Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret
Hugo (2011)
Based on the Book By: Brian Selznick
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee and Jude Law

Hollywood has been reminded of its celebrated history more than once in recent months, with both The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo at the centre of this resurgence (of sorts) of old cinema. Both films couldn't have come at a better time -- while an endless stream of forgettable movies are dropped into theatres as a quick cash-grab for studios, audiences often need to be reminded that there are filmmakers out there who love the art of cinema and continue to make great, challenging films.

Scorsese, by using the source material from Brian Selznick's graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has crafted a love letter to the world of cinema. By jumping on the opportunity to promote his passion for film preservation and its forgotten pioneers, Scorsese has ultimately created a film for adult movie buffs in the guise of a children's adventure.

Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living behind a giant clock in a beautiful Paris train station in the 1930s. With his keen knack for stealing discarded items and fixing them, Hugo bides his time inventing little gadgets -- none of which cures his loneliness. Desperate to connect with the people he watches beyond his isolated quarters, Hugo befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an imaginative girl living in Paris with her godfather, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Together, the two embark on a series of adventures involving a mysterious automaton left behind by Hugo's dead father (Jude Law), a heart-shaped key and a case of hidden identities -- all the while being chased around by a tyrannical station agent (Sacha Baron Cohen).

Hugo is, essentially, two films expertly weaved together into one. Despite numerous minor subplots and two main narrative threads, the film never loses its focus as the action slowly builds towards a beautifully moving climax reminiscent of the 1988 Italian classic, Cinema Paradiso.

With assistance from cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti (both Scorsese regulars), Hugo is a lush and whimsical creation -- an ode to the wonder of the world of cinema that is just as wonderful itself. Arguably the most visually beautiful film of the year, Hugo wraps you in a blanket of movie passion and nostalgia.

Asa Butterfield (left) and Ben Kingsley
In the lead role, Asa Butterfield is fully capable of carrying an entire film on his small shoulders. With his expressive blue eyes and elfin features it's hard to imagine another child more suited for the role of a young orphan desperate for love and companionship. It's the rare child actor that can have both a commanding screen presence and manage to hold his own against veteran actors.

The supporting cast is equally compelling, specifically Ben Kingsley as the emotionally broken Georges Melies. His chemistry with the young Butterfield is the heart at the centre of the film. The scenes that these two lonely, broken souls share carry the emotional weight of the film. Kingsley, with his sad eyes and soft voice, gives one of his loveliest performances in years. As Isabelle, Chloe Grace Moretz is charming, despite a wavering English accent. In smaller roles, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee and Jude Law round out a solid cast with superb performances that manage to jump off the screen despite limited screen time.

Hugo is a vibrantly beautiful film, both charming and tragic. Howard Shore's score only adds to the haunting, yet whimsical, atmosphere.

Scorsese reminds that, like Rome, cinema wasn't built in a day -- there were many pioneering faces, some unfortunately long forgotten, that brought the medium to what it is today.

FINAL GRADE: A

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Movie Rant: Why I love the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol

While doing some holiday movie research for an article and slideshow I was putting together for work awhile back I came to the realization that Charles Dickens' classic short story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted at least 50 times since the invention of moving pictures. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find another story that has been adapted more often into film and television specials than that!

I know plenty of people who love a wide range of adaptations, most notably A Muppet Christmas Carol and Bill Murray's Scrooged. While both films are fun holiday flicks in their own right, I prefer my Scrooge straight up mean and nasty -- all the better to make his conversion at the end have more of a meaningful impact.

Which brings me to the 1951 Brian Desmond Hurst adaptation starring Alastair Sim in the title role. Arguably the finest version of how the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge re-discovered his Christmas spirit and restored his reputation, a lot of credit is due to the performance of Sim. The man was born to play Scrooge -- the craggy-faced Scottish native perfectly captures all of the characters' multitude of emotions, from hardened and world weary to childlike wonder. Regardless of how many times I've seen this film, his jubilant Christmas morning jig towards the end always makes me smile.

When I was about eight years old, my mom introduced this classic adaptation to my sister and I. It was in black and white. It made cracking and popping sounds because of a poor VHS transfer. It had long lines down the screen from where the original film was scratched. And, from that young age of eight, I still managed to become hooked, despite everything going against it. It soon became a Christmas Eve tradition -- the night before Christmas, we'd sit around the TV and watch Scrooge transform into a caring and compassionate human being who learned "how to keep Christmas well." 


Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge
I can't think of another version (and I've seen many) that so accurately captures the true holiday spirit of Dickens' story. It's dark, it's sad, it's charming and it's ultimately what Christmas is all about -- putting differences aside and spending time with loved ones.

There's something to be said for a story that has endured for so many generations -- it's clear that Dickens hit a nerve when he first published his novella. I even wrote about the phenomenon for last years holiday issue of History Magazine ("How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas"). Every great piece of fiction deserves a worthy film adaptation should people decide to translate it onto the silver screen and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol is just that.

So, later on tonight, once my family and I have returned from our Christmas Eve dinner with one side of our extended family, we'll curl up on the couch and watch A Christmas Carol once again. Twenty years after watching it for the first time, it's still my favourite way to unwind on Christmas Eve before the hustle and bustle of the big day.

Merry Christmas! 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Film Noir Series: Crossfire (1947)


I'm continuing my ongoing Film Noir series on Next Projection. You can check out my post HERE. The fourth film on my list is Crossfire (1947).
With its tightly coiled narrative and top-notch cast, Crossfire is a slow-burning crime drama and unlikely “social message film” with a noir twist.
Based on the controversial Richard Brooks novel The Brick Foxhole, screenwriter John Paxton re-teamed with director Edward Dymtryk after the success of their 1944 noir classic, Murder, My Sweet. This time around religious bigotry takes centre stage, as intolerance is unearthed among a group of soldiers recently returned from the Second World War.
Set in Washington, D.C., this band of brothers bond over hard liquor and poker games at various bars while swapping war stories. After one particular night of heavy drinking, three of the men wind up at the apartment of Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), a Jewish man they met in a bar. Samuels openly shares his thoughts on what he perceives to be the true hidden enemy to a soldier recently returned from battle – pent up and unfocused negative energy that comes when there is no longer a clear enemy to kill. When Samuels winds up dead, the three soldiers become prime suspects in the homicide investigation led by Detective Finlay (Robert Young) and Army Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum).
Postwar angst is often an underlying theme in the majority of noir films. However, few have dealt with it as directly as the Oscar-nominated Crossfire. Its chock full of aimless soldiers suffering from misguided anger. Despite Dymtryk and Paxton’s decision to change the victim from a homosexual in Brooks’ novel to a middle-aged Jewish man in the film, the theme of intolerance still resonates.
Gloria Grahame as Ginny.
Crossfire opens with a violent exchange between two men – one the gracious Samuels, the other one of the soldiers. However, all that is seen are shadows on a wall. Enter Detective Finlay with his soft drawl, ever-present pipe and immaculate suit. Finlay, in his hunt for a motive, is one of the calmest screen incarnations of a homicide detective to ever grace the silver screen. Whether he’s lounging in a high-backed chair or slowly walking the perimeter a crime scene, Young instills Finlay with an ice-cold demeanor, all the better to interrogate with.
Along for the ride in this compelling ‘whodunit’ is a brash soldier named Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and a sultry, exotically beautiful nightclub singer named Ginny (Gloria Grahame). Ryan is captivating as the blustering bully Montgomery, nearly stealing the show from both Young and Mitchum. As the jaded Ginny, Grahame more than earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination in her two brief scenes. Strong-willed and fiery, Ginny is the standard femme – albeit with much less fatale than is common in the genre. You can tell that, beneath her cool indifference, she’s a kind woman at heart.
The uncharacteristically slow narrative carefully unfurls character motivations, wading through each character’s conflicting flashback accounts in order to crack the case. When the truth is finally revealed to Finlay it sets off a three-minute speech addressing anti-Semitism and anti-Irish Catholic stances in America. The scene hammers home the overall message, coming off a little too preachy, almost as though it thought the audience wouldn’t be able to comprehend the notion of religious intolerance without its being sermonized. The one thing that pulls this scene back from outright melodrama is Young’s strong performance.
Despite this heavy-handed conclusion and its eventual exoneration of the military’s role in the murder,Crossfire is a surprisingly bold noir, tackling an issue that touched a raw nerve with audiences.
FINAL GRADE: A-

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Movie Rant: The (Perfect) Trailer for The Hobbit

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
It's finally here! Peter Jackson and co. have finally unveiled the first official trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Sure, it isn't released until December 14th, 2012, but I pretty much consider myself in line already. ...Don't you?

As much as I liked the idea of Guillermo Del Toro taking over for the prequel (he's one hell of a fantastic visual storyteller), I was relieved when a scheduling conflict kept him away. With Jackson back at the helm The Hobbit will look and feel similar to The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- which makes more sense, if only for the sake of consistency.

So, how is the trailer? Well, it's pretty perfect in my opinion. I love the casting choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo. I'm not overly familiar with his work but he definitely has the perfect look and feel for the role. And, after seeing the trailer, I'm convinced he'll make a wonderful Bilbo (especially since filling the shoes of Ian Holm won't be easy). In fact, in the brief glimpse we get of all the new characters, all the casting choices were right on the money. Not that I had any doubt, seeing as Jackson has a knack for unearthing unknown talent and turning them into household names. The trailer also includes some familiar faces, most notably returning actors Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett and Andy Serkis.

I won't ramble on about all the things I loved about the trailer because it would take up more than one post. But, basically, I think this film will live up to all the hype and all the hopes of J.R.R. Tolkien fans. Thankfully, Hollywood has people like Jackson making quality blockbusters or we'd all be doomed to endless remakes of dull action franchises. I'm not even bothered by the fact that The Hobbit was filmed in 3D (a cash-grab gimmick I usually loathe) simply because I know that Jackson made every one of those images count -- and it'll look fantastic.

Seeing trailers like The Hobbit are necessary if only to remind us that the things we loved as a child still have enduring popularity -- our childhood isn't dead so long as dedicated directors like Jackson are loyally adapting our favourite books into epic films.

What do you think of the trailer?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Movie Review: The Artist

The Artist (2011)
Written & Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman

The Artist is this years most unlikely Oscar contender -- a black and white silent film with two unknown foreign actors in the leads.

The film often relies on parody in order to pay appropriate homage to the era of silent movies; however, it never comes off as disingenuous. It re-introduces techniques of the past, from printed titles to relay dialogue to the audience to an overly enthusiastic musical score. With a plot reminiscent of both Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Artist is an engaging and light-hearted film that is so likeable that it can easily appeal an audience raised on technology and CGI special effects.

The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first "talkie", instantly changing the world of cinema. With it came great upheaval in Hollywood -- audiences demanded to hear the actors they had come to adore, while certain actors struggled with the transition to the point where it broke their careers. The Artist is set in 1927, just as the major changes are starting to take shape in the old studio system in Hollywood. French actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has legions of fans who worship his heroic incarnations on the silver screen. With his natural charisma and knack for expressing himself non-verbally, George initially brushes off the breakthrough of sound in cinema as a temporary fad, something that will disappear as quickly as it came about. What George fails to recognize is that "talkies" are ushering in a new age of film and that actors like himself were on a steady decline. When he falls in love with a beautiful dancer and background actress named Peppy Miller (Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo) it slowly dawns on George that Hollywood is now looking for more actors like Peppy -- charismatic stars who were made to be seen and heard. As Peppy is catapulted into stardom, George is left in the dust, a cruel aspect of Hollywood that remains relevant to this very day.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin
As a man who refuses to acknowledge that his world is changing, Dujardin gives one of the best performances of 2011. He amply demonstrates that emotional expression and actions can speak louder than words -- with a face straight out of the silent era of Hollywood, Dujardin both looks and feels the part of a rapidly declining star. The role is undeniably challenging -- without any dialogue to work with Dujardin is left to over-emote in order to make up for his lack of ability to express himself verbally. However, his actions are never hammy and always feel genuine. He evokes the pathos common with silent film greats like Charlie Chaplin, and he never misses a beat. Dujardin more than succeeds in his role as George Valentin, giving a nuanced performance that it both comic and touching.

Bejo is an equally great find as Pepper Miller. With a smile that could light up a room and spades of talent, Bejo is luminous is a role that nearly jumps off the screen.

The Artist is a vibrant and richly textualized film. Although the idea may not be new and some may argue that the premise itself if a bit of a gimmick, it's an undeniable crowed-pleaser and a beautiful one at that. Director Michel Hazanavicius recreates the world of classic Hollywood and his attention to detail is remarkable. He instils the perfect amount of dark reality and whimsy in the lives of George and Peppy and, as director, he makes some wonderful visual choices (none of which I will reveal here so as not to spoil the fun). Stylistically, the film is flawless. Composer Ludovic Bource creates the perfect musical accompaniment, at times both rousingly cheerful and tragically mournful. Silent films often relied on the emotion of its scores to sway audience feelings and opinion and The Artist makes powerful use of its own score in the same manner.

A heartfelt and beautiful film, The Artist is, above all, a love letter to cinema past.

FINAL GRADE: A 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2011)
Written & Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain

"You think I'm crazy? Well, listen up, there's a storm coming like nothing you've ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it."

A quietly unsettling indie hit, Take Shelter is more character study than apocalyptic thriller, leaving the audience just as overwhelmed and perplexed as the central protagonist -- a man who literally lets fear rule his life.

The setting: rural Ohio. Hard-working and loving family man Curtis (Michael Shannon) is plagued by shockingly realistic apocalyptic visions while he sleeps. Curtis isn't sure if he's inherited schizophrenia from his mother or if his visions are real -- a glimpse into the very near future. He decides to err on the side of caution and builds a survivalist shelter for himself and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis is not a particularly religious man -- instead of looking up Bible passages to uncover answers to his violent and chilling visions, he checks out books on psychiatry from the local library instead. The overriding theme in the film is fear -- fear of economic hardship, fear of health problems, fear of losing those we love most, and fear of death and the end of the world. Fear often influences our greatest decisions and it's what ultimately sparks Curtis into action, regardless of what those around him think.


Take Shelter has a slow-burning narrative, carefully revealing the frustration and fear felt by a man unraveling right before his family's eyes. Despite its leisurely pace there's never a dull moment.

From a visual standpoint alone the film is stunning -- the apocalyptic visions are chillingly vague and appropriately ominous; like Curtis, you aren't sure exactly what they mean ...or if they even actually exist. With its smart use of CGI, the film conjures realistic thunderstorms and inky rain showers, using them to greater effect than any big-budget blockbuster.

Curtis (Shannon) and an apocalyptic vision.
In the lead role, Shannon is remarkable. His quietly commanding performance as Curtis is one of the highlights of 2011 and it's fascinating to watch this gentle character struggle with inner demons he just doesn't understand. A man of few words, Curtis is hesitant to explain his situation to his loving wife -- in fact, his pent up frustration and fear only boils over once in a shocking fire and brimstone speech that rattles those around him, himself included.

As Samantha, a religiously devout woman who dotes on her husband and young daughter, Chastain makes another case for why she's the biggest star of the year. Her performance is the definition of a supporting player -- she may be secondary in the plot but she makes her presence felt with a quietly beautiful performance. It'd be a shame if this wasn't the film she was recognized for at the Oscars.

Although the final scene may polarize moviegoers, Take Shelter leaves an undeniable impact. It's an intelligent piece of cinema that provokes a powerful response. Up-and-comer writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted a resonating film that utilizes our societal fears to propel the story forward.

Part psychological thriller, character piece and family drama, Take Shelter is one of the highlights of 2011. 

FINAL GRADE: A-

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Movie Rant: The debate over the SAG Award nominees

For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year. It's Christmas, hockey season and a prelude to all the upcoming film awards where I get to catch up on everything I've missed over the year. Nothing satiates my passion for cinema more than a good film debate.

I've enjoyed the SAG Awards in the past -- I often find them to the be the most accurate indicator as to which films and performances deserve the greatest accolades. The Golden Globes are a joke and the Oscars rarely get it right, which is why I've often relied on the SAG awards to set things straight -- well, kind of anyway. Moreso than the Oscars.

Not the case this year. Today's announcement of the 2012 nominees brought a lot of disappointment -- not just to me but all over the Internet, especially Twitter (you can see the full list of nominees HERE). A lot of people seem shocked at some of the obvious snubs in a what should have been a breakout year for smaller films and up-and-coming actors.

That being said, they did make some really great choices:
-Midnight in Paris (Best Ensemble): One of my favourite films of 2011, it's one of those feel-good whimsical gems with a ridiculously perfect (and charming) cast and a story that just sweeps you away. I was worried it'd get lost in the shuffle. Still not sure where it stands with regards to the Oscars, though.
-Brad Pitt (Best Actor, Moneyball): I'm not surprised they went with the audience-friendly baseball movie. Pitt has had a truly breakout year with diverse performances. He could very easily have been nominated for Tree of Life; however, his performance as Billy Beane in Moneyball truly carries the film into a whole new level in the sports genre. He won't win but in his case it will be an honour to have been recognized.
-Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor, Beginnners): This nearly-forgotten indie from earlier this year boasted one of the finest performances of 2011. We should all be happy that they remembered Plummer's lovely turn as an older gentleman finally coming to terms with his homosexuality. His performance is a lesson in how to subtly convey a persons inner conflict without having to resort to scenery-chewing.

Here's where, in my opinionated opinion, the SAG Awards got it wrong:
-Jessica Chastain (Best Supporting Actress, The Help): Chastain has been the story of the year, the toast of Hollywood. When was the last time an actress had such an astounding breakout year? She co-starred in four films and has one more coming up (Coriolanus) to round out 2011. She gave two truly stunning performances in Tree of Life and Take Shelter. And while she was equally wonderful in The Help it's a shame that the obvious love-fest for the 1960s-era drama resulted in her receiving a nomination for one of her "lesser" performances. I'm shocked she wasn't recognized for Tree of Life or Take Shelter but I suppose we should just be grateful that she was recognized in the first place.
-Michael Fassbender for Shame: Probably the BIGGEST shock of them all -- a lack of Best Actor nomination for the finest male performance of 2011 (that I've seen so far). Fassbender is outstanding in Shame -- a raw, realistic and truly challenging role. The fact that the film was given the equivalent of a porn rating in the U.S. likely damaged his chance of being recognized for his work. Unfortunate.
-Carey Mulligan for Shame: Some may argue that she didn't have a whole lot of screen time -- but remember when Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress in 1998 for clocking in only eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love? Mulligan was heartbreaking and more than held her own alongside Fassbender.
-Shame: I suppose the lack of a Best Ensemble nomination shouldn't be all that surprising. It likely had to do with the MPAA ratings. Still disappointing. There's no way Bridesmaids was the better film in this department. To those stuffy, uptight SAG members, Shame is obviously too hot to handle.
-Michael Shannon for Take Shelter: In many critics circles, his performance was voted the best of the year. There's really no excuse for his snub -- unless he's secretly anti-SAG or not a member. People may be torn over the film itself but Shannon was just so good that he should should have been considered an automatic nominee.
-Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene:  I think a lot of people expected her to be a shoo-in. In her breakout role she carries the emotional weight of the film on her shoulders and never lets the ball drop once. She'll make you forget there were ever other actresses with the last name Olsen. I look forward to more of her work. I can only hope she's recognized by the Academy.
-Andy Serkis for The Rise of the Planet of the Apes: I've been on his bandwagon since Day 1, when he first started doing interviews about why motion capture performance is still acting. It's amazing how many people just brush it off as "voice work." Recognition from the SAG or the Academy would go a long way towards opening peoples eyes to this different (but still legitimate) method of performance art. Serkis deserves his chance in the spotlight.

Which of the SAG nominations to you agree (and disagree) with?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Film Noir Series: Out of the Past (1947)

I'm continuing my ongoing Film Noir series for Next Projection. You can check out my post HERE. The third film on my list is Out of the Past (1947).

Like its sleepy-eyed antihero, Out of the Past is disorderly and complex – a thrillingly chaotic example of a multiple-narrative film noir.

Former private investigator Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is leading a quiet life in a small town in rural California where he owns a gas station. However, Jeff harbours a secret – one that is gradually revealed when his past reaches out to tap him on the shoulder one day. Back in another life in New York, he was known as Jeff Markham, hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a gangster willing to pay whatever is necessary to get his double-crossing girlfriend back. Kathie (Jane Greer), the girlfriend in question, left Whit’s body riddled with four bullets before taking off with his $40,000. Whit wants her back, but not for revenge. As he tells Jeff: “I just want her back. When you see her you’ll understand better.” The beautiful, doe-eyed Kathie is a maneater – shooting and conniving her way out of tough situations. The ultimate femme fatale, she would appear to have both Jeff and Whit wrapped around her finger.

Jeff’s story is told in a flashback narrative as he reveals his past to his new girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) on a long trip to Lake Tahoe. He tells Ann everything: How he tracked Kathie down for Whit, followed the trail to Mexico and instantly fell in love with her. Jeff goes even further; telling Ann he lied to Whit about finding Kathie so the two could run away together.  When Jeff and Kathie are spotted in San Francisco by Jeff’s former partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) Kathie shoots him dead – leaving Jeff with the corpse and Kathie’s bank book showing that she had, indeed, stolen the $40,000 from Whit.

All of this takes place in the opening 40 minutes. The rest of the film is set in the present and includes two other storylines which all culminate in a violent finale. Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (the blacklisted novelist writing under the pseudonym “Geoffrey Homes”) wrote the script to his own 1946 novel, Build My Gallows High. The pulpy dialogue is rife with quotable one-liners (“If anyone’s gonna die, baby, I’m gonna die last”). Despite its melodrama and convoluted plot, Out of the Past is still thrillingly paced and pays close attention to the rising tension between Jeff, Whit and Kathie.

Half of the action takes place in lush, outdoor locations instead of stuffy soundstage sets, lending the film an atmosphere of authenticity rarely felt in the noir genre. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca used rural locations, untouched by human corruption, to visually contrast the two lives of Jeff Bailey. The scenic landscape is as calm and beautiful as Jeff’s life is chaotic and violent.

As Jeff Bailey, Mitchum makes for an intriguing noir antihero. Constantly surrounded by a bright white ring of cigarette smoke and easily seduced by Kathie (does this make him a hopeless romantic or a deluded chump?) Jeff ultimately comes to terms with his fate – resigned to the fact that the majority of his choices in life have been poor. Mitchum’s slow, deliberate speech pattern and heavy-lidded eyes give Jeff the world-weary appearance of a man who has seen it all – the eternal cynic.

Out of the Past is essential viewing for any cineaste. Like Murder, My Sweet (1944) before it, the film is a measuring stick with which to gauge the success of every noir before and after its release.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Film Noir Series: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

I'm continuing my ongoing film noir series. You can check out my post on the Next Projection website HERE. The second film on my list is Murder, My Sweet (1944).

This iconic and richly layered film from RKO Pictures remains a highlight of the film noir genre, with its famously glib antihero at the centre – a man with a witty one-liner for every insult thrown his way.

Based on the Raymond Chandler pulp novel Farewell, My Sweet, this highly quotable adaptation is a quintessential film noir. With screenwriter John Paxton at the helm, the sharply scripted Murder, My Sweet expertly weaves together what are essentially three separate narratives. The film utilizes the traditional film noir tropes, complete with a flashback framing narrative and descriptive voice-over narration. Director Edward Dymtryk created a moody, atmospheric masterpiece. You can practically smell the whiskey that the characters chug down. Dymtryk and Paxton neatly knit the loose narrative threads together and the end result is a dark, seedy and occasionally violent ode to the crime dramas of Raymond Chandler.

Private investigator, Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), is hired by Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), a longtime crook recently sprung from jail after serving a lengthy sentence. Malloy is concerned about the whereabouts of his beloved moll Velma Valento, whom he hasn’t seen for the last six years. The case becomes a tougher nut to crack than Marlowe originally anticipated, leading him into a tangled web of deceit, bribery and theft.

The visuals lensed by cinematographer Harry J. Wilde explore the dark recesses of the human psyche through lavish visual concepts that literally reveal the state of paranoia in which Marlowe finds himself. A literal black haze moves over the screen as a fainting Marlowe narrates, “A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.” His bizarre hallucinations are conveyed by overlapping imagery and cobwebs that seem to literally cling to the screen and blur the audiences’ vision.

Dick Powell (left) and Claire Trevor.
Dick Powell portrays Marlowe as a world-weary “everyman” – even though his career may involve him in the happenings of the criminal underworld, his moral compass remains intact.
As Marlowe himself explains early on in the film: “I’m just a small businessman in a very messy business, but I like to follow through on a sale.” A former crooner in the musical genre, Powell was cast against type yet convincingly made the transition from a song-and-dance man to a P.I. antihero.

Anne Shirley plays Ann Grayle, a woman who teams with Marlowe when she discovers her father is involved in the mess surrounding the whereabouts of Velma Valento. Earnest and eager to help, Ann’s apparent na├»ve charm casts a spell over Marlowe, although her motivations are not always clear.

As Helen Grayle, Ann’s bombshell stepmother, Claire Trevor is flawless, the very embodiment of the femme fatale. She’s platinum blonde and all legs – she’s introduced to the audience sitting curled up on the couch, like a predatory cat waiting to pounce. With her plunging necklines, glittering jewels and overtly sexual haughtiness, Helen is the type of woman who could lure a man into a life of corruption.

And then there’s Mike Mazurki, an absolute revelation as Moose Malloy. The former professional wrestler was more than just a craggy face with a body built like a piece of concrete. He gives a touching performance as a lovesick criminal who just wants to be reunited with his girlfriend.

Murder, My Sweet is ultimately a higher breed of film noir – highly quotable, expertly paced and well acted. There are few finer examples of the genre.

FINAL GRADE: A

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Movie Review: Shame

Shame (2011)
Written and Directed By: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan

"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."

When it comes to sophomore efforts there's always that fear that a director won't live up to the same level of excellence achieved in his debut. However, after the 2008 film Hunger catapulted British director Steve McQueen (and his star Michael Fassbender) to stardom, his follow-up film is among the best of 2011. It's also one of the most explicit theatrical releases in years and is bound to stir up some controversy. 

Controversy aside, Shame is ultimately a character study, a close look at the isolating nature of addiction. That gradual sense of separation from the tangible and the emotional that is experienced by the central figure in the film is something many can identify with in our current digital age. 

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is handsome, owns a beautiful apartment and owes his financial success to his cushy executive job. However, beneath the surface lies a chronic addiction -- one that requires Brandon to constantly, almost exhaustively, seek sexual release, albeit without ever finding true fulfillment. He follows a meticulous, rigid schedule each day -- beginning with masturbation in the shower and ending with picking up a prostitute at night. When his younger sister, Sissy (a wonderful Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment after a nasty breakup, she encrouches on his personal space, forcing Brandon to break out of his pattern and come face-to-face with his addiction and obsessive nature. Their relationship is not a traditional one shared between two siblings. With Brandon and Sissy there is an unspoken tension lying just beneath the surface -- somewhere along the way, something happened between them, although the viewer is left without answers which only adds to our unease. 

Brandon's lack of real connection with the people around him coincides with the films subtler theme of humanity's gradual loss of basic connection in the modern world. The New York in which Brandon lives is seen as cold and unfriendly, a place filled with concrete buildings and self-involved people. His is a world where the sun never shines and Brandon must go through the motions of interacting with the people he meets in lounges and bars with his egotistical boss (and only friend), David (James Badge Dale), a man who communicates with his own young son via web cam. 

Some of the most revealing scenes in Shame are often the ones that require a very limited use of dialogue. In an early scene, we witness the the interaction between Brandon and a pretty woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway late at night. While both ride the train in silence, sitting across from one another, a wordless exchange  is passed between them. The scene is astounding in its ability to go through a range of emotions in just under three minutes -- from initial attraction, to flirtation, to devastating regret. It's a shockingly powerful scene that is a highlight in an already excellent film. 

Fassbender gives the best male performance of 2011, to date. His Brandon is a man of obsession and desperation and Fassbender is able to convey this through his expressive eyes and quietly commanding presence. Watching him struggle to connect with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a colleague he asks out on a date, allows the viewer to see another side of Brandon -- the charming man beneath the cold surface is briefly and touchingly revealed. But his attempts at human connection are more often than not in vain. Fassbender's performance is nothing short of astonishing. 

Shame hits you like a ton of bricks and sits heavily on your shoulders. It stays with you long after the final credits. It's an absorbing, piercing look at isolation and addiction -- a true work of art that requires more than one viewing, in order to pick up on its smaller nuances. You'll leave the theatre with conflicting emotions -- an effect all great films should have on its audience. 

FINAL GRADE: A

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Film Noir Series: Dillinger (1945)

I've recently started blogging for the Toronto-based film website, Next Projection. They also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

I'll be doing a Film Noir series for them, which I'm really excited about. You can check out my first post HERE. I also plan on putting them on here, to help me keep track.

The first film on my list: Dillinger (1945).

Before establishing himself as a weathered thug in films like Born to Kill (1947) and Reservoir Dogs (1992), Lawrence Tierney made his major film debut playing one of America’s most notorious bank robbers.

Clocking in at a brisk 70 minutes, this mostly forgotten crime noir chronicles the illicit career of John Dillinger at breakneck speed. Having robbed more than a dozen banks with his rag-tag group of associates, Dillinger joined the ranks of Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd as the top newsmakers of the Depression era.

However, Dillinger is not a traditional biopic. The Oscar nominated screenplay by Philip Yordan played it fast and loose with the facts. Yordan chose not to dwell on the motivations that saw Dillinger resort to a life of crime. The film is, essentially, a largely fictitious glossing over of the infamous career criminal who, at the time of the films release, had only been dead for 11 years.


Lawrence Tierney (right) as Dillinger.
A B-movie from Monogram Pictures, the tiny “poverty row” studio that made a quick buck with low budget films between 1931-1953, Dillinger went on to gross more than 4 million dollars at the box office – this despite its obvious flaws.  At the time, Dillinger defied the Production Code’s unofficial rule to relegate real life criminal activity to the background in Hollywood films, likely the reason behind its popularity.

No one else in Hollywood would touch the story of Public Enemy #1, leaving the door open for Monogram to adapt Dillinger’s exploits to its own liking.

Riddled with inconsistencies, Dillinger begins with a framing narrative that is quickly abandoned. A theatre audience listens as Dillinger’s elderly father recounts his sons’ misadventures. The film than moves into a flashback of Dillinger’s early introduction to a life of crime and the story proceeds from there. There is no concluding scene that features Dillinger’s father finishing his account.

Another curiosity comes out in the DVD commentary (featuring John Milius, the director of 1973’s Dillinger) where it’s revealed that the 1945 film actually used stock footage in some of its prominent scenes. Most notably, the tear gas robbery sequence was lifted straight from Fritz Lang’s 1937 film You Only Live Once – complete with a close-up shot of the films star, Henry Fonda, peering out of the back of his car.

Although some have argued against the films classification as film noir, director Max Nosseck utilized traditional narrative devices and visuals often associated with the genre. With its use of flashbacks, albeit briefly, and reductionist lighting, Dillinger features sequences with heavy rain, thick clouds of cigarette smoke and spinning newspapers with bold titles revealing Dillinger’s criminal activity to propel the plot forward. In terms of its aesthetic qualities, the film as aged remarkably well.

However, its strongest facet is Tierney; he makes for a shifty, anxious and explosive Dillinger. Although the character development is kept to the bare minimum you understand he’s a man to be feared – the type of guy who would take serious offense to being called a “two-bit chiseler”.  His barely concealed rage simmers just beneath the surface. Tierney doesn’t strive to make Dillinger likeable, opting instead to portray him as an outright villain with questionable motivations.

Dillinger is strange hybrid of gangster flick, film noir and docudrama, without ever quite achieving success as any of the three in terms of storytelling. Its simplistic approach to storytelling propels the action forward, however it ultimately leaves little impact outside of Tierney’s performance.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Movie Rant: When Theatres Screen Classic Films

James Dean, a Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
I've found a new obsession and I need to start making it a weekly thing.

About three weeks ago I finally got around to actually seeing a film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox here in Toronto. I've been there before, most notably for the Tim Burton exhibit a few months back. But, for whatever reason, it has taken me this long to actually buy a ticket to see a movie there.

Maybe I was subconsciously waiting for the right one, the perfect movie for the perfect first experience.

Well, it came along in the form of a Spotlight on director Nicholas Ray. I bought two tickets to see Rebel Without a Cause and took my sister. It's unlikely we could have found a better film to introduce us to the TIFF experience. I got to watch an iconic film in all its scratchy, crackly glory. No high-definition Blu-Ray edition just popped into a player. No DVD anniversary edition. It was actual film. It popped, cracked and showed its wear and tear.

I've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in an anniversary theatrical run a few years back, but it was essentially just the DVD copy projected on the screen. Still incredible, but not quite the same experience.

Another miracle of miracles: the audience remained silent throughout the entire screening of Rebel. No talking, no cellphone-checking and no heaving around their weight in restlessness. You could have heard a pin drop. They laughed at the right moments, but other than that, nada. It's rare to have such a perfect viewing experience.

I told my friends about the great experience I had while watching Rebel Without a Cause (oh, and seeing James Dean on the big screen for the first time wasn't too shabby, either) and I recommended that we see a movie together sometime soon.

Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986)
That "sometime soon" happened to be this past Friday night. We had a girls night and chose John Hughes' teen angst movie, Pretty in Pink. To see that wonderful piece of melodramatic teen fluff ("What about prom, Blaine? What about prom?") on screen was equally awesome -- ragged and scratched, it looked and sounded so good.

You could almost feel the audience drowning in nostalgia. With its fantastic soundtrack and quotable lines, it would appear that John Hughes movies are still meant to be viewed in their natural state -- on the big screen.

There's just something about seeing your favourite films on the big screen, especially if they were originally released before your time. To have that opportunity to go back and enjoy it the way film audiences of the past did is a huge treat for any film buff.

This must be the equivalent of what music buffs feel when they sit back with a glass of wine and listen to their vinyl records.

What classics or old favourites have you seen on the big screen?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Movie Review: My Week with Marilyn

Williams and Redmayne as Marilyn and Colin
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Based on the Memoir By: Colin Clark
Directed By: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Ormond and Judi Dench

There are certain stars from a bygone era of Hollywood that are difficult to interpret on the silver screen. Imagine actually finding someone who could successfully portray Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor or Paul Newman? Marilyn Monroe was once put into this category -- few dared to try and portray her in a film until now. Some celebrities are just too big and any attempt to give a genuine glimpse at the star will likely come off as little more than imitation. My Week with Marilyn succeeds with some aspects of Monroe's personality, but disappointingly not in other areas.

Based on the 1995 publication of the personal diary of British documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn focuses on how a 23-year-old Colin (Eddie Redmayne) became the third assistant director to Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) during the tumultuous production of the 1957 film, The Prince and the Showgirl. A dream job for a film buff like Colin, he recognizes his upcoming opportunity to meet Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) in person will be a dream come true. What he didn't anticipate was the friendship that would blossom between them over a brief period.

The script by Adrian Hodges leaves enough room for Williams to shine, but any chance she had at truly running away with the picture was diminished by the fact that the film frustratingly centres on Colin -- a man who claims to have shared moments of genuine love with the megastar. It's a shame too because Williams will likely prove some naysayers wrong (myself included) who thought she was woefully miscast as the blond bombshell. Although there are moments when Williams stumbles in her performance (she's never entirely convincing as Marilyn, which is disappointing), she does have a couple of lovely, subdued moments -- less silly, flirty Marilyn and more vulnerable Marilyn with tears of disappointment in her eyes.

These glimpses that we do get of Marilyn (albeit through the eyes of the lovesick Colin) is of a beautiful and sad woman who seems in over her head -- things we already knew about Monroe. This inability to bring anything new to the table nearly topples the film in the first half when most of the attention remains focused on the dull Colin.

Williams as Monroe
The underutilized secondary characters who share scenes on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl is a disappointing misuse of its cast. Halfway through the film it's easy to forget Judi Dench was in the picture as Dame Sybil Thorndike and audiences are expected to care that Colin has slighted some nice costume girl named Lucy (Emma Watson) who really, really liked him until Marilyn came along. Julia Ormond, a lovely actress, is, alas, no Vivien Leigh.

That being said, there's an interesting film buried underneath it all -- and this is where My Week with Marilyn improves. There's an early scene that shows what this movie could have been when a script read-through briefly touches on the changing norms in Hollywood during the 1950s in terms of acting technique. Olivier, a legend of the stage, is dumbfounded by the fact that Monroe needs her acting coach Paula Strasberg to work her through the art of a "Method" performance. He struggles to understand why Marilyn can't simply "play pretend" like other actors of his generation. In the same scene, Marilyn stares admiringly at Olivier as he reads through his portion of the script, suggesting she is uncomfortable in her own skin when it comes to acting alongside the longtime pros she respects, like Sir Laurence. Perhaps the film would have benefited more had it actually been about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl and the clashes between Marilyn and Olivier. Both were incredibly insecure actors at the time -- he, because of the changing art of performance on film and her, because she struggled to be taken seriously as an actress on an almost daily basis. Showcasing the incompatibility of these two actors would have allowed Williams and Branagh to really let their talents loose -- both of them had their finest moments in the film occur when they were together.

But, the focus is on the time Colin spent with Marilyn. Oddly enough, what allegedly happened between Colin and Marilyn fails to live up to Colin's over-dramatic narration at the beginning and end of the film. While Colin waxes poetic about how he "understood" Marilyn and how they shared this glorious bond, you realize there was actually very little that was real between them -- only a handful of flirtatious laughs and a couple of spooning sessions after some sight-seeing tours around London.

A woman often defined by her sexuality or the men in her lives, it does her legacy a great disservice to have her relegated somewhat to the background. All those burning questions you may have had about what Marilyn was like when she was away from the cameras still remain largely unanswered in the film.

The film amounts to little more than a lopsided venture that struggles to put both Colin and Marilyn front and centre. The plodding pace (especially in the middle of the film) and heavy-handed direction diminish whatever excitement the film was able to build in certain scenes. More frustrating than enjoyable, the real standouts are Williams and, especially, Branagh -- another instance of a couple of performances being better than the overall finished product. If only the film had been about Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. Marilyn deserved a better picture.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Friday, November 18, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Written and Directed By: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy
  
"There's no such thing as dead or alive; we just exist."

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a disturbing examination of a young woman's damaged psyche. Part psychological thriller and part quietly restrained family drama, the film is brimming with crackling tension that lies just under its surface.

When Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) suddenly reappears after a two year absence, her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy) struggle to reconnect with the strangely subdued young woman. Lucy suspects Martha has just escaped an abusive boyfriend, but doesn't press the matter -- she's just happy to have her sister home again. Little does Lucy know, but Martha has been under the influence of Patrick (John Hawkes), a Charles Manson-like cult leader, who runs a Catskills commune on an abandoned farm. As he surrounds himself with lost, lonely youngsters he randomly picks up (specifically women), Patrick subjects them to rituals of drug abuse and rape, threatening bodily harm to any who dares to leave his absurd "family."

Olsen gives the kind of breakthrough performance that most up-and-comers can only dream about. With her bizarre and inappropriate behaviour around her sister and brother-in-law, Martha experiences a confusion of identity. Life on the commune was rife with drugs and group sex -- therefore, returning to her old reality with her sister is not an easy transition. While on the commune she was given a new name ("You look like a Marcy May", says Patrick) and she was allowed a new lease on life after abandoning her sister after the death of their mother. Olsen gives a powerful performance, never quite allowing the audience inside the head of this strange, sad, lonely young woman. One minute she's sitting quietly, letting her hair fall over her eyes, and the next minute a powerful memory of her time spent on the commune rears its head and she lashes out at those around her. An unreliable narrator, we question the accuracy of Martha's memory. She even asks her sister at one point: "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something's a memory or if it's something you dreamed?" Olsen perfectly portrays just how difficult reintegration can be after experiencing a personal trauma. It's the stuff Academy Award nominations are made of.

Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes
The supporting cast is just as compelling, especially Hawkes (a Best Supporting Actor nominee last year for Winter's Bone). Mesmerizing and downright creepy, Hawkes' Patrick is an enigma -- both terrifying and possessive.

Writer-director Sean Durkin, in his debut feature, has brilliantly constructed a fascinating commentary on the familial restrictions imposed on us by those we live with, despite our supposed free will. As Toronto Star critic, Peter Howell, wrote in his review of the film: "Durkin draws unmistakable analogies between the demands of two very different family groups, both of which claim to offer liberation of the mind and body yet deliver something far short of that." With a debut feature as excellent as Martha Marcy May Marlene, we should expect to see a lot more projects from Durkin in the near future.

The drained cinematography (beautifully lensed by Jody Lee Lipes) lends an oppressive feel to the film -- even when characters are outdoors you feel as if there is nowhere to run and danger lurks around every corner. It successfully visualizes for the audience the paranoia and altered reality Martha experiences. In Martha's eyes, the world around her is cold and isolating.

Some will likely grumble about the abrupt ending (it's amazing how many people still need films to tie together all the loose strings into a neat bow); however, the ambiguity of the final scene perfectly suits the overall tone of the film. It taps into the paranoia that Martha experiences, leaving the audience to come up with their own interpretation of what exactly happened to Martha (Marcy May Marlene).

FINAL GRADE: A-

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Movie Rant: Why I'm Not Completely Sold on the 'My Week With Marilyn' Trailer

While on my lunch break today, a colleague and I talked  about the trailer for My Week with Marilyn.

Neither of us are completely sold on it.

I'll still watch the movie, despite the fact that the early buzz has been pretty mediocre. I'll give most films a fair chance, especially ones that centre around Hollywood icons from the past. However, there a couple of things about the trailer that left me feeling a little disappointed.

1) Michelle Williams. I was initially excited when I first heard that she landed the role. One of the most talented actresses of her generation, Williams improves with each performance (most recently in Blue Valentine). Although she actually looks nothing like Marilyn Monroe I really liked a lot of the image stills from the set while it was still in production.

But when the trailer came along recently, something didn't feel right. I felt like I was just watching an actress try to portray Monroe -- and not doing a particularly convincing job of it. It was surprisingly underwhelming. I know, I know ...I haven't actually seen the film yet and I should reserve my judgment until then, but, as my co-worker, Cara, put it -- if you didn't know the movie centred around Monroe, you'd wonder what the hell was happening. The performance looks more than a little awkward but I hope it proves to be wonderful once I actually see the film. I hope.

2) There's also the fact that the film should have been about Marilyn herself -- not some British guy she may or may not have spent one full week with. Monroe deserves her own picture. She was a fascinating women in her own right; however, she's usually only ever associated with the men in her life. I'd rather see an in-depth biography on her rise and fall and how Hollywood continues to idolize her.

I know most people will disagree, but I think a significant part of why I didn't like the trailer was simply because the story looks dull in comparison to something that could have (should have) focused more on Monroe herself.

I'm a lot less excited about the film now. 

But, that's just my two cents. And my co-workers. ;)

What do you think of the trailer?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Movie Rant: Why I'm Happy Billy Crystal is the Oscar Host

Back in September I blogged about how I was less than thrilled to hear the news about Eddie Murphy receiving the hosting gig for this years Oscars ceremony. With his pal Brett Ratner no longer at the helm as producer of the telecast after his ignorant comments on the Howard Stern Show, Murphy has resigned (who still actually thinks it's a good idea to be interviewed by Stern anyway? I mean, really? When has that ever ended well?).

I was definitely no fan of Ratner's beforehand (he makes mediocre blockbusters, hardly someone I'd call worthy of one of the most prestigious jobs in movie biz), but now I most certainly dislike him even more. As for Murphy, he was funny once. I can vaguely recall laughing at his earlier films and old reruns of his stint on Saturday Night Live but that was, what? -- 20 years ago now?

Needless to say, after all the drama with Ratner and Murphy leaving the Oscars (good riddance, anyway) I was crossing my fingers that Billy Crystal would be the go-to guy as his replacement (don't even get me started on the silly Muppets for Oscars Host campaign on Twitter ...sure, they are funny and I love them, but hosting the whole telecast? No.).

When Brian Grazer was announced as the new producer for the 2012 Oscars yesterday I knew that the Academy had come to their senses and hired someone who would make sure the ceremony remained a classy affair that was, first and foremost, a celebration of film. I totally understand their initial desire to hire someone young like Ratner to bring in a new generation of fans but, really, the audience they wanted to bring in to boost their ratings likely wouldn't have seen the majority of the nominated films anyway, so why bother?

I remember when the Oscars used to actually mean something. Sure, there have always been some controversy over who deserved to win what and when, but, for the most part, the right person was deserving of his or her victory. That hasn't been the case of late -- with far too many Best Picture nominees and too many actors nominated for average performances -- the Oscars have become more like the Golden Globes.

Not that the hiring of Brian Grazer or Billy Crystal will fix these problems. But I guess I'm just a little nostalgic for the days when I was a kid -- when really great films were nominated and the ceremony was filled with beautiful montages featuring vintage film clips.

I adore Billy Crystal. Always have. I'm so happy he'll be hosting the Oscars again and I have no doubt he will charm the socks off of everyone. He's hilarious, classy and knows his film.

I know some will likely thumb their nose at the news about Billy Crystal, but he'll do the show justice. While it may not fix the problems with the Oscars -- or bring it back to a time when it was relevant -- at the very least, Crystal will remind us of what it was once like during the epic ceremonies of the past.

What are your thoughts on the whole Oscar controversy this year?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Movie Review: Troll 2

Last weekend, three friends and I decided to kick off the Halloween weekend with our very first viewing the "so bad it's good" Troll 2. We all found we had something to say about this ...classic.

There's something to be said for a truly awful film that has found a cult following to match that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or, more recently, The Room. What is it that audiences find so appealing about Troll 2? The movie, as the documentary Best Worst Movie illustrates, has worn its awfulness as a badge of pride in the 20 years since its straight-to-VHS debut in 1990.

When a family arrives in the vacant town of Nilbog they are exposed to a band of vegetarian goblins who turn their victims into green veggie goop before consuming them for dinner. The brilliant minds behind this premise? Italian "director" Claudio Fragasso and his partner, Rosella Drudi.

If you are looking for a low (very low) budget horror movie with unintentional laughs, surreal plot "twists" and some of the worst acting this side of Tommy Wiseau, than look no further than Troll 2. It's enduring popularity continues mainly because it just makes you feel so damn good!
-Laura (Twitter: @laura_grande13)

Here's what Emily Sadler (Twitter: @emmysadler) had to say about Troll 2.
Before Laura told me about Troll 2, I had never heard of it. As she and I are often reminded, there are a lot of movies I've never heard of, so I just figured Troll 2 was just some horror classic that somehow flew under my radar. That thought lasted until about two minutes later, when I watched the YouTube clip of Arnold's "Oh my gawwwwd!" scene from the movie. Slightly grossed out by the slimy, green stuff and pretty amused by the fly on Arnold's forehead, I knew immediately that I needed to see this movie.

I must say, I'm not one to sit through a horrible movie just for the sake of appreciating the terrible-ness of it all. But there's something so wonderfully bad about Troll 2 that I can't quite explain.

And, here are some comments from Cara Waterfall (Twitter: @belledejournal).
The best thing about Troll 2 is its earnestness: without it, you're left with a cut-rate flick whose plotline has the cohesiveness of a bowl of Jell-O. But when you factor in an overzealous, autocratic director, a screenplay that sounds like it was fed into (and spat out of) Babelfish and lovely bad actors, from an Elvira-type sorceress to a freckled boy better suited for Chef Boyardee commercials than cinema, then you've got: the "best worst movie."

Here is our compiled list of Life Lessons We Learned From Troll 2:
1) Vegetarians are the devil.
2) Never eat green shit. Hungry? Stay away from that green-shit sandwich and green-frosted cake.
3) That awkward moment when you shut the car door when the person inside is still talking to you? That happens in movies too!
4) Looking to spice up your love life? Just add corn!
5) Sometimes, you can piss on hospitality. Literally.
6) To avoid hunger pains after one missed meal, tighten your belt exactly one notch.
7) Always keep a double decker bologna sandwich (on a hamburger bun) in your backpack. You never know when it might save the day!
8) People can actually have names like Gene Freak ...and you'll just have to come to terms with that as best you can.
9) The best way to comfort a terrified, scantily-clad woman alone in the forest is to tackle her to the ground.
10) Always trust the ghost of your grandfather -- especially if he's been to hell and back. Chances are, he'll have learned a few goblin-killing tricks down there.
11) If you put some food in a brown paper bag and throw it, it will actually fly through the air like a frisbee!
12) To avoid those intense family moments, make the situation better by breaking out into a rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
13) Your older sister will always be a sexier dancer than you! 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Movie Rant: Why Andy Serkis Should Get an Oscar Nomination

Andy Serkis as Caesar
According to multiple sources, English actor Andy Serkis has signed on for the sequel to this summers monster hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. 

As the brilliant chimpanzee Caesar, Serkis was covered in motion capture technology and CGI -- but not, by any means, buried beyond recognition. Thanks to his powerful performance, the character of Caesar shines through all the computer graphics, resulting in one of the finest performances of the year to date.

Serkis, who got his big break as the emotionally tortured Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has perfected the art of giving wonderfully heartfelt performances while physically obscured by technology. It will likely be years before anyone else comes close to his ability to emote through the motion capture censors.

Fox recently announced that they would be launching an Oscar campaign for Serkis (no word yet on whether or not it will be for Best Actor or Supporting Actor, although he may have a better shot in the latter category).

The potential dilemma? The Academy, and even some filmgoers, may be reluctant to nominate an actor who performed under motion capture technology.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about the idea of nominating someone who appears as an animated character on screen. There are some, like myself, who believe it's requires the same talent and dedication as any other type of performance, while others may deem it as something that doesn't quite feel legitimate.

The first time I can remember this "debate" coming up was in 2003 when there was talk that Ellen DeGeneres could potentially earn a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her voice work as Dory in Pixar's Finding Nemo. In the end, there was no nomination but it was, arguably, the first time an animated performance was seriously considered an Oscar contender.

With the advances in motion capture technology, the game changed. It was no longer simply "voice work" -- it had evolved into a complete and physical performance by an actor. The actor behind the technology interacts with his or her fellow cast members, performing alongside them as equals. To brush off the amount of work Serkis put into his role as Caesar would be a mistake -- the Academy already did it to him once before by snubbing him outright when he should have been considered a major contender for his performance in The Lord of the Rings.

Zoe Saldana in Avatar
With the 2009 release of Avatar it was next to impossible to listen to Oscar talk without hearing the name Zoe Saldana thrown around in the mix for the Best Actress category. I was relieved when she was passed over for  a nomination -- not only was the performance aggravatingly over-the-top, but it didn't feel right to have a film like Avatar heralded as the first to have an actor nominated for a motion capture performance. I kept thinking that, once Peter Jackson got around to directing The Hobbit, Serkis would have another shot at a nomination. I didn't anticipate the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes or the critical accolades Serkis earned in the role.

Serkis paved the way for actors who dare to venture into the physically demanding world of motion capture performance. It takes a certain level of talent to convey subtle nuances through a CGI mask. For his groundbreaking work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (and the upcoming Hobbit films) and his motion capture performances in King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the upcoming The Adventures of TinTin, Serkis has become, without a doubt, the go-to guy for this type of challenge. 

As Serkis himself said in a recent interview with Britain's The Telegraph: "I am a bit evangelical, I know, but performance-capture is still misunderstood. Ten years down the line people say, 'Oh, so you did the voice for Gollum?' Or people go, 'You did the movements for Kong?' It's frustrating because I play Gollum and I play Kong. It is acting."

The Academy Awards need to get with the times -- and, should there still be enough open nomination spots come the February telecast, there's no better time to start than now with Serkis' performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.