Thursday, June 6, 2013

Creating a new blog

Marilyn Monroe
Hey everyone!

I'm currently working on a brand new blog that will focus primarily on classic film and film book reviews. I plan on pulling classic film content I currently have existing on this site and bring it over to my new one, along with creating new content along the way.

I'm really excited about this new project.

As much as I enjoy reviewing the latest movies in theatres, I find my real passion lies with classic film and I think that creating a new blog that focuses solely on movies prior to 1975 will enable me to watch even more of the stuff that I'm truly interested in.

I've had this little blog since 2009 and some of you have been following me for all four years that I've had this thing up and running -- which I greatly, greatly appreciate.

I'll keep you posted on the launch of my new blog. In the meantime, it's unlikely that I will be updating this one anymore. My energy will be focused solely on the new blog and deciding which content to bring over from here.

However, I'm currently a twice-weekly contributor at Pretty Clever Films and an occasional volunteer film critic at Next Projection. So I may bump into you over there!

I will still continue to keep myself updated on everything the rest of you are writing about and I look forward to catching up again in the near future!

Thanks again, everyone!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine
Star Trek Into Darkness
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Zoe Saldana

Back in 2009, J.J. Abrams (aka. the current Master of Geek Pop Culture) reinvigorated a once-tired franchise with a cast of relative unknowns. A risky venture, to be sure, but new audiences and long-time fans benefited greatly. Like The Dark Knight before it, Star Trek is considered a prime example of how to rebrand a flagging franchise, injecting new life into something that had grown stale over the years.

Now, four years after his first foray into deep space became a box office smash, Abrams once again returns to the Star Trek universe as producer/director.

Abrams, with the help of new head writer Damon Lindelof, continues to tweak the Star Trek canon, yet still manages to appease both the majority of diehard fans and newcomers to the series. And, while Star Trek Into Darkness lacks the excitement and freshness of its predecessor, it's still the type of rousing blockbuster you look for around this time of year.

The latest installment is set approximately one year after the events of the first film. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is tenuously hanging onto his control of the USS Enterprise after angering his higher ups during a botched mission on a primitive planet. However, Admiral Marcus (the overly campy Peter Weller) is willing to brush off Kirk's rookie errors when a new threat reveals itself in the form of embittered former Starfleet crewman, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison's attacks are grand in scale, meant to draw attention to his true motivations -- all of which is gradually revealed as the film progresses (although, as is so often the case with blockbuster super-villains, his plan is elaborately and unnecessarily complex). With Spock (Zachary Quinto) by Kirk's side, as his usual logical and truthful self, the young captain gathers together his crew and sets out to eliminate this latest universal threat.

There's some interesting commentary on terrorism and the use of weaponry to achieve a certain outcome brimming just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, the script only lightly touches on these themes and, while Kirk and Spock occasionally spar over codes of ethics and the role of vengeance, their conversations quickly dissolve into yet another CGI-laden action sequence. But, in the end, isn't that all we really want?

Just as was the case with the first film, Into Darkness boasts an entertaining and likeable cast. All returning characters are on top of their game, including the disappointingly underused Dr. "Bones" McCoy. How Karl Urban manages to make his incarnation so memorable despite very little screentime is a credit to his comedic chops. The rest of the cast from Zoe Saldana's Uhura to John Cho's Sulu make due with significantly reduced screentime.
Benedict Cumberbatch

It's Kirk and Spock, and their complex relationship, that is the heart at the centre of Into Darkness. Quinto, in particular, has really matured into the role, ably conveying Spock's conflicting nature -- does he give in to his human side and reveal his true emotions or does he remain the stoic Vulcan that everyone (sometimes grudgingly) respects? It's ultimately his friendship with Kirk that leaves Spock grappling with how to react to the chain of events occurring around him, and audiences will appreciate his blossoming relationship with Kirk. Pine, although not as strong an actor as Quinto or even Cumberbatch (more on him in a minute), embodies the role of Kirk with a balance of gusto and arrogance. While he's still quick with a one-liner, his Kirk has evolved from the pretty, swaggering playboy he portrayed in the first film. He's more world-weary, with the weight of his new role as captain resting heavily on his shoulders.

As John Harrison, Cumberbatch uses his British baritone to full effect, slowly spitting out his evil intentions with a snarl and a gleam in his eye. A talented actor, Cumberbatch clearly relishes his new role as a villain after two seasons as the anti-social anti-hero on the wildly successful BBC series, Sherlock. Yet, despite Cumberbatch's best efforts, Harrison doesn't quite live up expectations. Perhaps its the dedicated fanbase that built up anticipation around Cumberbatch or the months of speculation as to his characters' true identity, but John Harrison isn't given enough screentime to completely solidify him as one of the greatest threats the crew of the Enterprise ever faced.

That being said, Star Trek Into Darkness boasts a dazzling array of CGI battles and chases, which should serve to satisfy most moviegoers. It's a fast, entertaining adventure. It's just a shame that the final script is somewhat of a muddled puzzle in spots. 


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: Songs My Mother Taught Me

"I can draw no conclusions from my life because it is a continually evolving and unfolding process." 
- Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me

It seems strange that, back in 1994, Marlon Brando agreed to reconstruct his own life into book form (albeit co-written by New York Times columnist Robert Lindsey). Seventy years old at the time it was published, Brando only agreed to the project if he was excused from making any mention of his three former wives or 10 children -- he was adamant that the privacy and protection of his loved ones remain intact. As a result, Songs My Mother Taught Me is the rare celebrity autobiography that doesn't make detailed mentions of torrid romances or resort to name-dropping.

The famously private and reclusive actor often shied away from the spotlight, preferring to wile away his hours on Teti'aroa, his private Tahitian island, or within the confines of his gated Hollywood mansion -- unless, that is, it concerned his political beliefs or a group of people he believed needed to be defended in public.

In the introduction of his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando makes a point of stating his real reason for agreeing to the book (published by Random House): he wanted the profits to go towards one of the numerous causes close to his heart, namely the American Indian Movement (AIM). Brando wanted to use his celebrity for good -- and made sure his readers were aware of that fact.

It's hard to envision someone like Brando sitting at a computer, typing away his many adventures and misadventures. For anyone who has followed the actor's career closely, it just doesn't seem like his style. Although Brando never admits it, I find it likely that he related his stories to Lindsey orally, while the journalist culled together a cohesive narrative from his various anecdotes. The end result is an often compelling, sometimes frustratingly vague, account of a life that involved a broken home, a career in film, multiple failed marriages and a passion for political causes -- including a (controversial) stint with the Black Panther Party.

I was initially skeptical about Brando's sincerity when, early on in the book, he starts casually brushing off the accolades he received over the years as an actor -- or when he claims that men like Shakespeare and Beethoven were true artists, unlike actors who mug for the cameras for money and business tactics. Yes, Hollywood is a business. However, I find it hard to believe that Brando can be so flippant about how he made his bread and butter considering he quite often took acting very, very seriously -- by introducing the Method to North America (with the help of the legendary Stella Adler) and virtually disappearing into roles like Terry Malloy and Vito Corleone.

However, as you get further into Songs you begin to realize that Brando remained true to his word -- he says very little about Hollywood, instead focusing on his later years on Teti'aroa, his role with the American Indian Movement and his musings on the Vietnam War. It takes the reader about 50 pages to understand where Brando's true interests and passions lie -- and that his seemingly false modesty is really a form of brutal honesty. He truly appreciates that he was able to make a lot of money in his chosen profession, yet he always made the conscience decision not to let it rule his life.

In Songs Brando is at his most candid when talking about himself -- he openly displays both his inflated ego and the events that have left him humbled.

Brando with his biggest fan, James Dean.
And while Brando takes the high road when it comes to discussing intimate family and friends by refusing to even mention them by name out of respect for their privacy (a classy move reminiscent of loyal Hollywood friend Elizabeth Taylor), he does offer tantalizing tidbits on legends like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

He acknowledges Dean's borderline-obsessive fascination with him and his acting abilities. Brando admits to being uncomfortable at Dean's middle-of-the-night phone calls and his constant mimicking of Brando's lifestyle. 

On Dean: "He was tortured by his insecurities, the origin of which I never determined... once he showed up at a party and I saw him take off his jacket, roll it into a ball and throw it on the floor. It struck me that he was imitating something I had done..." (p. 224).

Brando reveals very little about conversations that took place between him and Dean. He alludes to one particular late night chat that revealed much about Dean's personality, but pulls back from sharing too much. Whatever was said between the two, Brando took it with him to the grave. He was true to his word about not revealing salacious details about family and colleagues, even the ones as long-deceased as Dean.

He offers even less information about his brief romance and friendship with Monroe, saying only that he was one of the last people to talk to her before she died in 1962 and that he firmly believes she was murdered -- stopping just short of directly pointing his finger at the Kennedy clan.

Songs is somewhat chronological, but it's mostly a narrative of loose thoughts stitched together. What I didn't expect was how much Brando would reveal about his political colours and how willing he was to open up about a childhood spent with alcoholic parents. His memories from his youth are particularly compelling as they are random snippets of childhood, both beautiful and sad, that feel so genuine and relatable.

On his mother: "My mother was always unconventional. Sometimes when it rained, she wore a shopping bag over her head with a little visor she had torn at the corners; it was absurd, but she thought it was funny. I was always embarrassed by it, though if she did it today, I'd be gasping with laughter." (pp. 4-5).

In the end, Brando's autobiography is not your traditional celebrity tell-all. There are many questions left unanswered, specifically when related to his career and personal relationships. But he more than makes up for the gaping holes by taking genuine pleasure in sharing with readers his love for Tahitian culture, his passion for the American Indian Movement and his affection for his (long deceased) pet raccoon.

What you walk away with after reading Songs My Mother Taught Me is the sense that Brando, despite all his wealth and talent, really was just an average boy from Omaha, Nebraska who tried to lead a good life, yet made many very human mistakes along the way. He doesn't hide behind his errors in judgment (like the time early in his career when he slept with one of his stalkers) nor does he apologize for the person he is, and that just makes him so normal -- and it's also what makes his autobiography so refreshing to read.

NOTE: Songs My Mother Taught Me is now out of print. I purchased my copy at a Toronto film memorabilia store, The Hollywood Canteen. You can also buy it from sellers on Amazon.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Classic Film Review: Meet Me In St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien and Mary Astor

Meet Me in St. Louis -- one of those big, bold musicals from MGM that, to this day, remain a classic example of how to incorporate song and dance when weaving together a story.

The picture itself is a slice of life -- one year in the life, to be exact, of the Smith family (the last name chosen, presumably, to imply normalcy. This is your everyday, average, relatable family).

For the Smith clan, music is a part of everyday life. When someone breaks into song, they are actually doing it -- and everyone either gathers around to listen or joins in with their own lyrics. Unlike some musicals, where the songs are simply an expression of emotion that doesn't necessarily mean the characters are actually singing within the context of the narrative, the Smith's in Meet Me in St. Louis are similar to the von Trapps in The Sound of Music -- all aspects of life, whether good or bad, are worth singing about. And isn't life just grand?

The opening number, named after the film's title, starts with the sounds of a little girl humming as she walks upstairs in preparation for her afternoon bath. When she eventually breaks into song, her Grandpa chims in, before the song carries out the front window and continues with Judy Garland pulling up to the house in horse and buggy.

Set in 1903, the narrative follows the highs and lows of the Smith family -- from falling in love, to dangerous Halloween stunts to Christmas miracles. The simplicity of the story is ultimately made extraordinary by its catchy musical numbers. And, really, can anyone else sing like the legendary Judy Garland?

As Esther Smith, second eldest daughter to Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor), Garland is a revelation. Not only does her voice carry the emotional weight necessary for the role, but her natural interactions with her co-stars make you forget you are watching a big star and not just some regular girl from down the street. And that's a high compliment.

Whether she's longingly singing about her (at first) unrequited love for John Truett (Tom Drake) in "The Boy Next Door" or simply horsing around with her sisters Rose (Lucille Bremer) and little Tootie (the always adorable Margaret O'Brien), Garland infuses each scene with her contagious energy and charisma. You can't create that kind of natural talent and Garland has it in spades.

Margaret O'Brien (left) and Judy Garland
Meet Me in St. Louis is the rare female-centric musical where the boys are secondary and take a backseat to sisterly bonds and rebellious feminine spirit. In Hollywood, where male characters tend to be more well written than females (a problem we still see to this day), it's refreshing to see John, the main romantic lead, come off as an underdeveloped drip in comparison to Esther and the other lady Smiths. And even though Esther pines over John (although we are never quite sure what she sees in him), she makes him really work for her affection, even taking a bite out of his arm in anger at one point.

The songs are all upbeat and catchy -- specifically "The Trolley Song" -- and director Vincente Minnelli expertly lenses all the beautiful costumes and choreography. It's one of the most strikingly vivid films you are likely to see.

However, much of the pleasure viewers will derive from Meet Me in St. Louis is its charming central family. One scene, early on, subtly provides insight into their familial closeness when the entire Smith clan tries to calmly eat dinner even though they know full-well that Rose is expecting a long-distance phone call from a male admirer who may or may not propose to her (and on the newest advancement in technology, to boot!). Their excited and nervous energy around the dinner table -- and their honest-to-goodness happiness when the young suitor finally phones Rose -- illustrates that bond with very little fuss.

It's this attention to the little details where Minnelli excels. It's all about the small moments in life and Minnelli takes great care to illustrate the love that binds the Smith's together. Regardless of what is happening in the great world outside their borders, their relationships, built on solid foundation, is what keeps them going everyday.

As Tootie remarks, "Wasn't I lucky to be born in my favourite city?"

That kind of innocence and the pleasure the Smith's take in their safe little existence provides this rousing musical with a beating heart at its core.


Monday, April 8, 2013

Classic Film Review: Julia Misbehaves

Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford and Elizabeth Taylor

It was the rare Hollywood film that featured a female lead that abandoned her husband and baby to pursue a career as a music hall performer. But thus is the premise of the MGM comedy, Julia Misbehaves.

After completing a series heavy dramas, British star Greer Garson turned her talents to performing in a light comedy -- one that sees her sing, dance and throw around zingers like the best in the business.

Julia Packett (Garson) hasn't seen her estranged husband (Walter Pidgeon) or daughter Susan (Elizabeth Taylor, only 16 years old at the time) in nearly 20 years. While William raises Susan in Paris as a single parent, Julia traipses around the world, basking in the glow of the spotlight and her most ardent fans. When she unexpectedly receives an invitation to her daughter's impending nuptials, Julia is both shocked and touched by this act of kindness and familiarity. As she barters her way to secure passage on a steerage ship -- and vows to win enough money gambling to buy Susan Christmas presents for every year that she's missed since her birth -- Julia finds herself firmly embedded in everyone's lives the minute she lands in Paris. Her constant meddling leaves William on the verge of madness, especially when Julia gently nudges Susan away from her betrothed and into the direction of Ritchie (Peter Lawford), a young artist who not-so-secretly pines over Susan. And, despite her brash nature and matchmaking schemes, William can't help but fall back in love with the woman who left him all those years ago.

Julia Misbehaves is part screwball comedy and part family drama, with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure. It's the type of crowd-pleasing concoction that made MGM a household name. Although the audience knows that the film will inevitably have a happy ending -- not only for Julia and William but Susan and Ritchie, as well -- you take pleasure in watching all the loose threads come together.
(Left to right): Lawford, Taylor, Pidgeon and Garson.
Garson, in particular, exhibits an innate ability to convey a multitude of emotions in a single glance. Witness her fragility in the scene where she is reunited with Susan for the first time since the girl was a newborn baby. Swathed in a white dress, Julia has abandoned any semblence to her former life as an entertainer. And, despite the fact that she ran off all those years ago, a natural maternal instinct kicks into gear when she locks eyes with Susan and she can't help but reach out to the young woman and desire a close mother-daughter bond.

And while it takes nearly 45 minutes before Garson and Pidgeon unite on screen, watching them navigate through the awkwardness of being married to a complete stranger is a delight to watch. Their relationship -- what little of it once existed -- is gradually revealed through their blossoming friendship. When Julia and William sing together at the piano it's as though they haven't spent nearly 20 years apart.

And while you watch the film for Garson and Pidgeon, you also stay for Taylor and Lawford. With two romantic plotlines, Julia Misbehaves nearly topples under the weight of too many story threads and stolen glances, but it's a joy to watch four young actors pair off and fall in love. And kudos to whoever crafted the idea that Ritchie take Susan on a picnic and lure a bear to follow them so that he can act the part as her saviour and protector. That's a new one! And Taylor and Lawford are charming in the scene.

In the end, Julia Misbehaves suffers from a meandering script (with multiple plotlines that involve a fake fiance for Julia, an extended stage sequence that drags on for far too long and a couple of false endings), yet manages to stay afloat thanks in large part to Garson and her charming costars.

A fun, if unremarkable, little comedy.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Celebrity Birthday: Marlon Brando (1924-2004)

"To the end of his life, Marlon Brando insisted that he had done nothing special. In his view acting was a trade like plumbing or baking. The only difference was that he played characters instead of unclogging drains or kneading loaves of bread. This was not false modesty; he believed what he said. But what he believed was untrue."
~Stefan Kanfer (opening passage from Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando)

Today would have marked Marlon Brando's 89th birthday. And, in my biased opinion, he was the greatest film actor. Ever. And that warrants a blog post, me thinks.

Unfortunately, for a large handful of people, Brando has been reduced to a mumbling, fumbling actor whose eventual reclusive lifestyle resulted in a variety of perceived eccentricities and ballooning weight gain. And, yes, while Brando wasn't your average film star, he deserves more credit than he is often given by newer generations just discovering his work for the first time.

As I wrote last year: after reading Stefan Kanfer's biography in 2008, I realized that Brando was so much more interesting than even his craziest character incarnations. He used the Method when performing, well before it was mainstream. He was an activist at heart, battling racial segregation in America in the 1960s and providing a public voice for struggling First Nations actors. He remained loyal to family and friends who stuck by him through thick and thin, including maintaining long-term friendships with neighbours Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson. He had plenty of Hollywood rivals, including an ongoing feud with Frank Sinatra. He had volatile relationships with women, marrying three times and fathering (at least) 10 children. He never abused drugs or alcohol, yet often fell prey to his weakness for food.

Brando's autobiography amongst my other loot.
Last week, I finally managed to track down a copy of his out-of-print autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, and I look forward to reading about his life from his own perspective.

(FYI, for all you Toronto readers: Check out The Hollywood Canteen near Honest Ed's for rare, hard-to-track-down film collectibles. It's where I was finally able to locate a copy of his autobiography).

While Brando may not have the enduring iconic status of Marilyn Monroe (a former lover) or the near-rabid fanbase of James Dean, the mark he left on cinema has its own special lasting effect. While Monroe and Dean were both talented, beautiful performers, neither could inhibit a role quite so effortlessly as Brando.

Without Brando there would be no Robert DeNiro (well, 70s-era Robert DeNiro anyway) or Daniel Day-Lewis. He continues to inspire and influence -- often imitated but never duplicated. And that, in part, is the sign of a true talent.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Classic Film Review: Desire Me

Desire Me (1947)
Directed by: No director's credit
Starring: Greer Garson, Richard Hart and Robert Mitchum

It's pretty safe to say that, well before the end of production on Desire Me, no one wanted to have anything to do with this oft-overlooked picture.

The specialty channel TCM aired the film last week, with host Robert Osborne detailing the multiple cast changes, script rewrites and revolving door of high-profile directors that all culminated in the film's ultimate plummet at the box office. Few remember the film today. This is not the picture that Greer Garson or Robert Mitchum are remembered for, thankfully.

In fact, the most intriguing thing about Desire Me is the fact that it was the first MGM film to be released without a director's name attached. Jack Conway, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy and Victor Saville all took a stab at helming the project, but ultimately left for a myriad of reasons -- namely the lack of artistic freedom and Garson's allegedly difficult personality on set.

It was LeRoy who finished the picture in the end, however, none of the directors wanted their names attached to the film so the studio went ahead and released it without crediting anyone.

Desire Me begins with an isolated house set upon the cliffs in Brittany. With a setting more suited to a film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, we discover that it belongs to Marise Aubert (Garson), a woman who is led to believe that her husband, Paul (Mitchum), has died in the field during the Second World War. When a man appears by the name of Jean Renaud (Richard Hart) he claims that he was her husband's closest companion during the war and that he witnessed Paul's death. Marise finds herself drawn to this personable stranger and sets out to lead a life with him as though he were a replacement for her dead husband. Marise and Jean's friendship is frowned upon by the gossipy villagers -- how could two unmarried strangers live together under one roof? As we learn via flashback, Jean is more than content with this living situation, having fallen in love with Marise based on a photo of her and Paul's stories about his loving wife.

As Jean himself claims in one particularly eerie moment: "I wanted to know what it was like to come home to my own house. My own wife."
Garson and Mitchum

While the audience has their guard up and can sense the emotional instability of Jean, he gradually crosses the line from lonely to creepy, with Marise a little slow on the uptake.

The acting, disappointingly, isn't particularly note-worthy. We've all seen Garson and Mitchum in far more engrossing and challenging roles. Granted, both are gifted actors and make due with what little is given to them in the script -- but it just isn't enough to truly rise above the material. Buried deep beneath this half-wartime love story, half-psychological thriller, Desire Me has a better movie waiting to come out.

The cinematography from Joseph Ruttenberg is gorgeous, lending the film a foreboding sense of danger through his keen eye. His visuals, combined with a lack of soundtrack in the climactic finale, briefly helps Desire Me rise above its scattered script. Eyes meeting through the mist, voices echoing along the cliffs, gunshots ringing out in the night, Ruttenberg's work is stunning. His cinematography allows for a sense of consistency in a film that is a narrative mess.

Desire Me is one of those forgotten classic films that you catch on TV late one night and are reminded as to why it has been forgotten in the first place. While there are stylistic elements that are certainly impressive, Desire Me will ultimately leave you cold.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The heroes in a half shell.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
Directed by: Steve Barron

I reviewed this movie for Next Projection.

Most children of the 80s and 90s grew up on a steady TV diet of their favourite heroes in a half shell. Whether you preferred Michelangelo's surfer dude attitude or Raphael's lone wolf angst, there was no denying the allure of that turtle power.

Loosely based on the Mirage Studios comics, the animated series debuted in 1987 and centred on the adventures of four turtle siblings and their wise master, Splinter. While the series captured the imagination of kids throughout North America, it diverged from the original source — opting instead to change key character elements for the sake of simplicity.

In 1990, New Line Cinema decided to capitalize on this animated success story by distributing a live action adaptation that would ideally appeal to both kids and teens, alike. The end result is not so much a cult classic as a fondly remembered retro rewind — a nostalgic look back at our childhood, a childhood where we once watched a movie about walking, talking turtles who struggled to emulate the wisdom expounded by a life-size rat.

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie lacked the mass appeal that enabled films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show — or to a lesser extent, The Goonies — to reach cult status, it still carries a special place in film lore for many of its now-adult fans.

Unlike it's more cartoonish and increasingly ridiculous sequels, The Secret of the Ooze and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the first installment in the franchise is surprisingly dark for what essentially amounts to kiddie entertainment — it's stylistically reminiscent of Tim Burton's original Batman, which was released the previous year in 1989.

The premise (as if you didn't already know!) features a quartet of genetically mutated turtles who are regularly trained in martial arts by their mentor, Splinter (voiced by Kevin Clash). The teens must learn to work together as a team in order to defeat Shredder (James Saito) and his violent ninja gang, the Foot Clan. Along the way the turtles form close bonds with an investigative journalist named April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) and a cricket bat-wielding street thug named Casey Jones (Elias Koteas).

With its bleak outlook on city living and gang culture, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes off as more of a film noir for kids — complete with its own version of a femme fatale and the casual (if sometimes grating) use of the term “babe” to describe attractive women.

Yet, despite everything going against it — being a inconsequential live action film that included men dressed in turtle suits and remote-controlled Jim Henson puppets — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't half as bad as you'd think. (Side note: It's thankfully no Garbage Pail Kids, that's for certain; with it's disgusting characters and uncomfortably lame one-liners).

Each turtle are each unique individuals, allowing kids in the audience to pick and choose which hero they can best identify with. There's Donatello (voiced by Corey Feldman) who is often depicted as the intellectual brother due to his aptitude for science and his knack for technological gadgets. There's Leonardo (voiced by Brian Tochi), the unofficial leader of the pack who exhibits both patience and discipline. Or how about Michelangelo (voiced by Robbie Rist), the fun-loving prankster who adores pizza as much as his nun-chucks. Or, finally, my personal childhood favourite, Raphael (voiced by Josh Pais), the lone wolf who exhibits extreme bouts teen angst more than any of his brothers — and struggles to come to terms with it.

It's dark, noirish elements give children the illusion that they are watching an exciting, dangerous adult film. I recall feeling a rush of exhilaration when watching TMNT simply because it looked and felt like grown up movies my parents would enjoy. Credit is due to production designer Roy Forge Smith for cashing in on the success of Burton's bleak Batman while still maintaining his own unique vision of a world inhabited by human-sized turtles and their various nemeses.

For all intents and purposes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a hybrid movie: part martial arts action flick, part cartoon-ish adventure and part romance. You could argue that it has a little something for everyone — including adults should they decide to revisit this childhood favourite with their own kids. And why wouldn't they? After all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is more than just a kid's flick — it illustrates the importance of familial bonds and working together as a team to help the ones you love. And that's total turtle power!

While surprisingly better than one may expect, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is still bogged down by a silly, often scattered, script — yet still manages to be a nice trip down memory lane.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Movie Review: A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affaere)

Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Folsgaard & Alicia Vikander

A Royal Affair (2012)
Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Mads Mikkelsen and Mikkel Boe Folsgaard

A Royal Affair (Or: How the European Enlightenment Came to Denmark) narrows in on the illict relationship between a German-born doctor and the British-born queen of the Danes. How these two came to fall passionately in love -- at great risk to themselves -- is at the heart of director Nikolaj Arcel's moving historical drama, a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the recent Oscars ceremony.

The film opens with a voiceover from Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), younger sister to England's King George III. Caroline's narration comes in the form of a revealing letter written to her two estranged children back in 1775, in the midst of her rapid fall from power. Caroline details how she came to be the new queen of Denmark -- as a 15-year-old princess married to King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), a man who at first glance appears to be so emotionally unstable to the point of outright madness. Just as Caroline resigns herself to her fate as a sidelined queen overpowered by a dominant, wild husband, the tides start to shift in her favour. When the king's council seeks a doctor to properly diagnose and address Christian's mental instability, they recruit a small-town German-born doctor named Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen). Put off by the unconventional doctor at first, Caroline soon falls in love with the educated, free-thinking Struensee. The two embark on creating a series of social reforms, persistently bringing the European Enlightenment to Denmark -- a country that Caroline insists is still living in the "dark ages." They enact their reforms through the vulnerable Christian VII, who affectionately refers to his wife as "mother" and idolizes Dr. Struensee like a child to a parental figure. This strange love triangle (of sorts) scandalizes the court, causing the king's devoutly religious and conservative-minded council and his conniving stepmother, Juliane (Trine Dyrholm) to take extreme measures to bring about the utter disgrace of both Struensee and Caroline.

A Royal Affair benefits greatly from that fact that this historical event, and its bloody and tragic outcome, remains largely unknown to North Americans, in general. As a result, audiences are better able to envelope themselves in a world and situation that is unfamiliar to them -- this doesn't feel like your usual historical costume drama re-hash. 

Arcel's film also manages to breath life into its three central characters -- all are equally sympathetic in their own way. You yearn for each to find their own personal happiness, yet there's a shadow that hangs over each of their fates. It's rare to see historical figures painted in such a light -- none of the three  lead figures are perfect, far from. Nothing about their situation is black or white and, as a result, each character reveals their own grey areas: Is Caroline right to use her mentally unstable husband as a puppet king, much like his own council? Is it arrogant of Struensee to think he can change the minds of an entire nation in one fell swoop? And is Christian VII really a devious fiend as first portrayed, or is he really a lost young man not fit to be king and yearning for true friendship?
Vikander and Mikkelsen

With its lush cinematography (you'll want to book a flight to Denmark ASAP) and exquisite costumes, A Royal Affair may look like many other period pieces you've seen before, but where it truly excels is in its revelatory casting.

As Caroline, Vikander portrays the young queen as a strong-willed woman who follows her heart and bides her time before she can truly blossom into a prominent political figure. She's highly educated and is up-to-date on the latest news about Voltaire and Europe's Enlightenment. How refreshing to see such a strong central female figure and Vikander is lovely in the role. 

Mikkelsen is the brash and opinionated Struensee, a man who thinks his way is the right way -- other opinions be damned. He's drawn not only to Caroline's beauty, but her mind and strength of character. A man of the Enlightenment, Struensee strives to bring Denmark into a new world -- albeit while neglecting to realize the consequences of his actions in a country that largely doesn't identify with the European movement.

And, finally, there's Folsgaard as the irascible, yet strangely sympathetic, King Christian VII. Within the opening frames of the film you'd be hard pressed to find positive thing to say about the king. His attitude towards his young wife is appalling and his inability to effectively rule his own people is an embarrassment to Denmark. But, stick around long enough, and you see more of the person beneath the hot-headed exterior. Thanks to Folsgaard's fantastic performance, Christian goes from foul-mouthed brat to a frightened, lonely man trapped within an occupation at which he is incompetent. His reliance on Caroline and Struensee for comfort and entertainment invites a tragic element to the character of Christian and its all perfectly rendered by Folsgaard in his first film role (winner of the Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival, the Oscars missed out on nominating Folsgaard for Best Supporting Actor).

A Royal Affair is a beautifully lensed, powerful historical drama. And while its history is absolutely fascinating, it's the characters that will make you want to stay for the long haul.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Classic Film Review: Good News

Good News (1947)
Directed by: Charles Walters
Based on the play by: Lew Brown et al.
Starring: June Allyson and Peter Lawford

Chances are, if you are looking for a good old-fashioned musical from the 40s and 50s, your first stop would be MGM -- the major studio that produced Singin' in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, West Side Story, Meet Me in St. Louis and Showboat, among others.

For every Gene Kelly pirouette and Judy Garland solo, there are those lesser-known gems from MGM that would otherwise be completely forgotten if not for specialty channels like TCM

And, considering the DVD is next to impossible to track down, TCM may be the only way classic film buffs can view (and own) director Charles Walters' thoroughly enjoyable adaptation of the college-set musical, Good News.

It's a familiar premise, one we've seen in countless musicals and romantic comedies over the decades: A college football captain named Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) falls head-over-heels for the campus' beautiful, wealthy "it" girl, Pat McClellan (Patricia Marshall). When Pat rejects Tommy's advances, he discovers her passion for the French language and vows to become fluent himself in an attempt to woo her. He enlists the help of brainiac Connie Lane (June Allyson), and she sets aside time from her busy schedule to tutor him in French. And then, wouldn't you know it, Connie finds herself smitten with the star athlete. It's your standard tale of (seemingly) unrequited love set to bouncy music, vivid technicolour and show-stopping dance numbers.

All musicals require a suspension of disbelief, arguably even moreso than any other genre. People, often complete strangers, are liable to break out into a perfectly synchronized song and dance routine -- only to resume their everyday activities the moment the song reaches its concluding notes.

However, Good News unintentionally requires its viewers to suspend their disbelief even further with one particular gaping plot hole and a couple of contrived situations that strain plausibility.

The gaping plot hole? Well, that would be the fact that the film claims it's set in the 20s when, in actual fact, all the costumes and hair-styles are very clearly contemporary (i.e. circa 1947). And the plot contrivances? It would be too long-winded to list here but, in a nutshell, Tommy finds himself torn between winning the final football game of the season and proposing to Pat after the victory or losing the game on purpose to win over the affections of the bookish Connie.
Peter Lawford and June Allyson

Regardless of these quibbles, it's hard not enjoy this rousing musical. The songs are surprisingly catchy considering the film has fallen off the radar when people talk about movie musicals. You'll find yourself humming "Lucky in Love" well after the end credits. And, while "The Best Things in Life are Free" is no doubt viewed as the film's romantic highlight, keep an eye out for the amusing exchange between the charming Allyson and Lawford when they duet on "The French Lesson."

In terms of genuine show-stoppers, however, there's only one that comes to mind: "Pass the Peace Pipe", an infectious song-and-dance number led by Joan McCracken (professional dancer and ex-wife of Bob Fosse).

But what it all comes down to in the end is the two charming leads. While Allyson and Lawford both have their detractors, I'm not one of them -- they are both a joy to watch. While they may not have the greatest singing voices they try their darndest to really belt it out. Where they do both excel is in their onscreen presence and overall likeability -- and both are fully capable of burning up the dance floor as they prove in the closing number, "The Varsity Drag."

For pure, unadulterated musical entertainment, Good News proves to be just that.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Movie Review: Amour

Emmanuelle Riva
Amour (2012)
Written & Directed by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva

An elderly couple returns from a classical music concert to find that someone had attempted to break into their beautiful apartment while they were away. Little do they know, something far more sinister than some petty thief is about to come along and shatter their comfortable lifestyle.

So begins German-born Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's quietly devastating portrait of old age and unconditional love.

This French-language gem avoids all the melodrama usually associated with films centred on old age and the loss of a loved one. Anyone who has witnessed the cruel ravages of dementia or Alzheimer's -- or old age, in general -- can attest to the raw authenticity in which Haneke captures the decline of this elderly French couple.

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) have been married for more than 50 years. Their past -- and their familiarity with one another as longtime companions -- is slowly revealed to us through the little stories they share with one another and the little affectionate gestures with which they communicate. Whether Anne is flipping through an old photo album, commenting on the beauty of life, or Georges is recounting a film that moved him to tears as a child, their marriage and comfortable companionship is a testament to their love for one another. Despite the passage of time, you can see glimpses of the young lovers they once were.

But then Anne suffers a stroke as a result of a blocked carotid artery and the unsuccessful resulting surgery leads to her eventual rapid decline. Georges struggles to care for his wife, resolutely refusing to hand her off to a nursing home.
Jean-Louis Trintignant
Anne suffers the indignities of aging as gracefully as can be expected under such circumstances. She lightly teases her husband as he hovers next to her bed, watching her read a book -- yet, her voice can be quick to sharpen if she feels he's doting on her too much and infringing on her own capabilities.

To watch Georges grapple with decisions and question his actions is equally as heartbreaking to watch as witnessing Anne's slow deterioration and suffering. It's enough to emotionally shatter even the most cynical viewer.

Haneke, as both screenwriter and director, is at the helm of what is arguably the most realistic portrayal of old age ever captured on film. His assured, confident direction and touching dialogue allows his two lead actors to shine. Riva and Trintignant, both acting legends in their native France, are absolute powerhouses here. Riva is absolutely devastating to watch, while Trintignant's subtly nuanced performance as the struggling spouse is just so full of truth that you can literally feel the gravity of his situation. They are beautiful performances, both.

While the film presents you with things you'll fear later in life, it also provides hope that we'll all experience the same unconditional love and support from a spouse, friend or relative that will guide us through advanced age's crueler moments.

Beneath the tragedy of watching a loved one slip away, Amour is an intimate, powerful look at advanced age -- but it's ultimately, above all, a love story.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

What my dream Oscars would look like...

We all do it: Compile a list -- in our minds or on paper -- of our favourite films of the year and decide which movies and performances we'd like to see nominated at the Academy Awards.

Overall, 2012 wasn't my favourite year for film (Will any of the 2000's ever be as good as 2007?). However, there were some notable films and beautiful performances -- many of them recognized by the Academy, others sadly overlooked.

Here's how my Oscars would have played out (based on what I've seen)...

Best Picture
A Royal Affair
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
The Master
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty
Michael Haneke for Amour
Ang Lee for Life of Pi
Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained
Who I'd choose: Ang Lee

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Joaquin Phoenix for The Master
Jean-Louis Trintignant for Amour
Who I'd choose: Joaquin Phoenix

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild 
Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea
Who I'd choose: Emmanuelle Riva

Best Supporting Actor
Mikkel Boe Folsgaard for A Royal Affair 
Samuel L. Jackson for Django Unchained
Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained
Who I'd choose: Mikkel Boe Folsgaard

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams for The Master
Sally Field for Lincoln
Kara Hayward for Moonrise Kingdom
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Isabelle Huppert for Amour
Who I'd choose: Helen Hunt

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle and Jason Clarke

Right from the earliest scenes of her latest political thriller, director Kathryn Bigelow proves  her skill at displaying raw human emotion in even the most heart-pounding sequences.

Working again with screenwriter Mark Boal, who penned the script of her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has crafted one of the finest cinematic experiences of 2012.

Despite the swirl of controversy over the torture sequences -- an issue that hangs over the film like a wet blanket -- Zero Dark Thirty combines an investigative political thriller with a complex character study.

The film slowly unfurls over a span of 10 years; the length of time the in-depth manhunt for the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden took to reach its conclusion. While the subject is obviously derived from a true story, many will question its accuracy considering the shroud of secrecy that cloaked the government reports. However, although Bigelow and Boal insist they interviewed pivotal figures involved in bin Laden's death, the debate over whether or not the film is entirely based on reality is ultimately irrelevant.

What Bigelow has created is a plausible scenario that has scenes of action, interrogation and government verbal battles that all brim with complex decisions made by people who are neither good nor evil. Nothing is black and white in Zero Dark Thirty and every action can be called into question.

At the centre of the investigation is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a new CIA recruit sent to close in on bin Laden and bring the world's most wanted man to justice. Along the way she is faced with government suits (led by Kyle Chandler as U.S. Embassy chief in Pakistan, Joseph Bradley) who shoot down her theories and suppositions on the whereabouts of bin Laden. Her frustration is palpable at times, but her steely resolve pushes her through to the end.
As played by Chastain, Maya displays a remarkable composure that only falters a few times. Her perseverance and insistence on acquiring intelligence through investigative techniques -- her face displays her open revulsion at torture tactics -- forces others to follow her direction. Chastain gives one of the years best performances, subtly conveying each and every emotion that Maya struggles with -- whether it's the death of a close colleague or her frustration at the lack of support from her higher-ups.

Zero Dark Thirty plays out like a documentary, all of which is told from Maya's point of view. While we do eventually meet the Navy SEAL team that ultimately take down bin Laden, it's all through shadows and night-vision goggles.

Whether or not Zero Dark Thirty walks away from the Oscars as a big winner still remains to be seen, but there's no denying its smart script and note-worthy performances, all of which speaks to various important issues we confront in our news on a daily basis.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie Review: Life of Pi

Suraj Sharma
Life of P (2012)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain and Tabu

"I suppose in the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye."

Life of Pi is a visual feast, and the power of oral tradition is alive and well in Ang Lee's masterful Oscar contender.

Based on the novel by Yann Martel, and adapted for the screen by David Magee, Lee has culled together all the difficult narrative threads from the original source and crafted a beautiful film from a novel that was once deemed unfilmable.

Life of Pi opens in Montreal where an older Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) meets with a young writer (Rafe Spall) interested in hearing his life story. In flashbacks, we are taken back in time to young Pi's youth in India. Born a Hindu, Pi's insatiable desire for knowledge and understanding leads him to take a deep interest in Catholicism and Islam. Armed with a complete faith in all three religions, Pi confronts his father (Adil Hussain), a man of science who rejects tradition and openly embraces a new India. "If you believe in everything, you end up not believing in nothing at all," his father cautions. When a teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) is forced to leave India along with his family at his father's request, the youth struggles to come to terms with an event that he has no doubt will change his life forever. While packed on a Japanese cargo ship headed for Canada where Pi's father and mother (Tabu) hope to start a new life in Winnipeg, a torrential storm upends the ship, leaving Pi stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker. Lost at sea for an astonishing 227 days, Pi is forced to reevaluate his earlier notions of fate and the universe as his faith is put to the ultimate test.
Suraj Sharma
The meandering plot could easily have alienated viewers in the hands of a lesser director. Lucky for us, Lee has a knack for making even the quietest moments resonate with an emotional power. Life of Pi stays afloat thanks to lead actor Suraj Sharma, who carries the entire weight of the film on his young shoulders. It's a career-making performance that will undoubtedly put Sharma on the map.

Who knew that watching a teen boy grapple with religion, contemplate the meaning of life and bond with a vicious tiger could result in one of the finest film experiences of 2012?

Life of Pi is a fable, a film that revels in the art of storytelling. Through a combination of Magee's deft adaptation of a complex novel and Lee's lush visuals, Life of Pi is the kind of spectacle that proves even big-budget films with blockbuster-level CGI can be a thought-provoking work of art at it's very core.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Movie Review: Django Unchained

Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx
Django Unchained (2012)
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson

Revenge is a dish best served cold and, when it comes to revenge, no one doles it out quite like Quentin Tarantino.

In recent years, Tarantino has endowed his central characters with ample opportunities to get even in instances where they have been painfully wronged -- whether it's The Bride exacting revenge on the man who tried to kill her or a group of Basterds on the hunt for Nazis.

Tarantino, with his almost unnatural ability to understand the plight of those who were once downtrodden and his evident love for the world of cinema, has crafted his maturest film to date with Django Unchained.

Riding high on the coattails of the much-lauded Inglorious Basterds (2009), Tarantino's latest blood-soaked  tale sets its sights on the years leading up to the American Civil War. When we first meet a chained Django (Jamie Foxx) he's a recently purchased slave who is unexpectedly freed by a personable German bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz makes plain his motivation to a thoroughly stunned Django -- he's on the hunt for Django's previous owners and requires his help in pointing out their faces in a crowd. However, as with all Tarantino films, the opening 40 minutes merely scratches the surface of the plot.

The real draw is in Django's search for his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), now under the ownership of the brutal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- a man so villainous that he forces slaves to battle one another to the death in what he calls "mandingo fighting."

Schultz and Django devise a way to work their way into Calvin's good graces, earning a place at his dinner table under the guise of slave traders wanting to offer him money for some of his "mandingo" fighters.

With a nearly three-hour run-time, Django is on par with Tarantino's previous films with regards to longevity and plot twists. However, those coming into Django expecting the usual clever, dialogue-heavy flair that has become the director's staple will be surprised that such extended scenes of jabber are lacking this time around. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. And that's not to say that Tarantino's dialogue has lost its bite. As amusing and scathing as Tarantino's conversations can be, Django involves far more character development and explosive (not to mention extremely violent) action sequences.
Leonardo DiCaprio
And while Tarantino, as writer-director, is a draw in his own right, his bang-on casting choices are always guaranteed to pack the threatres.

As the titular anti-hero, Foxx has the right intensity -- his anger on slow-burn, brimming just beneath the surface before it erupts in spectacular fashion. It's undeniable that Foxx fits comfortably in Tarantino's universe. While Django is less showy than some of Tarantino's previous creations, Foxx excels in the role with a quiet, subtle and touching performance.

However, it's Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, DiCaprio as the vicious Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie's loyal house slave, Stephen, that all vie with each other to steal the show. In a smaller supporting role, Jackson gives arguably his best performance in years. As Calvin, DiCaprio is genuinely terrifying, shattering any remaining comparisons he may still encounter with his earlier roles in Titanic or Romeo + Juliet. He's all fire and brimstone and some of his best exchanges occur alongside the equally wonderful Jackson.

But it's Waltz, once again, who nearly steals the film right out from under his co-stars. As he did with Basterds, Waltz savours Tarantino's dialogue, using his unique cadences to give his director's words even more meaning and intensity. He's so suited for Tarantino's hyper, ultra-violent homages that the two will undoubtedly continue to work together for years down the road. His Schultz is the perfect mentor to Django and, part of why the film excels, is because of their palpable chemistry.

Django is a whole new venture for Tarantino; more mature, violent and controversial than any of his previous films. But there's no denying that this auteur still has the goods and his work packs a punch few other American directors can get away with -- or would even risk trying.

Once again Tarantino goes big and delivers -- his critics be damned.