Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie Review: Hugo

Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret
Hugo (2011)
Based on the Book By: Brian Selznick
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee and Jude Law

Hollywood has been reminded of its celebrated history more than once in recent months, with both The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo at the centre of this resurgence (of sorts) of old cinema. Both films couldn't have come at a better time -- while an endless stream of forgettable movies are dropped into theatres as a quick cash-grab for studios, audiences often need to be reminded that there are filmmakers out there who love the art of cinema and continue to make great, challenging films.

Scorsese, by using the source material from Brian Selznick's graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, has crafted a love letter to the world of cinema. By jumping on the opportunity to promote his passion for film preservation and its forgotten pioneers, Scorsese has ultimately created a film for adult movie buffs in the guise of a children's adventure.

Young Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan boy living behind a giant clock in a beautiful Paris train station in the 1930s. With his keen knack for stealing discarded items and fixing them, Hugo bides his time inventing little gadgets -- none of which cures his loneliness. Desperate to connect with the people he watches beyond his isolated quarters, Hugo befriends Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an imaginative girl living in Paris with her godfather, Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). Together, the two embark on a series of adventures involving a mysterious automaton left behind by Hugo's dead father (Jude Law), a heart-shaped key and a case of hidden identities -- all the while being chased around by a tyrannical station agent (Sacha Baron Cohen).

Hugo is, essentially, two films expertly weaved together into one. Despite numerous minor subplots and two main narrative threads, the film never loses its focus as the action slowly builds towards a beautifully moving climax reminiscent of the 1988 Italian classic, Cinema Paradiso.

With assistance from cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti (both Scorsese regulars), Hugo is a lush and whimsical creation -- an ode to the wonder of the world of cinema that is just as wonderful itself. Arguably the most visually beautiful film of the year, Hugo wraps you in a blanket of movie passion and nostalgia.

Asa Butterfield (left) and Ben Kingsley
In the lead role, Asa Butterfield is fully capable of carrying an entire film on his small shoulders. With his expressive blue eyes and elfin features it's hard to imagine another child more suited for the role of a young orphan desperate for love and companionship. It's the rare child actor that can have both a commanding screen presence and manage to hold his own against veteran actors.

The supporting cast is equally compelling, specifically Ben Kingsley as the emotionally broken Georges Melies. His chemistry with the young Butterfield is the heart at the centre of the film. The scenes that these two lonely, broken souls share carry the emotional weight of the film. Kingsley, with his sad eyes and soft voice, gives one of his loveliest performances in years. As Isabelle, Chloe Grace Moretz is charming, despite a wavering English accent. In smaller roles, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee and Jude Law round out a solid cast with superb performances that manage to jump off the screen despite limited screen time.

Hugo is a vibrantly beautiful film, both charming and tragic. Howard Shore's score only adds to the haunting, yet whimsical, atmosphere.

Scorsese reminds that, like Rome, cinema wasn't built in a day -- there were many pioneering faces, some unfortunately long forgotten, that brought the medium to what it is today.

FINAL GRADE: A

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Movie Rant: Why I love the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol

While doing some holiday movie research for an article and slideshow I was putting together for work awhile back I came to the realization that Charles Dickens' classic short story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted at least 50 times since the invention of moving pictures. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find another story that has been adapted more often into film and television specials than that!

I know plenty of people who love a wide range of adaptations, most notably A Muppet Christmas Carol and Bill Murray's Scrooged. While both films are fun holiday flicks in their own right, I prefer my Scrooge straight up mean and nasty -- all the better to make his conversion at the end have more of a meaningful impact.

Which brings me to the 1951 Brian Desmond Hurst adaptation starring Alastair Sim in the title role. Arguably the finest version of how the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge re-discovered his Christmas spirit and restored his reputation, a lot of credit is due to the performance of Sim. The man was born to play Scrooge -- the craggy-faced Scottish native perfectly captures all of the characters' multitude of emotions, from hardened and world weary to childlike wonder. Regardless of how many times I've seen this film, his jubilant Christmas morning jig towards the end always makes me smile.

When I was about eight years old, my mom introduced this classic adaptation to my sister and I. It was in black and white. It made cracking and popping sounds because of a poor VHS transfer. It had long lines down the screen from where the original film was scratched. And, from that young age of eight, I still managed to become hooked, despite everything going against it. It soon became a Christmas Eve tradition -- the night before Christmas, we'd sit around the TV and watch Scrooge transform into a caring and compassionate human being who learned "how to keep Christmas well." 


Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge
I can't think of another version (and I've seen many) that so accurately captures the true holiday spirit of Dickens' story. It's dark, it's sad, it's charming and it's ultimately what Christmas is all about -- putting differences aside and spending time with loved ones.

There's something to be said for a story that has endured for so many generations -- it's clear that Dickens hit a nerve when he first published his novella. I even wrote about the phenomenon for last years holiday issue of History Magazine ("How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas"). Every great piece of fiction deserves a worthy film adaptation should people decide to translate it onto the silver screen and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol is just that.

So, later on tonight, once my family and I have returned from our Christmas Eve dinner with one side of our extended family, we'll curl up on the couch and watch A Christmas Carol once again. Twenty years after watching it for the first time, it's still my favourite way to unwind on Christmas Eve before the hustle and bustle of the big day.

Merry Christmas! 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Film Noir Series: Crossfire (1947)


I'm continuing my ongoing Film Noir series on Next Projection. You can check out my post HERE. The fourth film on my list is Crossfire (1947).
With its tightly coiled narrative and top-notch cast, Crossfire is a slow-burning crime drama and unlikely “social message film” with a noir twist.
Based on the controversial Richard Brooks novel The Brick Foxhole, screenwriter John Paxton re-teamed with director Edward Dymtryk after the success of their 1944 noir classic, Murder, My Sweet. This time around religious bigotry takes centre stage, as intolerance is unearthed among a group of soldiers recently returned from the Second World War.
Set in Washington, D.C., this band of brothers bond over hard liquor and poker games at various bars while swapping war stories. After one particular night of heavy drinking, three of the men wind up at the apartment of Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), a Jewish man they met in a bar. Samuels openly shares his thoughts on what he perceives to be the true hidden enemy to a soldier recently returned from battle – pent up and unfocused negative energy that comes when there is no longer a clear enemy to kill. When Samuels winds up dead, the three soldiers become prime suspects in the homicide investigation led by Detective Finlay (Robert Young) and Army Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum).
Postwar angst is often an underlying theme in the majority of noir films. However, few have dealt with it as directly as the Oscar-nominated Crossfire. Its chock full of aimless soldiers suffering from misguided anger. Despite Dymtryk and Paxton’s decision to change the victim from a homosexual in Brooks’ novel to a middle-aged Jewish man in the film, the theme of intolerance still resonates.
Gloria Grahame as Ginny.
Crossfire opens with a violent exchange between two men – one the gracious Samuels, the other one of the soldiers. However, all that is seen are shadows on a wall. Enter Detective Finlay with his soft drawl, ever-present pipe and immaculate suit. Finlay, in his hunt for a motive, is one of the calmest screen incarnations of a homicide detective to ever grace the silver screen. Whether he’s lounging in a high-backed chair or slowly walking the perimeter a crime scene, Young instills Finlay with an ice-cold demeanor, all the better to interrogate with.
Along for the ride in this compelling ‘whodunit’ is a brash soldier named Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and a sultry, exotically beautiful nightclub singer named Ginny (Gloria Grahame). Ryan is captivating as the blustering bully Montgomery, nearly stealing the show from both Young and Mitchum. As the jaded Ginny, Grahame more than earns her Best Supporting Actress nomination in her two brief scenes. Strong-willed and fiery, Ginny is the standard femme – albeit with much less fatale than is common in the genre. You can tell that, beneath her cool indifference, she’s a kind woman at heart.
The uncharacteristically slow narrative carefully unfurls character motivations, wading through each character’s conflicting flashback accounts in order to crack the case. When the truth is finally revealed to Finlay it sets off a three-minute speech addressing anti-Semitism and anti-Irish Catholic stances in America. The scene hammers home the overall message, coming off a little too preachy, almost as though it thought the audience wouldn’t be able to comprehend the notion of religious intolerance without its being sermonized. The one thing that pulls this scene back from outright melodrama is Young’s strong performance.
Despite this heavy-handed conclusion and its eventual exoneration of the military’s role in the murder,Crossfire is a surprisingly bold noir, tackling an issue that touched a raw nerve with audiences.
FINAL GRADE: A-

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Movie Rant: The (Perfect) Trailer for The Hobbit

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
It's finally here! Peter Jackson and co. have finally unveiled the first official trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Sure, it isn't released until December 14th, 2012, but I pretty much consider myself in line already. ...Don't you?

As much as I liked the idea of Guillermo Del Toro taking over for the prequel (he's one hell of a fantastic visual storyteller), I was relieved when a scheduling conflict kept him away. With Jackson back at the helm The Hobbit will look and feel similar to The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- which makes more sense, if only for the sake of consistency.

So, how is the trailer? Well, it's pretty perfect in my opinion. I love the casting choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo. I'm not overly familiar with his work but he definitely has the perfect look and feel for the role. And, after seeing the trailer, I'm convinced he'll make a wonderful Bilbo (especially since filling the shoes of Ian Holm won't be easy). In fact, in the brief glimpse we get of all the new characters, all the casting choices were right on the money. Not that I had any doubt, seeing as Jackson has a knack for unearthing unknown talent and turning them into household names. The trailer also includes some familiar faces, most notably returning actors Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett and Andy Serkis.

I won't ramble on about all the things I loved about the trailer because it would take up more than one post. But, basically, I think this film will live up to all the hype and all the hopes of J.R.R. Tolkien fans. Thankfully, Hollywood has people like Jackson making quality blockbusters or we'd all be doomed to endless remakes of dull action franchises. I'm not even bothered by the fact that The Hobbit was filmed in 3D (a cash-grab gimmick I usually loathe) simply because I know that Jackson made every one of those images count -- and it'll look fantastic.

Seeing trailers like The Hobbit are necessary if only to remind us that the things we loved as a child still have enduring popularity -- our childhood isn't dead so long as dedicated directors like Jackson are loyally adapting our favourite books into epic films.

What do you think of the trailer?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Movie Review: The Artist

The Artist (2011)
Written & Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman

The Artist is this years most unlikely Oscar contender -- a black and white silent film with two unknown foreign actors in the leads.

The film often relies on parody in order to pay appropriate homage to the era of silent movies; however, it never comes off as disingenuous. It re-introduces techniques of the past, from printed titles to relay dialogue to the audience to an overly enthusiastic musical score. With a plot reminiscent of both Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Artist is an engaging and light-hearted film that is so likeable that it can easily appeal an audience raised on technology and CGI special effects.

The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first "talkie", instantly changing the world of cinema. With it came great upheaval in Hollywood -- audiences demanded to hear the actors they had come to adore, while certain actors struggled with the transition to the point where it broke their careers. The Artist is set in 1927, just as the major changes are starting to take shape in the old studio system in Hollywood. French actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has legions of fans who worship his heroic incarnations on the silver screen. With his natural charisma and knack for expressing himself non-verbally, George initially brushes off the breakthrough of sound in cinema as a temporary fad, something that will disappear as quickly as it came about. What George fails to recognize is that "talkies" are ushering in a new age of film and that actors like himself were on a steady decline. When he falls in love with a beautiful dancer and background actress named Peppy Miller (Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo) it slowly dawns on George that Hollywood is now looking for more actors like Peppy -- charismatic stars who were made to be seen and heard. As Peppy is catapulted into stardom, George is left in the dust, a cruel aspect of Hollywood that remains relevant to this very day.

Jean Dujardin as George Valentin
As a man who refuses to acknowledge that his world is changing, Dujardin gives one of the best performances of 2011. He amply demonstrates that emotional expression and actions can speak louder than words -- with a face straight out of the silent era of Hollywood, Dujardin both looks and feels the part of a rapidly declining star. The role is undeniably challenging -- without any dialogue to work with Dujardin is left to over-emote in order to make up for his lack of ability to express himself verbally. However, his actions are never hammy and always feel genuine. He evokes the pathos common with silent film greats like Charlie Chaplin, and he never misses a beat. Dujardin more than succeeds in his role as George Valentin, giving a nuanced performance that it both comic and touching.

Bejo is an equally great find as Pepper Miller. With a smile that could light up a room and spades of talent, Bejo is luminous is a role that nearly jumps off the screen.

The Artist is a vibrant and richly textualized film. Although the idea may not be new and some may argue that the premise itself if a bit of a gimmick, it's an undeniable crowed-pleaser and a beautiful one at that. Director Michel Hazanavicius recreates the world of classic Hollywood and his attention to detail is remarkable. He instils the perfect amount of dark reality and whimsy in the lives of George and Peppy and, as director, he makes some wonderful visual choices (none of which I will reveal here so as not to spoil the fun). Stylistically, the film is flawless. Composer Ludovic Bource creates the perfect musical accompaniment, at times both rousingly cheerful and tragically mournful. Silent films often relied on the emotion of its scores to sway audience feelings and opinion and The Artist makes powerful use of its own score in the same manner.

A heartfelt and beautiful film, The Artist is, above all, a love letter to cinema past.

FINAL GRADE: A 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter (2011)
Written & Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain

"You think I'm crazy? Well, listen up, there's a storm coming like nothing you've ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it."

A quietly unsettling indie hit, Take Shelter is more character study than apocalyptic thriller, leaving the audience just as overwhelmed and perplexed as the central protagonist -- a man who literally lets fear rule his life.

The setting: rural Ohio. Hard-working and loving family man Curtis (Michael Shannon) is plagued by shockingly realistic apocalyptic visions while he sleeps. Curtis isn't sure if he's inherited schizophrenia from his mother or if his visions are real -- a glimpse into the very near future. He decides to err on the side of caution and builds a survivalist shelter for himself and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and young daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Curtis is not a particularly religious man -- instead of looking up Bible passages to uncover answers to his violent and chilling visions, he checks out books on psychiatry from the local library instead. The overriding theme in the film is fear -- fear of economic hardship, fear of health problems, fear of losing those we love most, and fear of death and the end of the world. Fear often influences our greatest decisions and it's what ultimately sparks Curtis into action, regardless of what those around him think.


Take Shelter has a slow-burning narrative, carefully revealing the frustration and fear felt by a man unraveling right before his family's eyes. Despite its leisurely pace there's never a dull moment.

From a visual standpoint alone the film is stunning -- the apocalyptic visions are chillingly vague and appropriately ominous; like Curtis, you aren't sure exactly what they mean ...or if they even actually exist. With its smart use of CGI, the film conjures realistic thunderstorms and inky rain showers, using them to greater effect than any big-budget blockbuster.

Curtis (Shannon) and an apocalyptic vision.
In the lead role, Shannon is remarkable. His quietly commanding performance as Curtis is one of the highlights of 2011 and it's fascinating to watch this gentle character struggle with inner demons he just doesn't understand. A man of few words, Curtis is hesitant to explain his situation to his loving wife -- in fact, his pent up frustration and fear only boils over once in a shocking fire and brimstone speech that rattles those around him, himself included.

As Samantha, a religiously devout woman who dotes on her husband and young daughter, Chastain makes another case for why she's the biggest star of the year. Her performance is the definition of a supporting player -- she may be secondary in the plot but she makes her presence felt with a quietly beautiful performance. It'd be a shame if this wasn't the film she was recognized for at the Oscars.

Although the final scene may polarize moviegoers, Take Shelter leaves an undeniable impact. It's an intelligent piece of cinema that provokes a powerful response. Up-and-comer writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted a resonating film that utilizes our societal fears to propel the story forward.

Part psychological thriller, character piece and family drama, Take Shelter is one of the highlights of 2011. 

FINAL GRADE: A-

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Movie Rant: The debate over the SAG Award nominees

For me, this is the most wonderful time of the year. It's Christmas, hockey season and a prelude to all the upcoming film awards where I get to catch up on everything I've missed over the year. Nothing satiates my passion for cinema more than a good film debate.

I've enjoyed the SAG Awards in the past -- I often find them to the be the most accurate indicator as to which films and performances deserve the greatest accolades. The Golden Globes are a joke and the Oscars rarely get it right, which is why I've often relied on the SAG awards to set things straight -- well, kind of anyway. Moreso than the Oscars.

Not the case this year. Today's announcement of the 2012 nominees brought a lot of disappointment -- not just to me but all over the Internet, especially Twitter (you can see the full list of nominees HERE). A lot of people seem shocked at some of the obvious snubs in a what should have been a breakout year for smaller films and up-and-coming actors.

That being said, they did make some really great choices:
-Midnight in Paris (Best Ensemble): One of my favourite films of 2011, it's one of those feel-good whimsical gems with a ridiculously perfect (and charming) cast and a story that just sweeps you away. I was worried it'd get lost in the shuffle. Still not sure where it stands with regards to the Oscars, though.
-Brad Pitt (Best Actor, Moneyball): I'm not surprised they went with the audience-friendly baseball movie. Pitt has had a truly breakout year with diverse performances. He could very easily have been nominated for Tree of Life; however, his performance as Billy Beane in Moneyball truly carries the film into a whole new level in the sports genre. He won't win but in his case it will be an honour to have been recognized.
-Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor, Beginnners): This nearly-forgotten indie from earlier this year boasted one of the finest performances of 2011. We should all be happy that they remembered Plummer's lovely turn as an older gentleman finally coming to terms with his homosexuality. His performance is a lesson in how to subtly convey a persons inner conflict without having to resort to scenery-chewing.

Here's where, in my opinionated opinion, the SAG Awards got it wrong:
-Jessica Chastain (Best Supporting Actress, The Help): Chastain has been the story of the year, the toast of Hollywood. When was the last time an actress had such an astounding breakout year? She co-starred in four films and has one more coming up (Coriolanus) to round out 2011. She gave two truly stunning performances in Tree of Life and Take Shelter. And while she was equally wonderful in The Help it's a shame that the obvious love-fest for the 1960s-era drama resulted in her receiving a nomination for one of her "lesser" performances. I'm shocked she wasn't recognized for Tree of Life or Take Shelter but I suppose we should just be grateful that she was recognized in the first place.
-Michael Fassbender for Shame: Probably the BIGGEST shock of them all -- a lack of Best Actor nomination for the finest male performance of 2011 (that I've seen so far). Fassbender is outstanding in Shame -- a raw, realistic and truly challenging role. The fact that the film was given the equivalent of a porn rating in the U.S. likely damaged his chance of being recognized for his work. Unfortunate.
-Carey Mulligan for Shame: Some may argue that she didn't have a whole lot of screen time -- but remember when Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress in 1998 for clocking in only eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love? Mulligan was heartbreaking and more than held her own alongside Fassbender.
-Shame: I suppose the lack of a Best Ensemble nomination shouldn't be all that surprising. It likely had to do with the MPAA ratings. Still disappointing. There's no way Bridesmaids was the better film in this department. To those stuffy, uptight SAG members, Shame is obviously too hot to handle.
-Michael Shannon for Take Shelter: In many critics circles, his performance was voted the best of the year. There's really no excuse for his snub -- unless he's secretly anti-SAG or not a member. People may be torn over the film itself but Shannon was just so good that he should should have been considered an automatic nominee.
-Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene:  I think a lot of people expected her to be a shoo-in. In her breakout role she carries the emotional weight of the film on her shoulders and never lets the ball drop once. She'll make you forget there were ever other actresses with the last name Olsen. I look forward to more of her work. I can only hope she's recognized by the Academy.
-Andy Serkis for The Rise of the Planet of the Apes: I've been on his bandwagon since Day 1, when he first started doing interviews about why motion capture performance is still acting. It's amazing how many people just brush it off as "voice work." Recognition from the SAG or the Academy would go a long way towards opening peoples eyes to this different (but still legitimate) method of performance art. Serkis deserves his chance in the spotlight.

Which of the SAG nominations to you agree (and disagree) with?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Film Noir Series: Out of the Past (1947)

I'm continuing my ongoing Film Noir series for Next Projection. You can check out my post HERE. The third film on my list is Out of the Past (1947).

Like its sleepy-eyed antihero, Out of the Past is disorderly and complex – a thrillingly chaotic example of a multiple-narrative film noir.

Former private investigator Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is leading a quiet life in a small town in rural California where he owns a gas station. However, Jeff harbours a secret – one that is gradually revealed when his past reaches out to tap him on the shoulder one day. Back in another life in New York, he was known as Jeff Markham, hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a gangster willing to pay whatever is necessary to get his double-crossing girlfriend back. Kathie (Jane Greer), the girlfriend in question, left Whit’s body riddled with four bullets before taking off with his $40,000. Whit wants her back, but not for revenge. As he tells Jeff: “I just want her back. When you see her you’ll understand better.” The beautiful, doe-eyed Kathie is a maneater – shooting and conniving her way out of tough situations. The ultimate femme fatale, she would appear to have both Jeff and Whit wrapped around her finger.

Jeff’s story is told in a flashback narrative as he reveals his past to his new girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) on a long trip to Lake Tahoe. He tells Ann everything: How he tracked Kathie down for Whit, followed the trail to Mexico and instantly fell in love with her. Jeff goes even further; telling Ann he lied to Whit about finding Kathie so the two could run away together.  When Jeff and Kathie are spotted in San Francisco by Jeff’s former partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) Kathie shoots him dead – leaving Jeff with the corpse and Kathie’s bank book showing that she had, indeed, stolen the $40,000 from Whit.

All of this takes place in the opening 40 minutes. The rest of the film is set in the present and includes two other storylines which all culminate in a violent finale. Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (the blacklisted novelist writing under the pseudonym “Geoffrey Homes”) wrote the script to his own 1946 novel, Build My Gallows High. The pulpy dialogue is rife with quotable one-liners (“If anyone’s gonna die, baby, I’m gonna die last”). Despite its melodrama and convoluted plot, Out of the Past is still thrillingly paced and pays close attention to the rising tension between Jeff, Whit and Kathie.

Half of the action takes place in lush, outdoor locations instead of stuffy soundstage sets, lending the film an atmosphere of authenticity rarely felt in the noir genre. Director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca used rural locations, untouched by human corruption, to visually contrast the two lives of Jeff Bailey. The scenic landscape is as calm and beautiful as Jeff’s life is chaotic and violent.

As Jeff Bailey, Mitchum makes for an intriguing noir antihero. Constantly surrounded by a bright white ring of cigarette smoke and easily seduced by Kathie (does this make him a hopeless romantic or a deluded chump?) Jeff ultimately comes to terms with his fate – resigned to the fact that the majority of his choices in life have been poor. Mitchum’s slow, deliberate speech pattern and heavy-lidded eyes give Jeff the world-weary appearance of a man who has seen it all – the eternal cynic.

Out of the Past is essential viewing for any cineaste. Like Murder, My Sweet (1944) before it, the film is a measuring stick with which to gauge the success of every noir before and after its release.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Film Noir Series: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

I'm continuing my ongoing film noir series. You can check out my post on the Next Projection website HERE. The second film on my list is Murder, My Sweet (1944).

This iconic and richly layered film from RKO Pictures remains a highlight of the film noir genre, with its famously glib antihero at the centre – a man with a witty one-liner for every insult thrown his way.

Based on the Raymond Chandler pulp novel Farewell, My Sweet, this highly quotable adaptation is a quintessential film noir. With screenwriter John Paxton at the helm, the sharply scripted Murder, My Sweet expertly weaves together what are essentially three separate narratives. The film utilizes the traditional film noir tropes, complete with a flashback framing narrative and descriptive voice-over narration. Director Edward Dymtryk created a moody, atmospheric masterpiece. You can practically smell the whiskey that the characters chug down. Dymtryk and Paxton neatly knit the loose narrative threads together and the end result is a dark, seedy and occasionally violent ode to the crime dramas of Raymond Chandler.

Private investigator, Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), is hired by Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki), a longtime crook recently sprung from jail after serving a lengthy sentence. Malloy is concerned about the whereabouts of his beloved moll Velma Valento, whom he hasn’t seen for the last six years. The case becomes a tougher nut to crack than Marlowe originally anticipated, leading him into a tangled web of deceit, bribery and theft.

The visuals lensed by cinematographer Harry J. Wilde explore the dark recesses of the human psyche through lavish visual concepts that literally reveal the state of paranoia in which Marlowe finds himself. A literal black haze moves over the screen as a fainting Marlowe narrates, “A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.” His bizarre hallucinations are conveyed by overlapping imagery and cobwebs that seem to literally cling to the screen and blur the audiences’ vision.

Dick Powell (left) and Claire Trevor.
Dick Powell portrays Marlowe as a world-weary “everyman” – even though his career may involve him in the happenings of the criminal underworld, his moral compass remains intact.
As Marlowe himself explains early on in the film: “I’m just a small businessman in a very messy business, but I like to follow through on a sale.” A former crooner in the musical genre, Powell was cast against type yet convincingly made the transition from a song-and-dance man to a P.I. antihero.

Anne Shirley plays Ann Grayle, a woman who teams with Marlowe when she discovers her father is involved in the mess surrounding the whereabouts of Velma Valento. Earnest and eager to help, Ann’s apparent na├»ve charm casts a spell over Marlowe, although her motivations are not always clear.

As Helen Grayle, Ann’s bombshell stepmother, Claire Trevor is flawless, the very embodiment of the femme fatale. She’s platinum blonde and all legs – she’s introduced to the audience sitting curled up on the couch, like a predatory cat waiting to pounce. With her plunging necklines, glittering jewels and overtly sexual haughtiness, Helen is the type of woman who could lure a man into a life of corruption.

And then there’s Mike Mazurki, an absolute revelation as Moose Malloy. The former professional wrestler was more than just a craggy face with a body built like a piece of concrete. He gives a touching performance as a lovesick criminal who just wants to be reunited with his girlfriend.

Murder, My Sweet is ultimately a higher breed of film noir – highly quotable, expertly paced and well acted. There are few finer examples of the genre.

FINAL GRADE: A

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Movie Review: Shame

Shame (2011)
Written and Directed By: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan

"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."

When it comes to sophomore efforts there's always that fear that a director won't live up to the same level of excellence achieved in his debut. However, after the 2008 film Hunger catapulted British director Steve McQueen (and his star Michael Fassbender) to stardom, his follow-up film is among the best of 2011. It's also one of the most explicit theatrical releases in years and is bound to stir up some controversy. 

Controversy aside, Shame is ultimately a character study, a close look at the isolating nature of addiction. That gradual sense of separation from the tangible and the emotional that is experienced by the central figure in the film is something many can identify with in our current digital age. 

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is handsome, owns a beautiful apartment and owes his financial success to his cushy executive job. However, beneath the surface lies a chronic addiction -- one that requires Brandon to constantly, almost exhaustively, seek sexual release, albeit without ever finding true fulfillment. He follows a meticulous, rigid schedule each day -- beginning with masturbation in the shower and ending with picking up a prostitute at night. When his younger sister, Sissy (a wonderful Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment after a nasty breakup, she encrouches on his personal space, forcing Brandon to break out of his pattern and come face-to-face with his addiction and obsessive nature. Their relationship is not a traditional one shared between two siblings. With Brandon and Sissy there is an unspoken tension lying just beneath the surface -- somewhere along the way, something happened between them, although the viewer is left without answers which only adds to our unease. 

Brandon's lack of real connection with the people around him coincides with the films subtler theme of humanity's gradual loss of basic connection in the modern world. The New York in which Brandon lives is seen as cold and unfriendly, a place filled with concrete buildings and self-involved people. His is a world where the sun never shines and Brandon must go through the motions of interacting with the people he meets in lounges and bars with his egotistical boss (and only friend), David (James Badge Dale), a man who communicates with his own young son via web cam. 

Some of the most revealing scenes in Shame are often the ones that require a very limited use of dialogue. In an early scene, we witness the the interaction between Brandon and a pretty woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway late at night. While both ride the train in silence, sitting across from one another, a wordless exchange  is passed between them. The scene is astounding in its ability to go through a range of emotions in just under three minutes -- from initial attraction, to flirtation, to devastating regret. It's a shockingly powerful scene that is a highlight in an already excellent film. 

Fassbender gives the best male performance of 2011, to date. His Brandon is a man of obsession and desperation and Fassbender is able to convey this through his expressive eyes and quietly commanding presence. Watching him struggle to connect with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a colleague he asks out on a date, allows the viewer to see another side of Brandon -- the charming man beneath the cold surface is briefly and touchingly revealed. But his attempts at human connection are more often than not in vain. Fassbender's performance is nothing short of astonishing. 

Shame hits you like a ton of bricks and sits heavily on your shoulders. It stays with you long after the final credits. It's an absorbing, piercing look at isolation and addiction -- a true work of art that requires more than one viewing, in order to pick up on its smaller nuances. You'll leave the theatre with conflicting emotions -- an effect all great films should have on its audience. 

FINAL GRADE: A

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Film Noir Series: Dillinger (1945)

I've recently started blogging for the Toronto-based film website, Next Projection. They also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

I'll be doing a Film Noir series for them, which I'm really excited about. You can check out my first post HERE. I also plan on putting them on here, to help me keep track.

The first film on my list: Dillinger (1945).

Before establishing himself as a weathered thug in films like Born to Kill (1947) and Reservoir Dogs (1992), Lawrence Tierney made his major film debut playing one of America’s most notorious bank robbers.

Clocking in at a brisk 70 minutes, this mostly forgotten crime noir chronicles the illicit career of John Dillinger at breakneck speed. Having robbed more than a dozen banks with his rag-tag group of associates, Dillinger joined the ranks of Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd as the top newsmakers of the Depression era.

However, Dillinger is not a traditional biopic. The Oscar nominated screenplay by Philip Yordan played it fast and loose with the facts. Yordan chose not to dwell on the motivations that saw Dillinger resort to a life of crime. The film is, essentially, a largely fictitious glossing over of the infamous career criminal who, at the time of the films release, had only been dead for 11 years.


Lawrence Tierney (right) as Dillinger.
A B-movie from Monogram Pictures, the tiny “poverty row” studio that made a quick buck with low budget films between 1931-1953, Dillinger went on to gross more than 4 million dollars at the box office – this despite its obvious flaws.  At the time, Dillinger defied the Production Code’s unofficial rule to relegate real life criminal activity to the background in Hollywood films, likely the reason behind its popularity.

No one else in Hollywood would touch the story of Public Enemy #1, leaving the door open for Monogram to adapt Dillinger’s exploits to its own liking.

Riddled with inconsistencies, Dillinger begins with a framing narrative that is quickly abandoned. A theatre audience listens as Dillinger’s elderly father recounts his sons’ misadventures. The film than moves into a flashback of Dillinger’s early introduction to a life of crime and the story proceeds from there. There is no concluding scene that features Dillinger’s father finishing his account.

Another curiosity comes out in the DVD commentary (featuring John Milius, the director of 1973’s Dillinger) where it’s revealed that the 1945 film actually used stock footage in some of its prominent scenes. Most notably, the tear gas robbery sequence was lifted straight from Fritz Lang’s 1937 film You Only Live Once – complete with a close-up shot of the films star, Henry Fonda, peering out of the back of his car.

Although some have argued against the films classification as film noir, director Max Nosseck utilized traditional narrative devices and visuals often associated with the genre. With its use of flashbacks, albeit briefly, and reductionist lighting, Dillinger features sequences with heavy rain, thick clouds of cigarette smoke and spinning newspapers with bold titles revealing Dillinger’s criminal activity to propel the plot forward. In terms of its aesthetic qualities, the film as aged remarkably well.

However, its strongest facet is Tierney; he makes for a shifty, anxious and explosive Dillinger. Although the character development is kept to the bare minimum you understand he’s a man to be feared – the type of guy who would take serious offense to being called a “two-bit chiseler”.  His barely concealed rage simmers just beneath the surface. Tierney doesn’t strive to make Dillinger likeable, opting instead to portray him as an outright villain with questionable motivations.

Dillinger is strange hybrid of gangster flick, film noir and docudrama, without ever quite achieving success as any of the three in terms of storytelling. Its simplistic approach to storytelling propels the action forward, however it ultimately leaves little impact outside of Tierney’s performance.

FINAL GRADE: C+