Tuesday 28 August 2012

Blind Spot #8 - "The Searchers" and "Stagecoach"

The Searchers was already on my Blind Spot list (one of the first I picked last year actually) before it was slotted into the number 7 position in the recently published Sight And Sound Poll. However, since it was the only member of the Top 10 list that I hadn't yet seen, I will admit that I moved its viewing date up a few months. It just seemed the right thing to do...And I do have an excuse for not having seen it before, though it's essentially the same one I previously had with Casablanca: I've read so much about it and seen so many clips that I felt I already knew the story. Granted, once I finally saw Casablanca and realized how extraordinarily great it was, I probably should have discarded that excuse for any and all movies. Slowly, but surely, I'll get there.

I had no excuse for avoiding Stagecoach, though, apart from some stupid thought in my head that a Western from the 30s would be slight and low on excitement. It's funny how expectations can so easily be shattered, isn't it? Stagecoach - John Ford's kickstart to the Western genre from 1939 - is a wonderful blast of fresh air, moving at an entertaining clip while setting bars for action photography that would remain for years to come. Meanwhile The Searchers was both more and less than what I expected: a post-doc course on how to frame scenes and actors through scintillating visuals and with a cast that contains nary a single cliche or unflawed character, but also with a tendency to undercut its power with broad humour and acting choices.

I should tread carefully here though - Ford's flip of the standard conventions of a Western is deserving of its place in film history if only for its anti-hero Ethan Edwards. John Wayne's portrayal of Ethan doesn't allow for much warmth (except for an early scene with his two young nieces who shortly thereafter get kidnapped by Indians) since his racist ideas don't take much effort to tease out. Short of that tender moment with the kids, Edwards' only moments of happiness seem to be at the expense of others and its a wonder why we stay with him on his travels. To top if off, during his journey to find the young girls, his main companion Martin (who was taken in by Edwards' brother and wife when young and who has some Indian blood in his heritage) comes across as dim of wit and void of personality - which makes his scenes with the lovely Laurie a bit hard to understand and even harder to watch when bits of slapstick are thrown in. Moments like that plus the every utterance of the dopey and dense Mose Harper (one of the set of deputees a U.S. Marshall has in tow) pull the film back from the dark waters it so clearly should be wading into deeper. For every time Ethan loses control (shooting the eyes out of a dead Indian or firing randomly into a herd of buffalo to diminish the amount of food for the Indian tribes) or a body is found under one of the tombstone like rock formations in Monument Valley or the burned out shell of a home is examined, it feels like there's an attempt to reassure the audience that there's still fun to be had in the old West. To me, it continually reset Ethan's despair, loneliness and anger whenever this happened and left the viewer resetting their own feelings of where Ethan's quest was headed. Fortunately Wayne is able to stir Ethan's intensity, determination and hate right back up in very little time as he delivers a commanding performance throughout. The film's final image is justification enough for its standing: Edwards left alone, somewhat helpless and framed all in black, after his remaining family have re-entered their house to begin anew.

Ford's much earlier (by 17 years) trek through Monument Valley (one of his favourite filming locations) during Stagecoach feels completely fresh even though it uses so many of what now seem to be conventions of Westerns. And it does it all with a steady yet fast moving pace that never lags but still somehow manages to give full characters time to breathe. As a town's Marshall prepares to ride out with the stagecoach passing through (so he can catch up with an escaped prisoner), we meet its six passengers: a drunk doctor and a lady of ill repute being run out of town, a sickly woman trying to meet up with her soldier husband, a whiskey drummer, a gambler and a thieving banker. Also along for the ride is the apparently always necessary comic relief in the form of the squeaky-voiced, slightly-cowardly, but friendly stagecoach driver (who also happens to be a few spokes short of a solid wheel). He seems to be the only one who is an open book - everyone else is keeping their secrets close to the vest. It's a strong set of characters and once again Ford provides us not only with interesting faces, but interesting people. The sickly woman appears sympathetic, but she won't give the time of day to Dallas (the woman run out of town). The gambler is only after the sickly woman ("an angel in the jungle") and was a supporter of the South in the Civil War, but he's not purely the evil caricature initially expected. The one disappointing character is Gatewood the banker - as he admonishes everyone in the coach with "Reduce taxes! America for Americans! The government must not interfere with business!" while simultaneously concealing the $50000 he has stolen you realize that you couldn't build a more perfect archetype for the modern day, self-righteous, far-right, white collar criminal. There's enough of interest going on with these characters that you barely notice it takes almost a full 20 minutes before we meet the movie's central character: the escaped Ringo Kid (played by John Wayne). And what a meeting! It may be one of my favourite character entrances ever: a quick dolly into Wayne spinning a shotgun around his hand to load it while the camera briefly loses focus and then regains it on his close-up face topped with a gleaming white hat. Ford creates the star image of Wayne right in those few seconds. "Hey, you know that B-movie Western star? How do you like him now!". The Ringo Kid has no issues with catching a ride on the coach even though the Marshall will arrest him - he just wants to get to the end of the line to seek vengeance on the Plummer brothers who killed his loved ones. On the way, they have to deal with squabbles inside the coach, Indians on the war path and a lack of soldiers to protect them. Both Ringo Kid and Dallas show their empathy to others and a relationship begins to evolve, but will the end of the line split them apart? Will they even make it there?

From a pure entertainment point of view, it's hard to beat a film like Stagecoach. The characters and story elements are wound up, put in place and then left to do their thing without always following the line you expect. As well, two remarkable sequences provide some great tension and excitement (while highlighting impressive technical skill) that can rival just about any film out there. A river crossing of the coach is partially filmed from right on top of the coach's roof - right behind the driver with his point of view to the horses pulling it through the water. It's a moment that completely pulls you in and feels almost like a documentary. Later, the Indians chase the coach in the most famous section of the film. Long tracking shots beside galloping horses with stunt men crashing to the ground and climbing all over the coach and the rig pulling it. There's an obvious borrow from this chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark when Indy pulls himself under the moving truck, but there's no doubt that this single chase inspired countless stunts in years to come (all of which were probably far safer to perform...).

If The Searchers doesn't build to that kind of excitement, it rarely slows down either. It's pace is more languid, but - excepting for some of those poorly timed and slightly too-long comedic scenes - never distractingly so. Both films provide gorgeous shots of the Arizona/Utah landscape (even in the rather old DVD copies I had to use for these screencaps - that Criterion Stagecoach disc is mandatory now), but the sharp crisp blues & oranges of the sky and rocks plus the bright white of high altitude snow is really a thing of beauty in The Searchers. It all provides a counter to Ethan's bleak view and flexible morals: his grey coat from the Civil War shows where he sided, it's strongly implied that he's a thief and his tendency to wall people out is emphasized by the bricks behind the opening titles.

I expect that it was a gutsy move for the studio to put Wayne - who by now, after getting his star-making turn in Stagecoach, gets his name above the title of The Searchers - into such a role. With John Ford at the helm, though, Wayne had a fantastic guide.

Monday 27 August 2012

One Of Those Scenes - "Our Hospitality"

Also published on RowThree.

Buster Keaton has always been famous for his daring stunts and his deadpan face. Rarely does he break expression as he tumbles down mountainsides, fights vicious storms or survives buildings crashing around him. One of his best stunts occurs near the end of his classic "Our Hospitality" - as his beloved floats uncontrollably towards a huge waterfall and certain death, he ties himself to an overhanging log and swings out to catch the falling body as it plummets over the edge of roaring water. It may only be a dummy that takes the plunge over the edge, but that's Keaton arcing out like a pendulum to catch it while swallowing torrents of water. It's a fantastic scene that provides an exciting climax and is possibly even more remarkable in its execution today than almost 90 years ago when he performed it. There's no editing out of safety wires or harnesses here - just a basic knowledge of physics and a great deal of nerve.

As great as it is, though, my favourite moment in the film comes much earlier and shows off one of Keaton's other comedic skills - his impeccable timing. Unaware of a long-standing family feud (similar to a Hatfield/McCoy battle), Willie Mckay returns to his family home for the first time in decades. There he meets a young woman who just happens to be a member of his family's rivals and she invites him over to dinner. The menfolk of her family are, of course, aghast when he arrives, but since they are hospitable southern gentlemen, they would never kill him inside their house. So they wait until he must eventually leave. Willie realizes this and stalls his departure - which also gives him more time with his new girl.

As he watches her play the piano, he becomes aware of the baleful glares of his hopeful executioners. For a full 10 seconds, he tries to appear unfazed by looking for a natural relaxed mode, but continues to shift positions, trying folded arms then leaning against the wall then hands in pockets, but never quite doing any of them before changing his mind and trying something else. It's a wonderful little piece of funny business that shows his awkwardness and nervousness at the situation - while never letting his expression change.

Here's the scene in question:

Monday 20 August 2012

Ocean's Thirteen is a Pretty Pretty Movie

After watching Ocean's Thirteen again recently, I had mentioned to a friend that even though I thought it was the least successful of the trilogy, it was still a fun movie. More obvious, though, was how fantastic it looked. Awash with bright primary colours, you could tell Steven Soderbergh was once again playing in the medium of film.

I mentioned that I should just do a pure screen grab post and he said "Can't wait!". So I randomly grabbed a bunch of shots, but they didn't quite tell the whole story - they just don't properly convey how exceptionally candy-coloured the whole thing is so I've been sitting on them since. However, since my content has been rather light of late, I figured I should post them anyway.

It's still a really pretty movie though...

Sunday 19 August 2012

TIFF12 - The Anticipation Has Begun

The full lineup and schedule of this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) will be available on Tuesday, but many of the tiles have already been announced and they've already made it literally impossible to see everything I want to see. This includes many of my most anticipated films of 2012: Rian Johnson's Looper (which scored the Opening Night slot - a bit counter to their normal opening programming, but sounds like a great way to kick things off to me), P.T. Anderson's The Master, Terence Malick's To The Wonder, the Tom Tykwer/Wachowskis project Cloud Atlas (though that lengthy trailer has subdued my enthusiasm a bit) and David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook. Because of this deluge of titles, though, I don't expect I'll catch a single one of that list.

Don't get me wrong, I'm dying to see them (particularly those first three), but I've found that what makes the festival so much fun for me is finding the smaller, less likely to be distributed films from directors I like. That's not to say that I'm only looking for the rare nuggets - a lot of what I see gets a release (at least on DVD) at some point, but getting a chance to see it on the big screen with a film festival crowd that (typically) is looking for something a little different can make for an extraordinary week of discovery and even adventure. That's what has been my own preference, though, so I can't state its the only way to see a festival - I have several friends who prefer to catch big releases during the 11 day span simply because they want to make their festival as solid a filmgoing experience as they can. I can't argue with that.

And it's damn tempting (particularly with the recent over the moon praise for The Master in 70 mm), but since most of those films I've already rhymed off will hit local theatres soon after the festival ends (very soon in the case of Looper), I'll cool my heels a bit while I dig into the rest of the schedule. Probably.

Looking at the list of already announced titles, it's already packed with a plethora of big and small releases from across the planet. It would've been easy enough to fill an entire festival's schedule simply with the very first titles announced several weeks back (filled with some big names and a good chunk of world premieres), but I usually get a higher "hit ratio" with films from Scandinavia, Japan, the documentary lineup (which seems to get better every year) and the madness that is Midnight Madness.

The full schedule gets released on Tuesday Aug. 21st, but here's a quick shortlist of my 30 most anticipated titles from the currently announced films:

90 Minutes (Eva Sørhaug) - I seemed to be one of the few supporters of Sørhaug's previous feature Cold Lunch which, while certainly not a happy fun time at the cinema, offered surprises and an austere but strangely lovely look and feel. Her latest is apparently "bold and uncompromising" and appears to focus on domestic violence - likely to be a difficult watch, but just as likely to approach the subject from a new angle.

A Liar's Autobiography -- The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman (Ben Timlett, Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson) - I suppose this won't be hard to find on DVD once it gets released, but since Monty Python are one of the major touchstones along the path towards my sense of humour AND this mostly fictional account of Chapman's life (he was both ridiculously funny and terribly tragic) is in 3D animation, how can I pass this up?

The ABCs Of Death (26 different directors) - It's true, I'm a total sucker for anthology films. Sure there are clunkers (New York, I Love You was painful at times), but I love the variety on display. This is even more true when you get very short run times like 3-5 minutes per film (if you don't like something, it's not like you have to wait long). The Midnight Madness showing of the 26 shorts in The ABCs Of Death could prove to be a blast with a list of directors who will play in the restricted parameters of a short film (each with a horror theme based on a different letter of the alphabet) and a crowd who love to play along with what's on screen.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland) - The great Toby Jones plays a reserved sound engineer who begins to crack up as he gets deeper involved in the production of an Italian horror film. It's just simply a fantastic premise.

Blondie (Jesper Ganslandt) - Ganslandt is another director I've only encountered at TIFF (a few years ago with The Ape), but who still left a mark. The premise of three at-odds sisters getting together to celebrate their mother's birthday doesn't sound overly intriguing, but I have to expect there's a whole lot more under that exterior.

Dreams For Sale (Nishikawa Miwa) - A couple decide to get through tough financial times by scamming lonely single women. I've occasionally thought that I should just default to always putting every Japanese entry onto my list considering my past successes.

The End Of Time (Peter Mettler) - The film promises to "explore (and explode) our conceptions of time". Count me curious.

First Comes Love (Nina Davenport) - I really adored Davenport's Parallel Lines, a documentary that traces her trip back to NY for the first time right after 9/11 and the cast of people she meets along the way. She garnered more attention for her next doc Operation Filmmaker (deservedly so) and returns with a look at her own attempt to have baby as a single mother over 40. She typically puts herself at the centre of her films, but I'm perfectly fine with that as I can't help but genuinely like her.

Foxfire (Laurent Cantet) - Cantet's latest promises more of that uncomfortable dynamic between generations that filled The Class as he relates the tale of a 1950s girl gang (from the novel by Joyce Carol Oates)

Ghost Graduation (Javier Ruiz Caldera) - I'm a bit concerned that the comedy in this Spanish mash-up of The Breakfast Club and Ghostbusters might be too broad, but on the other hand it's a Spanish mash-up of The Breakfast Club and Ghostbusters.

The Impossible (JA Bayona) - I was one of the few that didn't go completely ga-ga over Bayona's The Orphanage. I liked it a good deal and it was definitely right in my wheelhouse, but I felt it never quite deserved the jump scares it threw out and quite disliked the ending. However, there's obviously some talent there so I'm curious as to how he handles a story of a couple searching for their children in the aftermath of the massive tsunami of 2004.

Key Of Life (Kenji Uchida) - The plot is irresistible: a failed actor switches identities with a man he meets at a bath house only to realize that the man was an assassin.

The Land Of Hope (Sion Sono) - Sono is currently one of the most interesting and daring filmmakers on the planet, so I'll watch anything he makes. He returns to the aftermath of Japan's devastating earthquake with a another story of survival. Though it is apparently a step in a different direction for him, I'm onboard all the way.

Lunarcy! (Simon Ennis) - It's really the perfect title for a doc about people's obsession with the moon isn't it?

Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia) - "A delightfully lurid ride through the lower depths of the Bombay film industry, Miss Lovely follows two brothers who hit it big producing sex-horror films in the mid-1980s.". Yes please.

Motorway (Soi Cheang) - Cheang's Accident sounded brilliant as it focused on a team of assassins who made their killings look like, well, accidents. But it wasn't - apart from botching the excitement of most of the over-convoluted impossible-to-suspend-belief accidents, the film didn't handle its melodramatic character moments in any interesting fashion (somewhat like most of Johnnie To's - a producer here - films). And yet, I'm still drawn to the promise of non-stop car chases and action in his latest (rookie cop learns the tricks of the high-speed pursuit trade from a veteran as he prepares to go after a skilled getaway driver).

Mumbai's King (Manjeet Singh) - I daresay that this neo-realist style view of one young boy's life in Mumbai's slums is a different take on the city than Miss Lovely, but since this year's City To City program focuses on Mumbai, it's highly appropriate we see numerous viewpoints.

No (Pablo Larrain) - I was amongst those that were wowed by Larrain's Tony Manero, so I'm going on his name alone. Casting Gael Garcia Bernal doesn't hurt either.

Painless (Juan Carlos Medina) - The horror genre certainly seems to be an attractive place to start your feature filmmaking career in Spain and here's another example of a first time helmer dives headlong into the genre. The plotline of secret experiments conducted during the Spanish Civil War that come to the fore in the modern day sounds well-worn by now, but you can't deny that it'll bring some creepiness to a packed theatre - and that's always a treat.

Penance (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - A new Kiyoshi Kurosawa film. Let the world rejoice.

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas) - I'm terribly conflicted here...I absolutely head-over-heels loved every frame of Silent Light, but the reviews from Cannes indicated a very different and possibly self-indulgent work this time. Why must I wrestle with these decisions?

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher) - I have no interest in personally deconstructing Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but apparently there are legions of obsessive fans who have found hidden meanings throughout the film. However, I do have interest in Ascher's documentary that focuses on these people.

The Secret Disco Revolution (Jamie Kastner) - As I've grown and matured over the years, I've come to realize that any genre - be it film, music, literature, etc. - is not completely bad in and of itself. Even the dreaded Disco genre that I couldn't stand while growing up has revealed itself to me in later years to be filled with some great songs. Kastner's doc promises to cover not only the musical part of the movement, but the changes it brought to society as well.

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh) - OK, I know this is coming out soon after TIFF as well, but I don't think I can resist seeing this at Midnight Madness, lapping it up with the crowd and likely seeing many of the cast/filmmakers on stage.

Storm Surfers 3D (Christopher Nelius, Justin McMillan) - I'm picturing those incredible big wave surfing shots at the end of Stacy Peralta's Riding Giants splashing out of the screen in 3D and drenching me with awe...

The Suicide Shop (Patrice Leconte) - I'm not sure if an animated musical about a family concerned about passing along their business (of ending people's lives) to their cheerful, live-loving son is the place to start with Leconte's films, but it hardly matters. The screencaps look great.

Tai Chi 0 (Stephen Fung) - A "slick, stylish pop-art take" on the life of the founder of a school of Tai Chi. It's the only trailer I've watched from this list so far and it looks like it could be gobs of fun. I'm considering taking The Boy to see it if it doesn't seem overly gory.

Thermae Romae (Hideki Takeuchi) - Yet another Japanese comedy - this time time-travelling an ancient Roman architect to a Tokyo bath house in present day. Ripe with possibility.

The Thieves (Choi Dong-hoon) - One can only hope that this Korean action picture set in Hong Kong will combine the best of both worlds of filmmaking. If it does, look out.

The We And The I (Michel Gondry) - I'm not sure if Gondry is the first director I would have thought to helm this single day look at teenagers from the Bronx on their last day of school, but he continues to surprise me with his choices.

I'd be ecstatic just with that lineup, but new titles still to come and scheduling challenges will certainly mix things up. Who knows, maybe I'll still find some time for Joseph Gordon-Levitt...