Monday, April 30, 2012

Movie of the Week – The Return of the Pink Panther

This week’s movie is The Return of the Pink Panther (1975).

The comedy is the third in the Pink Panther series following Inspector Clouseau as he tracks down Sir Charles Litton who suspects is the culprit after the famous Pink Panther Diamond is stolen. The film is directed and co-written by Blake Edwards and stars Peter Sellers as Clouseau. Both Sellers and Edwards were considered to be on the decline when production started on the film, thus United Artists (who owned the rights to the characters) did not want to fund another film. Edwards found independent financing and United Artists served only as the distributor. The film went on to be a hit and served as comeback project for both their careers. Edwards worked with composer Henry Mancini (who provides a great score; here is a potion during the title sequence), brilliant cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Bridge Too Far and Superman) and production designer Peter Mullins. The film co-stars Christopher Plummer and features Catherine Schell, Herbert Lom, Peter Arne, Graham Stark, Eric Pohlmann, and Burt Kwouk in support. While in the first two films of the series Sellers plays Clouseau to be a clumsy buffoon, starting with this one he exaggerates Clouseau’s accent, makes him somewhat of a force of chaos seemingly destroying anything he touches (to an even greater degree), but he also makes Clouseau more adept and self-aware. It is one of the greatest and funniest comedic performances. The film is full of running gags (that continue into the next two films of the series), slapstick, absurdist humor, pratfalls, and all manner of wonderful comedy. Plus, it is actually a good detective film. I think it is the second funniest (after The Pink Panther Strikes Again) in the series. It is a must-see for fans of Sellers (as he is at his best). Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock – Hollywood Legend – April 2012

Alfred Hitchcock may be Hollywood’s greatest director. His career spans five decades with four films on AFI’s top 100 American films of all-time list (only Steven Spielberg has more with five) and nine films on IMDB’s top 250 user-rated films of all-time (no director has more, Stanley Kubrick is second with eight). Known as ‘The Mast of Suspense’, Hitchcock used many common themes and narrative devices in his films, among them: suspense (the obvious one), a voyeuristic approach to way his films are shot, the use of a MacGuffin, an ordinary person put into extraordinary circumstances, mistaken identity (the wrong man/woman), the charming sociopath (a criminal the viewer likes), staircases, trains, an antagonist with a dark secret that also effects the protagonist as they share in the secret or guilt, domineering mothers, falling from high places, famous landmarks, the idea of the perfect murder, and violence in a theatre (and more). Hitchcock also liked to make a cameo appearance in all his films (sort of like a Where’s Waldo type thing for viewers). Amazingly, during his career he never won an Oscar for Best Director (instead receiving an honorary Oscar in 1968), though he was nominated five times. Plus, he only had one film win Best Picture. Hitchcock is not only one of the most iconic directors, but his films (for the most part) also hold up over time, and seem to get better (for example, Vertigo was not well received upon its release but is now considered his masterpiece and among the greatest American films).

Early Career, 1930s:

Hitchcock got his start in 1920 working as a title designer for silent films at Islington Studios. It would take him five years to make the jump to director. In 1924, he went to Germany working with director Graham Cutts on the film Die Prinzessin und der Geiger. While in Germany, he became very influenced by the work of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang (specifically their films The Last Laugh and Destiny, respectively). Hitchcock’s first directing projects were marred with problems. However, in 1925 Gainsborough Pictures and Michael Balcon gave him another chance. He made The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, but neither was a commercial success. Hitchcock’s luck changed in 1926 when he made his first thriller The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. It was a major commercial and critical hit in the U.K. Many regard it as the first ‘Hitchcockian’ film. His next landmark film came with 1929’s Blackmail. During production, British International Pictures decided to convert it to a sound picture (a talkie). It is often considered to be the first British sound film. In 1933, Hitchcock worked again with Balcon, making films for Gaumont-British Pictures. The first was The Man Who Knew Too Much, which was a success. The second was The 39 Steps, which both considered to be the best of Hitchcock’s early period and the film to introduce the MacGuffin plot device (basically, a MacGuffin is something in which the whole story seems to revolve around, but really has nothing to do with the meaning or outcome of the film). His next big success was The Lady Vanishes (which, along with The 39 Steps, is among BFI’s Top 100 British Films of all-time). During this period, Hitchcock worked with writer Charles Bennett helping him craft his storytelling style and themes. The success of these three films and Hitchcock’s ascendancy to the top of British cinema led to Hollywood’s most successful producer David O. Selznick signing him to a seven-year contract in 1939, effectively bringing Hitchcock to Hollywood (among his early career films, I highly recommend The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes as must-sees).

Coming to Hollywood, 1940s:

Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood was a rocky one. While he enjoyed the plentiful resources the American studios offered, he felt much more comfortable in England – many of his early American films were shot in England – and his relationship with Selznick was strained over how much creative control Selznick wanted to have on his projects. However, Hitchcock, a meticulous planner in preproduction, would craft his films shot-by-shot ahead of time, and then would only shoot exactly the shots he needed. Thus, his films could only be edited together in one way, which gave Hitchcock final cut over the creative process (which drove Selznick crazy). Their first film together was Rebecca. It won the 1941 Oscar for Best Picture and starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock worked with cinematographer George Barnes on the film, creating one of the best shot black and white films of all-time. The photography is magnificent (Barnes also winning an Oscar for the film). Along with John Ford’s Stagecoach, Rebecca was one of the films that Orson Welles studied intensely before directing Citizen Kane (introductions of Mandalay and Xanadu are very similar in each film). With war breaking out in Europe, Hitchcock felt uneasy working in Hollywood while England was engaged in a life-or-death struggle. For his second American film, Foreign Correspondent, he made a spy thriller that would sympathize with the plight of the English and garner support from Americans for the British war effort (though, the Production Code would not allow him to directly reference Germany or Germans – the most effective of these ‘propaganda’ films was William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, which Winston Churchill said ‘had done more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers’). In 1941, Hitchcock made his first film as both a producer and director with Suspicion (his second film with Fontaine, who won an Oscar for Best Actress, and first with frequent collaborator Cary Grant). While the film works well as a thriller, it also has a great sense of humor and is very funny in many places (it is my second favorite Hitchcock film after Rebecca). Hitchcock would then make a two picture deal with Universal. The first was Saboteur. Most Hollywood films at the time were shot on studio back lots, but Hitchcock did extensive location shooting in New York for the film, incorporating the Statue of Liberty. His second for Universal was Shadow of a Doubt with Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton, which is considered to be his first true American film (and his personal favorite), with extensive location filming in the small town of Santa Rosa in Northern California. Next, for 20th Century Fox, Hitchcock adapted a script that John Steinbeck had written about survivors of a German U-boat attack. Lifeboat is an extraordinary piece of directing, as the whole film takes place on a small lifeboat and yet is thrilling and engaging throughout. After taking a break in England, and working as an advisor to the British Army while they were producing a documentary on the Holocaust, Hitchcock worked again with Selznick on 1945’s Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. The film explores psychoanalysis and is best remembered for its dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali (the film also features wonderful cinematography from George Barnes and an Academy Award winning score from Miklos Rozsa). Selznick was set to produce Hitchcock’s next film, Notorious, as well but due to financial troubles on his film Duel in the Sun, he sold the package of Hitchcock, stars Bergman and Grant and the script to RKO. The film went on to be a huge box office hit and one of Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed films. Hitchcock consulted with Dr. Robert Millikan of Caltech about the development of an atomic bomb as uranium would play a role in the narrative. Selznick thought that the idea was science fiction and did not like it. However, he was left with his foot in his mouth after Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. The FBI even had Hitchcock under surveillance briefly after his use of uranium in the film. His last film for Selznick was The Paradine Case with Gregory Peck, a courtroom drama that was not too well received. Next, Hitchcock made his first color film – 1948’s Rope with James Stewart (along with Grant, the only star to appear in four Hitchcock films). Like Lifeboat, Hitchcock wanted to experiment with suspense in a confined space, as the whole film essentially takes place in one small apartment (and more than that, Hitchcock shot it to appear as if the whole film is one long take). The 1940’s established Hitchcock as one of Hollywood’s premier directors both with box office success and critical acclaim (I highly recommend Rebecca, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Notorious as must-sees).

The Master of Suspense, 1950s:

The 1950’s are considered to be Hitchcock’s peak years. His first classic film of the decade came with 1951’s Strangers on a Train, which combines many of the elements of Hitchcock’s earlier work – specifically two people talking about the perfect murder (crisscross!). The film also marks the initial collaboration between cinematographer Robert Burks and Hitchcock. Burks would shoot many of Hitchcock’s greatest films (twelve in all, and most of them in the 1950s). Hitchcock’s next three films would star Grace Kelly. Hitchcock noticed Kelly after she did a screen test for MGM in 1950 and cast her in his film Dial M for Murder. During filming, the two formed a special bond, and he became a mentor of sort for Kelly, who was relatively new to Hollywood. The film was also the first Hitchcock film to feature 3D photography (only in one scene), but the public had grown tired of 3D by 1954 and it was rarely screened with the 3D effect intact. It also featured Hitchcock’s return to Technicolor productions (which would be a keystone of most of his work in the 1950s and 1960s). Hitchcock then took a deal returning to Paramount Pictures. His first film under his new deal was Rear Window with Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. Hitchcock again explores suspense in an enclosed space, as Stewart’s character is confined to a wheelchair and the whole film is shot in one room and only from Stewart’s perspective. The film also has a very voyeuristic element to it, as Stewart literally spends his days spying on his neighbors. This was the first Hitchcock film (and first Grace Kelly film – who is stunningly beautiful and elegant in it) I saw, and it blew me away (and I had loved movies all my life). I immediately went out and rented or bought every Hitchcock film I could and he has been my favorite director ever since (saw it in 1999, my freshman year of college, on Turner Classic Movies). His final film with Kelly was 1955’s To Catch a Thief, which also stared Cary Grant (who would later say that Kelly was his favorite co-star). The film is one of Hitchcock’s lighter stories, with great witty dialogue and chemistry between its stars. Cinematographer Burks also won an Oscar for his photography of the French Riviera. He also made The Trouble with Harry in 1955, about a dead body that turns up outside a small town. While it may not be among Hitchcock’s canonized masterpieces, it is among my favorites and features beautiful cinematography specific to the changing colors of Fall in New England (it was filmed in Vermont). It is also the first collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann, who created many of Hitchcock’s most iconic scores (they worked together nine times, and he also scored a few episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). Hitchcock then remade one of his own early films in 1956 with The Man Who Knew Too Much. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day (who sang the song Que Sera, Sera for the film). It has a magnificent score, and the ending sequence at Albert Hall is among my favorites (in which composer Herrmann makes a cameo conducting the orchestra). For his next film, The Wrong Man, Hitchcock returned to the theme of mistaken identity, this time with Henry Fonda starring in a film-noir style story based on a real case from 1953. Hitchcock’s next film was 1958’s Vertigo, starring Stewart and Kim Novak. Much to the surprise of modern film fans, when the film came out it was met both with negative reviews and poor box office numbers (despite being considered a masterpiece today). It was the last time Stewart would work with Hitchcock. Honestly, watching it now, it is hard to imagine what critics then thought was so wrong with it. The story is interesting, the acting is good and aesthetically speaking it is phenomenal, revolutionizing many techniques that are popular today (like zooming in while pulling the camera back). Hitchcock’s last film of the 1950s was North by Northwest. It stars Cary Grant in yet another mistaken identity narrative (some even think it is a loose remake of The 39 Steps); it co-stars Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. It was Grant’s final film with Hitchcock (one of the last of his career as well – Hitchcock called Grant, ‘the only actor I ever loved in my whole life’), and maybe his best remembered. Featuring many of Hitchcock’s most memorable sequences, the film was a hit for the director. His films of the decade and TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents not only made Hitchcock a critically acclaimed director, but also made him a star in his own right, being one of the most recognizable personalities in Hollywood (especially among non-actors – for his films from the 1950s I highly recommend Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, and North by Northwest).

A Great Career Coming to an End, 1960s:

Hitchcock began the 1960s with two of his most memorable films of his career. 1960’s Psycho is probably his most famous film, due to its critical acclaim, iconic score and memorable villain. He made the film for almost no money. It had a tiny budget, leading to the film being shot in black and white, Hitchcock using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew and on a spare set at Revue Studios (where the TV show was shot), after Paramount had twice refused to fund the film (it was the final film of his contract with Paramount and they wanted him to do a different film – originally he was to make No Bail for the Judge with Audrey Hepburn, but she became pregnant and the film was scrapped). Hitchcock financed the film himself, making a deal for Paramount to distribute by taking a big directing fee and 60% of the profits. The film also had more violence and sexuality than any of Hitchcock’s previous work (due to the erosion of the production code), and seemed much more graphic. Psycho set the tone for his work for the rest of his career. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins star, but Hitchcock did all the publicity himself, for fear of plot details being leaked. His next film was the first of two with Tippi Hedren starring. The Birds, a story about birds attacking people, features hundreds of shots featuring actual birds and animated sequences. It is his 49th film, and widely considered his last classic. After his troubles with Paramount, Hitchcock moved to Universal. His second film with Hedren and first for Universal was Marnie (which also stars Sean Connery). While critics are mixed, many consider it among Hitchcock’s great films. Marnie is one of the first three Hitchcock films I saw (along with Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry), and thus it holds a special place for me (as I was discovering this wonderful director). Plus growing up with Connery’s Bond films, I had an almost instinctual love of the film (as it was made the same year as Goldfinger). Due to failing health, his output declined substantially. His next film came in 1966 with the Cold War spy thriller Torn Curtain. He initially wanted Cary Grant to star, but Grant had just retired with the birth of his daughter. So, Hitchcock cast Paul Newman (who was right in the middle of his career peak) to star alongside Julie Andrews (a budding star at the time, coming off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music). Newman, coming for a different generation of actors than Grant and Stewart, did not get along with Hitchcock. He was a method actor, constantly asking what his motivation should be and complaining about the script. Also, the chemistry between Newman and Andrews was never really there. Thus, the film is considered to be a failure compared to Hitchcock’s earlier output. Though in the minority, I still like the film, and find many of the sequences to be fantastic (especially the scene in which Newman’s character goes out to an isolated farm to meet his contact). His final film of the 1960’s, Topaz, is another Cold War spy thriller that is not very good at all. The 1960’s saw Hitchcock make two of his most famous films, and a decline in his work towards the end of the decade (form this decade I highly recommend Psycho).

Last Two Films, 1970s:

Hitchcock only made two films during the 1970s. In 1972, he returned to London to make Frenzy (which some call a loose remake of The Lodger). The film again focused on the theme of ‘the wrong man’, as Jon Finch plays a man mistakenly arrested as London’s Necktie Murderer. Hitchcock had always pushed the boundaries of censorship during the Production Code era, but with Frenzy he produces a film that is graphically violent and features nudity and profanity (both taboo previously). It is not universally called a masterpiece or considered among Hitchcock’s best films, but in recent years it is beginning to find its place among his canonized work. Personally, I think it is among his five best films and expertly directed. Here is a director, making his 53rd film in his fifth decade of his career, and he makes a film that better utilizes the style of 1970’s auteur filmmaking than most of the other great directors of the decade. I think it is one of the ten best films of the 1970s. Hitchcock’s last film came in 1976 with Family Plot, a sort of theist/con-artist thriller. It is decent, but not nearly as good as most of his work. He did begin work on another film, only getting into the scripting phase before abandoning it due to poor health (I highly recommend Frenzy).

Alfred Hitchcock Career Highlights:

1)      The 39 Steps (1935) – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
2)      The Lady Vanishes (1938) – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
3)      Rebecca (1940)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
4)      Suspicion (1941) – director (DVD, Streaming)
5)      Saboteur (1942) – director (DVD, Streaming)
6)      Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – director (DVD, Streaming)
7)      Lifeboat (1944) – director (DVD, Streaming)
8)      Foreign Correspondent (1945) – director (DVD)
9)      Spellbound (1945) – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
10)   Notorious (1946)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
11)   Rope (1948) – director (DVD, Streaming)
12)   Strangers on a Train (1951) – director (DVD, Streaming)
13)   Dial M for Murder (1954) – director (DVD, Streaming)
14)   Rear Window (1954)* – director (DVD, Streaming)
15)   To Catch a Thief (1955) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
16)   The Trouble with Harry (1955) – director (DVD, Streaming)
17)   The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – director (DVD, Streaming)
18)   The Wrong Man (1956) – director (DVD, Streaming)
19)   Vertigo (1958)* – director (DVD, Streaming)
20)   North by Northwest (1959) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
21)   Psycho (1960) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
22)   The Birds (1963) – director (DVD, Streaming)
23)   Marnie (1964) – director (DVD, Streaming)
24)   Torn Curtain (1966) – director (DVD, Streaming)
25)   Frenzy (1972)* – director (DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Essential Songs of 2012: Part 1 – Music Spotlight – April 2012

Artist: Chairlift Song: Amanaemonesia Producer(s): Dan Carey and Alan Moulder Featuring: N/A Album: Something

Artist: fun. Song: We Are Young Producer: Jeff Bhasker Featuring: Janelle Monae Album: Some Nights

Artist: Gotye Song: Somebody That I Use to Know Producer: Wally De Backer Featuring: Kimbra Album: Making Mirrors

Artist: Kanye West Song: Way Too Cold Producer: Hit-Boy Featuring: DJ Khaled & DJ Pharris Album: N/A

Artist: Kanye West, Big Sean & Pusha T Song: Mercy Producer: Lifted Featuring: 2 Chainz Album: GOOD Music

Artist: Regina Spektor Song: All the Rowboats Producer: Mike Elizondo and Regina Spektor Featuring: N/A Album: What We Saw from the Cheap Seats

Artist: Rick Ross Song: Yella Diamonds Producer: Beat Billionaire Featuring: N/A Album: Rich Forever Mixtape

Artist: ScHoolboy Q Song: Hands on the Wheel Producer: Best Kept Secret Featuring: A$AP Rocky Album: Habits & Contradictions

Artist: Sleigh Bells Song: Comeback Kid Producer: Derek Miller Featuring: N/A Album: Reign of Terror

Artist: Taylor Swift Song: Safe & Sound Producer: T-Bone Burnett Featuring: The Civil Wars Album: The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond

Monday, April 23, 2012

Movie of the Week – Das Boot

This week’s movie is Das Boot (1981).

The WWII drama is about a German U-boat and its crew during the battle for control of the Atlantic. It is written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen (who went on to make some successful action and fantasy films in Hollywood like The NeverEnding Story, In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, and Troy). Klaus Doldinger provides a good score (though it is very European 1980s in style, but awesome when put against the sub sailing against the waves – here is a clip). Jost Vacano’s cinematography is excellent, capturing the claustrophobic feel well (Petersen and Vacano shot all the interiors of the sub inside the complete model as to create a realistic cramped feel). Rolf Zehetbauer’s production design is top notch as well (the sub interior looks great and has a lot of character). It stars Jurgen Prochnow (who many will recognize as the villain of Beverly Hills Cop II), and features Herbert Gronemeyer, Klaus Wennemann and Otto Sander in support. The director’s cut (the version you should watch) is 209 minutes, and yet every moment of the film is highly engaging and utterly gripping. There is a ton of tension throughout, so much so that the film is a little draining. Upon its original release, many feared it would not be well received portraying German naval soldiers during WWII (often villains) as the heroes of their story (and thereby sympathetic). The audience does bond with (and even like) these wonderfully drawn characters. As a huge fan of films about WWII and its era, I can say that this is one of the best. It is a must-see for fans of war dramas and cinema fans alike. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

TV Series of the Month – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

This month’s series is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999).

The sci-fi drama, running seven seasons, is about a Federation space station (Deep Space Nine) that guards the recently liberated planet of Bajor from the neighboring system of Cardassia. The region becomes much more valuable when a wormhole appears just outside the station, each party coveting it for different reasons leading to a battle for the territory. The series is created by Star Trek: The Next Generation producers Rick Berman and Michael Piller, but writer Ronald D. Moore (later known for revamping Battlestar Galactica) also served as a major creative force. It stars Avery Brooks, Rene Auberjonois, Cirroc Lofton, Alexander Siddig, Colm Meaney, Armin Shimerman, Nana Visitor, Terry Farrell, and Michael Dorn (Meaney and Dorn reprising characters from the Star Trek universe). The show is one of the five best sci-fi series of all-time (and my favorite of the Star Trek shows). What makes the show great is the wide range of themes and stories it tackles. It is formatted to include both narrative arcs that range from a few episodes to the entire series and one-off episodes that delve deeper into social/political issues and human nature. The series has a lot to say about humanity, and that is one of its best attributes. DS9 also boasts some of television’s best characters (from Captain Sisko – my favorite Star Trek Captain – to Quark to Doctor Bashir to Jadzia Dax). It is a must-see for fans of Star Trek and sci-fi in general, as there are not too many better sci-fi dramas (on TV or film). Check out the (very cheesy) trailer.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – Review

Review: The Cabin in the Woods is a very fun mix of homage, satire, classic America horror, and something completely different and new. I generally try to keep my reviews spoiler free, but this film is extremely hard to talk about without revealing elements that may take away from its first viewing, and so I greatly suggest you stop reading here if you have yet to see it. Just know: if you like horror films and/or Joss Whedon’s style, you should go see this film. Spoilers: The film is about five friends who go up to a remote cabin in the woods to get away for the weekend only to find themselves pawns in a horrific ritual. Writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer and producer Joss Whedon are both huge fans of the horror genre, and this film is their love/hate letter to the genre. It is packed full of homages to films like The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Suspiria, and many more (there is even some very funny J-Horror stuff in there). On its surface premise, the film stereotypically plays on the tried-and-true genre clichés and genre archetypal characters as they go up to a secluded cabin only to be tormented and killed by all manner of monsters (the basic premise of hundreds of horror films), but Goddard and Whedon want to have fun with these clichés and viewer/genre expectations. The film becomes a very funny post-modern deconstruction of the genre, pointing out and drawing attention to each cliché and narrative device, but also reveling in them. However, as a result, the film works much better as a comedy than as a scary movie, as it is not very scary – though does have some decent thrilling moments. It does not skimp on gore however, with a bloody bedlam of a third act. What works extraordinarily well in the film is that the satire and straight horror cues flow together and do not really detract from each other, as each resonates from their own piece of the narrative, which is seen from two different perspectives and set of characters, intersecting in the third act. If taken as a straight horror film (eliminating the other perspective and narrative track), the film is a decent entry in the genre – latent with clichés and things horror fans have seen a million times (which is sort of the point; it is called The Cabin in the Woods after all) – but still enjoyable because Goddard and Whedon create rich characters (a Whedon specialty) that the audience cares about (especially Dana and Marty), even as they assume their stereotyped genre roles. However, it is the completely crazy and imaginative other narrative and set of characters that make this film great, highly innovative and fun. Sitterson and Hadley (the two office employees) are so mundane when the audience meets them. And yet, they are ultimately the most interesting characters in the film, serving as the writers’ perspective on the horror genre in a sense, commenting on what is happening to these kids (as monsters try to kill them) to comedic affect while they guide their fates by inserting story devices (much like writers and directors do). They invite the audience in on the joke and process. The film, then, plays in a way as a criticism of the horror genre, referencing tons of films and genre narrative tools – subverting them to a degree. Can anyone make a ‘cabin in the woods’ type horror film again after this? And yet, even as the film is constantly commenting on genre clichés, characters, situations, narrative structures, and so on, it turns into a horror film as the two narratives combine and everyone is being chased by monsters and there is an ultimate big bad. The film is not perfect however. It is full of very ambitious ideas that the audience needs to just accept without too much reflection, as there is so much untold and stipulated about the world of the film that it seems that the universe itself is full of things that are not fully explained or understood – the audience does not know the rules of this world (because they are constantly being broken and changed). But, narratively speaking, it does not matter at all. This is just a crazy adventure to go on and have fun with. The Cabin in the Woods warrants almost endless viewing for huge genre fans, as easter eggs are overly abundant. For non-hardcore genre fans, it is a wonderful comedy with great characters and thrilling moments (and I brilliant and crazy third act).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Drew Goddard is known to many of us as a fantastic writer of television (writing some of great episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seventh season and Lost). His first feature script was Cloverfield. With The Cabin in the Woods, he makes his directorial debut to great effect. The film oozes with great style and flare, and he meticulously and perfectly captures what the film sets out to be, keeping it fresh and most importantly a lot of fun. I, for one, very much look forward to seeing what he does next. Composer David Julyan’s score establishes the tone for the film, that being one of a classic ‘cabin in the woods’ style horror film, and it does this masterfully. While I would not say that it stands out as much as say his score for The Prestige, it is a very good and chilling piece of work in a genre that often has great music. Cinematographer Peter Deming got his start shooting low budget horror films, and appropriately his first feature job was on Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (a film and series that certainly influenced this one visually and thematically). Visually speaking, the look of this film fully captures the elements of homage with shots that closely (if not exactly) resemble many in classic horror films, while also match the feel of the genre. Production designer Martin Whist’s work is essential to the success of the film in many ways. He needed to articulate visually the look of classic ‘cabin in the woods’ films, while also creating a fun contrast between the cabin and the more banal office/lab space. He does a great job. His cabin set is so intricate and specific, that genre fans will enjoy it (especially the basement). In terms of the performances: Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison and Jesse Williams are good in support playing archetypal genre characters (the jock, slut and brain), but it is the fool and virgin that shine among the five (which is due to them being main characters and given more to do). Fran Kranz is very funny and has wonderful comedic timing (stealing most of his scenes; this performance along with his work in Dollhouse certainly makes him a talent to watch), while Kristen Connolly embodies (for most of us) the audience’s emotional connection to the narrative. She is sweet and likable, but has enough spunk and grit to fight. In the other group of characters (down in the office/lab), Amy Acker is great playing the conscious of Sitterson and Hadley, while also having fun with them. However, it is Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (as Sitterson and Hadley) that own the film. They are fantastic – playing their characters as seemingly boring workday nobodies with normal lives, who just trudge along in their menial jobs, only the fate of the world rests in their hands. They are both funny and emotionally engaging. End of Spoilers.

Summary & score: The Cabin in the Woods is very funny, inventive and crazy (and probably one of the most fun film experiences you will have in 2012), but it also probably destroys the ‘cabin in the woods’ sub-genre (or maybe even the whole genre) to all future filmmakers (or the next 5-10 years, or less given how quickly things are revamped, remade and rebooted these days). 8/10

Movie of the Week – The Night of the Hunter

This week’s movie is The Night of the Hunter (1955).

The thriller is about John Harper, a young boy who, after his father steals $10,000 and hides it, swears to his father to never divulge the money’s hidden location as his father is being taken off to prison to be executed (for killing two guards in the robbery). However, a twisted religious man, Harry Powell, learns of the money in prison and shows up at the Harper home to prey on John’s gullible widowed mother and sister in search of the money. It is directed by actor Charles Laughton, who was so crushed by the film’s initial reviews and box office (being a critical and commercial failure) that he never directed another film. It also features music composed by Walter Schumann, which is wonderful matching the tone of the film (here is a clip). Cinematographer Stanley Cortez shot the film to look like a film-noir, utilizing lots of shadows – it is magnificent photography (it is well worth seeing the film just for Cortez’s work). Hilyard Brown’s art direction is great as well – the film almost seems like a fairytale (though a nightmarish one) and has tons of visual symbolism. It stars Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell – his performance produces one of the great villains in cinema history (he is just so unnerving). Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, Billy Chapin, and Sally Jane Bruce make up the rest of the main players. The Night of the Hunter is an odd, highly stylized film (that is really nothing like most of the films of the 1950s). Everything feels a bit off, even cartoonish at times, as if done through the perspective of a child. But, the result is a visual and emotional work of art that is dark, scary and full of suspense. It is a must for those that enjoy great villain performances, photography and dark tones. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Joss Whedon – Movies Spotlight – April 2012

Joss Whedon, 47, is known as a phenomenal writer and creator of many of television’s most beloved series, including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. His career also includes feature films and comic books. He brings a feminist voice to his work (many of his protagonists being strong women) and also wonderful pop culture sensibilities. His work really speaks to his fans (and he has some of the most impassioned fans out there). Whedon has three projects coming out soon: two in April and one in May. First this month comes Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, a documentary produced by Whedon and directed by Morgan Spurlock (and they co-wrote it) about Comic-Con. He also co-wrote and produced (and he shot the second unit) Drew Goddard’s mind-bending horror  comedy thriller The Cabin in the Woods. In May, Whedon’s first huge Hollywood Blockbuster arrives: The Avengers (which he wrote and directed).

Early Career:

Whedon graduated from Wesleyan University in 1987 and moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a screenwriter. He got his first writing job on the TV series Roseanne. He worked on the series Parenthood as a writer as well. He also got work as a script doctor (films like Speed, Waterworld, Twister, and X-Men – though Whedon has said that little to none of his work appears in the latter three, while Speed’s credited screenwriter Graham Yost has said that most of the film’s dialogue belongs to Whedon).

Writing & Creating Brilliant Television:

Years after the feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, loosely based on Whedon’s script (according to him, the final film does not much resemble his work), he brought back the idea of a teenage girl who fights vampires as a TV concept. Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on The WB in 1996 as a midseason replacement. The series, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, was popular during its run (and is the only series of Whedon’s four in which he was able to tell his full narrative, and not cut short by being cancelled), but has become one the most loved and critically acclaimed series of all-time (considered to be among the 25 best TV dramas – it is also among my personal 10 favorite shows). Buffy excels because of Whedon’s wonderful characters and innovative storytelling, the series featuring many of television’s most ingenious and brilliant single episodes (Hush, The Body, The Gift, Once More, with Feeling, and many more). The series ran for seven seasons. David Boreanaz played Angel (a vampire with a soul) in the first three seasons of Buffy. Whedon then in 1999 spun his character off with co-creator David Greenwalt to create a new show, Angel, about a vampire private detective in Los Angeles. Angel has a much more adult feel to it, while still maintaining some of the silliness and comedy that comes with all of Whedon’s work. It is also one of the best shows of all-time, and one of the few series that gets better with each new season (though sadly, it was cancelled after season five – fortunately, Whedon was aware of UPN’s plans and was able to give the series a proper ending). The Buffy/Angel shows also launched the careers of many of current TV’s best writers: Tim Minear (American Horror Story), Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus: Vengeance), Liz Craft & Sarah Fain (The Vampire Diaries), Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers and his new show Last Resort), Ben Edlund (Supernatural), Drew Goddard (Lost), Jane Espenson (Battlestar Galactica, Warehouse 13 and Once Upon a Time), Marti Noxon (Mad Men and Glee), and David Fury (Fringe). Whedon’s third and maybe most brilliant show was Firefly, a sci-fi western starring Nathan Fillion about a crew of misfits taking smuggling jobs on the outskirts of civilization to get by. Fox Network completely botched their marketing and presentation of the series (airing the episodes out of order for instance) and canceled it after eleven of the fourteen produced were aired. Even with only one season (half a season at that) and no real ending, Firefly is widely considered both among television’s greatest sci-fi dramas and overall dramas (and all us Browncoats still hope each day that it may again return in some fashion so that we can live with the characters again through new adventures). For Whedon’s fourth show, he reteamed both with actress Eliza Dushku (who had played a character, Faith, in the Buffy/Angelverse) and Fox. However, Fox again greatly tampered with the show (this time altering its narrative to not be as dark), and Whedon for the first time in his television career was met with moderate critical and fan response (when his three previous shows were all critical successes and cult hits). While there are many great episodes and moments (especially in the second season), Dollhouse is Whedon’s weakest series. It only lasted two seasons (but does have an ending). What I love about his series and why they are among my personal favorites is that Whedon brings both comedy and drama to his narratives – action, adventure, crime, horror, fantasy, sci-fi – there is so much genre blending, and his characters are among the richest in any medium. He can make you laugh, cry, be on the edge of your seat all in the same episode. Buffy, Angel and Firefly are three shows that I would recommend to anyone as being must-see TV. Whedon has also directed episodes of The Office (Business School and Branch Wars) and Glee (Dream On).

Feature Films (First Writing, Later Writing & Directing):

Whedon’s first feature script to be produced was 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though the film hardly represents his script). In 1995, Pixar hired him to fix their script for Toy Story. The script was just not working and featured unlikable characters. Whedon worked his character magic and for his trouble garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Surprisingly, Pixar never brought him back to work on any of their other projects. Next, Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection, but much like with Buffy the final film was completely different from his script (as writers are much farther down the totem pole in features). French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed the film (and was probably not a good fit), changing many elements to make it more comedic and akin to his quirky style (Jeunet is one of my favorite directors, but this is by no means a good film) when Whedon’s script was very bleak. Jeunet imported much of his team from France and needed a translator to communicate with the actors and other technicians and in no way involved Whedon in the production process (though that is not uncommon for director to not involve writers). Whedon has stated that he is very disappointed with the final film. He had worked for Disney’s animation studio as a script doctor in the past, though none of the projects had come to life. He also wrote the initial script for what would become Atlantis: The Lost Empire (and by the end, it had seven writers and Whedon only received a story credit). He was brought in by Fox’s animation studio to rewrite Titan A.E. as well, which was (and is) a mess. Something good came out of the project though; Whedon worked with writer Ben Edlund who he would later hire to write on Angel and Firefly. In 2005, Whedon made his directorial feature debut with Serenity (which he also wrote). A continuation of his beloved series Firefly, the film works both as a standalone sci-fi adventure and an ending to the series (though we all hope there will be another film at some point in the future). Serenity is a fantastic film, Whedon showing off his considerable directing talent (it is among my 25 favorite films from the past decade).  Whedon got involved with Marvel Studios and their plans for The Avengers in 2010, signing on to both direct and write the film. He also did a script polish (predominately on the dialog) for Captain America: The First Avenger and directed the post-credits scene in Thor. The Avengers is among this summers most anticipated films.

Comic Books:

As a lifelong comic book fan, Whedon is responsible for a number of wonderful comics, both original and jumping onto established series and characters. He has used the medium to continue many of his TV series, as there are comics for Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight and now Nine, Angel: After the Fall and now Angel & Faith, Serenity: Those Left Behind/Better Days/The Shepherd’s Tale, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible. Whedon however has worked with multiple writers on these projects (chief among them: Brian Lynch, Brian K. Vaughn, Drew Goddard, Jane Espenson, Brad Meltzer, and others). Whedon has had a good relationship with Dark Horse Comics. He created a new character in the Buffyverse for a miniseries for them called Fray. The story takes place many decades in the future from the time of Buffy, and tells the tale of Fray a slayer who emerges after generations without them, living in a world controlled by demons. Fray also reappeared in Buffy’s Season Eight volume four: Time of Your Life. Whedon has also worked twice for Marvel Comics. Whedon wrote one volume of Runaways (volume 8 entitled Dead End Kids) taking over for series creator Brian K. Vaughn (his run is one of my favorite stories in comics). Whedon’s greatest comics’ achievement, however, is his other Marvel project: Astonishing X-Men with artist John Cassaday. He wrote 24 issues of the series, split into four books: Gifted (which is amazingly brilliant, and X-Men: The Last Stand borrows heavily from it), Dangerous, Torn, and Unstoppable. Whedon does a wonderful job with all the characters, but it is his Kitty Pryde that emerges as one of the great comic book heroines. It is my favorite comic series (along with Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man).

Internet Media:

Whedon has been very interested in creating projects outside the studio system in light of his many bad experiences with his scripts and TV series, and has found the internet as a great medium. In 2005 as part of a viral marketing ploy for Serenity, he created the R. Tam sessions, which starred Summer Glau and himself. His next venture came in the form of a free webcomic for Dark Horse Comics: Sugarshock! with artist Fabio Moon. It is a very fun read. In 2008 during the Writers’ Guild Strike, Whedon and a group of his friends got together to make a musical for the internet completely outside the studio system: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. Sales of the soundtrack alone were enough to cover the production costs. Whedon has said that he would like to continue making films and other projects on his own, setting up a new company called Bellwether Pictures.

Future Projects:

Following The Avengers, Whedon has four projects upcoming. First is his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof and Nathan Fillion). The film was shot in black and white at Whedon’s own residence with his friends while he took a break from The Avengers before post-production. The film is scheduled to be released through Bellwether Pictures on the festival circuit sometime in 2012. Whedon also wrote the script for and is producing Bellwether Picture’s second feature In Your Eyes. Directed by Brin Hill, the film stars Nikki Reed, Steve Howey, Zoe Kazan, Jennifer Grey, and Mark Feuerstein and is described as a paranormal romance. Finally, he has two webisode series in the works. Whedon is in the early stages of scripting a sequel to Dr. Horrible and working with Warren Ellis on Wastelanders. With what will likely be a huge hit for Whedon in The Avengers, he is going to have more freedom and power to pursue his own projects (another Firefly movie please!).

Joss Whedon Career Highlights:

1)      Toy Story (1995) – writer (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
2)      Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003)* – creator, writer & director (DVD, Streaming)
3)      Firefly (2002-2003)* – creator, writer & director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
4)      Fray (2001-2003) – writer (Paperback)
5)      Angel (1999-2004)* – creator, writer & director (DVD, Streaming)
6)      Serenity (2005)* – writer & director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
7)      Astonishing X-Men (2004-2008)* – writer (Hardcover, Paperback)
8)      Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008) – writer & director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
9)      Dollhouse (2009-2010) – creator, writer & director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks