Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sharing the Blogging Love

Wondering what bloggers have been chatting about this week?

Here is Your Reading and Listening Schedule for Today:

9 am: The latest episode of the Damn Good Movie Show podcast discusses the best and worst films of 2011.

10 am: In Episode 30 of The Demented Podcast, guests test their film knowledge in the third edition of the Battle Royale competition.

11 am: Bob takes a look back at the movie moments of 2011, here is part 1 and part 2 of his piece.

12 pm: Alex highlights the works of character actress Viola Davis.

1 pm: Jessica has a great article on her end of the year list frustration.

2 pm: Joseph gives Pariah a rave review.

3 pm: Emil makes some predictions for the 2012 film season.

4 pm: Pete used 2011 to catch up on films that some consider to be essential viewing.

5 pm: Dylan list the top five stars in need of a heel turn.

6 pm: Andrew raves about We Bought A Zoo.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ape alone ... weak. Apes together strong.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels are ubiquitous in Hollywood these days; Spider-Man is getting another reboot, as is Superman. Clash of the Titans had its remake and a sequel is in the works; even Footloose, The Thing, Conan the Barbarian, and Straw Dogs were reborn this past year with disappointing results. To make things worse, My Fair Lady, The Warriors, Red Dawn, and Escape from New York are to be resurrected for 2012. If Hollywood intended for me to cry, it should pat itself on the back for a job well done.

That being said, there are a few remakes that are really good; Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and The Departed (2006) surpassed their respective originals, but on the whole it seems they are alone in a sea of mediocrity. That being said, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) offers some redemption for the deluge of remakes we endured this year.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) works for a large pharmaceutical company and is the lead researcher on a possible cure for Alzheimer’s; his motivation for success is to help his father, Charles (John Lithgow), a former music teacher afflicted with Alzheimer’s. He tests the breakthrough drug on chimpanzees captured and shipped from Africa. Rodman sees the immediate results; the chimps’ intelligence increases exponentially and they are able to communicate via sign language.

The experiment is shut down when one of the chimps turns violent and crashes (literally) into the board meeting. The remaining chimps are ordered put down, but Will takes home a baby chimp whose mother went berserk. Caesar, who thrives with his human family, displays tremendous intelligence, emotions and body language that would make Marcel Marceau jealous. At the same time, Will becomes involved with primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto), who bonds with Caesar as well.

An unfortunate incident with the neighbour (David Hewlett) has Caesar forcibly removed from Will’s home by authorities and taken to a primate sanctuary led by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son, Dodge (Tom Felton), who is deliberately cruel to the apes. This sets up the third act in which Caesar assembles a simian army and escapes the sanctuary and the inevitable collision course between humans and apes.

James Franco seems to have woken up from his usual sleepy detachment of earlier performances (see: Pineapple Express, Spider-Man 2 and last year’s Academy Awards), but is given a role that offers little to chew on except his lip; so much more could be drawn out in terms of philosophical questions and ethics, but isn’t. Pinto is easy on the eyes, but no one would mistake her for Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall and is relegated to the girlfriend of the hero trope. Brian Cox seems to have dialled it in; the expression he wears for most of his screen time begets the question, ‘When do I get paid?’ Tom Felton seems to delight in the role of cruel and snivelling meanie, but it isn’t really much of a stretch considering he spent the last ten years playing one in the Harry Potter series. Even John Lithgow is painted into a corner; he is there for one thing and one thing only as the suffering father.

The most mesmerizing performance in the film by and large goes to Andy Serkis; his portrayal of Caesar is wrought with emotion and we sympathize with him from the moment we see him. While Serkis has acted in non-performance capture roles, he has his greatest success in such films as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong and will no doubt further cement his talents in the upcoming The Hobbit. While there are fantastic special effects and the latest GCI make Caesar look like a real chimp, it is merely icing on the cake; Serkis himself brings the character to life with his facial features, eye movements and body language. If anyone ever deserved an Academy Award for portraying such a wonderful character, it is Andy Serkis. It’s unfortunate the fogies at the Academy are too obtuse to see a true genius at work; sadly, he won’t be nominated.

Weaved in and throughout the film are references to the original Apes films of the 1960’s and 70’s; it’s a an Easter Egg hunt for fanboys, from names of characters to lines of dialogue and several plot points that lead to a nice tie-in to the original film starring Charlton Heston. This film lays down a nice foundation and sets the stage for Heston’s movie, which is set thousands of years in the future. A back to back viewing of both with food, drinks and friends is no waste of time, and for the bold, perhaps an Apes marathon.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Which is Better?

Renée Zellweger
10 sample films:

Cold Mountain
Jerry Maguire
Love and a .45
Cinderella Man
Shark Tale
Nurse Betty
Empire Records
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Down with Love


Reese Witherspoon
10 sample films:

Walk the Line
Legally Blonde
American Psycho
Monsters vs. Aliens
Cruel Intentions
Water for Elephants

Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene A Tongue Twister

If there can be one thing said about 2011 it is that it was a great year for actresses. Films like Melancholia, Meeks Cutoff, Another Earth, Hanna, and The Help, just to name a few, all showcased fully realized female characters. Martha Marcy May Marlene is another film that falls into this category as it features one of the best breakthrough performances of the year.

The film’s title, Martha Marcy May Marlene, refers to the names that the lead character Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) uses over the course of the film. After two years of living in a cult-like community, Martha flees the group and goes to live with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). As Martha struggles to adapt to life with her sister, she becomes increasingly paranoid that Patrick (John Hawkes), the leader of the cult, and the rest of his disciples will track her down.

For a feature film debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene is quite an accomplishment for director Sean Durkin. He effortlessly creates an atmosphere of paranoia through only a few key scenes. It is a smart choice on his part to have Martha drift between the present and memories of the past. Not only is this useful for explaining Martha’s life within the cult, but it forces the audience to question whether Martha’s paranoia is causing her to go insane.

Elizabeth Olsen is outstanding in the role of Martha, it is fascinating to see her run the gambit from naïve newbie at the compound, to cold calculated believer, to lost soul trying to find her way. By time she reaches Lucy’s home Martha is a walking contradiction of ideals. On one hand she wants to rid herself of the cult life, however, she cannot shake the brainwashing. This is what makes her attempts at assimilating into Lucy’s “normal” life, which Martha deems as excess, so complicated. John Hawkes and Sarah Paulson also give strong performances. Hawkes is mesmerizing as the manipulative leader who manages to justify criminal acts, such as robbery and rape, as being for the overall benefit of the group. Paulson does a wonderfully understated job as Lucy. She brings out Lucy’s complex mix of love and frustrations. She is desperate to reconnect with Martha on an emotional level and help her through whatever mental issues she is facing. However, Lucy knows that she is unable to provide Martha with the professional help she really needs.

At times Martha Marcy May Marlene falls prey to keeping things a secret for far too long. While it is obvious that the dramatic experience of the past has damaged Martha’s mental state, she never gives one ounce of information to her sister about what occurred. Even when she is in a dreamlike-state of confusion as to whether what she is experiencing is the present or the past, Martha never opens up about what she did or saw. There are times when the film would have benefitted from not having so much left unsaid. However these are minor quibbles in a film that is otherwise engaging from beginning to end. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the indie gems of 2011.

Things I Don’t Understand About Death Could Fill A Book

Questions about life and death are themes that, while a prominent staple in cinema, are really making a strong resurgence of late. While films like Tree of Life and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives have explored the spiritual aspects through more elaborate means, Things I Don’t Understand is an indie film that explores how our quest for seeking meaning in life often handicaps us from enjoying the here and now.

Written and directed by David Spaltro, Things I Don’t Understand tells the story of Violet Kubelick (Molly Ryman) a rising star in her psychology and sociology graduate studies program whose thesis is focused on the question “what happens after we die?” Unable to find the answers she seeks, and after a failed suicide attempt herself, Violet finds herself in a downward spiral. Working a minimum wage job and living with her two roommates Remy (Hugo Dillon), a drug-addled musician, and Gabby (Meissa Hampton), a performance artist, Violet floats through life getting drunk and having one-night stands. The only truly stable thing in Violet’s life is a stoic bartender, Parker (Aaron Mathias), who has unresolved issues of his own. At the advice of a therapist (Lisa Eichorn), Violet is convinced to finish her thesis while spending time at a local Hospice. There she meets Sara (Grace Folsom), a terminally ill patient whose condition provides her with a unique view of life and death. Little does Violet know that her connection with Sara will have a huge impact on her life.

The need to connect and feel appreciated is a common theme that flows throughout Things I Don’t Understand. The interesting thing is that many of the characters are blind to the bonds they currently have or once had. Compared to what characters like Sara and Parker are going through, or have been through, many of the self-absorbed issues that Violet, Gabby, and Remy have seem minuscule in comparison. This contrast allows Spaltro to provide an interesting juxtaposition between Violet’s friendship with Parker with her friendship with Sara. While both relationships force Violet to look inward at her own decisions in life, they each offer a unique perspective. One highlights the emotional damage that being consumed by thepast can cause; while the other teaches not only the importance of embracing the present, but finding your own spiritual awaking as whatever form that may be.

Needless to say Things I Don’t Understand is a film that is far from a light-hearted film. If anything Things I Don’t Understand is a little too ambitious in its scope. The film deals with topics of life and death, finding and losing love, spirituality, accepting responsibility, facing ones fears, and sexuality. Spaltro has so many areas that he wants to touch on, that it becomes a bit of a chore juggling them all. There is really enough material here to create two separate films. This is most noticeable when looking at some of the subplots involving secondary characters. The whole housing dilemma story line never fully connects the way it should. The same can be said for the relationship issues that both Remy and Gabby have to deal with on some level. Given more time, or even a separate film, these story arcs could have been fleshed out in greater detail.

The ensemble cast does an admirable job of hitting the right emotional and comedic notes. Hugo Dillon in particular steals numerous scenes as the trust fund wannabe-rocker Remy. He really helps to accentuate some of the great comedic dialogue in Spaltro’s script. The film is much funnier than you would initially expect from a drama like this, which is rather refreshing all things considered. In fact the dialogue is Things I Don’t Understand’s biggest strength as it allows Spaltro to explore rather heavy issues in a very accessible way.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Small Bites: Tabloid, Rango, The Ides of March, Cars 2, Contagion


It is great to see documentaries receiving wider acceptance amongst mainstream audiences. Still, many are reluctant to consider documentaries as a legitimate source of entertainment. However, if there was ever a film that manages to disprove this short sighted view, it is Errol Morris’ Tabloid. Joyce McKinney is a former beauty queen who is accused of kidnapping and raping her Mormon boyfriend Kirk Anderson. McKinney is a woman who condemns the vicious media spotlight, but seems to secretly crave it. Her life story is so outlandish that not even the best script writers could have come up with. Morris playfully flashes bolds works like “handcuffs” and “loves kink” to emphasize how his own film is adding to the sensationalism of McKinney’s life. Tabloid also offers an engaging look at how the media, especially British tabloids, use manipulation to dig up information on their subjects. Although the events that made McKinney a household name took place in the 70’s, Tabloid feels perfectly at home in our current media obsessed society.


I honestly do not think that there was a 2011 film that I procrastinated more on seeing than Rango. I am not sure why, despite ample opportunity, it took so long to watch the film, but I am glad I finally got around to it. The character designs and the overall animation are fantastic. The animation in the action sequence between Rango’s posse and the moles in the desert is especially stunning. What struck me about the film was just how funny it is. While the references to the Sergio Leone western and films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were amusing, the character of Rango himself was the most entertaining aspect of the film. Whether he is hitting on a headless torso of doll, or trying to invent a whole idea persona, Rango is joy to watch.

Rango is part of our "The Must See List" series.

The Ides of March

Set in the cutthroat world of politics, The Ides of March is ultimately a film about the loss of innocence and how easily morals can be compromised. The ensemble cast do a great job conveying the political game of chess that is played on various levels (e.g. between political camps, at debates, with members of the press, etc). There are so many great actors in the film that occasionally it feels like there are not enough quality parts for all of them. Although George Clooney’s direction is solid the subplot between Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and Molly (Rachel Evan Wood) never feels fully realized. There is not enough depth to their relationship to justify the lengths Stephen goes to for her. This causes the film to lack the biting political punch that one would hope for. Still the performances and overall premise are strong enough to keep the film interesting.

Cars 2

The original Cars ranks at the bottom of Pixar’s canon of films for me and Cars 2 only fairs slightly better. Despite taking comedic, and I use that term loosely, aim at the spy film genre, the film’s main problem is it tries to make a bit player from the original, Mater (Larry the Cable guy), and makes him the main character. Mater is just not that interesting of a character and his dimwitted humour wears thin pretty fast. Cars 2 would have been better had the main characters been the spy duo of Miles Axel Rod (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Also, the film feels like it is aiming towards an even younger audience than the first one. This is odd considering the blatant environmental message in the film. Young kids will not care about importance of embracing cleaner fuel and its impact on the world. The film’s only real saving grace is its spot on satire of the James Bond franchise.


When a film makes you want to wear gloves everywhere you go then you know it has done an effective job. Unlike the film Outbreak, Contagion uses the act of touching, which is something we all numerous times a day, to show how the virus is transmitted. Steven Soderbergh does a good job balancing the majority of the various storylines in the film. Only one story, Dr. Leonora Orantes’ (Marion Cotillard) arc, seems to get lost in the shuffle halfway through. The cast is wonderful all around, Jude Law and Laurence Fishburne in particular really steal the show. Law really nails the annoying blogger whose motives may be more sinister than he lets on. Fishburne is given a less flashy role, but is equally effective. He plays a doctor who is trying to do things by the book, but must also face the natural human instinct of protecting the ones he loves. By the end of the film you will not only be a little leery of bloggers, but you will also want to bathe in hand sanitizer.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Christmas Tradition: Hanging with the Griswold’s

My Christmas just isn’t complete unless I’ve watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at least once. I’ve spent time with the Griswold’s every holiday season for as long as I can remember, and although I can practically recite most of the lines in the film, it’s still as entertaining, funny and heart-warming as ever. Many movie fans will say It’s A Wonderful Life is their favourite holiday flick, or choose Home Alone or A Christmas Story as their Christmas comedy of choice (all great films too), but for me, Christmas Vacation is the one movie that gets watched every year without fail because I can’t imagine letting a Christmas go by without a dose of the Griswold’s.

I think the movie works because John Hughes managed to capture both the magic and the misery of a family Christmas. There’s truth and sincerity at the heart of it with nostalgic remembrances of past family traditions like cutting down a fresh Christmas tree, decorating one’s house with all of the trimmings and going sledding down snow-covered hills. Clark Griswold is earnest in wanting to deliver a classic family holiday for the people he loves. And though his plans go awry and all that he is able to deliver is chaos and mishap, his desire is true and the message of it all is very clear: we’ve all planned events that have fallen short of our expectations, but the people we spend time with are the point, not trying to plan and execute the perfect occasion.

So on Christmas day, I thought I’d devote a special scene stealer piece to my favourite holiday movie, but with a twist. Rather than pick just one stand-out scene, I’ve picked five scene stealers from a film that is the gift that keeps on giving by providing laughter and joy year after year.

5. 250 strands of lights

4. Uncle Lewis’ stogie causes an explosion and the Star-Spangled Banner

3. The Griswold Christmas dinner

2. Clark loses it

1. A squirrel wrecks havoc in the Griswold house

What are your favourite holiday movies? Let us know in the comments section.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sharing the Blogging Love

Wondering what bloggers have been chatting about this week?

Here is Your Reading and Listening Schedule for Today:

9 am: Episode 68 of the Frankly, My Dear podcast features a lively discussion regarding Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 1.

10 am: In Episode 55 of the Movie Moxie podcast, Shannon talks about Hugo and more.

11 am: YAM lists their Top 15 films of 2011.

12 pm: Candice claims that Young Adult is the perfect chick flick for chick flick haters.

1 pm: Action Flick Chick uses logical deduction to solve Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

2 pm: Scott ranks the Top 10 femme fatales.

3 pm: Andy gives Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol a positive review.

4 pm: Anomalous Material offers up a doubleheader review for The Adventures of Tintin.

5 pm: Kevyn looks at George Clooney’s work in The Descendants.

6 pm: Corey wrote an interesting article that questions what is next for David Fincher?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Beginners Learning Curve Harder Than Others

There is a sad optimism that runs throughout Beginners, even when you think things are looking up for the characters, there is a cloud of despair that is always lingering nearby. While this may sound like a downer to some, Beginners is a rather uplifting film all things considered. Similar to director Mike Mills’ debut film, Thumbsucker, Beginners is a comedy-drama that is more drama than comedy.

Based on Mike Mills real-life, Beginners tells the story of Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) as he copes with the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer). It is the year 2003, and Oliver is struggling to overcome the grief that consumes him. Even when he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a French actress, Oliver cannot help but reflect on all that he and his family have been through rather than just enjoying his new relationship. Hal’s death came five short years after the death of Oliver’s mother, Georgia (Mary Page Keller). On top of that, Hal informed Oliver, shortly after Georgia’s passing, that he is gay and plans to explore that side of his life which has been repressed for years. Plagued by the memories of his past, Oliver must confront his own intimacy issues if he hopes move forward with his relationship with Anna.

Beginners marks a huge step forward for Mike Mills as a director. While some of his stylistic traits in Thumbsucker became annoying rather quickly, his less is more approach this time around pays off. His use of photos and old time advertisements are effective in conveying both Hal and Georgia’s personal history as well as what they had to endure. Although he uses this technique throughout, it never feels repetitive or distracting. The same can be said for the way Mills travels back and forth through time. It adds a nice layer to the film as the story would have been less compelling had it been told in chronological order.

One of the advantages of constantly shifting in time is that Mills is able to highlight several key moments between Oliver and both of his parents. Both Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer give wonderful performances. They bring a lot of heartfelt emotion to their scenes together without ever making the film feel sappy. I also thought the understated performances by both Mélanie Laurent and Mary Page Keller added beautiful texture to the film. Keller in particular subtly infuses Georgia with a level of complexity that is rather unexpected.

Beginners has steadily been picking up awards since it premiered at TIFF in 2010. While the majority of the praise has gone to Plummer’s performance, the film surprised many recently by sharing the Best Picture award with Tree of Life at the recent Gotham awards. Whether or not Beginners can continue this award momentum is debatable, but it is tough to that the film is well crafted. Beginners may not leave you in a joyful mood, but it will make you appreciate the small things in life.

Beginners is part of our "The Must See List" series. The film was recommended by Sam.

Short Film Spotlight: The Palace

Earlier this month James from Toronto Screen Shots announced that, starting January 13, 2012, he will be running a program entitled Shorts That Are Not Pants. This quarterly event is designed to showcase both Canadian and International short films to audiences who would not normally get the chance to see them. This has inspired me to not only seek out more short films, but to also try a little harder to highlight them on this site. What better way to kick off this initiative then with The Palace, the film that took home the Best Short Film award at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival and the Best Australian Short Film at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Each year there are many great award-winning short films that often go criminally unnoticed, that should not be the case for The Palace. Inspired by true events, The Palace takes during the 1974 Turkish Invasion of Cyprus. Seeking refuge from the advancing Turkish forces, a family hides in an abandon Otterman-era palace. When a young Turkish Cypriot conscript, Omer (Erol Afsin), comes face to face with the family in hiding, he is forced to confront the harsh realities of war and his part in it.

The Palace is a film that immediately throws the audience into a tense situation and manages to maintain that tension to the very end. This is quite remarkable considering the bulk of the film takes place in one room. Director Anthony Maras skillfully utilizes the space by focusing on the importance of sound. Silence is the key to survival though it is nearly impossible for Stella (Daphne Alexander), the matriarch of the family, to achieve when holding an infant. When the baby does have a loud outburst, it is overshadowed by the record that the soldiers are playing. This may seem like a conventional director trait to some, but Maras pulls it off without it ever feeling like a gimmick.

Despite the harsh subject matter, Maras includes brief moments of levity in the film. This allows him to emphasize how naive Omer and his fellow soldier Mehmet (Tamer Arslan) are in regards to the enormity of the war. This is a direct contrast to Stella and her family who see no humour in this nightmare that they are currently living. When Omer’s Sergeant (Kevork Malikyan) states “this is where art ends and real life begins” it truly feels like a loss of innocence has just occurred. Maras gets solid performances from his entire cast. Erol Afsin and Kevork Malikyan provide a nice contrast between the soldier who is trying to maintain some form of humanity and the Sergeant who lost his humanity years ago. As the female lead, Daphne Alexander does a good job in her portrayal of Stella. She is given the tough task of conveying numerous emotions with very little dialogue. There is a silent moment between her and Afsin near the end of the film that speaks volumes to how damaged each individual is. The Palace is a tense film that reinforces the notion that, regardless of which side you are on, there are no winners when it comes to war.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Which is Better?

Brendan Gleeson
10 sample films:

The Guard
Perrier’s Bounty
Cold Mountain
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Gangs of New York
The Snapper
The Secret of Kells
In Bruges


Brian Cox
10 sample films:

The 25th Hour
X2: X-Men United
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Bourne Supremacy
Running with Scissors

Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What about Joan?: More than just an acting sidekick

Joan Cusack rocks. There’s something about her that is very likable. She’s got that down-to-earth realness about her that shines through every character she portrays. Perhaps it’s because she’s succeeded in living as “normal” a life as possible as a working actress. She’s prioritized family values and parenthood; she’s made her home in Chicago where she was born and raised rather than in Los Angeles where so many actors call home. She’s not followed by paparazzi everywhere she goes or headlining magazines every week; she succeeds as an actress solely on the merits of her work and balances acting with a stable personal life.

The first time I remember seeing Cusack in a movie was in Sixteen Candles. She played the unfortunate geeky girl with a neck brace, unable to bend over to drink from the water fountain. As her career progressed, she was relegated in the early years to playing buddy sidekicks or awkward, geeky secondary characters. Cusack herself said, “I was never the “babe,” so I knew I’d never get those big roles. I’d always be the best friend or the quirky sidekick.”

Though Cusack’s quote aptly describes her movie career, her best friend roles were damn good ones and they got her noticed. One in particular was her mainstream breakout role in 1988’s Working Girl alongside Melanie Griffith. Cusack played, Cyn, the tough-talking, New York-accented best friend with big hair and heavy make-up. Her role was small, but she commanded the screen in every scene she was in and the role earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

She went on to more supporting roles in comedies like Nine Months and Grosse Pointe Blank, opposite her brother, John Cusack. She captured real magic when she starred in 1997’s In and Out opposite Kevin Kline. In the comedy, Cusack plays a jilted bride-to-be whose fiancé discovers his true sexuality. Cusack was pure comedy gold in the film and the role earned her widespread praise and a second Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. It was an important nomination at the time since comedic roles had been rarely recognized by the Academy in many years.

The hits continued for Cusack with roles in commercial hits like Runaway Bride and School of Rock. A self-titled television sitcom – What About Joan? – didn’t quite register with viewers and was cancelled after only 11 episodes due to low ratings. This previous lackluster television enterprise didn’t deter Cusack from working in television again, though. Currently, Cusack can be seen playing her oddest of characters – Sheila Jackson – an agoraphobic, fetishist with a heart of gold in Showtime’s cable-drama Shameless.

Sheila Jackson doesn’t just serve as the show’s strange and perverse character; at least, Cusack has made the character so much more. She’s a loving mother with a seriously debilitating phobia who struggles so hard to overcome it, but simply can't no matter how hard she tries.

Cusack has created in Sheila a wonderfully complex character. Sheila is unable to control her phobia and cannot leave the house, yet she’s in total control and doing exactly what she wants while inside her home. She comes off as a meek and mild-mannered homely woman who keeps an immaculate home and recreates gourmet recipes from the food network with ease and success, but her sexual tastes aren’t nearly as meek as her demeanor. Cusack portrays Sheila’s dichotomous character so believably and naturally; at once having her way with her love interest, Frank Gallagher, and at other times desperately struggling to muster enough courage and strength to leave the house then collapsing in defeat when she’s unable to will herself out the door. In playing Sheila, Cusack displays her superb comedic chops and also showcases her remarkable dramatic talent to characterize a woman with so many layers and complexities that is anything but a buddy or a quirky sidekick.

What are your favourite Joan Cusack roles? Let us know in the comments section.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hugo’s Lesson Pure Cinematic Magic

It has become a tradition that every year I see a film in honour of my birthday. In the last few years, despite my general dislike for the format, 3D films such have Avatar and Tron Legacy have been films picked for this special day. This year’s selection, Hugo, turned out to an especially fitting choice as the film is a celebration of the magic of film.

Taking place primarily in a Paris train station in 1931, young orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the station tending to the numerous clocks. In his spare time, when he is not stealing food or avoiding the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo seeks out mechanical parts to rebuild the automaton. His father (Jude Law) was working on restoring the mechanical man before he died suddenly. Hugo believes that by fixing the automaton he will receive a special message from his father. Little does Hugo know that his new friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Mortez), the goddaughter of a local toy merchant, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley), literally holds the key to unlocking the automaton’s secret.

Hugo, from a technical standpoint, is a marvel to behold. Unlike many 3D films today, Hugo actually feels like a film that demands to be viewed in 3D. Right from the start Scorsese offers up an exhilarating look at the capabilities of 3D technology. The scary thing is that, even with its majestic traits, it feels like Scorsese is only scratching the surface. Whether he is turning the drab train station into a clock-inspired wonderland, or using feet to symbolize the chaos and claustrophobia of the modern society, Scorsese ensure that every scene has a purpose. There is never the feeling that Scorsese is using 3D technology to merely throw things at the audience.

To be honest, Hugo’s use of 3D was even more captivating than James Cameron’s impressive use of it in Avatar. Part of this is due to the fact that Hugo’s story is far more original than Cameron’s Pocahontas inspired tale. The 3D aspect does not feel like it is compensating for the flaws in the plot. The one thing that both films have in common though is that they both lag, in regards to pacing, at points. In Hugo, this is most noticeable in section just before the true nature of the film is revealed. It is only when the film evolves completely into an ode to cinema that the pacing gets back on track.

Speaking of the latter half of Hugo, it will be curious to see how children will react to the second half of the film. After years of making gangster films and sweeping historical epics, Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at a family friendly film. However, it is questionable how much younger viewers will get out of the film as a whole? While the first quarter of the film will play extremely well to a younger audience, the lesson in cinematic history may not necessarily grab them in the same way.

This is not to say that the historical lesson is wasted. In fact, Scorsese uses this section to express how movies have impacted his life. There is something inherently delightful in seeing a great director like Scorsese recreating iconic scenes that clearly shaped his life. If nothing else, Hugo succeeds in reminding even the most jaded adult about the important role that films play in fostering imagination. Hugo is not only an ode to cinema, but it is also proof that there is plenty of magic yet to come.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Then you should have said “I'm a happily married woman”.

Body Heat (1981)

The femme fatale is a well-known archetype of literature and art that exists in the folklore and myth of many ancient cultures. Mysterious and seductive, the femme fatale ensnares her lovers in irresistible bonds of desire which, more often than not, lead to compromising and deadly situations. Most of the time, these men have no idea what hit them until it’s too late.

While the femme fatale has been with us since the earliest days of the written word, she has enjoyed enormous success in film; most notably Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944), and Cora (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Modern films also include the femme fatale as a key character, and she is ever so important in writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981).

Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a sleazy small town Florida lawyer who, during an intense heatwave, meets married Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner). The two quickly engage in a passionate affair and almost as quickly, Matty reveals she gets nothing if she divorces her rich husband, Edmund (Richard Crenna). But if he dies, she gains from the inheritance and the two plot to kill him.

Body Heat is the neo-noir offspring of Double Indemnity, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a remake or rip-off; instead, Double Indemnity serves as inspiration for this film where sex and crime are as hot a pair as Ned and Matty. Indeed the motif that runs throughout the film is the heat; air conditioning in Florida is certainly well-known yet all the characters are enveloped in the heat, which is almost a character itself. In one scene Ned stands in front of his open refrigerator shirtless, soaking up relief from the unrelenting humidity. Everyone and everything is hot; heat flames the seeds of passion and encourages madness, it seems. The colour red also is a prevailing motif; the film opens with a fire, there are other fires throughout, both literal and figurative. Crazy from the heat some people are, though Matty remains cool throughout as she lures Ned deeper into seduction and murder.

Kasdan did a great job in creating a pre-Miami Vice world devoid of the glamour, style, and bright colours we have come to know in South Florida. This is one of diners, bars, police stations and restaurants; everything still clings to 70s fashion and style, from clothes to cars and everything in between. A solid supporting cast includes a pre-Cheers Ted Danson as Peter Lowenstein as a tap-dancing prosecutor and Ned’s friend, J.A. Preston as police Detective Oscar Grace (another friend of Ned’s), and an early role for Mickey Rourke as Teddy, an ex-con and Ned’s former client.

There is substantially more nudity and suggestiveness in Body Heat than any of its noir predecessors, though might seem tame by today’s standards; either that or today there are no standards. It is interesting to watch Body Heat twice, first from Ned’s point of view and then from Matty’s and ask oneself if they really love each other or are caught up in lust, the body heat of the moment. This is neo-noir, after all, and ambiguity is expected from all the players involved, except for Preston’s police detective whose clarity of right and wrong makes him suspect all is not on the straight and narrow. And noir wouldn’t be complete without characters speaking in a certain heightened sense of style. Kasdan was criticized for having modern characters speak as if they are in a Raymond Chandler novel, but in this movie it works. When they first meet, Ned tells Matty, “Maybe you shouldn't dress like that.” Matty: “This is a blouse and skirt. I don't know what you're talking about.” Ned: “You shouldn't wear that body.” Perhaps a modern audience might snicker at the “corny” dialogue, but those who admire the noir films of the 1940s will nod and smile in admiration.