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.


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).


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.