Saturday 31 December 2011

THE DRAGON PAINTER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Important Sessue Hayakawa starring vehicle restored to its former glory by Milestone Films

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the SEVENTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

The Dragon Painter (1919) dir. William Worthington
Starring: Sessue Hayakawa, Tsuru Aoki, Toyo Fujita


By Greg Klymkiw

The Orient!

That exotic, magical and wondrous land that exudes mystery – always and forever replete with oh-so tantalizing fruits of utter temptation. And no Land of the Orient can tickle the white-bread fancy of the Occident than that of … Nippon!







The delights you have offered us and continue to offer us are bounteous indeed.

And none are so bounteous as the delights offered to moviegoers the world over when the late, great Sessue Hayakawa ruled the silver screens of silent Hollywood and gave men and women alike a glimpse into the glories of the mysterious East.

Most of us know Sessue Hayakawa as the Oscar-nominated actor who played the legendary Col. Saito in Bridge On The River Kwai - David Lean’s classic war epic that delved into the souls of Occident and Orient alike against the backdrop of a Japanese P.O.W. camp. However, in the early years of cinema, Mr. Hayakawa was one of the most sought-after leading men.

Discovered by pioneering producer Thomas Ince (himself the father of numerous standards of production employed to this very day), Hayakawa got his start and immediately demanded and received unheard-of salaries for that period. He eventually signed with Paramount Pictures and his starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat turned him into a $5000 per week leading player. During this time, he formed his own production company Haworth in order to generate productions not only for himself, but his wife Tsuru Aoki and a host of other Asian Americans. His goal was to create box-office hits and roles for Asians that challenged SOME (though certainly not all) the stereotypes common to Asian roles during this period. In this sense, Hayakawa was well ahead of his time – call it ‘Forty Acres and a Samurai’, if you will. (Eat your heart out, Spike!)

Hayakawa clung to the mystery and history of the Orient, but chose to present the characters in more heroic roles rather than the typical Occidental view of Asians which was mysterious, cool, sexy, but ULTIMATELY – evil. If one were to equate this with the images of Native Americans on the Silver Screen, it’s probably safe to suggest that Hayakawa clung to the notion of the “noble savage” and recognized the inherent box-office appeal of this stereotype and its less harmful and offensive “qualities” (which, of course were replete in that of the just plain old evil “savage”).

The Dragon Painter definitely falls into the Asian equivalent of the “noble savage” stereotype. Audiences have always been drawn to the exotic, but especially so during the early years of motion pictures. This was, of course, a time when the world still felt young and exploration of uncharted lands and discovery of new cultures was at a fever pitch. Coupled with the new medium of cinema, audiences – especially those in the West – just couldn’t get enough of what was perceived to be different or exotic.

In The Dragon Painter, Hayakawa plays Tatsu, an artist living alone in the mountains. Perceived by those around him to be insane, he does nothing to give them another opinion since he obsessively paints only portraits of dragons. He is convinced that his beloved fiancée was stolen from him and turned into a dragon. Tatsu’s grief knows no bounds and he insanely continues his dragon paintings. But, crazy or not, Tatsu is clearly a gifted artist and when he is brought before a Master Painter, he’s given a chance to become even greater. It is here where Tatsu faces his ultimate challenge when he comes face to face with the woman he once loved (played by Hayakawa’s wife Tsuru Aoki). He is a happy man once again. Or is he? Grief had eventually become this artist’s muse and now that he is without grief, he stands to lose the gift of his supreme artistry.

The Dragon Painter is an utterly exquisite celluloid tapestry of art and love. It is replete with images that are staggeringly, heart-achingly beautiful and charged with a sense of longing and passion that has seldom been matched.

Hayakawa is, quite simply, remarkable. Completely avoiding the usual silent histrionics, he delivers an intense, sexy and, at times, agonizingly beautiful performance – thoroughly and utterly restrained. It’s not surprising to see why he was such a big star. He is, quite frankly, gorgeous. His flat, broad forehead, piercing eyes, aquiline nose, glorious cheekbones, full, supple lips and a profile to rival that of even the great John Barrymore himself, Hayakawa is without question, an Asian Valentino. Even the way he moves on screen has grace and precision. Perhaps this has something to do with his cultural roots in the Samurai tradition. As a teenager, Hayakawa even attempted seppuku and stabbed himself in the stomach close to forty times. Finally, whatever it was that contributed to his genius as an actor, matters less than what is before us on the silver screen – a star of the highest magnitude.

The Dragon Painter was, by the way, a lost film and only one print existed in France. It has been painstakingly restored for posterity and I sincerely believe my life, and certainly the lives of anyone who cares about cinema, have been made all the more full for having had a chance to see it.

This, of course, is where Milestone Films comes in since they have released this stunning work of art to DVD in a special edition that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Not only are we treated to a gorgeous transfer of restored/rescued elements, but also the DVD includes such delights as the odd short pairing of Hayakawa with Fatty Arbuckle and the feature length marvel entitled The Wrath of the Gods. The latter film not only stars Hayakawa and Aoki, but also features a very young Frank Borzage (immortal director of Three Comrades, A Farewell to Arms and many others) as a sailor who becomes entranced with a young Asian woman who has been cursed by Buddha. The Wrath of the Gods (written and produced by the great and aforementioned Thomas Ince) not only features some really tremendous storm footage and effects, but also makes for equally compelling viewing.

There are lots of great companies out there who unearth some real finds, but Milestone is clearly a company that is devoted to digging very deep for product that not only deserves exposure, but also damn well DEMANDS it.

The Dragon Painter is surely a film that demands to be watched by all true cineastes and has found a home thanks to Milestone.

The Gods of Nippon are smiling.

The Dragon Painter is a Milestone Films and Video Release available on DVD.

In USA and the rest of the WORLD - BUY The Dragon Painter - HERE!

Friday 30 December 2011

KRYLYA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Great Ukrainian Filmmaker Larisa Shepitko delivers this powerful, romantic look at Russia's fighting women in a post-war world

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the SIXTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

Krylya/Wings (1966) dir. Larisa Shepitko
Starring: Maya Bulgakova


By Greg Klymkiw

The romance of war has seldom been so heartbreaking than in the hands of the great Ukrainian-born director Larisa Shepitko who made this first feature after a few short films and studying under the watchful eye of fellow countryman and master film artist Oleksander Dovzhenko. What’s especially bittersweet is that the film is set in a post-war Soviet world where the lead character Nadezhna (Maya Bulgakova) struggles to settle into a life of seeming normalcy and, compared to her career as a fighter pilot, complacency. Now in her fortieth year, she works as a schoolmistress and goes about her daily tasks with professionalism and commitment on the surface, but always yearning and dreaming of the days when she soared above the normal world – touching Heaven, surrounded by the billowy clouds and racing through the air, dipping and swooping like a bird of prey.

Shepitko, part of that breed of Soviet filmmaker that rejected the occasionally overwrought montage-heavy storytelling of the likes of Eisenstein, tells her delicate tale with the same kind of editorial restraint common to her generation. Favouring gorgeously composed tableaus and a stately pace, Shepitko aims her lens at the realism of Nadezhna’s life, but with such a keen eye that the commonplace becomes extraordinary.

And what is it about the “normal” that nags at Shepitko’s central character?

The bottom line is this: The girl just wants to fly high. But alas, it is not to be – Nadezhna’s place in servitude to the Soviet ideal is now in the shaping of minds – youthful minds that live in a peaceful world that cannot even begin to comprehend the horrors of war. Nor are her students (and most others – adults AND children) equipped to fathom the mad, youthful rush accompanying Nadezhna’s idealism which led her into the cockpit of a bomber and into the arms of a fellow high-flyer, a dashing young man who eventually dies in a fireball before her very eyes – an image that haunts her constantly.

Shepitko expertly juxtaposes the romance and tragedy of Nadezhna’s life during the war with a series of poetic flashbacks that always help move the story forward when the drabness of her current existence reaches its nadir. One of the more moving sequences has our protagonist watching as a group of schoolchildren in the local museum are shown a display devoted to her heroism during the war. With the love of her life long dead and a schlubish museum director vying for her attentions – Nadezhna’s own life has become a literal and figurative museum piece.

Her daughter Tanya, a ravishing beauty, has married a much older man and Nadezhna can only think of her long-lost lover and how this prissy egghead who cohabits with her progeny can only pale in comparison. While Tanya has married for love, Nadezhna’s lover died for love – not necessarily for romantic love, but for the romantic ideals and love of flying that he shared with her.

With such a pedigree, can anyone ever be good enough for Nadezhna’s daughter?

While Krylya (the Russian word for “Wings”) shares much in common with Dovzhenko and Grigori Chukrai (Ballad of a Soldier), there is a relatively contemporary film, which builds towards a conclusion as soaring and heartbreaking as the one that ends Nadezhna’s story. Werner Herzog’s astounding 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly still can evoke tears when one recalls the final images as the title subject has a dream come true. A similar and extraordinary sequence occurs at the end of Krylya and delivers the kind of impact that only movies can bring when a dream comes true.

In both cases the wish fulfillment is endowed with both elation and heartache.

Shepitko firmly roots her character in a past that seems so far away and yet, truth and redemption are found in the reclamation of that past – albeit a reclamation that embraces the present and includes an acceptance of the future.

Shepitko only made three features following this debut. Her life was tragically cut short in a car accident while on a location scout for what would have been her fifth feature.

Like Nadezhna’s dashing flyboy lover, Shepitko died while doing what she knew and loved best.

Great art and life are never that far apart, are they?

"Krylya" is available on Criterion's Eclipse DVD label with Shepitko's "The Ascent"

CARNAGE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Roman Polanski Delivers The Goods! First Run Engagement is the Cherry on the Sundae of TIFF Bell Lightbox Retrospective of the Claustrophobia Films of Polanski

Carnage (2011) dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz


By Greg Klymkiw

I had to see Carnage again to experience everything I missed the first time. It's the funniest movie of the year, so be prepared to laugh so hard that you too will need to see it a second time. Then, you'll probably want to see it a third time - just because it's so terrific.

The movie is also blessed with the distinction of being one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations ever committed to film. Based on Yasmina Reza's award-winning play "God of Carnage", the author could not have asked for a better director than the great Roman Polanski to guide its four characters through a mud-swamped, mustard-gas-infused battlefield of nasty sniping - not in Beirut, mind you, but within the upscale luxury of a lovely New York apartment.

So much of Reza's ferocious knee-slapping dialogue is worthy of that which pulsates through Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". Though overall the play/movie as a whole is not as dangerously devastating as Albee's classic four-hander, (nothing ever could/would be) Carnage is, as a movie, so much more honest and brilliant than, say, the fake nastiness of such overrated crap as Alan Ball's screenplay for American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes. With American Beauty and his loathsome screen adaptation of Revolutionary Road, the marginally talented Mendes specializes, it seems, in rendering drama that purports to expose all the raw nerve endings of human existence, but does so for those who only pretend they like the lower depths of domestic bile puked up on a platter - but really don't.

Carnage, on the other hand, expunges its smorgasbord of bilious goods with Polanski's trademark aplomb and sheer delicious, vicious glee. (There's even a great moment in the movie that comes close to the shock and hilarity of the now-famous Trelkovsky-in-the-park sequence in The Tenant.) This picture is possibly even more claustrophobic than all of Polanski's previous "apartment" pictures combined - though it's brilliantly bookended with (and scored by the wonderful Alexander Desplat) by two phenomenal exterior sequences. Other than those, though, we're smack dab in the living room, kitchen and hallway of an apartment.

Two relatively affluent 40-something couples meet over coffee and cobbler to discuss, in a civilized manner, the fisticuffs which broke out between their respective pre-teen sons. The conversation zig-zags between several topics, all related in some fashion to the initial offending action. However, once the coffee and cobbler is abandoned in favour of a bottle of scotch, the relative restraint gives way to a no-holds-barred, rock-em-sock-em, to-the-death cage match of verbal assaults and, much to everyone's surprise, an uncorking of everything that's wrong with both marriages.

The hosts of this afternoon meeting of minds are clearly the odd couple of the two. Michael (John C. Reilly) is a borderline boor who runs a successful wholesale firm that specializes in fixtures. His wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) is a pinched prig with a penchant for fine art catalogues and coffee table books and labours in her not-so successful career as an author (her latest book is about the suffering of Darfur). The guests of the host couple seem, on the surface, a perfect fit. Alan (Christoph Waltz) is a sleazy lawyer who represents dubious pharmaceutical companies and Nancy (Kate Winslet) is a chicly-attired trophy wife.

As the afternoon progresses, battle lines are drawn, re-drawn and the balance of power shifts ever so deftly from one side to the other. In no time, the blades come out. The eviscerations are at first levelled from hosts to guests and vice-versa, but when each respective husband and wife begin on each other, the nasty accusations and finger pointing become far more revelatory than any of the characters bargained for that day.

When Michael, the seemingly happy-go-lucky schlub opines, "We're born alone and we die alone," he quickly adds, "Does anyone want a little scotch?" Offering booze to quell a tense situation, is frankly akin to aiming a thermonuclear device at the Hoover Dam.

The cast is uniformly fine. Reilly plays on his goofy, hangdog appeal but brings a heretofore unexplored malevolence to his bag of thespian tricks. Jodie Foster delivers another trademark slender thread performance, but reveals a terrific sense of humour. Kate Winslet beguiles us with her full-figured beauty, but eventually lets rip with her fair share of verbal daggers. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) proves again why he is one of the best actors working today - he careens from cutthroat to pathetically needy and everything in between.

Some critics who should know better (my familiar refrain), have admired the movie grudgingly, but toss it off as a "filmed play". Nothing could be further from the truth. Polanski is a master of enclosed spaces (Repulsion, The Tenant, Rosemary's Baby, etc.). His deft camera placement and movement is pure cinema. More importantly, he adheres to what ultimately makes the best big-screen adaptations of theatre - he refuses, by and large, to "open-up" the action.

This knee-jerk attempt by filmmakers to render their work more cinematic serves - more often than not - to dilute the power of the text and thus rendering it MORE lacking in the hallmarks of cinematic storytelling. (Let's NOT forget the moronic decision on the part of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman to "open up" the otherwise GREAT film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by shifting the locale briefly to a nearby roadside bar. The sequence sticks out like a sore thumb.)

Polanski refuses to take the easy way out. He throws us into the four walls of this apartment and forces us, for eighty minutes, to engage in the superb verbal jousts which, I must assert are plenty nasty and screamingly funny. Carnage is ultimately a class act all the way and once again, Roman Polanski proves he's one of the great living filmmakers.

Oh, and guess what? It's about adults.

"Carnage" is being released by Mongrel Media and will be seen in both mainstream cinemas and at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as the cherry on the sundae of a superb mini-retrospective of Polanski's claustrophobic masterworks.

Thursday 29 December 2011

THE TIME THAT REMAINS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Elia Suleiman's personal epic journey through the conflict between Palestine and Israel blends humour, tragedy, unconventional narrative and cinematic poetry to create one of the great new films of this age. It inspires tears, laughter and thought. One hopes it will inspire change.

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the FIFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, The Film Corner gives to you…

The Time That Remains (2009) Dir. Elia Suleiman
Starring: Elia Suleiman, Saleh Bakri, Samar Qudha Tamus, Shafika Bajiali


Review By Greg Klymkiw

I was initially unable to put my finger on it, but I knew there was something quite perfect about Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains.

It became abundantly clear during an extraordinary scene where a group of Palestinian children are sitting in a dark classroom within the confines of an Israeli-colonized Arab School as their wide-eyes are utterly transfixed upon the flickering images emanating from a rickety 16mm projector. The pieces of time dancing before them, projected onto a tiny screen, yet retaining a scope bigger than life itself are none other than the sprawling spectacle of the Stanley Kubrick-directed epic Spartacus – Hollywood’s ultimate big-screen allegory of Zionism.

It is this scene that precisely defines the perfection of Suleiman’s great film for a number of reasons. First of all, the scene flawlessly demonstrates the differences in cinematic approaches to the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Spartacus is, of course allegorical and an epic tale of subjugation presented with all that money can buy. The Time That Remains is also an epic, but with comparatively meagre resources. It focuses, not on spectacle, but on the smaller, more confined details of humanity in the realm of subjugation; an epic and indeed episodic examination of big ideas, bigger conflicts and the biggest need for peace betwixt both entities.

Secondly, the scene demonstrates the perfection of Suleiman’s delicate, poetic and quiet approach to the subject, in direct contrast to the violent, spectacular bombast of Kubrick’s picture which, in fairness to Kubrick is an exquisitely directed gun-for-hire job and not the personal, poetic, from-the-heart and primarily autobiographical approach that Suleiman takes. That said, Suleiman shares with Kubrick that magnificent stylistic approach to the tableau – finding just the right composition and holding on it.

Thirdly, the scene expresses the notion that all cinema, no matter what side of the political fence it sits on, is rooted firmly in some form or another of a perspective that is almost always propagandistic in nature. The Time That Remains takes a side and sticks to it in a black and white manner with an occasional splash of grey in order to present its tale of subjugation with an equal mixture of sadness and humour.

Set against the backdrop of the city of Nazareth, the film charts the life of a simple, loving Palestinian family during the formation of Israel from 1948 to the present day and is delivered to us in a number of different time periods. Based on his father’s diaries and his own recollections, Suleiman presents the lives of his family, friends and neighbourhood and examines the absurdity and injustice of people being forced to live as strangers in their own land. In fact, the Palestinians who choose to remain in Nazareth instead of being exiled are categorized by their oppressors – not as Palestinians, but as Israeli-Arabs.

Suleiman presents all of this with a strange mixture of humour and tragedy. In one scene – which is as beautiful as it is bizarre – the same group of children described above are seen proudly singing a rousing, pro-Israeli song in Hebrew on a national holiday while a group of adults look on proudly. In yet another, a group of young Palestinian men sit outside a café in the blazing sun and watch with a poker-faced bemusement as a soldier runs back and forth, occasionally asking which way he should go to the battlefield and when told which way to go, he argues that it must be the wrong way – especially since the sounds of battle seem to be coming from every which way.

Another great scene blending the deepest black humour and tragedy involves Israeli soldiers decked out in Arab gear and marching along the street when a Palestinian woman congratulates them on their victory. She receives a bullet to the head for her salutations in a shocking, deadpan, horrific and mordantly funny manner – recalling that famous moment in (of all movies) Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones casually blows away the sword-wielding turban-adorned bad guy. Suleiman is clearly recapturing the "spirit" of Spielberg's colonial-tinged fantasy, forcing us to laugh and almost just as quickly, forcing us to confront our laughter.

Since Suleiman’s film spans several different periods and doesn’t follow (on the surface) the traditional and comfortable storytelling checkpoints, it’s not an easy movie to describe in terms of plot, but in a nutshell – it is a story that begins with resistance to subjugation, moves through to acceptance of subjugation and ends up in a seemingly ambiguous place of “Where am I?”

While the movie feels unconventional, Suleiman does indeed adhere to the principles of basic storytelling with a three act (or, if you will, three movement) structure, but cleverly masks it to create the feeling that with the passage of time, not much changes. In spite of this, he reminds us that things DO change, but the changes are incremental, subtle and so tiny that one is confronted with the horrifying reality that full-on change could take an eternity, if at all..

The primary reason for this overwhelming sense of the unconventional is that Suleiman establishes a rhythm and structure early on in the film and adheres to it passionately – one that involves the repetition of certain actions and situations – the funniest being one in which the family’s neighbour, a mad old gent, unsuccessfully and repeatedly attempts to immolate himself, dousing himself with kerosene and lighting his match improperly, and upon subsequent tries is continually talked out of it by Suleiman’s father.

As a character in the film, we also follow Suleiman who, in the early portions casts some extraordinary look-alikes to play himself in childhood, adolescence and early adulthood before taking over the role proper in the latter sections of the film. Suleiman and his surrogates continue his silent Keaton-like poker face from earlier films to especially powerful effect in this new picture.

Many have commented on Suleiman’s debt to the likes of Keaton, Harry Langdon and Jacques Tati and while I will not quarrel with this, I also feel strongly that he infuses his work and performance with the same sublime qualities so prevalent in the best work of Chaplin. The Time That Remains has several moments that come close to matching the incredible emotional wallop of Chaplin’s final smile at the end of City Lights.

It is, I think Suleiman's mastery of all the elements needed to create one indelible and sublime sequence after another that makes watching this film such a breathless and awe-inspiring experience. The Time That Remains is most probably a masterpiece.

Time, and in particular, that which remains, will, as always, be the ultimate judge.


Wednesday 28 December 2011

SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The late Sergei Paradjanov was heir apparent to Ukraine's Bard of poetic cinema, Olexander Dovzhenko. Pure poetry.

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the FOURTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) dir. Serhey (Sergei) Parajanov
Starring: Ivan Mikolajchuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva, Spartak Bagashvili


By Greg Klymkiw

Against the heart-achingly gorgeous rural tapestry of the Carpathian Mountains and training its kino-eye with both the grace and precision of a hawk on the colourful Hutsul peasantry of 19th century Ukraine, the swirling, dancing camera of cinematographer Yuri Illienko under the masterful direction of Serhey Paradjanov created what is, perhaps, one of the most astonishing and influential motion pictures of all time.

There are a lot of good pictures out there and a surprising number of great ones, but one can only count on the fingers of maybe four or five sets of hands the number of gems that truly deserve the sort of worship afforded to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Serhey Paradjanov’s immortal classic of Ukrainian cinema. I proclaim this with having seen over 30,000 movies in my life, so I do not issue this proclamation of truth lightly. I have also seen the picture itself at least 30 times, the first time at the age of seven on a bootleg film print smuggled into Canada and screened at the Ukrainian National Federation Hall (UNF) in the North End of Winnipeg.

Seeing this picture was never an easy feat, especially since it was repressed by the Russian communist dictators in the 1960s and then given relative short shrift through much of the home video revolution that began in the 1980s. (I still own a washed-out, over-priced VHS version that I bought at Kim’s Video in New York many moons ago.) Other than poor bootlegs I rented from video stores in North York and Etobicoke in Toronto, it was always annoying that the film was not available on DVD.

It is, however, with reverence and joy that true cinephiles will regard the Kino DVD version of this great picture. Not only is this the work that brought Paradjanov to the attention of serious cinema aficionados outside the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, but upon being unveiled in 1964, this wildly poetic and romantic motion picture not only influenced filmmakers all over the world, but also placed Paradjanov at the forefront of cinema artists – a place he so clearly deserved to be at.

Ethnically Armenian and born in Georgia, Paradjanov began his filmmaking career as an assistant director at the famed Dovzhenko Studios in Ukraine. Upon graduating to the full-fledged status of director, he toiled away in the often-clunky and sometimes restrictive realm of social realism that was demanded upon filmmakers and forced upon audiences by the communist powers-that-were. Though Paradjanov himself disowned many of these pictures, it must be noted that he cut his teeth cinematically with some of the finest actors and technicians working within the Soviet system and he was not only able to learn and explore all aspects of cinematic storytelling, but frankly, he made quite a few decent pictures during this period. Films such as "Andriesh"," Ukrainian Rhapsody", "Dumka", "A Little Flower On A Stone" and numerous others all point to a developing visual storyteller with a flair for colour and poetry.

Unlike that work, however, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is not the proficient toil of a mere craftsman. It takes its place rightfully as the work of a true artist, a master, if you will. Based on the classic Ukrainian novel by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, it spins a seemingly straightforward tale of two lovers, Ivan and Marichka, who develop a magical, passionate bond in childhood, but who are kept apart tragically in life, only to be reunited spiritually in death.

This simple and oft-told tale is ultimately so complex, so emotional and so true – especially in Paradjanov’s hands – that it makes most love stories seem like just so much Harlequin pap. In the first place, there is the matter of Paradjanov’s now-legendary approach to the visual rendering – a camera that seems almost avian in its point of view. It swoops, it slides, it soars, it spins and as quickly as it begins its magical dance, it will stop, and stare with keen precision. It is a camera that never feels like it is where you expect it to be, yet in so doing, is exactly where one would want it to be.

Paradjanov uses the camera eye to create emotion, to instill and render feeling. Yet even as he does this, he never sacrifices the clarity and/or forward thrust of narrative, the complexity of character or the underlying spirit of emotion inherent in the story. He never indulges his camera or his poetry strictly for the sake of poetry. He allows the poetic flourishes to serve the audience’s engagement in the world in which the characters live.

Like Eisenstein at his best, Paradjanov still never forgets that as an artist, he is an entertainer, and a master entertainer at that. However, like Oleksander Dovzhenko, the pioneer of poetic cinema with "Arsenal" and "Earth" (Zemlya), Paradjanov also realizes that pure, strict narrative, pure social realism (if you will) is not the only way to effectively tell a story cinematically. Paradjanov composes images that are so heart-achingly beautiful that they stay burned in one’s memory long after the film has played itself out.

Paradjanov himself often acknowledged Andrei Tarkovsky as his chief inspiration. "Ivan’s Childhood" is the film that encouraged Paradjanov of the poetic possibilities of telling stories cinematically. Interestingly enough, "Ivan’s Childhood" was an odd first feature for someone like Tarkovsky in that it was almost a “gun-for-hire” job that forced him to find new and exciting ways of making the material “his own”. This, of course, is what still makes it (at least for me) Tarkovsky’s greatest achievement as the poetry serves the narrative and is never there just for the indulgent sake of it.

While "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is hardly a first feature for Paradjanov, it has the same fresh, exciting feel as "Ivan’s Childhood". (And again, since Paradjanov somewhat unfairly disowned his previous work, one could almost count it as a first feature.)

While Kino’s DVD is bereft of a commentary track, it does feature an interesting documentary entitled "Islands" which looks at the friendship and artistic similarities between Paradjanov and Tarkovsky. Filled with clips that compare and contrast the two filmmakers, it is definitely worth seeing, but only if you’ve watched all of Paradjanov and Tarkovsky’s key works.

Although the DVD includes a Dolby 5.1 track, it wisely includes the original mono track. Time and expense were never spared in Soviet cinema and the mix on this film proves just how wonderful mono sound can actually be. The stunning music adapted by Miroslaw Skoryk from a wide variety of Ukrainian folk music in Hutsul dialect sounds magnificent in mono and seems better integrated with the other tracks than the overbearing and annoyingly pristine 5.1 track. The extras are nice, but for a film of this magnitude, it would have been welcome to have material that more deeply assessed the cultural and historical background. Greatness like this requires constant and diligent assessment.

And, in assessing the greatness of "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", one should not discount the fact that the very material of Kotsyubinsky’s book was a perfect opportunity for Paradjanov to break out of the social realist mode of the communist oppressors and create a work of such profound cinematic artistry. During his lifetime, Kotsyubinsky, a social democrat dedicated to the ideals of writing narrative literature about Ukrainian culture in the Ukrainian language made him a target of the Czar’s secret police. Kotsyubinsky had been imprisoned and persecuted by Czarist Russia for most of his life.

Ironically, during subsequent Soviet rule, writers like Kotsyubinsky were used as propaganda tools by the communists to extol the virtues of communism by extolling the virtues of artists and historical figures that had been persecuted by the Czar. Even though the communists practiced identical persecution on contemporary artists, they thought they could prove how superior they were by holding these people up as examples of political freedom fighters against the repression inherent in the previous regime. Since Kotsyubinsky’s centenary was just around the corner, it would not have been lost on Paradjanov that he’d have a relatively free ride within the Dovzhenko Studio to make exactly the movie he wanted to make out of Kotsyubinsky’s classic novel.

And what a ride he had. And what a ride, he gave us. (Though sadly, after the film was made, Paradjanov suffered mercilessly with endless persecution, brutal terms in the Gulag and a premature death due to illness brought on by his suffering.)

"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is a movie that raises the gooseflesh in the audience to new heights. Paradjanov never ceases to dazzle us with his virtuosity. When a falling tree comes crashing down on its intended victim, that camera is with the tree’s point of view as it watches the horror of said victim turn to pain and anguish as nature plunges down and crushes the man below. When an axe comes flying towards the face of someone, that axe practically smashes the camera lens in two and the screen – the eyes of the victim – turns to the colour of blood. As two lovers say farewell in the sun-dappled foliage of the Carpathians, their youthful faces become drenched with a sudden, magical rain-shower, which soothes their rising passion just as strongly as it hides their tears in raindrops.

The movie is replete with images like these – not a shot, not a scene, not a frame goes by without some sort of cinematic invention. Sometimes contemporary audiences react with self-satisfied amusement to occasional flourishes in the film (as they are wont to do with almost everything that is not seemingly hip and now), but that’s only because the initial brilliance of Paradjanov to shoot something in a certain way has been so studied and copied that in its purest form, it seems like a cliché, when it is, in fact, the real thing.

"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" has been influential upon filmmakers outside of the Soviet Union. I will, of course, never forget the momentous Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) screening in 1997 when old friend Paul Cox, the great Dutch-Australian auteur, presented the film in a retrospective screening wherein he cited it as the film that made him want to make films. Also, during the 60s and 70s, WITHIN the Soviet Union it briefly gave way to an explosion of poetic-styled cinematic storytelling – especially in Ukraine.

Made in the Dovzhenko Studios (named after you-know-who, obviously), "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" inspired a brief, but exciting wave of poetic feature dramas including works by Illienko, Osyka and, interestingly enough, Ivan Mikholaichuk, the actor who stars as Ivan in "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors". As a footnote, Mikholaichuk was not only one of the big stars of Soviet cinema, but one of the few who actually spoke Ukrainian. He was extremely influential at the studio and a big supporter of national cinema in Soviet countries where the Russian communists launched aggressive campaigns of Russification.

Finally, one of the great things about this picture is how Paradjanov lavishes time and attention on all the rituals that rule the lives of the Hutsul people in the Carpathians. Church-going, Christmas, spring thaw festivals, harvest festivals, weddings, funerals, courting and many other richly evocative moments in the lives of the characters not only present a magnificent historical and cultural portrait, but do so, by integrating the rituals and the pleasure of watching the rituals directly into the narrative. Again, Paradjanov finds ways to tantalize our senses, but never in an indulgent way – always remembering to stay in service to the story.

One ritual detailed in the film that is especially poignant and funny is a wedding scene that involves a husband and wife being joined in the eyes of God (and the Hutsul community) blindfolded and attached to a yoke. In the world of these characters, life is work, while marriage is a life-long attachment to drudgery, and where the only escape, the only happiness, the only spiritual fulfillment comes in death and the afterlife.

These shadows of forgotten ancestors that infuse the lives, not only of the film’s characters, but in many ways, all of us are detailed with the beauty, care and grace that only a great artist like Paradjanov can bring to such material. He’s made a picture that allows us to participate in the rituals and heartaches of life while at the same time being tantalized and entertained by it.

He’s also made a picture that allows us to experience almost first-hand, a sense of spirituality where we can soar, bird-like, perhaps even God-like with the camera – Paradjanov’s camera – that magnificent vantage point that makes us feel immortal.

Now that’s poetry!

Tuesday 27 December 2011

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Love during wartime, a final farewell, a fight for life. Nobody made movies like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Cinema is all the better for it, as is the world. Such is the power of the greatest medium of Artistic Expression granted to us.

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the THIRD DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

"What do you think the next world is like? I have my own ideas. I think it starts where this one leaves off or could leave off if we'd listened to Plato, Aristotle and Jesus." - David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesay, Raymond Massey


By Greg Klymkiw

With an opening as staggering as the one on display in this extraordinary Powell/Pressburger production, one is almost distracted by the thought that no picture could ever truly recover from such a dazzling romantic entry point.

How do you go up from up?

Peter Carter (David Niven), a doomed wartime pilot in a flaming airplane spirals to his death and participates in a final conversation with June (Kim Hunter), a honey-voiced dispatcher. As their conversation over the radio waves proceeds, these two souls remain stoic in the face of certain doom, even as they realize what a match made in Heaven they might have been had things been different. He is touched by her spark of life and compassion, and she for his gentle bravery. But as the conversation over the radiowaves proceeds and death for Peter is more inevitable than ever before, the time comes for this couple to say their final goodbyes.

How in God’s name can a picture get better than this?

It does, and then some, for A Matter of Life and Death, a picture rendered by the immortal Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – a team of filmmakers who, under the corporate moniker of The Archers, hit bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye. Each and every one of their movies (Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, etc.) pushes the boundaries of traditional cinematic storytelling with the kind of ingenuity that has seldom been matched (but is certainly emulated and outright copied).

From a storytelling standpoint, A Matter of Life and Death constantly keeps our eyeballs glued to the screen. One moment, we are plunged into a situation wherein we have absolutely no idea where the story can go and the next, we are convinced it’s going one way and our expectations are pleasantly dashed. This happens so often, that when we are actually treated to a moment in the story that we’re convinced is going to go in a particular direction and it actually DOES go there, we’re delighted that it goes into a comfortable, familiar place – not only because it is emotionally the right thing for the movie to do at that point, but because it gives us what we crave at just the right moment.

This is great writing – no doubt about it. The abovementioned opening features our two romantic leads who, as characters, have not even met face to face, but WE see them and WE want them to meet face to face. And hell, they want to meet face to face too, but this is the first few minutes of the movie and our leading man is in a burning plane and he decides to make a suicide jump rather than go down in a crisp. The leading lady, while clearly distraught, has suffered enough and/or witnessed enough suffering during this world war to know that death will almost always be the clear inevitability.

Unfortunately, the original and rather unimaginative American title, Stairway To Heaven was enough of a silly tip-off to let us know that the story would occasionally veer into the spiritual/fantastical realm, but even within that context, Powell and Pressburger’s command of the proceedings is so taut that we’re still on the edge of our seats wondering where this could possibly go.

The direction the narrative takes is that our leading man does survive the plunge and does meet the voice on the other end of the radio and, of course, they do fall in love. Alas, the bureaucracy that runs the spirit world on the other side of death has made a dreadful mistake. Peter WAS supposed to die, but someone slipped up. When Death comes a collecting, Peter balks and demands a hearing. His life and the lives of those around him have irrevocably been changed because of this mistake and it seems extremely unfair that he is to be plucked from the physical world after having been given a chance to live longer than he was supposed to.

A trial is needed. However, the trial that proceeds has less to do with a matter of life and death and veers into the political arena of American vs. British superiority. This, of course, is yet another staggering plot element as this captures, quite resolutely, the animosity between the British and American sides during the war on Hitler.

In addition to the magnificent plotting, elegant dialogue and complex characters, A Matter of Life and Death is also replete with the Powell and Pressburger visual genius. Not only are images used in thrilling and engaging ways to propel the story forward, but some of the most staggering images and special effects are designed in order to tell the story as well as it is. With a combination of outstanding production design and both optical and compositional genius, this is a picture that not only holds up in a modern context in terms of the effects but also renders many contemporary digital effects to utter shame in comparison.

Last, but certainly not least and what makes this picture one of the greatest of all time is that Powell and Pressburger are not afraid to wear their hearts on their respective creative sleeves. The film is wildly romantic, sentimental and emotionally stunning.

It has heart, and that, if anything is something to be cherished.

Innovation AND heart.

It’s an unbeatable combination.

“A Matter of Life and Death” (AKA “Stairway to Heaven”) is available on DVD in a package titled “Michael Powell, The Collector’s Choice” and double-billed with Powell’s “Age of Consent”.

Monday 26 December 2011

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Fable of the Holocaust through a child's eyes

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the SECOND DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008) dir. Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Richard Johnson, Rupert Friend and David Hayman


By Greg Klymkiw

This movie should not work. By rights, it should be an utterly unpalatable and, even offensive, overtly manipulative and exploitative drama that renders the tragedy of genocide to something resembling fairytale Holocaust porn, especially since the story is told with three extremely huge hurdles for an audience to overcome. The first hurdle is the entire cast of British actors playing the roles of Germans and a variety of Eastern European Jews replete with full-on natural British accents. The second hurdle is the almost-hard-to-swallow notion that two boys could continue to sit on opposite sides of a barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz and not be noticed – by ANYONE. These are two formidable adversaries to making this picture work. Then there is the third hurdle – the ending. It’s powerful, alright, but getting to it strains credibility.

So, why then, is this a terrific picture?

Simply put – it works – in spite of the abovementioned hurdles, which ultimately, are not that strenuous for an audience to surmount.

The tale is a simple one. Bruno (Asa Butterfield - who plays the title role in Martin Scorsese's magnificent Hugo) is an eight-year-old boy growing up in the cozy, comfy and idyllic world of Berlin. His Father (David Thewlis), a high-ranking officer receives a new assignment and is transferred to preside over Auschwitz, the horrific Nazi death camp. He moves his whole family – Bruno, an older sister and Mother (Vera Farmiga) to a huge country home.

The death camps are just out of view of their new home, but Bruno soon notices that there is a farm he can see from a third story window – a farm populated by workers in striped pajamas. Bruno eventually and secretly makes his way to the “farm” where he meets a young Jewish boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), who wears “striped pajamas” and lives on the other side of the barbed wire that entraps him. The two boys strike up a close friendship that grows ever deeper as the film progresses.

Bruno is innocent to the evil around him – his parents shelter him, to be sure, but his Father shelters the full truth about what’s going on in the camp from even his wife. Eventually, Bruno’s Mother realizes what her husband is presiding over when a young German soldier "quips" over the constant smell of burning flesh wafting over from the concentration camp. "They smell worse dead than when they're alive," he chortles, referring to the gassed Jewish bodies being incinerated. Her horrified response, the eventual disappearance of a Jewish prisoner who works as a domestic and the reality that a horrible fate awaits Shmuel begin to culminate in a spiral of emotional release and a whirlwind of tragedy.

The innocence of childhood against the backdrop of war is certainly not new territory, but what sets this picture apart from many others is the brilliant and consistent use of perspective. The point of view, for about 80% of the picture is that of Bruno’s. We are almost always seeing and hearing and experiencing things from the eyes of a child. This heightens our emotional response to the story, by forcing us to apply BOTH a perspective of innocence in addition to the awareness of adulthood (our own, that is). Remarkably, this does not split the focus, but has the unique effect of providing a sense of balance as we participate in the actions of the story – not in any journalistic sense, but in an emotional one.

Director Mark Harman presents the first shot of Bruno in the new house as he sits behind the bars of a staircase. Bruno lives in what feels like a prison. He is not allowed to leave the home - which is fenced in and patrolled by armed guards - nor does he have any friends. When he discovers a secret way out of his home/prison, he takes flight in freedom. While the irony of finding freedom outside the barbed wire of a Nazi death camp might seem cheap and obvious in black and white, within the context of this brave film it works quite perfectly. The two boys on both sides of the fence are innocents in the face of war.

One picture I am reminded of when thinking about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is Louis Malle’s immortal classic Au Revoir, Les Enfants – a picture that also details the doomed friendship between two children on opposite sides of the fence (as it were). Malle’s picture is rooted, however, in memory. The perspective is that of Malle himself who chose to cinematically fictionalize his own experience as a child who was friends with a young Jewish boy during occupied France. The story is always filtered through that of a much older man who reflects back on his REALITY. The Boy With The Striped Pajamas, on the other hand, creates its OWN reality within a completely different structure – that of the fable.

And this is precisely why the picture works. It is, for all intents and purposes a fable – a succinct tale that uses its figures in the landscape to teach us a moral lesson and, like all good fables, the didactic qualities of the form are supported by storytelling of the highest order. On one hand, one might find that the moral lesson of the picture is rooted in Bruno's denial of his friendship with Shmuel to a Nazi officer. This betrayal causes Shmuel to be severely beaten. Bruno, feeling shame and remorse over this offers to assist Shmuel at a later point which has dire consequences. However, Bruno's innocence - as a child - is a good part of why he denies his friendship with Shmuel. If anything, this is a huge moral lesson for Bruno within the context of the story. It is, however, the lynchpin in providing a moral lesson to the film's viewers - that the innocence of children is so pure and precious that they are primarily the real victims of evil in this world, and that adults, as nurturers and protectors must do everything in their power to create an environment of caring and openness in order to both protect this innocence, but to alternately provide the sort of guidance that will ensure that this innocence blossoms fully and naturally into adulthood.

In a nutshell, The Boy With The Striped Pajamas creates a world that first and foremost exists within its OWN world, while at the same time and in so doing, reflects OUR world.

Within this context, the hurdles, or, if you will, potential flaws mentioned earlier, seem completely in keeping with the form in which the film is presented to us. The use of British accents, the suspension of disbelief on a number of fronts and the unabashed telling of a tale with a clear moral could, individually and certainly all together, result in wildly disparate and perhaps even negative responses.

It’s a bold move, especially considering the subject matter, and while I am not in the habit of applauding boldness for its own sake, the fact that it works so exquisitely is cause for celebration.

One other interesting element of childhood innocence in the film is reminiscent of Hope and Glory, John Boorman's classic autobiographical tale of children growing up in London and its environs during the Blitz in World War II. Boorman's picture paints a portrait of young boys in wartime who view the world calamity as "fun". Certainly the opening scenes of The Boy With The Striped Pajamas set in Berlin have a similar feel as young boys cavort through the streets, oblivious to the evil around them.

Even the final mad adventure undertaken by Bruno and Shmuel is steeped in childhood innocence - two boys collaborating together as they scuttle through the concentration camp on a boyish quest.

By the end of the picture, I felt transformed. I also felt utter devastation and was unable to leave my seat long after the end titles credits ended. One of the things that contributed to the powerful emotional feelings the picture elicited is the subtle, seamless, powerful and downright brilliant shift in perspective.

The final portion of the picture shifts from the eyes of innocence to the eyes of adulthood (our own), and, with eyes wide open, we are finally faced with the grim realities of what face us – not only within the context of the film, but within life itself.

Mankind has always lived in a world where genocide seems to be a sad fact of our existence. Stories such as these are always important ones to be told. Often, one reads criticism that there’s “nothing new” that can be done when examining the Holocaust dramatically. This, of course, is utter nonsense. As long as mankind exists, we will always have genocide until we all face and accept that this reality is so sickening and appalling that maybe, just maybe, as a species we will finally do something about it. Hopefully it will be art that contributes to exposing us to the terrible truths, but will also assist in removing the very definition of the word “genocide” from the dictionary – EXCEPT within a historical context.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas may ultimately not be for everyone, but it’s a beautifully directed and acted tale of innocence maintained – in spite of the horror and pain of war.

Witnessing innocence NOT being lost is what finally moves us to both tears, and hopefully, to action.

Sunday 25 December 2011

THE DEAD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Set on the day after the 12th Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, legendary director John Huston's final film is the ultimate Christmas Movie. Assemble those you hold dear. Rejoice in this exquisite, profoundly moving film.

A CINEMATIC 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, EASTERN-RITE NATIVITY AND FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY: Join me in this special celebration of cinema as each day I will be publishing a review in honour of this season of good will and focusing on films and filmmakers who have made a contribution to both the human spirit and the art of film.

For the FIRST DAY OF CHRISTMAS, Klymkiw Film Corner gives to you…

The Dead (1987) dir. John Huston
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Donal Donnelly, Dan O'Herlihy, Marie Keane, Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany and Frank Patterson


By Greg Klymkiw

There aren't many perfect movies in this world, but I can say without question or hesitation that John Huston's final picture, an exquisitely wrought adaptation of James Joyce's equally flawless short story The Dead, is the very quintessence of perfection on film. Even now, I can recall my first viewing of it in 1987 - sitting alone in my seat as the end titles rolled in the dark, my body drained of energy from the unbridled sobs the picture wrenched from deep within my very being. The final twenty minutes were ultimately responsible for turning me into a quivering mass of roiling Jello, but even that would have been nigh impossible if everything that preceded the profoundly moving conclusion hadn't steadily, gorgeously and delicately built to this sequence that in and of itself is so inextricably linked to every frame of the picture.

Such is the case with Joyce's story - which, on the page can barely feel like anything is happening at all and yet, every word, every sentence, every beat of the subtle drama compels you and draws you further into that moment when the central character Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) reveals his innermost thoughts to us and in voice-over declares:

"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

And so it goes with Huston's perfect adaptation of Joyce's story. The story unfolds ever-so slowly - so much so that you might wonder if there even is one. But you'll ponder this thought only briefly since you'll be taking in every detail, every nuance, every gesture with rapt attention and, I might add, delight.

Dubliners is the name of Joyce's great book that works, on one level, as a collection or cycle of short stories focusing upon a series of characters connected only by the city in which they reside and the individual journeys that lead to a substantial state of self-awareness, or perhaps, more aptly, an epiphany. Given the book's structure, some consider it a novel, not unlike Sherwood Anderson's great book Winesburg, Ohio wherein the central character is a place, the individual stories are chapters and the narrative arc of the stories as a whole comes, not only from their arrangement, but by how the reader is taken on a literary journey with those who reside in that place - a literary journey that has an epic quality to it; albeit an epic of intimacy.

The Dead provides the climax and conclusion to Dubliners, in which the self awareness gained over the course of our journey through Dublin boils down to realizing that a life, no matter how long or short, must be measured by the level of passion to which that life has been lived.

The tale begins at the annual dinner party hosted by the elderly Morkan sisters - Kate (Helena Carroll) and Julia (Cathleen Delany) - and their niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). It is the Feast of the Epiphany, the final day of the twelve days of Christmas in Western Christian tradition where the devout (and even not-so-devout) celebrate the adoration of the Magi (the Three Wise Men) as they first lay eyes upon the Baby Jesus. In Eastern Rite tradition, it is the baptism of Christ that is the event celebrated. Neither of these would have been lost on Joyce, and certainly not on director John Huston - in both the story and film, we are witness to both adoration and baptism - certainly in a metaphorical, if not literal sense.

The warmth of the Morkan house is fuelled by the anticipation within the Morkan sisters of their guests and in particular, the Conroys - Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). In the beginning, there is much tut-tutting about the eventual arrival of Freddy Malins (Donal Donnely) and his Mother (Marie Keans). Freddy, it seems, is a bit of a tippler and there is an implication how much his poor, dear Mother has suffered over this. The reality is that Freddy is a rather delightful drunk, but his Mother, hardly suffering, seems so overbearingly condescending towards him that surely he's been browbeaten into his affliction. Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), the only Protestant in attendance is also a drunk, but certainly not loud, cheery and demonstrative like Freddy is. Well kept and well dressed, his quiet inebriation is tolerated due to his gentlemanly comportment.

When the grand Conroy couple finally arrives, the celebrations begin in earnest. We follow the characters throughout the evening - one of considerable gaiety - speeches are made, recitations are given, songs are sung, a piano is played and there is dancing and dancing and more dancing. Dinner is eventually served, all eat heartily until eventually, the time comes for the evening to draw to a close.

Then, it happens - the series of events that will open the tear-duct-floodgates of any audience member with a soul. The party, a brief night's journey into the depths of a divine revelation that gently floats into a deeper night and yes, a light - a light within the deep recesses of the heart that ignites with a force the movie doesn't brace you for.

The Conroys are about to leave. Gabriel, who has spent much of the evening nattering and puttering and nervous-nellying about the speech he must give, is fully dressed and looking about for his wife Gretta. Glancing up from pulling on his galoshes, he spies Gretta as she descends the staircase. An off-screen tenor begins to sorrowfully begin a musical lamentation and she freezes, listening intensely to The Lass of Aughrim. The song moves her deeply. She and her husband leave the Morkan household and check into a nearby hotel for the rest of the evening. It is here where Gretta reveals the secret she has carried deep within for her entire adult life. Frank, hearing her sad tale, watches as she cries herself to sleep. Staring at her on the bed, then out the window as the snow falls gently, he shares an epiphany with us.

There isn't a single false moment in this film. Huston's eye is so perceptive, his sense of the story's natural cinematic rhythm is so acute and the staggering brilliance of every single performance that Huston elicits are enough to commend The Dead to its rightful place as one of the great films of all time.

Gretta on the stairway landing, listening to this mournful song, is so perfectly rendered that at first, we think she is responding solely to the lyrics:

The rain falls on my yellow locks
And the dew it wets my skin;
My babe lies cold within my arms;
Lord Gregory, let me in.
As we watch her listen to the tenor, we soon realize, there is more to this tremendously moving song than the lyrics which are affecting Gretta - Huston holds the camera's gaze on his Anjelica Huston (his real-life daughter) with consummate frame composition - perhaps one that only a father can compose of his own daughter playing a role he cherishes more dearly than life itself - framed and held raptly in service to the story he's telling.

As noted earlier, perfection in cinema is rare. Huston, with his bold gift for adapting literary works to the screen (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, The Man who Would Be King, Wiseblood, Under the Volcano, etc.) creates, with The Dead, his crowning achievement.

The Dead was Huston's last film. He was in his eighties, on respiratory support and in a wheelchair when he made this picture. Clearly, Huston knew exactly how to "pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age".

We should all be so lucky.