Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Shins – Port of Morrow (2012) – Review

Review: Port of Morrow is the Shins fourth studio album, largely with a different line-up (but front-man James Mercer still writes all the music and lyrics, and is the only remaining member of the original group). The new line-up (or five year break) may account for Port of Morrow sounding quite different from the Shins’s previous records. However, the lead single Simple Song does sound the most like a ‘Shins song’ (and has a great music video). That is not to say that the music is not good or that the band (James Mercer and friends) has lost its sound, as the Shins still make folky/poppy indie rock that is easily accessible, well-crafted and lyrically beautiful. I actually like that the band has taken their sound to a new place (imagine if the Beatles never explored different sounds, we would not have many of their greatest songs). The Shins have almost a timeless sound with this grouping of songs (like many of the great albums), not sounding specifically to one decade or genre trend. While Chutes Too Narrow is probably still my personal favorite Shins record, Port of Morrow is a very good return for the band, and an album I will be listening to a lot in 2012 (and beyond). 4/5

Editor’s Essential Tracks:
1)      Port of Morrow – Produced by Greg Kurstin and James Mercer
2)      Simple Song – Produced by Greg Kurstin and James Mercer
3)      No Way Down – Produced by Greg Kurstin and James Mercer

Available on CD and Digital Download

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) – Review

Review: The Hunger Games is exciting with both an interesting story and socially relevant overtones, but much of the dramatic tension is lost due to the narrative being too easy on its main character Katniss Everdeen. The film is about Katniss, a young girl from a poor, predominately coil-mining District 12 (taking place in a future North America called Panem) who volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her sister who is chosen (the Hunger Games is an annual event that see two young people volunteer or randomly chosen, one girl one boy, who much fight till death until only one remains). The overlying world that the story takes place in sees a stark difference between the wealthy Capitol (where everyone looks like huge David Bowie glam fans circa 1972 and everything is decadent and frivolous) and District 12 where many struggle just to make ends meet. The juxtaposition of these two places plays metaphorically as a comparison (in a way) between places with severe poverty, starvation, oppression and the debilitating effects of war or tribal/group in-fighting and how they perceive those that are well-off (which is America in many cases). As the story is told through the perspective of Katniss, who is from such a place of extreme poverty, it makes complete sense that director Gary Ross would present the Capitol in the manner that he does (all silliness and lust for blood) – it harkens back to the Roman Republic and its pension for slaves fighting in the arena for entertainment. Ross’s visual contrast between District 12 and the Capitol is also very evident and works well – the Capitol is bright, clean and colorful, while District 12 is very plain, dirty and almost void of color. Ross handles the action well (though not great) given the film is only rated PG-13 (when it probably could have been R, and maybe should have been to get across more the sheer intensity and reality of what these characters are being asked to do and what they do inflict upon each other – the film does show some violence, but shies away from the more raw and frightening nature of these characters and themes; there is nothing as vivid as Piggy’s death in Lord of the Flies for example), which allows the narrative to be thrilling in places and pull viewers into the story. Really, the visual portrayal of the world in which the story takes place is Ross’s finest achievement in the film. However, he does falter with his narrative structure and characters, which does hold this back from being a wonderful sci-fi action drama. Narratively speaking, Ross is very inefficient, leaving the pacing very slow at times. Many scenes drag on too long and character moments are missed or not utilized to their best effect. While much of the film is spent developing Katniss (which is a good thing), the audience is still not given enough to really know her and her motivations (aside from outwardly superficial veiled ploys). The audience is not quite in tune with what she is thinking, leaving her emotions at the end unclear (and while I realize they are unclear to her as well, the viewer is not given enough to know that she actually is torn at all, or that she is just playing a game and character within the Hunger Games – it is not clear because the connection with the audience is just not there, and that is on Ross as the performance is quite good). It would have also been nice to get to know the other main competitors as well instead of only stereotyped narrative roles. Peeta, the other tribute for District 12, has some character development, but his motivations seem so all over the map that he is dramatically untrustworthy, and thus hard to connect with as well. The novel is the basis for the film, but should not be a prerequisite to know the characters (that is just sloppy filmmaking, as the two are entirely separate). The biggest issue however is with how easy the narrative makes it for Katniss. She is never faced with any tough choices. Volunteering to save her sister was easy, as that is what her character would do and it is heroic. The competitors she does play a role in killing are all deemed ‘evil’ by the narrative. It would have been far more interesting to the narrative and her character if she had to make an authentically difficult decision (like killing an innocent, or choosing between living and a friend). Plus, anytime she is in trouble, the narrative helps her out. She never has to get her hands dirty or survive at the dire moment on her own (and I found it very frustrating and disappointing from a character perspective; as this narrative seems to be ineffectual). Katniss is essentially the same person at the end of the game; she just knows how to play it better. The Hunger Games is visually and thematically very engaging and Katniss is a strong heroine, but the narrative and character development lack true visceral impact (which is really too bad).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Having seen Gary Ross’s other two films (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit), it is hard to make the connection between this and those two films as being from the same director. The Hunger Games tonally and stylistically are much different (Seabiscuit is essentially just a throwaway sappy manipulative Hollywoodized drama, while Pleasantville is an interesting look at the change in American values and the American family from the 1950s to the 1990s, while also serving as an allegory for the struggle for civil rights). Ross shoots The Hunger Games with brilliant photographer Tom Stern to be very gritty using a steadicam style (the pseudo-documentary shaky-cam style), evoking the feeling of being in the action, while his past work has a much more classically clean and standard visual style. And, while there are social analogies to today’s world in this film, they are only superficially touched on (though I suspect that they will be explored further in the subsequent films). At its heart, this is a character piece, but Ross does not quite get the dramatic moments right. The music by T-Bone Burnett (who produced the film’s accompanying soundtrack) and the score by James Newton Howard work well as accompaniment to the visual experience (the Mockingjay theme is quite good and memorable – which is fairly critical for big franchises, think of John Williams’s themes for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and so on as the top-end examples). Back to cinematographer Tom Stern, his work is very good along with production designer Philip Messina. The visual contrast and color palette between District 12 and the Capitol (expanded on above) is striking, and sets up all the emotional and social over and undertones for the narrative and characters. The film features a lot of characters, many of which do not receive ample attention. That said, Willow Shields, Amandla Stenberg, Donald Sutherland, and especially Woody Harrelson are very good in support. Josh Hutcherson is good as Peeta (though his character is a bit emotional frenetic), and he does have some chemistry with his co-star. Jennifer Lawrence, who was already a budding star for her critically acclaimed work in Winter’s Bone, is now a huge star with her performance as Katniss. Despite her character not being given dynamic dramatic moments (which are generally key for great cinematic characters and performances), she is very good in the role, playing her to be vulnerable but also resilient, smart and good at putting up a guise of fake emotions.

Summary & score: While there is a lot to like from The Hunger Games (both narratively and from the characters), it fails to create authentically powerful dramatic moments for its principal characters. 7/10

Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie of the Week – To Kill a Mockingbird

This week’s movie is To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

The drama is about Atticus Finch, a lawyer living in a small town in Alabama during the Great Depression who defends a young black man charged with raping and beating a white woman (based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel).  The film is directed by Robert Mulligan (it is really the only canonized work of his career, though critics also liked his film The Man in the Moon). He worked with composer Elmer Bernstein (best known for Ghostbusters), cinematographer Russell Harlan and art director Henry Bumstead (who won an Oscar for the film). The cast is fantastic. Gregory Peck (who won an Oscar for his performance) stars as Atticus Finch in both his most iconic and personal favorite role (Rock Hudson and Jimmy Stewart were both approached before Peck). Mary Badham (who at the time was the youngest person to receive an Oscar nomination), Phillip Alford and John Megna are all great as the youngsters Scout, Jem and Dill Harris. Brock Peters, Robert Duvall (in his first film role), James Anderson, and Collin Wilcox Paxton make up a very good supporting cast. Many of the cast member stayed lifelong friends (Peck and Badham would stay in touch for the rest of Peck’s life, he calling her Scout and she calling him Atticus). To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for Best Picture at the 1963 Academy Awards, but did not win (in most other years, it would have won but it happened to be competing against Lawrence of Arabia – the same can be said for Peter O’Toole losing to Gregory Peck that year). It is one of the most socially important films, as it was made right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement (it was almost not made at all being called too liberal and without any action). This film is a must-see for cinema fans as it features one of the great heroes and performances of all-time. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012) – Review

Review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home is funny and dramatic, and while it is a non-secular dramedy it seemingly plays as almost a spiritual piece. The film is about Jeff, a slacker who lives in his mom’s basement thing to figure out what his purpose in life is. He gets a wrong number call in the morning that sets him off on a journey following what he believes to be signs from the universe pertaining to his purpose. He runs into his brother Pat who suspects his wife is cheating on him, and Jeff and Pat merge their efforts (not to give too much away). Before delving into the narrative too much, the visual style that writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass employ adds nothing to the film, and if anything is distracting and annoying (though, here, it is nowhere near as prevalent or awful as with their last film Cyrus). The constant quick zooms in or out, simulating some sort of amateurish documentary style greatly detract from everything else going on in the film (i.e. the performances, the tone, the other aesthetics; and while I am not certain, they even look as though they were added in post). It is one thing to implement an aesthetic touch that serves the narrative or tone of the film; it is another to just do it because that is your style regardless of narrative or tone, serving nothing, contributing nothing and being pointless. The Duplass Brothers’ visual style feels pointless and hurts their films. That tangent aside, the Duplass Brothers seem to approach the character of Jeff and his journey of self-discovery from almost a spiritual place. Without pegging any one set of beliefs, Jeff seems to believe he is given signs from the universe telling him where to go, but the Duplass Brothers make it a point that Jeff still has to make the decisions once he gets their – as if the universe is nudging him in a certain direction, but Jeff must choose how to act. And through this journey, Jeff to some degree finds himself, but more so he helps others around him (the basketball player, his brother Pat and his wife Linda, his mother, and Kevin). The Duplass Brothers easily could have wound up with something that felt very hooky, but they writer Jeff to be warm and likable (also this is due to Jason Segel’s great performance) which makes his actions and motivations feel real. The audience likes Jeff and thus is behind him on his journey. Jeff’s warmth stands out as well as the other characters are all disillusioned, disheartened and disenchanted – basically, they are stuck in neutral just plodding forward void of true connection or meaning. They need someone to jumpstart them, and this is where Jeff comes in (though, as a slacker 30-year old who lives in his mother’s basement, Jeff seems the unlikely hero). Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a feel good film that makes the audience care about its characters and may even have them thinking about their own lives and what they are doing with them, but it is tripped up a bit by some of the Duplass Brother’s pointless visual aesthetics and some slow pacing (even though the film is only 82 minutes long).

Technical, aesthetic and acting achievements: I thought the Duplass Brothers would realize that their quick zooms only detract from their films after Cyrus, I was wrong. They are otherwise good directors and I have to believe will outgrow it. Producer Jason Reitman’s influence is felt on the film, as Jeff’s narrative journey feels aligned with his own work, being one of self-discovery, while still seemingly left largely unchanged at the end. The work of composer Michael Andrews, cinematographer Jas Shelton and production designer Chris Spellman all essentially places the narrative in the real world – unflashy, just average and normal. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is built on its performances and dialogue. Rae Dawn Chong, much like Segel’s performance, brings a lot of warmth to the film. She is another entity that tries to insight change in the mundane live of Sharon (Jeff’s mother). Susan Sarandon is very good as Sharon. She seemingly has completely given up hope and yet desperately wants to be rescued from her own life. Judy Greer plays Linda as someone fed up, grasping at anything to feel something. It is another good small supporting performance from her (as she was also great in The Descendants in 2011). Ed Helms plays Pat as sort of a darker version of his The Office character Andy. Pat is a bit clueless; and much like Linda, he just wants to feel something again. Segel gives the best performance of the film. His opening monologue is some of his best work to date – emotionally intense but still with an overtone of this likable average relaxed cool guy.

Summary & score: Jeff, Who Lives at Home offers its audience a few laughs, some good dramatic moments and maybe even something profound. 7/10 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

21 Jump Street (2012) – Review

Review: 21 Jump Street is a funny action comedy that hits the right comedic, action and dramatic notes, while making fun of itself at the same time. The film is about two cops who are screw-ups, and as such are transferred to a recently revived undercover unit forcing them to go back to high school to bust a drug ring. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller create sort of a duality to the film, in that it exists within its own real world while also breaking the fourth wall pointing out the almost post-nostalgia inherent in reviving a TV series in film form that most of the targeted audience never watched and the genre stereotypes of action comedies (and/or buddy comedies). For example, the two lead characters Schmidt and Jenko have a movie-based expectation of what being a cop should be like – explosions, car chases, shootouts, and so on – only to realize that their jobs are more mundane than action movies would have them believe, and then all these things happen within the course of their case. Another example has their police captain explaining that they are being transferred to a revived department from the 1980s, and goes off on a tangent about there being no more original ideas, eluding to what is going on in Hollywood currently (and for the last decade or so). These jokes work really well, because they invite the viewers in on the joke, in a sense speaking directly to them. But this would be all for naught if the characters were not relatable, Lord and Miller however do present Schmidt and Jenko in such a manner to get the audience behind them. Something that works really well is that Schmidt and Jenko are shown in the prologue (when they were in high school) as being the loser nerd and cool jock, respectively, but when they return undercover Lord and Miller reverse their roles, which creates both dramatic tension and comedic moments for the characters (which are again relatable to us the viewers). However, aside from Schmidt and Jenko, the supporting characters are not really given much to do other than to fill generic place holders like love interest or villain, holding back the narrative slightly. The audience cares about Schmidt and Jenko, which is the most important thing, but the stakes are not that high because none of the other characters really matter. The villains are never really developed so Schmidt and Jenko are never really in any real peril from the audience’s perspective. Molly is underwritten (though saved by a good performance) so the audience does not really care if it works out between her and Schmidt (we would like it to work out obviously, as we are told they go together narratively, but since Molly is underdeveloped it is not an essential dramatic moment for us). All that said, the point of 21 Jump Street is to be a very entertaining and funny action comedy, and that is what it is. Plus, it is a good overall film too.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Phil Lord and Chris Miller now have two well-received comedies to their names (this and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs). They twist genre expectations and stereotypes for comedic effect making seemingly played out genres feel renewed (which is nothing new, but they do it well). With a sequel in the works (and assuming they return to helm it), I am interested to see if they can continue to keep the material fresh. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score fits the tone of the film, but mostly plays second fiddle to the great soundtrack (featuring among others Eminem, The Clash and N.W.A). Barry Peterson’s cinematography is fairly standard for the genre, as well, but the car chases and other action set pieces are very good and well-shot (but nothing special). Peter Wenham’s production design stands out among the aesthetics in the film. His sets for the 21 Jump Street station and Schmidt’s house are fantastic. The cast throughout does a good job delivering funny material. Johnny Simmons, Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Jake M. Johnson, Ellie Kemper, and Johnny Depp all provide great bit stuff (especially Ice Cube and Kemper). Rob Riggle and Dave Franco are good in support, but they are not given too much to do really (Riggle just acts like he is slightly on the edge and Franco like he is super cool). Brie Larson is great as Molly, bringing spunk and humanity to an underdeveloped character. Both leads are fantastic, and are in large part responsible for the film being as good as it is. Jonah Hill plays Schmidt to be unconfident and desperate to be liked, which is a perfect match against Channing Tatum’s overly confident and entitled Jenko (never would have guesses that I would actually really enjoy performances by Tatum, but that is five in a row now, even sometimes in otherwise bad films).

Summary & score: 21 Jump Street delivers on what it promised to be: funny, action packed and highly entertaining. 7/10

Monday, March 19, 2012

Movie of the Week – A Very Long Engagement

This week’s movie is A Very Long Engagement (2004).

The French romantic epic set against The Great War is about Mathilde and her unwavering search for her fiancĂ© who disappears in no man’s land, after being sentenced to death for self-mutilation along four other men. The film plays like a detective mystery – with each new clue or piece of information, Mathilde comes closer to finding out what really happened. This is auteur director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second film with actress Audrey Tautou (their first was Amelie). He is working again with screenwriter Guillaume Laurant, brilliant cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, editor Herve Schneid, and production designer Aline Bonetto (same group as with Amelie). Composer Angelo Badalamenti scored the film; he also worked with Jeunet on The City of Lost Children. Tautou stars as Mathilde, and Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Ticky Holgado, Marion Cotillard, Jodie Foster, Tcheky Karyo, and many more make up a fantastic supporting cast. A Very Long Engagement has a lot of the same quirkiness and great offbeat scenes as Amelie, but also has an epic scale to it with WWI’s war of attrition shown in graphic detail. Tautou is wonderful in the film, playing Mathilde as being outwardly strong but inwardly scared though resolute and hopeful. She is not ever going to give up until she knows the truth. It has some of the most beautiful cinematography, as well, from the last decade. It is a must for fans of grand romances and war films. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Audrey Hepburn – Hollywood Legends – March 2012

Audrey Hepburn is best known as being one of the iconic ‘it girls’ of the 1950s and 1960s in American cinema, bringing her own unique and cool style. Over that course of her career she worked with brilliant directors (William Wyler, Billy Wilder, King Vidor, Stanley Donen, Fred Zinnemann, Blake Edwards, George Cukor, Terence Young, and Steven Spielberg) and opposite wonderful leading men (Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, and  Sean Connery). Hepburn is one of the most loved and well-regarded film stars in cinema’s history, beloved for her work in film and as a humanitarian.

Early Career:

As a young girl in Holland during WWII, Hepburn studied to be a ballerina at the Arnhem Conservatory from 1939 to 1945. She secretly gave performances to raise money for the Dutch resistance (I have also read that she worked for the underground transporting messages). She even changed her name (to Edda van Heemstra), as her own sounded too English. Like many in Holland, Hepburn struggled throughout the war leaving a lasting impression on her (and is the reason she became devoted to the international humanitarian organization UNICEF). At the end of the war, she was considered to be a good ballerina and continued her studies with Sonia Gaskell, a leading figure in the Dutch Ballet. In 1948, she traveled to London to study ballet and also supported herself as a model. However, her teacher in London, Marie Rambert, assessed that she would never be a prima ballerina, due to her poor nutrition during the war and her relatively tall height. Thus, Hepburn decided to pursue acting. Being that she could dance, Hepburn found work in London’s musical theatre (starring in High Button Shoes, Sauce Tartare and Sauce Piquante from 1948 to 1950). However, a setback was that voice was not strong and needed to be developed. So, she took elocution lessons, and was spotted by a scout for Paramount Pictures leading to minor roles in a few British films, chief among them The Lavender Hill Mob with Alec Guinness. Her name started to garner a lot of heat as she took roles in The Secret People and the title character in Gigi on Broadway.

Roman Holiday and Newfound Stardom:

Famed auteur director William Wyler (who had become one of the best directors in Hollywood with excellent work in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s) wanted to make a film in Italy’s capital Rome. At the time, location shooting was very rare. However, for the story of a European princess who runs away from her royal family and responsibility to bask in the freedom of everyday life, Wyler demanded it be shot on location (and it was, but at a much lower budget). That film is 1953’s Roman Holiday. Paramount Pictures also originally wanted Elizabeth Taylor to star opposite Gregory Peck, but Wyler had auditioned Hepburn (who was still a no-name at the time) and absolutely loved her for the role. She is so good in the film that Peck even demanded that her name be with his above the title (“You’ve got to change that because she’ll be a big star and I’ll look like a big jerk”). Hepburn received her first Oscar nomination and win for the role (her first leading screen role), as well as a BAFTA and Golden Globe. Paramount promptly signed her to a seven year deal. Her next picture was with another auteur Billy Wilder, co-starring with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in Sabrina (a Cinderella-like story). She was again nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars and BAFTAs, but she lost in both cases. She also collaborated with Hubert de Givenchy on the film, looking through his latest collection and forming a life-long partnership and friendship. She knew exactly how she wanted to look and had an inherent style. She was de Givenchy’s muse and her style became world renowned. In 1954, Hepburn returned to Broadway to star in Ondine, for which she won a Tony Award (she is one of 12 people to have an EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). She was quickly becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, starring in a number of box office hits. In 1956, she starred in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace directed by legendary silent filmmaker King Vidor. Then she showed off her dancing abilities in Funny Face with Fred Astaire, followed by the Billy Wilder romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon co-starring Gary Cooper. Hepburn next took on a weighty drama to close out the 1950s with The Nun’s Story. She received her third Oscar nomination and won her second BAFTA, giving arguably her most demanding and finest performance.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Becoming an Icon:

Hepburn took a short break, giving birth to her first child Sean, but then was right back to work with 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Directed by Blake Edwards (one of the great comedy directors), the film was nothing like how author of the source material Truman Capote imagined it should be, with Hepburn grossly miscast as he had envisioned a Marilyn Monroe type. Hepburn herself felt she was miscast as well, not having the overt sexuality of the novella’s Holy Golightly. Despite that, however, she was nominated for her fourth Oscar and her performance is one of the most iconic in cinema history. For her next film, she reteamed with William Wyler for the socially liberal (in a very illiberal time) The Children’s Hour, starring opposite James Garner and Shirley MacLaine. It is one of the first Hollywood films to look at the subject of lesbianism and features a very good performance by Hepburn. Though, due to the subject matter, it went almost completely unnoticed commercially and critically. Cary Grant was set to star opposite Hepburn in both Roman Holiday and Sabrina, but mindful of their age difference (25 years) he had passed on both projects. By 1963, Grant had all but retired from playing a leading man, however the comedic thriller Charade directed by Stanley Donen was too good a film to pass up. To make Grant (59) more comfortable romancing Hepburn (34) in the film, the script was changed to have Hepburn romantically pursue Grant. The two stars enjoyed working together, with Grant saying, “All I want for Christmas is another picture with Audrey Hepburn.” Her next big film came with a lot of controversy. For George Cukor’s My Fair Lady, studio head Jack Warner favored a bigger and more bankable star for the film over Julie Andrews who had originated the role in the musical stage show. Specifically, he wanted Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor. Hepburn initially passed favoring Andrews be cast, but eventually she took the role. Hepburn, a non-singer, had done her own singing in Funny Face, but was dubbed by Marni Nixon for almost 90% of her singing in My Fair Lady. When first informed that Warner planned to dub her, she walked out on the production, later saying she would have never taken the role if she knew she would be dubbed. She returned and lip synced to recorded tracks during filming, while co-star Rex Harrison recorded his own voice live. The media even created a false rivalry between Andrews and Hepburn, especially when Hepburn was not nominated for an Oscar and Andrews won Best Actress for Mary Poppins in 1965 (but in reality they were friends). After the fact, critics have hailed Hepburn’s performance as being wonderful, and Harrison named her has his favorite co-star. Next Hepburn made another film with Wyler, How to Steal a Million co-starring Peter O’Toole (a personal favorite of mine), and another film with Stanley Donen, Two for the Road co-starring Albery Finney. Her last film before retirement was the thriller Wait Until Dark, in which she plays a blind woman who is terrorized by thugs lead by Alan Arkin who believe she has something they desperately want in her apartment. It was directed by Terence Young (known for his work earlier in the decade on the James Bond films Dr. No and From Russia with Love). Hepburn received her fifth and final Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. An interesting side note: during WWII Hepburn, 16-years old, was a volunteer nurse in Holland. During the battle of Arnhem, as part of Operation Market Garden, the hospital she was stationed at received many wounded Allied soldiers. One of such soldiers was future director Terence Young, a paratrooper she helped nurse back to health.

Final Projects:

After almost a ten year absence from cinema screens, Hepburn returned in the period drama Robin and Marian, co-starring with Sean Connery. Richard Lester’s film looked at the later life of English folk hero Robin Hood. She then took on two films that were both poorly received: working again with Terence Young in Bloodline and then starring in Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed, which would be her last starring role. Taking another almost ten-year break from films (though she had a role in the TV movie Love Among Thieves), Hepburn took a small supporting role, the last of her career, in Steven Spielberg’s Always.

Audrey Hepburn’s Career Highlights:

1)      Roman Holiday (1953)* – leading (DVD, Streaming)
2)      Sabrina (1954) – leading (DVD, Streaming)
3)      Funny Face (1957) – leading (DVD, Streaming)
4)      Love in the Afternoon (1957) – leading (DVD, Streaming)
5)      The Nun’s Story (1959)* – leading (DVD, Streaming)
6)      Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – leading (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
7)      The Children’s Hour (1961) – leading (DVD, Streaming)
8)      Charade (1963)* – leading (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
9)      My Fair Lady (1964) – leading (Blu-ray, DVD)
10)   How to Steal a Million (1966)* – leading (DVD, Streaming)
11)   Two for the Road (1967) – leading (DVD, Streaming)
12)   Wait Until Dark (1967)* – leading (DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Coriolanus (2012) – Review

Review: Coriolanus is gritty, emotionally striking and relevant (both in the contemptuous interplay between the people and the government and the war-torn landscapes of the Volscian territories resembling current hostile zones across the world, but reminded me specifically of Bosnia). Based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, the film is about a Roman general Caius Martius, who is positioned to become Consul of Rome but is betrayed and exiled by the people after tribunes Brutus and Sicinius insight the people against him, preying on his less than personable demeanor and pride. Martius then travels to the Volscian capital Antium to seek out his greatest rival Aufidius to join forces and inflict revenge on those that banished him. Orson Welles is often thought of as cinema’s great Hollywood director of Shakespeare (though, his stage productions are generally thought to be far superior), but in modern cinema Kenneth Branagh has directed probably the best adaptations (staying mostly true to the words) with his Henry V (my favorite), Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet (and I also like the work of Trevor Nunn; his Twelfth Night is among my favorites as well). First time director and exalted actor Ralph Fiennes (who has played the character as well on the stage) takes a very interesting approach to the material – both staying true to the words and world of Shakespeare’s play and making the setting feel fresh and relevant to today’s world (socio-politically). It reminds me a lot of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (though, his is set against WWII). Fiennes’s film feels like the recent slew of gritty Iraq War narratives (like Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and HBO’s Generation Kill, at least the war scenes, while the scenes within Rome very much reminded me of the short-lived but brilliant series Kings), which immediately gives the audience a through-line to connect and understand the world of the narrative. The social and political unrest resonates, even if the language of Shakespeare is not always accessible to all viewers. The aesthetic Fiennes uses also informs the emotional journey both of the characters and the audience. Being an actor and having a love of the material, Fiennes uses the camera often in close quarters to the actors creating an intense and emotionally volatile (and somewhat draining) tone. He wants each viewer to feel the pain that Martius feels. And for the most part, this is very successful. However, the film suffers a bit from a few issues. Most prominently and directly at the expense of Fiennes’s style for the narrative is there is no room for the audience to breath, no light material, no levity, just very intense and taxing emotional turmoil coupled with pacing that drags a bit (especially in the second half), which disengages a worn-out audience by the third act. Also, Fiennes has a bit of an issue with scale (and this is most likely due to budget constraints). His battle scenes, while feeling personal to the characters, do not seem to be part of a bigger battle or war. They are too personal in a way. There is not a sense that there is anything going on outside Martius’s platoon, but this is not the case based on the toll on the landscapes, the audience just never sees anything else happening in the battle outside of Martius. The scale of what Fiennes shows is just too small, and in turn makes the scenes feel awkward. This, however, is a minor issue in comparison to the slow pacing and lack of emotional downtime. Coriolanus is among the best modern adaptations of Shakespeare, and Fiennes is very ambitious with his vision. However, it is not quite the great film that it teases to be.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ralph Fiennes will continue directing with his next project The Invisible Woman in 2013. He certainly has the skill and eye for telling very compelling visual stories; he just needs to master structure and pacing (which is by far the most challenging aspect of filmmaking). I look forward to his future directorial work. Ilan Eshkeri’s score for the film is very good (here is a sample), as it perfectly fits the tone and visual style Fiennes has created. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and production designer Ricky Eyres get the look for Fiennes’s world of the film perfectly. The juxtaposition of Rome and the crumbling trashy ghettos outside of its realm is just right, matching the emotional journey of the characters. Performance wise, this film has some very strong work. James Nesbitt is great as a meddling cowardly tribune (I just wanted him to get his comeuppance so much). Jessica Chastain works well as she plays Virgilia (Martius’s wife) as seemingly the polar opposite to Martius, so quiet and fragile (yet it is her moment of strength that contributes to his demise). Gerard Butler physically and visually worked as Martius’s most hated enemy, but his performance very forgettable. Lubna Azabal playing the First Citizen is full of hate and vengeful rage (as if she had created a full backstory to why she hated Martius so much outside of what the audience is shown). Brian Cox is good, and he tries to bring some levity to the film playing his character a bit light. His performance works but the overhanging tone engulfs him, which makes sense given his character’s fate. Vanessa Redgrave is fantastic as Volumnia (Martius's mother). She is brutal and controlling, and key to Martius's character. Fiennes playing Martius seems to put his whole soul into the performance, literally feeling the anguish, betrayal, distain, and hate. It is brilliant work.

Summary & score: The performances in Coriolanus are excellent. The aesthetics and style of the adaptation are excellent. But, the narrative structure is not nearly as tight as it needed to be. 7/10

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

John Carter (2012) – Review

Review: John Carter is a grand sci-fi epic, blustering with expansive action set pieces and brilliant visual effects. Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s story A Princess of Mars, which influenced most of the great sci-fi adventures we all love (like Star Wars), it is about a Civil War veteran John Carter who lost everything during the war. He goes on an expedition to Arizona to find a cave of gold, so that he can be wealthy and thus subject to no man. While out in the desert, he finds the cave, but it is not what it appears to be and he is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is taken as a slave by an indigenous race. To escape and get back to Earth, he must once again become the hero he was in the war and aid a princess of Mars whose land is being ravished by its rivals. Writer-director Andrew Stanton approaches the film with a definite sense of scale, as every shot on Mars is panoramic. Vast landscapes, towering cities and beautifully shot aerial battles play host to most of the film’s backdrop. Stanton does a great job with the action, which is for the most part very engaging and does not feel tired (which is the case with a lot of action set pieces, as they just feel and look like they are doing what others films already have done). The narrative also is kept moving, which for an epic is quiet important (epically one targeted at families). An issue however rises in regards to the characters. John Carter is likable and does serve as a good protagonist, but it takes the narrative awhile to really establish this – plus the performance given for the role is gruff and uninviting. Stanton does use levity in the place of true connection however, which works well until the audience is ready to accept Carter. The other characters are not as developed (as I would have liked), but are given enough moments for the audience to recognize what motivates them (and connect with them). Sola, Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris – all of which are Carter’s closest companions and who the narrative focuses on – work character wise, but the film’s main villains Matai Shang, Tal Hajus and Sab Than are all fairly shallow and poorly developed. The audience is told they are the villains, and thus are accepted as such but their motivations beyond periphery characteristics (and genre stereotypes) are not established near enough. Thus, Carter’s trials are not as fulfilling and his battles against these villains are not as satisfying as they otherwise could be, and this is the primary flaw of the film (but a minor one at that). Stanton has instead structured the narrative as a man being reborn, with a subplot of romance, and thus it seems as his personal struggle against any one villain is secondary (which is why the villains are not as developed, plus the runtime is only 132 minutes, which is not long for an epic). The film is about how John Carter becomes John Carter of Mars (the hero of Mars), and to do this he must first come to terms with himself and his past. Visually, Stanton gets everything right and the film is impressive to behold, but there could have been a few more character moments. And, it is a shame that Disney had no idea how to market it, and thereby sunk the film’s opening weekend (and probably the chances of a sequel), as John Carter is a great sci-fi epic that is funny and filled with well-done action and adventure.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Andrew Stanton continues to do great work with John Carter (coming off Finding Nemo and WALL-E), and is the second Pixar alum to make the jump to live-action with success (following Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol). I do hope Disney moves forward with Stanton writing and directing the sequel John Carter: The Gods of Mars, as it feels like he has a lot more to say with these characters. Michael Giacchino’s (one of my favorite film composers) score works well with the visuals, reinforcing the dramatic points (and sounding a lot like a John Williams’s score for a Steven Spielberg film – here is a sample). Daniel Mindel’s cinematography is top notch as he perfectly captures both the sci-fi and western aspect and visual cues of the narrative. And, Nathan Crowley’s production design really brings Mars to life. His sets/designs for the three main cities we are shown on Mars are all fantastic giving a sense to what each people is all about. The cast is good overall (some given more than others). On a personal note, it was great to see Rome veterans Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy together again (I loved their stuff as Mark Antony and Caesar on Rome). Mark Strong (to all our great surprise) and Dominic West play two of the main villains, but neither is really given much, especially West (who is given practically nothing and plays a shell). Bryan Cranston is good in a small role, and is part of one of best and funniest scenes in the film. Samantha Morton and Willem Dafoe do great voice work playing bigger character roles, with Dafoe stealing most of his scenes (he gives my favorite performance of the film). Lynn Collins is good in the film, but I think it is her eyes (I am guessing she wore blue contacts) that really capture your attention and pull you in, which works well as she plays the princess. Taylor Kitsch in his first big Hollywood role plays Carter a bit like his character on Friday Night Lights (Tim Riggins) – gruff, seemingly disassociated but with a big heart, and it works.

Summary & score: John Carter works well because it both meets and surpasses the sci-fi epic expectations and has good (not great) characters and performances. 7/10

Monday, March 12, 2012

Movie of the Week – The Princess Bride

This week’s movie is The Princess Bride (1987).

The adventure romance is about the truelove between a farm boy (Wesley) and Buttercup (a beautiful young girl). When Wesley goes off to make enough money to marry Buttercup, she finds out that he was murdered by the Dread Pirate Roberts and vows to never love again. Years pass and Buttercup is taken by the prince of the land to marry (though she does not love him), but it stolen by three mercenaries plotting to start a war between neighboring countries. Yet, a mysterious man follows them. The Princess Bride is one of my adored childhood favorites, and one of the few that holds up just as well today (it is still among my all-time favorite films). Director Rob Reiner had a number of classics between 1984-1992 (chiefly This Is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, When Harry Met Sally…, and Misery), however this is his masterpiece. The script is brilliant with some of my favorite dialog in cinema history – funny and witty. Master scriptwriter William Goldman (known for: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men and many others) may have also down his finest work with this film. The film has a great score by rocker Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits), beautiful cinematographer from Adrian Biddle and perfect production design from Norman Garwood. The cast is also fantastic. It stars Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, with Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, Carol Kane, and Billy Crystal in support. The Princess Bride is endlessly quotable, features tons of brilliant scenes and is one of the most beloved films of the 1980s. It is a must-see. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chiddy Bang – Breakfast (2012) – Review

Chiddy Bang – Breakfast
Breakfast serves as Chiddy Bang’s first commercial LP, but they have put out three mixtapes and an EP. Chiddy Bang in general and on this album provides fun-loving poppy hip hop that is easy to listen to and has an electronic sound as well. Personally, my favorite of their releases is Air Swell (their second mixtape), but Breakfast comes off as a well-polished and easily consumable release. The two singles, Mind Your Manners and Ray Charles are both good tracks (but not great) and should garner new fans. Lyrically, Nigerian MC Chiddy has great wordplay but there is not too much depth (not that this type of music dictates it) – his lyrics are fun, much like the style of the group as a whole. Chiddy also has a great flow to his delivery. Producer Xaphoon Jones (the other half of the duo) has developed his sound and tries new things on this album, while still maintaining what make them pop originally with the song Opposite of Adults. He is one of the best young producers in hip hop. Chiddy Bang is not quite on the level of the top acts in hip hop, but they certainly have the potential. Breakfast is a good first album that is fun to listen to, and well worth checking out for fans of pop/alternative and electric influenced hip hop. 3/5

Editor’s Essential Tracks:
1)      Mind Your Manners – Produced by Xaphoon Jones, featuring Icona Pop
2)      Breakfast – Produced by Xaphoon Jones
3)      Out 2 Space – Produced by Xaphoon Jones, featuring Gordon Voidwell and Ellie Goulding
Available on CD and Digital Download

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

WZRD – WZRD (2012) – Review

Kid Cudi and Dot da Genius (the duo behind Cudi’s first big hit Day ‘N’ Night) form the experimental rock/pop group WZRD. While personally I enjoy Kid Cudi’s hip hop albums more, WZRD features some great tracks, some good ones and a couple that do not work that well. After Nirvana’s brilliant cover of Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, I thought no one would ever take a shot at that song again. Cudi shows no fear (as a Nirvana fan himself) with his cover. It is straight-forward and decent, but really does not add much to the song. The sound of the album may be different and new for Cudi and his fans, but really it is nothing new to what I call post-rock (stuff like art rock/pop and the more indie sound and chill wave music of the last few years – a less upbeat Sleigh Bells might be a good comparable to this album). The production is done entirely by Cudi and Dot da Genius, but feels maybe too simple and not polished enough in some places, while in others it is quite good. There is certainly a lot of potential for this project should Cudi and Dot da Genius make another album. Fans of art-pop, chill wave and indie rock will probably find things they like with WZRD and Cudi’s hip hop fans will too. It is a good album overall, but still feels in its infancy of its potential. 3/5

Editor’s Essential Tracks:
1)      Teleport 2 Me, Jamie – Produced by Kid Cudi and Dot da Genius, featuring Desire
2)      Efflictim – Produced by Kid Cudi and Dot da Genius
3)      The Dream Time Machine – Produced by Kid Cudi and Dot da Genius, featuring Empire of the Sun

Available on CD and Digital Download