Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brave (2012) – Review

Review: Brave is an entertaining parable involving fate, focusing on the relationship between a mother and daughter. The film is about Merida, a Scottish princess who does not want to be married off to a lord. So, she runs away, happening upon a witch who offers her a deal to change her fate, and she takes it (but, as we have learned from countless other Disney films like The Little Mermaid, taking a deal to change one’s fate never works out how one hopes it might and there are serious repercussions). Earlier in the life of the film, writer-director Brenda Chapman was bringing the story to the screen, but due to creative differences, she left the project in the hands of writer-director Mark Andrews, and the story and setting changed a lot. Andrews, building on Chapman’s characters, does well with Merida. She, as a character, is probably the strongest aspect of the film in that she is not only Pixar’s first female protagonist but also a character worthy of admiration from young girls (but is not without her flaws as well). Unlike many of the Disney princesses, Merida seems more like normal girl (much like Rapunzel in Disney’s Tangled who is very much happy to be herself and go on her own adventures), as much as a Disney princess can. Notably, Merida does not need a prince charming to be happy – in fact, she does not want one (and there is no love story, which is unheard of in Disney Princess lore). Andrews structures the film as a coming-of-age story for Merida as she struggles with the transition from childhood to becoming a woman, and the pressures her mother (Elinor) puts on her to act more her age and give up childish things and ideas. It is a narrative targeted at young girls – one that addresses their relationships with their mothers, and one that they need. In that way, the film very much works. However, in many ways, the film feels much more like a Disney film than a Pixar film – it is Pixar’s third film to have humans as the primary characters (though, Ratatouille has both animals and humans and could push the number to four) and their first period adventure. Also missing is the adult-directed and more ironic humor, as much of the comedy here is slapstick (involving Bears and Merida’s rascal brothers, who are the funniest thing in the film). It is not as funny as good Pixar films normally are (yes, ‘good’ is a shot at Cars and Cars 2), nor is it as exciting or entertaining. The action seems secondary to the coming-of-age aspects and the relationship between Merida and Elinor. That is fine, but there are almost built-in expectations for Pixar films, two of them being films that are very funny and have great engaging action. Andrews misses the mark a bit on both these aspects. Visually, however, Andrews and the Pixar animators do their usual magic, crafting a grand visual experience. Brave does have good characters, especially Merida, and a good lesson laden story, but falls short of the very high expectations that Pixar films carry with them.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Mark Andrews (and his co-director Steve Purcell) are part of the new guard rising the ranks at Pixar, as proven directors like Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird have moved on to live action. Stanton, Bird, Pete Doctor and John Lasseter (though, he is responsible for Cars one and two) are the master directors behind Pixar’s wonderful films. Andrews has shown that he can make a good film, but Brave is not quite there among the best Pixar films (though it is certainly better than Cars and Cars 2, and is probably better than A Bug’s Life as well). Patrick Doyle, being Scottish, was a good choice to score the film, as his music captures the flavor of Scotland (where the film takes place) and its traditions. That said, I did miss Michael Giacchino, whose Pixar scores are always wonderful. The voice-acting cast is very good, also made up mostly of Scots. Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane, and Billy Connolly all provide festive voice-work. Emma Thompson (only non-Scottish principal voice-actor) is good as Elinor. Her more refined voice and tone, match her character of the Queen well, and she also brought a lot of authority to her role as well (again matching the character). Kelly Macdonald is wonderful voicing Merida. She gets the angst and annoyance of the age perfectly.

Summary & score: Brave may be average in terms of Pixar standards, but it is still a great animated adventure and good addition to the Disney Princesses line (with a more feminist approach for once). 7/10

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) – Review

Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an uneven road drama, with stuff that works and stuff that does not, but held together by great leading performances and a sincere narrative. The film is about Dodge, an insurance salesman who is abandoned by his wife in the final days before Earth’s destruction by the asteroid Matilda. Thinking about his high school sweetheart, Dodge decides he wants to find her before the world ends. Accompanying Dodge on his journey is his neighbor Penny, who wants desperately to get back to her family in England. She will help Dodge find his past love, and he will take her to a man with a plane. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria structures the film to be a fairly generic road film (though, it does its time to finally get on the road). Dodge and Penny run into strange characters and have misadventures as they make their way. The problem is that most of their encounters on the road are not particularly funny (when they are supposed to be) nor do they work particularly well. Rather, it is Scafaria’s buildup of the characters before they depart and their resolution (which takes up some of the second and the entire third act) after the road trip that is the film’s strongest aspect. The lead characters are both very well played and drawn, and it is in these two sections of the narrative that Scafaria gives them their best character moments. The film is trying to be a dramedy, with the comedy coming from the absurdity of modern humanity carrying on their day-to-day lives in the face of impending doom and the drama coming from the internal struggles of the characters as they come to terms with their own feelings about their lives and inevitable deaths. Scafaria does well with the drama and poorly (for the most part, though there are a few jokes that work well) with the comedy. Most of the random characters and situations that Dodge and Penny meet and find themselves in (clearly played for comedy) do not work and hamper the film’s pacing a bit. However, the character work is strong enough to save the film, and by the end make it quite compelling. Scafaria somewhat shifts the tone of the film, from being a dark comedy to being a drama, as the characters seem to find new meaning in their lives, and suddenly have more to live for and lose. Narratively, she also plays with the overarching structure, shifting it back and forth from character drama to romance, which balances the story by giving it both a lighter feel (along with the comedy) as we watch the characters come to terms with their feelings for each other and a more dramatic feel as the characters also address their own internal struggles. This saves the film from feeling overly generic, both tonally and structurally (I also like that Scafaria is not afraid to sick to her narrative convictions regarding the ending). Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, despite maybe wanting or trying to be, is not so much a quirky dark dramedy, but rather a good character drama that is held back due to some very uneven sections.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Lorene Scafaria makes her directorial debut with Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (on her second produced screenplay). It is clear that she has a strong handle on getting good performances from her leads, as they are both fantastic and hold the film together. However, much like her first script Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Scafaria needs to work on tightening up her narrative structure and trimming (or reworking) the stuff that is flat or drags the narrative down. She has a good scene of humor, evidenced by some of the better jokes in the film, but again needs to realize that the film is playing better as a character drama than a quirky comedy and not force bad comedy bits in that detract from the overall momentum of the narrative just for the sake of comedy – it needs to come from a more organic place. I do look forward to her next film, as she clearly has talent and should improve. Composers Jonathan Sadoff and Rob Simonsen’s score is fine for the tone of the film, but the found music soundtrack overshadows it completely. Tim Orr’s cinematography is very straightforward, as is Scafaria’s shooting style. The actors are simply allowed to perform with the camera merely capturing their performances, which is fine given the strong performances. Chris Spellman’s production design is also fairly straightforward. His sets mostly match the characters, as continuations of their personalities. The supporting cast (made up of small bit roles) is very uneven. Some of the performances worked well, dramatically or comically, and some did not. The performances of Martin Sheen, T.J. Miller, Adam Brody, and especially Rob Corddry (whose performance is probably the funniest thing in the film) highlight these small roles. Keira Knightley plays Penny, who is somewhat written to be what film critic Nathan Rabin calls a manic pixie dream girl (or a stock character who does not exist in reality, but cinematically exists to teach male characters to embrace life). However, Knightley’s performance is much deeper than the stock character would seemingly allow. The film is also concerned with Penny’s internal drama and how she will come to terms with it, and she is not solely there to save Dodge (though, that is an aspect to her role). Knightley brings a lot of life to Penny and the film, and juxtaposed to Dodge, who Steve Carell plays to be a black hole, void of love, empathy or even caring, is a necessary component to making the film work (without her, or someone equally skilled, it would just be a drag). Carell can only be so down in the dumps because his negative energy can be bounced off of Knightley. He is also good in the film, playing his typical sad middle-aged character, but to a much more depressing degree.

Summary & Score: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a very good comedy or road movie, but is a great character drama with some strong performances from its leads. 7/10

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Your Sister’s Sister (2012) – Review

Review: Your Sister’s Sister is a good drama, low on production value but high on great performances.  The film is about Jack, his best friend Iris and her sister Hannah. Jack, struggling with the death of his brother, is sent up to Iris’s father’s cabin for some alone time to think and deal by Iris. However, when he gets there, he finds Hannah taking refuge after breaking off a seven year relationship. They get to drinking and talking, and more drinking and end up sleeping together. Then, Iris shows up the next morning to surprise Jack, things are only made more complicated by Iris having secret feelings for Jack and he for her. Writer-director Lynn Shelton seems to be firstly interested in garnering not only great performances but real performances. The film stylistically (and maybe due to its lack of budget – reportedly made for $80 thousand) is completely steeped in realism, from natural lighting to sound design that sounds as if it was picked up from the microphone built into the camera (it is bad enough to remind me of doing sound design in film school with no equipment or money). Shelton, however, avoids the clichéd faux-documentary style with quick random zooms, often prevalent in mumblecore films, much to the film’s benefit. The poor sound design does detract from the film, as levels are off and sound effects and ambient noise are too strong at times (though, it is not clear if this is by design or merely a budgetary consequence). The style however is all just to create a naturalistic environment for the characters to inhabit and to convey the realism of the world to the audience, all to set up the performances, which make the film. Shelton’s directing and the film’s improvised dialog allow for the performances to grow and play organically and feel very fresh, as if the audience happened to be eavesdropping on the actors’ actual life. It is very compelling dramatically. The drama is also mostly void of many of the clichés that typically make up and bog down most romantic ‘love-triangle’ dramas, and this is because Shelton has designed the narrative to be more about the characters and their individual internal dramas than purely a romance ‘boy woos girl (or vice versa)’. The strong character moments allow the viewers to really get a sense of who these people are and this is the strongest aspect of the film (as well as the superb performances). Your Sister’s Sister stands out as a low-budget indie (mostly due to its awful sound design), but the wonderful dramatic performances make it something special, rising above is budgetary constraints.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Lynn Shelton has possibly made the best film in the mumblecore genre with Your Sister’s Sister. While it is blatantly low budget (as stated abundantly above), its performances and dramatic narrative are expertly designed by Shelton. Having the actors improvise most of their dialog gives the film such an organic feel and rawness. I look forward to her next project. The music Vince Smith composes for the film fits the tone well (and does its job), but does not stand out. The cinematography by Benjamin Kasulke and production design by John Lavin also works well with the tone and aesthetic style of realism that Shelton creates, but as a side effect is greatly overshadowed by the performances and somewhat seems very sparse. (Again, as stated above) the performances are brilliant. Mark Duplass (doing equally good work, if not better, to his career best to date in Safety Not Guaranteed) is great as Jack, playing all the complexity of confusing feelings and mourning. He has surely set himself up as a go-to indie dramedy actor going forward. Rosemarie DeWitt is also fantastic as Hannah. She can convey so much with so little – her eyes and small facial expressions are more telling than pages of dialog. However, Emily Blunt may steal the film as Iris. She brings a lot of energy to the trio, while playing all the dramatic and comedic moments perfectly. She has certainly emerged as one of the best young leading actors with wonderful performance after performance.

Summary & Score: The low budget aesthetics are certainly evident, but seemingly fade behind the great performances. 7/10

Monday, June 25, 2012

Movie of the Week – Days of Heaven

This week’s movie is Days of Heaven (1978).

The romance drama is about a transient laborer, Bill, and the woman he loves, Abby. Tired of always moving, he convinces Abby to marry a rich but dying farmer so that they can claim his fortune. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, the film is profound – Malick relying on images and mood to muster up feelings more so than a straight narrative. The film is beautifully shot by Nestor Almendros (probably among the 50 best shot films of all-time), photography mostly occurring during the ‘magic hour’, and features great production design from Jack Fisk. Ennio Morricone provides a fantastic, iconic and perfectly fitting score (here is a suite – there is a piece that always reminds me of the wonderful cinematography documentary Visions of Light). Richard Gere, Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams star and all give good performances. Like all of Malick’s work, the film is more of an experience for the viewer to behold and be immersed in than a story to follow. From a historic standpoint, the film does a good job portraying the drama and hardship of Great Depression-era life for many Americans. It is a must-see for both fans of Malick and moody visual experiences. Check out the trailer.

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) – Review

Review: Safety Not Guaranteed is a heartfelt and funny indie drama. The film is about Darius, a magazine intern who has sort of felt lost since her mom died when she was young. During her latest assignment, accompanying a writer and another intern for the magazine on a story about a guy Kenneth who thinks he can time travel, she for the first time finds something she cares about and can believe in. Director Colin Trevorrow has created a film that both encompasses all the generic and typical genre devices of a quirky indie dramedy and has a fresh and wonderfully genuine spark to it. Trevorrow seemingly checks off each expected narrative component that a viewer familiar with indie dramedies would anticipate being in the film: an overall oddness and ironic tone to the world and quirkiness to the characters, characters stifled by seemingly meaningless existences (and jobs), a low budget feel (hand held camera work, natural lighting and so on), and emotive stares saying more than words (among others). However, all that being true, and all that being seemingly done to death in almost every indie dramedy to date, Tervorrow still infuses the film with a gleeful optimism and infectious almost magical tone that something special might truly happen, which makes the film completely compelling. This is only built upon by Trevorrow’s great characters. While in a general sense, the film may seem generic on the surface; on a deeper level these characters are still vital and relatable to the audience because Trevorrow and his actors give them good character moments and depth. They feel real and fleshed out, connecting them to the audience (and thereby the audience cares what happens to them). What they have to say means something and is not just trivial or plot-driven. Trevorrow also does a good job keeping the film brisk and moving, when it easily could have been overlong and meandering (which would have greatly hurt its impact). There are three main characters and two principal supporting characters, and yet even with the film’s short runtime, each has a full narrative journey and meaningful experience. And, the ending is utterly satisfying. Much like Primer, Safety Not Guaranteed is a low budget indie that gives big budget time travel narratives a run for their money and is better than most (thanks to great characters).

Techincal, aesthetic & acting achievements: Colin Trevorrow, making his feature debut, has done well for himself creating a narrative that is structurally sound and characters that the audience can take stock in, while seemingly complying to the stylistic requirements of the current indie dramedy genre. I look forward to seeing what he does next. Composer Ryan Miller’s score is almost overly generic for the genre (though, it will probably be well received for fans not yet fully burnt out on the style – here is an example), but still works well with the material overall.  Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke and production designer Ben Blankenship, much like Miller’s score, stylistically are aligned with what we typically expect from the genre. Though, at the same time, having the film visually exist completely in a real toned down space worked well juxtaposed to the narrative device of time travel. The cast is great throughout, and is what makes the film special. Kristen Bell is good in a small role, while Jenica Bergere and Karan Soni are great in their supporting roles. Jake M. Johnson brings a lot of raw energy to the film, playing magazine writer Jeff as someone cool and self-satisfied in a superficial way, but sad on a more personal level. Mark Duplass’s character Kenneth on paper seems to be hard to play – being weird and paranoid, yet endearing – but he plays him almost effortlessly. This is really Duplass’s acting breakthrough. Aubrey Plaza plays Darius somewhat along the same lines as her character in Parks and Recreation – being disengaged – but rather than it being motivated by “it is not cool to care” here Darius is troubled and depressed. She desperately wants to feel something, but life has just let her down so far. It is strong work by Plaza as well.

Summary & score: Safety Not Guaranteed may not be one of the great remembered indie dramas of the decade (or even year), but it is certainly compelling, different and interesting. 8/10

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – Review

Review: Moonrise Kingdom is a charming dramedy that is a joy to watch. The film is about young love, in the form of two kids (Suzy and Sam) who run away together to camp out on a small island off the New England Coast. Noticing their disappearance, the town forms a posse to look for them. Writer-director Wes Anderson (here co-writing with Roman Coppola) takes on the narrative with his usual creative flare and quirky sensibilities. His blocking, framing and overall mise en scene are all fantastic as usual, and along with his camera moments (but more so his cutting and what the camera moves achieve) the overall visual shooting style is clearly aligned with his past work but also feels very much like an Yasujiro Ozu film (I thought of An Autumn Afternoon a lot while watching this – how the actors are all shot straight on with 90 or 180 degree cuts/camera moves). The narrative feels like it takes place in an alternate storybook world (not so much a fantasy world – though there is maybe a slight aspect of that too, even though the narrative to an extent and especially the characters are rooted very much in reality) where everything has aesthetic value and the guise of innocence. Many of Anderson’s characters in his past work find themselves looking back with disappointment on all the potential they had in youth but have seemingly squandered, but here Anderson’s leads are young kids just broaching their development into adults (adult feelings and experiences, i.e. maturity) – specifically for Sam and Suzy, finding first love. Sam and Suzy at first glance seem very naïve, as they approach their relationship with complete frankness, honesty and lack of scope (wanting to get married at the age of 12), and yet their love feels absolutely genuine because they get each other (both being outsiders) and in their own innocent way completely buy into their feelings for each other (having not been disillusioned by bad relationships and life experiences involving love yet). Their relationship and its authenticity are what make the film so charming (coupled with Anderson’s style), as the audience can relate to these characters in an almost (if not completely) nostalgic way (while still seeing emotions that are still relevant today in whatever facet of life a viewer may be in). The adult characters (especially Captain Sharp, Scout Master Ward and Mr. and Mrs. Bishop) have seemingly a juxtaposed inherent sadness to them, having been worn down by age and experience. Suzy and Sam’s relationship is simple – they love each other and want to be together, but the adults have much more complex relationships and disappointments that weigh on them. This juxtaposition again plays into a nostalgic emotional response to the film (the film also reminded me of Peter Pan, especially when Suzy is reading to all the Scouts – Wendy and the Lost Boys, in its seeming fight to against the inevitable and impending maturity of these young characters). The narrative and characters are presented wonderfully by Anderson to harken back to being a kid, just on the precipice of growing up – something that resonates with all viewers. Anderson is also mindful of the narrative structure and pacing of his film. This is not quite in the form of a simple and typical three act structure, as the film begins with the characters already setting out to begin their adventure, the preceding events are detailed later in the film in flashbacks (but it still more or less fits into the three act hero’s journey). Anderson keeps the pacing tight and the story moving (but does slow it down in moments to allow Sam and Suzy’s relationship and characters to be fully fleshed out and have time to breathe) to keep the audience engaged (subconsciously) amidst this somewhat more complex style structure. Moonrise Kingdom is a film about growing up, as children are flooded with more adult emotions and feelings. Through his typical remarkable style and ability to create strange and terrific characters, Anderson is able to tell this tale about growing up and young love in such a way as to have it fully resonate with its viewers, filling them with joy, and comment in sort of a self-reflexive way on the emotional state of adulthood and loss of innocence.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Wes Anderson has cultivated such a unique style across his seven feature films that his work is immediately recognizable. With Moonrise Kingdom, fans of his films will get exactly what they expect, while his detractors will probably feel like he is still not growing or changing as a filmmaker, as this film very much feels and looks like his others in many ways. However, I would say that Moonrise Kingdom is more hopeful than his recent live-action films (The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited) in that it seems as if the characters are all better off at the end than at the beginning, and happier (similar to Rushmore). For the most part, though, this fits neatly in with the rest of his work. Working for the second time with Anderson, composer Alexandre Desplat provides an enchanting and jovial score that perfectly fits the tone and magic of the film. (As usual from Desplat) it is wonderful work (here is a sample). Peter Jarvis and Mark Mothersbaugh also contribute a fine piece to the score as well. Anderson's found music soundtrack is great as well (featuring a lot of Hank Williams). Robert D. Yeoman (who has shot all of Anderson’s live-action films) again collaborates beautifully with Anderson. As with all of their films, the camera plays as much a role in the film as the characters. Yeoman’s lighting along with Adam Stockhausen’s brilliant production design gives the world of the film an almost fantastical feel – it is a beautiful piece of cinema with a great color pallet of greens and browns and just the right mix of reds and pinks. The cast of characters is made up of two young leads, and an ensemble of young and adult characters. Jason Schwartzman (who brings a burst of energy to the film), Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton are all great in the film (especially Schwartzman and Norton), among these small roles. The two young leads, each making their film debuts, are fantastic. Kara Hayward’s Suzy to some extent takes on the form of Sam’s dream friend (girl), in that she accepts him when seemingly no one else does and the same goes for Sam for Suzy. Hayward plays her to be willful with air of mystery and deep contemplation. Jared Gilman’s Sam is odd, but very likable and friendly, and just does not understand why others seem to dislike him.

Summary & score: Moonrise Kingdom is sort of like a children’s story book written for adults. It has all the charm, joy and nostalgia of youth but also with the sadness and complexity of maturity. 9/10

Monday, June 18, 2012

Movie of the Week – The Hill

This week’s movie is The Hill (1965).

The drama is about a military prison in North Africa during WWII. The story beings when five new prisoners arrive, including Joe Roberts, an officer fed up with sending his men to die by way of uncaring superiors handing down bad orders. It all goes wrong for these prisoners when they are brutally punished by the guards. The film is directed by auteur Sidney Lumet (whose best work includes 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon, though this is also one of his best) – a New York director, who makes a very British style film. He worked with cinematographer Oswald Morris and art director Herbert Smith on the film. The cast is excellent, featuring many very good performances. Sean Connery stars (in probably his best non-James Bond film of the 1960s; Marnie is a good one too) with Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Ossie Davis, Ian Hendry, and Michael Redgrave (among others) in support. The film is one of the many forgotten masterpieces of its era – upon its release, many critics ignored it as it starred commercial actor Sean Connery who was just coming off the success of Goldfinger (and was the number box office draw of the year). It is one of the many anti-war films made in protest of the Vietnam War and the Cold War in general. It looks deeply at the brutality that man is capable of when he holds all the power. However, it also has moments of heroism as well. It is really too bad that The Hill never got the acclaim it deserves, and is largely forgotten today. It is a must-see for fans of wonderful dramas, focusing on will and cowardice of human spirit. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD

Friday, June 15, 2012

Regina Spektor – What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (2012) – Review

Review: What We Saw from the Cheap Seats is the sixth LP from Russian born indie rock artist Regina Spektor. She has such an eclectic style that the album has a little bit of a ton of genres, but all piano driven. Spektor has a fantastic quirky voice that she uses in many different ways – it can be funny, sensual, sad, lonely, happy, inviting, and many more – allowing her to connect to her listeners on many levels. As distinct as each song on the album is, there is still a flow that makes the LP feel like a specific set of tracks put together purposefully (which seems like an obvious choice for an artist, but today is rarely the case). There are a number of very good woman-headed bands in indie rock (or post-rock), and my favorite is probably St. Vincent, but that said Spektor is right there at the top of the list as well. This album is well worth checking out for fans of different sounding music (and eclectic/eccentric piano based songs). It is a fun and genuinely unique album. 4/5  

Editor’s Essential Tracks:
1)      All the Rowboats – Produced by Regina Spektor and Mike Elizondo
2)      Open – Produced by Regina Spektor and Mike Elizondo
3)      Patron Saint – Produced by Regina Spektor and Mike Elizondo

Available on CD and Digital Download

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prometheus (2012) – Review

Review: Prometheus is both a fantastic piece of science fiction and a philosophical exploration of man’s need to find meaning. The film is about a space exploration to find the ‘engineers’ who created human life on Earth, after a series of cave paintings are found on Earth detailing their possible location in a faraway solar system. Director Ridley Scott (who also directed Alien, this taking place in the same film universe as and before the events in Alien) presents the film in such a magnificent scale that it is a wonder to behold. Visually, it is brilliant – vast landscapes, beautiful design work and great action set pieces (all elements that Scott has mastered in his previous work). However, even with the impressive visuals, which are the best aspect of the film, it would not work without strong characters and a compelling story. Here, Scott somewhat stumbles. For the most part the characters are well drawn, but there are enough cliché (if not cheesy) character moments to slightly diminish the overall power of the drama. Sadly, the characters may well be the weakest part of the film, as these few cliché moments pull the viewer out of the narrative (mostly involving Shaw and Vickers). Though, David, an android seemingly trying to find meaning for his own existence mirroring the crew’s motives, while also carrying out orders relayed to him by his human master(s), is a very intriguing character (and one of my favorite things in the film). However, Scott saves the film and redeems it in many ways both with his visuals and his narrative structure. Scott keeps the film moving forward and it never drags or feels overly long. He tells the story very efficiently, which is often what is needed, especially in action oriented films. For the most part, Prometheus is a sci-fi drama – exploring man’s desire to find meaning within his own life, which here pertains to the crew of the Prometheus seeking out their creators to ask them why (why they were created) – while still having the prerequisite number of action sequences (that are all well done). Sci-fi often lends itself to philosophical questions about man’s place in the universe, as they are often immense in scale and involve isolation and exploring undiscovered places. The film does a very good job posing questions regarding why was man created and now that he is created who is responsible for his actions. This is best done through the character of David (though Shaw plays a big part too). Getting back to the visuals, Scott has such an eye for design, scale and the great rag-tag sci-fi supporting characters that make the genre great. Prometheus, if nothing else, is a grand genre film and one of the better sci-fi films in the last few years (along the lines of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Duncan Jones’s Moon and Joss Whedon’s Serenity), that just misses being amazing due to cliché character moments.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ridley Scott has long been an exalted director of sci-fi (fans harkening back to Alien and Blade Runner, two of his early films – 1979 and 1982 respectively), and it is clear that he still knows how to expertly present the genre. I do not think he let his sci-fi fans down with Prometheus, as it is (as stated above) visually and atmospherically phenomenal, despite its shortcomings. The score is both wonderful and somewhat generic. Harry Gregson-Williams’s theme (here) is an inspiration, evoking wondrous feelings set against the visuals, while many of Marc Streitenfeld’s more action or thriller oriented pieces (while referencing Alien’s score) feel quite generic, maybe even cliché (example here). Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is fantastic, and probably the best work I have seen so far in 2012. Arthur Max’s production design is also just as brilliant. Their work together builds a visual style to the world that is very dark (the film could almost be black and white) but also with an infusion of precise color to illuminate the atmosphere of the film (mostly oranges and reds – against the whites and blacks). The set design and costume design is spot on. The cast overall is very good (even with the cliché character moments). Sean Harris is just a prickly as ever in his small supporting role, while Guy Pierce brings a lot of weight to his. Logan Marshall-Green has somewhat of a breakthrough performance (playing sort of a cowboy scientist – or what we can call a typical Hollywood scientist since Indiana Jones). Idris Elba brings his inherent cool to the ship’s captain, while also upholding his moral high ground (which seems to be something that often finds its way into his characters – no matter what they do, they are cool and seem to have a higher morality that justifies their actions). Charlize Theron has a difficult character to play in the film (hiding much of who she is), but does play Vickers with an heir of entitlement and assumed power (while also being slightly insecure). Michael Fassbender’s David is probably the most interesting character in the film, and Fassbender plays him exceptionally well. He is an android, and yet he very much seems to be desperately seeking meaning for his existence. Noomi Rapace is good in the film (though, she is playing a British character who does not have a British accent, at least not a very good one, but that aside) in terms of playing the action, physicality and intensity of Shaw.

Summary & score: Tonally, atmospherically and visually, Prometheus is wonderful and should please sci-fi fans, but it is not without some glaring faults, mostly stemming from its writing. 7/10

Monday, June 11, 2012

Movie of the Week – The Awful Truth

This week’s movie is The Awful Truth (1937).

The romantic comedy is about Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a married couple that get divorced after a series of compounding misunderstandings. And yet, they seem to still love each other as they sabotage each other’s attempts to move on romantically. The film is directed by Leo McCarey, who specialized in comedy coming out of the silent film era. Most of the scenes were improvised by the cast and director on the day, with only the general story arc being known. Before The Awful Truth, for which he won a Best Director Oscar, his best known film was The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. He also directed the classic romance drama An Affair to Remember (at the end of his career). McCarey worked with composer Ben Oakland, cinematographer Joseph Walker and art director Lionel Banks on the film. However, its great success is due to its wonderful leads: Irene Dunne and Cary Grant (who would again star together in My Favorite Wife – which is almost the same movie). Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Ester Dale, and Joyce Compton feature in support. Interestingly, Cary Grant thought that the film was not working at all and wanted to be released from his contract – only for it to be one of his early hits, and help really launch his career as a leading man. The Awful Truth is also one of the early, and best, screwball comedies – many of the classic comedies from the 1930s and early 1940s are screwball comedies. This is a must-see for fans of screwball comedies and Cary Grant. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD and Streaming

Thursday, June 7, 2012

TV Series of the Month – Undeclared

This month’s TV series is Undeclared (2001-2002).

The comedy is about six freshmen starting college, and all the fun and strange experiences that come with that. After working as a producer on Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow created this show, which like Freaks and Geeks only lasted one season despite being really funny and good. The show served as a launching point for a number of Hollywood’s current comedic writers and directors like Seth Rogen (doing his first writing), Nicholas Stoller, Jay Chandrasekhar (who had also just directed Super Troopers), John Hamburg, and Greg Mottola. It featured Jay Baruchel, Carla Gallo, Charlie Hunnam, Monica Keena, Seth Rogen, Tim Sharp, and Loudon Wainwright III as series regulars. Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Jenna Fischer, Kevin Rankin, Kyle Gass, David Krumholtz, Samm Levine, Busy Philipps, Martin Starr, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Ben Stiller, Sarah Hagen, Allen Covert, Mike White, Fred Willard, Felicia Day, Geoffrey Arend, Simon Helberg, and many more have reoccurring to cameo roles in the series as well. Undeclared works as both a sitcom about a bunch of college freshman studying, falling in love, doing homework, coping with being on their own and classwork, and lots of other typical college stuff, and a great comedy with unique and interesting characters. It is a shame that Fox did not trust the show enough to see it through, cancelling it during its first season. It is a must-see for fans of good comedy sitcoms and Apatow’s work. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Essential Songs of 2012: Part 3 – Music Spotlight – May 2012

Artist: Beach House Song: The Hours Producer(s): Chris Coady Featuring: N/A Album: Bloom

Artist: Family Band Song: Night Song Producer(s): Family Band Featuring: N/A Album: Grace and Lies

Artist: Health Song: Tears Producer(s): Health Featuring: N/A Album: Max Payne 3 Soundtrack

Artist: Holograms Song: Chasing My Mind Producer(s): Holograms Featuring: N/A Album: Holograms

Artist: Kendrick Lamar Song: Cartoons & Cereal Producer(s): THC Featuring: Gunplay Album: N/A

Artist: Kendrick Lamar Song: The Recipe Producer(s): Scoop DeVille Featuring: Dr. Dre Album: Good Kid in a Mad City

Artist: Pusha T Song: Exodus 23:1 Producer(s): Rico Beats Featuring: The-Dream Album: Cruel Summer/G.O.O.D. Fridays

Artist: The Tallest Man On Earth Song: 1904 Producer(s): Kristian Matsson Featuring: N/A Album: There’s No Leaving Now

Artist: The Walkmen Song: Heaven Producer(s): Phil Ek Featuring: N/A Album: Heaven

Artist: Yeasayer Song: Henrietta Producer(s): Yeasayer Featuring: N/A Album: Fragrant World

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) – Review

Review: Snow White and the Huntsman is visually compelling, with some good action moments but lacks great characters and fluid pacing. The film is a new, supposedly darker take on the classic Snow White story – Snow White is a prisoner after Ravenna seduces and kills her father. However, as she comes of age, Snow White is able to escape and takes refuge in the dark forest. The Queen (Ravenna) needs Snow White’s heart to become immortal, so she enlists The Huntsman (who seemingly has no name) for his knowledge of the dark forest to lead her men in finding Snow White. However, once The Huntsman lays eyes on her, he is enchanted by her beauty and rallies to her cause helping her to further escape. But, the Queen will stop at nothing to regain Snow White and consume her heart, while Snow White tries to gather an army of her own and take back her kingdom. Director Rupert Sanders gets a lot of things right, especially the look for this fairytale action adventure. The world of the film is stepped in magic, fantastical creatures, knights, and castles. To some extent, the film at different moments feels like past releases (especially, Willow and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) and somewhat lacks its own identity (a bit like 2010’s Clash of the Titans which was trying too hard to be a mix of Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers and not its own thing). Sanders does a good job introducing the world and characters and the final battle is well done, but in between the opening and the third act the film drags horribly. Not only does it meander along seemingly wasting time until the final confrontation, but it also does not take the opportunity to flesh out the characters of Snow White, The Huntsman and Ravenna (all three of which are fairly weak, depending solely on the actors’ performances walking, running and yelling – providing only exposition and being almost completely void of real dramatic moments). From the time Snow White escapes the castle in the first act until she encounters the dwarves (who are one of the bright spots in the film), the narrative trudges almost to a complete stop, killing all momentum and interest in the characters and story. Thus, when the third act finally does arrive, as enthralling as it is, the audience no longer cares and there are no real stakes as a result. The relationship between Ravenna and Snow White is ripe with dramatic possibility, but utterly squandered. Though, Ravenna is probably the most interesting character in the film, as she appears at different moments both evil and power hungry and emotionally weathered and even scared and fragile. It is an interesting dichotomy that could have been further explored. As for Snow White, there is no real internal struggle for her, no emotional journey. She is resolute about who she is and what she must do almost right from the get go (which is fine, but does not make for an interesting protagonist). The Huntsman is the only character to go through any kind of emotional change (and even his narrative is not fully exploited or resolved – though, I have read that this is potentially only the first film in a trilogy, which would then makes sense of why the ending is the way it is for the characters). The slow pacing and lack of complexity to the characters greatly detracts from the wonderful visuals, varying locations (the dark forest, a magical fairyland – that seems like something out of an old Disney film, a Lord of the Rings-like mountain side, and castles) and battle scenes. Snow White and the Huntsman is entertaining, visually superb and an almost great retelling for the classic story (and certainly better than Mirror Mirror from earlier in the year), but its major deficiencies overpower what could have been something special (there is probably a great film in there somewhere).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Rupert Sanders makes his feature film debut with Snow White and the Huntsman, having a background in commercials. Unfortunately for this film, great visuals do not trump having interesting fleshed out characters and a tight narrative – both areas Sanders needs to work on for his next feature. James Newton Howard’s score reinforces the visual and narrative tone of the film, but has sort of a generic adventure film feel to it and does not stand out (here is a sample). Greig Fraser’s cinematography does exactly what it needs to do. Snow White and Ravenna project beauty corresponding to their character – Snow White is innocent and pure, while Ravenna is more striking and bold. Fraser also does a great job with the different places the narrative takes the characters. His lighting and photography gives them each a unique tone and feel. Dominic Watkins, along the same lines, does a great job designing the look of the film. His sets have the appropriate level and mix of fairytale fantasy and epicenes, while also keeping the characters grounded in the gritty realism of battle (or at least as realistic as a PG-13 rated battle can be). Personally, I really liked the costumes (especially Ravenna’s wardrobe and Snow White’s armor). Colleen Atwood did a fantastic job. The cast, despite the lack of great character moments, is good. All eight of the dwarves are fantastic with Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins standing out. Sam Spruell is great has Ravenna’s emotionally oppressed brother. He plays him to be quite a tragic character. Sam Claflin (who is given almost nothing dramatic to do really, and thus has no depth) plays Snow White’s childhood friend William all grown up fairly straightforward as a heroic rebel striking out against the Queen’s tyranny. Chris Hemsworth is good as The Huntsman, showing off both brawn and sensitivity. Charlize Theron’s performance is easily the most interesting and compelling, but also not entirely great. While she amply portrays both the strength and terror within Ravenna, her performances is mostly comprised of her screaming at other characters, without tact (and maybe that is what Sanders wanted out of the performance). Kristen Stewart (who gets a bad rap for being a lead in the awful Twilight Saga, despite being good in a number of indie films) does a good job with Snow White. She is strong, but maintains the allure and purity of innocence. If only she was given more dramatic work to do.

Summary & score: Snow White and the Huntsman is a spectacle of a film with great battles and visuals, but with weak characters and horrid pacing it is not much more. 6/10

Monday, June 4, 2012

Movie of the Week – Badlands

This week’s movie is Badlands (1973).

The romance drama is about Kit and Holly, two young adults who go on a killing spree in the 1950s (a dramatization of the Starkweather-Fugate spree). It is auteur writer-director Terrence Malick’s feature debut – also commencing his career enduring and fruitful collaboration with production designer Jack Fisk. The film is beautifully shot, Malick working with three directors of photography Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn, showcasing Malick’s talent for deriving meaning juxtaposing his characters to nature. George Aliceson Tipton provides a good score as well. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek star with Warren Oates in support, making up a strong cast. Sheen and Spacek give great performances as the young couple that goes off on a violent adventure to escape reality. Spacek in particular is very good, as Holly struggles with her attraction and fear to/of Kit. Above all else, Badlands is a visual and emotional experience and journey for the viewer evoking deep resonating feelings. Not only is it a must-see for fans of Malick’s work, but also for those looking for a film that strives for more than superficial meaning. Check out the trailer.

Available on DVD