Friday, July 30, 2010

New Products

Check out the new 3G Wi-Fi Kindle and non-3G Wi-Fi Kindle.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Salt (2010) – Review

Salt is a fun, exciting action film, wholly ludicrous and lacking real emotional depth, but quite entertaining none the less. For this film to work, the viewer must suspend their disbelief, even within the world that the film has created, as the action and plot, while visually stunning and exhilarating, are substantially farfetched (especially the action). There is a place for exaggerated action (see screenwriter Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium), but it does not play nearly as well in a thriller supposedly based in reality. What holds the film together is director Phillip Noyce’s ability to tell a good story amidst lots of explosions and chases and other actiony things. And, Angelina Jolie is cast perfectly for the role and is able to carry it (thankfully Tom Cruise dropped out, as this is much better than it would have been with Cruise). Noyce is able to keep the film flowing and moving forward keeping the audience engaged in the story by not letting it repose or linger too long in one spot. His management of the narrative structure is top-notch and the pacing of the film is one of its strongest attributes, something that is rarely mastered. Jolie is very good dramatically and in her ability to pull off the stunt work (doing most of her own stunts), but a major flaw in the film, damaging the emotional core, is that she seems to have no chemistry with August Diehl (who is also a good actor in other films). The lack of chemistry and the film not really giving enough time to the relationship between Jolie and Diehl’s characters leads to the audience not buying into the emotions and thus not investing in the characters – which in turn makes the movie about seeing how the story turns out and not about the characters, hampering it from being anything more than a fun action movie. It is a shame that the casting in this instance was not better suited as it would have made the film have a much bigger emotional impact making it more powerful for viewers and ultimately a better film. On the technical side, Noyce delivers another good action film, which is not surprising given his track-record. Wimmer writes another high action thriller with twists and turns abounding, but like some of his previous work, the emotion is lacking. The score is quite good from composer James Newton Howard drawing the viewer in (which the film needed without real emotion coming from the characters). Robert Elswit, as always, shoots the film beautifully and Scott Chambliss provides fitting production design to the atmosphere of the film. While Jolie is good and Diehl is not given enough depth, the other principal supporting cast is adequate in their roles, though the issue with all the characters, really, is lack of emotional depth (the viewer does not care about any of them, aside from actor allegiances brought into the movie). The film was truly built as a star vehicle. Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who is wonderful in many other films) are decent, as is Daniel Olbrychski, but none of them is given anything dramatically interesting to do. Salt makes for a great thrilling story and medium for Jolie, but not much else. 6/10

Movie of the Week - The Sound of Music

This week’s movie is The Sound of Music (1965).

The film is about a young woman who leaves an Austrian convent and becomes the governess to a naval officer widower. The family becomes attached to her, and she to them, but they are all caught up in the conflict of Nazi rule in Austria and must find a way to escape (all while singing about this and that). The film is based on the musical stage production by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers (based on the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse). Robert Wise, who also directed The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story, helmed the project, having experience with both musicals and large productions. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who wrote a number of very good films) was also hired on due to his prior work with Wise and success with musicals in the past. Production designer Boris Leven and composer Irwin Kostal also, along with Lehman, worked with Wise on West Side Story (winner of ten Oscars including Best Picture) and 20th Century Fox wanted the same team in place for their next big musical production (as they were the thing in the early 60’s). The film stars Julie Andrews who was just coming off a number of hit stage musicals (including The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady) and her breakout, Oscar winning, film role in Mary Poppins. Christopher Plummer co-stars. What makes the movie great is Andrews and the wonderful songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Wise also shoots the film with wonderful craning shots and gives such a sense of beauty to both the characters and the world they inhabit. The commentary on and struggle with the Nazis gives the film an added depth and historical context as well. This is a must of fans of musicals and film. Check out the trailer.

The Sound of Music (Blu-ray/DVD)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception (2010) – Review

Inception is an extraordinarily well made and acted heist film. The narrative structure is layered with multiple realities happening simultaneously and multiple dramatic threads being interlaced through each of these realities. Yet, master director Christopher Nolan is able to weave his seemingly complicated tapestry into a straightforward and easy to follow narrative only asking (must like the opening line of The Prestige) for the audience to pay attention. And while the narrative is straightforward, the film nonetheless encourages, if not mandates, speculation and debate. There are not too many blockbusters that are able to achieve this task – keep the viewer thinking not only throughout the film but long after the credit roll. And make no mistake, this is a blockbuster – there is action, adventure, exotic locations, everything a viewer could want from a big summer film. At times, the film almost plays like a James Bond film – the way the action beats are taken – as an exaggeration of what big action set pieces should be like, yet still anchored in reality (to an extent – given the rules of the film world). This is the rare blockbuster that has the viewers on the edge of their seats not only due to the fantastic action pieces but more so as the audience cares about the outcome for the characters. Nolan’s dramatic threads connect with the viewers as they are eloquently unraveled – each decision made has an emotional resonance which the audience picks up, drawing them deeper into the film – the stakes of the characters are therefore meaningful to the audience. This is not just about wowing them, which the film certainly does; it is about the emotional journey.  The film has a lot of exposition to get through, as this world is foreign to the viewer, which in most cases can cause films to drag, but Nolan is able to lay out the exposition in such a way that not only does it draw the audience in more, as the viewer is intrigued by its visual representation, but it also builds upon the structure that is already in place – raising the emotional stakes. Though, the film is rather long, and can at times feel long, as this is a film that is constantly moving and engaging and that can be tiresome, but this is a minor flaw. The supporting characters are also not given a lot of background and business, and are thus expressed to the viewer through know archetypes. Yet this film focuses on and through its main character, thus the supporting players are merely there to aid in the journey of the main character, and therefore do not need be more than they are – plus, the film is so packed with information, there really is no time or room for multiple deep characters. And, they are so fantastically played by the cast and fit into the narrative Nolan is telling so well that their lack of depth is almost unnoticeable in the grand scheme of the film, and in as much is irrelevant to the film as a whole. But it is the fact that these characters are so great that the viewers want more. On to the technical side, Christopher Nolan once again makes a strong argument for his place among the great auteur directors not only of this generation but of all-time with this film. Nolan is one of the few today who makes wonderful films for the Hollywood audience (much like the great directors of old, like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock). His aptitude at producing stunning films again and again is due to two key aspects: his screenwriting ability is astounding, as this script is quite monstrous in its scope yet easy to follow in its visual presentation, and he has developed a perfectly complimentary group of collaborators to work with him (again much like the other master filmmakers) and yet again they provide strong output. Nolan is a master at structuring his narrative; while often disjointed and nonlinear the films are still clear (from a plot standpoint, as the underlying concepts are left for interpretation). Hans Zimmer’s work stands out the most among his collaborators behind the camera. His score featuring Johnny Marr is massive in its emotional depth and flow – being both beautiful and full of tension. It is magnificent. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is typically superb and emotionally provocative, eliciting viewers to succumb to his visual fest. Editor Lee Smith must have had a tough job with the film, so much detail and business going on, but pressure to tell the film as efficiently as possible. He did impeccably. Newcomer to working with Nolan, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas brought his expertise in big adventure action sets to the film and provided his best work to date. As well directed, written, shot, edited, scored, and designed as the film is, it is equally well acted with numerous performances worthy of acclaim. Leonardo DiCaprio has well established himself as an elite talent among actors, but his performances continue to get better. In Inception, he is the point of reference for the whole film – the emotional journey for the audience lives and dies with his performance. To say the least, he is perfect in the part. The supporting cast is just as great. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is cool and confident. Ellen Page is sweet and intriguing. Ken Watanabe is powerful and endearing. Cillian Murphy is eager and hesitant. Tom Berenger is tough and understanding. Michael Caine is sophisticated and warm. All wonderful performances, but it is Tom Hardy, in a breakthrough type performance, and Marion Cotillard who stand out. Hardy commands the attention of the audience, while Cotillard beautifully plays the emotional center, yet with an air of mischievousness. Dileep Rao, Pete Postlethwaite, Lukas Haas, and Talulah Riley are also good in smaller roles. Nolan has a fantastic ability to cast his films and garner perfectly suited performances. Inception is a unique film, to be both an exciting adventure-style film and thought-provokingly deep. It is the first masterpiece of the new decade. 10/10

Movie of the Week - The Fifth Element

This week’s movie is The Fifth Element (1997).

The sci-fi film is about a retired policeman, now driving a cab, who gets mixed up with a girl. Only, this girl is different and may be the salvation for humanity as an evil force approaches Earth. Now the he must help her save humanity. The film is directed by Luc Besson, amidst his string of quality adult action films before focusing on terrible films aimed at children (please come back to directing good films Luc, please). Starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich, the film also features a great supporting cast with Gary Oldman, whose turn as the villainous business mogul Zorg is brilliant and one of the best and outlandish performances of the decade, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Tiny Lister Jr., Luke Perry, and Brion James. The crew is also fantastic with music by Eric Serra, cinematography by Thierry Arbogast and production design by Dan Weil. All three collaborated with Besson on his best works. What makes the film great is that it is a very fun film, mixing sci-fi, adventure, action, and comedy seamlessly. Oldman’s show stealing performance is also a must for fans of his work (like me). Besson gives fans a little bit of everything with this film on a large scale making it very enjoyable. It is a must for sci-fi action fans. Check out the trailer.

The Fifth Element [Blu-ray/DVD]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Christopher Nolan – Movies Spotlight – July 2010

Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the best (if not the best) working director in today’s cinema. Few directors’ names bring with them such hype and implied quality as Nolan’s. His new film, the widely anticipated Inception, opens this month.

Early Career:

Nolan began his film career, in a sense, making short films for his University College London film society in the late 80’s and early 90’s. These films were later screened on a showcase feature on PBS. The last of his short-films, called Doodlebug, starred Jeremy Theobald who he would again use for his feature debut, Following, and later in a small role for Batman Begins. Following features many of the same narrative elements that would make Memento (and much of this other work) such a breakthrough hit, including scenes shown out of chronologic order – leaving the viewer, much like the protagonist, disoriented and having to deduce what is going on from the clues shown. The film was shot for about six thousand dollars on the weekends with friends from the film society. Nolan took the film on the festival circuit, receiving notice and acclaim after premiering it at the 1998 San Francisco Film Festival, even leading to a small limited distribution deal. Due to the notoriety of the film among the festivals, Newmarket Films purchased the script for Memento and put it into production. The film became one of the most talked about films of the year 2000 leading to Nolan receiving an Academy Award nod for best screenplay. The film’s successes also managed to get Nolan a distribution deal with Warner Bros., a deal which would later lead to him helming the Batman franchise. Memento made Nolan a filmmaker to watch and follow and a favorite among film fans. Nolan’s first Hollywood film was a bit of a letdown for fans (but not so much for critics, who generally like it), mainly due to all the hype and love for Memento. While not a bad film (as it is actually decent), it did not live up to the quality of Memento. Insomnia is different from all other of Nolan’s films in that he did not write or work on the script – it is a remake of the 1997 Swedish film of the same name – Nolan’s version was scripted by Hilary Seitz. But, the film did reasonably well in at the box office and showed Nolan’s ability to not only gather a fine cast but to garner wonderful performances, even in a Hollywood setting with egos abound (as Guy Pierce in Memento, an indie film, is quite amazing).

Batman and Warner Bros. Darling:

Warner Bros. put its Batman franchise on indefinite hiatus following the epic critical failure of Batman & Robin, a film equally loathed by critics and fans. But, due to Nolan’s relationship with Warner Bros. and his partnership with David S. Goyer, who had success with Warner Bros. as the screenwriter of Blade, produced by one of their subsidiaries, he was able to convince Warner Bros. to let them reboot the series, which at the time was risky, considering Nolan was a relatively unknown director, at least among mainstream audiences. But, it is likely that Warner Bros. was looking at the recent trend of quality lesser known directors taking big films and producing both critical and box office successes (like Peter Jackson with The Lord of the Rings, Sam Raimi with Spider-Man and Alfonso Cuaron with Harry Potter). Batman Begins returned the Batman franchise to the upper echelon of comic based films, and the film itself, along with Spider-Man 2, to a different level of comic book films in terms of caliber surpassing all the previous Batman films. The film was a box office success, but nowhere near Spider-Man numbers, but more so it was a critical and fan success. Batman Begins also established Nolan’s production team, so to speak – most of which he would continually work with over his next three films to date: producer (and wife) Emma Thomas (she has produced all his films), cinematographer Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith, composer Hans Zimmer, writing partner (and brother) Jonathan Nolan (whose short story Memento is based on), and actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine. The acclaim that the film garnered gave Warner Bros. the belief that Nolan was indeed the right director to finish the new Batman trilogy. But first, Nolan wanted Warner Bros. to fund his script and next film The Prestige. The film again reinforced that Nolan was and is one of the best working in the business, but also that he had a knack for complex narratives (much like with Memento). The Prestige seems like a straight-forward film about rival magicians at first, but Nolan is able to weave in almost Sci-Fi aspects to the film. Though, the film did underperform a bit at the box office, likely due to the complex nature of the story. With The Prestige finished, Nolan went back to work on Batman, many speculating, as they are now for the next Batman film, if the sequel could live up to the last. The Dark Knight opened to a huge success, both at the box office and among critics and fans alike. It was such a good film, grossly snubbed by the Oscars, that the Academy of Motion Pictures changed the format from five best picture nominees to ten the following year. It also features one of the most mesmerizing performances of all-time in Heath Ledger’s Joker. It is the kind of film and performance that makes audience members wish they had not seen it, so that they could watch it again for the first time and be absolutely astounded and blown away. The film’s utter triumph has made Nolan the king of Warner Bros. And again, before making the last of his Batman films, Warner Bros. is releasing his next Sci-Fi action spy film Inception. It will be interesting to see how the film does; it like The Prestige has a complex narrative structure. But with a credit like ‘From the director of The Dark Knight’ it is thought to do well.

Future Projects:

Nolan is expected to begin shooting the third of his Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises, in April of next year with the release date of July 20, 2012. It is likely that some details about the production, cast and characters, will be released at Comic-Con later this month (I hope). Also scheduled for 2012 is Superman: Man of Steel, which Warner Bros. has entrusted Nolan to executively produce and oversee. It is a retooling of the franchise, much like Batman Begins. David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan have been working on developing a script. Nolan has also stated that he would be interested in directing a James Bond film in the future, Bond films being a major influence for Inception.

Christopher Nolan Career Highlights:
1)      Following (1998) – director (DVD, Streaming)
2)      Memento (2000) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
3)      Insomnia (2002) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
4)      Batman Begins (2005)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
5)      The Prestige (2006)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
6)      The Dark Knight (2008)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
7)      Inception (2010)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
* Editor’s picks.

Movie of the Week - L'Auberge Espagnole

This week’s movie is L’Auberge Espagnole (2002).

The film is about a Parisian student who goes to Barcelona for a year to study. Once there, he decides to live in a shared apartment with exchange students from across Europe. The film looks at the relationships between these people and their cultures. Writer-director Cedric Klapisch brings his unique fresh style to the film, having the main character’s imagination at time project itself into reality. The international cast is headlined by Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cecile De France, and Kelly Reilly – but the whole cast is fantastic. What makes the film great is its cinematic style, the overall enjoyable experience of watching the film and interesting meshing of cultures that takes place. The sequel, The Russian Dolls (2005), is just as good, if not better. The film is a must see for fan of French cinema and comedies. Check out the trailer.

L’Auberge Espagnole [DVD]

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cyrus (2010) – Review

Cyrus is a tale of two movies, one is funny and well acted and the other is awfully directed and shot. Sadly, these are the same movie. The film is very awkward and will makes some viewers feel as uncomfortable as its characters, but this humor works well in the story and with the characters presented. They are all a bit off center in their own ways (but aren’t we all). The scenes that work the best are those that are meant to play as comedy. The more serious scenes do not play as well, partially due to the tone of the piece but mostly due to the director’s inability to visually connect the audience with the characters. The directorial style is so clumsy and goes so far out of its way to be ‘indy’ and noticeable that it works against the rest of the film. The viewer must like the film in spite of its visual style. While some directors can make very stylistic movies that are overly noticeable to viewer that completely succeed in connecting with the audience (like Wes Anderson or Steven Soderbergh for example), here the style just looks amateurish and so unpolished that is really takes away from the good film underneath. The director’s sole job is to connect the film to its intended viewers, the Duplass brothers have failed to do that utterly (unless the intended audience is only the select few that enjoy a certain ‘indy’ style of filmmaking that breaks filmmaking rules merely for the sake of it, rather than for the emotional impact that some of these techniques can add to the piece, this film uses them to no effect and to no emotional need or gain, purely because it can). Aside from the visual style, the film does work well and has a number of good scenes, which is a credit to the fine work of the actors. This is what makes the visuals more infuriating. It is not like they ruin some already bad film. They ruin what could have been a very good film. But alas, a film is the combination of everything seen and heard and here they do not compliment each other, rather they conflict. Jay and Mark Duplass do not add anything to the film as directors; they do provide a good script to start, but they must be able to hone their skills visually if they are to succeed as quality filmmakers going forward. The primary production team did not do great work here either, possible hampered by the style set forth by the Duplass brothers. Jas Shelton’s cinematography looks like it was shot with an iPhone camera and really brings nothing to the film. Annie Spitz’s production design does a good job making the viewer believe they are just watching average people living their average lives in average places. Michael Andrews’s score is mostly in the background and does not play a prominent role in the film, which is too bad as the right music could have helped viewers emotionally connect despite the style (and he has done good work in the past). But, the score is in line, like the rest, with the overall style, so the main complaint for the film is on style and with the directors. However, they were able to garner fine performances from their cast. John C. Reilly gives a great performance in the film and his interplay with Jonah Hill creates some of the most funny and best stuff. The film is saved in terms of being enjoyable by his work. Marisa Tomei and Catherine Keener are also good in their roles, but it is Reilly’s movie. Cyrus is disappointing because there is a lot to like, but the film’s style alienates its viewers and leaves them feeling empty. 6/10

Movie of the Week - Spellbound

This week’s movie is Spellbound (1945).

The film is about a psychiatrist who falls in love with the new head of the clinic that she works at, but not all is what it seems with this man. He is hiding a murderous secret. The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and features a fantastic score from Miklos Rozsa, masterful cinematography from (possibly the greatest D.P. of all time) George Barnes and abstract design from artist Salvador Dali. It is also one of the films Hitchcock made with famous producer and personal antagonist David O. Selznick. Hollywood legends Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck star in the film and both give good performances. The film is a bit dated now and its look at psychotherapy seems odd to present viewers, but Hitchcock’s approach to the material rewards viewers with a good drama/mystery that really gets good in the second half and Hitchcock uses some interesting shots to heighten the tension and suspense. What makes the film great is Hitchcock’s collaboration with his actors and crew resulting in an interesting visual film that while socially and culturally out of touch with current audiences still has the ability to draw them in and have them hooked through the last shot. It is not Hitchcock’s best work, but it is a solid film and a must of fans of his films. Check out the trailer.

Spellbound [DVD]