Monday, November 30, 2009

Movie of the Week - Being There

This week’s movie is Being There (1979).

Being There, directed by Hal Ashby, is a story, based on the book by Jerzy Kosinski, who also wrote the screenplay, about a man that has seemingly the mental capacity of a child but is mistakenly thought to be a sage by those that encounter him after he leaves his home. There are a number of elements that make this movie great, but the most prominent is the remarkable performance by Peter Sellers (the second to last of his life); Sellers won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. This story was a personal project for Sellers, as he spent many years trying to acquire the story and get the film made. It very well may be the best of his career. The film was also composed beautifully by Hal Ashby and his D.P. Caleb Deschanel, which culminates in a profound and much discussed final shot. The film is a must see for fans of Sellers, comedy/dramas and cinema. The film stars: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, and Jack Warden.

Being There [Blu-ray/DVD]

Glee: Season 1, Episode 11 – Hairography (2009) - Review

Hairography is a mixed episode. It treads again on the same message as the last few episodes, that of being comfortable with yourself and excepting others. Here, however, the episode deals more with not believing in self or others or both and also trying to find the true nature of someone or self (capped off by the musical performance to end the episode). Glee continues to walk a fine line between heartfelt and cheesy, generally staying on the side of heartfelt as the cheesiness is dispelled through humor and self-referential nods, and genuine emotion and the audience caring about the characters. But parts of this episode do not succeed in not being cheesy, especially in the first half. This is something the writers need to pay attention to; otherwise the show may fall back into the weak episodes that populated the early portion of this season. Plus, there is the continued trend of falling back on voiceover narration as a means of telling the story, when visual mediums would do much better. All the musical performances in the episode were straight performances with some forwarding on the story and arc of the episode and characters, but none of them lived in the story. The musical numbers that take place in the world of Glee, rather than as an activity of Glee, resonate and are more powerful. All that being said, the second half of the episode gets a lot of stuff right: there is humor, character development and heartfelt emotion. The others strong aspect of this episode and the show is the ability to play off stereotypes, both using them as a source of humor and knocking them down so characters can rise above them. As the season progresses, one of the most interesting stories is that of Quinn and the transformation of her character – she wants to hold on to who she was, but is also growing up. One of the highlights of this episode involves her performance of Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna. Overall, Hairography is good, but not as strong as the last few episodes of the show. 8/10

Glee can be seen Wednesday nights on Fox or on Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Peter Jackson – Movies Spotlight – December





December’s Movies Spotlight is on Peter Jackson, whose new film The Lovely Bones opens December 25th. Best known for directing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Jackson is one of the top reviewed directors of the last decade. Jackson has now moved into producing as well as writing and directing. Like Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas coming out of the 70s, Jackson has entered the new decade as one of Hollywood’s top auteurs, both critically and commercially.

Early Days in New Zealand

Jackson started his feature film career in New Zealand in 1987 with Bad Taste, a low-budget sci-fi horror comedy splatter film that he made with his friends. It played at the Cannes Film Festival and sold distribution rights to twelve countries. Jackson had got his name out there and started working on a number of new scripts with his writing partner Fran Walsh, including a never released sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street. Next up for Jackson was Meet the Feebles, a Muppet-style musical comedy. This film proves to be a critical step in Jackson’s career as it is the first film that he collaborated with Richard Taylor on the special effects. Taylor would go on to create Weta Workshop, which would do the effects for all of Jackson’s future films. The last of his early films, and probably the best known, is Briandead, or as it is known in America: Dead Alive. The cult horror comedy, on par with The Evil Dead, is thought of as a landmark in the genre.

Welcome to Hollywood

Jackson’s next film, Heavenly Creatures, saw a significant change in style and tone for the director, based on a tragic true local New Zealand story. The film was more of a passion project of Fran Walsh and she was the motivating force behind getting made. It also marked the breakout film for Kate Winslet. Heavenly Creatures was picked up by Miramax and Jackson and Walsh were nominated for a screenwriting Oscar. With the success of Heavenly Creatures, Jackson would sign a deal with Universal Pictures to make two big budget films. The first was The Frighteners. For the Frighteners, Jackson worked with Hollywood hotshot Robert Zemeckis, and convinced Zemeckis and the studio to allow him to shoot the movie in New Zealand, even though it takes place in America, and use Richard Taylor to do the effects. The result was not a critical or commercial success (however, the film is quite underrated in my opinion and has awesome effects and a lot of good scenes). As a result, Universal decided not to go forward with Jackson’s second film, King Kong, at least for the time being. However, shooting the entire movie in New Zealand and using Richard Taylor for the awesome effects would prove to be selling points for his next epic project.

The Lord of the Rings

Acquiring the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story in 1997, Jackson first approached Miramax about a two picture adaptation, but Miramax insisted that he tell the full story in one film. (Thankfully!) Jackson was able to make a last minute deal with New Line Cinema, who was eager for a trilogy. The crew set off to New Zealand for the first batch of principal photography from October 1999-December 2000 with additional shoots before the release of each film. Jackson cast the film with mostly unknown actors or lesser known (to the average cinema-goer) actors, and with the release of the films, many new careers were launched. The shooting structure of the film also innovated the way future franchises would shoot their films, as all three films were primarily made during that first bout of principal photography. All the special effects were done by Weta Workshop, which made a name for itself through the films, and New Zealand has become one of the best places to shoot epics outside of America. The films were met with critical acclaim winning 17 Oscars on 30 nominations, including best picture for The Return of the King, which is the first fantasy film to ever win the honor. Jackson was now at the top, able to do any project he wanted, so he returned to Universal.

King Kong

Universal Pictures decided to sign Peter Jackson to a new deal following his success, paying him $20 million up front. King Kong was still a priority for Jackson to make, as it was the film he loved as a boy, the film that inspired him to become a filmmaker. Jackson following the same formula of all his other films decided to shoot the film in New Zealand, rebuilding a portion of New York City and use Weta Workshop for the effects. King Kong was released for Christmas 2005 to success as the film is the fourth highest grossing Universal release of all-time.

Peter Jackson: Producer

Jackson has produced all his own films. With the success of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, he now has the power within the Hollywood system to start to put out other projects that he has an interest in without having to direct them personally. The first foray into the producing only realm was 2009’s District 9. The film was met with great reviews and commercial success and bolstered the careers of unknown director Neill Blomkamp and actor Sharlto Copley. Jackson next focuses his producing skills on Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and the two picture adaptation of The Hobbit with Guillermo del Toro directing. But it did not all start well for Jackson as a producer. His first project was the film adaptation of the Microsoft game Halo. The film has been delayed and delayed and even delayed some more, originally set for a 2007 release. District 9 director Neill Blomkamp was going to make it his feature debut, but has now left the project completely. The film is not “on hold” and it is unknown if the project with Jackson involved will ever see the light of day.

Future Projects

The Lovely Bones comes out this month and looks to be a return to the type of style and tone of Heavenly Creatures for Jackson, mixing the stark reality of murder with the world of fantasy. After The Lovely Bones, Jackson looks have a busy slate producing The Adventures of Tintin, rumored to also be directing a sequel, and The Hobbit films. Jackson is also in the works to produce a remake of The Dam Busters based on a script written by Stephen Fry. No matter what projects Jackson does decide to pursue, we can expect great work to come from him as he is certainly one of the best working today.

Peter Jackson Box Set (Selected Filmography/Career Highlights)

1.)    Braindead (1992) [DVD] – Director
2.)    Heavenly Creatures (1994) [DVD] – Director
3.)    The Frighteners (1996) [DVD] – Director
5.)    The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) [Extended DVD] – Director*
6.)    The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) [Extended DVD] – Director*
7.)    King Kong (2005) [Blu-ray/DVD] – Director
8.)    District 9 (2009) [Blu-ray/DVD] – Producer*

*Editor’s Picks

At the Movies – December

Must See in Theatres:

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson) – Drama – Dec 25
Peter Jackson returns to cinemas with what would seem to be a more intimate project, after the epic The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and King Kong. Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, the story is about a young girl who is murdered and watches over her family, and killer, from the afterlife. Should she help them catch her killer or let them move on and heal? With the help of Andrew Lesnie, Jackson seems to have taken a both stark reality and fantasy approach to the material, which is evident in the wonderful trailer. While this film may not scream out as “must see” of the month based on the cast and premise, when other more high profile films are coming out like Avatar, one look at the trailer, and remember this is a Peter Jackson film after all, and there is no doubt that this will be the cinema experience of the month. Not to mention Brian Eno is scoring it. The film stars: Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weiz, Susan Sarando, Stanley Tucci, and the up and coming great talent Saoirse Ronan. Check out the trailer.

Worth Checking Out (if not in theatres then at home):

Invictus (Clint Eastwood) – History/Sports – Dec 11
A likely Oscar contender, Clint Eastwood’s new film is an adaptation of John Carlin’s book about Nelson Mandela’s attempt to unite the citizens of South Africa following the fall of the apartheid by campaigning to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Eastwood has been on a role lately with late year’s Changeling and Grand Torino. Invictus should be another fine film, and look good too as Tom Stern returns behind the camera. The film stars: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Check out the trailer.

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman) – Comedy/Drama – Dec 11
Hot off the success of Juno, director Jason Reitman returns with Up in the Air a story about a consultant who is constantly travelling, outwardly for work, but inwardly because he has no real human connections and thus is afraid to stop moving. So what happens, he is grounded. The film has received praise and is considered a strong Oscar contender for Best Picture, as well as lead actor for George Clooney. The film stars: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, and Danny McBride. Check out the trailer.

Good for Dates:

Everybody’s Fine (Kirk Jones) – Drama – Dec 4
Robert De Niro is back with what looks to be a potential hit and possibility an Oscar nod (though probably not). Everybody’s Fine is about a widower that wants to spend the holidays with his three kids, so he takes a trip to visit each of them. The film looks to be a good role for De Niro and a good family film for adults during the holidays. The film stars: Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and Drew Barrymore. Check out the trailer.

Nine (Rob Marshall) – Musical – Dec 18
Rob Marshall, made famous by Oscar-winner Chicago, returns to musicals with Nine about famous film director Guido Contini as he struggles to find balance between his professional and personal lives, as shown through his relationships with five different women. The film is an adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical based on 8 1/2. What else does this have going for it? Well, how about D.P. Dion Beebe (Oscar winner), music by Maury Yeston (Tony Award winner) and a fantastic cast (six Oscar winners!). Oscar voters and film fans watch out! The film stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, and Kate Hudson (not an Oscar winner, but she was nominated for one). Check out the trailer.

Fun Movies:

Walt Disney Animation Studio’s second feature is The Princess and the Frog, the classic story, with a twist, set in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the Jazz Age. While the trailer really is not that great, there are two key things to remember: 1) this is a Disney film, and they seldom disappoint, and 2) director/writers Ron Clements and John Musker are responsible for The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules (not bad, right). And with that track record, the film will likely be good. The film has voice talent including: Keith David, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Oprah Winfrey. Check out the trailer.

Avatar (James Cameron) – Sci-Fi – Dec 18
James Cameron, you’ve just made the highest grossing motion picture (not adjusted for inflation) of all-time, what are you going to do now? To which Cameron has seemingly replied, not make a new film for twelve years other than a few nature/history documentaries that five people will see as I try to figure out how to eliminate actors from film. The result: Avatar. The film is about humans battling a distant planet’s indigenous peoples by way of inserting a mole. While to some the trailer may present what appears to be a lackluster film, Cameron did make T2 so that gives him some leeway. Though, do we actually really want to see films with no actors, aside for the annual Pixar film? And at an estimated $300MM budget before P&A, this better do Titanic business (actors are probably safe for now). The film stars/voice talent: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, and Sigourney Weaver. Check out the trailer.

Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie) – Action – Dec 25
Do three terribles make a good? 1) Guy Ritchie, after making two good movies to start his career, has made three consecutive bad films. 2) Lead screenwriter Simon Kinberg is not a prudent decision, should you actually want the movie to be good (why not just hire David Koepp as co-writer and hope their combined terribleness will negate and prove to be positive outcome). And 3) the tagline is “Nothing Escapes Him” (wasn’t that the tagline to Jaws: The Revenge? I stand corrected, that tagline was “This time… It’s personal”). On the argument of good, 1) cool cast headlined by Robert Downey Jr. 2) Music by Hans Zimmer. And 3) it is a Sherlock Holmes movie! So does it all cancel out? And if so, what does that leave? Hopefully, a good time at the cinema, the trailer does show the film to be fun, and isn’t that the point of a film such as this. The film stars: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Strong. Check out the trailer.

Art-House Watch:

Brothers (Jim Sheridan) – Drama – Dec 4
Brothers is a film about brothers (surprisingly so) who are both stationed in Iraq, one is missing presumed dead, and so the other returns stateside to reconcile with his brother’s wife and child, only he fall for the wife and child, and (again, surprise!) then his brother is found not to be dead and returns home. This film comes with a warning at this point: WARNING! HUGE AMOUNTS OF DRAMA TO ENSUE. But, usually, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ aside, Jim Sheridan makes pretty good films. Plus, this has a great cast and music by Thomas Newman. The film stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Clifton Collins Jr., and Sam Shepard. Check out the trailer.

The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallee) – History/Romance – Dec 18
The plot of this film is self evident in the title. Plus, as we learn from the tagline, “Love rules all”, so we know all we need to know going into this. So why go see this particular film, another in a long overplayed genre? Well, it is director Jean-Marc Vallee’s second mainstream film, after the well received C.R.A.Z.Y. It stars the wonderful Emily Blunt, and has a strong supporting cast. It is written by Julian Fellows who wrote Gosford Park. And finally, it looks to be quite good based on the trailer. The film stars: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, and Mark Strong. Check out the trailer.

A Single Man (Tom Ford) – Drama – Dec 25
Another Oscar favorite, A Single Man is a film based on the book by Christopher Isherwood about an English professor who tries to go about his average day in LA amidst the sudden death of his partner. The film marks the feature directorial debut of fashion giant Tom Ford. The film has a great cast and likely will have a great look and style to it, with Ford running the show. The film stars: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Nicholas Hoult. Check out the trailer.

DVD Prudent Purchase List – December

New Releases:

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Blu-ray/DVD] – Dec 8* (or wait for Blu-ray box set in 2011/12)
2. Lost: The Complete Fifth Season [Blu-ray/DVD] – Dec 8 (wait for Blu-ray series box set)
3. Public Enemies [Blu-ray/DVD] – Dec 8*
4. The Hangover [Blu-ray/DVD] – Dec 15
6. District 9 [Blu-ray/DVD] – Dec 22*
8. Glee, Vol. One: Road to Sectionals [DVD] – Dec 29 (or wait for the eventual Blu-ray release)

If you can only get one thing:


*Editor’s picks

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie of the Week - Charade

This week’s movie is Charade (1963)

Charade is a thriller about a woman, recently windowed, who finds out that her husband is not who he said he was, and not only that he stole a large some of money. Now his partners in crime are looking for the money and they suspect she is hiding it. What makes Charade so good is director Stanley Donen’s ability to mix comedy and romance into a story that is mostly structured as a thriller, while maintaining the mystery and suspense, not an easy task. This is also the last great movie of screen legend Cary Grant and his only with the brilliant Audrey Hepburn. (The film was later remade poorly as Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie.) Charade also features a wonderful score by Henry Mancini and artful cinematography by Charles Lang. The film remains today as one of the best thrillers and certainly worth checking out. The film stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy.

Charade [DVD] (Criterion Collection)

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Damned United (2009) – Review

The Damned United is a very mixed film. The filmmaking technically is very engaging. Tom Hooper and his D.P. Ben Smithard have seamlessly combined the look of the archive footage with what they shot for the film. The film itself feels like it is from the late 60s early 70s. Peter Morgan’s dialogue (be it accurate or not to what Brian Clough actually said) plays well and it is performed quite well by Michael Sheen. The story of the rise and fall of Clough is intriguing (maybe only to soccer fans). And yet with everything seemingly working, something it not right. The film does not hold the viewer’s attention, which can be narrowed down to placing the blame on pacing or narrative structure. Here, the culprit is the latter. The film is organized around jumping back and forth between Clough’s career leading up to being manager at Leeds United and actually being manager. Take 1974 to be the present. The film shows something in the present, and then comments on it by showing the past. For example: Brian Clough is arrogant… cut to the past – Clough and company do wonders with Derby explaining why he has a large ego. While an interesting way to approach the material, this film likely would have worked far better had it run in a linear fashion actually showing the rise and fall, instead of showing that the fall is imminent if not already happening right from the start. The film plays a bit like a gangster film, in that the hero (or anti-hero if you will) starts from meager beginnings only to rise to prominence, becomes boastful, and comes to find an untimely end. Brian Clough does not seem likable, but a credit to Hooper’s direction and Sheen’s performance the audience cheers and supports him even so. If not for the film’s structure, it would be one of the better sports films in recent years and a fine character piece as well. Timothy Spall is also good in the film. Overall the film is certainly worth the time of soccer fans as it captures the spirit of the game perfectly. Cinema fans should also enjoy it for its aesthetic accomplishments. Be that as it may, narrative structure is maybe the most important ingredient in what makes a great film, and The Damned United is found wanting. 6/10

Glee: Season 1, Episode 10 – Ballad (2009) - Review

Ballad is an episode about confronting one’s feelings, dealing with them and moving on, or not. And how does Glee deal with this? Through ballads of course! The episode runs the gambit of teen problems from crushes to telling one’s parents about being pregnant, all of which is done in typical Glee fashion: through song, comedy and heartfelt drama. There are moments that feel overly cheesy, but the writers do a good job of interjecting almost fourth-wall-breaking self-reflection, usually through comedy (the Finn singing to a sonogram scene is a good example). The writers also continue to use tried and true story clich├ęs and yet they feel fresh, which is really a credit to the writing staff and show-runners. Ballad succeeds due to its mix of comedy and sometimes crushing drama and emotion. The writers continue to push the characters, which certainly benefits the show as a whole. Technically, this episode had its ups and downs. Using the dead-on camera angle for the ballads (especially between Schuester and Rachel) should create a feeling of uneasiness for viewers and it does in the episode, but the exaggerated facial expressions that often accompany this angle hurt the overall authenticity of the emotion that the technique is attempting to bring about in the viewer, leaving it feel clumsy. There are also some instances (like the dinning room scene at Quinn’s) where an overly shaky handheld camera shot feels out of place and distracting, in a scene that should employ the camera to build tension. Finally, the episode uses character narration to express emotion; however it comes off much more as exposition. Emotion should be shown in the performances or the juxtaposition of shots not flat out divulged in narration. The musical performances were enjoyable this week (favorite was Schuester singing to Rachel and Emma). All in all, Ballad is another strong episode advancing the story and cultivating the characters. 8/10

Glee can be seen Wednesday nights on Fox or on Amazon.com.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Movie of the Week - The Big Lebowski

This week’s movie is The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directed by The Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski centers on The Dude. The film plays as a detective piece structurally, with The Dude hired to find a missing millionaire’s daughter. Completely unprepared and unqualified for the task, hindered at ever turn by a fantastic group of characters, The Dude just sort of exists above it all, too cool for the world, yet constantly brought back into it by the chaos that surrounds him. The film is great due to the perfect performances (especially Jeff Bridges and John Goodman), great writing from the Coen Brothers, and just the odd world that it all takes place in, created by the style of the Coen Brothers mixed with the work their frequent collaborators, Roger Deakins and Carter Burwell. While the film may not get you on the first viewing, it is better and better with each. It is one of the best comedies and films of the 90s and the Coen Brother’s catalogue. The film stars: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Stormare, John Turturro, and Sam Elliot.

The Big Lebowski [DVD]