Skip navigation

Category Archives: Blog-a-thon Contributions

[This is a contribution to The Class of 2007 Supporting Actress Blogathon hosted by StinkyLulu.]

“An overlooked gem” is how I described Margot at the Wedding in my post about my favorite films of the year. But it also works to describe Jennifer Jason Leigh, who I don’t think has received enough credit for her great performance in this movie, much less her entire career.

Sometimes, being a good actor can backfire: if your performances come off as “too natural,” it may seem as if you’re not acting much at all. “I could do that,” someone from the audience may say. But he/she cannot project the same sense of being a part of the same world as the actor up on the screen. It’s hard for some to accept different acting styles. Robert Bresson’s (who had a background in painting) use of actors as “models” is far different from acting today, and even though his films are wonderful, the acting may be distracting to some since it’s so unnatural. While watching a Greta Garbo performance, I know I’m watching a movie. When I see a performance from someone like Jennifer Jason Leigh, I figure I’m watching life through a window until the end credits roll.

This year, Leigh starred in her husband Noah Baumbach’s film Margot at the Wedding, a movie about Margot (Nicole Kidman) visiting her sister Pauline (Leigh) for her wedding to a guy Margot doesn’t like (Jack Black). During their scenes together as they stay up late at night and chit chat while music from their past plays on a record or CD in the background, they reflect on their past, laughing at subject matter usually left for discussions with a psychiatrist. It’s as if I’ve walked in on my mom talking to her sister in the middle of the night. Think of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, whose second half is much like these candid scenes in Margot.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes from any movie this year has Margot trying to assure Pauline she has kept quiet about her dislike for Pauline’s fiancé. Pauline escalates gradually from calm to furious, repeating through tears, “No, you haven’t kept your mouth shut!” We feel her pain not because of the dialogue (which helps), but the way she delivers the line makes us feel we’ve heard that same exact line that same exact way before.

Pauline explains to Margot’s son that, when they were kids, Margot once tried to cook her by sprinkling her with paprika and putting her in the oven. The characters laugh on-screen, but the audience can’t help but wonder if Margot’s hatred of Pauline would go so far. We’ve heard a lot up to this point in the film about how strongly Pauline and Margot feel about each other, so this scene rings as particularly disturbing. Leigh doesn’t soften the story either by her performance: she tells the tale in such a casual way (and even laughs after she’s said it), leaving doubt whether the story is false or not. (We never find out.)

Leigh hasn’t received much mention for her role, even though she is probably one of the finest things about the movie. All the performances are wonderful (Kidman is great as usual, and Black turns in a stunning serious performance), but Leigh gives off the same natural vibes that she did in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Short Cuts, and, specifically, Margot. It’s a shame her magic has been lost in this great year for cinema (Amy Ryan and other rewarded supporting actresses were also fantastic), so I hope the greatest supporting actress performance of 2007 by Leigh in Margot can receive it’s rightful love if I and others who care deeply for it it continuously recommend this highly underrated film to everyone we know who has not seen it.

Advertisements

[This is another contribution to the Endings Blog-a-thon being hosted at Joe’s Movie Corner.]

Note: Once again, spoiler alert! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Breach was one of the stand-out movies of the year. (I wouldn’t put it on my top-ten, but it’s definitely fascinating). It also has what’s probably the best ending this year. The ending is only about four minutes long, but the set-up and execution are flawless. When I first saw the movie, I sat there and rewound the DVD four minutes over and over again just to see the ending another time. I probably watched it about eight times.

Sure, Zodiac had a killer ending (no pun intended), but it highlighted things that we already knew from other parts of the movie. Breach hints at questions throughout its running time, but in the end, we see clearly now: it’s a real eye-opener.

frame1

At this point, Robert Hanssen (played with great fury by Chris Cooper) has been arrested for being a part of the greatest security breach in U.S. history. In the closing credits, we end up finding out that he’ll spend a life sentence in jail and 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. His partner, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe in a wicked-good performance), is a fellow FBI agent who was planted as Robert’s partner in order to get evidence concerning Robert selling military secrets to Russia.

in office

Eric enters Robert’s office with an air of nostalgia. He carries a box of his supplies, pictures, and other paraphernalia: this is the last time he’ll see this office. Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney as Eric’s boss) comes in and discusses what’s happened with the case.

linney

She mentions all the organizations that the Director thanked for arresting Robert, “…but he couldn’t thank the guy we put behind that desk,” of course talking about Eric.

“I didn’t expect them to,” he says.

It’s obvious Kate wants him to stay. She practically begs him. “You’re going to make agent, Eric. It’s set now. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

I’ve always believed that there’s a certain sense of foreboding to that statement (not just in the context of the film). Not uncommon on TV, in movies, and among friends and family, we’ve all heard this phrase maybe at Christmas time or when we get what we want and realize what the price was to achieve it.

“It was,” he says.

“You do know what you did here, right? That was the worst spy in American history that you brought down. Now you’re just gonna walk away.”

“Couldn’t you think of a better time to walk away?” asks Eric. His words almost seem too slick. (Not that it comes off as false, but I think it works as a clichéd set-up, since the last few shots of the movie jolt us by not giving into our expectations.)

She can’t think of a better time. He takes the pen (a memento of Robert’s, who says at one point in the movie, “These are the greatest pens in the word. I would never write with anything else”), and after he clicks it a few times, the soft piano score starts.

pen click

Kate says, “Good luck, Eric” as he leaves. “You, too,” he says. As we hear the door close, she triumphantly nods and smiles.

smile

Eric walks down the hallway, wearing a cocky smile and nodding cutely.

hallway

No way. This feels way too by-the-book: guy saves the day from the worst something-or-other in U.S. history and acts all humble and cutesy about it, and now he’s off to save someone else. What’s happening, Billy Ray? Can I not depend on you? Are you–?

Well, what have we here?

crossroads

A crossroads, a fork in the road, which usually imply making difficult decisions. But what’s so hard about putting a bad guy behind bars?

The elevator dings, and Eric walks faster to catch it. He puts his hand in between the closing doors, and they open for him just as he wished them to. He’s getting what he asked for.

The soft-piano score stops.

gasp

And here, Phillippe makes a face that should convince anyone he’s not the same boy from Cruel Intentions. What a perfect mix of horror, embarrassment, and shame.

group

Eric doesn’t know how to act. Should he be proud in front of the agent and guard? Or should he be ashamed that he deceived a fellow human being? He knows.

coop

“Pray for me,” says Robert. Look at the reddish bags under his eyes. The way that he delivers the line makes him seem even more drawn out.

Eric says that he will, as if it’s his own fault that he has to pray for Robert.

ryan

The doors could have shut during the last shot after Robert asks Eric to pray for him. But from this reverse angle of the previous shot (as Eric says, “I will”), we see that the doors close not on Robert, but on Eric.

I think this ending works so well because it has the audacity to suggest that what Eric did, leading Robert to believe that he could trust Eric (that Eric wasn’t some kind of spy), puts him on the same level as Robert.

Billy Ray loves true stories: he’s also the director of Shattered Glass, another great installment of Ray’s filmography. And just like in Glass, Ray doesn’t care whether or not his film portrays a good guy in a bad light or an antagonist positively. By the end of Breach, Robert seems like a victim, and Eric is the perpetrator.

And on top of that, we get all this from just two smiles, a hallway, and a pair of elevator doors.

What beautiful irony.

[This is my contribution to the Endings Blog-a-thon being hosted at Joe’s Movie Corner.]

Note: Spoilers galore! This is a shot-by-shot study of the ending of The Long Good Friday, the 1980 British mob movie starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Don’t read past the title card unless you’ve already seen the movie or you don’t care about the ending.

 title frame

Seeing The Long Good Friday in my junior year or so of high school really did something to me. It’s one of my high school film experiences that affected me greatly and definitely changed the way I look at movies. So I guess you could say it’s one of the most memorable of my late-teens cinematic experiences.

Before I saw it, anyone could have asked me to rattle off a list of mob movies. Not the greatest, not my favorite, just a list of films involving gangsters. I would’ve only been able to mention the obvious and “popular” titles: Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Casino, Carlito’s Way, Road to Perdition, Donnie Brasco… maybe I would have even mentioned The Untouchables (even though I hadn’t, and still haven’t, seen it).

Nonetheless, this was the extent of my knowledge on gangster flicks. I had no idea about Bob le flambeur, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Public Enemy, Rififi, and a plethora of others. There were mob movies just waiting for me to discover them that were without color, with subtitles, with actors I had never seen before, with stories that took a different spin on the whole mob genre. And what really impressed me is that some of these unbeknownst-to-me movies played the usual gangster game — but they did it even better than the so-called “classics.”

So does The Long Good Friday. What separates this from the rest of the pack? An explosive performance from Bob Hoskins (this and Mona Lisa are what made me fall in love with him), the hardcore violence (what externalizes his pain more than seeing him stab someone in the face with a broken wine bottle?) and the idea embedded in the story that a mob movie could be driven not by plot but the audience’s interest in a character.

Yes, the story has the action cranked up to an eleven, but The Long Good Friday is very much a character study of Hoskin’s character, Harold. As brutal and zig-zagging and in-your-face as the movie is, we don’t really get the full dose until we see the ending, which is probably the best element of the movie.

frame1

The “ending” as I define it (right after the violent climax, which leads us to believe everything is settled and over with) begins at about this frame.

Now, a film professor from this past semester suggested that once a character moves out of frame, there is a new composition, and the audience is left thinking about what in this environment he or she is supposed to be looking at. In this shot, the cars do all the directing.

The car in the foreground has Harold and his moll, Victoria (played by the precious Helen Mirren), and there’s a car in the background. Whose? I dunno. At this point, we aren’t asking questions, just curious to see the denouement, what’s left to be tied up.

frame2

Harold’s car makes a left turn, but soon becomes out of sight. The other car turns on its headlights and comes toward the camera.

frame3

We are now focused on this car. But why? We don’t know whose it is, so why do we all of a sudden subconciously care about this car? Is there something we don’t know? Is all this conflict over yet?

frame4

The mystery car leaves the frame, and Harold’s car parks in front of the hotel. His vehicle all of a sudden looks as if it’s out in the open, naked for attack, like a sitting duck.

frame5

“You wait here… I won’t be a minute,” he tells Victoria as he gets out the car. She even seems a little nervous. Can everything be this perfect?

He shuts the door (thus turning off the light in the car and leaving her in darkness) and goes into the hotel.

frame6

Harold walks to the front desk, asking where he can find Charlie (his potential business partner from America).

frame7

frame8

frame9

Now we’re inside the room, and a tracking shot directs us to the radio, which is reporting about the events that happened during the climax (I don’t want to spoil too much). Someone knocks at the door, as the person on the radio announces their “political correspondent gives you the facts behind the headlines.” An arm enters the frame and turns off the device, as if to silence it.

frame10

The same person answers the door, and Harold enters, looking for Charlie.

frame11

frame12

“Everything’s all right,” says Harold, all smile as he enters the room. “All the troubles are over.” Charlie doesn’t seem to be in a good mood, almost as if he is unhappy to see Harold.

frame13

Harold (now he’s not happy) finds out that Charlie is leaving due to all the recent violence: “a couple days that turned out to be another St. Valentine’s Massacre,” says Charlie.

frame14

“But that’s settled,” pleads Harold, “once and for all.” This guy requests a porter and a cab.

frame15

Harold really can’t believe what’s happening before his eyes. “You two can’t wait to get out of here, can you?” He’s a bit offended.

frame16

Charlie becomes sarcastic: “I always react like that to bombs blowing up, mass murders. It’s a hang up of mine.”

frame17

Harold finds it funny that Americans can’t handle the “little problem” between two rival gangs here in Britain.

frame18

Charlie: “…’a little problem.’ Harold, this is like a bad night in Vietnam!”

frame19

“I’ve pulled the plug on them!” says Harold. He’s convinced that he has everything under control.

frame20

“We do not deal with gangsters, period,” says the other guy. “You’re a mess.” Harold knows where they’re coming from, and Charlie tells Harold goodbye.

frame21

Harold bids them adieu, and he tries to take this slap-in-the-face with stride.

frame22

frame23

But he stops in the doorway and turns around Columbo-style, almost as if he was ready to say, “Oh, and one more thing…”

frame24

He’s got their attention. They thought they had him under control.

frame25

He’s taken all this very personally, and Harold calls them “wankers” and says how glad is that he hasn’t become business partners with them, considering they’re “in a f***ing coma,” as Harold puts it.

frame26

They try to take this affront with stride since that’s really their only option with someone as pissed-off as Harold, who then mentions the Americans’ energy crisis and their war that they started. Now he is getting personal with them.

frame27

“But us British, we’re used to a bit more vitality. Imagination… The days when Yanks could come over here and buy up [our shit] are definitely over.”

frame28

The guy on the right tries to defend Americans, but Charlie stops him in his tracks: “Shut up, you little streak of paralyzed piss.”

The following series of frame-grabs are part of a dolly shot toward Harold as he gives a speech about what he’s expecting about what he’s doing now, what he believes the future holds: “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world. Culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than a hot dog. Know what I mean?” Watch how many expressions he zooms through in this short speech. (It’s even more amazing to watch in the movie.)

frame29

frame30

frame31

frame32

frame33

frame34

frame35

frame36

frame37

frame38

frame39

“My new deal is with Europe. I’m going into partnership with a German organization–yeah, the Krauts. They’ve got ambition, know-how, and they don’t lose their bottle.”

frame40

Harold offers another cocky, stinging insult, then he leaves. He really thinks that he has everything figured out.

frame41

Harold comes outside, pissed, and signals his car to come pick him up.

frame42

frame43

The car ominously turns on its headlights (just like the mystery vehicle earlier) and creeps hither.

frame44

This exact angle on the car holds for about a second or so, but because we are so focused on Harold, we don’t notice in the lower-left corner of the frame that someone is missing in the backseat.

frame45

He eases into the car…

frame46

…and it speeds off.

frame47

Harold is caught off-guard by the jerk of the car. “Where’s Victoria?” he notices.

frame48

This stare and the accompanying electronica music is all we need to answer Harold’s question.

frame49

He looks off-screen at something horrid.

frame50

A thug holds Victoria (Mirren silently screams in such a creepy, desperate performance in these few seconds) in the car against her will, his arm around her neck. It’s a moving shot (following with the movement of Harold’s car), and this active movement really gives this shot its full effect.

frame51

frame52

frame53

frame54

Harold is mad and ready to kill whoever is behind this.

frame55

frame56

But he’s too late. A thug in Harold’s car (yes, that’s a young Pierce Brosnan) sits up in the seat where he was hiding and points a gun at Harold.

frame57

Harold realizes he’s screwed and cornered. There is no retribution this time: there isn’t going to be a way out of this.

frame58

The driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror stare at Harold, as if to say, “Don’t move! We got you.”

frame59

Harold is in awe and isn’t quite absorbing everything: all this has come much to fast. The jazzy sax starts playing on the soundtrack, and he tries to piece everything together. He’s very mixed in his feelings: stunned, furious, defeated.

frame60

frame61

frame62

frame63

frame64

frame65

frame66

He even smiles, as if he’s in denial of the situation. He’s probably thinking, “This is a joke, right?” But he’s not getting any answers.

frame67

He winces. He doesn’t like that taste of defeat. And he’s especially frustrated because his questions don’t have the answer that he thought they did: What about his future? What about him and Victoria? Didn’t he have everything figured out? How could he ever be so wrong?

frame68

His face asks again, scared about whether what he believes is true: “This isn’t a joke, is it?” is what runs through his head.

frame69

As infectious as Bronsan’s smile is, we cringe, because this is a joke. But the joke is on Harold.

frame70

In Harold’s face (really, probably Hoskins’ best performance ever), we see how uncomfortable and dead he feels inside. We feel his pain.

frame71

frame72

He accepts his defeat in stride. Because there’s nothing he can do. No men to order around. He can’t kill anybody. He just sits there and waits for his future. Now he really wonders about what the future has in store for him.

frame73

This.
*****
Even though the film can’t reasonably cut straight to the credits and must go to black first, the black frame is an integral part of the ending. (The music even stops on the cut to black until the credits appear.) This two-second shot becomes a character not unlike the ending of the series finale of The Sopranos or, if you prefer, words written across a black frame in a Jean-Luc Godard film.

This nonethingness is what Harold feels and what he has to look forward to. Whether you believe in an afterlife of not is a moot point. For Harold, this (this frame, this moment that he’s been defeated, this second) is the end.

[This is my contribution to A Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger Blog-a-Thon being hosted at Beyond the Valley of the Cinephiles.] 

What an adorable film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is. As true as this description is, though, it doesn’t seem appropriate for a movie that stands among the great war flicks. And yet there are no battle scenes. No violence? What kind of war movie is that? Although a film of paradoxes, like I said, it’s one of the best.

The film opens with a military exercise in World War II-era Britain. Some soldiers go into the bathhouse and “hold hostages.” They disturb Clive Wynne-Candy, who’s resting in the sauna, saying that he is under arrest. “War starts at midnight!” bellows the old man. The young officer explains that the exercise must begin earlier because Nazis won’t necessarily operate by such a gentlemanly agreement of when to start a war. Clive tackles the young one into a nearby pool after the officer makes fun of his weight and moustache, and Clive yells one of the movies’ best lines at him: “You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my mustache, but you don’t know why I grew it!” The camera moves down the pool, and we see a younger, skinnier Clive sans moustache get out of the pool. We have flashed back to 1902.

Clive, a soldier, becomes enamored with Edith (one of three roles portrayed by Deborah Kerr, who gives the film a great sense of timelessness), and after Clive makes a derogatory comment about the German army, he is forced into a duel. Since the entire army cannot fairly duel Clive, a soldier is picked at random. The chosen soldier, Theo, fights Clive, and both end up in the hospital. Up until that point, they’ve never met before and only regard each other as the opponent, a part of the enemy.

Edith visits Clive in the hospital, but his head is covered in bandages. He cannot speak, but he wants to talk to her nonetheless. As she asks him questions, he mimes, and it’s a beautiful scene of comedy (and quite touching, too), to watch them communicate despite the massive amounts of bandages wrapped around his head.

Clive and Theo meet, talk, and both realize that they are more alike than they could have imagined and become fast friends. During a card game while they both recover in the hospital, Theo, whose only knowledge of English are the phrases “very much” and “not very much,” says something in German to Edith so that she may translate for Clive. “I hope we shall be able to play [cards] every night,” says Kerr, translating for Theo. It’s a great line, and it’s even better because Kerr delivers it with a gentle woman’s touch that makes it even more heartwarming to hear.

Months later, when he is ready to leave the hospital, Clive learns that Theo loves Edith and wants to duel him for her love. Clive acts as if he has no feelings for Edith and says that he wishes the two of them the best of luck. Even though Clive later in the film says that he didn’t realize at that moment that he had feelings for her, from his actions in the hospital, he seems to have cared for Edith very much. Then why did he lie to Theo? I think he’d rather lose Edith than have to kill a man over Edith (or worse, die in the duel and never see Edith again). Theo, who still has a hard time with English (but has expanded his vocabulary), tells Clive after he gives up Edith, “Our friendship is very much.” Jeez, how can you not want to cry during these some of these scenes?

Actually, there are plenty of scenes that put me in a teary mood. While getting ready for an attack, Clive gets a message that the war is over. He turns to the soldier with him, Murdoch (who later becomes a very dear friend), and asks if Murdoch understands what that means, that the war is over. Murdoch, in all his simpleness, says, “Peace. Everybody can go home.” Then, when I thought that was the best possible response, we hear a retort from a soldier’s point-of-view: “Clean fighting, honest soldiery has won.”

Where are my Kleenex?

Another weepy moment comes when Theo tries to leave Germany because of the rise of the Nazis. England, however, doesn’t want him now since they feel the need to protect their country from potential spies. Theo admits, and wittily remarks, “It took me eight months to find out I was wrong about the Nazis… It took you and England five years.” He then begins a speech about why he wanted to leave Germany. He convinces us the minute he says, “The price of everything rose except human beings.”

Is Theo’s speech a tad preachy? Maybe. But we forgive it’s trespasses because it’s so touching, especially when he talks about his sons not coming to their mom’s funeral, and Theo says, “Heil Hitler,” not in praise, but in anger, almost as if he’s about to cry.

I know it’s a far different movie, but I think that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp would work strangely well as a double feature with another war-commentary movie I just saw: The Boy with Green Hair. The latter investigates the damage done by war to children (which Colonel Blimp touches on here and there), whereas the former is about the gentlemen and soldiers and how they are affected, for better or worse, by war. Both are important war movies, and I can already see the two practically conversing with each other.

I say “for better or worse” not as an insult to any character but just to show how human they are. As a soldier, Theo becomes bitter toward England (but eventually changes his mind), and Clive has an awful inner conflict: how are wars to be fought anymore? If there really are different enemies and they should be fought in a different manner, does that mean we must abandon gentlemanly conduct (even though it’s something as un-gentlemanly as war)? Colonel Blimp is a convincing growth of not only two countries that are constantly at war with each other and how they’ve evolved over time but also, as Roger Ebert puts it in his Great Movies review of the film, as “an idealistic and a romantic.”

The movie warms you up like a mug of hot chocolate on a cold night like tonight (and what a relief, because it’s freezing outside). The movie clocks in at 163 minutes, and even though it doesn’t fly by per se, I was continually absorbed throughout the running time. This is a very rare kind of movie, and this is also my first Powell and Pressburger movie. I’m highly anticipating the other gems awaiting me.