Going Artsy at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

It took a few days to decide, but I’m glad I attended the first showing of From Ecstasy to Rapture: 50 Years of the other Spanish Cinema. This series is being presented each Wednesday evening until February 2nd, 2011, at the Free Screen sessions of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the Toronto International Film Festival’s new home and film centre.

Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox buildingAs the presenter told us, each Wednesday evening offers one form of film, following its use over a period of fifty years. So each week, viewers traverse the same fifty-year period in slightly different ways. The first showing was a series of 35mm films entitled “Documents,” featuring five shorts and réalités.

This was, as a companion remarked, an “artsy” experience, which was disconcerting to someone like me. I wasn’t raised to appreciate film, with its different techniques, as an art form in its own right. But I tried to view these five short films with that in mind, and I believe I learned something.

The first black and white piece, Fuego en Castilla, seemed to be re-enacting the Crucifixion using religious statues. Through a startling use of shadow, light, and movement, the statues seemed to come vividly alive. The grief of Mary, especially, was intense and powerful, almost enough to knock you backwards. But even more, you received an impression of deep anger from director José Val del Omar himself, as all these images were contextualized, in rare, brief flashes, in Franco’s Spain.

The films moved into colour and more modern times with director Gabriel Blanco’s De purificatione automobile. In scene after scene,  individuals and families hand-washed their cars with great care and affection on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Yet interspersed with these moments were scenes of old, derelict vehicles being crushed and dumped into a furnace to be melted down. Did the “purification” of the title imply that the old vehicles were “purified” to resurrect as the well-loved cars? Or was the love these people bestowed so lavishly on their cars a form of idolatry that needed purifying?

The fifth film, Le que tu dices que soy, directed by Virginia Garcia del Pino, was described as a documentary featuring people in “professions having to do with death, dirt or sex.” Six people were interviewed (a stripper, a butcher, a pig farmer, a national guard, a cemetery worker, and an unemployed woman). They commented on everything from how they viewed society, to what sort of job they might have preferred instead, to their romantic life, to what they liked about their jobs. The cemetery worker was the most cheerful of all of them, yet each one seemed surprisingly content and philosophical about their lot in life.

It was fascinating to see what preoccupied these filmmakers from 1959, when the first film was created, through 2007 and the last one. When it came to the effects that could be achieved, I was most impressed with the earliest film. Without all the blatant “special effects” in use today, the director was able to create an intense, emotional experience with “mere” light and shadow. I’d actually like to see both it and the fifth film again.

My companion and I also enjoyed what we saw of the Bell Lightbox itself. The upper levels open on one side into the large main entry area, creating a bright impression of space, especially given the high glass windows that front the building. And the seats, at least in our theatre, were to die for. The TIFF people clearly intend us to enjoy our film experience on every level.

The only minor, tiny complaint I might have would be that the screen was too high in our theatre. We sat in the middle rows, and still had to lift our heads to see the screen. If we’d sat in the front, we’d have had stiff necks by the end of the evening. Next time, we’ll sit in the upper rows so we can look straight on.

So there will be a next time? I think so. This was a film experience unlike any I’ve had before, but it’s remained with me and is still making me think, several days later. So yes — I’m sure I’ll be back.



The Harry Potter Camping Movie, or Deathly Hallows Part I

book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

You may be able to tell from the title what it was that didn’t thrill me about the seventh Harry Potter book — all that interminable camping! I really wondered how this would be handled in the movie, since I felt that a lot of it could have (and should have) been cut out or truncated in the book. I confess that when I heard that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would be presented in two movies, my first thought was, “Oh no, they’re going to milk all that camping to the very dregs!” And I’d had such high hopes.

It wasn’t as bad as I expected, though, because it’s easier to handle those camping scenes when you can see Harry, Hermione, and Ron interacting in live action. However, I still have one beef that I had in connection with the book: you hardly get to see any other characters!

At best, all the other characters we’ve come to know and love over the years get brief cameos in this movie, as they did in the book. And much as I love Harry, Hermione, and Ron, part of what has always made their story so interesting was how they lived, learned, behaved, and struggled in the wider context of the wizarding world. After all, many of them were fighting Voldemort long before Harry was born. From Snape to the Weasley family to Draco to Hagrid to the other students at Hogwarts, we knew and loved the entire world of people normally hidden from us Muggles. Yet we saw only brief glimpses of them now and then in this movie.

I think I liked the episode inside the Ministry of Magic the best, primarily because there were lots of people there!

I understand that this lack of other characters, except in short glimpses, couldn’t really be helped in the book, which is written primarily from Harry’s point of view. I hoped the movie would be able to get beyond that. And the film did keep moving as much as it could, giving us occasional interspersed scenes with Voldemort, Snape, and the Malfoys, so we got at least a little relief from all that isolation of the three main characters. But in my opinion, it didn’t go nearly far enough.

But the dramatic moments were action-packed and the special effects were convincing. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have really grown over the years in their portrayals of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. So on the whole, I liked the movie quite well, and I do recommend seeing it. But if you, like me, were hoping for less camping and more of the other characters — don’t hold your breath.

Harry Potter books

This Close to Aslan’s country – Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Reepicheep was even more enjoyable and gallant than the first time. King Caspian seems to have taken on the accent of his Narnian subjects (but my, he looks nice with that beard). And yes, Eustace is as deliciously odious as he can possibly be.

The third Narnia movie based on the books of C.S. Lewis — Voyage of the Dawn Treader — came out just in time for the Christmas season. And while it’s not as strong as its predecessor (Prince Caspian), it’s a fun film, and a nice addition to the series. As was the case with the books, it has a lighter tone than the second instalment, partly because of its episodic, adventurous nature. And I suspect that the only people who will take exception to it will be the same purists who objected to Susan’s very light flirtation with Caspian in the previous film. Or those who want to see all the Narnia movies primarily as Christian conversion tools.

The plot deviates very slightly here and there from the story in the book. (But of course, what movie adaptation doesn’t occasionally vary a plot that works fine in print but which would not work in live action?) An element is added — the search for seven swords — that helps to tie the otherwise unrelated episodes more organically to each other, but in my opinion it doesn’t detract from anything.

Some things are given less time (for example, we don’t really see [pardon the pun] the Dufflepuds after their dilemma is resolved). And other things are extended – such as Eustace’s episode (I’m being careful not to include too many spoilers here). But the fact that it lasts longer than it does in the book gives Reepicheep a real chance to shine and to reveal his noble nature. It also allows Eustace a chance to grow as a person, learning to be both courageous and giving. So I think this enhances the movie, and provides a very redemptive message.

One difference between the Narnia and the Harry Potter films is that Narnia is almost filmed in real time. As the kids grow older in the story, the actors grow older in the movies. And when they’re getting too old to play young children any more, why, those characters vanish from the story for the same reasons. We did get to see Peter once, and Susan about three times in this movie, but it was Lucy, Edmund, and Caspian who stood at the forefront this time.

Rahmandu's daugher, in Voyage of the Dawn TreaderEdmund has always been my favourite character, and I’ve loved seeing him grow up and become a responsible person over the three films. I felt he really shone in the Caspian movie, and he just keeps growing in this one. And Lucy, too, steps into the limelight in Dawn Treader, ironically as she struggles to think of herself as someone other than “Susan’s younger sister.” I felt that both of these characters reached an appropriate culmination in their swan song in the Narnia movies. And they have me really hoping that someone keeps going and makes The Horse and His Boy into a movie as well, because by then, all four actors who played the Pevensie children will be old enough to play themselves as adult kings and queens.

The one character who I didn’t think got as much development as he might have was Caspian himself. He did have moments where he learned important things, and you could see that he had become comfortable with being the leader of his people. But at the end, when he promises Aslan to try to be “a better king,” it’s hard to see quite how he wasn’t being as good a king as he should have been.

Meanwhile, Reepicheep’s yearning for Aslan’s country was first mentioned late enough that it almost seemed like an afterthought, and not that important. So that when he finally has the chance to paddle his coracle into Aslan’s country, it’s not quite the deeply moving moment that it was in the book.

I’ve seen comments from disgruntled evangelical Christians who don’t think the “Christian message” is as clear in this movie as in the book. But for those looking for a “message,” what is there is uplifting and encouraging for a wider audience. On the whole, the movie is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.

Frost/Nixon. See it. Now.

If you like chess – if you like puzzles – if you like intellectual challenges and cerebral tests of will – go see Frost/Nixon. Now. Tomorrow at the latest. Yesterday if possible.

It’s a small indicator of the success of the “Nixon Interviews” that the only thing I ever knew about David Frost was that he was the one who conducted them. It’s taken Ron Howard’s latest movie, Frost/Nixon, to educate me on where Frost came from before those interviews, and what exactly was involved in producing them. Not to mention how dramatic and earth shattering they really were.

But the movie – like Peter Morgan’s original stage play in London, England – couldn’t work without the actors who portrayed the title characters both onstage and in the film.

Continue reading

Death Note lives!

I still can’t say with certainty, “I liked the Death Note anime,” yet when I heard that the film based on the manga and animated series would be shown in Canada on September 15, I couldn’t wait to see it. And I fretted over whether the filmmakers had done a good job of translating it to live action.

Death Note is about a young man who finds a notebook from the Shinigami, Japanese death gods. It can be used to kill someone by writing their name while following certain rules. At first, Light Yagami kills only criminals whom the law hasn’t satisfactorily punished, but soon he kills as many justice officials as criminals, when the police go after Light himself. They know him only as “Kira,” a serial killer, while he proclaims himself “the god of this world.”

Heading the search for Kira is another young adult, known as “L.” What makes the story so fascinating, despite its macabre subject matter, is the back-and-forth intellectual game between these two brilliant young men. What riveted me for each anime episode was the intense chess game of move and counter-move played by the two main characters.

So I fretted: how could a live action film possibly capture the intellectual plotting of these two? For most Death Note fans, this battle of intellects is the main story. Then there was the question of whether all the characters could be captured properly by live actors. There was a lot to be anxious about.

Continue reading

Prince Caspian: a prince worth waiting for

I warn you: I can’t be objective about this movie. I grew up reading and rereading the Chronicles of Narnia, so seeing my well-loved stories made real before my very eyes is a thrill. Here is the word made living, beautiful flesh. The thought gives me goosebumps.

But maybe I can manage some objectivity. After seeing earlier attempts to bring The Lord of the Rings to life – one odious cartoon version springs to mind – I said for years that I’d rather nobody ever tried it, than to have someone ruin it so badly. Yet I can say, about watching Prince Caspian, that I never felt the way I did when I watched that cartoon Lord of the Rings. There was no sensation that this story was ruined and should never have been attempted. So it was probably done right, or very close to right.

I still love the casting of the Pevensie children. All four actors are capable of expressing at one moment the youthful enthusiasms, naivete, or even peevishness of kids and teenagers, and a minute later, the nobility of young kings and queens of Narnia. William Moseley in particular carries off the complex emotions of Peter – the boy who was once High King, but now must pass the torch of leadership to another and attempt a new, harder task: becoming an adult in his own unmagical world.

The person to whom he passes that torch – Ben Barnes as Caspian – believably portrays a dashing, almost fairy tale prince, yet with enough vulnerabilities and flaws that he isn’t cloying. It was an interesting choice, giving him and other Telmarines a loosely Spanish accent and culture, but it made sense, given their ancestors’ origin in our world. For the most part, Barnes pulls it off, adding an exotic edge to his character. In a way, it even augments the tension between Peter and Caspian; the Telmarine prince must seem terribly “foreign” to this very British boy, making it harder to surrender control.

The surrounding characters are also portrayed with convincing, dramatic realism, from the sly, dangerous Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), to the grumpy dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), to the deliciously over-chivalrous mouse Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard.

And speaking of Reepicheep…the special effects clearly are not included just for the “coolness” factor. You never feel that the CGI creatures – centaurs, talking mice, minotaurs etc. – are there to make you look at them; rather, they’re there because the plot demands it. Though I confess…when the trees finally wake up, and the river spirit makes an appearance…it really is spectacularly cool. (Told you I couldn’t be objective.)

One thing people wonder, given Narnia author C.S. Lewis’s evangelistic leanings, is whether his allegorical elements might become overpowering. They’re still there, in Prince Caspian, but more subtly than in the first film. In this movie, we deal with losing faith when apparently abandoned by one’s ideal, yet finding courage to fight through doubt. The faith remains directed toward Lewis’s Christ-figure, but Aslan doesn’t even appear until the end. He stands more as a symbol of hope than as a specific religious figure.

The film is definitely darker and more action-packed than the first movie, but the original story was also darker. The battle scenes demonstrate that the Narnian folk seek something very much worth fighting for.

I can think of only two things I would change in this movie. I would add more wonder and mystery to the discovery that the ancient tales of magic in Narnia were true, and to the reawakening of the powers. Lucy’s dream about the tree spirits comes close, but otherwise there is little of the loss and yearning for those ancient wonders that was there in the book.

My other change is prosaic: we hardly hear the names of the “old Narnians.” They are rarely officially introduced, so we have to rely on someone addressing them in conversation so we know their names. I had to read the closing credits to be reminded that the head centaur was Glenstorm, and the squirrel was Patterwig. But that’s a minor complaint.

On the whole, I’m as delighted as I hoped to be by this film. It was wonderful to see the story that enchanted me when I was growing up become a living, breathing thing before my eyes.