The Balcony is Closed (For Now)

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Good afternoon,

I regret to inform you, my kind and devoted readers, that The Balcony is going on hiatus indefinitely. I really enjoyed the opportunity to write reviews, columns and retrospectives about new and classic films. However, an overwhelming schedule of freelance writing has turned what started as a hobby into a chore.

When I began blogging in 2009, I did so to help finesse and develop my style as a writer, journalist and critic. However, now that I have various jobs in the world of journalism, the blog’s role as a place of practice is not as essential as it used to be. I spend many hours every week working on reviews and film-related columns for the various places I work for, including The Canadian Jewish News, We Got This Covered and Toronto Film Scene. I have decided that I would rather devote more of my time, energy and creativity to these publications, which are helping me grow as a writer and arts journalist.

Moreover, my interests to write a screenplay took a long hiatus this year so that I could focus on my various writing jobs. Since that creative quest is a journey I would like to dedicate a great chunk of time to beginning this summer, I need to sacrifice some part of my work life to make way for this endeavour. Ultimately, I hope that the six hours or so I spend working on The Balcony each week will be sufficient time to help me get a script finished and polished by this point next year.

I appreciate all the kind comments and feedback I have received over the last nine months. There is always a chance that I will re-open The Balcony one day with reviews and perhaps some new column ideas. However, for now, I am moving on to a different project in my life, one that I am very excited for. For those who follow me on social media, I will continue to post links to my reviews and articles.

Thank you for all of your support and I wish you all an amazing summer,

Jordan Z. Adler

Review Monday: 6/9/14 (The Fault in Our Stars, We Are the Best!, Filth, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon)

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I have been busy with several screenings over the past couple of weeks. Instead of giving a long review here of a film I have not covered for press, I am sharing links to four new reviews of mine.

The first is for The Fault in Our Stars (B-), the adaptation of John Green’s best-selling young adult drama. The source material was superb, but the film was hit-and-miss. At its best, it had much of the novel’s wrenching power, and contained excellent performances, especially from Shailene Woodley, Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern. When it faltered, it was due to some “sugarcoating” of the novel’s more difficult subject matter, and some of the pathos it strived for felt unearned. Regardless, it should please fans of Green’s novel, but I recommend that those curious about the pop culture phenomenon should read the book first. You can read that review on We Got This Covered here.

The second is for We Are the Best! (B), a charming and joyous Swedish film from director Lucas Moodysson, based on the quasi-autobiographical graphic novel that his wife, Coco, penned. The coming-of-age story focuses on three 7th graders who form a punk band in Stockholm, during the early 1980s. The young actors giving their film debuts – Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne – are exceptional. Their performances and interactions are so naturalistic that is sometimes seems that Moodysson has stepped to the side and let the camera roll without informing the actors. Full of verve and vulnerability, these punk rebels are hard characters to forget. The film loses some vitality due to its meandering pace and loose structure, but We Are the Best! is still a potent foreign film worth seeking out. You can read that review on We Got This Covered here.

The third review is for Filth (C), a brutish British comedy-thriller about a naughty, depraved detective sergeant, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. The Scottish actor gives a full-bodied performance, fierce and profane, but he cannot save this tone-deaf adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel. When the film tries to justify his behaviour through depicting his unstable mental health, it loses its footing and fails to make a convincing case for the character’s actions. You can read that review on Toronto Film Scene here.

Finally, a review for a documentary I really enjoyed: Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (B+). It is an ode and tribute to the quintessential (and titular) Hollywood manager who brought Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass and almost every celebrity chef to fame and fortune. You come to this supremely entertaining doc stoked for the incredible stories Shep shares of his experiences with some of the world’s most famous actors and musicians, but you stay for his moving journey into a life of fulfillment in a completely different realm. It is the directorial debut of actor Mike Myers, and is a very assured (and unsurprisingly outrageous) film. You can read that review on We Got This Covered here.

The Essentials: Rope (1948)

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“The power to kill can be just as satisfying as the power to create.” – Brandon (John Dall)

It is funny that Alfred Hitchcock dismissed his 1948 film Rope in his interviews with filmmaker Francois Truffaut, since the taut, dark comedy keeps being rediscovered as one of his unsung classics. Hitchcock derided the film for being little more than an audacious stunt, but what an incredible gimmick it is. In trying to film a movie to make it feel like a play that an audience can watch unfold without any cuts interrupting its flow, he shot Rope in ten long takes. Even if it is just a stunt, it is still a stunning and effective way to build suspense and detach the audience from the emotional malice of the characters.

Based loosely on the Leopold-Loeb case, Rope begins with a man’s scream. Two friends and suggested gay lovers – the sneering, flamboyant, talkative Brandon (John Dall) and the withdrawn, erect, nervous Philip (Farley Granger) – strangle that screaming man with a rope and carry the corpse into an antique chest in their living room. They have gotten away with murder. Philip is quite ashamed at getting caught up in the crime, while Brandon relishes the superiority and is still animated from the thrill of the kill. However, the two friends have a party to host any minute. They place a tablecloth and two candlesticks above the chest, and insist on serving a buffet style meal from atop the place where their dead friend lies.

The guests at that party mostly have a connection to the corpse in the antique chest: David’s father and aunt, his friend Kenneth, his fiancée Janet. All of them expect David to be there in living colour and start to worry when the usually punctual young man does not show up. Another invited guest is Rupert Cadell, a philosophy professor of Brandon and David’s, with some macabre thoughts about violence and death. The iconoclastic and high-minded Cadell is played by James Stewart, about as much an everyman an actor as there has ever been. However, compared to the wily criminals whose deed we follow with dread and the director’s dedicated, mostly continuous camera, Stewart’s professor is a man of virtue and reason.

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton, Rope was shot on a soundstage and with the exception of an opening shot from the apartment balcony overlooking the street, spends the entirety of the 80-minute running time in the living room and front hallway of Brandon and Philip’s penthouse. They open the windows to the New York skyline, which is clearly a backdrop made for a backlot set; however, given the changing colours of the sky at dusk and into the evening, we get the sense of a darkening city and a more ominous mood as time moves forward.

Rope is especially notable for two elements that remain pivotal to the filmmaker’s styles and themes. Hitchcock experiments with telling much of the story in a seemingly continuous take. When the reel, which could only last around 10 minutes, was due to run out, Hitchcock (and the four people credited as “operators of camera movement”) came close into the dark fabrics of a character’s suit and then stepped out, with the scene continuing just as it had been. The actors are strong enough that they guide the movement of the camera with enough confidence that we do not often notice for how long the takes have been going on for.

The 80-minute running time seems to comprise the actual time of the story, although the gradual darkening of the world outside seems to hint that time is moving faster in the filmic world than real time. Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s camera becomes like a weapon, swooping around the penthouse to show how the characters are reacting to the strange, often morbid dialogue from Brandon and Rupert. We observe whether the criminals are becoming more or less suspect.

The other element, something common among Hitchcock’s more daring films, is a connection to the vile and malicious. We do not hesitate to root for the bad guys or the troubled characters who do immoral things in the director’s most controversial films. Every time the camera returns to its base area, near that chest, we plead that the two murderers still get away with the ordeal. Hitchcock’s decision to tell a story without resorting to fast edits or close-ups also creates an environment where, like watching a play, we are detached observers, watching all the morbid talk and meandering conversation. There is no real character to identify with or root for: it may be one of the director’s most dispassionate film, apt for one about the coldness of the human psyche, the emptiness of violence and its meaninglessness.

The Davids of the world are a waste of space, Brandon insists, explaining in a conversation with Rupert among the dinner guests that murder is akin to an art. The sly villain always seems giddy at the chance that he will be caught and always makes snide remarks that hint of David’s existence in the apartment. Brandon is eager to share his “artistic” behaviour with his professor; for instance, he swings around the titular rope ostentatiously. He is like a naughty boy who prides at being the centre of attention. Meanwhile, Philip regrets his role in the crime immediately and begins drinking too quickly and sputtering drivel that could be circumstantial evidence – Granger, in the process, nearly steals the film. Of course, the intuitive Rupert catches on to the charade, although still has doubts lingering about the reason David is missing from the party.

Rope is more than just a stylish, suspenseful exercise. It is a dark, bruisingly funny film that turns its audience into an accomplice to murder. The last ten minutes of the film, where Rupert faces his responsibility as a teacher of dark philosophy may have fallen on the wrong ears, is chilling and compelling. “You’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamt of,” he tells his students. It may be a self-indulgent thriller-comedy, but it is an easy and exceptional one for a Hitchcock-adoring audience to indulge in.