Monday, April 26, 2010

Prudent Purchase List – May 2010

Prudent Purchase New Releases:

1.)        True Blood: The Complete Second Season [Blu-ray/DVD] – May 25
2.)        Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog [Blu-ray] – May 25

Other New Releases/Updates:

1.)        Saving Private Ryan [Blu-ray] – May 4
2.)        The Notebook [Blu-ray] – May 4
3.)        M (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] – May 11
4.)        Robin Hood: Men in Tights [Blu-ray] – May 11
5.)        The Messenger [Blu-ray/DVD] – May 18
6.)        Spartacus [Blu-ray] – May 25
7.)        The Road [Blu-ray/DVD] – May 25
8.)        Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray) – May 25

Movie of the Week - Conspiracy

This week’s movie is Conspiracy (2001).

The made for television HBO film is a dramatic recreation of the Wannsee Conference where the Nazi Final Solution phase of the Holocaust was devised. The script was written by Loring Mandel based on notes smuggled out of the conference (as notes were not permitted to leave the room). The film is directed by veteran TV filmmaker Frank Pierson and features good work from cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt. The film also boasts an excellent cast including: Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. What makes the film great is the performances, the shocking and terrifying implications of its subject and the engaging narrative that Pierson creates. It is a must see for historians interested in the time period. Check out the trailer.

Conspiracy [DVD]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kick-Ass (2010) – Review

Kick-Ass is a remarkable blending of homage and parody, action and humor, drama and silliness. The film has it all. At its core, it is a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy finding his way in the world – only, to do so he decides to become a superhero despite having no powers or physical abilities. The film also has two sub-plot stories pertaining to differing relationships between parent and child. These three story structures are interwoven and intersect throughout the film, each with its own emotional journey – and Matthew Vaughn did an excellent job giving each narrative thread enough screen time and impact to resonate individually with the audience, thus each character matters, which benefits the overall experience – even despite all the laughs and silliness that the film offers, there is still a connection between the characters and audience. And the film does offer quite a few hilarious moments. These jokes are both at the expense of prior superhero films and books (the character of Kick-Ass has many visual, audio and narrative references to Spider-Man, while Big Daddy has many referring to Batman, even Adam West’s version) and the nature of what the characters are actually doing and reacting to on screen. The character of Mindy ‘Hit-Girl’ is outrageous – which sparks different reactions depending on the disposition of the viewer. She is an eleven-year-old girl whose father has brought her up in isolation, loving her completely, but raising her quite differently – to be a deadly assassin. We see the girl in action. And the film is unflinching in its depiction of violence, only some find it more shocking because the character is eleven. And she has a foul mouth, which again is seemingly only shocking and offensive because the character is eleven. However, taking the character as she is portrayed in the world of the film, she is wonderfully cute and spunky and brings that to her alter ego, which does produce a number of laughs. It is the situation as a whole for many of the characters that produces most of the best moments of humor, be them relatable (being awkward around a girl) or absurd (most of everything involving the relationship between Mindy and her father – their introduction in the film is one the funniest and best in recent memory). Director Vaughn seems to blend in his British gangster film style from a lot of his previous work into the film, especially in the scenes involving Frank D’Amico. The film walks an interesting line throughout, there is a feeling of light-hearted comedy that is constantly being impacted with action and drama, but where Vaughn excels is in his ability to master all three aspects and balance them to their best use, thereby engrossing the audience in the drama of the story, giving them the action they expect and making them laugh too throughout the whole film, really a masterful job done. He is also able to pay homage to superhero movies and comics. While many of the jokes do stem from the ridiculousness of superheroes in the real world, there is a definite sense that the filmmakers involved here truly love and care about comics and their byproducts, and there are many references and shout outs in the film (it is awesome that one of the characters is reading Runaways in one shot). On the technical side of the film, along with Vaughn’s superb directing, the film benefits from having a great cast and crew. The production design by Russell De Rozario in the film was pitch perfect (I especially liked his Atomic Comic set and Frank D’Amico’s apartment). It captured the world that each character inhabited perfectly, and helped tell their story visually. The score by the team of John Murphy, Henry Jackman, Ilan Eshkeri, and Marius De Vries and particularly the pop-music cues where able to capture the atmosphere of each character’s perceived  world, while also giving the audience insight into their emotional make up (using Banana Splits Tra La La Song for Hit-Girl’s first action sequence was sheer brilliance). The score also played off the talents of each composer involved, which helped Vaughn accentuate the style and mood for each scene (for example Jackman worked on The Dark Knight’s score, and you can hear the reference to that film in moments of the score here). The cinematography by Ben Davis fit each scene well. Davis was able to enhance the ambience of each sequence or scene with his work. He along with Vaughn also did quite a good job of staging many of the scenes as if the audience were looking at a panel in a comic through their shot selections. Stylistically, it was very fitting to the overall homage feeling to the piece. The dialogue was great, funny and worked throughout – the script by Vaughn and writing partner Jane Goldman, which was written at the same time as Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. were writing the graphic novel, is able to capture the humor in the situations that these characters find themselves in, but like the film as a whole it also takes stock in the characters and gives them real arches that audience can relate to and invest in. And finally, the cast was great. There are no weak performances in the piece. Clarke Duke, Even Peters, Lyndsy Fonseca, and Sophie Wu were all good in their supporting roles as Kick-Ass’s high school friends. Frank D’Amico’s henchmen, played by Michael Rispoli, Stu ‘Large’ Riley, Jason Flemyng, and Dexter Fletcher are also good in their supporting parts (Flemyng and Fletcher have appeared in all three of Vaughn’s directed films). The film, though, benefits greatly from the fantastic group of actors playing the main characters. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, still and maybe forever McLovin as far as the general movie-going population is concerned, is surprisingly good here – he has to do more range and play off the image that people associate with him, and he does so very well. Mark Strong is as always great; he was the ideal choice to play the villain. Nicolas Cage (who I normally would be unexcited about upon seeing his name in the credits) was hysterical. His approximation of Adam West’s Batman voice was fantastic. Chloe Grace Moretz stole the show (at least upon first viewing). Her mixture of cuteness and sarcasm amplifies her performance in a role that very easily could have not worked at all. She is just right in her approach and handling of the material. Lastly, Aaron Johnson did an excellent job too. He was able to guide the viewer through the world and his performance was completely relatable, which it needed to be for his character to work. Kick-Ass is a rare film – it is both absurdly violent and silly, and yet completely works, creating a humorous action-packed, yet meaningful, cinematic experience. 9/10

Movie of the Week - Fist of Legend

This week’s movie is Fist of Legend (1994).

The film is about a Chinese martial artist who in 1937 returns to Shanghai, from studying abroad in Japan, to find his teacher has been killed in a duel with a Japanese master and his school harassed by the students of the Japanese master. The film is set against the brewing contempt for the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and China as a whole. The film stars Jet Li and is widely considered his best martial arts film. It is directed by genre veteran Gordon Chan and fight choreography from the legendary Woo-ping Yuen. The story is based on the Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury. What makes the film great is the collaboration between Jet Li and Woo-ping Yuen. The many fight sequences are expansive, emotional and fantastic – they each have their own style and tell the story within each battle. This is a must for any martial arts fan. Check out the trailer.

Fist of Legend [Blu-ray/DVD]

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) – Review

Hot Tub Time Machine is the type of film made for a specific audience, one that is looking to laugh without qualms about what they are laughing at; and for this audience, the film does its job. It is funny, full of nostalgia and referential nods and gets the most out of its cast and premise. Upon first look at the credits, the film seems to be a waste of the talent of actor/producer John Cusack and his friend director Steve Pink, after all the two worked on High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank together, what are they doing making this film. But after seeing it, the film resembles The Hangover in that it takes something iconic (in The Hangover it is Vegas and the mythos that applies, while in Hot Tub Time Machine it is the 80’s and it’s teen film genre) uses the lore of this time or place (or both) to insight comedy, while telling a somewhat heartfelt story, in which the characters come to realizations about their lives, and this is where Hot Tub Time Machine succeeds. While the film is very funny and there are plenty of jokes at the expense of the actors and the 80’s (at least how we remember it now), the film really works because while the audience laughs they also are building a relationship with the characters and want to see their journeys come to a satisfying conclusion. The narrative structure for the film takes three friends on hard times, asks them to reevaluate their lives and what they mean to each other and finally to make changes and reconnect to find deeper meaning in themselves, each other and their lives. This does not sound much like a comedy, but it works well as the foundation for the film, which then piles on tones of jokes on top. The cast for such a film is essential as well, as they must be able to both play to the drama of their arch while being able to pull off the comedy. Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry make up a great team, each playing to their strengths: Cusack has sort of a tortured coolness, Duke has an ambivalent cynicism, Robinson is sort of lovable, and Corddry is a wild man, anything can happen type – their powers combine to form a well functioning comedic group, enabling for many sorts of jokes to work (and a film like this needs that, similar again to The Hangover). The film also features a number of fun supporting roles including: Crispin Glover (sort of playing a caricature of George McFly), Chevy Chase, Collette Wolfe, Lyndsy Fonseca, and Lizzy Caplan (whose character oddly felt out of place in the 80s, almost postmodern, like she was from the present too, but living in the 80’s). Bob Ziembicki’s production design fits the film well, as it is both realistic for the period but also full of nostalgic joking fun. Overall the Hot Tub Time Machine works to the strengths of is cast, features all types of jokes, and lots of 80’s fun, but it is the underlying narrative that sets it apart from most comedies of its type. 7/10

Movie of the Week - The Pink Panther Strikes Again

This week’s movie is The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976).

The fourth film in the Pink Panther (Inspector Clouseau) series, the film is about Chief Inspector Clouseau stopping Charles Dreyfus, who formally was his boss and has recently escaped for the mental asylum, from using his Doom’s Day Machine. The film features some of the funniest work from Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk in the series. Blake Edwards directs the film in a gag oriented way, many scenes playing off the comedic brilliance of Sellers. And Henry Mancini delivers another fantastic score. What makes the film great is Sellers, playing his most iconic character to its most fleshed out and exaggerated. The film is one of the best slapstick films since the work of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. Check out the trailer.

The Pink Panther Strikes Again [DVD]

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Matthew Vaughn – Movies Spotlight – April 2010

Matthew Vaughn is best known for producing Guy Ritchie’s breakout films, but he is also a very talented director. His third film, Kick-Ass, comes out this month on the 16th. The film, based on Mark Millar’s comic book series, is touted to be loads of fun.

First as a Producer:

After graduating from Stowe School in England, Vaughn decided to take a year off before going to university and travel the world on a Hard Rock CafĂ© tour, which landed him eventually in Los Angeles. There, he began working as an assistant to a director, but decided to return to university in the U.K. However, just a few weeks into his first semester he was determined to return to L.A. and make movies, having caught the film bug. Though, upon his return to Hollywood, he realized that everyone else in town had the same dream; so he again returned to England. But in England he found success. In 1995 he produced his first film, a thriller called The Innocent Sleep. While the film itself was unsuccessful, it did give Vaughn the chance to break into the British film industry and garner him some experience. Next, in 1998, he would produce his good friend Guy Ritchie’s feature debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a film that would propel Ritchie to fame worldwide. With the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Vaughn and Ritchie would team up again for Snatch., which was just as well received. The pair then worked on Mean Machine, Vaughn producing and Ritchie executively producing. The film was made as a vehicle for their friend and co-collaborator on their first two films, Vinnie Jones. Then the luck ran out: the team of Vaughn producing and Ritchie writing and directing made Swept Away, a film that Ritchie wrote for his new wife Madonna to star in. The film was lambasted by critics and fans alike. It also marked the last time the duo would work together in any capacity. Vaughn worked on a few English television series as executive producer before deciding to direct films himself as well as produce them. In 2009, Vaughn worked with Michael Caine and director Daniel Barber on the well-received thriller Harry Brown.

Then as a Director:

For his first feature, Vaughn chose J.J. Connolly’s novel Layer Cake, a crime drama/thriller very much in the style of Ritchie’s early work. The film is also notable for being the breakthrough film for Sienna Miller as well as for Daniel Craig both as a leading man and as an action star, which certainly facilitated his winning of the James Bond role in Casino Royale. Vaughn also worked with cinematographer Ben Davis and composer Ilan Eshkeri, both of whom would work on Vaughn’s next two films. Due to the box office and critical success of Layer Cake, Vaughn was offered to direct X-Men: The Last Stand, which he accepted. However, late in pre-production (two weeks before filming was scheduled to start), Vaughn left the project. Brett Ratner was hired to direct the film, not so much for his filmmaking talent, but more for his ability to work fast and on budget. (Like everyone else) Vaughn was critical of Ratner’s final product. Vaughn left the film due to Fox and Marvel putting too much pressure on him to finish the film in a short amount of time, when Vaughn still had issues with the script, which he felt was not very good and flawed. There was also a large amount of studio creative interference (similar to Sam Raimi’s experience with Spider-Man 3). Vaughn decided he could not make the quality film he wanted to under those conditions and left the film. With X-Men behind him, Stardust was his next project. Along with producing and directing the film, Vaughn worked with Jane Goldman on the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel. Goldman, like Davis and Eshkeri, would join Vaughn’s collaborative team, again working with him on Kick-Ass. Stardust was again a success for Vaughn, and showed that he had the range to make different types of films and that he was quite adept at combining the comedy, action and fantasy genres, something that would prove important for his next project. The film also boosts a fantastic cast. At the premier of Stardust, Vaughn met Mark Millar. The two talked about Kick-Ass, and Vaughn bought the rights before the first issue even came out. The comic and script were done at the same time making the process very collaborative and organic. Vaughn decided to finance the film independently so that he could maintain control over the project, fearing what happened during X-Men. Kick-Ass premiered at the SXSW Film Festival to rave reviews. Vaughn seems to get better with each film he makes. Vaughn was also briefly attached to direct Thor, but left the project when his deal with Marvel expired.

Comic Book Hits:

Vaughn’s last two films have been excellent, both among the top comic book films made to date. Kick-Ass showed off his ability to garner brilliant performances from his cast (notably from Aaron Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz). He also did a great job of mixing humor, drama and action together to make a very compelling and thrilling narrative (though, for some it might have been too violent). For his next film, X-Men: First Class, Vaughn again shows off his talent to mix genres and hit multiple varying emotional and excitingly enthralling beats. The film also showcases his keen visual eye and stylistic skill, as it has a wonderful aesthetic to it. X-Men: First Class opened to very good reviews from both critics and (especially) fans (I feel it is the X-Men film we all deserved by never got with the first four). The best aspect of the film is Vaughn’s crafting of the relationship between Professor X and Magneto and the performances he gets from James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. It is a great film that will hopefully have future installments with the same cast and Vaughn at the helm.

Future Projects:

Upcoming in 2011, Vaughn is producing the film The Debt. The film yet again features co-collaborators Davis (D.P.) and Goldman, who worked on the script with Vaughn. The film is directed by John Madden and features Sam Worthington, Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson. It is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film about three Mossad agents on a mission to capture and kill a notorious Nazi war criminal, set in 1965. Vaughn is also linked as a producer to One Chance, the story of unlikely British reality star Paul Potts, and another Mark Millar creation American Jesus, which Vaughn is slated to direct as well, but the project is nowhere near ready for production. Also up in the air are possible sequels to Kick-Ass (Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall) and X-Men: First Class.

Matthew Vaughn Career Highlights:

1)      Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – producer [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
2)      Snatch. (2000) – producer [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
3)      Layer Cake (2004) – director [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
4)      Stardust (2007) – director* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
5)      Kick-Ass (2010) – director* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
6)      X-Men: First Class (2011) – director* [Blu-ray/DVD/Rent]
* Editor’s picks

Monday, April 5, 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010) – Review

Clash of the Titans is a mess. Not only is it a remake, but from the get-go it seems as if it is trying to be a bunch of other films (action similar to Transformers, comedy and quips like Pirates of the Caribbean and a sort of epic nature like The Lord of the Rings). Yet, the film trying to be all these things, ends up not being any and not really even being that entertaining (which I assume was its main goal). The action was big, the visual effects were big, but all the effects and action in the world will never be enough for a good film (also note that the 3-D in this was an afterthought and is thus pointless and shotty and the film should be seen without it; after Avatar’s 3-D, is there really any point to do 3-D unless you really make an effort; the refashioning of the film last minute for crappy 3-D is just another sign of the film piggybacking on the successes of other films, and failing at every attempt). The story and more importantly the characters need to connect with the audience and make them care, and this film does not do that. By the end, at the emotional peak, the audience is more concerned with pretty much everything else aside from the culmination of the main character’s arch. Be it the fault of a flat performance or a terrible script and writing (probably more the latter), the film just does not bring the audience in, rather it is more like a spectacle to behold, but carries little meaning once the thrill is done. The main problem is with the script by Travis Beacham and the team of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Aside from it seemingly trying the steal narrative and character elements from other films, it makes a mockery of its whole unique story. The character of Io for example seemingly is inserted for the sole reason of delivering exposition (can the audience be trusted to know anything about Greek mythology, or at least be given a chance to learn stuff through the story, nope it all must be spelt out; can the characters discover anything for themselves, nope, again it all must be spelt out). Elements of the story seem odd and self-defeating – Zeus agrees with Hades to spite man, but loves his son who is a man (sort of), but still spites man, but aids his son to foil the spiting of man, but still spites man – it makes no sense. Or, Perseus (the main character) continuously claiming that he will complete his task as a man without the help of the gods, which makes it more difficult and leads to the loss of life, but still it is noble, except he decides only after everyone is dead to take the help of the gods which then seems to state that all the hardship and death leading up to him deciding to give in to his own weakness was pointless. And really that sums up a lot of the movie’s plot – pointless. Even the ending feels phony – Perseus has completed his task and is all alone (in that everyone around him has died due to the quarrelling of the gods and man), which seems like a suitable enough ending and even has a little emotional weight to it, but then the film goes and makes it more happy, but not too happy, but happy enough to, like pretty much the whole film, drain any emotional connection to the characters out of it. At the end of the film, the audience is left with a number of big action pieces, some chuckles, a story that is pointless, and characters that they do not care about. On to the technical side, Louis Leterrier’s direction felt like a step back from his previous work. There were some interesting ideas, but nothing really felt fleshed out. His major failure however was his inability to create an emotion journey for the characters (and so to for the audience). Thus, the viewer is left to merely watch, rather than participate. As stated above, the writing is absolutely atrocious and is the knife in the heart of the film. Martin Laing’s production design was a highlight of the film. His Mount Olympus set for the hall of the gods was fascinating to behold and really by far the best and most interesting aspect of the film. The cast was quite impressive in name, but under utilized and given drivel to work with in practice (why cast Danny Huston or Alexander Siddig if they are only going to be in one medium shot, a few long shots and only have one line each? and I sort of feel bad for Gemma Arterton, as her character got a lot terribleness in this one, the performance Leterrier asked of her was basically to try to say all her exposition in the most epic and serious way possible, which ultimately just made it all super cheesy and wore down the importance of it all). Ralph Fiennes, Liam Neeson and Alexa Davalos are pretty much the only ones to come out of this unsullied (though Fiennes’ Hades was a bit like his Voldemort, sort of), as their performances are high points. Sam Worthington continues to be adequate at best. Overall the film was just a waste of a talented bunch of actors and the opportunity to make a fun entertaining film with some meaning – which this is not on all accounts. 5/10

Movie of the Week - The Hours

This week’s movie is The Hours (2002).

The film (based on Michael Cunningham’s novel) is about how the novel “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf affects three generations of women: Virginia Woolf writing the novel, a woman in the 50s’ reading the novel, and a woman in the present who seems to personify Mrs. Dalloway herself. The film is headlined by a brilliant cast including: Nicole Kidman (who won an Oscar for her performance), Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Stephen Dillane, Ed Harris, Claire Danes, John C. Reilly, Jeff Daniels, and Toni Collette. And behind the camera is an equally talented group: Stephen Daldry’s wonderful direction, Seamus McGarvey’s pitch on lighting in each period to compliment Maria Djurkovic’s production design, David Hare’s writing allowing the actors to come alive in their performances, and Philip Glass’ haunting score. What makes the film great is not only all the talent, but that it all works together to make a stunning film. Daldry’s work is so engrossing at times that it makes the viewer (or maybe just me) nervous to see what will happen – the viewer becomes completely emotionally vested in the film. In a year with a lot of great films, The Hours was certainly one of the best. Check out the trailer.

The Hours [DVD]