Thursday, March 31, 2011

At the Movies – April 2011 – Part 2: Hollywood Films

Romance and Rom-Coms:

Prom (Joe Nussbaum) – Romance – Apr 29
The film is about a group of teens who get ready from their high school prom. Disney seems to be trying to make a fiction film that plays like a documentary with unknown actors trying to tap into the youtube/facebook/twitter culture of today’s youth. It should be interesting to see how this does, both commercially and critically (I suspect not well on either front). Director Joe Nussbaum has a background in making teen films that are not very good and have really no appeal outside their specific demographic (and this looks to be in the same vein). He has a decent crew that fits the genre well with composer Deborah Lurie, cinematographer Byron Shah and production designer Mark White (who did really good work on last year’s Winter’s Bone). The cast is comprised of unknown actors, though Aimee Teegarden is ready to breakout, maybe this will be the film to do it? It looks ok, probably a lot more enticing for teens. Check out the trailer.

Serious Films:

Water for Elephants (Francis Lawrence) – Drama – Apr 22
The film is about a young veterinary student who abandons his studies after his parents are killed. Utilizing his skills, he joins a travelling circus as their vet but finds himself in a dangerous game when he falls for the ringleader’s beautiful wife. Director Francis Lawrence has done some very good work in the past (I Am Legend was good, but I am particularly thinking of his work on the series Kings, which was excellent). This film is different than his past feature work, both tonally and genre wise. He has a very good crew with production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood), cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Babel) and composer James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight). I am a bit mixed on the cast however. Excellent actors Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, James Frain, Hal Holbrook, and Paul Schneider are featured in supporting roles, but the film stars Robert Pattinson, who I am not sold on yet (the terribleness of Twilight and its sequels having a lot to do with this). Another actor in the lead would make me a lot more interested in this, but maybe this will be his acting breakout performance. The film looks to be a good drama with great aesthetics, and I expect nothing less from the people involved behind the camera. Check out the trailer.

Fun Movies:

HOP (Tim Hill) – Animation/Comedy – Apr 1
The film is about the Easter Bunny and the man who accidentally injures him, now having to take him into his home. Once there, Fred realizes that the Easter Bunny is just about the worst house-guest in the world. Both will have to learn to grow up and work together in order to save Easter (oh yeah, and Universal Pictures says that the film blends state-of-the-art animation with live action, sort of like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so that is probably cool). Director Tim Hill seems like a good choice for an animation/live action crossover film as he made Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and Alvin and the Chipmunks (both similar animation live action films). He also brings his Alvin and the Chipmunks crew to the film with composer Christopher Lennertz, cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister and production designer Richard Holland (who also did art for Who Framed Roger Rabbit). The film has a good cast with James Marsden and Russell Brand (who is voicing the Easter Bunny) starring and featuring The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Perkins in support. It looks like a fun family film (though neither Garfield 2 nor Alvin in the Chipmunks had much appeal for adults). Check out the trailer.

Arthur (Jason Winer) – Comedy – Apr 8
A remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy, the film is about a drunken playboy who has had everything he has every wanted and worked for none of it. When he falls in love with a woman his family does not approve of, he stand to lose his wealthy inheritance if he does not marry the girl his mother has chosen for him (who is not the same as the girl he likes). This film marks director Jason Winer’s feature debut, however he has a strong background in TV comedies (having directed 13 episodes of Modern Family among other things). The film’s crew has a good comedy resume with composer Theodore Shapiro, great D.P. Uta Briesewitz (who also shot a lot of The Wire) and production designer Sarah Knowles. The cast has a lot of comedic potential, as Russell Brand stars (his second film to come out in as many weeks) with supporting players Greta Gerwig (awesome), Jennifer Garner, Helen Mirren (also awesome), Nick Nolte (who can bring the crazy), and Luis Guzman (who certainly has his brilliant comedy moments). The film looks very silly, which can lead to hilarity or terribleness or both. Check out the trailer.

Rio (Carlos Saldanha) – Animation – Apr 15
The film is about a domesticated macaw named Blu from a small town in Minnesota. When he is brought to Rio de Janeiro to propagate the dwindling species, he meets the fiercely independent Jewel (who is not overly impressed). The two take flight on an adventure in which Blu finds what it is like to really live as a bird and that he is in love with Jewel. DreamWorks is going to the well a bit with the director and crew, as Carlos Saldanha directed four previous films for their animation department, composer John Powell scored Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon (for which he received an Oscar nod) and art designer  Claude-William Trebutien worked on Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. To give the film more of a local vibe, Brazilian cinematographer Renato Falcao was brought in. The film stars Anne Hathaway and Jesse Eisenberg with additional voice work from Leslie Mann, Will.i.Am, Jamie Foxx, Rodrigo Santoro, Jemaine Clement, George Lopez, and Tracy Morgan (among others), which is a good mix and features a lot of funny people. It looks to be a good kid’s movie, but not as good as their big hit among kids and adults alike last year: How to Train Your Dragon. Check out the trailer.

Fast Five (Justin Lin) – Action – Apr 29
The film is about the Fast and Furious gang getting back together to pull off one last big job in order to gain their freedom. However, now they have two dangerous men on their trail: a corrupt businessman who wants nothing more than to see them dead and a federal agent who will stop at nothing to bring them down. Director Justin Lin made the last two films in the series (neither particularly good, but he also recently directed the Community episode Modern Warfare which was amazing), seemingly making him the logical choice for this one (though, some fresh directing talent might have been a good idea too). He has a good action crew on the film with composer Brian Tyler, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon (he shot Tokyo Drift) and production designer Peter Wenham (Wenham and Tyler both worked on this year’s Battle: LA). All the cast members (pretty much) from the series are in the film: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, and Ludacris (who was funny in this year’s No Strings Attached), as well as some cool new cast members: Dwayne Johnson (The People’s Champ), Elsa Pataky and Joaquim de Almeida. The film looks a lot like the others in the series. If you liked them, you probably will like this (and vice versa). Check out the trailer. Review.


Insidious (James Wan) – Horror/Thriller – Apr 1
The film is about a family who try desperately to stop spirits from trapping their comatose son in a realm called The Further. Director James Wan has built up quite a reputation in the genre coming off the films Saw and Dead Silence, though this is not supposed to be a gory (on a side note the title makes me think of this speech from Red Faction II… it is awesome). He has a good genre crew on the film with composer Joseph Bishara, cinematographers David M. Brewer & John R. Leonetti and production designer (and special effects vet) Aaron Sims. The cast is very good starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne with Barbara Hersey in support. The film looks really creepy and has done well in its advanced screenings. Check out the trailer.

Scream 4 (Wes Craven) – Horror/Mystery – Apr 15
The film is about Sidney Prescott, ten years removed from the trilogy of murder sprees by the Ghostface Killer, returns to the location of the original murders. She has put herself back together through her writing, but things turn bad when Ghostface comes back once again to torment her, her friends and a new generation of victims. Director Wes Craven is one of the most famous directors of the genre with classics like The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street (all of which have been remade), but he is most known to younger generations for his Scream trilogy (and so I guess it only makes sense for him to go back to the well for an even younger generation while tapping into the nostalgia of those who liked the first three films). On the film he has composer Marco Beltrami, great D.P. Peter Deming (he shot Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell) and production designer (and relative newcomer, though he worked on Craven’s last film) Adam Stockhausen. The film has all the (still breathing) characters back like Sheriff Dewey (David Arquette), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and of course Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). But what is even more exciting is the wonderful group of new faces to the series (click here for a full list) highlighted by Emma Roberts, Alison Brie, Rory Culkin, Kristen Bell, and Anna Paquin. The film good or bad should be very entertaining and hopefully with some good thrills and scares. Check out the trailer. Review.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

At the Movies – April 2011 – Part 1: Art-House Films

Art-House Watch:

Super (James Gunn) – Comedy – Apr 1
On the heels of films such as Special, Defendor and Kick-Ass, this film is about an everyday guy who transforms himself into the superhero Crimson Bolt, after his wife falls under the influence of a drug dealer. Writer-director James Gunn is back for his second feature film (the first being the horror-comedy Slither). He has a fantastic crew with him, featuring awesome composer Tyler Bates, cinematographer Steve Gainer and production designers William A. Elliot (who specializes in spoofs) and newcomer Dave Hagen. The cast is excellent for the project as well starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page. Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Gregg Henry, and Michael Rooker (the latter two both appearing in Slither) make up an appropriate supporting cast, while Linda Cardellini and Nathan Fillion (!!!) make cameo appearances. The film looks hilarious and lots of fun. If you liked any of the films listed in the first sentence or Slither, you are probably going to like or at least enjoy this one. Check out the trailer. Review.

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt) – Drama – Apr 8 [LA/NYC]
The film is about traveling settlers in 1845 who find themselves stranded in the harsh conditions of the Oregon desert. Director Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself making moving minimalist films, and this looks to be no different. She has a very indy crew with production designer David Doernberg, cinematographer Chris Blauvelt and composer Jeff Grace. The cast is quite good with Michelle Williams (who starred in Reichardt’s last film Wendy and Lucy), Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Bruce Greenwood, and Paul Dano (Williams and Dano seem to be in just about every truly indy film that sees some kind of commercial success). The film is highly anticipated among film critics and likely will garner a number of nominations at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards. Check out the trailer.

Ceremony (Max Winkler) – Romance – Apr 8 [LA/NYC]
The film is about a young man who crashes the wedding of the thirty-something woman he loves and wants back. It is director Max Winkler’s feature film debut (and yes he is the son of the Fonz). He has an indy crew on the film with first time film composer Eric D. Johnson, D.P. William Rexer (who has shot a few movies for Ed Burns) and very good minimalist production designer Inbal Weinberg. The film stars Michael Angarano and Uma Thurman, with the very awesome Lee Pace and Jake M. Johnson (who was quite funny in No Strings Attached) in supporting roles. The film looks funny and sweet. Check out the trailer.

Soul Surfer (Sean McNamara) – Biography – Apr 15
The film is based on the true story about a teenage girl who decides to go back into the ocean and once again take up surfing after losing an arm in a shark attack. Director Sean McNamara has mostly worked in the realm of teenager dramas for cable TV. This film marks his first true serious dramatic feature film. He has a good crew with him featuring composer Marco Beltrami, cinematographer John R. Leonetti and production designer Rusty Smith. The film stars the very talented young actress AnnaSophia Robb, while featuring Dennis Quaid (who seemingly is hamming it up a lot recently, personally I think he just does not care anymore), Helen Hunt, Craig T. Nelson, and Carrie Underwood in supporting roles. The film looks like the typical heartwarming inspirational piece, but Robb in the leading role makes it a lot more interesting than just another movie-of-the-week (or Lifetime Special). Check out the trailer.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock) – Documentary – Apr 22 [LA/NYC]
The film is about branding, advertising and product placement. Director Morgan Spurlock burst onto the documentary scene with his first film Super Size Me (one of my favorite docs). Spurlock has a knack for infusing humor into his material and has a talent for storytelling (much like Michael Moore). His second film, Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladien?, also showed his ability to tackle potentially difficult issues in an entertaining manner. Spurlock excels as a documentary filmmaker for just that reason – his films are fun to watch. For this new project looking at product placement, he is working again with his writing and producing partner Jeremy Chilnick (they did Where in the World… and his section of Freakonomics together). This should be another good and entertaining film from the director. Check out this interview about the film and the trailer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011) – Review

Sucker Punch is full of action, highly stylized and yet completely boring and un-engaging. From the media on the film, the audience goes in expecting a film with attractive women battling all manner of monsters, and that does happen, but the film is not about that at all. Director Zack Snyder made the film as a commentary on the fanboy cultural treatment of women – they are projected as the repulsive cook, grotesque orderly and other characters (manifesting sort of a voyeur role). The women (aside from Dr. Gorski) in the film play out huge action fantasies dressed in sexy outfits that really have no meaning other than the mere spectacle of it all. In the three layers of the film, they are either inhabitants of a mental asylum, prisoners of a brothel or members of an elite fighting unit. On the first level they are seemingly abused and either driven mad or unjustly imprisoned in the asylum. On the second level they are in constant fear from their pimp, and on display for disgusting men. And on the third level they are empowered sexy women fighting evil. So what does this say about how fanboys objectify women? Well Snyder takes it to its extreme in the third level, which was then used as the selling point for the film by Warner Brothers, thus making his argument for him in a sense. But the shooting style that he uses does not really objectify them; therefore it feels more like a comment on the issue. The first level is full of monstrous male characters (save for the Wise Man and to some extent the Doctor), and the second level takes these repulsive men and gives them complete power over the women while assuming a voyeuristic role, specifically watching the mesmerizing dance of Baby Doll, which is never put on screen as it is represented by the fantasy third level – tapping straight into the ultimate fanboy wants (or so Snyder assumes). Thus in this film, fanboys are the disgusting male characters, and it is a scathing (and somewhat true) assessment (which is probably why many fanboys did not like the film). But what makes the film interesting intellectually as well is that Snyder promotes a feeling of feminism and female empowerment as well, as the core narrative is about these girls rising up, fighting back and getting free of the oppressive males. And this is all well and good, and again makes for an interesting piece of cinema to think about, but the problem is that the film is not entertaining at all, which completely crushes the aspirations of the film. All the action scenes have no real tension, they are just noisy. The lack of tension arises from the utter lack of character development in the film, aside from Baby Doll’s prologue and a few tidbits about Rocket and Sweet Pea. Thus, if the audience does not care about the characters (and we do not) then they do not care about the outcome of the action scenes or dramatic scenes and thus true tension and anticipation are not present making them, no matter how spectacular, bland. Plus the monsters in the fantasies had no soul, making it feel a bit dull. The bordello scenes are therefore the most engaging of the film, and have most of the character driven work, but even they are too exposition filled and lack enough character development to carry the film. This is only exacerbated by Snyder’s cinematic style. Style is a very good thing to have. It is what sets great directors apart, and Snyder has the potential to be great. But much like with Watchmen (only to a much higher degree), style has overrun content and narrative. The film plays a bit like a series of music videos (the music coming from mostly poor covers of good songs). It is really too bad. Snyder has made a very personal and ambitious film that rightly attacks the fanboy cultural objectification of women, but the narrative is weak leaving Sucker Punch as a sub two hour compilation of unentertaining spectacle.

Technical and acting achievements: Zack Snyder is still a very exciting director with a lot of talent despite missing the mark with this film (though, Warner Brothers did not believe in him after the film was torn apart by testing audiences, and thusly the film was toned down and the original ending removed – some of it will be in the director’s cut, but not 100% of what Snyder wanted to do). I am still interested to see what he does with Superman. Tyler Bates and Marius De Vries did an ok job with the score, but some of the covers (whether they had anything to do with them or not) were pretty terrible, which hurt the music of the film overall. Larry Fong’s cinematography worked really well given Snyder’s style and constant use of slow motion (really there was just too much of it) and Rick Carter’s production design was cool. I liked his castle set (though probably 99% CG). Their work along with Snyder’s provides the film with some stunning visuals. The cast had a fairly awful script to work with (dialog wise) and shallow characters so no one really provided a great performance. Jon Hamm was actually quite good, however, in his cameo. Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish were the most engaging of the main characters.

Sucker Punch should have been good or at least entertaining, it had a lot of the right ingredients – but it is not at all. 4/10

Movie of the Week - The Empire Strikes Back

This week’s movie is The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

The film is the second in the Star Wars Saga (and no I do not count the new films), finding Luke pressuring his Jedi training while Darth Vader hunts down his friend in a bid to capture Luke. While the story for the film is by George Lucas, who also executively produced it, the screenplay is by Leigh Brackett (one of the last things this fantastic screenwriter worked on) and Lawrence Kasdan (who would become a big Hollywood player in the 80s) and directed by Irvin Kershner. Also new to the franchise were excellent cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (who now shoots David Cronenberg’s stuff) and production designer Norman Reynolds (his first PD job). John Williams provides a wonderfully iconic score (which I think is even better than the first film’s). All the stars are back: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, and the voice work of James Earl Jones. The film introduces fan favorite characters as well: Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Yoda (Frank Oz) and of course Boba Fett. What makes this film great is that it is not afraid to have an unhappy ending (which many fans believe makes it the best in the Saga). While the first and third films end with miraculous triumphs for the Rebels, this one sees everything in disarray and defeat. I assume everyone has seen this, but if you have not – what are you waiting for? The Star Wars Saga changed movies forever, making it a must for cinema and genre fans. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Limitless (2011) – Review

Limitless is a fun, slightly cheesy thriller that tells the tale of a man using his full potential (nobly and less so). Overall, the film works because it is playful with its material – inserting humor and fantasy into what could have been a straight thriller, however this does result in a schlocky feel to some of the scenes. Director Neil Burger likes to make his films interact with the viewer on a sensory level, creating a more visceral experience. Here he color corrects to make everything brighter, uses different lenses and long piercing zooms to create an experience for the audience of being on the NTZ drug at the center of the narrative. These aesthetic choices engage the audience, but are also a bit much at times – especially the long zooms through the city which potentially could make some people queasy. Though, on the other hand, it is nice to see a director take an active approach to the material and visually tell the story and experiences instead of the throwaway expositional dialogue explaining what the drug is like that many films use instead (this is a visual medium after all). The playful approach to the story makes the film fun and arguably better than it would have been without it, but conversely it does take away from the thriller aspect of the film. The tone is not dark enough to suggest that the characters are actually in any real danger (even though at times they are) so the audience never feels strong tension and anxiety, which are the key ingredients to a good thriller. But this narrative needs the humor and light tone for the audience to connect with the lead character, Eddie Morra – so it is a little bit of a give and take. The nature of the fantasy – having a special gift allowing you to be better and get what you want – is fairly universal and something a lot of potential viewers can relate to and have probably imagined which also brings them into the story. The real issue with it is the film feeling one way, but the story playing out another (as there are genre conflictions in the tone and what is actually happening). However, Burger does a good job handling the story which has these conflictions built in. There is, though, one lingering question that I am not sure the film addressed – in a world where quite a few have access to this drug, what makes our protagonist special? It is does not really explain how he was able to persevere and evolve while others did not seem to, especially when this mystery drug is made by a pharmaceutical company and thus likely available in somewhat of a unlimited supply to those with connections and money, let alone the scientists who are developing it (or were Morra’s pills the last and they lost the recipe?). But that question aside, Limitless is an entertaining film with good action scenes, characters and a fun idea.

Technical and acting achievements: Neil Burger has now made four films (I think his best is The Illusionist). He seems to like to tackle difficult stories, but has shown that he consistently makes good films. His visual storytelling talent and style make him a director worth continuing to follow. I liked a number of the sets and locations used in the film, particularly production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein’s set for Morra’s fortress apartment. Jo Willems’s cinematography is cool as he takes advantage of Burger’s need to visually express the reaction of the drug to the characters’ senses. The score by Paul Leonard-Morgan and Nico Muhly works well with the tone of the film, hitting the action/thriller notes as well as feeling lighter and more fun. The story was very central to Eddie Morra, the main supporting characters not really having a lot of character development or dramatic work – but that being said, the cast was good. Anna Friel is great in her cameo (for a good looking woman, she sure pulled off the decrepit look well, a gimpy limp included), while Andrew Howard’s Russian loan shark thug was really funny. Abbie Cornish is quite good in the ‘girlfriend to the lead’ role, bringing enough emotion to standout, and Robert De Niro is also good as a powerful businessman, but he has had tons of better roles with more for him to do. Bradley Cooper is in pretty much every scene and has almost all the dramatic work to do, and does so well. He proves with this film that he is ready and capable to be a leading man in Hollywood.

Limitless is fun and entertaining, but not a great thriller. 7/10

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jane Eyre (2011) – Review

Jane Eyre is a brilliantly made atmospherically gothic film (much like the novel), that utilizes strong direction and performances. Director Cary Fukunaga takes more of a modern approach to the film, as he structures the narrative to jump around in the timeline, unraveling Jane’s story bit by bit. This is an effective technique, as the viewer really sees the development of Jane’s character – showing where she is now and then how she got there. As the novel by Charlotte Bronte is fairly famous, many viewers will already know the story making this structure all the more interesting. Fukunaga seems to be very interested in Jane’s strength and who she is as a young adult (as most of the film focuses on that section of her story) – what gives her the ability to overcome and succeed even in the face of an oppressive social structure and a tragic childhood. The opening shot of the film shows Jane in tears running away from Thornfield Hall through the elements, willing herself to get away and survive both the heartache as well as the physical abuse of the cold and rain. The feminist tones in the book also present themselves in Jane, as she wishes for a life of action (to be more like a man, in terms of options for her life). She is in constant internal struggle as she is skeptical of relationships with others, given her sad abusive and lonely past. She is accustom to being nothing and alone (even accepting it as a lifelong reality) while desperately longing for more. Fukunaga’s narrative and focus is on Jane’s triumph of character, which in terms makes the film very powerful and moving. However, Jane is reclusive and plain by choice – hiding her emotions the best she can, which results in a deliberately nuanced and slowly building narrative and performance (which certainly will not translate well for all viewers). Fukunaga also gets away from some of the more theatrical versions of the story by completely emerging the feel and look of the film in the natural world and the story’s period. The performances are very real and feel organic, not as though they are a performance to be given but rather the actual real characters saying what occurs to them at the moment (which, a credit to screenwriter Moira Buffini, is quite articulate and eloquent, but works very well – the use of language in the film is wonderful). The look of the film is very appropriate, as Fukunaga exclusively uses natural light (much like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) with most of the scenes lite by candle light or sunlight. This give the film a very authentic and period vibe, and plays well with the gothic theme and tone present in the novel (and this film). The production design and locations furthers the authenticity, while the locations chosen plays off the cold and lonely world that Jane lives in, as structures are surrounded by nothing but beaten and ravished marsh lands or gloomy and scary forests appearing all to be very solidary. The score also extenuates the gothic and gloomy aspects of the film, while also beautifully capturing the love story that develops in spite of all the hardship. Jane Eyre is truly an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Technical and acting achievements: director Cary Fukunaga is certainly establishing himself as someone to watch. Jane Eyre is his second film (out of two) to be both dramatically engaging and delicately beautiful. I look forward to his future work. All the technical aspects of the film are extraordinarily well done – Adriano Goldman’s cinematography is moody, as it shows off the quite beauty of Jane while also crushing her spirit (if only for a moment) with its cold and dark landscapes and brooding interiors. Will Hughes-Jones’s production design and Michael O’Conner’s costume design exacerbate the cold, dark and restrictive life of that period, giving the film a high level of realism, but also allow for moments of beauty and warmth to  sneak in too (much like Goldman’s cinematography). However, among all the fantastic work, Dario Marianelli’s beautiful, scary and powerful score stands atop the list of the wonderful aesthetics the film offers. The cast in the film is very fitting, each delivering the good work that their talent dictates. Amelia Clarkson is wonderful as Young Jane. She is resilient and strong in the face of nothing but cruelty and despise. Michael Fassbender, a budding star for sure, is powerful and stern yet romanticism slowly chips away revealing a caring and loving interior. And finally, Mia Wasikowska is perfect as Jane. She is strong but cautiously reclusive, reluctant to let any emotion slip, which plays out in a bewitchingly nuanced performance.

This telling of Jane Eyre is not for everyone. It is completely immersed in its naturalistic approach. But for those who appreciate magnificent performances and aesthetics, this is a film you cannot miss. 9/10

Monday, March 21, 2011

Paul (2011) – Review

Paul is a funny and sci-fi nostalgia filled comedy. Structured as a road-comedy/buddy-comedy, the film works as a tale of friendship and growth along the journey. The nostalgic aspect is focused on popular science fiction (mostly from film and TV) – things like Star Wars, Star Trek (I love the reenactment of the worst fight in TV history), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and many others (especially Steve Spielberg films, and his voice makes a cameo). These references work to be both funny and enjoyable for those that know them. However, this may also be an issue for viewers without a strong knowledge of popular sci-fi, as a ton of jokes will not work for them (or not even play as jokes or references). But, this is a film not made for those viewers – this is clearly made for sci-fi fans who will get all the references and jokes. Thus, the film does have a somewhat limited appeal, though there are also lots of jokes and comedy that do not require a strong knowledge of sci-fi films and TV as well, but some of the full enjoyment will be lost. There is also another pitfall that arises from the film being heavily geared towards referential jokes, (much like with the film Fanboys) its narrative seems to be structured more around these jokes than telling a good story. Director Greg Mottola is very good at telling nostalgic comedy stories that are very funny, while maintaining a strong dramatic narrative. Here, Mottola is able to bring the drama out of the story amidst the comedy, helping the audience feel more connected to the characters, which benefits the film. The issue is that the narrative is not quite tight enough, as it feels a tad slow in parts and most of the comedy is generated from outside factors and not so much from the main characters (played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The supporting cast is funny, especially Ruth Bugs and Paul, but for the film to be really good, the comedy should generate from the main characters. The road trip aspect of the narrative delivers most of the comedy and excitement, while the buddy aspect, which should really generate both the crux of the drama and comedy, only delivers drama and character to the film. This would be fine if at its heart it were a coming of age or growth drama, but it is a comedy, so having most of the laughs come from references, locations and supporting characters and not the main characters (though they do have their moments) hurts the film in terms of its overall success as a comedy and cinematic experience (i.e. its ability to entertain). Paul is quite funny, with great and well integrated nostalgic references, but despite its nagging issues is still good, but not great.

Technical and acting achievements: Paul is Greg Mottola’s third feature film. He yet again shows his knack for addressing his material in such a way that resonates with the audience, both through his use of character connection to the audience and nostalgia. However, this is his weakest film to date. It is not funny enough to be a great comedy and not dramatic, moving or interesting enough to be a great dramady, so we are left with a good comedy (but really only if you like popular sci-fi and get the references). The script by Pegg and Frost is a good road trip and shows their love of science fiction, but it seems as though there is more interested in the references than the story, which does hurt the narrative. David Arnold’s score is good, playing off the nostalgia and genre the characters love. The cinematography by Lawrence Sher is mostly straight-forward, but in certain scenes is better than what comedies typically get. Production designer Jefferson Sage must have had a fun time with the sets and locations in the film (I particularly liked the choice and look of Tara Walton’s house and grounds – it reminds me of Superman coming to Earth, and maybe it is supposed to). The cast is funny overall. Joe Lo Truglio is the standout among the bit players in the film; he is really silly, in a good way. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have tons of chemistry and go together well, but they did not generate much of the best stuff in the film. Principal supporting characters Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen (who voices Paul) steal the show. Wiig is hilarious, while Rogen’s Paul has the charisma that focuses the audience’s attention.

Films centered around nostalgia often endear themselves to their intended audience, and Paul does that. It is funny and entertaining, but not everyone will like or get it. 7/10 

Movie of the Week - Dr. Strangelove

The Cold War satire is about the brink of nuclear war after an insane general puts into motion the dropping of America’s retaliatory bombs on the U.S.S.R. without true provocation. In the War Room, U.S. politicians and generals frantically try to stop the impending nuclear holocaust. The film is by auteur writer-director Stanley Kubrick (also famous for his films 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and others). On the film, Kubrick has a fun score from Laurie Johnson, good work from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and a wonderful War Room set from production designer Ken Adam (who designed most of the classic James Bonds sets). However, the stars of this film are Peter Sellers (who is also brilliant in Kubrick’s Lolita) and George C. Scott. Their performances are very funny (if not hysterical at times) and make this the brilliant film that it is. Sterling Hayden, Peter Bull and Slim Pickens also give good supporting performances. Sellers plays three characters in the film, each is a fantastic creation with varying levels of zaniness and charisma (originally he was to play Pickens’s role as well, the pilot, but injured his leg while filming and could not quite get the accent right, which is a surprise for a master character actor like Sellers). What makes the film great is how it mashes together humor and sheer terror and tension of the time. I can only imagine how this played upon its release in 1964 (just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis). As funny as the film is, the real life tension and fear of nuclear war was ever present. Now, the film merely plays as a comedy and satire, especially when set against films such as Fail-Safe. This is an absolute must see for cinema fans. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and to Rent