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Why Everyone Needs to Watch Rope

It goes without saying that Alfred Hitchcock might be considered one of the most recognizable directors in history. A name so popular in film that you’ll instantly begin to form a list of his best work at the top of your head (Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds, just to name a few) and you would do so with good reason. Excellent and considered as a pioneer in storytelling, Alfred Hitchcock in his lifetime served as a director on over 50 films (excluding shorts and documentaries). So how do you appreciate a director without watching 50 films? You do so by watching Rope (1948).

Alfred Hitchcock's Rope

Okay I admit it, that wasn’t really much of a segue into why you should watch Rope, but it does help set the stage for what makes Rope stand out among all of his films. Taking place entirely in a studio apartment, two young men strangle one of their classmates to death, hide the body, then invite over his friends and their professor (James Stewart) to a dinner party to discuss and challenge the idea of “the perfect crime.”

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If the plot alone wasn’t enough to give you goosebumps, then the idea of shooting the entire film in one continuous shot will.

Over the past couple of decades, Hollywood has been infatuated with the idea of extremely long and elaborate takes. As one of the finer examples, the film Children of Men (2006) sees the film’s protagonist moving chaotically throughout a war zone in one take and shot during the rising action of the story. Not only does the use of one shot build tension, it also creates a surreal realism (horrible oxymoron) for the audience. Without that cut in an edit, we lose ourselves for a moment and forget we’re watching a film.

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On a larger scale, the film Silent House (2011) replicated what Rope did and shot the film in seamless segments that inter-cut into each other, simulating the “one take and shot” look. In Silent House, the darkness or as the protagonist crosses behind an object in the foreground is used to disguise cuts in the edit. In Rope, the cuts in the film are disguised as a blend between blocked actions and camera movements.

Going back to that whole “Alfred Hitchcock was a pioneer thing,” it’s totally true. He was crazy and got away with doing quite a few things that wouldn’t fly on set these days. But he knew his way around a scene, which is why the transitions in Rope work so perfectly and are seamless. There’s a large period in film (let’s pretend it’s between the ’20s to the mid-’50s) where scenes largely consisted of several people standing in a long shot without any cuts in the edit, talking for five minutes. Although these shots could also be considered long takes, this was a technique that merely saved the production on budget, and allowed for them to stick to schedule by having one setup per setting, which is what makes the camera work in Rope a thing of beauty. Not only was he trying to give the appearance of the film being one seamless take, but also the camera moved constantly, following and complimenting the scene’s action (which is hard to come by today even).

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Along with the camera complimenting the film’s blocking, the camera eventually becomes less noticeable as the story progresses. Not only is the seamless “one take and shot” look slowly building suspense, but the story is doing it all on its own as well. As the night wears on, the two students become restless over the idea that they may have committed the perfect crime and begin to provoke their guest of honour (the professor) into arguing over theory and murder. As the dinner party progresses, the audience is treated to a story that plays out in what could be considered one of the earliest instances of “real-time” filmmaking. The story is largely meant to take place within the exact runtime of the film (give or take a few minutes).

Already the movie has a lot going for it, and if I were to say much more I would be encroaching on spoilers territory. To date, Rope remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best and yet under-appreciated films due to its rocky history since being made. Upon initial release, the film was banned throughout parts of The United States due to the implied homosexuality of several characters, and then in no relation was unavailable for more than 30 years because of ownership of the film’s rights. Eventually Rope was re-released in theatres in 1984.

Hitchcock

If you’re to see any of the 50 films Hitchcock has under his belt, I would highly suggest Rope be the one. The film contains that signature Alfred Hitchcock feel to it, and at the same time breaks ground in scene blocking, with coordination between the actors, and the camera.

Enemey

The Scholarly Filmmaker: Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. The added fact that he’s a Canadian director should be of special interest to anyone reading Film Army. Like a Canadian David Fincher with a twist of David Lynch in there for good measure, Villeneuve creates genre films that operate on dream logic, pulling the viewer into a strange world where individual actions take on gargantuan importance. He thrives on atmospheric displays of his craft. He loves sound design that encloses the film within a claustrophobic womb. He’s a director who’s able to make crowd pleasing genre fare without sacrificing his artistic inclinations. Frankly, he’s an inspiration to anyone wanting to direct movies in Canada.

Born in Gentilly, Quebec, Villeneuve began his career in the late 1980s directing short films and one television documentary. In 1990, he won Radio-Canada’s youth film competition, which encouraged him to continue his pursuit of professional filmmaking. After another pair of shorts in the early and mid-1990s, Villeneuve made his feature debut in 1998 with Un 32 août sur terre, a drama about a woman who survives a near-fatal car crash and decides to drastically change her life in the aftermath. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but garnered little attention.

In 2000, Villeneuve released Maelström, which brought him widespread attention in Canada and served as a true introduction to his personal obsessions and craft. It follows Bibi (Marie-Josée Croze), an entrepreneurial 25-year-old woman who kills an older man in a hit-and-run while drunk driving one evening. In the aftermath of the hit-and-run, Bibi finds herself drawn to the dead man’s life, and ends up falling in love with his estranged son who is unaware that she killed his father.

Maelström is a film full of suppressed emotions and bizarre imagery. The story is framed from the point of view of a hideous talking fish being butchered in a dilapidated dungeon. While the fish is cut up, it tells the story of Bibi, describing her experience killing the old man as a myth as old as time. In the context of the film, the frame narrative is troubling and grotesque. It seems to have no connection to Bibi’s story aside from the prevalence of Norwegian folklore in the narrative. However, with knowledge of Villeneuve’s later films, the importance of the frame story becomes more clear. It shows that Villeneuve’s films do not operate in a facsimile of the real world. They’re more mythic than realism. They’re interested in coincidence and fate, and how seemingly insignificant decisions have cosmic importance for the lives of the individuals they follow.

Maelström is interesting as an exploration of a self-destructive woman and how her sin leads to her redemption, but it’s essential for introducing us to Villeneuve’s mode of expression. It swept the Genie Awards in 2000, winning Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director for Villeneuve.

Villeneuve’s next two films would repeat his Genie Awards dominance, winning Best Picture and Director. In 2009 he made Polytechnique, a fictionalized recreation of the École polytechnique massacre from 1989, which left 14 women dead at the hands of a misogynistic mass shooter. Shot in black and white and following two students and the shooter, Polytechnique is the most starkly realistic of Villeneuve’s films, and thus, probably his least interesting despite its gut-level impact. The film plays largely as a docudrama. The events are unembellished. It avoids commentary on why the shooter did what he did, aside from showing his evident misogyny and rage. It’s admirable that Villeneuve doesn’t rely on half-baked sociological commentary when exploring the shooting, but his hands-off approach makes the film little more than a tribute to the victims. It’s a tense film, but not gripping in the way his less-literal films are.

Villeneuve followed up Polytechnique with Incendies in 2010. The film’s narrative is split between the past and present of the immigrant Marwan family investigating the truth of its history. In the present, we follow the eldest daughter (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) as she travels back to her mother’s homeland to fulfill her mother’s dying wish, and in flashbacks, we follow the mother (Lubna Azabal) as she tries to survive during a civil war. The plot description makes Incendies sound like a geopolitical thriller, but the film is actually much closer to a Greek tragedy. Villeneuve revels in the use of crosscutting between the past and present to reveal how the family is fated to misery. Once a final reveal is made in the film’s closing minutes, it’s clear that Incendies is something closer to Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) than an Asghar Farhadi film. Incendies proved to be a critical hit in Canada and abroad, gaining an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film and providing Villeneuve with the capital to transition to Hollywood with his next film, Prisoners (2013).

Ostentatiously, a kidnapping thriller following the father of a kidnapped girl (Hugh Jackman) and the cop investigating the kidnapping (Jake Gyllenhaal), Prisoners is impeccably made and far more troubling than the usual Hollywood thriller. It showcases Villeneuve’s seemingly effortless mastery of style. In one sequence, Gyllenhaal’s cop races against traffic on the way to the hospital while his vision fades from blood flooding his eye. As the car swerves back and forth on the road, Villeneuve constantly cuts to the dashboard view of the road, with red and yellow streetlights blending in soft focus to create a kaleidoscope on the screen. It’s a beautiful sequence that’s thrilling and more visually inventive than the majority of car chases in Hollywood movies.

However, as the film progresses, Prisoners reveals itself to be something more than just another dark thriller. It’s a film obsessed with notions of evil and how the human soul can be damaged through its pursuit of justice. Villeneuve sneaks in bizarre images amid the thrills, like a tangle of snakes on the floor of a home resembling the labyrinthine imagery of the film’s central mystery. Prisoners was a major success, both commercially and critically, assuring that Villeneuve will find other major Hollywood projects in the future.

Villeneuve made Prisoners back-to-back with likely his best film, the mind-bending Enemy (2014). Again starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the film follows a dour university professor who discovers his exact double working as an actor in Toronto. The two doubles meet, briefly explore how they can possibly be so identical, and start to realize how they can take sexual advantage of their identical appearances. The film is largely a genre exercise, revelling in its own internal logic while being impenetrable to explanation. But what an exercise!

The sound design keeps us enclosed in the film’s claustrophobic world that seems to consist of nothing more than university classrooms, dingy streets, and high-rise apartments. Villeneuve’s endless aerial shots of the high-rise buildings on Lakeshore West turn the city into an oppressive environment. He shoots the film through with piss-yellow cinematography that makes David Fincher’s obsession with tungsten hues seem restrained. There’s spider imagery throughout, including the sight of a naked woman with the head of a tarantula that would make David Lynch proud.

Enemy is proof that films operate like dreams. They pull you into their world through their resemblance to our own lives before taking us down the rabbit hole of their own invention. Villeneuve purportedly has a secret meaning to all the inexplicable moments in the film, but Enemy doesn’t need explanations to succeed. It thrives off the inexplicable, off the power that a striking image can have on the human mind, not the rational meaning of that image. It’s a true mind-bender and displays Villeneuve’s immense talent to provoke the viewer and create an insidious film atmosphere.

Denis Villeneuve’s films are some of Canada’s best. They’re full of precise storytelling and stunning imagery. He’s a filmmaker who wisely understands that film can tap into something primordial in the human brain and that art operates on something deeper than logic. He can make genre films that operate like art films and dramas that are stranger than avant-garde experiments. He’s a successful filmmaker but you could never accuse him of diluting his film’s meaning for the sake of their commercial prospects. He’s the kind of filmmaker that every Canadian ought to strive to be.

johnny test

Standing the Johnny Test of Time

Did you ever experiment on your siblings? Did you ever make random potions and give them to your little brother? Did you?! Well I did. I totally relate to Johnny Test. What else are siblings for if not experimenting on?

Johnny Test is the sometimes-willing victim of his twin sisters, Susan and Mary, and their experiments.

Show Specs
Target demographic: Ages 6-13
Length: 11-minute segments
Genre: Comedy/Adventure
Style: 2D animated
Production Companies:  Warner Bros. Animation (1st season) DHX Media (2nd to 5th seasons), Cookie Jar Entertainment (6th to current)
Networks:  Kids’ WB, Cartoon Network, Teletoon Canada
First aired: Sept 2005
Seasons: 7 (wow!)
Created and Exec. Produced by:  Scott Fellows

While six out of the seven seasons of the show was/is produced by Canada in Toronto, Scott Fellows is an American television writer and producer. Fellows also created Nickelodeon’s live action Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide and Big Time Rush. He is also the head writer of The Fairly OddParents.

Johnny Test (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) is the wide-eyed, disrespectful, trouble making 11-year-old who acts as a test subject for his sisters. Sometimes they blackmail him; sometimes they cater to his dreams of becoming supernatural.

Susan and Mary (voiced by Maryke Hendrikse and Brittney Wilson) are Johnny’s identical twin sisters who use him as their lab rat. However, Johnny takes advantage of them when they become distracted by the hunky teenager, Gil, next door.

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These two are based on Fellows’ two sisters who are also named Susan and Mary. Building characters can be easier if you base it on people you know. Whether it be a mannerism, choice of diction, expression or weird train of thought. (The same goes for doing improv, acting or animating.)

Dukey (voiced by Louis Chirillo and later Trevor Devall) Johnny’s talking dog. He is a product of Susan and Mary’s experiments. He acts like a human when their parents aren’t around as they have been forbidden from DNA testing.  As Johnny’s best friend, he is always up for an adventure.

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From what I have heard, production companies are not looking to have new shows with this trope. “A boy and his dog “(or when a dog is the secondary or another somewhat major character) has become a common theme over the past several years. Easy kid’s TV examples being: Blues Clues, Scooby-Doo, The Ren and Stimpy Show, Adventure Time, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and T.U.F.F. Puppy.

Along with this theme, this show covers two other main TV tropes: mad scientist, and hiding from parents.

Mad Scientist (or inventor) and hiding from parents often goes hand in hand (like in the case of Phineas and Ferb).

  • This never gets old for me.
  • Leaves so much room the imagination.
  • Writing-wise you can’t go wrong as long as you justify it (that being something along the lines of, “I need this ridiculous thing for this absurd idea.”)

Hiding from Parents (fear of getting caught)

  • Adds to urgency: “Oh no! Things need to be put back before mom/dad see this!”
  • Entertaining when the parents are oblivious (just like in Phineas and Ferb).
  • I like that this show switches it up from the stereotypical mother/father roles, the stay at home dad is the one that the Test siblings hide from whereas their workaholic mother is more or less oblivious.

Even though this show has been on hiatus from year to year, it’s obvious that this show has stood the test of time – or should I say Johnny Test of time! I think you all now know that I’m a huge fan of puns…