Passchendaele (2008)

August 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

In a battle scene near the end of Passchendaele there’s a remarkable moment where a young German soldier sits in the mud, wounded and looking around, bewildered at a raging battle that has descended into brutal close combat. He looks as though he’s barely a teenager, and could just as easily be a young Canadian suddenly detached from the situation, and shocked by it.

Written, co-produced, directed by and starring Paul Gross — undoubtedly one of the biggest Canadian stars in a country that sorely lacks the industry needed to tell our stories — the film examines part of the Canadian role in the First World War, a conflict that somehow manages to prove the bizarreness and futility of war remarkably well whenever we see it portrayed. It was a war led by British generals who underestimated the importance of machine-guns, in favour of a more old-fashioned style of warfare at the expense of thousands of lives, and these kinds of historical details are sometimes plainly stated by characters, sometimes demonstrated in the action. It’s a personal project for Gross, who incorporates a true story from his grandfather, who apparently spent the better part of a day trying to knock out a German machine-gun nest, lost all his men, and finally used his bayonet on the head of the last German soldier out of some combination of anger and misery.

This is the sequence that begins the film, before a sudden shift into life at home and recovery for the Paul Gross character, as his character falls in love with a nurse (Caroline Dhavernas). While Gross and Dhavernas are quite good, it’s here I think the film threatens to become somewhat dull and typical for some viewers, toying with ideas of politics and prejudice at home but ultimately dwelling on a romance that’s given epic proportions.

What the scenes in Canada appear to get absolutely right is the portrayal of a simpler time and an unspoiled, remarkably beautiful landscape that contrasts nicely with the utterly miserable battle conditions that frame the film. Without revealing too much about the plot, the Gross character returns to battle, though sadly the epic moments follow him, occasionally taking the viewer out of the film because they come across as overly contrived.

Returning to the images of the bewildered German soldier sitting in the mud, it struck me as a great moment, but also one that illustrates the film. As well done as it is, the camera lingers on the young soldier far longer than is necessary for the viewer to get the point, which is the sort of detail that tells viewers what to expect from the film — not a subtle art film, but a worthy mainstream one.

I came to the film with my own vested interest in it, as my grandfather Wilfred Boyd fought in the First World War. He stowed away on a ship in Halifax to get to the action sooner, and it’s another one of those ironies that men who expected a short, gallant war got a long, squalid one of mud, rats and lice. Given the rarity of Canadian historical films with a healthy budget, Gross can be forgiven for considering it an important opportunity, and taking a heavy-handed tone that’s presumably unintentional. There’s a lot that Passchendaele gets right, and I can easily recommend it to people (and really, every Canadian should see it) though it’s a bit unfortunate some will feel they’re dutifully watching an epic history lesson rather than getting caught up in a story.

Nurse. Fighter. Boy (2008)

February 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

I often think a director like Quentin Tarantino has so much style, people confuse it with substance. It’s refreshing to see a film that’s something of a rarity — both style and meaning, even it may not achieve the level of popularity Tarantino enjoys.

A Canadian film, Nurse. Fighter. Boy is a simple story, well told. Much like a Tarantino film, the music selected seems to perfectly support and enhance the film, and it’s easy enough to see this from the trailer. But this is a film that, while a little slow-moving, has more than enough to keep the viewer engaged. Jude (Karen LeBlanc) suffers from sickle-cell anemia, and has a close relationship with her thoughtful son Ciel (Daniel J Gordon). When Jude meets a middle-aged, seemingly weary boxer named Silence (Clark Johnson), things begin to change. Great performances from all three leads, a strong score and sense of style all breathe life into what might have been too simplistic and uninteresting a story. One scene in particular springs to mind — a scene tinted in blue, but a character plays with a red handkerchief. Visual flashbacks and sudden close-ups with an almost documentary feel to them help to bring the viewer closer to characters, sometimes even peripheral ones.

There’s some room for interpretation, but I saw it as a film about parenting, and the different role models that eventually influence and inhabit one person. Even the title stacks the characters up, two of them by occupation (one caring, one protecting) before it finally lists the boy. But whatever you take from the film, it’s certainly worth seeing. If nothing else, see it as an antidote to those films that are the equivalent of someone who walks into the room well-dressed, but with nothing to say.

The Thing (1982) and Pontypool (2009)

September 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

John Carpenter’s The Thing was inspired by both a film and a novella: as a youth he saw The Thing from Another World (1951), a film inspired by Who Goes There, a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell. In telling the story of an isolated outpost in Antarctica that discovers a buried alien organism, the 1951 film opted for a guy in a suit as the monster, and it’s perhaps fair to say they had no other options available at that time. Carpenter apparently loved the film, but wanted to return to the original idea about a shape-changing organism that, given time, could imitate any living creature through a hideous process of absorption — and even the smallest particle of it could strike out. If the organism were to succeed in getting away from the outpost to infect a city, the rest of the world would follow from there. Needless to say, this heightens the tension considerably, compared to a tall guy in a suit lumbering around smashing things.

Beginning with a heartbeat-imitation score by Ennio Morricone, the 1982 film is an excellent production: tightly written, with good performances from both the supporting cast, and lead actor Kurt Russell. Years before CGI effects, the wildly imaginative stuff invented for the film scared the living daylights out of me as a child, and remains etched in my brain. Time has dated the film a little, in terms of how shocking it is, and it’s fair to say the film puts little or no time aside for characterisation, but a solid supporting cast helps immensely here, and insures a certain level of believability. Quite simply, audiences had never seen anything like it in 1982, and it remains a solid and chilling suspense film. The imaginative and shocking effects may have threatened to become the centrepiece of the film decades ago, but today viewers are more likely to notice other details, like the careful shots set up by Carpenter that imply someone else might be watching the character on display.

The Canadian film Pontypool may have arrived decades later, and after dozens of films have made it increasingly difficult to shock audiences, but it neatly sidesteps the entire issue — what’s wildly original here isn’t the effects, but the ideas behind this¬†psychologically¬†gripping film. And again, solid performances give the whole thing a credibility it would not otherwise have. Tony Burgess adapted his original and hugely enjoyable novel Pontypool Changes Everything into a screenplay for director Bruce McDonald, who handles it in a skillful, understated way. At a radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and assistant Laurel (Georgina Reilly) begin getting conflicted, increasingly strange and horrific reports about local disturbances.

There’s enough left to the imagination here that it could be theatre, or radio drama, but as a film it also works remarkably well. I don’t want to give away the original and utterly creepy directions the film eventually goes, but I’ll say that it’s another epidemic film, and though it’s something of a zombie film, it doesn’t even really need the z-word. Highly recommended, but avoid online reviews that gleefully give away far too much. I only hope more Canadian films will be produced that make budget nearly irrelevant, in favour of ¬†highly original scripts.

Watch a teaser clip here.

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