Friday, December 14, 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit". So goes one of the most recognizable openings in English literature. Back in 1937, when J.R.R. Tolkien first put pen to paper to create his sprawling fantasy universe, little did he know that it would spawn one of the biggest film franchises of all time.

Now, 11 years after first introducing audiences to his interpretation of Tolkien's world with The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson returns to helm the prequel to his epic trilogy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid and enjoyable outing, albeit one that struggles to recreate the magic of the original trilogy. Those films -- like catching lightning in a bottle -- were a pop culture phenom that captured the imagination of filmgoers from around the globe for three years. And, with his assured direction, Jackson makes The Hobbit work, for the most part.

Set 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, we first meet Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) leading a solitary life in his small burrow in The Shire. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) appears requesting that he join him on an adventure, Bilbo is hesitant -- and rightfully so. Gandalf wants Bilbo to act as a burglar for a group of 13 dwarves fighting to reclaim their home, the kingdom of Erebor. Hobbits, being fleet of foot, are able to move about sight unseen, sound unheard -- making young Bilbo the ideal candidate for such a dangerous venture.

Having faced a ruthless invasion at the hands of the fearsome dragon Smaug, the dwarves were run out of their kingdom and left homeless. While Smaug lords over Erebor and the dwarf treasure, a plot is set in motion to reclaim their territory by any means necessary. Although riddled with anxiety, Bilbo agrees to leave his idyllic settings for unchartered terrain with a band of bloodthirsty, yet charmingly brash, dwarves.

Freeman is a natural fit for the lead role. He instills Bilbo with a nervous charisma that is as amusing as it is moving. Riding in on the coattails of the immensely popular BBC series, Sherlock, Freeman's fanbase will undoubtedly grow exponentially thanks to his spot-on characterization of one of literature's most popular heroes.

Returning in the role of Gandalf, McKellan manages to make his wise wizard feel younger and more spry than he appeared in The Lord of the Rings. He gives a thoughtful performance with a character he's already perfected.
Ian McKellan
Considering Jackson's knack for coming across talented actors who are not yet household names, the supporting cast are all top notch. It's not only a pleasure to watch the return of Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and a never-better Andy Serkis as Gollum, but the new faces are a delight as well. Richard Armitage as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, in particular, is a standout.

Adept at capturing even the tiniest details of Middle Earth, it seems only natural that Jackson would return after original director Guillermo del Toro bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. For the sake of continuity and the overall look and feel, it's fitting that Jackson complete all six films himself. However, the decision to stretch a tiny children's book into three feature films is being called into question.

By the time all the expository information is laid out in the first two acts of An Unexpected Journey, the material has started to stretch a little thin. The meandering plot will likely keep true Tolkien devotees satisfied but may alienate general audiences. The film gains some traction in the third act when much of the action focuses on Gollum and then the epic battle between dwarves and orcs -- but by then the film is nearly over.

However, for all its spectacle and excellent performances, An Unexpected Journey is gaining a fair bit of buzz for the medium in which Jackson chose to film his trilogy.

Jackson made the controversial decision to film his latest Middle Earth outing with a high projection rate of 48 frames per second, which adds up to about twice the normal speed. It's akin to watching the clarity of a high-definition TV show. It will astound as many viewers as it will anger and disappoint. While there are those who will gripe about the 48 frames, there's no denying the often glorious effect it has on specific scenes in the film.

An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable piece of cinema and you'll be happy that you've returned to Middle Earth -- even if it isn't quite as magical as the first time around.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Written and directed by: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver

Like the screwball films of the 1930s -- after which Silver Linings Playbook is styled -- the jam-packed script of director David O. Russell's latest oddity is rife with loose narrative threads that all ultimately tie together neatly in the end.

A festival darling, winning the People's Choice Award at this years Toronto International Film Festival, Silver Linings Playbook has received overwhelming support in critics circles. Applauded for its unique quirkiness, the film is based on a novel by Matthew Quick and manages to balance its darker themes with moments of levity.

When Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is released from a mental health facility he returns to his childhood home to live with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver). Diagnosed as bipolar, Pat was hospitalized after discovering his wife in the shower with a work colleague and nearly beating the man to death. After countless therapy sessions, Pat has learned to rein in his mood swings and bouts of violent rages -- for the most part. Pat wants to be reunited with his now-ex-wife and vows that nothing will stand in his way, including a pesky restraining order. He believes a reconciliation with his wife is his "shot at a silver lining", as he often says. When his old friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) invite him over for dinner one night to celebrate his homecoming Pat is introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow with personal issues of her own. As the two bond over medications and moments of depression, the two recognize a spark and embark on a rocky friendship that involves Pat trying to win back his ex-wife and a high-stakes ballroom dance competition.

In a rare dramatic lead role, Cooper has established himself as a fine actor and more than just another pretty Hollywood face. His mature performance as Pat carries a large portion of the emotional heft in the film. He even works through the melodramatic bits to create full-fledged character living on the brink; a man trying to thread his life together.

However, as solid as Cooper is in the lead role, the film greatly benefits from the standout performance of Lawrence as the grieving widow. Playing a character much older than her actual 22 years, Lawrence instills Tiffany with complex emotions that are just brimming beneath the surface. She's liable to just go off at any moment, but Lawrence brings a touching fragility to her sharp-tongued incarnation of Tiffany. She's just as lost, in not more so, than Pat. If there is one thing you'll remember after watching Silver Linings Playbook, it's her bold performance.

In a supporting role, Robert DeNiro is back in top form, portraying Pat's football-loving father who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorders but who loves his family, no matter how dysfunctional. And Jacki Weaver gives a lovely performance as the family matriarch who just wants her loved ones to be alright.

Where the film suffers at times is in its meandering plot. There are moments when the narrative struggles to stay afloat on a very thin premise. But, thanks to a cathartic, albeit cliched, ballroom dance finale, Russell's film manages to straddle multiple genres while telling an intriguing, emotional story. Despite some issues with the script, Silver Linings Playbook is an actors film, one that allows them room to breath and create unique characters that pull you into the story.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Monday, December 3, 2012

Movie review: The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes
The Sessions (2012)
Written and directed by: Ben Lewin
Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy

Based on a true story. That sentence, so often found flashing across movie trailers and posters, usually signifies an inspiring tearjerker that will tug at your heartstrings as it works its way up the red carpet to the Academy Awards.

However, while The Sessions does have moments that will leave you reaching for the tissues, it's also a gentle comedy that touchingly delves into the most basic of human desires.

Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) was diagnosed with polio at the age of six and, as a result, must spend the majority of his days enclosed in an iron lung. For those few blissful hours where he is allowed to leave his prison, he's wheeled around town by a string of caretakers. However, Mark, who went on to become a successful essayist and poet, desired a sort of physical contact that many often take for granted.

The film, based on a 1990 article Mark wrote titled "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate", focuses on his quest to lose his virginity at the age of 38. A devout Christian, Mark grapples with his religious conscience and his desire for a physical act that is deemed a mortal sin. In an attempt to come to terms with his inner turmoil, Mark regularly visits a local priest (William H. Macy) to unburden himself. After several meetings, Mark admits his desire for sexual fulfillment and his priest, in one of the standout moments in The Sessions, gives his blessing to Mark with a simple, "In my heart, I feel He will give you a free pass on this one. Go for it."

And go for it he does. He hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate who is assigned to six sessions with Mark. Her goal: To not only help him in his quest to lose his virginity but to help him find comfort with his own body and sexuality. Quick to brush off any association with prostitution, Cheryl is a sex therapist who also happens to take off her clothes in order to help heal her clients. The restriction to six sessions is to prevent therapist and client from becoming too involved with one another. It's a quick and effective way to cut the strings.
If nothing else, The Sessions is a film of performances, and great ones at that. Hawkes and Hunt carry the emotional weight on their shoulders, weathering their characters' personal ups and downs with gentle humour and touching maturity. Despite its premise, the film isn't about sex; it's about those basic human desires we all harbour and how we each work to achieve them.

Hawkes is a likely Best Actor nominee shoo-in at the Oscars this year. Speaking in a higher voice and contorting his body, Hawkes is only able to use his face to convey his emotions. A versatile actor who has really come into his own in the last five years, the Oscar nominee gives arguably his finest performance to date. Hawkes doesn't make Mark a character to be pitied -- he's to be admired for his strength of character, minus the cliched trappings of many films that revolve around a person living with a disability.

Hunt returns to the silver screen after a self-imposed hiatus and she's back in full force -- just as likable and charming as ever. One of the flaws of The Sessions is the manner in which it glosses over Cheryl's life. It stands back from her rocky marriage and forces the audience to watch from a distance. How does her career choice affect her marriage? And why does she fall so hard for Mark? What is it that is missing from her life? All of these questions, and more, are left unanswered yet, thanks to Hunt's quietly commanding performance, you're still drawn into Cheryl's story.

The screenplay, written by director Ben Lewin, is a little all over the map -- changing narrative point-of-views that leave the film feeling like detached fragments and vignettes. However, The Sessions is ultimately buoyed by the two standout lead performances. You only wish you had more sessions in which to spend with them.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Monday, November 19, 2012

Ranking the Films of Steven Spielberg

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Recently, Vulture ranked all 28 of Steven Spielberg's films. As bloggers Will Leitch and Tim Grierson wrote: "Spielberg doesn't always receive his due, dismissed in some quarters as merely a 'commercial' moviemaker who lacks the soul of a true artist." 

The article did get me thinking, though: How would I rank Spielberg's films? So much of his filmography helped peak my interest in the cinema when I was a child. I still regard Jurassic Park as the best experience I've ever had in a theatre. I can still remember feeling my heart in my throat. Combine Jurassic Park with my  love for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Hook and E.T. and Spielberg was easily the most influential film figure in my younger years. In my eyes, no made better movies. For those seeking both pure adrenaline and loveable characters, Spielberg is where you'd look.

Granted, Spielberg has had his fair share of cinematic misfires, but there's no denying his ability to inspire new generations of filmmakers with his stylistic flair and ability to effortlessly take on any genre or subject.

While I haven't seen everything in his oeuvre, here is how I'd rank the Spielberg films that I have seen:

20) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
19) The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
18) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
17) A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
16) The Terminal (2004)
15) The Color Purple (1985)
14) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
13) Empire of the Sun (1987)
12) War of the Worlds (2005)
11) Catch Me If You Can (2002)
10) Hook (1991)
9) Lincoln (2012)
8) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
7) Schindler's List (1993)
6) Minority Report (2002)
4) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
3) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
2) Jurassic Park (1993)
1) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Perfection. Pure, unadulterated entertainment where we get to see Spielberg at his finest.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie Review: Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis
I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Long-regarded as one of America's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln was many things: A shrewd politician, a hardworking family man and a vocal proponent of passing an anti-slavery bill.

The gradual build-up to director Steven Spielberg's opus has helped revive public discussions on Lincoln outside of the usual historical circles. Yet, few films have ever ventured to portray the much-revered president on the silver screen and, if anyone were to succeed in the role, it would be celebrated British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. And, while the always-reliable Day-Lewis commands the screen with his award-worthy performance, Lincoln may ultimately leave some viewers scratching their heads.

Spielberg's Lincoln chronicles the last four months of the titular hero's life, from January to April 1865. The action takes place in Washington, as the President struggles to bring an end the Civil War raging throughout the nation. Lincoln puts most of his time and energy into passing an amendment to abolish slavery, a contentious issue that proves divisive within the House of Representatives.

In the moments where the script calls for levity, Lincoln enlists the help of three affable Republican "thugs" (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, all excellent) to convince the remaining Democrats who are still on the fence over the anti-slavery act to come back with a verdict in support of the bill.

However, considering the historic significance of America's 16th President of the United States, it's somewhat perplexing as to why Spielberg gets off to a slow start in the early going. The first hour is filled with awkward exposition as the script calls for too many heavy-handed conversations that quibble over the semantics of passing a bill. Periods of long, drawn-out speeches on constitutional law and negotiating peace slow the momentum to a standstill.

The screenplay, by Tony Kushner, neglects to delve deeper into the man behind the iconic top hat and beard. There are even instances where, despite Day-Lewis' mesmerizing performance, Lincoln recedes into the background. When we do get glimpses of his private family life they are fleeting — especially frustrating considering certain scenes with his wife Mary (Sally Field) hint at a fascinating, albeit unhappy, marriage. Even a subplot involving his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is ultimately discarded in favour of the unending parade of secondary characters.

But where Lincoln ultimately falls short is in its hazy narrative. Is this a biopic on the man behind the legend or a docudrama on the abolishment of slavery in the United States?

Daniel Day-Lewis exudes a confidence in his craft rarely seen in actors working today. Although the passage of time prevents us from knowing exactly how Lincoln spoke and acted towards his colleagues and family, Day-Lewis imbues his metaphor-spouting Lincoln with a gentleness that defies his reputation as a commanding leader. Speaking in soft-spoken cadences that rarely rise above a whisper, Day-Lewis' Lincoln walks with shoulders so stooped that they appear to carry the entire weight of the world. He has the uncanny ability to transport you in time and make you believe that the person you are watching on the silver screen is the real person — as opposed to a carefully crafted reconstruction. It's a powerful — and beautifully subdued — performance from an artist who many would argue is a gift to acting.

The supporting cast is a revolving door of familiar faces from Jackie Earle Haley (as Alexander Stephens) to David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward). But it's Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania rep Thaddeus Stevens that is the standout — and potentially one of the early contenders for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Grizzled and peevish, Jones unleashes passionate pleas in defense of Lincoln's anti-slavery bill — much to the chagrin of Democratic pro-slavery speaker Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).

Lincoln is not as epic or sentimental as one would come to expect from Spielberg — it's easily the director's most restrained work to date.

While the film has its powerful moments — many of which take place in the House of Representatives — Lincoln, the man, ultimately gets lost within Lincoln.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Blu-ray Review: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Comparing the Blu-ray transfer to the DVD release.
I reviewed this Blu-ray for Next Projection.

Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim
Director: Billy Wilder
Country: U.S.
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: YouTube

Video
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080 p
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Audio
English: Dolby True HD Mono
French: Dolby Digital Mono
Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
Portugese: Dolby Digital Mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish and Portugese

Sunset Blvd. finally gets its close-up on Blu-ray. As one of the most cynical glimpses of Hollywood to ever hit the silver screen, Billy Wilder's satiric masterpiece is classic cinema at its finest.

Long revered as one of the finest films ever made, this seminal work marks a career high for Wilder who, at the time, was Hollywood's most celebrated director, having recently won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Lost Weekend (1945).

With its assortment of colourful characters both fictional and real, Sunset Blvd. delves into the dark side of movie-making -- from the desperation of those who seek a life in the spotlight to those jaded figures who work behind the scenes. It's a dirty business and Wilder wasn't afraid to shine a light on its dark corners.

Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down on his luck in Hollywood and, after a series of misadventures, finds himself in a ramshackle mansion on the outskirts of town. Once inside the oppressive house Joe meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging former silent screen star, and her solumn German butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). When Norma shows Joe a script she plans to use as her "return" to the silver screen, she enlists him as her screenwriter in exchange for money to pay off his creditors. Lost in her delusions and exaggerated sense of self-worth, Norma showers Joe with money and jewellery -- lavishing the man she believes will be her gateway back to fame.

Sunset Blvd.'s theme of opportunism and its consequences narrows in on what making movies does to people in the business.

The transfer and digital reconstruction is gorgeous, capturing the luscious light and shadows in every shot. Paramount clearly appreciated the importance of preserving this classic and celebrating its place in film lore.

There is a wealth of supplemental features, many of which were brought over from the DVD restoration that was released a decade ago. Featuring the likes of film historian Ed Sikov, actress Nancy Olson and film historian Andrew Sarris, the extras give tidbits on the behind-the-scenes issues in bringing this classic to the big screen.

The only complaint is that, after clocking in at more than two and a half hours of extras, the information doled out in the interviews tends to get a bit repetitive. Perhaps had some of the smaller supplemental features been edited together into one longer finished product than viewers wouldn't suffer from a sense of deja vu. 

Extras
This Blu-ray release includes featurettes on "Sunset Blvd.: The Beginning", "Sunset Blvd.: A Look Back", "The Noir Side of Sunset Blvd.", "Paramount in the 50s" and a deleted scene, among other bonus supplements.

Final grade: A 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Scariest Movie Scenes

Tina's death in A Nightmare on Elm Street
In honour of Halloween: The 13 movie scenes that, at one time or another, scared the living crap out of me.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The premise: A long-dead serial murderer haunts the dreams of the children whose parents were members of the lynch mob that hunted him down.
The scene: Rod (Jsu Garcia) witnesses his girlfriend Tina (Amanda Wyss) meet a grisly end as she's dragged across the ceiling of her bedroom by an unseen force.

Lost Highway (1997)
The premise: A saxophonist is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison where he transforms into a young mechanic and starts his life afresh.
The scene: The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) confronts Fred (Bill Pullman) at a party and convinces him to phone his own house. When Fred obliges he hears the voice of the Mystery Man pick up his home phone, even though he's standing right in front of him.

Nosferatu (1922)
The premise: This silent classic chronicles the strange life of the vampire Count Orlok.
The scene: In a chilling example of German Expressionism at its finest, Count Orlok makes his way slowly up the staircase -- while the audience sees only his distorted shadow on the wall.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The premise: An FBI rookie must work with the infamous Hannibal Lecter in order to catch another killer on the loose.
The scene: Clarice (Jodie Foster) confronts Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) in his basement -- only to find herself abandoned in pitch black darkness as Jame follows her around with night-vision goggles.

Scream (1996)
The premise: A group of teenagers discuss the "rules" of horror films as students at their high school are systematically killed off one-by-one by a masked killer known as Ghostface.
The scene: The chilling opening sequence where Drew Barrymore receives harassing phone calls from an unknown assailant who quizzes her about her favourite horror films -- before brutally murdering her.

Halloween (1978)
The premise: A masked psychopath breaks out of an institution and stalks a teenage girl from his small hometown.
The scene: After emerging victorious from a faceoff with Michael Myers (Tony Moran), Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) breathes a sigh of relief -- while the seemingly dead Michael slowly sits up behind Laurie's shoulder.

The Exorcist (1973)
The premise: When a twelve-year-old girl is possessed by the devil, her mother enlists the help of two priests.
The scene: After stabbing herself in the crotch with a crucifix, Regan (Linda Blair) faces the audience by enabling her head to do a 360-degree spin.
The Exorcist III
The Exorcist III (1990)
The premise: A police officer respectfully acknowledges the anniversary of a priests death while, at the same time, trying to track down a vicious serial killer.
The scene: A nurse in a hospital checks a couple of rooms during a night shift when, in a genuine jump-out-of-your-skin moment, she's followed out of a room by a white-shrouded intruder.

The Thing (1982)
The premise: Scientists in the Antarctic discover a shape-shifting alien that takes on the appearance of its victims.
The scene: The alien, in human form, fakes a heart attack and, while the scientists scramble to save who they assume is their comrade, they are confronted with "the thing" itself in a shocking, terrifying, pre-CGI sequence.

The Shining (1980)
The premise: A family agrees to watch over a hotel that is closed for the winter season when an unseen force influences the father, pushing him to the edge of insanity.
The scene: While most would cite the twins in the hallway as the scariest sequence, there's also the simplistic slow zoom-in on Jack Nicholson's face looking out the hotel window as he slowly dissolves into madness.

Psycho (1960)
The premise: A young woman on the run stays at the isolated Bates Motel and meets the mother-fearing, socially inept owner.
The scene: No, not the shower sequence although that's terrifying in its own right. Lila Crane (Vera Miles) searches the Bates house for her missing sister (Janet Leigh), only to be confronted by the corpse of Mrs. Bates -- right before Norman (Anthony Perkins) bursts in to the room wearing a woman's wig and dress.

Jurassic Park (1993)
The premise: An ambitious millionaire creates a dinosaur theme park and, during a preview tour, a massive power outtage enables the prehistoric animals to rule the island.
The scene: A thunderstorm. A glass of water, trembling with each footstep. A T-Rex bites through an electrical fence and proceeds to attack the tourist cars.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
The premise: A former child star jealously guards her more-famous older sister in a rundown mansion.
The scene: When wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) crawls her way to the telephone to make an emergency call, Jane (Bette Davis) discovers her calling for help and violently kicks her around the room.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Revisiting the Classics: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates
"We all go a little mad sometimes." 

On Thursday night my friend suggested we check out a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic, Psycho, which was playing at a local theatre.

It had been awhile since I'd last visited the Bates Motel and its man-with-severe-mother-issues owner, Norman.

I actually can't recall the last time I'd seen Psycho which makes me think it has been at least five years, if not longer. So, watching it in glorious black and white on the big screen made it feel as though I were watching it for the first time. I'd forgotten about a couple of little twists and the fact that the script (based on the novel by Robert Bloch) was chock-full of great dialogue and slow, engaging character revelations. It truly is a masterpiece of suspense and thrills. And, regardless of how many times you've seen the film, its final twist and closing shot (see photo above) is still as mesmerizing and shocking as it undoubtedly was back in 1960.

A complex psychological thriller, Psycho is celebrated in film circles as one of Hitchcock's finest -- if not his greatest -- achievements (and whether or not you think that Vertigo is technically the better film is a debate worthy of a whole separate blog post). At the age of 61, Hitchcock cobbled together his now-classic shocker on a tiny budget in a matter of weeks. With Hitchcock's knack for building tension and influential stylistic flare, Psycho is as unsettling in its premise as it is a technical marvel -- what with all those unique camera angles, intimate close-ups of his cast and that famous image of Mama Bates' skull superimposed over the crazed face of Norman as the film closes.

But one of the true revelations in Psycho is Anthony Perkins in the lead role. I'd never fully appreciated his performance until this recent viewing. He commanded the screen with a charismatically awkward performance that, on the surface, made him appear as likeable as a young boy eager to please his friends or parents. "I think I must have one of those faces you can't help believing," he tells Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) early on in the film. And you, as the audience, totally fall for it too, just like Marion. Even though you know Norman has the capability to kill, he lulls you into feeling sympathy for him -- you may even catch yourself wishing he'll get the help he so obviously needs.

The role of Norman Bates could have easily been nothing more than a stock horror character. A villain without personality. Someone lurking in the shadows who ultimately leaves no lasting impression once the credits roll. But where Perkins excels is in his ability to make you realize that Norman Bates could be anyone. Literally. He could be the man sitting next to you on the subway, or the woman walking her dog down the street. He's not some Freddy Krueger-type fantasy-villain who would stick out like a sore thumb if you saw him in a crowd of people from across the street. Perkins, with his average-joe features and shy nature, totally inhabits the character of Norman Bates.

It's an all-around fantastic performance in an already perfect psychological thriller.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Movie Review: Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie (2012)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau and Charlie Tahan

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Tim Burton's latest animated oddity heralds a return to form for the director. Although he distracted himself with big-budget remakes over the years -- many of which failed to resonate with viewers -- Frankenweenie is a welcome return to the Burton of old.

Expanding on a concept conceived back in 1984, Frankenweenie has gone from a 30-minute project to a feature-length film lensed in glorious black and white -- an homage to the horror influences of his childhood.

Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is devastated when his beloved dog, Sparky, is killed in a tragic road accident. However, when a grieving Victor learns about the effects of electricity while in his science class he concocts a plan to bring his dog back to life. But, in order to avoid detection, he must outsmart his parents (Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short), science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) and his nosy classmates. Although Victor's experiment initially proves to be a success, he is ultimately forced to confront the consequences of his actions when other people get their hands on the science behind bringing the dead back to life.
Influenced by the aesthetics and techniques used in the German Expressionist films that were prevalent in the 1920s, Frankenweenie also contains a memorable cast of eccentric outsiders -- all familiar features in Burton's oeuvre.

The craftsmanship is a wonder to behold. Frankenweenie is arguably Burton's most visually stunning work in years. Making the bold decision to release a family feature in black and white, the characters and their little town of New Holland are so vivid they appear to pop off the screen. To understand the painstaking process involved in creating a stop-motion feature, is to realize that Frankenweenie is a genuine labour of love for its director.

While the plot fondly borrows from films and literature of the past, it's the characters that keeps the action moving forward. The premise may not be original but the memorable cast of characters is all Burton's own creation. His signature long-legged, saucer-eyed characters tend to resemble grotesque marionettes but their personalities carry a lot of heart.

Despite all the impressively eerie visuals and classic film references, Frankenweenie is ultimately just a touching story about a young boy and his dog; the rare family feature that will appeal to both children and adults alike.

Burton's affection for his now-28-year-old story is undeniable as Frankenweenie proves to be the director's most successful outing in years.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

The Master (2012)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams

I reviewed this film for The Hollywood News.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious follow-up to his 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood has received a lot of ink touting it as the origin tale of Scientology. And, while aspects of The Cause (the cult at the heart of Anderson’s narrative) often mirrors certain methods promoted by Scientology, to simply categorize The Master as a loosely-based look at L. Ron Hubbard is to do it a great disservice.

The idea of a Scientology-like “religion” is used only as a narrative framing device — the film itself poses much more thought-provoking questions. Why are we susceptible to mind control and manipulation? What does it ultimately say about the human condition? Just how fragile are we?

Discharged US Navy officer and alcoholic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) falls under the influence of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), taking to his cult group The Cause in a desperate attempt to tame his animalistic nature and put an end to his own rootlessness.

However, The Master is an intricate character study, first and foremost. It chronicles the lives of two very different men carrying their own unique emotional baggage. When the two collide and, for a brief time, appear to understand one another, it becomes apparent that their only real difference is how they each choose to handle their inner torment. Where Dodd went on to become The Master to the followers of The Cause, Freddie wallowed in his misery, constantly conjuring images of his violent past and the love of his life that he let slip away.
As Freddie Quell, Phoenix gives what is arguably the finest performance of his career to date. From his physical transformation to his fierce intensity, his full commitment to the role is palpable. His Freddie is a lost soul so damaged that he seems beyond repair. You don’t doubt that his admiration for Lancaster Dodd is genuine, although he appears to simultaneously love and loathe the only man who has ever given him the time of day. He’s teetering on the edge of insanity and Phoenix’s shocking performance is absolutely mesmerizing to watch.

With Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman is equally compelling as he goes from a charismatic father figure to launching a tirade of abuse against anyone who dares question his theories on life. Dodd thrives on the admiration of others and, beneath his jovial exterior, masks an ego that constantly needs nourishing.

In these early stages of the awards season, Phoenix and Hoffman are two clear frontrunners.

To enhance an already vivid experience, Anderson used 70 mm cinematography from director of photography, Mihai Malaimare Jr. The end result is a series of gloriously lensed, razor-sharp images that pop off the screen and lend the performances — specifically Phoenix’s haunted Freddie — an added layer of realism. You can see every line on his furrowed brow.

The Master is one of those films that will undoubtedly benefit from multiple viewings. While it may appear that the script only scratches the surface of its deeper questions and philosophies, Anderson’s latest entry does not judge his characters or their actions and does what any great film should — generate discussion, not only about film but life in general.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Friday, August 31, 2012

"We travel just to travel."
~ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

I'll be away on vacation for two weeks. Not only will I be missing the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time in seven years, but I'll be super-behind on all the latest movie releases ...so I'll be looking forward to catching up on everyone's blogs when I get back! :)

-Laura

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve (1941)
Directed by: Preston Sturges
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

We all know the story about Eve and the forbidden fruit -- and right from the opening credits, which includes an animated snake, The Lady Eve puts a comedic spin on the biblical tale.

Jean and "Colonel" Harrington, a father-daughter card shark team (Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn), set their sights on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) the socially awkward millionaire of a brewery fortune who recently returned from a year-long snake hunting trip in the Amazon (there's that snake imagery again). Jean and the Colonel crave wealth and fame. As the Colonel says to his daughter: "Let us be crooked, but never common." Yet when Jean seduces Charles, she's shocked to discover that she's quickly falling head-over-heels in love. The temptress in her wants to continue her little game and come out on top -- with thousands in her bank account -- but her romantic side has other plans in store as she struggles to persuade her father to abandon their con.

Prior to his 1942 hit, The Palm Beach Story, director Preston Sturges co-wrote this battle-of-the-sexes romp featuring two of the biggest stars of the era. Brimming with witty dialogue and more than a few pratfalls for good measure -- as well as sexually frank innuendo that somehow slipped passed Hollywood censors -- The Lady Eve is a clever and engaging addition to the screwball genre.
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck

As the slippery dame surprised by the genuine love she feels for her target, Barbara Stanwyck gives arguably one of her finest performances. Generally known for her dramatic roles (see: Double Indemnity), she's an absolute pleasure to watch here as she engages in a battle with her own conscience. Stanwyck manages to portray her character's complexities in such believable fashion you may catch yourself wondering which side of herself she'll give in to: The card shark or the hopeless romantic? She's both effortlessly graceful and charmingly flustered.

Henry Fonda, on the other hand, conveys a vulnerability that's almost painful to watch. Barely cracking a smile -- but generating plenty of genuine laughs with his charismatic performance -- his quest for Jean's hand in marriage is his ultimate goal. Anything less and he would collapse in a ball of misery. Only Fonda could make such an awkward chap such a comedic delight.

The Lady Eve holds up remarkably well, thanks in large part to two exceptional lead performances and the assured direction from a comedy master. Its ingenious script, brisk pace, deceptive characters and sexy banter catapult The Lady Eve into the realm of the classics. It's the quintessential screwball comedy.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Friday, August 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Right from the start, the establishing shot provides a heavy dose of deja vu. Covert operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) floats on his stomach in the icy depths of an Alaskan lake, immediately bringing to mind the first glimpse we get of anti-hero Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in the franchise's first instalment. The scene is one of many nods to the original trilogy, a polite tip of the hat to the 2002 blockbuster that started it all.

From there, The Bourne Legacy sets out to both embrace its narrative origins and, at the same time, set itself apart as a stand-alone franchise spin-off -- which is does with varying degrees of success.

With the departure of director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Damon's decision not to return in the lead role, producers were left to ponder how best to handle their still-marketable action franchise. It would have been too risky a venture to simply recast another actor in the title role of Jason Bourne, the operative with superhuman strength that helped make Robert Ludlum's book series such a success. The Universal heads ultimately opted instead to build a brand new character from the ground up.

With the original trilogy's screenwriter Tony Gilroy now behind the camera (he co-wrote Legacy with brother, Dan), the latest instalment reverts to familiar espionage tropes -- nefarious government henchmen, spectacular high-octane chases and a variety of exotic international locales -- as it concocts a story that features less relentless action sequences and more scenes with plot-driven dialogue.

The story begins where The Bourne Ultimatum left off, with former Treadstone agent Jason Bourne on the run from shadowy government men. Running parallel to the Ultimatum premise is a second top-secret project referred to as Outcome. Under the watchful eye of intelligence chief Eric Byer (a delightfully snarky Edward Norton), Outcome is in the relatively early stages of creating super-agents; a group of six test soldiers who are administered pills in order to improve them both mentally and physically. Without their daily dose they "regress" and return to their unmodified (read: average joe) state. Due to a potential leak about the inner workings of the program, Byer hastily demands that Outcome disband, consequently marking the six operatives for death.

Enter Aaron Cross, a super-soldier on a training mission at a remote post in Alaska. When the truth about the destruction of the Outcome project is slowly revealed to Cross he goes on the run as the only remaining survivor of the program. With a low pill supply and desperate to stave off a return to mental and physical normalcy, Cross kidnaps Dr. Marta Shearing (the always-reliable Rachel Weisz) a virologist involved in Outcome's drug program.

Renner and Weisz
A series of impressively lensed chases ensue involving cars, motorcyles and parkour; all Bourne staples.

Devoid of jingoism, the franchise features double-crossings, backdoor dealings and omnipresent government threats that originate on American soil (as Norton's government crony Byer growls, "We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary"); the films were never about protecting the American populace from its own government's secret agendas. Where Bourne sought the truth to his identity, yearning for a normal life, Cross has no desire to return to his pre-Outcome days; preferring the supplements that elevate him to a superhuman level. The government made him this way and he has no qualms about maintaining his high-octane lifestyle, regardless of the cost. These men have superhuman strength -- but they are not superheroes.

While the film delves into familiar territory, Legacy benefits from its inspired casting of Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner -- an intelligent actor who imbues his performances with fascinating character ticks. With The Hurt Locker, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and The Avengers under his belt, Renner is fast becoming the thinking man's action hero. He more than holds his own here, lending a gritty, battle-worn realism to the proceedings. His Aaron Cross is a more than worthy replacement for Damon's Jason Bourne.

In terms of narrative The Bourne Legacy is able to stand on its own, although so much of its premise rides on its parallels with Jason Bourne's story threads that it will be interesting to see if it survives and becomes its own full-fledged series.

Bourne purists expecting a non-stop adrenaline rush may wind up disappointed. This latest instalment is a satisfying summer diversion that adroitly balances its high-octane thrills with dialogue-heavy passages that propels the plot forward. While it never quite reaches the level of excellence as the original Bourne Identity, Legacy still makes for a thrilling addition to the franchise.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Misfits (1961)

Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable
Two days ago, August 5th, marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe.

To mark the date I chose to watch John Huston's 1961 modern western, The Misfits. Instead of watching my favourite Monroe film (Some Like It Hot) I went with The Misfits because, not only is it her final appearance, it's arguably her finest performance.

The Misfits is often referred to as a "film of lasts": The last part Arthur Miller wrote for Monroe and the last film for both Monroe and Clark Gable before their untimely deaths.

Based on a screenplay by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Arthur Miller, The Misfits follows a trio of down-on-their-luck men and the alluring woman who joins their ragtag group as they travel rodeo circuits and catch wild horses to sell in Reno, Nevada. They also spend weeks at a time wallowing in their sorrows together in a forlorn desert ranch. Each has a sad story to tell and they crave each others company as much as they sometimes seem to resent it.

Miller fashioned the part of Roslyn Tabor specifically for Monroe, and it shows. The role leaves room for Monroe to be both beautiful and complex, strong yet vulnerable. It plays to her strong points as an actress and really allows her room to just let go. Although she's mostly celebrated for her comedic talents, it's a shame she never got more dramatic roles to work with. The Misfits was a fitting final film because it was her strongest and most personal role.

The other characters each have their own issues to work through. Gay Langland (Clark Gable) is a fiercely independent loner reflecting on his past experiences as a great cowboy. Guido (Eli Wallach) is a heartbroken, embittered mechanic who hasn't been the same since the sudden death of his wife. Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) rounds out the group as a rodeo rider who is fixated on mother figures and openly welcomes Roslyn's nurturing nature.

It's the mirroring of real life that can make a viewing of The Misfits so uncomfortable. Perhaps that's why I chose to watch it instead of some of Monroe's earlier, lighter fare. It was a sad production for everyone involved in the making of the film.
Monroe and Gable in their final scene.
At the time Monroe was in and out of rehab -- she was also in the process of finalizing her divorce from Arthur Miller. Director John Huston had a disruptive drinking and gambling problem. Monty Clift, never the same since his near-fatal car accident in 1956 and the subsequent reconstructive facial surgeries, was addicted to the prescription pills that temporarily relieved his chronic pain. And, finally, a mere few days after production ended on the film, Clark Gable passed away of a heart attack at the age of 59 -- a heart attack many blamed on what he put his body through in order to physically and mentally prepare for the role of the rundown Gay Langland.

It's themes of disappointed dreams, thwarted ambitions and broken characters served to lend the film a grim realism it didn't necessarily mean to invoke when production first got underway. As Monroe's Roslyn says at one point: "We're all dying, aren't we? All the husbands and all the wives. Every minute. And we're not teaching each other what we really know, are we?"

The role of Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits was the crowning achievement of Monroe's lengthy career. While not necessarily the best film she appeared in, her performance rang tragically true and is remembered today as a powerful final bow.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Classic Film Review: Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Written by: Norman Krasna
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery

It's not often that you hear the words "Hitchcock" and "screwball comedy" being uttered in the same sentence. Yet, back in 1941, Alfred Hitchcock made a brief foray into comedic territory. Hitchcock always had a sense of humour and a knack for comedic timing; it's just that those moments of levity often occurred in his most suspenseful thrillers -- not full-out comedies.

In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock concocts a breezy comedy centred around a marriage between a hot-headed couple. After three years of marriage Ann and David Smith (Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) discover that, due to some outlandish legal error, their marriage was never validated. While Ann panics, wondering what her mother will think of the fact that she's technically been living in unwedded bliss with a man, David relishes the thought of his freedom. After a particularly aggressive fight and subsequent make-up session, Ann innocently asks: "If you had to do it all over again, would you marry me?" David's nonchalant response: "No." And so he must embark on a series of mishaps and misadventures to win back the affection of his wounded wife who has since taken up with his childhood friend, Jefferson (Gene Raymond).

Working from a script by Norman Krasna, Hitchcock hits the mark as often as he misses the target. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not funny enough to distract audiences from the fact that we know exactly where this is headed. Although the whole idea of a happy ending, achieved only after multiple mix-ups, is a familiar trope of the screwball genre, the premise is stretched thin with a nearly two hour running time. Unlike Gregory La Cava's 1936 screwball masterpiece My Man Godfrey -- which provided sharp commentary on the class system during the Depression -- Mr. and Mrs. Smith has shockingly little to say about anything deeper than surface level, especially on the subject of marriage. It simply coasts on the charm of its female lead, yet even Lombard alone can't keep it afloat.

Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery
That being said, Lombard turns in yet another of her effortlessly hilarious performances. There's no denying her talent and ability to convey a woman on the verge of an emotional collapse, while still making us laugh. You believe, wholeheartedly, every word and gesture. To this day she remains ones of film's great comedienne's for her spot-on comedic timing.

Montgomery has his fair share of standout scenes (look for the moments where he stares down a cat at a restaurant or when, to get out of an awkward moment, he casually tries to induce a nosebleed to get out of the situation). As the egotistical David, it's a pleasure watching him struggle to understand what he did that was so wrong. As Ann drifts further and further away from him and ultimately starts taking up with an old friend of his, it's only then that he realizes how much he misses his wife.

In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Smith proves to be a fun diversion, albeit one that will make you laugh without being particularly memorable.

Some critics have shrugged off this effort as one of Hitchcock's biggest cinematic misfires, and while there is no arguing that it is one of his weakest efforts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is by no means a misfire. It has some shining moments led by its two likeable leads -- but it's just not on par with other screwball greats of the era.

FINAL GRADE: B

Monday, July 30, 2012

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Quvenzhane Wallis
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Written by: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Directed by: Behn Zeitlin
Starring: Quevenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry

"When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces."


And so we are introduced to the six-year-old heroine at the heart of this fable from first-time director Behn Zeitlin.

With echoes of Terrence Malick's recent The Tree of Life, Zeitlin's film is part-poetry, part-family drama. It manages to feel rooted in stark realism while surrounded by fantasy and post-apocalyptic imagery. A big winner at both Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild marks one of the most promising directorial debuts in recent memory. Based on a play written by co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar and starring an entire cast of non-actors from Louisiana, Beasts is one of the great cinematic surprises of 2012.

The film is narrated by Hushuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) a precocious six-year-old African-American living in the "Bathtub" -- a tiny piece of land downstream from a levee in New Orleans. Isolated from the rest of the world, she lives in a couple of ramshackle trailers with her gruff, alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry). The residents of this forgotten piece of land spend their days laughing, drinking and getting by on what the land provides. It's a hard existence made easier by their shared sense of community. It's a world few of us could ever understand -- but you don't need to be able to relate to their existence to know that they make up a genuinely affectionate family unit.

Hushpuppy spends her days collecting food and spending time with wild animals, calmly picking up the smaller ones to hold against her ear so she can listen to their little heartbeats. She often carries on conversations with her absentee mother, calling for her in moments when she requires strength and guidance. Her desire to be remembered when she's gone inspires her to mark down her life's story with black chalk and pieces of cardboard. It's a hard life; a vivid reality told through the eyes of a little girl.
When a devastating hurricane rips through the Bathtub, forcing the "outside world" to intervene and force the residents to leave their homes, this tight-knit community bands together, refusing to budge. Beasts isn't so much about who is right or wrong. Nor is it about passing judgement on those who desire to stay behind and continue to live in the Bathtub. It's about the experience; a brief glimpse at the day-to-day life of a child and the rest of her community. Little else is known about the supporting characters, but this is Hushpuppy's story and we observe everything through her point of view.

Newcomer Quvenzhane Wallis is absolutely mesmerizing. Tiny and dainty, she's a force to be reckoned with and you don't doubt that she could take care of herself should she ever find herself alone in the wilderness. She even stands up to her fathers verbal threats, angrily telling him: "When you die I'll go to your grave and eat birthday cake by myself." It's one of the boldest and most memorable performances of the year. It would be impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Wallis plays Hushpuppy with such a natural grace, it's a marvel that she's not a trained child actor. She tackles grown-up conversations and situations with a manner that is wise beyond her years. She's reason enough to seek out the film.


There will be naysayers who doubt its sincerity or question the directorial intent. Some may find it too precocious for their liking. But Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful, moving slice-of-life narrative told through the eyes of a child.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Christian Bale
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Written by: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman

It's been four years since The Dark Knight set a new standard for both summer blockbusters and comic book adaptations. It's also been four years since the late Heath Ledger created one of the cinema's most fascinating and unpredictable villains.

British director Christopher Nolan took a risk back in 2005 when he decided to reboot a tired franchise that had essentially been reduced to a box office joke. He set out to erase all mental images of "Bat nipples" (see: George Clooney) and Two-Face's purple bubblegum features (see: Tommy Lee Jones). He succeeded, with the release of Batman Begins, followed by the monstrous success of 2008's The Dark Knight. Now, with the third and final chapter of his series, Nolan sets out to appease his rabid fans and conclude his critically acclaimed trilogy on a high note. He mostly succeeds.

Set eight years after the events in the sequel, The Dark Knight Rises begins with a plea from an injured Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) for Batman to return to his former heroic self. Since the conclusion of the last film, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has become a bordering-on-Howard-Hughes recluse, prowling the grounds of Wayne Manor, with only his loyal butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), for company. After having sacrificed his reputation so that attorney-turned-sociopath Harvey Dent could remain a symbol of hope to the people of Gotham, the Bat Suit was put into retirement to collect dust. That is, until a hulking mass of anarchist muscle by the name of Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives and poses a threat to the city. Throw in a costumed jewel thief (Anne Hathaway), an earnest young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a potential love interest (Marion Cotillard) for our Caped Crusader and you've got a jam-packed plot with a large handful of characters and storylines to keep straight.

Clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes in length, the first half of the film suggests a conclusion that could potentially rise above the previous two instalments. Rises gets off to a dark and ambitious start, featuring commentary on the class system and offering glimpses of the urban terrorism that is to come at the hands of Bane. (With its distinct parallels to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, the film presents some muddled politics, yet never delves too deeply into any sociopolitical themes).

However, as the film unfolds it becomes harder to ignore some of the more glaring plot holes (which I won't divulge here, lest I spoil the movie for someone). These goofs often detract from the action on the screen, resulting in more than a few scenes that will leave you scratching your head. 

As is to be expected with such a solid ensemble cast, each of the actors leave a strong impact in their respective roles.The always-reliable Christian Bale and Michael Caine both give moving performances, specifically in pivotal scenes their characters share together. Bale's Bruce Wayne is left jaded and broken-hearted. Even after eight years he hasn't recovered from his guilt over the death of Harvey Dent and the havoc wreaked by the Joker -- which ultimately led to the death of the love of his life. Rises features less Batman sequences and more quieter moments of a reflective Bruce, a wise decision in a film that focuses more on redemption and the ability to overcome personal tragedy.

As the only two women to appear in Rises, Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard do their best with what little they are given. Hathaway opts for a more subdued Catwoman, wisely moving away from the traditional purring kitten performances of the many actresses who came before her, dating back to the 1960s. In the underwritten role of Miranda Tate, a member of the Wayne Enterprises executive board, Cotillard is lovely in a small part. She still manages to leave an impact even though her character is one of Rises weakest links.

Tom Hardy
However, the two standouts are two new additions to the cast. As the eager-to-please beat cop, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Officer John Blake is a welcome, clear-headed presence in a film filled with characters battling severe depression, bouts of rage and broken hearts. His genuine humanity and courage under fire is what Gotham needs and Gordon-Levitt's subtle performance proves memorable in a cast of many. You'll catch yourself wondering how the city ever survived before without his calm, collected ways.

Then there is Tom Hardy, a captivating actor who has bulked up for roles in the past -- most recently in 2011's Warrior but also in his explosive career-making turn in the little-seen 2008 British flick Bronson. However, it's his role as Bane that will likely put Hardy on the map. He manages to convey wrath, hatred and, ultimately, love, while buried beneath a claw-like contraption clamped over the majority of his face. His performance temporarily makes you forget Bane's murky motivations. Some may gripe that the mask robs Bane of a personality, but I think we can all agree that Bane -- a coldly calculating, machine-like terrorist -- was never going to have the same vivid insanity as the Joker.

In the end, The Dark Knight Rises tries to do too much and the second half of the film drags as a result. It's a well-executed spectacle that never quite rises to the level of The Dark Knight. It's overly plotted, with a bloated running time and chock-full of half-realized ideas. Despite this, it's still a mostly satisfying and entertaining conclusion to what has ultimately been a wildly successful model on which future comic book adaptations can model themselves after.

FINAL GRADE: B-

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Movie Review: Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni

One of the best indie films of 2012 is also likely one that few audiences will see, due to its very limited theatrical release -- which is shame since Safety Not Guaranteed is a fresh and imaginative film that isn't afraid to take narrative risks.

Seattle-based reporter Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) pitches a story to his editors after coming across a bizarre ad in the classifieds section of a small newspaper. The ad seeks a companion for a time travel expedition, cautioning readers that they "must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Jeff sets off on a road trip to interview the writer of the mysterious ad with the help of interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni). The man behind the ad turns out to be relatively easy to track down: His name is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), an unremarkable 30-something grocery store clerk who lives in a ramshackle house in the middle of the woods. When Jeff's attempts to convince Kenneth that he wants to join him on his time travel mission backfires, Darius steps in and successfully convinces the reclusive Kenneth that she has her own important reasons for wanting to go back in time. Is Kenneth for real or is he mentally unbalanced? As Darius' unexpected friendship with Kenneth becomes stronger, the more she finds it difficult to reveal the truth about her actual intentions.

First-time director Colin Trevorrow and screenwriter Derek Connolly have concocted a sweet, unpredictable and and character-driven comedy that also takes its subject matter seriously, right down to its time travel theory. Its not necessarily about whether or not Kenneth's time travel machine actually works, it's about how people interact with one another and how, deep down, we all ultimately want someone to accompany us on life's adventures.
Aubrey Plaza, Karan Soni and Jake M. Johnson
Even the subplots involving Jeff and Arnau, which at first appear to be anecdotal diversions to break up the scenes between Kenneth and Darius, actually reveal themselves to be essential to both the narrative and the development of their characters. It's only after Jeff successfully tracks down an old girlfriend (Jenica Bergere) and pushes Arnau to enjoy his 20s and come out of his shell that we realize he's doing his own sort of time travel -- one that allows him to relive his lost youth, however briefly. 


The performances are all sensitive portrayals of very real people supplanted in a sort of science-fiction fantasy. Johnson's Jeff evolves from arrogant and shallow into a vulnerable adult who looks back on his past with both nostalgia and regret. As the shy, introverted Arnau, Soni is perfect foil to Johnson. While at first he comes across as a bit of an Indian-American stereotype, his character ultimately emerges from his shell to embrace the world around him.


In the lead role of Darius, Plaza ably carries the majority of the film on her shoulders, balancing her dry sarcasm with a soft, sensitive side just waiting to reveal itself to the right person. She's a star on the rise and her performance is a thoughtful, intelligent interpretation of a young woman on the verge of discovering herself and falling in love for the first time.


However, it is Duplass, in the most challenging role, that is the true revelation. His Kenneth could potentially suffer from paranoia, or even schizophrenia; yet, as the film progresses, we see that he's a vulnerable, gentle "everyman" who is more than just a bunch of bizarre explanations of time travel theory and Star Wars action figures. It's a subtle, moving performance grounded in reality and the majority of the film's success lies in his ability to make Kenneth a strangely endearing person. 


The evident chemistry between Plaza and Duplass allows Safety Not Guaranteed to soar even higher. Their blossoming romance and witty banter leave you wishing that they would appear in every single frame of the film. The perfect, open-ended conclusion only further demonstrates how capably Safety Not Guaranteed handles its tonal shifts and merges fantasy and reality.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Movie Review: Ted

Ted (2012)
Written & Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and (the voice of) Seth MacFarlane

Given the enduring popularity of TV's Family Guy and its creator, Seth MacFarlane, it was inevitable that the comedian would eventually make the leap from the tube to the big screen. With Ted, MacFarlane writes and directs his debut feature with mixed results.

When John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) was a child he made a Christmas wish that his favourite teddy bear would come to life and be his friend in real life. Easily the loneliest boy on the block, John is thrilled when his wish comes true. Now in his mid-30s, John is a slacker who spends his days smoking weed, watching Flash Gordon reruns and trash-talking with his foul-mouthed bear, Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane). Even John's incredibly patient girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), has reached her limit and wants him to make a choice: Her ...or the teddy bear.

Fans of MacFarlane will undoubtedly leave the theatre satisfied -- the flick is as crass and vulgar as any Family Guy episode, only times a hundred. Ted may look like a cuddly children's toy but he has no filter, spewing out raunchy one-liners and thumbing his nose at political correctness. While some jokes hit their mark, there are those that fall far short of the target -- behaving badly doesn't always equal laughs.

Those uninitiated in MacFarlane's particular brand of humour are still bound to find some moments amusing -- although the majority of the best lines can be found in the movie's trailer. While Ted does have its laugh-out-loud moments, for the most part it's a bunch of haphazard comedy vignettes, centred around a talking teddy bear -- a narrative that eventually wears out its welcome. It's thin premise only carries the flick so far, as evidenced by a random, tacked-on, unfunny kidnapping subplot involving a creepy Giovanni Ribisi in the latter half of the film that threatens to collapse the whole flick.
If there's anything keeping Ted afloat, it's the effortlessly energetic charm of Mark Wahlberg. There's something to be said for watching an actor have a great time in a particular role. Ted is a welcome departure for the action flick vet who knows how to sell a one-liner and generate his own laughs -- with or without the help of his little bear friend. Using his natural Boston accent, Wahlberg nearly steals the movie right from under Ted's fuzzy feet.


However, in the end, Ted tries too hard to shock the laughs out of its audience with its excessive (and ultimately redundant) attacks on everything from bullied,overweight children and the gay community to "kid cancer." By the end, you may be a little worn thin from the constant barrage of rapid-fire pop culture references. 


Perhaps Ted would have worked with a shorter running time (or half hour television episodes?). And, while it does have its fair share of laughs, this bear does better in small doses.


FINAL GRADE: C+