Wednesday, March 27, 2013

William Wyler – Hollywood Legends – March 2013

William Wyler is one of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs. Over the course of his directing career, spanning five decades, he directed three Best Picture Winners, while winning three Best Director Oscars (on twelve nominations). Only three filmmakers have three or more Best Director wins (John Ford, 4, and Frank Capra, 3, are the other two). His twelve nominations are also the most all-time (Billy Wilder is second with eight). Wyler is also remembered for working with a slew of great actors and actresses (he worked with Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn three times each, for example).

Early Career, 1920s:

Wyler was born in the year 1902 in Mulhouse, Alsace (then part of the German-Empire), but after WWI he decided to leave Europe and come to America. He worked as a messenger in New York for Universal Picture, which a cousin of his, Carl Laemmle, founded.

He then came out to Hollywood in 1923 with dreams of being a director, but first had to start at the bottom working in the swing gang (cleaning stages and building and taking down sets). He began to work his way up becoming a second assistant editor and then a third assistant director. By 1925 he had become the youngest director at Universal Pictures, directing Westerns.

This was during the silent era of cinema, and Wyler garnered tons of experience directing over thirty films in four years. His first takie was The Shakedown. Proving himself a solid director, he started to be given higher profile films with bigger actors.

Initial Acclaim, 1930s:

Wyler scored his first critical hit with 1933’s Counsellor at Law starring John Barrymore. The film is about a successful lawyer who has to suddenly face his background (his Jewish heritage and poverty-stricken past) when he learns his wife has been cheating on him. Paul Muni (who starred in the original Scarface) turned down the role because he did not want to play a Jewish character. However, Wyler took on the film, being of Jewish decent himself.

Wyler next left Universal Pictures to work with Samuel Goldwyn first making Dodsworth with Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and David Niven. The film is about a retired couple that goes on vacation, the husband only agreeing to please his wife who is vain and uses the trip to flirt with other men. It is one of his most enduring and beloved films of the period. Wyler received his first Best Director nomination for the film.

With Dead End, Wyler made his first gangster film (a very popular genre at the time) about an unemployed architect who interacts with well-known gangster Baby Face Martin over the course of a day in their East Side neighborhood. It stars Humphrey Bogart (in one of his best early roles). The film is also notable due to it being one of his early collaborations with cinematographer Gregg Toland (who is maybe the greatest in cinema history – developing deep focus). Wyler would collaborate with Toland six times (Toland winning his only Oscar for Wyler’s Wuthering Heights despite his brilliant career, including: The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives).

By 1938, Wyler had developed a tendency for doing a lot of takes – Bette Davis nicknaming him ’90-take Wyler’. Along with Wyler doing a lot of takes, he also had a reputation for garnering excellent performances out of his actors. Working with Davis for the first time, he directed Jezebel, which also starred Henry Fonda. The film is about a headstrong Southern woman who loses her fiancé due to her stubborn vanity and pride. However, she vows to get him back. Davis won a Best Actress Oscar for the film – she is one of thirteen to win Oscars under Wyler’s direction.

For his last great film of the 1930s, he directed an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s gothic novel Wuthering Heights about the unfortunate tale of lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe. The film stars Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven. Olivier was one of Britain’s most accomplished and admired stage actors when he first came to Hollywood to make this film; however, despite his talent, he credits Wyler with teaching him how to act in films on this project (he was nominated for an Oscar for the film, but did not win).

One of Hollywood’s Finest Filmmakers and War, 1940s:

In 1940, Wyler returned to his cinematic roots with the western The Westerner starting Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. The film is about a self-appointed hanging judge in Texas and a saddle tramp who opposes his policy against homesteaders. Despite their differences they develop a friendship.

Next, he directed the film-noir crime drama The Letter, again working with Bette Davis. The film is about a wife who shoots a man to death and claims self-defense. However, a letter surfaces and with it her potential undoing. The film is also interesting as it takes place in colonial Singapore, which gives it a different feel and flare (much how Casablanca taking place in Morocco adds a certain edge to the film).

Wyler then directed one of his best films in The Little Foxes, again starring Bette Davis (their final collaboration together). It is also the film debut of Teresa Wright (who would work with Wyler three times). It is about a ruthless, wealthy Southern clan who poisons their region of the Deep South with their greed and scheming.

With Mrs. Miniver, Wyler won his first Best Director Oscar and the film Best Picture (winning six in total). It stars Greer Garson (who also won an Oscar for Best Actress), Walter Pidgeon, and Teresa Wright (who won an Oscar as well for Best Supporting Actress – she was nominated for Oscars in her first three performances, winning one). The film is about the plight of Britain in the first few months of WWII as shown through a middle-class family. To some extent, it can be viewed as a propaganda film rallying support for England – and it did. Winston Churchill claimed that the film had done more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers. The film is very dramatically powerful with great characters. It is still among the best war films ever made.

Becoming a U.S. citizen in 1928, Wyler enlisted and served as a major in the United States Army Air Force during the war. He made two documentaries: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress and Thunderbolt. During the filming of The Memphis Belle, Wyler and his crew accompanied the aircraft personnel into battle – Wyler lost his ability to hear in one ear and one of his cinematographers was aboard a plane that was shot down and perished (his name was Harold J. Tannenbaum).

Returning from the war, Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives, which seems to perfectly capture the mood and struggle of returning veterans to an America that had been mostly untouched by the horrors of war. It is essential viewing for those interested in WWII. Wyler assembled a fantastic cast with Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, and Virginia Mayo. The film won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (as well as acting Oscars for March and Russell). It also features standout work from cinematographer Gregg Toland.

Moving on from WWII, Wyler next directed The Heiress about a young, wealthy woman who somewhat naively falls for a handsome man who her emotionally controlling father believes is only interested in her for her fortune. It stars Olivia de Havilland (who won an Oscar for Best Actress) and rising star Montgomery Clift. It is an excellent romance drama.

Discovering Audrey and Making an Epic, 1950s:

Wyler had made a name for himself during the 1940s, with two Best Pictures, as one of Hollywood’s biggest talents behind the camera. For his first project of the 1950s he returned to film-noir with the crime drama Detective Story starring Kirk Douglas. The film is about a day in the life of a hard-noised detective.

For his next picture, Wyler decided to shoot a film on location in Rome – something very rare during the studio era of Hollywood (location shooting). The film was Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy about a young princess who runs away to experience a single day in the life of a normal person. She ends up spending the day with a newspaper man who initially just wants the scoop. In addition to starring Gregory Peck, it also introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn (who did have a few small roles prior, but this is the film that launched her career). Wyler has originally wanted Jean Simmons to play the lead, and almost cancelled the film when she was unavailable. However, he saw Hepburn’s screen test and was blown away, casting her immediately despite her limited film experience. During filming, co-star Peck knew that she was fantastic and informed Wyler that she would win an Oscar for her work and that he should put her name ahead of his in the billing – Wyler did and Hepburn did win her first Oscar. Even now, sixty years later, Roman Holiday is the standard by which romantic comedies are judged.

Wyler then again returned to film-noir with the crime drama The Desperate Hours, reuniting him with stars Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. The film about three convicts who terrorize a suburban household has a dark edge to it, and is a great thriller. And then, he made another Western with Gary Cooper called Friendly Persuasion. It is about an Indiana Quaker family in 1862 whose religious values are tried when Southern troops pass their territory. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.

Sticking with westerns, Wyler next made his first epic with The Big Country, about a New England ship captain who arrives in the Old West to marry only to become embroiled in a feud between two families over a piece of land. It stars Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives (who won an Oscar), and Charles Bickford. What makes this western feel epic is Wyler’s ability to present the landscapes as huge bodies of wilderness and the fantastic drama between the characters. The square-off between Peck and Heston is brilliant (as is Peck’s performance).

Next, Wyler made maybe his greatest masterpiece – or at least his biggest – with the grand epic Ben-Hur. The film is a massive, lavish production in the tradition of Hollywood’s best epics (like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone with the Wind). The classic story is that of Ben-Hur a Jewish prince who is betrayed and sent into slavery by a Roman friend only to regain his freedom and come back for revenge. It won eleven Oscars on twelve nominations (eleven Oscars is still a record, though Titanic and The Return of the King tied it), including Best Picture and Best Director. Charlton Heston stars (giving the best performance of his career and winning an Oscar) with a brilliant supporting cast featuring Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, and Hugh Griffith (who also won an Oscar). This is a must-see for all cinema fans.

Winding Down a Career, 1960s:

Leaving epics behind, Wyler collaborated again with Audrey Hepburn remaking his own film These Three based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. These Three, released in the 1930s, was stripped of much of its social dramatic power, but with the remake Wyler could stick much closer to the play. It also stars Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. The social drama is about a troublemaking student at an all-girls school who accuses two teachers of being lesbians. The film is built on its wonderful dramatic performances and (sadly) still seems to have a social relevance today (as people’s ignorance, hate, and fear seem to still reign the day). At the time of its release in 1961, the film’s subject matter was very sensitive and risqué.

For his next film Wyler made something completely different from all his other films with the dark thriller The Collector about a man who kidnaps a young woman and holds her against her will just for the pleasure of having her around (it reminds me of the Peter Seller’s film Hoffman that would come out five years later, though that film is not nearly as dark or creepy). It stars Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar.

Again doing something completely different to his last project, Wyler made How to Steal a Million next, a romantic comedy/heist film (and one of my personal favorites in the genre). Wyler filmed on location in Paris with stars Audrey Hepburn (her third and final collaboration with Wyler), Peter O’Toole, Eli Wallach, and Hugh Griffith. The film is about the daughter of a great art forger who enlists a thief to help her steal her family’s own piece of art on display in a Paris museum to save her father from jail – as the piece is to be inspected by a specialist sure to discover its inauthenticity. Initially, Wyler intended the film to be his follow up to Roman Holiday with Hepburn starring opposite Gregory Peck. He also envisioned a grittier/darker tone and had approached Stanley Kubrick to help, having seen and liked The Killing. As it is, How to Steal a Million is a fun light film that soars on the great chemistry and performances of Hepburn and O’Toole (and Hepburn and Griffith who play daughter and father).

For his last film of note (and second to last of his career), Wyler made the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Funny Girl, with Barbara Streisand making her film debut (reprising her role from Broadway). The film is maybe not the best in what was probably the golden age of big Hollywood musicals (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! all winning Best Picture Oscars during the 1960s), but it is one of the most beloved – mostly thanks to Streisand who won an Oscar for her performance. It also starred Omar Sharif and is about the life of Jewish comedienne Fannie Brice and her rise from the slums of the Lower East Side to the heights of stardom.

Career Highlights:

1)      Counsellor at Law (1933) – director (DVD, Trailer)
2)      Dodsworth (1936) – director (DVD, Trailer)
3)      Dead End (1937) – director (DVD, Trailer)
4)      Jezebel (1938) – director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
5)      Wuthering Heights (1939) – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
6)      The Letter (1940) – director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
7)      The Westerner (1940) – director (DVD, Trailer)
8)      The Little Foxes (1941)* – director (DVD, Trailer)
9)      Mrs. Miniver (1942)* – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
10)   The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)* – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
11)   The Heiress (1949) – director, producer (DVD, Trailer)
12)   Detective Story (1951) – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
13)   Roman Holiday (1953)* – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
14)   The Desperate Hours (1955) – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
15)   The Big Country (1958) – director, producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
16)   Ben-Hur (1959)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
17)   The Children’s Hour (1961) – director, producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
18)   The Collector (1965) – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
19)   How to Steal a Million (1966) – director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
20)   Funny Girl (1968) – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Under Seen in 2012 – Movies Spotlight – March 2013

Every year there are a number of great films that seem to be overlooked due to their small budgets, bad marketing, and/or limited theatrical releases. Here are a few of the best neglected films of 2012 (that you have probably not seen, but should).

Film: Dredd
Director: Pete Travis
Plot Summary: This action film takes place in a dystopian futuristic city overridden by crime in which police officers are judge, jury, and executioner. On a routine call to investigate a murder, a seasoned veteran Judge Dredd and his rookie trainee Anderson find themselves in the middle of tenement controlled by a vicious gang. They have no choice but to fight their way out (and for Dredd that means bring every criminal to justice).
Why You Need to See It: What is most incredible about this film is that the mere idea of a new Judge Dredd project is completely laughable (which is probably why no one saw this film), because the 1995 Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd is so utterly terrible (and a huge disappointment to the fans of the 2000AD comics), and yet Pete Travis, writer Alex Garland, and company have made one of the year’s best action films.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Film: Goon
Director: Michael Dowse
Plot Summary: This sports comedy is about Doug Glatt a club bouncer who finds that he has a real talent for fighting. Exploiting his toughness and team loyalty, he earns a place on a small town minor league hockey team as its enforcer.
Why You Need to See It: Goon is very funny – graphically violent and vulgar, but very funny. It is one of the best sports comedies in some time, and is most akin to genre favorite Slap Shot (as they both deal with minor league hockey goons). What also works fantastically well about the film is how it captures the spirit of playing and travelling as part of a team (the shenanigans and joking).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Director: Ti West
Plot Summary: The Yankee Pedlar Inn in New England is famous for being haunted, but it has fallen on hard times and is closing. During its last weekend open, two employees Claire and Luke are determined to find evidence of supernatural activity in the hotel.
Why You Need to See It: The Innkeepers is thrilling and scary, but this throwback horror film does not rely on cheap tricks to insight its moments of terror. Rather, it slowly builds tension and develops its characters (which gives the viewer more of a stake in the outcome) taking its time to optimize the impact of the third act. It feels like a classic ghost story.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Plot Summary: This drama is about Charlie a high school freshman who is having a hard time. However, everything changes for him when he is taken under the wings of two seniors Sam and Patrick.
Why You Need to See It: On top of the excellent performances from the film’s three main actors, The Perks of Being a Wallflower succeeds because it earnestly addresses the high school experience through drama, comedy, romance, and its wonderful characters. It feels in many ways like a film made by John Hughes at his best.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Plot Summary: This dramedy is about Darius a magazine intern who has felt lost since the death of her mother when she was a child. However, when she is dragged along with another intern by one of the magazine’s writers to work on a story about a man seeking a companion for time travel, she unexpectedly finds something that inspires her again.
Why You Need to See It: Safety Not Guaranteed is a time travel narrative that plays better than most of its big budget contemporaries. It has a wondrous genuine tone that draws the viewer in, to go along with its great characters. Also, it is quite funny.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Plot Summary: This mystery drama is about Peter a journalist who is investigating a cult leader, Maggie, claiming to be from the future with the intension of exposing her as a fraud. To get a firsthand look at Maggie, Peter and his girlfriend go undercover and are initiated into the cult, only to be pulled in deeper.
Why You Need to See It: Sound of My Voice is a mystery built on very well-crafted suspense and a fantastic payoff (which leaves the viewer questioning all the details that the film has shown them). Despite its micro-budget (i.e. lacking big action set pieces or other such spectacles that populate Hollywood mysteries and thrillers), the film is thoroughly compelling on the strength of its script and performances.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Monday, March 25, 2013

Movie of the Week – Three Colors: Blue

This week’s movie: Three Colors: Blue (1993).

The first in the Three Colors Trilogy (followed by White and Red), Blue focuses on the wife of a great contemporary composer who has died along with her child and how she deals with her grief and emptiness.

Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski writes and directs the film (which is probably his best, well this or Red). Composer Zbigniew Preisner scores the entire Trilogy, but his music for Blue is especially magnificent and plays a major role in the film (here is a sample). Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak shoots the film with a wonderful use of color (or lack of color when needed). He is among my favorite working D.P.s (his work on Black Hawk Down is phenomenal). Production designer Claude Lenoir designed all three films and his work throughout the Trilogy is top notch.

The film stars Juliette Binoche giving maybe the best performance of her career. It is heartbreaking. The supporting cast features Benoit Regent, Emmanuelle Riva (who recently got some due acclaim for her work in Amour), and Julie Delpy (who stars in White).

Blue is a viscerally intense experience. It is a masterwork of emotional resonance, utilizing cinema’s visual medium to its full potential. For fans of art films and emotionally enveloping dramas, this is a must-see.

Trailer: Here

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (2013) – Review

Review: Justin Timberlake has been atop the world of pop music for over a decade, maintaining his position even without releasing a new album in over six years. That is how much impact his first two solo albums Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds had on the genre and its fans. Thus, The 20/20 Experience drops with almost unattainable expectations.

The album’s lead-in single Suit & Tie featuring Jay-Z is both probably the most radio friendly and the weakest track on the album. It is not a bad song; it is just underwhelming given the immense expectations. It does not grab the listener like his great past singles have. Plus, Jay-Z’s verse is sort of boring and the song would be better without it.

Suit & Tie aside, the rest of the album is filled with epic genre blending songs that seem to take grand pleasure in how well-crafted and how much different they are than the overall sameness of today’s radio singles. Timberlake seems to be interested in making music that actually aspires to be something more, something that pushes pop music forward.

It is a very ambitious album – and, it mostly works very well. Fans will to some extent lament the loss of true catchy singles (as really there are none, unless you like Suit & Tie). But, Timberlake wants his fans to grow musically like he has. Nevertheless, however, this will likely disappoint a few.

Musically, Timberlake, producing with long-time collaborators Timbaland and J-Roc (Timbaland’s protégé), has created a lavish musical experience. The album combines aspects throughout the history of pop and R&B with each song (for the most part) playing as a sweeping musical journey. The album has tracks that invite the listener to dance, but it mostly stays away from the more bombastic sound that has seemingly overtaken pop music (by way of electronic music’s rapid rise in popularity) – and in that way it has a different overall sound though there are certainly touchstones to Timberlake’s past.

The 20/20 Experience is maybe not the great album it aspires to be, and strong singles are not really a bad thing for a pop album to have – but, it is a very good album and musically something different and aesthetically interesting. That is something listeners should expect from genre leaders, to grow and push their craft forward, and that is what Timberlake has done with this album. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Mirrors – Produced by Timbaland, Justin Timberlake & J-Roc
2)      Tunnel Vision – Produced by Timbaland, Justin Timberlake & J-Roc
3)      Strawberry Bubblegum – Produced by Timbaland, Justin Timberlake & J-Roc

Available on: CD and Digital Download

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Stoker (2013) – Review

Review: Stoker is an artistic and twisted character piece. The film is about India a young woman who is an outsider within her own surroundings, but very close to her father. Then, her father dies suddenly in a car accident and India finds herself alone. However, a mysterious uncle, Charlie, shows up wanting to be in her life. She knows that there is something not right about him, but instead of being afraid she finds herself drawn to him.

Making his English-language film debut, Korean auteur Chan-wook Park brings almost an abrasive style to Stoker. The film is incredibly stylized with the use of sound and his kinetic camera playing a vital role. The sound is exaggerated to illustrate that India is a little weird and alone – she hears things and sees things that others do not. The use of sound also creates sort of an off-putting sensation within the viewer, as things do not sound as expected. Park does this to put the viewer on edge, making his narrative tension more affecting while creating an overall atmosphere of strangeness/creepiness for the film (and viewing experience).

Park’s camera/framing is constantly playing with both the characters and the viewer – setting up scene dynamics, creating tension, and otherwise rendering how the audience interacts with the narrative. The camera is often put in the perspective of one of the characters (mostly India and Charlie) giving the audience their POV. This is done in such a way as to show the voyeuristic aspect of the relationship that is developing between India and Charlie. Their exchanges start out as merely looks, accelerating from there to darker and more twisted places.

The editing also plays an important role in the film’s artistic style. Park uses flashes of images to evoke perceptions in the audience of what the character is feeling or thinking. The editing is used in its most basic form (what Eisenstein called montage) – juxtaposing two images to elicit an emotion in the audience. Hollywood filmmaking often tries to make editing feel seamless to the extent that viewers do not even notice it – but with Stoker, Park very much wants the audience to react to the contrast of images being put together.

In addition to Park’s aggressive editing, framing, lighting, use of sound, and camera moves, he also arranges the narrative in a manner to combatively interact with the viewer. He shows the audience something, and then twists it to reveal something else – preying on their expectations. This heightens the mystery and tension within the film, making the truth’s disclosure very compelling. For the most part, the film is told in a linear fashion, but Park will revisit moments to provide more information, twisting and warping the audience’s persecution – juxtaposing expectation with reality.

The narrative is also developed very slowly, as Park devotes a sizable amount of time to small character moments early in the film. He wants India to seem strange, but secretly very strong – and, Charlie to seem perfectly quaffed, but secretly off kilter. He also wants to develop these elements slowly so that the tension builds while also keeping an air of mystery to the story.

Thematically, Park does some interesting things as well. For example, he uses a spider to represent Charlie. The spider crawls onto India, and she does not seem to mind – even inviting it to climb higher up her leg. This expresses her intimate fascination with him, even though he is a predator (and a spider is something that people would normally find repulsive or be afraid of).

However, this abrasive style that Park imposes upon the narrative mixed with the slow pacing bogs the film down a bit. It takes a while to really get into the meat of the story. Once things get going, the narrative is very compelling, but it just takes too long for that to happen. And, by then, Park has probably lost a portion of his audience. As aesthetically enthralling as the film is, the slow pacing as a result of the early stylistic choice does hurt the overall film.

The darker, sexual, and more twisted elements – often found in Park’s work – may not appeal to all viewers as well.

The slow pacing does undermine Stoker considerably, but even so it is an artistically brilliant film with sure masterful direction and wonderful performances. It is a thriller that does not rely on action and other cheap tricks; rather, it builds tension through the slow cat and mouse game between India and Charlie (much like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – which this seems to be influenced by). For those willing to invest in the characters and embrace the style, the experience is rewarding.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Chan-wook Park’s films all have a very aesthetically interesting style and edginess to them. However, with Stoker, he seems to have gone to more of an artistic place putting the aesthetics somewhat above the narrative. This works and does not work. As stated in the review, the film develops too slowly, but every visual is fantastic. Plus, the overall aesthetic creates this ambiance of creepiness and tension that greatly benefits the narrative and might have been lost had things progressed quicker or if the story had been told in a more standardized manner. In this way, the film is both a directorial masterwork and failure at the same time, because while the artistic aspects do make the film more fascinating and grander on a more sophisticated level (the story is greatly elevated by Park’s stylistic choices) they also take the viewer out of the story to some extent. Pacing is maybe the most important element in structuring a great narrative (and notoriously difficult to get right in a character piece, rather than something driven by the story). When a film feels slow the audience’s attention drifts away (maybe never to fully return – and then what is the point of all the artistic choices if the audience is not engaged).

Clint Mansell’s score is very good. It fits the tone of the film very well – it is not really a horror film, but Park seems to want the tone to feel like it is and thereby heighten the tension. Mansell’s work does this brilliantly (here is a good example). The music also feels a bit off – like the characters. Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is beautiful. The visuals of the film are impeccable. The color palette that Chung, Park and production designer Therese DePrez use fits the feel of the narrative (being toned down colors: white, black, grey, brown, etc.), which allows Charlie to stand out much more in his bright sweaters. The production design overall is also wonderful. DePrez gives the visuals an American Gothic look to match the tone. India’s world (the house and grounds) also seem very out of touch with the world around it – paralleling the character.

Even with all the substance that Park brings to the film with his style, this is a piece that would not work at all without strong performances (because after all it is character driven). Jacki Weaver and Phyllis Somerville are good in small roles, but really this film rests with its three leads. Nicole Kidman plays India’s mother Evelyn, who comes across as sort of an archetypal ‘evil stepmother’ even though she is India’s biological mother and deeply wants to have a meaningful relationship with her daughter, only one never developed, so she feels like an outsider burdened with a child when her husband dies. Kidman is both antagonistic and sympathetic (something very hard to pull off). It is her most compelling work since The Hours. Matthew Goode plays Charlie as seemingly mild mannered, but also extremely intense (his glare is menacing). He seems cut out of a chic East Coast men’s leisure catalogue – perfectly put together – but again Goode has such a edge to his performance as if there is something chaotic and dark just bubbling under the surface. It is definitely a breakthrough performance for him. Mia Wasikowska plays India as sort of your typical weird outsider school girl (a bit like Wednesday from The Adams Family, but not as goth-looking), but what is interesting about her performance is that there is not even a hint of aspiration for something more. She is completely content with who she is. However, when Charlie arrives, he awakens something within her, something that she fully embraces. In many ways, this is also sort of a coming-of-age narrative for India. Wasikowska envelops herself in the character not shying away from the more thematically twisted and darker material. It is another great performance from this rising star.

Summary & score: Stoker is for the most part an aesthetically magnificent stylish thriller, but its pacing problems (and to some extent its style) also debilitate its overall effectiveness. 7/10 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie of the Week – Farewell

This week’s movie: Farewell (2009).

During the Cold War, high ranking Soviet official Sergei Gregoriev became frustrated with the corrupted bureaucracy within his government so he decided to divulge secrets to the West. To do this, he chose a non-professional spy in the form of French national Pierre Froment. His co-name was Farewell.

Farewell is the third film from French writer-director Christian Carion, who also made the very good WWI film Joyeux Noel. On this film, Carion worked with composer Clint Mansell (who often collaborates with Darren Aronofsky), Belgian cinematographer Walther van den Ende (who also shot the Oscar winner No Man’s Land), and production designer Jean-Michel Simonet (who has designed all three of Carion’s films).

The cast is very good with strong leading performances from Guillaume Canet (one of my favorite current French actors, and directors – he directed Tell No One) and Emir Kusturica. The supporting cast features Willem Dafoe, Fred Ward, Alexandra Maria Lara (from Downfall), Niels Arestrup, and Gary Lewis. Diane Kruger also has a cameo (probably due to her connection to Canet).

Farewell is a great spy thriller in the more classical sense. It does not have action sequences. Rather, it is built much more around characters and suspense, similarly to the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is another film that falls in the category of underrated and under seen. Fans of spy thrillers should very much enjoy it.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Directors to Watch: Part 3 – Movies Spotlight – March 2013

One of the great things about cinema is its constant inflow of great new talent. These two directors are on the verge of becoming well known filmmakers in the States.

Filmography to Date:

Chan-wook Park, 49, is a Korean auteur who is one of most beloved and acclaimed filmmakers in his native country. His The Vengeance Trilogy is fantastic.

In 2000 Park wrote and directed Joint Security Area. It is his breakthrough hit in South Korea, becoming the most-watched film not only of the year but ever in the country. Its success gave Park the freedom of more creative independence.

With this creative freedom, he set out to make his The Vengeance Trilogy (which was not originally intended as a trilogy, rather a series of films about the pointlessness of vengeance and the damage it cause for all involved) – first with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Next, he had a breakout international hit with the second film in the trilogy Oldboy, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival (Quentin Tarantino was the head judge that year and pushed to have the film win the festival’s top prize, but it went to Fahrenheit 9/11 – something the judges would probably take back today). The film also made a name for Park in the States. He finished the trilogy with Lady Vengeance.

In 2006, Park had a chance to remake The Evil Dead, but turned it down instead turning his attention to his own work. In 2009 he made is great vampire film Thirst (which is a must-see for genre fans).

March Film:

Making his directorial debut in the States with his first English-language film, Park is helming Stoker – a story about a young woman named India who loses her father to a car accident. Her Uncle Charlie comes to stay with her mother and her, only she has never heard of or about this mysterious Uncle. She can tell there is something off about him, but instead of being weary of him she is drawn to him. The film has a great cast as it stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode. It looks like a great, aesthetically interesting mystery thriller. Trailer: Here.


While Park does not have a film concretely slated as his next, Spike Lee is remaking his film Oldboy for American audiences. The cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Sharlto Copley. It is due out in October. While I do not think Oldboy needs an English-language version, as the original is already well known in the States, but that said I do like the cast and am intrigued to see what Lee does with the material.

Career Highlights:

1)      J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000) – writer, director (DVD, Trailer)
2)      Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Trailer)
3)      Oldboy (2003)* – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
4)      Lady Vengeance (2005) – writer, director (DVD, Trailer)
5)      Thirst (2009) – writer, director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

Filmography to Date:

Derek Cianfrance has a BFA in Film Production from the University of Colorado. Shortly after school, he made his first feature Brother Tied (handling the writing, directing, editing, and cinematography himself) in 1998. After it was well received at Sundance, he began directing various television documentaries.

In 2010 he returned to features with his intense tragic romance Blue Valentine. The film is a little hard to watch as the material is genuine, raw, and heartbreaking. The performances are very good from its leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, the latter earning an Oscar nomination. It took Cianfrance twelve years to make (most of the time spent redrafting).

March Film:

Cianfrance’s new film The Place Beyond the Pines is one of 2013’s most anticipated. It has a stellar cast with Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and Ray Liotta (among others). The story is about a two men on different paths – one is a motorcycle stuntman who turns to crime as a means of providing for his family while the other is an ambitious rookie cop who is frustrated with the corruption in his department – but headed on a collision course. It looks like a brilliant crime drama. Trailer: Here.


The documentary Cagefighter is the first of two projects Cianfrance has awaiting release. It is about the intersecting lives of a group of mixed martial arts fighters during a Las Vegas title fight.

The second is his fourth feature film entitled Metalhead (though it has been in production since 2009). The drama is about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing and must learn to adapt to a life of silence. It stars the real life husband-and-wife duo of Jucifer who play fictional versions of themselves.

Career Highlights:

1)      Blue Valentine (2010) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks