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The History Boys

After a successful stage run, Alan Bennett's hit play The History Boys was released as a film in 2006, featuring the original cast. I've never seen the play, so I can't comment on how faithful or bastardized the stage-to-screen transition was. All I can say is, that in its film form, The History Boys is a brilliant twist on the oft-visited "school story".

Set in 1983 at a boys' grammar school in Sheffield, the film follows eight precocious and boisterous boys as the prepare for their Oxbridge exams. The boys are helped along (to varying degrees) by their Basil Fawlty-like headmaster, Felix (Clive Merrison), wry history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), and free-flowing general studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths). In order to bring some "edge" to the boys' education, Felix enlists the help of the young Mr. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

If only all secondary education was like at Cutlers' Grammar School, maybe high school would actually mould young minds or whatever it's supposed to do, instead of breeding hordes of traumatized teenagers, slackers and stoners. At Cutlers', students are encouraged to think for themselves and enjoy learning - what a novel concept! Hector's general studies class is like a dream - he cultivates an appreciation for art and culture with an eye on social and historical context. But Hector is wary of producing pretentious ponces, and so he makes sure to inject each lesson with a hefty serving of silliness. Hence the boys interrupting lessons by spontaneously bursting into song or acting out scenes from Brief Encounter.

Hector is a marvelous creation - not only is he a thrillingly unorthodox teacher, a shameless fop, and overall cheeky bugger, he's a blatant pedophile. After every class, Hector offers one of the boys a ride home on his scooter, and takes the opportunity to fondle their genitals. The gag is, all the boys know about it, and they treat it as a twisted kind of rite of passage. They know Hector will stop if they protest, and they've devised various strategies to avoid the "genital massage". Just to push things into the stratosphere of "pure gold" comedy, the only boy who actually is eager to be groped, shy, gay Posner (Samuel Barnett), is the only one Hector never takes for a ride. Hector's pedophilic tendencies aren't villainized by the group, and instead they treat him as an eccentric but ultimately harmless uncle. They smirk, they shake their heads knowingly, but no one feels the need to bring out pitchforks and torches...no one on the inside does, anyways. Hector should be a monstrous figure - he's taking advantage of boys, after all - but instead he's one of the most sympathetic characters in the film.

Stephen Campbell Moore in The History Boys

Hector's pederasty is part of the film's wider exploration of the student-teacher relationship. "The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act," Hector says to Felix when questioned about his behaviour. A statement that would never hold up when up against the judgmental glare of society, but one that rings all too true for anyone who's found themselves smitten with an inspirational teacher. That's where Irwin, the handsome young history teacher who can easily pass as a student, comes in.

Initially the boys don't take him quite seriously, but Irwin quickly establishes himself. His harsh criticisms of ths boys' essays and constant challenges to question "truth" and find unique angles on history reveal a dynamic, passionate teacher who invigorates the boys' quests to enter Oxbridge glory. Irwin's structured, info-packed lessons contrast sharply to Hector's abstract and often unfocused teaching style, making him the perfect foil. The boys realize that Irwin is giving them tools to help them pass the exam, while Hector is giving them...what, exactly? The value of Hector's lessons aren't immediately quantifiable, and bring to light important questions about the meaning and purpose of education. All too often, school is reduced to strategies on how to pass a series of exams, and The History Boys exposes this unfortunate degradation of the educational system. There's so much more to learning, and it's Hector's lessons that hints at the enriching possibilities of education. At one point, Hector decodes the significance of a line in a Thomas Hardy poem for Posner. It's a quiet, seemingly innocuous scene, but possibly my favourite of the film - I was riveted by Hector's heartbreaking poetic sensitivity, with all the wistful subtext spilling over everywhere, I was bowled over.

Irwin is no hack, either, and his insistence on constant critical thinking proves a valuable lesson for the boys, who have had plenty of exposure to a broad liberal education, but haven't stopped to think about what they're memorizing so dutifully. Irwin realizes that Hector's classes have given the boys an infinite supply of literary, lyrical, and filmic quotations, or "gobbits" and encourages them to strategically insert them into their history essays - much to Hector's chagrin. "That's journalism," he says. Yet despite the clash between Irwin and Hector's teaching styles, they have much more in common than is initially apparent.

In part, they have the boys. The unofficial leader of the boys is Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the good-looking charmer of the lot. Dakin is well aware that Posner harbours a painful crush on him but is neither offended or excited by the prospect - "it's boring," he complains. Even Dakin's conquest of the headmaster's secretary Fiona doesn't seem to overly excite him. Dakin is complacent about everything until Irwin comes along. Dakin finds himself eager to please Irwin - a foreign concept for a boy who can please the off pants just about anyone by flashing a charismatic grin.

The scenes between Irwin and Dakin provide some of the most delicious screen tension in my recent memory. And I'll take this opportunity to say that Stephen Campbell Moore is absolutely perfect as Irwin - the fiery passion for his subject juxtaposed with the painful restraint and quiet loneliness in his personal life - kills me. Okay, gushing moment over.

One of the joys of the script is the constant literary and historical references peppered in the dialogue. At times, the film's stage roots become obvious, but director Nicholas Hytner rolls with it, allowing the camera to swing back and forth as the impossibly witty boys trade bon mots with dizzying speed. The History Boys recently had a stage run here in Vancouver, and I'm sad I missed it, because if the original play is anywhere near as exhilarating as the film, it's well worth seeing. The film takes many of the explosive underlying issues of traditional school stories - pedophilia, homosexuality, religion, race, institutionalized hypocrisy - and brings them to the surface, tossing them about like so many jokes instead of the complex issues we normally see them as. But it's set in a nostalgic past - surely a fantasy, because such relaxed attitudes couldn't have existed in the 80's, since they don't even exist today. Fantasy or not, by stripping away the various toxic Issues with a capital "I", The History Boys reveals the scintillating, heartbreaking, romantic appeal of the passionate exchange of knowledge. Brilliant.

The History Boys
. m u s i c .: Guy Garvey's show on 6music...again
02 November 2008 @ 12:56

Ed, thumbs down webcast, Nov/07
. m u s i c .: this
I'm doing that thing again, where I watch too many movies and don't have enough time to respond to them. So here are three noteworthy films I've watched recently that I wish I could devote an entire entry to, but I sadly don't have time right now. All three are stories of thwarted love affairs - one is about lovers who can't be together, another about lovers who won't be together, and the last about lovers who can't stay apart.

Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter 1945, dir. David Lean

A simple story anchored by stellar performances, Brief Encounter is a deserved classic of British film. The story follows Laura (Celia Johnson), an ordinary English housewife who ventures to a nearby town every Thursday for some well-deserved me-time. When she gets grit in her eye at the train station one day, a friendly doctor named Alec (Trevor Howard) helps her out - and the two quickly become friends. Although they are both happily married, Laura and Alec are startled when their relationship escalates into a passionate love affair. The guilt and secrecy surrounding their love rapidly puts a strain on their relationship, and soon the lovers are faced with a crisis. Encounter is so compelling because of the easy affability of the co-stars. Although Johnson's Laura initially appears prim and reserved, when Alec brings her out of her shell, her full vibrancy and humour is revealed. Johnson is careful not to let Laura's newfound buoyancy tip over into schoolgirlishness, tempering the giddy heights she reaches with Alec with dark guilt over betraying her husband. Howard is equally engaging as Alec, a good-natured and enthusiastic doctor whose hearty laugh seems to warm Laura's sensible heart. In fact, the innocent quality of Laura and Alec's love makes you forget that they're having an adulterous affair, making them appear more like young lovers in fresh bloom rather than the middle-aged, quiet citizens they are. Brief Encounter is a poignant portrait of two regular people who chance upon a once-in-a-lifetime passion, and are pressured to give it up almost as soon as they find it.

In The Mood For Love

In The Mood For Love 2000, dir. Wong Kar-Wai

One of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, I'm amazed that it's been out for seven years and I've only just watched this. The predecessor to 2046 (which I seriously need to watch again now), Love is a moody masterpiece following reluctant lovers in 1960s Hong Kong. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) are neighbours in a cramped apartment who come to realize that their spouses are having an affair with each other. Determined not to descend to their partners' depths, Chan and Chow vow to remain only friends, only to fall deeply in love with each other. The story is a slow-burner, but the film is so aesthetically cohesive that the narratives slips into an abstract reverie, blending into the cinematography and music (which, by the way, is sublime). Every single shot is a stunning work of art - the colours, the lighting, the props, everything melts together so beautifully that each moment feels like a profound realization. It might seem like I'm hyperbolizing wildly here, but In The Mood For Love has to be seen to be believed. I want to capture and frame every moment of this film.

The Last Mistress

The Last Mistress 2007, dir. Catherine Breillat

Costumes dramas will probably always have a dedicated following, because of the tried-and-tested appeal of fantastically frothy costumes, swoony romances, and good old-fashioned repressed passion. Catherine Breillat works to destroy all the pretty associations commonly linked to period pieces with her viciously debauched look at French aristocracy, The Last Mistress. Although plenty of period dramas explore the decay of the upper classes, Breillat takes it to another level with Mistress. Asia Argento plays the mistress in question, a ferocious Spanish woman named Vellini, who has managed to bore her way into the upper class. Pretty-boy libertine Ryno de Marigny (male model Fu'ad Ait Aatou) initially brushes her off, but is soon spellbound by Vellini's uninhibited sexuality. The two in become ensnared in an all-encompassing affair, eventually sucking the love and life out of each other. The characters frequently refer to the fact that they are living in the age of Chordelos de Laclos - author of Les Liaisons dangereuses. The sadistic schemers of Laclos's novel appear tame and self-possessed compared to the explosive and helpless Vellini and Ryno, whose sexual addiction to each other destroys any chance either has of happiness. While Mistress certainly has the visual sumptuousness expected of a film depicting that era, it is a seamy decadence that doesn't begin to gloss over the obvious depravity. The intense corrupted passion of Mistress can be painful to watch, but is rendered sickeningly riveting by the performances of Argento and Ait Aatou. The Last Mistress depicts a class of people destroying themselves through extreme hedonism, a perverse twist on the costume drama that haunts you with its characters' anguished obsession with physical pleasure at the cost of everything else.

And coming soon...more thwarted romance courtesy of Evelyn Waugh, who supplied my post's title
. m u s i c .: Adele - Hometown Glory
07 June 2008 @ 21:34
The Jane Austen Book Club

The explosion of the "chick lit" phenomenon is probably largely to blame (if indeed this is blameworthy), but there's definitely been a resurgence in interest in Jane Austen in recent years. Off the top of my head, in the last decade or so we've had Bride & Prejudice, Pride & Prejudice, and Becoming Jane on the big screen, and of course the loosely Austen-based Bridget Jones movies. There have been countless television adaptations, and the BBC bio piece Miss Austen Regrets (far superior to Becoming Jane, I thought). Writer-director Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club (adapted from a novel by Karen Joy Fowler) is yet another Austen-themed film, albeit one taking quite a different tack from the others.

Book Club revolves around five women and one man who decide to form a book club where they will discuss each of Austen's six novels. Along the way, the characters' personal lives begin to loosely resemble scenarios in the novels they're reading. I thought this was a very cutesy premise, and I largely expected a frothy, cloying, and ultimately formulaic romantic comedy. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised, not by any lack of chick-flick convention, of which there was plenty, but by the overall thoughtfulness of the script and characterisations. Strong performances and well-written dialogue largely overshadowed the run-of-the-mill nature of many of the plotlines, resulting in a rare film, by Hollywood standards anyway.

The Jane Austen Book Club

Probably my favourite part of the film were the discussion scenes for the six novels because - not necessarily for the content of the discussion, but for the way they were written and performed. Although some of the discussion was very interesting and the characters made some keen observations, these nuggets were delivered in such short random bursts that the ideas were rarely fully explored. Yet that's exactly what I liked about it. Real group conversations have people throwing out various tidbits without any real structure, it's often choppy, and people constantly interrupt and cut each other off. The discussions in Book Club unfolded like real-life group conversations, and there was something satisfying about sitting back and eavesdropping on the characters' talks. Each characters' contributions to the discussion revealed pieces of themselves, and I felt like I wanted to jump in and have my say, too.

Also refreshing was the character of Grigg (Hugh Dancy), the lone male in the book club. Aside from being easy on the eyes and having an attractive penchant for showing up to book club in his cycling suit, Grigg is a very rare character in Hollywood film: a man that likes women. Obviously I'm not just referring to romantic interest; Grigg is a rarity because he actually enjoys the company of women and doesn't mind being the only guy in the group. And he's not gay. If Hollywood were to be believed, such men simply do not exist, which of course is completely ludicrous. Personally, I'm so bored of the man-bashing/woman-bashing, battle of the sexes nonsense that clogs so many romantic comedies, especially the tired way in which it's usually portrayed. Here's a novel concept, maybe men and women are not alien species and can in fact get along perfectly well and have intelligent, poignant discussions about literature, or whatever, without resorting to petty stereotyping. I'd like to think that this will set a trend and we won't have to watch the same beaten ground being trod on over and over, but this is probably wishful thinking.

There are lots of other little victories in Book Club. Allegra (Maggice Grace) is a lesbian who is neither a scary butch ballbuster nor a fetishized vixen - how many times has a character like her shown up in a conventional romantic comedy? Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is one of the most truly warm and compassionate characters I've encountered onscreen. In her short and sweet scenes she always manages to find the best in everyone she meets; her presence is uplifting and never overbearing.

My biggest sticking point (aside from the obvious "awwww" conclusions of some of the romantic plotlines) is the character of Prudie (Emily Blunt). On one hand, I was very impressed with Emily Blunt's performance of the painfully repressed Prudie (her name is the obvious clue). Blunt plays her with such carefully considered restraint that it hurts, and it's strange to encounter such a mannered, rigidly unhappy character in an otherwise freely emotional feel-good story. It really seems like Prudie is in the wrong film, and as such, her story is awkwardly out of place and feels the least believable. Severely chic with her prim pageboy bob and crisp minidresses, Prudie verges on being a character from something darkly erotic like Belle de Jour. Except that she's supposed to be a high-school teacher, which makes the whole simmering-sexuality-beneath-a-straitlaced-exterior thing really quite creepy. Don't get me wrong, I really like her wardrobe in the film, but I cannot imagine an actual high school teacher dressing like she does. I just really felt that Blook Club was totally the wrong film to address that topic. You can't just lightly play around with a teacher-student affair and then drop it without any real consequences, which is exactly what happens. Furthermore, with all the problems plaguing Prudie and her husband, would reading Persuasion aloud together really make all the hurt magically melt away? I think not.

Still, the good outweighs the highly questionable in Book Club, just as the (mostly) quality parts outweigh the squishy whole. The Jane Austen Book Club doesn't attempt anything revolutionary, but for an unassuming film about people discussing books, there are sizable chunks of the film working to break down stereotyping. Swicord is not necessarily always successful in doing so, but at least she made an effort not to produce empty fluff. The Austen angle is sweet, but to my surprise and delight, it was only a charming enytryway into the lives of some truly engaging characters.

The Jane Austen Book Club
. m u s i c .: Graham Coxon
02 June 2008 @ 22:24
The Visitor

Summertime at the cinema is synonymous with big-budget blockbusters, and it's easy for a quiet film like Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor to get lost in amongst the flash and trash. While there's no denying the popcorn appeal of a well-constructed superhero movie like Iron Man, it would be a shame to miss a subtle stunner like director McCarthy's second feature film. After dodging through the hordes out for Sex and the City, slipping into the theatre showing The Visitor - with all of maybe 10 other people - was a quiet respite from the noisy masses. The ensuing 100 minutes or so proved to be a subtly moving cinematic treat, a simple story set in New York City that was the antithesis of the more famous Big Apple-set film playing at the theatre.

The Visitor begins with Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins in a remarkable performance), a lonely widower who's been living on autopilot for years. Walter is an economics professor at a Connecticut college who has long since lost interest in his students and his research, deadened to the world around him. Walter's only joy in life comes from his love of music, but even there he meets with frustration, owing to his futile piano lessons with his hilariously unencouraging teacher - "if you plan on giving up, I'd love to buy your piano from you," she tells him after another unproductive lesson. Walter's "get out of jail" card comes when he is shipped to New York for a conference, when he decides to stay in his old apartment that he hasn't lived in for 25 years. Upon returning to his old home, he stumbles across an illegal immigrant couple, Syrian djembe drummer Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese jewelry-making girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira). Whether motivated by loneliness or compassion, Walter decides to let them stay, and quickly becomes friends with the amiable Tarek. Encouraged by Tarek's drum lessons, Walter is injected with a renewed vigour for life, and he is slowly able to emerge from his listless stupor. Even as things turn ugly when Tarek is thrown in a detention centre and threatened with deportation, Walter cannot return to a life of apathy, and he devotes his energy to Tarek's cause.

The Visitor

The simple "new lease on life" story of the The Visitor is buoyed by the outstanding cast. Jenkins is masterfully restrained as Walter, a man who is so removed from the world that he appears to have lost the ability to show emotion. Yet the spark that keeps him going is his love of music, and Jenkins is able to find the humour in a middle-aged man gettin' his groove on without making him ridiculous. Walter's cathartic re-entry into the world is both joyful and jarring thanks to Jenkins' carefully considered portrayal. Sleiman lights up the screen as Tarek, a character with such a contagious joie de vivre that it's genuinely heartbreaking to see his happiness edge away at every prison visit from Walter. Gurira's performance as Zainab is just as impressive. While at first Zainab is standoffish and guarded around Walter, when he gains her trust she opens up to reveal a personality equally radiant to Tarek's. Hiam Abbass plays Tarek's fiercely loyal mother Mona, who at first glance appears to be a hard case. But Abbass gives Mona a tender vulnerability, and it becomes clear that like Walter, she has been living in a self-imposed cage. Watching Walter and Mona help each other embrace life again felt like a rare experience marked by a paradoxically wisened sense of innocence.

It's rare to watch an unglamourized New York City on the big screen, and McCarthy quietly exposes some of the unsavoury aspects of post-9/11 NYC. As Walter waits his turn to visit Tarek in the detention centre, a darkly ironic poster reading "The Strength of America...America's immigrants" stares at him. McCarthy subtly lands in a minefield of immigrant issues with his seemingly humble film, projecting a distinct sense of inequity without preaching. This is, after all, Walter's story of reawakening, bittersweet as it may be. The greatest gift that Tarek gives Walter in return for is hospitality extends beyond mere drumming skills. As the closing sequence signifies, Walter is given a beautiful new medium with which to express his emotions, whether it be the joy of love and friendship or anger towards the injustice of the world.
. m u s i c .: The La's
13 April 2008 @ 10:25
This is Au Revoir Simone's "Sad Song". Contrary to the title it's actually pretty catchy and upbeat. Doesn't it make you want to bake cookies and play with balloons?

And here's the Radiohead fellas performing Nude, the new single, on Jonathan Ross on April 4. Whoever's idea it was to do the black and white effects with the hot pink swirling in the background, genius. Is it August yet?

24 March 2008 @ 23:16
The Age of Innocence

I've now watched Martin Scorsese's 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence twice, and I watched it far enough apart that I managed to have the exact same reaction to the exact same elements both times. I know that I almost definitely need to read Wharton's novel to fully appreciate this story, and hopefully the next time I watch it (because I'm sure there will be a next time), I'll have done so and have more to say. The story follows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), a young lawyer in 1870s New York engaged to marry the sweet, pretty May Welland (Winona Ryder). Newland chafes under the restrictive nature of New York society, which operates by a strict moral code with heavy dollops of hypocrisy clearly lifted from Victorian England. However, he seems content to only question convention privately, until the arrival of Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) amid all sorts of scandal ignites his dormant passion. Innocence was a huge departure for Scorsese, known for his violent crime-themed films, so of course a seemingly stuffy costume drama didn't appeal to his regular audience. As for whether Age of Innocence actually is a stuffy costume drama, or in fact an underappreciated work of subtle beauty is what I'm still trying to figure out.

The Age of Innocence

Both times I watched the film I was (unsurprisingly) impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as a man torn between passion and morality. (I was going to put the BIG version of the above photo as the main pic for this entry but I figured that might be a bit gratuitous and non-representative...) While Pfeiffer maintains an almost off-putting veneer of restraint for Ellen until the last possible second, Day-Lewis won my sympathies because we see his character's flaws and struggles so openly. Although I liked their scenes together, I thought most of the heat and tension was generated by Day-Lewis, while I felt a degree of coldness from Pfeiffer. But maybe Ellen is supposed to be a little bit ice queen, I'm not sure because I haven't read the novel and certainly Scorsese's direction favoured Day-Lewis since we see so much of him (not complaining!). Again, Scorsese is probably echoing the characterization in the novel, so I can't help but feel like I can't judge properly. Still, Pfeiffer wasn't completely closed off, and I warmed to her as the film went on and the wider picture of Ellen's plight as a woman scorned is revealed.

While the torrid, snatched affair between Newland and Ellen is the tragic romantic heart of the film, I also loved Scorsese's portrayal of the claustrophobic society that entraps the two lovers. The Oscar-winning costume design is of course fantastic, but the entire set design and use of colour is amazing. Much of the film takes places indoors, in the drawing rooms of the best New York houses where all the important people gather. These rooms are densely decorated with every kind of luxury imaginable. However, there's a distinct lack of elegance in these rooms, and instead they evoke a gaudiness that smothers the viewer with oversaturated opulence. The moment when Newland realizes just how stiflingly ruthless his society is, Scorsese swings the camera around the party of hypocritical moralizers in the overstuffed room - brilliantly revealing the full extent of the suffocating circumstances Newland finds himself in. The power of society to so swiftly crush people's hopes is a truly scary thing to behold, and I think Scorsese portrays this world masterfully through his decadent sets and deft camerawork.

The Age of Innocence

I was a little shocked to find out that Winona Ryder was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of May. I personally found her to be flighty and irritating, and I often wondered what she was doing on the same screen as Daniel Day-Lewis. For most of the film, both times I saw it, I was annoyed by Ryder's ditzy, flimsy manner and wished someone more appealing had been cast in that role, or that she had played May a little more sympathetically throughout. Unbalanced love triangles are too easy (see A Place in the Sun). It's amazing how a viewer's moral compass gets skewed based on an unattractive jilted lover character, and in the case of Ryder, I dislike her so much for most the film that I just want Newland to ditch her stupid, boring ass and run off with Ellen. But in the last third of the film certain things are revealed about May's character that make me re-evaluate both May's character and Ryder's performance, and a slight feeling of guilt creeps in. So, in fact, both times I was lured into hating May's character and (Ryder's performance) until the last second, when I started to think that maybe it was all intentional and in fact this wasn't a terrible performance after all, but actually quite brilliant? I'm starting to lean towards the latter, but I know that I'll never enjoy watching Ryder in this film, no matter how "true" to the character she is. I suppose I can acknowledge a good performance, but for me personally, Ryder is one of the big things holding me back from loving this film.

The other big beef I have with Innocence is the narration. Although it's beautifully written (is it maybe straight from the novel?) and read, there's just so much of it that I find it distracting. The narration gives us tons of helpful hints about what's going on behind the surface in this hypocrisy-filled society, just in case we couldn't tell. I don't want a tour guide to navigate this world, I want to sense and see these things on my own. Maybe I'm just not used to being hammered with such detailed narration, but I thought it destroyed some of the much-ballyhooed subtlety of the film. Even worse, I think the heavy-handed narration, combined with the uneven pace of the film gave it an air of marked fustiness - and this is coming from a great lover of period pieces. I have no problem with a slow-paced film if there's enough depth to support it, but isn't the key word subtlety? If I'm going to sit through something slow and calculated, I want the full richness of what I'm seeing to be slowly revealed to me. When it's being spelled out so explicitly through narration, the slow pace ceases to be subtle and starts to get stuffy and boring.

Still, those two major flaws in my eyes don't completely sink the film for me because of the perfect ending that gets me every time. It's ambiguous and poignant and almost makes me forget everything I dislike about the film and begs for another viewing...which is how I ended up here in the first place. There's so much good in The Age of Innocence that it's no wonder that I keep wanting to revisit it and claim it as one of my very favourites. But I think I'll have to cop out and reserve final judgment until I read Wharton's novel.
18 February 2008 @ 21:46
Bon Cop Bad Cop

Claiming to be the first Canadian bilingual film (though apparently another film beat them to it) Erik Canuel's Bon Cop, Bad Cop is an uneven buddy-cop movie with a unique premise. The 2007 Genie Award (yes, the Canadian Oscars) winner for Best Picture, Bon Cop stars Colm Feore and Patrick Huard as Toronto and Montreal detectives, respectively, who are forced to team up when a victim is found literally draped over the Ontario-Quebec border. Feore, perhaps best known for playing Pierre Trudeau in CBC's miniseries on the former Prime Minister, is Martin Ward, a straight up Ontario cop eager to get off the street and retreat to cushy a desk job. Huard is David Bouchard, a bad-ass Quebec cop who has little regard for protocol and Ward's penchant for following the rules. The film opens with the news that Montreal and Torono are meeting in Cup final. Wait a minute, you say, that's impossible because they're both in the Eastern Conference. Not to fear, it's not really the Habs and Leafs, it's the "Montreal Patriotes" and "Toronto Loyalists" (ha ha), as the filmmakers, in renaming everything for copyright reasons also saw fit to take a few liberties with the facts. The crime that Ward and Bouchard join forces to solve is an absurd murder plot involving a deranged hockey fan who takes it really, really personally that the Americans are stealing our game, and starts bumping off people who he perceives are sullying our national sport. He takes on the identity of the "tattoo killer" - so-called because he tattoos his victims with a clue pointing to his motive. It's all as half-baked as it sounds, but the murder stuff is not the reason to watch this movie. Bon Cop is all about the age-old Ontario-Quebec/English-French rivalry, and the film is at its best when it's focusing on the relationship between Bouchard and Ward. When Canuel tries to bring in the Canadian nationalistic angle, the film falls flat because he has no discernible political message. For that matter, the film does nothing to bust the stereotypes of uptight Anglo-Canadians and free-wheeling French Canadians, and it doesn't really do much to heal any rifts there either. Still, thanks to a great bilingual script and great interplay between Huard and Feore, it's a fun ride anyway.

Bon Cop Bad Cop

Bon Cop's script is riddled with Canadian in-jokes, and liberally references events of recent hockey history. Maybe it's better if you don't know about the details around the events that motivates the "tatoo killer", because it makes it all the more ridiculous when you know how flimsy his grounds are. Okay, I give him the Nordiques leaving Quebec and Wayne Gretzky being sold to LA because that raises my ire as well, but who cares about Eric Lindros snubbing Quebec for Philly? If anything, the Nordiques dodged a bullet in not being saddled with his overbearing agent-father and received a truckload of good players in return - hardly the stuff to provoke a nationalistic murderous rampage. Meanwhile, Rick Mercer takes a stab at imitating Don Cherry with his loudmouthed TV host, although he seems to be taking on both Don and Ron Maclean's role, which is a scary thought. Mike Myers also played a character modeled after Cherry in Mystery, Alaska, and suffice to say, the man himself is far more outrageous and entertaining than anything a scriptwriter can come up with. As for the transparent rendering of unpopular NHL commissioner Gary Bettman as the vertically challenged "Harry Buttman", I had to laugh, as juvenile as it was. Still, frighteningly, the real Bettman is much more slimy and rodent-like than his dimunutive screen counterpart.

Somewhere in amongst the hackneyed serial killer story I think there was supposed to be a message about Canadian unity, but it gets lost in the shuffle of the frequent action sequences (good ones) and kidnapping plot twists (tired, predictable). As a British Columbian so far removed from the Quebec-Ontario conflict, I had to laugh from a bemused distance at the English-French rivalry. Is it even funnier if you're in the thick of it, or less so because it's so familiar? In any event, therein lies the problem with the idea of Canadian unity and identity. Issues that are passionate concerns on one side of the nation are the stuff of comedy routines, or worse, treated with indifference, on the other side. Just as I can't quite get my head around the neverending French/English kerfuffle, the typical Ontarian doesn't understand or care about West Coasters' complaints of being ignored by Ottawa. Actually, Canuel is smart to give film the backdrop of the hockey plot (however silly), because that's one thing that supposedly unites Canadians. Although the suitability of hockey as the national unifier is questionable at best, there's no question that there are few topics that engage the people from across the country with equal passion than hockey. Unfortunately for Canuel, the hockey issue that he bases his crazed killer's machinations on - the Americanisation of the NHL - is pretty irrelevant in 2008, and was so also in 2006, when the film was released. Although, in the 90's, there was certainly a crisis when two Canadians teams migrated south and several more threatened to do so, it's long been clear that Gary Bettman's American expansion experiment has been a protracted failure. Since the hockey plot is too parodic to take seriously, there's nothing in Bon Cop to give the Canadian pride angle - or Canadian unity, or nationalism, or whatever, if there even is such a thing - any weight. It's almost like Canuel recognized the near-impossibility of presenting a realistic platform for Canadian unity, especially in a film like this, and couldn't keep a straight face whilst trying to do so. Or maybe he couldn't decide if he wanted to make a serious or a funny movie, and wasn't able to do both at once. Had Canuel left the flag-waving aside and just let Feore and Huard do their thing, Bon Cop probably would have been a much superior film.

Bon Cop Bad Cop

Despite the gritty filming style, Bon Cop, Bad Cop fails as police drama. There's very little that's suspenseful about Bon Cop - quite frankly, it's hard to take a killer seriously when he can be dismissed by a well-placed quip. After listening to the tatoo killer speak through a voice modifier, Bouchard cracks, "why do you have such a strong accent in French and English? Who was your teacher, Jean Chretien?" The most entertaining thing about Bon Cop is listening to Bouchard and Ward endlessly riffing on everything from the Plains of Abraham to Quebecois swear words to Canada's dubious association with the British Royals. Colm Feore and Patrick Huard's chemistry is what makes Bon Cop tick, and rescues it from being a forgettable paint-by-numbers cop thriller with a bizarre hockey quirk. Even if they lay on the square Ango-Canadian/crazy Quebecois stuff a little thick, Feore and Huard's strong performances make you forget that they're reinforcing stereotypes, and make you wish all cop movies had hilarious bilingual scripts.

That being said, the spirit of bilingualism that runs through Bon Cop is little more than a fantasy. Although it's entertaining to watch Ward and Bouchard switch from English to French without missing a beat, I doubt this kind of exchange is common. Never mind the fact that perfect bilingualism is a rarity, I'm sure even fluently bilingual people wouldn't switch between English and French at the rapidity that Bouchard and Ward do. Just like the 30's and 40's screwball comedy actors who let barbs fly and a dizzying pace as though they were born speaking that way, Feore and Huard make the constant French/English switch-up sound natural. But just as it's obvious that no one actually talks like they do in screwball comedies, it's clear that Ward and Bouchard's exchanges are simply the product of sharp writing, and not a glimpse at some sort of Parliament-approved bilingual utopia. Which brings me to the audio/video options for the DVD. It's really nice that the filmmakers wanted to have everything for everyone, including three different audio versions (all English, all French, and the original bilingual version), and a dizzying array of subtitle options. However, I wasn't so impressed with how long it took me to wade through the permutations of all the audio/subtitle combinations to arrive at my desired setting (bilingual audio, English subtitles only for the French parts).

Maybe the film doesn't present any hint of a realistic solution to all the linguistic, regional, and nationalistic claptrap it raises. Or maybe it doesn't even go as far as to ask any truly probing questions in the first place. But perhaps all that waffling is what makes Bon Cop, Bad Cop typically Canadian.
09 February 2008 @ 15:25
Le Samouraï

French director Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film Le Samouraï is a simple, stylish crime thriller that nods at classic Hollywood film noir. Starring Alain Delon, the film is a minimalist affair that teeters between being artfully restrained and just tediously slow. Delon plays contract killer Jef Costello, who is one of a number of suspects arrested for the murder of a nightclub owner that Costello kills at the beginning of the film. Roped into the affair are Jef's girlfriend Jane (played by Delon's then-wife, Nathalie Delon), her other boyfriend/sugar daddy Mr. Wiener, the beautiful nightclub pianist that sees Jef leave the scene of the crime, and a slew of other nightclub employee witnesses.

Le Samouraï

Delon, like Brad Pitt and Jude Law after him, was a blindingly good-looking leading man who deliberately sought darker roles to avoid being typecast as a handsome romantic hero. In Jef, Delon is cast as a seemingly emotionless anti-hero, a role that banishes any thought of him as a pretty-boy matinee idol. Jef is meant to be a samurai-type figure, a trained killer who operates with clean precision and his own code of honour. As Jef, Delon maintains such an impenetrable air of icy calm and remains so expressionless that, for the first half of the film, I wasn't entirely sure if his performance was superbly executed efficieny or just stiff. But there's a moment in the second half when Jef breaks from his hyper-even keel and strikes with such astonishing razor-sharpness that obliterated any trace of doubt that this wasn't a masterful performance by Delon. It also really helps that with his ice blue eyes, sharp trenchcoat and fedora, Delon is an impeccable figure of cool. Melville fills the screen with shades of steely grey that enhance the stark, spare mood of the film. There was something strangely beautiful about Jef's decrepit grey flat, a touch of bleak romance largely achieved by the significant birdcage that's one of the only adornments.

Le Samouraï

Despite the polished visuals and Delon's undeniable cool, Le Samouraï suffers because the focus on the crime procedural element isn't actually that compelling. There's definitely an interesting tension in the witnesses' operating by their own agendas and the police's frustrated attempts to nail Jef, and it's always intriguing to watch a story that casts the killer as the protagonist. But there was so much left unexplored - what was the nature of Jane and Jef's relationship? Jane and Mr. Wiemar? What's the story behind the mysterious pianist? What about the biggest enigma of all, Jef? - and while the air of mystery serves the minimalistic style well, it felt like there wasn't enough depth to the story to keep me interested, especially when Delon was offscreen. Nevertheless, if you're willing to sit through 105 minutes of slow-paced cat-and-mouse, Le Samouraï has a few worthwhile rewards, not the least of which being Delon's strikingly controlled performance.
My Moon My Man - How cool is it to be Leslie Feist, getting to play a wicked version of your awesome song on Jools Holland, sounding great, looking fantastic, and having Thom Yorke watch and bob his head to your song?

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

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