Friday, August 31, 2012

"We travel just to travel."
~ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

I'll be away on vacation for two weeks. Not only will I be missing the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time in seven years, but I'll be super-behind on all the latest movie releases I'll be looking forward to catching up on everyone's blogs when I get back! :)


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve (1941)
Directed by: Preston Sturges
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda

We all know the story about Eve and the forbidden fruit -- and right from the opening credits, which includes an animated snake, The Lady Eve puts a comedic spin on the biblical tale.

Jean and "Colonel" Harrington, a father-daughter card shark team (Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn), set their sights on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) the socially awkward millionaire of a brewery fortune who recently returned from a year-long snake hunting trip in the Amazon (there's that snake imagery again). Jean and the Colonel crave wealth and fame. As the Colonel says to his daughter: "Let us be crooked, but never common." Yet when Jean seduces Charles, she's shocked to discover that she's quickly falling head-over-heels in love. The temptress in her wants to continue her little game and come out on top -- with thousands in her bank account -- but her romantic side has other plans in store as she struggles to persuade her father to abandon their con.

Prior to his 1942 hit, The Palm Beach Story, director Preston Sturges co-wrote this battle-of-the-sexes romp featuring two of the biggest stars of the era. Brimming with witty dialogue and more than a few pratfalls for good measure -- as well as sexually frank innuendo that somehow slipped passed Hollywood censors -- The Lady Eve is a clever and engaging addition to the screwball genre.
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck

As the slippery dame surprised by the genuine love she feels for her target, Barbara Stanwyck gives arguably one of her finest performances. Generally known for her dramatic roles (see: Double Indemnity), she's an absolute pleasure to watch here as she engages in a battle with her own conscience. Stanwyck manages to portray her character's complexities in such believable fashion you may catch yourself wondering which side of herself she'll give in to: The card shark or the hopeless romantic? She's both effortlessly graceful and charmingly flustered.

Henry Fonda, on the other hand, conveys a vulnerability that's almost painful to watch. Barely cracking a smile -- but generating plenty of genuine laughs with his charismatic performance -- his quest for Jean's hand in marriage is his ultimate goal. Anything less and he would collapse in a ball of misery. Only Fonda could make such an awkward chap such a comedic delight.

The Lady Eve holds up remarkably well, thanks in large part to two exceptional lead performances and the assured direction from a comedy master. Its ingenious script, brisk pace, deceptive characters and sexy banter catapult The Lady Eve into the realm of the classics. It's the quintessential screwball comedy.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton

I reviewed this film for Next Projection.

Right from the start, the establishing shot provides a heavy dose of deja vu. Covert operative Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) floats on his stomach in the icy depths of an Alaskan lake, immediately bringing to mind the first glimpse we get of anti-hero Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in the franchise's first instalment. The scene is one of many nods to the original trilogy, a polite tip of the hat to the 2002 blockbuster that started it all.

From there, The Bourne Legacy sets out to both embrace its narrative origins and, at the same time, set itself apart as a stand-alone franchise spin-off -- which is does with varying degrees of success.

With the departure of director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Damon's decision not to return in the lead role, producers were left to ponder how best to handle their still-marketable action franchise. It would have been too risky a venture to simply recast another actor in the title role of Jason Bourne, the operative with superhuman strength that helped make Robert Ludlum's book series such a success. The Universal heads ultimately opted instead to build a brand new character from the ground up.

With the original trilogy's screenwriter Tony Gilroy now behind the camera (he co-wrote Legacy with brother, Dan), the latest instalment reverts to familiar espionage tropes -- nefarious government henchmen, spectacular high-octane chases and a variety of exotic international locales -- as it concocts a story that features less relentless action sequences and more scenes with plot-driven dialogue.

The story begins where The Bourne Ultimatum left off, with former Treadstone agent Jason Bourne on the run from shadowy government men. Running parallel to the Ultimatum premise is a second top-secret project referred to as Outcome. Under the watchful eye of intelligence chief Eric Byer (a delightfully snarky Edward Norton), Outcome is in the relatively early stages of creating super-agents; a group of six test soldiers who are administered pills in order to improve them both mentally and physically. Without their daily dose they "regress" and return to their unmodified (read: average joe) state. Due to a potential leak about the inner workings of the program, Byer hastily demands that Outcome disband, consequently marking the six operatives for death.

Enter Aaron Cross, a super-soldier on a training mission at a remote post in Alaska. When the truth about the destruction of the Outcome project is slowly revealed to Cross he goes on the run as the only remaining survivor of the program. With a low pill supply and desperate to stave off a return to mental and physical normalcy, Cross kidnaps Dr. Marta Shearing (the always-reliable Rachel Weisz) a virologist involved in Outcome's drug program.

Renner and Weisz
A series of impressively lensed chases ensue involving cars, motorcyles and parkour; all Bourne staples.

Devoid of jingoism, the franchise features double-crossings, backdoor dealings and omnipresent government threats that originate on American soil (as Norton's government crony Byer growls, "We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary"); the films were never about protecting the American populace from its own government's secret agendas. Where Bourne sought the truth to his identity, yearning for a normal life, Cross has no desire to return to his pre-Outcome days; preferring the supplements that elevate him to a superhuman level. The government made him this way and he has no qualms about maintaining his high-octane lifestyle, regardless of the cost. These men have superhuman strength -- but they are not superheroes.

While the film delves into familiar territory, Legacy benefits from its inspired casting of Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner -- an intelligent actor who imbues his performances with fascinating character ticks. With The Hurt Locker, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and The Avengers under his belt, Renner is fast becoming the thinking man's action hero. He more than holds his own here, lending a gritty, battle-worn realism to the proceedings. His Aaron Cross is a more than worthy replacement for Damon's Jason Bourne.

In terms of narrative The Bourne Legacy is able to stand on its own, although so much of its premise rides on its parallels with Jason Bourne's story threads that it will be interesting to see if it survives and becomes its own full-fledged series.

Bourne purists expecting a non-stop adrenaline rush may wind up disappointed. This latest instalment is a satisfying summer diversion that adroitly balances its high-octane thrills with dialogue-heavy passages that propels the plot forward. While it never quite reaches the level of excellence as the original Bourne Identity, Legacy still makes for a thrilling addition to the franchise.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Classic Film Review: The Misfits (1961)

Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable
Two days ago, August 5th, marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe.

To mark the date I chose to watch John Huston's 1961 modern western, The Misfits. Instead of watching my favourite Monroe film (Some Like It Hot) I went with The Misfits because, not only is it her final appearance, it's arguably her finest performance.

The Misfits is often referred to as a "film of lasts": The last part Arthur Miller wrote for Monroe and the last film for both Monroe and Clark Gable before their untimely deaths.

Based on a screenplay by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Arthur Miller, The Misfits follows a trio of down-on-their-luck men and the alluring woman who joins their ragtag group as they travel rodeo circuits and catch wild horses to sell in Reno, Nevada. They also spend weeks at a time wallowing in their sorrows together in a forlorn desert ranch. Each has a sad story to tell and they crave each others company as much as they sometimes seem to resent it.

Miller fashioned the part of Roslyn Tabor specifically for Monroe, and it shows. The role leaves room for Monroe to be both beautiful and complex, strong yet vulnerable. It plays to her strong points as an actress and really allows her room to just let go. Although she's mostly celebrated for her comedic talents, it's a shame she never got more dramatic roles to work with. The Misfits was a fitting final film because it was her strongest and most personal role.

The other characters each have their own issues to work through. Gay Langland (Clark Gable) is a fiercely independent loner reflecting on his past experiences as a great cowboy. Guido (Eli Wallach) is a heartbroken, embittered mechanic who hasn't been the same since the sudden death of his wife. Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) rounds out the group as a rodeo rider who is fixated on mother figures and openly welcomes Roslyn's nurturing nature.

It's the mirroring of real life that can make a viewing of The Misfits so uncomfortable. Perhaps that's why I chose to watch it instead of some of Monroe's earlier, lighter fare. It was a sad production for everyone involved in the making of the film.
Monroe and Gable in their final scene.
At the time Monroe was in and out of rehab -- she was also in the process of finalizing her divorce from Arthur Miller. Director John Huston had a disruptive drinking and gambling problem. Monty Clift, never the same since his near-fatal car accident in 1956 and the subsequent reconstructive facial surgeries, was addicted to the prescription pills that temporarily relieved his chronic pain. And, finally, a mere few days after production ended on the film, Clark Gable passed away of a heart attack at the age of 59 -- a heart attack many blamed on what he put his body through in order to physically and mentally prepare for the role of the rundown Gay Langland.

It's themes of disappointed dreams, thwarted ambitions and broken characters served to lend the film a grim realism it didn't necessarily mean to invoke when production first got underway. As Monroe's Roslyn says at one point: "We're all dying, aren't we? All the husbands and all the wives. Every minute. And we're not teaching each other what we really know, are we?"

The role of Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits was the crowning achievement of Monroe's lengthy career. While not necessarily the best film she appeared in, her performance rang tragically true and is remembered today as a powerful final bow.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Classic Film Review: Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
Written by: Norman Krasna
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery

It's not often that you hear the words "Hitchcock" and "screwball comedy" being uttered in the same sentence. Yet, back in 1941, Alfred Hitchcock made a brief foray into comedic territory. Hitchcock always had a sense of humour and a knack for comedic timing; it's just that those moments of levity often occurred in his most suspenseful thrillers -- not full-out comedies.

In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitchcock concocts a breezy comedy centred around a marriage between a hot-headed couple. After three years of marriage Ann and David Smith (Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) discover that, due to some outlandish legal error, their marriage was never validated. While Ann panics, wondering what her mother will think of the fact that she's technically been living in unwedded bliss with a man, David relishes the thought of his freedom. After a particularly aggressive fight and subsequent make-up session, Ann innocently asks: "If you had to do it all over again, would you marry me?" David's nonchalant response: "No." And so he must embark on a series of mishaps and misadventures to win back the affection of his wounded wife who has since taken up with his childhood friend, Jefferson (Gene Raymond).

Working from a script by Norman Krasna, Hitchcock hits the mark as often as he misses the target. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not funny enough to distract audiences from the fact that we know exactly where this is headed. Although the whole idea of a happy ending, achieved only after multiple mix-ups, is a familiar trope of the screwball genre, the premise is stretched thin with a nearly two hour running time. Unlike Gregory La Cava's 1936 screwball masterpiece My Man Godfrey -- which provided sharp commentary on the class system during the Depression -- Mr. and Mrs. Smith has shockingly little to say about anything deeper than surface level, especially on the subject of marriage. It simply coasts on the charm of its female lead, yet even Lombard alone can't keep it afloat.

Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery
That being said, Lombard turns in yet another of her effortlessly hilarious performances. There's no denying her talent and ability to convey a woman on the verge of an emotional collapse, while still making us laugh. You believe, wholeheartedly, every word and gesture. To this day she remains ones of film's great comedienne's for her spot-on comedic timing.

Montgomery has his fair share of standout scenes (look for the moments where he stares down a cat at a restaurant or when, to get out of an awkward moment, he casually tries to induce a nosebleed to get out of the situation). As the egotistical David, it's a pleasure watching him struggle to understand what he did that was so wrong. As Ann drifts further and further away from him and ultimately starts taking up with an old friend of his, it's only then that he realizes how much he misses his wife.

In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Smith proves to be a fun diversion, albeit one that will make you laugh without being particularly memorable.

Some critics have shrugged off this effort as one of Hitchcock's biggest cinematic misfires, and while there is no arguing that it is one of his weakest efforts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is by no means a misfire. It has some shining moments led by its two likeable leads -- but it's just not on par with other screwball greats of the era.