Saturday, June 30, 2012

Film Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Some would say that Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, but I do not think that is necessarily the case.  More than any other director working today, save for perhaps Tim Burton, Anderson is the most likely candidate to be voted most likely to never change.  Looking back on the director's films, from Bottle Rocket to Rushmore to The Royal Tanenbaums to The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited and even Fantastic Mr. Fox, a huge amount of cinematic growth is not readily seen in such an oeuvre.  Anderson has used the same tricks and tropes for pretty much his entire filmmaking career, and especially since Tanenbaums, you can tell a Wes Anderson film from frame one.  Now I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, for I personally like the tricks and tropes of Anderson's filmmaking style, but it is something that is a constant, seemingly unaltered affectation of sorts.  Some say that we need either change or die, and if that were indeed so, than the films of Wes Anderson may be killing the man.  This also means that Wes Anderson is not an acquired taste so much as an all-or-nothing kind of personality.  You either get the man, and his films, from the very start, or you do not get them at all.  Which brings us to Moonrise Kingdom.

The director's ninth feature film, Moonrise Kingdom is most assuredly a Wes Anderson film from frame one, and to those who like and get Wes Anderson, that is a good thing.  For those others...well, there are lots of other films to see right now.  Telling a story that is probably more akin to Rushmore than to the director's more recent fare, Anderson's whimsical tale of childhood passions for adventure figuratively explodes with the unique and colourful palette of those same said more recent works.  Basically a visual director - save for Tanenbaums in a way, no one will ever mistake Anderson's films for having deep resonating screenplays - Anderson's sharp-edged confectionery look lends to this storied childhood passion for adventure.  The film stars Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, as well as Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and Bob Balaban, and featuring newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Haywood as those passion-filled children.   In line with director's such as Bresson, Kubrick and Godard, Anderson's films have a narrative straightforwardness that tend to offput many filmgoers who are looking for a more emotional catharsis at the movies, but this style also lends itself to the filmmaker's kind of storytelling.  Now of course Anderson is nowhere near the talent of these three particular filmmakers, but one can surely see a kinship in their way of making an artificial reality spring to life on the screen.

It is this faux reality that has created an alternate universe to our rather commonplace one.  It is this faux reality that has made the director comparable, if not in ability then at least in visual candor, to those aforementioned influences.   It is this very faux reality that has made Anderson's oeuvre what it is.  Now depending on whom you speak with, this is a good thing or it is a bad thing.  I suppose I am in that good thing camp.  Granted, other than Rushmore and The Royal Tanenbaums, my own personal opinion on the auteur's work is that of a one-trick-ponydom outlook.  Yes, I happen to like this particular one trick, but still, a bit of artistic stretching now and again would certainly help Anderson reach any higher level of filmmaking, and perhaps even draw the director a touch closer to the aforementioned influences of Bresson, Kubrick and Godard.  In the end, Moonrise Kingdom lies somewhere in the middle of all this one-trick-ponydom.   Not near good, or broad enough to be comparable to The Royal Tanenbaums, which probably goes down as the director's magnum opus if the director were to have a magnum opus, nor as charmingly versatile to be another Rushmore, but still a fun time had by all.  Well at least a fun time by all those who can appreciate a filmmaker such as Wes Anderson.  If you do not, well like I said earlier, there are many other films out there to watch instead of this one.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Film Review: Brave

I was once chastised by a six year old for not giving enough good reviews to animated films.  This is kind of ridiculous for two reasons.  The first being why the hell is a six year old reading my reviews in the first place (of course in all reality he was being prompted by his mother).  The second reason that such a claim is ridiculous is my track record on reviewing animated films.  I have been quite overwhelmingly positive on the ones I have chosen to review.  From The Incredibles to Wall-E to Up to Rango to Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville and this year's Chico & Rita, I have far more often praised than panned.  Granted, most of the animated films that come down the proverbial river go unreviewed by this critic, not because I dislike them but because I have so many other films to worry about, but those I have reviewed are treated well I will have you know.  So with that being said, please allow me to continue this mostly positive spin with my review for Brave, and hopefully get all of these six year olds off my back.

The thirteenth feature from Pixar, as well as the first to showcase a female protagonist, Brave may not be in the upper echelon of the company's output (it lacks the whimsy of a Ratatouille, the sincerity of an Up, or the sentiment of the Toy Story films) but it is still a fun and rollicking good time to be had at the movies.  Working as the studio's first true period piece, the film is set in the Scottish Highlands of the 10th century, and revolves around Merida, a fiery princess (her pluck and bravery as fiery as her brazen and bushy red locks) who wants to be the warrior her father is instead of the proper lady her mother so desires her to be.  More attuned to Disney's past rather than Pixar's, adding to the film's lists of firsts, this also plays out as the studio's very first fairy tale and brings along an addition to Disney's already long line of patented princesses.  But Brave also comes across as darker than past Pixar and Disney both.  More in line with the sensibilities of a Grimm fairy tale, but still with a touch of requisite lightheartedness, the film becomes just the second Pixar film to receive a PG rating (The Incredibles being the first).   Centralizing around the ideas of maternal relationships and deciding your own fate, the film plays out as a classic tale of both the love for adventure and the destinies designed for us all, and is quite reminiscent of old Hollywood and old Disney Studios.  Probably more than any previous Pixar work.

After the rather dismal showing of the studio's last film, Cars 2 (yes, it made money but not the kind of money Pixar is used to, and it became the first of the studio's films to garner note even a single Oscar nomination), Brave was an important cog in the wheelhouse that is studio Pixar.  And it succeeds by taking us on a fun ride with the bravura ginger heroine Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald, most famous lately for her role on Boardwalk Empire) and her peg-legged king of a father (the appropriately boisterous Billy Connolly and his barbaric yawp of a brogue) and bear of a mother (Emma Thompson, and the joke of that descriptive will be gotten once one sees the film) and the trio of bickering lords, who act as comic relief (Kevin McKidd, Craig Furguson and Robbie Coltrane).  We also get the cameo voice of Pixar's very own good luck charm, John Ratzenberger, who has made an appearance in all thirteen of the studio's feature films.  Though probably the best looking Pixar film to date (the studio completely revamped its animation system in preparation for this film), Brave may not make into the stratosphere of the Toy Story realms (the genuinely classic sentimentality of those films keep them in a league all themselves amongst the studio's output) but by no means should it be ignored.  And I am sure all those six year olds, even with its darker side, will like it too.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Film Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

This film may not be the worst time Abraham Lincoln has ever had in a theatre, but it is darn close.  Too soon?  Oh well.  Seriously though, this alt-history take on our sixteenth president, wherein the young Mr. Lincoln, between studying for law school, decrying slavery and bashfully wooing the wealthy debutant Mary Todd, makes his way through life in the titular profession of vampire hunter, coulda, woulda, shoulda had much more, pardon the inevitably obvious pun, bite to it.  As a genre piece, the potential for something as subversive as Cabin in the Woods or perhaps as satiric as Shaun of the Dead, is inherently imbedded in the premise, but alas, Kazakh-born director Timur Bekmambetov, just could not give it, here we go again, the bite it needed to succeed.

Adapted from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (also the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which has made its own various unsuccessful attempts at filmdom lo the past three years or so), the film, through his secret diaries, tells of president Lincoln's attempts at stopping a vampire uprising in the nation.  We find out lots of fun things, like how the Confederacy was manned by the undead or how Harriet Tubman helped free slaves from not oppression so much as being blood-drained fodder for the plantation owners, most of whom by the way were apparently vampires.  The film stars Benjamin Walker as our intrepid vampire slayer-cum-great emancipator, and his blandness (think the poor man's Eric Bana) certainly does not help this already lumbering, languid movie.  We do not get much from the rest of the cast either.  Ramona Flowers herself, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as Mary Todd, really has nothing much to do.  Relegated to the thankless Olivia de Havilland role opposite Walker's lanky, lackluster Errol Flynn, Winstead never sees any action.  I mean c'mon, can't a woman be a vampire hunter?  The only interesting role, and the only interesting performance comes from Dominic Cooper as Lincoln's mentor Henry.  Granted, it is not all that meaty a role either, but by comparison, it almost soars.

In the end though, what it all comes down to is the sad fact that a film, whose premise is as inherently silly-sounding as this one's is, could have been something oh so much more than what it ends up being.  In the hands of a more competent genre filmmaker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter could have been something akin to such cult horror faves as The Evil Dead or the aforementioned Shaun of the Dead.  I would be very interested in finding out just what someone like Joss Whedon or Zack Snyder or J.J. Abrams would have done with such a story.   Any of these three directors would have given the film so much more than what we get here.  Think of Whedon's ability to interact his characters or Snyder's brazen visual bravura or Abrams' blue lens flares as Walker's young Mr. Lincoln swings his mighty silver-tipped axe.  They may not succeed in making it a great or even good film, but they would almost assuredly make it more interesting.   Sadly though, we get the heavy handed Mr. Bekmambetov, whose best claim to fame is the equally silly and equally ham-fisted Wanted.  In Bekmambetov's direction, we get nothing of the necessary sense of humour the film so needs.  Not necessarily a comic film, but a sense of humour toward the story is needed to make a film such as this work, and we get nothing but blank seriousness from the director.  So perhaps this isn't quite as bad as getting shot in the back of the head while watching a mediocre production of Our American Cousin, but brother, it ain't much better.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Early Bird Oscar Predix

Some would say making Oscar predictions in June is doing things a bit on the early side, but having made my early bird predictions in May of last year, I am actually a bit on the late side.  And after all, they are called early bird predictions.  So get off my back people.  Okay, I digress.  Anyway, with the Oscar nominations, as of my posting of this post, just 204 days, 18 hours, 49 minutes and 33 seconds away (not that I am counting or anything) it is high time I get going with my predictions.  So without further ado (well, except for the picture below), here we go.

Best Picture
1. Lincoln
2. Django Unchained
3. The Master
4. Zero Dark Thirty
5. The Life of Pi
6. Les Miserables
7. Argo
8. Anna Karenina
9. Hyde Park on Hudson
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Now we never know these days just how many nominees will be included in the top prize, so I put these in order of probability.  I think as long as it is a hit, Spielberg's Lincoln is a sure bet, but then again this could be the Daniel Day-Lewis show and end up not getting recognition anywhere else.  As for Tarantino's Django Unchained, it is one of the most anticipated films of the year, but will Oscar respond the way they did with Inglourious Basterds a few years back.  We also have P.T. Anderson's The Master and Kathryn Bigelow's Bin Laden-hunting film Zero Dark Thirty, but again, who knows if they will gather steam with Oscar voters.  I think the real wild card here is Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This film could be this year's Winter's Bone and therefore could be much higher on the probability list.  For now though, I will keep it in the number ten spot.  So pretty much, what I am trying to say is there is no real clear cut frontrunner here.  As for other possibilities, we should not count out The Great Gatsby, Gravity, The Silver Linings Playbook, Killing Them Softly, The Gangster Squad, The Surrogate, The Trouble With the Curve, To Rome With Love or even The HobbitThe Dark Knight Rises, the sequel to a film that was very possibly responsible for Oscar upping their BP noms to ten, could be a factor too, but probably not.  There is also a relatively strong possibility of the Coen Brothers' latest, Inside Lwelyn Davis making the grade, but it is still up in the air whether it will be finished in time for a release this year.  So we will lay off that one until a release date gets confirmed.

Best Director
1. Steven Spielberg for Lincoln
2. Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained
3. Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master
4. Ang Lee for The Life of Pi
5. Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty

Wild Card: Ben Affleck for Argo

Again, there appears to be no real frontrunner here.  It all depends on what response the films get upon their eventual release.  Other possibilities include last year's winner, Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, as well as Baz Luhrmann for The Great Gatsby, David O. Russell for The Silver Linings Playbook, Roger Mitchell for Hyde Park on Hudson, Woody Allen for To Rome With Love, Joe Wright for Anna Karenina, David Cronenberg for Cosmopolis (yeah, right), or even Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson or Alfonso Cuarón.  Of course there is also the possibility of the brothers' Coen, if they release their film this year.

Best Actor
1. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
2. Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson
3. Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
4. Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables
5. John Hawkes in The Surrogate

Wild Card: Bradley Cooper in The Silver Linings Playbook

Well it looks as if we finally have a category with a clear cut frontrunner.  I mean really, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln?  I could go out on a limb and claim that Day-Lewis, the best damn acting working in film today, will become the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars.  Poor Bill Murray though.  As FDR, it looked as if the very loved Murray would finally win his Oscar, and then DDL has to come along and play Lincoln.  Go figure.  Anyway, I think this is a pretty strong line-up here and am really hoping Hawkes gets in there as well.  As for the wild card, perhaps it is a bit to soon to hear the sentence, "Bradley Cooper, Oscar nominee" but hey, who knows.  Other possibilities include Ben Affleck in Argo (though the director spot may be a bit more likely), Clint Eastwood in The Trouble With the Curve (didn't he retire from acting?), Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby (though supporting for another film is more likely), Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly and Shia Lebeouf in Lawless.    Okay, that last one was just me making sure you were paying attention.

Best Actress
1. Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina
2. Helen Hunt in The Surrogate
3. Laura Linney in Hyde Park on Hudson
4. Viola Davis in Won't Back Down
5. Qvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild

Wild Card: Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy

I don't think Knightley is as sure a bet as DDL above but she does seem to be a frontrunner here.  Laura Linney could end up going supporting with this role, so that could put Kidman in the top five after all.  Then again, some are saying Kidman's role is more suporting so who knows.  As for the current number five choice, most would claim that should be a wild card, but I gots a feeling people.  I gots me a feeling.  She would end up being the youngest nominee ever.  Other possibilities include Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Barbra Streisand in The Guilt Trip, Maggie Smith in Quartet, Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby.  Other possible wild cards are Dakota Fanning in Effie and Kristen Wiig in Imogene.

Best Supporting Actor
1. Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
2. Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
3. Woody Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths
4. Russell Crowe in Les Miserables
5. Brian Cranston in Argo

Wild Card: Aaron Johnson in Anna Karenina

After we all saw that clip from Anderson's The Master, we all pretty much penciled in Phoenix for an Oscar.  Of course the film has yet to be seen, but then again it is a PTA film, so my hopes are pretty freakin' high.  This could of course be DiCaprio's year, a la Waltz's year with Inglourious Basterds.  As far as Harrelson goes, the role looks pretty juicy, but a similar sounding role had everyone pissed off when Albert Brooks was snubbed last year.  Other possibilities include the aforementioned Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained, Tom Courtenay in Quartet, George Clooney in Gravity, Tobey Maguire in The Great Gatsby, Justin Timberlake in The Trouble With the Curve and any of the Lincoln supporters, Tommy-Lee Jones, David Straitharn and Jared Harris.

Best Supporting Actress
1. Amy Adams in The Master
2. Sally Field in Lincoln
3. Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables
4. Annette Bening in Imogene
5. Samantha Barks in Les Miserables

Wild Card: Jennifer Lawrence in The Silver Linings Playbook

There is no clear frontrunner here.  I guess Hathaway has the "we love her" Gwyneth Paltrow/Sandra Bullock vote, but otherwise, not so much.  There could be a splitting of votes if screen newcomer Barks (the only main cast member transferring from Broadway) gets in.  Another thing that could skew the way is the possibility of either Linney or Kidman going supporting instead of lead.   Although I have not seen any of the performances in question yet, I would like to see Bening finally win her Oscar here.  As far as our wild card goes, she could sneak in here with the help of her popularity in The Hunger Games.  Other possibilities include Kerry Washington in Django Unchained, Vanessa Redgrave in A Song for Marion, Pauline Collins in Quartet, Jacki Weaver in The Silver Linings Playbook, Penélope Cruz in To Rome With Love and Olivia Williams as Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson.

Well that's it for my early bird Oscar predictions.  I suppose I could go on and talk about Original Screenplay (The Master, Hyde Park on Hudson, Django, Brave, Imogene, maybe Zero Dark Thirty) or Adapted Screenplay (Lincoln, Life of Pi, Les Miz, Anna Karenina, Silver Linings Playbook, maybe Argo or Gatsby) or Cinematography (Gravity, Django, Lincoln, Les Miz, Gatsby, maybe Dark Knight Rises) or Art Direction (Gatsby, Les Miz, Prometheus, The Hobbit, Moonrise Kingdom, maybe Dark Knight or Dark Shadows) or Film Editing (The Master, Django, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miz, Argo, maybe Dark Knight or Gravity) or Costume Design (Anna Karenina, Lincoln, Great Expectations, Gatsby, Les Miz, maybe Snow White and the Huntsman or Hyde Park) or Original Score (Lincoln, Argo, Brave, Anna Karenina, The Hobbit, maybe Life of Pi or Snow White, or even Dark Knight) or Best Sound Mixing (Prometheus, Brave, Dark Knight, The Avengers, Les Miz, maybe The Hobbit or Snow White or Gravity) or Sound Editing (The Avengers, Dark Knight, Prometheus, Hunger Games, Zero Dark Thirty, maybe Brave or The Hobbit or Gravity) or Visual Effects (Prometheus, Dark Knight, The Hobbit, The Avengers, Spidey, maybe Life of Pi or Battleship or Gravity) or Make-Up (Lincoln, Les Miz, The Hobbit, Hyde Park, Looper, maybe Dark Knight) or Original Song (?????).  Well look at that, I guess I did go on and talk about those.  Anyway, that's it folks.  See you with newer, and probably better predictions a bit closer to the actual day.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Battle Royale #2: Battle of the Hollywood Hoofers

Welcome to the second Battle Royale here at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World.   It is an ongoing series that will pit two cinematic greats up against each other - and you can vote for who is the greater by clicking your choice over in the poll at the top of the sidebar.

For our second go-around of Battle Royale, we are going with a classic Hollywood musical bent.  There have been many great and talented song-and-dance men throughout cinematic history, and during the golden age especially, but no two have been more loved and more idolized than this pair of battlin' Hollywood hoofers.  This is a battle - a Battle Royale if you will - between classic old world charm and the more modernized world of choreography.  In the first corner we have the man that was famously, and probably apocryphally so, written about after a screen test as, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little."  Born Frederick Austerlitz, the man who would become Fred Astaire, decked out in his finest bib and tucker, which usually meant tails and top hat (he even sang about as much), would tap dance his way (sometimes on the very ceiling) to super stardom, with a flair and grace that defined the era.  Partnered with Ginger Rogers for ten films, Astaire would attempt an early retirement, only to be forced out again to star opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade, and later with Cyd Charisse in one of my all time favourite musicals, The Band Wagon.

Fred's competition comes from one of the most athletic dancers to ever grace the silver screen.  Gene Kelly,  may not have had the old world style of Astaire, but with his modernist style of choreography and unique song-and-dance innovations, he would transform the Hollywood musical into a whole other beast.  Starring in An American in Paris and my all time favourite musical (as well as one of my ten favourite films) Singin' in the Rain, Kelly was as much the epitome of new world charm as Astaire was of old world.  The two men only ever danced together once on screen (1946's The Ziegfeld Follies, from whence the pictures included in the post come) and it is certainly a shame we only ever got that one brief glimpse of these two great dancers together.   Cyd Charisse once claimed that the way her husband could tell who she had danced with was, "If I was black and blue, it was Gene. If I didn't have a scratch it was Fred."  I think that pretty much sums up the differing dance styles of these two combatants.

So go ahead and vote vote vote.  Go on over to the poll widget near the top of the sidebar and make your choice.  And please feel free to leave any comments you wish to on the subject, but also please remember that in order to have your vote (and your voice) counted, you must go over to the poll in the sidebar and actually vote.  No votes listed in the comments section can or will be counted.  But please go ahead and comment anyway (the more, the merrier) but do it after you vote.  Our first Battle Royale garnered fifty votes, but I believe we can do better this time around. You have just under three weeks to vote.  After that I will announce the victor and we will move onto Battle Royale #3 - whomever that may include.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Ten: Best Actresses of All Time Relay Race


The following is my contribution to The Ten: Best Actresses of All Time Relay Race Blogathon.  Originally conceived by Nostra of My Filmviews, and passed on to yours truly by Michaël Parent over at Le Mot du Cinephiliaque, the concept of this blogathon is as follows:

"I've cretaed a list of what I think are the best actresses of all time.  At the end of the post I, just like in a real relay race, hand over the baton to another blogger who will write his own post.  This blogger will have to remove one actress (that is an obligation) and his his/her own choice and describe why he/she did this.  At the end, the blogger chooses another blogger to do the same.  The idea is to make this a long race, so that enough bloggers get a chance to remove and add an actress.  We will end up with a list (not ranked in order) which represents a common agreement of the best actresses.  It will also mean that those who follow this relay race will get to know new blogs as well!"

Here is a list of the blogs that have participated thus far:


The ten best actresses as given to me:

First off there is the beautiful angel of mod cinema, Audrey Hepburn.  Some may have a problem with her being here as she has a reputation for being a bit on the fluffy side, and yes, perhaps she doesn't get as hard hitting as most of the talented ladies on this list, but hey, her ability to play the essence of cool while in the midst of some sort of emotional or social fiasco (Roman Holiday, Sabrina) or her acerbic take on love and marriage (Two for the Road, Breakfast at Tiffany's) or her way of decidedly yet unpretentiously showing up her leading men (Charade,  Funny Face) or simply genuine, flat-out acting (Wait Until Dark, The Nun's Story) made her a star and they keep her an icon of cinema to this day.  Always modest as to her talents ("I was asked to act when I couldn't act. I was asked to sing "Funny Face" when I couldn't sing and dance with Fred Astaire when I couldn't dance - and do all kinds of things I wasn't prepared for. Then I tried like mad to cope with it.") Hepburn was of course a force of nature when it came to her many many humanitarian efforts.  Perhaps being the winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her tireless work with UNICEF or having a breed of tulip named after her (how many can claim such a thing?) doesn't necessarily qualify the Belgian-born daughter of an English banker and a Dutch baroness for inclusion in a list of the greatest actresses, but damn sure her talent, overlooked as it may be in certain circles, most certainly does.

Next up we have my personal favourite of all time, the always wonderful and eternally pretty damn spectacular Miss Barbara Stanwyck.   From her early days in pre-code Hollywood to her tougher than nails persona of the forties and fifties to her latterday TV days, Missy Stanwyck is easily one of the most alluring and most dangerous actresses out there.  With great performances in films as varied as Mexicali Rose, Miracle Woman, The Purchase Price, Baby Face, Annie Oakley, Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, The Lady of Burlesque, Double Indemnity, Sorry Wrong Number, The Furies, Clash by Night, Titanic, Executive Suite and Forty Guns, she has proven again and again and again that she is simply the greatest.  And it was not just talent, but also a professional attitude that made Missy so popular to work with.  Directors would come back multiple times to put her in front of their cameras.  Both Wellman and Capra would come back five times each to do such a thing.  The great lady was nominated for the Oscar four times but would never win it (she was awarded an honourary statuette in 1981) and this is a shame indeed.  My favourite anecdote about Babs is this:  When she was filming the western Forty Guns, one of the stuntmen refused to do a stunt, saying it was too dangerous.  Missy, being Missy, told the stuntman to step aside and the then fifty year old actress got on the horse and did the stunt herself.  My guess is that the stuntman was pretty much laughed out of Dodge so to speak.  It is this kind of attitude that made Stanwyck so powerful as both an actress and as a woman.

Our third great actress is that beautiful and hauntingly talented Swedish-born movie star icon Ingrid Bergman.   With her breakthrough Hollywood performance in 1939's Intermezzo: A Love Story, a David Selznick-produced remake of the actress's 1936 Swedish success, and her iconic performance as Ilsa Lund in the über-classic Casablanca, Bergman became one of the most sought after actress's in 1940's Hollywood.   With stellar, award-winning performances in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, The Bells of St. Mary's, Joan of Arc and three Hitchcock films in Spellbound, Notorious and Under Capricorn, Bergman was at the top of her game by 1950.  It was then that Bergman met and fell in love with Italian director Roberto Rossellini.  This affair and eventual pregnancy (which in turn would lead to their child Isabella Rossellini becoming a great actress in her own right) caused a scandal in the rather Puritanical US at the time.  Bergman was decried on the floor of the US Senate and Ed Sullivan even refused to have her on his show (a thing that Steve Allen remedied by boldly bringing her on his show).  This also led to possibly the richest performances of the actress's career in the Rossellini-directed Stromboli, Europa '51 and one of the greatest films of all time, Viaggio in Italia.  Bergman would make her triumphant return to Hollywood in 1956 with her Oscar winning performance in Anastasia.  With later performances in Murder on the Orient Express, for which she won her third Academy Award (only Katherine Hepburn has more with four) and Autumn Sonata, her final big screen appearance directed by her unrelated Swedish compatriot Ingmar Bergman, the great actress more than cemented her cinematic immortality.  

Number four on our list is the first of two French actresses on the the list.  It is the sensual and sexy and brilliantly talented Isabelle Huppert.   I remember the first time I saw the actress was in the 1983 French drama Entre Nous.  This Holocaust-era film, with its undertones of a lesbian love story was enough to get this then sixteen year old smart-aleck kid to fall in love with the freckled face beauty that is Isabelle Huppert.  Not a typical beauty queen, Huppert to this day, even nearing sixty, is one of the most beautiful and most sensual actresses to ever take the screen.  Granted, in films such as The Piano Teacher, School of Flesh, Ma Mère, Heaven's Gate, Madame Bovary, Amateur and Gabrielle, it is a rather dark and oft-times quite sinister kind of sensuality, but a sensuality nonetheless.   A thirteen time César Award nominee (she won the award in 1996 for her performance in the Claude Cabrol film La Cérémonie), Huppert has appeared in nearly 100 films, and the majority of them, from her breakout role in 1974's Going Places with Gerard Depardieu to her her old west madame, a la Belle Starr, in Michael Cimino's oft-maligned but quite brilliant fiasco Heaven's Gate to playing muse for every director from Godard to Jacquot to Haneke to Chabrol to her more recent performances in several American films such as the Wes Anderson-directed Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Wes Anderson-esque I Heart Huckabees to her singing and dancing performance in the adorable 8 Women to her brilliant recent performances in Gabrielle, Private Property and White Material (she should have gotten an Oscar nod for that last one) are ones that will live for the ages.  This beautiful and powerful red head will always have a place in my heart.

The next great actress up is another redhead - one of three on our list.  It is the wonderful Julianne Moore.  Getting her start in the late 1980's on the soap opera As the World Turns, for which she won a Daytime Emmy Award, the 1990's would bring Moore both critical acclaim (Short Cuts, Safe) and box office success (Nine Months, The Lost World: Jurassic Park).  Her performance in Safe, easily one of the finest of the decade, would prove to everyone out there that the actress was more (or Moore) than just a pretty face and a quirky character actor.  And if this wasn't enough to cement such an opinion in everyone's critical minds, then her performances in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Magnolia and the Coen Brothers' cult favourite The Big Lebowski, damn well did.  After this, Moore would give what is so far her finest performance in Todd Haynes' brilliantly subversive Sirkian melodrama Far From Heaven, and follow that up with powerful roles in Children of Men, Chlöe, The Hours, Savage Grace, Blindness, A Single Man and The Kids Are All Right.  She has also been a hit on the small screen with a guest star spot on 30 Rock and her portrayal of idiot former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin on HBO's Game Change.   A very active political activist, supporting same-sex marriage and taking a pro-choice stance, Moore is as free-thinking of a human being as she is a bravura thespian.  Her next role will be taking Piper Laurie's place as the evil Margaret White in the Carrie remake, due out next year.

Number six in our list of great actresses is our second French talent, and one of my favourite actresses working today, Miss Juliette Binoche.   The ironic part of my love for La Binoche (and yes, that is her nickname in certain French cinema circles) is that the two roles for which she is best known here in the USofA are two films that I actively dislike - Chocolat and The English Patient, the latter of which she was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  But hey, I am not going to hold these two roles against the woman.  Especially when she has more than made up for these two filmic errors (she does give good performances in these two poorly written characters) with a slew of performances that showcase the actress's powerful cinematic chutzpah.   The first time I remember seeing La Binoche, was waaay back in 1988 when I first saw Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where she played opposite the best damn actor working today, Daniel Day-Lewis.   Binoche would go on to star in films by some of the best auteurs of the day.  Michael Haneke (Caché, Code Unknown), Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), Patrice LeConte (The Widow of St. Pierre), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon), Krzsztof Kieslowski (the Three Colours Trilogy) and Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy).   The great actress will continue this by starring in David Cronenberg's upcoming Cosmopolis.

Next up is our lone entrant from what many call the far east.  Hong Kong actress, and former Miss World semi-finalist, Maggie Cheung.  Perhaps for her performance in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood For Love alone should qualify her for this list, but she does actually have some other pretty stellar performances as well.  I remember the first I saw her on film.  It was Irma Vep, directed by her then husband, french auteurist Olivier Assayas.  Maggie was in skin tight leather running along rooftops as a modern day incarnation of the silent star of Les Vampires.  How could I not fall for her?  But still it was not just her sex appeal that made her so good in the role.  Her acting prowess was just as fierce as her sexuality.  She is probably best known upon these shores for her role in Zhang Yimou's brightly coloured wire-fu epic Hero, but still that is not even the half of it.  I am actually very excited, and a bit surprised to find Ms. Cheung on the list.  Thanks to Bonjour Tristesse for that addition.  I am not saying the actress does not belong on such a list, but that she is not that well known.  Hopefully such an addition will get her the recognition she so deserves.  If you have seen her in the aforementioned In the Mood For Love, or other works such as Irma Vep or Ashes of Time or Clean, you would surely agree with me.  Her performance in Clean made her the first Asian actress to win at Cannes.  As an actress she has not done much screen work since Clean back in 2004, which is a shame.  As with several others on this list, she has done a lot of charity work and is currently the UNICEF chairperson for China.  Hopefully she will get back to the whole acting thing though, as her presence in world cinema is surely missed lo these past eight years.

Number eight on our list is almost always listed among the greatest actresses of all time.   It is four time Oscar winner, and our third redhead (at least sometimes) Katharine Hepburn.  One can hardly speak of the history of American acting, and the history of Hollywood, even though she shunned much of the latter, without mentioning the Connecticut-born actress.  With great performances in such films as Morning Glory, Little Women, Alice Adams, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib, The African Queen, Pat and Mike, Summertime, Desk Set and Long Day's Journey into Night, she is an icon of acting and of cinema.  Even in lesser films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and On Golden Pond, one can see how great a lady she really is.  Be it on stage or on screen, Katharine Hepburn is one of the finest thespians the world has ever seen.  Sure, notorious wit Dorothy Parker may have said she runs the acting gamut from A to B, but she was a bitter woman after all.  Film Historian Jeanine Basinger said of the brash, trend-setting actress, "What she brought us was a new kind of heroine—modern and independent. She was beautiful, but she did not rely on that."  Basically what I am trying to say here is that no list such as this would be complete without Katharine Hepburn on it.  Hell, the woman has had streets named after her.

Our ninth great lady is the only person who has ever surpassed Katharine Hepburn in garnering Oscar nominations.  With seventeen of them to her name (and with three victories) as well as twenty-six Golden Globe nominations (winning eight of those babies) and a record fourteen BAFTA nods (and two wins) it is that queen of dialects, the always great Meryl Streep.  Born Mary Louise Streep in New Jersey (but don't hold that against her), not only is the actress the most awarded star in the Hollywood realms, she is probably the most well respected thespian working today.  Sure, the great lady has been in her share of what we would call utter crapola (Mamma Mia! anyone?  She-Devil?), but who hasn't.  Just take a look at her quite stellar performances in both good and not so good films like The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Manhattan, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Plenty, Out of Africa, Heartburn, Ironweed, A Cry in the Dark, Postcards From the Edge, Defending Your Life, The River Wild, Adaptation., The Hours, Prairie Home Companion, The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt and Julie & Julia, and you will see why La Streep belongs on this list.  What would it be without her?  A role model to so many younger actresses (so many count her among their idols) Streep, a star of both stage and screen, is probably not only the most well respected actress around today, but also very possibly the most important actress working in Hollywood today. 

And last but certainly not least is the newest member of our list (added by M. Parent at Le Mot du Cinephiliaque on baton toss prior) and ironically the eldest.   It is legendary silent film star Lillian Gish.  The first actress to earn a million dollars in one year, Gish was one of the very first celebrities in Hollywood.  Known for a slew of moppets with moxie roles, where the psychically diminutive Gish had to persevere through unfathomable perils and heartaches, Gish was the epitome of the tough-as-nails waif during the silent era.  The legend made many of her films with that stalwart Victorian director David Wark Griffith - a man who changed the way movies were made.  Much of this change came not only through the filmmaker's prowess as a forward thinking storyteller and game-changing techniques, but also through acting of his muse.  Miss Gish, in a day and age of oft-times ridiculous looking theatrical over-acting, had an almost unheard of realism to her ability that she probably did as much for acting as Griffith had done for directing.  But it was not just her silent era films that give Miss Gish the right to be on this list.   Her performances in the masterpiece The Night of the Hunter and her final film role, at age 93, in The Whales of August, will not soon be forgotten.  Her final acting performance was in a studio version of Show Boat, where the actress had a cameo to close the show out.  Lillian Gish's final words in her long long career were "Good night, dear."

My subtraction:

Here is where it gets kind of difficult.  As I am sure you have ascertained from what I wrote above, I like all ten of these actresses.  Perhaps only three would make my personal top ten, but still, there is not a bad egg in the bunch.  If only there were a Gwyneth Paltrow or a Sandra Bullock in here, things would be a lot easier, but alas, there is not.  Which means, according to the rules, I must kick someone I like and respect to the proverbial curb.  Well, before I do it, let me tell you I am doing this quite begrudgingly.  I suppose, much like a band-aid, I should just do it quick.  So here goes.  If for no other reason than there are too many potentially crazy redheads in the pot (and anyone who has ever dated a redhead, knows of whence I speak), I am going to have to send Julianne Moore packing.  Sorry Julianne, but they forced me to do it.  Don't cry, I am sure someone will put you back in sometime soon.  Whew, glad that is over.

My Addition:

Now this one is pretty difficult as well.  There are so many great actresses one could easily include on this list.  I am sure you can figure out who I am adding by looking at the picture right beside these words, but please allow me to ramble on just a bit longer.  First off, I am rather upset that two of my all-time favourites, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe have been kicked off the list.  Sure, they never get the respect they deserve, but still.  Yes, Judy was a drunk and a pill popper, but where would you be if these things were forced on you by the studio at age fourteen or so?  And as for Ms. Monroe, she gets a bum rap because of her dumb blonde schtick, but she was far from dumb.  She learned acting at the smae place that James Dean, Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando learned their craft, and she could hold her own against the lot of 'em.  But I will resist re-adding either of them, instead going forward with someone fresh and new.  Now, I am also rather flabbergasted that Bette Davis has not even been mentioned as of yet.  Really, no Bette Davis!?  But her too I will resist adding, in lieu of her worst enemy (again, see pic to the right).  I too will resist adding such obvious names as Deborah Kerr, Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, Greta Garbo, Olivia De Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Susan Hayward, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Gena Rowlands, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Emma Thompson, Kim Basinger, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams.  There are a whole bunch more that I have left out for not wishing to ramble on any longer.  So, in ending this, I add Joan Crawford onto the list.  From her early precode days to the heights of Mildred Pierce to my personal favourite, Johnny Guitar, Crawford may not have a reputation as mother of the year, but damn could that lady act.

Well that's it folks.  I am sure there are some who are already typing out some nasty comments about my choices, but too bad.  I now will hand the baton over to Natalie at In the Mood.  Here ya go kid.  Do what you must.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Film Review: Bernie

Richard Linklater, the most Hawksian of all modern day directors, has done something that many would not believe possible.  He has made Jack Black not only palatable, but downright entertaining.  Sure, the rather overwrought cherubic actor can be fun at times, but let's face it, his career has been much more Nacho Libre and much less Margot at the Wedding.  Here Black hands in a performance that is not only better than anything the actor has previously attempted but perhaps light years above them all.  Instead of just acting the clown, which incidentally Black is adept at doing even if he does it in some pretty rotten movies, the actor has decided to do something different this time around.  The actor has decided to act.  Combine this with Linklater's typically quirky ability to mock and show love for his mockees at the same damn time, and you have yourself a funny and tender romp of good old fashioned Texas chutzpah - Linklater style.

Based on the all-too-true story of Bernie Tiede, a 39 year old East Texas assistant funeral director who in 1996 shot and killed his 81 year old companion, Linklater gives the story both a tragic and a comic feel.  Intermingling fictionalized portrayals with real life interviews with those who knew the real Bernie, Linklater's film rattles along with the sense of reality crashing headlong into fantasy.  The film, and everything that transpires within it, seems to be so ridiculous, so far-fetched, that it could not be true.  But alas, with the exception of necessary dramatic flourishes, it is very very true.  Perhaps Bernie never rises to the heights of past Linklater works such as Dazed and Confused or the Before Sunrise/Sunset twins, but with the director's unique spin on things - docudrama turned mocumentary turned back into docudrama - it is the best film the man has done in several years.  And I think, even being the lifelong auteurist that I am, much of this has to do with the surprising performance of Jack Black.

Also starring Shirley MacLaine as the aforementioned inevitably fatal widow and old Linklater stalwart Matthew McConaughey (and when did he start making good movies once again?) as the local D.A., wonderfully named Danny Buck, Bernie plays out as a gleefully southern Gothic tale that may have been penned by the likes of Carson McCullers. Okay, perhaps a less acerbic, more poppy version of McCullers, but you get the gist.  Linklater brings his movie together, the characterizations and the real lifers both, with the charm of a southern gentleman - or at least the Texas gentleman that he most certainly is.  But once again, no matter how much charming junk Linklater decides to put in the trunk (or the freezer as the case may be here) this is Jack Black's show.  It his his movie to make or break, and this time around, nothing gets broken.

Film Review: Rock of Ages

Let's get the obvious out of the way right away.  Rock of Ages will never be thought of as any great work of cinema.  It will never be included with other great musicals like Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris.  It will never be whispered along with films like Cabaret or On the Town or even amongst lesser musicals like Chicago or its closest kin Moulin Rouge.  Come year's end, it will not be talked about when discussing the best cinematic achievements of 2012.  What it will do though, is be a larkish entertainment for two hours for those with certain proclivities toward the hair bands of the 1980's - a group which, for better or for worse, must include this critic.  Sure, it is silly and oft-times quite ridiculous, but hey, sometimes a thing like that is just how you want to spend your afternoon and/or evening.

Adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, Rock of Ages takes the music of such Hair Metal bands as Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Poison, Twisted Sister, Reo Speedwagon, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Journey, Night Ranger and others, and incorporates them into the story of a Whisky-a-Go-Go-esque L.A. nightclub called the Bourbon Room (Ha!  I get it!) and those who run it, work it and perform it.   Starring Mexican-born soap star and singer Diego Boneta and country music star and Footloose remake sexpot Julianne Hough as the titular leads of the film, Rock of Ages acts as a rags to riches story with the backdrop of rock and roll baby.  Also starring Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the head honcho and lackey of the aforementioned Bourbon Room, who do a hilarious cover of a certain Reo Speedwagon tune; Paul Giamatti as an oily slick agent; Mary J. Blige as a strip club owner who seems kind of out of place in the genre; Catherine Zeta-Jones as the sexiest prim and proper prude this side of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin (think a sultry and smokin' version of Tipper Gore); and of course Tom Cruise as rock icon Stacee Jaxx, a strangely alluring melange of Keith Richards, Axl Rose and Jim Morrison.

Now Cruise actually ain't half bad here.  His voice is more than competent for the type of music he is singing.  This is more the Magnolia Cruise rather than the Mission Impossible Cruise - and it works.  As for the rest of the film, it certainly has its flaws, but like I stated above - it sure is fun, especially for those of us who have actually seen groups like Poison and Bon Jovi in concert back in their hey days.  Yeah, that would be me.  If anything, my biggest complaint music-wise is the omission of some obvious necessities, such as Warrant's Cherry Pie or Lita Ford's Kiss Me Deadly.  But then, their may have been rights issues.  The most glaring omission though is a song that is in the Broadway version of the musical.  Why they decided to omit Steve Perry's Oh Sherrie from the film version (save for a few teaser bars early on), especially considering Hough's character name is, you guessed it, Sherrie, is beyond this critic to fathom.  Anyway, all these criticisms aside, in the end the film may be quite silly, but it sure as hell is a lot of fun.

Battle Royale #1: Battle of the Beautiful Swedes (The Results)

Well, the inaugural edition of The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World's newest regular feature is at an end.  The final bell has rung on our first Battle Royale, and a winner has been decided.  Our Battle of the Beautiful Swedes has been a hard fought battle but in the end, after fifty votes have been cast, a winner has been decided.  The only question that remains is whether it was the enigmatic Miss Garbo or the able-bodied Miss Bergman that would end up as our very first Battle Royale champion.  Which of these Stockholm born Hollywood legends would be the champ?  Well, a squeakier victory could barely have been had.   With a final score of 26 to 24 (or 52% to 48% if one wishes to delve into the stats) the victory goes to three time Academy Award winner Ingrid Bergman.  Sure, first she takes all the Oscars, and now this.  No wonder Garbo vanted to be left alone.  But seriously, I would like to congratulate our first Battle Royale champion, even if chances are pretty high she is not reading this particular post.  Or is she?  And to Miss Garbo - a valiant battle fought milady, and if it is any consolation (because of course she is reading this as well) you had my vote at hello.  

Seriously though, this was a close close race (I myself only chose Garbo over Bergman by the slightest of hairs) and that is what the Battle Royale is meant to be all about.  Pitting closely related cinematic giants against each other - one on one.  So remember to check back for more hard fought battles.  Each Battle Royale will have a voting period of three weeks.  The second Battle Royale will be announced in a few days.  I am guessing that all those song-and-dance fans out there will enjoy this one.  And yes, fifty votes was a good turnout, but I know we can do better.  Hopefully we can up the number of votes this time around and make it even more interesting.  See ya in a few days oh faithful readers and true believers.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Andrew Sarris, Goodbye To You

As a kid, I loved movies.  What kid doesn't, right?  But back in those days, I really knew nothing about them except for how much I enjoyed or did not enjoy them.  That was before I became an unapologetic auteurist.  That was before I read The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris.  The American Cinema, for all you silly kids out there that have no idea what it was, is and always will be, is pretty much the bible of any and all cinephiles born after 1950 or so.  Originally published in 1968, one of the most important years in the history of cinephila, it spoke to several generations of cinephiles and movieheads as if it, and therefore its author, Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris, was the word of god.  In many ways, it was.  Granted, being born in 1967, I came to the book one generation removed from its original audience, but it had no less of an impact on me because of it.

Sarris and his book were what brought the Auteur Theory, first posed by a certain François Truffaut in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, across the Atlantic and into the colleges and art house cinemas of America.  Claiming that a director was more than mere director, but the author of their film, with a unique yet discernible artistic signature to their work, Sarris helped to create a generation (or two or three) of fellow unapologetic auteurists - myself very much included.  Even if there were some opposition from other critical corners, the auteur theory has gone from theoretical slapdashery to sanctified critical canon.  Sarris' book, with its classic sectioning from Pantheon Directors (Hawks, Hitch and the boys) on down through such lower rankings as Expressive Exotica (Jacques Tourneur, Edgar G. Ulmer) and Strained Seriousness (Kubrick!?  Really?), can be found, and quite dogeared most likely, in just about any respectable cinephile's bookshelves.  And if it isn't found in your bookshelves, then you need to get a copy asap.  I know mine, quite dogeared of course, sits right beside my desk, just waiting to be given yet another perusal.  

With Mr. Sarris' passing Wednesday, at the age of 83, we are all left with a void in our cinematic hearts, but at the very least, we will always have his book - the book - to dogear forever.  In 1970 Mr. Sarris wrote, in the forward to another book (Confessions of a Cultist), explaining his profession: "Still, I suppose we represented a new breed of film critic.  The cultural rationale for our worthier predecessors - Agee, Ferguson, Levin, Murphy, Sherwood, et al. - was that they were too good to be reviewing movies.  We, on the contrary, were not considered much good for anything else."  I too have written in other fields (attempts at poetry and fictional prose litter my literary past) and I would have to jump on board with Sarris' definition of our joint profession.  Like him, I feel as if I too was not much good for anything else - and I mean to take that in the most complimentary manner.  Now even though we were in the same field - he on top, me down closer to Earth - I never had the privilege of meeting the man, but that doesn't mean that I will not miss him and his writings.  I might even have to finally forgive him for categorizing Stanley Kubrick as Strained Seriousness.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Retro Review: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  This particular edition of Retro Reviews also acts as my contribution to The Queer Film Blogathon being co-hosted by the fine folks at Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr.  And please remember as you are reading the following that: a) It was written just after the release of the film and therefore several years before the death of its star, Heath Ledger; b) It was written while George Bush was president and before the more open and hopeful administration of President Obama, though the ultra conservatism written about in the review still rears its ugly head; c) There may be spoilers ahead, in case that is something you care about.  Now on with the show...

*************

The sky is deep and daring, with its pale blues turned dark vortexes of storms and its white clouds swirling with the anticipation of disaster.  The frontier lain out in front of us, like the ghost of John Ford haunting his lost God's country of old.  These are the archetypal images that flooded the lens of legendary western auteur, John Ford, in most all of his films.  These are the same images that now grace the camera of Taiwanese-turned-Hollywood filmmaker, Ang Lee.  With Ford they were mighty, manly images, with Lee, they are again mighty manly images, but, unless you've been living somewhere beyond the reach of TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, the internet and your blackberry, you know full well that these mighty, manly images are vastly different than Ford's - or are they.

The story, taken from Annie Proulx's 1997 New Yorker-published short story and screened up by western icon, Larry McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana, starts out in the bitter lonely wastes of Wyoming dirt roads and soon leads to the cold even lonelier mountaintops of the Rockies.  It is in these crags that Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two cowboys, find more than just a trail and a song.  The time is 1963 and the place is the wintery peak of Brokeback Mountain.  In these days - and nights - of sheepherding and coyote watching, Jack and Ennis find a closeness that probably surprises them even more than it will assuredly surprise middle America (the heartland movie-going chunk that Focus Features is inexplicably going to try to sell this film to), although I am sure the soccer moms of Nebraska will be rather surprised - and knowing the conservative climate of the country these days - rather pissed off.

It is just this ugly newfound über-conservatism of America that takes this beautifully wrought love story and metamorphoses it into something much more important, and possibly historic even - a litmus test for tolerance in America.  As our Bush-wacked nation takes ten steps backward in the areas of tolerance, freedom and open-mindedness, and as droves of homophobic men, many otherwise reasonable and intelligent, are refusing to even see this film, Ang Lee, along with a pair of very daring, and one might say in a career defining moment, actors in Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, bring us one of the most intense love stories ever put onto film (gay, straight or anything else), as well as the perfect stepping stone for the broadening of the new right-leaning American mentality.  But enough politicking, you say?  On with the film?  Well okay, for this film is not just a mere socio-political bulwark, but a mesmerizing work of cinema from any and all angles.

Rusty, sad pick-up trucks stand in for the horses of Ford's legends (at least until they hit the mountain tops), but with taciturn, half-mumbled cowboy cadence still intact, Lee's doomed lovers take to their lives with some sort of mislead sense of this is how things are and this is how things must always be.  It is an angered tension that fluxuates between the forlorn yearning and false machismo of these two men - both bewildered by the lust (and eventual love) that has overtaken them upon Brokeback Mountain.  There is no seduction.  There are no words spoken.  There is just an embrace in the cold night and then passion takes over.  A rough, wild, angry passion.  "I ain't queer." Ennis exclaims the morning after their first mountaintop trist.  "Neither am I." Jack responds.  What follows are decades of loveless marriages and children for both of these men (with wives played by Anne Hathaway and Ledger's real life wife Michelle Williams), interrupted only for the occasional "fishing trip" back to Brokeback Mountain.  This was a time and these were places where to be queer was to be less than a man.  This was a time and these were places where to be queer could mean certain death.  This was a time and these were places where to be queer was never an option. 


What Brokeback Mountain is - at the deepest part of its core - is a film about the contradictions between the constricting closet of internal self-imposed shame and the wide open spaces of an America that was supposedly built upon God, compassion and equality.  It is this unfortunate truth that keeps these men apart for life - a life that could have been spent together.  Even Jack, the slightly more comfortable-with-himself of the pair, puts forth the idea of getting a ranch together and spending their lives with each other - only to have the idea shot down by a pre-programmed Ennis.  It is this very - as Wilde put it - love that dare not speak its name that keeps these men from sharing a life together.  It is this pre-Stonewallian (although such rampant intolerance is sadly still very much alive and well in these conservative post 9/11 days) society that forces these men into loveless, doomed-to-failure relationships.  It is society that gives the beauty of this love story its tragic overtones.

Finally, near the end, it is Ennis we see, a broken lost soul, sitting at the kitchen table, listening to Jack's father drawl on about his son's wasted life, and it is in Ledger's face that we see a man who has just seen his empty life flash before his eyes.  It is at this moment that Ennis - and we through the incredibly powerful performance of Ledger - finally realizes he has wasted his life away.  It is in the final moments of the film, just after an emotionally destructive, yet resonantly touching scene between Ennis and his now grown eldest daughter, that the inner turmoil of these two men finally explodes upon the screen in a quiet heartbreaking way.  In half the shot we see a postcard of Brokeback Mountain tacked up beside a pair of shirts hung on a single hanger.  The other half of the shot peers out the window of Ennis' trailer.  It looks out onto an empty desolate lonely world.  These final few moments are possibly some of the most emotionally draining moments ever put onto film.  In fact - I must admit - that even now, days after seeing the film, I am welling up with tears just writing these words and thinking of those last moments.  

Lee's Brokeback Mountain plays as a triumph of wills for all those involved in its long creation.  From Proulx's original writing, to McMurtry & Ossana's re-tooling, to Lee's sharply subtle direction, to Ledger & Gyllenhall's intrepid performances.  Political powderkeg or not, Brokeback Mountain is, not only Ang Lee's greatest cinematic achievement yet, but also one of the most beautifully tragic love stories ever told.   It is a film that most certainly will not be forgotten in the annals of film history.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 12/04/05]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Film Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Now usually I am not a fan of people talking during movies.  Shut the hell up or get the hell out has always been my attitude toward the whole thing.  And in general this is still my attitude, but when my wife and I were forced to listen to the inane conversations of a twentysomething couple seated just in front of us - he having to explain the story of Snow White to his date as if she had just appeared on this planet with absolutely no pop culture reference in hand - we both realized that the stupidity of the girl and the seeming frustration of the guy were much more interesting that anything that happened to be happening up on the screen.  Obviously this does not bode well for the movie we were there to see, Snow White and the Huntsman.

Now when that other Snow White tale came out earlier this year, the candy-coloured Julia Roberts vehicle Mirror Mirror, I had said in my review of that film, that I was looking forward to this darker looking, possibly more accurately told fairy tale of yore.  When all is said and done though, both films end up as pretty much equal disappointments.  Sure this one is a darker film, and many of the visuals are given a more potentially dangerous vibe, and Chris "The Mighty Thor" Hemsworth does a much better, and much more desirable hero boy toy than Armie "The Winklevii" Hammer, and the dwarfs seem less like a circus tumbling act here (though we won't even go into the lawsuits pending over using full size actors shrunk down with CGI), but it is not necessarily any better than the more light-hearted Mirror Mirror.  Both are failures in separate ways - one acts too cutsie-for-cutsie's-sake, the other pretending to be something it is not - but both are most definitely failures in their own unique ways.

Perhaps the failure here is due to the lack of charisma put off by Kristen Stewart and just about any actor she is playing opposite.  Perhaps it is the PG-13 attitude of the studio to make it teen friendly and not go as dark as they coulda woulda shoulda - hence the aforementioned pretending to be something it is not statement.  Perhaps it is the Twilightrification of the whole thing, setting it up for an improbable sequel aimed, as this one was, at all those Bella Swan fans out there - whoever the hell they may be.  Perhaps it is just, plain and simple, a mediocre film from a mediocre writer/director, with a mediocre cast (Hemsworth and evil queen Charlize Theron are both good but never get the chance to showcase it here) done in a very mediocre way.  The strange thing when one compares Mirror Mirror and this film (and this is an inevitable thing to do) is that even though the earlier film is much more confectionery, it may actually be a sharper, wittier, and oddly enough, a bit scarier work than this.  In the end though, neither one is really worth watching when so many better films are out there awaiting our arrival.

Film Review: Dark Shadows

To say that Tim Burton, much like his man-crush cinematic paramour Johnny Depp, is simply going through the motions these days, is not really a shocking, or even remotely surprising way to start a review of the director's latest film, Dark Shadows.  Always having tendencies toward one trick ponydom, Burton is a filmmaker who never strays too far from the kitschy, Gothic well that has been his so-called bread and butter, and perhaps bloody red jam as well, lo these past near three decades of his post-Disney feature film career.  On the other hand, he is also a filmmaker who has made some of the more uniquely stylized films of these same said near three decades.  Films like the effervescent Beetlejuice and pop-goth Edward Scissorhands, the sinister Sleepy Hollow and sentimental Big Fish, the oft-maligned Mars Attacks! and the meet-cute stop motion Corpse Bride.  Films like the grandiose spectacle of Sweeney Todd and the subtle brilliance of the director's one film that comes closest to being able to be called a masterpiece, Ed Wood.  But now, with both this film and his last, Alice in Wonderland, it seems like just the same old same old.  Granted, this same old same old sure is pretty to look at, but even visually it seems like we have seen this all before, which in essence, we of course have.

Now just because a director seems to keep his cinematic stretching to a minimum, doth not necessarily a bad filmmaker make.  On the contrary, directors as varied as David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese (to name but a few that fit into the classic auteur theory realm of film studies) are filmmaker's whose artistic signatures ring out with audacious bravura, and, though some would, I would not call any of them bad directors in any way, shape or form.  But then again, when directors like the aforementioned three do repeat certain imagery and/or motifs, they tend, at least in their better works, to manipulate into a brand new (or newish) form.  Burton has done this in the past but it seems, these days in particular, like he is merely going through the motions as they say.  It seemed that way with his blandish middle of the road Alice in Wonderland (how bad does a Tim Burton film have to be when in comparison, the Disney version appears more vibrant and even subversive!?) and it seems that way again, with Dark Shadows.

As far as the story goes, for those who care, it is the tale of a 200 year old cursed vampire who returns to the modern day (where modern 1972 that is) to reestablish his family's good name and to perhaps finally get revenge on the witch who cursed him in the first place.  The film, as I am sure just about everyone knows, is an adaptation of the ABC soap opera of the same name that ran from 1966 to 1971 and featured a sinister vampire by the name of Barnabas Collins.  I remember not only watching the show in what must have been syndication in the mid to late seventies, but also playing the Milton Bradley game where you had to construct a skeleton in a coffin, or some such thing.   Of course the aforementioned Burton boy toy Johnny Depp plays the infamous Mister Collins, and he plays it, well, he plays it, for better or for worse, just like one would expect Johnny Depp to play such a part.  Not to say Depp is not a wide-ranging actor - because he is and has proven it on numerous occasions - but he seems to just be phoning it in nowadays.  Of course when one is getting paid as much as Depp, the highest paid actor in the history of cinema, perhaps one does tend to get a bit lazy at times.  And that is just what Dark Shadows seems to be - lazy.  Other than the one true highlight of the film, Eva Green as the sexy, age old witch (she is the only one who seems to bring any real glee into her performance) Dark Shadows is not necessarily a bad film, but something perhaps much worse - a lazy one.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Retro Review: Adventureland (2009)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.  To make up for Kristen Stewart's Snow White and the Huntsman being a pretty big drag, this particular edition of Retro Reviews is meant to look back at a better Stewart film, though not necessarily a better Stewart performance.

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Perhaps it’s my nostalgic, somewhat romantic idealizing of the 1970’s and 1980's of my youth. Perhaps it’s the simple, but quite head-tilting fact that I actually grew up in an amusement park (stop tilting your head, it’s true – my family worked the park and I had free reign to ride anything I wanted to). Whatever the case, I rather enjoyed this film about college bound kids working at a run-down amusement park in late eighties suburban Pittsburgh. In fact I liked it quite a bit more than I ever expected to. Director Greg Mottola’s previous film (his only previous film actually) was the Judd Apatow-produced Superbad, a lowbrow bro-com replete with the obnoxia more oft than not associated with the Apatow cinematic universe. I was not impressed, to say the least, and though I wasn’t completely put off by the film, its lack of artistic merit gave me woes of anxiety when walking into the screening for the boldly titled (but ironically so, I suppose) Adventureland. Well, those anxious woes were steadily alleviated throughout this smartly written and romantically wry little film. Boy, was my face red.

Adventureland tells the story of James, a twenty-twoish college student who, when confronted with his father’s layoff, is forced to take a job at a local decrepit old amusement park in order to get next semester’s tuition bankroll. This, of course, is where he will meet the girl of his supposed dreams. Filled with a stylish (and unstylish) array of cast-offs and misfits, all with their own typically indie-cinema quirkiness, Adventureland could easily have fallen into the realm of the ridiculous (possibly even the purgatory of straight-to-video). Instead, it is raised above such muck by a relatively well-adjusted cast of characters who manage to go beyond the fiddle faddle of typicality so prevalent in such movies (much like the mundane boorishness of the aforementioned Apatow universe. In short, the wry, acerbic crowd with which it is populated saves Mottola’s film, an otherwise by-the-book rom-com in most ways.

It is the laid back, but in his best panic-mode style, Gen X (or is it Y?) sarcastic witticisms of Jesse Eisenberg, as the strange kid in a strange land that gets everything started. Following in the footsteps of his (admittedly similar) roles in The Education of Charlie Banks and the wonderfully lacerating The Squid and the Whale as well as the soon-to-be released Zombieland in hindsighted perspective, Eisenberg is once again the voice of manic, jaded reason and esoteric intelligentsia. The kid is simply a blast to watch and listen to as he acts out his role as the very antithesis of what Hollywood – and the middle American corn belt and minivan set who go along with it – think of as the ideal leading man. The kid is just too smart for that kind of thing. Quirky, sensitive and full of bitter, pop-culture-referenced angst, Eisenberg – and in turn James – is not what the mass-media hype-mongers want us to see in the movies and/or on TV, but what the rest of us see when we look in the mirror everyday.

Joining Eisenberg in this playground of dehumanizing absurdities that is their park of pathos, is his femme fatale in faded jeans and ringer t-shirt, Kristen Stewart as Em, the dark, brooding girl of his supposed dreams. Stewart plays the part of permanent malaise to near perfection. This may not be so much her acting prowess (one cannot see that she has any to speak of really) as her actually being a dark, brooding girl of (somebody’s?) dreams. Cute, and rather appealing on a basic college quad girl kinda way, but just as listless as attractive.  It’s as if she were one of those emotionally-lobotomized Russian mail-order brides who just lie there in order to please their men and get their green cards. In other words, the typical twenty-something of today.  I suppose as long as Stewart sticks to roles that play on her dark, heroin (or is it meth? – I’m saying meth!) chic dullness – aka, vampire’s blood interest, depressed small town wayward girl, Joan Jett – then she should have a strong career ahead of her. Running the acting gamut from A to B (as Dorothy Parker would likely say) should not be that hard. Of course we are lucky that her role as Em falls squarely into that two-letter thespianic spectrum.  I suppose though, this is what the role is asking for from its portrayer.  Now if only we could get her to have an emotion that does not involve just a crooked smile and cynical eye roll.

Rounding out the cast is a group of actors as mish-mashed as the characters they portray. SNL buddies Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are in their characterizing best mode as the hilariously square management team of the park. The oft-maligned Ryan Reynolds plays the half-studly maintenance man who may very well be the long-lost, slightly less skeevy brother of Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson from the Richard Linklater's masterpiece of teen angst Dazed and Confused. Martin Starr, of Freaks and Geeks fame, as Joel, the pipe-smoking class-centric oddball and soon-to-be best friend of James. You will also find Matt Bush as the in-serious-need-of-Ritalin Frigo (he is best known for being the thoughtless son who keeps catching the ire of his mom by throwing away all his unused minutes in those AT&T commercials). All in all, the cast (even the blase-for-blase-sake Ms. Stewart) pops with an almost ironic tone of self-awareness. A Freaks and Geeks of the amusement park set, I suppose you could, and should say, all the while referencing not only that particular semi-contemporarily set work (1981 this time) but also another (this time positive) Judd Apatow connection to boot.

In sum, set during the summer of 1987 (a summer where I myself would turn twenty, which again might explain my own personal connection with these characters) and with an eighties aesthetic to it, Adventureland plays out as kitsch comedy tinged with a leering self-awareness by its always-on-the-nod-and-wink cast. It may not be perfect (but what is?) and it may play in typical rom-com territory when first explored, but Adventureland is fun once one decides to allude the surface schmaltz and go deeper into the belly of the proverbial beast. Perhaps though, it is just my nostalgic, somewhat romantic idealizing of the 1970’s and 80's of my youth and the simple, but quite head-tilting fact that I actually grew up in an amusement park. Whatever the case may be, at least I had a fun ride. You didn’t think you would get away without a cheesy amusement park cliche did you? At least I didn’t call the movie the roller coaster ride of the summer.

[Originally published at MovieZeal on 09/27/09]