Thursday, August 25, 2011

Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking

A week ago today I saw Carrie Fisher's one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. Based on her 2008 memoir, the show has been a smash hit and even had its own HBO special.

So often associated with her iconic role as Princess Leia in George's Lucas' Star Wars franchise, few fans likely take the time to distinguish the differences between Leia and Carrie Fisher herself. After the show last Thursday, she ceased to be Princess Leia for me. Now she's simply, Carrie Fisher -- comedienne, author, businesswoman and a star of the stage.

We all know Fisher is funny. She has a knack for nailing her lines in one episode stints on hit TV shows like Sex and the City and 30 Rock. But there's no real way of preparing yourself for her refreshing, hilarious, brutally honest and self-deprecating account of her own life story.

And what a bizarre, and often tragic, life she's led! As Fisher herself said at one point, "If I didn't make it (my life) funny, it would just be true. And I couldn't have that."

Fisher structures her show as a series of vignettes -- starting with the sudden death of her close friend, Gregory R. Stevens, in 2005. She woke up to find his corpse lying in the bed next to her. Watching her relate the story full of emotion and humour is fascinating to witness. (You can check out her blog entry on the subject at her official website).

Hollywood Inbreeding 101.
She goes from that heavy opener to her college course-like tutorial titled "Hollywood Inbreeding 101" in which she uses a pointer stick and a chalkboard to methodically walk the audience through the many relationships of her famous parents, singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.  

She discusses everything from her broken home to her father's countless marriages and affairs -- most famously with Elizabeth Taylor, her mother's best friend at the time. When Taylor's husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash, her father Eddie immediately ran to support Taylor. "Daddy rushed to her side, than he worked his way around to her front and finally wound up comforting her with his penis." 

But what is clear from Fisher's show is that, despite her often strained relations with members of her family, she's a woman who loves them dearly. Whether she's recounting the time her aging father accidentally ate his hearing aids or about how her mother insists on stating her own name every time she calls on the phone ("Hello, dear. It's your mother ...Debbie."), Fisher tells her life stories in such a hilariously candid and touching manner. When gushing about her 19-year-old daughter, Billie, Fisher memorably exclaims that "she's the best thing to ever come out of my body." 

Unlike many celebrity memoirs Fisher is not asking her audience for sympathy. She openly blames herself for her own mistakes, saying it would be lazy to blame Hollywood and her broken home for her woes -- and, besides, her brother turned out to lead a perfectly normal and happy life; a rare exception for someone descended from Hollywood royalty.

She will quite openly talk about her bi-polar diagnosis and ECT treatments although she's a little more restrained in her delivery -- as Toronto Star theatre critic Richard Ouzounian wrote: "despite the jokes, quips, the gal-pal merriment, there is something seriously life-threatening underneath."

However, her energy is contagious and, if nothing else, drives home her overriding theme that life is what you make it. If only we were all brave enough to laugh at our faults and failures.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar (Serkis) and Will (Franco).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Directed By: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow and Brian Cox

Heading into the summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't likely at the top of most filmgoers "must see" lists. After all, it appeared as though Hollywood finally felt like admitting that it had run out of fresh ideas and was willing to settle on rebooting yet another tired franchise as a quick cash-grab.

After five films, two TV series and Tim Burton's most recent interpretation, what more could studios possibly say about those "damned dirty apes?" A lot, apparently.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not only the surprise smash of the summer, but it's arguably the best film of the entire franchise, which dates all the way back to the 1968 original. As the first film in a planned trilogy, this reboot starts all the way back at the beginning -- essentially making it a prequel (of sorts) to the Charlton Heston original.

Set in present day San Francisco, disease researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) spends nearly every waking moment concocting and testing a cure for Alzheimer's -- from which his beloved father, Charles (John Lithgow) suffers. He and his girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto), wind up secretly taking custody of a baby chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) after a presentation to a for-profit research company takes a disastrous turn. As Caesar grows, Will discovers the chimp has inherited the chemically induced genius IQ of his dead mother -- making him smarter (he's fluent in sign language) and more aggressive with each passing year. When Caesar violently lashes out in defence of his loved ones one day, the chimp is taken to a brutal ape "sanctuary" run by a cruel man (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son (Tom Felton, with more lines and screen time here than in his entire 10 year stint with the Harry Potter franchise). Caesar is left to fend for himself as he struggles to come to terms with his own potential and live up to his regal name.

Caesar (Serkis).
Even for those reluctant to see yet another ape-fest, do yourself the favour and watch it for Serkis -- covered by motion capture technology and CGI but not, by any means, buried beyond recognition. Somehow the personality he instills in his characterization of Caesar shines through all the computer graphics, resulting in one of the years finest performances to date. Caesar is a complex bundle of emotions and instincts -- both human and animalistic. It says a lot about Serkis' performance that his creation of Caesar is, by far, more fascinating than any of the humans on the screen. Serkis has perfected the difficult art of giving a truly wonderful, subtle performance while physically obscured by technology and it will likely be years before anyone comes close to his masterful ability.

Essentially an action film at its core, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has moments of emotional commentary on animal cruelty interspersed with wooden dialogue and over-the-top action sequences. However, it never ceases to entertain and grab viewer attention which is ultimately what is expected of a summer blockbuster -- if it can tug at your heartstrings in between its action sequences, it's a job well done.

Overall, it's a very good film. Certainly better than anyone expected. In yet another summer filled with lackluster blockbusters and quick cash-grabs, Rise of the Planet of the Apes rises above its seasonal competition and emerges as one of the top quality films of the summer. It even already has Oscar buzz for Serkis' performance (although it will remain to the be seen whether or not that hype can still stick months down the road). While the film won't be recognized for any awards other than deserved ones for Serkis and the special effects, it's arguably the best summer blockbuster since the 2009 Star Trek reboot.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Upcoming Release: Twixt (2011)

Elle Fanning and Val Kilmer
An original (way to go, Hollywood!) gothic horror film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola! I'm already lined up for opening night.

A friend of mine showed me the Twixt trailer early last week -- and it had me intrigued right away. It's not so much a trailer (it's nearly four minutes long) as a sneak peek. It's focuses on a series of bizarre child murders in a small town -- and throws in suggestions of witches and/or vampires as the culprits.

Val Kilmer plays a Stephen King-ish horror novelist who has arrived in town for an autograph signing when he's lured into the murder mysteries by both the local sheriff (Bruce Dern) and a ghostly girl named V (Elle Fanning) who keeps appearing in his dreams. On top of it all, actor Ben Chaplin is listed as playing the role of Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not be intrigued? It all sounds very Stephen King meets Twin Peaks!

Val Kilmer and Ben Chaplin Edgar Allan Poe.
It could be a really interesting departure for Coppola -- no gangsters or rebellious teens in sight. Most of his recent film dealings have been as a producer over the years, so it was about time he got back behind the camera.

My only concern is the reminder of his 1992 foray into supernatural horror -- Bram Stoker's Dracula, with Gary Oldman in the leading role. Although that interpretation of the classic vampire novel has its loyal fans, I could barely sit through it in one sitting. But that was all nearly 20 years ago now and Twixt looks like it has a lot of potential to be a perfectly bizarre and grisly film. I haven't come across an official release date (some websites have different dates than others), but it is listed as being a 2011 film, so it's likely it will be released around Halloween.

I love a good horror film as much as anyone, but so few great ones have come out over the last few years. I have high hopes for Twixt.

What do you think of the sneak peek trailer? 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Casting News: Tarantino's Django Unchained

I realize I'm a little late with this news, but a few weeks ago it was announced that Kevin Costner would be joining the cast of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Django Unchained. I think he's the final missing piece of the puzzle and it will be set to start filming soon.

Tentatively scheduled for a Christmas 2012 release (although I really hope we don't actually have to wait that long!), Tarantino's latest is a throwback to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. There are only a few details released about the plot so far -- and, if the rumours of the premise are true, it sounds fantastic!

Costner will play Ace Woody, a man who trains slaves to fight to the death solely for the entertainment of a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Django (Jamie Foxx), one of the slaves, manages to escape and teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to exact revenge and rescue his long-lost love (Kerry Washington). The film also co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Keith Carradine.

I'm beyond excited -- I'm such a huge fan of Tarantino and he so rarely disappoints. In fact, the only Tarantino film I was a little bit disappointed with was Death Proof (2007) and even that wasn't all that bad! If I were an actress or screenwriter working in Hollywood, I'd give up the opportunity to work with pretty much anyone else in order to work on a Tarantino film.

Anyway, I love the premise and I'm really loving the cast. I like that a couple Tarantino regulars are returning (although I'd really love to see him work with Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth again in the future!). I especially love that he wrote another part for Waltz who needs another great role immediately in order to save his reputation (his agent should be fired ...he hasn't made a good film since his Oscar win). DiCaprio and Costner are really interesting choices: I think both have the potential to fit really, really well in a Tarantino flick and they'd probably ace his dialogue. It would be something different for DiCaprio and Costner, who both tend to play a variation of the same role in a lot of their films.

All in all, should be another great film for Tarantino!

What do you think of the cast announcements for Django Unchained?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two
Directed By: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter

Ten years and eight feature length films later, the adventures of J.K. Rowling's boy wizard comes to a close. A generation of kids who grew up reading about black magic, goblins and hidden Horcruxes will now be closing a chapter on their childhood. Although I have not read the books myself, many of my friends credit the series with teaching them about loyalty, friendship and first loves -- essential life lessons that go above and beyond what is normally expected in your average fantasy series. 

However, as I mentioned in my November 2010 review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One: Peter Jackson managed to make all three of his The Lord of the Rings films a cohesive story. They followed one thread and worked well, both together and as individual, stand-alone films. I find that this has never been the case with the Harry Potter franchise. Granted, there are a lot of films that the screenwriters have to struggle to string together, yet for someone like me who has never read the books, it can be alienating. Nearly each Harry Potter film has had a new director and, as a result, has a different tone and atmosphere than its predecessor, which I also think is the root cause of some of its issues. I think it makes them feel like jagged vignettes that don't always quite fit together as a whole.

In this final instalment the film begins right where the last one left off -- Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has retrieved the Elder Wand from the corpse of Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). Meanwhile, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) team up to try to find the mysterious Horcruxes -- each one containing a small, yet vital, fragment of Voldemort's soul. In destroying each of the Horcruxes, Voldemort's power weakens and sets the story up for the much-anticipated duel between Harry and his snake-like nemesis. 

Director David Yates returns with his same cast and crew and, as a result, these final two films in the franchise come together nicely in terms of atmosphere, tone and visuals. The cinematography is beautiful -- all dark greys, browns and earthy greens, lending the finale a sort of aesthetic acknowledgment that it has come to a dark, emotional end. 

Yet, Deathly Hallows Part Two lacks a structural tightness to its story, although this has more to do with Rowling than it is the fault of the screenwriters. From what I gather of the book series, it's ultimately all leading up to this final duel between good and evil. However, it does seem to have taken an awfully long time to get to the point of it all. Did Rowling really need seven novels of misadventures at Hogwarts to effectively illustrate her life lessons on friendship, loyalty and good vs. evil? Probably not. As a result, the entire film series was a combination of false starts and anti-climaxes, resulting in sometimes plodding films (specifically the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, of which I remember next to nothing, despite having seen it more than once). 

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort.
The strongest link in this film franchise has, and always will be, the acting -- all of which improves with each film. Emma Watson (as Hermione) and Rupert Grint (as Ron), in particular, have both matured into great young actors who brought a lot to their roles as young, blossoming wizards. Without them, Harry would have ultimately failed in many of his tasks. Their unflagging loyalty to their gifted friend remains one of the franchise's most powerful lessons in what it means to be a true friend. It makes it inevitable that both Hermione and Ron will both come to appreciate that dedication in one another and fast-track their relationship past the platonic stage -- and thankfully Watson and Grint have a charming, opposites-attract chemistry. 

However, if this final instalment belongs to anyone, it belongs to Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman. Both do a tremendous job with what they are given to work with (which isn't a lot, especially in the case of Rickman). 

As Lord Voldemort, Fiennes is fabulous -- teaching the audience the art of subtlety; giving a masterful performance of evil, even while buried beneath layers and layers of caked on make-up with only his eyes to convey his dark thoughts. It's a pity it took so long for his character to come anywhere near front and centre in the franchise. Fiennes is absolutely fascinating to watch and he turned Voldemort into a remarkably creepy villain. 

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.
As the tragically misunderstood Severus Snape, Rickman is finally given his chance to shine. Why Rowling took so long to reveal the unrequited love Snape harboured and his desire to protect Harry is anyone's guess. Rowling very nearly deprived her audience of feeling any sense of understanding for the Hogwarts teacher, choosing instead to reveal everything all at once at the very end. As a result, the audience is forced to quickly catch up on an entire life's worth of pining and loss in Snape. Oh, what might have been -- for both the character of Snape and Rickman as an actor -- had Rowling delved deeper into her creation much earlier in the series, allowing her audience to relate and grieve with Snape, instead of making it all feel like an afterthought. Instead, the audience is left wondering about what more there could have been to the tragic (and disappointingly underused) character of Snape. 

Once all is said and done, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two will likely leave all those loyal Potterheads happy, thrilled and nostalgic for their childhood. If those devotees left the theatre satisfied than that's ultimately all that matters. Although it was a flawed series it still achieved what any good blockbuster should -- a loyal fanbase that welcomed its coming-of-age life lessons and its portrayal of good vs. evil. 


Question: What was your favourite Harry Potter film?