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Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Stephen King Adaptations (Horror Story Edition)

#5: Firestarter

Creepy kids automatically make anything scarier.

#4: Misery

Dirty bird! Kathy Bates is craaaaazy, y'all.

#3: It

Can't sleep, clown will eat me. I saw this movie when I was about 10. It's been giving me nightmares ever since.

#2: Carrie

The horrors of adolescence distilled into about an hour and a half. Sissy Spacek's iconic performance is a thing of intense, crazy beauty.

#1: The Shining

See #5. The film departs significantly from the novel, but it's still a first-class frightener. Here's Johnny, indeed.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Canadian Film Review: The Red Violin (1998)

* * * *

Director: Francois Girard
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Don McKellar, Colm Feore

The Red Violin is one of those films that I'd been meaning to see for a long time and, now that I have seen it, I'm kicking myself for not having seen it sooner. Directed by Francois Girard from a screenplay by himself and Don McKellar, The Red Violin is an ambitious, well-crafted, and thoroughly engaging and entertaining epic.

The story takes place over the course of 300 years and is broken up into sections which chart the ownership of a legendarily perfect violin. It is created in 1681 in Italy by Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), who intends for it to be played by his soon-to-be-born son but donates it to an orphanage in Austria following his wife's death during childbirth. In the orphanage it cycles through many hands over the years until coming into the possession of Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz), a violin prodigy with a heart defect. He's taken to Vienna by his instructor (Jean-Luc Bideau) but dies during his audience with the monarch and is buried with his beloved violin.

Shortly after Kasper's burial the violin is stolen by grave robbers and ends up being handed down through generations of gypsies. Through the gypsies it ends up in the hands of Frederick Pope (Jason Flemyng), a dissolute noble and celebrated violinist who finds particular inspiration in the combination of the violin and his mistress Victoria (Gretta Scacchi). However when Victoria leaves to spend some time in Russia working on a novel, Frederick loses his inspiration and spends his days smoking opium and longing for Victoria. On her return they have a confrontation which results in the violin being damaged which in turn leads to Frederic's suicide and the violin falling into the hands of his Chinese servant, who takes it back to Shanghai and sells it. The violin is purchased and adored but when Communism takes hold, it must be hidden otherwise it will be destroyed as a symbol of Western decadence. Finally in 1997 it is discovered and sent to Montreal to be auctioned and it is here that it overtakes the imagination of Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), an appraiser who believes it to be the holy grail.

The Red Violin is such a strong film primarily because there are no weak links amongst the four short stories that make up the bulk of the narrative. Each of these four stories features compelling, well-realized characters and each one would make for an interesting full-length feature. A sense of cohesion is created through two framing devices. The first involves Bussotti's wife, Anna (Irene Grazioli), whose servant Cesca (Anita Laurenzi) reads her fortune through tarot cards, each card representing one section of the story. The second framing device involves the auction, as all the interested parties - a wealthy concert violinist, monks at the Austrian orphanage, a representative of the Pope Foundation, and the son of the violin's last official owner - gather and attempt to outbid each other for the object that each, for one reason or another, believes they must have.

There is an easy flow in the back and forth between time frames and places which helps the film maintain and build its narrative momentum. The film also does an excellent job at establishing the violin as a thing of great aesthetic and practical perfection, something mysterious and fascinating and beautiful. Around this mystical instrument Girard has crafted a real gem of a film, a story with incredible narrative sweep and terrific performances all around. The Red Violin is definitely one that you'll want to watch more than once.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ebert's Greats #2: Dracula (1931)

* * *

Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Bela Lugosi

The first time I saw Tod Browning's Dracula, I wasn't very impressed. I attribute this less to the film itself and more to the fact that I saw it as part of a university class that was all about depictions of vampires in film and literature (yes, seriously) and thus saw four versions of the Dracula story in a row, this one being the 4th. I was kind of Dracula-ed out at that point. Seeing it again recently, though, I can appreciate it a more for the classic that it is.

This version of Dracula begins with Renfield (Dwight Frye) venturing out to the Castle Dracula to discuss the terms of a real estate deal with Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). During his stay Renfield has an encounter with Dracula and his brides which drives him over the edge and turns him into an insect eating lunatic. Renfield returns to England a very changed man (with Dracula in tow) and is taken away to a sanatorium and placed in the care of Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston).

While Renfield is locked up, Dracula makes the acquaitance of Dr. Seward, his daughter Mina (Helen Chandler), her fiancé John Harker (David Manners), and her best friend Lucy (Frances Dade). Lucy becomes Dracula's first victim - dying mysteriously and then rising from the grave and becoming "the woman in white," stalking through the streets at night and targetting children - but Mina is the one he really wants. For a time it looks as if he might succeed in his plan, but Harker and Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) work together to rescue Mina and destroy Dracula for good.

Dracula departs quite a bit from Bram Stoker's novel but it retains the most important aspects of the story. At 75 minutes, it's lean and efficient and though it's obviously not the most state of the art film in terms of special effects, it is nevertheless an effective horror thriller. The only real problem with the film is that Dracula is the only character who leaves any kind of lasting impression. This is partly because the other characters are sort of watered down, but also because Lugosi's performance is just so magnetic that everyone else's pales in comparison.

Lugosi, whose performance as the Count is now iconic, was not the first choice for the role. Lon Chaney was the first choice but his death (amongst other things, including budget issues) allowed Lugosi to take the part, which he had previously played in the stage version on Broadway. Given his propensity for making his characters look as deformed as possible, it's interesting to imagine what Chaney's Dracula would have been like and what sort of impact that would have had on vampire films in general. Chaney's Dracula would likely have been in line with the creature as depicted in Nosferatu - scary and sinister and lacking in that seductive quality that Lugosi brings to the role. Lugosi's vampire is still evil and scary, but there's an undercurrent of eroticism to his portrayal that's in keeping with the more recent depictions of vampires as tragic/romantic figures. He's sort of like the link between the old school's monsters and new school's more complicated and all too human otherworldly beings. If you've never seen Dracula, I would highly recommend it on the strength of Lugosi's performance. It's been parodied a lot over the years, but it truly is memorable and distinct.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: 28 Days Later (2002)

* * * 1/2

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson

Zombies! Society's breakdown! Badass chicks! Chaos, confusion and... hope. In the end, yes, there is hope, not to mention a great sense of mythology. 28 Days Later is a film with a lot going for it, which is perhaps why it's inspired sequels in the form of one film (28 Weeks Later; a second sequel called 28 Months Later has been in the planning stages for a while but is held up by disputes between the people with rights to the story) and two graphic novels.

28 Days Later has one of the best opening sequences I've ever seen. After a brief prologue in which animal activists attempt to rescue chimps being used for medical research - research which has resulted in them being infected with a contagious disease called "Rage" - the film flashes forward 28 days when Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bike courier who has been in a coma, awakes. The hospital is deserted and the streets of London are much the same. It makes for a chilling picture as Jim walks through the discarded debris of the city's final days and then finally finds a newspaper announcing the evacuation.

Jim makes his way to a church where he has his first encounter with the infected. He's rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley), who fill him in on what he's missed and reluctantly agree to go with him to his parents' house so he can find out what's become of them. After Mark becomes infected (and is subsequently killed by Selena), Jim and Selena find refuge with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter, Hannah (Megan Burns), and together the four set out in search of a military outpost where, it is said, there is "the answer to infection."

As I said, the film starts out really excellently. Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland craft an incredible amount of tension immediately and manage to sustain it for nearly two hours. The "infected" are introduced in an effective way and used sparingly right up until the climax, allowing the idea of them to build up for the audience before they begin to dominate the screen. The film's final act tends to be a bit conventional, becoming a one man army situation as Jim mows people down to save himself, Selena and Hannah, but that can't erase what the film accomplishes in it's first brilliant two-thirds.

The characters, particularly Jim and Selena, are well-drawn and well acted. I'm not really familiar with Naomie Harris outside of the Pirates of the Carribean films but she's pretty awesome and by all rights should be a much higher profile actress by now. Cillian Murphy, who's been carving out a nice niche for himself as a character actor, carries the film with aplomb, guiding Jim through the subtle shifts that takes him to the point where, for just a split second, he and the infected are indistinguishable. His transformation is part of the film's exploration of human nature outside the boundaries of society and while the screenplay doesn't do quite as much with that theme as it could, it nevertheless manages to make its point. 28 Days Later is definitely better and more thought provoking than your average horror movie.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ebert's Greats #1: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

* * * *

Director: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish

I've long been a fan of Roger Ebert's Great Films list and since there are a ton of films on that list that I haven't seen yet, I've decided to take it on as an ongoing personal project and work my way through, sort of like a directed viewing guide. There are a number of films from the list that I have seen and, in fact, already reviewed but that still leaves a couple hundred films for me to experience and/or write about for the first time. I'll be starting with The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton's moody, atmospheric and altogether excellent thriller.

On the face of it, the story of The Night of the Hunter is pretty simple. It involves two children - John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) - who know the location of $10k that their father stole and hid before being apprehended by the police and hanged for the crime. Their father's former cellmate, "Reverend" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), shows up, sweet talks their newly widowed mother (Shelley Winters) into marriage, murders her, and then terrorizes the children as he tries to get at the money. The kids eventually find refuge with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a force of good just as powerful as the evil represented by the relentless Powell.

The story is told in very simple and direct terms. The children are innocents, blank slates who live moment to moment, for whom events (with one notable exception) have no permanent meaning. Shortly after their father dies, John and Pearl are subjected to taunting by other children. When Pearl begins to repeat the chant, John tells her not to - not because it's disrespectful to the memory of their father but because she's "not old enough." Later when Pearl asks if he thinks their mother is dead, John simply says that yes, he believes she is. They see the world in black and white and the film itself seems to see things that way as well, unfolding in a dreamy, fairytale way with little ambiguity in terms of "good" and "evil."

If the world of children is one of innocence, the world of adults is one of corruption. The adult world is one of vice, hypocrisy, greed and violence - with the exception of Rachel. Powell famously has the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his hands and delivers a speech in which he explains the history of the battle between the two, a speech which ultimately foreshadows his scenes with Rachel towards the end of the film. Two of the best things about this film are the characters of Powell and Rachel (especially as they are played by Mitchum and Gish). Powell is a memorable and truly terrifying villain, but Rachel is just as powerful, a strong, principled woman who refuses to back down and be intimidated. There isn't a lot of "action" in their confrontation, but it's epic because they're such distinctly and intensely drawn characters.

The Night of the Hunter was the only film that Charles Laughton would direct, a real shame since he proves to be an incredibly effective presence behind the camera. The story is told in an efficient way that keeps the tension at an incredible high from beginning to end (the score by Walter Schumann and cinematography by Stanley Cortez certainly help) and the acting is strong throughout (Mitchum gets some credit for that since Laughton's dislike of children made it necessary for Mitchum to take the reigns in many of the scenes involving Chapin and Bruce). Laughton is a strong visual stylist and throughout the film he composes some really great shots - it makes you wonder what else he would have done had this film been better received by critics and audiences when it was released. But history has been the true judge of this one, now considered a classic, and it is definitely deserving of that status.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Silent Horror Films

#5: The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs is a blend of many genres, but it definitely feels like a horror movie. Unlike many horror films, however, this is one where the "monster" is also the hero and you root for his survival.

#4: The Golem

The Golem: How He Came Into The World is actually the third part of a trilogy about the eponymous creature, but it's the one that's the most widely celebrated today. Like a couple of other films on this list, it's one of the great German Expressionist films.

#3: The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney made it his business to look as horrifying as possible in most of his films, but I don't know that any of his creations topped his truly frightening Phantom.

#2: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I've never seen The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its entirety but the bits and pieces I have seen were... unsettling, to say the least. For now, though, I'll just have to take the word of many other listmakers that it's one of the best horror films (or films, period) of all time.

#1: Nosferatu

No romanticized vampires here - just sinister-looking Max Schreck in his definitive role. It's one of the greatest films ever made, a spellbinding viewing experience that you can watch over and over again.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Maelstrom (2000)

* * * 1/2

Director:Denis Villeneuve
Starring:Marie-Josée Croze

Some movies (and books and albums, etc.) have a time-release effect so that it isn't until a while after you've seen them that you really start to feel their impact. I liked Maelstrom when I was watching it - it's imaginative and well-made, not to mention superbly acted - but it wasn't until after I'd had some time to think about it (I couldn't stop thinking about it, to be honest) that I really started to "get" it. Writer-director Denis Villeneuve made Polytechnique, one of my favourite films from 2009, and is the man behind Incendies, a film from this year that I'm very much looking forward to seeing. I think I'd better start catching up on his earlier work.

Maelstrom announces itself pretty much immediately as a weirdo-indie art film, focusing in its opening moments on a soon-to-be-gutted fish who will act as our narrator. The story he has to tell centers on Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze), who is steadily succumbing to the pressures in her life, which include a recent abortion and the legacy of her famous mother. She drowns her sorrows in drugs and alcohol and sex, but her hard partying is catching up to her. One night she hits a man with her car and flees the scene. The man dies as a result of his injuries and Bibiane's life spirals further out of control as she attempts to cover up her crime. This eventually leads to her driving her car into a river, after which she comes to the conclusion that her survival is a sign that she's been given a second chance.

Though she's decided to move on, she can't quite tame her curiosity about the man she killed, which leads to her meeting his son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). They fall in love but her guilt weighs on her and when the truth comes out, their relationship comes to a crossroads. At different times, and in their darkest hours, both Bibiane and Evian encounter a man who tells them that if no one else knows the truth - either that Bibiane has killed someone or that Evian has fallen in love with the person who killed his father - what difference does it really make? It's the tree falling in the woods version of morality.

Villeneuve constructs this story in a very tight, closed-in kind of way. Everything that happens - even the most seemingly minor detail - matters and the narrative is constantly folding itself back to show all the little connections that have served to tie Bibiane and Evian together since long before their actual meeting. The device of having the fish be the narrator might seem a little precious at first, but it gives the story a magic realist tone that helps keep it from sinking to the darkest depths (which it easily could, given the things that happen through the course of the story). All in all, the screenplay is very strong and Villeneuve's direction helps keep it moving along at an efficient and effective pace.

The driving force of the film, however, is Croze who delivers an extraordinary performance. She plays Bibiane at the height of intensity from beginning to end, but she never goes over the edge and into overacting territory. Her scenes with Verreault are captivating, following the pair as she tries to contain her guilt and as it finally gets the better of her and she must confess. It all leads to a very strong ending to what is, overall, a very strong film.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Leaves of Grass (2010)

* * *

Director: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Edward Norton, Tim Blake Nelson

With Leaves of Grass the number of films in which Edward Norton physically fights himself now comes to 2. I'm not sure any other actor can boast such a feat. This beleaguered film, delayed for so long and then given an extremely limited (and brief) theatrical release before being rushed to DVD, is smart and funny (albeit occasionally quite violent) and definitely deserves better than to be lost in the shuffle or stigmatized as a straight to DVD blemish on the filmographies of those involved.

Leaves of Grass is the story of two brothers: Bill and Brady (both played by Norton). Bill is a professor of philosophy on the fast track in academia. Brady runs a high-end marijuana operation in Little Dixie, the town where he and Bill grew up. Brady's got trouble because Pug (Richard Dreyfus), the man who funded his business, now wants to see a big return on his investment and is pushing Brady to start producing other kinds of drugs to make up the difference. Brady refuses, arguing that he won't produce something he wouldn't injest himself, and comes up with a plan. For the plan to work, however, he needs to trick Bill into coming back to Little Dixie, a place he's determined to avoid forever.

Brady gets his best friend Bolger (Tim Blake Nelson) to call Bill and inform him that Brady has been murdered, which brings Bill back to town. When he learns the truth, Bill is furious but ultimately agrees to do what Brady asks, which is to pretend to be Brady and visit their mother (Susan Sarandon), giving Brady an alibi so that no one will suspect that he's gone into the city with Bolger to take care of business with Pug. Things go according to plan at first but then start to go horribly awry, leading to multiple deaths and an epiphany, of sorts, for Bill.

As the brothers, Norton delivers two really great performances. Bill is the uptight academic, Brady is the laidback pothead, but that's not the be all and end all of either of them and Norton brings a nice complexity to each. He also makes them distinct from each other in such a way that you can tell them apart even aside from the hairstyles or the accent (Bill has worked to rid himself of his natural accent while Brady still has his, though his speech is much more about the rhythm than the twang). He plays well against himself and against the supporting cast, all of whom are rather excellent in their own right. Keri Russell has a small role as Bill's love interest, a woman who is essentially a happy medium between Bill's academic intellect and Brady's just folks ways, and her scenes with Norton are funny and touching and her performance is understated but quite beautiful.

Written and directed by Nelson who, in addition to being solid behind the camera is also a great character actor in front of it, Leaves of Grass is smart and has a great comic sensibility (particularly given how much blood is ultimately shed during its course). He has an obvious affection for these characters which helps to keep the story afloat even when it gets very dark and even though it carries on a bit longer than it probably should. There isn't quite enough narrative momentum to push the film to where it ultimately ends up, and it takes a few more twists than it really needs, but it's still an engaging and enjoyable movie.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley

I love the Oscars but there are two things about Oscar season that I dislike. One is films that are so overtly and generically baity that it verges on embarrassing. The other is the way that the hype machine sometimes latches on to a movie sight unseen and builds up a mountain of expectation regarding its Oscar potential. Then, after the film finally is seen, people are disappointed because it's not in the Academy's wheelhouse and suddenly (and despite the fact that it might be a perfectly good movie) it's marked as a failure in the cultural conversation and gets left behind as the hype machine moves on to its next victim. Never Let Me Go, a gentle science fiction romance, is one of those films. It is not "Oscar-y" in any traditional sense, but it's a very good movie and a prime candidate for critical re-assessment in a few years.

The story - which takes place in an alternate reality in which clones are created in order to provide donor organs - spans decades and follows the short, doomed lives of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy (played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield). It begins when the three are children at Hailsham, a special boarding school where, as one of their teachers states, they know their purpose but don't really understand what it means. That teacher is Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), who is deeply affected by her brief time at Hailsham. When she tries to give the children a greater understanding of what they are, she becomes distraught, but the children themselves accept these facts calmly. They have been raised and socialized to accept that their time on earth is limited, that they have a purpose to serve, and that this is simply the way things are. They know no other option, they have been lead to believe that there is no alternative. Because of that they do not rage against injustice but rather accept their fate as a sad fact.

Broken up into chapters, the film takes place at various points in the trio's lives, punctuated by changes in their relationships. As children Kathy and Tommy are in love but, both being shy, Ruth is able to step in, take control and have Tommy to herself. She and Tommy are still together when the three graduate from Hailsham and are sent to "the Cottages," though they break up shortly thereafter. As adults, Ruth's guilt gets the better of her and she takes steps to bring Kathy and Tommy together before there is no longer time left. Rumor has it that if two donors can prove that they are genuinely in love, it can buy them a few extra years before having to complete their donations.

This story, beautifully told by director Mark Romanek and screenwriter Alex Garland, is interesting for a number of reasons. One of the things that stood out for me is the decision to set the story in the 1970s, 80s and 90s with a quick background explanation that reveals that the scientific breakthrough that made cloning possible took place in 1952 and reached perfection in the late 60s. Since one of the story's major themes is the ethics of creating human beings simply to be harvested (ergo of intentionally and explicitly creating beings who will live a second tier existence), I find it interesting that the science of the story is concurrent with the real-life civil rights movement. The characters have no rights, no public voice, they are segregated, and they are not human beings in any legal sense of the word; they are simply medical beasts of burden. But what makes them different from "originals"? They look human, they interact as humans do, they think, they feel - what, aside from their lack of status, truly sets them apart? One of the things that the story is exploring is the way that we, as a society, talk ourselves into seeing minor distinctions as major and set about trying to define the world according to difference. On the surface Never Let Me Go might be about clones coming to terms with their destiny, but beneath that it is about the humanity which exists in "the other" and how no matter how many social rules and categories we create for each other, on a fundamental level the similarities between us will always run deeper than any of the differences.

One of the questions at the story's center is whether a clone can possess a soul. Late in the film Kathy and Tommy are informed that the artwork collected from the children at Hailsham was a means of determining whether they did, in fact, have souls, which in turn might have forced a public discussion of ethics that would save their lives. I would argue that the simple fact that they hope - not to live but simply for more time - is all the proof necessary that they have souls, that they are human beings just like any other. It would be one thing if they just wanted to escape and live - the instinct for self-preservation is present in all living creatures; but the fact that they understand time in such a way that even a little bit of it is precious to them is, I think, proof enough that the distinction between originals and duplicates is only a matter of societal attitude. The film doesn't spend a lot of time exploring the big picture in terms of how people feel about cloning or the lives of clones themselves, but whenever it touches on the subject, it makes it count.

Never Let Me Go tackles a lot of big themes but it manages to do so on a very intimate scale by creating distinct and engaging characters. It's a shame that the Best Actress field is so crowded this year and that the film itself has already been written off as an also-ran in many circles, because Mulligan's performance here is wonderful and deserving of attention. In her hands Kathy is a character of quiet endurance, a pillar of strength at the story's center that helps keep it from sinking in sentimentality. Her final moments in the film are devastatingly perfect, wrenching in fact. Never Let Me Go is a profoundly sad film, but a very good one that deserves better than the lacklustre response it has received thus far.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Review: 12 Monkeys (1995)

* * * 1/2

Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt

If film and literature are anything to go by, the future is the last place you want to be. It's always bleak and horrifying. 12 Monkeys is no different - in fact, if the bleak and horrifying scale runs to 10, it's about a 9. It is also, however, very good and very entertaining.

The film begins in the future, long after a virus has ravaged humankind and contaminated the earth's surface, forcing the survivors underground until a cure can be developed. Criminals are routinely "volunteered" to venture up to the surface to collect specimens and to observe and one such convict, James Cole (Bruce Willis), proves so useful at this task that he's given the opportunity to travel back to the past. His reward upon his return will be a pardon and his mission is obtain a pure sample of the virus - there is no hope that he can do anything to stop the virus; all he can do is bring the scientists of the future something they can work with so that humanity can be restored to the earth's surface.

The virus spreads across the earth in 1997 and so Cole is sent back to 1996. The only problem is that time travel technology hasn't been perfected yet so he's actually sent back to 1990, where he promptly ends up first in police custody and then in a mental institution. There he meets two key people: his psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). He's eventually transported back to the future and given another opportunity to travel to 1996, though once again he goes too far back, this time ending up in the middle of a trench during WWI. When he finally does get to 1996, he kidnaps Kathryn and takes her in search of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, a terrorist organization with Goines at its head. Kathryn believes he's delusional but as they proceed further on their journey, she begins to realize that he really is from the future and that she has to find a way to help him.

Directed by Terry Gilliam (aka The Director with the Worst Luck Ever), 12 Monkeys has a very distinct and deeply unsettling look and feel. The future is grim and dark (as it must be since it's subterranean), but the past really isn't depicted much differently. Society already seems to be in the midst of decay before the virus even hits - there's a grittiness to this film that I quite liked compared to the sleekness of most science fiction films. The choices that Gilliam makes throughout, particularly the decision to film some scenes at an angle, go a long way towards creating the off-kilter feel that permeates the story. This is a director's movie through and through and Gilliam is a real vissionary.

The screenplay, written by David and Janet Peoples and inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film Le Jette, is strong enough, though I think that it tips its hand too early and starts telegraphing the ending pretty much from the beginning. Gilliam's direction and the acting - particularly from Pitt - make up for any shortcomings however. Pitt is always at his best when playing weirdoes and psychos and though he comes incredibly close to over-acting here, his complete commitment to the character makes it work. His twitchy, hyper-active performance also plays well against the more subdued performances by Willis and Stowe. All in all 12 Monkeys holds up very well and is eminently enjoyable.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Technical Difficulties

So, you may have noticed that I abruptly stopped posting last week. That's because I've been having some computer issues which have essentially rendered me internet-less at home. Since I have a feeling that my boss probably wouldn't like me blogging from work, that means posting will be sporadic at best, non-existent at worst, until I can get this resolved. My apologies to my tens of readers, I hope you can bear with me.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Get Him To The Greek (2010)

* * *

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand

I don't particularly like Jonah Hill or Russell Brand - I find that a little of either of them goes a long way - which means that, a) it's surprising that I even saw Get Him To The Greek, and, b) it's miraculous that I actually enjoyed it. This Forgetting Sarah Marshall spinoff is funny and more charming than you might expect from a film where a fair bit of the humor is vomit and scatalogically based.

Hill stars as Aaron Green, an intern at a record company run by Sergio Roma (Sean Combs). When Sergio puts him on the spot and challenges him to come up with an idea to generate some revenue for the company, Aaron suggests that they bring rock star Aldous Snow (Brand) to LA to perform at The Greek Theater in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the live album Aldous recorded there. Sergio is skeptical about the plan because Aldous has quite publicly fallen off the wagon since the release of his last album "African Child," a record so disastrous that it is said to be "the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid," but he decides to give it a shot anyway.

Plans are made for the concert and Aaron is sent to London to accompany Aldous to LA and ensure that he arrives on time. Things get off to a bad start when Aldous first delays their departure from London and then takes them on a detour to Las Vegas, where things only get more out of control. Drugs, booze and women are around every corner, presenting stumbling blocks that just might (but, since this is a movie, won't) keep Aaron from coming through and getting Aldous to the show on time.

Written and directed by Nicholas Stoller (Jason Segal gets a writer's credit for developing the characters), the film manages to find a nice balance between lowbrow, raunchy humor and, if not quite highbrow, at least middlebrow, clever humor. The glimpses we get of the music videos by Aldous and his ex-girlfriend Jackie Q. (Rose Byrne) are exagerated enough to be funny yet still seem vaguely plausible, which perhaps says more about the current state of music videos than about this particular film. Get Him To The Greek depends on extreme behavior and extreme characterizations but it manages to do this without making it seem completely unrealistic.

I think the thing that really made this movie work for me is that, at their core, both Aaron and Aldous are basically good guys. They don't always behave like good guys, but the film allows them to be more than caricatures which helps provide the story with a heart and also seems to temper some of the habits both actors have that I personally tend to find annoying. That being said, however, the film is far from perfect and though the screenplay is, for the most part, quite snappy it does start to meander a bit in its final act. All in all, Get Him To The Greek would probably be a better film if it shaved off about twenty minutes and was a little more focused with regards to the ending.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Review: The Social Network (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

I have to admit, for a while there I wasn't too keen on the idea of seeing The Social Network. When the trailer was released, my first thought was, "Great, two hours of rich white guys acting like assholes." It was only in the last couple of weeks, which saw the release of review after review, each seemingly more rapturous than the last, that I actually started to look forward to this one. Luckily, it lives up to the hype.

The Social Network recalls a time long ago, a simpler age when if your friends, family, or that person you remember vaguely from high school wanted to know what you were thinking or what you did over the weekend, they had to, like, call you or something. How did we ever live like that? The film begins with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) getting dumped, getting drunk, and then getting revenge by simultaneously blogging about his now ex-girlfriend and creating Facemash, a site which ranks the attractiveness of the women at Harvard. His late night stunt gets him both bad attention, in the form of a disciplinary hearing (he had to hack into various databases to get the photos for Facemash), and good attention in the form of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who want to bring Zuckerberg aboard their plans for a social network to help Harvard students connect to each other.

Zuckerberg signs up for the project (originally called HarvardConnection then renamed ConnectU) but quickly abandons it to start a social networking site of his own, teaming up with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who doesn't know much about computer programing but has the cash to provide the project with the necessary start up money. Things are going well until The Facebook catches the attention of Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who helps launch the site into the stratosphere but causes an irreparable rift between Zuckerberg and Saverin that eventually leads to one of two lawsuits against Zuckerberg (the other being launched by the Wilkevoss twins and Narendra).

Much of the film is told in flashbacks with the present day scenes taking place in the two mediations. The screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin, unfolds at a fast clip (the first scene is about as close to perfect as it gets) and is very engaging and surprisingly funny. The only thing about the screenplay that didn't really work for me was the scene which introductes Parker. The scene felt kind of clunky (and is so glaring because the rest of the film is so smooth) and while Timberlake does really well in his role, he's not quite a good enough actor to make that scene work.

Throughout the film, the characters are extremely well drawn. Zuckerberg is depicted here as a man utterly lacking in social skills, who has no idea how to forge or maintain connections to other human beings. There's a sharpness to the character and while the film never tries to soften the edges, he's not exactly the "villain" of the story either (though he's certainly no innocent). If there is a villain to this story it's Parker, who waltzes in, seduces Zuckerberg with visions of glory, orchestrates Saverin's ouster, and then proves to be something of a PR liability. There is a scene where Zuckerberg and Parker are in a club and Parker is framed and lit in such a sinister way that the character may as well have been renamed Mephistopheles. It's a brilliant bit of work from director David Fincher (and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth), just one of several little touches that helps make The Social Network such a strong film.

The film is also immeasurably strengthened by its performances. Hammer plays the Winklevoss twins as a pair of golden boys so accustomed to having everything work out for them that they are offended to their very core that not only have their plans been disrupted but that they have to go to such great lengths in their attempt to restore order to their lives (at one point Cameron refuses to sue Zuckerberg, insisting that he and Tyler are "gentlemen of Harvard" and, as such, they can fall back on the social rules of their class to resolve the situation in their favour). Garfield's Saverin - played with wounded intensity - is easier to feel sorry for, perhaps because the story unfolds in such a way that he's like the faithful first wife dumped at the cusp of success in favour of the trophy wife epitomized by Timberlake's Parker. At the center of it all, of course, is Eisenberg who never hits a false note in his portrayal of Zuckerberg. He's been giving solid performances for years now and hopefully he won't go unrecognized for this performance come Oscar time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Singer-Actors

#5: Queen Latifah

Long live the Queen. She's a charismatic performer and one of the most winning screen presences out there - it's just a shame that the movies she's in are so rarely a match for her talents.

#4: Julie Andrews

The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. What other proof do you need of either her musical or acting prowess?

#3: Frank Sinatra

A legendary crooner, an Oscar winning actor, and the leader of the Rat Pack. Sinatra was the man, man.

#2: Barbra Streisand

She's a Diva with a capital "D," which sometimes distracts from the fact that she is so enormously talented. Singer, actor, director, producer, writer, force of nature.

#1: Judy Garland

Could it be any other? A one-of-a-kind singer and a one-of-a-kind-actor all rolled into one.