Monday, May 31, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 4


THE JANE AUSTEN EFFECT: A boy and a girl, perfect for one another (naturally), initially dislike one another because they have incorrect information about each other that affects their overall opinions. The audience knows that it's only a matter of time before the two will realize they are perfect for one another and fall in love once the air has been cleared and miscommunications are revealed in a flurry of relieved laughter.

I tend to avoid romantic comedies at all costs. When I say "romantic comedy", I'm not referring to  films of the genre that attempt to be unique and actually have something to say about relationships. For example, two superior romantic comedy films are Lost in Translation and, more recently, (500) Days of Summer.

The ones I'm referring to (the ones I will always avoid like a plague) feature the likes of Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Katherine Heigl, et al.

I don't usually like to have a prejudice against a certain genre of film, however, I usually feel I'm justified in wanting to see something other than frivolous fluff which solely focuses on women who just want to get married and compete with one another and men who are far too good to be true. Those films tend to feature the aforementioned actresses (and I use that term very loosely).

How is a Jane Austen ending (complete with a wedding or an engagement) any different from a film like Bride Wars, where Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway will stop at nothing to have a bigger and better wedding than the other, sanity and feminism be damned? As it turns out, there are significant differences.

Austen wrote biting social commentary with a touch of realism, and she dressed it up as romance. She covers the everyday banalities the women of her time experienced. Her novels are pivotal to anyone studying that particular era of British history, where women stayed home waiting to be courted and men came in and out of their lives in between stops to British colonies around the globe.

Austen's heroines are always aware of how ridiculous everything is around them and they tend to shy away from falling into the same traps other women do, regarding men and their station in society. This being late-eighteenth century literature, their reward (for lack of a better word) is a man who actually embraces the quirky, stubborn and spirited person that they are, no questions asked.

These are not light and airy women, these Austen heroines. They revolt against conformity and, despite the conventional endings involving big and extravagant weddings, the reader (or viewer) never forgets that the heroine, whether it be an Elizabeth Bennet or an Emma Woodhouse, retained her identity during a time where it was easier for a woman to hide behind a curtain or her husband's shadow.

Because, deep down, I do love a good romance. I love high drama and misunderstood feelings; a soap opera atmosphere dressed up in sexy historical costumes and English accents. I love that Austen's women are unique, even from one another. They are always complex, educated and headstrong women and, unlike some of the degrading romantic comedies that are thrown at women these days, they don't have to sacrifice their identity.

I love a good love story as much as the next woman, I just prefer to see my women paired up with a man who is their male counterpart and doesn't treat them as a commodity or sex object. Call me crazy, but I love my mushy Austen endings for all their drama and tears. It's satisfying knowing those heroines wound up with great guys without losing themselves in the process.

TOP: Sense and Sensibility (1995, Alan Rickman & Kate Winslet)
MIDDLE: Emma (1996, Gwyneth Paltrow & Jeremy Northam)
BOTTOM: Pride & Prejudice (1995, Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Classic Film Review: The Last Picture Show (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Peter Bogdanovich
STARRING: Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson and Ellen Burstyn

"I guess if it wasn't for Sam, I'd have missed it, whatever it is. I'd have been one of them amity types that thinks that playin' bridge is about the best thing that life has to offer." 
~Lois Farrow (Ellen Burstyn)~

There are few towns in the world that are smaller than Anarene, Texas. Set in 1952, a time of gender inequality and sexual repression, The Last Picture Show revolves around the growing pains of high school football captain, Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms). Sonny is attracted to Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd, in her film debut), the girlfriend of his best friend, Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges). Though unsuccessful in most of his relationships, Sonny strikes up a spontaneous affair with the lonely wife of his football coach, Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman). This slice-of-life film is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Larry McMurty, and it traces Sonny's tumultuous relationships with all of these different characters during a few short months in the town of Anarene.  

As a fan of Larry McMurtry (his Lonesome Dove being one of the greatest novels ever written), I'd been curious about this film for a few years now, however, I never got the chance to see it until recently. McMurtry, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bogdanovich, has the ability to create wonderfully flawed human beings who lead regular, if not outright boring, lives. The things that happen to his characters are situations that could happen to anyone. McMurtry does not shy away from the prospect of his audience disliking some, if not all, of his characters at some point in the course of his novels. It's part of what makes his storytelling so compelling. The Last Picture Show is no different.

The decision to film it in black and white only serves to amplify the bleak and melancholy atmosphere that hangs over the action onscreen. The Last Picture Show is a frank look at sexuality in a small town where everyone knows each other's business. 

The performances are all subtle, understated and add to the unique qualities of its characters. As Sonny, Timothy Bottoms never fails to gain the viewers sympathy, despite his mistakes, as he moves from relationship to relationship as each one breaks down. Little is known about Sonny's past or his family life, yet Bottom manages to portray Sonny as both a confused, listless teenager and a young man slowly coming to terms with what he wants from life. It's easy to understand why he would be drawn to Ruth Popper, a woman who is more than twenty years older, yet just as lonely and longing for companionship. It's not so much sexual chemistry they share, but a mutual sadness and desire for something more than their little town can offer.

As Ruth, the unhappy wife of the town's football coach, Cloris Leachman is the standout in an already stellar cast. The winner of Best Supporting Actress for her performance, Leachman instills Ruth with the range of mixed emotions a woman in her situation would feel. She never goes over the top and gives a beautifully realized performance of a woman looking for a human connection. 

Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Ellen Burstyn are also at the top of their game, although Ben Johnson, like Leachman, is a standout in a strong cast. The winner of Best Supporting Actor for his performance, Johnson plays Sam the Lion; Anarene's longtime resident and its heart and soul. When he gives his climactic speech to Sonny about the love he lost in his youth, you can't help but realize that he represents (and carries) the melancholy and regret of the entire town. 

The films trajectory is interesting as it matures at the same point that Sonny does. The first half is all hormonal teenage angst, before gradually gaining an almost resigned adult air. The film moves past the sexual content leaving its rash teenage notions aside for its more adult consequences. 

This bleak coming-of-age film is also a love letter to film, in general. The title refers to the small town's rapidly declining interest in film. Sam the Lion runs the Royal, the only theatre in town. However, with the advent of the television, the people of Anarene scarcely attend the Royal anymore; they have better things they could be watching in the comfort of their own home. With little profits, the theatre cannot survive. The last picture show screened at the Royal is Tom Ford's 1948 classic, Red River, with its climactic scene of hollering cowboys who are leaving town for a cattle run. Like the cowboys in the film, Sonny and Duane are moving on.

Though not a perfect film, The Last Picture Show has characters and an overall effect that lingers. Like many of McMurtry's novels, you find yourself drawn into this strange little world of quirky, isolated people without fully understanding why: you just know that you want to learn more about the people and their story.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 3


Written and Directed By: Stephan Elliot
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce

Two drag queens and a transsexual travel across the Australian Outback in order to perform a show at a prestigious resort in a small town. Leaving Sydney behind, Tick/Mitzi (Hugo Weaving), Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) decide to travel in a beat-up old lavender-coloured bus they christen Priscilla. Along the way they make new friends, enemies and learn to get along with one another in time to perform their big show.

It's campy fun. It's also the only time where I approve of the use of songs by Abba. I'd always been curious about the film but never got around to actually watching it in its entirety. I expected it to be mildly entertaining, at the very least. What I didn't expect was to love every minute of it, from start to finish. It's certainly deserving of its massive cult following.

At times both funny and heartbreaking, all three characters break away from drag queen stereotypes to become real people with ambitions, personal issues and families of their own to take care of. Stephan Elliot's excellent script is made even better by his three lead actors; all of whom turn their characters into genuine people. Hugo Weaving portrays Tick as a sensitive bundle of nerves whose sole focus is the show and the secret he's protecting from the other two. Guy Pearce is campy fun as Adam, a drama queen who loves being noticed but has a softer side when the time calls for it. Terence Stamp gives the strongest performance in a role that seemed to be written for his dry wit (he should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year). Stamp infuses Bernadette with an almost motherly authority, while still having a dark sense of humour and an appetite for performing. Stamp's Bernadette is the heart and soul of the film.

The costumes and make-up are gorgeous, the song and dance numbers excellent and if the cinematography doesn't make you want to catch the next plane out to Australia, than I don't know what will. The film manages to be quintessentially Australian in its portrayal of their culture while allowing audiences from around the world to embrace its themes of equality, perseverance and friendship.

This film goes above and beyond what you'd normally expect from a film about a drag act. It moves past tired stereotypes and develops a coherent script that ha humour, heartbreak and is full of heart.

TOP: Terence Stamp as Bernadette
MIDDLE: Guy Pearce as Tick/Mitzi
BOTTOM: Guy Pearce as Adam/Felicia

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 2

I'm on vacation in Hawaii at the moment so this 30 Day Movie Meme I've started will take well over thirty days to complete. Such is life. ;)

30 Day Movie Meme

BRAVEHEART (USA/United Kingdom, 1995)
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Angus Macfadyen and Sophie Marceau

The film takes a mostly mythological look at the rise of Scottish rebel William Wallace (Mel Gibson), who has lost his father, brother and young wife to brutal English soldiers during the reign of King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) in the thirteenth century.

With the help of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), the heir to the Scottish throne, Wallace raises an army of Scotsmen willing to fight to the death in the hopes of seeing Scotland become it's own independent nation; separate from England. 

This may seem like a curious choice to consider an underrated film. Granted, it was popular when it was first released. It went on to win Best Picture and Best Director at the 1995 Academy Awards. Like most films that win the top two awards of any given year, there was backlash. Now, with Gibson's current unpopularity due to his drunken outbursts, people seem to have turned their backs on anything he's ever done.

While I don't support Gibson's hate-filled rampages, I do love this film, in particular. Even if Gibson were still as popular as he was in the 1980's and 1990's, I still think this film would have received a bit of backlash. People criticized its historical inaccuracies, however, I defy anyone to name one Hollywood historical epic that has been 100% faithful to historical fact. I was a history major in university, yet I understand why writers change fact into fiction for the sake a solid and entertaining screenplay. There were others who claimed it was nothing but gratuitous violence. Well, it's set during a violent time.

Why do I love it so? It's my favourite historical epic. Period. It's everything a film audience could want: great storytelling, solid acting, stirring speeches, a love story, an inspirational protagonist and epic battles. Is it a flawed film? Yes. However, I don't think it deserves the hate-fest it receives sometimes from critics and film fans alike. 

Like King Arthur, William Wallace is a historical figure shrouded in mystery; his legend is mostly myth. Yet Braveheart, with a nearly three hour running time, manages to take the most fascinating bits and weave them into a rousing epic. The film isn't trying to answer the question: who was William Wallace? It's simply reminding us that someone that influential once existed. It's an emotional, powerful and beautiful film with one hell of an ending.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 1

I found this meme floating around and it looked like an interesting challenge to only make one choice for each topic.

Day 2- A film that is underrated
Day 3- A film that brings you unadulterated happiness
Day 4- A film cliche that you love
Day5-  Favourite love story in a film
Day 6- Favourite actor/actress
Day 7- The most surprising plot twist/ending
Day 8- The best opening/closing credits
Day 9- The best soundtrack/score to a film
Day 10- Favourite classic film
Day 11- Favourite black and white film
Day 12- A film that permanently altered your point-of-view
Day 13- A guilty pleasure...
Day 14- A film that you used to love but now hate
Day 15- Favourite film sequel
Day 16- Favourite film character
Day 17- Favourite film quote
Day 18- The best overall cast in a film
Day 19- The most hilarious film you've seen
Day 20- A moving (emotional) scene
Day 21- Favourite film from your favourite actor/actress
Day 22- Favourite Academy Award acceptance speech
Day 23- A character you can relate to the most
Day 24- The best page-to-screen adaptation
Day 25- Favourite film villain
Day 26- Favourite film poster
Day 27- A film you wish you had seen in theatres
Day 28- Favourite film from your favourite director
Day 29- A piece of trivia from your favourite film
Day 30- Your favourite film of all time

BICYCLE THIEVES/Ladri di biciclette (Italy, 1948)
Written and Directed By: Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola

Antonio Ricci is an unemployed father struggling to provide for his family in post-Second World War Italy. He must support his wife and two young children in a tough economy. Antonio has access to a steady job putting up posters around Rome, so long as he has daily access to a bicycle.

His ragged bicycle is inevitably stolen right from under his nose and Antonio spends the rest of the film with his young son, Bruno, searching the streets for the thief who has stolen the only means with which he has to make money for his poverty-stricken family.

Director De Sica wanted to give the film an authentically raw and gritty quality. Bicycle Thieves is now considered one of the most famous Italian neo-realist films of all time. The entire film was shot on location in Rome and De Sica didn't use any professional actors in the roles. Lamberto Maggiorani, who played Antonio, was a factory worker in the city when he was hired for the lead role.

It's a gorgeous little piece of cinema. Its story is so simple, yet the relationships between the characters, especially Antonio and Bruno as father and son, are so genuine that you immediately care about their struggles. Considering none of the cast were professional actors, the performances are all the more remarkable for it. It's stark black and white images only add to the raw realism of the film. You feel as though you are walking the streets of Rome with this man and his young child, watching their relationship deepen as they essentially search for a needle in a haystack. It also has one of the most emotional final scenes in film history.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Favourite Film Scenes: The Godfather (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Francis Ford Coppola
STARRING: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan

BASIC PLOT: Based on the novel by Mario Puzo, it follows the lives of the Corleone family. Set in 1950's New York, when patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is at his height of power in the Mafia underworld, the plot trails the passing of the torch between Don Vito and his second-oldset son, Michael (Al Pacino). Business remains all in the family.

FAVOURITE SCENE: The restaurant scene when Michael meets with rival Mob leader, Sollozzo, and the dirty cop, McCluskey. Michael's father, Don Vito, has been the target of an assassination attempt and Michael, who is Ivy League-educated and a decorated Second World War veteran, wants vengeance for the actions taken against his father. This is the first time Michael is involved in the "family business" and while he may seen soft-spoken and willing to co-operate with Sollozzo, there is barely concealed anger in his eyes. Will he kill the two men or won't he?

WHY? Francis Ford Coppola lensed countless memorable moments in his masterpiece, however, the restaurant scene leaves a lasting impression due to the fact that, once Michael commits the two murders, there is no turning back for him. It's the start of his journey that will eventually see him move up in the ranks into a leadership position himself.

The scene starts off with a glass of wine and a business discussion in Italian. There are no subtitles to translate the conversation, therefore, the audience is left to come to their own conclusions as to what is being said based on tone of voice, body language and overall expressiveness. The audience is in the same position as Officer McCluskey; left alone outside of the conversation, waiting to see how it will all pan out.

When Michael excuses himself to use the washroom you know that, in actuality, he's looking for the gun that was left for him behind a toilet bowl. The only sounds that can be heard are that of a passing train; reflecting the inner turmoil and brief hesitation we see in Michael as he discovers the gun.

Coppola's decision not to use a background score (until after the murders take place) adds to the building tension in the scene. You can clearly hear the conversation, as well as city sounds in the background. One can perceive that the lack of a musical score at this time reflects Michael's emotional state; he's calm and focused and nothing will distract him from what he's come to do. Only after he's brutally shot the two men at the table, does the score kick in, as though to reflect the release of Michael's tension.

The scene is beautifully executed (no pun intended) and Al Pacino instills Michael with fire and brimstone beneath a calm exterior. In that brief moment we see the man that Michael will become and we understand that, for his character, there is no turning back. His fate was cemented the moment he show Sollozzo and McCluskey as an act of revenge for his father's near-death experience. 

Every subsequent Mafia film has tried, and failed, to capture that same amount of tension and realistic violence Coppola has in his film classic.