Category Archives: Drama

Silence is golden: Continental: a Film Without Guns ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

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Quebecois writer-director Stephane LeFleur’s Continental: A Film Without Guns breathes new life into the “network narrative” (a device popularized by Robert Altman, but which has become  a cinematic staple dating at least as far back as 1932’s Grand Hotel.)

In fact, LeFleur uses a hotel as the rendezvous point in this story of four lonely and disenfranchised people, whose lives are destined to intersect, directly or tangentially. In the enigmatic opening scene, a middle aged insurance salesman snoozes through his bus stop and wakes up at the end of the line (literally and/or figuratively). He calmly gathers up his briefcase and coat, and after what appears to be a moment of Zen, meditating on the night sounds of the forest, walks straight into the darkness of the trees and disappears.

The remainder of the film delves into the ripple effect that the man’s disappearance has on the lives of four people-his 50-ish wife (Marie-Ginette Guay), a 30-ish life insurance salesman who is hired to replace him (Real Bosse), a 60-ish owner of a second-hand store (Gilbert Sicotte) and a 20-something hotel receptionist (Fanny Mallette). To be sure, the age spread of the characters indicates a convenient symmetry, but LeFleur is examining certain universal truths about the human condition that transcend age and/or gender; namely, the fear of dying, and perhaps most terrifying of all- the fear of dying alone.

That is not to say that this is a Bergman-esque, “excuse me while I go hang myself in the closet” fest. LeFleur injects just enough deadpan humor into his script to diffuse the inherently depressing nature of his themes. All members of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. The almost painterly photography (by DP Sara Mishara) is richly moody and atmospheric, no small feat in a film largely comprised of static interior shots.

LeFleur exhibits a style quite similar to that of fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Adjustor, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter). Like Egoyan, LeFleur is not afraid to hold a shot as long as he needs to, nor is he afraid of silence. Silence can speak volumes, especially in the hands of a skilled director (just watch any Kurosawa film for a master class). In a movie season of explosions and screeching tires, a little silence can be golden.

All by myself: Mr. Lonely ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2008)

I will admit  that Harmony Korine is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have high tolerance for what others might call “weird” or “unwatchable” cinema, but frankly, I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) a little too weird and (virtually) unwatchable.

However, after taking in Mister Lonely, I guess Korine can make a “watchable” film…in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the human tendency to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and “God” with equal fervor.

Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.

The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking.

While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate mutual attraction , although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind.)

At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise.

A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on.

Korine throws in a weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns who help him do relief work in Central America. I will say no more.

Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances. I won’t pretend I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is engaging, emotionally resonant, and ultimately haunting. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985).

In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator).

In  Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.

Wanna Be in My Gang? – Eastern Promises (***1/2) & This is England (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2007)

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This week we’ll take a peek at two powerful new dramas, both set in merry old England,…but dealing with some not-so-merry themes.

Director David Cronenberg brings on the blood and the balalaikas in his crackerjack neo-noir, Eastern Promises. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a London midwife obsessed with tracking down the relatives of a newborn infant, left behind by a 14 year-old unwed Russian who tragically dies on her delivery table. Intrigued by the Cyrillic scribbling in the dead girl’s diary, Anna turns to her Russian-speaking uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimosky) for translation.

Stepan staunchly refuses, citing old country superstitions and admonishing his niece for “stealing from the dead”. Undaunted, Anna follows her only solid lead, a business card for a Russian restaurant that she finds in the diary. Anna soon gleans that she would have been better off heeding her uncle’s warning, because the diary is  a hot potato for some extremely dangerous and scary individuals. Soon,  she is pulled into the brutal world of the Russian mob.

 Viggo Mortensen delivers one of his most accomplished performances to date as Nikolai, the Siberian driver for a psychotic mob captain (Vincent Cassel), the son of a godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl  completely disappear into character.

These skilled actors make it easy to forget that they are in actuality American, French and German; you do not doubt for one second that you are watching native Russians, who live and die by the rules of “vory v zakone” (“thieves in law”, a strict code borne from the gang culture of Russian prisons).

 Screenwriter Steven Knight revisits some of the themes he explored in Dirty Pretty Things; namely, how immigrant communities assimilate (legally and otherwise) while still maintaining a sense of their native culture. (I think this is the aspect of the film that has some people drawing comparisons to The Godfather).

The only quibble I had with Knight’s script was a “twist” toward the end involving one of the main characters that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative.

 Cronenberg, who has built his reputation on Grand Guginol excess, has slouched toward a lean, almost poetic style in recent films. For devotees, not to worry; the director’s propensity for viscerally “shocking” images and squib-happy bloodletting is still on display, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous; these characters live in a brutal world, and it’s par for the course.

As per usual, Cronenberg slips black humor into the mix. One particular scene, involving an attempted mob hit in a steam bath (and a very naked Viggo), is an instant classic.

At once a brooding character study and atmospheric thriller, Eastern Promises rates among the Canadian iconoclast’s finest work.

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Oi! It’s time now to break out those old Sham 69 LPs for our next film, This is England, the latest from British director Shane Meadows (Twenty-Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands).

A hard-hitting, naturalistic social drama reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s (with a slight whiff of A Clockwork Orange), This is England is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, circa 1983.

The story (loosely auto-biographical, based on the director’s Midlands upbringing) centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance) who can’t fit in at his school.

Shaun presents a real handful to his loving but somewhat exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a working-class Falklands War widow who does her best to support herself and her son. After a particularly bad day of being bullied about by teachers and schoolmates, happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang.

Shaun’s initial apprehension is washed away when  good-natured gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him an unconditional entrée into their little club. Shaun’s weary working mum is initially not so crazy about his new pals, but after sizing them up decides essentially to leave her son in their care.

Some may feel that this development strains credibility, but I think it’s a pragmatic decision. Her son has no siblings, no close friends, and is suffering from the loss of his father; perhaps this surrogate family will give him what she cannot provide.

The idyll is soon shattered, however, when the gang’s original leader, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Combo’s return causes a rift that divides the gang; his jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals doesn’t settle well with Woody and his supporters, and they break off on their own.

Shaun decides to stay on after forming an instant bond with the thuggish Combo, who easily parlays the impressionable Shaun’s grief over his father into a blame-shifting hatred of immigrants, with tragic results.

The film works successfully on several levels. Taken ss a cautionary tale, it demonstrates how easily the neglected and disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate.

As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex politics and social upheaval in Great Britain. As a riveting drama, it features astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned young Turgoose and Graham, who  owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.

War is unhealthy for children: Pan’s Labyrinth ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 13, 2007)

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In 2001, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro used the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. Six years later, del Toro has returned once again to the tumultuous Franco era, this time with a twist of dark fantasy in his wildly imaginative and visually striking Spanish-language drama, Pan’s Labyrinth.

12-year old newcomer Ivana Bacquero delivers an impressive, nuanced performance as the film’s central character Ofelia, an intelligent, introverted girl on the verge of puberty who still clings to her childhood fascination with fairy tales. She and her very pregnant mother have just set up quarters with her new stepfather Captain Vidal (the always brilliant Sergi Lopez), a brutal, sadistic Fascist officer charged with mopping up stubborn rebel forces entrenched in the Spanish countryside.

With nothing resembling love or affection forthcoming from the odious Vidal, and with her mother becoming increasingly bedridden due to a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia finds an escape valve by retreating ever deeper into a personal fantasy world, which she enters through an imaginary gate in a nearby garden. This is not necessarily Alice through the looking glass, as you might think; this is a much darker world of personified demons and monsters borne from Ofelia’s subconscious take on the real-life horrors being perpetrated by her monstrous stepfather and his Fascist henchmen.

In some respects, the film reminded me of 1973’s Spirit of the Beehive, also set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spain, and likewise centering on a lonely young girl retreating into a private fantasy world in response to feelings of estrangement from her family. While there are also some similarities here to the likes of Alice In Wonderland, Spirited Away, and The Secret Garden, be advised that this is not a feel-good fairy tale with a warm and fuzzy ending that you want to sit down and watch with the kids. The fantasy elements are closer in tone to Brothers Grimm morbidity than Tolkien whimsy; and del Toro pulls no punches depicting the horror and suffering that takes place during wartime.

What did you do in the war, Mommy? – Black Book (***1/2) & The Good German (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2007)

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If you have perceived a deluge of WW2-themed films as of late, you’re not imagining things. Most of the critical brouhaha seems to have been centered on Clint Eastwood’s   Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (neither of which I have seen yet, I will admit), which likely explains why two other WW2 dramas helmed by a pair of equally noteworthy directors have slipped in and out of theatres relatively un-noticed.

Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (aka Black Book) and Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German share some interesting similarities. They both represent a throwback to a certain type of old-fashioned WW2 adventure yarn, and they both feature strong female protagonists doing whatever it takes to survive their wartime nightmare.

Black Book (co-written by the director with Gerard Soeteman) is native Hollander Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch language film in quite a while. It’s a “Mata Hari” style tale set in Holland in the waning days of the German occupation, as the Allies make their post-D-Day push across Europe. Carice van Houten is compelling as a former chanteuse named Ellis, a Dutch Jew who has spent the occupation in hiding with a farm family. When her hosts perish in a bombing raid, Ellis is left with the realization that she will now have to live by her wits if she is to survive (The Sound of Music meets Showgirls? Discuss.)

After a series of harrowing escapes, Ellis finds herself in the Dutch Resistance. As part of a plan to spring some imprisoned Resistance fighters, she is asked to seduce the commander of the local SS detachment, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch, in a nicely fleshed out performance). Things become complicated when Ellis develops a genuine attraction to Muntze.

This is an exciting war adventure, with interesting plot twists along the way (replete with a few patented over-the-top Verhoeven moments, usually involving uncompromising nudity and gore). It’s refreshing to see Verhoeven escaping from Hollywood and getting back to his roots; while I generally enjoy his big budget popcorn fare, I have always felt his Dutch films (e.g. Spetters, The 4th Man, Soldier of Orange) were more challenging and substantive (Verhoeven the Hired Hand vs. Verhoeven the Auteur, if you will).

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Steven Soderbergh loves to pay homage. In fact, (Mr. Tarantino aside), he probably holds the record for dropping more cinema buff-centric references per film than any other director. In his most recent film, The Good German (filmed in glorious B&W), he may have allowed this tendency lead him too deeply into “style over substance” territory.

The story is set in immediate post-war Berlin, with the backdrop of the uneasy alliance and growing mistrust between the occupying U.S. and Russian military forces. Captain Jacob Geismer (George Clooney) is an American military correspondent who has been assigned to cover the Potsdam Conference.

His G.I. driver, Tully (Tobey Maguire) is a slick wheeler-dealer (reminiscent of James Garner’s character in The Americanization of Emily) who procures everything from cigarettes to women and has a German girlfriend (a barely recognizable Cate Blanchett, dutifully delivering her lines in a husky Marlene Dietrich drone).

Imagine Capt. Geismer’s surprise when Tully introduces him to said girlfriend, and she happens to be an old lover of his. To tell you more risks revealing spoilers, so suffice it to say that Lena, a Woman with a Dark Secret, becomes the central figure in a murder mystery, with the hapless Geismer drawn right into the thick of it.

Unfortunately, despite a certain amount of suspense in the first act, the story becomes increasingly convoluted and curiously non-involving.  Blanchett’s performance feels phoned-in, and I wouldn’t call it Clooney’s best work either. Now, it is possible that Soderbergh is SO obsessed with aping an old-fashioned, film noir-ish, black and white late-40’s war thriller, that he may have in fact directed his actors to mimic the semi-wooden, melodramatic acting style that informed many of those films. (Even the DVD transfer appears to be part of the joke; as it is matted in full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio).

The film does sport a great “vintage” look; the cinematography is outstanding (Soderbergh has never faltered in that department) and he perfectly captures the chiaroscuro look of a certain classic Carol Reed film (I am sure I am not the first person to draw comparisons to The Third Man). There are also some other obvious touchstones here, like Hitchcock’s WW2 thrillers Notorious and Foreign Correspondent.

At the end of the day, however, if I want to see something that reminds me of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, I think if I had my druthers, I would just as soon pull out my DVD of The Third Man or Foreign Correspondent, if you know what I am saying. While The Good German certainly looks pretty, it ultimately feels pretty… empty.

Stereotyped in America: Crash (*1/2) & The Landlord (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2006)

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I’m going to risk crucifixion here and confess that I only recently got around to viewing Crash, Paul Haggis’ 2005 Oscar winning meditation on racism in America. (Perhaps I was shamed into screening it after Michael Richard’s recent star turn on YouTube).

Crash takes the premise of 1993’s Falling Down and expands on it exponentially. Instead of one disenfranchised white guy going off the deep end and raging through L.A. as he blames every person of color he encounters for his own personal failures, Crash serves up an Altman-sized, multicultural cast of self-pitying whiners running around L.A. pissed off at everybody else. They hail from all ethnic and socioeconomic strata, they are all fuming about their (real or perceived) victimization by one societal injustice or another and (wait for it…) they are all on a ‘crash’ course, about to collide.

The cast is talented, the performances are earnest and the film is slickly made, but the mind boggles as to how this condescending, contrived, PC-pandering mess earned a Best Picture Oscar. The Message (people are people and bigotry is colorblind) has been delivered numerous times before…and with much more panache https://i2.wp.com/40.media.tumblr.com/a7a9e50f489c19ffd14121214e574046/tumblr_n5wp6bFOQd1tse85no1_500.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

The late great Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There). His 1970 social satire follows the travails of a trustafarian (Beau Bridges) who buys a run-down Brooklyn tenement, with initial intentions to evict current residents and renovate (much to the chagrin of his blue-blood parents, who scoff at his “liberal views”). The landlord’s sincere but awkward attempts to “relate” to his black tenants is sometimes milked for laughs, other times for dramatic tension-but always rings true-to-life.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!), Susan Anspach (hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister) and Diana Sands. The scene where Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant get drunk and bond over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a classic. Ashby and screenwriter Bill Gunn’s observations about race relations in America are dead-on (and still timely).  They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet (lest we forget) entertaining.