Saturday, March 31, 2012

Movie Review: Mirror Mirror

Lily Collins and Julia Roberts
Mirror Mirror (2012)
Directed by: Tarsem Singh
Starring: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Nathan Lane and Armie Hammer

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Who is the fairest of them all? In a year when not one, but two, updates of the classic Snow While tale are getting big screen reboots, Tarsem Singh's quirky entry is the first out of the gate. With a plucky charm that will delight its young viewers, Mirror Mirror looks and sounds like it was lifted straight from the imagination of its target audience.

The film delves into familiar territory from the classic fairy tale while adding a modern twist. The sugary sweet Snow White (Lily Collins) transforms from a weak-willed subject beholden to her cruel, throne-snatching stepmother (Julia Roberts) and blossoms into a strong, determined young woman who can defend both herself and her beloved Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer). Singh makes his Snow a legitimate heroine -- one who can more than hold her own when confronted with adversity. It's a refreshing take on a fairy tale that once placed far too much emphasis on the childlike innocence and weakness of its female lead.

Mirror Mirror is a playful diversion and, while it may on occasion resort to childish jokes and visual gags that will leave parents rolling their eyes, all is forgiven due to its enjoyable cast of characters.

Lily Collins and Armie Hammer
The cast is evidently having the time of their lives, infusing an addictive energy into a loopy script that includes a Bollywood sequence, more than a few plot holes and a rushed conclusion.

Roberts plays against type with her trashy, campy performance as the villainous queen. Her chemistry with Nathan Lane as her blustering sidekick garners the majority of laughs. But make no mistake; this films belongs to Snow and her star-crossed lover, Alcott. While Collins (daughter of Genesis' Phil Collins) may not be the strongest actress, there is no denying her effortless charm and the sweet toughness she brings to the role. She's an ideal heroine for the young girls in the audience. As Alcott, Hammer clearly relishes his pretty-boy role and lets loose a self-deprecating sense of humour, nailing a couple of his big comic scenes.

Mirror Mirror is a visual feast -- which is to be expected considering the man at the helm is none other than Tarsem Singh, he of cult favourites The Cell and The Fall. The flick boasts the most luscious set designs and outlandish costumes so far this year. Singh even added a couple of innovative twists to the tale that play into his emphasis on set production, including a universe within the magic mirror where the kind and wise alter ego of the power-hungry queen resides -- shut away from from the world while her darker side rules over the kingdom with an iron fist.

Mirror Mirror perfectly caters to its target audience -- the kids will love the extravagant sets and it's light-hearted tone. It's the rare family flick that will please parents as well. Despite its flaws Mirror Mirror is no rotten apple.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Film Noir Series: The Narrow Margin (1952)

My latest Film Noir entry for Next Projection. The tenth film on my list is The Narrow Margin (1952). 
With a plot moving as briskly as the train on which it’s set, not a moment is wasted in director Richard Fleischer’s sleek pulp classic.
A gangster’s moll (Marie Windsor) books passage from Chicago to Los Angeles to testify against the mob before a grand jury. Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is assigned to her case to act as her bodyguard — a task he handles with barely concealed trepidation. He doesn’t like this moll and he’s worried that her backtalk and headstrong personality will land them in hot water. Det. Brown’s concerns are soon realized when it becomes apparent that the hitmen are also aboard the train and have their sights set on eliminating the moll as a threat.
It’s simple, linear narrative of good versus evil (based on a story by Martin Goldsmith, who also co-wrote the script), contains a liberal dose of witty banter and salty backtalk. With the criminal element taken off the city streets and placed on a claustrophobic train, The Narrow Margin is a highly stylized noir lensed by director of photography George E. Diskant. The film visualizes the thick tension and paranoia within the script through scenes of long chases down cramped hallways and fistfights in close quarters, which only serves to enhance the overriding sense of dread. Its inventive camera angles (a kick coming straight at the camera or an over-the-shoulder glimpse of a fight) give the illusion of a higher production value for a film that was essentially made on a dime.
Charles McGraw portrays Det. Brown as a gruff, weathered cop who long ago reconciled himself to the fact that he’ll occasionally have to endanger his own life for a witness he doesn’t particularly like. With his recent assignment testing his patience, McGraw especially excels in his scenes with Windsor as the willful moll. He spits out short sentences and insults as though the very act of having a discussion with someone is a waste of time. When his hardened, yet noble, exterior cracks at one point when he’s briefly tempted to give in to a mobster’s monetary bribes, McGraw skillfully treads the fine line between being a good cop — and becoming a corrupt cop tucked into the mob’s back pocket. 
Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor
However, it’s B-movie queen Marie Windsor who gives the film’s showstopping performance as the tough-gal moll. With her expressive eyes and gravelly voice, she lures you into her tangled web of secrets and mistaken identities. She carries an air of mystery, yet allows for brief glimpses of vulnerability that only make her more appealing.
Unfortunately, despite its stunning camerawork and strong lead performances,The Narrow Margin never quite rises above its basic cat-and-mouse game. Although there is a couple of genuine twists that manage to maintain their shock value 60 years later, the plot is riddled with holes that detract from the overall experience, leaving far too many question unanswered.
In the end, The Narrow Margin is entertaining escapism that ultimately lacks substance — but it sure is nice to look at.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Movie Trailer: Cosmopolis

Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis
After the general disappointment from fans and critics, alike, over A Dangerous Method (which I admittedly still haven't seen), it would appear that David Cronenberg is returning to darker, dystopian material more reminiscent of his earlier work in eXistenZ and The Fly.

Darker, creepier Cronenberg is when he's at his best.

So, when the teaser trailer for his upcoming Don DeLillo adaptation of Cosmopolis popped up on my Twitter feed I just had to click. It was really early -- first thing in the morning -- and as my Twitter pal Susan responded: My initial reaction is that it's too early in the morning for Cronenberg. Too early for Cronenberg's bizarre creations, sure -- but awesome nonetheless.

I'm not going to lie, my mind was kind of blown. There are teaser trailers and then there are TEASER TRAILERS! In just 34 seconds -- the entire length of the clip -- Cosmopolis became one of my most anticipated films of 2012.

The premise: It follows a day in the life of a young billionaire (Robert Pattinson) who wanders through Manhattan to get his hair cut (!!). What follows is a 24-hour nightmare involving sex, guns and what appear to be giant rats roaming the streets. Count me in.

The rest of the cast includes Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche and Canuck actors Jay Baruchel and Kevin Durand.

Check out the trailer HERE. Thoughts?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street

Hill and Tatum as Schmidt and Jenko
21 Jump Street (2012)
Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Dave Franco, Brie Larson and Ice Cube

It's pretty safe to assume that the majority of critics and audiences likely expected 21 Jump Street to be, at most, a mild diversion, at worst, an absolute disaster. Because, really, was anyone asking for a modern reboot of the 80s TV series, which featured a pre-fame Johnny Depp?

Lucky for us, Jonah Hill was a bit of a closet fan of the original series (which aired between 1987-1991) and co-wrote a clever, albeit crude, script that stayed true to the simple, straight-forward narrative of the original series, while giving it a modern update -- complete with high-octane thrills and hilariously ludicrous plot twists. What we have on our hands isn't some middling comedy based on a much beloved TV series (think: Starsky and Hutch), but what is arguably the best comedy of 2012 so far.

Two inept young cops on park patrol try to prove their merit despite limited opportunities to apprehend criminals in leafy, peaceful settings. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) make for the unlikeliest of BFFs because, as we are shown in a brief 2005 prologue, they weren't exactly close chums back in high school. While Schmidt toiled with the awkward outcasts, Jenko was the most popular jock in school. When they bump into each other at police academy years later, they form a tight bond that benefits them both: Schmidt's brains are a perfect balance to Jenko's brawn. However, after a botched attempt to make a proper arrest, the guys are banished to an assignment under the leadership of tough-love boss, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) requiring them to infiltrate a high school undercover in order to bust a drug ring. Schmidt and Jenko soon discover that the old school rules they grew up with no longer apply and realize they have to work that much harder to get in with the right crowds.

Tatum, Hill and Franco
As Schmidt, recent Oscar nominee Hill is playing to all of his strengths -- he has his awkward, foul-mouthed doofus role down to a science.

The role of Jenko is my first introduction to Tatum and it was a good one. Knowing next to nothing about this model-turned-actor going into the film, his knack for comedic timing was nice surprise. Who knew this teen-girl phenomenon was so damn funny?

However, it's the overall chemistry shared between Hill and Tatum that carries the film. They make the 'goofy nerd/hot airhead' pairing work, brushing aside any initial misgivings audiences may have had when they first learned Hill and Tatum were cast in the lead roles. Their hilarious reading of the Miranda rights near the end of the film is a highlight.

Despite its underdeveloped secondary characters (such as Brie Larson as Schmidt's love interest and Dave Franco -- the spitting image of his brother, James -- as a crunchy, granola, earth-loving student with a dark secret), it never detracts from the plot. Because, really, we're all here for Schmidt and Jenko; everything else is secondary.

21 Jump Street is surprisingly clever, with a tongue-in-cheek humour that sends up the original series without ever making fun of it.

Hill and co. managed to take a TV show most teens haven't even heard of and turn it into a monster movie hit. But make no mistake, the films popularity has less to do with its association with the TV show and everything to do with the hilarious team of Hill and Tatum -- a pairing so good you'll find yourself pumped up for the inevitable sequel before the credits roll.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Documentary Feature: Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

It was my birthday yesterday and, it being a Wednesday, I didn't exactly have any big plans set in stone until the weekend. Lucky for me, one of my colleagues invited me to the re-opening of the newly renovated Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

The documentary that was scheduled to be screened was kept secret, the only clue being that it had premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. Therefore, I wasn't able to properly prepare by watching Bananas!*, the 2009 documentary by Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, beforehand. The premise of the original doc: Lawyer Juan Dominguez represented 12 Nicaraguan banana plantation workers who took fruit titan Dole Food Company to court for their use of a banned pesticide the workers claimed caused sterility. Dole was subsequently found guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom.

In his 2011 follow-up, Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, Gertten chronicles his legal battles with Dole. The corporate giant used scare tactics and bullying for nearly a year to suppress the release of Gertten's film. Despite having never seen the doc, Dole claimed it was filled with lies and inaccurate information provided by the Nicaraguan workers. Dole proceeded to write letters to everyone from the L.A. Film Festival (who was set to premiere the documentary) to Swedish journalists covering the story. When Gertten refused to withdraw his film from the L.A. film fest, Dole started legal proceedings to sue the filmmaker and his producer, Margarete Jangard, for defamation. Shocked by their scare tactics, Gertten counter-sued, knowing full-well that his likelihood of success against the giant corporation was low. However, through sheer determination and an unwillingness to bend to pressure (and, with a little help from Swedish MP's), Gertten was awarded $200,000 from Dole after the company finally withdrew its lawsuit in late 2009. It was a massive victory for a small filmmaker and, more importantly, a victory for freedom of speech.

What makes the doc so fascinating is how far Dole was willing to go to censor the film -- at one point they were willing to let the film screen if certain scenes were edited out. It's no surprise that Dole was upset by the film -- anyone willing to tackle such a big court case that involves a corporate titan has to be somewhat prepared for backlash. However, it's the incessant bullying, verging on taunting at times, that is truly shocking. Witnessing Dole trying to control free speech is unsettling, to say the least. Therefore, the outcome reached in Gertten's favour is all the more satisfying. 

After the screening, the audience was treated to a Q&A session with the genial Swedish director via a Skype transmission on the big screen. It was such a treat to listen to him speak about his work.

If you get the chance to watch this riveting documentary, please do! It unfolds like a thriller and it's an absolute must-see, especially for up-and-coming documentary filmmakers looking to tackle big subjects involving giant corporate powers.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Movie Review: Bronson

Tom Hardy as Michael "Bronson" Peterson
Bronson (2008)
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy

"You don't want to be trapped inside with me, sunshine ...I am Charlie Bronson. I am Britain's most violent prisoner."

Dutch director Nicolas Winding Refn had a breakout year in 2011 with the cult success of Drive, his high-octane and stylish ode to violence. However, where Ryan Gosling's "Driver" was a silent brooder, the central figure in Refn's 2008 film, Bronson, vividly narrates his own exploits in increasingly bizarre fantasy sequences -- the star of his own show, where he's an artist and a hero to the downtrodden who responds to a roaring crowd only he can hear.

Loosely based on a true story, the film opens in 1974 just as a young hooligan by the name of Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) is sentenced to seven years in prison for robbing a post office -- a jail term that ultimately turned into a 34-year stint after he committed countless other crimes (including murder) while incarcerated. Peterson achieved tabloid notoriety throughout the United Kingdom -- often referred to as "Her Majesty's longest-serving criminal." While behind bars, Peterson conceived his alter ego, Charlie Bronson -- snagging the name from the prickly American movie star. As "Bronson", Peterson retreated further and further into his wild fantasies as he was chartered back and forth between prison and a mental health asylum. There is no cure for his violent nature -- it's embedded in his DNA.

Bronson is a bizarre film whose success rests solely on the appeal of its star -- in this case, the rapidly rising up-and-comer, Hardy. In a film that is essentially devoid of any secondary characters (it's all Bronson, all the time), Hardy excels. With his intense glare and darkly comic one-liners, he's both frightening and hilarious. He portrays Bronson as a man so consumed by his anger that he gives no real reason or motive for his actions -- he simply is the way that he is and he makes no apology for it. It's impossible to pinpoint where his anger comes from considering he comes from a stable home with supportive parents. As he declares in one scene, "there was nuffin' wonky about my upbringing." His feral, animalistic nature propels him into numerous misguided fights against authority -- or is it all just anarchy for anarchy's sake? Even after being beaten into submission by prison guards and heavily sedated by asylum nurses, Bronson's inner beast refuses to be subdued. Like Alex DeLarge, the antihero of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Bronson is a lost soul rebelling against all that he confronts. You'd be hard-pressed to envision a better actor in the role -- having Hardy in the film was a casting coup and he's absolutely mesmerizing.

Hardy as "Bronson"
It would be easy to dismiss Bronson as emotionally empty; a film that chooses to glorify violence without delving deeper into the subject matter at hand. I'll admit that this sense of detachment and underwritten characters are two of the things I struggled with while watching both Bronson and Drive. However, amid all the violent sequences lies an interesting commentary that is, unfortunately, not fully explored: Is violence art? In some strange way, is Bronson expressing himself -- his inner torments -- through bouts of rage and destruction? He approaches the prospect of a fight with a welcoming smile, fists at the ready. He meticulously prepares for battle if he senses it coming -- preferring to fight completely in the nude, his body greased. He even holds off a slew of prison guards in order to finish painting (literally) one of his victims. When a fight is over, it's as though he's completed yet another masterpiece.

Refn's films carry a distinct style that borrows from other directors, yet still manages to feel completely original, almost operatic -- think Quentin Tarantino. Bronson is part black comedy, part psychedelic biography with shades of A Clockwork Orange, Requiem for a Dream and the sheer insanity of Natural Born Killers. His 80s-laden soundtrack only adds to the ludicrousness of the events unfolding on the screen.

However, if one were to take away the jaw-dropping and magnetic performance of Hardy, Bronson amounts to very little. Told through the eyes of Bronson, we understand that he's an unreliable narrator -- a violent being with a maniacal cackle. Yet, we are left wondering why we should care? Lets just be grateful that Refn let Hardy have free rein with the picture.