Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pain & Gain (2013) – Review

Review: Pain & Gain is entertaining, yes, but also stylistically vulgar. The film is about Daniel Lugo, a personal trainer and amateur body builder, who aspires for more out of life, but instead of working hard he decides to kidnap one of his wealthy clients and force him to give up everything he owns. To do this, Lugo enlists two of his bodybuilder friends Adrian Doorbal and Paul Doyle.

In its best moments Pain & Gain is very entertaining and very funny, playing off the sheer hilarity of the ridiculousness of this true story and the odd characters in it. But that said, the film is not nearly as entertaining or funny as director Michael Bay seems to think it is, which leaves it over-long and ultimately a little tiresome.

Its main problem comes from Bay’s pacing and the story’s narrative structure. The first act shows Lugo in his depressed, poverty stricken natural state, which sets the table for why he would even aspire to such a crime in the first place. Bay also extensively uses voiceover narration to divulge background and character drama in an attempt to flesh out his characters to a greater extent than what the visuals offer, and it works well enough. Bay tries to infuse the voiceover narration with comedy as well. The second act features Lugo and company carrying out the crime and living off their spoils. And the third act is their downfall – so, in many ways this is structured a bit like a gangster film. The skeleton of the narrative structure works well and features an involving story, but Bay seems to think his material is brilliantly funny (and in moments, thanks to the fun performances, it is) so he tries to pack in as many comedic beats as he can, somewhat overloading scenes, resulting in the whole ridiculous tone becoming tired during the latter half of the second act.

Suddenly, without the comedy playing quite as well, the film starts to feel slow – because the narrative is not structured as a comedy, but rather as a character based crime drama. Yet, Bay wants the film to play as a comedy – specifically he wants the characters to be complete idiots who do things so that the audience can laugh at them. But, when the joke is not funny anymore where does that leave the narrative? Bay does a great job with making everything funny and entertaining in the beginning, but once the characters are set up and the narrative is in motion Bay’s pacing just does not work anymore because the storytelling is not efficient enough. Again, this is really a comedy, but it is structured and stylized as a crime drama and this disconnect hurts the film in the second half.

Stylistically, Pain & Gain sort of both embraces and denounces excess in American culture. It is odd because Bay seems to want the audience to relate to his characters and even feel sympathetic towards them, and he succeeds. The audience wants Lugo and company to get away with their crimes and likes them, which is ludicrous because the characters are completely unlikable.  Yet Bay completely sets them up to looks like total buffoons constantly, which undermines any connection that the viewer might have formed with the characters. Lugo is the epitome of someone who wants everything handed to them solely because they deserve it. He idolizes characters from gangster films who take what they want (never learning the lesson that they all lose in the end). He wants all the excesses that he sees around him – which are a lot as the film takes place in Miami – but does not want to earn anything; he just wants to have it now and to do that he must take it from someone who already has it.

The narrative suggests that being caught up in this sort of excess striving lifestyle does not work in the long run (like gangster films, Lugo burns brightly but for a moment and pays a big price for it). Yet, somewhat contradictory, Bay’s aesthetic style for the film is nothing but excess, almost to a vulgar level. It seems to celebrate and revel in the world of fast cars, hot women with big boobs, drugs, strip clubs, big houses on the water (even the retired police detective lives right on the water), and so on. It is as if Bay is championing Lugo and his aspirations, while also condemning him (but only because of his stupidity in the manner by which he carried out his crime). All these contradictions work against the film and the viewer’s enjoyment of it.

However, despite the issues with the film, Pain & Gain is at times very funny and quite enthralling. It just asks that the viewer leave behind their own morality and fully embrace the oversexed, bizarre, and comically ridiculous characters and world that Bay presents.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Michael Bay often makes mind-numbingly noisy and blatantly stupid films – but, he also directs films with a lot of energy and style. When it works, they make for an escapist spectacle entertainment. Pain & Gain falls into that category (and it is probably his best film since his first: Bad Boys – the only other Bay film to cost under twenty-five million), but still feels like it could have been better.

Composer Steve Jablonsky creates a decent score for the film, but it does not really stand out. The best musical moments come from the found music (like Gangsta’s Paradise). Visually, however, the film is very compelling, inviting the viewer into a word of excess juxtaposed with the crumbling sunbaked ghetto that surrounds it, looking on in envy. Ben Seresin’s cinematography and Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design seem to make a clear distinction between the world Lugo lives in and the one he aspires to be a part of, which in turn leads to the audience actually getting behind him as a character. They see his world – decrepit and sun saturated – and then see the nice part of Miami were his victim lives and it is beautiful. In a crazy way, it sort of plays into the class warfare that is quietly gathering steam in America (and around the world).

The characters in the film are slightly one dimensional, as Bay basically just parades them around to be laughed at (which is probably why he added so much internal character stuff in the voiceover narration). The performances, though, are very fun, with the actors giving themselves completely over to the ridiculousness.  Ken Jeong is very funny in a cameo role. Rebel Wilson, Bar Paly, and especially Tony Shalhoub are all good in support and bring some good humor with their performances. The leads, however, make the film. Anthony Mackie is fantastic. He plays Adrian in a much more grounded place, and yet is just as funny as the other two. Dwayne Johnson commits completely to his role as Paul, a cartoonish moron. He is funny, and thus serves his role, but is completely void of real relatable character moments. Mark Wahlberg, like Mackie, is very good as Lugo. His character is the most relatable and is given the most character moments, which he utilizes well. The audience should not like him, and yet they sort of do.

Summary & score: Pain & Gain is an extravaganza of ridiculousness – fun for a while, but eventually it wears thin as it goes on too long. 6/10

Monday, April 29, 2013

Movie of the Week – Chinatown

This week’s movie: Chinatown (1974).

The private detective film is about J.J. Gittes, an investigator who takes on an adultery case. While snooping around, Gittes uncovers a grander scheme of murder that has something to do with water.

Chinatown is writer-director Roman Polanski’s greatest film – his career highlights include: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Frantic, and The Pianist. Polanski works with a wonderful group on the film including composer Jerry Goldsmith (whose score is perfect for the tone), cinematographer John Alonzo, and production designer Richard Sylbert (who worked on many of the best films of New Hollywood, including: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, and Rosemary’s Baby).

The film stars Jack Nicholson, who gives one of his best performances (maybe only second to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and co-stars Faye Dunaway and John Huston.

Chinatown was made after the boom of great film noir detective films of the 1940s and 1950s, but still carries many of the genre’s attributes – albeit with a modern aesthetic (which is one of the things that make the film great). It is on IMDb’s top 250, the 2012 Critics’ Poll Top 250, and AFI’s Top 100 films of all-time list, and yet it only won one Oscar (despite being nominated for eleven, including Best Picture). It is a must-see for fans of detective mysteries and those looking to be acquainted with the best films ever made.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

TV Series of the Month – The Inbetweeners

This month’s TV Series: The Inbetweeners (2008-2010).

The British comedy series is about four high school friends and their exploits.

The series is created and written in its entirety by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris. They also wrote the feature film continuation of the show, directed by series vet Ben Palmer. MTV decided to adapt the series for America least year, keeping the title The Inbetweeners, the result of which is unwatchable garbage (much like their adaptation of Skins – well done MTV).

Simon Bird, James Buckley, Blake Harrison, and Joe Thomas star in the series and each bring a great brand of comedy to the show. Greg Davies and Emily Head are good in support.

The Inbetweeners is probably the second best recent British series about high school kids (behind Skins), but unlike Skins these characters are not the cool kids that party all the time. These characters are the typical high school kids, which makes them more relatable (as their antics are similar to our own adventures). The show also capitalizes on a fantastic use of humor stemming from putting characters in awkward situations (which is really what being a teenager is). It is worth checking out for fans of shows like Skins, Freaks and Geeks, and Undeclared.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Streaming

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Oblivion (2013) – Review

Review: Oblivion is a thrilling sci-fi action film with impressive visuals, but a weak plot. The film is about Earth in the wake of a devastating war leaving it no longer habitable for humans. Most of humanity has been relocated off-world. Jack and Victoria, however, remain. They are a two-person cleanup crew, in charge of drone maintenance – the drones protect larger machines charged with extracting Earth’s remaining resources from the holdout Scavs (the Aliens that attacked Earth). Victoria cannot wait for their mission to be over so that they can join the others, but Jack is less enthusiastic. He has a feeling he cannot shake: “If we won the war, why do we have to leave?” Their mission is close to completion when a transport vessel crashes in their sector. Jack discovers a survivor, Julia, who changes everything.

Oblivion and last year’s Prometheus fit in the same category: both are visually excellent and are compelling cinematic experiences, but when their plots are held up to more in depth scrutiny things get a bit wobbly (though, Oblivion is not quite as convoluted as Prometheus).

Director (and co-writer) Joseph Kosinski certainly has a handle on visual storytelling and creating engaging and thrilling action sequences. The film’s best attributes are its stunning visuals and exciting action. Kosinski’s broad narrative arc is not bad either. The film is structured as an amnesia mystery of sorts with Jack playing the detective trying to discover why he feels in a way contrary to what he knows about his life. This kind of narrative, especially with a charismatic lead, draws the audience in – and this is true of Oblivion and Jack. His character’s internal narrative is enough to pull the audience into the narrative, and Kosinski gives the viewer just enough character moments to form a connection. Plus, the film’s first act mostly consisting of a typical day in Jack’s life is very engaging. The supporting characters are not quite as strong or developed, but the audience is given just enough to understand them (which, at a minimum, is all they really need). Kosinski also keeps the narrative moving, which is also a key component to this film working (despite its weak plot).

Basically, Kosinski has made a film that is superficially entertaining: it looks great, has a strong action component, and has characters the audience understands. It accomplishes, more or less, what it needs to be to meet the expectations of its intended audience (though, that is not a high standard to strive for). Underneath all the flash, it is, however, not a great film. While the broad narrative arc is fine, the detailed plot is full of holes and contradictions (the need for a happy ending, for example, is so strong that in order to have one the film must sacrifice one of its most important character attributes and plot points: why is this Jack Harper different). Much like Prometheus, examining the actions of characters and the plot with even a little amount of reason seems to call into question many of the film’s most important moments, which dampens the experience a bit in the aftermath. But, again, in the moment, the film is very compelling and entertaining.

Along with the fun action set pieces and enthralling cinematography and production design, Oblivion also features some interesting themes. Kosinski plays with the idea of what makes us human. For Jack, there is just this instinctual feeling that there is something missing in his life, which causes him to go out and look for it (this is his principle character trait that puts in motion the whole narrative). While with Victoria, she clings to the idea of getting back to the rest of the population off-world. She eagerly is looking forward to it. She is also seemingly much more protective of Jack than he is of himself or her. These traits drive who they are and the decisions they make. Meanwhile, the drones actually are treated like characters (to some extent) as well (much like R2-D2 they beep and boop eliciting an emotional inference from the audience), but they are purely directed by their mission prompts, protocols, and commands. The film has sort of a subconscious discussion of human versus machine, emotion versus command. It is interesting because the characters and the audience want to treat the machines as human-like characters, and Kosinski toys with this (through the emoting sounds the drone’s make), when really they do absolutely nothing (in terms of their actions) to indicate they are making decisions emotionally (like humans).

Also, getting back to Jack feeling like Earth is his home and not really wanting to leave while Victoria cannot wait to join the others, Kosinski subtly asks what makes a place home. Again, it comes down to an emotional feeling. Victoria is not developed enough to know why she wants to join the others so much, but one can infer that she craves a sense of community, that it is home for her, a place where she feels safe. For Jack, he has a deeper emotional connection to Earth, specifically the ramshackle house by a lake that he has fashioned for himself as sort of a retreat from his mission. He feels at home there and thus does not want to leave it.

These two themes (among others) play into why Oblivion works on a broad level. The audience subconsciously picks up on these themes and connects to them, along with liking the characters and being entertained by the action. Humanizing the machines allows to audience to accept them as heroes and/or villains, and understanding what the characters consider home and safe allows the audience to link with them on a deeper level, which again pulls them further into the narrative – they now have a stake in the characters and the outcome.

All in all, Oblivion is in many ways both a good film and a weak film. Aesthetically it is very impressive. It engages the audience throughout (which is more than most films seem to do). And yet, the supporting characters are not developed enough (specifically Julia) and the plot seems to be questionable in certain places when overanalyzed, holding it back from being a great sci-fi action mystery.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Joseph Kosinski’s first film TRON: Legacy was visually stunning, but fairly weak in all its other components. With Oblivion, he has again delivered a film that is visually marvelous, however this time he also made an entertaining film that has a good lead character and a decent narrative (though, as discussed in the review, the script could have been stronger). While he has yet to make a great film, he has the talent to do so, given the right script.

M83’s Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapanese compose a good score for the film, filled with ominous tones that create a post-Earth sci-fi atmosphere for the film. Their score fits the tone of the film very well. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is brilliant (he is probably in the top ten D.P.s working right now, he just continues to produces phenomenal digital photography), as is Darren Gilford’s production design. Their work creates such a stylishly interesting and lush world. The juxtaposition between Jack and Victoria’s clean modular (sci-fi chic) living space and the barren wasteland of Earth is quite striking. Jack’s secret valley (that reminded me of the secret hidden valley in The Land Before Time) cottage by the lake is also great (the piece of drift wood on the fireplace mantle looks like Serenity, right?), especially when put against the wasteland he patrols and the emotionally void tower he is stationed in (though, honestly, I would love to have it as my house – the views alone are killer).

The performances seemingly take a backseat to the exciting action and wonderful visuals, and to some extent this is true due to most the supporting characters not being given much to do, but the lead role still requires a strong enough performance to pull the audience into the narrative or nothing else would work. Tom Cruise plays Jack with his typical mix of charm, vulnerability, and toughness. He creates a protagonist who is likable and believable – the audience wants to see him win. Andrea Riseborough is good as Victoria. While the character is a little underwritten, she brings a lot to the performance making her character flawed and vulnerable, allowing the audience to empathize. Olga Kuryenko has the difficult role of playing a character in Julia that has almost zero character development – she merely exists as a plot point. Yet, she does enough to make it work. Morgan Freeman and especially Melissa Leo are good in small supporting roles, both delivering their dialog with a wonderful zing.

Summary & score: Oblivion works as a big fun action sci-fi mystery popcorn blockbuster, but not so much as a hard sci-fi drama. Manage your expectations accordingly. 7/10

Monday, April 22, 2013

Movie of the Week – Becket

This week’s movie: Becket (1964).

King Henry II of England’s greatest friend and confident is Thomas Becket. However, that all changes when Henry makes Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury – Thomas finding a higher calling to God than even his loyalty to his King – and the two great friends become bitter enemies.

Talented stage director Peter Glenville directs this film based on Jean Anouilh’s play. Edward Anhalt  won an Oscar for his screenplay adapting the play. Laurence Rosenthal’s score is probably the best of his career (and it is one of his first for a major motion picture). Brilliant cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is also very good. Production designer John Bryan’s period sets are good as well, though they have a minimalist quality to them (which makes the look of the film feel like a stage play).

The greatest attribute of the film is its dynamite leading performances from Richard Burton (as Becket) and Peter O’Toole (as King Henry II) – both were nominated for Oscars, but neither won (which is surprising – though to be fair, Rex Harrison, who did win, was good in My Fair Lady, and in retrospect it is criminal that Peter Sellers did not win for Dr. Strangelove). John Gielgud is good in support as King Louis VII of France.

Again, Burton and O’Toole are fantastic in the film, and fans of either (or both) actors definitely need to see this film – and really, fans of strong performances in general should seek it out. It is also a great companion piece to The Lion in Winter, which is about King Henry II’s later years (and again stars O’Toole who is at his very best opposite Katharine Hepburn). Becket was nominated for twelve Oscars including Best Picture but only won one (1964 was a great year for cinema).

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Kid Cudi – Indicud (2013) – Review

Review: Indicud is Kid Cudi’s third album (unless you also count his WZRD collaboration with Dot da Genius), and the first outside his Man on the Moon Trilogy (the final chapter due next year).

While Mescudi sticks to his familiar lyrical themes – isolation, drug use, depression, yet with a sense of confidence – with Indicud he tackles all the production (though Hit-Boy does co-produce Red Eye). This is both something that works really well about the album and one of its main issues. Mescudi has always had a very specific and unique sound for his albums (like a darker version of EDM), but it is his collaboration with producers such as Emile, Dot da Genius, Ratatat, Plain Pat, Jeff Bhasker, and Kanye West that helped shape a full cohesive sound (and is really a big part of the brilliance of his first two albums). On Indicud there is a very uniform tone and feel, which comes from Kid Cudi being the sole creative force behind the beats, but this also kind of hurts the album as it drifts into a repetitive (if not boring) zone during the weaker songs. His production varies from track to track. Sometimes it is good to great: Unfuckwittable, Just What I Am, Young Lady (which has a fantastic hook), Immortal, Girls (though, I am not a big fan of Too $hort’s misogynistic-feeling verse), Red Eye, Brothers, Cold Blooded, and Afterwards. While on others, his beats just feel too bland. He is missing the collaborative spark of working with other producers.

The album has a number of strong featured guests: Kendrick Lamar, Haim, RZA, A$AP Rocky, and Michael Bolton all add something to their respective tracks. King Chip is on three tracks, but he never stands out. Michael Bolton’s feature in particular seems to come out of nowhere and feels a bit off when his voice first appears on Afterwards, but then it completely takes over the whole track and is the most memorial aspect on the song. RZA and Kendrick Lamar elevate their tracks considerably, while Haim makes for a great (if not seemingly random) collaboration.

I am torn about Indicud. I like it (that said, though, I would say it is not as strong as Man on the Moon: The End of Day or Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager), and more specifically I like a lot of the tracks, features, and the general vibe of the album. But, it also feels a little tedious to listen to all the way through, which stems from Kid Cudi not quite having enough good beats to fill fifteen tracks and three interludes.

Kid Cuid fans will enjoy the LP, and the good elements on the album get better with time. But again, it is just a step below his past work (but better than WZRD). 3/5

Essential Tracks:

1)      Brothers – Produced by Kid Cudi, featuring King Chip and A$AP Rocky
2)      Immortal – Produced by Kid Cudi
3)      Just What I Am – Produced by Kid Cudi, featuring King Chip

Available for download: Here

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Stars to Watch: Part 11 – Movies Spotlight – April 2013

What She’s Been In:

Olga Kurylenko, 33, started out as a model in Moscow at the age of thirteen. At sixteen, she moved to Paris to further her modeling career. She got her film career going appearing in 2006 with Paris, je t’aime and the French series Secrets. She made her American debut in the video-game adaptations Hitman and Max Payne. Since then, she has appeared in a few better projects including the underrated and under-seen action drama Centurion, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and the Starz Miami Beach gangster series Magic City.


Kurylenko’s breakthrough, however, came when she was cast as a Bond Girl in Quantum of Solace opposite Daniel Craig. She plays the second lead in Marc Forster’s film – a young woman seeking revenge after her parents were murdered by a brutal dictator when she was a child. The film as a standalone piece is not as good as Craig’s other Bond outings (Casino Royale and Skyfall), but as a companion piece (or third act) to Casino Royale it works quite well.

April Films:

In April Kurylenko has two films coming out: To the Wonder and Oblivion. The first is Terrence Malick’s new romantic drama. Kurylenko plays one of the leads: Marina, married to Neil (played by Ben Affleck), is having problems in her marriage and seeks out a priest (played by Javier Barden) for help, meanwhile Neil reunites with his old sweetheart (played by Rachel McAdams).

In Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s new film, she plays a mysterious character that may hold the answers to Jack’s, a veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources after a devastating war has driven humanity off-planet, many questions as his mission becomes less clear. She stars opposite Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman.


In terms of future projects, Kurylenko is slated to next star in an adaptation of the Moscow-set novel Despite the Falling Snow, due in 2014.

Career Highlights:

1)      Paris, je t’aime (2006) – cameo (Blu-ray, Trailer)
2)      Quantum of Solace (2008) – supporting (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
3)      Centurion (2010)* – supporting (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
4)      Seven Psychopaths (2012) – supporting (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
5)      Magic City (2012) – series regular (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

What She’s Been In:

Brit Marling, 29, started her career co-writing and directing with Mike Cahill the solid documentary Boxers and Ballerinas, which explores the US-Cuba conflict through the eyes of four youths (two in Cuba and two in Miami). She also has a one episode guest appearance in season two of Community (episode 2.15) and is very good in a supporting role in the Richard Gere wall street thriller/drama Arbitrage.


Marling’s breakthrough, at least for indie audiences, came with her two next writing/starring projects. First she reteamed with Mike Cahill for Another Earth. She co-wrote the film and stars as Rhonda, a young woman who gets in a tragic accident with a family (killing all members other than the father) on the night that a duplicate planet in the solar system to Earth is discovered. Picking up a few years later, Rhonda looks to make amends with the man whose family died in the accident, while imagining a better life on the other Earth.

Her second project is the great mystery Sound of My Voice, which Marling co-wrote and has a principal supporting role in. She plays Maggie, a cult leader who claims to be from the future. Her authenticity is called into question by an aspiring journalist who goes undercover in the cult.

April Film:

In April, Marling has a small supporting role in Robert Redford’s new film (which he is starring in and directing) The Company You Keep. It has a very impressive cast, which includes: Nick Notle, Chris Cooper, Anna Kendrick, Susan Sarandon, and Shia LaBeouf (who co-stars with Redford). It is about a former activist who is still running from his past, but leads a normal life in secret – that is until a journalist discovers his identity. Now, he is on a mission to clear his name before the authorities catch up with him.


In May, Marling is reteaming with Zal Batmanglij, who directed Sound of My Voice, for a new mystery The East. She also is co-writing the film with Batmanglij (again). It is about a group of anarchists who target major corporations that they deem to be guilty of violations against humanity and nature. Marling stars as a private intelligence operative charged with infiltrating the group. The film also stars Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.

She has a role in the Abraham Lincoln film The Green Blade Rises, which addresses his formative years, playing his mother Nancy Lincoln. It is written and directed by A.J. Edwards, who worked as an editor on Terrence Malick’s last three films (including To the Wonder).

Career Highlights:

1)      Boxers and Ballerinas (2004) – writer, director (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
2)      Another Earth (2011) – leading, writer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
3)      Sound of My Voice (2012) – supporting, writer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
4)      Arbitrage (2012) – supporting (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

What She’s Been In:

Andrea Riseborough, 31, started her career on British TV, taking roles in a number of TV movies and series. Her first good film role came in a supporting part in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. She also has supporting roles in the pilot of the BBC’s Being Human, Mark Romanek’s fantastic sci-fi romance drama Never Let Me Go, and Made in Dagenham. Her first leading roles came in the poorly received Brighton Rock and Madonna’s W.E.  More recently, she co-stars in the action crime drama Welcome to Punch (which opened in limited release in March).


Riseborough has been around in British films and TV since 2005, but has not really seen a breakthrough in the States. However with her films due in April (and future slate), that could change.

April Films:

Riseborough has two films set for release in April. First she stars, among an ensemble, in the thriller Disconnect. It is about people searching for human connection in today’s world where everything social seems to now be online. She plays a journalist who hopes interviewing a chatroom prostitute will be her big break, only to find herself too involved with her subject. The ensemble cast includes: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgard, and Michael Nyqvist.

Second, she has a supporting role in the new Tom Cruise sci-fi action film Oblivion. She plays Cruise’s partner in their mission to extract Earth’s remaining resources following a grave war leading to humanity abandoning the planet. The film also stars Morgan Freeman and Olga Kurylenko (as you well know from above).


In 2014, Riseborough stars with Emma Stone and Edward Norton in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s new film: a comedy called Birdman. It is about a washed up actor, best known for playing an iconic superhero, who looks to reclaim his former glory in a new Broadway play. But first, he must set aside his ego and address his family troubles.

Career Highlights:

1)      Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) – supporting (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
2)      Never Let Me Go (2010)* – supporting (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
3)      Made in Dagenham (2010) – supporting (Blu-ray, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Trance (2013) – Review

Review: Trance is a stylishly designed psychological thriller that succeeds on its great twists. The film is about Simon, an art auctioneer who approaches a group of criminal partners offering to help them steal a valuable painting in exchange for paying off his gambling debts. During the heist, Simon is hit on the head and cannot remember where he stashed the painting. The leader of the group, Franck, decides to take Simon to a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, to help him remember – however, her work starts to bring up old repressed memories blurring the line between what is real.

The first thing that stands out about Trance is the ‘hip’ energetic style that director Danny Boyle gives the film – from the thumping score and slick camera work/editing to the modern production design. Boyle’s work has always had a very kinetic and hypnotic feel, but here he takes it a step further. The whole narrative to some extent relies on the film’s style, which creates the atmosphere for the audience to fully experience Simon’s psychological transformation.

This transformation has a clear arc across the film’s three acts. When Simon first appears in act one, he is the film’s likable protagonist, but that starts to change as the film progresses – and it is this transition that makes the film kind of brilliant (along with the third act in general). The first act, with its plucky voiceover narration, feels a bit like Boyle’s Trainspotting – Simon inviting the viewer into his world, and explaining how everything works. The second act, however, very much ushers in a very different film, Boyle never wanting to retread the same narrative territory.

With the second act, Boyle plays with the viewer – persistently questioning the motivations of each of the three main characters (Simon, Franck, and Elizabeth), never quite giving an indication who can be trusted and who cannot. This both works in the film’s favor and does not.

The second act comes very close to losing its audience as it jumps around presenting cases in favor of and against each character while also outlining multiple couplings (and possible betrayals) – it is easy to get lost in all the shifting. This all results in a very muddled narrative with no clear protagonist (as Simon seems to be someone different than who was first introduced to the audience), and the forward momentum seems to almost come to a complete halt, mangled in the confusion of an array of twists and reverses (diminishing much of the good will a strong first act built up).

But, the second act also wonderfully sets up the third act (though, it almost ruins the film in the process). It plants the seed of doubt for the audience in Simon, leaving them open to embracing either Franck or Elizabeth should the narrative turn to them, while still keeping Simon as a man put upon by outside forces (allowing him to return as the protagonist at any moment, which is something Boyle constantly teases) – thus all three characters enter the third act as both protagonist and antagonist (the audience truly does not know how it will all end – and is thus completely in the hands of the film’s narrative). The psychological jumbling also leaves the audience open to accept whatever explanation is given (the reveal), because they have seen (and accepted) what hypnosis has done and can do to the characters in act two (they believe in the world of the film – which for a film like this, is very important for it to work).

The third act is quite genius in its reveal, the way Boyle brings everything back together and ramps the pacing back up. Everything is different, and yet makes sense (which is exactly what you want from a film built on a twist). It is too bad that the second act is structured so poorly, because otherwise this might be a great film.

Trance is very stylish and aesthetically compelling, well-acted, and has one of the best twist endings in recent memory. But, all that said, the pacing of the second act brings it all down (almost completely). What is left is a film that is fantastic at the beginning and at the end, but with a middle that is over long and too chaotic and tedious.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Danny Boyle again showcases his brilliance as a visual and aesthetically modern filmmaker with Trance. Visually, everything in the film works together creating an aesthetic of illusion, playing into the narrative of hypnosis altering memories. From an aesthetics standpoint, it is a fun piece of art.

Much like Boyle’s past work, this film also has an electronic music infused score, this time from Rick Smith (a member of the group Underworld, whom are frequent musical collaborators with Boyle). The score perfectly melds with the tone and aesthetic of the film. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is also excellent, particularly in his aggressive colorful lighting, which, like the other collaborative technical aspects, very much matches the psychological atmosphere of the film. However, Mark Tildesley’s production design is a notch above the rest. The design work and architecture of the film sets and the locations used are phenomenal (especially given Boyle’s style for the film). It is the most aesthetically interesting design work I have seen so far this year in any film (it almost as a sci-fi feel). Boyle has a great collaborative relationship with his team, which can be seen in their overall great work.

Even with the gleam of Trance’s aesthetics and the great feeling it gives the viewer when everything is revealed and it all comes together, the film is also a bit of a character piece at its core, and thus is dependent on strong performances, which it has. Tuppence Middleton and especially Danny Sapani are good in small supporting roles. Rosario Dawson, playing Elizabeth, is asked to be very steady throughout the film, and yet she must also make the audience believe that both Franck and Simon are capable of being the good guy or bad guy in different moments. She does this very well. Vincent Cassel is quite good as Franck. He is ruthless yet charismatic and charming. James McAvoy’s Simon feels like a typical Boyle protagonist (along the same lines as those played by Ewan McGregor), but he also brings such a great inner darkness to Simon, who is outwardly delightful.

Summary & score: Trance is a good twist-driven thriller, but only because it ends well. 7/10

Monday, April 15, 2013

Movie of the Week – Rear Window

This week’s movie: Rear Window (1953).

The thriller is about photographer L.B. Jefferies. Wheelchair-ridden with two broken legs after an accident on assignment, he is stuck in his apartment. Bored, he peers into the lives of his neighbors through their windows. It all seems innocent until he thinks he has uncovered a murder.

Rear Window is one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces. The film came out during the 1950s when Hitchcock was at his most prevalent (also, now producing his films) – with a well-oiled group of fantastic collaborators, including: cinematographer Robert Burks, art director Hal Pereira, editor George Tomasini, writer John Michael Hayes, and composer Bernard Herrmann. However, on Rear Window, Hitchcock used composer Franz Waxman (who collaborated on a few of his films in the 1940s, like Rebecca), as Herrmann had yet to join the team.

The film stars two of Hitchcock’s favorite leads: James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Wendell Corey, Thema Ritter (who is particularly good), and Raymond Burr feature in support.

It is one of the most highly regarded films in cinema history (being on the AFI Top 100, Critics’ Top 250, and IMDb’s Top 250). In addition to being a great thriller, it comments on voyeurism (something that seems to be at its most habitual state today with the disgusting lack of privacy afforded so many – a practice we all consume with fervent disregard) and the inherent creepiness of it. Hitchcock loved narratives with obsessive main characters, and Jeffries certainly falls into that category. He has a beautiful girlfriend bending over backwards to garner his attention, and yet he is more interested in the lives of his neighbors, and what is worse is that he drags her into his obsession as well. The film is a must-see for both cinema and Hitchcock fans.

A personal story about the film – the first time I saw Rear Window was freshman year of college (living in Montana). It was cold outside and all I had was basic cable. Usually, in times like these, I would succumb to the mindless joy of one of TBS or TNT’s marathons. But, this particular day, I decided to watch Rear Window on AMC. I knew of Hitckcock, but I had never seen any of his films. So, I took it upon myself to engage in some forced-culturing. Little did I know, the film would completely open my eyes. I have always loved movies. I grew up with the adventure films and comedies of the 1980s, but I had never really made an effort to see the films that have shaped today’s movies (i.e., watch anything older than Jaws or Star Wars, unless it was a Pink Panther or James Bond movie). However, that did not stop me from having an opinion on what films were good. I was right in the middle of the indie film revolution, which was changing everything – filmmakers were now just as important as actors to me (directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Kevin Smith, Danny Boyle, among others). I go into this to show that I had some appreciation for cinema (just not a working knowledge of how we got here). Okay, back to Rear Window and Hitchcock – the film immediately put me on a path to see every (or at least almost every) Hitchcock film (and he has since been my favorite director), which lead to me decided to change my major and go to film school. And here we are today, I write about films for fun in my spare time. Rear Window is one of the most important films for me personally.

Trailer: Here

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Danny Boyle – Movies Spotlight – April 2013

Danny Boyle, 56, is one of the great British auteurs currently working today – bringing a hip stylistic vision and indie sensibility to Hollywood Prestige filmmaking. This month he has a new film coming to theaters entitled Trance – a crime thriller about an art auctioneer who gets caught up in a heist. The problem is, he cannot remember where he hid the merchandise and thus a hypnotherapist must work with him to recover the lost painting. It stars James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel. It looks very much a return to Boyle’s more gritty crime dramas and filmmaking (like Shallow Grave). Boyle is also again working with frequent collaborators screenwriter John Hodge, producing partner Christian Colson, composer Rick Smith, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and production designer Mark Tildesley. View the trailer: here.

Early Career:

Boyle started his career in the theatre in the early 1980s. He worked with the Joint Stock Theatre Company, Royal Court Theatre (directing The Genius and Saved), and the Royal Shakespeare Company (directing five plays for them). Years later, in 2011, he returned to the theatre directing a brilliant stylized version of Frankenstein for the National Theatre Live (it starred Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch).

He next worked extensively in British television, getting his start as a producer for BBC Northern Ireland in 1982. He then began directing, helming a number of TV movies and episodes of series and mini-series. Most notable are his TV movies The Nightwatch and For the Greater Good.

Transitioning to Feature Films:

Boyle’s love of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now inspired and influenced him towards directing feature films. For his first, Boyle teamed up with producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge for the crime thriller Shallow Grave. The film stars Ewan McGregor (launching his career), Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston. It is about three flatmates who discover their new roommate dead and loaded with cash, leading them down a dark path. Boyle knew that the film was going to be a hit when it was very warmly received at the Cannes Film Festival by audiences and critics (the festival organizers had to set up additional screens to satisfy demand). It went on to be the most commercially successful British film of 1995, winning the BAFTA for Best British Film.

Hot off the success of Shallow Grave, Boyle, Hodge, and Macdonald acquired the rights to Irvin Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and quickly went into production. McGregor returned as well in the leading role, with Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, and newcomer Kelly Macdonald co-starring. The story centers around Renton a Scottish heroin addict who tries to get clean, but he keeps getting pulled back in by his friends. The film was a breakout hit for Boyle internationally, playing to acclaim everywhere (garnering Hodge an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay). It is both among IMDb’s Top 250 and number ten on BFI’s Top 100 British Films of All-Time (and among my personal top 50 favorite films).

Hollywood Calling:

Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (along with Bottle Rocket, Pulp Fiction, Fargo, Clerks., Swingers, and The Usual Suspects) were among the films revolutionizing cinema in the early to mid-1990s, as independent film was becoming the way forward for great films and filmmakers with new visions. In this changing landscape, studios started subsidiaries (or purchasing smaller distributors) to acquire these indie films (like Disney’s purchase of Miramax in 1993).

Boyle signed a production deal and moved to Hollywood (as other indie filmmakers were also signing deals with studios). The first project that he was approached for was Alien Resurrection, but he declined, instead wanting to continue to work with his creative team.

A Life Less Ordinary became Boyle’s first Hollywood film (though with British financing), again with a script from Hodge, Macdonald producing, and McGregor in the lead. Cameron Diaz was also cast, fresh off her breakout success in The Mask (as well as She’s the One and My Best Friend’s Wedding), along with Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo. The film is about a cleaning man in L.A. who takes the boss’s daughter hostage after being replaced by a robot. Meanwhile, two angels are charged with a mission to make them fall in love – a tall order. The film opened to mixed reviews and box office failure. It is probably a bit too weird for mainstream audiences.

For his next film, the studio wanted a bit more control and wanted Boyle to cast a bigger star in the lead. Boyle agreed and cast Leonardo DiCaprio (who had just made Romeo + Juliet and Titanic) in The Beach, which left McGregor upset (only very recently have they made up) as he had expected to be cast in the lead (they have yet to work together again). However, Hodge stayed on, writing the script based on Alex Garland’s cult novel, and Macdonald as producer. The film is about Richard, a young man who goes to Thailand to find himself. Boyle cast Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet, Tilda Swinton, and Robert Carlyle in the main supporting roles. He also brought in Darius Khondji to shoot the film (his first time not working with Brian Tufano). All the pieces were in place for Boyle to have a hit, but again the film just did not connect with mainstream audiences or critics. After two films made for Hollywood, Boyle was burnt out and looking for something different.

While A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach are among Boyle’s weaker films, they still have some interesting aesthetics and make for entertaining viewing for fans of Boyle’s style.

Experimenting with Digital Photography:

Boyle saw the Danish film The Celebration and was fascinated by the digital photography. He immediately wanted to meet Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot the film, and experiment with the medium himself. Together, they made two digital films for BBC television – Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise.

Happy with the results, Boyle, Macdonald, and Dod Mantle set out to make their first digital feature. Boyle tapped Alex Garland to write the script, and together they reimagined and reinvigorated the Zombie genre with 28 Days Later…. Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns, the film is about a young man who awakens in London to find that the world has been ravaged by a virus. To survive, he must band together with a few strangers and look for somewhere safe to hide. The film was a huge commercial and critical success (essentially resurrecting Boyle’s career). While it is not the first digital feature, it had a major impact on how audiences viewed the medium and garnering its acceptance among filmmakers (though the night scene at the end was shot on 35mm film). Boyle has said that the film would not have been possible if he shot on film, especially the exterior scenes in London. He also aesthetically liked the look of DV for the post-apocalyptic landscape.

Next, Boyle returned to crime dramas with his heist film Millions. However, it has a very different feel (at times) compared to his past work, and is his first film not to be rated ‘R’. While he again shot on digital using Dod Mantle, the film marked his first without producing partner Macdonald. The story centers on two children who discover a bag of money (which was lost during a heist, but the criminals are looking for it). It stars newcomers Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon, with James Nesbitt co-starring. Audiences and critics did not really know what to make of it, as it is oddly different than anything Boyle had done before tonally, but also sort of the same in moments too.

Prestige Films:

Again wanting to do something completely different, Boyle set out to make a psychologically-minded sci-fi thriller/drama akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris with Sunshine – as the film deals with what happens when man meets his maker (in a sense). Boyle again worked with producer Macdonald, composer John Murphy (a frequent collaborator of Boyle’s, working on five of his films), production designer Mark Tildesley, writer Alex Garland, and star Cillian Murphy on the film. He hired brilliant photographer Alwin H. Kuchler to shoot the film (and he does a spectacular job). In addition to Murphy, the film also stars Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Mark Strong, and Hiroyuki Sanda. The film is visually incredible and emotionally powerful (but had a tough time with domestic mainstream audiences). It is a must-see for fans of hard science fiction (and it is among my favorite films in the genre). Boyle had such a grueling experience making the film that he has claimed that he will never make another sci-fi project.

Continuing his trend of trying new genres with each film, Boyle decided to make his next film in India – a romance thriller called Slumdog Millionaire. He also put together a new creative team, working with producer Christian Colson (who has since produced all Boyle’s films) and writer Simon Beaufoy. However, Boyle again brought in Dod Mantle to shoot the film digitally. Starring Dev Patel and Freida Pinto (and making stars out of both of them), the film is about the amazing adventure of an impoverished boy in Mumbai who grows up in the slums only to win ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’. The film was a sensational hit for Boyle, being both his highest grossing and most critically successful film. It won eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director at the 2009 Academy Awards. It also marked the first digitally-photographed film to win an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Next, Boyle adapted the true story of Aaron Ralston, an outdoorsman who gets his arm trapped under a boulder while canyoneering along near Moah, Utah. He must resort to insane and desperate measures to survive. Boyle again collaborated with his Slumdog Millionaire team to make 127 Hours, and cast James Franco to star (who is fantastic in the film). It opened to critical acclaim garnering six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.

With 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle has asserted himself among the great indie filmmakers to come out of the 1990s who have gone on the be Oscar winners in the 2000s/2010s and certainly as one of Britain leading filmmakers working right now. Boyle is also one of the pioneers of digital photography through his collaborations with Anthony Dod Mantle. Digital is the medium of the future (somewhat sadly, as film still has a certain magical quality to it) with more and more films being shot on the medium each year.

Boyle also directed the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony to great acclaim and praise.


With Sam Mendes passing on making the Twenty-Fourth James Bond film, Boyle was approached. But, he too passed.

The long anticipated sequel to Trainspotting Porno looks like it will be finally entering production with a scheduled release year of 2016. Boyle has stated that all the cast members will be returning and he will be directing again.

Career Highlights:

1)      Shallow Grave (1994)* – director (Blu-ray, Trailer)
2)      Trainspotting (1996)* – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
3)      28 Days Later… (2002)* – director (Blu-ray, Trailer)
4)      Sunshine (2007)* – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
5)      Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
6)      127 Hours (2010) – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks