The Art of Style as Substance in Enemy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and 300: Rise of an Empire

Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy

Enemy Spider over Toronto Skyline Poster

Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states – first viewed as tragedy, later as farce.  The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double.  It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.

Enemy Location Shot

The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film.  Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film).  For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises.  Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera).  I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film.  I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers.  When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater! Continue reading

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I Fall You Fall We All Fall for Skyfall

The third Daniel Craig headlining Bond flick, Skyfall, opens up like many Bond films of yore with a spectacular chase sequence that involves motorcycles atop Istanbul’s famous market and a fist-fight atop a moving train that ends with Bond getting accidentally shot by another agent trying to take out his combatant.  And as he falls into the river below, the traditional Bond credit sequence begins with Adele’s superb theme song recalling Shirley Bassey’s iconic Goldfinger.

It seems we were in for more of the same, but did they just kill Bond…even if only symbolically?  During the credits you are reminded of the masterstroke of hiring cinematographer Roger Deakins (arguably the best in the biz today) and his frequent cohort, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes as their names come up in that comfortably familiar Bond credit sequence font.  Never before has a Bond film been given such behind-the-scenes pedigree, and armed with a sharper than normal script – the dynamic duo pay homage, deconstruct, and resurrect from one amazing set piece to the next the entire Bond oeuvre. Continue reading

GreeneLand on Film

Fans of British novelist Graham Greene are said to live in GreeneLand, a place where I take up a happy residency.

While film buffs will always remember Greene for penning the screenplay to one of the greatest movies ever made, The Third Man, it becomes easy to overlook the myriad of film adaptations that sprang so effortlessly from his novels at the time of their publication and later. In fact, it was a recent mini-Greene-to-film-Renaissance that first introduced me to the man who would become my favorite writer. I would’ve never turned to his short stories and novels had it not been for the most recent film adaptations of The End of the Affair and The Quiet American. Many of the earlier film adaptations are unfairly forgotten or simply hard to find and deserve to be brought to light for classic film buffs and faithful GreeneLand residents alike.

The following is a ranking of the Graham Greene book to film adaptations I have seen. Continue reading

Doubt and Revolution Plague The Duchess

SPOILER ALERT:  Her hair does catch on fire!

With the debates and baseball playoffs still holding most of my attention, films have had to take a backseat.  So I’m eschewing my traditional review format here for the moderately successful The Duchess.  Saul Dibb’s “inspired by a true story” costume drama about the Duchess of Devonshire is a fairly entertaining run-of-the-mill feminist bodice-ripper.  It’s one of those movies impeccably shot, full of costumes and pageantry, and featuring A-class acting that is hard to dislike, but just doesn’t have that special “it” due to our familiarity with this stereotypical story of a woman of immense wealth and power who is forced to chose between her true feelings and what society demands of her.  In the titular role, Keira Knightley acts the hell out of her part, and for the first time, seems to fully inhabit that old-school “Movie Star” mold.  Ralph Fiennes, as the Duke, delivers a master-class in the portrayal of an elitist creep.  It’s another classic turn from the chameleon-like British thespian who really should have had an Oscar on the mantle a long time ago.  Featuring hearty doses of smarmy satire and stuffy 18th-century social mores, The Duchess is no Barry Lyndon, but it fits the bill as an HBO-style production of Masterpiece Theater.

However, I couldn’t help but think the best things about this recent trip to the cinema were the trailers, and thoughts of the film teasers oddly plagued my devouring of the main course.  Yes, there was the preview for Oliver Stone’s inexplicable W (opening next week) which looks funnier and funnier with each new TV spot.  But there were also two subtly thrilling trailers for some prime-time Oscar bait:  In one corner, we have what looks to be a stunning film adaptation of a controversial stage-play that touches on the Catholic abuse scandals among other heady topics starring a habited Meryl Streep, a frocked Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a perfectly cast Amy Adams as a naive nun.  I have faith no art-house film buff will want to miss Doubt.  In the other corner is Sam Mendes seemingly stirring and evocative adaptation of Richard Yate’s novel, Revolutionary Road, staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a young couple on the brink of emotional ruin in a 1950’s suburban purgatory.  The cinematography and the acting in this, as in Doubt, looks to be amazing.  While a perfectly adequate The Duchess will quickly fade from memory, these two films, based on their trailers and pedigree, look to be the type that viewers and critics will write home about at the end of the year.  I can’t wait.

To watch the trailers, visit:

W:  http://www.wthefilm.com/

Doubt:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/doubt/

Revolutionary Road:  http://www.revolutionaryroadmovie.com/

CAPTION:  Thank god we’re off that sinking ship!

A Review of Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges”

Just when I was about lose faith in film due to the muck and mire currently overstuffing multiplexes and DVD shelves, In Bruges comes along, out of nowhere, to restore my religion.  First-time feature length director/screenwriter Martin McDonagh hasn’t crafted an earth shaking masterpiece, but he has a made a film that has spoken to me personally.  It tells the type of story that I hope to tell as a novelist.  It features sharp writing that I aspire to and smart directing I wish there was more of in Hollywood.  It combines elements from two of my favorite writers: Graham Greene’s religious and deeply psychological study of the criminal mind, and David Mamet’s too cool f-bomb laden verbal sparring.  Finally, it showcases three of my favorite things: trails of blood running down cobblestone streets, beautiful French actresses (Clemence Poesy), and midgets (I mean dwarves).  Why is it I want to visit Bruges now?

CAPTION:  “Oh, remember that guy we killed…IN BRUGES!  Good times, good times.”

“They’re Filming Midgets…”, 16 February 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

…in Bruges. Two Irish hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) are sent into hiding by their British boss (Ralph Fiennes) in Bruges, Belgium after a botched job only to learn that the most damning job awaits one of them just around the corner. Bruges is a picturesque tourist trap built around the oldest and best maintained medieval city in Belgium. Director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh bleeds the setting and the material for all its worth and makes his feature film debut in superb style.

The dark comedy built around the existential quandaries of hit men has been done to death over the years. If last summer’s You Kill Me was the relentlessly dark and relentlessly sitcom-y take on the genre, then In Bruges is the hipster art film take on the theme. McDonagh deserves all the credit in the world for breathing life into the stale story by texturing the tonal shifts with crisp digital camera-work (that is surprisingly haunting), deep character development, and by creating a wonderful sense of place. Imagine a Graham Greene novel (Brighton Rock specifically comes to mind) modernized by David Mamet. The dialog is super smart and wickedly un-PC while the comedy parts are as gut-busting as the crime thriller parts are suspenseful.

McDonagh has also brought together an outstanding cast who thrive in the material. Farrell defies all odds and manages to be as sympathetic in the dramatic parts as he is charmingly sarcastic in the comedic parts. Brendan Gleeson gives a fantastically nuanced portrayal as Farrell’s mentor and friend. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes channels the scary-as-hell energy he’s used previously in Schindler’s List and the recent Harry Potter films in a limber subversion that is a frighteningly fun to watch. The supporting cast is to die for, with Jordan Prentice spot-on as a coked-up dwarf actor shooting an abhorrent art film on the streets of Bruges, and Clemence Poesy coyly seductive and unforgettable as Farrell’s unlikely local love interest.

Ultimately In Bruges meanders down too many cobblestone paths, and one scene near the end involving a bell tower stretches credibility but adds necessary dramatic effect. Certain plot elements will turn off a large segment of the viewing audience. However, those with the right mindset will be greatly rewarded.  In Bruges is hilarious, contemplative, sometimes scathing, often nihilistic, but marked by a shockingly hopeful undercurrent while tones shift and the colors of the human condition undulate in McDonagh’s insightful light. The arrival of a commanding talent has been heralded…in Bruges.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0780536/usercomments-20