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Recent Movies: All is Lost; A Touch of Sin; Captain Phillips; Old Movies: Jezebel; The Little Foxes; Live Theatre: Needles and Opium

December 9, 2013

Recent Movies

All is Lost

Robert Redford plays a man who is alone and lost at sea in the Indian Ocean.

There is only one player in this film and he rarely speaks so the story is mostly expressed visually.  With a lack of dialogue and interaction of characters, this leaves the film very limited in its scope and sometimes difficult to enjoy because of this.

However, within these limits, all elements of the production are very good.  It’s too bad the film wasn’t more expansive.

Rating (out of four stars):   * * 1/2

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A Touch of Sin

This film exposes the difficulties of a few characters in various Chinese provinces – people of average circumstances just trying to get by.  Their stories are based on true events.

This film is suitably shocking in many ways in exposing not only the difficulties of the characters in focus but also the extreme reactions some of them have in dealing with their circumstances.  The most creepy aspect is the absence of any authorities or help given to those who need it.  This was intended by director Jia Zhang-Ke to expose modern life in China.

While there are powerful scenes in this movie, it seemed confusing at times and not fully coherent and a bit long at over two hours.  But credit can be given to the boldness of exposing so much in a totalitarian regime.

Rating:   * * *

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Captain Phillips

Based on a true story, this film is a dramatization of the 2009 hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.  The title character is played by Tom Hanks.

The beginning has its flaws.  It takes a while to get used to the busy hand-held camera work.  It also gives the impression of being yet another “us vs. them” / “good guys vs. bad guys” scenario that has been done hundreds of times before, particularly those based on true stories.

Last year’s “Argo” advanced this genre from its superb directing despite its great stretching of the truth.  While “Captain Phillips” does not advance the genre, it also does not set it backward.

Once the adventures begin (and there are two of them), the film is very engaging due to the skills of director Paul Greengrass.  He is especially adept at portraying the detailed level of teamwork in military operations.

The last half hour could have been cut a bit as it seemed there was a bit too much drama at that point.  But Tom Hanks’s final scene displays so much vulnerability and humanity, it’s no wonder he is one of moviedom’s greatest superstars.

Rating:   * * *

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Great Old Movies Seen for the First Time

Jezebel  (1938 – U.S.)

The film takes place in pre-Civil War New Orleans.  It centres around a head-strong, rich, young woman (Bette Davis) whose willfulness causes trouble for herself and others.

Davis’ performance is rightly praised.  It is difficult to imagine anyone doing better in this role.  (It is said that she was given this role as compensation for being rejected for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’.)  Her greatest scene is one in which her great hopes are dashed by a shocking disappointment all while trying to maintain good manners and composure.  This is one of the best scenes in the movie.

Even greater praise must be given to its director, the renowned William Wyler.  Not only does he coax great work from Davis; he does so from all other actors as well in even the subtlest of ways.  In group scenes, such small gestures such as the facial expressions of people in the background or a stillness followed by a slight tilt to the back of the head, great tension is created in the most quiet of ways.  This was most apparent in scenes involving the breaking of a dress code at a formal ball and a dinner party where political divisiveness between northern and southern mentalities challenges people’s usual proper manners.

Wyler’s great technique is also displayed in the set-up of a scene that reveals the winner of a duel.  This is one of many aspects that made this film a very enjoyable experience.  The film can be faulted for depicting the house slaves as happy members of the extended household which strongly contradicts history as we now know it.  While this ignorance reflects the time period in which the film was made, other aspects of the film thankfully shine through quite well.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievement:   Directing by William Wyler

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Great Films Seen Again

The Little Foxes (1941 – U.S.)

The film centres on the wealthy Hubbard clan in the U.S Deep South in 1900.  The clan’s three middle-aged siblings are willing to harm anyone, including their own family members, to satisfy their unending greed.

This film is one of those gems that excels where few other great films rarely do – a superb story.  Mostly written by Lillian Hellman and based on her play, the family in this story could easily be the ancestors of the despicably greedy people who have caused so much harm in our current economic system.  While a young male member of the clan seems to be set up as a cartoonish foil for others (despite being well played by Dan Duryea), all other characters are well developed with a strong cast aided by the great director William Wyler.

Bette Davis is delightfully devious as one of the evil siblings, fighting off harm by some while easily dishing it out to others.  Her performance is a great contribution not only to this film but to her collective work as a whole.  Herbert Marshall and Patricia Collinge are very powerful as two people who bond with each other after having made the same terrible mistake – marrying into the wretched family.  Collinge’s time on screen may be brief but she shows brilliance especially in a scene where alcohol brings out the truth.  Teresa Wright does well in a major role as a young member of the clan in inner conflict – does she stick to this family’s ways or go by her conscience which is prodded by a smart young working-class man played by Richard Carlson.  Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid round out the great cast as the two other evil siblings.

Though the film was two hours long, it was a rare experience in that I would have been quite content if it had continued for at least another half-hour.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

Outstanding Achievements:

1)  Acting Ensemble

2)  Screenplay by Lillian Hellman (based on her play) with extra scenes by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell

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Live Theatre

“Needles and Opium”  written and directed by Robert Lepage

Using very creative theatrical techniques, the play centres on the story of Robert,  a heartbroken Québecois actor visiting Paris to do a voice-over on a documentary of Miles Davis.  This story is intermingled with Davis’s history in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s as well as the history of French writer, Jean Cocteau, around the same time.

The storytelling is dreamlike.  It is used on a stage that is shaped like a lopsided cube with only the floor and two adjacent walls.  The scene changes move the cube in different directions with filmed images placed on the walls and floor.  This technique is stunning and brilliant yet truly not surprising considering Lepage’s history of creativity and genius.  Credit must also be given to Carl Fillion, Bruce Matte, and Lionel Arnould for set, lighting and images designs respectively.

Marc Labrèche is fine in the roles of Robert and Cocteau though his Parisian accent when speaking English is sometimes difficult to understand.  Some of the titles on the walls intended to inform of place and time for scene changes were also difficult to read which takes away part of the intended experience.

But these flaws can’t hide the genius of the production.  Most memorable was a sequence with Wellesley Robertson as Davis in shifting sequences that show his downfall into depression and addiction.

While the tone of the play is a bit cynical in its rationalization for the use of drugs and the hopelessness of love addiction, it is expressed in such a believable way, one almost feels stoned from the power of this great show.

Rating:   * * * 1/2

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