Thanksgiving Review: Garfield’s Thanksgiving

This Garfield Thanksgiving special is one, which unlike the Halloween special, I had no recollection of. It was like watching it again for the first time and it does some things very well.

Firstly, there is, of course, the comedic aspect which is present throughout. Mainly when Garfield explains the moral of the holiday: “The day we celebrate food by eating as much of it as we can.”

There are some good surprises in store and quite a bit of “Isn’t Jon stupid?” The latter you should be able to grin and bare it through enough to have a good time, after all it is short.

There is also quite a bit of good information disseminated about similar days worldwide while Jon is trying to stall Liz so she doesn’t know he’s not finished his food yet.

Once again there is a welcome bit of music added to the mix in this special which livens things up. Along with the appearance of Jon’s grandmother to save the day.

While this one doesn’t quite live up to the very high bar that the Halloween special sets up it is worth checking out especially since it’s on the same DVD bundle.

The Evolution of War of the Buttons

Typically, when preparing a new version of a work the first thing that needs to be addressed is what will be different from the last time this film, play or whatever the case may be. This is not dissimilar from the approach one must take when transferring a book to film. In remaking a film, whether the changes be large or small, there should be a goal in mind.

I have not seen the 1961 version of War of the Buttons, but barring few exceptions, it’s safe to assume that the first adaptation of a tale is usually the closest to the original. The first, and only, English-language version came in 1994. The obvious changes, of course, being not only of language but of locale. The tale moves from France to Ireland.

In the third rendition of the tale, released in France last year and the United States this year, the change is a temporal one, which also greatly affects the allegorical potency of the tale.

The tale of two clans of kids in rival towns is transplanted to the south of France during the second World War. As much as possible, and as kids tend to do, they take things in stride and adapt to their reality such that this war of buttons becomes extremely important, as futile as it seems. I can see the ease of criticizing this move, but to me framing this condemnation of warfare, and the nature thereof, amidst the biggest battle ever fought is perfect. It facilitates, and minimizes, the machinations and melodramatic over-elaboration of the shift from enemy to ally among the kids because they all realize much more important things are afoot.

Taking the narrow view you can find it insulting or minimizing to compare the two in any way, but I see that as the narrow view, because the point really is that there’s no reason for the fight. At their core, the children in the neighboring town are the same as those we meet first. The same assertion can be made of any war. We’re all human underneath it all, so why fight?

This may also seem like an easy shortcut to pathos, but it’s not really. Stories about the war abound, and situational empathy will only get you so far, there has to be investment in the antagonists and protagonists and their battle for it to matter. Not only that but this film builds in the first love plot, as well as a rekindled adult romance. Due to the fact that there are many well-developed threads, I should’ve expected all the compulsory elements of the story having already seen a rendition of it prior, but it seems more fresh and not only that they literally were more organic.

In miniscule points, are there imperfections to the film, as well as areas where it could be better? Of course, but in narrative functionality and effectiveness, the areas where it matters the most; it excels greatly.

Thankful for World Cinema: Bergman Island

This Criterion collection offering pieces together three Swedish television interviews with internationally renowned writer/director Ingmar Bergman that originally hit their airwaves in 2004. This re-edited version, with cutaways and a feature structure, premiered in 2006.

The interview flows naturally with rarely a question heard. It starts with Bergman recapping his childhood and then goes through his career, spending much time on his early days breaking in, and then the rest of it is told chronologically. Then towards the end we hear his thoughts on life and death.

The discussion on the films is enhanced greatly by cutting in clips from some of his most famous films, or other dialogue to support what he is saying. What you get in this film is a rare look at a filmmaker who didn’t interview much, and this was the last one, but it was also not overly-manipulated. He stops, restarts, stumbles, rubs his eyes in discomfort; the master filmmaker, always in control, is very human here.

You learn quite a bit in this film both about Bergman as a man, and about life in general, but not necessarily anything new on film, which is fine. Like all of Bergman’s tales, this too is personal.

To delve too far into the details divulged in this film would be to do it a disservice. It is the perfect companion piece to your library and a wonderful coda to a life and a career, even more so when you take into consideration the titles at the end of the film. It adds a certainty, sadness, finality and a feeling of bittersweet farewell to the proceedings, and gives you the sense that the director who spent a career and lifetime trying to sort his beliefs was at peace in the end.

For any fan of Bergman or of film, this is a must have it can be purchased either as a single disc edition or as a supplementary bonus feature on the new edition of The Seventh Seal.


Thankful for World Cinema: The Complete Metropolis (2010)

The first thing that needs saying is that there are conventions that need to be acknowledged if you are going to venture out and watch this or any silent film. Silent film acting, for example, is by its very nature more demonstrative and over-the-top than even the presentational style that dominated after the advent of sound, and most definitely can cause culture shock to those who are used to film actors of the Post-Brando world. It has to be taken as a given.

Some silent actors are clearly better than others but the style can’t be held against the film, it is what it is. While saying that Brigitte Helm is quite good in this film, she may go a little too far when she’s playing the evil robotic alter ego of her character but she is clearly two different people in those scenes. Gustav Fröhlich is an effective lead who portrays the audience’s POV aptly.

The image quality is superb for a bulk of the film, meaning the portions we already knew existed. They look as crisp and clear as they likely did in 1927, perhaps even better. While the transferred 16mm footage doesn’t look quite that good with many lines, which have been dulled and are nearly translucent running through it, they are without question an invaluable addition to the narrative.

Not only did the restorers fully explain the story of the footage’s discovery and how it was added back to the cut they also noted that the image size would change to keep less than knowledgeable patrons from complaining. Better yet they had some fun with the titles. Not only did they digitally create newer, more accurate ones, they added motion to those which referred to the workers underground and the elite up above the city.

The restoration of the original score, as best as it could be replicated, is also a welcome and brilliant touch. The end credits acknowledge the fact that some pieces of the music had to be created by educated guess and rarely could you tell. It was pretty seamless, and, moreover, the impact of the film is enhanced twenty-fold. Typically on DVD releases, especially the cheaper ones, which is how I was accustomed to seeing Metropolis; you get stock, canned, jazzy nonsense that rarely if ever really syncs. You can almost imagine the producers of said DVD sitting around picking a track because it synced in one spot. The score is breathtaking and absolutely draws you into the tale, if all else should fail.

While you should be forewarned that all we know should be in this film isn’t, as there are titles describing the rare scene that could not be saved or found. You will witness here, in greater fullness than ever before, the enormity and vastness of Lang’s vision. His vistas come through and the added running time gives this seemingly simple through-line the time to make the impact it seeks to make. It is, if you dig deep enough, a more complex and involved visual narrative than many may give it credit for. While we today will not be jarred by the seemingly contrasting styles of the sub-plots; there is a grab bag of visual elements worth exploring.

For a modern audience the message of the film, which is repeated on quite a few occasions, may seem a little heavy-handed, again I warn you that it must be taken with a grain of salt. Think of other silents you know and enjoy and consider if they too aren’t very on the head. You know exactly what the message of The Immigrant and The Kid are but they work anyway. Typically, you are told someone’s profession or that they are the hero before you see them, which is also less cinematic than desirable but the language of film was new and it was important to be simple and direct. It bears noting that Metropolis is not overly-laden with titles and it just works.

Seeing this new cut of Metropolis will not be like watching a regurgitated version of something you’ve seen before. It will be like a whole new experience. Not only do you see it on the big screen but you see it sharper and more clearly than you’ve likely ever seen it before. It really is like the saying goes; see it again for the first time.


Thankful for World Cinema: Summer Hours

Summer Hours is the latest film from acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, probably most well-known for his film Irma Vep. This film examines a family dealing with the death of its matriarch. While this is a film that does have its occasional moments of clarity and near-brilliance, it is usually too distracted by its own subterfuge to make any real emotional impact on the audience.

The film opens up well enough with the matriarch Hélène’s 75th birthday party. Here we meet the rest of the family who have been scattered about the world. There is Adrienne, played admirably by Juliette Binoche, who is a designer in New York and Jérémie Renier, who works for Puma in China. Lastly, there is Frédéric (Charles Berling) an economist and family man who lives closest. In the beginning, we see each of the characters get sketched and it is intriguing. There are wonderful scenes both between Berling and Hélène (Edith Scob), when she first mentions the need for him to manage her estate when the time comes which he doesn’t want to hear, and Binoche and Scob when they talk about the tea service is even better and is played with great nuance and subdued emotion and longing by both.

After each Berling and Binoche have their breakdowns, one total and one restrained, the building of character comes to a near stand-still in some ways the narrative comes to a near stop as well. While there were the occasional discussions of an object to mask meaning and emotion in the beginning the dropping of names of painters, china makers, furniture artisans and the like becomes so incessant the people nearly get lost and it ends up feeling almost like an episode of Cash in the Attic.

There is one very heated exchange and then all the characters retreat into their own corner and go about doing their own thing and finding their own way to cope. Which would not be a negative if not for two things: the film was sold as a highly combustible drama in the trailer not a subdued one but more importantly, again the nuance would be more pronounced, more delicate and easier to appreciate if not for all the name-dropping. The scenes where the maid Éloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan) come back to get her item and leave her missus flowers are rather moving.

Ultimately, it is a film worth watching. The façade of objects and materialism is quite a subjective thing. Some enjoy it for just that reason. See for yourself and decide what you think. Those who appreciate good acting will definitely enjoy the film for that time alone.


Thankful for World Cinema: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train, the latest film from French auteur André Téchiné perhaps most well known for his film Wild Reeds, examines the ramifications of the allegations by a girl who claims she was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. Note: this review may contain spoilers.

The film is interesting in how it structures itself. It sets itself up in two parts. Part one is called “Circumstances” and part two is called “Consequences.” As expected, they each examine both what lead to the attack and what happened afterwards as a result of it. Sectioned films are not uncommon and it would be an interesting case study for film students to show that you can build your story in a very rococo fashion, as Rohmer did at times did, and still make it intriguing.

The Consequences section is very focused and really only shows the impact on Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) and her mother (Catherine Deneuve). There is an overheard media report and they receive a letter from the president, and an interview. However, you don’t really feel the frenzy as much as you might think because they go into hiding and then to an acquaintance’s country house. So there are both positives and negatives to the singular focus.

Unfortunately, this is one of those films whose logline tells you the midpoint of the story, as does the synopsis. So if you go in as a blank slate you’re fine, otherwise you’ll wait a bit.

A shortcoming of this film is that once the twist is unveiled it truly doesn’t attempt to examine Jeanne’s psyche and see why and for what cause she did what she did. It’s kind of like burying the lead, or as Ebert wrote in his opinion of Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (which I disagree with) that it missed the story. We see someone who did what they did, show no real remorse and then eventually confess, apologize and it’s over. What have we really learned? Not enough, if anything.

While the film struggles a bit with pace and scenes where our lead was just skating about could have been truncated if not excised completely there were some good things in the edit. Specifically, the film frequently fades to black putting a cap on a certain portion of the story and allowing you to reflect on it these were rather good more often than not. Towards the end it is not serving the story more often than not.

In the two young leads you get characters you just watch and don’t necessarily identify with that greatly, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it magnifies shortcomings in the execution of the tale. First, there is Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who makes a nuisance of himself until he wins over Jeanne, then falls into very shady business dealings and doesn’t inform her though he makes her an accomplice, then the character we have somewhat followed changes completely and in this regard the film leaves us as spectators and not participants, as opposed to the fades which do the opposite. This is a confused vision in this regard. It should be one or the other.

Catherine Deneuve in this film is just there again. It seems as if it’s been quite some time say since 8 Femmes since she’s been outstanding and not just part of the cast, however, hers, like many foreign filmographies is incomplete stateside.

The Girl on the Train is an interesting albeit flawed film that just missed the mark but still ultimately worth viewing and judging for yourself.


Thankful for World Cinema: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon is an incredible film that, if you have read reviews, is most definitely deserving of the resoundingly positive reviews its gotten. It is a film that knows there are never easy answers and trusts its audience to fill in blanks. Of course, this happens more often than not with foreign films but when one is so accustomed to being spoon-fed it is always refreshing when you are invited to engage in the story and try to piece things together and aren’t handed everything.

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. It is in what can only be referred to as glorious black and white, and shows you all the flexibility and the marvels that monochrome can bring to a film whether it be blinding snow, sharp silhouette, haunting chiaroscuro, high contrast and perfect underexposure. The thought of color in this film is quite literally repulsive. It’s the kind of feat that causes the American Society of Cinematographers to essentially say “Union allegiance be damned this is the best work of the year” by awarding it top prize. It informs the film and enhances it and never makes itself the center of attention.

It’s hard to discuss a film of this caliber without lauding a cast whose depth of talent is beyond reproach and whose ability runs so far down the supporting scale that it’s mind-boggling. As the scenes unravel themselves, and you meet the characters, you are consistently left wondering “Who is that?” after particularly well-played scenes. Especially Berghart Klaussner, The Pastor, who is chilling in a Bergmanesque fashion; Leone Benesch who in one scene perfectly plays the impossibly contradictory actions and emotions as indicated by the voice-over narration; Janina Fautz as Erna, the Steward’s daughter, who in the end is the overlooked and in a certain regard the reviled hero; Susanne Lothar as the dependent and taken-advantage-of midwife, and the entire young cast, including Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf; believe it or not this list could go on.

It is a narrative tapestry that pulls together five narrative strands and slowly but surely you start to see how they all intertwine and how the fates of each family unit affect the other. You ultimately get what director Michael Haneke was in search of which is an examination of the psychological landscape that existed in the children of Germany on the eve of The Great War, the same children who would grow up and bring war to the world again.

It is a film which seeks to leave its impact through certain minimal elements. For example, there is no score the only music we have are the Baroness and the Tutor rehearsing, and more lastingly there is the once repeated haunting hymn of the children’s choir in the church. The minimal visual treatment exemplifies itself when there is a beating we hear it and sit watching the door. Instead of seeing what goes on behind the closed door, we are haunted by only the sound.

This film is immensely watchable and the kind of tale you can watch unwind for much longer than it does run, which is impressive as it already runs a hefty 144 minutes. Needless to say this film is expertly paced and keeps each strand of the story equally compelling such that you want to keep going to see what happens in one or the other.

The edit both visually and in terms of sound is fantastic. Narratives are juggled deftly and kept in order and there is one audio cut from a piece of farm equipment droning to a pig mid-squeak; the cut is also visual but is especially inspired in terms of sound.

Not only is this a film whose writer, also the director Michael Haneke, juggles many storylines but he does something which seems so much easier for the foreign filmmaker which is to make a film heavily featuring kids which isn’t a kid’s movie but a serious drama. It is also an interesting piece because it sets you up to not get all the answers because you see early on that the narrator doesn’t have many, if any at all, as he has limited omniscience and when he does have an idea he doesn’t push hard enough.

The White Ribbon is not only a great film but an important one. It is one that will cause you to discuss it for quite a bit afterwards and is the latest great work in a very accomplished career for director Michael Haneke. It’s the kind of foreign film that should most definitely be making more of a dent as its appeal is universal and should not be kept to the arthouse set.


Thankful for World Cinema: Sin Nombre

The film Sin Nombre opens up seeming promising enough. It tells the bound to collide tales of Casper (Edgar Flores) and new La Mara recruit Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) and a group of Honduran refugees featuring Sayra (Paulina Gaitan). With these two seemingly unrelated situations colliding and heading on a race for the American-Mexican border you’d expect a compelling, intelligent and exciting film.

Instead what you end up getting is a transplanted American action film without the pace. All the characters are archetypes and sorely underdeveloped, which is truly sad because Casper and Sayra are aptly played, and the latter is once referred to by a gang member as a young Salma Hayek – a line which could very well turn out to be prophetic. The problem with having only archetypes is that you never get beneath the surface and what you get ends up being superficial. While I could identify with the plight I couldn’t identify with those in the plight. Whereas in City of God, because of how intricately it was told, and how shocking it is, given the circumstances; I could see myself ending up like those characters – a criminal with no other choice. The gang mentality exists and I know that but for compelling drama we need to see why the characters buy into it, only the moment of doubt is clear here. A truly effective film places you in the other situation and doesn’t leave you as a spectator.

The superficiality of character would be forgivable with more pace. However, the film is so languidly told it feels as though it runs three hours, which is nearly twice as long as its actual running time. Going on an epic journey is a major investment on the audience’s part and it would be easier to take if I knew better with whom I was going.

Backstory is sadly lacking as we never quite understand why Sayra is on this pilgrammage and what exactly separated her from her family. There is discussion of deportation and a death but we never learn who she is as a person. Her attraction to Casper also seems to come quite easily. He slays her attacker and she seems to say “My hero,” but it just seems too facile. Almost instantly she says she trusts him and “as long as I’m with you I’m fine.” Why him, and not your uncle and father you ditched?

There is just too much that we are left to accept, which is different than being spoon-fed. An audience will figure things out but some things require exposition as little as a filmmaker may like to admit the fact.

When there is not enough development of character there is only so far a story can go. There is laughter without joy, shock but no loss, suspense but no fear, and worse – a film without engagement.


Thankful for World Cinema: Les Vampires

Louis Feuillade’s classic six hour plus serial Les Vampires had disappeared from DVD for a while, before it recently resurfaced. I was lucky to have purchased this title at Christmas when it was still readily available – it’s now back in full force.

Unfortunately, Feuillade’s films seem to have disappeared from public consciousness long ago and hence the demand for his titles is less, which is why a company like Criterion would be ideal to shed light upon his lost gems. However, in discussing Les Vampires I would like to illustrate his greatness. First, I do not tout the greatness of this film simply because it is aged enough to be a classic. I like neither old things because they’re old nor new things because they’re new.

The timelessness of this tale of Feuillade’s storytelling is in how captivating his plots tend to be. In both Les Vampires and Fantomas you will see some effects that for the time are very impressive but always keep in mind the era in which he worked. Narrative cinema was still in its infancy and audiences were not yet fluent in the language of film so things are overshot: shots are very wide and there are few close-ups. Very few menial movements are cut. For example, if someone enters a building today we would cut right to them arriving at the location in the building where they needed to be, without giving it a second thought. In the oughts and teens, however, audiences needed to see the protagonist in the lobby, getting on the elevator, and reaching his floor or they would be confused. Today such moments are only shot to build tension if needed.

Having said all that, Les Vampires has everything you could possibly want in a narrative sense. The aim is to always leaving you wanting more at the end of each episode and I always did. What was a little unusual in this one is that the cliffhanger wasn’t the end as it was in Fantomas but there was usually a little denouement just before the chapter closed.

However, the elements that kept me riveted and watching two and three installments at a time and the whole thing in less than two days were all there. The story concerns a journalist Philippe Guérande and his sidekick Oscar Mazamette. They are engaged in an epic battle against an organized crime unit of Vampires known simply as Les Vampires.

This story is full of twists, mistaken identity, seemingly unbeatable villains, chases, hiding places, surprises (seriously I was taken aback by the ingenuity of some), it will always leave you guessing; after a while as it seems the kingpin on Les Vampires is a mist that can never be caught.

The acting is superb and seldom, if ever, are you left wondering what a conversation is about for lack of a title. Few things if any are ever introduced solely by titles. The film tells its tale visually. Musidora, who plays Irma Vep, which is now an immortal anagram because she became a worldwide star after this serial, and you can easily see why.

This serial is the definition of classic storytelling, good versus evil battling it out with drama, suspense and excitement building throughout each episode. Each episode does have its own arc, and its own characters on occasion. You can watch them separately and it almost becomes a TV show you just need back-story and you’re good to go to the next episode, except this is so much better. On the version I watched I don’t believe the score is original, packaging usually isn’t good about removing those doubts, but the score does fit most of the time and it’s very good. If you have a chance check out this excellent film. If you haven’t seen Feuilllade’s work be sure to suggest it to Criterion. There is too little of this filmmaking legend’s work available to modern audiences.