Wednesday, July 31, 2013

At the Movies – August 2013 – Part 1: Independent Films

Art-House Dramas:

The Grandmaster (Kar Wai Wong) – Action Drama – Aug 23
Plot Summary: The story behind the man who trained Bruce Lee: martial-arts master Ip Man. Filmmakers: Auteur Kar Wai Wong is one of China’s most celebrated directors with brilliant films such as Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. However, his last film My Blueberry Nights was a massive critical failure and he has been away from features since (until now, six years later). He is working with frequent collaborators production designer William Chang and composer Shigeru Umebayashi, as well as composer Nathaniel Mechaly (Taken 2), cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds – he also shot Wong’s recent short Déjà Vu) and renowned fight chorographer Woo-ping Yuen. Cast: Tony Leung (who often works with Wong) stars as Ip Man, and the supporting cast features Ziyi Zhang, Cung Li, Hye-kyo Song, and Chen Chang. Expectations: The Grandmaster in no way resembles what one would expect from a Kar Wai Wong film; rather it looks like a typical Chinese-style martial-arts film (with exaggerated, extravagant, and operatic fight scenes). Critics have been mixed as well, most feeling that it is fine as an action drama but disappointing as a Kar Wai Wong film (as expectations are incredibly high for each of his projects). Personally, I have sort of fallen out of love with martial-arts films. Yimou Zhang made two of the most beautiful I have seen (Hero and House of Flying Daggers), and since then everything has been a disappointment by comparison. Plus, the genre and style are overly tired now, begging for new life and innovation. With this film, I am interested. I like the cast, Woo-ping Yuen always does great work, and Wong is a filmmaker I respect deeply. Thus, I certainly will check it out – just probably not in theaters. Trailer: Here.

Art-House Comedies:

In a World… (Lake Bell) – Comedy – Aug 9
Plot Summary: Carol is the daughter of the king of movie-trailer voice-overs. She, however, makes her living as a vocal coach and is generally considered an underachiever. In an effort to aspire for more, she decides to pursue her dream of following in her father’s footsteps and become the first female voice-over voice in movie-trailers. Filmmakers: Actress Lake Bell makes her feature debut writing and directing this film. She is working with composer Ryan Miller (The Kings of Summer), cinematographer Seamus Tierney (Liberal Arts), and production designer Megan Fenton. Cast: Lake Bell also stars in the film, and brings along a bunch of her friends in supporting roles, including: Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, Jeff Garlin, and Eva Longoria. Expectations: In a World… looks very funny and it is nice to see a comedy built around a female lead that is not purely predicated on them engaging in pratfalls or emotional breakdowns. The film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (for Lake Bell) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and also competed for the Grand Jury Prize. This is worth checking out for fans of good indie comedies. Trailer: Here.

Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green) – Dramedy – Aug 16
Plot Summary: Alvin and Lance spend the summer of 1988 as highway road workers, leaving their city lives behind. Isolated from everything, their minds begin to drift and conflict arises between the two men. Filmmakers: Writer-director David Gordon Green started out his career making good indie films (such as George Washington and All the Real Girls) and then moved on to more mainstream comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and Eastbound & Down). However, his last two features have not been well received by critics (The Sitter is particularly bad). Prince Avalanche sees him return more to his roots as an indie filmmaker. He is working again with frequent collaborators composer David Wingo, cinematographer Tim Orr, and production designer Richard Wright. He is also working with the band Explosions in the Sky on the score. Cast: The film stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, with Lynn Shelton providing voice work. Expectations: Prince Avalanche played to mixed reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. However, it won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. It looks like a decent character dramedy. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are both good actors and should be able to carry the film and engage the audience. And, despite The Sitter, David Gordon Green is still one of the better American indie directors. I look forward to renting it. Trailer: Here.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wolverine (2013) – Review

Review: The Wolverine takes a more personal look at the character – well, at least for the first two acts – bringing something a bit different and welcomed to the superhero genre. The film is about a reclusive, emotionally drained Logan in the wake of the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (no, he is not in hiding due to the sheer terribleness of that film, but rather due to his role in the death of Jean Grey – the woman he loved). He no longer wants to hurt anyone, but still feels a sense of justice that gets him into trouble. Meanwhile, Yashida, a Japanese businessman that Logan saved from the bombing of Nagasaki during WWII, is on his deathbed, wishing to repay all his debts. He sends Yukio (a mutant with the power to foresee a person’s death) to find Logan and bring him to Japan. She does, and he reluctantly agrees to come. Yashida offers Logan a way to finally shed his immortality and lead a normal life. Yashida has become the most powerful man in Japan and has figured out a way to transfer Logan’s abilities to himself through his corporation’s research (and the help of a mutant named Viper). Logan refuses and his longtime friend passes away, leaving everything to his granddaughter Mariko, circumventing his ambitious son Shingen (who feels betrayed). Mariko is now a target, both from her father and outside forces. Yashida was in a power struggle with the Triads. His fight has now become her fight. She is innocent and thus Logan feels compelled to protect her. However, the longer he stays in Japan, the more he comes to realize that not everything is as it seems.

The X-Men franchise (along with Spider-Man and Batman Begins) launched the current boon of superhero films that now dominate ever summer movie season (after Batman & Robin all but killed the genre in the late 1990s). And yet, the series has never quite found its way with the initial trilogy succumbing to awful casting (save for Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart), bad writing/storytelling, and in the end very poor directing. Wolverine is assumed to be the franchise’s biggest character, and was thus spun-off into his own X-Men Origins story (only for that to be another step backwards for the series). While the films continued to be successful at the box office, fan and critical acclaim had become all but nonexistent. X-Men: First Class saw the series rebooted (in a sense) with strong casting, good writing, and sure direction, bringing the franchise back from the dead. With The Wolverine, director James Mangold has all this history to contend with as he makes what is ultimately a one-off, self-contained story.

What works well with Mangold’s film is that primarily the story focuses on Logan’s emotional journey, interwoven with some exciting action set pieces (for example: the bullet train scene is fantastic). Mangold digs deeper into the character than audiences are typically accustomed to in a summer blockbuster/superhero movie (aside from the good ones). For once, Wolverine is not just a cool character on screen that does action stuff with big claws, but rather a fully fleshed out character that the audience can relate to, understand what motivates him, and get behind in more than just a superficial manner. The action, in this sense, very much plays a secondary role – almost to the point of distraction – in the film, as Logan’s journey and his relationship with Mariko is far more dramatically engaging.

But, as seemingly it must as a summer blockbuster, the film dissolves into a somewhat more generic action film in the third act (because that is what the audience wants, or so think studio executives). The first two acts are very strong, focusing wholly on character, while the third act is just an extended action sequence with much of the built-up emotional energy dissipating as the film relies on genre troupes and disregards its characters to the sidelines. To some extent, it feels like the big action ending was a compromise for the rest of the film being more character driven, made by Mangold in the face of studio pressure (whether or not this is the case is unknown, this is merely my guess).

Ultimately, the inclusion of the Silver Samurai serves no dramatic purpose and thus hurts the narrative arch of the film. Its inclusion is made to raise the stakes, action wise, giving Logan a more intimidating enemy to defeat. This would be fine in a different film, but it goes against the tone and narrative style established in the first two acts. The Wolverine is not a film about Logan fighting an exterior monster, but his own interior demons. By switching up the tone and narrative trajectory in the third act, most of the characters and the complex relationships being built throughout the first two acts kind of fall by the wayside making room for big action moments. In the end, it all feels a bit underwhelming and incomplete, which holds this back from being what could have been one of the better superhero films (and one of the best of the summer). It just does not have those necessary impactful moments that the third act of a film should deliver, because it is essentially a different film as soon as Logan gets on the motorcycle and heads up the mountain to Yashida’s hometown.

With all that said, however, The Wolverine is still a very entertaining blockbuster, filled with exciting moments (I thought the bombing of Nagasaki was particularly impressive and effective from both a visual and emotional standpoint – showing the power and cruelty of man in a series that has predominately focused on man’s fear of the power that mutants hold) and stronger than expected performances and characters. It is probably the strongest of all the original-cast X-Men films.

Setting the film is Japan also is one of the film’s stronger aspects. Visually, it allows the X-Men franchise to explore a world, style, and set of values that the audience has not yet seen cinematically with these characters. Mangold embraces the setting wonderfully, as the film has a number of very beautiful locations. It also enables the audience to further connect with Logan, as he is alone in a foreign place that he does not understand and does not fit (as this world is new and different for the audience as well, in many cases).

The film features multiple female characters as well, which on its own in something refreshing for a summer blockbuster. But even more surprising, these female characters are not just there in subservient roles, each of them adds something to the narrative (and, for me at least, Mariko and Yukio are probably the film’s best characters).

The Wolverine does and is what moviegoers have come to expect from summer blockbusters. It is very entertaining. It does have some strong action set pieces. It tells its story economically. It even takes a character, in his fifth full outing, and digs deeper into him dramatically, giving the audience something fresh. By this regard, it is a successful film (and one that I liked a lot). But, at the end of the day, it stumbles when it could have been great. It takes the easy road of spectacle instead of staying the course for the more fulfilling and poignant emotional payoff, which leaves the film feeling a bit disappointing (once the sheer awesomeness and excitement of the fantastic post-credit scene setting up Days of Future Past wears off).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Mangold is a veteran Hollywood director. With The Wolverine, he turns in another solid entertaining film, which is really all one can ask from such a director. It would have been nice to have seen a third act in which the characters were still center stage instead of the spectacle, however, as Mangold’s strongest aspect as a director is garnering great performances (see Walk the Line) and creating dynamic dramatic moments between them (and really, that describes the best parts of The Wolverine).

Marco Beltrami turns in a fairly generic action-movie score, but it does have some good moments especially when it takes on a more authentic-sounding tone. It does its job though, reinforcing the dramatic moments and propping up the big action scenes. Ross Emery’s cinematography is very good in the film. Much of the film is dark and rainy, and Emery use of minimal light in these moments works well in capturing the dramatic tone. And by contrast, the film is very beautiful in other moments, this juxtaposition reflecting Logan’s own inner struggle for peace. However, the greatest achievement of the film is Francois Audouy’s production design. Yashida’s house, the entire Nagasaki sequence, the hilarious ‘sex hotel’ – each of these sets stands out as something memorable in the film.

The Wolverine also has a strong set of performances across the board. Mangold inherited Famke Janssen and Hugh Jackman as Jean Grey and Logan respectively from the X-Men series, and sadly they are miscast in those roles. Here, however, he gets good work out of both of them, as he again focuses more on the characters allowing each to have more of a dramatic and emotional part to bring to life. Janssen is good playing Logan’s spirit guide of sorts through his journey, as he tries to forgive himself for her death. Jackman has never been better as Logan (and is closer than he has ever been to matching the character in the comics – the reluctant blunt-force weapon). He is able to engage the audience on an emotional level, bringing them fully into the narrative. Brian Tee and Svetlana Khodchenkova offer some good moments in their small supporting roles. Ken Yamamura and Hal Yamanouchi play Yashida (young and old respectively), and bring emotional weight and an urgency to him that works very well. Hiroyuki Sanada is (as always) brilliant as Shingen, an overbearing father and scorned son. If only he had more to do in the film. Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto each make their cinematic debut, playing Yukio and Mariko, and to some degree stealing the film. Rukushima is a lot of fun as a tough street punk type who is also loyal to her core, while Okamoto steals the audience’s heart, as she epitomizes innocence and hope. But what is great about these two women and their performances is that they also bring wonderful strength to their roles, budding from their inner resolve. It is refreshing to see this in a summer blockbuster.

Summary & score: As a one-off, self-contained character driven superhero film The Wolverine works extremely well, but in its third act it just reverts back into a generic summer blockbuster spectacle movie (which is really too bad) undoing a lot of, but not all, the good. 7/10

Monday, July 29, 2013

Movie of the Week – Le Samourai

This week’s movie: Le Samourai (1967).

Jef Costello is a very talented and successful assassin, but on his latest job things start to go south quickly.

Auteur Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the greatest French filmmakers of the 1960s, with films like Le Deuxieme Souffle, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows (which is my favorite), and Le Cercle Rouge. He was a master of character-driven crime dramas. On this film he worked with composer Francois de Roubaix, cinematographer Henri Decae (who came up in France’s New Wave), and production designer Francois de Lamothe.

Like many of Melville’s late films, Alain Delon stars.

Le Samourai epitomizes cool. Everything about Delon’s Costello is cool. Plus, Melville directs with such a steady hand. He is unafraid to let the film simmer towards its brilliant climax. The pacing is slow, so it may not be for everyone, but for those that do like great crime dramas this is certainly one of the best in cinema history.

Trailer: Here

Available on: DVD

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 5: 85-81

Rank: 85
Release Year: 1993
Genre: Holocaust Drama
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot Summary: Initially a war profiteer, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce in Poland after witnessing the horrors they face at the hands of the Nazis. He changes his focus from profit to saving as many as he can.
What Makes It Special: Holocaust dramas are almost all incredibly powerful and personal (particularly for their filmmakers). With Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg (a darling of Hollywood) was able to convey the pain of a generation to filmgoers worldwide by using his polished style to create a prestige blockbuster. Shot in black and white, Spielberg utilizes color in one very specific scene to iconic and haunting affect. The film stays with its audience, resonating deeply.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 84
Release Year: 1939
Genre: Epic/Romance Drama/War Drama
Director: Victor Fleming
Plot Summary: Scarlett O’Hara is a strong-minded southern belle who always gets what she wants. However, with the outbreak of the Civil War, she must make sacrifices to survive – including engaging in an affair with Rhett Butler, a blockade runner who normally would be an outcast in polite society (but he can is useful to O’Hara during the war as he greatly profits personally from it). But she is spiteful and cruel, leading their relationship down a tumultuous path.
What Makes It Special: Gone with the Wind is one of the great epics of American cinema and the highest grossing film of all-time (if you adjust for inflation). It is beloved by many as a grand romantic tale, filled with great characters, beautiful aesthetics, and iconic moments. All that said, however, the film also has blemished reputation (especially as today’s society becomes more cognizant and unforgiving of subtle racism and other discriminatory aspects of culture). It paints the South as a majestic place ruined by the North’s vicious war – as it is taken from the South’s perspective – propagating the myth (to some extent) that slavery was really not all that bad for those enslaved (especially for those unfamiliar with America’s history – which includes most Americans). It is undoubtedly a great film, a classic, but must be taken in its historical context.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 83
Release Year: 1971
Genre: Crime Drama/Psychological
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Plot Summary: In future Britain, criminal and delinquent Alex DeLarge is put in jail. While there, he is chosen for an experimental aversion therapy developed by the government (to cure criminals of their devious tendencies and thereby solve society’s crime problem). Alex is a good pupil, but not everything goes as planned.
What Makes It Special: A Clockwork Orange examines British society under the guise of being a satire set “the near future”, and it is harsh in its assessment. Stanley Kubrick warps the look of everything (to almost a dystopian degree). The idea of the government brainwashing criminals to always choose the good, in an effort to address their prison overpopulation problem, speaks to the great concern that government (or any other kind of authority figure) wants to control every aspect of the populace’s life, taking away the individual’s humanity. What makes this film so compelling is that Kubrick presents our protagonist as someone wholly unlikable but charismatic. His actions and perversity are disgusting, and yet seeing his humanity taken away (or at least attempted to be taken away) creates a sense of compassion in the viewer – for a man who certainly does not deserve it. And then, now that Kubrick has taken the audience from a place of hate to compassion, he reveals that Alex has not changed at all; he is still just as rotten as ever. His rehabilitation is one big joke – the government and audience have been lured into feeling a sense of compassion only to be laughed at, because really the world is just a wicked place that we just like to pretend is good and ordered – making this film the ultimate satire.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 82
Title: Kes
Release Year: 1969
Genre: Character Drama
Director: Ken Loach
Plot Summary: Billy is a young working-class English boy who has a hard life (both at home and at school). However, he finds something to be passionate about for the first time when he spends his free time caring for and training his pet falcon.
What Makes It Special: Kes is at its heart a very beautiful and touching story, while at the same time a bleak look at the typical life of those living in a Yorkshire mining town in the 1960s. Billy is essentially a boy with no hope (and no escape) who finds something wondrous and meaningful in his life, if only for a moment. Kes also feels extremely authentic, as if Ken Loach were merely filming the real lives of the characters in the film. Loach appeals to many emotions, as the narrative elicits feelings of joy, anger, horror, and sadness, yet it never feels like Loach is pulling the strings for dramatic effect – again speaking to the film’s realistic feel. It is one of cinema’s finest and most intimate character dramas.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 81
Release Year: 1998
Genre: War Drama/Philosophical
Director: Terrence Malick
Plot Summary: U.S. soldiers face a very entrenched Japanese army during the battle at Guadalcanal during WWII.
What Makes It Special: Most WWII films focus on the bravery and the accomplishments of the men involved, or the major turning points of the battle(s), but Terrence Malick did something completely different with The Thin Red Line (and during the same year that saw the release of Saving Private Ryan, a much more popular WWII film, though not as critically heralded today by comparison). The viewer does not really ever get a sense of how the battle is going or what the main objectives are or what the status of the battle is at any point. Rather, Malick focuses completely on the psychological make-up of the soldiers: how they are affected by the conflict; their dreams of home; their dreams of escape; their fear; and yes their heroism as well. Malick creates a mixture of the stunning beauty of nature and the devastating violence that man brings to it with his visuals, playing into the poetic resonance of the extensive voiceover narration throughout from the perspective of multiple characters. There may never be a more visually impressive or thoughtful film made about the horrors of war.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 4: 90-86

Rank: 90
Title: Amadeus
Release Year: 1984
Genre: Revenge Drama
Director: Milos Forman
Plot Summary: Talented composer Antonio Salieri tells the story of his rival Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (whom he reveres and hates in equal measures) in confession from his room in an asylum late in life (through flashbacks).
What Makes It Special: Amadeus is phenomenal is every facet. Musically, it revels in the brilliance of Mozart’s work. Visually, it is astounding with beautiful candle-lit sets and delightfully lavish costume design. And from a performance standpoint, F. Murray Abraham gives one of cinema’s best as Salieri – a man consumed by his own legacy and mediocrity. Yet, it is Milos Forman’s exploration of jealously, envy, and revenge that are the film’s most intriguing aspect. It is utterly engrossing.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 89
Release Year: 1946
Genre: Drama
Director: William Wyler
Plot Summary: Three WWII veterans return home to their small town in America, only to discover that they feel uncomfortable around their families and that everything has changed.
What Makes It Special: WWII is mostly considered to be pretty black and white with clear villains and heroes along with a strong moral reason for why so many sacrificed their lives (unlike say The Vietnam War for example) – and yet, The Best Years of Our Lives taps into the difficulty that returning veterans still experienced, coming back to a country that had moved on without them. In many ways, the film is utterly heartbreaking. These men gave everything, but in many instances came back to nothing (in addition to being forever mentally and physically scarred by the horrors they witnessed). The film beautifully expresses the adversity faced as they try to socially re-adjust. It has a timeless quality as it resonates just as strong today as it did in 1946.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 88
Release Year: 1996
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Danny Boyle
Plot Summary: Renton is a heroin addict, as are most of his friends. However, Renton has a plan to kick junk and get clean – that is, unless his friends pull him back down.
What Makes It Special: Trainspotting is one of the great indie films to come out of the 1990s that completely revitalized cinema and introduced the world to a new generation of fresh auteur filmmakers. While mostly American directors had been leading the revolution (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and the Coen Brothers to name a few), Trainspotting gave brilliant British filmmaker Danny Boyle a global stage and along with Kar Wai Wong the indie transformation of Hollywood an international feel. Trainspotting is wonderfully subversive, gleefully funny, and aesthetically vibrant. Like most of these great indie films of the 1990s, its influence is felt in many of today’s films and filmmakers. Plus, it has of the 1990’s most iconic soundtracks.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 87
Release Year: 1950
Genre: Drama
Plot Summary: Eve wants nothing more than to be a star. Seeing an opening, she inserts herself into a circle of theatre friends hoping to find a place in their company. From there, she starts to subtly edge out the aging star of the company Margo (but not without a fight).
What Makes It Special: Simply put, All About Eve is a drama built upon the masterful performances of its stars Bette Davis (who is in one moment a booming volcano of furry, and the next a deflated, beaten pawn asking for the audience’s pity) and Anne Baxter (who at first beguiles with preserved goodness and nativity, only to later fully reveal her true killer instinct). It is a screenwriting sensation as the backstage backstabbing and other shenanigans all play out with quick wit and sharp tongues. There may never again be a character drama as well written or acted.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 86
Release Year: 1954
Genre: Crime Drama
Director: Elia Kazan
Plot Summary: Former prize-fighter Terry Malloy enjoys the perks afforded to him by his job as a longshoreman, benefitting from the corruption of his union bosses and his status in the community. However, he finds himself in a tough position after witnessing a murder, struggling internally with whether or not he should stand up to the union bosses in protest.
What Makes It Special: On the Waterfront is a powerful character drama, taking place in the dark, ugly places of society with rough characters. Lead by Marlon Brando’s iconic performance, the cast in full is absolutely phenomenal, every scene teaming with dramatic weight. Yet, it is Brando’s portrayal of Malloy that seems to resonate for viewers. His struggle to stand up or not is intensely affecting – and as a result On the Waterfront continues to be one of cinema’s greatest character dramas.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 3: 95-91

Rank: 95
Title: Mrs. Miniver
Release Year: 1942
Genre: War Drama
Director: William Wyler
Plot Summary: With the outbreak of war between England and Germany in 1939, a British family living in a small town struggles to survive the first few months, amidst the looming fear of invasion and continuous air raids.
What Makes It Special: When Mrs. Miniver was first released in America June 1942, the United States had just very recently declared war on Japan (following the Pearl Harbor attack December 7th, 1941) and Germany (and its allies). However, many in America were unaware of the struggles that Britain faced on a daily basis. And in this way, Wyler’s film does play a bit like propaganda to rally support against Germany – but it does so very eloquently with beautiful, touching, and heartbreaking performances and moments. This film did wonders rousing American support for the war in Europe (which had been somewhat waning, especially in the wake of WWI – a wholly unpopular war in America).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 94
Title: Rebecca
Release Year: 1940
Genre: Mystery/Thriller/Romance Drama
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Plot Summary: An awkward (maybe even sheepish), naïve girl is wooed by wealthy widower Maximilian de Winter, and at first she finds her new life wondrous, but a little intimidating as well. However, she soon finds herself tormented by the memory of her husband’s late (and extravagate) wife.
What Makes It Special: Rebecca is often remembered as the only Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar; or maybe that it is the prolific director’s first Hollywood film (working with famed producer David O. Selznick). Those facts aside, the film is maybe most memorable for Hitchcock and his director of photography George Barnes’s mastery of black and white photography. There may not be a better shot film in the medium (playing wonderfully off the Gothic romance tone). Joan Fontaine also gives what ultimately amounts to be a very strong female performance very much coming into her own by the end (even though her character is not ever given a name), allowing the text (which can be taken as very un-feminist) to play as being a feminist work (which is a bit funny, given Hitchcock’s later films like Vertigo or The Birds).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 93
Title: Goldfinger
Release Year: 1964
Genre: Action/Adventure/Spy Thriller
Director: Guy Hamilton
Plot Summary: James Bond takes a mission to Miami to investigate smuggler Auric Goldfinger, only to uncover a much grander scheme – one that involves pulling off a heist to infiltrate Fort Knox (where a large portion of America’s gold is held – back in the 1960s, the value of the U.S. dollar was still linked to the value of gold).
What Makes It Special:  While Dr. No and From Russia with Love came first introducing the world to a new kind of film: the action/adventure spy thriller predicated on a suave lead (that all women wanted, and all men wanted to be), bombshell female stars, international locations, and massive action set pieces, it was with Goldfinger that James Bond really became a worldwide phenomenon (and Sean Connery the highest paid actor in the world). While Jaws is considered the first ‘blockbuster’, the James Bond films certainly seem to fit the bill a decade earlier. Even now with twenty-three James Bond films, Goldfinger remains the best and most iconic of the franchise (not to mention it is one of the greatest spy films ever made – even if James Bond is a lousy spy in the traditional sense).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 92
Release Year: 1981
Genre: Adventure Mystery
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot Summary: The Ark of the Covenant might hold the power for complete world domination. On the brink of world war, the Nazis have hired their man to find it, and they are close. Thus, the U.S. government turns to famed adventurer and archeologist Indiana Jones to find it first.
What Makes It Special: Much like another George Lucas brainchild Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark has everything a cinemagoer could want from a summer movie: action, drama, comedy, adventure, thrills, iconic heroes, and great villains – and, like Star Wars this film was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In today’s cinema landscape of studios investing everything in their big releases, it would be nice if we had more great films like Raiders of the Lost Ark that both excel as blockbusters and quality pieces of cinema (though, there are a few that still do) instead of the perpetual assembly line of bland, boring mind-numbing sameness. After more than thirty years since its release, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an unheralded masterpiece of cinematic fun.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 91
Title: Ben-Hur
Release Year: 1959
Genre: Epic/Drama
Director: William Wyler
Plot Summary: After Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed and sent into slavery by the Romans, he struggles and fights to regain his freedom – all the while dreaming of the day he might return and have his revenge.
What Makes It Special: Throughout cinema’s history there have been epics (starting with The Birth of a Nation) expressing just what the medium is capable of in its grandest form, as they capture the imagination of the audience and show them something spectacular of massive scope and scale (something they could never see in real life). Ben-Hur fully embraces this great tradition (one that has been awfully sullied by the sorry excuse that is today’s event cinema – again barring a few great releases) with its grandiose action set pieces, wonderful score, lush design, and beautiful photography. Yet, its most striking feature might be just how engrossing Ben-Hur’s narrative journey is – from prince to slave and back. It is a magnificent piece of cinema (and one of its greatest epics).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Monday, July 22, 2013

Movie of the Week – In the Loop

This week’s movie: In the Loop (2009).

The satire revolves around the buildup to war in Iraq in 2003. The U.S. President and U.K. Prime Minister have put in motion the steps towards declaring war, but not everyone is convinced that it is a good idea so they order their underlings to fabricate evidence to justify intervention. British Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster (who is a bit of a dope) mistakenly backs military action in a TV interview and is suddenly thrust into the middle of the debate for war – a place he should never be.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci is the perfect fit for a political satire such as this, coming from I’m Alan Partridge. He has since created the fantastic political comedy series Veep. On In the Loop, he worked with composer Adem Ilhan, cinematographer Jamie Cairney, and production designer Cristina Casali.

The ensemble cast features Tom Hollander (who plays Simon Foster), Peter Capaldi (who is amazing in the film), Gina McKee, Chris Addison, Zach Woods, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, David Rasche, James Gandolfini, and Steve Coogan.

In the Loop is one of the most hysterical political satires in recent memory. It also does a great job shedding light on the complete catastrophe that actually was the intelligence used by the allied governments in convincing their peoples that war was necessary (something we have all come to realize was fabricated nonsense), though probably somewhat exaggerated for comedic effect (as this is after all fiction – while the reality is shameful and sad). For fans of political satire, there is not much better than this (especially from a writing perspective).

Trailer: Here

Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 2: 100-96

Rank: 100
Title: Rushmore
Release Year: 1998
Genre: Comedy
Director: Wes Anderson
Plot Summary: Max Fischer loves his school Rushmore. He is the president of dozens of school clubs, but that does not leave much time for his schoolwork. Additionally, he develops a crush on one of the school’s teachers Rosemary Cross and a friendship with one of the school’s benefactors Herman Blume. Max’s world starts to collapse around him, however, when he is expelled trying to impress Mrs. Cross, and to make matters worse Blume also has a crush on her, putting Max and Blume at odds.
What Makes It Special: Wes Anderson introduced himself to the world with Bottle Rocket, but that film did not wholly exhibit his unique style and gift for aesthetics. With Rushmore, Anderson changed American independent cinema, influencing almost every indie dramedy made since by young filmmakers (Anderson himself is heavily influenced by past filmmakers as well – most notably those of the French New Wave). In addition to being a one of the most important films in the rebirth of both American independent film in the 1990s and American auteurism, Rushmore is simply a very funny movie featuring wonderful performances from Schwartzman (launching his career) and especially Murray (serving as his comeback performance in many regards).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 99
Title: Ghostbusters
Release Year: 1984
Genre: Comedy/Supernatural Adventure
Director: Ivan Reitman
Plot Summary: After being kicked out of grad school for doing seemingly bogus research, three unemployed parapsychology professors decide to go into business for themselves setting up a ghost-removal service.
What Makes It Special: While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg invented the blockbuster (with films such as Jaws – the first true summer blockbuster – Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark), Ghostbusters infused the developing genre with comedy (and great special effects) while still maintaining all the adventure and fantasy aspects. Blockbusters have since strived to be big, fun, entertaining, and family friendly with equal portions of laughs and action. Ghostbusters is an essential piece of cinema in the study of how to make a brilliant summer movie (and a big part of many childhoods – mine included), influencing every filmmaker who approaches the genre today.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 98
Release Year: 1998
Genre: Comedy/Detective Mystery
Director: The Coen Brothers
Plot Summary: Deadbeat Jeffrey Lebowski, who goes by The Dude, is pulled into a kidnapping mystery when he is mistaken for a millionaire of the same name. Seeking restitution for a ruined rug, The Dude tries his hand at being a private detective, hoping to get a new rug and maybe some money out of it.
What Makes It Special: When The Big Lebowski first came out, many did not know what to make of it and it mostly went unnoticed. However, it has since become a cult classic and a staple of modern pop-culture. Auteur writer-directors The Coen Brothers have taken the hardboiled detective genre and molded it into a farce of sorts on early 1990s Gulf War Era America, resulting in a hilarious and endlessly quotable film (that seems to never deteriorate in quality with each additional viewing).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 97
Release Year: 1953
Genre: Thriller
Plot Summary: Hoping for a better life, many foreigners traveled to South America, only to find nothing but famine and hopelessness. Now marooned in one such decrepit village, some of these foreigners jump at the chance to escape – the problem is that to earn the money to buy their freedom they must transport an urgent shipment of nitroglycerine (which is highly unstable) many miles in unsafe equipment. It is a suicide mission, but that is how desperate four men are to get out.
What Makes It Special: With The Wages of Fear, Henri-George Clouzot has made one of the most psychologically engaging thrillers in cinema history. It is unflinching in its ability to keep its viewers very nervous while watching it. However, what makes it all the more interesting is Clouzot’s study of his characters. The best and worst of humanity are beautifully explored in the film. It is also interesting to see the other side of imperialism as many foreigners are reduced to stranded beggars, unable to find work or afford transport home (something also very present in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 96
Release Year: 1953
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: William Wyler
Plot Summary: Princess Ann is bored of being trapped in her very structured and restrictive life. So, while on an official tour through Europe, she decides to escape for a night to experience the world as a commoner. Newspaper man Joe Bradley comes across her and at first sees it has his big break – an exclusive story about the Princess in Rome – but as he spends time with her he begins to fall in love.
What Makes It Special: William Wyler is maybe Hollywood’s greatest filmmaker, with the ability to make wonderful films in any genre and on any scale. Roman Holiday is maybe the best romantic comedy ever made, building off the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s but adding more emotional depth. After all, this is not a romantic comedy that sees its leads end up together in the end (as much as we want them to). The film also launched the career of one of the great actresses: Audrey Hepburn.
Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Streaming