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20 January 2008 @ 23:21
Designing Woman


Starring two of my favourite actors ever, Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, Designing Woman is a hidden gem of a romantic comedy from 1957. I'm surprised that this isn't more well-known, because not only is this one of the funnier movies I've seen in a while, Peck and Bacall make one of the best screen teams ever. But unlike, say, Astaire and Rogers or Hepburn and Tracy, sadly Peck and Bacall only made this one film together (aside from one TV movie I think), which is kind of baffling considering the fantastic chemistry they have. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Designing Woman is a bit of a different take on the 1942 Tracy-Hepburn classic Woman of the Year. Peck is Michael Hagen, a New York sports journalist on assignment in California. There he meets Marilla Brown (Bacall), a fashion designer also from the Big Apple, and after only four days together, the two get married and go back to NYC, where all the trouble starts. To begin with, in all the excitement of his marriage to Marilla, Michael's completely forgotten about his on-and-off girlfriend, Lori Shannon (Dolores Grey). Marilla discovers a torn up photo of the leggy showgirl in his apartment, but decides to bite her tongue and ignore it for as long as she can. Also, it turns out that Marilla is very rich in comparison to Michael, making him a bit uneasy (somehow this never came up in the days before). And then there's the sideplot of Michael's series of exposés on a corrupt boxing promoter who has some dangerous friends. All shenanigans aside, the biggest reasons to watch this film are the interplay of Peck and Bacall and the sharp script that won writer George Wells an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and had me laughing out loud.

Designing Woman


Both Peck and Bacall are great in their roles. Gregory Peck is one of my favourite actors because he strikes the perfect balance - he's elegant but not stuffy, he can laugh at himself but not he's crude, and he's intelligent but not pretentious. Though probably best known for playing the venerable Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I prefer the younger Peck in his slightly edgier roles. Designing Woman is the third film where I've seen him play a journalist, (the others being Gentleman's Agreement and Roman Holiday - of course!) and I like the character of Michael Hagen because it lets him be a bit of a schmuck for a while - but not too much, because his innate goodness always shines through.

Meanwhile, Bacall is basically the coolest actress I've ever seen, bar none. No one can ever match her sultry-voiced, smart-chick cool, though Scarlett Johansson puts in a decent effort these days. As Marilla Brown, Bacall softens her image a bit by playing a fashion designer, but this is Lauren "just put your lips together and blow" Bacall we're talking about here, so this isn't your typical airy-fairy fashion bimbo. Marilla is self-assured and independent, and even though she ends up flying off the handle a bit about Michael's ex-girlfriend, it makes her more human and proves that she's not completely imperturbable. And even though she's part of the uber-snooty fashion world, Marilla is never snobby and always tries to make Michael feel included.

The other thing I liked about Designing Woman is how equal Michael and Marilla's relationship was. I actually don't like the title of the film, because it has some misleading connotations. First of all, it suggests that the movie is all about Marilla, which it's not, and it makes it seem like she's got an ulterior motive in having "designs" on Michael, like she's trying to entrap him, which is way off the mark. But anyways, I like how Marilla and Michael have such mutual respect for each other and try really hard to compromise to make each other happy, especially since they come from such different worlds. It's not about who wears the pants in the relationship, I didn't think there was a power struggle at all, which was refreshing. It's clear that Marilla's wealth makes Michael uncomfortable, but he swallows any trace of ego and agrees to move in to her considerably bigger pad. They both respect and support each other's careers, even though neither of them have the slightest understanding of their partner's jobs. And they try really hard to be civil to each other's friends, even though they both pretty much find the others intolerable. They're both hard-working, independent professionals, and when Michael calls Marilla at work, what he says basically sums it up: "I need to speak to Mrs. Michael Hagen - I mean, Marilla Brown." This isn't a relationship drowning in idealism, though, and they have more than enough obstacles, not the least of which being Michael's showgirl ex-girlfriend. I loved how Marilla didn't jump straight into cliché jealous lover mode, and remained controlled and empathetic until she's provoked one too many times by Michael's refusal to be honest and finally freaks out. As for Michael, his waffling is foolish but forgivable, in the light that he's just trying to keep Marilla from getting unnecessarily upset. He just happens to completely misjudge how to handle the situation, and underestimates both Marilla's perceptiveness and tolerance. And they're both stubborn, which doesn't help matters. Neither of them are perfect, but together Peck and Bacall make the perfect pair and an incredibly entertaining screen couple.

Designing Woman
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. m u s i c .: My Brightest Diamond - Disappear
 
 
14 January 2008 @ 22:39
Nikita


I used to love watching Alias. Watching Sydney Bristow beating up bad guys while wearing outrageous getups every week was the most exciting hour on TV. While once in a while, you would wonder how it was that Sydney didn't go completely mad killing people all the time, but only for a second, because you'd go back to marveling at how she could kick ass in outfits that most people couldn't walk in, or when she would hook up with/get back together with her hot and compassionate fellow agent Michael Vaughn, or why it was that every character killed off on that show would miraculously come back to life. It all came in a slickly produced, if not a bit hollow, package, but it was damn entertaining to watch, even if the show did start to suck after two season. So when I popped in La Femme Nikita, a 1990 film about a junkie-turned-sexy secret agent, I thought it was going to be like a French version of Alias. I was expecting a glamourous, fast-paced spy movie, and instead I got an intense character study. Which I guess is nothing to complain about, it's just a bit jarring when you're meaning to watch an unprovokingly entertaining popcorn movie and instead you find yourself empathising with the hardships of being a secret service assassin. Alias gave us some insight into that too, but while that show's sentimentality was often hokey, Nikita's plight is truly affecting, thanks to the raw emotion that Anne Parrillaud pours into the role.

Nikita


Directed by Luc Besson, Nikita definitely has its big-ticket action sequences, but the weight of the film was surprisingly given to Nikita's personal life and psychological anguish, rehabilitation, and anguish again. When the film opens, she's a wreck - a violent, unpredictable drug addict who kills cops and gets life in jail for her crime. But someone in the French intelligence wants to give her a second chance, so her death is faked and she's whisked into secret service training - and Pygmalion-like lady training. Nikita transforms utterly into a charming young woman, still with a nasty temper, but also with a newfound humanity (provided by the mysterious Amande, played by Jeanne Moreau from Jules et Jim!). Nikita is finally released back into the real world, where she takes on a new identity as Marie, and soon finds herself in a loving relationship with a supermarket clerk named Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). She encounters the predictable difficulties of living a double life, but somehow Parillaud brings fresh pathos to the scenario. I think it's because you see how far Nikita has come, and just when she's become a person again, she finds herself trapped in a different sort of destructive lifestyle. Parillaud is as radiant as the reformed, happy Marie/Nikita as she is unnerving as the loose cannon junkie. I also have to mention Jean Reno, who in his brief but intense go as Victor the Cleaner, creates one of the most memorable villains I've ever seen. The maniacally efficient way in which he kills without remorse is simultaneously surreally funny and truly scary.

Nikita


If you're in the mood for a guilt-free spy thriller, La Femme Nikita is probably not the movie to watch. Besson gives the film an anticlimatic ending completely atypical of the genre, a convincing and subtly uplifting final statement in this de-glorification of the world of espionage. Besson's film, and Parillaud's performance, stunningly remind us that life as a trained assassin is neither glamourous nor desirable. It's not necessarily a welcome reality check, but it's difficult to mind too much with a character as magnetic as Nikita.

Photos: here and here.
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Une femme est une femme


Une femme est une femme (A Woman is a Woman) is Jean-Luc Godard's 1961 take on Hollywood musical comedy. Jacques Demy also made a sendup to the movie musical, 1964's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, eschewing the splashy production numbers that typified those films, letting the romance emanate instead from the entirely sung dialogue and saturated colour scheme. Demy also brought it down a notch by giving his characters a dose a reality, the bittersweet ending removing the world of Umbrellas from the Hollywood fairly tales. Three years earlier, Godard released Une femme est une femme, a good-natured parody of the genre that distills the Hollywood musical comedy even further to its screwball roots. While Demy focused on the soaring love story aspect of golden age Hollywood musicals, Godard's film has more in common with Astaire-Rogers romps like Top Hat and Swing Time, with their dueling couples and hasty resolutions. Featuring very little actual singing or dancing, Femme is a funny, frivolous, and slightly surreal take on relationships. The story is simple: Angela (Anna Karina), an exotic dancer (whose routines aren't really exotic, or really dancing, actually...) inexplicably decides that she wants a baby and appeals to her bookstore clerk boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), who refuses. They fight, they argue, Émile huffily suggests that Angela try sleeping with his friend Alfred Lubitsch(!) (Jean-Paul Belmondo) if she wants to get pregnant so badly, Angela threatens to, Alfred (who's also in love with Angela) is more than willing to help out...and on it goes. It's all very droll and clever, from the battle-of-the-sexes verbal sparring matches to the winking (self)referential nuggets Godard lobs at the audience. Actually, maybe the funniest thing about this flm is the Zodiac, the supposed strip club where Angela performs - it's dingy and perpetually empty, and no one seems to be the least bit aroused by the stripteases that are bizarrely out of place in what just looks like a sadly neglected restaurant.

Une femme est une femme


As amusing as Femme is, the most interesting thing about the film is the visual aspect. Working with a vivid palette of blue, red, and white, Godard enlivens the humdrum surroundings of the characters' lives by injecting everyday objects with shots of colour. Émile's otherwise bland white flat is somehow made infinitely more stylish with a strategically placed red lampshade, and it happens to match perfectly with Angela's sweater and fishnet tights. Thanks to Godard's genius, the world of Une femme est une femme looks simultaneously shabby and polished, unintentional and contrived, a stylized (but not too much) version of someone's unspectacular life. The same can be said of the film overall; Godard constantly has the actors break the fourth wall and remind us that we're watching a film, but somehow it all feels natural anyways.

This is the first time I've seen an Anna Karina film, and I see why she's such a Nouvelle Vague icon. She's like a French Holly Golightly in Femme, all playful frivolity one minute and vulnerable the next. And her outfits in Femme are the stuff of costume design legend...I lifted wardrobe ideas from it anyways.

As for the action, it's not as featherlight as first meets the eye, I think. Angela, Émile and Alfred prance around like carefree kids, but they also get peevish too, and it's because they dont seem to know how to communicate with each other. It's no wonder their relationships are messed up, but somehow they make it work anyway, which I took as the strange, backwardly optimistic message of the film. There is also tragedy lurking there if you think about it, but the charm of Femme is that you don't have to if you don't want to. One of my favourite parts is when Angela and Émile aren't speaking to each other, so they use book titles to spell out their messages. I want to go back and take a look at what books they were using...anyways, Angela and Émile trade barbs like the couples in screwball comedies do, but instead of the clashes being the intelligent verbal foreplay of two predestined lovers, the arguments in Femme are those of a couple who maybe love each other but don't understand each other. None of the glaringly obvious problems in Angela and Émile's relationship get solved, but I think there's an "Importance of Being Earnest"-like wisdom in there somewhere. Instead of a real conclusion, we just get more witticisms, which I guess you could dismiss as silly and meaningless, but you can also see it as a humourous shrug at the often ultimately inexplicable nature of relationships.

Une femme est une femme is mischievous, charming and beautiful in spite of itself. It doesn't dig too deep but it isn't entirely trivial, a stylish, satirical reworking of a familiar genre that's just a lot of fun to watch.

Une femme est une femme


Just for fun...one of the sillier bits of the film, with Angela and Alfred.



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. m u s i c .: Broadcast - Papercuts
 
 
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


Director Ronald Neame's 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie stars Maggie Smith as the titular character, a charismatic teacher at a conservative girls' school in 1930s Edinburgh. Miss Brodie is admired by her students and despised by her straitlaced headmistress, Miss Mackay, for her unorthodox teaching methods. She tells stories of her wartime romance with a soldier during history lessons, keeps a posse of favourites she calls the "Brodie girls", and takes students on weekend trips to her fellow teacher's house for "enrichment". Relishing her role of rebel spirit in the strict confines of the school, Jean Brodie frequently draws the ire of Miss Mackay, who disapproves of the precociousness of the Brodie girls and their teacher's open flouting of convention. Miss Brodie also finds herself embroiled in a love triangle with two teachers, leading her students to gleefully gossip about her real and imagined sex life. Miss Brodie's true love is Teddy Lloyd, the very married art master, who fancies himself an artiste who lives above conventional morality, with no qualms about having affairs with teenaged schoolgirls. Mr. Lloyd, who Miss Brodie gives up to "dedicate herself to her girls" is played by Smith's husband at the time, Robert Stephens, and their attractive spawn Toby Stephens somewhat paradoxically played Rochester in the recent BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre, but I digress. On the other hand is the singing teacher, kindly Mr. Lowther, who proves to be little more than a pawn in Miss Brodie's increasingly frightening machinations. As it turns out, Miss Brodie is a hard-core Mussolini enthusiast, and she's not really kidding when she says that the only way she'll ever leave her job is if she's assassinated. As much as Miss Brodie is devoted to the education of her girls, she is thouroughly self-absorbed, and trouble arises when Sandy, the most perceptive of the Brodie girls, begins to see through her.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


Miss Brodie is a fascinating character study, brought to life by the staggering performance of Maggie Smith, who was deservedly awarded an Oscar for the role. A deeply flawed but mesmerising character, Miss Brodie is the embodiment of the charismatic leader who may have good intentions, but ends up destroying others because of their inherent egomania. Although Miss Brodie is a teacher, not a fascist dictator, the parallel to her revered Mussolini and Franco are apt in a way. Her efforts to empower her girls may seem altruistic, but they're fueled by a deep consciousness of image, and a self-obsession with her own "prime", and in turn have terrible consequences. The Brodie girls are frequently likened to troops, and in fact Miss Brodie has created an army for herself, quashing the very individuality she claims to be fostering. Maggie Smith is formidable as an iron-willed woman who doesn't topple easily, even when faced with a systematic dismantling of her characters and actions. Also impressive are the cast of Brodie girls, including Pamela Franklin as Sandy, who convincingly portray characters who grow from 9 to 17 years old. Miss Brodie's tragedy is her refusal to recognize her own destructiveness, and the film rests almost entirely on Smith's unflinching portrayal of this singular character.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


Photos: here, here, and here.
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. m u s i c .: Doves - Here it Comes
 
 
03 January 2008 @ 10:40
Something's Gotta Give


There are so many truly awful romantic comedies out there that it's no wonder no one takes them seriously. No one makes films like the fantastic 30's and 40's screwball comedies anymore, but I wish that more films would focus on great writing and compelling characters, instead of the same tired story with the same beautiful people. For an hour and 15 minutes, Something's Gotta Give is the former, one of the best romantic comedies I've ever seen, until the last 45 minutes or so where it degenerates into an overlong cliche-fest. Something's Gotta Give was written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who also brought us the excruciating What Women Want and The Holiday, a cute piece of fluff where everyone looks pretty and has a happy ending.

Give stars Jack Nicholson as Harry Sanborne, a frisky 63-year-old with a penchant for dating much younger women. His latest girlfriend is Marin (Amanda Peet), who brings him to her mother's beach house for a weekend getaway. Harry ends up suffering a heart attack, and the mother in question, successful, divorced New York playwright Erica Barry (the fantastic Diane Keaton) ends up nursing him as she works on her new play. After some initial antipathy, Harry and Erica connect, but complications arise with Harry's doctor, Julian, (Keanu Reeves - why do I start laughing when he comes onscreen?! I guess he's always Neo to me) who takes an interest in Erica.

Something's Gotta Give


This movie is all about Diane Keaton. She's funny, sympathetic, and fascinating, and her Best Actress Oscar nomination for this film was well-deserved (she lost to Charlize Theron in Monster which I've never seen and don't really plan to). I know everyone talks about how this movie is different because it's a romance between two older people, and that's true, but that mostly has to do with the charisma of Keaton and Nicholson, instead of a couple wooden Barbie and Ken dolls. I think what's key is the way that Keaton isn't afraid to make herself look ridiculous. She doesn't preen to the camera, and she contorts herself in all sorts of hilarious ways, opening up her character and making you love her very human flaws. It's such a huge contrast to a movie like Meyers' The Holiday, where every single second that Cameron Diaz - and Jude Law for that matter - are onscreen, they look absolutely immaculate even in moments when they have no right to. Keaton is real, alive and completely lovable, the only reason the cloying last 45 minutes of the film weren't totally unbearable. Speaking of which, I still can't believe Meyers threw such a promising film away with an overplayed, unbelievable ending. All I can say is that there's the Eiffel Tower, La Vie En Rose playing in the background, snow and amazing coincidences. All I wanted was for the movie to end subtly, cleverly and poignantly, but Meyers just couldn't resist the grandeur of Paris and the obvious romantic comedy ending.


Something's Gotta Give


Still, despite the letdown of the end, Something's Gotta Give is absolutely worth seeing for Keaton's performance. Also, the costume and set design is polished and beautiful. Erica's beach house is outfitted in elegant neutrals, the whites, beiges and soft blues of the interiors reflecting the gorgeously photographed sand and surf outside. Erica herself discards her perpetual turtlenecks for more liberating v-neck sweaters as she opens up to Harry, which is interesting because Keaton herself is known for covering up every inch of her skin on the red carpet. Something's Gotta Give is intended to show that women over 50 aren't washed up, and as Keaton sheds her turtlenecks in her radiant performance, it's like one long endorsement to giving older actresses more leading romantic roles. Although youth culture isn't going anywhere, in Give, Keaton blows away all the vapid starlets that Hollywood constantly feeds us, and shows that it doesn't matter how young and pretty you are, there's no substitute for soul.
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. m u s i c .: Rufus Wainwright - Sanssouci
 
 
 
29 December 2007 @ 11:00
Atonement


Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement is a complex exploration of guilt, perception and authorial power that begins on the estate of a wealthy English family in 1935. With a talented but naive writing prodigy as protagonist, McEwan uses metafictional techniques to destabilize the wartime romance-tragedy. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice), the film version of Atonement is a beautifully shot adaptation that's more approachable than the frustratingly brilliant novel. The story hinges on 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), a precocious aspiring writer with an overactive imagination, who misinterprets the relationship between her older sister Cecilia (Keria Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy), the servant's son. In the novel, the same events are told separately through the perspectives of Briony, Cecilia and Robbie, and the film also gives us Briony's and the adult's versions of events. Briony's misunderstanding leads to her accuse Robbie of a crime, destroying all of their lives.

Atonement


The ornate descriptive language of McEwan's novel lends itself very well to be adapted into a visually stunning film, and, much like with Pride & Prejudice, Wright again displays his ability to compose beautiful shots with Atonement. The attention to detail in the novel borders on pedantic (for reasons that become clearer in the final part of the novel), but this translates much better onscreen. Instead of reading pages of intricate, painstakingly conceived, but exhausting prose, the beauty of the scenes are effortlessly conveyed onscreen, scoring one for the power of image. Maybe the most beautiful thing in the film is Keria Knightley, the casting of whom couldn't have been more perfect. Aside from always looking amazing in period costume, she nails Cecilia's facade of insouciance, seething passion for Robbie, and cold anger towards Briony. The entire cast is excellent, from Ronan's turn as the self-righteous Briony to McAvoy as the wronged man, Robbie. Dario Marianelli wrote the score for Atonement, making ingenious usage of the clicking of typewriter keys for a story in which writing and the power of words plays a pivotal part. The sound of the keys clicking is seamlessly incorporated into the score, creating a modern-sounding beat to go with the classical instrumentation, which is appropriate for this very modern take on a period drama.

The weakest part of the film is the war segment, which is also my least favourite part of the novel, but for different reasons. In the novel, Robbie's single-minded focus on returning to Cecilia in the midst of war rings false and overly sentimental. The twist ending of the novel helps explain why it's so, but in the film, Wright is overly indulgent in trying to convey the horrors of war. The worst example is an incredibly long tracking shot at Dunkirk, which is technically impressive and powerful enough, but it's the wrong message in the wrong film. Atonement isn't at all a story about war, it's about the subjectivity of words, writing and interpretation, so Wright's condemnation of war seems completely pointless when it all gets dismantled in the end anyway.

Atonement


The final segment of the film is the most jarring and also the best. In the novel, we are given a long epilogue by an elderly Briony, a successful novelist who is still trying to atone for her mistake as a teenager. The film wraps it up much more simply, with Vanessa Redgrave as the old Briony discussing her latest novel in a TV interview. The surprise revelation that Briony gives at the end was a bit of a shock in the novel, but somehow came across as infinitely more tragic onscreen. The novel leaves the reader dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the entire story, throwing everything into complete doubt, especially whether or not Briony can be forgiven. Since Briony herself has "written" the epilogue, the reader is acutely aware of her unreliability and the fact that no matter what, she will have the last word. The film portrays the elderly Briony more sympathetically, because although we know she's an unreliable storyteller, the interview scenario provides a level of distance between her and the viewer, giving less opportunity to be manipulated by her. I think that's illusory because in the sense the film is more manipulative because it does, ever-so-slightly, nudge the viewer to forgive Briony, whereas the novel makes you question the authenticity of not only the story, but the entire process of writing and recollection. The sense of conclusion, as precarious as it is, makes the film a more romantic and satisfying (though tragic) story as opposed to the the wild uncertainty that plagues the reader upon finishing the novel. Still, far from just a conventional, pretty-looking period drama, Atonement successfully takes on the tricky metafictional elements of McEwan's novel, even though Wright doesn't seek to undermine the narrative quite as much as McEwan does. However, though it won't be seen as bold, there's nothing wrong with giving a story a more tangible conclusion, especially when it's done as beautifully as in Wright's Atonement.
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20 December 2007 @ 11:37
Ladies in Lavender


In the special features of the Ladies in Lavender DVD, Judi Dench describes the film as "a strand...of a lot of emotions twisted up, and then it just disappears again." This is a very eloquent description of director Charles Dance's attempt at creating a real life fairytale story, about two spinster sisters in 1930s Cornwall. The film stars Dench and Maggie Smith as the sisters in question, Ursula and Janet, whose quiet lives are disrupted when a young Polish stranger (Daniel Brühl, who I loved in Good Bye Lenin!) is shipwrecked in front of their coastside home. The sisters take in Andrea and nurse him to recovery, Janet relishing her newfound maternal role, and Ursula having an emotional awakening. After living a long, quiet life as a spinster, Ursula finds herself falling in love with the young man, suddenly experiencing a surge of emotions she missed out on when she was young.

It's pretty much guaranteed that when the names Dench and Smith are attached to a film, you're probably not going to be let down in the performance area. Maggie Smith is perfectly restrained as the sensible Janet, but her character's practicality doesn't comes across as outright stodginess, proving to be a loyal and compassionate sister. Judi Dench, on the other hand, is fantastic as the fiery and impulsive Ursula. The idea of an elderly woman being in love with a young man like Andrea probably sounds bizarre, but Dench captures the nuances of Ursula's emotional rollercoaster so well that you can't help but believe it. There's so much room for a story like this to get very weird; instead I thought Dench's portrayal of Ursula was sweet and sympathetic, and her innocence saved the film from going to a very creepy place. As for Daniel Brühl, he seems to be really good at playing earnest and likable characters. Like his character in Good Bye Lenin!, Brühl's Andrea makes up for his shortcomings with obvious good-heartedness. His character is given a somewhat ridiculous twist (which I'll get into in a second), but Brühl handles it impressively, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of his films.

Ladies in Lavender


To be honest, the whole fairytale aspect of this story didn't work for me. I think for a fairytale story to work, you either have to push the magical element far enough that the audience knows that we're supposed to suspend disbelief, or play it ironically. Lavender does neither, so it gets stuck in an awkward in between stage. It looks and feels like a straight period piece with proper historical context (the spectre of imminent war, townsfolk suspicious of foreigners, etc), and yet we're supposed to unquestioningly swallow all sorts of unbelievable events that are still portrayed with an unblinking attempt at realism. One would think one improbable event (the shipwrecked foreigner practically falling on the doorstep of these kind and compassionate women) is more than enough for a film like this, but then we find out that Andrea is a remarkably talented violinist, that a mysterious woman who always turns up to hear Andrea play is actually the sister of a world famous violin virtuoso who happens to be passing through Cornwall, and so on. Personally, I thought the only real use of the violin subplot was the beautiful musical score. I might have lost patience with all the frills, but thankfully, the film is built more on the strength of Dench and Smith's performances than the dubious turns in the plot (although still not enough, in my opinion).

My only other criticism is the age of Janet and Ursula. It clearly doesn't compute, because it's the late 1930s, they're obviously in their 60s or 70s, and yet supposedly Janet was a nurse in WWI who lost a lover in the war. That would have made her, what, 45 then? In the special features the director acknowledged that in the original short story, the sisters were supposed to be in their 40s, but he just really wanted Judi Dench and Maggie Smith to play those roles. Fair enough, it was obviously the right choice since they made his film, but consequently a couple of his scenes were rendered nonsensical.

Anyways, now I'm just quibbling, Lavender is worth seeing, if nothing else, for the beautiful Cornwall scenery and Judi Dench's delicate performance. Although the fairytale aspect doesn't work they way the director intended, Dench gives the film an emotional core, lending it a bittersweet tone that could have been better utilised. If only Dance had anchored his film more firmly with the sisters' characters rather than fluffing it up with unnecessary grandeur, Ladies in Lavender could have been an outstanding rather than merely pleasant film. Instead, the film disappears at its conclusion as Dench says, but in an unfortunately inconsequential way rather than a poetic one.

Photos: here
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. m u s i c .: Bjork - Unison
 
 
20 December 2007 @ 11:16
Code Unknown


Austrian director Michael Haneke's 2000 film Code Unknown is one of the most challenging and fascinating I've watched all year. I can't even begin to review this properly because I only saw it once before I had to return it and I think I'd have to watch it mutiple times for my tiny brain to make all the connections. Still, I'll try...

Code Unknown follows several intersecting and diverging storylines that begin on a busy street in Paris. I know, yet another ensemble cast with multiple overlapping storylines. It's not really a recent phenomenon, but I feel like this style is getting tired, and mostly, contrived. Or maybe I'm just saying that because I was underwhelmed by Traffic, Crash, 21 Grams, and Babel. That being said, Code, which was made before most of those films anyway, is far and away superior, probably because it doesn't, on the surface, try and take on too much. Those other films take the grandiose approach, tackling heavy subject matter like drug trafficking, systemic racism and terrorism very explicitly, which I often found exhausting and self-righteous. Haneke makes a far deeper emotional impact by focusing on the everyday troubles of regular people, presenting unsettling observations of modern life in a far more subtle fashion. In Code, actress Anne (Juliette Binoche), her photojournalist boyfriend Georges, his younger brother Jean, a young man of African heritage named Amadou, and an illegal Romanian immigrant named Maria all briefly cross paths, and we jump back and forth between the continuation of these characters' lives, and see that they have more in common than initially apparent. The subtitle of this film is "Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys", and that's the perfect description: each segment is a long, single take, that always cuts out before reaching any sort of logical, satisfying conclusion (the same can be said of the film overall).

Code Unknown


Nothing much really happens in Code, and it's very disjointed as it flits from one story to the next, but still Haneke manages to maintain a consistent tone. All the characters are struggling to find their place in an uncaring world. Although it's difficult to piece together a completely coherent narrative from watching this film, the characters' alienation is palpable, from Amadou's family's battle with racism, to Anne and Georges attempting to keep their relationship alive despite obvious gaps in communication. Code Unknown is definitely a mental workout, a subtle, involving film that often tells us more with what we imagine fills in the gaps in the "incomplete tales" than the relatively uneventful scenes that we do see. It's appropriate that the film begins and ends with deaf children in a sign language class, they're using a language, a code, that's unknown to many. The final sign language sequence is a mystery to me, I don't know that code, and even if I did, I doubt it would be a magical key to "solve" this complex film.
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. m u s i c .: 16 Military Wives - Decemberists
 
 
04 December 2007 @ 19:22
Vogelfrei


Volgelfrei is a 2007 Latvian film that follows one main character, Teodors, at four different ages: as a child, teenager, adult, and old man. It's a very understated look at a pretty ordinary life, but somehow a distinct portrait of a solemn and restrained man emerges despite the fragmented approach to the narrative. The film has four different directors for each segment of Teodors's story, which explains a lot. Although the sections have certain common threads, each one is different enough to jar the viewer's search for coherence. The opening and best sequence covers an afternoon Teodors spends playing outside with his friends. It's like a paean to a lost pastoral ideal, as the kids run around carefree in the forest, presumably at a summer cottage. Teodors even experiences his first stirrings of a childish love with a gamine playmate named Klera. They way they connect is so pure and innocent in the open and natural setting, but it's fleeting, and there's a marked shift in tone at the end of the segment as Teodors's parents drive the family away. Suddenly we jump forward in time to Teodors as a teenage hockey star and high school loner. He's so silent and expressionless that it's a shock when we learn that he's in the school theatre club. The Teodors we saw as a child seems to have retreated into himself, and it's a relief to see that he does actually have social skills as he puts the moves on a girl in the theatre production. But as that romantic endeavour predictably ends in disappointment, Teodors is once again isolated, alone and friendless.


Vogelfrei


Then we jump ahead again to Teodors as an adult, at first unrecognisable from his introverted teenage self: it seems he's grown up to be a confident, successful man with a stable job. But on closer inspection, we see that Teodors is still struggling with human connection. He doesn't actually have the self-esteem he initially projects, and feels threatened and abandoned by his super-successful girlfriend, constantly avoiding her phone calls after she brushes him off at the office. After seeing his dysfunctional relationship, an entirely awkward exchange with two girls in a bar, and a brief, bizarre scene with a prostitute, Teodors's slick modern apartment starts to look awfully cold and lonely. This segment is the most awkward to watch - it's one thing to watch a teenager fumble his way through relationships, but to watch a grown man so mired in insecurity is extremely uncomfortable. And I'm not sure what to make of the psychic-housekeeper element...

Vogelfrei


Nevertheless, the film draws to its conclusion with Teodors as an old man. Now we see that old Teodors is the organ player in church and keeps owls. After a lengthy scene of Teodors playing organ during communion, we are given an excruciatingly slow account of Teodors catching a hawk in a bog for a couple of disgruntled city-dwellers who have tagged along. I think the point here was that after struggling all his life to connect with people, in his old age Teodors has gone back to nature where he was happy as a child, and no longer feels bound by the social mores and fast pace of modern life. The final segment pushes the viewer's patience to the absolute limit, but there's a sense that if you're bored, Teodors is smirking at you, just as he is at the impatient guys who've accompanied him into the bog. I guess I fall into that category, because I've sat through and enjoyed a lot of slow-paced films, but that last segment was too much for me. Still, I like the concept, so it's too bad the film sort of lost me at the end.

Vogelfrei


One repeated motif I noticed was transportation. In the first and last segment, Teodors rides a bicycle, which he clearly enjoys the freedom of, being out in the open in nature (which brings us back to the various associations of the title, which is a German word meaning "free as a bird"). A train also factors into these segments, although I didn't really work out what that means. In the middle two segments, Teodors is often seen riding public transit alone, looking generally miserable, which is consistent with his inability to fit in socially. I also noticed that sound played a huge part in this film, as our attention is constantly drawn to seemingly insignificant sounds in everyday life. We're also given lots of gorgeous shots of Latvian scenery. Even though there are large gaps in Teodors's story, we still get some semblance of a complete life. Volgelfrei raises a lot more questions than it answers, and the ending really is just plain tedious, but it did remind me to keeping looking beyond the more famous filmmaking countries because there's a lot of compelling storytelling lurking out there.

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Enchanted


Once upon a time, Disney had an animated film juggernaut. Year after year, they churned out instant megahits, often fluffing up popular fairy tales with original song-and-dance numbers that delighted kids and probably drove adults insane. But sometime after The Lion King, the magic seemingly ran out for their traditionally animated films. Although Disney filled the void somewhat with their CGI features, Dreamworks' Shrek did a fantastic job of satirizing Disney-trademark fairy tale sentimentality. Suddenly, everyone wanted to make kid-oriented films that adults could enjoy too, with smart writing that undermined traditional fairy tales. Disney had their own success straying from formula with Johnny Depp delivering a decidedly un-Disney-like anti-hero in Pirates of the Caribbean, so it's not surprising that they would try their hand at lampooning their own signature schmaltz with Enchanted, a smart and funny twist on the fairy tale film.

Enchanted


The opening sequence of Enchanted, done in traditional animation hearkening back to the days of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, is a bit worrying. We are introduced in a flurry to Giselle, a beautiful maiden in the forest waiting for her one true love, Prince Edward, who's looking for someone to "complete his duet", Narissa, his evil step-mother who doesn't want him to marry so she can retain her crown, Nathaniel, the double-dealing courtier, and a bevy of multi-talented forest creatures. What follows is basically every Disney princess movie mashed together, played on fast forward. Was Disney making fun of themselves, showing how easy it is to boil down their most beloved features to their flimsy, formulaic bare bones? If they were, the irony got lost somewhere in the nauseating waves of chirping birds and soaring declarations of love - it's all a little overwhelming to cram into 10-15 minutes. In any event, on the day of her wedding, Giselle gets banished to a place where there is no happily ever after - real-life New York City - and things settle down and become infinitely more watchable. Thankfully, most of the rest of the film is live-action, as we watch Giselle making her way through New York while still living in a fairy tale in her mind, all the while being pursued by Edward, Narissa, and Nathaniel. Giselle encounters Robert, a divorce lawyer and single dad who teaches her a few things about love in the real world - for starters, not getting married to someone you've only known for one day. Meanwhile, Giselle reminds a jaded Robert what it feels like to be swept away by love.

Enchanted


Fresh off an Oscar nomination for her role in Junebug, Amy Adams once again lights it up in Enchanted as Giselle. Like Will Ferrell in Elf, Adams brings a gleeful energy to playing this perpetually cheery fish-out-of-water character. Her irony-free performance carries Enchanted, bringing conviction to the film's sentiment that sometimes fairy tales do come true. James Marsden is hilarious as Prince Edward, exposing the character most traditionally underwritten in fairy tales, the Handsome Prince. He's charming, he's heroic...but, as it turns out, incredibly narcissistic and generally stupid. He's given a chance to redeem himself by learning to care for people outside of himself, but Marsden is most entertaining when Edward is still a self-absorbed buffoon. As Robert, Patrick Dempsey does what he does best in the role that made him famous on Grey's Anatomy, Derek "Dr. McDreamy" Shepherd - be caring, loving and have great hair. Dempsey actually displays some really good comic timing, but there's only so much you can do as the slightly-sarcastic-but-generally-wonderful-dream-man, it doesn't seem like he'll ever really be a scene-stealing performer. But he showed that has potential for a slightly more substantial romantic-comedy lead role, which was a nice surprise.

Enchanted


What I was actually expecting from Enchanted was more of a parody of the fairy tale genre in the vein of The Princess Bride, but I guess that would be too subversive for Disney. Instead, I think Enchanted takes a winking stab at actually validating the fairy tale sentiment that makes so many people gag. It's over-the-top, it's ridiculous, but then again, it's a nice fantasy to want to feel so buoyed by a feeling. Still, Enchanted makes sure to acknowledge the silliness of fairy tale happyland, bringing the absurdity of the Disney world into sharp relief. Seeing real-life pigeons and rats help with household chores is funny, and is that real irony I detect, in a Disney film? However, the amusing scenes translating stock Disney animated scenarios into real life are as far as the film goes into ridiculing this fantasy, because no sooner than we're shown how silly fairy tales can be, we're being told how wonderful it is to be in love and float on clouds. The big point that perhaps gets lost in amongst the frenzy is that Giselle is supposed to be a Disney princess rarity - one that learns to think. What I really got from Giselle wasn't so much of a complex intellectual awakening rather than an assertion that her unchecked optimism is just that, and not necessarily the same thing as stupidity. While her overwhelming positivity makes her seem naive and ditzy at first, she has all the right answers for Robert when he tries to convince her that in the real world, there is no happily ever after. Her big important lesson appears to be the newfound desire to learn more about her partner in love before rushing off to get married, instead of immediately succumbing to the euphoria, which she tries unsuccesfully to pass on to a dimwitted Edward. This would be a more convincing lesson had she and Robert not "fallen in love" after a few days as well, but, as I say, Enchanted isn't about completely dismantling fairy tales ideals, but rather about embracing the possibility for the fairy tale in real life.

For me, the single most interesting aspect of Enchanted were the musical numbers. The ridiculous song in the opening animated segment aside, I thought that the real-life musical numbers were executed really well. As a musical fan and film class nerd, I watched with interest to see how the song-and-dance bits were incorporated into the live action portion of the film. In general, the biggest challenge when making a movie-musical is to seamlessly coalesce the fantasy spontaneous song and dance with the narrative reality of the film: the myth of integration. In Enchanted, fantasy's already intruded into reality even before musical numbers enter the question, so it's not too much of a stretch that Giselle starts singing and dancing in the middle of a conversation. But there's still a line between the narrative and the musical that needs to be broken, hence Robert's consternation when Giselle starts singing out of nowhere. The genius moment comes when the street musicians join in on her song - here's a plausible scenario where people in real life might actually spontaneously start singing together. After that, the barrier is smashed, and the scene becomes a full-tilt colourful fantasy song-and-dance number. Am I the only one who has a secret wish that in real life we could burst into song spontaneously, because I think that would be a lot of fun. No, just me?

Enchanted


As entertaining as it was, Enchanted was far from a flawless film. Director Kevin Lima made sure to toss in some requisite twists on fairy tale convention in an attempt at freshness - having the princess rescue the prince was the most obvious, but it would have been more effective had the script not made clumsy reference to it. As clever as Enchanted is, it doesn't really break free of fantasy/action-adventure film convention. The script is dotted with punny clunkers - "we're taking this tale to new heights!" says the dragon as she climbs the Empire State Building - and relies on a lot of tired visual gags. I guess the average 10-year-old isn't going to take issue with that, nor with the logical holes in the plot, but while we're formula-busting, why not drop the clichés altogether? Still, there's plenty to like about Enchanted despite its flaws, and it's nice to see Disney distancing themselves (if ever-so-slightly) from pure, unadulterated schmaltz. Enchanted doesn't reinvent the fairy tale, but it skews it enough to be a welcome change from what we've come to expect from princes and princesses.
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