R.I.P. Alain Resnais

(Editor’s note: Elaine had a particular connection to this director’s works, so she’s taking the reins for our tribute.)

Just before the glitter of the Oscars descended upon us yesterday, the world lost one of its greatest filmmakers, one who never actually won that golden statuette. Alain Resnais, the French director who changed the meaning of narrative and time in film, died on Saturday in Paris at the age of 91.

The son of a pharmacist, Resnais directed his first film when he was just 14 years old, an eight-millimeter endeavor now, somewhat appropriately, lost to time. He moved to Paris in 1939 to study acting, appearing as an extra in Marcel Carné’s “Les visiteurs du Soir” in 1942, and enrolling in France’s national film school upon is foundation in 1943. But it was in 1955 that he established himself with his powerful, haunting “Nuit et brouillard” (“Night and Fog”), a look at the Nazi death camps ten years on, a time when France, and the world, seemed to be permitting—and willing—these sites of horror to fade from memory. Though Resnais had the escalating Algerian War in mind when making it, the film now stands as one of the greatest testaments to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and the ease with which such events can be forgotten.

Resnais carried these same themes of memory, forgetting, trauma, and war into “Hiroshima mon amour” (1959), arguably the film by which he will be most remembered. Through the story of a brief affair between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect, Resnais wove the scars of the German occupation of France with the tragedy of Hiroshima. With its non-linear narrative, enigmatic screenplay written by Marguerite Duras, and cinematography at once crisp and dreamy, this hypnotic, beautiful film pushed the boundaries of cinematic technique and remains to this day an unparalleled work of art.

In addition to “Hiroshima mon amour,” Resnais will be remembered for “Last Year In Marienbad,” another film of memories tousled and time confused. The energetic filmmaker continued to work until the very end, with his last film, “Life of Riley”, debuting to good reviews at the Berlin Film Festival last month. This movie, about two people who discover that their friend has only a few months to live, was originally titled, “Love, drink, and sing,” a fitting last hurrah for its director. For all the melancholy of his films, Resnais was a man of incredible energy and enthusiasm who did not agree that he was “a filmmaker of memory”, but instead said, “No, I want to make films that describe the imaginary. It’s simply the astonishment over everything our imaginary can provoke.”

One of my favorite directors, Alain Resnais will always hold a special place for me, as his films influenced me throughout my studies, provided me with the topic for my undergraduate thesis, and continue to challenge and inspire me in the way I think and write. Few films have affected me the way “Hiroshima mon amour” did, and I will never forget Nevers, the protagonist’s hometown in “Hiroshima”, the thing in the world of which she thinks the least, and yet dreams of the most. Resnais was the master of truth in ambiguity, the blur between the remembered and the forgotten, and while he might not think it possible, I, for one, will not forget him. 

Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Resnais, et au revoir.

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Editor’s note: Apprentice Critic Elaine continues to help out with the holiday glut while I’m busy preparing the 7th Annual EMOs. Enjoy!

One of the most delightful scenes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is when our hero, Bilbo Baggins, conceals his 13 Dwarf friends in empty barrels and floats them down the river to escape imprisonment. If any scene of Tolkien’s work should be brought to life, then this is the one, and director Peter Jackson does not disappoint in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The Dwarves in barrels represent the very best of the book, charming and childish while dangerous and dynamic, a spirit Jackson has finally found after an uneven, awkward first installment.

Whereas “An Unexpected Journey” was laudable mostly for its return to Middle-Earth, “Desolation” is a genuine adventure in its own right. With its epic battle sequences, spectacular sets, and memorable characters, this film hearkened back to the spirit and grandeur of “The Lord of the Rings”, though still falling short of it. For therein lies Jackson’s greatest challenge: to operate within the well-trodden paths of Tolkien’s world while keeping these adventures original and fresh. Though in this movie he sometimes slips and slides on the morass of connecting the two sets of films, he serves up plenty of action, spectacle, and charm to make “Desolation” a markedly better effort than its predecessor.

Picking up where the first movie left off, the Company continues its journey toward the lost Dwarf homeland of Erebor while being pursued by Orcs. Their quest takes them through forests and lakes, facing spiders, Elves, and other enemies, with memorable stops in Mirkwood and Laketown. While “Journey” took us back to beloved old haunts, in “Desolation” Jackson’s team conjures up new realms with beauty, imagination, and innovation. The town that rises from the water and the woodland kingdom exude grace and authenticity, as if they had always been there and have granted us the honor of a short stay. Mirkwood is an Elven kingdom to rival the elegant Rivendell and ethereal Lothlorien, whereas Laketown is a blend of splendor and squalor suggesting glory days long ago. Both of these places are filled with freshness and wonder, and inspire an interest in their peoples lacking in the first film.

The tyrannical leaders of these respective realms, Thranduil (Lee Pace, plus elk antlers) and the Master (Stephen Fry, plus disturbingly orange hair) match the vivid design of their kingdoms by delivering pitch-perfect performances. Thranduil radiates majesty that makes his greed and cruelty all the more chilling, whereas Fry strikes the perfect balance between inept and menacing. (Fry posed like Louis XIV is reason enough to see this movie.) Laketown’s voice of dissent takes shape in Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), one of the film’s best-developed characters. While everyone, from the Dwarves to Thranduil to the people of Laketown, is concerned only with his own gain, Bard asks important questions about the consequences of the Dwarves’ quest.

Another of Jackson’s achievements with this series is the Dwarves. Tolkien himself never bothered to give them individual personalities, Thorin aside, but Jackson continues to encourage their quirks and identities. Kili (Aidan Turner), the token young-and-attractive Dwarf, is given an entire side-plot, with one touching scene in particular where he talks about his home and his mother. This unusual fray into the emotions and thoughts of the Dwarves adds a softer, more poignant perspective to Thorin’s melodramatic calls for a reclaimed homeland.

Kili’s moment, however, is the perfect example of the general lack of character development in the series so far. Jackson is far too eager to pile on the action sequences, like a little boy showing off his new toys, at the price of giving his Dwarves, Hobbits, and Elves backstories and personalities to make us care about their fate. “The Lord of the Rings” succeeded because Jackson understood that characters and relationships are even more important than the battles—that the characters need something to fight for—a truth he seems to have forgotten here.

One character who does not suffer from this lack of development is Bilbo (Martin Freeman), a feat due entirely to the actor. Bilbo is not given the opportunity to speak much, but with a few nervous footsteps, a wrinkle of his nose, or a little wave of the fingers, Freeman speaks volumes. After he viciously kills a spider out of his increasing need for the Ring, Freeman is able to convey Bilbo’s tortured self-realization wordlessly in the space of seconds. When he does speak, his calm delivery keeps the movie grounded through all its fantastic battles and flights of fancy. Freeman is also the star of one of the best scenes in the film, holding his ground against the stupendous Smaug the dragon. With chilling voice and movement provided by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug dwarves all of the foes the Company faces throughout the long movie and makes for a suitably dramatic finale.

Peter Jackson still cannot free himself from the shadow of his own creation, trying too hard to reprise “The Lord of the Rings” without realizing that the greatest tribute he could pay is to give Bilbo, Thorin, Kili and company the same kind of life and fire he gave to Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas and friends. It is perhaps unfair that these movies will always be judged in relation to their predecessors, but that is simply Jackson’s cross to bear. For the final chapter, he should shake himself free of the desire to replicate his former success and shorten the action scenes in favor of character development. It is irrelevant how many incredible stunts or innovative camera angles there are when the audience does not care who wins the fight, particularly if there will be another one within five minutes.

Still, with its breathtaking sets and fantastic cast, “The Desolation of Smaug” manages to capture some of the spirit that won so many hearts to Middle-Earth years ago, marking an unexpectedly large improvement from “An Unexpected Journey.” If Jackson can manage the same progress for “There and Back Again,” then the third time will really be a charm.

Now playing in theaters.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Review: Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan make an unlikely pair in the remarkable true story of “Philomena.”

Editor’s Note: The triumphant return of Apprentice Critic Elaine Teng!

In pitching the story of Philomena Lee to his editor, journalist Martin Sixsmith sells it as “a human interest story,” a journalistic form he initially finds somewhat beneath him. But he, like us, quickly learns that this old Irishwoman’s poignant quest to find her long-lost son is a story of family, friendship, guilt, change, and above all, faith. “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears and based on true events, is not ostentatious or innovative, but its simplicity and clarity allow the power and the emotion of the story to shine through.

Abandoned by her family as a child, Philomena (Dame Judi Dench) lived and worked as a young laundry hand at a convent, where she and the other single mothers who sought refuge there work to earn their keep and are only permitted to see their children for an hour a day. Unbeknownst to them, these illegitimate children were actually put up for adoption, with the convent pocketing the profit—a fate that befalls Philomena and her son. Having kept this to herself for 50 years, she enlists Martin (Steve Coogan) to help find her child. The investigation takes them to the Irish convent and even to America, during which time a touching relationship develops between the unlikely friends: the cynical, Oxford-educated journalist who quotes T.S. Eliot and the devout, scatterbrained old woman with a purse full of paperback romance novels.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Dame Judi Dench, who, with a quiver of her lower lip or a momentary aversion of those ice-blue eyes, can convey half a century of silent suffering. She commands the screen, bringing a gravitas that adds an air of martyrdom to Philomena’s suffering. And yet the film’s greatest success is its balanced depiction of faith and religion. While such a story can easily be written off as a one-sided takedown of the church—and indeed the convent in question has vehemently denied the film’s accusations—the film refuses to condemn or condone, depicting both the folly and the power of faith, along with its many divergences and permutations. The nuns of the convent may have committed acts too inhuman to comprehend, but Philomena understands that this behavior was not due to spite or cruelty, but to the same ardent faith that leads her to forgive, to trust God and to continue to pray for her son. Philomena even objects to Martin’s use of the word “evil,” rebuffing its icy finality and sweeping judgement.

As brilliant as Dench and sidekick Coogan are, however, they are but servants to the story, the vehicle through which the real Philomena Lee and her son tell their incredible tale, one that spans two continents and five decades. Director Stephen Frears even managed to incorporate home movie footage from the real son’s life, adding a layer of authenticity to the film and reminding us of the very real stakes of Philomena’s search. Such simple, down-to-earth story telling—utterly devoid of flashes and bangs, but focused on real people, their feelings, mistakes, and joys—grows increasingly rare in the U.S.

A film such as “Philomena” is sometimes disdainfully deemed “middlebrow” and overlooked, other than by a handful of enthusiasts. Yet such a dismissive term, which unfairly paints both the work and its audience as mediocre, seems to imply that such films are somehow less worthy. Less worthy than what? “Small” movies, without large budgets or big themes, can still be well made and worthwhile, no matter how timeworn or everyday their tales might seem. Not only is the anatomically-confused term undefined—is something “middlebrow” due to its content or its approach?—but it also suggests that stories about normal people and their little problems, told in a way less than experimental or artsy, are somehow second-rate. But when arthouse films are screened in tiny backrooms to only a handful of critics, and the explosions from the endless superhero movies blur together, what could be more accessible? What could be more important?

Now in theaters.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars