Sunday, September 26, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 11


I haven't seen as many silent films as I probably should, but the ones I have seen have been incredible. From The Great Train Robbery (1903) to German Expressionist films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), I've always been fascinated by the cinema's original masterpieces.

There is something beautiful, yet eerie and somewhat unsettling, about relying solely on silent, black and white images of long-dead actors running around with exaggerated make-up smeared on their faces. Acting was so different before the days of the "talkies." Actors were left to rely on their ability to express every human emotion through facial reactions. An audience couldn't hear an anguished cry or a laugh; the actor would have to be able to convey that with their face or body language.

I have two favourite silent films that stand out more than the others, but for different reasons. The first is a German Expressionist film (a great article on the definition and descriptions of the stylistic techniques used in German Expressionist films can be found here).

In 1922, German director F.W. Murnau (Faust) released, arguably, his most influential film. Nosferatu remains one of the most enduring horror films ever made. Murnau bought the movie rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula, until Stoker's wife officially took over the rights for the novel after her husbands death. Instead of scrapping the film altogether, Murnau and his screenwriters put their heads together and changed just enough of the details in their film to escape copyright infringement. Dracula was now Count Orlock (Max Schreck) and The Vampire (or vampyre) was now prowling the streets of Bremen, Germany instead of Victorian London.

The film is downright creepy. I saw it for the first time more than five years ago. I caught it on TCM late one night around Halloween. I was struck by how untraditional a vampire Count Orlock was compared to the elegantly caped and seductive Dracula. By contrast, Orlock was reptilian in appearance and socially awkward. It helped that actor Max Schreck was terrifying, both in his exaggeratedly slow movements and his actual physical appearance. I admire how Murnau and the cast and crew took a traditional story, gave it a German spin and made it more terrifying than any other vampire film based off of Stoker's novel.

The film is an absolute piece of art. Just watch the trailer and judge for yourself.

My second choice is City Lights (1931), Charlie Chaplin's greatest and most affecting film. Most people cite Modern Times (1936) as the definitive Chaplin, but in my opinion, nothing beats the wonderful comedy and pathos of City Lights.

Although the "talkies" had been around since 1927 (with the release of The Jazz Singer, for those keeping track), Chaplin continued to make silent films well into the late-1930s. Chaplin had a face made for the silent screen. Not only was he a gifted actor and comedian, but he also directed each of his films, along with composing their scores and writing the scripts. Chaplin was the full package and his talent was never more on display that with City Lights.

The Tramp, Chaplin's onscreen alter ego, tries to woo a poor, blind girl by doing everything he possibly can to raise money for her so she can have an operation that will restore her sight. The Blind Girl (Virginia Cherill) has no idea who her young suitor is or why he is being so kind to her, but she welcomes his attentions thinking he's a handsome millionaire. This film was recommended to me by a friend who promised me that the ending would make me cry "happy tears" and it definitely followed through on that promise. While not as visually stunning as something like Nosferatu, Chaplin still manages to make City Lights one of the greatest films of all time, for its brilliant comedy and touching grand finale.

For those who don't mind being spoiled, here's the final scene of City Lights, when the Blind Girl realizes who that Tramp is and what he has done for her and the restoration of her sight.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 10


This one is pretty impossible to answer. What is considered a classic? Anything prior to 1975? Or nothing later than 1960? My instinct is to put The Godfather (1972) but it would make a better choice for one of the later options. Same goes for Some Like It Hot (1959) and On the Waterfront (1954), both of which I will save for later entries.

There are so many possible answers, but instead of agonizing over it I'll pick the first one that comes to mind and that will be that.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim

I wrote a film review for Sunset Blvd. back when I first started this blog. You can read it here if you're interested.

I love when a classic film lives up to all the hype that surrounds it. Sunset Blvd. manages to be an original, crisp and fascinating look at Hollywood life and, despite the passage of time, it's still completely relevant in our current celebrity-obsessed culture. It's one of those rare films that reveal new subtleties and layers in both plot and character development with each repeat viewing.

The first time I watched this film (which I purchased on a whim only last year), I couldn't believe how how flawlessly executed it was (Billy Wilder was a master of story structure and visuals). It's an unusual blend of film noir and black comedy, giving the viewer a backstage glimpse of lives filled with betrayal, deceit and the emptiness of wealth and fame. Gloria Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond, the aging silent screen star who longs for a comeback, is campy, terrifying and tragic all at once.

Visually cinematic (floating dead bodies and slow descents from grand marble staircases included) and clever in dialogue ("She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn't know it, you're too young. In one week she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it!"), Sunset Blvd. will never stop being the significant and powerful silver screen classic it has become. It also has one of my favourite final scenes in a film, ever.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Movie Review: The Town

THE TOWN (2010)
Directed By: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper

There's been a lot of hype swirling around Ben Affleck's sophomore directorial effort, The Town. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week and has been earning rave reviews across the board in critic's circles ever since the trailer debuted a couple of months ago. As a result, I went into the film expecting a fresh, original take on the tired genre of bank heist thrillers. Perhaps my expectations were set too high, as I wound up leaving the theatre wondering what all the fuss was about.

Based on Chuck Hogan's novel, Prince of Thieves, the film follows Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and his group of highly skilled bank robbers terrorizing Charlestown, a blue-collar area of Boston that claims to be the world's capital for carjackings, bank robberies and kidnappings. Donning creepy Halloween masks (different ones for each elaborate robbery), Doug's group leave behind no indication as to their identities, leaving law enforcement, led by FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), baffled and frustrated. When Doug and his right-hand man James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) make the rash decision of taking bank teller Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage to use as leverage, they inadvertently set off a chain of events that begins with Doug falling head over heels for Claire and culminating in a violent confrontation with law enforcement at Fenway Park.

In terms of visuals and technique, Affleck definitely excels in the director's chair. Like his 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone, The Town has a raw and grainy quality. It's almost as though Affleck is paying homage to Clint Eastwood's work in the directors chair. Affleck portrays his beloved Boston as an overcast, violent and ruthless place, where death can come at any moment, to both criminal or innocent bystander alike. He uses both tight close-ups and jarring action sequences, including an excellent car chase where Doug, Jem and the gang are wearing their now infamous nun outfits and toting machine guns.

For his second feature film, Affleck made the dubious choice of casting himself in the starring role (when I first saw the trailer for the film during the summer, I remember thinking "Was your brother too busy to be in it?"). Affleck lacks the talent, screen presence and charisma of his younger brother, Casey. With his thick Bostonian accent, Affleck's portrayal of Doug is bland and, as a result, it's hard to care about the fate of his character. He doesn't give any indication as to why his character, Doug, is considered the brains of the operation; nor does it give us a real reason to root for him, especially since he continues to cruelly deceive Claire, the woman he supposedly loves. In fact, it feels like Affleck is simply recycling his role as Matt Damon's asshole friend in Good Will Hunting.

The supporting cast all suffer from severely underwritten roles. Each character feels like the stock characters that always figure prominently in action films of this type. Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite (two really great actors) do what they can with what little is given to them as Doug's imprisoned father and the Irish gangster, Fergie Colm, respectively. Jon Hamm is awkward and miscast as FBI Agent Adam Frawley and his character is so wooden and appears to be cut from the typical movie mould of "arrogant, persistent cop". You don't care whether he catches Doug or not, nor do you understand why Frawley seems to be taking all these bank robberies so personally.

I was disappointed (but, sadly, not surprised) by the lack of a solid female role in the film. There are two women in the movie: Claire the bank teller and Krista, Jem's younger sister and Doug's original love interest. While Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively give decent performances with their roles, there is no real depth or strength in their characters. Claire is sweet and virtuous and falls for Doug as quickly as he falls for her. Unbeknownst to Claire, Doug is one of her kidnappers and he continues to unfairly keep her in the dark as to his real identity. She comes across as nothing more than pawn in the big, elaborate game being played by the boys. Krista, on the other hand, has about 10 minutes of screen time and, within that short time frame, she's either high on drugs, ignoring her baby daughter or begging Doug to run away with her.

The only real standout in the cast is Jeremy Renner. He's superb as the hot-headed, trigger-happy punk, Jem, who won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way. With his intense glare and violent disposition, Renner keeps the audience on edge because you never know what ill-conceived idea he'll come up with next. He's essentially a tightly-wound ball of violence and anger. Although, like the other characters, little is known about Jem outside of the main plot, I kept thinking how much more interesting the film would have been had he been the central character. After his Oscar-nominated performance last year in The Hurt Locker, Renner's role in The Town only proves he was no one hit wonder.

When I left the theatre, the only three things I really loved about the film was the Fenway Park shootout, those scary nun masks and Jeremy Renner. Those three reasons alone are worth the price of admission.

Affleck likely has a long future in directing and he's more than capable of telling a good story. Here's hoping his next effort involves a plot with actual characters. Final verdict on The Town? An entertaining way to spend two hours but don't fall for all the hype.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Classic Film Review: Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Directed By:  Robert Aldrich
Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten

"You're a vile, sorry little bitch!"
~Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis)~

I've caught glimpses of this film on TCM off and on over the years but had never sat down to watch the film in its entirety. Over the years I've slowly been working my way through Bette Davis' lengthy filmography. The woman had a long, illustrious career in Hollywood for a reason: she was a wonderful actress who never conformed to Hollywood's standards of beauty. Like Katherine Hepburn, Davis was her own person and no other actress in Hollywood could recreate her blend of talent and dark glamour. With her smokey voice and intense glare, Davis has fascinated me ever since I saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? when I was only 12. It was only a matter of time before I finally made my way onto watching Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte.

Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) is an aging recluse, living in her deceased father's secluded house with only her housekeeper, Velma (Agnes Moorehead) for company. A wealthy spinster, Charlotte is the subject of gossip in the small town in Louisiana where she lives. Charlotte has lived a life devoid of human contact for nearly 40 years, after the brutal axe murder of the love of her life, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a married womanizer who promised Charlotte he'd run away with her. On the night of John's murder, Charlotte is found covered in his blood and, although she is never formally charged with murder, everyone in town suspects she did the deed out of anger and jealousy when John refused to leave with her after all. Later on, when Charlotte's old plantation house (which acts as a shrine devoted to both her overbearing father and John) is threatened with demolition she enlists the help of her cousin, Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), her last living relation whom she hasn't seen since the night of John's murder. Miriam even brings along Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten) to assess the mental stability of Charlotte. Along the way, there are twists and revelations that culminate into a dramatic and violent conclusion.

By early 1964, director Robert Aldrich had planned on re-teaming with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the feuding stars of his 1962 hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Crawford soon dropped out of the project (reportedly due to an illness) and Davis was paired with Olivia de Havilland instead; an actress known for her gentle portrayals of sweet and virtuous women (from Maid Marion in The Adventures of Robin Hood to Melanie in Gone with the Wind). It was a strange casting choice, putting de Havilland in the role of Charlotte's conniving cousin, Miriam; however, under Aldrich's direction de Havilland made her characterization of Miriam worthy of Charlotte's insults (see opening quote).

The film is part Southern gothic, part psychological thriller; something Aldrich excelled at when directing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and really capitalized on with Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte. The prologue of the film, which shockingly depicts the violent murder of John Mayhew, was incredibly chilling and graphic for a movie released in 1964. It's not hard to see why this would have upset audiences back in the day. It could still easily have the same effect on viewers today, even those desensitized by today's violent film standards. Not everything is constantly dark and violent, however, as the film manages to both amuse and terrify in equal measure. Witnessing Davis standing on her porch, pointing a rifle at trespassers and yelling at them in her thick Louisianna accent is downright campy and her performance is reason alone to check out the film. Yet, on a darker note, the longer Miriam and Drew remain in her house, the more erratic and dangerously unhinged Charlotte becomes.

A genuine whodunit, Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte is an eerie, violent and schlocky film blessed with two wonderful actresses in starring roles. As the film goes on, it gets progressively creepy and unsettling (example, the twisted nursery rhyme made up by townsfolk who believe Charlotte was the murderess: "Chop chop, Sweet Charlotte/Chop chop till he's dead/Chop chop Sweet Charlotte/Chop off his hand and head"). The film is over-the-top but very satisfying, although its main fault may be that it borrows too heavily from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Despite its campy and outrageous plot, this film will sit with you long after it's over.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Movie Review: Barney's Version (2010)

Directed By: Richard J. Lewis
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman, Minnie Driver and Bruce Greenwood

I went to a Toronto International Film Festival gala last night which was a nice surprise considering I hadn't expected to attend TIFF at all this year (too much school overload). Yet, lo and behold, free tickets to a much-buzzed about Canadian indie landed in my lap.

Based on the novel by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, Barney's Version follows the life of Barney Panofsky, an alcoholic, cigar-chomping womanizer who has three ex-wives, a string of broken friendships and an eccentric elderly father. Like Richler's novel, the plot travels through both the highs and lows (and there are a lot of lows) of Barney's life between the ages of 28 to 65. The only things that appear to truly matter to Barney are the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, his brutally frank father and a woman named Miriam.

I didn't know what to expect going into the movie. As it turns out, the trailer for the film is quite misleading as it portrays Barney's Version as an outright comedy about a middle-aged man, the women he both loves and leaves and his kooky father. There's no real indication of the bleak vision and tone that permeates the film. It's actually an honest look at a flawed human being making very human mistakes, often with tragic and fatal consequences. Barney is actually a miserable, often self-loathing man full of residual anger and depression. It's not all a barrel of laughs. Barney struggles in his relationships with women and is even accused of the murder of a friend.

Barney's Version is an unflinching portrayal of a man in a perpetual state of decline. Barney is a man who never seemed to actually be "on top" at any point in his life. When the audience first meets him, he's a mixture of alcohol-fueled resentment and wicked one-liners; a sad old man with one too many tragedies in his life (many of which were self-inflicted).

Right from the opening sequence the viewer is at the mercy of Barney's fragmented memory. The film opens with Barney as a lonely 65-year-old trying to reconnect with the love of his life. As disjointed memories of his younger days both spent traveling Europe and living his later life in Montreal invade his thoughts, the viewer is left wondering how exactly Barney became Barney. His self-destructive behaviour makes for a compelling character study. Barney's Version truly is a grown up film tackling adult issues.

As Barney Panofsky, Paul Giamatti is an early front-runner in the Best Actor category, for those keeping tabs on this years Oscar race. If put in the hands of a lesser actor, Barney could have been a loathsome curmudgeon, undeserving of any sympathy from the viewer. It's hard to imagine loving a man with such an unhealthy and selfish lifestyle; however, Giamatti makes him a likeable anti-hero who is trying to get by on a day-to-day basis while systematically destroying those around him by his mistakes.

Giamatti benefits from a really strong supporting cast, specifically from his main leading lady, British actress Rosamund Pike. As Miriam, Barney's third wife and the love of his life, Pike is nothing short of radiant. Pike makes Miriam more than just a beautiful face; she's the strong-willed, faithful and gentle centre of Barney's erratic life. Without her, Barney would have faltered long ago. Despite their differences in personality, Miriam and Barney work so well as a couple struggling with marriage because Giamatti and Pike work so well alongside one another.

The rest of the supporting cast is just as stellar. Minnie Driver, as the Second Mrs. Panofsky, is hilariously shallow and crass. Canadian actors Scott Speedman and Bruce Greenwood are both charming in their roles as Barney's best friend, Boogie, and Blair, Barney's rival for Miriam's affections, respectively. There is even a memorable cameo from homegrown talent Paul Gross, who appears as an actor playing a Mountie in Barney's television series, O'Malley of the North, in a nod to his days on Due South. Dustin Hoffman nearly steals the film out from under everyone's feet as Barney's raucous, inappropriate father, Izzy, a retired police officer from the Montreal Police Department who spends his days drinking, sleeping with prostitutes and telling people about his exploits and misadventures as a cop.

Despite the strong supporting characters, the attention always goes back to Barney. How much do we really know about this bundle of violent emotions?

In the end, the viewer is left overwhelmed by the fates for many of the people in Barney's life. How much of it is the actual truth and how much of it is simply Barney's version of the truth? And, does it matter?

As Mordecai Richler himself said about his protagonist, Barney Panofsky: "He's not automatically sympathetic, so it's up to your own cunning or craft as a writer to involve the reader with him because the novel wouldn't work otherwise."

Considering Richler worked on an early version of the script before his untimely death in 2001, I'd say the success he had with creating Barney in his novel translated just as well onto the silver screen.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 9


I've always loved film scores. I believe they can add a lot to power of specific scenes. It's tough to only come up with one, so I'll list a few that immediately come to mind.

-Nick Cave for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
-Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
-Trevor Jones & Randy Edelman for The Last of the Mohicans (1991)
-John Williams for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
-Hans Zimmer for Gladiator (2000)
-James Horner for Titanic (1997)
-James Horner for Braveheart (1995)
-James Horner for Legends of the Fall (1994)
-Michael Kamen for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
-Gustavo Santaolalla for Brokeback Mountain (2005)

-Abel Korzeniowski & Shigeru Umebayashi for A Single Man (2009)

-Ennio Morricone for Cinema Paradiso (1989)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Chris Evans and Jason Schwartzman

This review has been a long time coming, considering I saw this film nearly three weeks ago. Better late than never, I suppose.

When I first saw the trailer I didn't understand what all the pre-release hype was over. Sure, it looked pretty fun and I knew it was based on a graphic novel series, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal. I'll be the first to admit that the main reason I eventually went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is because it was set in Toronto. It's so rare for a non-Canadian, mainstream Hollywood film to actually let Toronto play Toronto, as opposed to Chicago (in Chicago) or Baltimore (in Hairspray).

Based on the comics by Canadian Bryan Lee O'Malley and directed by Brit Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), the story revolves around 22 year old Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera). All you really need to know about Scott is pretty straightforward: He's from Toronto. He plays bass for his band Sex Bob-omb. He lives with his gay roommate, Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin). He's dating a high-schooler named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but he's in love with an American girl, named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who recently moved to Toronto. However, Scott soon learns that, in order for him to date Ramona, he first has to defeat all seven of her "evil" exes. Despite Ramona's obviously bad taste in men (and one woman) aside, Scott thinks she's worth the battle.

That's literally all a viewer needs to know about the plot. Scott Pilgrim isn't so much a film as a series of colourfully vibrant vignettes. Scenes move at a rapid pace and not all of them actually add anything of substance to the plot; however, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for vivid characterizations or a complex plot, you aren't looking in the right direction. Scott Pilgrim plays out the way one would expect great summer entertainment to play out: action sequences, comedy, romance and the battle of good vs. evil. What's not to like?

For Torontonians, there are plenty of in-jokes and famous sites that only we may fully appreciate: from Casa Loma to Honest Ed's to Pizza Pizza to Second Cup and the prominent use of the TTC, the film isn't so much a "love letter to Canada" as some international critics have been saying, but a "love letter to Toronto." Our city was transformed into a winter wonderland full of swirling colours, fierce battles between local garage bands and, apparently, a safe haven for people with the ability to kick ass.

The cast is what makes Scott Pilgrim work so well. Granted, Michael Cera is essentially playing another version of himself, yet there was something a little more ironic about his performance this time around. It felt more like a send-up of his earlier, endearingly awkward roles, as though Cera himself realizes he's been typecast one too many times. The supporting cast is all strong, especially Kieran Culkin as Wallace and Ellen Wong as Knives. With the force of both of their comedic powers, they almost steal the entire film out from under Cera's feet. Wong, a Scarborough native making her film debut, is almost impossibly adorable as the deceivingly innocent girlfriend to Cera's Scott. She plays Knives as a teenage neurotic; a hyperventilating mass of energy, love and devotion. You almost expect her to explode into a million pieces at any moment. As Scott's best friend and gay roommate, Wallace, Culkin is so wonderfully hilarious you almost wish he got to be more of sidekick to Scott. His droll, dry sarcasm and one-liners work so well simply because Culkin knows how to play the character. In the hands of anyone else, Wallace could have been an annoyingly smart-ass stereotype. I haven't seen Culkin this good since Igby Goes Down.

The only two characters that really suffer from lack of great lines and anything resembling character motivations is Ramona and Kim Pine. Mary Elizabeth Winstead doesn't do much other than scowl and change her hair colour. It's a little hard to understand what exactly Scott sees in her in the first place. Kim Pine (played by Alison Pill, who is usually wonderful in smaller roles), on the other hand, is one of Scott's ex-girlfriends and all she does is scowl, play the drums and pretend to shoot herself in the head. She's probably the most pointless character in a film full of secondary characters running around, competing for attention.

The movie is, essentially, a live action video game, albeit one from the 1980s (think Super Mario Brothers or Pac-Man). I'm no gamer, but the majority of the references are funny and clever enough for anyone with a knack for pop culture to pick up on. Who wouldn't love a movie that also includes the KAPOW! of punches thrown, a la the 1960s Batman. Plus, any movie that includes defeated villains exploding into a pile of loonies and toonies earns extra brownie points in my book. If nothing else, it's movie made by geeks for geeks.