Thursday, September 29, 2011

J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011) – Review

J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story
After Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Thrown, Cole World was my second most anticipated album of the year. Thus, I had high expectations as I sat down to listen to the album a few times (before deciding what to rate it). I like the album a lot. J. Cole’s lyricism and producing ability are both top notch. I also like the fact that for his debut he decided to only have a few features (Jay-Z, Drake, Missy Elliot, and Trey Songz), allowing the listener to really get to know his flow and message. For fans that have followed him for years, the inclusion of the tracks Lights Please (from The Warm Up) and In the Morning (from Friday Night Lights) off his mixtapes seems odd, but these two songs are great (especially Lights Please, still my favorite of his songs) and for those just discovering J. Cole they are musts and warrant being on the album (plus, In the Morning features Drake who will also draw potential fans). As much as I like the album, it is just not quite on the same level as the work of Kanye West (My Dark Twisted Fantasy is on the level everyone else in hip hop is lagging behind for example, and Watch the Throne just has songs on a different level too). But that said, it is close and still a wonderful hip hop record with many great songs (I particularly like, in addition to my song picks, In the Morning, Lost Ones, Nobody’s Perfect, Rise and ShineGod’s Gift, Who Dat, and Daddy’s Little Girl). I recommend every hip hop fan check out J. Cole (this album and his mixtapes), as he is certainly among the best – one album in. 4/5

Editor’s Song Picks:
1)      Lights Please – Produced by J. Cole
2)      Work Out – Produced by J. Cole
3)      Can’t Get Enough – Featuring Trey Songz, produced by Brian Kidd

Available on CD and Digital Download

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Moneyball (2011) – Review

Review: Moneyball is a good sports drama that thrives on excellent writing, but may have been more concerned with character than story. At its core, the story is about a man, Billy Beane the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, who embraces a new way of analyzing players and revolutionizes the game of baseball. However, director Bennett Miller does not allow to film to play as a typical sports drama. Sure, there are sequences and structural references to the classic sports story (nobody believes in the team to being with, they start down, then things get better, then they ascend to greatness or almost), but Miller seems to be much more interested in the character of Beane than the exploits of the A’s in their first Moneyball-era season of 2002 (and I enjoyed the sequences that did involve the team to the extent that when the camera left them to focus somewhere else, I wanted it to return, as if the character stuff was getting in the way of the baseball stuff – probably because I enjoy baseball movies so much). Miller wants to know why Beane would forsake the traditions of how scouts and baseball people had always evaluated players for this new seemingly radical model, and most of the film digs into that question. These sequences are effective as well, especially in their ability to connect Beane to the audience (which is behind him 100%, completely embracing the mantra of the new statistical baseball model for players). However, there is a disconnect between the slow character piece narrative and the typical baseball movie narrative. The pacing and rhythm feel off between these two aspects of the film, resulting in the overall narrative dragging at times (I would also argue that the ending is not wholly satisfying as well as a result). As a whole the film is problematic in its overall pacing and structure, but Miller is able to overcome this with fantastic scenes and sequences (sort of a ‘the sum of the parts is greater than the whole’ type thing). It is not a crippling issue, but it holds Moneyball back from being a brilliant film (as there are certainly moments in which it does feel like one). That being said, from a scene-writing and performance perspective, Moneyball is very good. It is a great character drama and a great sports drama, but does not come together to be a truly great movie (but it is really close).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Bennett Miller, now with two narrative feature films under his belt, has made a case for himself to be mentioned among the best directors of his generation. He is certainly a master of character dramas, as evidenced both by this film and Capote. I look forward to seeing what he does next. Mychael Danna’s score has a fantastical feel to it, which coupled with cinematographer Wally Pfister’s work fits the overall feel of the film well. The cinematography is very good, especially in the incorporation of historical footage and then matching it up to what was shot for the film. The baseball scenes have a very atmospheric look to them which works well, as if the audience is watching something grand and outside of time (fitting the mythos of baseball). Jess Gonchor’s production design is very good as well. The script was written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, though it is the work of Sorkin and his fantastic dialog that steals the show in a number of scenes. As a character piece, however, the success of the film largely comes down to its performances, which were all very good. Stephen Bishop and Chris Pratt are good as A’s players that Beane interacts with on a more personal level, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is fun playing off Brad Pitt’s charisma as sort of a black hole of emotion and inconvenience. Jonah Hill does well is his first major dramatic role. But, it is Pitt and his excellent performance that helps the film overcome some of its pacing and structural issues. He is wonderful. He plays Beane as sort of like a modern-day maverick cowboy – stoic and unwavering.

Summary & score: Moneyball has aspects of a typical sports drama (or baseball movie), but at its heart it is a very good character piece with great writing and lead performance. 8/10

Monday, September 26, 2011

Movie of the Week – The Last of the Mohicans

This week’s movie is The Last of the Mohicans (1992).

The drama is about Nathaniel Poe, a white-man raised by the Mohican tribe. He and the last two remaining members of their people get caught up in the French and Indian War after they come across a British Major and two women who are being attached by a French-aligned Indian war party. The film is directed by Michael Mann, serving as his first epic (though not his first film) and the beginning of his string of great movies to present (I include Miami Vice in the list, many do not). It is based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Mann has a fantastic group with him including composers Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones (whose score is iconic, here is an example), brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who also shot Heat, The Insider and Public Enemies for Mann) and production designer Wolf Kroeger. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, and features supporting work from Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Jodhi May, Steven Waddington, and Wes Studi. The film has aspects of a war drama, but seems to really be a romance at its core. Though, many of the best scenes feature intense battles. Mann also does a wonderful job of fleshing out his characters, including many of the supporting parts. The film has a powerful dramatic impact as the result of the great character work. The Last of the Mohicans certainly is not Mann’s best work (that is probably Heat), but it is his first great film. It is a must-see for fans of epic dramas and war dramas. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Brad Pitt – Movies Spotlight – September 2011

Brad Pitt, 47, has established himself as an A-list actor, starring in both blockbusters and prestige films in Hollywood. In September, he stars in Moneyball. It is about the Oakland A’s baseball general manager Billy Beane – the first GM to use sabre metrics to build a competitive team on a budget. The film is directed by Bennett Miller and written by Aaron Sorkin. It looks to be a possible contender for a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Early Career:

Pitt began his career in 1987 with un-credited parts in No Way Out and Less Than Zero. He had struggled to establish himself early on, and took acting lessons from Roy London. He made his TV debut in 1987 as well with a guest appearance in Growing Pains, and then got a four-episode part in Dallas. The next year, he got his first leading part in the Yugoslavian-U.S. co-production Adriatic. He continued to take guest roles on TV and parts in smaller movies until he got his first big break with a supporting part in Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise in 1991. His character’s love scene with Thelma (played by Geena Davis) defined Pitt as a sex symbol beginning his career as Hollywood’s latest heartthrob. He next took the lead in Cool World (a more adult version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit), but the film was poorly received (though, at the age of 11, I remember eagerly anticipating seeing it). His next big break came in the form of playing one of the leads in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. His performance made him a star in Hollywood, even though Pitt considers it one of his weakest. Now a hot commodity, he took the lead in Kalifornia and a small supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s first produced scrip True Romance. These two roles built upon the goodwill he accumulated setting him up to be not only a huge star in Hollywood but also an acclaimed actor.

Critics Take Notice:

In 1994, Pitt’s career took an even more significant jump forward with his leading performance in Interview with the Vampire (based on Anne Rice’s novel). However, while the film was received well by moviegoers and critics alike, many critics were not pleased with Pitt’s performance. He also made Legends of the Fall in 1994. The film played mixed reviews, but critics praised Pitt’s performance and he received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. Primarily being viewed as a heartthrob by moviegoers, he decided to play off-type and take a supporting role in Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi opus 12 Monkeys. The role allowed Pitt to show a different side of himself as an actor, impressing many critics and winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and receiving an Oscar nomination as well.  In 1996, he took a supporting role in Sleepers. While it was a small role, his performance was a highlight for critics. Pitt took on another offbeat supporting role in Guy Ritchie’s 2000 gangster film Snatch. His gypsy boxer is almost completely unintelligible, but while the film was not as well received by critics as general moviegoer, everyone loved his performance. It also showed off Pitt’s knack for comedy. These five films not only grew Pitt’s popularity among moviegoers but also put him on many a critic’s actor’s to watch list. But, it was his collaborations with director David Fincher that made him an A-list star.

Hollywood Stardom & David Fincher:

Fincher cast Pitt in the lead of his second feature film, Se7en. The film made a fully-fledge star out of Pitt (both with critics and moviegoers) and an auteur director out of Fincher. It grossed more money internationally (and second most domestically) of any of Pitt’s films up until its release in 1995. It also showed off the range that Pitt had as an actor, as his character was deeply flawed. The film is still considered to be a classic (and by many as the best of Pitt’s career). Fincher made The Game next, but then cast Pitt in the co-lead with Edward Norton in his next film Fight Club. Pitt plays Tyler Durden, a role that required a lot of physical work to prepare for, and one that is among his most iconic. While the film was not praised critically upon its release, it has a cult following and is on most critics’ Top 100 films of the Decade lists. These two films with Fincher not only made Pitt a bigger star in Hollywood, but more importantly gave him a ton of acclaim for critics and avid film lovers. In 2008, he again worked with Fincher, taking the lead in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He is wonderful as Benjamin Button, a man who ages in reverse. It is a masterpiece of a film and Pitt received tons of acclaim for his performance, with nominations for Best Actor from the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild. Pitt’s collaboration with Fincher is so profound to his career that if you had to take five films to best represent it, three would be his films with Fincher.


Now a big star in Hollywood, Pitt started to take roles in blockbuster and Hollywood A-list star vehicles. And while these films are mostly not very good, they did make him an even bigger star (placing him among the top 10 male actors). First up he co-starred with Harrison Ford in the action thriller The Devil’s Own. It was a box office success but a critical failure (as many action films are). Next, he starred in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s epic Seven Years in Tibet, which played to negative reviews and box office disappointment. The same could be said for his next: Meet Joe Black, co-starring Anthony Hopkins (it is probably my least favorite of all Pitt’s films that I have seen which numbers 30). Continuing the streak of bad Hollywood films, in 2001 he starred opposite Julia Roberts in The Mexican (probably my second least favorite of his career), but of course it did well at the box office. Working again with Tony Scott (who also directed True Romance), he starred with Robert Redford in the spy thriller Spy Game. Then, he had his first Hollywood critical and box office hit with Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble theist flick Ocean’s Eleven. It also starred George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon. He followed it up with his biggest commercial hit of his career (so far) playing Achilles in Troy (funny side-story, apparently filming was delayed for several weeks due to an on-set injury to Pitt’s Achilles tendon…What are the odds?). He then co-starred with (future wife) Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the second biggest commercial hit of his career (the film was released in 2005, and is commonly thought to be behind his breakup with then wife Jennifer Aniston). He also made two more Ocean’s films (Twelve and Thirteen) during that time. He continues to make blockbuster films today, though not as frequently. His last was 2010’s Megamind.

Great Movies with Great Directors:

With the string of huge commercial hits, Pitt has become a powerful force in Hollywood, which has allowed him to be more selective about his project and having the ability to get films made in the studio system. As a result, he has worked with excellent filmmakers on fantastic films since 2006 beginning with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel, an ensemble piece about communication and cultural differences between people. It received seven Oscar nominations and won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. Pitt was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Next, he starred as Jesse James in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It is a stunning performance by Pitt (probably my favorite) and a beautiful film. He won the Best Actor Award at the 2007 Venice Film Festival for it. Returning to comedy, Pitt took a supporting role playing a truly stupid man in the Coen Brothers’ (Joel and Ethan) Burn After Reading. Pitt’s performance was called his funniest to date (not that he had done much comedy). Making another black comedy of sorts, Pitt starred next in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant Inglourious Basterds as Aldo Raine, the head of a group of Jewish American resistance fighters during WWII (it is probably my favorite film Pitt has made, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – both are in my top 25 of the last decade). This year, he starred in Terrence Malick’s (brilliant or terrible depending on who you ask) The Tree of Life, which won the Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival. Additionally, Pitt has produced a number of great films through his company Plan B – mostly films he stars in, but also two acclaimed films he did not star in (as well as others): Academy Award Best Picture winner Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass.

Upcoming Projects:

Pitt currently has two films slated for release in 2012, and a ton that he is rumored to be attached to in the future. First, he stars in Cogan’s Trade. Working again with director Andrew Dominik, the film is about a professional enforced who investigates a heist that went down during a mob-run poker game. Next, he stars in Marc Forster’s World War Z (yet another zombie movie…At least it is not vampires). It is about a UN representative who interviews survivors of the great zombie war (of 1812…Not really). 

Career Highlights:

1)      True Romance (1993) – supporting [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
2)      Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) – lead [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
3)      Se7en (1995) – lead* [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
4)      Twelve Monkeys (1995) – lead [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
5)      Fight Club (1999) – lead* [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
6)      Snatch. (2000) – lead [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
7)      Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – lead [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
8)      Babel (2006) – lead [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
9)      The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – lead* [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
10)   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – lead* [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
11)   Inglourious Basterds (2009) – lead* [Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming]
12)   The Tree of Life (2011) – lead [Blu-ray, Streaming]
*Editor’s picks

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TV Series of the Month – Six Feet Under

This month’s TV series is Six Feet Under (2001-2005).

The drama is about a family that operates an independent funeral home in California. When the head of the family dies suddenly, his two sons must work together to keep the family business afloat. The show is by Alan Ball (American Beauty and True Blood) and stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez, Matthew St. Patrick, and Rachel Griffiths. It also features a number of great guest appearances through its five seasons. Six Feet Under was part of HBO’s conquering lineup of fantastic series (including shows like The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, The Wire, Band of Brothers, and Deadwood) that made the name HBO synonymous with great TV. Its writing is among the best of any show before or since, and the writers and actors were not afraid to delve into subject matter generally avoided (especially on network TV). The show felt so real, and the characters so real, that sometimes it was a little depressing to watch (almost like it was not an escape for the real world). But, this only strengthened the characters. I also loved that every episode began with someone dying – sometimes unremarkable, and sometimes in a crazy way (my personal favorite might be the mountain lion). I cannot think of a better TV drama that is just about a family and does not rely on adventure, crime or another genre. I highly recommend it for fans of HBO series; it is one of the best. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Drive (2011) – Review

Review: Drive is not your typical Hollywood style crime drama (or action movie as some of the marketing might have you believe); rather it is a methodical character piece that plays out as a very good crime drama in the second half. Director (and for all intents and purposes writer, as he changed essentially all of the script) Nicolas Winding Refn is not so much interested in the action-heavy, cheesy dialog and mostly meaninglessness of Hollywood action fare. He has structured Drive to build slowly, allowing for the characters to exist in the space organically (and not defined by exposition and dialog). Then, he juxtaposes moments of action and graphic violence against the calm creating much more of an impact. These scenes are exhilarating for the audience. The action set pieces, though brief and little in number, are fantastic and play extremely well because Refn has set them up perfectly. However, this is a film that does not play well for all moviegoers (evidenced by the awkward reactions and nervous laughter from some viewers). The film is steeped in indie style, and is very similar to Refn’s last film Valhalla Rising in terms of pacing and overall narrative style (but with a bit more action). Those looking for a Hollywood style action crime drama (something like Fast Five) are probably going to be disappointed and bored through most of the beginning (as the pacing is slow). As good as the action set pieces are, Refn is much more focused on the overall aesthetic and mood of the piece. He is creating a cinematic piece of art, in a sense, and not just entertainment (not to say that it is not entertaining, because it is). He wants to derive meaning out of what is on the screen and his characters, and have it register with the viewer in a much more impactful way. However, do not fear, the film is far from avant-garde. Refn has characters that are relatable and also rife with genre conventions, as are many of the plot points and themes at play. Outside the style and pacing, this plays and feels very much like your typical crime drama – Refn has just made it his own (little dialog, not a lot of outward emotion shown, music playing a large role in translating character emotion to the audience, and brief moments of hyper-violence). It is Refn’s unique take on the genre that really makes this film special (in a world where many movies are the same thing rehashed over and over). The lead character, who is left unnamed, is also different than what we typically see in this genre. He is very soft-spoken, allowing his face and energy to emote rather than dialog. Yet, it is the contrast between his softness (and even awkwardness) with his love interest Irene and his competency as both a driver and badass that makes him a very compelling and interesting character, with almost no backstory. Drive above all feels fresh, and that may be its best quality.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Nicolas Winding Refn has inserted himself into the group of cool stylistic indie directors (probably most comparable to David Cronenberg, especially with the way he shoots violence). I cannot wait to see what he does next. Tonally and visually, Drive is fantastic (it is sort of a cross between Heat and Blade Runner). Cliff Martinez’s score, consisting of atmospheric tones, is brilliant and so perfect for the film (here is an example of the score), but is overshadowed by the found music (excellent stuff like Nightcall by Kavinsky, Under Your Spell by Desire and A Real Hero by College). Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography also fits Refn’s vision perfectly. The film looks very sleek and clean, juxtaposing the messiness of the situation the characters find themselves in. Beth Mickle’s production design also contrasts the lighting as the locations are rundown and unremarkable, and it works really well. The cast is fabulous. Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks (who has a great scene with Ryan Gosling) are very good in small supporting roles. Bryan Craston plays his tragic character well, and Albert Brooks plays a bit off-type for a great villain. Carey Mulligan is very important to the film’s narrative success. She does not have much dialog, but is able to get her emotions across nonverbally and is excellent. Gosling plays the odd lead character very well and differently from most similar types in the genre – he smiles.

Summary: Drive is not for everyone (it is far too stylistic for that), but its fresh take on the crime genre is remarkable and stunning. 9/10

Monday, September 19, 2011

Movie of the Week – 24 Hour Party People

This week’s movie is 24 Hour Party People (2002).

The music biography centers on Tony Wilson in the mid-70s through the early 80s as he sets up Factory Records and plays a role in the discovery of bands like Joy Division (later New Order) and the Happy Mondays and promotion of the Manchester music scene. The film is directed by Michael Winterbottom (who made another very similar movie, stylistically, with star Steve Coogan: Tristram Shandy A Cock and Bull Story) and is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (a frequent collaborator). While the film is a biography of the time and music, it is told in a somewhat unreliable way (the main character Tony Wilson is not a reliable narrator/storyteller as he changes and exaggerates facts and instances) and constantly breaks the fourth wall, which actually works quite well as it pulls the viewer in and makes them a part of the scene – this is also due to the shooting style Winterbottom employs with cinematographer Robby Muller. Mark Tildesley’s production design is also spot-on for the period and style. Steve Coogan gives what is probably his best film performance to date, and there is good supporting work from Paddy Considine, Shirley Henderson, Andy Serkis, Danny Cunningham, and especially Sean Harris (who plays the role of Ian Curtis phenomenally). While the film is interesting (particularly for music fans) and funny, it is the narrative structure and soundtrack that set it apart from other biopics. When I first saw it (probably in late 2002 or sometime in 2003), I was not well versed in the Manchester music scene of the late 70s/early 80s (aside from New Order) and the film got me into a couple bands (chief among them Joy Division). I highly recommend it for music fans, and it makes a good companion piece to Control. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and to Rent

Friday, September 16, 2011

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011) – Review

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
St. Vincent, the stage name of performer Annie Clark, is a described as Art Rock or Baroque Pop – sub-genres that alone intrigue potential listeners. But what is so brilliant about Clark’s songwriting and aesthetic is that it is both challenging music (in that it is not just bland radio fodder) and completely accessible for those who enjoy pop music. Her third album, Strange Mercy is maybe her most poppy and also rocking, though its sound feels in tune with her style progressing from Marry Me through Actor and now to Strange Mercy. Clark’s singing and lyrics have a cryptic yet genuine emotion to them, which play against the listener’s own. The album is an experience (which seems to be rare these days). The overall sound she creates is fantastic – powerful and interesting, as it evolves and artfully flows. There are not too many artists right now that can capture the same amount energy in their records – Clark just has this rawness to her that is really appealing, despite her sweet voice. The lead single Cruel is a phenomenal song (and the video is cool too), and probably my favorite of the genre so far this year (though, I do really like Peter Bjorn and John’s Second Chance – even if it was overplayed in TV commercials, as with The Black Key’s Tighten Up). I highly recommend picking this album up if you like indie pop (or as I would categorize it post rock) that has a great sound and complexity to it. 4/5

Editor’s Song Picks:
1)      Cruel
2)      Dilettante
3)      Cheerleader

Available on CD and Digital Download

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wale – The Eleven One Elven Theory Mixtape (2011) – Review

Wale – The Eleven One Elven Theory
Earlier this year we got a taste of Wale as a part of his MMG team (Self Made, Vol. 1). With The Eleven One Eleven Theory we get to hear what to expect from his new solo album Ambition (due November 1, 2011), and it is really good – unlike Self Made (which featured mostly street bangers), this mixtape has a lot more sole and hip hop appeal. Wale’s first album (Attention Deficit) was fantastic, but it greatly undersold. Thus, Ambition is his shot at redemption and validation. Wale brings a lot of energy and lyrical skill to this mixtape, but the mixing and production quality is a bit lacking at times (which is the case with mixtapes in general) and two of the best tracks Chain Music and Bait are expected to be on his upcoming album – both of which hold it back. Tone P does however does provide decent tracks. What stands out the most though is Wale’s drive and rhyming, which is maybe the most important aspect in hip hop. I think this mixtape is solid and a good indication of what we can expect on Ambition (I just hope the production is a bit better – which it should be), an album I am highly anticipating. 3/5

Editor’s Song Picks:
1)      The Podium – Featuring Black Cobain, Tre of UCB & Tone P, produced by Tone P
2)      Varsity Blues – Produced by Tone P
3)      Barry Sanders – Produced by DJ Toomp

Available on Digital Download

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Directors to Watch: Part 1 – Movies Spotlight – September 2011

One of the great things about cinema is that there is constantly an inflow of great new talents. These three directors are on the brink of becoming well known filmmakers in the States.

Filmography to Date:

Winding Refn, a Danish filmmaker, started his career in 1993 when he came to America to study film at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. He made his first film in Denmark – the 1996 crime thriller Pusher. It is considered one of the greatest director debut films in cinema history. He made another film in Denmark, Bleeder, before making his first English language film (filmed in the U.K., Canada and Denmark) Fear X. Neither film was as well received as his first, so Winding Refn decided to return to the world of Pusher to make two sequels (With Blood on My Hands and I’m the Angel of Death) to complete the trilogy. His films in Denmark are also highlighted by his collaboration with Danish star Mads Mikkelsen (who appears in four of his films). He next took two films solely in the U.K. First, the TV movie Miss Marple: Nemesis and then the crime biography Bronson. Bronson served as Winding Refn’s breakthrough film for English-speaking audiences, also leading to many discovering the Pusher Trilogy. The film’s star Tom Hardy also was praised by critics leading to a breakthrough in his career. Winding Refn then returned to Denmark to make the very atmospheric Viking epic with Mads Mikkelsen Valhalla Rising, which is probably his most artistically interesting but inaccessible film to date.

September Film:

Drive marks Winding Refn’s (who is considered to be a Danish auteur) debut in Hollywood (and to a degree in America). He has a great cast with Ryan Gosling starring and supporting work from Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks (among others), and critical acclaim coming out of the Cannes Film Festival winning Best Director and being nominated for Best Film. Critics in general love the movie, many calling it the best film of the year (so far). I am most interested in seeing how the material, the film being an action crime thriller, meshes with Winding Refn’s style of late (specifically the great, and awful at the same time, tone and style of Valhalla Rising). Though, if the Pusher Trilogy is any indication, he can handle the crime genre very well. If the film is received as well by moviegoers as it has been by critics (and the box office is there), Winding Refn could be the next hot director in Hollywood. Here is a trailer for Drive.


Up next in 2012, Winding Refn is again working with Ryan Gosling in the crime drama Only God Forgives. It is about a Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster who settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match. It also stars Kristin Scott Thomas.

Career Highlights:

1)      Pusher Trilogy (1996/2004/2005) – crime (DVD/Rent)
2)      Bronson (2008) – crime (Blu-ray/DVD/Rent)
3)      Valhalla Rising (2009) – drama (Blu-ray/DVD/Rent)
*Editor’s Picks

Filmography to Date:

Miller, a New York City filmmaker, started his career directing commercials and music videos before making the very good and deeply personal to New York City documentary The Cruise in 1998. It is about Tim “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan’s Gray Line double-decker buses. There is such a love for the city in the film. Continuing to make commercials and music videos, Miller did not return to film until deciding to tackle the biography of Truman Capote, specifically focusing on his writing of the novel In Cold Blood about the murder of a Kansas family and the two men who committed it. The film, Capote, is excellent (and I cannot think of too many better dramatic feature debuts). It was nominated for Best Director, Film, Screenplay, Supporting Actress, and won Best Actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman at the 2006 Oscars. It is a haunting character piece, and Miller made a case of himself as an auteur with only one feature under his belt.

September Film:

Taking his time to make his follow-up to Capote, Miller finally has a new film – this month’s Moneyball. As a huge fan of baseball films (I think baseball translates to film the best of all sports), I was excited about this before knowing anything about who was involved. Now, knowing who is making the film, I think it is likely to be on many 10 Best Lists. Along with Miller directing, it features work from writers Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, cinematographer from Wally Pfister and production design from Jess Goncher, all excellent talents. Plus, it has a great cast with Brad Pitt starring and supporting work from Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman (working again with Miller) and Chris Pratt. It is about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who revolutionized the game with the use of sabermetrics to build a good team on a tight budget. Here is the trailer. This is another film, like Drive, that has critics enamored as it plays at Fall Festivals ahead of its release, further strengthening Miller’s stock as a wonderful filmmaker.


As of now, he has no new projects announced, but with the likely success of Moneyball it is only a matter of time and finding the right film.

Career Highlights:

1)      The Cruise (1998) – documentary (DVD/Rent)
2)      Capote (2005)* – drama (Blu-ray/DVD/Rent)
*Editor’s Picks

Filmography to Date:

Levine, another NYC filmmaker, attended Brown University before doing his masters at the American Film Institute. He also worked as director Paul Schrader’s (if nothing else, see Schrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) assistant before focusing on his own filmmaking – beginning with two shorts the drama Shards and the documentary Love Bytes. Next he made the popular horror B-movie All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which also sprouted rising star Amber Heard’s career. In 2008, Levine had his breakthrough (outside the schlock fan base that loves All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) with the comedy drama The Wackness, which he also wrote. It won the Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, catapulting Levine into the league of hot indie directors. However, Levine took his time to pick his next project, directing an episode of How to Make It in America during the break from film.

September Film:

Levine has finally found a project that seems to be right in his wheelhouse, the comedy drama 50/50 about a 27-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer and is given a fifty percent chance of survival (it is somewhat based on writer Will Reiser’s own experiences). Here is the trailer. It has a fantastic young cast with Joseph Gordon-Levitt starring and supporting work from Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard. Even though it deals with a tough subject, the film looks hysterically funny, and it will be good to see Anna Kendrick in a real dramatic role again after she was so good in Up in the Air. Like the other two directors, Levine could see his services become in high demand if this film does as well, critically and commercially, as it is expected to do.


Levine has is next project slated for 2012 with Summit Entertainment. It is a horror romance drama about a zombie who becomes involved with the girlfriend of one of his victims (yes, it sounds ridiculous, can you say My Boyfriend’s Back, but also kind of potentially awesome). It is called Warm Bodies and stars Nicholas Hoult (who is brilliant in Skins generation 1, and ready to breakout in America after co-starring in X-Men: First Class), Teresa Palmer (also a rising star), Analeigh Tipton (who was fantastic in Crazy, Stupid, Love.), and Rob Corddry.

Career Highlights:

1)      The Wackness (2008) – comedy drama (Blu-ray/DVD/Rent)
*Editor’s Picks

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Contagion (2011) – Review

Review: Contagion is a really well made film both from an aesthetic and storytelling standpoint, as it seems to be grounded (more so than many films, especially studio films in this genre) in reality. Events evolve and play out how they probably would, given such an outbreak of a deadly disease did occur (stipulated to the same factors as in the film). It is this realism that makes the film work as well as it does. The narrative structure that director Steven Soderbergh employs sees the narrative jump around the world between multiple characters – giving a broad more global sense of what is going on. The cost of this decision is that the film does not feel like a thriller in the truest sense (at least not all the time), and this is due to there being many characters that the audience only briefly gets to know – the last of connection lessens the stakes. Mitch Emhoff might be an exception, and the scenes involving him and later his daughter have the most emotional impact and thus work the best in a thriller-like capacity. However, while Soderbergh does forgo a strong emotional connection with the audience (though, Emhoff’s character is used well as a narrative throughline, and a good touchstone for the audience’s emotions), he is aware that the story and the narrative style in which he unfolds the film is enough to engage the audience (and he is right). It also helps that the ensemble cast gives great performances (and all feel real and fleshed out to the extent their limited screen time will allow). Contagion thusly works better as a drama than a thriller; however the thrilling aspect of it is in the sheer devolution that the planet faces and encounters in the wake of the outbreak, as it grows, which is greatly helped by the realism Soderbergh uses. I would even argue that the narrative that Soderbergh retains is even more compelling than if he had stayed solely with the Emhoff character (which probably would have been a more thrilling film – a bit like 28 Days Later…, but without zombies – sort of, I mean those infected are sort of like zombies in a sense). As it is, Soderbergh can show the audience the drama of such an epidemic on a much grander and scarier scale (though, again, impersonal), and having the film so rooted in reality makes it all the more frightening, on a much more intellectual level than most disaster films (which this could be classified as). The narrative is more about will humanity survive than just one character (but, as stated above, we do get to see how one family copes with the drama of what is happening to the world, because to some degree we do need that connection to a character). True thriller or not, Contagion is a very good disaster drama, that surprisingly, given the genre, feels genuine.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Soderbergh can probably be classified as an auteur director, due to his style and quality as a filmmaker. Though his background is in indie film, his best work seems to come from the films he makes in Hollywood (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight, and Contagion – which is probably my favorite of his films). He also produced and shot the film, and his cinematography has never been better (and at times reminded me of the work he did on Traffic – especially when the setting was Mexico). However, the production design by Howard Cummings and the fantastic score by Cliff Martinez really solidify the world of Soderbergh’s drama. With things like 28 Days Later… and The Walking Dead as reference (the film looked and sort of had the same tone as a zombie film, maybe that is why I keep coming back to them as references), Cummings is able to both stay in line with what the audience expects the world would look like in complete disarray, but also gives the film its own unique sense of realism that fits the narrative perfectly. Martinez’s score (sample here) sets the tone really well (again getting back to zombie movies, it sort of reminded me of a toned-down, more dramatic Hans Zimmer-like version of Marilyn Manson’s Resident Evil score at times, sample here versus Contagion here, with a great use of tribal drums). I liked it a lot. The cast is also very good, many with limited character work. Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard (who is fantastic with almost no screen time), Jennifer Ehle (who gives possibly a film-breakthrough performance for her career), and newcomer Anna Jacoby-Heron are great in support. Kate Winselt is wonderful and tragic in her supporting role, and Matt Damon is good as always in the lead (in a character that fits right in his dramatic wheelhouse).

Summary & score: Contagion is a disaster thriller that is more frightening than thrilling, as it play much more as a drama. Regardless, however, it is very compelling. 8/10