Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Resolutions and What-Have-You

Hello all,

As promised, here is my final message to you before we head into 2009. This past year marked the start of this little blog of mine, and I'm glad to see that quite a few people from all over the world have tuned in to it (according to the nifty little world map in the right-hand column, anyways). This has been a very cool way for me to share my enthusiasm of world cinema with like-minded film buffs out there, and I hope everyone has enjoyed my reviews and gotten a few ideas for new films to discover.

Now, as for New Year's resolutions, I hope to plow ahead in more new (to me, at least) areas of world cinema. Here's a tally to see which countries have gotten some representation so far:

Canada: 2
France: 2
Germany: 1
Italy: 1
Mexico: 1
Romania: 1
Sweden: 1
U.K.: 1
U.S.A.: 1

As you can see, I've pretty much only "covered" Western Europe and the Americas so far. While I'm merely going with the flow and following what tickles my interest at any given time, I would genuinely like to venture into other national cinemas such as those of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America (although I also regularly contribute to the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, which focuses exclusively on Japanese cinema). Off the top of my head, I can see myself pursuing the well-received Tsotsi and reviewing it for the site before too long, with plenty of other films from those mentioned areas to follow.

So that's my resolution for this site, and I hope to follow through with it and make many new cinematic discoveries throughout the upcoming year. I wish everyone out there a very happy and healthy New Year's and 2009!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden

While the holiday season is perhaps the most appropriate time to revisit Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, any time of the year is a good one to see this enchanting piece of cinema - especially given its cyclical structure. And really, why wouldn't you make an excuse to see this embracing, beautifully-made work by one of the true masters of cinema?

At first, one may be daunted by the size of this film, be it the three-hour film version or the five-hour cut that originally aired on Swedish television (which is the one I've continually chosen to watch since I first saw it, and which this review specifically focuses on). On top of the running time, it is a rich, sprawling work that covers many subjects and themes - which is fitting, since it was much publicized as Bergman's last foray into filmmaking (although he made a small number of television projects since then and emerged from retirement one last time to make Saraband in 2003). It is certainly a fitting swan song to a body of work that has explored numerous aspects of humanity and mortality; life, death, identity, love, family, disease, time, art, memory and so much more have all appeared before Bergman's camera at one point or another, and Fanny and Alexander certainly serves as a summative reconsideration of such themes.

However, despite its size and scope, this film never feels overlong, pretentious or contrived. It is a very simple tale that unfolds at just the right place and never exceeds its status as such. Yes, it's a five-hour film, but it's exactly the length it needs to be in order for the story to unfold in the way it does. And truly, Fanny and Alexander is one of the great marvels of cinematic storytelling in terms of economy, style and substance. Bergman's material is extremely well-written, but what's even better is how he presents it, which is in such a way that you want to keep following his characters and see how they fare in the situations that arise in their lives. Essentially, the film is of the hallowed tradition of stories that plunge you into their worlds, where you want to keep exploring and living long after they have ended.

Fanny and Alexander are two young siblings living in turn-of-the-century Sweden with their prodigious bourgeois family, the Ekdahls. At the head of the clan is the matriarchal Helena, followed by her three sons: the boisterous, joyful old scoundrel Gustav Adolf, the moody, debt-laden Carl and the quiet, good-natured Oscar, director of the local theater and father to the two titular children. The entire first part of the film is dedicated to exposition as most of the film's main characters are introduced during the famous Ekdahl Christmas celebration. In it, we meet the children, the three brothers, their wives and Helena, but time is also given to smaller characters like the various servants of the household and the members of the theater company. During this long party sequence, there are so many fascinating dynamics between these characters as they interact with each other, creating several micro-narratives that play out within the Christmas sequence. The relationship between the servants and the higher-class family members alone is fascinating to observe as some of the older maids reveal the hidden bitterness that has come with several years of serving the Ekdahls. Scene by scene, we learn the habits and personality of each character, gradually coming to know what to expect from each of them for the rest of the night (and the film, for that matter). I would definitely call this one of the better depictions of Christmas in film simply for the multitude of emotions that arise - not only the positive, joyous ones (which are played up to death in nearly every Christmas movie, TV special and song out there), but also the more negative, pent-up ones that simmer all year (or, in the case of some characters, all their lives) before they are finally uncorked during the big family get-together. This kind of honesty is rare in holiday films, and rarer still in North American ones.

After Christmas, though, the main narrative thread really gets rolling, seeing Fanny and Alexander through a number of harrowing adventures after unfortunate circumstances force them to live under the oppressive rule of Bishop Vergerus, one of the most memorable villains to ever grace the screen. I don't want to reveal too much else about the film's plot, as part of what makes the film so enjoyable comes from seeing many of the characters who were so lovingly developed in the Christmas sequence face new and unexpected challenges throughout the rest of the film both as individuals and as the family unit that ties them together.

As I said before, Fanny and Alexander is essentially a good yarn; a fairy tale told in a beautifully rich yet extraordinarily simple way. There are wonderous elements to it such as magic and ghosts, but they are just as much fun as the various characters and settings that make up Bergman's world (special kudos go out to the Oscar winning costume designer Marik Vos, art director Anna Asp and set decorator Susanne Lingheim for helping create that world). Legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist captures lush colors and shadowy realms in images that indulge the eyeballs and fire the imagination. There are funny little inconsistencies and odd, unexplainable moments that occassionally turn up, but you can't help but accept them as they happen, simply because a) the characters accept them (so why shouldn't you?), and b) you're already so immersed in the story that you just want to shut up the logical part of your brain and keep watching.

Fanny and Alexander is one of my all-time favorite films (as of this moment, it's certainly in my top 10), an opinion shared by my cousin Yves (who says it just might be his number one favorite) and countless others. Utterly enchanting, fantastically well made and packed with moving moments and strong emotion, it is one of the most rewarding film experiences you could hope to discover.

Plus, as a "happy holidays" sort of thing, here is a list of five of my favorite Christmas movies (or, to be more precise, arty movies that happen to take place around Christmas).

1) Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden) - see above!

2) Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra, Canada) - Often touted as one of the greatest Canadian films ever made, this is kind-of the Great White North's equivalent to Fanny and Alexander - often dark, centered on a young boy's coming of age in an uncertain world and equally concerned with the forces of life, death and sex.

3) Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, United States of America) - Another fairy tale, this time set in a New York that never existed, as realized by another of cinema's great orchestrators. See if you can spot a Christmas tree in every setting!

) C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada) - Come back to Canada with this stylish story of sexual discovery and sibling rivalry in Quebec through the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The film with the best soundtrack on this list.

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, United Kingdom) - A little holiday cheer with terrorists, bombs, government incompetence, plumbing, conspiracy, more government incompetence and a giant computer chip-laden samurai thrown in for good measure.

Well, this has been a great start for this little blog of mine, a
nd I thank all readers around the world for tuning in. Until my last little blurb before the new year, I wish everyone a happy holiday season wherever you are. Cheers!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002)

Director: Guy Maddin
Country: Canada

With all of the recent hubub over Stephenie Meyer, her teen- and tween-based Twilight book series and the recently released Twilight movie, it's safe to say that vampires are "in" again. However, because of the Mormon author's drastic makeover of classic vampire lore (No fangs? Crosses don't work? Neither does sunlight? Or holy water? Or garlic?!), it's a strange time to be a fan of classic, Gothic vampire fiction - you know, the real stuff. Nosferatu, Bram Stoker, Carl Th. Dreyer's Vampyr - mention any of those crucial cultural keystones of vampire culture to a Twi-hard (as some of the Meyer fanatics like to call themselves), and you'd probably get a look as if broccoli had just sprouted out of your ears before she starts gushing about Edward Cullen all over again.

Fortunately, there's an alternative to this depressing picture: Canada's own Guy Maddin has a solid antidote ready with Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, a film that offers much comfort and contentment in the original way it re-tells Stoker's highly influential vampire story. Based on a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production by Mark Godden, the film unfolds in the silent film style of the 1920s and '30s that Maddin uses so often combined with choreographed dance sequences. It's a brave venture, but a well-executed and ultimately memorable one.

Right away, one can't help but be drawn into Maddin's scatterbrained imagination as it gives the classic Dracula tale a unique makeover. This is pretty evident in the film's opening, which focuses not on Jonathan Harker, as the book and most film adaptations do, but instead Lucy, best friend to Harker's fiancée, Mina. Even before she encounters the Count, she has to contend with three proud and slightly bufoonish suitors and her mother, who is encased in a glass coffin, incessantly rings a bell for her daughter and is connected to a huge, whirring ventilator. As closely as it follows the original story, this Dracula is filled with the kinds of phobias and quirks that Maddin continually returns to in his films, including a sense of terror and naive curiosity surrounding sex.

The splendid music and accompanying dance sequences add a new dimension of non-verbal storytelling for Maddin to play with and are quite enjoyable. It's true that one doesn't think of ballet right away when the words "Dracula" or "vampire" are mentioned, but here, it oddly suits the material quite well and gives a refreshing spin on the familiar story (not to mention that, considering the equally Gothic Phantom of the Opera and its legendary success on Broadway, perhaps it isn't such an unlikely match after all). The Gustav Mahler score is far more satisfying than the flat, tinny soundtracks usually put together for silent film DVD releases, and the ballet sequences beautifully illustrate such scenes as the suitors' courtship of Lucy, her nightmare in which winged gargoyles dance around her bed, Dracula's seduction of both her and Mina and Van Helsing's climactic quest to find and kill the vampire.

As part of his style, Maddin combines the exaggerated conventions of silent cinema with his own over-the-top sense of humor with great comedic results. When Dr. Van Helsing prescribes protection against the visiting vampyr, Lucy's maids and suitors surround her room and sleeping body with mounds of garlic. At one point, the insane asylum-bound Renfield (servant of Dracula and eater of bugs) chomps on a guard's arm and draws a mouthful of glistening black blood, eyes rolling madly as he does so. The quaint dialogue of silent cinema is amusingly reproduced in such chuckle-worthy lines as "The blood of a brave man is the best thing for a woman in trouble," and the essence of silent-era melodrama is reproduced in spades through the actors' bulging eyes and diverse array of facial expressions.

Maddin's Dracula is essentially a silent film itself, as it contains no audible dialogue, but it could never be mistaken for a film from Murnau or Dreyer. Like the works of those directors, Dracula mainly uses well-framed black-and-white photography mixed with some color filters, but unlike them, Maddin indulges in various other effects available to him, including Super 8 photography, sparsely-used sound effects and colored highlights within the monochrome images. In a way, this allows Maddin to have his cake and eat it too, giving him a means of continuing his love affair with silent film while making good use of more recent techniques.

As with most, if not all, of Maddin's films, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary is not for everyone. However, for fans of vampire fiction who are tired of the same old, uninspired re-hashings of the Dracula myth, this great little flick might be just the ticket you were looking for.