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.