Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hollywood Tidbits: Some Like It Hot

My obsession with Some Like It Hot continues, one year later.

I got the late, great Tony Curtis' last book, The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie for Christmas. I started reading it this morning and I haven't been able to put it down.

Curtis had a really simple, engaging style of writing. It's more conversational -- like he's narrating this high point in his film career directly onto the page.

There are those (film critics, celebrities and the general public) who label Curtis as an outright liar and paint him as an opportunistic man prone to exaggeration. Did he or did he not impregnate Marilyn Monroe? Did they really have a torrid, top secret romance? Curtis says yes, while others point out that Monroe isn't around to tell her side of the story. Nor is the film's director Billy Wilder or his co-star Jack Lemmon. Curtis wrote his book in 2009, many, many years after the deaths of Monroe, Lemmon and Wilder (and a year before his own).

Regardless, I take everything Curtis wrote with a grain of salt. I know to make sure I don't fall into any traps as I read The Making of Some Like It Hot. But damned if the man doesn't spin a great behind-the-scenes yarn. I'm a sucker for those largely unknown Hollywood dramas that often played out in between takes, I'm only 60 pages into the book, but here are some interesting (and likely true) tidbits in this gospel according to Curtis:

* He was once roommates with Marlon Brando for four months: "I respected him. But I wasn't interested in the Method. He was great because he was Marlon, not because of the Method. I thought it was phoney. Why complicate the job of acting? Memorize your lines. Learn the part. Find out what the director wants. Then show up on time and act. This idea of trying to remember when your sister stole your peanut butter sandwich so you can give an angry performance is bullshit. If you can't turn it on by yourself, you don't belong in front of the camera." (p.39)

++ An interesting commentary on the much respected Method acting technique (introduced by Brando), to say the least.

* Marilyn Monroe's intelligence: "Marilyn was not unintelligent. She was bright, perceptive and insightful -- but only about other people. When it came to herself, or to issues relating to herself, she didn't have a clue. She needed constant reassurance." (p.39)

* His first encounter with Marilyn: "We walked to my car and I opened the door for her. I got behind the wheel, drove out the gate, and turned left, heading for Hollywood. I angled the review mirror a little so I could see her face. To my surprise she winked at me. We laughed." (p.31)

* The first time he and Jack Lemmon walked in front of the cast and crew dressed as women: "I blushed under the makeup and let the actor in me take over. I launched into a little routine. I was coy. I was reluctant ...When Jack came out he did it in a big way. He was in character as Daphne. He flew out, twirling and pirouetting. He danced ...I just stared. How the fuck could he do that? I was envious, but it was the first and last time. I loved the guy." (p. 59)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Movie Review: Somewhere

Somewhere (2010)
Starring: Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning
Written and Directed By: Sophia Coppola

This was one of my most-anticipated films of 2010. I love Sophia Coppola. I think Lost in Translation (2003) is one of the best films of the 2000s. It may be hard for her to top what she managed to achieve with that film. I also thought The Virgin Suicides (1999) was an excellent directorial debut and I even enjoyed Marie Antoinette (2006) even though there are many who despised it.

Somewhere is Coppola's most self-indulgent film. It has long, monotonous scenes of nothing. As a result, the viewer is left with an acute understanding of the point she is trying to make while getting a little restless at the same time. Take for example the opening scene. Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) drives his expensive (and loud) car around and around in endless circles on a sunny, dusty patch of land in L.A. County. The car circles the entire track at least four times before coming to a stop. Coppola has made her point -- Johnny Marco is aimless, restless and is quickly going nowhere in life. However, it is at the expense of her audience who may become detached and alienated right from the long opening scene.

That being said, Coppola has this knack for exploring an atmosphere. That talent is on full display in Somewhere. Like her previous films, Somewhere is less a cohesive narrative and more of a series of vignettes that allow the viewer a glimpse into the lives of Johnny and his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). The atmosphere on full display is the small bubble Johnny lives in -- which consists of an endless stream of parties and publicity junkets, his near-empty room at the infamous Chateau Marmont and his aimless drives around Hollywood. When Cleo comes to stay with him for a few weeks because her mother needs "time off," Johnny and Cleo embark on a series of little "get-to-know-you" father-daughter bonding moments. Whether spending time together in their massive hotel suite in Italy or simply playing ping-pong near the Chateau Marmont swimming pool, Cleo suddenly provides meaning and purpose to Johnny's life. Sometimes a person's happiness, whether you are rich or poor, can be as simple as having a loving companion at your side.

Somewhere has a very European minimalism feel to its construction. It felt French, if that makes any sense. That minimalist approach isolates Johnny and Cleo in this vapid Hollywood environment. Despite that setting, there is nothing vapid or Hollywood about their bonding experiences. The film excels most when the two lead actors are on the screen together.

Coppola had Dorff and Fanning hang out alone together for weeks leading up to the start of filming. That tactic paid off as the two of them have an undeniable and completely believable chemistry. Johnny treats Cleo less like a daughter and more like an equal partner, suggesting that while Johnny may not have natural paternal instincts when it comes to discipline (he takes Cleo gambling in Las Vegas), he loves his daughter. In a film of long, aimless scenes, it's the performances of Dorff and Fanning that keep the viewer invested in movie. Dorff may not be the most interesting actor, but he does a solid job in Somewhere -- based on his own stalled Hollywood career, Dorff is perfectly cast in the role. However, Fanning is the real star here -- she's an adorable, talented and pretty young woman who is a dozen times more charming than her precocious, overrated older sister, Dakota. I have an appreciation for child actors who actually act like the children they are in their roles, instead of going the wise-beyond-their-years route. Fanning gives a subtle, nuanced performance that is so good that I hope she gets a Best Supporting Actress nod at the Oscars. Her scenes with Dorff and Chris Pontius (the Jackass star plays Johnny's stoner buddy, Sammy) are the highlights of the film.

In the end, Somewhere feels a little hit and miss. While there were some genuinely moving scenes there were also times when I simply just wanted to know a bit more about Johnny and Cleo. I wanted at least one stand-alone scene where they come to terms with one another, as Charlotte and Bob did a few times in Lost in Translation. What was their relationship like before this extended bonding period? How does Johnny really feel about his fame? We know that he's depressed and lonely and isolated in his hotel room, but we don't know when or why those feelings started. That being said, Coppola tends to leave things unsaid -- it's up to the viewer to read into the characters' actions and decide for themselves. Sophia Coppola has never disappointed, though. She remains a unique voice in the world of Hollywood, choosing to quietly focus on people instead of cars, money or extended action sequences.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 18


I've really slacked on this 30 Day Movie Meme, but I haven't completely forgotten it! It will get done one of these days. When I saw what the topic was for Day 18 I knew, instantly, which two characters I'd write about.

Josephine "Jo" March is based on the character from Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, Little Women. My favourite film adaptation is the 1949 version starring June Allyson as Jo (it also featured Elizabeth Taylor as bratty Amy and Janet Leigh as the maternal Meg). More than Winona Ryder (in 1994) and more than even Katherine Hepburn (in 1933), Allyson captured the essence of Jo March -- that vibrant, tomboyish, larger-than-life young woman whose only disadvantage seemed to be that she was born in the wrong time period (the film is set in the mid- to late- 19th-century). I can completely relate to Jo's more obvious character traits and personal passions. I can relate to her loud voice, coarse language and her embarrassing foot-in-mouth moments. 

I can also relate to her tendency to sob like a baby while reading a sad piece of literature, her passion for writing and becoming a published author, her outlandish imagination, her drama (she secretly desires to be an actress) and her desire to travel and see the world, even if it means leaving behind her beloved home and family. I can even sympathize with her awkward position with Laurie, a man who cares dearly for her but for whom she only views as a close friend. Even her back and forth indecision as to the appealing (or unappealing) prospects of getting married one day is something I can identify with myself. I love watching this film (I usually try to watch it at least once a year) because it makes me laugh to watch hyper-active, emotionally over-the-top Jo try to figure out what she wants out of life, usually using her charming and romantic rhetoric. In the end, she winds up a published author, has her own independence and falls in love with a handsome older German professor she met while living on her own ...that would be nice. 

Charlotte is Sophia Coppola's main female lead in her 2003 film, Lost in Translation. Played by Scarlett Johansson in her breakout role, Charlotte is in Tokyo while her photographer husband is off on a shoot. Having accompanied him to Japan, Charlotte finds herself rethinking the decisions that got her to this point in her young life. Along the way she develops a close bond with an aging actor, played by Bill Murray. The two of them, together, reconnect with the world outside their own personal problems. 

I love Sophia Coppola, mainly for making this film and creating the characters of Charlotte and Bob Harris. Her keen intuition and her complete understanding of how real characters should be written is sharply felt in this film. 

For everything energetic Jo March is, I can relate to some of Charlotte's much quieter attributes. I can relate to her restlessness at growing older. I can understand that disparity between being young but, for some reason, feeling a lot older than I should feel. I understand that curse of overanalyzing everything and rethinking past decisions. I too can be moody and have the tendency to make snap judgements of people of whom I know nothing about. I've travelled on my own before and, in general, I prefer it because you learn a lot about yourself when you are completely alone in a foreign country. You have to force yourself to interact with people you otherwise would never have said a word to had you been with a companion you knew. You get to appreciate the finer things when you don't have anyone else around to distract you. That being said, it can be lonely and a little frightening at times but, ultimately, always worth it for the people you meet and the experiences you take back home with you. Even though Charlotte is technically in Japan with her husband, he's not really around, so she's left to her own resources. 

But, more than anything else, she just wants to connect with someone on a deeper level and have a good time while doing it. But, then again, don't we all?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Classic Film Review: An Affair To Remember

An Affair To Remember (1957) 
Starring: Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr
Directed By: Leo McCarey

"Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories ...we've already missed the spring."
~Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr)~

I'm not usually one to fall for films that come under the genre of romance. Of course, I have my exceptions; it's just that I find the large majority of the ones I've seen to be too sappy and saccharin for my taste. I like a dose of sour with my sweet. If I'm going to watch a film about romance, I prefer mine with a dose of reality.

An Affair To Remember is one of those exceptions, thanks in large part to its two lead actors. If any romance could carry me away on the wave of a gooey love affair, this would be the one. The film is, essentially, the original tearjerker romance that set the tone for the films of that genre that we see today.

Nicky Ferrante (Cary Grant) is a rich and handsome playboy who has everything handed to him on a silver platter. He is constantly surrounded by women who want to be with him and men who want to be him. Although engaged to an heiress, Ferrante travels to Europe alone for a trip. On his return ocean cruise that is bound for New York, Nicky meets nightclub singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr). Over the course of a few days, the two fall in love despite the fact that both are in long-term relationships back home. They struggle to keep their clandestine affair a secret but soon the whole ship finds out and the two fear the news may be discovered by their significant others' back home in New York. Before parting ways, the two agree that, if they both still have strong feelings for one another in six months time, they will meet at the top of the Empire State Building. However, a tragedy prevents them from reuniting and the two are left wondering if they will ever see each other again.

The chemistry between Grant and Kerr is undeniable -- the two flirt and fight with equally charming zeal. Whether playing coy with one another or openly professing their love, they make the viewer believe that these two wealthy people truly could fall in love as quickly as they did. Their initial denial of their feelings for one another only makes their attraction stronger. Grant and Kerr were both seasoned British actors; however, their inability to mask their natural accents while playing Americans was, at times, a little distracting. But, outside of that one (minor) issue, the film revolves around Nicky and Terry and the lovely performances of Grant and Kerr.

I found the film to be a series of highs and lows in terms of plotting. Despite its charming stars, An Affair To Remember is a little structurally uneven at points. For every lovely scene of character development (such as the wonderful extended scene where Nicky takes Terry to meet his sick grandmother) there is a distractingly unnecessary scene (the entire song and dance routine performed by the children that Terry teaches). The first half of the film is flirty and fun -- it's so enjoyable to watch Nicky and Terry get to know one another and struggle to keep their growing affection a secret from the gossip-seeking people aboard the ship. The film lags a bit in the second half when the two of them are separated. The script isn't strong enough to sustain the film if the two lead actors are apart. However, if nothing else, it does put the viewer on edge because we can't wait for the two of them to meet up again after so much time has passed.

The tragedy that prevents Nicky and Terry from meeting again six months after separating is exactly what you'd expect from those cliched romance films that insist on piling on the pain and strain of its two lovers. Back in 1957 I can see how this tragedy could have gripped an audience; however, watching it in 2011 is a little different. We've seen this plot device run into the ground -- a weak (although usually successful) attempt to manipulate audience emotion. Therefore, I had to try and watch it as though it were 1957, but the 2011 movie watcher in me rolled my eyes a little at the drama of it all. I found other moments in the film (such as that aforementioned scene with the grandmother) much more emotionally effective than the contrived tragedy that keeps Nicky and Terry apart.

However, something happens in the end to change the eye-rolling back into a genuine love for the film: Grant and Kerr make their final scene with one another work so well that you forget about the soggy, emotional drama that pulled them apart in the first place and just rejoice in the fact that you get to see them share the screen again. That type of magic doesn't happen in every film. The combination of talented actors and their natural chemistry with one another is what helps raise An Affair To Remember above and beyond your average, mediocre romantic film. As a result, it deserves its place as a Hollywood classic and not only for the influence it had on the romance genre, in general.

This is one of those "golden oldies" I really enjoyed, although I wouldn't list it amongst my overall absolute favourites.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Movie Review: The Fighter

The Fighter (2010)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo
Directed By: David O. Russell

The title suggests there is only one fighter, but David O. Russell's film is centred on two brawlers -- one an up-and-coming star, the other a crack-addicted one-hit wonder. Most will understandably assume it's Mark Wahlberg's Mickey Ward who is the fighter of the title; however, it could just as easily refer to Christian Bale's Dickie Eklund, who must battle his demons to regain the respect he lost when he became a drug addict and faded from the boxing scene.

Based on a true story, the film is set in 1993 when Mickey is on the verge of becoming a boxing superstar in his own right. Holding him back is his manager mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and his half-brother, Dickie, who enter Mickey into mismatched bouts that bring more physical pain than career gain. Dickie famously beat Sugar Ray Leonard in a 1978 fight that, even in 1993, remained controversial. Did Dickie actually outbox his famous opponent or did Sugar Ray simply trip and lose his footing? Still remembered as "the Pride of Lowell," the now-drug addled Dickie relives his brief former glory through his younger brother's rising star. It isn't until Mickey meets feisty bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), that he begins to question whether or not his family might be toxic and preventing him from reaching his full potential.

This is Wahlberg's third go-around with director Russell (following 1999's Three Kings  and 2004's I Heart Huckabees). Wahlberg, a dependable actor, does his best work with Russell. However, both actor and director are aware of the talented cast around them and, instead of Wahlberg going all out in the drama department, they let the supporting cast shine through. The story may be about Mickey, but he faces stiff competition from the fascinating slew of characters that walk in and out of his life.

Christian Bale leads the pack of supporting characters with his shocking physical and emotional transformation into Dickie Eklund. Bale lost an incredible amount of weight (although, it should be noted, not as much as he lost in 2004's The Machinist). He also thinned his hair (complete with bald spots) and dirtied his teeth to fully embody a man who still fancies himself the town's celebrity figure. His crack addiction is the worst-kept secret in the neighbourhood, but there's no denying the talent he once had, which is still evident as he trains his brother, Mickey. Dickie is both comic relief and a tragic character. Bale is almost scary-good with his black-rimmed and haunted eyes. You forget he's Christian Bale. His complete transformation into his role is admirable when compared to other actors who simply phone in their performances. Say what you will about Bale and his hot-headed temper, but the man is a genuine artist and he just might finally get that elusive Oscar this year.

In a handful of boxing movies, the women play background characters: The Girlfriend. The Wife. The Mother. While relegated to the background, they show up only to provide brief emotional support or get punched around themselves. Films about boxing tend to only be about men. In The Fighter, the women are just as strong, fascinating and hardened as their male counterparts.

Amy Adams once again proves that, if she stays away from lame rom-coms, she can be an exceptional actress. Her role as Charlene is strong and fierce; she's not a woman to be messed with and she wants nothing but the best for Mickey, even if that means convincing him to detach himself from his family. Her violent physical tilts and war of words with Micky's mother and seven sisters make for some of the best scenes in the film. She might be heading towards yet another Oscar nomination this year. In a recent interview with David Letterman, both Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro cited her as their favourite young actress working today. With friends like that in her corner, Adams should remain focused on starring in well-made cinematic gems.

Last, but not least, Melissa Leo is trashy and fabulous as Mickey's mother, Alice. With her horrifically permed and bleached hair, constant chain-smoking and stiletto heels, she's a force to be reckoned with and she doesn't let anyone forget that her two sons are her main source of pride and joy. Bale, Adams and Leo are all nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards and Oscar kudos are likely to follow.

The camera work is exceptional: you are literally placed in the middle of both Mickey's battles inside and outside the ring. Whether it's a boxing match against a formidable foe or a verbal battle with his head-strong mother, the camera chronicles the events as though recording a documentary. You feel every punch and every verbal blow.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Movie Review: True Grit

True Grit (2010)
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen

I've never had much interest in the Old West genre. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions (the main one being the 1989 miniseries, Lonesome Dove). I haven't read Charles Portis's novel, True Grit, nor have I seen the 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne. I went to see the 2010 remake solely for the fact that it was directed by the Coen Brothers. I'd watch anything they directed (Fargo and No Country For Old Men are each one of the best films of the 1990s and 2000s, respectively). It goes without saying that I had high hopes for True Grit.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is on a mission to either kill or arrest Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the farmhand who murdered her father for $150 and a couple of gold coins back home in Arkansas. She enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a gruff deputy marshal who is fond of the drink. Rooster has "true grit" a quality Mattie requires in the man she hires to go after her father's killer. Her only condition is that she be allowed to accompany Rooster on his quest for Chaney. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also hunting for Chaney for the murder of a senator, mainly because there is a large monetary award for the man who finds Chaney, dead or alive. Mattie, however, is adamant that Chaney should be brought to trial in Arkansas for her father's murder and not some dead senator. The unlikely threesome sets out from Fort Smith, each with their own personal motivations towards Chaney.

The Coens once again use cinematographer Roger Deakins to capture the dust and filth of life and travel in the America of the mid-1800s. Although not as visually beautiful as No Country For Old Men, Deakins and the Coens use muted colour tones and wide, panoramic shots of the land. It's visual storytelling at its finest: three characters dwarfed by both the land around them and the challenging task of bringing in Chaney.

This is probably the most un-Coen Brothers of their films. I had to keep reminding myself that it was their film. Their wicked sense of humour is absent (no scenes involving body parts protruding from wood chippers here). While there are light-hearted moments, it's obvious that the comedic scenes are lifted from the book and not from the minds of the Coens themselves. The plotting of the film is also much more concise. Not a lot of screen time is used in developing the relationships of the main characters. The reason the end result ultimately works so well is because of the performances of the three lead actors.

Bridges, fresh off his Oscar win last year for Crazy Heart, is at his finest. He's such a consistently excellent actor that he can make someone as gruff and coarse as Rooster a likeable, even sympathetic, unlikely hero. He nails both his dramatic and comedic scenes and his blossoming friendship with young Mattie is the heart and soul at the centre of the film.

Steinfeld is one of the finest young acting discoveries in recent memory. As Peter Howell said in his review of the film for the Toronto Star, "she's fourteen going on firecracker." In a role that could have easily turned into cringe-inducing precociousness in the hands of a lesser actress (or an actress who overplays her role in an attempt to be seen as "one of the grown-up" ...think Dakota Fanning), Steinfeld is a mature actress who understands her character is, ultimately, still a child. Although Mattie is well-educated and has an eviable whip-smart vocabulary, she's still a young girl with long braids mourning the death of her father. Steinfeld measures each emotion, allowing Mattie to have both "wise-beyond-her-years" moments as well as scenes where she shows Mattie's age by suddenly erupting in childish glee or wonder.

Bridges and Steinfeld are both wonderful and each has been courting (much deserved) Oscar buzz for their performances. However, upon leaving the film, it was Damon's role as LaBoeuf (pictured above left) that struck a cord. Here was a man who initially sneered at Mattie's insistence on joining in on the hunt for Chaney and who would punish her like the child she was when he felt she'd misbehaved. His derisive attitude towards her suggests the road travelling with him will likely be a long and unfortunate one for Mattie. However, the gradual friendship that grows between LaBoeuf and Mattie is almost as effective, if not moreso, than her relationship with Rooster. Mattie and LaBoeuf had to work harder for their mutual respect for one another and the chemistry between Damon and Steinfeld is palpable in every scene they share. I think I was most impressed by Damon's performance. He was playing against his usual type (no Jason Bourne-esque action sequences here) and his memorable and understated performance leaves the viewer wanting to know more about the mysterious LaBoeuf. Damon proved he is a damn fine actor, something we only previously caught glimpses of in the Bourne movies and in his underrated performance in The Talented Mr. Ripley

In the end, True Grit is a genuinely enjoyable film filled with great performances. Although not the Coen Brothers best effort, it's another solid piece of cinema to add to their filmography. The only two downsides to the film: (1) The concise storytelling didn't aways work in the Coen's favour as I wished we got to know at least a bit more about the three main characters and (2) the ending was so sudden and jarring to the point of being outright distracting and disappointing. The end of True Grit did not have the abrupt beauty and power of the final scene in No Country For Old Men. Instead (without giving any spoilers), it throws a bunch of information at the viewer than cues the end credits. I've always been a fan of "show, don't tell." However, if the director chooses not to let us see it (which is fine), than it would be better just to leave well enough alone (like in No Country).