship.

Among the new developments, Debbie (Betty Gilpin) makes a power play and becomes a new producer. This might feel like a set up to make her a villain character, but “Glow” is smarter than that. Instead it focuses on Debbie’s struggle to prove herself in a male dominated world, making a rather subtle comment that in a wrestling show containing all women, the men are the ones who are calling the shots.

In the era of #MeToo and “TimesUp, “GLOW” becomes even more relevant than ever. There is one episode where a character has to deal with her own Harvey Weinstein situation, and you can’t help but see the real life parallels at play. Still when the moment happens it doesn’t feel heavy handed or preachy. It’s a credit to the material which refuses to spell out the struggles and the sacrifices these women go through. The show resists the temptation to dip into melodrama choosing instead to remain fresh, fun and light on its feet.

All of this has to do with tone, which the series isn’t afraid to play with. Two episodes come to mind that illustrate just how freely “GLOW” can go from one extreme to another. The first, entitled “The Mother of all Matches” is a strong character driven piece concentrating on the lives of Debbie and Tamme (Kia Stevens). Both are single mothers dealing with their own strife as they prepare to face each other in the ring. The second called “The Good Twin” is an off the wall look into what an actual episode of the show within the show looks like. It’s brimming with fun gags, clever parodies, and a brisk pace that is worthy of its own spinoff.

It’s a bit of a cheat to only give us ten episodes of the new season of “GLOW” as it has proven just how rich the stories and characters have become. Part of me wishes the series was given a regular network television run of 22 episodes, which may seem like overkill in these days of binge watching. But “GLOW” is so infectious, and full of good will, it’s hard to get tired of these lovable wrestling misfits.

 

Favorite Films of the Year so far…

first-reformed-FR_Ethan-Hawke.JPG

Since it’s the mid-year, a lot of people have been giving their best films of the year so far. So I figured I just put my list out there. Here they are in no particular ranking order.

Black Panther: The best super hero ever put out by the Marvel banner.

Unsane: Steven Sodebergh’s thriller filmed by an iphone 7 about a young woman trapped in an insane asylum with her stalker.

A Quiet Place: Horror/sci-fi of a family who must remain quiet to hide away from monsters with super sensitive hearing.

Isle of Dogs: Wes Anderson’s latest, a stop-motion wonder with the typical Anderson dry humor. Not as good as “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but the animation is a step up.

Won’t you be my Neighbor: Documentary about Mr. Rogers, is heartwarming, and surprisingly spiritual.

Hereditary: Disturbing horror film of a family with a dark past dealing with recent tragedies, until everything goes batshit crazy.

First Reformed: A pastor struggling with his own despair tries to find grace amidst a crumbling world.

Honorable Mention: Glow Season 2 episode 8 entitled “The Good Twin”: One of the funniest most inventive episodes of television I have ever seen.

Day for Night

1b275acfc4149b1f7af14c17c22e20aa

I’m not sure if there was ever a filmmaker that lived who was more in love with movies than Francois Truffaut. Starting out as a film critic for the famed film magazine cahier du cinema, only then to transition to one of the most influential directors of the French New Wave, Truffaut was a romantic when it came to movies. He was the type of director who poured a lot of himself into his films, but his love of cinema was no more prevalent than in his 1973 masterpiece “Day for Night”.

“Day for Night” chronicles the lives and loves of the cast and crew during the filming of a fictional tragic melodrama entitled “Meet Pamela”. The film within the film isn’t really what matters here, it’s more or less a macguffin in order to bring the audience into the movie world these people live and breathe.

Truffaut himself plays one of the principle leads, as the director named Ferrand who is more or less a rather transparent Truffaut alter ego. He is fixated on the making of the film , whilst also dealing with the minor and major hiccups that come throughout the production.

The lives of the other characters come into play and at times cause disruption with the film. Among them are the lead actress Julie Baker (Jaqueline Bisset) who is recovering from a recent nervous breakdown, Alphonse (Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud), the young lead who is in love with an unfaithful script supervisor, and then there’s Severine (Valentina Cortez) an aging actress who turns to drinking to cope with the thought of her son’s leukemia. There is also Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), the dashing older matinée idol who begins a relationship with a younger man he meets regularly at the local airport, a minor plot device which turns tragic later on. As these personal dramas unfold, the crew of “Meet Pamela” soldier on to finish the film on time and under budget.

The wonderful thing about “Day for Night” is how Truffaut brings his sense of humanity and naturalism to the film. He moves his camera around effortlessly capturing small pieces of character moments, as if the audience was eavesdropping on an actual film being made. I don’t think Truffaut received enough credit for his later more refined films, he is mostly remembered for his early more innovative new wave films like “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim”. But Truffaut here takes a page from one of his idols Jean Renoir with how he catches his actors weaving in and out of scenes, and concentrating both on the foreground and background of the scenes. It’s something we mostly associate with someone like Altman, but Truffaut did it just as well.

Above all, “Day for Night” is a film for film lovers. One of the main questions it asks is if making a film is more important than life. It certainly is for the people of “Meet Pamela”, for them, the film is all that matters. By the end, there are delays, there are affairs between crew members, there is even a death, but none of that gets in the way of completing the film. For these people it’s what keeps them going, and what gives their life meaning.

As a life long film fan, I instantly feel a kinship to “Day for Night”. There have been all kinds of movies made about making movies, but “Day for Night” is the most romantic. Truffaut has created a love story about film. For him this affair began at a young age as a young boy stealing still pictures of “Citizen Kane” outside a movie house, a memory the film depicts through a series of dreams Ferrand has.

When I was in Paris a few years ago, one of the things I wanted to do was visit Truffaut’s grave site. He was buried inside a large cemetery near the Moulin Rouge.  When I found it, something there made me smile. On the tombstone where one might normally find roses left by a loved one, there were instead small rolls of film left no doubt by admirers and fans. I thought there could be no finer tribute to a filmmaker who lived and breathed film as much as Truffaut did. For someone like Truffaut, I don’t think there was ever a difference between film and life, for him they were one and the same.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise

download

I will have to say, for movie buffs who have not seen the films by Ernst Lubitsch, it’s too bad for you. Ernst Lubitsch was one of the greatest filmmakers of the classic period, he brought with him a European elegance to his films which proved to be unique and sophisticated amongst the Hodge podge of films made in the 1930s and 40s. Before he came to Hollywood, he stood out in his native Germany making classical period pieces as well as innovative silent comedies, some of which could rank along with works of Keaton and Chaplin.

In his book “Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise”, writer Scott Eyman gives us a distinct view into the life of the great director. His films are explored in a great depth, revealing a very pure and precise technique which has commonly become known as “The Lubitsch Touch”.

The book begins with a look at Lubitsch’s childhood as a German Jew who was born in Berlin. We learn right at a young age, Lubitsch was caught with the acting bug, and he begins a career as a player and apprentice to famed German theatre producer Max Reinhardt. Reinherdt would probably become the biggest professional influence on Lubitsch, particularly how he directed actors making their performances more natural than it was accustomed to being back then.

By age 21, Lubitsch began directing films, and would become one of the most renowned German directors of the time. Normally when one thinks of German films in the silent era, we most narrow it to the very influential German expressionism which ushered in the horror and sci-fi genre like “Nosferatu” or “Metropolis”. But it’s important to remember, Germany churned out different genres of films just like Hollywood at the time. The book is quick to point out Lubitsch made his name for directing acclaimed epic period pieces even before he was well-known for comedies. He took on an innovative task when he directed a version of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere” making the bold choice to take out all of Wilde’s witty dialogue and not use title cards at all. Lubitsch instead tells the story completely through images, an effort which was made more famous by his national contemporary F.W. Murnau with his film “The Last Laugh”.

Lubitsch would make more acclaimed period pieces including “Anna Boleyn” (The only one I have actually seen) and “Madam DuBarry”. But it’s with his early comedies we see where his true gift really was. Among his early silent films highlighted are his personal favorite (And Mine too) “The Doll”, which is a comedic fantasy about the daughter of a toy maker who disguises herself as a doll to fool a young bachelor. There is also “The Wildcat” which stars one of Lubitsch’s early discoveries actress Pola Negri as a barbaric mountain woman who becomes smitten with a philandering soldier.

These early comedies showed Lubitsch’s point of view when it came to sex, as he thought it was something to be laughed at rather to be taken seriously, but it also showed his flair for experimentation. With “The Doll”, he creates the sets very stylistically as if everything was made out of a toy box. Lubitsch appears in the very first scene creating the set out of miniatures, it’s a very charming intro to a charming film. With “The Wildcat”, he changes the irises of the camera which create wonderful designs within the frame, it’s easy to see how heavily a film like this would influence the likes of Wes Anderson who played with Aspect Ratio sort of the same way with “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

The book picks up with Lubitsch’s most lucrative and influential period in Hollywood, where he immigrated to create masterpiece after masterpiece. We see how he was handpicked by silent star Mary Pickford to come to Hollywood and direct her in “Rosita” (A film which was just recently restored and shown in New York at the MOMA).

When the sound era came to be, we learn how Lubitsch perfected the early musicals, drawing on German operettas as inspiration. With operettas Lubitsch would learn how songs would always be plot or character driven rather than be surface level entertainment like most early talkies were. Lubitsch helped change all that with his first four sound films all of which were musical comedies (“The Love Parade”, “Monte Carlo”, “The Smiling Lieutenant”, and “One Hour With You”.) The film created stars out of French crooner Maurice Chevaliar, and Jeneatte McDonald who would become a life long friend.

It was here, the Lubitsch style would be perfected and he created his first real masterpiece “Trouble in Paradise”. The film is an elegant sophisticated comedy as when two lovers who are also thieves decide to steal from a rich socialite only to have one of the thieves fall in love with her. The film sparkles with the greatest dialogue written for film, as well as a perfect platform with Lubitsch’s wonderful sense of irony. It was here he solidified an on again off again working relationship with screenwriter Samson Raphleson, who collaborated with Lubitsch on all of his greatest films.

We see Lubitsch’s career peak near the mid-thirties until there was a backlash, and his cool elegance was replaced with more punchy, and fast, dialogue. In short, America found a way to Americanize Lubitsch, and he was regarded as passe. This came as he was ascending Paramount Pictures, and became its head of production.

Once Lubitsch’s name didn’t carry much weight due to a series of box office failures, he became an independent producer. He teamed up with MGM to make “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo (Most likely his most famous film) and then to go on to direct “The Shop Around the Corner”, a charming romance and one Lubitsch considered his greatest accomplishment.  He had enough in him to make one of the greatest wartime comedies (“To Be or Not to Be”), and a gentle nostalgic tale about a recently deceased Lothario recounting his life to The Devil to see if he’s suitable to ascend to heaven (“Heaven Can Wait”)

Eyman always takes his time discussing Lubitsch’s work, which for me was always the most interesting part of the book. He gives fair criticism to the films including the ones that didn’t always turn into magic (“Angel”, and “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” aren’t as beloved as others). Yet we get the sense of how Lubitsch honed his craft . The idea of “The Lubitsch Touch” always alluded me as to what it meant, even though it ultimately is just a title that some journalist made up. Yet it does encompass what his style was, since itself felt elusive. Lubitsch was the kind of director to favor subtlety over telling the audience what to think. He laid out enough clues for you to follow. Eyman notes early on how Lubitsch would use objects in his films that would act as a metaphor, usually for a character, or for a theme of the film. Such an object that was used is a hat in “Ninotchka” that Greta Garbo’s communist soldier sees in a Paris window. At the beginning, she sees it as a symbol of capitalist decadence, but when she warms to Paris and falls in love with an American, we cut to a scene with her wearing the exact hat showing how she has changed her tune.

The use of music was also put into great effect whether it was a running gag such as a music box in “The Shop Around the Corner”, or a specific song like “The Waltz of the Merry Widow” which signaled a character’s demise in “Heaven Can Wait”. Lubitsch had the gift of keeping things light even when dealing with dark material. Even his angriest film “To Be or Not to Be”, which was made in the middle of World War II and was a direct attack on Hitler and the Nazis, never forgot that its heroes were vain, self-involved actors.

As far as Lubitsch’s private life, Eyman gives us just enough without exploiting his memory. We learn of his two tumultuous marriages with women who never seemed really loved him. However it was with one of these marriages he was blessed with a daughter Nicola who was born in 1938 and was the light of his life. There is one terrifying moment, Eyman recounts when Nicola was only five and on a European cruise with his mother while Lubitsch was in Hollywood. The ship was torpedoed by a Nazi-U-boat killing many on board including children. When Lubitsch receives word about it, he is left not knowing whether his daughter survived the attack, only to be relieved hours later when he gets word she was rescued.

For the most part, Eyman gives us the impression that Lubitsch was beloved with most of the actors who worked with him and he was known to enjoy the Hollywood lifestyle with all its charm and decorum to go with it. Despite most of his films being about infidelity of some sort, we don’t see much philandering on his part, despite the fact his marriages were unhappy. He would however partake in a few dalliances once his marriages ended.

The saddest part of the book comes with the description of Lubitsch’s demise, after suffering a series of heart attacks, and it being the time before a coronary bypass surgery was common, he ends up dying at the age of 55 only six months after receiving an honorary Academy Award for his career in film. It was told he died  after sex which I suppose is rather fitting. That night he was going to be picked up for a party, and in a strange scenario, many friends like Marlene Dietrich came by to see his body and pay their last respects.

A filmmaker like Ernst Lubitsch may not be as well-known today as he was back then. His influence is evident in the later films of Billy Wilder (Who had a statement in his writing office which said “How would Lubitsch do it?”). Even today in writer/directors like Wes Anderson or Whit Stillman often tip their hat at times in their films to the work of Lubitsch. Mel Brooks would remake “To Be or Not to Be” and “The Shop Around the Corner was remade into a musical called “In the Good Old Summertime” with Judy Garland,  and more effectively in “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

This biography showed just how much of an artist Lubitsch was to filmmaking and how he was one of the early great innovators. I am always charmed by his films, and I believe he has made at least three masterpieces with “Trouble in Paradise”, “The Shop Around the Corner” and “To Be or Not to Be”. He could be regarded as one of the great comedy directors, and I wish more people knew of his movies. He definitely created a world of his own with his characters, and was as well-known for comedy as Hitchcock was for suspense. If anything “Laughter in Paradise” just made me appreciate Lubitsch more for his craft, and his humour, and how he approached life, which always seemed to be with a smile.

 

 

Wonder Woman

22772895-mmmain-1045518261

For me the most appealing part of super heroes since I was a kid is that wish-fulfillment factor. It’s that idea, that super heroes with all their great strength, speed, and agility are able to make the world a better place, and you can always depend on them to make the right choices. For children and adults, they have remained a reflection of our greater selves and an inspiration. As a young boy, there was no stronger image for me in movies than watching Christopher Reeve’s Superman fly up and save Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane from falling out of a helicopter. It filled me with that ideal that anything was possible, and it was always good to see someone do the right thing.

It’s now been ten years since “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” came out the same summer to phenomenal success, and since then we have had a wave of non-stop super hero films . I have enjoyed most of them to a degree, but I would say my favorite of this flock has got to be “Wonder Woman”. Part of what makes “Wonder Woman” so good is the character herself which is drawn with broad strokes the same way Reeve’s Superman was constructed. She is played here by Gal Gadot who adds a warrior’s fierceness, but also a tender warmth and humanity that, to be honest feels like a breath of fresh air in a super hero movie.

The film  begins in the mythical Island of Themiscyra, which is home of the Amazons where Wonder Woman was raised. Here she is known as Princess Diana, daughter of Hippoltya (Connie Nielson), the Queen of the Amazons. We see Diana as a young girl wanting to be trained by her warrior Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), however her mother is reluctant, so she trains in secret. The Amazons live in peace, but there is a threat that Aries, The God of War who was cast out by Zeus will some day return to Themiscyra and Diana may be the only one who could defeat him.

But peace on the Island is brought to a halt suddenly, with the arrival of Steve Rogers (Chris Pine), a World War one pilot who crash lands on Themiscyra with an army of German soldiers behind him ready to invade. After a battle, the Amazons hear of the war going on and Diana chooses to flee with Steve where she believes she can confront Aries and destroy him, thus ending the war.

The film soon turns into a wartime adventure with Steve and Diana teaming up with some rogue spies to infiltrate a plot by the Germans to develop a new hydrogen gas which would prove deadly to the allies and prolong the war. The people behind the plot are a crazed General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya).

On the surface “Wonder Woman” is your typical super hero origin story, one we’ve seen time and time again. But the film reaches for moments of transcendence that surprised and moved me unlike any other film of the genre. The centerpiece of the film is the No Man’s Land sequence, where Diana and crew enter into the war trenches, and unable to stand the suffering any longer, she enters into the war field in all her glory deflecting bullets from enemy soldiers and winning the day. This scene is indelibly choreographed by director Patty Jenkins, as she frames Diana as that larger than life hero we have all hoped to see one day on screen. This scene is Wonder Woman’s coming out party, and it’s juxtaposed in a dreary war torn backdrop as if she is a shining light to all of the horror.

The idea of war and what it does to humanity is a major theme in the film, and Jenkins doesn’t shy away from the atrocities, at least as much as she could within the confines of a major tentpole film. We see how this affects Diana, and how she doesn’t understand the military when they want to keep the war going. Some of the most satisfying scenes come when Diana bursts into military meetings, populated by all men who make decisions on soldiers lives and begins shouting at them calling them cowards. Godot is so effective here playing it straight, and we see the pain in her eyes and the frustration of not understanding man’s want of killing people they don’t even know.

The ending of the film has come under criticism as resorting to another special effects blow out with huge explosions and CGI. That is true, however I would push back a bit that all of it is a meaningless and frezined mess, even though the villain comes off as cartoony and silly. Jenkins doesn’t forget how to frame Diana and empowering her in all of the CGI carnage. There is one image where she is running through a raging fire as if she is all ablaze with passion, which feels right from a comic book. And I felt the way she vanquishes the villain is over the top in all the right places. Again it’s that wish-fulfillment and seeing the empowerment of Diana which is the part of the point of this film. All while this is going on, there is a human drama going on with Steve and his allied sidekicks, which brings a good balance to the proceedings.

Overall, the CGI in the film didn’t bother me as much as it does in other effects driven films, even the scenes where Diana is definitely played by a computer and not Gal Gadot such as when she is jumping from frame to frame like a video game. Much of the effects add to the fantasy element, and seep in effectively for the most part. I imagine much of the backdrops of London would be matte paintings if this film was made in another era.

“Wonder Woman” was a huge success when it was first released being the most popular origin super hero movie of the time (Only recently being dethroned by “Black Panther”). It was the “Wonder Woman” story, people were hoping for. It paints in broad strokes and is simple enough for a child to understand what it’s getting across.  I guess being a boy, I related more to Superman which as I stated above was the wish-fulfillment I was looking for. “Wonder Woman” has that same effect of Superman, the idea that super heroes always know what the right thing to do is, and they do it without question. And yes I know there are super hero movies that make their characters more human by adding more personal problems and drama to their lives. That’s all well and good, but when that happens their heroism gets diluted, and they become more selfish like humans often do. Diana never looks at the world through selfish eyes, she’s here to help, and save the day, and sometimes that’s all the drama you need.

 

 

 

 

Avanti!

avanti-05

After watching Billy Wilder’s wonderfully sublime late period romantic comedy “Avanti”, I felt as if I just escaped to a wonderful paradise and left the worries of the world behind. That’s part of what magical Hollywood film making can do to us, they can lift us onto a different plain into a fantasy we sometimes hesitate to leave, even after the credits roll. I felt this way after watching “Avanti”, I was soaked into the wonderful world of Italy, humming the lovely theme music to myself afterwards, and having the kind of contentment only the best movies can put you in.

It’s almost as if the film knows the kind of person to attract, in the presence of the lead protagonist Wendell Armbrewster Jr, played here by Wilder regular Jack Lemmon. Armbrewster Jr. is an uptight American industrialist who is inconvenienced when he hears of his father Armbrewster Sr. has died in a car accident while visiting a small Island in Naples. For the past ten years, Armbrewster Sr had been going to this Island for one month out of the year, and staying at the same resort allegedly for the therapeutic mud baths for his bad back. It isn’t until Armbrewster Jr. comes to claim the body, that he discovers his old man had been carrying on a ten-year affair with another woman who died along with him in the same car. This puts a damper in Wendell’s plan to collect the body right away and deliver him to a funeral in Baltimore which will be a televised event as Armbrewster Sr. was a very important businessman in America.

Wendell must now go through a series of red tape to release the body, try to hide the fact that his father was a philanderer, as well as deal with Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), the British daughter of the deceased lover, who is there to collect her mother’s body at the same time. Being that this film works partly as a farce, things don’t go according to plan, as pretty soon, the two bodies are stolen by a local family looking to extort money from Wendell after their family vineyard was damaged by the car accident. There is also a bell boy, who was deported from America for criminal activities, but tries to bribe Wendell into giving him a passport after he passes along incriminating photos of his father and lover together. Meanwhile Pamela Piggott, a slightly plumpish woman concerned about her weight begins falling in love with the lovely Island of Naples just as her humble mother would have been, and soon enough Wendell falls for her charms.

Most romantic comedies can be considered predictable, especially when a man and woman meet, and at first they don’t like each other, it’s only a matter of time before they connect in some way. Here it’s when the hard-edged, rude American antics of Wendell are softened by the gentle, often sad and insecure Pamela. When the pairing happens it’s hard to resist. It’s to Jack Lemmon’s credit that he can come off as unlikable to the extreme, especially towards Pamela calling her a “fat ass” , along with being rude and impatient to the friendly locals, only to turn around and be able to find his humanity within the Italian paradise. Juliet Mills as Pamela is simply glowing in the film, in the way most movie stars should. Her character begins as lonely and sad, yet she has the right amount of sentiment that never feels forced, and it’s a revelation to see her come alive within the romance of the world, it’s easy to see Wendell fall in love with her.

The fact that “Avanti” never feels chaste like some lesser romantic comedies feel is a testament to the material. Sex is prevalent throughout the film, and being that this was released in 1972, Wilder didn’t have to succumb to the idea of suggestion like he had to with his classics like “Some Like it Hot” or “The Apartment”. Here we see Wendell and Pamela in bed together, swimming naked in the ocean, but none of it is for shock value, but rather a gesture to let go of ones inhibitions. Wilder still has playful ways to suggest sex, such as in the title itself. Avanti is the Italian word for “enter” or to “Come in”. It is a recurring phrase uttered in, of all places a hotel where servants ask to enter a room. It is uttered by Wendell when Pamela asks to enter his room, and then in a very sly, charming moment, Pamela says it to Wendell, when they consummate their relationship.

The use of this word could be thought of as a tip of the hat to Wilder’s mentor and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch, who basically invented the romantic comedy. Lubitsch had fun with sexual innuendo better than anyone particularly when it came to hotel rooms and key holes, all used as a rather bigger metaphor for what was going on beyond those doors. It’s safe to say, Wilder became Lubitsch’s heir to this kind of comedy, and oh how perfect it feels when he pulls it off.

“Avanti” was written by Wilder along with his constant collaborator I.A.L Diamond, as the two wrote exclusively together with every film since “Some Like it Hot”. As in all of their films, they are able to punch up terrific one liners, and create wonderful supporting characters, albeit not all that believable. One such character is Carlo Carlucci, the hotel manager played with comic gusto by character actor Clive Revill. Carlo becomes Lemmon’s sidekick, and guide throughout the Island, always able to help out when it comes to finding coffins for the dead bodies, and cleaning up a hotel room, when a chambermaid happens to shoot her lover when he threatens to walk out on her. Carlo is the type of guy Friday who adds to the film’s magic, along with a quip or two along the way.

But underneath all this romance and charm, there is a bit of an indictment by Wilder. He never finishes a film without a bite of cynicism, which finishes the film off as bittersweet. It’s safe to say with a European backdrop such as this, the people who come off the worst are the Americans. Although Wendell redeems himself in the end, he is almost a caricature at the beginning of how Americans are perceived in other countries. At one point Pamela calls out American behaviour as “childish, playing golf on the moon like you own the place.”

This criticism of American culture is brought to a head in the climax of the film when a representative of the U.S. State Department swoops in almost like a Deus ex machina to recover the body of Wendell’s father without any red tape, however it’s at this point, Wendell is not ready to leave just yet. The film was made in 1972 during Richard Nixon’s second term and right before Watergate. Nixon himself was a bit of a blowhard, who along with other dehumanizing policies, turned America in the world’s biggest eyesore. Today, we are bombarded with American foreign policies, rude, agitated, and impatient government talking heads, from the left and the right, it’s hard to escape from it. With “Avanti”, Wilder builds something that feels like an escape, and a reminder that in some places, America doesn’t rule the world, and there is pleasure in that. Wilder himself, was a European like most directors who Immigrated to Hollywood before the War in Germany. I have always valued an outsiders opinion of what America represents, it’s hardly ever gushing. But Wilder never dwells on this cynicism, especially when he’s preoccupied with making romance with his characters who are just looking for happiness. “Avanti” is like a vacation, you will not want to leave, but what’s beautiful about it is once it leaves you, it stays with you, as if you’ve just fallen in love.

 

A Clockwork Orange

clockworkStanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” remains his most controversial film and probably his most polarizing. That says a lot considering Kubrick has pushed the envelope more than once with his films such as thesexual fantasy of “Eyes Wide Shut”, the end of the world satire “Dr. Strangelove” and nymphet obsession of Nabokov’s “Lolita”. But “A Clockwork Orange” trumps them all in the “raised eyebrow” department. The film is unapologetic in the depiction of its main character Alex DeLarge, a sexual deviant who throughout the film commits ruthless acts of violence, rape, and murder. Alex feels no remorse for his actions, that is until he is “cured” by the government.

The audacity of having the audience sympathize with such a deplorable main character is a clever conceit of the narrative to get to the film’s real idea: is it morally ethical to rid someone like Alex from his right to choose, or is it better to dehumanize him from that right in order for him to exist in society? This question has become probably more prevalent today when you consider Alex’s violent actions in the film, are aimed mostly towards women.

Let’s take the first ten minutes of the film where we see Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his fellow Droogs hanging around in that iconic milk bar. We have the famous moment of McDowell giving the signature Kubrick face of the downward head looking up into the camera. From there, the reverse dolly shot reveals the highly sexualized ambiance of the room with naked statues of women in various positions. Here Alex and his Droogs contemplate what sort of “ultraviolence” they will partake in tonight. This leads them assaulting and beating a homeless man to a pulp. Afterwhich, the gang force themselves into the home of a writer and his wife, as we watch them gleefully abuse the two of them while it is  juxtaposed to Alex casually singing “Singin in the Rain”. The scene ends, with the Droogs cutting up the wife’s clothing exposing her privates and while the film cuts away, it’s pretty obvious that she is raped.  I have to say the first time I attempted watching “A Clockwork Orange” as a teenager, I turned the movie off after this moment, I had not been so upset from a single scene in a film more than this before.

Later, we see Alex assaulting another women in her home, and even though she does put up a fight, she is killed when Alex smashes a giant phallic statue in her face, an image which perhaps has more implications today than it did in 1971. Alex is soon apprehended after this incident, but after spending time in jail, he is recruited for a new type of experiment which guarantees him early release. He is submitted to a medication and brainwashing treatment. In perhaps the film’s most notorious scene, we see Alex in a straight jacket, as his eyelids are clamped open as he watches disturbing images of violence on a film screen. The experiment strips Alex of his free will as he becomes sick from the idea of inflicting any type of violence again.

Alex tries to re-associate himself with his new found freedom, but he no longer feels free, as he must resist his initial impulses. He is less a human being, but more like a human lab rat who has been intellectually castrated. To add to this, Alex can no longer even enjoy his one cultural vice which was the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven, as it was playing in one of the films he watched as he was being conditioned.

This is a clever twist, Kubrick lays on the audience. After giving us so many disturbing images of Alex’s early exploits, he turns the table on us. By stripping him from what makes us all human, our right to choose, we now find empathizing with him. Alex is seen as an outcast, and shunned by his family and even fellow Droogs, he no longer fits anywhere. But here’s the rub, (Spoler Alert) Alex is cured by the end of the movie, he’s able to go back to his old impulses, and he’s even sponsored by the government after they rectify their mistake  by making him a PR poster boy. The finale of the film lands in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” message, which nulifys the more philosophical question the film raised. Granted, any film that poses questions such as these makes it more difficult to land a perfect ending. Here Kubrick doesn’t go for ambiguity as he did with his previous movie, “2001”, but he makes it more puck rock and nihilistic with a message that seems to be, every human being is no damn good anyway.

When “A Clockwork Orange” was first released in 1971, it was blamed for inciting violence in the streets of London, causing Kubrick to actually pull it from theatres in England, and banning it for over 30 years until his death. This was a startling act from Kubrick, perhaps even he thought he went too far with it. Despite the controversy, the film was still a big success and can be seen as a classic. It continues to shock and provoke in ways Kubrick wanted us to engage with it. However the moral ambiguity of the film is a bit problematic.

Our movie climate has changed drastically the almost 50 years “A Clockwork Orange” came out. The #Metoo movement has been a watershed moment in Hollywood where women are shouting “No more”. It’s difficult to imagine the Alex DeLarge mentality existing in popular films today, despite the satirical take on the character. Perhaps there is too much outrage right now to even have much empathy with him. But a guy like Alex simply won’t go away into the night, even how much we wish he would. Alex is perceived as a symptom of society, and a sickness that doesn’t have an easy answer. Should we condition him the way the film suggests? Or can we deal with him in a way that doesn’t dehumanize him or us? This is probably the secret brilliance behind ” A Clockwork Orange” and Stanley Kubrick as a director. Kubrick is probably the only director who is able to remind us of our humanity by stripping it away from us. “A Clockwork Orange” dares us to value humanity from the perspective of a sociopath. However Alex came to be, he is a part of the human race, for better or for worse.

 

 

Ready Player One

da9fa6c7c2c46e83-600x400Steven Spielberg is and probably will be the most successful filmmaker in history. It’s difficult to think of anyone coming around with the same amount of worldwide blockbusters as him, along with some of the most critically acclaimed films from the last 40 years.

Yet even a giant mogul like Spielberg is human, and the unique aspect of his filmography is the fact that even though they remain extremely popular, they can also be deeply personal. Take his latest dive into the blockbuster pool with “Ready Player One”.  On the surface It’s a film which is a celebration of 80s pop culture, something Spielberg himself is responsible for creating. The film is sprawling sci-fi adventure story with some exciting set pieces in the vein of classic Spielberg films from the Indiana Jones films to “Minority Report”. But beneath this celebration of nostalgia and nerd culture, we see a film about reflection and possible regret from an aging God of geekdom.

“Ready Player One” is set in the year 2045 where the real world has become too depressing to live in. As one character puts it, it’s where “People decided not to fix the world’s problems, and just tried to out live them.” As an escape from this dystopia lies The Oasis, a virtual world, where basically everything is possible and people can live their lives through the avatars of their choice.

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the eccentric creator of The Oasis dies, he creates a game within The Oasis containing an Easter Egg, which once discovered grants the winner complete control to the entire virtual world. It’s up to spunky young man Wade Watts (Ty Sheridan) and his clan of gamers and pop culture enthusiasts to find this Easter Egg before the evil corporate overlords, lead by Sorrento (Ben Mendleson) find it.

For the most part, “Ready Player One” is a film Spielberg excelled at in his old Indiana Jones days featuring action set pieces galore, with an opening car chase, and a clever visit through Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” being standouts. That being said, The Oasis can be a bit much. It’s as if we are bombarded with so many sights and senses, the substance is sometimes lost. The pop culture references come so swiftly, I’m sure loyalists will have fun pausing on shots once the film becomes available on blu-ray to pinpoint all of their favorite movie or game characters.

Spielberg does slow down slightly in parts to give a bit of nuance, and wonderful imagery to the proceedings, such as when Wade is sharing a romantic dance in the air with his romantic interest/partner in crime Samantha (Olivia Cooke). But even these quiet character moments are interrupted too often with the speed and urgency of the plot. Maybe this is just me getting older, and wanting more out of movies than non-stop action, or it could be the problem of the film by having such cardboard cutouts of characters. The main actors aren’t given much chance to leave their stereotypical trappings, even though the cast is likable enough. The exception of this is Rylance as Halliday.

This brings us to the part which I found most interesting about “Ready Player One”, and perhaps the reason Spielberg chose to make this film which is the character of James Halliday himself. Although it is revealed at the beginning Halliday is dead, he does pop up within The Oasis usually as a memory bank containing clues on how to win the game. Portrayed by Rylance, we could see Halliday as an avatar for Spielberg himself, an aging mogul, who built a world of imagination for people to enjoy but coming at a price. You can see Halliday as someone who is happy at what he has created but also as someone who see he may have also created a monster. Spielberg shows this conflict within the character which draws parallels to his work as well.

Here we have a mogul who has created the modern blockbuster with “Jaws”, and giving people films to enjoy. But because of that, we are now at risk of losing smaller films in theatres to more tent-pole franchise fair. Could Spielberg feel responsible or am I just speculating.

I have always felt Steven Spielberg has been a filmmaker first, but can also be a shrewd businessman second. In one sense we have the Spielberg who owns his own movie studio and has his producer credit on every deplorable “Transformers” film, yet we also have the Spielberg who has been able to create deeply personal mainstream films from “E.T.” to “Schindler’s List”, not to mention the only man to have directed French New Wave master Francois Truffaut in a film. There has always been this duality in Spielberg that has made him such a fascinating figure.

But lately we have seen an aging Spielberg making films regarding his legacy. What was “Lincoln” but about a man concerned with leaving his mark on his country despite the odds. Even the small, gentle, children’s fable “The BFG” was an allegory of an elderly man passing on what he knows to a younger generation. Even the sexagenarian version of Indiana Jones in the much maligned “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” speaks to this legacy factor as well, and it continues with “Ready Player One”.

I can’t say “Ready Player One” is entirely successful, but it’s nice that a popular film such as this can be used as a platform for the most successful director of all time. It’s an interesting film to reflect on his legacy, something he may not be sure about.

 

 

Unsane

dims-9a95a704-4e4e-4c2c-96fc-711a8a2a7332What is it like to be a victim but have no one believe you. That’s what is explored in Steven Sodebergh’s wonderfully engrossing, and experimental new film “Unsane”. We begin with the voice of a creepy stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard) describing the woman he’s obsessed with Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). The screen is filled in a forest marked with shades of blue which is the color Sawyer was wearing when David first saw her. It is a purposefully distorted image even more so given the film’s unique use of an iPhone 7 plus.

From there we meet Sawyer, a hard as nails though somewhat neurotic ambitious career woman. We see her at work where she has to shoot down advances from her boss when he proposes to take her to a business conference for the weekend but it’s pretty evident he has something else on his mind. Later she goes on a tinder date and takes the guy to her apartment fully willing for a one night stand, until things get too intense and she recoils.

Sawyer is still traumatized by her stalker and decides to make an appointment with a therapist to tell her story. She is then asked to fill out some forms and just like that, she has voluntarily committed herself  for 24 hour observation. Sawyer doesn’t recall ever committing herself, but she is soon taken to a room where someone takes away her belongings and she is asked to strip to her underwear. This experience causes her to unwind and she tries to call the police, but they are so used to patients calls, they don’t take it seriously.

In a fit of frustration and defensiveness, Sawyer strikes an inmate, and accidentally punches an orderly in the face when he bears the striking resemblance of her stalker. Due to her violent nature, a week is added to her tenure, and as if that isn’t punishment enough Sawyer begins seeing her actual stalker David Strine as an orderly who is handing out medication, yet no one believes her when she tells them.

The most unsettling thing about “Unsane” is how everything in it feels frighteningly real, I left the theatre thinking this could actually happen which made my skin crawl. But what this film does so well is how it puts us in the head of Sawyer who is the real victim. Throughout the film she is convinced of what she is seeing, yet no one listens to her. You could draw a real parallel with the watershed moment happening now with the “#metoo movement where women who were not believed for years are now being listened to. For Sawyer it’s one horrific moment to see her stalker in front of her controlling her medication, it’s another for no one to believe her when it’s happening.

As Sawyer, Claire Foy is on edge throughout the whole film, she is magnificent as someone who is trying to keep her intense fear and pain in check as she is desperately trying move on. Also as David, Joshua Leonard is the most subtle of monsters, the way he moves, and speaks in such a quiet childlike tone had me look away more than once.

The rest of the cast glow as well including Jay Pharoh playing Sawyer’s only ally in the facility, and who may be more than he’s letting on himself. Amy Irving has a few brief scenes as Sawyer’s mother, the only one who seems to believe her and tries to help her on the outside, but it often shut down by bureaucrat.

The film isn’t very long, clocking in at a little over 90 minutes, which makes this story really tight and lean, meaning there is little levity. Unlike last year’s “Get Out” which was another socially conscious horror film and could pause with moments of dark humour, “Unsane” practically locks us in with the protagonist throughout, and we feel no relief in the film until she does.

This credit of keeping things tight can be given to Sodebergh but also the screenwriters Jonathon Bernstein and James Greer who have crafted a very smart script with very realistic situations. There may have been a couple of times, where I felt the realism of the film was lost, however without giving anything away, I felt the ending had a very satisfying conclusion. We are left with a final shot that felt like something right out of a 1970s paranoid thriller which is something I think Sodebergh was trying to invoke and even update with the iPhone shooting style.

Steven Sodebergh is a very special kind of director, he’s able to go in and out of Hollywood style genre films to more experimental fare such as this one. Looking back at his catalogue, one could also argue just how much of a liberal filmmaker he is. Even though he mostly works in different genres there is an underlying theme of rebellion against the status quo. It’s not a coincidence that one of the main villains in “Unsane” are the corporate healthcare administrators who are responsible for putting Sawyer in a place with her stalker is. They are also the ones who don’t listen to her, Sodebergh doesn’t shy away at how corrupt he thinks corporations can get, which is no wonder you can feel paranoid after you leave the film.