Friday, September 30, 2011

In Memoriam: The Anniversary of James Dean's Death (1931-1955)

James Dean
Eight years ago, I caught Rebel Without A Cause on TV late one night. I was exhausted that day. I had planned on going to bed early, but I was struck by the image of James Dean, lying on the ground with a wind-up toy monkey, in the opening credit sequence for the film.

I recognized the iconic red jacket. It was around this time that my obsession with film was just starting to really take off so I decided, despite my exhaustion, to watch this much-beloved teen angst classic. I figured it would be another Hollywood classic that I could check off my must-see list. I hadn't counted on actually being able to stay wide-awake into the early morning hours.

The film itself is significant to 1950s film history. While parts of it may not have aged very well it still deserves its place among the Hollywood elite. This, in large part, is thanks to Dean's performance. I found him striking, in an odd way, but I was much more intrigued by his unique performance.

Around this time I'd only recently become enamoured with Marlon Brando (the previous year I'd watched The Godfather for the first time -- it was a great introduction to Brando's talent). Dean reminded me of Brando, despite their differences in acting style. Dean clearly idolized and tried to mimic Brando, yet he managed to make all three of his film performances unique and very Dean-esque. From the inspiration he got from Brando he came up with his own style and helped revolutionize acting in film.

Drawing from real life experiences and tragedies, Dean utilized these in his character creations so that the audience could relate and sympathize with his characters, such as Cal Trask (East of Eden, my favourite Dean film and performance).

Rarely do I watch a film and walk away from it absolutely fascinated and in awe of the talent before me. Young actors today so rarely go out of their way to bring something fresh and original to their performances, which is why they won't have the enduring cult power of Jimmy Dean. Watching Dean that night, in the early morning hours, I was saddened at the loss of life and talent. I didn't know much about him at the time, but I knew he'd died young and tragically. I've been a loyal fan, ever since.

Jimmy Dean embodied the charisma, beauty and talent that most actors can only dream of achieving for themselves. Even though he only left behind three cinema features, they will never be forgotten. He was the epitome of masculine-cool. He was ahead of the game both in his activist-humanitarian nature and the way he portrayed a conflicted young rebel. He helped make it okay for male characters to cry in film. Gone were the days of the alpha-male, like John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. Dean helped usher in a new generation of young, Method actors who saw performance as an art form worthy of their sweat and tears.

It's been 56 years since his death in a car accident at the age of 24, yet time has not diminished his star. To some people he may be a product, just another young dead celebrity face on a poster or a t-shirt -- but to his real fans he was a first-class movie star.

They don't make celebrities like Jimmy anymore.

Here's a rare clip of Dean's screen test for East of Eden (1955).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Movie Review: The Help

Viola Davis as Aibileen in The Help.
The Help (2011)
Directed By: Tate Taylor
Based on the Novel By: Kathryn Stockett
Starring: Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain

I saw this movie more than three weeks ago, so this review is long overdue. Initially, I had little interest in seeing The Help, but with all of the hype and Oscar buzz I couldn't let it pass me by.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement in America, The Help follows the intersecting lives of rich, white families and their "help" -- women who have raised generations of children not their own, while taking care of the household chores of the entitled people they work under. Skeeter (Emma Stone) has aspirations to become a writer. As she toils in an unsatisfactory job as a home care columnist, Skeeter decides to uncover a juicy story in order to impress a New York book editor. When the town terror, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), fights to enact a bylaw that would equip all homes with outdoor washrooms for "the help" -- to avoid sharing and "contamination" -- Skeeter sets her sights on writing a piece on the plight of black women working for white families in her hometown. It would be the raw, human story she was looking for, although it takes a fair amount of convincing before Skeeter finds someone willing to speak. She finds her subject in a woman named Aibileen (Viola Davis) who puts her heart and soul into raising her current charge, a lonely little toddler with a nonexistent mother, in an attempt to try to overcome the recent death of her own child.

With her expressive eyes and quiet grace, Viola Davis gives a beautiful performance as Aibileen. She gives her characterization of a grieving, under-appreciated woman subtle nuances that pulls the viewer in from the start. What the story lacks in cohesive plotting, it more than makes up for in the acting department. With Davis leading the charge, The Help is a film brimming with wonderful performances from some of the best actresses working in Hollywood today.

Viola Davis (left) and Octavia Spencer.
 As Aibileen's closest friend, Minny, Octavia Spencer gives a performance that is both hilarious and heartwarming. Although Minny was initially reluctant to agree to an interview with Skeeter, watching her transform from a hesitant woman to one filled with confidence is one of the films highlights. You can't help but sit up and take notice when Davis and Spencer share scenes together. And, as the town's outcast "floozie," Celia Foote, Jessica Chastain continues to impress with a memorable supporting performance as a lonely housewife who finds true companionship with Minny; their scenes together provide The Help with some of its strongest, most emotional moments. 

As Hilly, Bryce Dallas Howard does her best with a role that is, at best, a cartoonish villain devoid of any redeeming quality or legitimate motivation as to why she behaves the way that she does. It's fun to hate her (and Howard is so good at being unlikeable in the film), but the word "villain" is practically stamped on her forehead. Emma Stone is solid as Skeeter but she's ultimately relegated to the background in the second half of the film.

Despite wonderful, award-worthy performances, The Help has the tendency to gloss over racial themes in favour of fluffy, easily-resolved issues. The main problem is at the very core of the plot -- rich, privileged Skeeter is likable enough; however her book on "the help" poses no risk to herself. Best case scenario, she'll get to move to New York to become a successful author and fulfill her dreams and, at worst, she can just go back to the job she already holds down at the local newspaper. The fact that she's writing the story to land a cushy job and take a step up the career ladder is hard to forget as she coaxes Aibileen, Minny and other women in her hometown to speak out against their employers. Sure, Skeeter promises them anonymity but, as we see, it isn't hard to figure out who is who in the finished novel. Skeeter is appropriately outraged at the tragic stories that are recounted for her, but it leaves a bit of a bad aftertaste knowing that the ones who will suffer the consequences of any backlash will be the actual subjects of the novel.

The quieter scenes with Aibileen and Minny recounting their life stories are powerful, yet audiences may want a little less glossing over of the true, tense nature of that time period in the south. One scene, in particular, stands out as an indication of exactly what is at stake in 1963: When civil rights activist Medgar Evers is shot dead in front of his family, the town of Jackson goes into a state of panic. After learning the news of Evers' death, Aibileen is cruelly booted from the bus she was riding on with mostly white patrons. As people run back and forth in the dead of the night, Aibileen panics and starts to run towards her own house. Suddenly gripped by the realization that she, too, could wind up getting killed while all alone on the street, Aibileen lets her fear take over. A usually stoic and reserved woman, she is briefly overtaken by unrestrained terror. The Help needed more of these quietly powerful scenes to provide more commentary on the racial relations in Mississippi during the 1960s.

However, any qualms you may or may not have about certain aspects of the film easily disappear as you witness the performances of the superb cast; celebrating with each of the characters as they witness the powerful effects of their stories being revealed to the public for the first time. Part quick-summary history lesson, part melodrama, The Help should (and will) be recognized during awards season for its remarkable cast who all rallied around a patchy, glossy script to create a mostly satisfying tearjerker.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Movie Rant: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

It's hard to believe Raiders of the Lost Ark is celebrating its 30 year anniversary this year. Nevermind the fact that I was still three years away from even being born -- the film is so classic and so timeless that it feels like it very easily could have been made today. With limited use of special effects, it's an action-adventure with a dash of the supernatural.

My parents first showed me this film when I was about six or seven years old. It was pretty much love at first sight -- I even watched the Young Indiana Jones television series just to get my daily Indy fix. I basically wanted to be Indiana Jones (I still do).

At an early age it instilled in me both a love for film and a passion for history (which I wound up majoring in while in university). I continue to watch this film annually with my younger sister -- I can't even venture a guess as to how many millions of times we've watched Raiders over and over again through the years. And each and every time I'm amazed how well it has stood the test of time.

Most film fans have lists and lists of artsy movies they credit as their "all time favourite film." I usually say mine is The Godfather when I'm asked, but if I'm being completely honest, it's probably actually Raiders of the Lost Ark -- or the third film in the original trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

A few years back I had the opportunity to see Raiders at a screening at a really, really old theatre near Hamilton. It was such a treat to see it on the big screen. You know how people can quote movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show word for word? Well, I can do that with Raiders.

A video has been circulating the Twitterverse of a recent Q&A session Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg held in Los Angeles to celebrate the anniversary. Unfortunately, the videos can't be embedded, but you can listen to some of the audio from the YouTube video below.

I wish I could have been there!

Question: What is your favourite scene from all four of the Indiana Jones films?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

TIFF Film Review: Drive

Drive (2011)
Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn
Based on the Book By: James Sallis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman

Director Nicolas Winding Refn really loves John Hughes movies -- he just wants you to know that.

The Dutch director of Drive, touted as one of the must-see movies at this years Toronto International Film Festival, claimed he was very heavily inspired by both the late-director and 80s movies, in general.

With its 80s-influenced soundtrack and bright pink title credits, Drive has a certain Hughes feel to it -- only imagine Hughes' angst-ridden teen characters going on a violent rampage and brutally murdering each and every one of their high school tormenters in an increasingly violent (and creative) manner. In a recent interview about the film, both Rehn and star Ryan Gosling said they were influenced, in particular, by Pretty in Pink (1986).

"One thing we both agreed on was that we loved 'Pretty in Pink' and that it would have been a masterpiece if it was more violent," Gosling said. "In some ways we tried to make a violent John Hughes movie."

Rehn and Gosling brought up that same idea once again last night during the Q&A session at the North American premiere of the film at the Ryerson University Theatre. So, go into the movie envisioning a really evil, fed-up Duckie from Pretty in Pink and just take it all in.

A Hollywood stunt driver by day, a getaway driver by night, the man known only as Driver (Gosling) discovers that he's a target after a heist gone wrong. With baddies Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) hot on his tail, Driver rips and roars through the streets of L.A. while simultaneously trying to romance a young mother (Carey Mulligan) who is, at first, completely unaware of his darker side.

What Drive lacks in character development and plot, it more than makes up for in style. It's essentially a blood-soaked homage to both B-movie Hollywood flicks and European art house fare. Graphic violence is around every corner, escalating to the point where each new scene will make you flinch in anticipation of the brutal demise of yet another character. Definitely not for the faint of heart, the film indulges in guilty pleasure thrills and explores the dark recesses of our most violent fantasies.

Gosling during the Q&A session at TIFF.
One scene, in particular, which takes place in an elevator, vividly contrasts the tenderness of a first kiss with a violent (and prolonged) death sequence. You'll never truly feel comfortable in an elevator ever again. Drive is filled with similar scenes -- jarring violent images that will shock you right out of your seat; and, judging from the gasps and applause from the audience last night, it happened on a few occasions.

As the driver, Gosling is a commanding screen presence -- he's absolutely terrifying and will erase all your previous memories of him as a gawky teen on Breaker High or as a romantic lead. His Driver is a man without a name or any past that we are aware of, making his actions all the more chilling since the audience is left without any idea of the true origin of his anger. Gosling proves he can play diverse characters and still bring his A-game to each performance.

Another noteworthy performance, albeit in a much smaller capacity, is Bryan Cranston as Gosling's pal, Shannon. The man can do no wrong, between this and the AMC series, Breaking Bad.  He's one of the few characters that actually inspires audience sympathy.

Despite the performances and the highly-stylized visual concept and direction, Drive stumbles a bit, preventing it from becoming a truly epic piece of revenge cinema. The uneven pacing at the beginning of the film makes it feel a little lopsided -- at first there's minimal dialogue and a whole lot of driving around. Perhaps Rehn's intention may have been to lull the audience into a state of calm before foisting the extreme violence on them. So, if that was his intent, it succeeded. If not, than the pacing could have used some re-tweaking.

Female characters are often relegated to the background in films like Drive -- although in this film they are practically put in a faraway corner. It's unfortunate that Mulligan's character, Irene, had little to do other than glance longingly at the driver -- even after she witnesses one of his violent episodes firsthand. There's no indication as to why Irene would even consider seeing the driver again and placing her son's life in danger just to be nearer to this violent man.

I didn't quite know what to make of Drive once the credits started rolling. I can appreciate where people are coming from when they tout it as one of the most stylish films to come out of Hollywood in years. Yet, there was something missing that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Visually stunning, yes. An homage to both Hollywood films past and European arthouse flicks, yes. Perhaps it was the pacing or the lack of any real character development -- or maybe my expectations were too high -- but I left wanting a little more substance to accompany the graphic violence. That being said, I realize I'm likely in the minority when it comes to Drive. 

Regardless of my torn opinion, I'm glad I saw it. It will likely be discussed quite heavily among film fans for the next few months and who doesn't love when a film inspires great discussion? So, just sit back and buckle your seatbelts when you watch Drive. You'll certainly be taken for a ride.


Question: Drive will likely provoke a strong reaction in anyone who sees it. What did you love or dislike about the film?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Movie Rant: Eddie Murphy, Oscar Host

It was officially announced earlier today that Eddie Murphy has been named as the host of the 2012 Academy Awards. How did that happen, you ask? Well, with his friend Brett Ratner at the helm as producer of this years telecast, Murphy was practically a shoo-in. How convenient.

For the most part, the revelation seems to be receiving mixed reactions from film critics and movie fans: in one corner are die-hard Murphy fans who have remained loyal to the comedian despite the crappy movies he's made them suffer through and, in the other corner, everyone else.

Murphy was hilarious on Saturday Night Live and, through the years, he's had his moments to shine -- it's just that they are too few and far between. I mean, here is a man who is mainly still remembered for The Nutty Professor, Norbit and Daddy Day Care more than anything else. Not exactly a film resume to brag about.

Film critic Patrick Goldstein wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times about why he's less than enthused about the choice (you can read it here). He makes a few good points, specifically when he references the 2006 Oscars where Murphy threw a tantrum and left the ceremony halfway through when he lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Alan Arkin (for Little Miss Sunshine). As Goldstein wrote: "Murphy, who is infamous in Hollywood for his half-hearted work ethic and sense of entitlement, managed to embarrass himself when he left the Oscar ceremony in a huff ...he didn't even have the class to stick around and watch his Dreamgirls co-star Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar of her own." 

He left while the ceremony was still getting underway, yet he's now been invited back as a host. The fact that he was still given the honour in the first place is confusing, to say the least.

From here on in I'll just look at the whole situation as a wait-and-see type of thing and remind myself that, at the very least, it couldn't possibly be worse than last years dreadful Oscars with James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosting. Right? Right?!

What are your thoughts on Murphy as the new Oscar host?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011)
Written & Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen and Kathy Bates

Over the past 10 years, Woody Allen has released a slew of underwhelming movies that quickly faded from theatres. However, Midnight in Paris is being hailed as a welcome return to form, even moreso than his other most recent success, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).

Gil (Owen Wilson) is an L.A. based screenwriter who aspires to be something more than just another Hollywood hack who churns out lame, cash-grab scripts devoid of any real artistic merit. His real passion is for the past -- specifically the 1920s Jazz Age in Paris. When he and his fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams) take a trip to the City of Lights on her parents' dime, Gil is inspired to finally finish his novel. Inez, a woman completely devoid of culture who views Paris as nothing more than a shopping expedition, spends more time with her pompous friend Paul (Michael Sheen) than her own fiance. While taking midnight strolls to clear his mind from his worries over his incomplete novel and his clashes with Inez, Gil accidentally embarks on a series of whimsical nightly adventures.

When the clock strikes midnight, Gil is beckoned by iconic figures of the past, all of whom found artistic inspiration on the streets of Paris at some point in their careers.

Johanne Debas and Darius Khondaji's cinematography is breathtaking. Being such a beautiful city by nature, you'd think it couldn't look any more stunning, yet Debas and Khondaji combine their efforts to create a captivating glimpse of Paris in the 1920s.

In keeping with the fantasy of Gil's midnight encounters, Paris is portrayed as Gil would have imagined the 1920s -- all champagne and late night parties; a place without fake intellectuals and nagging fiancees and full of intellectually stimulating conversation and artistic expression. Through his adventures, Gil is finally experiencing his romantic notion of living in another time and place, where only intellectuals and artists roamed the streets.

Allen's script is full of commentary on the folly of nostalgia and the assumption that everything was a whole lot better "back in the day." Gil's fascination with the 1920s and his literary idols veer dangerously close to the point of obsession -- even the main protagonist of his incomplete novel works in a "nostalgia shop." Because he often rejects the idea of living in the present and enjoying his own existence, Gil is forced to come to the realization that every decade had their problems -- and that, at some point, everyone thinks the grass is greener on the other side.

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard
The cast more than lives up to Allen's funny, insightful and whimsical script. As Gil, Owen Wilson nails the Woody Allen persona -- all jittery speech patterns and everyday "average joe" personality. Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Adriana, a woman with her own romantic nostalgic pinnings for the past. As Inez, Gil's airy fiancee, Rachel McAdams is the perfect amount of irritating -- you like hating her because she's just so damn good being unlikeable. Ditto Michael Sheen as Inez's arrogant friend, Paul, who fancies himself an expert on every subject under the sun. Sheen is so perfectly aggravating and hilarious that he nearly steals all the scenes that don't take place on Gil's midnight strolls. Without taking away the fun of discovering which famous personas they wind up playing, the rest of the supporting cast is excellent, especially Corey Stoll (as a particularly boisterous American literary icon), Adrien Brody as a quirky painter and Alison Pill as the quick-witted and moody wife of yet another famous literary idol.

With its commentary on art and the inevitable criticism that follows each creation, Allen shows both sides of the impact of art criticism -- as both useful for it what it inspires in both the artist and the audience (such as with Kathy Bates' Gertrude Stein, who helpfully critiques Gil's manuscript) or the danger in how it can sometimes be absent of properly informed historical context (as seen with Sheen's Paul).

Midnight in Paris is a welcome escape from all the summer blockbusters and sequels -- the perfect way to close out the summer and get you thinking about all the upcoming potential Oscar films. Smart, imaginative and hilarious, Woody Allen's latest is his most charming venture in years.