Wednesday 30 January 2008

The Tracey Fragments

Yesterday I commented over at Lazy Eye Theatre on a post about "Cloverfield" and the possibility that it may have a sequel (which would actually just be another camera's point of view of the same timeline). Because of its style of handheld camerawork and the suggestion of another poster that perhaps this second movie's cameraman could run into the first film's one, I suggested that they could make 4 films in all and then show them all at once in different quadrants of the big screen - kind of like "Timecode" where you could mix the sound to focus the viewer's attention on any of the parts of the screen. OK, a crappy idea no doubt, but it wasn't until later that I realized that coincidentally I had scheduled myself to see another split screen and multiple angle movie later that same evening - Bruce McDonald's "The Tracey Fragments" (as part of Canada's Top Ten series at Cinematheque Ontario).

Of special interest to many: the film's central character (c'mon, guess her name...) is played by Ellen Page. Yes, that Ellen Page. She plays a 15 year old going through a difficult period at home, at school and pretty much everywhere else. The film's narrative thrust is her search for her 9 year old brother, but it's really more a picture of the thought processes of a young teenager struggling to find a place for herself as she tries to cope with problems both big and small.

It plays as an experimental film - the timeline for the narrative is staggered (the key event happens midway in the storyline, but we are shown it at the end of the film) and the screen is split into various different angles and shots for practically the entire film. It's constantly shifting and changing throughout - sometimes a simple split screen in two, but more often than not several different sized frames arranged as puzzle pieces. As well, occasionally those frames move or get repeated. It can be very disorienting at times, but the threads of the story never get lost and enough signposts (her clothing, etc.) are left to help centre you to the timeframe of the story.

And it's quite successful at getting across her state of mind. The different frames feel like her different scattered thoughts - sometimes providing different views of her, sometimes her own point of view and occasionally smaller frames showing bits and pieces of her environment. Combine this with repeated phrases coming from the different corners of the screen, doubled voices and swings between emotional states, and it leaves you with a feeling of what it might be like to be this girl.

But is the film entertaining? Is it compelling? Well yes and no...I hate to pick on a film that tries to push some boundaries, plays with form and is indeed successful with it in many ways, but who really wants to feel like a messed up fifteen year old girl for 75 odd minutes? The movie is exhausting at times and the addition of other experimental techniques (especially repeated film loops and some film effects) just makes it all a bit too much. Ellen Page is fine in her role (especially in her quieter moments), but every good moment or sequence was followed by even longer stretches of fevered frames or ugly characters. And the story barely hangs on...It does manage to keep you interested though and the final shot of the film is an excellent way for it to wrap up.

The screening was followed by a very relaxed and interesting half hour Q&A with director Bruce McDonald. He stated that the initial concept of the film came from watching Norman Jewison's "The Thomas Crown Affair" where the split screen technique was used several times for scene transitions. The thought crossed his mind about using the device for an entire film - would it be possible to sustain it for a feature length story? At the very least he has definitely shown that the technique is very useful in getting certain ideas across. In the end, your enjoyment of the film will likely be based on your interest in the formal characteristics of filmmaking.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

80th Annual Academy Awards Nominations

I'm not a big Oscar buff nor do I really care a great deal who wins (OK, somewhat - I think I threw a shoe when I heard "Crash" won Best Picture), but I always enjoy watching the telecast. Yes, that 4 hour onslaught of self-congratulations? I enjoy the hell out of it. Mostly because we watch it with friends and just end up talking about movies. I also love those clip portions of the show that so many people want to toss away in order to shorten things - it just always re-establishes my love of film (that Film Noir one from a few years ago was great if I recall).

Anyhoo, the nominations were announced today for this year's awards. There's already been some hub-bub regarding the run up to the nominations in several categories - namely Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film - as some of the obvious choices were left out and didn't even make the cut before the final nominations (e.g. In The Shadow Of The Moon, "4 Months 3 Weeks And 2 Days", etc.). But it shouldn't really be overly surprising given the convoluted process for nominations, typically conservative tastes (of older Academy members) and personal agendas that are all part of the yearly tradition of the Oscars.

My favourite nomination of the bunch is actually for one of the Short Animated films - Madame Tutli-Putli. I've actually seen it twice now and it's an amazing creation. I previously wrote about it:

It's "Nightmare Before Christmas" meets early Tool videos - and the most amazing eyes you'll ever see. After the screening, one of the filmmakers spent a good 3-4 minutes trying to explain how they created the effect. He lost me, but it didn't matter...There were times during the film that I actually wondered if maybe the woman was an actual woman and not some stop motion creation. Simply because the eyes looked so incredible...

The film itself is a dark tale of a train ride and some unexpected visitors. It's creepy, funny and ends with a beautiful if slightly puzzling image. With this award, the film becomes eligible for next year's Oscars.

That comparison in the first line doesn't really do it justice...It's a great deal more. And it's also from the NFB which would allow us Canadians to crow "Our Film Board won another Oscar - Ha!". We're petty like that...

Other random thoughts about the nominations:

  • The folks at Edward Copeland On Film did an awesome job predicting the eventual nominees (on the major awards anyway). I don't know if they were privy to the short lists for all the categories, but they had a really high hit ratio.
  • Though I haven't yet seen Sarah Polley's "Away From Her", I was kinda hoping that Gordon Pinsent would sneak in a nomination for Best Actor. He's been a staple on Canadian TV and film for decades and just so damn good in anything he touches.

  • Yet again we see a nominee for Best Film not getting a Best Director nod. I suppose they don't have to line up, but Joe Wright must be wondering why the heck the Academy loves his film, but not his directing of said film...
  • Up for Best Documentary - 4 war-themed films and Michael Moore (that's not to give short shrift to any of the nominees).
  • Without having seen any of the Documentary Shorts nominees, I'd wager a large sum that the winner will be "Sari's Mother" - the story of a woman in Iraq struggling to get Health Care for her AIDS stricken son, but having to deal with the mess left from the occupation. That's not to say it isn't deserving, but it certainly has a subject matter that one would expect to appeal to voters (ie. an important current topic with tragic overtones).
  • Another Documentary Short sounds terrific. The synopsis for "Salim Baba" from the Oscar site: "Using a hand-cranked 1897 projector, Salim Muhammad offers his neighbors in the slums of Kolkata, India, a chance to view scraps of films. Although collectors have sought to buy his rare projector, Salim refuses to part with it, as his street shows are often the only films the local residents can afford to see."

  • The Russian nominee for Best Foreign Language Film ("12") is somewhat of a remake of "Twelve Angry Men", so I have a soft spot for it. I've heard that "Mongol" (from Kazakhstan) is terrific.
  • "Falling Slowly", the nominated song from the film "Once", absolutely must win. Not just because it is a great song (and it is), but because of how integral it was to the film.

  • Painful truths: 1) Oscar Nominated - "Norbit", 2) "Transformers" - multiple Oscar nominee. Ouch.

Saturday 19 January 2008

Val Lewton Blog-a-thon - Rambling Thoughts

This is a rambling random set of thoughts caused by working my way through Val Lewton's 9 horror films from the 1940's. All blame can be assigned to Michael at The Evening Class for his Val Lewton Blog-a-thon.

I was a newcomer to Val Lewton when the box set of nine of his productions was released a few years ago. "Cat People" grabbed me immediately (what a beautiful looking film that is), but the others registered less so...Upon revisiting them all for this blog-a-thon, something clicked though - the 'horror' of each film made itself more evident both via story and atmosphere. Lewton wasn't out to scare you immediately for the most part - he wanted to leave lingering impressions on you and have you remain frightened of the situations his characters were in long after the film ran out.

Consider some of the storylines and situations in which his characters find themselves:

  • Stuck on an at sea ship with an insane murderous captain - and you know you're next on his list ("Ghost Ship").
  • You're own actions are used against you to unfairly send you away to the insane asylum - a dark poorly run asylum ("Bedlam").
  • A plague like disease is slowly killing off the people on a quarantined island ("Isle Of The Dead").
  • Your life's work and your belief in the greater good it is serving costs others their lives ("The Body Snatcher").
  • Creepy zombies! ("I Walked With A Zombie").

And there are plenty of other moments. Smaller moments within the films that add to the unease of the viewer:

  • At the beginning of "I Walked With A Zombie" during her first boat ride to the island, caregiver Betsy meets Paul Holland as she marvels at the beautiful surroundings. In what can only be described as a pretty damn pessimistic view of things, Holland says:
    "Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay."
    While watching that I couldn't help thinking of Werner Herzog's view of nature as he expresses it in this clip from the great documentary "Burden Of Dreams" ("the birds...they just screech in pain"):

  • The change of perspective for Nell Bowen in "Bedlam" happens during a performance she has set up - the mental patients of Bedlam are brought in to entertain her guests, but also as a away to prove to her new Quaker acquaintance that she is as heartless as she says she is. But when the show starts, she joins the viewer in being horrified at the concept of rich people sitting back and laughing at asylum patients trying to recite prose and act and sing. Especially when one of the patients falls dead on stage and there is barely a pause or concern about it.
  • If we haven't already been convinced of how evil John Gray is in "The Body Snatcher", he confirms it when he - without much thought - kills the cute little dog in the graveyard. If there's anything we've learned from Hollywood movies, it's that the worst thing you can do is harm a dog...

Lewton's films (his horror films anyway - I've not seen anything else he produced) typically have dramatic use of lighting and shadows to further reinforce moments of unease or just an overall general sense of dread. Being a fan of the more atmospheric modern horror films, I have to imagine that a great many of these owe a debt to Lewton. If not as straight line inspiration, then via others who took notice of how shadows, angles, stark contrasts and subtle sound effects can all be very useful in setting a mood.

I can't help myself from throwing a few screenshot examples in here:

  • "I Walked With A Zombie" has plenty. The venetian blinds casting shadows across rooms...

the zombified wife...

this guy...

Those scenes in the fields (as Betsy leads zombie woman through them) reminded me a great deal of the classic 50s Japanese horror film "Onibaba", though I have no idea if there was any direct influence there.

  • "Isle Of The Dead" contains one of my favourite sequences in all of Lewton's films. Thea is wandering about the island and suddenly there is little to no sound - just the moaning of the wind and some birds. As she walks out of one part of the woods we suddenly see the waving dress of the Vorvolaka...

and then Thea find her way here...

and we see her point of view...

and she comes in closer as she thinks she sees something...

and though the screencap barely registers it, in the film we see a brief subtle ghostly appearance...

which Thea obviously sees too...

It's a terrific buildup heightened by its paucity of sound (once the dress shows up, the birds are replaced by strange female moaning sounds).

  • "Bedlam" depicts the "loonie bin" to be a dark and pretty terrifying place:

  • And of course, the pool scene from "Cat People"...

And now the rambling portion of the post...Here just a few random thoughts that occurred to me:

  • Arnold Bocklin's painting "Island Of The Dead" shows up not only in the opening credits of "Isle Of The Dead" (the first screencap of this post), but also in "I Walked With A Zombie" which was made a few years earlier:

  • Boris Karloff's hairstyle in "Isle Of The Dead" is almost as frightening as anything else in the film...

  • Was that Lawrence Tierney in "Ghost Ship"? Hey, it was!
  • "The Seventh Victim" had a shower scene that preceded "Psycho" by 17 years.
  • Lewton's films still managed a couple of jump scares:

1) There was that damn horse showing up and whineying in "The Body Snatcher" just a blip before I expected something.

2) During that outdoor sequence in Isle Of The Dead, there's a sudden loud caw from a bird. It's kinda cheap, but it worked given the hushed atmosphere that led to it.

3) In "Bedlam" while the Quaker is walking down the darkened hallway, an arm flies out to grab him.

Thanks for making me revisit these Michael! It was like a day at the beach...

Monday 14 January 2008


I guess my spotlight has been on Takeshi Kitano of late...First an invite for dinner and now this.

The dinner invite, though, was pretty much spurred on by having just reviewed his 2005 film Takeshis' (the apostrophe at the end is intentional - indicating something that belongs to more than one Takeshi).

After so many years in the entertainment field and having done movies (starring, directing, writing), TV, books, painting and just about everything else, Takeshi Kitano seems to now be deconstructing his own artistic process. This film is the first in what is apparently a trilogy of films that will break apart Kitano's approach and ideas of film (the second was 2007's "Glory To The Filmmaker" which was screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival). Whether this is an experimental approach to working in new ideas, therapy or simply boredom on his part, I couldn't say. It does, however, still contain the creative shots of previous films, the signature Kitano humour and bits of non sequitur entertainment.

The film kind of folds upon itself in a way similar to Spike Jonze's "Adaptation". It begins with famous actor Beat Takeshi wrapping up yet another yakuza gangster film role and introduces us to the many people around him (helpers, gambling associates, sycophants, annoyances, etc.). One of the people we meet is a struggling actor named Kitano - who just happens to look exactly like Beat Takeshi. After their meeting and an autograph, Beat goes off into makeup and as he falls asleep during the application of fake tattoos on his back, he wonders what life is like for his doppelganger. Within his "dream", we see this imaginary life of Kitano populated with Beat's own acquaintances in various new roles - sometimes popping up several times. To remove us even further from reality, within Beat's dream the struggling actor Kitano has his own dreams. Like the following sequence:

This particular passage starts out with Kitano as a cab driver picking up a couple of sets of people he has already come across (two large sumo wrestlers as well as a young boy dancer and his agent). After navigating a series of bodies on the ground, the car plunges into darkness with the passengers all screaming and crash lands into...Kitano's apartment - at which point he wakes up. However, we're already inside the larger dream of the actor Beat Takeshi and those passengers have all been other people he has met so far that day (but perhaps not exactly in those guises). All these sequences seem to bring out not only the real life Kitano's creative processes (merging flashes of ideas he gets as he meets people in an awake state with the free form stories he has while dreaming), but also allow him to riff on what are likely scenarios he's been through in his real life role as an entertainment personality. Meanwhile we also get a myriad of references to previous Kitano films as well as a terrific dance sequence with three tap dancers and a huge caterpillar.

I'm not sure if Kitano initially had the concept first and then filled it to the brim with germs of other ideas or if he simply had lots of spare thoughts floating around and came up with the device of this film into which to spill them. He has said that he never wants to make another yakuza film. And though this certainly isn't one, he not only includes characters that are yakuzas within his dreams, but also clips from a yakuza movie within the movie in which the film's Beat Takeshi stars. And he definitely hasn't quite got all the gun play out of his system yet...

Kitano may be too self-involved for some with this new phase, but if an artist is going to do some navel gazing and reflection on how his creativity should express itself then this would be the way to do it - through an original, fun and entertaining ride.

Thursday 10 January 2008

Meme Time - My Dinner With...

Pat Piper over at Lazy Eye Theatre has tagged me for the My Dinner With BLANK Meme and it sounds like a fun one:

1. Pick a single person past or present who works in the film industry you would like to have dinner with. And tell us why you chose this person.

2. Set the table for your dinner. What would you eat? Would it be in a home or at a restaurant? And what would you wear? Feel free to elaborate on the details.

3. List five thoughtful questions you would ask this person during dinner.

4. When all is said and done, select six bloggers to pass this Meme along to.

5. Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre, so people know the mastermind behind this Meme.

I'm not overly good at narrowing my choices sometimes, so I'm going to choose four separate guests (I expect I could actually get answers to many of my questions with a bit of googling or further reading of books about them, but I would still want to ask person to person):

Martin Scorsese

1. It's not that I necessarily think Scorsese is the best director ever (though I love his work), but I could listen to him discuss film all day long. His passion comes through loud and clear, he articulates film conventions and techniques better than just about anyone I've seen (track down his "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies" or "My Voyage To Italy") and he has great and interesting choices for favourites.

2. I'd dole out some meat curry my wife taught me how to make years ago (though I haven't made it in quite some time) with rice and dal (lentils). It's nothing fancy, but the cumin and coriander spices are my faves and I think Marty (hey, if I'm having him over for dinner, I think I can call him Marty) would appreciate it. Serve with a nice green garden salad with juicy red tomatoes for colour (no tomatoes for me though). Liberal quantities of vino. New York style cheesecake for dessert.

3. Questions? Man, I'd probably just open the floor and ask "So, what do you like about film?" and then sit back for 3-4 hours...But if I have to ask 5 specific ones:

  • How much room do you allow for on-set improvisation? To ask that another way, how much of the film is already set in your mind before you start the actual filming?
  • As great as your Personal Journey documentary is, you stop when you get to your contemporaries. Having previously broken down portions of the 30s, 40s and 50s into sections like "The Director as Smuggler" and "The Director as Iconoclast", how would you break down the 70s, 80s and 90s?
  • Which of your contemporaries influenced you most? Which of the current crop of young directors influence you the most?
  • Having explored American and Italian cinema in personal documentaries, is there a third country that you would like to examine in depth?
  • Could you help De Niro find a good script again?

John Cusack

1. One of my favourite actors - I like a bunch of his films, I like his acting style and he just seems like a guy you could hang with.

2. Got to be a BBQ. Probably some steaks with corn and sweet potatoes (with cinnamon and nutmeg) on the grill as well. Beers while we're cooking. Beers with dinner. Beers with dessert. The beer would be either Wellington County Ale or Big Rock Traditional Ale. Dessert - a good moist chocolate cake. Cognac after we're done.

3. The questions:

  • How much influence did you have on the music selection in "High Fidelity" and was Nick Hornby involved? (I know that's probably really easily answered, but I'd want to get Cusack talking about music...)
  • You have several producing and writing credits, but no directing ones. Are you interested in eventually directing your own film?
  • Who were your biggest acting influences? Any filmmakers that had a strong influence on your view of film?
  • How much of your early career direction was of your own choosing and how much did your father and siblings help in directing your choices? Oh, and say 'Hi' to Joan - I think she's terrific.
  • What are the future plans for the New Crime Productions team (he and his friends - responsible for "Grosse Pointe Blank" and "High Fidelity")?

Takeshi Kitano

1. He's a modern day Renaissance Man - author, artist, TV personality, director, poet, comedian, actor - and I love the additional style he brings to his movies.

2. Grilled salmon steaks on a bed of teriyaki noodles. Pan fried broccoli. Beer, but probably a lighter one like Big Rock's Grasshopper Wheat Ale. Apple pie with a really good vanilla ice cream for dessert. Failing all that, a good restaurant that serves noodle soup.

3. The questions:

  • Do you have a favourite medium within which to work? Or do you find pros and cons to all of them?
  • Your last two films ("Takeshis'" and "Glory To The Filmmaker") have both been experiments in deconstructing your own creative process. What's the third in the trilogy going to be like? And do you feel you are achieving something out of this process for yourself or are you simply enjoying the freedom of making non-narrative movies?
  • "Brother" (2000) was your only 'Hollywood' film (plus a few acting roles). Have you considered working in other countries again or is it just a matter of coming across the right material? Any interest in going back to Hollywood?
  • Even within the realm of filmmaking, you have many hats - you've written or adapted the script for all of your films and also edited the last 11. Is that a requirement for you? Do you need to have complete control over your concept to the end or do you simply enjoy performing all those roles?
  • Your films seem to have a wide variety of influences which is apparent from previous comments you've made about your favourite movies. Were there any specific periods or genres of film that influenced you or just bits and pieces as you went along?

Gloria Grahame

1. I just love her in everything I've seen her in (particularly Nicholas Ray's "In A Lonely Place"). There's just a mesmerizing quality and air of mystery about her...And the best eyebrows ever.

2. Bringing out the good tablecloth and silverware this time...I'm thinking a nice light chicken (rosemary maybe?) with a chick pea salad and maybe some green beans cooked on the stove top with almonds. Cocktails beforehand and white wine with dinner. Probably fresh berries with chocolate sauce for dessert.

3. The questions (she had a very interesting personal life, but I'd stay away from that and focus on her film career):

  • You once said, "It wasn't the way I looked at a man, it was the thought behind it." Please elaborate...
  • You also said that you never understood Hollywood. Given that, were you happy to do a lot more stage work in the early 60s (as well as TV work)?
  • Though known for many film noir roles, you've actually done a wide range of acting. Did you have any preferred style or were you happy to branch out?
  • At the time you made many of them, were you conscious of the style of film noir? Did you have a great deal of interest in the style of your films or were you mainly concerned about your role and your approach to it?
  • And just before you go, would you mind reading the phone book? In its entirety? I'll just sit here quietly...

That would be cool.

I'm tagging the following people to continue the meme:

James at Toronto Screen Shots
Shannon at Movie Moxie
Chet at Under The Influence
Adam at DVD Panache
Damian at Windmills Of My Mind
Jeremy at Moon In The Gutter