Tuesday, November 30, 2010

At the Movies – December 2010 – Part 1: Art-House Films

Art-House Watch:

All Good Things (Andrew Jarecki) – Mystery – Dec 3rd [limited]
The film is based on the most notorious unsolved murder case in New York history – a love story and murder mystery. Director Andrew Jarecki makes his feature debut working with a good crew including composer Rob Simonsen, D.P. Michael Seresin (whose work on Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban is wonderful) and production designer Wynn Thomas. The cast is quite good with critic favorite Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst starring and Philip Baker Hall, Kristen Wiig and Frank Langella in supporting roles. The film looks good, interesting and intense. It has received positive reviews from advanced screenings and will likely factor into the Independent Spirit Award nominations. Check out the trailer.

I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa) – Comedy – Dec 3rd [LA/NY]
The film is about Steven Russell, a happily married man and productive member of the community. Only, he is a con-man, who reassesses his life and orientation when he is caught and sent to jail. Delayed from April 2010, check out my preview from that month for info, and check out the trailer.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander) – Action – Dec 3rd [NY]
The Finnish film is about the closest guarded Christmas secret in the depths of the Korvatunturi Mountains (and that’s all I’m telling, just watch and enjoy). Director Jalmari Helander has made a number of shorts, but this film is his feature debut. Being a Finnish film, it features a mostly Finnish cast and crew with composer Juri Seppa, cinematographer Mika Orasmaa, productions designers Torunn Anfinsen and Liv Ask (who also designed Dead Snow… Nazi Zombies!!!), and co-stars Peeter Jakobi, Onni Tommila and Jorma Tommila. The film looks really weird, but for those that like this type of movie, it is great. Check out the trailer.

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell) – Drama – Dec 17th [limited]
The film is about a happy couple, whose world is destroyed when their young sons dies in an accident, based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire. Director John Cameron Mitchell is back for his third film coming off two indy films – the mixed Shortbus and revered Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Mitchell is working with a very indy crew with composer Anton Sanko, cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco (who shot his other two films as well) and production designer Kalina Ivanov. The cast is being praised for their work on the film. It stars Nicole Kidman, who is also producing, and Aaron Eckhart. Kidman is at present the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar come 2011. Certainly a downer, but with such strong performances this is well worth a look. Check out the trailer.

Casino Jack (George Hickenlooper) – Biography – Dec 17th [limited]
The film is about uber DC lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his protégé – whose schemes to peddle influence in Washington lead to corruption and even murder (there is also a documentary about Jack). Director George Hickenlooper, also known for his documentaries like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, is coming off a less than successful bio-pic regarding Andy Warhol called Factory Girl. On the film, Hickenlooper has TV composer Jonathan Goldsmith, horror cinematographer Adam Swica and production designer Matthew Davies. Kevin Spacey stars in a role that is right in his wheelhouse; Barry Pepper co-stars. Kelly Preston, Rachelle Lefevre and Jon Lovitz feature in supporting roles. The film looks interesting, and Spacey should be good. It has received positive reviews from advanced screenings. Check out the trailer.

Country Strong (Shana Feste) – Music – Dec 22nd [limited]
The film is about a fallen country-music star, Kelly Canter, who is inspired to resurrect her career by rising songwriter Beau Hutton. Writer-director Shana Feste is back for her second feature. Her first The Greatest was ok, some interesting stuff but muddled. Composer Michael Brook is also doing this month’s The Fighter, while cinematographer John Bailey and production designer David J. Bomba (also working on The Company Men, coming this month) are also working on the film. Gwneth Paltrow stars, and her singing ability was put on display ahead of the film’s release in her guest appearance on Glee (she is also apparently putting out a country album) and Garret Hedlund (star of TRON: Legacy) co-stars. Leighton Meester and Tim McGraw also play pivotal roles. While the film looks like a rip-off of last year’s Crazy Heart, it should still be decent (and it is not like it is the first time in the movie business someone took an idea from another film and ran with it). Check out the trailer.

Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) – Drama – Dec 29th [limited]
The Spanish language film is about a man in free fall, trying desperately for redemption, but it is not so easy. Mexican writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is well known in the States for his films 21 Grams, Amores Perros and Babel. He is an auteur director and with each film there is potential for something special. Famous Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarron and Guillermo del Toro are producing the film with Inarritu. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Brigitte Broch have worked with Innarritu on his best films and are both back for this film, while composer Gustavo Santaolalla worked on Amores Perros before reuniting with the director. Wonderful Spanish actor Javier Bardem stars (winning the Cannes Film Festival award for best actor, well tying for it really). The film has received lots of praise and is favored for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Check out the trailer.

Another Year (Mike Leigh) – Comedy – Dec 29th [limited]
The film is about a married couple who remains happy well into their older years. The film is structured around an average year of their lives, surrounded by friends and family. Mike Leigh is at the top of British independent film, with breakout hits in the States – Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky (though my personal favorite of his films is Naked; David Thewlis is amazing). Leigh collaborates frequently with composer Gary Yershon and great cinematographer Dick Pope (see The Illusionist for reference), while the film’s production designer Simon Beresford is new to feature films. Starring Jim Broadbent (who is always great) and Ruth Sheen, the cast is quite good. Lesley Manville, David Bradley, Imelda Staunton, and Stuart McQuarrie highlight the supporting cast. The film has garnered a lot of acclaim and is on the Oscar Best Picture shortlist. Check out the trailer.

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance) – Romance – Dec 31st
The film is about a married couple – showing the transition and evolution of their relationship by cross-cutting between differing time periods. Documentarian Derek Cianfrance’s first film was a feature, but it was little seen, so in a sense this is really his feature debut, taking a break from documentaries. He has indy cinematographer Andrij Parekh (whose work on this year’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story was good) and production designer Inbal Winberg on the film, while it stars indy superstars and critic favorites Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Both should see their names among Independent Spirit Award nominees and possibly Oscar nominees as well in 2011. The film is well liked among critics, but received an NC-17 rating for explicit sexual scenes (the MPAA’s rating system is fairly obsolete and based on warped values though). Check out the trailer.

Monday, November 29, 2010

127 Hours (2010) – Review

127 Hours is intense, moving and surprisingly funny. For a film that mostly takes place in a claustrophobic isolated canyon with only one character, director Danny Boyle really brings to life the emotion and journey that this man went through – the highs and lows, panic and euphoria. The fact that it is a true story leaves the film feeling more relatable, uplifting and inspirational – but this is mainly due to the direct, no punches pulled approach that Boyle takes – he shows everything. The structure of the film is interlaced with hallucinations blurring reality and fiction, yet capturing the emotional transformations of the character well. Essentially, here is a man who more or less is faced with a situation, completely alone, in which he will likely die – he tries to escape, he imagines he has, he accepts his own fate, and then takes it to the extreme to live. Boyle’s directorial style also plays a large role in the film. It is manic – a barrage of images and sounds, disorienting and flooding the audience with reactions. The juxtaposition of the title sequence (images of crowds) to the complete isolation that follows is interesting, as the crowds feel quite overwhelming and the desolate location of Blue John Canyon feeling calm and warm (also due to the bright color palate that Boyle uses in this section of the film), and even inviting. The prologue going from the titles until the accident is quite long, but works well to set up the character of Aron Ralston – his quirks and resourcefulness. This extended prologue works well in establishing a connection between the audience and Ralston. The viewer cares about him and likes him, which makes what happens later all the more impactful. Plus, his interaction with the two hikers he comes across starts the film on such a high, perfectly setting up the impending crash and dire situation. The prologue is a lot of fun and one of the best sequences of the year. It also sets up the humor in the film, which with many other actors and directors would be nonexistent. The humor is maybe the most important ingredient in what makes this a great film. It pulls the audience in, breaks the tension and makes Ralston all the more likable. However, Boyle’s style and structure may not translate for all viewers. The emotional journey is both direct, fact based (i.e. we see Ralston getting noticeable paler and physically ill as time passes) and abstract. And again, most of the film takes place in one small location. The transcendent nature of the hallucinations (used to convey the dreams, desires and so on of Ralston) makes them somewhat cryptic, which may disconnect some audience members emotionally. And without the emotional connection, the film will not work nearly as well. This is a film that relies on the audience participating in the struggle, completely engaged. It is a bombardment of noise, imagery (some graphic), humor, excitement, panic, extreme seclusion and a crushing sensation, terror, joy, escape – all coming almost at the same time – a visceral experience. 127 Hours really is (despite the clichéd marketing line) an emotional thrill-ride (or if you prefer rollercoaster).

Aesthetic and acting achievements: Boyle continues to make excellent films across the spectrum of genres. And once again, he and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy craft a fine film. This feels like a Danny Boyle film, from the banging techno infused soundtrack to the digital photography and stylistic choices that beset the audience. He is certainly among today’s best auteur directors. A.R. Rahman’s score plays an essential part in the emotional stimulation of the audience. It is almost overwhelming (and perfect for the film). Master of digital photography Anthony Dod Mantle delivers some more fine work as well with additional photography from Enrique Chediak. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s production design takes advantage of the contrast of the hallucinations and the claustrophobic canyon Ralston is stuck in. The film, however, belongs to the performance of James Franco. He is brilliant, engaging and the life of the story (and one of the best performances of the year, up there with Claire Danes in Temple Grandin). While this is really a one actor show, Clemence Poesy, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn are good in their small roles.

127 Hours is an event film, as there are not too many films that can fully engage the full spectrum of emotions as artfully and forcefully as this one. 9/10

Movie of the Week - Heat

This week’s movie is Heat (1995).

The crime drama is about a criminal, out for one last big score, who specializes in robberies, his crew and the dedicated cop who is set on taking them down. The film is written and directed by Michael Mann, who is known for his wonderful action set pieces – feeling both gritty and real while also having a sense of scale to them, and Heat has one of the best shoot-out sequences in film history. Frequent collaborator Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is excellent, giving the film a slightly nostalgic feel at times. Production designer Neil Spisak, known for action films like the Spider-Man series, also does good work. Composer Elliot Goldenthal’s score also gives the film a nostalgic feel hitting a few hard-boiled/noirish notes. The cast of the film is fantastic – pitting Robert De Niro off against Al Pacino (who just yells a lot, but still manages to give a great performance) – but also has a whose-who of supporting performers including: Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Seizemore, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, and Danny Trejo among others. What makes the film great is Mann’s ability to show unflinching action (which is loud and glorious) and tell a great story with rich characters (even though De Niro’s character is the villain in a moral sense, I find myself routing for him every time). This is an absolute must see for fans of Mann’s work and those that like crime films, because this is one of the best. Check out the trailer.

Heat is available on Blu-ray and DVD on Amazon.com and to rent/stream on Netflix.com 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Movie of the Week - CQ

This week’s movie is CQ (2001).

The comedy is about Paul, an American living in Paris making a black & white film about truth, trying to find meaning in his life. To pay the bills, he is also working as an editor on a B-movie sci-fi film. When the director of the sci-fi film is fired, Paul is asked to finish the film and find its ending. The film’s star, the beautiful Valentine, entrances him and his film about truth is skewed and his life in upheaval. While director Roman Coppola has done music videos, documentaries and second unit on many films, CQ is his only feature to date. He brings a lot of style and quirkiness to the film (which is probably why he works well with his sister Sophia Coppola and Wes Anderson). Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman is the perfect fit for the film and his camera superbly captures the essence, tone and atmosphere of the differing situations and environments that Paul encounters on his journey of self-discovery. The work of production designer Dean Tavoularis (who worked on all his dad’s masterpieces) is fantastic as well. French pop group Mellow provides the score. The film has a good cast, many playing exaggerated characters – Giancarlo Giannini, Jason Schwartzman, Billy Zane, and Gerard Depardieu. There are also good performances by supporting members Elodie Bouchez and Dead Stockwell, and look out for Romain Duris’s funny cameo. Jeremy Davies is very good as the film’s protagonist, while Angela Lindvall (in what I thought would be a star-making turn when I first saw this in theaters) is beautiful and cinematically alluring. What makes the film great is its nostalgic feel and the late 60s early 70s style. This certainly is not a film for everyone (and I feel like filmmakers will find more to love about it, than the average filmgoer). It is aesthetically interesting and well worth a view for cinema fans. Check out the trailer.

CQ is available on DVD from Amazon.com and to rent on Netflix.com

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) – Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (henceforth being referred to as Deathly Hallows: Part 1) is a beautifully shot film, with good performances and deep emotional connection. As with Half-Blood Prince, director David Yates is the master of infusing humor into the gloomiest of situations and narratives. At its heart, this is a film with a deep sadness to it, poetically shown in Hermione’s prologue sequence. Yet, Yates has enough light moments to break the tension and anguish. There is also a dance scene between Harry and Hermione that plays as an abbreviation of the whole film – beginning down, hope, laughter and friendship take charge, but ultimately the sense of impending tragedy and the weight of the situation suck the life and fun from the room again as the song ends. Like many have said, this feels like a very different Harry Potter film. First, it is not structured around a school year at Hogwarts. Other than the prologue and epilogue, the story is completely isolated to Harry Potter and by extension Ron and Hermione (as they are with him most of the time). Yates has structured the narrative to only show what Potter experiences, everything else is off camera, thus creating a real sense of loneness and desolation for Potter. Other characters pop in and out, but the camera stays with Potter. Yates also took a much more character driven approach to the story, which works quite well given the shooting and narrative style. Many of the other Potter films are action or mystery driven – the characters must do something or solve something. Here, there are elements of that, but the three are alone and lost, not sure what to do. Inner-conflict arises as the pressure mounts and walls seem to be closing in, which gives all three great character work, which in turn allows the three characters to build an even deeper relationship with the audience making the decisions, actions and events all the more poignant. Another aspect of the film that Yates has done in an interesting way is his portrayal of the Harry Potter world under the control and influence of Voldemort, equating it to a fascist regime (not unlike the Nazi takeover in Germany circa 1933), fitted with puppet figures, blood cleansing and Gestapo (and the brilliantly designed propaganda – I particularly loved the book in Umbridge’s desk: When Muggles Attack). This narrative element works well in the story, while calling forth emotional reaction and memory from the audience. However, the film does demand a few things from its audience – first, being that it is the seventh film, it assumes that the audience has a good working knowledge of the other films (and for fans this is fine, but for casual viewers there may be issues recalling who characters are and what they are referring to), and second, it expects its audience to understand that this is merely the first part of a two part film. It does have its own story that is resolved within the film, BUT the main story and character arcs continue into part 2. This film is about Harry, Ron and Hermione overcoming complete detachment and despair. The narrative is presented with great action set pieces, but, as stated above, character driven, which for those looking for non-stop action will leave sections of the film feeling slow. But, the character work done in this film makes all that is to come resonate with much more impact, and therefore a welcome and needed element (and personally, I did not find the narrative slow). Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a fantastic mix of desperation, bleakness and hope, with humor purposely and expertly sprinkled in, leaving the audience with a good emotional piece perfectly setting up the next (and final) part of the Harry Potter story.

Aesthetic and acting achievements: Yates has for the third time directed a wonderful Potter film, appealing to fans of all ages. His use of dark elements and comedic touches are what makes these films exceptional and connect with fans and filmgoers (while also making for very good cinema). If there is any other achievement that stands out with the work of Yates, it is Eduardo Serra’s cinematography. The film is a breathtaking visual treat. Stuart Craig continues to outdo himself with each film, and here his production design is magnificent (the Ministry of Magic sets are amazing; really the whole scene is). The film has a lot of emotional weight to it, characters on the precipice of utter anguish and disheartenment. The visuals and performances tell the story and relay the emotions, but Alexandre Desplat’s moving score elegantly accompanies accentuating the tone and emotional resonance of the film. There are also a number of small but remarkable performances from the film’s supporting cast, especially Bill Nighy (whose opening monologue is just another example of his brilliance), Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, Peter Mullan, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Evanna Lynch, Helena Bonham Carter, and the (awesome) Ministry of Magic trio: David O’Hara, Steffan Rodri and Sophie Thompson. There is also good voice work from Simon McBurney and Toby Jones. The stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are all outstanding, turning in their best performances of the series. They, truly, are what make this franchise so special.

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is tragic tonally focusing on Harry, Hermione and Ron providing meaningful character moments, but has the humor and action set pieces to entertain as well (after seeing this, I cannot wait for part 2). 10/10

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Alexandre Desplat – Movies Spotlight – November 2010

Alexandre Desplat is the composer of many of the best scores of the last few years (and whom I commonly refer to as the hardest working man in HollywoodJames Brown reference – because he has done 12 scores in the last two years, which is crazy). This month’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and The King’s Speech will feature new scores from him.

Early Career:

Desplat has always had a love of music, playing the piano from the age of five. He is also a talented trumpet and flute player as well. He studied with Claude Ballif, Iannis Xenakis and Jack Hayes, while he developed his sound. Having a wide appreciation for music, Desplat has a special fondness for South American and African music and musicians, like Carlinhos Brown and Ray Lema, influencing his style. He began his career as a composer, orchestrator and conductor in his home country of France, working on many French films from 1985 on (though now he does work on more non-French films). Along with working in film, he has also performed live, conducting performances of his music played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Munich Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra (to name a few), as well as teach master classes at La Sorbonne in Paris and at the Royal College of Music in London.

Breakthrough in America:

After composing around seventy-five scores in French cinema from 1985-2003, Desplat got is first exposure in America working on the film Girl with a Pearl Earring for director Peter Webber. His score was nominated for a BAFTA, but the film is best remembered for Eduardo Serra’s cinematography (also working on Deathly Hallows). Desplat continued to work primarily in France, but scored Birth, a small indy film, in 2004. However in 2005, Hollywood was ready to start piling work on him, as he worked on The Upside of Anger, Hostage, Casanova, and Syriana during the year, while also scoring a few French films including brilliant work on The Beat That My Heart Skipped, working with director Jacques Audiard and winning a Cesar for best score (which is a French Oscar).

Awards, Recognition and Bigger Projects:

Desplat continued to split his time between France and Hollywood in 2006 (including scoring the very funny French film The Valet), but his work on The Queen (working with director Stephen Frears, who would again hire him for his films Cheri and Tamara Drewe) garnered him is first Oscar nod, which lead to him getting lots of Hollywood projects and big franchise films. He did very good work on the films The Painted Veil, Lust, Caution and Afterwards before stepping into his first franchise: The Golden Compass, which was a mess and never generated the box office to see any sequels. Desplat got his second Oscar nod for 2008’s The Curios Case of Benjamin Button working with director David Fincher. This set off a packed 2009, scoring the films Coco Before Chanel, A Prophet (working again with Audiard) Julie & Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox (which he received his third Oscar nod for), and his biggest film to date (at least before the release in a couple of week of Deathly Hallows) New Moon, among others. This year has also been crazy busy for Desplat, as he has worked on The Ghost Writer and Oscar favorite The King’s Speech, not to mention Deathly Hallows (for the millionth time).

Future Projects:

2011 is looking like another great year for Desplat. Along with Deathly Hallows: Part 2, he is scoring Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, Chris Weitz’s socially and culturally relevant and appropriate The Gardener (he also directed The Golden Compass), The Burma Conspiracy for French director Jerome Salle, and French comedian Daniel Auteuil’s directorial debut La Fille du Puisatier.

Alexandre Desplat’s Selected Career Highlights:

1.)    The Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) – composer – available on DVD
2.)    The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)* – composer – available on DVD
3.)    The Queen (2006) – composer – available on DVD
4.)    The Painted Veil (2006) – composer – available on DVD
5.)    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)* – composer – available on Blu-ray/DVD
6.)    Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)* – composer – available on Blu-ray/DVD
7.)    A Prophet (2010)* – composer – available on Blu-ray/DVD
8.)    The Ghost Writer (2010) – composer – available on Blu-ray/DVD
*editor’s picks

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

KiD CuDi – Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager (2010) – Review

Kid Cudi’s music is all about ambiance. He has a distinctive sound – elements of multiple genres’ darkest places combined to create a depressive self-reflexive yet fun style. Often, the tone and mood of his songs are what makes them work so well – the lyrics really could be anything – it is more about how he raps or sings his words and how they mix with the backing samples and beats that makes his sound so unique and interesting. But, the lyrics fit too, adding another layer. Kid Cudi’s music is specific to its intended audience, yet has enough commercial appeal to branch out. For those that love his sound, his new album will not disappoint.

Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager builds upon Kid Cudi’s first effort taking it to a darker place. The lyrical and sonic content of the album is rife with tales of excess and depression. The pressures of being a star weigh heavily on his mind and only encourage his destructive behaviors. While Man on the Moon: End of Day had some up moments (thinking of Enter Galactic and Up Up & Away), this album is bogged down under its own style and atmosphere – and yet, the album works quite well. Kid Cudi is monotone for most of the album; often his voice is secondary to the overall sonic experience, as if just another part to the track and not the focus as with most artists.

However, despite the album having a very particular and intended sound throughout, there are parts that do differ enough to signify the changing of the narrative. Kid Cudi has designed his album to not merely be a collection of his newest tracks, like most contemporary hip hop artists; rather his album does tell a story with clear changes in tone, but still within the overall style of the whole piece.  It starts off a bit with the illusion of fame and then cascades into the realities. From there the music moves onto a blended reality of the up of always being in (or apart of) a party and the down of being discounted, only to plunge into complete disarray. It ends with a realization: the pain and torment of life is a product often of our own creation and thus giving way for the healing process.

The production on the album is fantastic (from Emile, Plain Pat, Dot da Genius, Chuck Inglish, Jim Jonsin, Anthony Kilhoffer, and Blended Babies). Emile and Plain Pat craft the album’s best music and their work perfectly matches Kid Cudi’s vocal and stylistic strengths. The album also features guest appearances from Cee-Lo Green, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, Cage, St. Vincent, GLC, Chip tha Ripper, and Nicole Wray. Cee-Lo Green, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West do provide memorable work, but really Kid Cudi is the star and the album would be just as good with no featured artists.

The best parts of the album (aka my favorite songs) are: Scott Mescudi vs. the World (featuring Cee-Lo Green), We Aite (Wake Your Mind Up), Marijuana, Erase Me (featuring Kanye West), and All Along. The first song serves a perfect introduction to the album, narrative and Kid Cudi as your narrator – enhanced by Cee-Lo’s great hook. We Aite and Maijuana show off the album’s outstanding production. Erase Me (the album’s only single) certainly seems to have the most commercial appeal being a pop anthem of sorts. All Along is maybe the saddest moment on the album and Kid Cudi’s singing style, lyrics and beat mix perfectly creating an emotional crescendo.

Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager is a good and fitting follow-up to Kid Cudi’s first album, expands on his distinctive style and reminds everyone that he is one of the best new artists around. 4/5

Available for digital download and on CD at Amazon.com

Monday, November 15, 2010

Movie of the Week - Ben-Hur

This week’s movie is Ben-Hur (1959).

The epic is about a wealthy Jewish man, Judah Ben-Hur, who is double-crossed by a Roman Tribune, and old friend, and made a slave. He vows to return to his land and have his revenge. The story is set in the time of Jesus Christ’s life, and the political and religious upheaval serves as the backdrop. Winning eleven (of twelve nominations) Oscars, the film is directed by auteur William Wyler (one of my favorite directors) based on the novel by Lew Wallace. Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry adapted the story for the screen. It features a wonderful score from Miklos Rozsa (who also did great work on Spellbound), cinematography from Robert Surtees and production design from Vittorio Valentini. Yakima Canutt directed the second unit and was the stunt coordinator. He directed the chariot race scene, which Wyler called one of the greatest cinematic achievements he had ever seen. The cast is also very good. Charlton Heston stars, giving one of his best performances. Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith and especially Stephen Boyd are all also great. What makes the film great is its epic scale and narrative. Yet, it has very specific and emotional personal scenes for its characters. It is also not heavy-handed in its handling of religion. It is a cinematic masterpiece and well worth the look for those interested in seeing the best and most iconic films in cinema’s history. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD at Amazon.com and to rent from Netflix.com

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

David Yates – Movies Spotlight – November 2010

David Yates is best known as the director of some of the best films in the Harry Potter series. But before he took over the Potter films, he had a very successful career directing hit series and films for British television. This month Yates has the first part of the final Potter film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which Yates claims will blow everyone away (and if the trailer is any indication, he is right).

Early Career:

Born in St Helens, England, Yates got his start in film as a teenager, fascinated with the film Jaws. He saw it over 35 times, studying the precise mechanics of its production. He took what he learned from his analysis of Jaws and began making short films with family and friends. After attending the University of Essex, he got his first job as a freelancer for Cre8 Studios. Using their facilities, Yates made his first short film When I Was a Girl, which was quite well received leading to him being accepted into the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. There, he studied in the directing program. The short also garnered him a job at the BBC directing the shorts Oranges and Lemons, The Weaver’s Wife and Good Looks. He then went to ITV to work on the police series The Bill. Yates then decided to move into feature films in 1998, directing the independent film The Tichborne Claimant. The film was met with mediocre reviews.

British TV Series:

In 2000, Yates returned to British television directing three episodes of the very well received series The Sins. Next, he directed the miniseries The Way We Live Now, which was also met with rave reviews, winning Yates a BAFTA Award for Best Drama Serial with writer Andrew Davies and producer Nigel Stafford-Clark. He then took a quick break from TV to make the short Rank. He received a BAFTA nomination for Best Short Film. On a role, Yates directed the Paul Abbott scripted series State of Play. The series is on of the best of the last decade and was nominated for seven BAFTA awards, winning three. It served as a turning point in Yates’s career, rewarding him with higher profile projects. He also worked with Bill Nighy (check out my Underrated Actors piece on him) and Kelly Macdonald for the first time on the series; their talent in a future project would help Yates elevate his career to the greatest heights.

British TV Movies:

In 2003, Yates made his feature first film for British television, The Young Visiters, starring Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie and Lyndsey Marshal (Bill Nighy also has a role in the film). The film was generally regarded positively upon its release, but not nearly held in the high esteem of his next two films: Sex Traffic, the two part film, won eight (of nine nominations) BAFTA awards in 2005, while The Girl in the Café, starring Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald, won three Emmys and was nominated for two Golden Globes. The film also gave Yates his first exposure in America. The success of these films directly led to Yates being approached by Warner Bros.

Harry Potter and the Epic Franchise Films:

With the success of The Girl in the Café in America along with his string of hit on British television, Warner Bros. selected Yates to direct the fifth Harry Potter film – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – in 2005. To prepare for the film, he visited the set of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, observing director Mike Newell. He also had conversations with Alfonso Cuaron and J.K. Rowling. To make the film his, and to Warner Bros. credit for letting him do this, he brought in his good friends and crew from his days in TV: composer Nicholas Hooper and editor Mark Day. The film was a huge critical and commercial success. Many fans and critics appreciating Yates bring the film into a more adult and dark place, but still including comedy and wonder. Warner Bros. was pleased with Yates’s work and his vision for the remaining films and announced that he would be directing both the next two books (six and seven). For Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, he brought former collaborator Jim Broadbent into the cast while hiring amazing cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to shoot the film, a decision that ended up awarding the film with a best cinematography Oscar nod. The film was received with even more critical acclaim and commercial success than his first Potter film (as it the second most successful Potter film at the Box Office, as well as my favorite film from 2009).

Future Projects:

Along with this month’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Yates also has part two coming out next July and both feature frequent collaborator Bill Nighy in the cast. Scheduled for a 2012 release, he is attached to direct St. Nazaire, a war film about the British raid on Saint Nazaire in 1942. The project is set up at Warner Bros. through their deal with Heyday Films (the production company behind the Harry Potter films). Yates is also tentatively attached to the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

David Yates Selected Career Highlights:

1.)    The Way We Live Now (2001) – director – available on DVD
2.)    State of Play (2004)* – director – available on DVD
3.)    The Young Visiters (2003) – director – available on DVD
4.)    Sex Traffic (2004) – director – available on DVD
5.)    The Girl in the Café (2005) – director – available on DVD
6.)    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)* – director – available on Blu-ray/DVD
7.)    Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)* – director – available on Blu-ray/DVD
8.)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)* – director – available on Blu-ray/DVD
9.)  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)* – director
*editor’s picks
David Yates’s filmography is also available on Netflix.com to rent and stream

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Due Date (2010) – Review

Due Date is at times quite funny, if not hysterical, but plays more like an every escalating series of comedy bits, many of which do not work well enough. The film also overly relies on its leads to sell the comedy, but both play their roles more as caricatures than real people, thus there is an emotional disconnect between the audience and the characters. But, given that the purpose of the film is really to just be funny and entertaining with seemingly no real attempt to engage on any higher level, the film does accomplish its goal – it is funny and entertaining, just not as gratifying a film as other comedies that do have characters that the audience can connect with. Another issue (and this probably just because I have seen too many movies) is that the film is a bit tired – how many other films are just the same as this (not to mention that it is practically a remake of John Hughes’s classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Robert Downey Jr. playing Steve Martin’s character and Zack Galifianakis playing John Candy’s). Director Todd Phillips consistently makes these types of films, pushing the limit of crazy stuff that can happen to people, but with each new film it seems to get more and more unrealistic. And maybe that is the problem. With The Hangover, Phillips had insane things happening, but it worked due to the myth of Vegas. Here, the extreme happenings just seem crazy for the sake of being crazy, taking some of the humor out of the piece. The jokes that work the best are the more human, character driven elements. Many of the ancillary characters also serve no real purpose other than to set up a joke (Jamie Foxx’s character is who I am mostly thinking of). Thus, the character who is presented to be an important part of the story and meaningful to another character is really just an insert for a payoff later, again leading to the film being discounted in terms of true emotional connection. The film is joke driven almost completely, with limited character depth and growth. The film working for many ends up solely being predicated on each audience member’s ability to find Galifianakis and Downey Jr. funny, since there is not much else there. Though, while Due Date has a lot of narrative issues, it is still an amusing and entertaining film.

Technical achievements: Phillips does not do a good enough job as a director in making the characters real and dynamic, which is the primary reason for the film not working as well. Galifianakis and Downey Jr. are both very good actors, but pushing for both performances to be exaggerated for comedic effect does not work when they are the main characters and all the audience has to connect to. Like The Hangover, Phillips hopes that the craziness and jokes will carry the audience through the story without characters to connect with (which can work in certain films), but there is too much character drama with underdeveloped characters and plot and situations that seems crazy just to be crazy and not organic. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher does good work on the film; his photography is aesthetically the best part of the film. Composer Christophe Beck has lots of experience scoring comedies. His music here matches the tone, but does not stand out. Bill Brzeski’s production design is fairly sparse, but he did not have much to work with either. The supporting cast is ok – Foxx’s character is underused and ends up being reduced to skin color, Juliette Lewis is fine (I think she was in this because of her connection to director Phillips more than because of the role), Danny McBride is funny (when is he not) but like Foxx reduced to a physical attribute to joke about, RZA is maybe the standout bit player and is pretty funny, and Michelle Monaghan (who is awesome and underrated) is completely underused for her talent. Galifiankis is a good actor and really funny in a lot of stuff, but here he is just too much. Downey Jr. is fairly one note the whole film (aggravated).

Due Date is what it is supposed to be, funny, entertaining and crazy, but just not a good film. 6/10

Monday, November 8, 2010

Movie of the Week - Lost in Translation

This week’s movie is Lost in Translation (2003).

The film is about two lonely people in Tokyo who meet in a hotel bar, and see each other in the hotel over the course of a few days, forming a deep connection. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (for which she won a best screenplay Oscar), the film is a beautiful tale. Not to mention the standout work by cinematographer Lance Acord (who always does great work, but this might be his best). Composer Kevin Shields, editor Sarah Flack and production designers K.K. Barrett and Anne Ross also contribute top-notch work to the film, making it the wonderfully aesthetically interesting piece that it is. The cast is also very good, with fun bit parts from Anna Farris and Giovanni Ribisi. Co-stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are both marvelous, giving (possibly) the best performances of their careers. Murray is hilarious in his culture-clashing interactions, but there is a deep sadness to him as well, while Johansson is sweet with an innocent quality to her. What makes the film great is that while nothing really happens, it is completely engaging being both funny and sad. This is a must see for fans of Murray and good cinema, as this is certainly among the best from the last decade (and one of my favorites). Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon.com or to rent at Netflix.com

Friday, November 5, 2010

James Franco – Movies Spotlight – November 2010

James Franco is best known for his role as Harry Osborn in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. However, he has a very good dramatic and comedic track record, the Spider-Man series being the only real blockbuster type films he has appeared in (I am not counting Annapolis, and neither should you). Franco stars in this month’s film 127 Hours, directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, about Aron Ralston – the hiker who got his arm caught under a boulder and was trapped with no help, having to resort to extreme measure to survive.

Early Career:

Franco got his start one TV in an episode of Pacific Blue, then in the TV movies 1973 and To Serve and Protect, and an episode of Profiler, from 1997 through 1999. Then he had his first big break (sort of), starring in Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s fantastic Freaks and Geeks (if you have not seen this yet, you must!), which also stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. Sadly, the series was cancelled at the end of its first season. But due to his exposure as a series regular, Franco got bigger film roles: supporting work in Never Been Kissed and starring in Whatever It Takes (both not so great rom-coms). His second big break came when he won the role to star as James Dean in the TV movie biopic. Critics applauded his performance and suddenly he was in high demand.

Spider-Man and Stardom:

Coming off his role as James Dean, Franco had lots of offers. He auditioned and was considered for the role of Peter Parker, the role eventually going to Tobey Maguire. However, director Sam Raimi was impressed and cast him and Parker’s friend and son of the villainous Norman Osborn, Harry. Spider-Man was a massive hit and suddenly made Franco a star (and celebrity). He also appeared in both the sequels in the series: the wonderfully good Spider-Man 2 (one of my favorite films) and Spider-Man 3 (the film that Sony executives ruined). Franco could have followed in the footsteps of many and opted to get paid and continue to make blockbusters and less satisfying films (both for the audience, yes I mean Annapolis here, and for him as an actor, through, as we all well know, there are fantastic blockbusters and roles in them too), but he decided to primarily take roles in smaller films.

Independent Films:

Following Spider-Man, Franco took roles in City by the Sea, a crime drama with Robert De Niro, and in Robert Altman’s The Company. He then returned to work on the Spider-Man series. Between the second and third in the series, Franco made the prison war film The Great Raid for Miramax, the epic romance (Romeo and Juliet like) Tristan + Isolde for Scott Free Productions and the war film Flyboys about young Americans who volunteered for the French Air Force before the U.S. entered WWI (all three are decently good films). After finishing Spider-Man 3, he took a role in Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, and followed it up with a fantastic performance in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. He also stars in this year’s film Howl, about the obscenity trial of poet Allen Ginsberg.

Newfound Comedic Career:

Aside from his work on Freaks and Geeks, Franco was known for his dramatic work and talent for most of his career before 2008. He has a funny cameo in Apatow’s Knocked Up, but it is in Pineapple Express that his true comedic brilliance comes to life for a wide audience. He also has a fun bit part in this year’s Date Night and guest-starred as himself on 30 Rock. Working again with David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express), he stars in the new comedy Your Highness, which originally was scheduled to be released this Fall, but was pushed to the other big comedy month April (2011). The film is written by Eastbound & Down’s Ben Best and Danny McBride and stars, along with Franco and McBride, Zooey Deschanel, Natalie Portman, Damian Lewis (did I mention he is in Band of Brothers), and Justin Theroux. The film is apparently hysterical, with Franco providing another great comedic performance.

James Franco – Writer-Director:

Franco, always being interested in directing and writing, attending Columbia University’s writing program, made his fist films in 2005: Fool’s Gold and The Ape (both comedies). Working again with writing partner Merriwether Williams and actor Vince Jolivette, Franco made the drama Good Time Max about two genius brothers that take different life paths and grow apart. He then branched off on his own to make four shorts: Herbert White, The Feast of Stephen, The Clerk’s Tale, and Masculinity & Me. Making his feature film debut as a director, Franco made 2010’s Saturday Night – a documentary about what it takes to create a full episode of SNL. The film has been quite well received. He also has The Broken Tower (which he also wrote) slated for a 2011 release about the American poet Hart Crane, Franco will also star in the film.

Future Projects:

In addition to his film The Broken Tower and the comedy Your Highness, Franco also has two more films in production with 2011 expected releases: Rise of the Apes, a prequel to Planet of the Apes (because this is a film we really need…Is it?), and Maladies, about a talented actor who retires at a young age due to a perceived mental illness and decides to move to a small town with his best friend and deranged sister (let the drama, or fun, begin). Franco is also rumored to be in contention to play the lead in The Iceman, the true story of Richard Kulinski: contract killer and family man (on an unrelated side note, he was also in a bunch of recent episodes of General Hospital, calling his role performance art).

James Franco’s Selected Career Highlights:

1.)    Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)* – lead – available on DVD
2.)    James Dean (2001) – lead – available on DVD
3.)    Spider-Man (2002) – supporting – available on Blu-ray/DVD
4.)    Spider-Man 2 (2004)* – supporting – available on Blu-ray/DVD
5.)    Pineapple Express (2008) – lead – available on Blu-ray/DVD
6.)    Milk (2008)* – supporting – available on Blu-ray/DVD
*editor’s picks
James Franco’s filmography is also available on Netflix.com to rent and stream