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Sicario (feat. storyboard artist Sam Hudecki)

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015—Film

Sicario (USA 2015, Action/Crime/Drama), Writer: Taylor Sheridan; Director: Denis Villeneuve

Breathtaking. That’s probably the best word to sum up Sicario, if I had to choose one. The film had me in its grip from beginning to end, closing in tighter with each pulsing beat.

Sicario is about idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited to join a covert government task force looking to curtail the drug war that rages around the Mexican–U.S. border. It’s also about cultures in crisis, and an increasingly violent world that’s showing signs of growing numb to death and destruction, and that believes more and more that the end justifies the means.

The film begins by explaining the origins of its title: sicarii was the name given to zealots in ancient Jerusalem who fought off the Roman invaders to protect their homeland; in Mexico, sicario means hitman.

That introductory text is the first heavy hit the film delivers—along with its unnerving score. Right away, Sicario makes it clear that it intends to throw open the box full of questions, each of which has no clear answer. Which land is the homeland? How can we truly tell the invaders from the protectors?

The deeper Kate delves into the operation, and the further she dives into Mexico, the more she realizes just how much darkness she’s treading in. Team leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) of the U.S. Department of Defense doesn’t even do Kate the courtesy of operating on a “need to know” basis; it’s more of a “deign to let you know” scenario. The cryptic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who is also part of the unnamed team, presents an even bigger mystery; he’s a “ghoul” whose origins and intentions remain in the shadows as long as he can keep them there. (Dropped off the edge again down in Juarez…)

With Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve revisits some of the territory he explored in Prisoners: How far should one go in pursuit of justice or revenge? Is it okay to take the law into your own hands if the truth is tangled up in red tape? And when is violence acceptable? Where is the line that separates victim from perpetrator? The questions keep coming.

From what I can tell, to Villeneuve, violence is only acceptable when it exposes the damage done; never when it’s presented as entertainment. In the film’s opening sequence, Kate and her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), lead a deadly raid on a house in Phoenix, Arizona. They’re looking for hostages, but instead they find corpses stacked vertically between the walls—plaster tombstones sealed by bleak paint jobs.

Even after Kate flees the house, standing in its backyard of dust as she and her team reel from the discovery, we’re not safe from what stands inside. Villeneuve takes us back to glimpse ever closer at the faces of those who fell victim to the drug cartels.

The directorial choices that make the opening sequence, and all the rest, so impactful are why Sicario left me breathless. It showcases some of the best filmmaking talents working today, led first and foremost by its profoundly gifted and ruminative director.

Aside from Villeneuve, the person who might be most responsible for the film’s chest-clenching effect is composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who delivers a stunning score full of cello, percussion and electronics. His music haunts the movie, snaking and rattling through scenes as it makes its way from simmering to seething.

Lighting master Roger Deakins pulls off extraordinary feats of cinematography, particularly in low-light settings (including one incredible sequence in a tunnel, shot using night vision and thermal-image cameras). Taylor Sheridan’s script is brilliant (amazingly, Sicario is his debut screenplay). In the lead roles, Blunt, Del Toro and Brolin are excellent, each as skilled as they are talented. Editor Joe Walker pulls it all together, making for taut, tightly wound coil of film that threatens to snap off the spool at nearly every frame.

Those are some of the headline names associated with Sicario. But as with any film of this scale, there are of course many more artists who played a critical hand in making it happen. One of those people is storyboard artist (and Kickass Canadian) Sam Hudecki.

Sicario is Sam’s third collaboration with Villeneuve, after Enemy and Prisoners (and before next year’s Story of Your Life and their current collaboration, the Blade Runner sequel). I worked with Sam many years ago, after we graduated from Queen’s University’s film program, when he was 1st assistant camera on my short movie Sight Lines. He’s now in the midst of a pretty thrilling project, but he graciously made time to chat with me for this review and share his behind-the-scenes insights.

Sam spent three months in pre-production on Sicario, working alongside Villeneuve in New Mexico. “I really love working with him,” says Sam. “I think we established a great working relationship, and (storyboarding with him is) my favourite creative process to be in.”

It’s a process that always begins with a conversation. Going back to Sicario’s opening sequence, Sam says there was a lot to talk on that front. “Denis and I had many conversations about the nature of violence. Do you show a grenade before it goes off, or do you witness an explosion and the suddenness of that explosion? (The way we approached violence in the film) was a decision that came out of a lot of discussion around the potential impact of that opening sequence.”

Sam's storyboard sketch and its corresponding screenshot, from Sicario's opening sequence

Opening sequence: Sam’s sketch and its corresponding screenshot

There’s another sequence in the film that stands out to me, one that’s equally impactful. After the special ops team travels to Juarez to capture one of the top players in the Mexican cartel, they bring him back for “questioning” at the hands of Alejandro. Alejandro sidles down the hall and into the interrogation room, whistling all the while, toting a jug of water. When he approaches the captive, Alejandro doesn’t strike him; instead, he saunters up so close to him that the looming attack starts to feel almost intimate. It’s one of the most intimidating moments I’ve seen in a film.

Mercifully for the viewer, if not the captive, the violence takes place off-screen. We don’t need to witness it; Alejandro’s quiet menace bares all.

From everything I have seen, Villeneuve displays that sensitivity toward violence in all his films. He also shows great empathy toward women. I touched on that in my Prisoners review; to me, it’s a trademark of the director’s approach, and one I value very highly. (For more on this, see my Kickass Canadians article on Villeneuve.)

He does it again with Sicario, which strongly emphasizes Kate’s point of view in a male-dominated world. So it’s somewhat shocking (from an artistic perspective, if not a business one) to learn that backers who initially looked at the film wanted Kate replaced with a male protagonist. To make the lead character a man would completely change the story. It would be to lose Kate’s inherent vulnerability, the eyes through which we see the story—those of an outsider.

Fortunately, with Villeneuve involved, there was no need. According to Sam, “Denis brought a lot of attention and sensitivity” to Kate, something Sam himself appreciated.

“I love the fact that the protagonist is a woman,” says Sam. “She’s in a position that would be tough for anyone, but it’s particularly tough for Kate because she’s a woman on a (dangerous, questionable) mission led by men, and she has strong ideals. So her point of view was certainly something we were very acutely aware of in our approach. As (the team goes) into Mexico, we’re very aligned with Kate.”

Adopting an outsider’s perspective was a key factor for Sicario, given that the crew couldn’t film in Juarez, where many key scenes were set. We see it only from a distance, which is fitting given that our impressions of the city are framed by someone who doesn’t truly understand what she’s being drawn into. “You only get to know a hint of what’s really going on there, and that’s as far as we could take it,” says Sam.

Shooting in Mexico, if not Juarez itself, was important to the filmmakers because they very much wanted to create an authentic depiction of the area. “We looked a lot at what is really going on,” says Sam. “And while there’s artistic licence, (the film) comes from a place of being very grounded in reality.”

Still, Sam stresses that Sicario isn’t intended as “an advisory of any kind about Juarez. It’s more of a meditation about conflict (in general).”

The subject matter isn’t surprising when you consider the source; Villeneuve has become known for his penchant for exploring the darker side of humanity. But that doesn’t mean the director himself is mired in gloom.

“I read somewhere that people (assume) he must be a very dark and depressed person,” says Sam. “It’s not true; it’s actually quite hilarious and tremendously enjoyable to work with him.

“The purpose of storyboarding is just to get everyone on the same page, and that page is Denis’ vision—his dream of the film. My job is to help unlock the dream and get some of that on paper. So it’s always kind of a first blush, and I know that when Denis and I can look at each other and think, ‘This is exciting,’ I know that it will be.”

I’m still catching my breath.

*          *          *

Thank you, Sam, for sharing your time and thoughts with me. Here’s a shot of us and the Sight Lines cast and crew, on set in 2002 (Sam’s left of the camera; I’m to its right, in jeans):

Sight Lines

Keep an eye out for the next two collaborations from Sam and Villeneuve, two of Canada’s greatest film talents—Story of Your Life, set to release in early 2016, and the Blade Runner sequel, scheduled to start shooting in summer 2016.

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From Tori Amos’ “Juarez”:

Dropped off the edge again down in Juarez |“Don’t even bat an eye | if the eagle cries,” the Rasta man says, just cause the desert likes | young girls flesh and | no angel came.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Monday, June 1st, 2015—Film

Mad Max: Fury Road (USA 2015, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris; Director: George Miller

I can attest that you don’t have to know anything about the original Mad Max movies to appreciate writer/director George Miller’s latest entry to the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road.

The 2015 installment features Tom Hardy in the role Mel Gibson made famous in the late 70s and early 80s. I don’t know what Gibson’s portrayal was like, but in this round, Max Rockastansky is a damaged yet fierce warrior who is incapable of giving up. As he says, he’s been reduced to a single instinct: survive.

Mad Max: Fury Road is set 45 years after the world falls apart. So we don’t know exactly what year it takes place, but we can pray that it’s much, much later than 2060.

The world in which Max exists—barely—is a fiery desert (he calls it a wasteland of fire and blood), where he is “hunted by scavengers and haunted by those I could not protect.” I keep quoting the script because it’s surprisingly poetic; it really sticks with you.

In the opening sequence, Max is captured by the greedy scavengers, in spite of a ferocious and amazing attempt to escape. Chained and strung upside down, he’s used as a “blood bag” (just imagine) for the warlords who serve Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the first Mad Max movie).

Immortan Joe is an aged dictator who keeps women prisoner so they can bear his children, or pump “mother’s milk” for his adult sons to guzzle. He starves the masses living below his kingdom, the Citadel—although he’s good enough to take time out to warn them of the perils of becoming addicted to water.

It’s a hellish world, and therefore an unsustainable one. Many are angry, and many more are dangerously unhappy.

One of the angriest is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). When she steals Immortan Joe’s most prized possessions (his wives, or “breeders”) in the hope of setting them free, a feverish chase ensues—one that gets Max out of the shackles. And one that lasts nearly the full two hours of the movie.

Now, I like action, but only if it’s well done and not if it goes on too long. At some point fairly early in the film, I realized that the entire thing was going to be a prolonged chase scene. I was worried for a minute, but Fury Road pulls it off. Yes, I wouldn’t have minded a few more quiet conversations between characters, or more of a reprieve. But this film is so exceptionally made that it absolutely won me over, even as someone who doesn’t love uber-long action sequences.

Miller is as much a dedicated perfectionist as he is a brilliant visionary. The effort and talent that went into making Fury Road is simply astonishing. The patience and perseverance, the stamina it would take to spend seven months in the Namib Desert, giving everything to each shot, each take, maintaining the creative energy required to deliver such an explosive and innovative final product… It kind of blows my mind to think of it.

Pick any aspect of the film to focus on and you’ll see how exceptional it is. Great genre story that creates characters and settings so established, they feel almost legendary. (Names like Toast the Knowing, and Cheedo the Fragile, are assigned with such authority; while watching, I wondered whether Fury Road was based on a series of graphic novels.) Amazing effects and stunts, inventive props and costumes, meticulous direction, stunning editing, excellent cinematography. The sound! The frenetic, pounding score by Junkie XL!

The acting. So many impressive performances. Sticking to the main three: Hardy fits the image of the classic action hero, but he brings much more than muscle to Max. Here’s a man with a great gift at conveying his depth and soul, even when barely speaking. Theron, who has to be one of our best living actors, nails it every time (see The Road); Fury Road is no exception. Nicholas Hoult, as young warlord Nux, delivers a layered and complex portrayal, treating his seemingly sleazy character with compassion, rounding him out with powerful subtext and heaps of personality.

It’s amazing how much depth the actors convey, given the sparse script they worked from. Fury Road relies on expressions, gazes and body language to capture much of its story, its pulse. Even in intimate moments between characters, the film is still more about action than dialogue.

That’s a big part of why Fury Road works. Though it may be one prolonged chase scene, it has a solid heart at its core—one that keeps you caring even if you’re far past your “action sequence” threshold (if you have one). Oh, and the action itself is spectacular.

Hats off to the filmmakers—cast and crew alike. What an achievement.

Fury Road’s follow-up, Mad Max: The Wasteland, was recently announced, with Hardy resuming the title role. I’m in.

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The Fury Road panel discussion at the Cannes Film Festival offers some great insights, from the film’s cast, as well as from Miller, his producing partner, Doug Mitchell, and his editor (and wife), Margaret Sixel. Worth a watch.

The Cobblestone Corridor

Friday, May 22nd, 2015—Film

The Cobblestone Corridor (USA 2015, Short/Crime/Mystery), Writer/Director: Erik C. Bloomquist

The Cobblestone Corridor

For various reasons, I’ve neglected this blog lately (one reason is my other website, Kickass Canadians). But I’m thrilled to return to it for The Cobblestone Corridor.

When writer/director Erik C. Bloomquist asked me to review his latest short film, it reminded me of the direction I want to steer this blog towards: interviewing filmmakers (Winter’s Tale, Northword, Take This Waltz and Barney’s Version), taking requests from indie directors to help promote their work (Wanderweg), and doing joint reviews with pals—and of course my amazing nephews (The Lego Movie, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Outland).

So here are my thoughts on The Cobblestone Corridor: I’m very impressed.

The 25-minute movie is a tribute to film noir and old-school detective flicks. It tracks Allan Archer (Bloomquist), editor-in-chief for the newspaper at Alfred Pierce Preparatory School, in hot pursuit of his biggest case yet: investigating the dubious dismissal of Dr. Peter Carroll, chairman of the English department.

Mannerisms and catchphrases aside (gumshoe, dame), The Cobblestone Corridor’s world is very much rooted in modern-day America. In the realm of prep school newspaper nerds (self-described!), that means going head-to-head with a public that prefers insta-news and chat rooms to well researched articles and educated commentary. The film takes pains to argue in favour of traditional journalism (although the Internet ultimately proves handy in solving a certain case…). It’s an interesting exploration, one that is particularly at home in a film that so lovingly embraces the traditions and past conventions of another form of media—cinema.

The Cobblestone Corridor has its tongue firmly planted against its cheek. Case in point, Allan’s deadpan response to a suspect who calls him four eyes: “I wear contacts now.” (The nerd of noir may have ditched his glasses, but he’s still looking through a similar lens.) Yet what brings the film home is how fully the characters, and actors, commit. They’re utterly earnest about the plot twists and developments, and the result is a charming, absorbing 25 minutes of classically contemporary storytelling.

The Cobblestone Corridor is a slick production, with great cinematography and production design, and solid performances across the board. Kudos to the entire team.

Bloomquist in particular makes a strong impression, doing quadruple duty as writer, producer, director and star. He’s also clearly committed to getting the word out about his film; this blog can’t have a very high profile, yet he came across my Canadian site while reaching out to bloggers to promote his American film. Dedicated, hard working and talented—seems safe to say Bloomquist is going places. Visit his website to learn more.

The Cobblestone Corridor is available to rent or buy through Vimeo on Demand. The price is low, the quality high. I hope you’ll check it out.

Thanks to Erik for sending me the press kit and inviting me to comment on his work. He has inspired me, renewed my excitement for indie filmmaking, and reminded me of the power of believing in your ideas and seeing them through.

A Most Violent Year

Thursday, February 5th, 2015—Film

A Most Violent Year (USA 2014, Action/Crime/Drama), Writer/Director: J.C. Chandor

A Most Violent Year is a tightly packed nutshell of mood and American ideology that creates a palpable tension from beginning to end. It’s as if the thing might crack open at any moment, spewing forth the violence it alludes to (but rarely shows) and releasing the microcosm of America it contains, allowing its dream-woven seed to take root.

The year is 1981, historically one of New York City’s most violent years. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a hardworking and ambitious immigrant who owns a heating oil business. He’s poised to close the biggest deal yet of his career, but his success is threatened by attacks against his salespeople and a growing number of violent robberies that send his drivers to the hospital.

As his last name suggests, Abel is committed to doing the right thing (or at least “the most right thing” to achieve one’s goals). But his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who is a gangster’s daughter, has other ideas about how to get things done: “You’re not going to like what’ll happen once I get involved.”

References to The Godfather abound, as well as to Macbeth; Chastain channels Lady Macbeth in much the same way Marcia Gay Harden does in Mystic River.

The American Dream also features prominently, with two opposing experiences playing out through Abel and his driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), who doesn’t fair nearly as well in a world of violence, greed, ambition and corruption. Ultimately, it seems that success comes down to who cowers in the face of fear and who chases it into the ground. (In Abel’s words, “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life. And that, I can’t do.”)

A Most Violent Year is a captivating film. It’s a slow-going train (as Blaine Allan, one of my Queen’s University film profs, would say, “it moves at a measured pace”), but nothing is extraneous. Every stop along the way, from the dialogue to, for example, Abel’s running sequences, reveals something important about the plot or the characters. Much like Abel’s approach to business, the film is efficient and well oiled.

It also does a marvelous job of creating mood, thanks in no small part to Bradford Young’s dark, beautiful cinematography and Alex Ebert’s haunting score. And it features wonderful performances across the board, most notably from its leads. As Abel, Isaac is so very different from his role in Inside Llewyn Davis, but every bit as good. Chastain also continues to display her staggering versatility (see The Tree of Life, Take Shelter and Zero Dark Thirty).

A Most Violent Year closes with an impactful ending that comes as something of a surprise—a final stop after you thought the ride was over, and one that brings Abel’s character into sharper focus than ever before.

A most impressive film. I’ll be on the lookout for whatever comes next from its writer/director, J.C. Chandor, and from the always excellent Isaac and Chastain.

Nightcrawler

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014—Film

Nightcrawler (USA 2014, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer/Director: Dan Gilroy

Just in time for Halloween, Nightcrawler brings us the ghoulish Lou Bloom, a thief-turned-snuff-filmmaker (okay, technically, turned freelance videographer who captures overnight carnage for the morning news) whose creepy exterior hides an even scarier inner demon. This haunted creature is all about the tricks; fortunately, the film itself is a skillfully made, thought-provoking treat—as long as you like hard candy.

When Nightcrawler opens, Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief skulking around Los Angeles after hours, snipping chain link fences and scrounging for valuable trinkets. But when he stumbles on a bloody car crash and sees videographers (or “stringers”) snapping up the footage, he discovers his true calling.

Lou sells his footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at a struggling TV station, whose vulnerable tenure makes her an ideal target for Lou’s exploits and exploitations. Before long, he climbs the slippery ladder of success—never mind if he has to crush a few fingers (or throats) along the way; in fact, so much better.

Whether he’s slinking past police DO NOT CROSS barriers or breaking moral boundaries, Lou quickly proves there really is no line he won’t cross. And it works; with hard work, ruthless dedication and a little bloodlust, anyone can make it in today’s world. Welcome to the American Nightmare.

Nightcrawler offers its own grisly exposé on a number of news items, all with its particular brand of dark, satirical humour. There’s the shaky economy, in which unpaid interns and underpaid workers abound, not to mention the criminals who hire them. Lou fast-talks derelict Rick (Riz Ahmed) into becoming his assistant for a meager $30 per night—a “raise” that brings a smile of relief to the poor man’s face. Nightcrawler also preys on our collective taste for the sensational and our obsession with the media. The more graphic Lou’s footage gets, the higher Nina’s ratings soar; as they say, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

The film portrays a world in darkness. I mean that literally; most of Nightcrawler takes place at night, when creatures like Lou slink out of hiding to go on the prowl. But more than that, the film depicts a world in which nearly everyone is susceptible to corruption, and where life is so grim that people look to escape from the growing darkness in any way they can. Even if it means watching news segments that brutally depict human tragedy, and human depravity, in gross detail.

In Nightcrawler’s world, no one is more depraved than Lou himself. Yet he has crafted his identity from the influences of the world at large—from the rest of us. A sociopath looking to fill his emptiness, he gleans his identity from the Internet. He admits he never had much of a formal education, but believes “you can find most anything if you look hard enough.” So he’s an autodidact, with the Web is his primary thesis advisor.

In many an aggressive monologue, Lou doles out catchphrases and motivational jargon, dredging up pat philosophies and self-help mantras to justify just about all his actions. But for all his talk, he can’t conceal the hollowness at his core.

Lou speaks volumes when he delivers the film’s opening line: “I’m lost.” He’s gone off course, and so has the world he’s trying to manipulate.

More than lost, Lou is also hungry. I heard an interview in which Gyllenhaal describes his character as a coyote: vicious and predatory, in search of his next meal. You can see Gyllenhaal’s artistic choice in his performance; in the way Lou sidles up to others inappropriately, gauging their reactions, getting as close as he can, unperturbed when they try to shoo him off. Okay, so Lou Bloom’s embodiment of a coyote is more than a little deranged, maybe even rabid. But you get the idea; he’s a creature of the night, and he’s out for the kill.

It’s a transformative performance from Gyllenhaal, who seems intent on pushing the boundaries of his art and craft (see Enemy, Prisoners and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet). With Nightcrawler, he’s definitely reached another level in an already impressive career. His misanthropic, psychopathic Lou is as convincing as he is horrifying.

Gyllenhaal is backed by stellar performances from the entire cast, including a pitch-perfect Russo who eerily steers Nina over a rather disturbing character arc, as well as an outstanding Ahmed, and a compelling Bill Paxton as competing videographer Joe Loder. But there’s no question that Nightcrawler belongs to Gyllenhaal—and of course to writer/director Dan Gilroy, who envisioned it all and who makes a staggering directorial debut, after penning flicks such as Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy.

Kudos to all on a great film, and thanks for the thrills and chills; I couldn’t have asked for a better Halloween treat.

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Thanks also to GC and NC for the company and the candy!

Gone Girl

Thursday, October 16th, 2014—Film

Gone Girl (USA 2014, Drama/Mystery/Thriller), Writer: Gillian Flynn; Director: David Fincher

[Spoiler Alert: I touch on some of the film’s pivotal plot points, although I keep the ending itself a bit vague. Unless you’ve read the book, you may want to see Gone Girl before reading this entry. If not, consider yourself warned.]

I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the book on which David Fincher’s latest film is based. From what I gather, the book contains many of the elements I found lacking in the movie, so maybe it would be best if I read the novel before writing this review. But I’m not sure when I’ll get to it, and given that it’s been nearly four months since my last confession—just kidding, my last blog entry—I’m going for it.

In the film, Gone Girl examines what happens when Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), and fingers start pointing at her husband.

I’ll just come out with it: I didn’t love the movie as much as most people seem to. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to admire about Gone Girl. It’s skillfully shot, and features a buffet of solid performances, including one of Affleck’s strongest, and another stellar turn from Pike, who always impresses (see Barney’s Version). Fincher has a particular gift for drawing out greatness from his actors.

The director also has the smarts to keep collaborating with artists who can deliver. Fincher brings his The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo composers, Trent Reznor and Attitus Ross, back to score Gone Girl, adding an extra layer of creepiness. (I’m playing the soundtrack while writing this and it’s really affecting my mood.)

Technically and artistically, Gone Girl gets a lot right. My issues with the film have more to do with the story itself and the messages it presents.

From the opening shot of the back of Amy’s head (which plays out as Nick explains in voiceover that he often thinks of cracking open her skull to see what really goes on in her mind) and the film’s abrupt conclusion, you get the impression that Gone Girl purports to explore how marriage, or merely coupledom, perverts us as people, makes us put on masks and pretend to be something other than what we truly are—or even want to be. But much of the rest of the film undermines that notion, treading instead into murky and even dangerous waters that have a sexist undertow, and that made me more than a little uncomfortable.

[Again, SPOILER ALERT!]

As Nick and the police piece together what could have happened to Amy, we learn that she staged her abduction, and presumed murder, to frame her husband as a means of revenge for his cheating (and generally ruining her life, as she sees it).

In some ways, Gone Girl appears to explore the way women are trapped into fulfilling ideas of who they’re supposed to become, for their partners, their parents, and society at large. There is a strong case to be made there, but in this case, I’m not buying it.

If we’re going to have a strong female character who bucks the trend and wants to take over the reins on a system that tries to manipulate her, why does she have to be a homicidal lunatic with antisocial personality disorder? It would be nice to see that strong woman as someone who can’t so easily be discredited.

It’s interesting that Flynn adapted her own novel for the screen. I’d like to know what direction she was given on which parts to remove for the script, and why efforts were made to align the audience’s sympathies more with Nick than with Amy. My elder sister, who read the book and saw the movie, says the novel portrays both Nick and Amy as sociopathic, rather than casting Nick as the victim, and creates a more believable scenario in which they could stay together as a couple. For me, that plausibility is sorely lacking in the film.

As it becomes clear that Amy staged her abduction, is also comes to light that this isn’t her first time up to bat. She has a history of manipulating and framing men, including fabricating a rape to set up an ex-boyfriend. So she certainly isn’t above contriving domestic abuse at Nick’s hand, via false diary entries left for police to discover (all part of a wedding anniversary treasure hunt, an ode to marital romps gone awry; it’s all fun and games until someone stages a kidnapping and murder).

Amy’s actions are among the ugliest a woman can commit; they discredit the many women who legitimately claim abuse, and malign men who aren’t guilty—at least not of the vile crimes she accuses them.

Last year’s excellent Danish film The Hunt offers a far more sensitive exploration of a man falsely accused, and takes pains to look at why those accusations might come about without any real malice. Then again, that film examines very different sociological phenomena than Fincher’s thriller.

In Gone Girl, it seems as if we’re meant to follow along as the filmmakers investigate gender roles, as well as the very fabric of marriage itself. But their investigation lacks substance, and the emphasis on Amy’s “evil,” for lack of a better word, doesn’t help the cause.

There are fleeting examples of Nick’s father being a misogynist, but his role feels like an underdeveloped holdover from the novel. Nick’s mother has passed away, so we don’t get to see his parents’ dynamic. Maybe Nick’s father’s behaviour is meant to imply that history repeats itself in Nick and Amy—and that Nick will go on to become his father—but the film has too many other storylines to pursue, and that one falls by the wayside.

Amy’s parents factor in more prominently. Their hugely successful book series, Amazing Amy, is based on Amy herself, hijacking her life for profit (not to mention passive-aggressively shaming her for not living up to expectations). Her parents “improve upon” her milestones; real-life Amy quits the violin, so fictional Amy sticks with the instrument and turns out to be a prodigy. Perhaps worst of all, fictional Amy walks down the aisle in Amazing Amy and the Big Day, while regular ol’ Amy remains unmarried into her 30s.

That kind of family dysfunction goes a long way toward explaining adult Amy, and I would have liked to see it better dissected. (There isn’t time, though; Gone Girl is already too long and crams in too much.) But it seems clear that it’s Amy’s parents, not her husband, who set her down the path of striving for impossible standards, constantly wrestling with the knowledge that she can never be good enough.

Again, this might also be a case of history doomed to repeat itself, but the impact of Amy’s parents’ marriage and how it distorted their child, as opposed to their parenting itself, isn’t properly examined. I suspect this is better explored in the book, but for now, I can only go by the film, and it doesn’t make a clear case for her parents’ marriage as a culprit in Amy’s dark ways.

What is clear is that Nick and Amy’s marriage never stood a chance. Aside from Amy’s falsified account of Nick’s abuse, his only real affront against her is being unfaithful. He comes across as a good-enough guy who hit rock bottom when he and Amy lost their jobs, and didn’t adjust well when they had to relocate to the burbs when his mother got ill. (The only exception is a brief moment of violence at the end of the movie, but that comes as a result of Amy’s heinous manipulations and murderous ways, so can’t be used to justify her behaviour.)

Amy, on the other hand, distorts the truth and deliberately misrepresents herself from the beginning. She acknowledges that she played the role of “Cool Girl”—a woman who waxes her nether regions and “eats cold pizza while remaining a size 2”—because she knew right away that was the kind of girl Nick wanted. Yes, that is one of the roles imposed on women in our culture, but here, Amy uses it to her advantage, manipulating Nick to get what she wants and dooming their relationship by rooting it in falsity. Becoming “Cool Girl” was her deception; it hardly seems fair to blame that on men or marriage, particularly when she never gave Nick the opportunity to know the “real” her (if Amy even knows who that is).

Speaking of prescribed roles for women, it’s telling that Nick’s affair is with his barely-legal student Andie, who fits perfectly into the “busty and libidinous co-ed” category. Adding even more pack to the punch (or insult to injury?), Andie is played by Emily Ratajkowski, who starred in Robin Thicke’s frightening and asinine display of sexism and ignorance, otherwise known as Blurred Lines (see my Don Jon review for more on this). I don’t know if her casting was a deliberate reference to the objectification of women, but regardless, it’s hard not to reflect on that, given the context.

So Andie is played by Ratajkowski, Nick is played by Amy, Amy is (eventually and briefly) played by Nick, the public is played by the media; in Gone Girl, everyone gets played. But Amy clearly emerges as the winner, and I think that’s a problem. With the Dunnes—with men and women—positioned as rivals rather than partners, there’s no room for equality or respect. It’s a dangerous game, and not one I want to play.

If Gone Girl is meant to explore and expose gender issues and societal expectations, it needs to present a more balanced scenario—one that doesn’t victimize Nick or vilify Amy. The film starts with a fascinating premise, and maybe the book does a better job of exploring it. But as the movie shows it, there’s too much emphasis on the thriller side of the narrative, and not enough insightful reflection on marriage, gender roles, and how both men and women perpetuate stereotypes. Instead, Gone Girl presents a problematic dynamic between a man and a woman; or really, between Amy and anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path.

It isn’t even that I didn’t like the film. It’s that its depiction of Amy is so disturbing and potentially harmful, and that it wastes an opportunity to present a more balanced and perceptive exploration of gender expectations and relationships.

Gone Girl was produced by Reese Witherspoon’s company Pacific Standard, which is also behind the upcoming Wild, another adaptation of a woman’s novel, though this time autobiographical (and one I’m really looking forward to seeing, at Cinemablographer’s wholehearted endorsement). I saw a clip of Witherspoon endorsing the two films and saying that she plans to continue depicting such strong female characters. Let’s hope that in the future, they’re less vindictive, sadistic and manipulative than Amy.

*            *            *

In tribute to the greatness of Reznor and Ross’ soundtrack, a couple other musical references…

It was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Brilliant Disguise’ that ultimately prompted me to write a review of Gone Girl:

I want to read your mind
To know just what I’ve got in this new thing I’ve found
So tell me what I see
When I look in your eyes
Is that you baby
Or just a brilliant disguise

I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust
‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself

Now you play the loving woman
I’ll play the faithful man
But just don’t look too close
Into the palm of my hand
We stood at the altar
The gypsy swore our future was bright
But come the wee wee hours
Well maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me
You better look hard and look twice
Is that me baby
Or just a brilliant disguise

And another reference, regarding women who turn conventions on their heads: Tori Amos’ album Strange Little Girls, covering and repurposing a series of songs written by men. Here’s her take on I’m Not In Love by 10cc.

Finding Vivian Maier & Only Lovers Left Alive

Saturday, June 21st, 2014—Film

Finding Vivian Maier (USA 2014, Documentary), Writer/Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Only Lovers Left Alive (UK/Germany/Greece 2013, Drama/Horror/Romance), Writer/Director: Jim Jarmusch

I wasn’t planning to write a joint review of Finding Vivian Maier and Only Lovers Left Alive. But I saw them both in the last few weeks (at the marvellous Mayfair Theatre), and when I got to thinking I should write about one, the parallels between the two started seeping through. So here we are.

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about the late Vivian Maier, who was a nanny and, as it turns out, a deeply gifted street photographer. Much like many great artists, her work wasn’t appreciated until after her death in 2007, by which time historian John Maloof had stumbled upon some of her many film negatives at a Chicago auction and promptly set about trying to uncover her genius, not to mention her secrets. The final tally for Maier’s negatives is 100,000+, most of which she herself never printed. Maloof’s documentary is an exploration of “the mystery woman” behind the images she coveted and shot, but rarely shared with anyone else.

There’s a lot to observe and ponder in Finding Vivian Maier, but what had the most lasting impact for me was the idea that we never really know who’s walking among us. We can only guess at the stories of each person we pass, on any given day, and most of the time we don’t bother to try—even when it comes to people we interact with regularly.

Maier was definitely among the hidden gems that slipped unnoticed through the cracks (albeit a little rough and cloudy). Thanks to Finding Vivian Maier, we get a few snapshots of her story, a fascinating tale that was likely very lonely, maybe even brutal at times. But we never quite get a full glimpse behind the curtain, largely because of how reclusive Maier was.

It was this example of someone not wanting to be exposed, this idea of people who remain largely unknown to those around them, that prompted me to pair Finding Vivian Maier with Only Lovers Left Alive. This isn’t to equate Vivian Maier with vampires—not at all. It’s just that both films present interesting characters who hide themselves in plain sight, walking among us without ever betraying who (or what) they really are. And who thrive, even survive, off capturing people’s essence—their spirit, their blood—without their consent and usually without even their knowledge.

In Only Lovers Left Alive, vampires tend to feast off blood acquired in bottles from doctors. No one is bitten or killed, and the unwitting donors need not know it ever happened. It’s a highly civilized approach in a world where culture and civility are going down the drain, much to the protagonist’s despair. Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a centuries’ old vampire, is in a deep depression over rampant “zombie-ism”—his word for the current state of humanity, wherein people wander about thoughtlessly, mistreating the world around them, “contaminating their own blood, let alone their water.”

Adam is married to Eve (Tilda Swinton), who is also a vampire, although you wouldn’t necessarily know this about the couple, from the outset. Both Adam and Eve are awfully pale and seem to shun daylight, but it’s awhile before they start guzzling blood and baring fangs. He lives in Detroit, she in Tangiers, and they never explain why (delightfully avoiding exposition). But one can imagine that if marriage lasted centuries rather than decades, it might be nice to have a little room to roam now and then.

The story gets going, as much as it ever does, when Eve travels to Detroit to visit her morose husband (via two night flights, of course). It gets another bite of energy when Eve’s troublesome sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), shows up and interrupts the lovebirds’ relatively happy reunion.

It has to be said: Only Lovers Left Alive runs a little thin on plot. But writer/director Jim Jarmusch manages to thicken it anyway with intricate set design, a heady soundtrack and impeccable performances, capturing the sense of eternity Adam and Eve dwell in, without making it boring to watch. His film oozes atmosphere and artfulness; its power is largely in the telling, and Jarmusch tells it very beautifully.

Adam and Eve present the most believable 21st Century vampires I can think of. Deeply immersed in culture, they revel in art, basking in music and literature, coveting antique instruments and mastering multiple languages. They carry the massive sense of history, and perspective on human (mis)behaviour, that any being would, had it lived as long as these two.

I’ll admit the film’s ending is a bit bleak; without giving it away, I found it hard not to interpret the final moments as a relinquishment of hope and faith. (Let’s call the film “Good ‘til the last bite.”) But Only Lovers Left Alive is also full of humorous reflections and clever cultural references, including a fun running joke about Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

The uber-culturalism in Only Lovers Left Alive brings me back to my comparison with Finding Vivian Maier. Both films are devoted to art, raising it above all else. Adam and Eve seem to exist for art as much as for each other. (As my pal MF says, art is the only currency they value.) With Finding Vivian Maier, I sometimes got the same sense, from the filmmakers as well as their subject.

Maloof, who frequently appears in the documentary as a talking head, proceeds with his film even though many of the featured interviewees express their doubt as to whether Maier would have wanted to be exposed so publicly. That did make me question whether it was right to produce the documentary. But Maier may well have understood the passion to pursue one’s art at any cost. She was an obsessive photographer who took candids all the time, even when the subjects didn’t seem to appreciate being photographed, and even if it meant neglecting the children she was paid to care for. One interviewee recounts the time a former charge had a fairly serious accident in front of Maier, and instead of helping, Maier stood by and snapped photos.

Finding Vivian Maier gets even darker than that. The film touches on allegations that Maier physically abused some of the children she looked after. True, it also presents statements from former charges who appear to have cared for Maier very much, even into their adulthood, and suggests that she herself must have been “traumatized” in childhood. But none of that excuses child abuse, and I was disturbed by how easily the filmmakers moved away from the allegations.

In many ways, Finding Vivian Maier serves to introduce a selection of possible stories, without fully delving into any: the concept of art and what qualifies as such; childhood trauma and abuse; mental illness; and who Vivian Maier really was. But perhaps that’s as it should be.

One of the interviewees, a shopkeeper whose store Maier frequented, remarks that the story of the photographer and her desire to keep her photographs secret is much more fascinating than the photos themselves (as impressive as they are). I agree, and in some ways, the film’s unanswered questions about Maier are a bit frustrating. But given her desire for secrecy, it’s probably best that so much is left unsaid.

And in the end, the film does manage to provide an insightful glimpse into an intriguing life that was nearly overlooked—not to mention an incredible art collection. For that reason alone, Finding Vivian Maier is more than worthwhile. As Only Lovers Left Alive makes clear, art is invaluable and utterly deserving of our appreciation. After all, it easily outlasts each of us.

*            *            *

Thanks to TS for recommending Finding Vivian Maier (yet another interesting film!). For more on Vivian Maier, visit VivianMaier.com. Incidentally, there’s another documentary on the artist, BBC’s The Vivian Maier Mystery.

And here’s another review of Only Lovers Left Alive, by my pal Patrick Mullen over at Cinemablographer.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014—Film

The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA/Germany 2014, Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Wes Anderson

I don’t know what it is about Wes Anderson movies, but looking back at my Moonrise Kingdom review, it seems I felt the same way I do now about The Grand Budapest Hotel: I loved the movie, so much so that I wanted to get something up on this blog, no matter how short, but I simply didn’t feel like writing much. Really, I just want to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel again and soak up any morsels of the delightful confection I might have missed the first time.

But before that, a few words about exactly why I loved it so much, in the hopes that your appetite may be whetted enough to get you to the theatres, ready to sink your teeth into this delectable treat.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson in all his glory. The sets are masterpieces, oddball works of ornate, pastel art. The cinematography is extraordinary, ditto the score (with musical mastermind Alexandre Desplat returning to Budapest from the Kingdom to work his magic once again). And the story, chock full of absurd characters and absurdist scenarios, manages to touch on human and historical truths, all in a thoroughly engaging, giggle-inducing manner.

Most of The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in 1930s Europe, although it moves around in place and time, being a story within a story, several times over. A young girl reads a book of the entire account, which was written by a now-deceased author, whom we meet as an older man (Tom Wilkinson) and then as a middle-aged man (Jude Law). As Law, the young writer travels to the Grand Budapest Hotel, only to encounter the hotel’s fascinating, if lonely, owner Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts the story of how he acquired it.

With that, the main story begins. It follows Mr. Moustafa in his youth, when he was a lobby boy who went by the name of Zero (Tony Revolori) and studied under the hotel’s expert concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). M. Gustave is a spectacularly thorough concierge, even going so far as to take his patrons to bed—particularly the wealthy, elderly, female blonds. When one of those patrons is murdered (the mysteriously named Madame D., played by Tilda Swinton) and M. Gustave inherits her most prized possession, her greedy family is understandably suspicious. From there, Gustave and Zero embark on a wacky caper that makes its way across fascist-era Europe, into jail and down the snowy Alps near the fictional Republic of Zubrowska, where the Grand Budapest stands tall.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is as fanciful as Moonrise Kingdom, but even quirkier and much heavier. For all its whimsy and brightly coloured décor, the film’s historical backdrop sets some darkly hued undertones. Case in point: the ZZ officers who invade Gustave and Zero’s train compartment.

But Gustave refuses to bow down to the rising wave of fascism. He insists on preserving the “faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Indeed, the Grand Budapest itself is a nostalgic nod to Old Europe’s refinement and romanticism. (Driving the point home, the film’s 1930s storyline is shot in the nearly square aspect ratio used in the golden oldie movies of yesteryear.)

Gustave runs the hotel with panache, leaving a haze of cologne and exquisite Mendl’s pastries in his wake. Shamelessly flirtatious and unfailingly polite (minus an f-bomb here or there), he manages to come across as that oh-so-rare creature: an honourable jackass. This spectacular combination is delivered courtesy of Fiennes’ brilliant performance. As Gustave, he’s staggeringly hilarious; his brand of straight-up comedy is perfectly on point and appears utterly effortless.

Fiennes steals the show, but he’s backed by a seemingly endless supply of impeccable actors, none above even the smallest cameo in a Wes Anderson film. In addition to those already mentioned, The Grand Budapest Hotel features an overwhelming ensemble cast that includes many Anderson favourites, not to mention mine—Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, and Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s true love Agatha, the creator of those adorable little Mendl’s pastries that look as scrumptious to eat as the movie is to watch. (It’s a lot of fun to see Ronan in another fairytale-esque flick gone mad, after her outstanding turn in Hanna.)

All this to say I absolutely adored The Grand Budapest Hotel; I even managed to write a full review of it after all. Still, there is some small print to read: As soon as the credits rolled, a guy behind me in the theatre said, “That was the strangest, most boring movie I’ve ever seen.” Strange? Yes. Boring? Not in the least, not in my opinion. Maybe this movie isn’t for everyone. But if you’re a Wes Anderson fan, or even more generally an art fan, you should absolutely get thee to The Grand Budapest Hotel, post-haste. And you might want to bring along some pastries for the ride.

Divergent (feat. Isaac and Jonathan Walberg)

Monday, March 24th, 2014—Film

Divergent (USA 2014, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writers: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor; Director: Neil Burger

This Divergent review comes at the request of my eldest nephew, 11-year-old Jonathan. Together, we reviewed The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with his younger brother Isaac joining us for the second adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ franchise. So I guess Jon got a taste for it, which is pretty cool. And since I passed on reviewing the Ender’s Game adaptation with him, what kind of an aunt would I be if I didn’t step up for Jon’s next request?

Given that it was his idea, I wanted Jon to have a more active voice in this review, so I tasked him with outlining Divergent’s plot: “It’s about a dystopian society where, at age 16, children take a test to see what category they fit in. Everyone fits into one thing only, except those people who fit into more than one, who are called Divergent. Some people see them as a threat to the society. So the movie is about someone who is Divergent.”

Well said, Jon! To that I’ll add that the categories, or factions, are Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite, and that the Divergent person who shows traits from multiple factions is Tris Prior (the excellent Shailene Woodley).

Divergent is based on the novel of the same name, which is part of a trilogy by Veronica Roth. The series draws obvious parallels to The Hunger Games franchise, among them: a strong young female protagonist who exists in a dystopian future and who helps lead the charge against a controlling system that denies individuality and restricts civil liberties; an ardent following at my nephews’ house; and, according to Jon, “really good first two books and horrible third books.” (His words, not mine; I still haven’t read the other books in the Divergent series, Insurgent and Allegiant.)

I prefer The Hunger Games, both in the story and in the telling. On top of what else the series explores, I find its additional commentary on our fixation with appearances, celebrity and others’ lives adds a significant point of interest, not to mention how well the reality show slant lends itself to a visual adaptation. And although I appreciate the notions Divergent explores, like our need to label people and the desire to conform, its world is somewhat underdeveloped.

My nephews think otherwise. (Evidently we diverge.) Both Jon and Isaac prefer Divergent to The Hunger Games adaptations, although they’re still big fans of both series. (And I still like Divergent, on the whole.)

Divergent was really good,” says Jon. “I would say I liked it a bit better than The Hunger Games because it followed the book and they did everything really well. The actors were really good. For both series, the main idea of the plot is really interesting but I found Divergent way more action-packed.”

The movie does take some liberties with the novel, smoothing out a few of the rougher, non-PG-13 bits, removing or downsizing some extraneous characters and, in particular, shaking up the ending a little. But generally, I agree with Jon that the film follows the book quite closely—sometimes to its detriment. It felt a bit like the movie was plodding through each plot point; it was too long and not as well paced as The Hunger Games.

Jon, however, takes no issue with that. He likes that the movie has “no surprises” and is “almost exactly like the book.” He doesn’t find that boring, but rather a testament to its strength as an adaptation.

Isaac, now 10, read the book when he was eight, so he doesn’t remember it very well. His appreciation for the movie stems less from how faithfully it follows the book and more from the premise itself. “I liked Divergent a bit better than The Hunger Games because I think I like the idea better—choosing where you belong vs. playing games to the death,” he says. (Not that Isaac is opposed to violence in general; he also says “I liked when Four [the Dauntless trainer and Tris’ love interest, played by Theo James] beats people up.”)

Jon is a fan of Four, too, although he says Four was the only character who didn’t turn out the way he pictured him in the book. “There’s another book, called Lorien Legacies, where there’s a character name Four,” says Jon. “I pictured him like that guy.”

Four prompts an interesting insight from Jon about the (slim) illusion of choice created by the founders and governors of Divergent’s Chicago, where the story is set. “As Four was saying, he wants to be everything,” says Jon, referring to the scene when Four admits he wants to embrace the traits of all five factions rather than be only one thing. “So it’s like all the people are given the option to choose what faction they want to be in when they’re 16, so it’s almost like freedom. Except it’s not freedom because they can’t be more than one thing.”

I ask Jon and Isaac which faction they would choose if they had to pick one. “I did an actual test on the computer, the Divergent Aptitude Test, and I was Divergent,” says Jon. I tell him that’s probably the point of the test; beyond pure publicity, it aims to reinforce the trilogy’s lesson that we are all more than just one thing. “Yeah,” he says, “almost everyone who takes the test is Divergent. I was Divergent for the exact same things that Tris was in the movie.” (That would be Dauntless and Erudite, as well as her birth-faction, Abnegation.)

If Jon HAD to choose a faction, he says, “Amity would probably be the safest.” But “if Dauntless didn’t have that rule that if you’re below the line [i.e., don’t make the cut during initiation], you’re out, then it would be pretty awesome.”

Isaac has a similar thought. “I’d want to be in Divergent—but does that count or not?” he asks. Assuming it doesn’t count, he says, “If there wasn’t the ‘below the line, you’re out’ rule for Dauntless, I would be that. It’s the most fun.”

I ask Isaac if he would want to live in a world divided so rigidly by factions, and he says, “I would never want that to happen. I wouldn’t like that. I like how it is right now in real life. But it would be cool to try it out for a day, or something like that.”

As long as it’s just at the movies.

*            *            *

Thank you to Isaac and Jonathan for joining me once again in a movie review, and to their parents for helping arrange the interviews!

Enemy

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014—Film

Enemy (Canada/Spain 2013, Mystery/Thriller), Writer: Javier Gullón; Director: Denis Villeneuve

If you read my Prisoners review, you’ll know how much I’ve been looking forward to the release of Denis Villeneuve’s subsequent film, Enemy. In anticipation, I read José Saramago’s novel The Double, on which the movie is based. This was my second exploration of a film adaptation of one of Saramago’s works, having read and seen Blindness. But unlike with the first experience, this time I had trouble getting through the book.

In writing Blindness, Saramago took liberties with punctuation (i.e., he didn’t use much of it), but it’s even more extreme in The Double, where he spends countless pages detailing inanities in a confusing, repetitive manner. All that made for a bit of a tedious read.

Still, The Double does delve into interesting ideas about identity, perception, purpose and our very existence. So it was worth exploring. But for me, those ideas were better presented in Villeneuve’s film adaptation than in its source material.

In Enemy, as with most film adaptations, the story is pared down from the novel, offering a leaner, and in this case meaner, version of events. (One minor but notable difference is the protagonist’s name: Adam Bell in the movie is Tertuliano Máximo Afonso in the book, a lengthy moniker that its bearer loathes and that is repeated in full every time the character’s name comes up.) Enemy cuts to the chase—even if that chase leads you in circles, after your own tail.

So what’s the movie about? Well, that’s a little complicated, but I’ll start with what happens in the movie. We’re introduced to Toronto-based history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who goes about his dreary, repetitive life, trapped in a cycle of routine lectures (on the ways totalitarian states keep people down), mundane sex (with his girlfriend, Mary, played by Mélanie Laurent) and restless nights. His pattern is shaken up when Adam rents a movie, on a colleague’s recommendation, and discovers an actor who looks just like him.

Adam tracks down the actor, a man named Anthony Claire (also Gyllenhaal), who already operates under a dual identity, having the stage name Daniel Saint Claire. Anthony’s exterior matches Adam’s, but his interior harbours a much darker side.

The men confirm that they are one another’s exact double, complete with matching scars. From there, things really start to unravel, particularly when the men swap women without consulting their partners (Anthony has a six-months pregnant wife named Helen, played by Sarah Gadon; interestingly, he’s also been absent from his acting career for six months—perhaps while embracing a teaching career as Adam?).

Enemy does more than tighten The Double’s plot points; it takes liberties with events, trimming some here, adding others there. But it hits all the unmissable points.

The film also nails the novel’s creepy tone, capturing the feeling of being caught up in the minutia of daily life, of endlessness, pointlessness and powerlessness. Capitalizing on the poignancy of the visual image, as opposed to the written word, Enemy’s cinematography depicts a bleak, dingy cityscape, one that’s yellowed out somehow, like faded images—relics of the past, or a history destined to repeat itself.

Beyond its cinematography, Enemy incorporates a visual metaphor and representation of The Double’s twisted surrealism and sense of being trapped in a web. From the low-angle shots of streetcar wires that hang over the city like spindles, to the appearance of actual arachnids (for example, at an elite sex club, where men stare vacantly as naked women release live tarantulas from captivity), spiders are a recurring symbol in the film.

I don’t want to break Enemy down too much, both because I want to avoid spoilers and because I should watch the movie a second time before trying to really analyze it—the film bears repeating. But it’s definitely not for a lack of material to explore. Enemy, like Drive, is another great candidate for a film essay. Its script is loaded with double meaning and leaves even more open to interpretation than does The Double (as far as I can tell, anyway).

Whereas the book treats the two men, Tertuliano and António Claro, as being quite separate, the movie drops hints that they may actually represent two sides of the same person. We’re given clear evidence that they are two different people, but there are also suggestions to the contrary, letting the complexity and ambiguity of the novel’s themes emerge from the cluttered prose to rise to the surface.

Then there’s the significance of changing the title from The Double to Enemy. The focus is directed away from the notion of a doppelganger and toward the threat it represents, but who is the enemy here—the state? the self?

And so on.

There’s a lot to uncover, and it all culminates in a staggering ending; the final shot is a total WTF moment (and another departure from the novel, although it does bring to mind a line from The Double: “… sometimes dreams do step out of the brain that dreamed them…”). But after the initial shock wore off, I found it to be perfectly fitting with Enemy’s themes, absurdity and apparent quest to get the neurons firing. A more conventional conclusion might have been clearer, but it likely would have felt trite or unsatisfying. As it is, Enemy keeps its viewers dangling, and I think that’s exactly what the filmmakers intended.

Enemy is an interesting study in the possibilities of moving from page to screen. And while its tone, cinematography and trippy dream sequences are reminiscent of the Davids (Cronenberg and Lynch), more than anything else, the artistic choices behind Enemy demonstrate Villeneuve’s own astonishing range; to go from Maelstrom to Incendies to Prisoners to this is quite incredible.

Enemy also features another of Villeneuve’s fantastic casts. Laurent, so great in Inglourious Basterds and Beginners, is in fine form. Gadon, who was excellent in A Dangerous Method, is at least as good in Enemy; her performance earned her a Canadian Screen Award for Best Supporting Actress. (Interestingly, Gadon was also one of the panelists for this year’s Canada Reads competition, defending Kathleen’s Winter’s book Annabel.)

As strong as the other actors are, the film rests on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, requiring him to do double duty as both protagonist and antagonist (or are they one and the same?). He’s more than up to the task, proving yet again that he’s one of the finest actors working today (see If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet).

With Enemy, Gyllenhaal also reinforces what a remarkable duo he makes with Villeneuve. I look forward to their next collaboration; what form it will take is anybody’s guess.

*          *          *

For more on the great work of Denis Villeneuve, see my Kickass Canadians article.

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