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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best Picture Countdown

For the past couple of years I've dedicated the period from the day of Oscar nominations through the day of the Oscar telecast to celebrating all things Oscar. This year will be no different, but I'd like to change things up a bit. This year I'd like to post reviews of all the past winners of Best Picture and since that is a massive undertaking for such a short time span, I'm asking for help!

I already have reviews for about half (give or take) of the Best Picture winners, but there are a bunch that, for whatever reason, I either haven't seen or haven't reviewed yet. If you have any interest in reviewing one or more of the following movies, please contact me and/or stake your claim in the comments and I'll email you with more details:

The Broadway Melody
Mutiny on the Bounty
The Great Ziegfeld
You Can't Take It With You
Mrs. Miniver
Going My Way
The Lost Weekend
Gentleman's Agreement
All The King's Men
The Greatest Show On Earth
From Here To Eternity
Around the World in 80 Days
Tom Jones
My Fair Lady
The Sound of Music
In The Heat of the Night
The Sting
The Deer Hunter
Kramer vs. Kramer
Ordinary People
Chariots of Fire
Terms of Endearment
The Last Emperor
Rain Man
Dances With Wolves
The Silence of the Lambs
Forrest Gump
The English Patient
Shakespeare In Love
A Beautiful Mind
Million Dollar Baby

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Christmas Movies

#5: Bad Santa

Well, maybe this one is more of an anti-Christmas movie. Still, it's awfully funny.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street

A classic if ever there was one. There are a couple of different versions of Miracle on 34th Street, but the 1947 film starring Maureen O'Hara, Natalie Wood and Edward Gwenn (who won Best Supporting Actor for the performance) is the best.

#3: A Christmas Story

If you need to know why, see Wednesday's post.

#2: National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

I never get tired of watching this movie. It's as funny to me now as it was the first time I saw it many years ago. Though, I suppose that watching it is a somewhat darker experience now that Randy Quaid has gone insane.

#1: It's A Wonderful Life

Dude, It's A Wonderful Life straight up owns Christmas. It's inescapable!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Canadian Film Review: I Killed My Mother (2009)

* * * *

Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Xavier Dolan

With I Killed My Mother - a ferocious and complex story about the relationship between a son and his mother - writer/director/star Xavier Dolan announces himself as a force to be reckoned with. At just 21 he has already made his mark with two very well received films (this one and Heartbeats, which received a standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes) and he's easily one of the most exciting up and coming directors around. The hype is very much deserved.

I Killed My Mother centers on Hubert (Dolan) who, at 16, has a difficult relationship with his mother (Anne Dorval). Everything about her annoys him, from the way she eats her food, to the radio station she listens to in the car. He is an incredibly angry young man who explodes at the drop of a hat whenever he's in his mother's presence. If the film's title turned out to be literal, we would not be surprised because the tension in the story seems to be building towards an outburst of violence; however, the title does not refer to a literal turn of the plot. Early in the story, Hubert tells a teacher that he's essentially an orphan as he never sees his father and his mother is dead. After it becomes apparent that his mother is very much alive (after she shows up at the school in a rage and chases her son through its hallways), the teacher tells him that through his lie he killed her. Her statement later inspires him to write an essay titled, "I Killed My Mother."

There's a lot going on with Hubert. He's gay and has a boyfriend, Antonin (Francois Arnaud), who has a much happier, much more open relationship with his own mother. After Antonin's mother accidentally outs the relationship to Hubert's mother, things become even more strained between them. Hubert wants to move out and get an apartment with Antonin which his mother agrees to, only to change her mind the next day. Instead Hubert is sent to a boarding school, where he is miserable. Something has got to give, because both mother and son have reached their breaking points.

I Killed My Mother is a vibrant, high-energy film directed with such confidence that it is amazing that it was made a) by a first time director, and b) one who was only 19 at the time he made it. These facts are surprising both because of the skill with which the film has been constructed and because the story, which Dolan has described as autobiographical, is balanced in a way which suggests a sense of perspective far beyond most 19-year-olds. Hubert is the protagonist but he isn't really the "hero." The film is realistic about the ways in which his behavior can be unfair and unwarranted, though it also depicts the mother as at times unfair and prone to tantrums just as frightening as those of her son. The film has a very specific point of view, but it doesn't present the situation as one sided - it presents the situation with a great deal of complexity and care.

As Hubert, Dolan renders a performance that's like a force of nature. He screams and pouts, he hopes and suffers disappointments, he loves and he hates - sometimes at the exact same moment. He cycles through a lot of emotions and he brings a great deal of nuance to a character who, in lesser hands, might simply seem like a brat. He and Dorval play off each other very way, bringing the volatile relationship at the film's center to life. I Killed My Mother isn't the easiest movie to get hold of (though I suspect that it's far easier to get a copy in Quebec), but it's well worth the effort.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ebert's Greats #8: A Christmas Story (1983)

* * * *

Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melina Dillon

The only thing worse than your mother refusing to get you the toy you want most because you'll take your eye out is getting that toy and proving her right. Actually, no, there is something worse: pink bunny pajamas. Nothing beats that... although, getting your tongue stuck to a flagpole doesn't seem that pleasant, either. A Christmas Story, adapted from short stories by Jean Shepherd, recounts all manner of childhood traumas with humor and heart, making it a perfect holiday movie.

A Christmas Story follows the trials and tribulations of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) who wants more than anything to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. His appeals frequently fall on deaf ears, however, as most everyone agrees that were he to get a BB gun, he'd end up losing an eye. But a boy can still hope! Fortunately for Ralphie, any man who would warmly embrace a lamp shaped like a woman's leg clad in a fishnet stocking is also a man who would buy a kid a weapon, and Ralphie's father is just such a man.

But, before the film gets to that point, there are many smaller adventures for Ralphie to tackle. There's his epic battle with school bully Scut Farkus, which ends with in Ralphie being caught by his mother beating Farkus up and swearing repeatedly, leading to him getting his mouth washed out with soap. Plus, there's the minor plot of Ralphie's Secret Society decoder ring in which he learns an important lesson about getting ripped off, Ralphie's pal Flick getting his tongue stuck to a flagpole, and pretty much everything involving Ralphie's brother Randy (Ian Petrella).

A Christmas Story unfolds at a nice, easy pace that works with the narration by Jean Shepherd to give the film an intimate, conversational feel, as if it's being recounted by a relative over Christmas dinner. The tone is obviously very light but there are a lot of moments that verge on the dramatic and give the story emotional resonance. For example, after Ralphie beats up Farkus, his mother pulls out the wait-until-your-father-gets-home chestnut. Ralphie waits in terror for the rest of the day but once his father gets home, his mother diffuses the situation by casually telling him about the fight and then immediately changing the subject. There are lots of little moments like that, ones which capture an authentic sense a familial give and take.

That family sense is aided immeasurably by the fact that the film is so perfectly cast. Billingsley makes for a great protagonist, giving a performance that is engaging without being overly precocious. Darren McGavin is pitch perfect as the family patriarch, swearing from one end of the film to the other, and as Ralphie's mother Melinda Dillon provides the film with a great deal of warmth. A Christmas Story is pretty much a perfect Christmas movie so if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend trying to catch it in the next couple of days - no doubt it will be playing endlessly over the Christmas weekend.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: The Fighter (2010)

* * *

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

The Fighter is David O. Russell's most conventional film and the only feature length film he's directed that he didn't also have a hand in writing, which is perhaps why it doesn't quite have the passion of his previous efforts. I mean, sure, it gets the adrenaline pumping during its finale, but overall it's something of a detached effort. Luckily it's got four solid performances pushing it forward.

The Fighter tells the story of "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a welterweight boxer struggling to make his mark. As the story opens, however, the focus is on Ward's half-brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer who is now the subject of a documentary about crack addiction. Dicky - "the pride of Lowell" thanks to having knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard once upon a time - has convinced himself that the film crew is detailing his comeback rather than his continuing descent, and he's more or less enabled by everyone in his life, particularly his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo). Since Dicky acts as his brother's trainer, his drug problem has some pretty major negative effects on Micky's career and after an altercation with police which results in one of Micky's hands being broken, Micky decides that he can no longer afford to maintain the professional side of their relationship.

Alice, who is fiercely supportive of Dicky, pressures Micky not to turn his back on his brother and, perhaps even more importantly, not to turn his back on her by cutting her lose as his manager. However, several other people in Micky's life - including his father (Jack McGee), his other trainer Mickey O'Keefe (played by the real O'Keefe), and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) - make him see the necessity of cutting Alice and Dicky, and the insanity that seems to follow in their wake, out of his career. This starts a veritable war over Micky, who understands that his mother and brother bring too much drama but ultimately still feels a great deal of loyalty to them. He's given an ultimatum but, in the end, gets to have his cake and eat it too as his mother and brother end up in his corner alongside his girlfriend, father and trainer.

The four principal actors are all very good and though I've read reviews in which Bale and Leo's performances are described as bordering on "cartoony," I have to disagree with that assessment. Just because a role seems showy, doesn't mean that there aren't people like that who exist in the real world. Personally, Bale's portrayal of Dicky reminded me a lot of a guy I know casually through my real job, so the performance rang with authenticity to me. Likewise, I have no doubt that Leo's portrayal of Alice could easily remind a viewer of someone they've known. Their characters have very forceful personalities, huge presences, but the performances are skilled and I don't think that either is overly-mannered or scenery chewing.

Bale and Leo have the most colorful roles (although the actresses playing Micky and Dicky's army of sisters are pretty colorful themselves), but the quieter performances from Wahlberg and Adams give the film its emotional resonance. Part of the problem that I had with The Fighter is that it kind of gives short shrift to Micky and, by extension, to Wahlberg. Micky is the story's official subject but the film consistently seems more interested in his brother, which is perhaps why one of the "big" moments - when Micky reveals his frustrations about living in Dicky's shadow, telling his mother, "I'm your son, too" - falls a bit flat. I mean, Micky is absolutely right but it seems like an afterthought given that the film itself is fascinated by Dicky at Micky's expense.

In the end, while I really liked the four performances of The Fighter, I found the film itself too unfocused and some of the conflicts (particularly that between Charlene and Micky's family) resolved a bit too tidily. It's a good movie, but it falls far short of greatness.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Black Swan (2010)

* * * *

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

I've given it some thought and the conclusion that I've come to regarding Black Swan is that if someone had just given that girl a vibrator and twenty minutes in peace, none of that would have happened. Darren Aronofsky's latest is a film deeply entrenched in sexual repression/shame, its protagonist driven over the edge when tasked with connecting, on any level, to her sensuality. It makes for an intense, thrilling and absolutely excellent film.

Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, twenty-something ballerina balanced precariously on the precipice of sanity. She's infantalized by her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a former dancer, who keeps her in a perpetual state of childhood in order to exert control over her and live vicariously through her. Nina dances for a company run by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and in which Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) has long reigned as prima ballerina. However, the company has been losing money, prompting Thomas to replace Beth and announce his plans for a daring reimagining of the Tchaikovsky classic Swan Lake. Though she's amongst the dancers he picks to audition for The Swan Queen, Thomas has his doubts about Nina's ability to portray The Black Swan half of the role, and while Nina does get the lead, she has a lot of work to do in order to prove herself.

Nina's struggle to connect with the sexually charged role is intensified by the arrival of a Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer whom Thomas praises for the passion of her dancing, even if she's not as technically proficient as Nina. Nina immediately feels threatened by Lily, whom she is convinced is trying to destroy and replace her. As the ballet's opening night approaches, Nina begins to drift further and further from reality, her anxieties expressed through bodily mutilation, violent fantasies (although how much is fantasy and how much is reality is up for debate), and paranoid outbursts.

To return to my original statement, if you haven't seen Black Swan yet, you might think that I was being facetious, but if you have seen the film, then you know just how true that statement is. This is not simply a story about a woman who isn't in touch with her sexuality, but about a woman who has been actively denied the opportunity or the space to mature sexually. Her identity in this respect is so underdeveloped that even Thomas - whose penchant for referring to his, ahem, protégés as "my little princess" would suggest that he isn't opposed to relationships in which the balance of power is significantly in his favor - thinks twice about getting involved with her.

Nina is the embodiment of the innocent white swan but rather than being drawn to a prince, she's alternately attracted to and repelled by the sexual energy of the Black Swan embodied by Lily. Given that the bodily horror aspect of the story has to do with the impossibility of denying one's true nature (the "black swan" part of Nina has been repressed, but in the end it overpowers her and she imagines that she's physically becoming the black swan), I think it's significant that the only positive (albeit only briefly positive and then ultimately destructive) sexual response Nina has is to Lily. I think a decent argument could be made for Black Swan as a story of coming out and the power of internalized homophobia, though I don't think I could properly articulate such an argument after just one viewing of the film.

The imagery of Black Swan can sometimes be lacking in subtlety but Aronofsky maintains such a high level of tension throughout the film that the force of the narrative just rolls right over you so that you aren't really bothered by the spoon fed symbolism. This is an incredibly intense and engrossing film and while I know that the whole is-it-real-or-is-it-hallucination thing will be off-putting to some, I think that Aronofsky makes it work each and every time. The fragility of Nina's mental state is established pretty much immediately but the film keeps building it up and building it up until finally getting to the point of her final descent into madness. The way this plays out is frightening and mesmerizing, leading to an ending that leaves you breathless.

At this point I don't think that there's anything I can add to the conversation about how great Portman's performance is or how brave; I can simply confirm that she's fantastic. The whole cast, really, is great from Hershey's clingy stage mother to Cassel's lecherous director to Kunis' Eve Harrington-esque understudy to Ryder's desperate fading star. The performances work together in a perfect harmony of chaos and while there is no doubt that Portman will receive an Oscar nomination for her work here, hopefully the supporting cast will receive some recognition as well.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Boxing Movies

#5: Million Dollar Baby

Clint Eastwood's sports tragedy is pretty much the polar opposite of that other boxing Best Picture, the feel-good, sequel spawning Rocky. This character driven drama remains solid and compelling (and I don't care what anyone else says: I totally think Hilary Swank deserved that second Oscar).

#4: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Rocky Graziano was originally supposed to be played by James Dean; instead it's one of the roles that helped make Paul Newman a star. This story of a scrapper who fights his way from the streets to the middleweight championship is one of the great sports movies of all time.

#3: Girlfight

Director Karyn Kusama hasn't had the best luck lately, her last two films being Jennifer's Body and AEon Flux, but at least she can take comfort in the fact that her debut was so well-received. With a great performance by Michelle Rodriguez at its centre, Girlfight is a definite must see.

#2: Rocky

A film can't inspire a million sequels without tapping into something that truly speaks to audiences. The original (and best) Rocky came out in 1976, the most recent entry came out in 2006. I think it's safe to say that given that its story has carried on for 30 years, there's something to it that is ultimately timeless.

#1: Raging Bull

This Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro collaboration is, quite simply, a masterpiece. This visceral, vicious film does not pull any punches and De Niro's performance is astounding.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Marion Bridge (2002)

* * *

Director: Wiebke von Carolsfeld
Starring: Molly Parker, Rebecca Jenkins, Stacy Smith, Ellen Page

Three sisters, one (badly kept) secret, and a whole world of pain. Welcome to Marion Bridge, the award winning family drama from director Wiebke von Carolsfeld (who has perhaps the best name since Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) and writer Daniel MacIvor. Featuring a great performance from Canadian film mainstay Molly Parker and an early role for Ellen Page, Marion Bridge is a solid and engaging drama.

Like many family sagas, this one begins with the return of a prodigal child. In this case it's Agnes (Parker), an alcoholic former wild child who comes home upon learning that her mother (Marguerite McNeil) is on her deathbed. She's met with hostility by her sisters, Theresa (Rebecca Jenkins) and Louise (Stacy Smith), who long ago reached their limit with her destructive antics and are uneasy in her presence. Not only does she disrupt their routines, she dredges up memories from their painful, emotionally fraught childhood. Meanwhile, Agnes struggles to keep it together as she tries to prove herself to the family.

Things get worse when Agnes prove unable to stay away from the neighboring town of Marion Bridge where a young girl named Joanie (Ellen Page) lives. Joanie is the child Agnes had as a teenager - the result of rape at the hands of her father - and gave up for adoption. Though she has managed to keep her distance for years, she's drawn back to Marion Bridge time and again to satisfy her curiosity about the girl. Soon, of course, the girl starts to wonder why and when Theresa and Louise learn of the visits, it reopens a lot of old wounds.

Marion Bridge, adapted by MacIvor's stage play of the same name, is a great example of a character driven story. All three of the sisters are incredibly well-drawn and the performances by their respective actresses are compelling. Agnes is the story's true protagonist, but Theresa and Louise are still fully fleshed characters with lives and stories of their own. Louise, in particular, provides the film with a bit of levity thanks to a recurring theme involving her ambiguous sexuality and Agnes' frequent attempts to coax her out of the closet. At every turn, Agnes sets up opportunities for Louise to come out, only to discover that she's totally misunderstood the situation. Meanwhile, Theresa is divorced but still deeply involved with her ex-husband and her learning to let go of the past coincides with Agnes reconnecting with Joanie.

The narrative terrain here is familiar in many respects but Marion Bridge finds a comfortable enough groove that that familiarity works instead of seeming derivative. A big part of that is due to the talent on hand in front of the camera, with all three of the principle actresses delivering skilled, nuanced performances (Page's role is fairly small but she, too, gives a good performance). There is an absolutely amazing scene towards the end when the sisters visit their father, now enfeebled by old age, after a long estrangement. There is a moment when he and Agnes simply stare each other down that is just so powerful that I doubt I could do it justice by writing about it.

Marion Bridge is one of those films that seems to play on TV with a fair bit of frequency, so if you're ever able to catch it I highly recommend it. If nothing else, it will give you a renewed sense of appreciation for Parker.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Great Last Scenes: The Silence of the Lambs

Year: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Great Because...: Most films end with resolution, with the conflicts and problems laid to rest (or, mostly laid to rest) and the action behind us. The Silence of the Lambs ends by ramping the tension way the hell up, sending the audience out on what is, arguably, the story's most terrifying note. I mean, say what you will about the scenes involving Buffalo Bill or even the scene of Hannibal Lecter's escape, but is anything scarier than the idea of Lecter roaming freely about the world?

When serial killer Buffalo Bill kidnaps a senator's daughter to complete his master plan of a "woman suit," novice FBI agent Clarice Starling is brought into the orbit of Hannibal Lecter, a notorious cannibal/serial killer. After securing a deal that will see him transfered away from his nemisis Dr. Chilton in exchange for his help guiding Starling to Buffalo Bill, he begins worming his way into Starling's brain.

While dragging personal information out of Starling and giving her clues about Buffalo Bill, Lecter quietly plots his next move. After brutally killing two guards, Lecter escapes from captivity and disappears. Meanwhile, Starling finds Buffalo Bill, rescues the senator's daughter, and finishes her FBI training. At her graduation she receives a phone call from Lecter. He puts her mind somewhat at ease, assuring her that he has no intention of coming after her, but then he says the most chilling thing you could ever hear from a cannibal: "I'm having an old friend for dinner."

I love this ending for a couple of reasons. For one thing it brings the relationship between Starling and Lecter - which defines the film but doesn't drive the plot - back to the foreground. The case involving Buffalo Bill is resolved, but that dark, dangerous relationship will carry on beyond the film's margins (I will not hold the unfortunate sequel against the ending of this film). Aside from bringing focus back to this fascinating relationship, it also allows the film to end on a very high note. Most films build their momentum towards the climax and then coast on diminishing tensions towards the end, but The Silence of the Lambs fakes us out, letting us experience the denoument and then it builds the momentum right back up on its way out.

But even laying all of that aside, I think this is an ending that also works purely on the strength of that final line and the charisma that Anthony Hopkins brings to the role of Lecter. If I may say so, it's an absolutely delicious line reading and Hopkins pretty clearly enjoyed delivering it. It helps make an already well-crafted ending one of the most memorable film finales ever. What more could you ask for?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: The Tourist (2010)

* * *

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie

This time of year inevitably brings a string of films that are the cinematic equivalent of a hearty feast. The Tourist is like the sugary desert - not as filling or as nourishing as anything else on the table, but tasty nevertheless. The reviews for this film have been terrible and, I have to admit, it's not a particularly good movie - but I liked it. Many of the plot turns don't make any effing sense but I still thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie.

The story begins in Paris, when Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie), who is under surveillance by a Scotland Yard team led by Inspector Acheson (Paul Bettany), receives instructions from her ex-boyfriend, a fugitive named Alexander Peirs. He advises her to board a train to Venice, find a man with roughly his build, and make the authorities believe that that man really is him. The man she meets on the train is Frank (Johnny Depp), a math teacher from Wisconsin, who is enthralled enough to accept her invitation to stay with her at her hotel once they arrive in Venice. However, things quickly get out of hand when the henchman of gangster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff), whose money Alexander stole, show up and try to kill Frank, thinking that he's Alexander.

What follows is a series of captures, escapes and chase scenes. The action sequences that ensue - particularly an extended boat chase - are very well-done. At a time when all action sequences seem to be CGI and quick cuts that leave you with only a blury impression of what's going on, it's nice to see a sequence unfold in such a way that you can actually tell what is going on, where characters are in relation to each other, and who is doing what. The events leading up to these set-pieces might be nonsensical, but the result is solid.

The Tourist has three credited screenwriters: director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie, and Julian Fellowes. All three have proven themselves to be excellent writters in the past - von Donnersmarck with The Lives of Others, McQuarrie with The Usual Suspects, and Fellowes with Gosford Park - but this particular film doesn't boast a strong screenplay. The story does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny and the "twist" at the end really only makes sense if you ignore everything that came before it. The Tourist is a spiritual cousin to films like Charade and To Catch A Thief but it only emulates the glamour and superficial beauty of those films, not their intelligence or the soundness of their construction.

The story of The Tourist may only be a throw-away excuse to have Depp and Jolie running around on location, but it's still an enjoyable film. I much prefer Jolie in films like this where she's in "movie star" mode rather than "serious actress" mode and I can't remember the last time I saw a movie where Depp was just... some dude. It was kind of unsettling at first to see him free of ticks, eccentricities, and tons of makeup, but he delivers a good performance as an everyman caught up in something far beyond his control (which is part of the reason why the final twist rings false but whatever). So, in short, the combination of Depp, Jolie, and beautifully photographed locations is winning enough that I'm willing to forgive all the ways that the screenplay is lacking.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ebert's Greats #7: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

* * * *

Director: Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue

If it isn't the most depressing movie ever (one of Ingmar Bergman's films may lay claim to that title), Leaving Las Vegas has got to be, at the very least, in the top 5. It's so unrelentingly grim that, as well-made as it is, you really only want to see it once because it's such a harrowing experience. Nicolas Cage's ratio of good films to mindless movies/weird, performance art-like crap is perhaps a bit disproportionate, but when he brings it, he really hits it out of the park.

Leaving Las Vegas is a story of alcoholism that begins at rock bottom and then just keeps burrowing further down. Cage stars as Ben Sanderson, a screenwriter whose drinking has cost him everything. With nothing left to lose, he embarks on a trip to Las Vegas, where he intends to finally drink himself into his grave. During his stay he begins a relationship with Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute whose own life is just as dark, but in different ways.

Ben and Sera make an agreement for how to live together - he agrees not to judge her for her work; she agrees not to try to stop his drinking - and for a time, they co-exist peacefully. However, Sera's inability to simply sit there and watch him die slowly overrides that agreement, which prompts Ben to lash out by bringing another prostitute home. Sera throws him out but, when Ben later calls her, she ultimately goes to him to bear witness to his sad final moments.

The success of the film depends on a couple of things. First and foremost it depends on Cage and his ability to play the character rather than the character's addiction. Ben is an alcoholic but that is neither the beginning nor the end of his character. He's a man filled with loneliness and almost incomprehensible self-loathing and there are glimmers throughout the film of the man he once was before his demons took over. There are many moments which I guess you might qualify as "showy," scenes in which Cage must highlight the effects of the ways that Ben has been punishing his body, but I don't think he ever overplays it or hits a false note. This is a brilliant performance of a man imploding from the inside out and it's easily one of the most compelling performances of the last twenty years.

But Cage is only half the story and the other half belongs to Shue, whose performance is just as a vital in terms of making Leaving Las Vegas work. The audience must believe that she would involve herself with this deeply troubled man, that she would sign up to sit by him while he kills himself. Sera is a woman with darkness of her own, which the film establishes early on through scenes with her pimp (Julian Sands), who abuses her but also saves her by letting her go so that the mobsters who are after him don't also go after her. In her relationship with Ben she experiences, perhaps for the first time, a degree of control and in acting as a caretaker to Ben, she is not just giving something but getting something as well. Shue's performance is perhaps quieter than Cage's, but it is nevertheless its equal. Unlike Cage, Shue did not win an Oscar for this performance (and it's hard to get too broken up about that since it went to Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking), but she brings just as much to the table as he does and deserves as much credit.

The stripped down look of the film is borne of budgetary necessity, but it also perfectly captures the spirit of the story. Leaving Las Vegas has a down to the bone kind of production that complements the characters and their milieu. It's gritty and occasionally ugly but it works. It's authentic and the result is just as effective and emotionally involving today as it was 15 years ago.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Mistaken Identity Movies

#5: While You Were Sleeping

The movie that solidified Sandra Bullock as a star is still an entirely loveable story about a lie of omission and a love triangle with two brothers, one of whom is in a coma.

#4: The Big Lebowski

The other Jeffrey Lebowski, a kidnapped trophy wife, German nihilists, a loopy artist with a plan of conception. The Dude can handle of a lot things but the rug? That he simply cannot abide.

#3: Charade

Just who is Cary Grant playing in this movie? He goes through characters with the regularity of costume changes. Luckily Audrey Hepburn has no trouble keeping up with him.

#2: My Man Godfrey

One of the great screwball comedies starring one of the great screwball actresses. If you haven't seen this tale of a down-and-out millionaire who finds a reason to live while on the streets and then becomes the butler for an eccentric family, go out and rent it right away.

#1: North By Northwest

One of Hitchcock's very best. Roger Thornhill just wants to go back to his Madison Avenue life but the assumption by others that he's really George Kaplan keeps him on the run (and running into bigger and bigger problems) for an absolutely thrilling 136 minutes.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Canadian Film Review: eXistenZ (1999)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law

Where does the game end and reality begin? If the game is so realistic that the distinction isn't obvious, does the distinction really exist at all? David Cronenberg's eXistenZ is a film of big and intriguing ideas. With the help of a terrific cast (seriously, there isn't a weak link in the bunch) he explores these ideas in an effective and very engaging way.

The story takes place sometime in the near future when a game designer named Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) unveils eXistenZ, her new game, to a focus group. Before things can get underway, however, an assassination attempt is made on her and she flees with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), a marketing trainee. Because the assassination attempt took place as the game was being downloaded, Allegra worries that the game may now be corrupted and talks Ted into having a bio-port installed so that he can help her test the system. This involves a gas station attendant - named Gas (Willem Defoe) - shooting Ted in the back with a rivet gun, a fact which understandly makes Ted ill at ease (though he does go through with it). Gas, however, turns out to be more foe than friend and wants the ransom that has been placed on Allegra's head. She and Ted manage to escape and run to Allegra's mentor Kiri Vinokur (Ian Holm), who promises to help Allegra save her game.

Allegra and Ted enter eXistenZ and begin following the game's storyline. Things start to go awry, however, when they realize that they may have trusted the wrong person and thereby sent the game into chaos. Coming back to reality they realize that what's happened in the game may have infected the console, which in turn will destroy eXistenZ forever. Or will it? Are they still in the game? The film's spectacular finale involves many reversals and twists that keep you guessing in its final minutes.

Cronenberg, who wrote the screenplay in addition to taking on directing duties, keeps the story moving at a fast and engaging pace, and finds a good balance between action and the intellectual concerns of the story. Though it's primary concern is with the relationship between human beings and technology - and the psychological shifts and crises that can result from the speed at which technology is advancing - the story is more interesting for the way that it plays on ideas of body horror and how it uses those themes to subvert gender roles and assumptions. For example, though science and technology are male-dominated fields, the gaming equipment rather obviously alludes to the female side of reproduction, the cord connecting the system to the player blatantly resembling an umbilical cord. Another example is the bio-port and the scene in which Allegra plugs Ted into the game. She's literally penetrating him, taking the film up to a whole other psychosexual level. It's a film that leaves you with a lot to think about and discuss, but it manages to explore its themes without becoming weighted down by them.

All in all, I think that eXistenZ holds up really well, which isn't something you can say about all science fiction films, particularly those set in the near future. That being said, however, seeing this film for the first time just recently, I couldn't help but be reminded of Inception since both films are built on layers upon layers of story levels. Inception did a lot of things better, I think, and while that really shouldn't reflect on effectiveness of eXistenZ, since it came out a decade earlier and with a much smaller budget, I couldn't help but feel that its impact was ultimately muted. Still, I enjoyed eXistenZ a lot and definitely plan to revist it for future viewings.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ebert's Greats #6: Johnny Guitar (1954)

* * * 1/2

Director: Nicholas Ray
Starring: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge

There's no other film quite like Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's dreamy, colorful western. It is the antithesis of a John Ford western, films that are marked by ultra-masculine men negotiating ultra-masculine worlds; this is a film that bends gender roles and subverts expectations. Naturally, it took a while for the critical assessment to catch up to the film's actual accomplishments, but now it's pretty solidly considered the classic that it truly is.

The film takes place in a small cattle town where two women battle for control. One is Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloon owner who has always experienced hostility from the rest of the town; the other is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a cattle rancher who leads the charge against Vienna. The root of this rivalry is ostensibly The Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), a stage robber that Emma loves but Vienna has; though the general consensus of critics and scholars is that the hatred between the women is just an expression of the sexual tension between them.

Into this volatile mix comes Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), Vienna's ex-lover and a former gun for hire. With him back, Vienna breaks things off with The Dancin' Kid, a fact which doesn't keep the townspeople from suspecting her of being in league with him and his gang after they rob the bank. In the wake of the robbery, Emma rallies a posse and together they burn down Vienna's saloon. Vienna just barely escapes with Johnny, but the angry mob is on their tail, leading to a good old fashioned wild west shoot out.

Vienna is one of Crawford's great roles and she plays it to the hilt. Emma is the villain of the piece (and McCambridge delivers a performance that matches Crawford's strength for strength), but Vienna isn't exactly an innocent. She's a tough woman and not always likeable and between them she and Emma completely steamroll all of the male characters. Ray's depiction of gender politics and roles, in addition to the two marvelous performances at the film's core, is what makes Johnny Guitar particularly fascinating today. It breaks the unspoken rules of its era without even thinking twice about it and, like Ray's masterpiece Rebel Without A Cause, it wears its coding on its sleeve without necessarily commenting on that symbolism directly.

Johnny Guitar is the kind of film that ages well because it exists outside of temporal boundaries. It unfolds is such a dreamy, exaggerated way that it really isn't a period piece, as such, but something else entirely. It's a fantasy film, really (Francois Truffot once called it "the Beauty and the Beast of westerns"), and because of that it's ultimately timeless. It may not have been immediately embraced by critics or audiences, but it has held up better than a lot of movies and it is very watchable and enjoyable today.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Love and Other Drugs (2010)

* *

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway

Unless you have an all-consuming need to see either Jake Gyllenhaal or Anne Hathaway naked, you can probably afford to skip Love and Other Drugs. This scattered love story has big ambitions but falls way, way short. Although I suppose it should get points for having its male protagonist as naked and as frequently naked as his female co-star. You don't see that a lot.

Gyllenhaal stars as Jamie Randall, the defiantly underachieving eldest son of a family of doctors, who gets a sales job with Pfizer through his brother, Josh (Josh Gad). He starts out selling Zoloft, trying in vain to get a foothold in the offices of doctors who have loyally been prescribing the Prozac supplied by Trey Hannigan (Gabriel Macht). In the course of his work he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), whose battle with Parkinson's disease has made her reluctant to get romantically involved with anyone (and who, coincidentally, was last involved with Hannigan). They begin a casual relationship which, despite their best efforts, eventually becomes serious. So serious that Jamie says, "I love you," words he's never said to anyone - not even his parents - before (Maggie, on the other hand, once said it to a cat).

As Maggie's symptoms start to become more prominent, Jamie makes it his mission to find the best possible treatment options for her. The stress of her illness and the increasing feeling that he's trying to "fix" her quickly drives a wedge between them, however, and she breaks things off. With his career taking off thanks to the advent of Viagra, Jamie tries to return to the shallow and meaningless life he was living before but ultimately decides that he can't give Maggie up without a fight.

The screenplay by Charles Randolph, Marshall Herskovitz, and Edward Zwick (who also directs) is the film's greatest obstacle and the other elements never quite overcome that. The problem basically boils down to two things. For one, it seems like two stories smashed together instead of one cohesive narrative and, as such, it seems confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. For another, it commits the cardinal sin of storytelling by being all "tell" and no "show." Rather than taking the chance that the audience might miss some subtle touch or nuance, the screenplay spells everything out, painting in such broad strokes that everything feels false, unnatural and, at times, overwrought.

Despite the shortcomings of the screenplay, Gyllenhaal and Hathaway turn in good performances. The characters are, by design, rather two dimensional - Jamie is the golden boy on the cusp of realizing his potential; Maggie is your standard Manic Pixie Dream Girl - because the story is more concerned with the "issue" than exploring the issue through the characters; but Gyllenhaal and Hathaway do a lot of heavy lifting and manage to breathe life into them. It helps, of course, that both are such likeable actors and play so well off each other. Love and Other Drugs is not a particularly good movie, but that's definitely not the fault of either of its leads.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: 127 Hours (2010)

* * * *

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco

Yeesh, that was rough. Full disclosure: I averted my eyes during the scene. I'm sure there are plenty of people braver than I, but I just couldn't look. 127 Hours is more than just that one scene, however, and director Danny Boyle and star James Franco deserve all the praise that I'm sure they'll get as the year-end awards start being handed out.

Franco stars as Aron Ralston, a hiker who famously had to amputate his own arm after being trapped in a Utah canyon in 2003. His trip starts well enough, as the film opens with him rushing out of the city - filling up a bottle of water but having been unable to find his swiss army knife - to get to Blue John Canyon and then spending most of his first day with a couple of other hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). Shortly after parting ways with them and returning to the solitary adventuring that he so clearly loves, Aron's ordeal begins. Trapped, injured, and all alone in the middle of nowhere, his situation seems totally hopeless.

Ralston spends five days in the canyon making various attempts to extricate himself and spending a lot of time reflecting on how he has come to this point. No one knows where he is because he's been unable to share his life - even the minute details - with anyone else. He comes to regret this, both because it makes his situation more dire, and because he comes to realize all the things he's already missed and all the things he may miss out on in the future if he doesn't get out of the canyon. His experience ultimately transforms him both physically and spiritually, inspiring him to connect on a deeper level with those around him.

The story of man against nature is as old as storytelling itself but it rarely fails to be compelling. I think that's partly because its ultimate message - that human beings need one another - is something that the audience has already partly acknowledged before the story even gets started. Storytelling is an inherently communal activity as it requires both a teller and an audience, so stories like this one, which actively reaffirms the bonds that hold society together, are easily accessible. It also helps that, as played by Franco, Ralston is such an engaging character. For most of the film it's just him - Franco playing off of himself - and that's not something that every actor could make work, but he does it in spades. He displays a lot of different facets to the character and manages to make it clear that even though he's done a stupid thing, he's not a stupid person. It's an absolutely phenomenal performance.

Franco's performance goes a long way towards making sure that Ralston is a very active character despite his predicament, but credit is also due to Boyle. He approaches the insular nature of the story as a challenge rather than a limitation and succeeds at giving it an incredible sense of movement and energy. I think this might actually be my favourite of his films - hopefully next time I watch it I'll be able to watch all of it.

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