Friday, 30 December 2011

They're Climbing in Your Window, Snatching Your People Up: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Warning: Some Spoilers Below
They're coming to get you Barbra...oh wait, wrong movie. Anyway, imagine if one day you're talking to a relative, someone you know extremely well. Now imagine this person both looks and acts the same, yet you feel something is missing, and despite what's right in front of you, you're convinced this person is an imposter, that the person who love is gone. This is the terrifying set-up for Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film which has spawned three remakes and no doubt many imitations. The film is about a small town doctor, Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who, when he returns to Santa Mira, California, encounters people who are experiencing the same situation mentioned above. While what these people are experiencing is deemed an "epidemic mass hysteria," it soon becomes apparant that the residents of Santa Mira are being replaced by alien life forms who grow from seeds and duplicate appearance of anyone. This happens when they're asleep, as the pods absorb the residents' minds.

While the stereotype of  1950s science fiction films are probably that they are "cheesy," "corny," "dated" and "over the top," Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't fit those stereotypes. Nearly sixty years after its release, the film is still unnerving. I think this is because of its minimalism. There's not many special effects. no spaceships and the aliens are always disguised as humans. These factors ground the film in the real world and thus make it more disturbing.

The minimalism of the film also makes everything feel more claustrophobic, both psychologically and physically. Ironically, like Alfred Hitchock's The Birds or M. Night Shaymalan's Signs, two films also very claustrophic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers also manages to create an almost apocalyptic feel to the events.

At only 80 minutes, there's an almost ruthless economy to the film, which adds to the claustrophobia of the film. Thankfully the film doesn't feel too rushed but slowly builds until its becomes a race against an unstoppable evil.

Thematically the film has some interesting things going on. When you become a pod person, you lose any kind of human emotion in return for a griefless life.  Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who goes on the run with Miles tells him "I don't want to live in a world without love or grief or beauty, I'd rather die." This line tells me the film is saying that while life can be painful, it's the pain, mixed in with the joy, which makes life beautiful.  The asks us if we'd really want to give up pain if we couldn't have joy.

The film as released during the era of Joseph McCarthy and the communist witchhunts. There's an ongoing debate about whether the film is an allegory about the danger of communism or if its anti-McCarthyist. Some who were involved in the making of the film view the film simply as a thriller. I took that literal point of view and enjoyed the film as a creepy sci-fi horror film. The interpretations are still important to consider because they remind us of the issues of the past and how filmmakers dealt with them subvertly.

Kevin McCarthy gives a solid performance as Miles, effectively going from the reserved, rational doctor to the man screaming on the  highway like a mad man, and even though we know he's right, it's hard not to believe his ordeal hasn't driven him a little mad.

Don Siegel, who 15 years later would direct Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, has a very direct visual style in this film but also has camera angles which puncuate certain moments and scenes, like Miles' realization that Becky has turned in to a pod person, or a close up of an awakening pod person in the foreground, with the character its duplicating in the background.

The film originally ended with Miles on the highway but Siegel was pressured in to creating a framing device with Miles in the hospital trying to explain what was happening. The film ends with Miles finally able to convince people of the threat to humanity. This gives the film some kind of hope without being too happy. As Matt Foley of the Cinefiles notes, it gives us a sense of what a possible sequel would have looked like.

I'm looking forward to checking out the 1978 remake with Donald Sutherland, which is also considered a strong film. While only seeing the original just once, it's already one of the favourite science fiction/horror films. It's that effective of a film. It's a creepy good time. If you haven't seen it, check it out.

Monday, 26 December 2011

The Essential Films: "It's a Wonderful Life"

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

When a film becomes as iconic and quintiessential as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, it's interesting to look at the film just as a film in order to see what makes it a great film; particularly since for those who have never seen it or haven't seen in some time, it's a much different film than one might expect or remember.

In talking about what makes It's a Wonderful Life a great film, you have to start with James Stewart.  I mentioned in an earlier post how I fee there's a certain stigma against movie stardom nowadays, a feeling that a movie star can't be a real actor. It's the type of generalization people like Emma Stone or Arrested Development's David Cross believe. Stone feels no one who is famous can play a real person. I feel Stewart is the ultimate defense against this accusation. Stewart, maybe even more so then Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, or Tom Hanks, captured the every day American man. He represented what the American man was and what he could be. I don't know if any other actor, even Fonda, could have been effective as George Baily. In essence Stewart is George Baily. It's a performance of compassion, anger, despair, joy and understatement. We both can sympathize yet by the end of the film somewhat envy George's wonderful life. 

This brings me to another major reason for the film's greatest, which is it's ageless message. The film says even if a man leads a humble life, he still has incredible value, that his life positively affects those around him, and a man who had friends is no failure. It's a beautiful message, which makes the film endure. I have a slightly mixed feeling towards it though. While we see George has led a wonderful life, saving his brother, making his town a better place and marrying a beautiful woman, I still hope I can leave Halifax one day and make it as an actor, novelist, director, etc. Thankfully, the film never criticizes George for his dreams. Rather, it's incredibly sympathetic to how George is constantly faced with tough decisions, leading him to make compromises. But it's through these compromises that George becomes a great man.

What I admire about the film is how it earns it sentimental ending. In the final half hour or so, George falls in to dispair when Uncle Billy loses $8,000 for the Building and Loan. Fearing imprisonment and feeling his life has been worth nothing, he plans to committ suicide. When George's guardian angel Clarence ( shows him a world where he was never born, it's a harrowing vision of a completely changed Bedford Falls. This sequence truly makes us think about how we affect the world around us. By the time George comes back to his own reality, we can share George's joy, particularly when the town helps George.

The film is arguably most famous for its final half hour or so.  It doesn't even become a Christmas movie until almost an hour an half in. In this first hour and a half, it'a quinitessential Capra film. Capra was a humanist filmmaker, concerned with the plight of the American citizen. The villain is Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a selfish big business type who was the kind of villain Capra used in his films. I wish the film had tried to make Potter slightly more complex because as he's being insulted, I somehow felt there was something about a man like this.

While It's a Wonderful Life is very much a Frank Capra film, It's hard to pin down the film to one genre. It's a drama, a comedy, a romance, a Christmas movie and a fantasy. The romance between George and Mary (Donna Reed) is sweet and Stewart and Reed do a good job of showing how their romance develops from their teenage years in to their 30s. The fantasy element doesn't take the film out it's groundedness but surprisingly makes the film darker.

It's a Wonderful Life doesn't encourage us to give up our dreams. Rather, it says no matter how big our dreams get, we should always remain humble and selfless. George Bailey's selflesness is what made him a great man. George is not only who we are but what we can all ultimately be.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Movie Journal # 1

The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)- A film of contradictions- epic yet intimate, cosmological yet earthbound, confusing yet crystal clear, similar to Terrence Malick's other works yet feeling like his most personal, but while personal, the film is extremely universal. The Tree of Life was one of the most polarizing films of 2011- and as a friend once told me, that may be a sign of greatness. Brad Pitt gives what is arguably his best performance as an authoritarian father, Mr. O'Brien, in 1950s Texas. Pitt expertly captures a particular type of father figure, very strict, yet with a deep love buried inside of him. Early in the film, we get a flashforward of him finding out his 19 year old son has died, he talks about his guilt at treating him so poorly. This confession reverberates throughout the film. Jessica Chastain is ethereal and gorgeous as the mother of the three children. She is the "grace" to  Mr O'Brien's "nature." I don't think the the film has any fixed meanings. It's more concerned with asking questions about choices made in our childhood and throughout our life, as well as our place in the universe, and why we should act good even when people suffer.

The Descendents (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2011)- Director  Alexander Payne's first film since his excellent 2004 film Sideways, Payne chronicles the troubles of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney. Matt's wife is in a coma after a sailing boat accident, his two daughters are out of his control, and he has to decide to whom to sell the land his family owns. Payne does an fine job of taking Matt on a emotional journey without having to completely change him or making it seem he doesn't have to grow anymore. The film ends with a simple image of a family on a couch. They still have a lot to learn, but at least they each other.

50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2011)- 50/50 walks a tightrope between humour and sadness, levity and anger. The film manages to not have its humour make too light of Joseph Gordan Levitt's Adam's cancer, nor be so depressing it becomes a chore to sit through. It's actually the film's allowance of humourous moments which makes the quieter moments of anxiety and sadness hit quite hard. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky criticized the film as being a romantic comedy with a cancer gimmick, in regards to Adam's relationship to his young therapist, Katherine, played by Anna Kendrick. I actually admired the film for not going down that direction. Their relationship is only one aspect of the film and is allowed to develop throughout the film. It never takes  precedence over the cancer dilemma. The performances are all strong. The only drawback is this: Seth Rogen is good in the film but it's easy to become too aware of the Seth Rogen persona seeping in.

Paul (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2011)- While not as funny as it should be, with the director of Superbad and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost writing, Paul, the story of two sci-fi buffs encountering a real life extra terrestrial, is still a enjoyable comedy. The chemistry between Pegg, Frost, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Kristen Wiig, a christian fundamentalist who runs a motor park with her father, who finds herself in the company of the odd trio. The digs at her character's christianity seem a little gratuitous. I also didn't understand what was tying the together thematically. I think Mottola's previous two films Superbad and Adventureland were stronger movies on this front. At the end of the film Paul jokes about what the characters have learned throughout the film and I feel the movie has the same kind of attitude. It cares about its characters but doesn't develop them enough. Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio and Jason Bateman are all good as agents chasing after Paul and Blythe Danner adds some pathos as the older version of the girl who saved Paul when he first crash landed on Earth over sixty years ago.

The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodovar, 2011)- My first Almodovar film. It reminded of Hitchcock, not so much in tone or style but thematically. In Hitchcock's films, he shows that sexuality and obession can go hand in hand, particularly in the male psyche. Almodovar's film does the same thing and creates an even more twisted version of Vertigo for the 21st century. Antonio Banderas, miles away from Puss 'n' Boots, plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has created a synthetic skin which resists damage. He has tested it on a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya). I don't want to reveal too much. It's best to go in without too much knowledge. I feel there could have been more development in some areas, particularly in Robert's relationship with his wife and daughter, but it's a film which, pardon the pun, truly gets under your skin.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2011)- A horror film grounded in the real life consequences of negligence and timidness, We Need to Talk About Kevin took me a while to get in to. But once I settled in, the character of Kevin, the child of Tilda Swinton's Eva, who even at a young age displays bizarre behaviour,  truly unnerved me. My nerves weren't helped by Ezra Miller's performance as teenage Kevin. The film is about the lead up to going on a killing spree at his high school, a puzzle which as all the pieces come together, things become more complicated. This is because the film asks us about responsibility and whether blame is ever a simple solution.

Sherlock Holmes (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2009)- I actually enjoyed this more the second time I watched it. I like how the film allows Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) to be themselves. Holmes, the stuffy yet eccentric super slueth, and Watson, the dogged companion of Holmes. Of all American actors, Downey, Jr. is arguably the best choice for Holmes since Downey, Jr. can play the eccentricity needed for Holmes' character. The supernatural plot does pay off nicely at the end and I enjoyed this aspect of the film more the second time around. I liked Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and thought it was interesting to have her and Holmes' relationship already established at the beginning of the film. The same goes for Holmes and Watson's relationship. The film doesn't waste time on being an origin story or being about the beginning of Holmes and Watson's relationship. The film centers on how their relationship is being broken apart by Watson's impending marriage. The film could almost be a sequel.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2011)- I had a really mixed reaction to this film, even more so than when I saw the first film. It seems like it can't decide if it wants to be large scale or small scale. Thankfully there's enough small scale stuff which allows the movie to breathe and, like the first film, it allows Holmes and Watson to be themselves. The film ends not with a big action sequence but with Holmes and Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) conducting a literal and figurative chess match. I also liked seeing Watson putting his deductive reasoning to the test. The ending has a great reference to the source material and the last scene is funny and suggests something...different for the future.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Some Thoughts on the Oscar Race

I'm not much of a prognosticator when it comes to awards season. Mostly I go from what others are saying, with a few of my own thoughts creeping in. Nevertheless, it's been a while since I wrote about the Oscars and now is as good a time as any. I'll going through several of the categories giving my thoughts on each one.

Best Actor
Could this year's race really come down to a battle between the two biggest movie stars on the planet? It looks like it, with George Clooney and Brad Pitt being virtual locks for their performances in The Descendents and Moneyball, respectively. There's a certain stigman against movie stars; a belief no one famous could be talented, or according to Emma Stone, talented enough to make people forget he or she is a star and play a real person. Some will scoff at the idea of two movie stars being leading candidates for the Best Actor Oscar but from what I've heard, Clooney and Pitt give career best performances. Add the fact Pitt has also recieved acclaim for his work in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Clooney did quadriple duty this year with directing, producing, co-writing and acting in the political thriller The Ides of March, and it's no suprise these two guys are frontrunners.

Another big star, Leonardo DiCaprio, also has a solid chance at getting his first Best Actor nomination since 2006's Blood Diamond, with Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. I liked DiCaprio's performance but I still prefer his work in Shutter Island and Blood Diamond. If anything, I hope DiCaprio's probable inclusion doesn't lead to Gary Oldman's exclusion. I haven't seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy yet but Oldman is supposed to be terrific in the role of George Smiley. Oldman has also never been nominated before. After so many years in the business and being able to go from playing Dracula to Commissioner Gordon, I think most are in agreement it's finally time.

Adding to the list of movie stars, Jean Dujardin, a star in France, is also likely to get a Best Actor nomination for his work in the silent film The Artist.

Woody Harrelson is also supposed to be great in Rampart but like Oldman he missed out on the SAG and Golden Globe nominations. Ryan Gosling was just nominated for his roles in Crazy Stupid Love and The Ides of March at the Golden Globes. His role in Ides is probably the best bet for a nomination but something tells me he's going to be left out agan this year.  

I think the eventual line-up will be: Clooney, Pitt, DiCaprio, Dujardin, Oldman.

Best Actress
Despite having two Oscars , there's a feeling Meryl Streep is overdue. It's been nearly thirty years since she won for Sophie's Choice and she has been pretty close with her roles in Doubt and Julie and Julia, losing out to Kate Winslet and Sandra Bullock. She plays former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and it's the kind of role which screams Oscar, namely a real person, and a wildly controversial one at that. For the longest time people were talking about the race for Best Actress would be between Streep and Glenn Close, who hasn't been nominated since the 1980s. Her role in Albert Nobbs is that of a woman pretending to be a man in 19th century Ireland. This is also a role which screams for a Oscar. Close has never won, giving her the "due" factor. I'm just wondering if the film will make enough of an impression for Close to win.

Some, like Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly, feel the race is between Streep and The Help's Viola Davis. The Help has a better chance of being nominated for Best Picture than The Iron Lady or Albert Nobbs, which I feel gives Davis a slight advantage over both of them.

I think Michelle Williams is also a lock for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn but as I said in my review of the film I think Williams deserves a better movie. Tilda Swinton is gaining momentum for her work in We Need to Talk About Kevin. I had Elizabeth Olsen as one of the top five, thinking she'd be the Jennifer Lawrence of this year, but I think she's lost steam recently. Charlize Theron or Rooney Mara could be get the fifth spot, or the fourth and fifth if Swinton if left out.

Best Supporting Actor
I think Christopher Plummer has a really good shot at finally winning an Oscar this year. Plummer only recieved his first nomination two years ago for The Last Station but lost to Christop Waltz for Inglorious Basterds. His role in  Beginners as a father who reveals he's gay in his seventies has already landed Plummer a few of the critic's awards for Best Supporting Actor. Albert Brooks has also picked up a few awards for Drive, making him Plummer's closest competition. Ingmar Bergman alumni and acting legend Max von Sydow could also get in for his role in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The thing is, the film, despite it's pedigree, doesn't seem like a big player, which may be a result of it being screened later than other films. I also think Kenneth Branagh has a good chance at a nomination but like Williams, I think he deserves a better movie. Could Jonah Hill, a SAG and Golden Globe nominee for Moneyball ride Brad Pitt's wave to a nomination? I could see it happening but he's not a lock yet. Armie Hammer has just been nominated for a SAG for his role in J. Edgar. This puts him back in the race after it seemed he was pretty much out. Like Hill, I still think he could get left out, particularly if J. Edgar isn't a big player.

Best Supporting Actress
I think this race could come down to the ladies of The Help, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. Chastain has been in everything this year, and has been in danger of splitting the vote among her performances. I think she's safe for a nomination though, with people leaning towards The Help. Chastain could still split the vote with Spencer. Shailene Woodley, who plays George Clooney's daughter in The Descendants, could take it if there's a vote split but I don't see the academy giving it her. She's still fairly young and new to the movie scene. There's no pressure to give it to her either. Vanessa Redgrave has been seen as a frontrunner for some time now but she lost out on the SAG and Golden Globe Nomination for her role in Ralph Fiennes' adaptation of Shakespeare's play Coriolanus. I think Laurence Olivier was the first and last actor to win for a Shakespearean role, that of Hamlet. I would love a Shakespearean performance to win this year. The Artist's Berenice Berjo also seems like a likely candidate. Some people have mentioned Sandra Bullock in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but even if it picks up steam, which it can, I don't see Bullock getting in.

Best Picture/Best Director
I think The Artist and The Descendants are locks for Best Picture. Their respective directors, Michel Hazanavicius and Alexander Payne will also get in. Martin Scorsese's Hugo as well. While I'm a little mixed on Hugo, I think it'd be great for Scorsese to win another Best Director Oscar. The pressure to award him is gone though so they'll probably give to someone else. The Help has a good chance at getting in but I feel it's director Tate Taylor is not a big enough name to get a nomination. Midnight in Paris, while a small scale film, is getting more love than most of Woody Allen's recent films. It could get in, with Woody Allen receiving his first Best Director nomination since 1994's Bullets over Broadway. Never underestimate Steven Spielberg, particularly with two big holiday releases this year, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. The director I most want to see get nominated is Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life. Unfortunately, I think the origin of the universe and afterlife sequence will turn off some academy members.

So there you go, some of my thoughts on a slightly open Oscar race this year.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Looking Forward To: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I liked Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but admittedly, I found it a little top-heavy with exposition and a dense family tree. I haven't seen any of the Swedish films with Noomi Rapace but I am looking forward to David Fincher's version of the novel, released on December 21. I like Fincher and feel he's the perfect choice for this film. I wouldn't label him a serial killer film director, nor label The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a serial killer novel. But with films like Seven and Zodiac he's shown himself very good at creating uncomprosing portraits of villainy and obsession, two factors very crucial to the novel. There's also a procedural element to the novel. In Zodiac, Fincher was able to take a story all about procedure and exposition and make it exciting cinema.

I'm also excited to see what Roony Mara does in the role of Lisbeth Salander. This is the most challenging she's had to date and judging by David Denby's controversial review of the film, you can't take your eyes off her. I think Daniel Craig will be solid as Mikael Blomkvist and it's always nice to see fellow Canadian Christopher Plummer.

It'll be interesting to see if the film can be a part of the Oscar race. Fincher joked there was too much anal rape for it to win any Oscars. But to be fair, if the academy can nominate Black Swan, with Mila Kunis going down on Natalie Portman, and The Silence of the Lambs, it's not too much of a stretch that they can nominate this film.   

Marilyn and Michelle: "My Week With Marilyn"

I think nowadays we take for the notion of fame for granted. We're bombarded with magazine covers and reality shows. It always seems like anyone can become famous so it doesn't seem like a big deal. There's a scene in My Week with Marilyn where Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) and her husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) are swarmed by reporters when they gets off a plane in London. When we see this, we grasp what's it like not just to be famous, but to be FAMOUS. Despite the glamour of it all, there's a messiness to it as well.

It's the messiness of fame which is underneath the surface of My Week With Marilyn. It's what suffocated Marilyn. It pushed her in to playing a part even when she's not on screen. Marilyn Monroe is just another role to play- but she didn't just want to play Marilyn Monroe. She wants to be taken seriously as an actress. This is what led her, in 1956, to take the role of Elsie in the film version of Terrence Rattigan's play, entitled The Prince and the Showgirl. The film was directed by Laurence Olivier, who also played the prince, a role he originated on stage, with his wife Vivien Leigh in the role of Elsie.

My Week With Marilyn shows us the troubled production of the film through the eyes of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), an assistant director to Olivier. The film is based on two of Clark's books, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me and My Week With Marilyn. In these books Clark alleges he and Monroe had a love affair. I don't know if Clark is telling the absolute truth but the books provide the film with the chance to romanticize the love a young man can have for a beautiful movie star. The irony is no matter how close Colin gets to Marilyn and learn about her, he can still only love the image of Marilyn. He calls her a goddess but I don't think Marilyn wants to be built up as a goddess. She just wants to be viewed as a person but I don't think Colin can truly get past the image; maybe because Marilyn is stuck inside this image.

I've realized I've gone through this review without mentioning who plays Marilyn. Michelle Williams is beautiful and radiant in the part. There are many times where I forgot it was Williams. I think her performance deserved a more expansive film about Marilyn. In this film, Marilyn almost seems like a supporting player than the main character. The making of this film and her relationship with Colin would have more impact as something central to a conventional biopic. By itself, the story seems too small.

My favourite parts of the film are the making of the film. Kenneth Branagh, who was deemed Olivier's heir when he first came on the scene as a Shakespearean actor, plays Olivier with a humorous flippancy towards Monore's acting style. Olivier was a classically trained stage actor while Monroe was interested in the method. She even brings her teacher Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) along with her. It's funny to see Olvier, who was this towering presence as an actor, treat acting as it was just a mechanical process. Judi Dench does fine work as Dame Sybil Thorndike. Julia Ormond gives Vivien Leigh a delicacy and acceptance towards being too old to play Elsie. It's also nice to see Harry Potter's Emma Watson as a  wardrobe assistant named Lucy, who is Colin's first's love interest. Unfortunately, her role comes across as a little superfluous. She only seems to be here in order to tell Colin he deserved to have his heart broken, though I didn't belive he did.

People have said that with this film, Monroe was trying to be taken seriously as an actress, and Olivier was trying to be a film star. In essence, they both want to be each other. The disappointing thing about discussing the ideas regarding Marilyn's relationships with Colin and Olivier, is that these ideas are more interesting than the film is either aware of or willing to explore. I appreciated My Week With Marilyn for its performances and is pleasantness. It's an enjoyable film but outside of Williams and Branagh's performances, I don't think it's an essential film.   

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Some Thoughts on "The Dark Knight Rises"

The Dark Knight Rises is my most anticipated film of 2012 and probably the last super-hero film I'll be forward to for some time (I have some mixed feelings about The Amazing Spider-Man). It was always an enevitable film but it took sometime for it to get off the ground. I think Christopher Nolan is the kind of director who doesn't want to do a film unless he's interested in the story. For me this is emphasized by his statement that he didn't want to do another Batman film unless he had a good story. The fact Nolan has made this film gives me confidence that he has found a worthwhile story to tell rather than just a cobbled together, obligatory third chapter.

The hardest part about doing another Batman film after The Dark Knight is trying to find a villain who won't pale in comparison to the Joker, which is hard because the Joker is Batman's arch-nemesis, the villain who challenges Batman more than any one else in his rogue's gallery (and we clearly saw what an impact he made on Batman and the rest of Gotham in The Dark Knight), and also because Heath Ledger's Oscar winning performance was truly remarkable. The villain in this film is Bane, played by Inception's Tom Hardy. I haven't read any Batman comics that feature Bane and sadly I'm mostly familar with the Bane from Batman & Robin, a not so bright Frankenstein like character. Bane from the comics is much smarter, as having brute strength. I think Hardy showcased this combination of smarts and toughness in Inception, also directed by Nolan. Eames, the character he played, had an almost James Bondian combination of wit and mercenary roughness. Imagine that combination taken to a much more sinister level and I think Hardy will give a terrific performance. The way Hardy describes Bane's fighting style sounds brutal to sayy the least:

"The style is heavy-handed, heavy-footed, it's nasty. Anything from small-joint manipulation to crushing skulls, crushing rib cages, stamping on shins and knees and necks and collarbones and snapping heads off and tearing his fists through chests, ripping out spinal columns."

There's something scary about the way Bane fights which I think will make Batman's physical challenge when going up against Bane also a psychological one, expanding upon the psychological struggles he's faced in the last two films.

Just the other day Nolan provided a crucial detail regarding the plot of the film, which is it takes place 8 years after The Dark Knight. This emphasizes Batman's physical challenge due to the possibility that  Bruce Wayne may have retired from being Batman during those 8 years. I was a little surprised and disappointed that Nolan was skipping this much time in the series. For quite some time I was thinking this trilogy was primarily about the early years of Batman, with the concluding chapter looking forward to other characters and adventures this Batman would have. I think the story can still end that way but people are already speculating Batman has fought some famous foes in those missing years. Only time will tell.

While it's starting to become clear what role Bane has in the story, I'm still wondering what role Anne Hathaway's Catwoman will play in the film. Catwoman is not strictly a villainess nor heroine so I don't think there'll be a villain team-up nor a team-up between Batman and Catwoman I'll be interested in how Nolan ties the Bane and Catwoman storylines together in a satisying way.

It's a little weird to think of another Batman film in this franchise after The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was so ambitious and was truly epic, bringing Gotham to the verge of total anarchy. My biggest question regarding this new film is will Nolan be able to create a film which doesn't feel small in comparison, particularly with the absence of the Joker. The Dark Knight was almost too big, if this film tries to top it, it may completely fall apart. I believe in Christopher Nolan though. Through these last two Batman films, he and his writing team clearly care about creating something special with these established characters and their city. 

Friday, 18 November 2011

Not Like There's Anything Wrong With That: "J. Edgar" Review

There's a moment a little while in to J. Edgar, where an elderly J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), dictating his autobiography to an agent (Mike Vaughn) asks the agent, "Who was the most famous person of the twentieth century, thus far?" The agent eventually asks "Is that you, sir?" Hoover seems mildly amused the agent would give this answer, though we can't help but think there's some kind of pride Hoover finds in being seen as famous.

Of course, we don't know exactly what Hoover is thinking in this moment, and its this type of mystery which extends all the way through J. Edgar. The film, while it explores the secret life of the man who was the head of the F.B.I for nearly fifty years, doesn't really try to explain the man. I think it's possible that director Clint Eastwood, who himself grew up when Hoover was in power, is still struggling to figure out the man who arguably held more power than the eight presidents he served under.

The film shifts back and forth from Hoover's younger years in the 1920s and 30s, when he first became head of the Bureau of Investigation, which eventually became what we know as the F.B.I., his relationship with his right hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)-and Hoover as an old man, dictating his biography. I liked this approach for several reasons. One is that it allows you to get used to the old age makeup on DiCaprio and Hammer. The make up has been harshly criticized but I for one was able to settle in to it as the film progressed. I also like how the film's structure gives equal emphasis to both young and old Hoover instead of showhorning older Hoover in to the last few minutes of the film. Another nice structural element is the juxaposition of certain scenes and moments that connect the past and the present. For example, an older Hoover and Tolson get in a elevator and then we cut to the younger Hoover and Tolson getting out of an elevator; we see Hoover on a "date" with secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) where he asks her to marry her but eventually has to settle for her as his secretary- we then cut to a scene older Hoover and Gandy, and just by juxapositing these two scenes, we get a sense of a long history between these two.

Dustin Lance Black's script (he also won an Oscar for writing another biopic, Milk), as well as the film itself, is surprisingly sympathetic towards Hoover, which has angered at least one critic. The film is less interested in demonizing Hoover than exploring Hoover's inner demons. A major focus of the film is the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, whom many believe was a romantic one. While these claims are still speculative, the film shows Hoover as a man, who despite loving Tolson, cannot be himself because of the era he lived in, his mother's statement that she rather have "a dead son than a daffodil," and his committment to his work above all else. In it's own way, J. Edgar is Brokeback Mountain with cops; but I don't mean to trivialize the film with that joke because J. Edgar gains its emotional resonance, its heart, from the relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Christy Lemire mentions the looks DiCaprio and Hammer share for just a little too long, and its moments like these, as well as Tolson's condition that he joins Hoover as his right hand man, they never skip a meal, which communicate deep yearning for human companionship within both men.

DiCaprio may be the most unglamorous movie star we have in that he specializes in really haunted individuals who aren't always clearly the protagionists of the film. While DiCaprio doesn't look like Hoover, as portrayed in this film, he's an almost perfect fit for DiCaprio. There's always seems to be a certain "DiCaprioness" which comes through in DiCaprio's performances, not that's he's playing himself but more a larger than life version of himself. I think this is what turns some people off of his performances, and certainly it takes a little while to settle in to DiCaprio's performance; but once you do, and I think the old age scenes help, DiCaprio once again provides a really live wire performance. His mid atlantic accent, while distracting at first, gives Hoover an old fashioned feel. It's also been noted, and is shown in the film, that Hoover had a stammer and the accent's rigidness was a result of combating the stammer.

Hammer played the Winklevoss twins in David Fincher's The Social Network; the twins were symbols of American manliness and entitlement but here Hammer gives a much softer and sympathetic performance as Tolson. Hammer gives Tolson an open face, not afraid to show his character's vulnerability, but he also shows Tolson's efficency of character as well as his intelligence and I found him very convincing as a man Hoover could fall in love with.

Unfortunately, Naomi Watts doesn't get as strong a character arc as DiCaprio and Hammer but she's very effective nonetheless in capturing Gandy's loyalty and precision as Hoover's secretary. Judi Dench, who plays Annie Hoover, Hoover's mother is chilling in the aforementioned scene when she tells Hoover about a boy who was killed because he was found out to be gay and that she'd rather her son be dead than gay.

I thought Jeffrey Donovan's accent, playing Robert Kennedy, was distracting so it was to completely get in to his scenes with Hoover.

I think the main problem with J. Edgar is that it tries to focus on too much but not enough. Much of the focus regarding Hoover's career involves the kidnapping of the Linburgh baby, which led to kidnapping becoming a federal crime. This section of the film has great detail and is an important part of Hoover's career but I wish we had seen more of Hoover's career, particularly regarding gangsters like John Dillinger. I also feel, and this comes back to the sympathy issue, that the film doesn't delve deep enough in to Hoover's darker characteristics. We see him blackmail Robert Kennedy with information about his brother's affairs, as well as listen to a bedroom liason between Martin Luther King and a woman, but I think the film needed to show more of Hoover's tyranny over his office. DiCaprio has played morally ambiguous characters before but I feel showing Hoover as a tyrant would have allowed DiCaprio to be darker than ever before. I think with this film, you have to take it less as a completely literal biopic of Hoover than one interpretation or angle on him. If taken that way, J. Edgar provides an interesting cipher of a man and in DiCaprio's performance, still one of the most interesting movie stars of our times.     

Friday, 11 November 2011

A Scream Within a Dream: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

Warning:  Some Spoilers Follow

If Psycho made you afraid to have a shower and Jaws made you afraid to go in the water, then A Nightmare on Elm Street made you afraid to go to sleep at night. In the film teenagers are killed in their dreams by a mysterious man with knives on his fingers and a burnt face. All three films take something relatable and relaxing and turn it in to something nightmarish, the former two films offer some kind of escape: don't take a shower and don't go swimming; but A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't offer that kind of escape. You can't stay awake forever. Writer/director Wes Craven's concept for the film is ingenious in this respect, and genuinely scary. It's the ultimate boogeyman story and while it's hard to view the film without thinking of its legacy, the sequels, spinoffs, and remake, the film still stands as an inventive and engaging horror film, and one of the best of its era.

The man in these teenagers' dreams is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a child murderer who was killed parents within the community after Krueger wasn't able to be convicted of his crimes. Now Krueger is back to kill the children of the parents who murdered him. What's interesting about this backstory is how it's not revealed until later in the film. While knowing this backstory before watching the film, I still admired how Craven keeps this backstory close to his chest, revealing it just when things have reached the boiling point. I also liked how sparse Kreuger's backstory is. The psychiatrist from Psycho is no where to be found here. Craven isn't interested in psychoanalzying Krueger but in making him a symbolic figure. Krueger is an interesting blend of the symbolic and the literal. Krueger is literally killing these teenagers but he's also symbolic of what a nightmare is; I think this combination of symbolism and literalism is what makes Krueger so timeless.

What I found interesting about this film, considering the legacy of the series, is that much of the focus of the film is on the character of Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp). It takes some time to get a good look at Freddy. When we do it's when Tina's (Amanda Wyss) death scene. After that scene, we don't see much of Freddy aside from his glove in Nancy's bathtub or his hat when Nancy is able to bring it out of the dream world. It's quite effective not always seeing Freddy. It enhances the symbolic nature of his character and allows the film to be about the Nancy character as she loses her innocence and has to face her mother's past. I think after this film Freddy was featured more prominently in the sequels. I also think he became more of a jokester. In this film, he's more serious despite taking pleasure in killing.

Langenkamp gives a fine performance as Nancy, effectively going from a innocent teenager to an angry and sleep deprived fighter. It's fun to see Johnny Depp in his first film role as Nancy's boyfriend Glenn. He gets one of the most famous deaths in the series when he's eaten by his own bed.

It may sound odd but A Nightmare on Elm Street reminded a little of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Hear me out. In that film, the dream worlds the characters entered were very rooted in the real world. In A Nightmare on Elm Street the dreams, despite Freddy's presence and some haunting imagery, resemble the characters' waking life. This creates suspense as to whether someone is dreaming or not and makes familar places very threatening.

A Nightmare on Elm Street has some wonky logic which doesn't always explain itself; but like a dream, a nightmare, we're just along for the ride. In this case, it's a very thrilling one.

Friday, 4 November 2011

J. Edgar: Reviews and Oscar Chances

I wrote a little bit about Clint Eastwood's new film J. Edgar back in August when I discussed potential Oscar contenders. Last night J. Edgar premiered at the AFI Fest and reviews for the film are coming in. They're slightly mixed, with much of the praise going towards Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in the title role of the infamous head of the F.B.I for nearly fifty years, J. Edgar Hoover. Todd McCarthy, who gave the film a good review, says of DiCaprio's performance that's it's a "It's a vigorous, capable performance, one that carries the film and breathes new life into the old tradition of plain real folk achieving retroactive allure by being played by attractive stars."

Peter Debruge, who finds Eastwood's tackling of Hoover's supposed homosexuality too tasteful, nevertheless praises

DiCaprio's remarkable ability to play the character at any point along that timeline. Aided by a convincing combination of facial appliances, makeup and wigs, the thesp draws auds past that gimmick and into the character within a matter of a few scenes.

I'm glad DiCaprio is getting notices for his work here. Last year DiCaprio gave two strong performances in Shutter Island and Inception; unfortunately he wasn't nominated for either performance. As I wrote back in August, I think he has a good chance of being nominated for Best Actor, particularly now with the good reviews. I'm wondering though if the mostly muted praise for the film has hurt its bigger Oscar chances like Best Picture or Best Director. Of course even when a film isn't the hugest critical hit (The Reader), it can still make the cut. I also think it's the kind of movie the academy likes, a biopic with an A-list pedigree. Ultimately, while I'm not certain it'll be the front runner for Best Picture, I think it'll be in the race.  

Some Thoughts on Bond 23: "Skyfall"

At the press conference for the 23rd James Bond film, producer Michael G. Wilson jokingly called it the "worst kept secret in London." He was referring to the title of the film, Skyfall, a title which was leaked as a rumoured title a few weeks ago.

I'm a big Bond fan and whatever the title, without getting too hyperbolic, I think this film will prove to be a great Bond film, maybe one of the best, and dare I say it, maybe better than my favourite Bond film, Casino Royale. The cast definitely intrigues me. Javier Bardem will play the villain and as Bardem hinted at the press conference, "Who told you a villain is a bad person," which suggests a more morally complex villain than the last two Bond villains, Le Chiffre and Dominic Greene. Ralph Fiennes also stars in a role that director Sam Mendes can't say anything about. This supposedly has to do with Bond fans recognizing the name. Will Fiennes play Blofeld, as many are speculating. I could definitely see Fiennes rocking the bald head and stroking a white cat, though the whole cat thing would probably come across as self parody.

Ben Whishaw also plays a role Mendes couldn't talk about. There's been speculation he could play Major Boothroyd a.k.a "Q." I could see them bringing back Q as a young man instead of the older man we've come to love throughout most of the series, Desmond Llewelyn. While the franchise shouldn't become to gadgety all of a sudden, it'd be great to see Q back, particularly if, aside from being younger, they give a different spin on the character; maybe make him more admiring of Bond than Llewelyn or John Cleese's Q was.

Naomie Harris was rumoured to play Moneypenny but seems now to be playing a field agent named Eve. People are wondering if Eve could be Moneypenny's real name in this film. I always though it'd be interesting to involve Moneypenny in the plot of the film but so far this character doesn't sound like Moneypenny.

Judi Dench's M seems to be front and center in the film. The plot description says   "Bond's loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost." People have noted the comparison between this plot synopsis and The World is Not Enough, which was the last time M, also played by Judi Dench has a more significent role. That was one of the interesting aspects of one of the more humane Bond films of the last decade. I think if this is Dench's last outing as M, it'll be great for her to go out on an emotional and complex note. Could it also pave the way for recently cast Albert Finney to be M?

Berenice Marolhe, French actress and model, is playing Severin, the new Bond girl. Severin is described as "glamorous and enigmatic." Hopefully after Eva Green's Vesper and Olga Kurylenko's Camille, the filmmakers will continue making Bond girls who are Bond's equal as well as interesting characters who aren't just there for Bond to sleep with. All we need to do is wait a few years and Emma Stone will be reading to take the mantel!

I'm in the minority in thinking Quantum of Solace is one of the more underrated entries in the series but as solid as that film was, I think Skyfall may be the sequel to Casino Royale people really want. Ironically, according to Mendes, this film will be a self-contained adventure, without references to Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace. This makes sense since the last two films were about establishing how Bond became Bond, so to speak. In this film he can just be Bond...James Bond. Most Bond films have been self-contained adventures so this film will fit in with the continuity style of most of the films. Craig described the film yesterday as "Bond with a capital 'B'" which makes me excited for how the filmmakers  combine a more classical Bond film with the sensibilities that were established in Casino Royale. The idea of a Bond movie with these two sensibilities makes me feel Skyfall  could arguably be better than Casino Royale or at least reach the heights of that film. It'll have to have the emotional poignancy of that film, which is a big challege.

I feel this film will be the culmination of what started back in 2006 when Craig debuted in the role. Bond has gone from heartbroken rookie agent to the iconic character that's been on the screen for 50 years. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the very first Bond film. I like Craig as Bond, I like this cast, and I think Mendes is an appropriate director for this kind of more human based James Bond. Mendes' films deal with complex male characters and hopefully he'll get a chance to further develop Craig's Bond in this film. Mendes also said he wants to have the drama and action sequences to exist side by side instead of the action drowning the human elements of the film. Like Marc Forster, the director of Quantum of Solace, Mendes isn't primarily an action director. I didn't have a huge problem with Quantum of Solace's action  but hopefully after the criticisms that film recieved for the frantic editing of its action scenes, as well as the criticisms directed towards Christopher Nolan's action scenes, Mendes will carefully construct the action so it's clearer what is happening on screen.

James Bond returns in 2012. I think this will be a good one.   

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Things That Go Bump in the Night: "Paranormal Activity"

Paranormal Activity was made in 2007 by first time director Oren Peli, who also wrote the outline for what would happen in the film. He filmed it in his own house over a week with actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. The film centers on a couple played by Featherston and Sloat, with the same first names; Katie has been haunted by some kind of entity since she was a child and believes it has followed her to her and Micah's new house. Micah, who is much more excited than Katie is, plans to record their bedroom everynight in order to catch sight of whatever is haunting Katie. Here's something else important: Paranormal Actvity is a "found footage" film, shot with a hand held camera to make it seem as if its real footage Micah shot.

"You had to be there" may be the perfect phrase to attach to a film like Paranormal Activity. I feel there are certain films, which no matter how much you appreciate or like them, had to be experienced at a certain place in a certain time. When people were seeing this for the first time in 2007 or in 2009, when DreamWorks gave it a larger release, and had no idea what they were really in for, there was probably a sense of mystery and a "could it be..." quality to the film. When it started to become more well known and the actors started to publicity, and of course when Hollywood decided to start to make sequels every year, the mystique starts to fade, and all we're left with is just the movie. And that's probably the best way to truly judge a movie.

For me, Paranormal Activity is one of the most interesting experiments in filmmaking in some time. While it owes something to The Blair Witch Project (which I admittedly have only caught fragments of on TV), it has its own conceit, which is the static camera in Katie and Micah's room everynight, which their bed in their center of the frame, and their door to the left of the frame. It's this conceity which is probably the deal breaker for most perople. Certain hardcore horror fans may be bored, while others will genuinely be kept in suspense. For me, it worked. I loved the idea of looking in to that hallway full of darkness, not knowing what was out there and if it was possible to catch a glimpse.

While the hand held camera technique does set a certain mood that makes us feel we're in the real world, it does limit what Peli can do visually. When we think of haunted house movies, we not only think of the ghosts but of the house itself, like the Outlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining or Hill House in what I think is my favourite horror film, Robert Wise's The Haunting. While the bedroom in Paranormal Activity is certainly memorable, I couldn't help but think what Peli could have done with this house if he took a more traditional film route. I'm thinking of angles and tracking shots which could have added more creepiness to the film. Peli could still have used some hand held camera work as well as keep the static camera in the bedroom. Of course, Peli probably wanted to take a route distant from Hollywood, and I respect that. I also like when Micah investigates the hallway after disturbances in the bedroom. The way the camera swishes around made me afraid about what could come in to the frame.

It's easy to get a little frustrated when we never see the demon. You want that glimpse of something sinister after so much set up. Fortunately, the final few seconds are a great pay off. Featherston and Sloat are solid actors, convincing as a young couple slowly falling apart.

I think all effective horror movies are relatable to human psychology in some way or another. Paranormal Activity is all about fear, how people cope with it, how it becomes escapable when there is no reasonable doubt that something otherworldly is happening; it's also about how we as an audience react to these kinds of films, particularly when they're presented without any Hollywood gloss.

Paranormal Activity also relates to the feeling of being in your bed at night, hearing something going bump in the night. You tell yourself it's just your imagination. The scariest thing about Paranormal Activity is that is it it tells you it isn't just your imagination.  

Saturday, 8 October 2011

"The Adjustment Bureau" Review

Sometimes with thrillers or dramas with romantic intrigue, we tend to feel they’re tacked on. In the case of The Adjustment Bureau, in a way it’s the opposite; it’s a romance with a thriller plot, a sci-fi one at that, tacked on; except in this case, the romantic plot and the sci-fi plot complement each other quite well. The romance grounds the more other worldly aspects of the film’s universe while the sci-fi elements raise the stakes for the romance as well as make it more poignant.
The story begins with Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon), who is running for governor of New York. Just as he seems set for victory, an unbecoming photo from the night he was elected congressman gets released. As he is practicing his concession speech in a bathroom, he meets a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). Within minutes of meeting they’re already making out! The next day David meets Elise again on the bus. She gives him her number. It’s like love at first sight for David, as well as a chance for a new beginning. The kicker is there are some people who don’t want them together. They’re called the Adjustment Bureau. They’re angels of sorts who work for the “Chairman.” “You know him by other names,” one of the angels, Harry (Anthony Mackie) tells David. Their job is make sure things go according to plan, which includes David and Elise not being together.
 While David and Elise do seem to be attracted to each other almost too automatically, Damon and Blunt sell you on their relationship. They have an easy going chemistry while at the same time suggesting a deep attraction. I also liked Damon’s scenes with Mackie. Mackie, who also gave supporting turns in Half Nelson and The Hurt Locker, does a good job of suggesting someone otherworldly yet still capable of compassion. Harry is the only one in the Adjustment Bureau who genuinely wants to help David.  John Slattery from Mad Men plays Richardson, another member of the Adjustment Bureau, and his understated and dry humour works for the cold and distance character he plays.
 I like how it’s not revealed right away why these two people cannot be together. Unfortunately, when we get a little more insight in to the reason why, it’s a little too abstract, not rooted enough in anything definitive. I would have liked George Nolfi, the writer and director of the film, to have kept the reason abstract or, as one IMDber suggested, devised a really dynamic twist and kept it as a trump card for near the end. Ultimately, the film isn’t about the reason behind why David and Elise can’t be together so much as it about them being drawn together by faith, an ironic contrast to what the Adjustment Bureau are trying to do.
I think The Adjustment Bureau’s biggest fault comes with its ending. It’s a decent ending but it seems to come to easy and diminishes the ominousness of the Adjustment Bureau. It reminded me of the episode of The Simpsons where George H. Bush has to apologize to Homer for spanking Bart, thus eliminating his power.   
The Adjustment Bureau calls attention to how much we take free will for granted and asks how far we’d go to actually fight for it if we realized how fragile it was. I wished the film dug a little deeper in to its religious undertones because I feel the thematic heart of the film lies with questions of God and how much control a God would have over our lives. Despite a few things I didn’t find as strong about The Adjustment Bureau, this is still a refreshingly original romantic thriller. I feel it genuinely makes us think about our notions of free will, how much we actually, have, and most importantly, how we use it.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

On Christopher Nolan, Condescension, Shallowness, and Jim Emerson

I once told a girl my favourite director was Alfred Hitchcock. I remember her telling me that she thought his films "were clever, but..." That "but" of course signified the emptiness she probably sound in Hitchcock's work. This relates to a problem I have with some film criticism today, which is the tendenacy for some critics to act with condescension towards films and filmmakers that are clever in how they are plotted. We accept that films can be multiple things at a time. We can accept a film as funny and dramatic, epic and intimate, romantic and funny, but it seems that cleverness and thematic depth or resonance are mutually exclusive for some people. I think Hitchcock, despite his status as a great filmmaker, still faces this problem. I also feel another, contemporary, filmmaker suffers from this kind of condescension: Christopher Nolan.

Nolan of course is the director of Memento, the last two Batman films, and most recently Inception. He's a director who has achieved both commercial as well as critical success, even being compared to Stanley Kubrick. This type of success almost always leads to some kind of backlash for filmmakers, and unfortunately it has happened to Nolan. I think the backlash started some time after The Dark Knight opened in the summer 2008. The Dark Knight was the sequel to Nolan's first Batman film Batman Begins, and while Batman Begins was well recieved, the hype for The Dark Knight was extraordinary, particularly due to the excitement over Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, a role which would turn out to be the actor's final complete performance. I was swept up in the hype and definitelty taken in by The Dark Knight's immersive Gotham landscape as well as haunting ending.

Jim Emerson on the other hand, who is the editor of and runner of the blog scanners, was not taken in by The Dark Knight, and in the months following The Dark Knight's release, wrote numerous blog entries on the film. Many of them were critical of the film, particularly its formal aspects. Emerson is a die hard formalist. As a filmmaker, the way to his heart is to make each shot, perfect, and make the shots last long. Emerson criticized the way Nolan shot the bus escape at the end of the bank heist which opens the film, dedicating quite a few posts to the topic.

I feel I'm digressing a little bit. While I have some issues with Emerson's formalist critisms of Nolan's work, I think my main problem with Emerson's criticisms of Nolan is his condescension towards Nolan. My god, the condescension. The Dark Knight hasn't been the only Nolan film Emerson has targeted. Inception has also gone under Emerson's microscope. Emerson has been critical of that film's literal mindedness in terms of how Nolan presents the dream worlds. In his first post on the film, Inception: Has Christopher Nolan Forgotten to Dream? he concluded with this statement:

"Nolan makes crafty little puzzle boxes (and sometimes big ones), but they never quite get beyond merely clever. Like "Sleuth" or "The Usual Suspects," they're not about characters or emotions or ideas or human experience at all; they're just self-contained gadgets, amusing but mechanical."

This statement reeks of condescension. I know, I know, I use that word too much, but its central to this entire post, so bare with me. I think its okay for Emerson not to connect to Inception, or any of Nolan's films, and he could have said that, but what Emerson does here is basically look at a man's work and say there's hardly any worth to it. Now, to be fair, Emerson has said he enjoyed Memento and Following,  and even elements of The Dark Knight, but I don't think that's strong enough of a defence when you begin saying things like this. I mean, it's a little insulting and even lazy to say there's absolutely, no ideas, no characters, emotions, or ideas in any of Nolan's work. It generalizes Nolan as a fillmaker and I think that goes against what film criticism should. More on this later.

I want to look at some of Emerson's word choices. First, "mechanical." This is one of Emerson's buzz words that he's used often when describing certain kinds of films. I believe what he means by mechanical refers to the feeling he gets when a movie is driven too much by plot mechanics, and not enough by human emotion. It's think its interesting that Emerson's favourite film of the last decade was the Coen Bros's No Country For Old Men, which can be argued to be a cold and mechanical film itself, a film more concerned with formal perfection than human experience. Aren't the Josh Brolin and Woody Harrrelson characters as much chess pieces as some of the characters in Inception? How do any of the thriller elements in the film relate to what it means to be human? Critics Michael Phillips and A.O Scott, when they discussed the Coen Bros's work, actually dismissed No Country for Old Men as nothing more than a good serial killer film. Emerson, when the film was first released, wrote a post about how certain critics couldn't approach No Country For Old Men's formal elements and content as a single entity. I think Emerson's problem was that by seperating, the film's form and content, critics could praise the formal aspects of the film, without really going in to the film's deeper meanings. In another entry on the film, he says just praising the formal elements without any connection to what they represent, was meaningless.

Again, I'm digressing. I was playing devil advocate's earlier when I was talking about No County For Old Men. I do have a problem with Scott's dismissal of the film and do feel that beneath its thriller exterior, No Country For Old Men is quite a haunting film about an old man asking himself if he can confront indescriable evil. The point I want to make is that it's strange how one of Emerson's favourite films could be praised by some critics for it's plot and formal mechanics and fall under the same type of criticism he directs at Nolan's work, the "nothing more" criticism. I think Emerson probably understands the frustration of having a film or filmmaker you admire dismissed so flippantly.

Ironically, I think Emerson does with Nolan's work what he criticizes other critics for doing with No Country For Old Men, seperating Nolan's form from his content. It is true that several of Nolan's films do have a puzzle like structure but I think separating the puzzle structure from the films' deeper meanings misrepresents Nolan as a filmmaker. One has to look at the puzzle structure and see what its doing thematically or emotionally. How does the fractured narratives of Memento and the Prestige affect the way we watch the events on screen? How does their structures reflect what the films are about? One can say by moving backwards, Memento puts us in the same mindset of its amnesiac main character Leonard Shelby, not knowing how we got to a specific or why we're there. The structure of The Prestige can be argued to reflect the structure of a magic trick. One can also Nolan wants to create a more impressionistic story than a straightforward plot, though plot is alway important in Nolan's work. I see the dream-within-a-dream structure of Inception, as well as the whole film, as a reflection of how movies can be like dreams, with their shifting perspectives internal logic. Inception is also about having to go deeper in to the subconscious in order to confront one's demons, which does happen to the main character Cobb in the film.

Is there a mechanical quality to Nolan's films? Yes. But there's also a fludity to the way the narrative moves in The Prestige and there is genuine sense of epicness to Inception. To me, mechanical strikes me as more of a descriptive term than a term that's either positive or negative. Emerson certainly uses in the negative sense. For me, it depends on the mechanics. Nolan's films have plots that go in different directions so even if the mechanics can sometimes override the human elements of the films, I'm grateful Nolan is not interested in reguritating the same old plots. I believe he genuinely likes to surprise the audience and wants to them to keep us guessing.

Emerson's use of the word "self-contained" is the one that really gets me. Aren't movies by definition self-contained? Don't certain directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Hitchcock, David Lynch, and yes, the Coens, create self-contained universes in their films. How does The Big Lebowski relate to the real world? I'm sorry, now I'm picking on the Coen Bros! Certainly, Nolan's films aren't slice of life dramas; they often take place in a heightened reality and can be very maze like. This doesn't mean they can't relate to the real world. The point is to look underneath the clockwork of Nolan's films and find the actual heart at their center. When one puts aside the backwards structure Memento, it's a film about the uncertainity of memory and trying to create meaning in a life that's been disrupted. The Prestige is about the obsession that goes in to being an artist. It's a Faustian tale which only completely reveals its Faustiness near the end. Nolan's arguably most epic and personal film Inception is a story about a man letting go of the memory of his deceased wife, as well as his guilt about being responsible for her death. And The Dark Knight? Wow, arguably more than any super hero film to date, that movie is just dense with ideas about the political and soical landscape of America.

I'm not out to bas Emerson. He's an intelligent critic and I've quite a bit from him. I just feel he's been a little too harsh on Nolan. Hopefully Emerson will eventually make peace with Nolan's filmmaking as Nolan develops as a filmmaker. I think the ''nothing more" should be banned from every critic's vocabularly. As a critic, you should always be willing to enagage a work on its deeper levels. The statement from Emerson which I've quoted strikes me as contrary to how a critic tells us why a film is great, good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. Emerson just tells us there's nothing there and ends his post with that. To be fair, he has gone in to detail about what he doesn't like about Nolan's work but I still feel he's too dismissive of Nolan as a filmmaker. As I said, I hope Emerson can come around to Nolan eventually. It's unfortunate that as critics we sometimes hate the people who try to entertain and move us.              

Friday, 30 September 2011

"Drive" Review

I'm still wrestling with my feelings about Drive, or at least, I'm a little bit in suspended animation, feeling I  need to see the film again, and eager to, yet still afraid of its more violent moments. This is the first film I've seen from director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose work also includes Bronsan, starring Tom Hardy from Inception and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, and I'm always intrigued to see a film from a director I'm not familiar with.

Watching Drive, I can tell Refn is a real movie lover, and that Drive is a movie for people who love movies as well. Refin, working from a script adapted by Hossein Amini by a novel from James Sallis, creates a universe where both old school and neo-noir exist in the same breath, and where Gosling plays the archetypal "strong, silent type." Comparisons have already been made to the work of Michael Mann, director of Heat and Collateral, as well as to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Both comparisons are apt. The photography immerses the audience in the nightime L.A landscape, similar to Mann's work. Also, like Mann, it's an examination of a professional who deals in criminal activity. In this case it's the character known as Driver (Gosling), a L.A stuntman by day and getaway driver by night. He has a set of rules he follows when he's on a job:

"If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down; I don't carry a gun... I drive"

In the opening scene we see him on the phone, telling his clients the rules and it's a wonderful set up to the character. It gives us a interesting and contradictory sense of loyalty but also everyman for himself, making the prospect of these jobs very tense. We see Driver get a car from his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) as well as helping his clients getaway from their robbery. This opening robbery is effective in how it creates suspense out of a robbery we don't see happening. We just see Driver waiting, strapping a watch to the wheel, a nice detail, and chewing a tooth pick. The sequence ends with Driver leaving the robbers in a garage while he disappears in to the streets. It's all a very economic and exciting way to establish the character's universe, or at least his nightime universe.

The Taxi Driver comparison is also appropriate, particularly when we see the opening title sequence with Driver travelling the L.A streets. Driver is also like Travis Bickle in that he lives a life of loneliness, without many human connections, aside from Shannon. This changes when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), his neighbour in his apartment. Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in jail and they have a son named Benicio. Driver begins to connect with Irene and Benicio, and the three of them become a family of sorts. There's a nice sequence when Driver takes Irene and Benicio on a drive through the LA river, with the song "A Real Human Being" playing in the background. It's very sweet and captures, simply in visual terms, the blossoming affection between the two, the sense of companionship each desires.

Standard is eventually released from prison and needs Driver's help in paying back someone from prison. This is where the who-know-what hits the fan, if you know what I mean. In it's last half hour or so, Drive becomes a very violent film. The violent, gruesome in itself, is even more jarring because much of the movie had been very reserved and without much violence. I think this was Refn and Amini's intent, create a slow burn of a film, only to shift tone so fast we feel we're going in the wrong direction on the highway. I started to not like the film as much when it became this violent. I've seen plently of violent films but I just can't but feel Drive could have focused more on Driver's intelligence in the last act, showing him play the villains off of one another. While some have criticized Drive for being too slow,  I feel the last act of Drive seems to go by too fast. This is where the film needed the most time to breath in its lead up to the final confrontation between Driver and gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks).

The role of Driver requires Gosling to just hold the screen without talking, which is a hard thing for any actor, even a very good one, to do. Gosling is able to pull this feat off, making us interested in who this guy is and what his backstory is. As in many film noirs, the main character is in a way fully formed by the time he enters the film. Driver is the same way, even if he does go through development via his relationship with Irene. I think it's hard for Mulligan to not be sweet, which makes her perfect for Irene. We believe Driver would risk everything to protect her. I like Gosling's take that Driver has seen too many movies, believing he is a character in a movie. This opens the door to intriguing psychological readings of the character. It also makes Driver's actions in the final act even more disturbing. It also suits the style of the film, which is embedded in films of the past. The film can't escape it's own universe and neither can Driver.

I love A.O Scott's appreciation of Albert Brooks' performance in the film:

In his self-authored comic roles, Mr. Brooks often exudes a passive-aggressive hostility, a latent capacity for violence held in check by neurosis and cowardice. He lets you assume the same in “Drive” until the moment he stabs someone in the eye with a fork. It’s a shocking and oddly glorious moment — something a lot of us, without quite knowing it or being able to explain just why, have been waiting 30 years to see.

While Brooks does committ some pretty violent acts late in the film, what makes the performance is the way, as Scott suggests, Brooks uses his ability to hold back, suggesting the ability for brutality just under the surface.

Despite my mixed feelings about the final act, I still think Drive is good film. Its deliberately artful direction, slow pace, and fine performances, suck you in to its visual texture, wanting to explore what's in the frame and in its silences. Like numerous film noirs, It's a film ultimately about enevitability. The hero cannot escape the violence of his existence and he must leave romance in his rear view mirror.     


Friday, 19 August 2011

"Planet of the Apes" Review

Warning- Spoilers Ahead

It's always interesting reviewing a film like Planet of the Apes, a film which has extended beyond a singular film in to a pop culture staple as well as an on going franchise, with  Rise of the Planet of the Apes recently being released. You have to be able to step back and review the film as it stands, while at the same time acknowledging its iconic status and its place in film history. Planet of the Apes also a contradictory film; it's at once dated yet completely relevant to society, its star performance can be very hammy yet makes the film work, it's stagey while still havinng iconic imagery, and its overt in its social commentary yet still not preachy.

The film, based on a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, and which became an Oscar winning film by David Lean, deals with three astronauts, George Taylor (Charlton Heston), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Landon (Robert Gunner), who after time spent in hypersleep land on a mysterious planet ruled by apes who imprison humans. Dodge is killed and Landon and Taylor are captured. Taylor is shot in the throat and cannot speak, making him blend in with the other humans, who by nature cannot talk. I like how the film builds tension by having the audience know Taylor can talk but the apes not knowing. It gets the audience involved by really wanting Taylor to talk and show he's intelligent. Doctor Zira (Kim Hunter) believes he is intelligent and when he writes on a notepad "My name is Taylor," it makes Zira bring Taylor to the attention of her fiance Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), who has made expeditions to the "Forbidden Zone", where Taylor and crew crashed, and which we will later learn holds the secrets to the planet's past. Cornelius is skeptical that Taylor was able to survive in the Forbidden Zone and. the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) wants to give Taylor an labotomy because he is afraid of Taylor's intelligence. When Taylor regains his speech, a trial takes place where Zaius tries to prove Taylor is some kind of mutant created by Zira. Ultimately it all leads to the Forbidden Zone where the real orgins of the planet of the apes is revealed.

Planet of the Apes can sometimes be a stagey film, particularly since quite a bit of the film takes place in cages or in a court room. Nevertheless director Franklin J. Schaffner does bring a cinematic quality to the proceedings. The hunt sequence, which introduces us to the bizarre world that is the planet of the apes, is still frightening and intense after all these years. It also gains effectiveness by being preceeded by a buildup where the three astronauts try to find some form of life. Without the title Planet of the Apes, we wouldn't know what was going to happen until we saw the apes. Even so, the buildup to the apes makes their eventual appearance more exciting. Taylor's attempted escape from the ape compound is also well executed and suspenseful, particularly when it captures the dizzying effect of being surrounded by apes.

Heston can be very hammy here, particulary with lines like "Take you stinking paws off me, you damn drty ape" and "You tore out his brain you bloody baboon" but there's something about Heston's performance which makes the film more fun to watch and suits the insanity of the world Taylor has found himself in. If any one line encapsulates this film its Taylor's "It's a Madhouse! A madhouse!" McDowall and Hunter are really good as the most compassionate apes Taylor meets. Evans conveys Zaius' fear of what Taylor represents as well as the power Zaius himself represents.

The reason why the film holds up, apart from its famous twist ending, is that The Planet of the Apes provides intriguing social commentary which is still relevant today. Watching the film again recently I picked up on the how the film comments on faith and religion. Taylor is proposed to be the missing link in an evolutionary chain, which is decried as scientific haresy by Zaius and the other orangutans. Science is allowed in this world but not if it implies something came before apes. Taylor calls the planet of the apes an "upside down civilization," and certainly film turns our society upside down. The apes treat the humans the way we treat apes, as less intelligent beings. We're the ones being hunted and being put in cages. As an audience, seeing ourselves in cages shows us cruel we as humans can be when we don't allow certain animals to be free.

Arguably the most important comment the film makes has to do with the character of Taylor. Throughtout the early part of the film we learn Taylor has given up on mankind.When he is narrating a message to Earth on the ship at the beginning he asks whether men still fight wars. He asks this because by Earth time its over a hundred years since the ship left Earth, even though the ship time is only a few months. On the planet he tells Landon he went on this mission because there was nothing keeping him on Earth and that he feels there must be something out there better than man. One gathers he's a bit of a misanthrope. I would argue he never finds something better than man because the apes are just as bad as men. He does seem to discover an appreciation, however, for mankind. When a talking human doll is found in the Forbidden Zone he tells Zaius something was here before the apes, and it was better than apes. Moreover, at the end of the film he discovers the top of the statue of liberty on the beach. He has been home all along and never did get away from Earth. He is devastated because he truly realizes all he has known is gone, and not for the better.

Taylor's arc, his eventual realization he is home, is very Twilight Zone-esque, which is appropriate considering Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling shares screenwriting credit with Michael Wilson and reportedly came up with the twist ending.  I don't know how much of the script is Wilson's and how much is Serling's, aside from the ending, but the film never feels like it has two writers, the script works as a whole.

The original novel, which I read a number of years ago, actually had a different ending. The planet of the apes was not earth in the novel but when the astronaut Ulysse gets back to Earth he realizes it has been taken over by apes. This ending is similar to Tim Burton's 2001 reimagining of the series, which ended with Mark Wahlberg's character Leo Davidson landing in Washington only to find Abraham Lincolin's statue with the face of Tim Roth's General Thade. I think I prefer the film's ending, which pulls together the social commentary of the film and making a grand statement about our ability to destroy one another.

Planet of the Apes was followed by four sequels and they took the franchise in to fascinating directions, such as mutant humans underground who worship a doomsday device, Zira and Cornelius time travelling to Earth's past and their son Caesar becoming the leader of an ape revolutionary; but I think this film, with its simplicity yet penertrating social commentary, memorable performances, and of course its ending, which makes it the definitive journey to the planet of the apes.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the latest film in the long running franchise which began in 1968's Planet of the Apes, with Charlton Heston demanding "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape" and realizing he was on Earth all along. The original film, with its concept of an upside down civilization where apes rule over men, as well as its twist ending, concocted by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, has become such a huge part of our pop culture, it's sometimes hard to step back from it and analyze its subtext or to understand how this upside down civilization began, as Heston's character asks in the original film.

Director Rupert Wyatt's new film is an attempt to step back and do these very things. It's an origin story in the most minimalist of ways, hinting at the origins of the planet of the apes rather than having the apes take over the planet completely in one film. The film centers on scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), a San Francisco scientist who is trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's (his father suffers from the disease) by testing a retrovirus on chimpanzees. When one chimpanzee goes on a rampage and is killed, Will's boss Steven Jacobs orders the other chimpanzees to be put down. Will discovers the chimpanzee who was killed had become angry because she thought her baby was being threatened. The baby is taken home by Will and Will realizes the baby has inherited his mother's unique intelligence.

I liked seeing Caesar, as he is named, evolve over time. The film is an origin story and I think the film has a good understanding of what entails an origin story, particularly one which is supposed to lead to an already established universe. An origin story is really about evolution, leading to characterization of people and universes which remind viewers of established universes they know before watching the film. Moreover, Rise of the Planet of the Apes effectively uses Caesar's origin story to serve the larger origin of the universe of the planet of the apes. There is a supposedly long gap between this film and what we interpret as the planet of the apes and while the film doesn't bridge that gap, it uses that gap to create a chilling foreshadowing of what is to come. The apes create mayhem in San Fransico but they do not take over. The fact we see only one instance of the apes uprising against man is powerful because we know much worst is to come.

Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the title character in Jackson's follow up to the trilogy, King Kong, both with the use of motion capture, plays Caesar similarly, and he's terrific, giving a genuine performance, conveying the humanity of Caesar and his anger towards the humans who treat him terribly. Caesar is the most fascinating character in the film because of Serkis' performance as well as his evolution from a baby to a highly evolved chimpanzee, to a revolutionary. Franco gives a solid performance as Will and I liked his relationship with his father Charles (John Lithgow, also very good), though I feel the apes are the more compelling characters in the film. Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire is wasted in the role of Will's girlfriend Caroline and Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, seems destined to be typecast as weasly villains. As Dodge Landon, Felton doesn't get much of a character to play, being that Dodge is just the obligatory cruel human working at his father John's (Brian Cox) primate institute. There were a few perks to Felton's job though; he gets to say two of Heston's iconic lines. His "Get your stinking paws off me..." leads to one of the film's most epic moments.

The film truly becomes an epic of sorts when Caesar and his ape allies attack San Francisco. The action sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge shows Wyatt's ability to stage an action sequence which is both chaotic yet still easy to follow, as well as finding a half way point between the absurd and the epic. We have fun watching the apes fight the humans but at the same time we can take it seriously as a dramatic conflict. I wish there was little more development of the relationship between Will and Caesar though you do see Will come to care about Will as well as Caesar seperating himself from Will, particularly when he tells Will "Caesar is home" in the forest at the end of the film. Unfortunately, when the film ends, I was ready to see the sequel, but when a summer blockbuster based on a long running franchise can make you want to see what happend next, it must be doing something right...damn dirty filmmakers.