Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Everything Is Illuminated (2005)

* * *

Director: Liev Schrieber
Starring: Elijah Wood

"Everything is illuminated in the light of the past." In Everything Is Illuminated, history is the real thing and the present is something which will become real later, when it is remembered rather than experienced. The film, the directorial debut of Liev Schriber and adapted from the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, starts as broad comedy and slowly becomes deep drama. True to the story's spirit, it's the kind of film that grows on you after the fact.

Elijah Wood stars as Jonathan Safran Foer, a young man attempting to understand himself by learning the family's history. To this end he travels to the Ukraine, where his grandfather Safran Foer narrowly escaped the Nazis with the help of a woman named Augustine, whom Jonathan hopes to track down. With the help of Alex (Eugene Hutz) and his grandfather, also named Alex (Boris Leskin), who specialize in Holocaust tours, he sets off in search of Trachimbrod, his grandfather's village.

The film begins as an ethnic comedy about people from very different worlds. Jonathan's habit of collecting things from his journey - dirt, food from his plate, a grasshopper - perplexes Alex and his grandfather, and his insistence that he doesn't eat meat is cause for great concern. For his part, Jonathan is baffled by the grandfather who, despite being the driver on this tour, insists that he's blind and has to take his "seeing eye bitch" Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. everywhere; and he's amused by Alex, who seems to have learned English without ever having heard it spoken and whose speech is always just a little bit off. "Many girls want to be carnal with me because I'm such a premium dancer," he explains.

As the trio gets closer to Trachimbrod - or what was once Trachimbrod - the tone begins to shift. Jonathan mentions that the Ukraine was not a pleasant place for Jews in the years leading up to the war, which confuses Alex and sends his grandfather, who seems very familiar with the countryside, into a deep silence. As they get closer to the answers Jonathan is seeking, Alex realizes that he, too, is missing pieces of his family history and has to fill in the blanks before he can truly understand himself.

Schrieber, who also adapted the screenplay, handles the shift in tone and incorporates the subsequent flashback sequences well, providing the film with a nice sense of flow so that nothing seems abrupt or out of place. He has an eye for composing shots - the scene in which the remains of Trachimbrod are found is particularly spectacular in this respect - and puts it to good use, creating a film that is often visually stunning. At the same time, however, he doesn't let visual style intrude too much on the narrative itself and many of the most moving and memorable moments involve the characters just talking as Schrieber films them in a simple, unintrusive way.

If the film has a weakness, I suppose it's that its two main characters - Jonathan and Alex - aren't allowed much depth. Jonathan is little more than his collection of items, a curious bystander trying to construct a narrative out of all the bits of information he can get. Alex is practically a cartoon, a young man firmly entrenched in American breakdance culture, whose purpose is to say things that are funny because his English is just slightly to the left of being correct. The characters who run deeper are the grandfather and Lista (Laryssa Lauret), a woman who holds the secrets of Trachimbrod. But, maybe that's the point. The grandfather and Lista are people who are "real" because they have histories; Jonathan and Alex are people just starting the process of creating their histories. They can't really exist in a meaningful way until there is enough past behind them to buoy the present. I'm willing to give Everything Is Illuminated the benefit of the doubt on that score because there's just so much in the film that makes it worth recommending. It's a wonderful debut from Schrieber, who will hopefully find his way behind the camera again sometime in the future.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Great Last Scenes: Once Upon A Time In The West

Year: 1968
Director: Sergio Leone
Great Because...: It so perfectly empitomizes the theme of the Wild West being tamed and civilized and making those tough, nomadic gun for hire types obsolete. It's a theme explored in a lot of Westerns made in the 60s and 70s, when the genre itself was starting to die off, and the way that this particular story handles it is really well done.

So, a little background in case you're unfamiliar with the plot: Following the slaughter of her husband and his children, newly wed Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) comes into possession of a tract of land that has the potential to make her very wealthy if a station can be built there by the time train tracks are laid across it. A ruthless outlaw named Frank (Henry Fonda) has been hired first to kill the McBains and then to intimidate Jill into giving up the land. A wrench is thrown into his plans by the arrivals of Cheyenne (Jason Robbards), who he's framed for the murders, and Harmonica (Charles Bronson), a mysterious drifter who seems to have it out for him.

By the film's end, Jill has maintained ownership of the land and construction has started on the station. Cheyenne's a free man and all that's left is for the final showdown between Frank and Harmonica, wherein we learn what exactly occured between them in the past to inspire Harmonica's relentless pursuit. In most movies, this showdown would be the big thing, the event that caps off the film, but not so with Once Upon A Time In The West. The score is settled (pretty awesomely, I might add) and then the film moves on to its real finale, an elegiac ending which contains the film's true raise d'etre.

Cheyenne and Harmonica say their goodbyes to Jill and ride off together, with Cheyenne dying shortly thereafter. The camera moves from a shot of Harmonica riding off with Cheyenne's body to Jill in the distance, bringing water to the men laying the tracks. If the western as a genre is built on ideas of the endless frontier and men demonstrating their mettle without the restrictions imposed by government and law, then the arrival of the train tracks is the death knell. With the trains will come society, and the ease of access to lands that only the toughest of the tough could brave before. When the civilizing forces move in, it means that there's no longer room for men like Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica. They will either die or find themselves pushed further out to the receding fringes of what remains of the frontier. Harmonica is alive at the film's end, but he lives as an obsolete man in a swiftly changing world, a world that now belongs to the settlers, to people like Jill.

This is a nostalgic ending that recognizes not only the transition from the Wild West to the tamed/settled west, but also recognizes the cultural shift taking place in terms of cinematic tastes. By the time of Once Upon A Time In The West's release in 1968, the heyday of the western as a genre is past and the genre itself is on the verge of fading away. Westerns continue to be made into the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, but forays into the genre become increasingly fewer and further between and move further and further away from the traditional tropes that marked it. There is a sense in which this film, and others like it, are saying goodbye not just to the way of life they're depicting, but to a way of making films as well. Few films bring that feeling home as succinctly as this one in its beautiful final minutes.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: Amelie (2001)

* * * *

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou

Like a ray of sunshine Amelie descends to illuminate the cinematic world with its story of a good woman who wants nothing more than to make other people happy. One of those rare films to become a crossover success during its initial theatrical release, it has not lost an ounce of its charm in the years since. With the help of its star marking performance from Audrey Tautou, it remains an engaging and lovely film experience.

Tautou stars as Amelie, a kind hearted waitress at a cafe whose isolated childhood has left her shy and afraid of forging the human connections which nevertheless fascinate her. One day by chance she finds a box hidden behind a brick in her apartment. It contains the treasures of someone’s long ago childhood and she becomes determined to find its owner and return his belongings to him. With a bit of amateur detective work she locates the man who was once the boy who hid his possessions and contrives a way to return them to him anonymously. She wants nothing from the experience – not even thanks – except the joy of knowing that she has made someone happy and afterwards decides to devote herself to helping people.

Her next mission, and the film’s major narrative preoccupation, is the return of a book of photographs to a man who collects the discarded pictures outside of photo booths. The man, Nino (Matthieu Kassovitz), is quite a lot like her, introverted and fixated on his solitary hobby, though perhaps not quite as afraid of intimacy. She quickly comes to like him but a life that has been mostly devoid of any real affection has left her afraid of getting close to anyone and so instead of really pursuing him, she puts her mind to fixing one co-worker up with the ex-boyfriend, and current stalker, of another. This works out well, at first, but the relationship she’s manipulated soon sours and her own romantic destiny can’t be deferred any longer. Her chance for happiness is right in front of her, she has to grab it or risk missing out on it forever.

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the story of Amelie is told in a jaunty, joyous way that makes it easy to engage with. It is earnest but edged with enough cheek that it doesn’t seem naively upbeat, which is one of the things that has helped to preserve it over the years. There are elements to the story that could easily turn it into a much darker film – Amelie’s difficult relationship with her parents, for example, which has accustomed her to living in a bubble and rendered her unable to connect with other people in any meaningful way – but these aspects are used as shading for the comedy rather than dwelled on for their inherent drama. This works because Amelie is such an positive character and doesn’t really seem to consider herself as a person participating in the world as much as an observer who develops the ability to gently guide the lives of others. She doesn’t register the minor tragedies of her life or, at least, she doesn’t register them in a conscious way and because we see the story through her eyes, the sadness of it seems less significant than the joy.

Tautou’s performance as Amelie made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic and it remains absolutely winning nearly a decade later. She manages to make Amelie a person of simple pleasures without ever making her seem stupid or naive, and she hints at Amelie’s deeper anxieties without allowing them to overshadow the character. She is also completely and utterly charming – if you can watch this movie and not just adore her as Amelie, then you are a far stronger person than I. She makes it look effortless but the truth is that she carries this movie on her shoulders with a rarely seen grace. It is a pitch perfect performance in a movie that is itself pretty damn perfect.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Directors No Longer Working

#5: Orson Welles

Welles was a definite visionary with a keen eye for creating memorable shots. He created a couple of masterpieces, some good but flawed films, and some not so good films, but even the films that don't really work are still interesting from a construction standpoint. He was a master filmmaker and a true auteur.

#4: F.W. Murnau

Murnau's films, particularly Sunrise and Nosferatu, are the ones that really sparked my interest in silent films. He was a graceful filmmaker who told stories in such a visually powerful way that you don't even notice that there's no sound.

#3: Federico Fellini

How do I love Fellini? Let me count the ways: La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria, La Strada, 8 1/2, the list goes on and on. A one of a kind filmmaker for whom a word ("Felliniesque") had to be invented in order to properly describe his work.

#2: Billy Wilder

Is there anything Billy Wilder couldn't do? Drama, comedy, noir, the man could work with just about any genre and produce a film that would become one of its defining examples. To have Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot to your credit would be enough for most filmmakers, but he's also got Sabrina, Stalag 17, Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and The Lost Weekend.

#1: Alfred Hitchcock

A true master. No one has ever known how to do suspense quite like him and his best films have more than withstood the test of time, many of them becoming part of the collective consciousness. My personal favourite is Rear Window... no, Psycho... no, North By Northwest... nevermind, I can't choose. He was the best, I tell ya!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Love and Murder (2000)

* * *

Director: George Bloomfield
Starring: Wendy Crewson

Love and Murder, the first in a series of films based on the novels of Gail Bowen, has all the makings of a good detective drama: a hero with a tortured past, a relentless need to uncover the truth and a willingness to sidestep the rules in order to do it; a grisly crime with a host of potential and plausible suspects; and a whole lot of secrets threatening to bubble up to the surface. It doesn't entirely live up to the promise of its premise, but it still makes for a fairly satisfying whodunit.

Wendy Crewson stars as Joanne Kilbourn, an ex-cop turned professor raising her three kids on her own following the still unsolved murder of her husband. She's dragged back into crime solving by the return of her old friend Sally Love (Caroline Goodall), a famous artist who has been living in New York. She's returned for a show that has been organized by her ex-husband Stuart (Rudiger Vogler) and things immediately become tense when she clashes with Stuart's latest protege Clea (Tammy Isbell) and makes it clear that she intends to pursue custody and her and Stuart's daughter. This puts her already fraught relationship with her mother, Nina (Claire Bloom), into further turmoil, as Nina has essentially been playing the role of mother to her granddaughter in Sally's absence.

When Sally finds Stuart dead from a wound to the head, she naturally becomes the prime suspect as far as the police are concerned. Joanne, of course, thinks that her friend is innocent and that Clea, who appears to have some anger issues and plenty of access to blunt objects, is the real culprit. As she investigates and Sally's behavior becomes increasingly problematic, Joanne begins to doubt the innocence of her friend and begins to recall the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sally's father's death many years earlier. As the bodies begin to pile up and the two mysteries begin to converge, Joanne discovers that the truth is much darker than she ever would have suspected.

Anyone with an interest in Canadian film will sooner or later become familiar with Crewson as an actress because she works a lot - in the last decade alone she has amassed 44 film and television credits. She's a very natural performer who seems to disappear into her roles and expresses a lot about her characters through body language and smaller gestures. These tendencies are definitely on display here in her portrayal of Joanne and her understated but very real performance is one of the things that really works in the film. There's a lot going on with this character who, in addition to still mourning the death of her husband, is also resentful of the fact that his murder has never been solved and is, in turn, met with resentment on the part of her former colleagues for having walked away from the force. She's torn between her childhood friendship with Sally and her loyalty to Nina, who has always been like a mother to her, her own mother having been an alcoholic mess. In terms of her own children, she's navigating that tricky line between protecting them and allowing them enough independence so that they can grow into self-sufficient adults. Crewson never allows the character to become overshaddowed by all the issues she has to deal with and instead gives us a very clear portrait of a smart, focused woman with a lot on her plate, juggling it all as best she can. She isn't perfect, but her imperfections are relatable.

The story itself is well constructed, playing on shifts in certain characters that keep you guessing without making you feel as if they've done a complete reversal for the sake of the plot. The flashback scenes, filmed in a glowing, dreamy way, are handled well and folded into the current day storyline in a way that feels natural. What doesn't really work are the scenes of Joanne teaching, which are interspersed throughout and used as a way to break up the story and comment on the various stages of the investigative process. It just feels too didactic and forced to be really effective. Other than that I found Love and Murder to be a pretty engaging and compelling mystery, the kind of film that's a Godsend on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Alice In Wonderland (2010)

* *

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway

Oh, man. I'd been looking forward to Alice In Wonderland for months and even after reading a few less than favourable reviews, I still held out hope. I was prepared to be a bit disappointed in Tim Burton's rendering of the classic story, but instead I find myself feeling apathetic. I've tried to start this review about a dozen times over the past couple of days but when I try to articulate my feelings about this movie all I can think is... *shrug*.

After a brief prologue in which we meet the young Alice, haunted by memories of Wonderland which she believes to be nothing more than dreams, the film flashes forward 13 years to the teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska), who is on the verge of being married off to a less than desirable (from her perspective) suitor. She flees from his proposal and, chasing after a rabbit, falls down a hole where she enters a strange new world. There she meets a wide variety of characters who are willing to acknowledge that she's an Alice but are convinced that she's not the Alice. Meanwhile, she's convinced that it's just a dream, despite all painful evidence to the contrary.

Alice's return is of interest to both the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway), who needs her to slay the Jabberwocky, and the tantrum prone Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who wants to cut off her head because cutting off heads is her favourite past time. When the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is taken prisoner by the Red Queen, Alice infiltrates the palace as Um from Umbradge in order to rescue him. While she fails at this, she does manage to get the vorpal sword, the only thing that can kill the Jabberwocky, and escape with it back to the White Queen's palace, setting the stage for the great and final battle between good and evil.

The film plays fast and loose with Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, taking elements from both stories without strictly adhering to either. The film also tries to incorporate a bit of feminism to guide its narrative arc, essentially making the story about how Alice learns to stand up for herself. This element both does and doesn't work. As nice as it is to see a film about a heroic female lead, particularly one that emphasizes the importance of her making her own choices rather than blindly following a script imposed on her by outside forces, Alice's moment of triumph at the film's end is somewhat lacking in impact because she holds a position of disadvantaged advantage in society. She's disadvantaged because she's a woman but her class and wealth make it possible for her to take a defiant stance that a woman of lesser means wouldn't be able to afford. The last scenes are less "score one for womankind" than "score one for rich women" - it's nice for Alice, but kind of empty in the greater scheme of things. Not that I expected Alice to be a political symbol, but if the film is going to play at rooting itself in certain politics, it should do so in a less shallow, more nuanced way. And I don't even want to get into the ideological implications of the war between the Red Queen and White Queen and the ways that that undercuts what the film is trying to do through Alice.

There are things about Alice In Wonderland that I liked - anything involving the Chesire Cat, Depp's melancholic Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweeldedum - but ultimately I found the film so unrelentingly dour that it was hard to enjoy. I didn't expect it to be happy and peppy (this is Tim Burton, after all) but I did think it would be a bit more, I don't know, magical. There seems to be no joy to this particular cinematic exercise which leaves the product rather hollow.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: The Man Who Laughs (1928)

* * *

Director: Paul Leni
Starring: Conrad Veidt

Pity the man who laughs because he's certainly not laughing with everyone else. Adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo and directed by the German Expressionist Paul Leni, The Man Who Laughs is a much darker and more atmospheric film than a summary of its plot would suggest. Perhaps valued most today for having been one of the influences in the creation of The Joker character from Batman, it is nevertheless an interesting film in its own right and Conrad Veidt's performance as the eponymous character is one of enormous power.

The story begins in England in 1690 when a nobleman who has offended King James II is sentenced to death by iron maiden and his son, Gwynplaine (played as an adult by Veidt), is handed over to a gypsy surgeon named Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), who carves a permanent smile into the boy's face. Abandoned when the gypsies are forced to flee England, Gwynplaine wanders the snowy landscape until he comes to the caravan of Ursus (Cesare Gravina), where he and the baby girl he's saved from freezing are taken in. Gwynplaine and the girl, eventually named Dea (Mary Philbin), are raised by Ursus, who makes money through a stage show which capitalizes on people's fascination with Gwynplaine's disfigurement. Gwynplaine's tragedy is twofold: he's mocked and scorned by everyone except Dea, who is blind and does not know about his deformity. He loves Dea but feels he can't marry her because if she could see him, she would never love him.

At the English court a battle of wills is being played out between Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) and the Duchess Josiana (Olga Vladimirovna Baklanova), who lives on the lands stolen from Gwyplaine's family. When word gets to the Queen that the rightful owner of those lands is alive in the form of the famous Man Who Laughs, she orders that he and Josiana marry so that the rightful heir might be restored and her rival humiliated. What she doesn't count on is that Josiana isn't entirely opposed to this match or that Gwynplaine will have it in him to stand up for himself.

While The Man Who Laughs suffers from a few moments of turgid melodrama surrounding the relationship between Gwynplaine and Dea, it's still a quite interesting and engaging film. It is surprisingly bold, given the time period, in terms of its depiction of female sexuality through the character of Josiana, who has a very brief nude scene at the beginning. Josiana is depicted as being very loose with her favours (with everyone except her foppish fiancee) and as having a fetishistic interest in Gwynplaine's deformity. There is a scene in which she lures him to her chamber with the intent on seducing him that subverts traditional notions of gender dominance and subserviance in a really fascinating way and works to solidify Gwyplaine's status as a victim.

The Man Who Laughs plays on the idea of "monster" as victim in a lot of ways and the success of this depends largely on Veidt. With that grotesque grin immobilizing the lower half of his face, Veidt is at a distinct disadvantage in terms of being able to express himself and yet he pulls it off brilliantly. There is a rawness to all of his emotions, almost a desperation to convey them to the people around him who largely refuse to see. His lips are smiling, but his eyes are not. The performance he renders is quite moving and conveys so much about the psychological state of the character. It's one of the best performances I've ever seen in a silent film and definitely helps raise The Man Who Laughs above the melodrama its story is always threatening to sink into.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Unsung Performances: Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for being groundbreaking and ahead of the curve but more often than not it fails to acknowledge the real game changers. Case in point: Andy Serkis' performance as Gollum/Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Sure, the effects that helped bring the character to life were much lauded, but the performance itself - written off, perhaps, as mere voice work - was ignored. The effects are amazing, but they don't create the performance/character, they supplement Serkis' work. The audience doesn't respond to Gollum merely because of the technology, but because of the vibrancy and nuance that Serkis brings to him.

The supporting actors recognized by the Oscars in 2002 were Chris Cooper, the eventual winner for Adaptation; Ed Harris for The Hours, Paul Newman for Road to Perdition, John C. Reilly for Chicago, and Christopher Walken for Catch Me If You Can. Fine actors all, but if it were up to me Harris would be swaped out in favor of Serkis.

Gollum is a character with a dual nature and a dual purpose to the story. He is at once a menacing figure who threatens to derail Frodo's efforts to destroy the ring and a figure worthy of pity who has been so corrupted by the greed the ring inspires that he has been turned into a monster. He is at once Gollum, the calculating villain driven to repossess his precious, and Smeagol, the hobbit who doesn't want to do bad but is weak in the face of his alter ego. In one scene - one of my favourites of the whole trilogy - these two halves of the character battle it out, engaging in an intense back and forth that sees the good side finally refusing to submit to the bad. Serkis so expertly conveys the personalities of these two opposing forces that you forget that you're watching one character, not two. The effects that capture the facial expressions and physical movements of Serkis are of course important in this endeavor, but it's still Serkis' performance, his energy, that is coming through to bring Gollum and Smeagol to life.

By the end of The Two Towers Gollum is not just a technological marvel, but a compelling character as well. In his twisted, emaciated frame we see the consequences of greed, the possible future for Frodo unless he can stay strong and on course. We see the shadow of what he once was, the whisper of humanity that still exists within him, fighting against the power the ring has over him and we care. We want his better nature to succeed, even though we know deep down that it will be impossible. When he's playing off of Frodo and Sam, being alternately helpful and malicious (and hilarious: "Stupid fat hobbit!"), it seems so natural that you don't even think about the fact that you can't see the actor behind the character. You don't look at Gollum and think, "wow that's some great CGI;" the performance is so engaging and engrossing that you can forget that he isn't as real as Elijah Wood and Sean Astin standing next to him.

It will probably take a long time for performances like Serkis' to really be embraced and properly recognized, though with the recent success of Avatar these kinds of performances will probably become more common in the years to come. I think that there's an understandable resistance to it on the part of actors, who likely see it as a threat to their livelihood, and it's so easy to just dismiss these performances as having been created by the effects people that you can take the actor behind the character for granted. Serkis, however, does some extraordinary work in The Two Towers and his Gollum will likely be the high water mark for this kind of performance for many years to come.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Directors Working Today

#5: Martin Scorsese

When he's on, he is on, creating some of the best films ever made. Even when he's a bit off and careens into self-indulgent territory (*cough*Gangs of New York*cough), he still makes a film worthy of discussion and debate. Even if he wasn't the director of such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, his tireless work in the field of film preservation would be enough to put him permanently in my good graces.

#4: Sidney Lumet

Some of my favourite movies of all time have been directed by Sidney Lumet. Network, 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and one of my favourite movies from 2007, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Now 86, that film may turn out to be his swan song before entering a very well deserved retirement with 5 decades of extraordinary work behind him.

#3: Pedro Almodovar

I'm not up on all of Almodovar's oeuvre just yet, having so far only seen his films from the late 90s onward, but I have yet to come across an Almodovar film I haven't liked. Penelope Cruz, an actress who has really come into her own in the last few years, is never better than when she teams up with this master filmmaker.

#2: Quentin Tarantino

He's the man. He got me hooked with Pulp Fiction and ever since then I have been one happy viewer, duly rewarded every time he makes a movie. Pulp is still my favourite, but second place is ever changing, depending on my mood. 2014 and the third installment of Kill Bill can't come soon enough.

#1: Guy Maddin

I don't use the word genius very often, but it's the only word sufficient to describe Guy Maddin. One of the most exciting and least appreciated filmmakers working today, I always eagerly anticipate seeing what he'll do next.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Canadian Film Review: The Changeling (1980)

* * *

Director: Peter Medak
Starring: George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas

Word of advice: if you're living in a house where all the fawcetts start running on their own, the piano can play itself, and a creepy old lady tells you that the house "doesn't want people," just leave. Just pack a bag and go. Don't become determined to get to the bottom of it and definitely do not break open the secret locked room. No good will come of it.

The Changeling starts as high melodrama (to wit: the hero stands on one side of a highway using the telephone booth, watching his wife and daughter play in the snow on the other side; cut to a shot of a semi barrelling down the road in one direction; cut to a car coming from the other direction starting to skid; cut to the hero, realizing what's about to happen but getting stuck in the phone booth; the wife and daughter clutch each other and scream; the semi sounds its horn... you get the idea) but quickly settles into a first rate ghost story. In it, George C. Scott plays John Russell, a composer who packs up and moves to Seattle following the death of his wife and daughter, and rents a cavernous mansion through the historical preservation society. Why does one man need all this room? Because big houses are scarier than little ones.

Strange things begin happening and when he starts asking questions, he gets the feeling that something is being covered up. He finds a hidden pad-locked door and breaks it open, giving him access to the attic which it appears was once a bedroom. There's a music box in there and when he opens it he finds that it plays the exact same melody that he himself just composed the other day. He brings in experts in the field to conduct a seance and listening to the recording of the event afterwards, hears the ghostly voice answering the medium's questions. Putting all the pieces together he discovers a horrific crime that leads back to the powerful Senator Joe Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), whose family once owned the house. Carmichael thinks he's being blackmailed, leading Russell to wonder just how much the Senator knows and just how far he's willing to go to cover it up.

The Changeling is cleverly and tightly constructed (though it must be said that the title kind of gives away a major plot twist) film that succeeds at creating a really creepy atmosphere and some genuine scares. The sight of a woman being chased through a house by an empty, old timey wheelchair should probably seem cheesy, but the film is so well made that it's actually pretty terrifying. This isn't a blood and guts kind of horror movie (though there's a little blood) or even one where something is always jumping out from behind corners. Director Peter Medak creates such an intensenly ominous mood that you're on edge even when nothing is happening.

If the film has a flaw it's in the way that Russell relates to the events happening around him. As played by Scott, he's a very commanding character and as such, whether he's being confronted by the ghostly happenings in the house or by the flesh and blood human beings who want to keep him quiet, he never acts as if he believes he's in any danger. This element of the character, while perfectly believable from the guy who played George Patton, nevertheless has the effect of undercutting the overall mood of the film. Part of the reason why scary movies are scary is because we're put in a position to relate to the protagonist and when they're scared, we're scared. If the protagonist isn't scared and acts like there's nothing to be afraid of, it works to remove us from the experience of what's happening on screen and reminds us that it's all just make believe. It's not that Scott's performance isn't good, because it is, it's just that it kind of works against everything else the film is trying to do.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: Crazy Heart (2009)

* * *

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

It's a good thing that Crazy Heart stars a beloved actor who had previously spent decades going home empty handed on Oscar night, because I can't imagine that it would have received much notice otherwise. Well, the music might have, but the film itself? The plot is so familiar that it ought to become standardized. Still, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in heart and a lot of that comes down to this year's very deserving Best Actor winner Jeff Bridges.

Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a down and out country singer/song writer who is down to his last ten bucks and suffering through a demoralizing tour that requires him to play in bowling alleys. His best days are long, long behind him but the fans who've stuck around certainly seem dedicated, smiling and basking in his presence even when he hands things off to the backup band so that he can go outside to throw up. Crazy Heart focuses on some of the excesses inherent in life on the road, but it certainly doesn't glamorize them, as a shot late in the film of Bad lying on a bathroom floor with vomit caking his beard can attest.

While playing in Santa Fe he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter to whom he grants an interview. She wants to talk to him about Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrel), his former protege, now a big star and the very last thing Bad wants to talk about; he wants to talk to her about, well, her and after he lays on a bit of charm, she decides to make him the next in the series of bad decisions that have shaped her life. They fall in love and he gets along well with her son, Buddy, who at four is the same age that Bad's son was the last time he saw him; but Bad's alcoholism undercuts the relationship at every turn. He can't get through a day without drinking, which dooms this new relationship just as it has doomed his career. If he can get a handle on it, though, he might just be able to salvage one of those things.

Bridges is one of those actors who always seems perfectly at ease and natural in his roles. He's not a someone who builds a performance around a Big Actor Moment, but rather builds it out of a series of smaller, subtler moments. One of the best scenes in the film is when Bad makes a phone call to his son, who reacts with understandable distrust and hostility. Bad tries to have a friendly conversation with him, suggesting that they might get to know each other, proceeding with a kind of naive optimism that demonstrates that even though he's been living hard, he's not a hard person. There's a quiet desperation to the way that Bridges plays the scene; a sense of sadness and guilt but also of hope. Bad Blake could have been nothing more than a standard issue washed up hero, but Bridges invests so much in him that he becomes more than that. He's not a "character type" but all too human.

Gyllenhaal is a good match for Bridges in many respects, they both seem to approach characters in a naturalistic way, but one of the problems I had with the film is that I didn't really believe in their characters' relationship. For one thing, it's pretty obvious where the story is going so it's hard to invest yourself in it; for another it kind of makes her look like an idiot. She spends a lot of time talking about how the most important thing for her is that she does what's right for her son, but then she puts herself in this position that can only end badly for both herself and her son. She loves Bad, but she's also a character who is supposed to have been around the block a couple of times and she should know better. I didn't believe in the relationship and because of that it was the least engaging part of the film for me and since it takes up so much of the story, that's a lot of time to be disengaged. I recommend the film on the strength of Bridges' performance but with the caveat that the film itself isn't anything particularly special.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: Julia (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Erick Zonca
Starring: Tilda Swinton

What the movie world needs is more Tilda Swinton and if you require proof of that I highly recommend watching Julia. In it she renders a tour de force performance as an utterly amoral alcholic who keeps stumbling from bad to worse in a film that will keep you guessing right up to the very end. How this performance slipped through the cracks, I do not know; it explodes in front of you like a grenade (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Swinton stars as Julia, a forty-something woman who can't end a night without copious amounts of booze and a random guy to wake up with in the morning, sometimes in a bed, sometimes in the back of a car. Her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) wants to help her get her life together (though she herself seems indifferent, at best, to such a prospect) and insists on her going to A.A. meetings even though she gets nothing from them and will make no effort to abstain from drinking. At one of these meetings she's approached by Elena (Kate del Castillo), who wants to recruit her in a kidnapping plot. The person to be kidnapped is Elena's son Thomas (Aidan Gould), whom she hasn't seen in a number of years because her late husband's wealthy father has kept him from her. She offers Julia fifty thousand dollars for her help, which will only involve driving the getaway car. There are two things that ought to be understood about these characters. One, to anyone who isn't totally messed up themselves, Elena would seem a bit... off. Two, to anyone with even a lick of sense, Julia seems like the kind of person who would accept your offer of fifty thousand dollars and then double cross you to get more.

Julia does eventually raise the stakes from fifty thousand to two million, though by then Elena is well out of the picture. Julia takes off with Thomas, hiding out with him in a motel until her sloppiness (being drunk almost all the time can cause that) catches up to her and forces her to flee, hiding out with Thomas in the desert. After a first attempt at collecting the ransom goes awry, she escapes with Thomas into Mexico in a scene that would seem absurd if the film itself weren't so engrossing. But, then, you could say that about a lot of the twists in Julia.

It's typical in a film like this, of the on-the-run-with-a-kid subgenre of crime movies, that the kidnapper and the kidnapped will develop a friendship and affection for each other. That's not strictly true here, though it isn't entirely false either. Julia spends quite a bit of time terrorizing Thomas, holding a gun to his head, keeping him tied up, and drugging him with tranquilizers all while wearing a black mask. She's sober at this point (more or less) and when she starts drinking again she becomes a little less volatile and a lot less careful, forgetting to put on the mask when she goes to check on him, bound and gagged in the shower where she'd left him several hours earlier. Her first words to him? "So I guess you're mad at me." This kind of casually dark hilarity will be repeated later, after Julia spins a story that paints her as a friend of Elena's and therefore a friend of Thomas' and he points out that she put a gun to his head. "Are you shot?" she asks incredulously, as if the lack of bullet holes totally exonerates her for having terrified him. That Swinton can pull this off after being so utterly frightening in the first part of the film is amazing and aided by the way the film shifts the relationship between Julia and Thomas. After runing away to the desert, Thomas' suspicions that Julia is kind of an idiot and doesn't know what she's doing seem to be confirmed, making him less afraid of her and making the audience less afraid of her as well. That doesn't make her a good person, though, or one devoid of venom, as the plot yet to unfold proves.

I don't know that many actors could do what Swinton does in this film. For one thing, she has the ability to express Julia's growing panic to the audience while still making it believable that the characters with whom she's interacting aren't catching on. For another, she approaches the character without vanity and is willing to let herself look bad (and behave worse) because it's what the character requires. She seems real - intense and totally messed up, yes, but believably so. The plot itself occassionally requires some suspension of disbelief, but Swinton makes you believe that Julia walked right off the street and in front of a camera.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Shutter Island (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams

Four years after finally getting the award hardware he’s richly deserved for, oh, the last 30 years or so, Martin Scorsese is back with his follow-up feature to The Departed. Teaming up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio, he's created a tight psychological thriller that seems great while you're watching it, but less so the more you reflect on it afterwards.

There is no respite from darkness in Shutter Island as it plunges us immediately into the creepy, intense atmosphere of its eponymous locale. Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) already has a bad feeling about the place as it emerges from the fog and that feeling isn’t going to let up any time soon. The island houses a facility for the criminally insane and Teddy and his new partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have been sent to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), one of the inmates. By all appearances, Rachel has simply vanished, escaping from her locked cell with its barred window and making her way across the island’s rocky terrain without any shoes. There’s no trace of her except for a note she left behind, inquiring as to the identity of Patient 67.

Teddy is constantly at odds with the staff, particularly Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), whom he believes is actively trying to impede the investigation, and Dr. Naehring (Max von Syddow), whose accent brings back Teddy’s memories of liberating Dachau and the horrors he encountered there. He’s increasingly convinced that, like the Nazis, this particular facility is conducting experiments on people and he’s certain that these experiments are taking place inside the lighthouse at the edge of the island. I’m reluctant to say more about the plot, though having read the book I can state that even if you know the twist, it’s still pretty effective the way Scorsese handles it. The film ends on a more ambiguous note than the book, making Teddy less passive and leaving you to wonder a bit more about his mental state.

Much of the film depends on being able to successfully articulate the mental fragility of its protagonist. Teddy is a deeply troubled character and from the first moments we’re given a sense of just how on edge he is. Teddy’s memories/nightmares/hallucinations about his late wife (Michelle Williams) play a prominent role in the story, growing more intense the further along the narrative gets. At first these scenes and the story’s current day scenes are separate and apart, distinct from each other, but as things progress Teddy’s inner life begins to intrude more and more on his current reality until it comes to the point where he’s talking to his wife and one of the patient/prisoners at the same time. The mixture of tones and colour pallets – the Shutter Island scenes tend to be very dark, shadowy, grim looking; the memories/hallucinations tend to be brighter and more colourful – gives the film an appropriately unbalanced feel that forces you to question everything. We never know for certain how much of what we’re seeing is “real” and how much is part of an elaborate game of the mind.

Scorsese shoots the film in a very intimate way, using sets that seem narrow and closed in to create a feeling of claustrophobia that unsettles us and aligns us more firmly with Teddy. As Teddy, DiCaprio renders a good performance that begins with barely repressed anger and fear that slowly starts to bubble to the surface until finally exploding in the film’s final act. He manages to skirt the line, letting you see just enough beneath the surface that the turnaround at the end doesn’t come as a complete shock, without tipping his hand and making it really obvious. A lot of skill went into making this film both in front of and behind the camera and yet, for all that, Shutter Island ultimately left me a bit cold. I found it engrossing as I was watching it but it didn’t leave a very lasting impression on me. It’s a good movie, but not a great one.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Too Awesome Not To Post

Catch phrase!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Winners & Final Thoughts

The season is over, let the next Oscar season begin. I managed to correctly predict 15 of the winners out of 21 categories - not too bad, I think. A few thoughts on tonight's show:

* With Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hosting I figured this would be a fairly entertaining show but damn, that was kind of... lame. What happened? Maybe next year Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. can host because their little presenting bit was pretty awesome.

* So there's not enough time to let the winners have a full minute to make their statements but there is time for a friggin' interpretive dance to the score nominees? Fail.

* Why is George Clooney doing a Russell Crowe impression?

* Good on Mo'Nique for her statement about the ridiculousness of Oscar campaigning.

* Quentin Tarantino is such a delightful weirdo.

* No Farah Fawcett in the In Memorium segment? Dude, that's a pretty glaring omission.

* When did they change "And the Oscar goes to..." to "And the winner is..."?

* Sandra Bullock wouldn't have been my choice (Carey Mulligan all the way), but good for her for not being one of those weepy mess winners and for delivering a rather charming speech.

* The Hurt Locker! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssssssssssssssssss!

* And, finally, I am so glad that I live on the West Coast, where the show ends at 9pm.

List of winners under the cut:

Picture: The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Actor: Jeff Bridges

Actress: Sandra Bullock

Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz

Original Screenplay: The Hurt Locker

Adapted Screenplay: Precious

Editing: The Hurt Locker

Cinematography: Avatar

Art Direction: Avatar

Costume Design: The Young Victoria

Makeup: Star Trek

Visual Effects: Avatar

Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker

Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker

Original Score: Up

Original Song: The Weary Kind

Documentary Feature: The Cove

Foreign Language Film: The Secret In Their Eyes

Animated Feature: Up

And with that I'm taking the week off, I'll be back next week with new reviews.

Oscarstravaganza: Final Predictions

For what it's worth, my predictions:

Picture: The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Actor: Jeff Bridges

Actress: Sandra Bullock

Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz

Original Screenplay: Inglorious Basterds

Adapted Screenplay: Up In The Air

Editing: The Hurt Locker

Cinematography: Avatar

Art Direction: Sherlock Holmes

Costume Design: The Young Victoria

Makeup: The Young Victoria

Visual Effects: Avatar

Sound Editing: Avatar

Sound Mixing: Avatar

Original Score: Up

Original Song: The Weary Kind

Documentary Feature: The Cove

Foreign Language Film: The Secret In Their Eyes

Animated Feature: Up

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Ben-Hur

* * * *

Winner: Best Picture, 1959

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Charlton Heston

Go big or go home. It seems like that's often AMPAS' motto when it comes to deciding their Best Picture winners and few films have been as big, as extravagant, as William Wyler's version of Ben-Hur. A larger than life story with larger than life performances and production values, you just sit back in awe of its staggering ambition.

The film opens with a brief prologue centered on the birth of Jesus Christ, who occupies the very periphery of the story for much of the film and finally takes centre stage in the final act. From those opening scenes the film transitions to the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a noble Jew living in Jerusalem who will come into contact with Jesus at several key instances. When Judah's childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns as a commanding officer of the Roman Empire, Judah is thrilled because he believes that they can work together to quell tensions between the Romans and Jews. However, he quickly learns that Messala’s aspirations in the Empire have changed him and a wedge is driven permanently between them. This break is further solidified by Messala’s actions following an accident in which Judah’s sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) injures the new Roman governor, and Messala orders that Tirzah and her mother be imprisoned and that Judah be sent to a certain death as a galley slave as punishment.

Years later Judah is still alive and after he saves the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), he’s granted his freedom. He returns to his desolated home and former slaves Simonides (Sam Jaffe) and Esther (Haya Harareet) and is informed that his mother and sister have died, sending him into a tailspin of grief. In truth they are alive but Esther has promised to keep it a secret because the years living in filth in the prison have rendered them lepers and they can’t bear to have Judah see them as they now are. Full of rage and wanting revenge on Messala, Judah enters into a chariot race against him, knowing that often “accidents” happen in the coliseum. With a bit of skill and a bit of luck he wins, but finds that his revenge is empty and discovers the truth about his mother and sister, sending him into a deep despair that only a certain messiah can cure.

From its first moments Ben-Hur carries itself like a “film of great importance,” which would seem pretentious if it didn’t also seem so damned sincere. It cannot be accused of subtlety in any respect – the screenplay begs for scenery chewing and the actors happily oblige and the plot is punctuated at every turn by pomp and circumstance – but it invests itself fully in this story and approaches it in a very serious, straight forward way that is completely disarming. Ultimately it’s the bigness of the film that makes it work because it wins you over with its sheer audacity, its joyful excess, it’s barely concealed homoeroticism. Seriously, if Brokeback Mountain had won in 2005, it wouldn’t even have been the gayest Best Picture winner.

Directed by the great William Wyler, the film is a superbly constructed piece of work. It is of a length befitting an epic tale but it is so well edited that it never drags, finding the perfect balance between action set pieces and the quieter sequences that connect them. The chariot race is one of the most celebrated action scenes in film history and it’s one of those things that everyone who considers themselves a movie lover should see. It’s an exciting, intensely filmed scene that definitely lives up to its reputation. For all the technological advances that have been made in the 50 years since the film was made, a large part of its charm comes from the fact that what you’re seeing is real, not computer generated. The level of effort, resources and passion that would have been necessary to make this film is just amazing and it absolutely pays off. Ben-Hur is a film in a class all its own.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Picture 2010

The big one. Best Picture is, of course, an original Oscar category although in the award's inaugural year there were two Best Picture winners: Wings, which won "Most Outstanding Production" and Sunrise, which won "Most Artistic Quality Production." For reasons I've never understood, Wings is always included amongst the list of historical Best Picture winners, but Sunrise is not.

This year's nominees:


Total Nominations: 9
Box Office to Date: a kajillionty dollars or some shit - more money than I can fathom, at any rate.
Chances: It's got the technical categories pretty well locked up and it has nominations for Director and Editing, which are key for any bona fide Best Picture contender, but it lacks Screenplay and Acting nominations, which undercuts its chances a bit. Still, with 9 nominations and so much money in the bank, it's obviously earned some love.

The Blind Side

Total Nominations: 2
Box Office to Date: $247 million
Chances: Slim. If it were five nominee year, this one probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere near Best Picture.

District 9

Total Nominations: 4
Box Office to Date: $115 million
Chances: Unlikely. It secured Editing and Screenplay nominations and has a nice "little movie that could" narrative going for it, but with only 4 nominations it hasn't been very widely embraced.

An Education

Total Nominations: 3
Box Office to Date: $11 million
Chances: Sadly small. A great movie that totally got lost in the Oscar shuffle and will probably go home empty handed.

The Hurt Locker

Total Nominations: 9
Box Office to Date: $12 million
Chances: Pretty good, given the almost clean sweep it's made of precurser awards. The only thing that casts doubt in my mind (aside from the backlash that has cropped up in the last week or so, which I would think would be "too little, too late" in terms of swaying voters) is the poor box office showing. If it wins, it will be the lowest grossing winner by a pretty wide margin and AMPAS loves its blockbusters.

Inglorious Basterds

Total Nominations: 8
Box Office to Date: $120 million
Chances: Pretty damn good if the pro-Avatar and pro-Hurt Locker camps essentially eat each other and split the vote. It's got nominations in all the key categories (Director, Editing, Acting, Screenplay, plus nominations in the technical categories) and it made a nice chunk of change. If AMPAS want to find a happy medium between box office beheamoth Avatar and critical darling Hurt Locker, this is it.


Total Nominations: 6
Box Office to Date: $46 million
Chances: Not bad, not great. It has Director, Editing, Screenplay and Acting nominations, however its lack of nominations in the technical categories puts it at a bit of a disadvantage.

A Serious Man

Total Nominations: 2
Box Office to Date: $9 million
Chances: A long shot, at best.


Total Nominations: 5
Box Office to Date: $293 million
Chances: The fact that its nominated as Best Animated Feature pretty much guarantees that it won't win here, because voters already have an out for passing it up.

Up In The Air

Total Nominations: 6
Box Office to Date: $80 million
Chances: Like Inglorious Basterds this one could benefit from an Avatar-Hurt Locker vote split, but like Precious it's going into battle without technical nominations. Unlike Precious it goes in without an Editing nomination as well, which puts it at a major disadvantage.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Movies That Didn't Win Best Picture

* Note: I'm talking specifically about films that were nominated for Best Picture and lost out to a lesser, though not necessarily bad, winner. Also, I'm not including Citizen Kane, because that would just be too obvious

#5: The Wizard of Oz
Lost To Gone With The Wind

A tough call since they've both become bona fide classics. However, in a "this movie is better than that one" contest, I'd have to give the edge to The Wizard of Oz as Gone With The Wind is plagued with sequences that just drag and make the movie seem about 18 hours longer than it actually is.

#4: Bonnie and Clyde
Lost To In The Heat of the Night

In The Heat of the Night is a fine film that tackles a subject that was intensely relevant in 1967, but I think Bonnie and Clyde holds up much better and had a greater impact on cinema in general.

#3: Pulp Fiction
Lost To Forrest Gump

I may be biased because I really dislike Forrest Gump, but the knowledge that it beat Pulp Fiction just makes me cringe. If any of the other nominees (Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Four Weddings and a Funeral) had won, I could deal with it but for it to lose to Gump is just... ugh.

#2: Network
Lost To Rocky

1976 was an embarrassment of riches in terms of Best Picture nominees: Network, All The President's Men and Taxi Driver were up for the big prize along with Bound For Glory and Rocky. That Rocky came out the winner is something I just can't wrap my head around.

#1: Raging Bull
Lost To Ordinary People

Can you believe it? Ordinary People over Raging Bull? That's insane.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Now, Voyager

* * * 1/2

Winner: Best Original Score, 1942

Director: Irving Rapper
Starring: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

"Don't lets ask for the moon. We have the stars."

I'm not sure that there's any actress other than Bette Davis who could really sell that line. She has such a complete grasp of her character in Now, Voyager that we are made to understand those final words on the multiple levels intended, how it relates not just to one relationship but to several and, indeed, to her character's entire identity. It's a good line, a great performance, and a pretty damn good movie.

Now, Voyager stars Davis as Charlotte Vale, a Boston socialite whose confidence has long since been shattered by her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Her increasingly fragile mental and emotional state prompts her sister-in-law to bring her into contact with Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), a psychiatrist who recommends that she spend some time in his sanitorium. Mrs. Vale is adamently against it, believing that it will leave the family open to nasty gossip and that it's a sign of unforgivable weakness in Charlotte, but Dr. Jaquith prevails and takes Charlotte away. Finally out from under her mother's thumb, Charlotte begins to relax and create an identity for herself that is separate and apart from the identity forced on her by her mother. On her release from the sanitorium, she opts to take a cruise rather than go straight home and there meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), a man anchored to his unhappy marriage by his troubled daughter.

Of course Charlotte and Jerry fall in love and of course the situation is impossible. They go their separate ways, she returning home and finally asserting herself with her mother. She becomes engaged but, after seeing Jerry again, breaks it off, leading to an angry confrontation with her mother and consequences no one could have forseen. She returns to the sanitorium and develops a friendship with Tina (Janis Wilson), a young girl who just happens to be Jerry's daughter. In an "only in the movies" kind of development, Charlotte returns to Boston and takes Tina with her, an act which meets with the approval of both Jerry and Dr. Jaquith.

From an analysis perspective, Now, Voyager is a pretty easy film to read because it really doesn't take pains to hide what it's doing. Davis begins the film looking frumpy and her transformation into glamour also marks the transition in her mental state. That this transformation will happen is never in question due both to narrative conventions and the conventions of naming - her last name is "vale" (ie veil), indicating that we have an unclear view of her and that the obstruction will eventually lift. The film wears its cues on its sleeve. One of my favourite shots is at the beginning when the film first introduces us to Charlotte, cutting to her from a shot of Mrs. Vale's hands, her fingers fidgetting like someone pulling on marionette strings.

The performances in the film are really fantastic. Davis, whose real life toughness is legendary and defines many of the characters she played, has no problem playing the insecure bundle of nerves that is Charlotte. The transformation that Charlotte undergoes in not just a matter of changing her hair style and wardrobe; Davis changes the way she carries herself, the way her body seems to relate to her surroundings and she does it gradually. Even after the makeover, Charlotte carries herself as if she's still the "fat old aunt" and it takes a long time for her confidence to catch up to her appearance. Davis understands this character and allows her to develop in a way that seems natural and unforced. As Charlotte's hard as nails mother, Cooper renders a fairly chilling performance, levelling the characters around her with a look and taking ownership of every scene she's in. She and Davis both received Oscar nominations for their performances and it was well deserved. Watching them on screen together is absolutely captivating.

Now, Voyager is a really well put together film that manages to put a lot of story into its two hour running time, moving fast enough that it never feels weighted down by its various plot points. It's also kind of an odd film, especially since it's considered a romance story, in that it's ultimately about settling. Charlotte can't be with Jerry so she'll settle for being a mother figure to Tina. Charlotte had a bad mother but she'll settle for being the kind of mother to Tina that she herself would have wanted. When you think about it, it doesn't really cast Charlotte in the best light because there's a sense in which she's using Tina as a vessel to satisfy her own needs and desires. But Davis' performance is so sympathetic that you don't really think about that and instead you just hope that she finds some way to finally be happy. It's one of my favourite performances of hers and I think this is one of her best films. Certainly it's one of her most enduring.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Original Score 2010

The Best Original Score category was introduced in 1934 and since then has undergone a lot of changes. From 1941 to 1961 the category was split in two, honoring Dramatic and Comedy scores in one category and Musical Scores in another (except in 1957 when it was all one category). From 1962 to 1969 the category was split to honor original and adapted scores separately. From 1970 to 1979 the category was split into "Original Score" and "Song Score and Adaptation." It returned briefly to this from 1982 - 1984, but from 1980 - 1981 and 1985 - 1994, all scores were considered under the same category. It was split once again in 1995 to recognize Dramatic and Comedy scores seperately and then merged again by 1999.

This year's nominees:

James Horner, Avatar: This is the 8th nomination for Horner, who has one previous win (for Titanic). His Avatar score has received nominations from the Golden Globes and BAFTAs.

Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox: The best movie composer working today (at least according to me). Desplat has two previous nominations and also has a nomination from the BAFTAs.

Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders, Hurt Locker: This is the 2nd nomination for Beltrami and the 1st for Sanders. Their work on The Hurt Locker has received no other awards or nominations.

Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes: This is the 8th nomination for Zimmer, who has won once for his Lion King score. He also received a nomination for the Critics Choice Award.

Michael Giacchino, Up: This is the 2nd nomination for Giacchino, who has also received Annie and BAFTA nominations and won the Golden Globe, Chicago Film Critics and Critics Choice awards for his work on Up.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Titanic

* * *

Winner: Best Visual Effects, 1997

Director: James Cameron
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet

When Avatar usurped Titanic as top box office earner, I must admit that I felt a bit sad. It's not that I have any particular affection for Titanic, though having been 15 when it was released of course I saw it; but I guess I felt like part of my adolescence was now gone forever. Most parts of my adolescence I've been more than happy to consign to history, but that one I didn't mind hanging on to. Prior to watching it again recently I hadn't seen Titanic in about a decade and I must say that it's a better movie than I remembered it being. Certainly it deserves better than the dismissive attitude so often applied to it.

Titanic is the story of a boy and a girl, separated first by class and then permanently by disaster. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a socialite with a pushy mother (Frances Fisher) and a brute of a fiancee (Billy Zane); Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aspiring artist travelling in steerage and so thrilled to be on this adventure that he screams: "I'm the king of the world!" It sounds kind of lame when you write it out like that but, I'll be honest, thinking about it brought a huge grin to my face. I don't think Titanic is a great movie by any stretch, but it does have a certain lingering magic.

Despite the differences in their circumstances, Jack and Rose are drawn to each other and quickly fall in love. DiCaprio and Winslet have good enough chemistry that you're willing to overlook the fact that relationship never takes on more than two dimensions. The liveliness of their performances also makes you willing to overlook (to an extent) the fact that the story itself is pretty two dimensional. There is a degree of emotional resonance to the story, but that has more to do with certain facts - like that the people in steerage really were locked in to their doom, that desperation made getting to a lifeboat a blood sport, that flares were seen by people on a nearby boat who thought the rich Titanic passengers were just having a party and not in any distress - than it does with the narrative the film builds around those facts. The film's major preoccupation is with what happens after the boat hits the iceberg and the story only needs to be serviceable enough to hold your attention until it reaches that point.

Do I need to say how great the special effects are? Even now they still look pretty good and somehow seem less soulless than a lot of the glossy special effects work done today. Titanic is one of those films where you can definitely see where the money went, but it gets folded pretty seamlessly into everything else. Whatever faults James Cameron may have, you could never accuse him of not putting the work into his projects. Here, as with Avatar and his earlier films, if the technology wasn't there to do exactly what he wanted, he simply found a way to invent it. For this film he helped develop, amongst other things, a special deep-sea camera to capture the footage of the ship on the floor of the sea. Those shots of the ghostly ship are some of the most memorable from the entire film and go a long way towards creating the sad, ominous mood that underlines the story. The money put into Titanic was definitely money well spent.

Titanic is one of those films people raved about when it was first released but started to turn against once Hollywood raved to the tune of an 11 Oscar sweep. The hubris displayed by Cameron perhaps made it an easy target though, if you think about it, hadn't he earned the right to be a bit arrogant? Before its release, people expected it to fail - I mean, how could a film that expensive possibly make a profit? - but it instead it reached a ridiculous level of success. He was king of the world at that moment. As for the film itself, while it is arguably not the best film of 1997, I think it would be difficult to make a strong case against 9 of its other Oscar wins (the 10th being its win for Best Song - don't get me started). The lack of depth to the story may allow you to dismiss the film as a pretty but empty box, but it's so pretty. There is such a strong attention to detail, such majesty to the whole production. The film is exquisitely made and even though it has its weaknesses and has been the subject of countless parodies, it's held up pretty well.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Visual Effects 2010

The Visual Effects category honors the year's best special effects and was introduced as a competitive category in 1963. Since 2007 the process for choosing nominees has involved a long list of 15 potential nominees which is then voted down to 7 which is in turn voted down to 3. Since its inception the category has honored many of the top grossing films of all time, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, E.T., Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Titanic and all three Lord of the Rings films.

This year's nominees:

Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham, Andy Jones, Avatar: This is the 5th nomination for Letteri, who has 3 previous wins for his work on King Kong, LOTR: The Return of the King and LOTR: The Two Towers; this is the 2nd nomination for Rosenbaum who has 1 previous win for Forrest Gump; this is the 2nd nomination for Jones, and the 1st nomination for Baneham. The team has already won the BAFTA and received a nomination from the Visual Effects Society.

Dan Kaufman, Peter Muyzers, Robert Habros, Matt Aitken, District 9: This is the 1st Oscar nomination for all four. They also received a BAFTA nomination.

Roger Guyett, Russell Earl, Paul Kavanaugh, Burt Dalton, Star Trek: This is the 2nd nomination for Guyett, Earl and Dalton, and the 1st nomination for Kavanaugh. Dalton has won previously for his work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The team received BAFTA and Visual Effects Society nominations.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Chicago

* * * *

Winner: Best Costume Design, 2002

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere

I know that to a certain contingent Chicago is, like, the worst Best Picture winner of the last 10 years, but I am one of those people who absolutely adores it. It's fun, it's beautiful, and the soundtrack is excellent. I wouldn't say that it's a perfect movie, mind you, but it's never failed to entertain me and I've seen it plenty of times. Plus, it made me understand my dad's affection for Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose charms had been entirely lost on me prior to this film.

Adapted from the enormously successful stage musical of the same name, Chicago is set in the late 1920s and follows the swift rise and even swifter fall of wanna be star Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger). After discovering that the guy she's been sleeping with in order to advance her career only told her he'd help advance her career so she'd sleep with him, she shoots and kills him and is sent to Cook County Jail to await trial. Her idol Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) is already there for having killed her husband and sister and more or less ignores Roxie until she starts getting headlines and the attention of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a highly skilled lawyer who puts everything into his cases as long as the publicity lasts.

Roxie becomes what she's always dreamed of being - a star - but achieves it through her notoriety rather than through any discernable talent (we the audience see her perform, but until the very end no live audience has the pleasure). She'd fit in just fine on the cover of any tabloid today. Along the way from crime to either punishment or freedom, she imagines the world as her stage, every scenario as a musical number. In her mind she just keeps getting bigger and bigger and is shocked to discover that when all is said and done, her celebrity is as disposable as yesterday's news. She gains her freedom, but at what price?

The film unfolds in a very tongue-in-cheek way that keeps the tone light and bouncy. It is ostensibly a commentary on our society's unhealthy relationship with scandal, though it is admittedly a fairly shallow commentary. The idea that the public's hunger for sensational headlines can make a hero of a criminal and thereby inspire more audacious crimes is touched on, but Chicago doesn't go very deep into the psychology of the relationship between the notorious figure and the public whose adoration can only ever be temporary and conditional. What the film does do is keep you entertained enough that none of that matters. It moves beautifully and though it doesn't entirely transcend its roots as a stage production, the way that the musical numbers are incorporated works well. The stage is in Roxie's head, these are her fantasies, and bringing us into her head like that creates an intimacy between the audience and the character that ultimately makes her relatable and rootable. There are many reasons why we shouldn't want Roxie to suceed (she did kill a guy), and yet that moment of triumph for her and Velma at the end just feels so right.

The cast is almost uniformly excellent. Zellweger is spunky and enjoyably devious in the Eve Harrington-esque role of Roxie, Zeta-Jones friggin owns every scene she's in, Queen Latifah makes for a great foil to both Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, and John C. Reilly, as Roxie's dim husband Amos, gets the film's only really sad number, "Mr. Cellophane," and sells the hell out of it. The only real problem I have with the movie is Gere who, while appropriately smarmy, sings like he has marbles in his mouth, which I find really distracting. It's not enough to kill my love for the movie but it definitely interrupts my enjoyment of it.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Costume Design 2010

The Best Costume Design Oscar was introduced in 1948 and until 1957 it honored costuming for color and black and white films seperately. The big winner in the category is the legendary Edith Head, who collected 8 Oscars out of 35 nominations.

This year's nominees:

Janet Patterson, Bright Star: This is Patterson's 4th nomination. She also received a BAFTA nomination and I really hope she wins because Bright Star isn't nominated anywhere else and I really want it to win something.

Catherine Leterrier, Coco Before Chanel: This is Leterrier's 1st Oscar nomination, though she's been frequently recognized for her work in her native France by the Cesar Awards. She also received nominations from the BAFTAs and the Costume Designers Guild.

Monique Prudhomme, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: This is Prudhomme's 1st Oscar nomination. She also received a nomination from the Costume Designers Guild.

Colleen Atwood, Nine: This is Atwood's 8th nomination and she has won twice previously for her work in Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha - so, obviously, Rob Marshall is her lucky charm. She also received a nomination from the Costume Designers Guild.

Sandy Powell, The Young Victoria: This is the 8th nomination for Powell and she has won twice previously for The Aviator and Shakespeare In Love. She has received BAFTA and Costume Designers Guild nominations.