Friday, September 26, 2008

Au revoir pour maintenant...

Hello, readers! Even though it seems like this blog has only just gotten up and running at a fair pace, it'll be put on hold for about a month, as I'm taking off on a trip to England and France tonight! It goes without saying that I'm pretty pumped right now, not to mention antsy and frantic in my efforts to pack everything I think I'll need for a month. I'll be visiting lots of cinema-centric places along my journey (particularly in Paris), and I'll be taking loads of pictures and writing lots as I go.

I'll be coming back in late October, and soon thereafter, I'll be back to my regular cycle of viewings and corresponding reviews - but not until I've savored as much of my trip as I can! And even then, I'll very possibly still be in a French state of mind, so don't be surprised if I stick to more French films for the first few reviews after my return. I know that contradicts my one "rule" about this blog - no two films in a row from the same country - but then again, it's my blog, and over it, I am king (or power-hungry, corrupt dictator, if you prefer)!

So, until next month, take care and happy viewing!

P.S. If you know any like-minded cinema fans out there, spread the word about this little blog of mine, and be sure to let them know about the other reviews that I've written so far (listed below).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

La Pointe courte (1956)

Director: Agnès Varda
Country: France

This year's Toronto International Film Festival was particularly special for me, as I got the chance to see one of my favorite filmmakers and a legend of the French New Wave (a period in film history which I'm particularly crazy about): Agnès Varda. At 80 years old, she is still very active in filmmaking, having just presented her newest film, Les Plages d'Agnes, at the festival. For the event I attended, she presented her debut feature, La Pointe courte, which has been credited as one of the first films to ignite the filmmaking trend that would result in the French New Wave, and stuck around afterwards for an on-stage conversation with Canadian scholar and filmmaker Brenda Longfellow (Our Marilyn). The event took place at the AGO's Jackman Hall.

First the film itself, which Varda gave a short introduction for before sitting down to watch it with us. La Pointe courte, which takes place in the fishing community of the film's title, tells not one story, but two. The first involves an unnamed man and woman whose marriage is falling apart. As they stay in and explore the village, where the man grew up, they discuss their feelings for one another and what they should do regarding their relationship. The second narrative strand, which I found to be far more interesting, focuses on the various inhabitants of the village (who were virtually playing themselves). These segments have a very documentary-like feel to them, serving mainly to capture the essence of everyday life in the village. Among the assortment of "characters" who regularly appear throughout the film include a large family with several children, a daughter and her overprotective father and the man who is jailed for three days by the health inspectors who visit the village and examine its fishermen. The integration of these documentary segments with the staged storyline of the couple was particularly reminiscent of Jean Renoir's The River (1951), which similarly intercuts scenes from the Indian community on the banks of the Bengal River in which his film is set amid the coming-of-age story of three young women.

In this film (one of many cases that Varda would make for style over substance throughout her career), story is undeniably trumped by atmosphere and visual beauty. Varda's prior experience as a photographer is particularly strong throughout La pointe courte, and many of the film's shots have a still-life quality invested in them. For the village, Varda allows her camera to capture its character not only through the real-life fishermen and their families, but through the everyday objects and tools that are littered throughout the coastal town: laundry flapping on clotheslines, abandoned boats scattered along the shore, heaps of nets and rope, the many cats that silently prowl through the streets and buildings. Varda also allows herself some visually impressive shots within the couple's storyline, including, most memorably, some shots of the actors' faces in profile that seem to anticipate Ingmar Bergman's Persona:

After the film, Varda and Brenda Longfellow were seated on stage and mainly discussed the film and Varda's experiences making it. Here are some of the points that were discussed:

-As she has often done in interviews surrounding her involvement in the New Wave, Varda insisted that she was virtually a newcomer to cinema when she made La Pointe courte. While she described the Cahiers crowd (including François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) as young men who wore out the seats of their pants watching films at the Cinematheque, she had instead visited museums and read books throughout her youth and had not seen more than 20 films when she started making the film.

-Because of her inexperience in filmmaking, she came up with her own terminology when shooting La Pointe courte, coming up with names for shots such as "face shots" (instead of close-ups) and "Egyptian shots" (for wider shots that included more of the actors' bodies).

-Varda's editor for the film was none other than Alan Resnais, who would go on to make his own mark as a director with such films as Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Muriel and Last Year at Marienbad and taught Varda a great deal in their collaboration. For example, Varda had mainly shot what she envisioned the final film to look like - that is, each shot was taken from one particular angle that she had decided on. Resnais, upon viewing the footage in the editing room, advised her to allow herself a wider variety of shots to choose from for her films in the future.

-Though La Pointe courte strongly resembes Italian neorealist films such as De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and Visconti's The Earth Trembles, Varda claimed to have never heard of the Italian neorealists when Resnais pointed out her film's similarities to them, and when he recommended that she see some of their films at the Cinematheque, she had to ask him for directions there, as she also had no idea where it was located in Paris at that time.

-When someone asked her whether she preferred black-and-white or color, Varda basically replied that it would depend on the project. She described her use of color in such films as Le Bonheur as Impressionistic, and said that she would have only shot La Pointe courte in black-and-white (a logical statement to make, as many of the film's gorgeous images seem ideally suited for it).

It was both an honor and a special treat to be able to attend this event and see one of my filmmaking heroes up close. It was nice to see that she had lots of spirit and a great sense of humor during the dialogue, and I hope she continues to enjoy many more years making films and expressing herself creatively. Vive Varda!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Wrestler (2008)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Country: United States of America

Hello, all. This one comes straight from the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was just picked up by Fox Searchlight. It has been garnering tons of good reviews and won the much-coveted Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival - all deservedly so. Director Aronofsky (whose previous films are Pi, Requiem For a Dream and The Fountain) trades in the impressive stylistic flourishes of those films for a more threadbare, straightforward approach, which is a fitting choice for this film's material.

As so many other reviews of the film will tell you, The Wrestler is about Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a washed-up superstar of the 1980s wrestling scene. Mickey Rourke's performance as Randy is nothing short of impressive as he ably channels the fatigue, nostalgia, sadness and loneliness of this tired, rusted engine of a man. Throughout the film, he attempts to come to terms with such challenges as his deteriorating health, the increasingly brutal fights that he partakes in, getting enough of an income to live off of and, most importantly, his relationships with Cassidy, an ageing stripper played by Marisa Tomei, and his estranged daughter Stephanie, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

In Raging Bull fashion, The Wrestler focuses on Randy's life both in and out of the ring, though with substantially less domestic violence and stylistic excess than Scorsese's epic. Though not nearly as rough as the notorious Requiem, there are still traces of that film in this one, and I'd say those two films are the most alike in Aronofsky's diverse body of work so far. Like it, The Wrestler is steeped in gritty realism and has an almost mundane sense of everyday familiarity to it (particularly in the many extras who populate the film ranging from neighborhood kids to Randy's boss and customers at the grocery store where he works to the assortment of fans who attend his matches). Also, The Wrestler has a few remaining traces of Requiem's searing showcase of the ugly, often surreal capability of cruelty and humiliation that human beings often wield, here portrayed most overtly in (but not limited to) the brutal matches that Randy partakes in.

For the screening I attended, Aronofsky actually showed up to briefly introduce the film - a pleasant surprise for me, who was only expecting the movie. He made a few remarks about how well the film has been doing so far, and made a point of saying that this was really a small movie for him and therefore he wanted to lower the lofty expectations that might have been surrounding it. Finally, he spoke about how great it was to work with Mickey Rourke and concluded with a wise piece of advice that certainly applied to his experience of making The Wrestler: "When you have a great performance and a lens, that's all you really need." Full proof of that statement's truth shows in every frame of Rourke's performance. Let's hope this brings him the recognition he deserves for it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)

Director: Agnès Varda
Country: France

This is a particularly special entry for this still-young blog. Not only is it the first featured film from France (a country with a ridiculously rich cinematic heritage) and the first film from the French New Wave, but it is also a much-loved favorite of mine which, like Fellini's 8 1/2, helped introduce me to the wonders and delights of the European art cinema of the 1960s. Cléo was actually chosen as a prime example of the European art film for my 2nd year Film History class in an essay question which asked me to analyze the film and write about its historical significance. I had been meaning to see it before that assignment, but the resulting essay was a wonderful way of discovering this sparkling gem of French cinema, and I've been a strong fan of it and Varda ever since.

While Cléo From 5 to 7 quite ably stands on its own as a great film, something should be said about the unique situation of its author. Agnès Varda is widely known as the "godmother" or "grandmother" of the French New Wave and was one of the few women (and certainly the best-known one) who successfully infiltrated the boy's club of the French New Wave group, which of course included the Cahiers du Cinema comrades François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Chaude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. However, she stands somewhat apart from them in a few ways. She is more specifically associated with the Left Bank group of filmmakers who arrived onto the French film scene during the New Wave. They weren't as cinema-crazy as the Cahiers group, instead drawing from other art forms such as painting and photography (Varda herself was a photographer before making her first film, La Pointe courte). Along with Varda, the other main Left Bank figures are Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Muriel, Last Year at Marienbad) and Chris Marker (La Jetee).

Just from looking at their films, it's clear that these filmmakers have a quality about them that sets them apart from the other New Wave brats: a tendency to think outside of the box and use cinema for truly original, even experimental exercises. Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Marienbad have been highly praised as landmarks in cinematic grammar, as has Marker's La Jetee, which famously uses still photography to tell its story to great effect. Cléo From 5 to 7 also uses film form in a unique way: by closely following its protagonist, the eponymous pop singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) in real time for an hour and a half as she journeys to different parts of Paris and meets various people. This is a creative way for the audience to become familiar with its at-first self-centered protagonist (who is awaiting the results of a medical test for cancer) and to see the city of Paris from its streets, taxis, buses, cafes, parks and a plethora of other perspectives, making the film just as much a delightful ode to flanerie as it is a fascinatingly made character study.

While Varda certainly has her differences from the Truffaut-Godard group, Cléo is most definitely a New Wave film. Like Breathless and The 400 Blows, it showcases both the city of Paris and its actors in striking black-and-white compositions (though the opening credit sequence, which focuses on a tarot card reading, is partially shot in color, contributing yet another stylistic oddity of the film). There is also the same strong sense of camraderie in it as in other New Wave films: Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine all show up for cameos at one point, and the famed French composer Michel Legrand (who provided memorable scores for A Woman is a Woman, Band of Outsiders and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well as Cléo) is given a fairly substantial role as one of Cléo's collaborators. Indeed, this film is a most worthy entry in the new Wave canon, and easily fits alongside other cinematic masterworks from the period such as Vivre Sa Vie, Jules and Jim or any of the other films previously mentioned.

This year, Varda will be visiting the Toronto International Film Festival to present her new documentary, Les Plages d'Agnès, and speak about La Pointe courte, her first film (made in 1954), which many consider a key starting point for the French New Wave. I'll be going to the screening of the latter film, and I simply can't wait to see both it and the remarkable artist behind it in person.

Also, I'll be taking a trip to France in a little less than a month (my first time there, and I can't wait), and among the many cinematic pilgrimages that I plan to make (most of the classic French film locations I want to visit come from Amelie and Breathless), I hope to follow in Cléo's footsteps and retrace her route through the city as seen in this film. That, along with seeing Varda at TIFF, is a dream come true for any fan of the French New Wave or Varda.

In closing, this is a wonderful film that comes highly recommended from a longtime fan who fell in love with it at first sight; here's hoping the same happens for you.