Mar 30, 2011

Favourite Shot from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

*This post is part of Nathaniel’s “Hit me with your best shot” series. I couldn’t participate last week because of school work, although the great shots that contributors chose from A Streetcar Named Desire are definitely worth a look.

Few directors have become so closely associated with a particular genre in film that the name of the genre itself immediately brings back to mind memories of their films – characters, shots, music, and dialogue. Alfred Hitchcock is certainly one of them. He’s done to thrillers what Woody Allen later did to romantic comedies. He made it his own.

Top: Close-up of the cop. Bottom: The same cop, lurking on the other side of the road

Hitchcock knows how to use every element of cinematography and mise-en-scene to his benefit in creating a creepy intensity for Psycho’s atmosphere. Take the policeman in the beginning of the film for instance. His introduction, with this powerful close-up, the dark glasses and his sombre tone couldn’t have been more intense. If this shot doesn’t make us suspicious enough, Hitchcock gives us another glimpse of him when Marion stops to change her car. Even though it’s obvious why the cop is observing Marion from afar, Hitchcock’s setting makes us as suspicious of him as he is of Marion.

Top: The bedroom door sliding open. Bottom: Arbogast shot from above as he walks up the stairs. Notice the door on the right.

Many of the film’s more elaborate shots are taken inside Norman Bates’s house. My favourite is probably the scene of the murder of Arbogast, the private detective who’s looking for the 40000 dollars. The camera shoots him from above as he walks up the stairs to get to the bedroom. We still don’t know who the murderer is at this point in the film and the camerawork hides the identity so masterfully, I couldn’t leave it unmentioned.

My favourite shot in the film however, comes a bit later. When Arbogast doesn’t return from the Bates motel, Lila, Marion’s sister convinces Sam, her boyfriend, to go on his own detective mission to find him. When he arrives at the motel, he calls for Arbogast but can’t find him. The camera cuts to Norman, alone in the dark of the woods, who looks in the direction of the voice, but doesn’t move. This is his last moment of solitude before Sam and Lila’s return to the motel and the eventual exposition. He listens hopelessly to Sam’s voice, as if he’s pondering his next move. The confused and scared look in his eyes and the smirk on his lips make for a perfect combination of menace and vulnerability, and heighten the suspense that ensues.

If you have never seen Psycho before, put it all the way up your list. It’s easily one of the best films ever made.

Mar 19, 2011

Going French with short takes on Les amours imaginaires and On Tour

Les amours imaginaires
Director: Xavier Dolan
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider

Les amours imaginaires tells the story of two long-time friends, Francis and Marie, whose friendship starts to crumble as they both meet and fall for Nicolas. Nicolas, who is “a country lad, new in town”, is a charming young man with curly blond hair and green eyes who seems to be interested equally in Marie and Francis. Francis, who himself is gay, can’t figure out whether Nicolas is actually reciprocating his emotions, or if he works his charms on everyone the same. Marie, also unable to understand the meaning of Nicolas’ friendly behaviour finds herself confused and torn between her friendship and her new found love.

Les amours imaginaires is a significant improvement for writer/director and lead actor Dolan. Whereas in his first feature, his artistic flourishes bordered on Wong Kar Wai rip-offs, here he channels his visualism in more emotive ways. It’s still evident that he adores Wai’s work and has watched Godard’s Pierrot le fou more than a couple of times, but this time around, these pretty pictures tell a story.

As I expected to see another film overdone with art-film imagery, I was pleasantly surprised with the film’s opening sequence. Dolan’s best decision is perhaps to thrust us indirectly into the story with the interviews at the beginning of the film. The film’s main narrative thread isn’t as vocal as these interviews, instead choosing to focus on silent moments of uneasy smiles, affectionate gazes or uncomfortably intimate encounters to tell the same story.

The film also owes the success of its visual storytelling to a large extent to the expressive performances by Chokri and Dolan and the expressionless, yet incredibly charming character of Nicolas acted superbly by Schneider. The standout performance however comes from Anne Dorval – Dolan’s mother in his first film – as Nicolas’s mother who appears in a single scene as she has breakfast coffee with Francis. The information she gives us is the only look we get into Nicolas’ ambiguous past, but on top of that, she’s so hilarious, we are only left wishing she never left the film.

Grade: B
Final Word: If you’ve missed Les amours imaginaires, try to find time for it. It’s a moving film with delightful treats for the eyes. Dolan is definitely a director to watch for. He’s certainly improved his storytelling techniques here as well and I hope he continues to work up this ladder in Laurence Anyway, his planned third feature.

On Tour
Director: Mathieu Amalric
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Mimi Le Meaux, Evie Lovelle

If you feel like Cher and Christina Aguilera’s Burlesque doesn’t fill your appetite for that art, here you get another treat. Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour – a film that won him the best director prize at the Cannes film festival this past year – is an eccentric film that follows the lives of a group of burlesque dancers as they tour around France.

On Tour stars Amalric as Joachim, a formerly successful TV producer in France, hated by his colleagues upon his return from the States, who has brought along a group of burlesque dancers to his native country in the hope of getting his name back out there with the success of their shows. As they tour along the borders of France, Paris becomes more and more of a holy grail for the troupe, but Joachim finds it increasingly difficult to get the support he needs to take the group there. Meanwhile, his relationship with his young sons poses more problems on him as he tries to bond with them during the tour.

As with Les amours imaginaires, the film surprised me in being far from what I’d expected. I started watching it thinking it’s going to be a song and dance film, but aside from a few short glances into the actual stage performances, On Tour rarely depicts burlesque itself. Instead, it focuses on the behind-the-scene relationships between the members of the dance troupe, Joachim and his children. And in that lie both the strength and the weakness of the film. Strength because these interactions make for a compelling look at the reality behind the glamour of burlesque, which is all the more interesting because these are not actors playing burlesque dancers, but a real burlesque troupe. Weakness because the film feels rather self-indulgently long as a result of its lack of energy and glamour – two factors that drive a real burlesque show. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that the film itself is sort of a metaphor for its story. Like Joachim who tries to engage a French audience with an American art, Amalric wants us to look at this art from his revisionist perspective. On that account, On Tour is definitely a successful film.

Grade: B-
Final Word: On Tour is hardly urgent viewing. It’s an enjoyable film that works on many different levels but in the end, it’s not memorable or remarkable enough to generate any strong reactions. You’ll probably watch it, like it and then forget it. The burlesque troupe gets A pluses all around though.

Mar 16, 2011

Best Shot: Memento

*This Post is part of Nathaniel's "Hit me with your best shot" series.

Polaroids may be one of my most favourite things in life. Aren’t they just so much cooler than digital photography? Or any type of photography? It’s so awesome to have the photo right there in your hand just as you take it! The point is to say that I wasn’t surprised when I rewatched the film for this post that my mind kept going back to the moments where Leonard takes his Polaroid pictures as my favourite shots. Of course, the film opens on one of those shots, played backwards as the image on the Polaroid fades into white. If you haven’t seen the film yet, these Polaroids, along with Leonard’s notes and tattoos guide him to solve the mystery of his wife’s death. While most of these images are merely explanatory, like the Motel, the car, or even Dodd and Teddy at their most present state, my favourite moment in the film comes when Leonard shoots Natalie. Natalie’s photo is different in that it doesn’t even show her clearly, but it nevertheless reflects her mysterious character. Like the photograph that hides her face, Carrie Anne Moss avoids emotional expressivity in many of the film’s critical moments, and creates the only character in the film that is more puzzling to us than to Leonard.

If you haven’t seen Memento yet, please do so ASAP. It might not have the high-budget production value of his later films, but it remains his most clever and original film to date. Plus, Natalie is Nolan’s best female creation. Do you think Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman can take her spot?

Mar 5, 2011

Four Things I Love About "The Third Man"

1. I started watching The Third Man exactly six minutes past midnight on a Friday night, after an 8.5 hour work shift, on my laptop. This is normally a recipe for disaster. It means that I won't get through more than 10 minutes of the film; I’ll leave it for when my mood is better set for watching movies, and most likely, I won’t go back to it anytime soon on the account of a “bad” opening. Ten minutes into The Third Man, I was already engaged in a puzzling murder mystery presented with a flavour of humour that runs through the film to the end. For a film that’s more than sixty years old, The Third Man has remained surprisingly fresh. The comedy hasn’t lost any of its wit and the mystery is so deftly drawn out, one can hardly take eyes away from the screen. Whatever problem you may have with the film, there’s one thing you can’t complain about; Time has not taken its toll on this one.

2. The number of still images that can be singled out from The Third Man and named among the very best in film history is boundless, but the film’s cinematography isn’t just about beautiful images. It’s about how these images define character, mood, atmosphere and the elements of the story. I find it hard to think of another film that uses lighting and shadows so strongly to personify its characters or to progress its narrative. The prime example among many is the introduction of Harry. In the pitch black dark setting of the night, after a quarrel, a building resident opens her window to shush the noises. The light from the window reflects on the face of the villain we (along with Holly) have been so eagerly anticipating. The set-up and the lighting in this scene are divine. The climatic finale of the film, the chase scene in the sewage system is as good as one can ever hope for. Modern action films never match the level of precision put into the cinematography of this sequence.

3. I’ve seen enough films to know that The Third Man is neither the first, nor the last film to use editing techniques or props for exposition. Yet, these expositions (or the lack thereof) are presented so satisfyingly that it distinguishes the film from anything else that employs similar mechanisms. Joseph Cotten’s terrific performance is equally responsible for how all of these scenes play out. One of the best of such scenes is when Holly Martins (Cotten’s character) is taken away by a frantic taxi driver who drives madly through the streets of Vienna, taking Holly to an unknown destination without listening to a word he says. (If you haven’t seen the film, the build-up to the driving scene goes like this: a mob of angry people run after Cotten and his friend when the two arrive at a building hoping to meet the guard, only to find out he’s been killed. Once a little kid points out to them and shouts, people assume they’re to be blamed and run after them, but they get away. Immediately after this scene, we see the shady taxi driver dressed in all black asking a hotel concierge in an angry tone if he knows where Martins is. Upon Martins's arrival at the hotel, the driver takes him.)

The structure of the scene makes us believe that Martins is either being taken to the police or to the actual murderers, possibly Baron Kurtz or Popescu. When the taxi finally arrives at the destination, Martins finds himself an audience ready to listen to his lecture on modern writing, an arrangement he had made earlier but never gave a second thought to, given the circumstances. The editing of this scene along with Cotten’s reaction to the welcoming host of the event makes for a brilliant scene and a much needed comic relief.

These expositions culminate in the best shot of the film – the very last one. Holly, refusing to leave Vienna without resolving his relationship with his love interest, waits by the side of the road she’s taking to meet her for a talk. The single 2-minute long static shot captures her as she walks toward the camera and eventually exits the frame without any contact with Holly. This, in my opinion, is Reed’s ace. The brilliant and subtle editing work plays once more with our imagination and ends the film better than any verbal exchange could.

4. There’s no doubt that Orson Welles is one of the greatest figures in the 20th century cinema. Here, in one of his strongest performances, Welles creates an enigmatic villain without ever stepping over the border. His Harry is both menacing and human. He’s as sly and ruthless as any movie villain, but you can see fear all over his face when he runs for his life. He makes us feel revolted with his “Do you care if one of those dots stops spinning?” as a metaphor for people’s death; but in the final sequence, he makes us feel for him a little bit without ever victimizing the fallen criminal. He knows perfectly how to downplay the monstrosity of Harry with his humour and facetiousness. In a film that is not short of great performances by any stretch of the imagination, Welles stands head and shoulders above everyone else.