Thursday, June 6, 2013

Creating a new blog

Marilyn Monroe
Hey everyone!

I'm currently working on a brand new blog that will focus primarily on classic film and film book reviews. I plan on pulling classic film content I currently have existing on this site and bring it over to my new one, along with creating new content along the way.

I'm really excited about this new project.

As much as I enjoy reviewing the latest movies in theatres, I find my real passion lies with classic film and I think that creating a new blog that focuses solely on movies prior to 1975 will enable me to watch even more of the stuff that I'm truly interested in.

I've had this little blog since 2009 and some of you have been following me for all four years that I've had this thing up and running -- which I greatly, greatly appreciate.

I'll keep you posted on the launch of my new blog. In the meantime, it's unlikely that I will be updating this one anymore. My energy will be focused solely on the new blog and deciding which content to bring over from here.

However, I'm currently a twice-weekly contributor at Pretty Clever Films and an occasional volunteer film critic at Next Projection. So I may bump into you over there!

I will still continue to keep myself updated on everything the rest of you are writing about and I look forward to catching up again in the near future!

Thanks again, everyone!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine
Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Zoe Saldana

Back in 2009, J.J. Abrams (aka. the current Master of Geek Pop Culture) reinvigorated a once-tired franchise with a cast of relative unknowns. A risky venture, to be sure, but new audiences and long-time fans benefited greatly. Like The Dark Knight before it, Star Trek is considered a prime example of how to rebrand a flagging franchise, injecting new life into something that had grown stale over the years.

Now, four years after his first foray into deep space became a box office smash, Abrams once again returns to the Star Trek universe as producer/director.

Abrams, with the help of new head writer Damon Lindelof, continues to tweak the Star Trek canon, yet still manages to appease both the majority of diehard fans and newcomers to the series. And, while Star Trek Into Darkness lacks the excitement and freshness of its predecessor, it's still the type of rousing blockbuster you look for around this time of year.

The latest installment is set approximately one year after the events of the first film. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is tenuously hanging onto his control of the USS Enterprise after angering his higher ups during a botched mission on a primitive planet. However, Admiral Marcus (the overly campy Peter Weller) is willing to brush off Kirk's rookie errors when a new threat reveals itself in the form of embittered former Starfleet crewman, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison's attacks are grand in scale, meant to draw attention to his true motivations -- all of which is gradually revealed as the film progresses (although, as is so often the case with blockbuster super-villains, his plan is elaborately and unnecessarily complex). With Spock (Zachary Quinto) by Kirk's side, as his usual logical and truthful self, the young captain gathers together his crew and sets out to eliminate this latest universal threat.

There's some interesting commentary on terrorism and the use of weaponry to achieve a certain outcome brimming just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, the script only lightly touches on these themes and, while Kirk and Spock occasionally spar over codes of ethics and the role of vengeance, their conversations quickly dissolve into yet another CGI-laden action sequence. But, in the end, isn't that all we really want?

Just as was the case with the first film, Into Darkness boasts an entertaining and likeable cast. All returning characters are on top of their game, including the disappointingly underused Dr. "Bones" McCoy. How Karl Urban manages to make his incarnation so memorable despite very little screentime is a credit to his comedic chops. The rest of the cast from Zoe Saldana's Uhura to John Cho's Sulu make due with significantly reduced screentime.
Benedict Cumberbatch

It's Kirk and Spock, and their complex relationship, that is the heart at the centre of Into Darkness. Quinto, in particular, has really matured into the role, ably conveying Spock's conflicting nature -- does he give in to his human side and reveal his true emotions or does he remain the stoic Vulcan that everyone (sometimes grudgingly) respects? It's ultimately his friendship with Kirk that leaves Spock grappling with how to react to the chain of events occurring around him, and audiences will appreciate his blossoming relationship with Kirk. Pine, although not as strong an actor as Quinto or even Cumberbatch (more on him in a minute), embodies the role of Kirk with a balance of gusto and arrogance. While he's still quick with a one-liner, his Kirk has evolved from the pretty, swaggering playboy he portrayed in the first film. He's more world-weary, with the weight of his new role as captain resting heavily on his shoulders.

As John Harrison, Cumberbatch uses his British baritone to full effect, slowly spitting out his evil intentions with a snarl and a gleam in his eye. A talented actor, Cumberbatch clearly relishes his new role as a villain after two seasons as the anti-social anti-hero on the wildly successful BBC series, Sherlock. Yet, despite Cumberbatch's best efforts, Harrison doesn't quite live up expectations. Perhaps its the dedicated fanbase that built up anticipation around Cumberbatch or the months of speculation as to his characters' true identity, but John Harrison isn't given enough screentime to completely solidify him as one of the greatest threats the crew of the Enterprise ever faced.

That being said, Star Trek Into Darkness boasts a dazzling array of CGI battles and chases, which should serve to satisfy most moviegoers. It's a fast, entertaining adventure. It's just a shame that the final script is somewhat of a muddled puzzle in spots. 


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: Songs My Mother Taught Me

"I can draw no conclusions from my life because it is a continually evolving and unfolding process." 
- Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me

It seems strange that, back in 1994, Marlon Brando agreed to reconstruct his own life into book form (albeit co-written by New York Times columnist Robert Lindsey). Seventy years old at the time it was published, Brando only agreed to the project if he was excused from making any mention of his three former wives or 10 children -- he was adamant that the privacy and protection of his loved ones remain intact. As a result, Songs My Mother Taught Me is the rare celebrity autobiography that doesn't make detailed mentions of torrid romances or resort to name-dropping.

The famously private and reclusive actor often shied away from the spotlight, preferring to wile away his hours on Teti'aroa, his private Tahitian island, or within the confines of his gated Hollywood mansion -- unless, that is, it concerned his political beliefs or a group of people he believed needed to be defended in public.

In the introduction of his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando makes a point of stating his real reason for agreeing to the book (published by Random House): he wanted the profits to go towards one of the numerous causes close to his heart, namely the American Indian Movement (AIM). Brando wanted to use his celebrity for good -- and made sure his readers were aware of that fact.

It's hard to envision someone like Brando sitting at a computer, typing away his many adventures and misadventures. For anyone who has followed the actor's career closely, it just doesn't seem like his style. Although Brando never admits it, I find it likely that he related his stories to Lindsey orally, while the journalist culled together a cohesive narrative from his various anecdotes. The end result is an often compelling, sometimes frustratingly vague, account of a life that involved a broken home, a career in film, multiple failed marriages and a passion for political causes -- including a (controversial) stint with the Black Panther Party.

I was initially skeptical about Brando's sincerity when, early on in the book, he starts casually brushing off the accolades he received over the years as an actor -- or when he claims that men like Shakespeare and Beethoven were true artists, unlike actors who mug for the cameras for money and business tactics. Yes, Hollywood is a business. However, I find it hard to believe that Brando can be so flippant about how he made his bread and butter considering he quite often took acting very, very seriously -- by introducing the Method to North America (with the help of the legendary Stella Adler) and virtually disappearing into roles like Terry Malloy and Vito Corleone.

However, as you get further into Songs you begin to realize that Brando remained true to his word -- he says very little about Hollywood, instead focusing on his later years on Teti'aroa, his role with the American Indian Movement and his musings on the Vietnam War. It takes the reader about 50 pages to understand where Brando's true interests and passions lie -- and that his seemingly false modesty is really a form of brutal honesty. He truly appreciates that he was able to make a lot of money in his chosen profession, yet he always made the conscience decision not to let it rule his life.

In Songs Brando is at his most candid when talking about himself -- he openly displays both his inflated ego and the events that have left him humbled.

Brando with his biggest fan, James Dean.
And while Brando takes the high road when it comes to discussing intimate family and friends by refusing to even mention them by name out of respect for their privacy (a classy move reminiscent of loyal Hollywood friend Elizabeth Taylor), he does offer tantalizing tidbits on legends like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

He acknowledges Dean's borderline-obsessive fascination with him and his acting abilities. Brando admits to being uncomfortable at Dean's middle-of-the-night phone calls and his constant mimicking of Brando's lifestyle. 

On Dean: "He was tortured by his insecurities, the origin of which I never determined... once he showed up at a party and I saw him take off his jacket, roll it into a ball and throw it on the floor. It struck me that he was imitating something I had done..." (p. 224).

Brando reveals very little about conversations that took place between him and Dean. He alludes to one particular late night chat that revealed much about Dean's personality, but pulls back from sharing too much. Whatever was said between the two, Brando took it with him to the grave. He was true to his word about not revealing salacious details about family and colleagues, even the ones as long-deceased as Dean.

He offers even less information about his brief romance and friendship with Monroe, saying only that he was one of the last people to talk to her before she died in 1962 and that he firmly believes she was murdered -- stopping just short of directly pointing his finger at the Kennedy clan.

Songs is somewhat chronological, but it's mostly a narrative of loose thoughts stitched together. What I didn't expect was how much Brando would reveal about his political colours and how willing he was to open up about a childhood spent with alcoholic parents. His memories from his youth are particularly compelling as they are random snippets of childhood, both beautiful and sad, that feel so genuine and relatable.

On his mother: "My mother was always unconventional. Sometimes when it rained, she wore a shopping bag over her head with a little visor she had torn at the corners; it was absurd, but she thought it was funny. I was always embarrassed by it, though if she did it today, I'd be gasping with laughter." (pp. 4-5).

In the end, Brando's autobiography is not your traditional celebrity tell-all. There are many questions left unanswered, specifically when related to his career and personal relationships. But he more than makes up for the gaping holes by taking genuine pleasure in sharing with readers his love for Tahitian culture, his passion for the American Indian Movement and his affection for his (long deceased) pet raccoon.

What you walk away with after reading Songs My Mother Taught Me is the sense that Brando, despite all his wealth and talent, really was just an average boy from Omaha, Nebraska who tried to lead a good life, yet made many very human mistakes along the way. He doesn't hide behind his errors in judgment (like the time early in his career when he slept with one of his stalkers) nor does he apologize for the person he is, and that just makes him so normal -- and it's also what makes his autobiography so refreshing to read.

NOTE: Songs My Mother Taught Me is now out of print. I purchased my copy at a Toronto film memorabilia store, The Hollywood Canteen. You can also buy it from sellers on Amazon.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Classic Film Review: Meet Me In St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien and Mary Astor

Meet Me in St. Louis -- one of those big, bold musicals from MGM that, to this day, remain a classic example of how to incorporate song and dance when weaving together a story.

The picture itself is a slice of life -- one year in the life, to be exact, of the Smith family (the last name chosen, presumably, to imply normalcy. This is your everyday, average, relatable family).

For the Smith clan, music is a part of everyday life. When someone breaks into song, they are actually doing it -- and everyone either gathers around to listen or joins in with their own lyrics. Unlike some musicals, where the songs are simply an expression of emotion that doesn't necessarily mean the characters are actually singing within the context of the narrative, the Smith's in Meet Me in St. Louis are similar to the von Trapps in The Sound of Music -- all aspects of life, whether good or bad, are worth singing about. And isn't life just grand?

The opening number, named after the film's title, starts with the sounds of a little girl humming as she walks upstairs in preparation for her afternoon bath. When she eventually breaks into song, her Grandpa chims in, before the song carries out the front window and continues with Judy Garland pulling up to the house in horse and buggy.

Set in 1903, the narrative follows the highs and lows of the Smith family -- from falling in love, to dangerous Halloween stunts to Christmas miracles. The simplicity of the story is ultimately made extraordinary by its catchy musical numbers. And, really, can anyone else sing like the legendary Judy Garland?

As Esther Smith, second eldest daughter to Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor), Garland is a revelation. Not only does her voice carry the emotional weight necessary for the role, but her natural interactions with her co-stars make you forget you are watching a big star and not just some regular girl from down the street. And that's a high compliment.

Whether she's longingly singing about her (at first) unrequited love for John Truett (Tom Drake) in "The Boy Next Door" or simply horsing around with her sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and little Tootie (the always adorable Margaret O'Brien), Garland infuses each scene with her contagious energy and charisma. You can't create that kind of natural talent and Garland has it in spades.

Margaret O'Brien (left) and Judy Garland
Meet Me in St. Louis is the rare female-centric musical where the boys are secondary and take a backseat to sisterly bonds and rebellious feminine spirit. In Hollywood, where male characters tend to be more well written than females (a problem we still see to this day), it's refreshing to see John, the main romantic lead, come off as an underdeveloped drip in comparison to Esther and the other lady Smiths. And even though Esther pines over John (although we are never quite sure what she sees in him), she makes him really work for her affection, even taking a bite out of his arm in anger at one point.

The songs are all upbeat and catchy -- specifically "The Trolley Song" -- and director Vincente Minnelli expertly lenses all the beautiful costumes and choreography. It's one of the most strikingly vivid films you are likely to see.

However, much of the pleasure viewers will derive from Meet Me in St. Louis is its charming central family. One scene, early on, subtly provides insight into their familial closeness when the entire Smith clan tries to calmly eat dinner even though they know full-well that Rose is expecting a long-distance phone call from a male admirer who may or may not propose to her (and on the newest advancement in technology, to boot!). Their excited and nervous energy around the dinner table -- and their honest-to-goodness happiness when the young suitor finally phones Rose -- illustrates that bond with very little fuss.

It's this attention to the little details where Minnelli excels. It's all about the small moments in life and Minnelli takes great care to illustrate the love that binds the Smith's together. Regardless of what is happening in the great world outside their borders, their relationships, built on solid foundation, is what keeps them going everyday.

As Tootie remarks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favourite city?"

That kind of innocence and the pleasure the Smith's take in their safe little existence provides this rousing musical with a beating heart at its core.


Monday, April 8, 2013

Classic Film Review: Julia Misbehaves

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor

It was the rare Hollywood film that featured a female lead that abandoned her husband and baby to pursue a career as a music hall performer. But thus is the premise of the MGM comedy, Julia Misbehaves.

After completing a series heavy dramas, British star Greer Garson turned her talents to performing in a light comedy -- one that sees her sing, dance and throw around zingers like the best in the business.

Julia Packett (Garson) hasn't seen her estranged husband (Walter Pidgeon) or daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor, only 16 years old at the time) in nearly 20 years. While William raises Susan in Paris as a single parent, Julia traipses around the world, basking in the glow of the spotlight and her most ardent fans. When she unexpectedly receives an invitation to her daughter's impending nuptials, Julia is both shocked and touched by this act of kindness and familiarity. As she barters her way to secure passage on a steerage ship -- and vows to win enough money gambling to buy Susan Christmas presents for every year that she's missed since her birth -- Julia finds herself firmly embedded in everyone's lives the minute she lands in Paris. Her constant meddling leaves William on the verge of madness, especially when Julia gently nudges Susan away from her betrothed and into the direction of Ritchie (Peter Lawford), a young artist who not-so-secretly pines over Susan. And, despite her brash nature and matchmaking schemes, William can't help but fall back in love with the woman who left him all those years ago.

Julia Misbehaves is part screwball comedy and part family drama, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. It's the type of crowd-pleasing concoction that made MGM a household name. Although the audience knows that the film will inevitably have a happy ending -- not only for Julia and William but Susan and Ritchie, as well -- you take pleasure in watching all the loose threads come together.
(Left to right): Lawford, Taylor, Pidgeon and Garson.
Garson, in particular, exhibits an innate ability to convey a multitude of emotions in a single glance. Witness her fragility in the scene where she is reunited with Susan for the first time since the girl was a newborn baby. Swathed in a white dress, Julia has abandoned any semblence to her former life as an entertainer. And, despite the fact that she ran off all those years ago, a natural maternal instinct kicks into gear when she locks eyes with Susan and she can't help but reach out to the young woman and desire a close mother-daughter bond.

And while it takes nearly 45 minutes before Garson and Pidgeon unite on screen, watching them navigate through the awkwardness of being married to a complete stranger is a delight to watch. Their relationship -- what little of it once existed -- is gradually revealed through their blossoming friendship. When Julia and William sing together at the piano it's as though they haven't spent nearly 20 years apart.

And while you watch the film for Garson and Pidgeon, you also stay for Taylor and Lawford. With two romantic plotlines, Julia Misbehaves nearly topples under the weight of too many story threads and stolen glances, but it's a joy to watch four young actors pair off and fall in love. And kudos to whoever crafted the idea that Ritchie take Susan on a picnic and lure a bear to follow them so that he can act the part as her saviour and protector. That's a new one! And Taylor and Lawford are charming in the scene.

In the end, Julia Misbehaves suffers from a meandering script (with multiple plotlines that involve a fake fiance for Julia, an extended stage sequence that drags on for far too long and a couple of false endings), yet manages to stay afloat thanks in large part to Garson and her charming costars.

A fun, if unremarkable, little comedy.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Celebrity Birthday: Marlon Brando (1924-2004)

"To the end of his life, Marlon Brando insisted that he had done nothing special. In his view acting was a trade like plumbing or baking. The only difference was that he played characters instead of unclogging drains or kneading loaves of bread. This was not false modesty; he believed what he said. But what he believed was untrue."
~Stefan Kanfer (opening passage from Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando)

Today would have marked Marlon Brando's 89th birthday. And, in my biased opinion, he was the greatest film actor. Ever. And that warrants a blog post, me thinks.

Unfortunately, for a large handful of people, Brando has been reduced to a mumbling, fumbling actor whose eventual reclusive lifestyle resulted in a variety of perceived eccentricities and ballooning weight gain. And, yes, while Brando wasn't your average film star, he deserves more credit than he is often given by newer generations just discovering his work for the first time.

As I wrote last year: after reading Stefan Kanfer's biography in 2008, I realized that Brando was so much more interesting than even his craziest character incarnations. He used the Method when performing, well before it was mainstream. He was an activist at heart, battling racial segregation in America in the 1960s and providing a public voice for struggling First Nations actors. He remained loyal to family and friends who stuck by him through thick and thin, including maintaining long-term friendships with neighbours Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson. He had plenty of Hollywood rivals, including an ongoing feud with Frank Sinatra. He had volatile relationships with women, marrying three times and fathering (at least) 10 children. He never abused drugs or alcohol, yet often fell prey to his weakness for food.

Brando's autobiography amongst my other loot.
Last week, I finally managed to track down a copy of his out-of-print autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, and I look forward to reading about his life from his own perspective.

(FYI, for all you Toronto readers: Check out The Hollywood Canteen near Honest Ed's for rare, hard-to-track-down film collectibles. It's where I was finally able to locate a copy of his autobiography).

While Brando may not have the enduring iconic status of Marilyn Monroe (a former lover) or the near-rabid fanbase of James Dean, the mark he left on cinema has its own special lasting effect. While Monroe and Dean were both talented, beautiful performers, neither could inhibit a role quite so effortlessly as Brando.

Without Brando there would be no Robert DeNiro (well, 70s-era Robert DeNiro anyway) or Daniel Day-Lewis. He continues to inspire and influence -- often imitated but never duplicated. And that, in part, is the sign of a true talent.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Classic Film Review: Desire Me

Desire Me (1947)
Directed by: No director's credit
Starring: Greer Garson, Richard Hart and Robert Mitchum

It's pretty safe to say that, well before the end of production on Desire Me, no one wanted to have anything to do with this oft-overlooked picture.

The specialty channel TCM aired the film last week, with host Robert Osborne detailing the multiple cast changes, script rewrites and revolving door of high-profile directors that all culminated in the film's ultimate plummet at the box office. Few remember the film today. This is not the picture that Greer Garson or Robert Mitchum are remembered for, thankfully.

In fact, the most intriguing thing about Desire Me is the fact that it was the first MGM film to be released without a director's name attached. Jack Conway, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy and Victor Saville all took a stab at helming the project, but ultimately left for a myriad of reasons -- namely the lack of artistic freedom and Garson's allegedly difficult personality on set.

It was LeRoy who finished the picture in the end, however, none of the directors wanted their names attached to the film so the studio went ahead and released it without crediting anyone.

Desire Me begins with an isolated house set upon the cliffs in Brittany. With a setting more suited to a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, we discover that it belongs to Marise Aubert (Garson), a woman who is led to believe that her husband, Paul (Mitchum), has died in the field during the Second World War. When a man appears by the name of Jean Renaud (Richard Hart) he claims that he was her husband's closest companion during the war and that he witnessed Paul's death. Marise finds herself drawn to this personable stranger and sets out to lead a life with him as though he were a replacement for her dead husband. Marise and Jean's friendship is frowned upon by the gossipy villagers -- how could two unmarried strangers live together under one roof? As we learn via flashback, Jean is more than content with this living situation, having fallen in love with Marise based on a photo of her and Paul's stories about his loving wife.

As Jean himself claims in one particularly eerie moment: "I wanted to know what it was like to come home to my own house. My own wife."
Garson and Mitchum

While the audience has their guard up and can sense the emotional instability of Jean, he gradually crosses the line from lonely to creepy, with Marise a little slow on the uptake.

The acting, disappointingly, isn't particularly note-worthy. We've all seen Garson and Mitchum in far more engrossing and challenging roles. Granted, both are gifted actors and make due with what little is given to them in the script -- but it just isn't enough to truly rise above the material. Buried deep beneath this half-wartime love story, half-psychological thriller, Desire Me has a better movie waiting to come out.

The cinematography from Joseph Ruttenberg is gorgeous, lending the film a foreboding sense of danger through his keen eye. His visuals, combined with a lack of soundtrack in the climactic finale, briefly helps Desire Me rise above its scattered script. Eyes meeting through the mist, voices echoing along the cliffs, gunshots ringing out in the night, Ruttenberg's work is stunning. His cinematography allows for a sense of consistency in a film that is a narrative mess.

Desire Me is one of those forgotten classic films that you catch on TV late one night and are reminded as to why it has been forgotten in the first place. While there are stylistic elements that are certainly impressive, Desire Me will ultimately leave you cold.