Friday, November 30, 2012

Alicia Keys – Girl on Fire (2012) – Review

Review: Girl on Fire is Alicia Keys’s fifth album, following up The Element of Freedom (which I liked a lot), an album in which she brought a new sound to her music, working with producer Jeff Bhasker (who works extensively with Kanye West, especially on his 808s & Heartbreak album).

For Girl on Fire, Keys presents a multifaceted sound (though, for the most part relaxed). It both encompasses the modern R&B sound that Keys brought forth with The Elements of Freedom and has a classical jazz/soul feel. This is an easy-listening album, which invites the listener to just sit back and take in (basking in its light – so to speak). However, fans of Keys’s old work are still probably not going to be happy, as it is clear she has moved on to a new overall sound as she has grown and developed as an artist. Keys works with an array of great producers on the album (including: Jamie xx, Darkchild, Swizz Beatz, Dr. Dre, Jeff Bhasker, Salaam Remi, Pop Wansel and Oakwud, and Malay), but there is still a unified feel, as Keys also produces many of the songs herself.

Lyrically, Keys sings about female empowerment, heartbreak and love – all typical topics in her music. It is clear that she is in a happy place in her life. Along with writing much of the music and lyrics herself, Keys also works with fantastic song writers on the album (including: John Legend, Bruno Mars, Babyface, and Frank Ocean).

While Girl on Fire does not change the game or set Alicia Keys alone as R&B’s greatest female artist, it is still a strong album and one of the best in its genre this year. I think it is an album that will only get better with time, as it seems to grow on me with each listen. It is well worth checking out. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Girl on Fire (Inferno Version) – Produced by Alicia Keys, Salaam Remi and Jeff Bhasker, featuring Nicki Minaj
2)      101 – Produced by Alicia Keys
3)      New Day – Produced by Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre

Available on: CD and Digital Download

Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie of the Week – All About Eve

This week’s movie: All About Eve (1950).

The film is about a young actress, Eve, who befriends an established but aging star of the stage (Margo) and her theatre friends. Manipulating those around her, Eve inserts herself in Margo’s place as the lead in the next big production.

Four time Oscar winner (including two for this film), writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz does a fantastic job with his characters. At first Eve appears innocent and Margo the villain, but as the film progresses the tables are turned is an utterly compelling fashion. While All About Eve is Mankiewicz’s greatest film, his work on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, A Letter to Three Wives, 5 Fingers, and Sleuth is top-notch as well.

Mankiewicz worked with composer Alfred Newman, cinematographer Milton Krasner, art directors George W. Davis and Lyle Wheeler, and legendary costume designer Edith Head (who also won an Oscar for this) on the film.

The cast is also fantastic. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are both brilliant in the leads, while George Sanders (who won an Oscar), Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, and Marilyn Monroe are all great in support.

All in all, All About Eve won six Oscars, including Best Picture. It is one of the best character dramas in film history and a must-see for fans of classic films and wonderful leading performances.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln (2012) – Review

Review: Lincoln is a historical political drama built on wonderful performances and historical significance that still resonates today. The film is about President Abraham Lincoln’s battle within the House of Representatives to pass the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution (essentially making it illegal to own slaves, among other things) before the end of the Civil War (which, in its fourth year, saw the South beginning to wane considerably), as with the war ended it would be much more difficult (negotiating the peace with the South).

Director Steven Spielberg has structured the film to be essentially a political drama centered around the struggle to pass a piece of legislation – a historic piece of legislation but one nonetheless – and thus the connection to the main narrative journey for the audience comes from whether or not they care about the consequences if the legislation does not pass. Spielberg faces a difficult challenge from the start, as this being famous (in at least that everyone knows that Lincoln freed the slaves, in simple terms) informs the audience of the outcome before the film even starts. Thus, the audience must be drawn into the story by more than just the outcome of the narrative. Spielberg accomplishes this by also making the film a character piece focusing on Lincoln (not so much biographically looking at his career, but more about the man himself, his personality).

Looking first at how the film works as a political drama, excusing the fact that the audience already knows how it ends, the film achieves its narrative goals but lacks a powerful deeper dramatic impact. Its main flaw comes from how Spielberg manages the tone of the film. For the most part, the film is presented as a very serious drama with grave consequences to the actions of the characters, matching the backdrop of the very bloody and devastating Civil War ravishing the country – the stakes could not be higher. Plus, the importance of passing the amendment in the House quickly (as it had already been passed in the Senate), a main narrative point that sets the plot and characters in motion, stems from Lincoln’s understanding that the North mostly agrees that making slavery illegal will help end the war, but if the South is going to surrender in short order then the amendment is not necessarily essential (as Democrats and conservative Republicans do not support it as adamantly as liberal Republicans). Thus if the amendment is going to pass at all, it needs to happen before the South begins its surrender (and thus the urgency). Spielberg is able to convey how critical the urgency is, but Washington D.C. in the film seems unaffected by the war. Yes, there are graphic images of the war, but for the most part it feels very removed from the drama in the film. Spielberg uses an almost playful tone in many of the political scenes (especially those featuring Bilbo, Latham and Schell and their mission to buy votes – though, these are among the most fun moments in the film, but should we be talking about fun moments in a serious political drama?), which undermines the tension that he is otherwise building. The House is also comprised of laughable caricatures, with many of the representatives (particularly the Democrats) portrayed as exaggerated buffoons (again, how can the audience take the film seriously with characters such as these). The film at moments feels like a political farce, like In the Loop, and yet, again, the stakes could not be higher (is Spielberg really making a satire addressing today’s political climate?). It is as if Spielberg is worried that the film will be overly dramatically weighty and wants to infuse light moments into the narrative to allow the audience to breath (especially given the film’s long runtime). However, this is ultimately problematic because the audience no longer feels just how important the passing of the amendment is (even if they intellectually understand it) nor do they feel the grave pressure that the war is putting on all of the characters, as the whole political drama is presented to them as a satire of sorts tonally. The saving grace of the drama however comes in the form of a few serious characters that convey the full weight of what is going on (namely Thaddeus Stevens), but it is not quite enough.

 To compliment the political drama structure of the film, Spielberg lays a character study of Lincoln on top, giving the audience a look into the man. The tone of the character work juxtaposed to the political drama (satire) does not always mesh well (as the character stuff is seldom light), often leaving these moments of the film feeling overly tedious and slow (especially those involving Mary Todd Lincoln). Spielberg wants to give the audience a full understanding of Lincoln, not just his role in politics but also his personal life (reminding me of the HBO miniseries John Adams in this way). However, despite how good the performances are, the film is first structured as a political drama and thus the character moments should play into the narrative of getting the amendment passed (and for the most part they do), everything else is not needed. Lincoln’s interactions with his family, which Spielberg uses to develop the character, add very little to the film, even detracting from it greatly as they drag down the pacing, because they do not inform Lincoln’s decision-making process in regards to the main narrative, they are merely present as fluff (and thus unnecessary). It is as if Spielberg presents Lincoln as a great man accomplishing great things in spite of his personal family drama, even going so far as to have Mary say as much. Yet, Lincoln seems unaffected by his personal life when it comes to his handling of the affairs of state, which again makes these moments narratively and dramatically unneeded. The audience never feels the toll that his personal life has on him (because it seems to have none). Spielberg does have some great character moments as well, however, specifically those featuring one of Lincoln’s many stories (wonderfully illustrating both the man and his thoughts on particular matters). The stories reveal much more emotional character detail about Lincoln that resonates with the audience in relation to the film’s main narrative. If Spielberg wanted to dive deeper into the character, the film should have been structured as a character piece primarily, not centering all the dramatic tension and action on the passing of the amendment, or sought out a longer format to tell a more in-depth story (like a miniseries).

These two main faults do hold Lincoln back from being great, as despite its grand scale, social relevance and overall strong filmmaking (though, I would argue that the finale image in the film is very sloppy, including the awkward dissolve) it is far too tedious, infuriatingly so. The film is filled with beautiful, powerful and electric images and scenes, but is constantly undermined and compromised emotionally by slow pacing (resulting from a flabby secondary narrative) and an uneven tone.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Spielberg is a master of Hollywood filmmaking. What that means is that he is the master of making grand event films that are both highly entertaining and dramatically impactful (regardless of the genre, be them blockbusters or serious dramas). With Lincoln, Spielberg certainly tries to achieve this balance, which probably accounts for the lighter tone and caricature-like characters in a number of the scenes juxtaposed to the serious social and political importance of the narrative – i.e. he is trying to make a blockbuster serious drama. However, the film is quite flawed, and thus should not be counted among his best Hollywood dramas (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich), and yet it is still impressive.

John Williams’s score gives Lincoln an added emotional depth. It has a weight to it, which coveys to the audience the significance of the characters and events taking place. Williams also gives Lincoln a classic theme (maybe not among his best, but a fitting one nonetheless). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s lighting gives the film an overall an almost cheerless feel, matching the season in which it is set (being the dead of winter) and general mood surrounding the country (that of devastating war). However, it does clash a bit with the tone at times. In terms of shot composition, Kaminski’s photography is fantastic. Lincoln is often cast in shadow or in silhouette, playing off his famous features. Rick Carter’s production design compliments the cinematography adding a very realistic grit and grim to the images. The world of 1865 was a very dirty place, and Spielberg, Carter and Kaminski are not afraid to present a more realistic look for the period (instead of the usual gloss that Hollywood films have) with faded colors, dirt and incessant shadows clouding everything in darkness and gloom. Overall, the film is very strong aesthetically.

The acting throughout Lincoln is very good (even if some of the performances tend towards the side of caricature). It has a massive supporting cast with many great and well-known actors. However, James Spader (sorting of playing an 1865 version of his The Office character Robert California) steals almost all his scenes and is very entertaining (the montage retellings of his Bilbo et al. acquiring votes is hilarious and completely engaging). Lee Pace (playing the vocally opposing Democrat Fernando Wood) is also fantastic and highly entertaining. David Strathairn (playing Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, who was also targeted for assassination on April 14th, 1865 but his assailant failed) has the difficult role of being the audience’s in to what is going on, being forced to mainly convey exposition and context. However, Strathairn is still very good often playing devil’s advocate to Lincoln. Sally Field has a thankless (and grating) role playing Mary Todd Lincoln, left to be an irritation (both for the audience and) in her husband’s life. She does accomplish being annoying (so I guess she played her role well?). Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant in the film, playing a man (Thaddeus Stevens) that must comprise his beliefs to ultimately take the first step forward. He is able to exist both in the exaggerated silliness of the House arguments and still maintain an emotional connection with the audience (it is quietly the best performance in the film). As always, Daniel Day-Lewis completely embodies his character (in this case Abraham Lincoln). Every line of dialog or movement feels organic. It is a tough task to take on such an iconic historical figure, but Day-Lewis brings so much humanity to Lincoln that the audience leaves the film feeling like they really got a sense of the man.

Summary & score: Lincoln in many ways is a triumph and a disappointment. 7/10

Monday, November 19, 2012

Movie of the Week – Gone with the Wind

This week’s movie: Gone with the Wind (1939).

The epic is about Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern belle who will do just about whatever it takes to survive the Civil War and come out on top, including carrying on a love affair with the roguish Rhett Butler.

Directed by Victor Fleming and produced by David O. Selznick, the film was a grand undertaking. Many aspects of the film are iconic, from the performances to Max Steiner’s score and Ernest Haller’s cinematography (which is phenomenal – especially considering that this is one of the early color films). William Cameron Menzies’s production design is also brilliant as it captures the war torn South.

Vivien Leigh stars, with Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard co-starring. Hattie McDaniel (the first African American to be nominated and win an Oscar) and Thomas Mitchell are also fantastic in support.

The film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Gone with the Wind is not only one of the great achievements in cinema history, it also holds up as a wonderfully acted romance epic. Epics (like this and Lawrence of Arabia, among others) are just not made anymore, which is too bad. I recommend this for anyone looking to have a working knowledge of film history, as this is truly one of Hollywood’s masterpieces.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Weeknd – Trilogy (2012) – Review

Review: Canadian artist The Weeknd (singer/producer Abel Tesfaye) exploded onto the R&B/pop scene in 2011 releasing three brilliant mixtapes: House of Balloons (probably the best album of 2011), Thursday and Echoes of Silence. Trilogy represents all three tapes plus three new bonus tracks combined and remastered.

If you followed music in 2011 (and are a fan of pop and/or R&B), you probably have already downloaded the three mixtapes for free from The Weeknd’s website (though, now they are no longer available there), or at least you should have. If you have, then Trilogy might not be necessary aside from the three bonus tracks, which are all good. The remasted mixtapes sound great, but are slightly different in some places as unlicensed samples (like Aaliyah’s Rock the Boat) have been dropped.

However, if you do not have The Weeknd’s three mixtapes then Trilogy is an absolute must-have. Meant as a trilogy, the three tapes make up a story about a somewhat tragic lifestyle of partying and then self-loathing in the wake of coming down. Trilogy’s complete three hours takes the listener on an emotionally taxing sonic journey, ripe with numb sadness, adulation, debauchery, and emotional release.

Musically, Trilogy is incredible. The Weeknd primarily works with Canadian producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo crafting a dense sonic experience. Drake and Juicy J (somewhat randomly) are the only featured artists.

The Weeknd (building off The-Dream’s sound a bit) was the breakthrough artist of 2011 (and probably the best artist of 2011 too). Trilogy is a brilliant work of art. 5/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Twenty Eight – Produced by Doc McKinney & Illangelo
2)      Valerie – Produced by Doc McKinney & Illangelo
3)      Till Dawn (Here Comes the Sun) – Produced by Doc McKinney & Illangelo

Available on: CD and Digital Download

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Crystal Castles – (III) (2012) – Review

Review: Canadian group Crystal Castles is made up of vocalist Alice Glass and producer Ethan Kath. Their great electronic albums (Crystal Castles and Crystal Castles [II]) and intense live shows have put them at the forefront of the genre.

With their third album (III), Crystal Castles has continued their brand of infectious beats and hypnotizing (sometimes shrill) vocals. The first two albums have a notable rawness and emotional intensity to them. (III) seems to be a bit softer sonically and not nearly as abrasive, but there is still an edge to the music. Lyrically, however, Glass is very aggressive in her political and social stances. Emotionally, the album feels very bleak, as if the world is crumbling around the listener and there is nothing that can be done about it. One can only look on in sadness and terror.

The songwriting is also much more refined on (III) making it musically their most accessible album. However, the thing that has changed for Crystal Castles is that when their first album came out in 2008 there was nothing else that sounded like them. Now, having been very influential on a multitude of groups, there is a ton of music that sounds like them, and yet Crystal Castles still has a uniqueness to their sound.

Crystal Castles is still at the top of their genre, and maybe have a crossover hit with (III). It is a fantastic album and well worth checking out for fans of electronic music. 4/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Wrath of God
2)      Affection
3)      Sad Eyes

Available on: CD and Digital Download

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Skyfall (2012) – Review

Review: Skyfall is a great James Bond adventure, filled with strong characters, nostalgic throwbacks and great franchise moments. The film is about a washed-up Bond, severely injured on his last assignment and maybe his heart is just not in it anymore. However, he is called back into action when a man named Silva personally attacks MI6, and M specifically. His loyalty to M is tested both because of her connection to Silva and the role she played in his last assignment.

The Bond franchise has somewhat changed in its fifty years and twenty-three films, but the general idea of what a good Bond film should be has stayed mostly the same: Bond is a cold-blooded spy, who has a way with the ladies and seemingly always gets his man (target). Bond films thusly should be cool, with attractive women, stylish cars and neat gadgets, and action packed – above all very entertaining. Bond films often have huge action set pieces, multiple international locations and impressive sets (innovated and imagined by the great Ken Adam).

With Casino Royale, the franchise was rebooted to reflect a more modern and grittier more realistic Bond (doing away with the pageantry and many of the characters, like Q and Moneypenny; also gone were the gadgets, over-the-top super villains and their lairs, and maybe even some of Bond’s swagger). The film presented Bond as not being completely comfortable in his role (not exactly fitting the lifestyle or being quite as cold-blooded – i.e. being affected by the death of people around him).

Sam Mendes’s Skyfall keeps the same Bond from Casino Royale (and its follow-up) but feels much more like a classic Bond film. It is chock-full of references and homages to past Bond films (especially those in the Sean Connery era). The film even brings back many of the staples of the franchise. Yet, it is again a very personal story (like its two predecessors). Thus, Mendes has created a hybrid of sorts: a more emotionally available Bond that the audience can connect with on a more personal level (rather than merely just being a cool action hero) mixed with the classic conventions that make the series great (especially for its fans). It works very well.

Narratively, the film takes a while to get going. As with the other films in the franchise, Skyfall opens with a big action set piece prologue. However, Mendes wants to also include a lot of character information into this sequence, but without losing all the action. In Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the openings also had action and character information (which was told particularly efficiently in the former), but in Skyfall the scene just seems to go on too long. The audience is told that Bond does not agree with M’s position on putting the mission ahead of her people and that maybe he is on the back nine of his career (seemingly having lost a step). The best opening sequences have showcased the character in sort of a cinematic vignette – the audience gets a sense of the character (or actor’s style playing Bond) and sees him do something exciting to draw them in and hook them in an efficient manner. With the last two films, these scenes have just felt too long. The audience does not know the stakes (especially in this film – at least with Quantum of Solace it starts right where Casino Royale ends) and thus is not invested (at least more than superficially, as they root for Bond because he is Bond and they know the character going in), leaving the opening to feel boring (even if the action is impressive) because it goes on too long. This is a classic case in modern action films of quantity over quality. This opening could have been much more effective if told more economically. There is plenty of time later in the narrative for showy action. Plus, not only is the scene too long, but then it goes right into the title sequence (dragging out the film even longer before the audience really gets into the story).

However, even with all that said, once Mendes gets into the characters and Bond on his mission, the film becomes quite good. Mendes’s skill as a filmmaker is in getting wonderful performances from his actors and creating dynamic scenes. Many of the most electric moments in this film come from scenes in which two characters are just talking. Bond’s conversation with Severine in the casino or his first meeting with Silva are by far more engaging and thrilling than any action sequence in this film. This is not a knock against the action set pieces. For the most part, they are great. This is more in admiration for what Mendes has brought to the film (and franchise). His characters are utterly compelling and well-drawn (which is usually not the case in action films). Silva is among the best villains in the series as a result of the care taken with his character and the performance Mendes garnered. Story-wise, he is really no different than any other psychotic that Bond is sent after. Silva is truly frightening. It is the approach Mendes takes, treating him as a full character, that makes him great, and really what makes the film great.

The dramatic journeys for the film’s main characters have an emotional resonance to them. M seeks redemption. Silva needs resolution in his twisted relationship with M, who is a mother figure to him (and also to Bond in many ways). And for Bond, he must prove that he not only wants to but also physically can remain a 00-agent, while also working through his own issues with M. The film is so effective, because the audience sees what the characters motivations are and gets to know them on a deeper level (and thereby care about them). More so than other Bond films, the audience has an emotional stake in the characters, which is more effective than the grandest of action set pieces.

Going into the film with Mendes at the helm, there may have been some concern about whether or not he could direct an entertaining action film (due to no prior experience on this scale). The action set pieces are mostly very good (not the best in the franchise, but not the worst). Again, the prologue felt too long and logistically/strategically the finale seemed poorly planned for a top agent (for example: why did Bond not bring more weapons or call for backup on the down-low? – maybe there was not time, even if there seemed to be, and maybe he did not trust anyone; it just felt needlessly reckless). It also has sort of a Straw Dogs/Home Alone vibe to it, which feels odd for a James Bond film. However, the finale works very well from a character and narrative standpoint (which is more important). However, again, the action scenes are really secondary, even in an action film (assuming the film also wants to be actually good), to the characters and Mendes does fantastic work with them.

Skyfall bridges the franchise from (the reboot) Casino Royale (which is Bond’s first mission) to something more along the lines for the classic Bond adventures fans are used to (reestablishing many of the series institutions), while still keeping the character more emotionally accessible to audience. It is among the best in the series.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Sam Mendes’s James Bond film feels like an aesthetically and dramatically more impressive film than most in the franchise. As expressed multiple times in the review above, he does a brilliant job with the characters and performances, but he also gives the film a very dramatically weighty tone. There is a real sense of peril for the characters (and thereby the audience). This is not just a lightweight fun action romp. The drama is powerful and the tension gripping. Probably unlike any Bond film before, Mendes has made a film where the characters and their moments are more thrilling than the action spectacle.

Thomas Newman’s score combines moments from past Bond scores with his own original work. Many of the pieces have sort of an adventure film vibe to them, while other conform more to the typical Bond-style music. It is different than any other Bond score I can remember, but still works well with the film emphasizing the dramatic moments and action/character beats. Dennis Gassner’s production design fits well with Mendes’s blending of the ‘new’ Bond with the classic Bond (much like Newman’s score). The film still has a very realistic look to it, but many of the sets have a great exaggerated and grandiose feel to them (like the awesome abandoned island, which looks a bit like the city Cobb and Mal created in Inception, but after the dream has collapsed). However, Roger Deakins’s cinematography blows everything else away (probably even overshadowing the film). His work is beautiful and rich (from the sci-fi feel of the action scene in Shanghai and the striking colors of the Macau casino to the ghostly and weary glow of the moor in Scotland). It is easily among the best work I have seen this year (if not the best hands down this year).

The cast is excellent. Albert Finney, Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes are all good in small supporting roles, while Ben Whishaw and Berenice Marlohe (her conversation with Bond in Macau is magnetic and fantastic) steal scenes (also in support). Judi Dench is given her biggest and most dramatically compelling role in the series, and does wonderfully with it. She appears more vulnerable in this than any other film, but still with an overcurrent of strength and resolve. Javier Bardem is just brilliantly amazing at playing villains and having a blast with them. His Silva far dwarfs any other in the rebooted Bond franchise (and maybe in the whole series) in terms of bringing to life a character that actually seems like a legitimate threat to Bond. Every scene with Bardem is better because he is in it; he is completely captivating. Daniel Craig is again quite good as James Bond. He has a great physicality to him that makes everything feel more realistic, but he also allows the audience to see chinks in his armor, which gives them an in and lets them relate to him. All in all, the performances in this film are top notch and well above what is to be expected.

Summary & score: Yes, Skyfall is the fun and entertaining James Bond film the fans want (full of pithy wit, cool cars, beautiful women, and great action), but it is also so much more. It has remarkably engaging characters and enticing drama as well. 8/10

Monday, November 12, 2012

Movie of the Week – Aliens

This week’s movie: Aliens (1986).

The action sci-fi adventure sequel to Alien is about Ripley’s return, after being in stasis for fifty seven years, to the planet on which she encountered the deadly alien species that killed everyone else in her crew. Only this time, it has been colonized by miners who are in grave danger and have lost contact. Ripley joins a group of marines with the mission of rescuing any survivors.

The film is written and directed by James Cameron (following up his breakthrough hit The Terminator), who brought a lot more of an action-film vibe to it, compared to Alien. It features a score from James Horner, cinematography from Adrian Biddle and production design from Peter Lamont.

It stars Sigourney Weaver, with Carrie Henn (they mostly come at night… mostly), Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton (That’s it man, game over man, game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now?), and Jenette Goldstein in support.

While Ridley Scott’s Alien is more of a hard sci-fi thriller/horror film, Aliens is much more a fun and entertaining (and personally I like it more). It is a must-see for fans of sci-fi action movies, as this is one of the best (try seeing the director’s cut).

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sam Mendes – Movies Spotlight – November 2012

Sam Mendes, 47, is probably best known as a great dramatic director, making films that typically compete for Oscars come awards season. This month, Mendes’s new film Skyfall marks a completely different direction for the director – an action spy thriller. Having never made an action movie before, Mendes seems like an odd choice to front the new James Bond adventure. However, given his talent with actors and stage background (plus, he is British), I think the choice is inspired, and Skyfall very well could be the best Bond film yet. It stars Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, and Berenice Marlohe. Watch there trailer here.

Early Career:

Mendes studied at Peterhouse within the University of Cambridge. He got his start when he joined the Marlowe Society at Cambridge, directing several stage plays including Cyrano de Bergerac. From there, he went on the Royal Shakespeare Company where he directed Troilus and Cressida, Richard III and The Tempest. Mendes also directed a few West End plays and worked as an assistant director for the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Mendes continued to have success as a stage director. In 1990, he was appointed the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London. His first production was Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in 1992. He then did John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, which received four Olivier Award nominations (and a couple Tony Award wins). Mendes’s acclaim endured with productions of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass menagerie, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Alan Bennet’s Habeas Corpus, and his farewell double-feature Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Having succeeded on stage, Mendes looked to next try his luck at film-directing.

Collaborations with Conrad Hall:

For Mendes’s first film, he teamed up with playwright and TV writer Alan Ball, also looking to make the jump to film. The film was American Beauty. Ball was impressed with Mendes’s revival of Cabaret and wanted him to directed, but Mendes had a tough time convincing DreamWorks’ production executives. Finally, the studio came around and offered Mendes the film (but after Robert Zemeckis and Mike Nichols had already turned it down). His work on the film is top notch (winning an Oscar for Best Director), especially his collaborations with composer Thomas Newman (whose score is fantastic) and particularly cinematographer Conrad Hall (who won an Oscar for the film as well). In addition to Mendes’s directing and Hall’s cinematography Oscar, the film won Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Leading Actor for Kevin Spacy. One film in, and Sam Mendes was already on top in Hollywood.

For his next project, Mendes decided to direct the screen adaptation of Max Allan Collins’s graphic novel Road to Perdition. He liked that the story had no moral absolutes and found it to be the most interesting of the prospects he was exploring (which included A Beautiful Mind, which won Best Picture in 2002). Steven Spielberg had brought the film to DreamWorks, but could not direct it himself due to his full slate; however Tom Hanks and writer David Self had joined the project. With Mendes taking over as director and producer, he brought his American Beauty team of composer Thomas Newman and director of photography Conrad Hall with him. While the film did not achieve quite the same level of acclaim for Mendes as American Beauty, it is still a fascinating film (and maybe even an infuriating one, as it is so close to being amazing but not quite there) – built on great performances (including Paul Newman’s last great role), deft directing and brilliant visuals (Hall’s cinematography is among the decade’s best), but with some narrative issues.

One of the great things to come out of Sam Mendes’s first two films was the resurgence of Conrad Hall. He is one of the great cinematographers in film history (winning three Oscars, two working with Mendes, and seven additional nominations). Mendes’s films, especially Road to Perdition, revitalized Hall allowing his work to reach new heights. Sadly, he died six months after Road to Perdition was released.

Mendes took a break from film following the death of Hall to direct the revival of the musical Gypsy in New York.

Continuing to Make Great Films:

Mendes made his return to film in 2005 to direct Jarhead, his most polarizing film (and my least favorite of his work). It is also his first film to not be nominated for (or win) an Oscar.

Next, Mendes was given the script for Revolutionary Road (and the novel by Richard Yates that it is based on) by his (then) wife Kate Winslet. She wanted to play the lead and the film’s producer Scott Rudin wanted Mendes to direct. It went into production immediately after Winslet got her friend Leonardo DiCaprio to star opposite her (marking their first reunion following Titanic). Mendes again brought Thomas Newman onto the project and cinematographer Roger Deakins (both of whom also worked on Jarhead and are working on Skyfall). The film features some of the best performances of 2008 (I would argue that Michael Shannon’s supporting work is second only to Heath Ledger’s the Joker) and powerful melodrama. It is very underrated.

Mendes’s last film of the decade (and last before Skyfall) saw him make a decidedly different film than his typical Hollywood prestige films. Away We Go is a sparse indie dramedy. Mendes also used an unfamiliar principal crew, when in the past he collaborated with the same people over and over. The film was met with mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts (though, I think that it is fairly charming – even if the characters are somewhat elitist).

Producing Projects:

In addition to producing his own films (Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road), Mendes has also produced a few features: Starter for 10, Things We Lost in the Fire and The Kite Runner, as well as the current British TV miniseries The Hollow Crown.


Mendes is returning to the stage in 2013 with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, set to open at the London Palladium in June. Mendes is also working with his Skyfall screenwriter John Logan again, as they are developing a TV series about an 1800s Vampire Hunter. Mendes is apparently considering returning to direct another Bond film as well.

Career Highlights:

1)      American Beauty (1999) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
2)      Road to Perdition (2002) – director, producer (Blu-ray, DVD)
3)      Revolutionary Road (2008)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
4)      Away We Go (2009) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

TV Series of the Month – Skins (First Generation)

TV Series of the Month: Skins – First Generation (2007-2008)

Skins is a British teen drama focusing on students in college (the British equivalent to our junior and senior year of high school in the States – basically the university preparatory years). Currently, the series is on its seventh series (which will feature characters from all past generations). It has gone through three generations, as the cast is different every two seasons. Thus, generation one’s story is told in series one and two.

The show is told from the perspective of the teens, and thus the adult characters often come off as absurd (with particular characteristics exaggerated). The teens deal with the stresses of growing up, first relationships, school, and just being at an awkward age. While the show has a very party-going and hip bunch (versus say The Inbetweeners, another good British teen series), it tackles the drama of being a teenager very well and tells wonderful stories with its diverse cast.

Skins was created by Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain (he only worked on series 1-5, but is returning for 7, its last). The entire series is filled with fantastic young actors, but generation one has yielded many up and coming stars. The main cast includes: Nicholas Hoult (who has since starred in A Single Man and X-Men: First Class, and has WarmBodies upcoming), Joe Dempsie (who has since taken a role in Game of Thrones), Mike Bailey, Hannah Murray (who took a role in Game of Thrones and is set to return to Skins in series 7), April Pearson, Larissa Wilson, Dev Patel (who starred in Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and is now on The Newsroom), and Mitch Hewer. The first two series also have great reoccurring characters (headlined by Kaya Scodelario who became a main character in series 3 and 4 and is returning in series 7, and also features Giles Thomas, Georgina Moffat, Peter Capaldi, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, and Lisa Backwell, who also became a main cast member in seasons 3 and 4).

Skins is one of the best teen-centric dramas on TV, unafraid to delve deeply and unflinchingly into the drugs, sex, music, intense emotions, and comedy of today’s teens (when most TV shows are tame) and the overall experience of being a teen, which is very relatable as we all went through it. It is a must-see for fans of teen dramas and comedies. It also has a brilliant soundtrack (see here).

Trailer: Here