Sunday, March 27, 2011

Movie Rant: Dumbed Down Dumas

Alexandre Dumas
This is exactly why I hate Hollywood sometimes. Not only do they rarely come up with an original concept, but when they do decide to borrow wonderful stories from people a million times more clever and articulate than they will ever be, they go and destroy their work. Rip it to shreds. Cheapen it in every way possible.

Alexandre Dumas is one of my favourite authors and The Three Musketeers is one of my favourite books ever. Period. That being said, it has never been adapted properly on film, which is a shame because, if put in the right hands, it could be epic. Instead, it's always played for laughs (which is odd because the book isn't exactly a slap-your-knee-hilarious piece of literature).

When I first heard that there was to be yet another remake of this classic, I cringed. But then I thought, it couldn't possibly be worse than that Kiefer Sutherland-Charlie Sheen-Chris O'Donnell fiasco from 1993, right? Apparently I was way off the mark. While I was too busy getting all excited about the prospect of the wonderful Christoph Waltz taking on the role of Cardinal Richelieu in this 2011 "re-imagining," I didn't stop to look at the rest of the film's credits -- Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich and director Paul W.S. Anderson, the man who gave us, ...wait for it ..., the Resident Evil franchise. Wow. Somewhere Dumas is rolling over in his grave, cussing in French.

The newly released trailer is one of the most blatant attempts at a quick cash-grab I've ever seen. The story of The Three Musketeers is butchered beyond recognition. Take a well-known (and much beloved) story, throw in slow-motion fight sequences and ...flying ships, apparently ...and you have an instant blockbuster, Dumas be damned ...

I propose banning all remakes of literary classics unless they have loyal scripts and are directed by (and starring) legitimately talented people. Until then, I'll just have to turn my back and hope that other film lovers will do the same. Out of sight, out of mind. If this makes millions and millions of dollars (which is, sadly, very likely) Hollywood will be laughing all the way to the bank, twirling their moustaches and thinking of the next literary classic they will massacre. And we will have learned nothing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Taylor (February 27th, 1932-March 23rd, 2011)

Elizabeth Taylor's death today at the age of 79 has brought about the end of an era. Like both Paul Newman and Tony Curtis' recent deaths, there are certain stars that represent a piece of classic Hollywood that can't be replaced. It reminds us that the "golden days" of Hollywood are rapidly disappearing with the deaths of its legends. Their old films stories and anecdotes are going with them.

Taylor was the true definition of a Hollywood star -- talented, beautiful and controversial in her everyday life. Having worked alongside the likes of Rock Hudson, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton, Taylor managed to hold her own and commanded the screen in a way few actresses could.

Taylor passed away at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where she'd been hospitalized for the last six weeks. She ultimately succumbed to congestive heart failure after decades of poor health.

The five time Oscar nominee, and two time winner (for her roles in Butterfield 8 in 1961 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1967), used her fame to bring attention to a variety of causes. In 1993, she was awarded the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. When her close friend and former co-star, Rock Hudson, passed away in 1984 of complications from AIDS, Taylor founded the National AIDS Research Foundation. Her eight marriages, while scandalous and often talked about, were only a small part of what made her Elizabeth Taylor -- the generous, violet-eyed actress and humanitarian. Her good deeds and loyalty to her lifelong friends (most notably Michael Jackson) far overshadowed anything written in the gossip columns. She was always her own woman, regardless of the opinion of those around her.

The first time I ever saw Taylor in a film was when I was a little girl. My mom showed my sister and I the 1949 version of Little Women. She was beautiful, snobby and hilarious. To this day, the most perfect interpretation of the character of Amy March is, and always will be, the one played by Elizabeth Taylor.

As I got older I saw The Taming of the Shrew, Reflections in a Golden Eye and Giant, yet it was her role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that always stayed with me. Paired with Paul Newman, Taylor was a powerhouse in the role Maggie Pollitt -- the frustrated wife of Newman's hard-drinking Brick. Taylor was born to recite the dialogue of Tennessee Williams. The quiet, albeit vicious, strength and determination she instilled in her characterization of Maggie was what stayed with me most after the closing credits -- that, and those violet eyes.

Hollywood is now, once again, short one more star -- and there won't ever be another like Liz Taylor.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 20


"From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind. I will block You, I swear it. It will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able."
~Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) in Amadeus

I love poster art and I have at least a couple dozen I could have made into a list. Too much work, though, to be honest. So ...

My number one favourite is the international version of the Amadeus (1984) poster. I'm so used to seeing the shrouded Don Giovanni version, where he's spreading his arms over the darkened city of Vienna. I love it a lot but it's so often associated with the film or Peter Shaffer's play, so it lost some of its impact for me.

The international version, on the other hand, is darkly beautiful in a different way than the official poster. Why this never became a more popular image to associate with the Oscar winning film, I'll never know.

You've got the reflection of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) in the piano, with the piano keys in the foreground. Only half of Mozart's face is visible and in the background, a masquerade takes place. The poster suggests a film with a moody, yet lavish, atmosphere -- perfectly capturing exactly what the film is all about.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Classic Film Review: Singin' In The Rain

Singin' In The Rain (1952)
Directed By: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor

"Hello. This is a demonstration of a talking picture. Notice, it is a picture of me and I'm talking. Note how my lips and the sound issuing from them are synchronized together in perfect unison."
~Man in Talking Picture Demonstration

For the longest time, whenever I heard the song "Singin' in the Rain" I thought of Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. Having seen that film for the first time years ago, I always found the song menacing as a direct result of Stanley Kubrick and Co. Try as I might, I just couldn't picture a happy, smiling, dancing Gene Kelly. I figured the song was "ruined" for me for good.

I eventually saw Singin' in the Rain in a university film course. For some reason, it didn't leave much of an impact. I recently purchased the DVD on a whim and decided to give it a second shot, more than four years after that first initial viewing. I figured I had to be missing something because I've always loved musicals and this is one of the classics -- one of the ones other musicals aspire to be. I'm glad I gave it that second shot because Singin' in the Rain is one of those rare films that makes you smile from start to finish. With a plot in a constant state of motion, it's one of the fastest-paced films I've ever seen.

It's 1927 and Hollywood's golden movie duo, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), are threatened with a potentially career-ending situation -- the world's first "talkie", The Jazz Singer, is released to rave reviews and audience accolades. Don fears that his limited acting ability will be revealed if he's required to actually recite dialogue while Lina, his obnoxious co-star, has a high-pitched voice that would grate on anyone's nerves. When Don shares his concerns with his longtime friend, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), the woman he loves, they both convince Don to make his next feature (a costume drama set during the French Revolution) a full-out musical to show off Don's talent in singing and dancing. The only problem -- Lina and her voice.

All musicals require a suspension of disbelief, arguably even moreso then some action films. People, sometimes complete strangers, are liable to break out into a perfectly synchronized song and dance, only to resume their every day activities the moment the song is over. If you can sit through the Sharks and Jets duking it out through song and dance in West Side Story, chances are you can just allow yourself to enjoy the way Singin' in the Rain moves the plot forward with music -- and what a fun plot it is!

I've always had a soft spot for Hollywood films that mock or satirize Hollywood (think Sunset Blvd. or All About Eve). It was clever to take an actual event from film history (the 1927 release of the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer) and use it to propel forward a musical about an actor trying to make it in a rapidly changing film industry. As Debbie Reynolds' Kathy tells Don at one point, "The personalities on screen just don't impress me. I mean, they don't talk, they don't act. They just make a lot of dumb show." With the advent of "talkies" the possibilities for film were endless and, back in the those old studio days, when actors were trained to be triple threats (acting, singing, dancing), someone of Don's calibre was bound to prevail. With its witty dialogue, vibrant set pieces and sly winks to real-life Hollywood situations (Lina Lamont as a a thinly veiled Jean Harlow, who had her own real-life struggle from silent films to "talkies" when her unique voice was finally heard), Singin' in the Rain is that Hollywood classic that deserves its praise. All things considered, it has aged remarkably well.

Gene Kelly is incredible to watch -- why I haven't seen more of his work by now is mystery. Here was a Hollywood star who was the complete package: he could act, dance and sing. And not just "with the best of them" ...more often than not he was the best of them. His natural (and completely genuine) charm and charisma carry the film above other musicals with dashing male leads. Kelly had that special extra something that just made him so damn likeable.

The same can be said for Debbie Reynolds, who I haven't seen in many films before. As the young and fresh-faced Kathy, Reynolds is impossibly cute, chipper and can definitely carry a tune. As for Donald O'Connor as Cosmo Brown -- what an incredibly talented dancer. His physical abilities are abnormal -- who knew the human body could run up a wall like that?

The lethal combination of Kelly-Reynolds-O'Connor is a triple threat and Singin' in the Rain benefits largely from their talent and screen presence. And, while not all of the songs are entirely memorable, these three actors manage to make you forget that the song wasn't an instant classic.

Singin' in the Rain was a marvel of cinema when it was first released -- with a heavy emphasis on the use of Technicolour cinematography and vivid production design. It's fitting that a film about the massive changes Hollywood underwent in the good ole' days also benefitted from the use of the latest technologies that were re-vamping Hollywood once again in the 1950s. But, in the end, what really helps Singin' in the Rain soar (along with its technology and actors, of course) is its quick and breezy ability to tell a fun story about movies -- and remind us why we love them so much in the first place.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Tim Burton Exhibit in Toronto

I went to the Tim Burton Exhibit which is currently in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. I expected to be underwhelmed ...not because I have anything against Burton, but because exhibits sometimes have the tendency to be overrated and low on actual quality content. That wasn't the case this time around, thankfully.

Burton has been one of my favourite directors since childhood. Some of my fondest film memories are of his unique and quirky films. I could recite (and probably still could) every word of Batman (1989). I also loved  Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). His weird, demented sense of humour and German Expressionist-inspired set pieces were a perfect blend of dark comedy and eerie fantasy.

As I got older I grew a greater appreciation for his art, both in terms of concept and design and lonely and strange central characters. I fell in love with Ed Wood (1994) and found an appreciation for his short films, especially Vincent (1982). Seeing all his script notes, early sketches and clay figurines made me realize that the man is a true auteur and a genuinely talented artist. I only wish his latest films would reflect that talent. Although I loved Sweeney Todd (2007), I've been disappointed in his other more recent films. I want him to get back to the dark, lonely dreamworlds of Edward Scissorhands or even Beetlejuice. Here's hoping he goes back to his roots.

If the exhibit ever makes its way to your city, check it out! There are some real gems in that collection, from costumes (one of Johnny Depp's Edward Scissorhands outfits), set pieces (those creepy musical plastic children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and bits and pieces from his own personal collection (photography stills of his stop-motion characters and, one of my favourite things -- his old high school notebooks and projects). Long live Burton!