Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Essential Films: "Sweet Smell of Success"

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

What I've always liked about Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander Mackendrick's 1957 masterpiece, is that both main characters are really bad guys. Gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), is willing to smear anyone, is overly possessive of his sister Susan (Susan Harrison), and is intent on breaking up her relationship with jazz musician Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) longs to be like J.J.  In a brief but great monlogue, Sidney replies to his secretary Sally's question of where he wants to get to:

Way up high, Sam, where it's always balmy. Where no one snaps his fingers and says, "Hey, Shrimp, rack the balls!" Or, "Hey, mouse, mouse, go out and buy me a pack of butts." I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players. My experience I can give you in a nutshell, and I didn't dream it in a dream, either - dog eat dog. In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me. 

That last line really hit me hard watching the film again. It captured something I can relate to and I feel that the story of Sidney Falco character serves as a cautionary tale for ambition that outweighs morality. I'm glad that they didn't soften the character of Sidney Falco to create a contrast between him and J.J. Arguably, if the film was made today, the Sidney Falco character would start out as a nicer characterw who becomes corrupted along the way, only to be slightly redeemed at the end.

In the film as it stands, Falco becomes progressively worse as the film goes along, ultimately planting marijuana on Dallas, which leads to Dallas being beaten up by Hunsecker's cop friend Harry Kello (Emile Meyer). There's a great moment when we think Falco has found some kind of morality. This is when J.J. implies to Sidney that he wants to set up Dallas to be arrested by Kello. At first Falco says he won't do it but when he realizes J.J. will be out of town with his sister and that means he'll be the one to write J.J.'s column, he quickly changes his mind, to J.J.'s immediate satisfaction. J.J knows Falco even better than Falco knows himself. Notice this exchange just before Falco changes his mind about Kello:

Hunsecker: The man in jail is always for freedom.
Falco: Except, if you'll excuse me, J.J., I'm not in jail.
Hunsecker: You're in jail Sidney. You're a prisoner of your own fears, your own greed and ambition. You're in jail.

Falco of course confirms J.J's claim when he decides to go along with J.J's plan. The irony of J.J's statements is how they can imply to J.J as well as Sidney, particularly the fear part. J.J is afraid of losing his sister, and ironically this leads him to losing her for good. I feel J.J. can be viewed as knowing he himself is metaphorically in jail, which is why he knows Sidney is in the same situation. J.J of course has become so powerful that he cannot himself escape from the jail he made for himself nor does he feel he can be touched.

At the end of the film Susan breaks away from J.J, escaping from the jail she put herself in by staying with J.J. The film is extremely cynical but the end implies a certain hope as Susan walks away as the day begins, one of the only instances when the film takes place in the morning. The scenes between Susan and Dallas are by the default the most "boring" scenes in the film but the film, as well the actors, make us sympathize with the young lovers. We can see how they care for one another and they provide an interesting contrast with the crueler characters of Falco and J.J. The film does a great job of making Falco and J.J both fascinating and even enjoyable characters as well as allowing us to sympathize with Susan and Dallas.
What makes Falco and J.J fascinating characters relates to how understandable they are despite being detestable. As I said before, I can relate to Falco's hunger to be on the top, to be a somebody, and ultimately how this ambition can twist one's morals to the point of no return. I think J.J. does care for his sister, that'she's his last connection to any kind of humanity, but he is so overly possessive of her, which begins to imply an almost erotic attachment, that it is enevitable he will eventually drive her away.

What's enjoyable about the Falco/J.J. scenes lies within Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman's screenplay, based on Lehman's novelette. The dialogue is razor sharp and poisonous. Words are weapons in this film, not just in J.J.'s gossip column but extending in to the real world as well. There's even a scene where J.J. remarks to Susan how she has picked up his lingo, to which she replies "I read your column every day," implying that to survive in this world one needs to learn how to speak its language. It also show the audience Susan cares enough about her brother to read his column every day despite the horrible things he prints in it. For me, this reading makes the moment when Susan tells J.J. that she pities him at the end of the film more powerful. I get the sense someone like Falco hardly cares what J.J prints if it's not from Falco but Susan realizes how many horrible things J.J. has written and pities him because of it.

Mackendrick's direction here is excellent. particularly in the way he handles the complex blocking of actors in scenes. I also like how he can hold actors in two shots, such as the first scene with J.J and Falco, with Falco sitting behind J.J., with J.J  addressing the people across the table, his words "ricocheting," as film scholar James Naremore says, back at Falco. Cinematographer James Wong Howe's photography creates a great stylized time capsule of New York in the 1950s, very noirish and one understands when J.J. says "I love this stinking town."

The guys of The Social Network have nothing on Falco and J.J, but I'm only saying that facetiously. It's easy to see the spirit of Sweet Smell of Success in David Fincher's film, with it's sharp dialogue, quick pace and cynical nature, and it's indicative of the lasting impression of this film. Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster created iconic characters and their performances are higly enjoyable and capture both the cruelty and corruptibility
of the human spirit. Essentially, it's an honest film about dishonest people.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Devil is in the Details: "Daredevil: Director's Cut" Review

Along with Roger Ebert and Richard, I was one of the rare people who like writer/director Mark Steven Johnson's 2003 film Daredevil, though even at the young age of 14, I thought it was truncated. There was a good reason for this feeling; half an hour of footage was cut from the theatrical cut due to producer Gary Foster's concerns over pacing. The theatrical cut of Daredevil was lean and mean. The director's cut is still lean, still mean, but also more developed and coherent, as well as a more interesting story. On the commentary for the director's cut, Johnson actually jokes that the director's cut is the "story version of the story." Daredevil: The Director's Cut is still not a towering masterpiece, it won't change everyone's minds on the film, but if one is to properly criticize Daredevil, I think it has to be this version.

Based on what I know about the character, Daredevil seems to me to be Marvel's alternative to its own Spider-Man character. Both are based in New York and even share a villain, Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin, who appears in this film played by Michael Clarke Duncan. Daredevil is the grittier character and this film is one of the grittiest and violent superhero films ever made. I remember being quite shocked at how violent it was when I first saw it, particularly with the film coming out less than a year after the first Spider-Man film.

Ben Affleck plays Daredevil, whose real name is Matt Murdock and who is a blind attorney. The film shows us that at a young age Matt saw his father shake down someone for his mob boss employer, Fallon. Matt runs away only to cause an accident which results in him being sprayed by toxic waste which blinds him. In return however, Matt's other four senses are heightened and through sonic vibrations he is able to "see." Matt's father, blaming himself for the accident, goes back to boxing. After refusing to throw a fight, Matt's father is murdered by Fallon's men. Similar to Batman or Spider-Man, this murder sends him on his journey to make sure nothing like this happens to anyone else.

Daredevil has revenge story elements to it, with Kingpin being the murderer of both Matt's father as well as the father of Matt's newfound love Electra Natchios (Jennifer Garner), a business partner of the Kingpin who wants out, but the film ultimately is about mercy, even for one's enemies, which is what we see when Daredevil spares Kingpin's life at the end of the film. The film also concerns how the need for vengeance can, ironically, blind you to who you want to take vengeance upon. Electra is convinced that Daredevil killed her father, unaware until it is too late that it was an assassin named Bullseye (Colin Farrell). Of course, this ultimately leads to her having to face Bullseye alone after she wounded Daredevil, and which leads to her supposed death by Bullesye's hand.

Affleck does a solid job as both Matt Murdock and Daredevil. As Daredevil, I noticed on this viewing how he does something similar to Christian Bale's bat voice, except more subtle. Affleck brings a sense of determination to Matt, which is important for the character since as Johnson points out, Matt is a lawyer who will defend the people no one else will. Affleck can also make Matt vulnerable, as in the scene on the rooftop when Matt is able to see Electra when it rains. In this cut, Matt leaves the rooftop when he hears a crime taking place, whereas in the theatrical cut he stays with Electra, leading in to a love scene. This an example of the film not only adding more footage but changing scenes as well. Matt leaving the rooftop is more poignant and in character for him and ultimately more tragic.

The most important element of the director's cut is the added sub plot involving Dante Jackson (Coolio), who Matt and his partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) decide to defend after Jackson is arrested for murdering a prostitute. It is ultimately revealed that this murder is connected to the Kingpin. The addition of this subplot does two crucial things. First, it makes the arrest of the Kingpin at the end of the film make sense, whereas in the the theatrical cut, it wasn't clear why the Kingpin was being arrested. The addition of this subplot also shows how, as aforementioned, Matt stands up for the underdog, takes the cases no one else will. The subplot also gives the film a stronger sense of story and momentum.

Returning to the performances, Jennifer Garner gives a solid performance as Electra, she has good chemistry with future husband Affleck, and her previous experience as an action heroine in Alias made her a reasonable casting decision. I think Electra could have used more development, and her time as the dagger wielding action heroine still feels cut short. Colin Farrell has the most fun out of the cast as Bullseye. He's really relishing the oppurtunity to be villainious for what I think was the first time in his career. He hates Daredevil because he made Bullseye miss a shot, which never happens. This is a funny motivation for Bullseye's hatred toward but I felt like there needed to be a stronger motivation for Bullseye wanting to kill Daredevil. Michael Clarke Duncan is intimidating as the Kingpin, giving the sense of someone who is extremely powerful both physically as well as metaphorically. Johnson says on the commentary that along with Matt's backstory, he also wrote backstories for Electra, Bullseye and the Kingpin. While I understand why he didn't put them in the film, I think it would have been fascinating to learn more about these characters. I also liked Jon Favreau as Foggy, he's very funny and has a real sense of affection for Matt.

I liked how personal the conflicts were in this film. There is no "taking over the city" plot. It all has to do with personal vendettas and very intense fights. Because of the personal nature of the conflicts, it allows the audience to have a more emotional connection to the plot. Johnson also does a good job of balancing the darkness and the humour of the story as well as making it clear what kind of humour we're too expect at what points in the story. Unfortunately, the playground fight between Matt and Electra doesn't mesh well with the rest of the film.

 Daredevil: The Director's Cut is a superhero noir which in this complete version offers viewers an almost fully realized vision of this character and his world. Dark, funny,tragic, and ultimately hopeful, this film is a very fine entry in the superhero genre.


Monday, 13 June 2011

The Essential Films: "X-Men 2: X-Men United" (2003)

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

X-Men 2: X-Men United was the first major superhero sequel of the last decade, coming out one year before Spider-Man 2, and along with Spider-Man 2, X2 ranks among not only the best superhero sequels but the best sequels in general. It's also I think one of the finest examples of it genres, as well as the most fully realized films in The X-Men trilogy. Along with the latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class (2011), X2 feels like it has the proper scope, as well as scale for an X-Men film without going overboard and becoming overbloated. I remember seeing it for the first time and being blown away by, consciously thinking this film was better than the first. As good as the first film was, watching it again recently, it feels a little bit too much like a set up. Compared to X2, X-Men (2000) feels an art film, with the action being very sparse and the plot and story being relatively strightforward.

X2 has more plot threads and more character relationships to juggle, and while one feels there are certain elements which could have been furthered developed, I think director Bryan Singer, who also directed the first film, does an excellent job of giving enough focus to these seperate elements and eventually tying them together at the end. Like in all great superhero films, Singer brings the spectacle but he also understands how these supeheros and supervillians are very human and their issues reflect those of people in the real world, particularly the X-Men universe, which is about prejudice against mutants, who are stand-ins for minority groups. Singer, being an openly gay man, certainly understands being part of a minority, which is why the films do have an emotional resonance; one feels Singer genuinely cares for these characters, even the villains like Magento (Ian McKellen).

While Magento is the central villain of the franchise, the story of X2 concerns another villain, the character of William Stryker (Brian Cox), who plans to invade Professor Xavier's (Patrick Stewart) school. The children are kidnapped as well as Xavier and Cyclops (James Marsden) when Xavier visits Magneto in prison. Stryker has built a new cerebro plans to use Xavier's psychic abilities to kill all the mutants in the world. Stryker blames Xavier for not being able to cure his son Jason of his mutant abilities. After returning from Xavier's schoo, Jason planted delusions in the mind of Stryker and his wife, leading his wife to kill herself. As this review,, points out, Stryker is the human version of Magneto. Magneto is a mutant who hates humans because of events in his past regarding being a victim of the Nazis, and Stryker is a human who hates mutants because of what his son did. As the above review notes, Stryker is still a monster but he's given human dimension. As in X-Men, I really like the villainous plot in this film because it's original and makes sense on an emotional level for Stryker. I also like the way in which Magento turns the tables on Stryker, using the new cerebro to kill humans instead of mutants. Magneto using cerebro also reinforces the connection between Stryker and Magneto.

Similar to Christopher Nolan and his Batman films, Singer's visual style has a reserved quality throughout many scenes but also has stunning visuals, such as Magneto's prison escape, the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), the ice wall between Wolverine and Stryker, and Pyro's (Aaron Standford) destruction of police vehicles using his ability to manipulate fire. Singer's reserved visual style matches the settings of the film, which are always grounded in some kind of reality. The first scene of X-Men, showing a young Magneto being separated from his parents by the nazis and bending a gate with his ability to manipulate metal, grounded the fantastical in what felt like the real world and even with events on a grander scale in X2, I still felt like I was a version of our world.

X2 is ultimately about choices; Jean Grey's (Famke Janssen) choice to leave the X-Jet in order to save her friends, Pyro's choice to leave with Magento, Wolverine's choice to stay with the X-Men and be content with not knowing everything about his past, as well as the choice presented to the President by Xavier regarding Stryker's secret files. The film doesn't present any of these choices as "right" or "wrong" but ultimately what each character decides for him or herself. The ultimate choice that is presented at the end of X2 is for humans and mutants to live together or to destroy each other. It's fundamentally human issues such as choices and conflict between those who are different that make X2, in retrospect, such an emotionally and thematically powerful  film. It's a very exciting and entertaining entry in its genre and one of my favourite superhero/comic book films.

The Films of Terrence Malick: "Badlands"

Looking back on 1973, it was quite an important year for film. Roger Moore stepped in as James Bond. The Exorcist, considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time, was released. Al Pacino soldified his status as a major actor with Sidney Lumet's Serpico; and two young directors who became two of the most important American filmmakers of the last forty years, would release their major breakout films. These directors were Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick, whose films Mean Streets and Badlands, respectively, were both shown at the 1973 New York Film Festival.

What strikes me as the most fascinating aspect of Badlands is how it encompasses two time periods. The film takes place in 1959 and is based on the real life killing spree by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The film does an excellent job of envoking the feeling of the 1950s, even as the two main characters, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) get away from civilization. As I said about Malick's The New World, this may not be exactly how the time period was but the film still captures something truthful nevertheless. The film was made 14 years after the time period it depicts, in 1973. The film is a fascinating document of one time period being filtered through the cinematic sensibilities of another. Badlands feel likes a film from the seventies, with its realistic violence and the sense one gets from watching it that there is a personal vision behind the images. There had certainly being auteurs in cinema befor the 1970s, particularly in other countries, and American did have directors like Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller; but in the 1970s, from what've I learned, American cinema saw the emergence of directors like Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terrence Malick. They weren't the first American auteurs but they be called the third generation of American film auteurs, directors who made some of the defining films of their time. That was a digression and I apologize. Basically what I want to say is that Badlands captures the period of the late 1950s through the lens of the 1970s. What is impressive about this conversion of time periods is how well they blend together, creating something evocative of both eras yet at the same time, timeless.

The first shot of the film establishes Holly as the main character of the film or at least the character through whom the audience views the story. She tells us in narration about her life until now:
My mother died of pneumonia when I was just a kid. My father had kept their wedding cake in the freezer for ten whole years. After the funeral he gave it to the yardman... He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house. Then, one day, hoping to begin a new life away from the scene of all his memories, he moved us from Texas to Ft. Dupree, South Dakota.
We see her in her bedroom on the bed with her dog. Coupled with the voiceover narration, this opening shot establishes her character as a young girl, one who has gone through tragedy yet has a certain distance from this tragedy, which foreshadows the murder of her father by Kit and the violence she witnesses while on the run with him. Kit is a garbage man who loses his job and becomes Holly's boyfriend. To her, he was "the handsomest man I ever saw-he looked just like James Dean." This similarity between Kit and James Dean is reiterated by a law officer near the end of the film when Kit is arrested. There's also the moment, late in the film, when Kit lays his rifle across his shoulders, in a homage to Dean's role in George Steven's film Giant. Kit being seen as a James Dean figure emphasizes Holly's romanticization of her and Kit's relationship. Coming back to Holly's distance from her family tragedies, as well as the violence she sees Kit commit, these contribute to the romanticization of her and Kit's story. Romanticization requires a certain emotional distance and I think Holly has this distance.

What struck me about watching Badlands is if I hadn't known Malick was the director, I wouldn't have necessarily thought of Malick, even with the voiceover and the meditative shots of nature. I can't quite say why, I think it has to do with how the characters are treated, which I found did not shrink in to the background the same way they did in The New World or Days of Heaven. I found the voiceovers in this film did not reach for the poetic as much as in The New World. Jim Emerson recently wrote a piece on Days of Heaven where he said that he found the more banal topics that Linda talked about where more poetic than the topics which where supposed to be poetic. I think I felt the same way about the narration here. While Holly is not trying to be poetic, there are passages which get at a certain truth about her character.

Sheen and Spacek give very lived in performances. Sheen does remind one of James Dean, the sexy rebel who has that streak of danger. He also has a little naivete in him because one senses he has no idea of what it means to be a criminal. Spacek also conveys a naivete but in her voiceover we sense she is more aware of the world than Kit, more conteplative. There is one voiceover where she asks herself where she would be if she never met Kit or lost her mother. In the early parts of this film it doesn't seem to be a set-up for a story about senseless killings but I think the normalcy of the early parts of the film make the descent in to violence all the more disturbing. It also suggests that the descent in to violent has the same mundaness that Kit and Holly's early life had. Kit and Holly, while on the run, don't seem to have any clearer goals than they did earlier in the film. The goal seems to become legendary more than anything else.
The final shot is that of the heavens, which thinking back on, I find relates to the final lines of the film

Kit: Sir... Where'd you get that hat?
Trooper: State.
Kit:  Boy, I'd like to buy me one of those.
Trooper: [the trooper smiles] You're quite an individual, Kit.
Kit: Think they'll take that into consideration?
When Kit asks whether "they'll take that into consideration," we as the audience automatically think of the judge and jury, etc. The final image of the heavens suggests that Kit is also thinking of getting in to heaven, whether him being "quite an individual" will get him in to heaven. The final shot may also be asking us whether we believe in something like heaven and wonder if the good we've done, despite our flaws, will be taken in to consideration.  

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Films of Terrence Malick: "The New World"

Note: This is a review of the Extended Cut of the film. 

The films of Terrence Malick, like those of Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Russian director, are more like visual poems than traditional narratives, though narrative structure still plays a factor in both directors' films. Malick's 2005 film The New World, which is a retelling of the Pocahontas legend, in particular, has to be approached in this fashion, as a poem, not a narrative. I also think the film requires a balance between being able to absorb it while also analyzing what Malick is presenting the audience, while at the same time not being too coldly analytical. If I sound like I'm writing an instructional manual for how to watch a movie, one from Malick or otherwise, I apologize, but I do feel it's important to know how to approach a work as challenging as The New World.

The film begins in 1607 in Virginia when ships as part of the Jamestown expedition have come to establish a colony. Before we are introduced to these English settlers, the film begins with a shot of a river, with a voiceover from a young woman talking to what can be perceived as Mother Nature, or Mother Earth: "Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother; we, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you." This opening narration both establishes the trademark Malick voiceover, as well as the deeply spiritual nature of the film. The film is not just about a literal new world but also the connection the people have to an abstract spiritual world. The voiceover also subtly establishes Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) as someone who will ultimately become the main character of the film. Nevertheless, shortly after this introduction the audience is introduced to  Captain John Smith, who audiences will embrace as the main character, particualrly since he is played by Colin Farrell.

Bill Cody, of  the website Rope of Silicon, feels that Farrell is miscast as John Smith and that he stands out like a sore thumb. I can see where Cody is coming from but I think Farrell gives a fine performance, subtly suggesting admiration for Pocahontas yet also a reservation about having a relationship with her. While Farrell does stick out in comparison to the other actors, I think that's on purpose. While The New World does have a basis in historical fact, the film still has romanticized elements, such as the romance between Smith and Pocahontas. I believe Smith is supposed to be portrayed as a romantic and masculine figure, and Farrell fits that type of character. Moreover, I feel that Pochahontas stands out within her respective group as well. To my memory, we do not see many female native characters other than Pocahontas. I feel that Smith is probably more of an outsider than Pocahontas, particularly since at the beginning of the film Smith is to be hanged for mutiny, though pardoned by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer), the leader of the expedition. Pocahontas is not an outsider in a negative sense but as Smith says in voiceover,

 All the children of the king were beautiful, but she, the youngest, was so exceedingly so that the sun  himself- though he saw her often - was surprised whenever she came out into his presence. Her father had a dozen wives, a hundred children, but she was his favorite. She exceeded the rest not only in feature and proportion but in wit and spirit too. All loved her.

Pocahontas trandscends the other natives, making her an outsider in a positive sense. Both Smith and Pocahontas are outsiders in their own way, which may be the factor that ultimately draws them together, coupled with  Smith leading a group to seek trade with the natives, which leads to his capture and eventual embrace of the natives.

Film critic Ty Burr has an interesting theory about the structure of the film, which is that the supposed romance between Smith and Pocahontas is a dream, Smith's dream in fact:

She [Pocahontas] falls in love with Smith, as adolescent girls do, and he falls in love with the idea of her, as a romantically inclined explorer might do...It's such a lovely dream, and, yes, it comes to look fairly silly to an outsider -- to Powhatan, to the other colonists, to the viewers in the audience. But a dream it is, and the use of Mozart's 23d Piano Concerto on the soundtrack alerts us to the fact that it's a European dream -- John Smith's dream.
It's a fascinating theory that emphasizes the contrast between the more romanticized elements of the film, which mostly include the romance between Smith and Pocahontas and the fact based elements such as Pocahontas' journey to England and her marriage to English settler John Rolfe, played by Christian Bale in the film. To my memory, these passages with Smith and Pocahontas are more dream like than the the passages with the English settlers. It's actually like waking up from a dream when Smith returns to the settlers and Smith, in voiceover, addresses these experiences as a dream: If only I could go down that river. To love her in the wild, forget the name of Smith. I should tell her. Tell her what? It was just a dream. I am now awake." One problem with this theory has to do with Pocahontas' reaction to learning that Smith has is alive, despite being told he had drowned, leading her to tell her husband Rolfe that she is already married, implying that she loves Smith, which leads me to believe to that this romance is real. There is also the moment in the snow between Pocahontas and Smith which implies a real romance of sorts had happened.

The dream interpretation, whether accepted or not, addresses the pervading tone of the film, which is that of a dream, one that captures a particular time and place, maybe not exactly how it felt, but something that feels truer than the ultimate reality. Malick supposedly wrote this script in the seventies and It and it can be seen as his dream, his connection to the past. Malick's films are all period pieces; Badlands, which I haven't seen takes place in 1959, Days of Heaven (1978) is set during the depression, and The Thin Red Line (1998) takes place during WWII. His latest, The Tree of Life (2011) takes place in the 1950s but I believe the Sean Penn sequences are supposed to be set in present day. Malick clearly wants to find elements of the American past that are relevent today.

The voiceovers from Smith, Pocahontas, and Rolfe, rather than the characters just narrating the events of the story, seem exist outside the character's bodies and even outside of time, narrating to the audience from the future. The voiceovers also emphasize the human connection to nature, which is an important theme in this film, as in Malick's other films as well.

The film is also about the disconnect between world, how that disconnect can result in a connection created by love. Sadly, this love is  ultimately too precious to last. I view this as the reason behind the separation of Smith and Pocahontas as well as Pocahontas death at the end of the film. It's interesting that Pocahontas is never referred to by name except when she becomes Rebecca Rolfe. The last shot of the film, as pointed out by editor and critic Jim Emerson, is that of the tree of life, hinting at Malick's future film as well as the concept of Pocahontas finally finding her name after death.

Whether misfire or Masterpiece, and individual critics are divided, The New World should be approached openmindedly, without pretention or prejudice. After seeing the film twice, once with the 135 minute theatrical cut and once with the 172 minute extended cut, which I take is the final cut though with Malick one can't be sure, I still feel like I'll need to revisit over my life to write more completely on it. As of now, I think this is a gorgeous film, one, like a great poem, that whether analyzed or simply absorbed, provides a deeply rewarding experience.   

Thursday, 2 June 2011

An analysis of "M. Night Shyamalan's The Village"

Warning: Spoilers Ahead 

I'm interested to see how director M. Night Shyamalan will be percieved thirty or fifty years from now. I'll be in my seventies by then and I'll either be telling my grandkids how poorly recieved some of his films used to be even if they're looked upon more fondly by then, or I may be having to explain why I like elements of his films that people still hate. I would hope The Sixth Sense (1999) his breakthrough film would retain the stature it has now and would have evolved in to an acknowledged horror classic. I think something like Unbreakable, which some actually regard as his best film also seems like a film which could gain in stature. I also think Signs, which is my favourite of Shyamalan's films, should be reavaluated. In particular, I'm interested to see how  The Village ages. The Village is a film that invokes strong emotions from people. In a way, I think its practically impossible to have a neurtral opinion on this film, you either hate it and think Shyamalan's signature twist ending silly and cheap, or you love it, thinking it has quite a beautiful love story at its center, and is an interesting parrable on the time in which it was made.

In the late seventies an American history professor named Edward Walker (William Hurt) approached a group of people he met at a grief counselling clinic after his father was murdered with an idea. The idea was to use his wealthy father's money to build a secluded town in the middle of a nature preserve. The elders also create a myth of "those we do not speak of," creatures that haunt the woods but do not come in to the village because of a truce. The elders have also set the clock back to the 19th century. As the film opens we see from the tombstone of August Nicholson's (Brendan Gleeson) recently deceased son that it is 1897 within this self contained world. Now, what I have just said about the creation of the village is only revealed at end of the film and I think this may be where the problems with the film start. The concept of people overcome by grief who retreat in to a artficially created world is for me fascinating. Thinking about The Village's twists, I'd wish Shymalan would have disregarded the twist ending and played the film straight, revealing this twist early on, and possibly showing flashbacks to the seventies. This is not to say that an absence of flashbacks in the film is a huge flaw; that single photograph Shymalan shows us near the end of the film with the elders of the village is extremely haunting, particularly with the voiceover of the actors discussing what brought them to the grief counselling center. I like the implications of the ending but I feel that Shyamalan leaves us with these implications rather than fully explore them. Now, to be fair, he does explore issues of innocence, fear, bravery and seclusion throughout the film, themes which relate to the ending, but they are explored while tip toeing around the actual situation these characters are in; and even on subsequent viewings this tip toeing is still present.

What I find most interesting about the first twist in this film is how Shyamalan is using his most familar trademark to order to subvert the expectations of a M. Night Shyamalan film. His three previous films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (2000), and Signs (2002), stayed true to the supernatural or other worldly aspects that were established in the films, and actually reinforced by the endings. In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is one of the ghosts Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is able to see; in Unbreakable, Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson) is the supervillian to David Dunn's (Bruce Willis) superhero, and in Signs, the aliens are revealed to be completely real. In The Village, on the other hand, the first twist subverts the supernatural aspects of the film, revealing The Village to be very different than his previous three films. We of course learn that the creatures are not real when Edward reveals the truth to his blind daughter Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard). The final twist, which establishes that the villagers are not in the 19th century but in the 21st, can also be seen as subverting the expectations of a Shyamalan film because we have also come to expect that the worlds Shyamalan's characters occupy are also going to stay true to what has been established, which also relates to the presence of the supernatural.

By not revealing the secrets of the village until the end, Shyamalan seems to want it both ways in this film: he wants to provide a supernatural mystery that became his signature in The Sixth Sense but at the same subvert these expectations and provide a religious and political parrable that is pretty much distanced from the supernatural. I think the balance pretty much works because Shyamalan is pretty light on the suspense sequences in this film. Seeing the film knowing the twist, I think one can sense that Shyamalan is already preparing the audience for the realization that the supernatural does have as firm existence as in his previous films, as well as allowing the audience to adjust themselves to the fact that this is Shyamlan's first genuine romance film. Romance was there in The Sixth Sense but I think the romance of the film only becomes apparent in the last scene. I do really like the romance between Lucius and Ivy, particularly the porch scene where Ivy asks Lucius if he'll dance with her on their wedding night.

Ivy and Lucius are two points of a love triangle that also includes the mentally challenged Noah Percy (Adrien Brody). I find that Brody's performance is both limited in terms of screen time and also character dimension. I think Shyamalan made Noah mentally challenged to make him more sympathethic as well as reinforce how the fear of the outside world stopped the elders or anyone else going to get medicine to help Noah's condition. He is sympathetic but as I said, he's too much of a cypher. I believe that Shyamalan is dealing with the most characters up to this point in his filmography, particularly compared to his previous film Signs. I feel that juggling this amount of characters makes Shyamalan not so much unsure of who is important but that everyone seems to become important but many of characters aren't developed enough. I find it disappointing that Lucius gets stabbed by a jealous Noah about an hour in to the film, then spending the rest of the film in a coma, particularly since it seemed that it arch wasn't yet completed. I think Lucius should have gotten sick so then he could still regain consciousness and still feel a part of the story aside from just a character who needs to be saved.

This is not only Shyamalan's first genuine romance film but it's also his first female driven film, with Ivy becoming the one who ventures to the towns to save the man she loves' life. Sigourney Weaver, who plays Lucius's mother, probably saw a connection between the emergence of Ivy as the heroine and the character she played in Alien, Ellen Ripley, who by the end of that film became the heroine, and thus becoming  the central frigure of the Alien franchise. Ivy of course is a softer character than Ripley, more vulnerable I find. I've always loved Howard's performance in this film. I think her performance has the most life to it than the rest of the cast, which I feel is intentional. She has a transcendent, almost otherworldy quality to her in this film, which is why we can believe that the reserved Lucius could fall in love with her. I also like Phoenix in this film; he conveys conviction and a bravery in the face of fear, a fear that he later states relates to Ivy's safety, very well.

While Shyamalan's screenwriting can be fairly criticized, I think that Shaymalan's visual sense, his feel for composition and editing, is something that even his distractors could learn to admire. Some of his images could even be paintings, they're so well thought out and quietly beautiful, particularly in the porch scene.Unfortunately, One feels like Shyamalan's formalism can feel too constricting, that he is too much focused on his carefully storyboarded images than moving every single scene forward as dynamically as he should.

When The Village was released in the summer of 2004, the Second Gulf War had only just begun the year prior, and the events of September 11, 2001 had happened less than three years prior. I think the film speaks to the time in which it was made, as well as the years following its release because it captures the fear of the "other" that I think was and still is prevalent today in Northern America. Many of Shyamlan's films deal with the element of fear and how one confronts his or her fears, whether it be Cole in The Sixth Sense, who sees ghosts, Elijah in Unbrekable, who is afraid of not having a purpose in the world, or Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) in Signs, afraid of not being able to protect his family. The Village, at its core is about how fear of our world can make people want to hide away from it, to go back to a simpler time. This same fear is what the elders use to subjugate the other villagers, except they disguise it with the myths of the creatures.

I'm still divided about The Village but I nevertheless love parts of this film and overall I like it. It is a continuing fascinating exploration of how fear can corrupt the human experience yet even in the most morally ambiguous of situations, hope can still presevere.  

The Essential Films: "The Night of the Hunter" (1955)

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

Is there a more frightening film than "The Night of the Hunter?" Is there a more powerful representation of evil on screen than Robert Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell? Many people would probably say yes but nevertheless "The Night of the Hunter" stands as one of the most powerful evocations of a nightmare in all of cinema. The only film from legendary British character actor Charles Laughton, "The Night of the Hunter" is a difficult film to classify under any particular genre. Part film noir, part fairy tale, part biblical allegory, the film is like a dream or as I said earlier, a nightmare; it exists in a universe where tone and content can shift at any moment. The plot involves the sinister "preacher" named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who kills widowed women and steals their money. After going to jail for stealing a car he meets Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who is to be executed for being part of a robbery witch resulted in two deaths. Powell learns from Harper talking in his sleep that his children know where the money is. After being released, Powell seeks out Harper's wife Willa (Shelley Winters), eventually marrying her in order to find where the money is.

Many people believe Powell is Mitchum's greatest performance and while I haven't seen all of Mitchum's work, I would have to agree. Mitchum has been described as a laconic actor but here he's very forceful. Nevertheless, as in his other performances, you don't seem him trying, he just is Harry Powell. He perfectly embodies a man who hides his evil behind the veil of being a good preacher. He's genuinely scary yet like all great screen villains you come to enjoy his presence because Mitchum is very funny and charismatic in a sinister way.  At the same time, you still sympathize with Willa's children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Both young actors, as film critic A.O Scott points out, are never too cute or precious in their roles, which I think would be harmful to the film. Rather, they contrast each other. Chapin the older of the two, gives John a sense of maturity and awareness that is important to the character's ability to see through Powell's hypocrisy. Bruce, the younger of the two, gives Pearl a natural innocence that allows us to question if aware Pearl is of Powell's evil nature or just very forgiving. There is a moment late in the film when Powell finds John and Pearl at the farm of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a woman who takes in runaway children. Pearl surprisingly gives Powell a hug. John and Pearl can be seen as representing two elements of childhood, John symbolizing the ability to see what adults can not namely Powell's evil nature, while Pearl symbolizes the compassionate side of childhood, to be more forgiving; or maybe that's just an assumption. No matter, ultimately John and Pearl are not interchangeable,  and that lends the children a layer of complexity that I admire.

What I like most about Powell is that even though he is a hypocrite, he wears his hyprocrisy quite openly, it's just that adults cannot see this because they are blinded by his charisma and his position as a preacher. Of course, these people who admire him, such as Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden) are the same people who call for Powell to be lynched at the end of the film. It is in this violent contrast between the admiration shown toward Powell in the early parts of the film and the hatred and mob mentality at the end of the film. It is within this contrast that "The Night of the Hunter" shows us how quickly people can turn on one another, as well as how this mob is similar to Powell in that while they hide behind religious morals they can ultimately be violent.

I don't think "The Night of the Hunter" is an anti-religious film so much as it is against religious fanaticism and is suspicious of evil people who hide behind religion or have twisted religious beliefs in order to serve their purpose. Rachel is the opposite in that her faith is pure. She does not hide any kind of evil nature behind religion or use religion to get what she wants. In the film, the battle between good and evil, love and hate, is represented by pure religion, on Rachel's side, and twisted religion, on Powell's side. It is ironic that Powell, in arguably the most famous scene from the film, enacts the battle between love and hate, with the words "love" tattoed on the fingers of one hand, and "hate" on the other hand. The irony is twofold in that the love/hate scene foreshadows Powell's demise.  Love wins in this scene and by the end of the film love, represented by Rachel, wins over Powell. Nevertheless, as I said, the irony is twofold because even though love conquers him, we are left with the hatred of the mob in Powell's last scene. Even when love wins out, people will still act with hatred against others. Even if Powell deserves to be hated because of his crimes, the mob doesn't seem to realize how much they enabled Powell to kill Willa.

Charles Laughton was an English character actor but with "The Night of the Hunter" he created a distinct vision of America. It also represents a vision that exists in the realm of a nightmare, putting it similarly outside any culture while still reflecting America. I think this effect comes from Laughton being inspired by German Expressionist films, which can be traced forward to Film Noir, which is a quintessentially American style. The film exists between these two styles, very expressionistic yet also reminding the viewer of how similar German Expressionism is to Film Noir. However one views the film's visual style, the style itself is simply awesome. I love the shot of Powell, boogeyman style, chasing the children up the basement stairs. That image alone captures how the film can be both terrifying and very funny at the same time. The shot with Powell riding a horse in the background, with the children in the foreground is also breathtaking. This film reminds us how visually powerful movies can be. Laughton died in 1962, before he ever got the chance to possibly direct another film. Some accounts say he never wanted to direct another film after the initial failure of "The Night of the Hunter," others say he was planning to direct another. While it is unfortunate that we don't have more of Laughton's awe-inspiring directorial vision, "The Night of the Hunter" stands as a terrifying, funny, mysterious, and finally, moving portrait of the struggle between good and evil.