Posts Tagged ‘film’

Dramatic irony in The Reader

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In 2008, Stephen Daldry directed another well written film, The Reader, which I’ve only just now ashamedly got around to seeing.

One of the film’s strengths is its masterful handling of the preparation, exploitation and resolution of dramatic irony. It is this handling that so strongly emphasizes the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ in narrative development.

In the case below, the audience and the sympathetically sullen security guard know what’s befallen Hannah, but, alas, Michael does not.


After the setup, Daldry skips the initial revelation: that of the guard telling Michael what’s happened. We cut away a heart beat before the news is broken. All we see is the guard’s expression but we know her mind instantly. It is a prime example of non-verbal communication.

Furthermore, it is a more sophisticated handling of the release because it avoids a potentially course and affected delivery of the inevitable explanation.

More importantly, however, it avoids unnecessary redundancy. The audience at this point is used to the understated style and knows how to read this situation without being told. There’s a subtly in the editing of the story that seems so obvious as to negate not only it’s own subtlety but also any other means of its unfolding.

Alternatively, we have numerous clues to Hannah’s motivation along the way that illustrate the reversal of this situation, the opposite of dramatic irony: Hannah is the owner of knowledge to which the audience is not privy.

For example, there is no given explanation until later in the film why after receiving a promotion, Hannah is upset.


Her story makes use of the same philosophy of brevity exemplified in the previous example with Michael. Like the security guard’s answer, Hannah’s motivation is withheld for dramatic effect – a dramatic effect that more closely matches the silence of and gaps in real life. Indeed the film hangs by the thread of this hidden motivation and becomes a masterful exploration of it in the process.

Overall, the strength of this film lies in its ability to deliver and withhold relevant information at the right time. It uses primarily both dramatic irony and flashbacks to accomplish this.

The unfolding of a narrative is such a delicate balancing act. The Reader is an example of when it’s done correctly – and when it happens correctly, you get some really great story telling.

Canadian Cancer Society Ad Campaigns

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At the Vancouver French Film Festival last night, I was bombarded with two outrageous ads from the Canadian Cancer Society.

One appeared to offer support to those recently diagnosed with cancer by providing a free help line for questions. At first glance, pretty reasonable. At second, all I could see was a reinforcement of the stigma surrounding the issue: The scene showed a concerned friendly female doctor inform one of her patients she has cancer. Fair enough. Suddenly at diagnosis, the patient pales and all sound fades to a distant room as the message sinks in as if it were a death sentence. We glimpse the terror of death and the unknown that this poor woman must now face.

Now, I understand the mortality rates for cancer patients but to imply that this is the only reaction – the one every one will have is poor taste. This woman is your every day just middle aged educated western easy going socialite slash soccer mum. If blood drains from her face, her lips slightly part at the mention of cancer than it probably means that cancer is meant to be feared unconditionally. If you aren’t scared than you aren’t truely informed or cancer hasn’t touched your life. Let’s continue to spread the fear – great motivation for an ad campaign.

Well shot and cut with good actors.

The second was a blatant lie disguised as a courageous act: The ad likened a mammogram to a child and her mum looking under a bed to make sure there were no monsters hiding there. It can’t hurt to make sure, right? The small child is the patient locked in fear, and the mum is the educated friendly guide to help you overcome your fear. If this isn’t patronizing it’s certainly not accurate.

The fact that mammograms actually increase your rate of cancer by 2% is little known. The fact that doctors often refuse to treat patients unless they agree to regular mammograms displays an outrageous handling of medical procedure by the cancer industry. The ethics of proactive preventative diagnosis has not been adequately investigated.

Identifying cancerous cells is not as clear cut a process as we are led to believe. Different pathologists will diagnose differently. With the continued threat of malpractice suites, are these pathologists going to under-diagnose, or over-diagnose?

These ads are obviously targeting women, trying to instil in them a fear of cancer in order to support a secretly ethically dubious industry. Shocking stuff.

VFFF: Le voyage du ballon rouge

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At the Vancouver French Film Festival last night, Hsiao-hsien Hou’s 2007 release The Flight of the red ballon offered an excerpt from Parisian life. With long takes and slow camera moves, it seemed like a bit of an excuse for Pin Bing Lee to show off some beautiful cinematography.

The narrative and the visuals seem an extension of Felix Vallotton’s 1899 Le Ballon painting above. It’s on display at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France behind protective glass. The painting is our story – although transported to the contemporary city (or at least the city at the time Children of Men was released in theatres in France) – and the glass is rather literally often a store window between us and the actors.

Thus we often are looking at two things at once. It’s important to point out that these aren’t Spielberg rear view mirror kind of reflections.

I always felt as if the camera was squeezed into tight spaces at oblique angles to emphasize these reflections. Then again Paris is nothing but tight spaces and oblique angles when you aren’t above it’s glorious skyline.

We also get this sense of nostalgia and restlessness from some slight intensity in exposure. We’ve got the use of great summer lighting – open skies with heat and lens flare.

When I wasn’t watching the fantastic imagery, I was watching Juliette Binoche balance her hectic character against her calm son. Half the time I was mesmerized when she slowed down just enough to be exhaling with the calm of an early morning post marathon peace. Her character was so wonderfully believable at the edge of emotional collapse – struggling to maintain coherence. Too bloody real life for fantasy but not too far away from magic.

Speaking of which, the almost perfectly spherical balloon had a small but magic role: as if it were following along with us, sometimes waiting for as at the next scene. It had an odd compassion that the characters almost took for granted or ignored as if it were the camera. It was outside the story as much as it was in it. I found myself wondering how they manipulated its flight.

Non-verbal communication in The Bourne Ultimatum

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Nicky and Jason

Tony Gilroy was mentioned previously as the director in Michael Clayton who used the unspoken to full advantage. Taking credit for the screenplay for all the Bourne films would have been enough to solidify him as an expert in his craft.

Indeed, Paul Greengrass’s 2007 The Bourne Ultimatum employed some great subtlety for its genre. Case in point was the unspoken form of communication between Nicky Parsons and Jason Bourne at a diner / cafe. All the scenes between these two characters seem to mimic or hint at the scenes in The Bourne Identity that involved the growing relationship between Marie and Jason.

Where we had the beginnings of the physical romance in the hair cut scene in Identity, we have the two characters interacting through a door only slightly ajar via the reflection in the mirror in Ultimatum.

Where we had an almost full disclosure of the character’s thoughts at the diner scene in Identity, we have a forced silence in Ultimatum.

These are smart characters. It’s not a lack of vocabulary that prevents Nicky from saying what really happened between them in the past – there just aren’t words that are suitable / appropriate. Voicing them would trivialize the sincerely of its memory. But nothing need be said. Jason gets it, we get it and Nicky need only not say something.

Person to Person non-verbal communication.

Non-verbal communication in Michael Clayton

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Michael Clayton chatting with horses

I’m a real fan of subtlety. One of film’s greatest strengths is its ability to present intense contextual meaning visually, that is, without words. Great script writing like so many other art forms relies on the negative space, the time in between major milestones and the manipulation of silence.

In Tony Gillroy’s 2007 Michael Clayton, George Clooney does a fantastic job of portraying an inner struggle non-verbally in a scene set in the early morning on top of a hill. Near the climax of the film, he’s drawn out of his car while driving out in the country by something the audience cannot see. We assume that he saw something significant, but we don’t know what.

He strolls up towards three still horses and he proceeds to have a conversation. Granted, no words are exchanged but he exhibits all the reflexes of a conversation. He nods his head, looks away and looks back, shrugs his shoulders as if the horses were revealing all the truths to him about his situation.

The audience knows the context – he has financially just made it through a really tough break, his friend has just died / murdered, he feels lost – and we can infer what’s going through his head. We do not need to be told.

Galloping horses are typically representative of a running train of thoughts – an disquieted mind – and yet here, the horses are calm at the break of dawn. They create a perfect foil and grounding for Clayton’s chaotic mind and the peace it seeks.

Person to self via animal non-verbal communication.

Dripping gold leaf and the most deadly foe

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I find that animated features are so closely linked with children’s narratives that when a mature animation comes along, complete with gore and sexual allusions, it takes me a while to adjust (this is a cartoon, they shouldn’t be doing that!). Aside from the more blatant story deviations in Robert Zemeckis CG epic Beowulf, there is one that sticks out the most.

The filmmakers felt the need to exaggerate the terror that Grendel’s mother possesses and the danger that she threatens. There are only a few key steps that are required to really make this happen and in the process ensure that this becomes the blockbuster ode to the Anglo-Saxon heroic oral tradition that it really should be.

First off, let’s cast Angelina as the great object of all male lust – a pretty scary thought, either because of her market value to all the gamers who are dying to see this film or because of the nature of the motivation behind this deviation.

Next, let’s make her more powerful than Grendel. She kills only one man in the epic poem, but our unfortunate CG Beowulf wakes after the victory-over-Grendel-celebration to find all the men in the mead hall dead and hanging from the rafters. Suddenly she is much more monstrous.

Lastly and best of all, the one thing that will make her stature more terrifying than any foe that Beowulf has ever faced, the one thing that will solidify her both in the hearts of all those gamers and in the halls of fear and wonder as stunningly powerful, stunningly beautiful and glowing in all her twenty-first century adaptation glory, is her shoes. Let’s clad her only in dripping gold leaf and heels. Man, if she has time to braid 12 feet of hair, can rip !@#$ up, walk on water and do it all in heels as if it were a regular day at the water cave she must truly be the anti-Christ.

ViFF: 2007: Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer

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Anita Cover Splash

This film filled the last slot in my 2007 ViFF line-up. I arrived early enough to select a seat that would allow me the most comfort by not blocking anyone’s view.

My first reaction was that the motion graphics were totally amateur. Writer / Director / Producer had Robbie Cavolin had seven years to work on this project and I thought that I could have done a better job with the editing. At first I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, willing to believe that the rudimentary aesthetic was down to old school stylization but with every minute, we missed the sophistication of a well tuned designer – ironic after discovering that Robbie supported himself as Joni Mitchell’s Art Director while making this film.

The film showed a few interviews with ‘jazz experts’ but other than Johnny Mandel I hadn’t heard any of any of them before. I don’t know, maybe I should have heard of Will Friedwald (jazz critic for The New York Sun) or Annie Ross (vocalist) or George Wein (the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival). But the film definitely could have benefited from some bigger names. Get Joni in it for heaven’s sake.

In the end the film benefits from Anita’s unflinching candor in rarely seen interviews and performances that were the real highlight of the film. Robbie was there for a Q&A and related some humorous anecdotes about working with Anita in his guileless bubbly manner.

ViFF: 2007: Persepolis

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A full theatre and some more Kee-yo-toe Planet and VIFF trailers assure me that happy people like renewable energy and that nothing can faze me.

It’s ironic to use a medium traditionally employed for children to tell such an grown-up coming of age story. Set against the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the main character, Marjane, introduces us to the shocking reality of life in Tehran through her young eyes. The innocence of such a perspective plays through the rest of the film (despite the fact that she grows up), allowing some levity in an otherwise dark story. It’s clear just how wonderful these moments of levity are in the lives of these characters as oppression and sadness act as a strong foil.

Thankfully, the darkness of Iran-Iraq war is sanitized graphically through clever stylization of the murder, bombing, torture, and gender discrimination. Writer and director, Marjane Satrapi does a great job of offering a balanced perspective on both cultures, western and Islamic. Countering the nihilistic anonymity of a free Europe against the family based search for integrity in the Middle East. This is clearly a woman’s story.

The animation is clever and inventive with moments of real story-telling ingenuity as the artists try to display the development of Marjane’s inner world. At one moment for example, during her western-instilled existential crisis in Austria, Marjane remembers her grandmother’s advice. The special part is that this memory takes the form of a conversation between shadows, Margane’s and her grandmother’s – beautifully done.

Some of the most challenging Islamic principles are brought under scrutiny in the film. From the issue of the veil, to the promise of women in the afterlife for martyrs, from prohibition to God, all from a female perspective. Marjane shows us the ridiculousness of the an art class that uses a veiled nude model or a study of Venus de Milo with half the piece blacked out.

We are left with some intimate memories of the the intensity of a woman’s search for integrity. Marjane literally leaves the audience with a simple sentiment in a symbolic gesture of respect for the wisdom and heart of her grandmother. She remembers affectionately that her grandmother’s bra was always stuffed with jasmine.

ViFF: 2007: In Search of Mozart

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ISOM Poster

Vancouver has it’s share of people who live on the street – a recent walk up E Hastings in one of my city tours by foot easily attested to it. While in the line up for In Search of Mozart, a homeless man made the rounds down the line-up for spare change. Upon being asked, the woman standing in front of me casually opened her purse and pulled out two brown socks recently purchased from Winners and handed them to the grateful passer-by.

Excuse me, I said. You had two pairs of socks in your purse?…That’s amazing. Enough said. The rationale behind a purse full of socks is easily understandable but the effort need to bother filling it with socks every time you head downtown is astounding. We would agree that is its a good idea but actually doing it is the cool thing.

Mozart’s father was constantly showing his 5 years old prodigy to noble men and women all over Europe. To his dismay, too often they would give him delicate snuff boxes instead of a straight financial remuneration. Today we fear cash handouts condone homelessness – I don’t know what the fear was then. Moreover, Mozart was constantly requesting loans from friends to pay for the consequences of his flippant attitude towards spending.

The film did a thorough job of investigating these details while following Mozart around Europe. I found the sound quality of this production lacking – at times the loud sections of the contemporary performances peaked. This might have the sound system of the theatre, but surely this is a result of sound recording?

The film had trouble maintaining pace and interest in the 2 hours and 8 minutes and could have taken better advantage of professional musician’s specific interpretations of small samples of his work – demonstrating how these best illustrate Mozart’s genius.

ViFF: 2007: Vacation

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A look of great concern crossed the faces of three women in the row immediately behind the one I had set my eyes on. I adjusted my initial “is this seat available” request to the woman between two empty seats, directing my attention to the other seat that blocking no one’s view. As the three woman realised that they would not have to read subtitles around my giant head and shoulders, they burst into relieved giggles despite being middle aged – giggles aren’t expected from middle aged woman in movie theatres. I guess VIFF draws a different crowd.

Unfortunately, my conscientious act was not mimicked by a balding gentleman two rows ahead of me. I suppose we should really blame the slope of the theatre, not the genetic makeup of film buffs. I was still happy to be there, nonetheless, having gathered up the last volunteer ticket for the show. With the crisp memory of being denied one on Sunday previously, I was glad I rushed there.

I wasn’t as impressed with the film as I hoped. Tagged as sophisticated examination of family dynamics, I felt like the slow takes didn’t adequately match the amount of sub surface tension. Some part of me wants a cathartic purpose for story telling, which Vacation didn’t dish out. It’s evident in the film how the family dynamics continue to wind up until they explode – but the explosion was tempered somehow – it was rationally suppressed by the characters in order to maintain some false sense of peace – I suppose a familiar and well worn tactic among many generations. But as an audience member, I want film to inspire and uplift me – and this film was so blandly sliced out of suppressed ordinary tumultuous life that it never reach that transcedent peak which gives real purpose to story telling.

Within the confines of the script, the actors did a worthy job. I suppose my issues lie in the narrative more than the film making. Perhaps under a different expectation, I might find more in the film to highlight and recommend, but it wasn’t stimulating enough to encourage a second viewing.

Humorously, the optical illusion that illustrates illusory contours like the Kanizsa triangle below shows us how the brain has a need to see familiar simple objects and has a tendency to create a “whole” image from individual elements. [source]. Our perceptual organization skills help to fill in the missing lines in order to creae order and visual understanding. This process is pretty seamless in the example below but not so seamless when we want the same phenomena to apply to subtitles – when a bald head blocks one or two words in a phrase or sentences, we would hope that the grammatical organization skills analogous to their graphical equivalents, would help us insert th sing word. Sometimes i ked better than ot .

Missing Triangle