Large Enough To Hold Everything – A Review of The Mill And The Cross (Lech Majewski, 2011)

The Mill and the Cross takes the form and purpose of a painting. Much like your eye would scan a canvas, Lech Majewski points his camera at Pieter Bruegel’s masterpiece, The Way to Cavalry. He finds scenes within the painting and enters them, imagining the lives of the immortalized figures therein. Their lives are a dismal affair; as children they are chaotic, as adults they are hopeless and indecent, and in death they are simply entertainment. Christ dies before them, and it is merely spectacle.

The film seems to exist solely to pay tribute to Bruegel’s work. It doesn’t attempt to justify its own existence with any artistic pretensions. It is no more than a love letter – but its love is infectious. I’ve had an appreciation of Bruegel for some time, but after The Mill and the Cross, I began to reevaluate not just The Way to Cavalry, but his entire body of work. What scenes could I conjure within Children’s Games or Netherlandish Proverbs? The film radically altered the way I viewed one of my favourite painter’s work, entirely for the better.

The Mill and the Cross makes ingenious use of blue screen and computer imagery to achieve its look. Films that rely heavily on CGI have their detractors, myself often included, but here the use is correct. The perspective in Bruegel’s paintings is often skewed, allowing us to view elements that would naturally be hidden or without emphasis. Majewski accomplished this look by filming actors in a blue screen studio and placing them at unnatural angles into the frame, which is composed of location shots from Poland mixed with Bruegel’s actual paintings. The effect is dazzling. Not since Kubrick’s seminal Barry Lyndon has a film so perfectly captured the look of paintings coming to life, and the effect is more literal here.

The other great delight of The Mill and the Cross is Rutger Hauer’s performance as Bruegel himself. His primary function in the film is to narrate from the artist’s perspective. We can only speculate as to Bruegel’s actual intentions and methods, but when told by Hauer, they become absolute truth. Much like a great interview with an artist today, they could be exaggerating or fabricating their process completely, but we choose to believe them. It’s more magical that way. Hauer’s performance is much like a great interview. He is an enlightened creator, and we hang off his every word.

It’s hard to predict one’s enjoyment of The Mill and the Cross if they aren’t already familiar with Bruegel’s work. It was my interest in him that led me to the film in the first place, and there’s no point denying that bias. It is not a film with a great story to pull you in, or rich intellectual musings to ponder after the credits roll; it is primarily an aesthetic work, exploring and paying tribute to a master painter. But, as an aesthetic work, it is a modern masterpiece.

“The Way To Calvary” – Pieter Bruegel

Written by Joseph Elliott

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Criterion Collection Presents Paul Thomas Anderson Presenting Robert Downey Sr.

Yes, Robert Downey Sr. is the father of Robert Downey Jr. That part is pretty obvious. But did you also know he was also an underground New York filmmaker in the 60’s and 70’s? I didn’t! Not until Criterion Collection released five of his films in their Eclipse Series.

Turns out, he’s a pretty weird dude. He made oddball satires, and I cannot overstate how  odd they are. They were extraordinarily weird in their time, and their time was the 60’s. I can’t italicize that hard enough. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, check out this three part interview featuring Downey and a baffled Paul Thomas Anderson who is seemingly being introduced to the films for the first time.

Also, let me say that I’m quite excited to see Paul Thomas Anderson at the Criterion headquarters. His films are an obvious fit for the collection, and I would gladly add them to my own. Again.

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My Most Anticipated Films of 2012 (that have trailers)

When I began this blog, which I have diligently neglected, I resolved to avoid posting movie trailers. What would I have to contribute? There isn’t much to be said until the film is released, seen and mulled over. If I came across one I found particularly striking, I would post in on Facebook and leave it at that. Recently, however, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of trailers being released for movies I’m greatly anticipating, and thought it would be too annoying to post eleven YouTube links individually for my friends.

So here they are in one convenient list.

The Master

I regard Paul Thomas Anderson with the same reverence as any of the greats – Ozu, Kubrick, Kurosawa, any of them – so naturally I’m more than a little excited about his new film, The Master. It’s been five years since his last film, the brilliant There Will Be Blood, and it appears the wait will have been worth it.

The trailer is both opaque and entrancing. Instead of spoiling much of the plot (a nasty habit many movie trailers have these days), the trailer brings you in through Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which already looks to be one of year’s finest.



I must confess two things. Firstly, I’ve never been a big fan of David Cronenberg. Secondly, and just as embarrassingly, I’m excited about a movie with Robert Pattinson in it.

Cosmopolis appears to be a return to form for Cronenberg, and I’m surprised at how glad I am about it. I found his older, more bizarre films to be impenetrable both emotionally and intellectually, but I’ve always attributed that to some fault of my own. I could sense some mad genius at work, but his playground was well over my head. Cosmopolis could very well leave me similarly lost, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that looks so insane. Even if he isn’t for me, we need people like Cronenberg around.



I saw Brick several years ago and absolutely adored it. It’s a movie I’ve tried to pass around as much as I can, but for whatever reason, I’ve not followed its director Rian Johnson at all. This trailer for Looper was a firm slap in the face. Okay Johnson, you’ve got my attention. I apologize. It won’t happen again.


Moonrise Kingdom

After The Darjeeling Limited, I felt as though I’d had enough of Wes Anderson. Not because I wasn’t a fan of the film – I was – but because I felt as though he had peaked. His style had been played out. He proved me wrong with his heartwarming stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox, and I am prepared to be proven wrong again with Moonrise Kingdom. And I just can’t say no to Bill Murray.


Beasts of the Southern Wild

I honestly can’t tell you much about Beasts of the Southen Wild, except that it was very well received at Cannes this past weekend, and Roger Ebert already thinks it’s going to be one of the best movies of the year. After watching the trailer, I can see why. This one may be hard to find, but find it we must.



Of all the trailers here, I found this one to be the least interesting. I wouldn’t have included it if it weren’t for director Michael Haneke’s immense pedigree. Haneke is a director that demands attention. The White Ribbon would be perfectly at home in the oeuvre of Bergman, and Funny Games is one of the most repulsive films I’ve ever seen (in a good way). Amour may not have grabbed me yet, but I’ll give Haneke the benefit of the doubt on this one.


The We and the I

Do you remember The Green Hornet? Yeah, neither do I. But I do remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You know, one of the best movies of the last decade. Well, Michael Gondry is back in full quirky force with The We and the I. This one looks like a heart warmer.


Hyde Park on Hudson

Let me reiterate my love for Bill Murray. He has incomparable ability as a comedic actor, and his presence on screen seems to only grow with age. Imagine my excitement, if you will, at the prospect of seeing him play a charming, womanizing Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


Okay, it’s blockbuster time.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the biggest blockbuster spectacles in the history of film. It may have its detractors, but to those heartless, imagination depraved husks of human beings, I bite my thumb at thee.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks like a familiar trip to Middle Earth, which is exactly what I want it to be. One big difference this time, however, is Peter Jackson’s controversial insistence on shooting at 48 frames per second (FPS). I’ve not seen the preview footage, but I’ve worked with 60 FPS video and the complaints from the CinemaCon screening sound familiar. If you’ve ever wondered why television programs, no matter the budget, just never seen to capture the look of film, it’s partly due to its increased frame rate, often at 30 FPS. 24 FPS to 30 FPS doesn’t sound like a drastic change, but much of the culturally conditioned cinematic feel of movies lies within that 24 FPS frame rate. Increasing to 48 or 60 FPS makes for a sharper, more realistic looking image and motion, which makes it perfect for sports videography. Making The Hobbit look more like the Super Bowl than The Shire, however, sounds like a disaster to me.

Here’s to hoping the CinemaCon reactions were blown out of proportion.


The Dark Knight Rises

For years it was hard to be a Batman fan and a movie lover. Instead of the gritty Gotham of Frank Miller’s seminal comic, The Dark Knight Returns, we were treated to cartoon caricatures with bat nipples. As much as I love Arnold Schwarzenegger and terrible puns, Batman deserved better. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan agreed.

You’ve all seen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I don’t need to tell you about them. But I must say that I can’t seem to get as excited about The Dark Knight Rises as its predecessors, and the reason is simple. Batman stories live or die on the quality of his villains. The Dark Knight used up the two best, the Joker and Two Face, and now we’re left Bane and Cat Woman, who historically haven’t been so successful. The trailer is used more to show off the many explosions you can expect to see and not to establish much intrigue in the characters, which is a mistake. But who am I kidding. I’ll be first in line at IMAX anyway.



Ridley Scott is a hard director to love. Blade Runner, Alien, The Duelists, yeah, they’re great. But then he shits out twice as many duds, like the recent Robin Hood. My heart just can’t take that kind of abuse.

Prometheus is the kinda-sorta prequel to Alien, which immediately raises red flags. How often do prequels live up to the original? Just about not at all, ever. But this trailer gives me reason to believe. The look is right, and the cast is perfect. Usually when Scott makes a dud, you can see it coming a mile away – no one was surprised by A Good Year. Prometheus looks really, really good. Colour me cautiously optimistic.


So, what are you looking forward to this year at the movies?

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Dear Academy, You Suck

This week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominations for the 2011 Academy Awards. At first glance, it seems to be a sound list. Many of the titles have been quite warmly received by critics and audiences alike, and it’s hard to argue their merit. Of course Hugo got the most nominations. Everyone’s happy to see The Artist getting as much attention as it is. Has Meryl Streep ever not been nominated? No complaints there. But quickly my attention shifted to those titles that aren’t on the list. Is there no love for Drive or Take Shelter? Where the hell is Michael Fassbender? How dare they be snubbed! Suddenly the Academy looks like a bunch of tasteless criminals.

Ask anybody you know who gives a hoot about movies and they’ll be able to list you several films and performances that surely deserve to be on that list that aren’t. Google the word ‘snubbed’ and see what comes up. People are angry. It’s only a matter of time before someone decides it’s a good idea to Occupy The Academy (this may already have happened–I’m too afraid to look). But everyone, including myself, needs to take a deep breath, and look at what’s really going on here.

Michael Fassbender in Shame

Michael Fassbender in Shame

Recently the Academy upped its best picture nomination count from five to ten. It was a good move for a lot of reasons, but the most relevant and obvious one is that it allowed the Academy to not only include more excellent films, but exclude less of them. People like to have their opinions validated, and when their favourite films don’t get nominated, they take it as an affront to their cinematic sensibilities. People aren’t upset that Albert Brooks didn’t get a nomination for Drive because he deserves it (which he does); they’re upset because the Academy doesn’t share their opinion. Put that way, it sounds a bit selfish and immature, don’t you think?

So let’s take another look at that list of nominations for best picture. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems like an odd choice. Word on the street is that movie blows. But that bit of 9/11 exploitation aside, it all seems fair and reasonable. I can’t say I’m a fan of War Horse, but I won’t contest its acknowledgement. It’s certainly not the list I would have made, but then again, I’m not a member of the Academy and it’s not my decision to make. Nor is it yours (unless it actually is, in which case, what the hell, man?)

The point I’m making a flailing attempt to make is this: There were many great films and performances in 2011–more than could reasonably be nominated. By design, many deserving movies had to be left out. But worry not. Drive still kicks all kinds of ass, The Mill and The Cross is still incredibly beautiful, and this is far from the last we’ll see of Michael Fassbender or Tilda Swinton. So just enjoy the many great films that came out this year, have fun speculating on who the winners will be this February 26th, or simply ignore the Academy Awards altogether. Whatever your opinions may be, it won’t make a lick of difference on award night anyway.

Ryan Gosling in Drive

Ryan Gosling in Drive

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Turn to me – A Review of Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

Snowtown is a powerful Australian film about the nation’s worst serial killer, John Bunting. The film is merciless in its presentation of the lowest depths of human amorality. It begins with the sexual abuse of three brothers from their neighbour, and ends with eight corpses in barrels. We are left to watch in horror as the oldest brother, Jamie Vlassakis, changes from a sympathetic victim, to a member of a gang of ruthless murderers.

For Jamie and his brothers, the sexual abuse is draining, but normal. They are left without spirit or ambition. It’s been fucked out of them. The two younger boys can’t fully comprehend what’s happening to them; their scars haven’t yet been fully realized. Jamie, however, appears the most damaged. He longs to take control of his life and put an end to the abuse, but he’s a coward. Instead, Jamie smokes cigarettes while he watches the world around him. He watches his younger brothers riding their bicycles in the street. He watches as his mother falls in love with a new man. He watches while this man kills without mercy. This man is John Bunting.

When John enters Jamie’s life, he does so with a charming smile and a handshake. He is already aware of the abuse the boys have been through. He provides them attention and affection, and slowly the boys are roused out of their malaise. Jamie quickly trusts and admires the man, responding enthusiastically when John encourages revenge on the man who sexually abused his family. They begin by vandalizing property, but are left unsatisfied. John decides he must punish any known paedophiles in the neighbourhood, and their crusade of bigotry quickly escalates to torture and murder while their victims become less and less deserving. The violence itself has become its own reward.

Yet all the while, I remained sympathetic to Jamie. Some part of me believed that deep down, he was just a vulnerable youth led astray. There was some good in him, and perhaps that good could resurface. That’s the real pull of the film. You know John Bunting is a horrible man, so you aren’t surprised by his actions. But Jamie has an innocence about him that you’re rooting for, even though he’s just as guilty. Perhaps he will rebel, atone, and turn his back on John. But, as before, Jamie is a coward, and as the film progresses, we lose faith in him, as does he. The real tragedy is not murder, but the corruption of Jamie’s innocence.

At times, the film is on the verge of going too far – not that anything is off limits in art, but some scenes just feel forced. First time director Justin Kurzel is certainly trying to get noticed. What saves the film from feeling exploitative are the remarkable performances from the entire cast. Every role is convincing, which builds a sense of community and culture in the run-down neighbourhood where the film takes place. Daniel Henshall is completely believable as John Bunting, even as he commits unbelievable acts of violence. His stare is either tender or terrifying, but always carries a sense of judgement. But the best performance is by Jamie himself, played by first-timer Lucas Pittaway. As he transforms from an empty shell, to a spirited thug and then a remorseful killer, he projects his thoughts and internal conflicts while scarcely saying a word. We feel the weight of his conscience.

Snowtown isn’t the type of film you enjoy, but endure. It shook me not with its imagery, but its tone, which haunted me for days. It is exhausting almost to a fault, but when the film comes to a close, the effect is exactly right. How else are you supposed to feel after such an extensive look at sex abuse, bigotry and murder? For better or worse, Snowtown is an unforgettable experience.

Written by Joseph Elliott | Edited by Zack Metcalfe

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Isn’t life disappointing? – A Review of ‘Tokyo Story’ (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)

The late film director Yasujiro Ozu once said, “I have formulated my own directing style in my head, proceeding without any unnecessary imitation of others.” That’s a bold statement, and from nearly any other director I’m aware of, it would be a false one. However, only a few minutes into his film Tokyo Story, I knew the statement was accurate. Nobody makes movies the way Ozu did. The camera work and portrayal of his story is wholly original, and his careful examination of characters is completely refreshing.

Ozu’s camera is positioned consistently low and still, providing a frame of an entire room. Characters enter the frame, talk, then leave. End of scene. Often, if there is a close up of a character speaking, they are nearly centred in frame, looking just past the camera. To see western film conventions so completely disregarded was bizarre, but Ozu’s incredible story telling quickly dispatched any unease. His themes are so universal, and yet so personal, they did away with any cultural or film style barriers.

Tokyo Story is about an elderly couple, Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who travel a great distance to visit their many children living in Tokyo. They are met with kindness, but are provided with little attention; their children are now adults with busy lives and their own affairs to consider. The eldest son is a doctor of moderate success. Understandably, his work takes precedence over his parents’ visit, and all other aspects of his life, much to his own children’s distaste. Their oldest daughter is a selfish woman who runs a beauty salon, and does the least to welcome her parents. Their youngest son lives far away from the others, and is the most detached from family affairs. Their youngest daughter is the only child to live at home with them, though she spends much of her time on her education. Another son died in the war, leaving a young widow Noriko (Setsuko Hara), who is the kindest and most generous of the family.

Though it is never outwardly said, much of the family considers this visit to be a burden. They try to pawn off the responsibility of entertaining their parents to one other, which results in the elderly couple spending most of their time resting, for lack of anything to do. The couple is eventually sent to an expensive resort to get them out of the way for a few days. However, the resort is too lively a place, and they return early, much to their eldest daughter’s displeasure. She is not a mean person, but she is selfish and claims to be more busy than she is. Such is the case with all the children, save Noriko, who isn’t even related by blood.

The many characters of Tokyo Story come alive through their mundane interactions. Ozu brings in his audience by focusing on the universal. We know these characters because we are these characters. We are the ungrateful children, the disappointed parents. We mean no harm, but cause it through our inconsiderate nature. We can never do enough for friends, family, or ourselves, so to varying degrees, we give up over time and fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. We drift from our family. We never meet our potential. We try less, and care less. It takes tragedy for us to realize the selfishness of our ways, and even then, we change little. But are we to blame? Perhaps it’s only natural. Tokyo Story doesn’t provide answers, only asks us to consider the questions.

But Tokyo Story isn’t damning. There is a calmness to the characters, especially the elderly parents, when dealing with all aspects of their lives. The father’s demeanour changes little when recollecting fond memories of his long life, or the death of family members. He understands the inevitability of life, and doesn’t blame his children for being imperfect or selfish. He is disappointed, but never scornful. He merely appreciates what good comes his way, and accepts all else as a fatalistic routine.

At no point is the movie exploitative. There are no tricks or manipulative conventions. The film presents itself with an authenticity that is as valuable now, if not more so than when the film was released nearly sixty years ago. In an era of film where emotions are often thrown around as carelessly as special effects, Ozu’s movies are a reminder of the power of careful, honest storytelling. Few film makers are as honest in their craft as Ozu.

The week before I watched Tokyo Story, my father was admitted to the hospital. A mass was discovered in his abdomen, but it was a long while before this mass was identified. After news of a particularly difficult night for him, I stayed home from work and decided to take comfort in the discovery of a classic film. As the story’s themes presented themselves, I considered stopping the movie. I would not be emotionally prepared for such a challenging film, I thought to myself. However, Tokyo Story gave me great comfort and reassurance, more than any other film I’ve seen. I have not been the perfect son, but nobody ever has. I love my father, and I still have time to show it. That week I visited him and let him know how I felt, and was one of the lucky ones for it.

Written by Joseph Elliott | Edited by Zack Metcalfe

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A Burst of Light and Wind – A Review of ‎’Solaris’ (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the most difficult and impenetrable of all the great filmmakers. His movies are as long and slow-paced as they come, tending not to focus on character or plot development. His imagery, atmosphere and spiritual musings, however, are rich beyond compare. Few directors were as adamant about exploring the language of film, and even fewer were so successful in their findings. Ingmar Bergman called him the greatest of all directors – no small praise coming from someone like Bergman.

Tarkovsky’s style, which provides so much of his films’ rewards, includes extremely long takes, slow camera movement, few cuts, and shots with great compositional depth. A master of atmosphere, he’d lull you into a nearly meditative state then prod at you with existential dread. That may sound unpleasant, and for many, I suspect it will be, but if you’re up to it, I assure you it’s one hell of an adventure. In a metaphysical sort of way, of course.

The first film of Tarkovsky’s I viewed was Solaris. I was told it is one of his most straight forward and accessible films, which is likely true, but it sacrifices none of the substance and style of his other work. There is much talk about Solaris in comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which it does share some superficial qualities with: The long shots weaving around beautifully designed space stations, using eerie music to build an intense, sometimes terrifying atmosphere, and the use of science fiction as a lens to study humanity itself. But they are decidedly separate beasts, and I don’t think there’s much use in comparing them at length. Kubrick’s 2001 is about the evolution of humanity with its rapid technological advancement. It’s very much an outward journey. Solaris uses its science fiction premise as a backdrop for exploring love, regret, and the moral dilemmas of science and space exploration. It’s more interested in looking inward.

Solaris begins with the main character, a scientist by the name of Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), exploring a river and its adjoining long grass on a fog strewn morning in his backyard. It is his last day on Earth before leaving on a mission to a far away planet. A leaf gently drifts down a stream. Seaweed dances below the surface, like hair in wind. Somewhere nearby, a horse trots freely. My mind is empty; I am lost in the beauty. For nearly ten minutes, Tarkovsky shows, almost soundlessly, some of the most inspired footage of nature ever captured. The story is about to begin, but I’m still lost in the long grass.

Some time in the future, mankind discovers a faraway planet named Solaris, and has been studying it with an orbital space station. The planet’s surface is entirely oceanic, but this ocean is discovered to be far from ordinary. It is a kind of membrane with its own consciousness, and it appears to be trying to communicate with the scientists aboard the space station. Kris is shown a testimonial film from a former pilot at the station, who makes outlandish claims of strange occurrences near the planet’s surface: Small islands materializing out of unrecognizable substances, a four meter tall child floating in midair. He is dismissed as having hallucinations, which are assumed to be caused by the planet itself. After years of study, the mission to Solaris is making little progress, so Kris is sent to investigate the strange reports, and decide whether or not the mission should be continued.

Unsurprisingly, things get strange once Kris boards the station. He finds the place in disarray and all but abandoned. The two scientists left, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn), warn of apparitions appearing on board. Shortly after, Kris finds his deceased wife, quite alive, in his room. Of course, she is not his real wife, but seems to have been created from his memory of her. She has no recollection of their separation and her resulting suicide; those memories have been erased, leaving only the love that was lost so many years before. This raises many questions about the nature of love, reality and memory. Did Kris ever really love his wife, or simply his impression of her? In what capacity do we exist outside the impressions of others? How much of our experience is imposed by our own biased perceptions? The rest of the film contemplates similar questions. This easily could have been heavy-handed or preachy, but in the hands of Tarkovsky, it’s all poetry.

In my favourite scene aboard the space station, Dr. Snaut says, after a few drinks, “We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror” Solaris acts as a mirror. We study ourselves during, and long after viewing the film. We live in a culture of arrogance. The problems we have on Earth will only be intensified as we journey out into the cosmos. We will still have our regrets, our loves and loneliness. Though we may see further into the universe, we are still blind to much of our own condition. Perhaps we are a long way from being ready to move outward, not scientifically, but as human beings. With Solaris, Tarkovsky paints a cynical, but sobering picture of not just the future, but ourselves. Will we ever be ready? He doesn’t say.

Admittedly, the first time I saw Solaris I was simply overwhelmed – lost in its depths of subtext and metaphor. Its length, a daunting 167 minutes, weighed heavily on me. However, I came out invigorated and undeniably changed. I caught a glimpse of a beautiful manner of film making that was, and is, completely original. Many will think Solaris is too long, or too boring. I think it’s elegant and arousing visual poetry that’s near perfect.

Here is the quote from Dr. Snaut in its entirety. It is not a spoiler, but I include it at the end in case you wish not to read it. It sums up the film quite succinctly. “We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man.”

Written by Joseph Elliott | Edited by Zack Metcalfe
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