Monday, June 30, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Cleopatra


As critics and cinephiles bemoan the arrival of the latest Transformers film, it's probably as good a time as any to reflect on Hollywood's history with the "bigger is better" mantra. This week I took on the daunting task of watching 1963's "Cleopatra", a big budget epic starring Elizabeth Taylor that runs nearly 4 hours. Much like today's blockbuster obsession, the film was part of a trend of large-scale visual spectacles dominating the box office (at the time these were mainly lavish musicals and historical epics). History seems to be repeating itself then, as "Cleopatra" is known for its striking visuals that mask the shortcomings of its script.

"Cleopatra" is perhaps best summed up by a pair of quotes found within the film itself. Together they concisely capture the film's strong points, as well as its nagging flaws. It's a pity that Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director and co-writer) wasn't self-critical enough to craft a more compelling film.

The first quote comes very early in the film. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), a Roman general and Cleopatra's initial paramour, goes to meet the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII in Egypt as part of war negotiations. Upon arrival, Caesar approaches the Pharaoh's entourage and quickly makes note of these curious people. Noticing their elaborate attire, he exclaims "You all look so impressive. Any one of you could be king." This is delivered as a throwaway scoff, but it turns out to be an almost self-aware acknowledgement of the film's Modus operandi. Much of the film's value is derived from its impressive visual spectacle, a quality that hasn't diminished over the years. The production design is staggering to behold (filmmakers wouldn't dare to construct all those elaborate sets today). A grand procession for Cleopatra in particular can only be described as "monstrous". Perched atop a giant Pharaoh float, pulled by hundreds of servants, it's a scene that defines the film's audacity (and it's record-making budget).

Likewise, the impressive costumes mentioned earlier are also awe-inspiring. The main attraction of course, are the outfits (about 65 costumes in total) given to the film's titular character alone. Costume designer ReniƩ did some truly remarkable work, clothing Elizabeth Taylor in stunningly flattering gowns that left no doubt as to the notorious sexual allure of Cleopatra, as mentioned by the men in the film.

So where did this visual feast falter? The second insightful quote (uttered during that same extravagant procession) would seem to address this. One of Caesar's right-hand men remarks to him, "The queen has given instructions for the procession to move as slowly as the people wish, for their full enjoyment." Presumably unintentional, this line reflects the film's "double-edged sword". Indeed, there's much enjoyment to be had in the showmanship of the production values, but the bottom line is that the film becomes increasingly slow and tedious. After the climactic events surrounding what is popularly known as the Ides of March, the film struggles to sustain any momentum. Much of the second half involves indoor political scheming and the actors (namely Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) fail to elevate the dull material. By the time we reach the Battle of Actium, the film has already lost most of our interest.

Taylor in particular is egregiously shortchanged by the script. Quick historical research would indicate that Cleopatra was legendary for her political acumen, yet the film relies more on the sex appeal which allowed her to align herself with powerful men. Taylor is certainly very striking and attractive in the film, but she never convinces you of her leadership skills. Whether that's the poor writing or just her failure to fully grasp the character is up to interpretation. Either way, when such a major film is dedicated to the presumably extraordinary life of a historical world leader, one would expect to see more than just confidence and cleavage.

When all was said and done, the film was a box office hit, but its massive budget almost bankrupted the studio. Of course, Fox was soon saved by the success of "The Sound of Music" but the stain of "Cleopatra" still lingered. As Mark Harris pointed out in his superb book "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood", even the filmmakers of films like Cleopatra felt uncomfortable defending them as creative enterprises. Suffice it to say, the seemingly contemporary outcry over "the death of cinema" has probably been going on for decades. The blockbuster factory is just a by-product of Hollwood's profit-making business model. It may not promote great "art", but it seems to satisfy the consumers. Today's "The Lone Ranger" is yesteryear's "Cleopatra". Even in their failures, there's something appealing about them. As someone on twitter explained to me, "Cleopatra" is a must-see for the sheer spectacle.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

COMING SOON: Boyhood

Will we be seeing our first Best Picture contender as early as next month? Some pundits seem to think so with regards to Richard Linklater's "Boyhood". Personally, I'm just excited to experience this monumental 12-year achievement, regardless of awards. Hopefully I get to see it sooner rather than later. Check out the trailer below.


Boyhood hits theaters on July 11th.

Monday, June 23, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


This week's pick for "Movie of the Week" is a film by one of the Great American directors. "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was
directed by John Ford and released in 1962 during the twilight of his career. After years of making some of the best classic Westerns, this film marked something of departure for Ford, paving the way for a new era of revisionist Westerns.

The film begins in the aftermath of the plot's main events. We are introduced to a man named Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife (Vera Miles), arriving by train to attend a funeral. Stoddard is obviously a respected senator with strong ties to this small Western town of Shinbone. When a reporter asks Stoddard to explain his reasoning for traveling all the way from Washington, we get the full story of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance".

As I approached the film, I was already wary of the usual plot devices. I'm not a big fan of the traditional Western and its revenge-obsessed notions of honor and justice, and this film seemed susceptible to head down that path. Under the direction of the man who practically legitimized the genre and starring its most famous star (John Wayne), what else was I to expect? Well, I'm happy to report that I was proven wrong.

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is almost experimental in its design. It seems borne out of curiosity, wondering what would happen if George Bailey or Jefferson Smith (iconic Jimmy Stewart characters in Capra films) were transplanted to the wild West? It was probably a strange proposition at the time, but it produced fascinating results. This is vintage Jimmy Stewart, the model upstanding citizen, but this time transplanted into a rough, violent world. His Ransom Stoddard sticks out like a sore thumb (that earnest voice is fully intact), but he serves a purpose, both for the filmmaker and the story itself.

Ransom Stoddard starts out as a lawyer, hoping to set up a practice in Shinbone. He gets a rude awakening however, as his stagecoach is robbed upon arrival by a violent outlaw named Liberty Valance. Upon realizing that Stoddard is a lawyer, Valance teaches him a lesson in "Western" law, mercilessly whipping him to near death.

Shaken but not deterred, Stoddard vows to uphold his values, challenging the society's lawless, violent ways. It's a risky proposition, due to a cowardly marshal and a community too afraid to stand up for justice. Eventually, Stoddard himself is corrupted by the ways of the land, opting to purchase a gun after further harassment by Valance and his gang.

Due to its mostly indoor settings, Ford doesn't get the chance to flaunt his trademark landscape photography here. Instead, the film is more internal, in terms of both the indoor setting and its psychological debates. Whereas traditional Westerns touted violent retaliation as a natural solution, Ford uses Stewart/Stoddard to challenge the ideal.

As always, John Wayne represents the old method of "shoot first, ask questions later", mocking Stoddard as an idealistic "pilgrim". When Stoddard succumbs to the pressure then (buying a gun), it's hard not to feel disappointed. The mythology of Jimmy Stewart saving the day proves to be no match for the brutal world of the Western. So even as Ford critiques the violence, he realized that some circumstances required it, as evidenced by the film's title.

All of this seems strikingly relevant today, in light of the ongoing discussion surrounding gun control in America. As these Westerns and actual history would attest, the United States was built on a violent foundation. It's therefore no surprise that so many are clinging to the 2nd Amendment in the name of self-defense. Ford understood this, as Stoddard's eventual political career is launched not by his intelligence and community service, but rather a perceived gun-slinging reputation that he reluctantly subscribed to. In the end, the film is therefore not completely revisionist (romanticized violence is still the main fix), but its use of Jimmy Stewart as the protagonist was a brilliant move in subverting the expectations of a Western hero.

"The Man Shot Liberty Valance" gives you all the usual qualities of a great John Ford film - talented cast, good script, strong cinematography, smart direction. However, this is a case where the film's themes and social implications transcend the actual filmmaking. It's a well-made film, but more importantly it challenges your expectations of cinema. It's certainly worthy of its preservation in the National Film Registry, fulfilling the criteria of being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Friday, June 20, 2014

BEST ACTOR ROUNDTABLE: Dustin Hoffman


This week was my favourite in the Actor Roundtable series so far, as we discussed the Oscar-winning performances of Dustin Hoffman. Click here for a full rundown of our thoughts.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Goldfinger


This week on Hit me with your best shot we continued our 1964 anniversary celebrations (after "Zorba the Greek" two weeks ago) by looking at the classic James Bond film "Goldfinger". This popular entry in the franchise is quintessential Bond - the theme song, the women, the cheesy one-liners, the cool gadgets. It's fairly enjoyable but I didn't find it as visually exciting as I'd hoped (apart from some cool aerial shots).

The shot below is the only one that I found especially interesting. One of the most fascinating things about this iteration of James Bond is how ineffective he is. I thought the composition of this shot reflects this quite well. As he tries to track down a criminal suspect, he's completely oblivious to the shooter behind him. This repeats itself throughout the film, as the bad guys always seem to be one step ahead of our hero. Of course, he still ends up saving the day but it's amusing to see how much he stumbles along the way.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, June 16, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: 22 Jump Street


This week's top pick is one of the year's biggest box office and critical successes - "22 Jump Street". It's the second smash hit of the year for the directing pair of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (after "The Lego Movie") and it's clear that they're not resting on their laurels. Unlike some other sequels, this film raises the stakes while still retaining the positive attributes of its predecessor.

We meet up with our main characters Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) some time after their successful crime-solving in the previous film. Amusingly, they're still dorks, seemingly idle in their day-to-day job. This "normalization" of our heroes gets the film to a hilarious running start, as they botch an assignment involving a gang of drug dealers. It's a comforting reminder that these are the same nitwits that we grew to love in the first film.

Somehow, their Deputy Chief (Nick Offerman) still have faith in them though, assigning them another undercover mission with clear similarities to their previous big case. They are tasked with posing as college students (instead of high school) in order to catch a supplier of a drug called WHYPHY, which lead to the death of one of the students. This new operation is now based at the upgraded 22 Jump Street, just across the road from their former base.

As the film sets up the premise, the plot seems blatantly familiar (infiltrate an academic setting to stop a drug dealer). In one of the most clever "meta" moments, the film itself acknowledges this. Offerman could be mistaken for a studio executive as he explains that their improbable prior success encouraged those in command to throw more money at them, in hopes of having the same results. As such, it simultaneously comments on the audacity of attempting to replicate the plan, while also poking fun at our current "sequel culture" in cinema. In one fell swoop therefore, Lord and Miller have already anticipated the critics' predictable accusations of this sequel being a mere cash grab. It's a major gauntlet to throw down, so do they back it with something of genuine value?

Well, as I've already stated in the opening of the review, the answer is a resounding yes. Make no mistake, the basic narrative foundation remains the same, but almost every other aspect is developed further - the action, the characterizations, the comedy and most importantly the bromance. This is a film franchise that knows exactly where its strengths lie. The casting is simply perfect, showing off the unique gifts of Hill and Tatum. For Hill, it's his incredible skill with hilarious expressions/line readings and unexpected sensitivity (he's even more endearing in this film). For Tatum, it's his physicality (amped up to near-superhuman levels this time around) and ability to project the dumb jock intelligence to go with it. Together they have perfect chemistry, resulting in the most sincere bromance since "Swingers".

For someone who's a major fan of that 1996 Jon Favreau gem, you can consider that a major compliment. "22 Jump Street" truly lives up to it though and that's what makes it stand out. For all the riotous slapstick and superbly directed action scenes, the film's most vital component turns out to be its big heart. So when Schmidt and Jenko unintentionally go through couples therapy after a conflict of opinion, there's not a hint of homophobic mockery to be found. On the surface, this is a "bro movie" with raunchy humour and awesome stunts, but at its core it's a rather sweet exploration of a level of male friendship that we rarely see on film.

With this deft balancing act of true emotion and typical summer thrills, Lord and Miller have once again delivered something with broad appeal. Is it better than "21 Jump Street"? It's tough to say, since it owes so much to that pre-existing template. Heck, it may just be an enjoyable but unoriginal cash grab as I'm sure many will argue. All I know is, "22 Jump Street" is one helluva good time at the movie theater.

Friday, June 13, 2014

BEST ACTOR ROUNDTABLE: Gary Cooper


The "Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable" continues this week with a look at Gary Cooper's winning performances. Click here for the full panel discussion.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Orange is the New Black


Hit me with your best makes a small detour into the world of "television" this week, by looking at season 2 of the Netflix hit show "Orange is the New Black". Despite its serial format though, the season has been described as a "13-hour movie". I'll therefore treat it as such by choosing my favourite shot from the whole season, rather than individual episodes.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, June 9, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Edge of Tomorrow


This week's top pick is the latest apocalyptic action movie in theaters - "Edge of Tomorrow". Boasting a top movie star (Tom Cruise) and a talented director (Doug Liman), the film seemed very promising from the promo footage. Thankfully, this wasn't a case where the looks were deceiving.

We're introduced to our main hero Cage (Tom Cruise) in the middle of a major war between humanity and an alien race called Mimics. Cage is a spokesperson for the military, hoping to convince the armed forces to invest in new weaponry to defeat the enemy. Following a meeting with the army's commander, he soon finds himself dropped at a military base with orders to join the fight. With limited combat experience, Cage makes a reluctant hero. However, a deadly encounter with a Mimic leaves him in an endless time loop which can only be stopped by destroying the aliens for good.

To accomplish his task, Cage enlists the assistance of the war's poster girl Rita (Emily Blunt), a tough soldier who has also experienced the same time loop capabilities in the past. Together they effectively engage in a series of trial and error missions in order to figure out how to take down their difficult enemy. This leads to some thrilling action scenes and the visual effects team was clearly having a blast. The film is truly enhanced by the use of 3D, giving it an immersive quality by conveying the chaos associated with flying debris and ammunition on the battlefield. On top of that, the suits that the soldiers wear just look so cool. It's nothing you haven't seen before, but these visuals (as well as the sound design) are mighty impressive. What's most intriguing about this rousing spectacle then, is that it's achieved without any inflated sense of grandiose importance. There are no riveting motivational speeches in sight. It's just good old fashioned action, more akin to a 80s/90s film than what we'd normally see today.

Yet for all this excitement and entertainment, there seemed to be something missing. I kept waiting for the film to step up to that next level of artistry, but it never happened. Without much by way of backstory or thematic depth, it needed something more distinctive in its visual storytelling to stand out. Instead, the film is often too enamored with the cleverness of its premise to bother enriching the narrative. Even with its admittedly very satisfying ending, I was already afraid that the film would soon fade from memory.

Despite its flaws, it's hard to not find basic enjoyment in the heart-pounding action and easygoing chemistry of its stars. It's strong proof that Tom Cruise is still as compelling as ever, as well as a great showcase for Emily Blunt. "Edge of Tomorrow" may get lost in the fray of the packed early summer box office, but it's definitely worthy of your time.

Friday, June 6, 2014

BEST ACTOR ROUNDTABLE: Sean Penn


A few weeks ago Andrew (from A Fistul of Films) graciously invited me to take part in his "Twice a Best Actor Bloggers Roundtable". This summer-long series involves a panel of bloggers discussing the performances by 2-time Best Actor Oscar winners to see if they were worthy of this honour. Our first subject is Sean Penn and that discussion has now been posted.

Click here to see what the panel thought of Sean Penn's winning performances in "Mystic River" and "Milk".

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT: Zorba the Greek


This week's pick for Hit me with your best shot is a seemingly overlooked film - "Zorba the Greek". This was my first time seeing it myself and I'm honestly not sure how I feel about it. It's well-acted and handsomely mounted, but I found its abrupt tonal shifts to be quite jarring.

There's no denying that it's a worthy Oscar winner for Best Cinematography though, as it really is lovely to look at. As I watched the film, there were three shots that stood. All of them turned out to be images of the villagers, framed within the setting's landscape. For my final choice, it turned out that I went with something unexpectedly prescient.

Click below for my favourite shot...

Monday, June 2, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: We Are The Best!


Is it possible to describe a punk rock band as adorable? Well, if Lukas Moodysson's latest film "We Are the Best!" is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. With this sweet little story, Moodysson challenges our expectations of this counterculture music genre.
The band in question is the brainchild of Bobo and Klara, a pair of pre-teen girls in 1980s Sweden. Strongly opposed to the idea that punk is dead, the decide to break the mould and prove the naysayers wrong. They certainly look the part with their boyish cropped hair and grungy clothing, but sadly they lack any musical talent. They therefore seek help, recruiting one of their school's misfits (a Christian girl named Hedvig) to give them some tips. As they set out to prove themselves as a legitimate punk band, they learn a little more about themselves in the process.
The film gets off to a slow start, taking its time to introduce the characters and their personalities. Klara is clearly far more self-assured and outspoken of the two friends, but they share a similar worldview, especially when it comes to a typical adolescent resentment of their parents (who seem perfectly normal mind you). As we learn more about them, there isn't any groundswell of injustice that sparks their punk rock activism. Really, their most pressing concern comes from their school's requirement that they engage in physical activity. This forms the basis of the band's first song - a tirade about their hatred for sports. Obviously, this makes for a flimsy political stance and the film's first half thus feels very slight.
Yet this same trivial foundation turns out to be the film's winning touch in the film's latter half. When Hedvig joins the group and they start making something that resembles music, the band starts to expand their horizons (planning to buy new instruments and making connections with fellow young punk rockers). The real kicker then, is how quickly they disregard their tough punk values for childish delights like candy and looking pretty for boys. The formation of the band turns out to be just an excuse for the girls to have fun together. As such, their non-threatening attitude may not be "real" punk, but who cares? As they proclaim in the film, they are the best and that's all that matters.
This joie de vivre is unmistakably indicative of childhood and these young actresses (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) give it a raw honesty. They are so impressive that it's impossible to determine whether the performances are the result of good direction (as is often assumed) or just natural acting talent. Either way, it worked (aided by the strong "fly-on-the-wall" camerawork and believable dialogue). Their characters are light-hearted and immensely likable (their acceptance of Hedvig is particularly sweet) and you can't help but root for them.
The film's trio of rebels may never become serious activists like Pussy Riot, but that's perfectly fine. "We Are The Best" succeeds as a heartwarming tale about friendship and the unifying power of music. It's punk with a smile.