Thursday, August 5, 2010

Recent, and not so Recent, Films, and Some Vaguely Connected Ramblings, Dagnabit!

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
(From The Go-Between, a novel by L. P. Hartley)

I recently watched Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon - A German Children's Story, 2009) on DVD and it was breathtaking. From the opening scene, I was transported into this uncomfortable pre-WWI Germany, and, even when I tried to remind myself that I was watching actors and that there was a cameraman and crew standing by, I could hardly believe it. Michael Haneke directs this beautifully photographed, black and white film, in which the children of a small village suffer repression and punishment meted out by their elders, while a series of disturbing and violent events take place over the course of several months. Who is behind it all? The concept of a generation of angry and conflicted children growing up to become Fascists is lurking behind this film, without beating you over the head with it.

Speaking of the intriguing fashions and bad behaviour of 1930s Germany, this past spring I revelled in the Canadian Opera Company's disturbing and magnificent production of Wagner's Flying Dutchman. Although this romantic opera was premiered in 1843, it's been given a powerful interpretation by director Christopher Alden. The setting is a 1930s Fascist-powered village, and the production remains as chilling the third time out as when it first premiered in the 1990s. I complemented that viewing by starting to read Brigitte Hamann's biography: Winifred Wagner: A Life at the Hearth of Hitler's Bayreuth. Well, to be honest, I haven't finished it yet. I need breaks from the depressing aspects, as fascinated as I am by the characters involved. What a family! And now that Wolfgang (one of Winifred's sons) has died, the mantle of Bayreuth has passed to two of the family's women. Idea for a reality show: Wacky Wagners. I'd watch.

Speaking of repression, I'm listening, as I write this, to an excellent CD, Two Roads to Exile, which features works by two composers who suffered different exiles under the Nazis, and deserve to be heard widely and thoroughly: Walter Braunfels and Adolf Busch. It's recorded by Toronto's ARC Ensemble. I recommend!

The - for some - elegaic pre-WWI period is beautifully portrayed in The Go-Between (1970), Joseph Losey's film of a Harold Pinter screenplay based on the novel by H.P. Hartley. What a pedigree. The American-born Losey is God-like in my view from his Don Giovanni (1979) alone, and made most of his films in Europe after self-exiling himself after fleeing the House Un-American Activities Committee. An unusually hot summer before WWI is made even steamier by the clandestine relationship between the upper-class Julie Christie and a common labourer played by Alan Bates. Of course their affair is secretly carried out with an unwitting young boy (Dominic Guard) acting as a messenger go-between. I first saw this film as a teenager (I was nursing a bit of a thing for Edward Fox at the time), and it was on again recently on television.

More despair under the yoke of a shitty regime: El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, 2009) is an Argentinean film which beat out The White Ribbon for the 2009 Oscars. (Whatever that means, for the Oscars have meant nothing to me since 1996 and the Brave Heart best-film-best-director joke-fest). The past may or may not be a foreign country for Ricardo Darín as Benjamín Esposito, whose piercing blue eyes, despite their bassett-hound lugubriousness, certainly hold some secret regrets and desires. But the past does turn up some shockers in this turgid, somewhat over-wrought film, that I'm very glad I saw.

Shocking only for how it takes a severe turn for the worse is Io sono l'Amore (I am Love, 2009). It stars the always fascinating Tilda Swinton as a Russian woman who has married into a wealthy Milanese family. Milan, and other parts of Italy, are shown as you might not have seen them before on film. Certainly the sun beams down on Tilda's golden head most becomingly, and sets off her stunning couture wardrobe, but thankfully it does so without the golden-syrup glow of the Merchant-Ivory films. All until the bizarre hill-side love scene which unfolds like an early 1970s soft-porn movie, all close ups of taut buttocks and soft nipples (hey! Continuity!) and dandelion blossoms in a soft-focus haze. Ugh. Pre-love scene the first part of the film is very good. And then... all goes horribly wrong as a story as old as time unfolds in the most unconvincing way. I was so disappointed, as great care and love had obviously gone into the making. One thing I appreciate about a great film score is when you don't notice it. It was hard not to notice John Adams' score that at one point was so over-wrought, that I nearly burst out laughing. The last five minutes were agony. I really, really wanted to love this, but I didn't, and I don't recommend it.

"She can't help it. She never had enough love."
(Timothy Spall as Maurice in Secrets and Lies)

Unlike Io sono l'amore, Secrets and Lies (1996) unearths a more modest British family, with humour and pathos, beautifully wrought. I caught it again recently on television and it made me laugh and cry in perfect tandem. Director Mike Leigh is another film God. Timothy Spall was wonderful in Pierrepoint (2005), the story of the last hangman in Britain. You have to be in the mood to see it, if one ever can be in the mood for such a grim, if brilliantly told, true story.

There were so many other movies I saw last year and didn't blog about. Here's a quick round up!
To correct my thinking, the film Sunshine Cleaning (2008) is no relation to Little Miss Sunshine (2006) except for the word "sunshine" and Alan Arkin, who is always a major appeal. Amy Adams continues to be versatile and heart breaking with the most vulnerable and beautiful blue eyes. Emily Blunt is fantastic, and I was surprised that she pulled off The Young Victoria (2009) so well, although I wished in that film they hadn't felt the need to add some artistically licensed drama. I loved Sunshine Cleaning: it was dark and funny and moving, and – at times – really gross.

District 9 (2009) was a classic tale of outsiders and suspicion, featuring an extremely unlikely hero and a real-life setting (Johannesburg) which seemed scarier than the alien beings themselves. Produced by Peter Jackson, but no Andy Serkis in sight. Depressing.

Weirdly enough, Star Trek (2009) featured the best-behaved (i.e. quiet) audience of my recent experience, either in the cinema or in the theatre. Opening night was packed full of remarkably young Trekkers and the movie was so much fun. I loved every minute of it, certainly it exceeded all expecations. I didn’t get all the time shifting and Vulcan-exploding subteleites. My companion, who had prepped me for some plot sublteties over dinner beforehand, assured me a sequel was in the works. I’m there!

"Religion is flawed because man is flawed."
(Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss in Angels and Demons, 2009.

It was fun to see bits of Rome in Angels and Demons and this was definitely an excellent large-popcorn-empty-brain experience. They've fixed Tom Hanks' hair.

Alpha: Now, you must wear the cone of shame.
Dug: [hangs head] I do not like the cone of shame.

Bob Peterson voiced both dogs in Up (2009).

My favourite movie of last year, the first 10 minutes of Up had me crying in my popcorn. After that it was laughter and tears and a good time had by all.

Albus Dumbledore: You must be wondering why I brought you here.
Harry Potter: Actually sir, after all these years I just sort of go with it.

I'm still going with it too, and will till the very end. I enjoyed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), but can't really wait for it all to be over.

Brüno (2009) was no Borat (2006), which made me laugh so hard I thought I was going to throw up.

LN: [to Roderick] They bought us a stroller.
Burt Farlander: What's wrong with a stroller?
LN: I LOVE my babies. Why would I want to PUSH them away from me?

Maggie Gyllenhaal as LN and John Krasinski as Burt Farlander in Away We Go (2009).

I almost really loved this film. But something, like that stroller, pushed me away. Some of the performances felt very true and honest. Others felt forced and hammy. The script was brilliant in parts, forced in others. I wanted to like it, I really did. Ultimately I was disappointed.

If you've reached this point in the blog post - good for you! It only seemed marginally longer than this year's Oscars.


phil said...


Wholeheartedly agree about Up, especially the opening you mention.

Recently, suffered through 500 Days of Summer. I wanted to love it, but it did nothing for me. Have you seen it?

Now viewing Half Blood Prince...enjoying so far.

Now go hug a tree. :)


Blog Princess G said...

Phil: I haven't seen 500 Days of Summer... I'll miss that one. So many movies, so little time! And TCM of course is so irresistible. Sigh... :) OK, off to start hugging!