Thursday, August 29, 2013

Elysium (2013) – Review

Review: Elysium is politically relevant sure (in a simplistic general way), but more so it is a fun sci-fi action film. The film is about Max, a former car thief who struggles through life as a factory worker. Earth has plunged into rampant overpopulation, unbridled pollution, and a wanton lack of resources. The rich have left to live on a luxurious space station called Elysium, free from disease, crime, and other social disorders, leaving the poor to waste away on a dying planet. However, after Max is exposed to a deadly amount of radiation caused by an accident at work, he has an exoskeleton attached to himself so he can breach the security of Elysium to cure himself.  His mission takes on even great stakes when he acquires information that could help all of humanity.

At face value, Elysium presents itself as a timely social drama that attracts viewers with its big sci-fi action sequences. The film seems to be forwarding the protest of the 99%, complaining about the greed of the wealthiest 1% (which holds about 39% of the world’s total wealth a present), which seems to be exaggerated for dramatic effect here – the entire Earth is now essential a third-world ghetto, while the rich live in a pristine utopian garden. And not only that, the wealthy are portrayed as being completely vain, self-centered villains that only care about themselves and their money, while the poor are all good-natured, hard-working everymans just trying to make it day-to-day (personified for the audience through Max). The poor are just trying to survive, while the rich employ despicable tactics and policies to oppress them. Thus, it is easy to get behind Max and his struggle to help humanity and save himself. But, upon closer look, the politics of Elysium just feel too simplified and easy. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s film is just too black and white, when real life mostly exists in the grey. It is true that his presentation of the future is a possibility, as the recent economic crisis, if nothing else, saw the most dramatic transfer of wealth in history away from the lower classes and into the hands of the very wealthy. So, it is not impossible to believe that this trend will continue, the gap widening eventually leading to a disparity comparable to the one in Elysium. The issue with the politics in the film is not so much with that aspect; it is more to do with unilaterally portraying the rich as bad or evil and the poor as good. It just feels dumbed down and thus uninteresting. Plus, I am not even convinced the Earth is better off in the end. I have a feeling undoing the protocols keeping the masses at bay will only exacerbate the problems that have led to Earth’s demise (based on the facts of the film). Really, the only solution is for everyone to move off-world to Elysium-like stations, but that raises the questions of whether or not there are enough resources, and if not who goes and who stays. The film tries to make the connection between today’s economic and social inequality and the exaggerated state of Earth in the future – to raise awareness or incite action or to merely just comment on it? But, its handling of this issue is clumsy and force-fed into clear roles of good and evil, which does not represent real life, and more importantly is not narratively interesting. The simplicity and clear one-sidedness of the politics just leave them feeling preachy, which is not very engaging either. But what do I know, maybe mass audiences need everything to be dumbed down with clear roles (Hollywood certainly seems to think so).

So yeah, that was a tangent. But it is relevant to the overall quality of the film. Social politics play a big role in the narrative. Yet, they are dumbed down and derivative – overly simplified for a film-going audience that the filmmakers clearly do not respect or expect to be able to understand more complex concepts. Thus, the foundation of the film’s narrative, its world, just seems flimsy. And ultimately, Elysium is left feeling just like any other big Hollywood summer blockbuster and not a film that dares to engage its audience socially and intellectually while also entertaining them – it is merely just escapist entertainment (which is fine, but I think fans of Blomkamp expected more).

The logic of the film’s world seems to falter a little as well. It seems like it is too easy for the inhabitants of Earth to breach the airspace of Elysium – why do they not all come in masses making it impossible for the security on the station to control them. But, by the same token, one could ask how is it that the few have controlled the many throughout the history of mankind. Also, the scale of the film feels too small given the context of the narrative, as if Los Angeles is the only city on Earth. Really, the whole film feels like it was set up just to promote the position of how unfair wealth inequality is (and maybe promote universal healthcare), with everything else thrown in so that this message could play to the masses under the guise of a summer blockbuster. Again, the problem is, the ideas expressed in the film are far too simplistic, when in reality the issues are very complex.

In terms of entertainment, the film does work quite well. The action sequences are fantastic and compelling. Blomkamp does a great job managing tension, as the audience is thoroughly enthralled throughout. The characters also work well. Through the use of flashback sequences, showing Max as a young boy with dreams and aspirations, and a crush/friendship with a young girl Frey, Blomkamp endears Max to the audience, even though as an adult he has fallen on rough times and has a criminal background. Max is a strong everyman, which the audience can latch onto – plus, he is facing off against the rich to secure equality for himself (and the masses). It is not fair that they live in such privilege with access to every amenity (particularly healthcare) while he toils away in squalor without the opportunity to better himself or live. The poor are not even citizens. These simple concepts are easy for the audience to connect with as well, especially given today’s economic/political/social climate. Blomkamp also has good villains (though, probably far too one-minded and simple). Delacourt, the defense security tasked with keeping the poor out of Elysium comes across like a wicked witch or evil queen from a fairytale, which again allows the audience to easily accept Max as the hero and root for him to triumph over her. And, her henchman Kruger is just a wonderful amalgamation of universally despicable traits.

While Elysium’s political agenda ends up being its weakness due to the unsophisticated and bluntly preachy manner in which it is presented, the film actually overcomes this shortcoming and succeeds as a very entertaining sci-fi action film. The politics are easy enough to shrug off, as the film feels much more like a fantasy adventure taking place in a storybook world than a gritty look at the future if the world continues down the path it is on. Max is nothing more than storybook hero who goes on a journey to save the kingdom from the evil queen/wicked witch that holds the people down under her tyrannical will. But again, while the film is great fun, it probably will disappoint Blomkamp’s fans.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: With District 9, Neill Blomkamp made an action sci-fi film that was politically interesting and relevant while also being refreshingly engaging and very entertaining. Elysium feels like Blomkamp trying to recapture the magic – this time for a studio – instead of doing something new. While he does do a great job with the action and the characters, this time the film stumbles when it comes to the presentation of its social message. It is a shame really, because the film is otherwise very good. Blomkamp is a director with a lot of talent, and thusly I do look forward to his next project with the same anticipation that I went into this with.

Aesthetically, the film is quite brilliant. Ryan Amon’s score is wonderfully engaging. To some extent, it does sound like it borrows heavily conceptually from the blaring moments of Hans Zimmer’s Inception score, but those big sounds do fit well here too, as they amplify the action and the stakes. Amon also infuses the music with a very electronic/urban sound that fits the chaos of Earth. It is one of the better scores I have heard this year, in terms of it actively assaulting the audience (in a good way). Here is a sample. Trent Opaloch’s cinematography and Philip Ivey’s production design are also both excellent. They do great work, capturing the juxtaposition of the poverty on Earth versus the opulence and cleanness of Elysium.

The cast somewhat plays second fiddle to the big action set pieces and the strong special effects, but they still find their moments to shine. Wagner Moura (who some may know from Elite Squad) plays Los Angeles crime boss Spider who helps Max get to Elysium. Moura has such a great nervous energy that makes what could have been a throwaway character dynamic and interesting. Alice Braga is also good in her small role as Max’s romantic interest. She gives the film heart. Jodie Foster is a lot of fun as Defense Secretary Delacourt, again playing the role as if she were the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty or the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Sharlto Copley plays her henchman on Earth Kruger, a villainous maniac who will stop at nothing to rain terror on whomever he sets as his target. Copley absolutely steals the film. He commands the screen with his presence and the film just seems more enjoyable whenever he is on screen. Matt Damon is good as Max as well. He is charming and completely embodies the everyman persona.

Summary & score: Elysium is a lot of fun, and one of the better summer action films despite the sloppy handling of its political aspirations. 7/10

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013) – Review

Review: Kick-Ass 2 is an entertaining blending of teen gross-out comedy and action, though lacking the style of its predecessor.  The film is about Dave and Mindy moving on with their lives after the events of Kick-Ass. Dave still feels the need to help people and teams up with a group of average people putting on costumes to fight crime and help their community. Meanwhile Mindy struggles to fit in as a high school freshman, growing up previously in an abnormal environment. However, Dave and Mindy must once again team up after Chris D’Amico puts together a band of killers to take revenge for his father’s death and goes on a rampage.

There are many things that writer-director Jeff Wadlow does right. Chiefly, he does a great job digging deeper into the characters. This film resonates to a higher degree as a result. Wadlow spends much of the narrative exploring Dave and Mindy and their dramatic journeys. Mindy’s is especially effective, as it plays on awkwardness of being an outcast in high school – something many viewers can relate to. While this narrative is nothing new, Mindy’s story still works because she is a character the audience is already completely invested in after stealing the first film and she brings something different to the narrative: she has the ability to not only stand up for herself but completely destroy her adversaries (which plays out in a funny/gross scene). With Dave, the audience sees that he really does just want to help people – that is why he is Kick-Ass. Regardless of how ridiculous Wadlow wants to take the action or comedy, these characters ground the film and the audience is invested in them, which is ultimately why the film works.

Matthew Vaughn’s film was great because it blended graphic violence, shocking comedy, and a polished stylistic panache, aimed at giving the film a very comic book friendly feel (like a love letter to comics and the films based on them). Wadlow tries to bring the same mix to Kick-Ass 2. It is funny, but more in a teen gross-out comedy fashion (akin to the films of the Farrelly Brothers). There is not as much wit and it does not play as a commentary on violence in popular culture, instead more so as just a straight hyper violent film (that is violent just to be violent, you know for entertainment). The violence does not feel startling here. Everything just feels a little more juvenile.

Stylistically, Kick-Ass 2 does not compare to the first film at all. Wadlow does keep the comic book-like transitions, but overall it is just lacking the same aesthetic flash. This speaks to Vaughn’s skill as a director and Wadlow not being of the same caliber visually. In some ways, it feels and looks like the B-movie or made-for-television version of Kick-Ass. While the action set pieces themselves are good and engaging, the staging often looks cheap – which can be said for much of the production.

But again, the film is still very entertaining despite some of its shortcomings thanks to its characters. The narrative also introduces a number of new characters (particularly Dr. Gravity and Colonel Stars and Stripes) that bring fun moments to the film. Kick-Ass 2 in direct comparison to Kick-Ass is certainly weaker in terms of writing and visual style, but as a standalone summer film it accomplishes what it sets out to be: it is a funny, engaging action-comedy with characters the audience can get behind.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: When Jeff Wadlow was announced as the writer-director of Kick-Ass 2, I was disappointed. I had seen Never Back Down and was not impressed. Plus, Kick-Ass is one of the films I most enjoyed in 2010, so I was excited for the sequel when Matthew Vaughn was slated to return. Now having seen Kick-Ass 2, I can say that Wadlow does a good job. Yes, he is not as talented as Vaughn (not even close), but he does well with the characters. In fact, this film is probably better dramatically from a character perspective. Assuming Fox wants X-Force to be a lower-budget X-Men spin-off, Wadlow will probably do well with it.

Composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson deliver a good score. It musically references the themes of Kick-Ass, while also bringing a different tone to this film, fitting Wadlow’s style. Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones’s lighting is fairly straight forward stylistically. However, the film does have sort of a grittier feel and look (compared to the slickness of Kick-Ass), which comes out in Russell De Rozario’s production design. Chris’s warehouse lair versus his father’s penthouse filled with cool pop-art and Colonel Stars and Stripes’s decrepit headquarters versus Big Daddy’s decked out apartment are two examples.

The cast is fun throughout. Donald Faison and Claudia Lee are good in small supporting roles. Jim Carrey creates one of his most interesting characters in recent memory with Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey, surprisingly, plays him fairly straight and not for exaggerated comedic effect, which works really well.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the last person anyone would ever imagine as a villain, but he plays Chris as a bratty rich-kid who is psychotic, making his alter ego The Motherfucker a compelling and fitting villain. His exchanges with John Leguizamo are funny as well. Chloe Grace Moretz is very good as Mindy. She gets to play much more of a fully fleshed out character this time as a lead, and the character and film greatly benefit. She does a great job mixing her girlish charm with Hit-Girl’s demented killer persona. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also very good as Dave. He does a strong job playing both the everyman and the film’s real hero.

Summary & score: While Kick-Ass 2 does not quite succeed to the same extent as Kick-Ass, it is in its own regard a funny and entertaining action-comedy. 7/10

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Spectacular Now (2013) – Review

Review: The Spectacular Now is a charming, yet affecting teen drama that escapes the typical genre troupes. The film is about a high school senior Sutter who, living in the shadow of growing up with an absent father, seemingly is content to just live in the moment with no thought for the future. After his girlfriend leaves him due to his attitude towards life, Sutter meets Aimee, a nice-girl who lives what could be called a sheltered life. Though they are quite different, they quickly form a kindred bond. The question is: can Sutter grow into the man Aimee deserves or is he just using her in the moment?

Something that is immediately noticeable in director James Ponsoldt’s film is Sutter’s apparent rampant alcoholism. He is high functioning enough to coast through life perpetually buzzed. But what is interesting in the film is that no one seems to really be that concerned. Either Sutter has been written off as ever being a productive member of the community (which is a sad statement about how society often views individuals with substance abuse issues) or everyone else in Sutter’s life is too focused on their own stuff to really notice. There is probably a little bit of both at play – plus, his generally inebriated state is such a part of his personality that it is just accepted as being normal, which speaks to how alcoholism is very often pushed to the dark corners within society, a dark secret that no one wants to talk about until something drastically goes wrong.

What is most striking/shocking is that Sutter’s relationship with Aimee seems to greatly benefit him in terms of his own personal growth, and yet she also enables him and his bad habits. Essentially, Sutter starts out treating Aimee as a backup plan and encourages her to drink as heavily as he does (which is alarming, especially in her compliance). She is different than the girls Sutter has typically dated. She is completely innocent and kind, without any snark or cynicism (which in itself is refreshing). She needs him, in a sense, and that gives him a sense of purpose that he likes. They help each other emotionally (he helps her stand up to her mom, and she helps him come to terms with who his father really is). But, Aimee also lives in a fantasy world and cannot see Sutter for who he really is, a deeply troubled young man who is struggling to keep it together. She does not call him on his drinking or on how he is fairly dismissive of her (in that it is clear that he still wants to be with Cassidy, his ex-girlfriend). She never directly challenges him to become the man she deserves, rather she seems to settle for the disaster that he is because she has been alone until she meets him (and thus he has become her whole world – as is often the case with first loves, or love in general). While Aimee allows Sutter to feel a sense of purpose that has been lacking in his life, she is still complicit in his self-destructive behaviors. But the audience is right there with her – Sutter is utterly charming. It is easy to dismiss the cliff he is teetering on.

However, this is one of the strongest narrative aspects of the film. Aimee is not some whimsical fantasy girl (the ‘manic pixie dream-girl’) who knocks Sutter out of his stupor with her cute strangeness. She is just a shy girl who has thrown herself (a bit haphazardly) into her first relationship. Though, she has probably come out of it stronger. Sutter must decide to change on his own, for him not for her. In this way, the film works much more as a character drama than a teen romance, which is why it is ultimately so effective dramatically. Ponsoldt is much more interested in the dramatic arcs of Sutter and Aimee than hitting all the typical romantic comedy notes (though, they film does have a fairly standard structure). Aimee is the catalyst that shakes things up by actually deeply caring about him, but the heavy lifting has to be done by Sutter (addressing his alcoholism and his father issues).

Another aspect of the film that works very well is Ponsoldt’s directing. He clearly values the characters above everything else – their emotional moments, struggles, moments of joy, and so on. Thus, the film is very stripped down stylistically. Ponsoldt basically just allows the performances (which are very strong) to play without really using the camera to add additional meaning or depth. That is not to say that his placement of the camera does not add something, because it does and the framing is often very good, but the camera does not seem to play an influential or dramatic role in the perception or interpretation of the characters. Again, Ponsoldt leaves that to the actors and their wonderful work. The lighting and production design also adds a lot to this stylistic choice, as everything feels very realistic and intimate.

Teen dramas and romances often fall into the trap of being very formulaic, but The Spectacular Now breaths a much needed breath of fresh air into the genre (much like last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower). It does not shy away from powerful dramatic moments and ultimately tells a meaningful story of a young man who is lost that finds his way, utilizing genuine emotions and dynamic, dramatically engaging characters.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Ponsoldt seems to certainly have an interest in telling stories about how alcoholism ruins lives, but in a hopeful manner as his characters emerge on the other side better off in the end. The Spectacular Now is not as focused on alcoholism as his last feature Smashed (though both exhibit very strong performances from their leads). For Sutter, his drinking is a symptom more so of his issues with his mother and father resulting from his father not being there. What scares me about the film, and what I found so powerful, is that his drinking is just a part of who he is in the eyes of his friends, family, and teachers. No one tries to help him. It speaks to how we are all often complicit in the bad and damaging habits of others, turning a blind eye in lieu of confrontation. Also, that is not the story Ponsoldt wanted to tell with this film. This is much more about Sutter growing up, and the same can be said for Aimee too. I really look forward to seeing what Ponsoldt does next as he is a great emerging talent who took a big step forward with this film.

Aesthetically, The Spectacular Now has an extremely intimate feel (showcased in Sutter and Aimee’s love scene) with the score, lighting, directing, and design all presenting the narrative in a very realistic manner. Composer Rob Simonsen’s score feels delicate as it plays a supporting role to the dramatic moments, never stepping on the performances. The soundtrack is also strong and fits well. Jess Hall’s cinematography is wonderful. It has a beauty to it, often using very soft and natural light. Linda Sena’s production design is also very good, creating a world that both feels very real but also speaks to who these characters are (especially in the juxtaposition of their bedrooms).

The performances carry this film. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Bob Odenkirk, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all good in small supporting roles. Kyle Chandler is fantastic in his small role as Sutter’s father, playing completely off-type. Brie Larson is also great as Cassidy, bringing a lot to what would have been a throwaway role in most films. However, the film is primarily a showcase for Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller gives a breakthrough performance as Sutter. He is completely likably, when he probably should not be. He also carries Sutter’s internal pain wonderfully. He hides it, pushing it deep down, by being fun and upbeat, but the audience can see the toil it is taking. It is one of 2013’s great performances. Woodley plays a character that feels like she is from a generation long past, and in that way has a nostalgic charm. Aimee has not been disillusioned by the world, and probably never will be. Her innocence is not so much a statement on her inexperience, but a testament to the sweetness of her spirit and kindness of her heart. Building off her great work in The Descendants, Woodley is really establishing herself as an elite young talent.

Summary & score: The Spectacular Now is an excellent character drama, built on the brilliant performances from its cast, especially Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. 8/10

Monday, August 26, 2013

Movie of the Week – JFK

This week’s movie: JFK (1991).

After the John F. Kennedy assassination, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison discovers that there may be more to it than the official story of a lone gunman. Garrison believes that there were multiple shooters and the assassination plot may have been hatched and formulated in his own city.

Oliver Stone was one of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood during the 1980s and 1990s with films such as Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, and Natural Born Killers. However, JFK is his masterpiece. Using a mixture of documentary, found, faux-documentary recreations, and new footage, Stone creates an utterly compelling case for a conspiracy. John Williams’s iconic score, Robert Richardson’s cinematography (winning an Oscar), and Victor Kempster’s production design are all top notch as well.

JFK features an ensemble of fantastic performances starting with Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison. The supporting cast is wonderful and packed with great actors, including: Jay O. Sanders, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Vincent D’Onofrio, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Brian Doyle-Murray,  Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, Wayne Knight, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, John Larroquette, Ron Rifkin, and Frank Whaley.

Whether or not the whole JFK conspiracy theory holds any water or not is irrelevant to the brilliance of this film, both from an aesthetics and narrative standpoint. Aesthetically, this is a masterwork – and gravely underrated. Narratively, Stone all but convinces the viewer that the JFK assassination was indeed a conspiracy due to Stone’s powerful, moving, and compelling directing/editing choices. It is one of the 1990’s best films (and among my personal favorites).

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 7: 75-71

Rank: 75
Release Year: 1970
Genre: Drama
Plot Summary: Marcello Cierici is a man without strong political feelings, but in 1938 he takes a job working for Mussollini. He is courting a young girl looking to marry as well. The couple goes to Paris for their honeymoon, but Marcello also has an assignment: to track down his old professor, who fled Italy when the fascists took power, and assassinate him.
What Makes It Special: On a pure aesthetic level, The Conformist is a stylistic and photographic wonder. Vittorio Storaro’s lighting is magnificent, helping Bernardo Bertolucci create a film that often feels surreal. At face value, the film is a disdainful look at fascism, but Bertolucci digs a lot deeper with his lead character. He explores many of the value systems and morals that we build society upon and their ramifications on the human spirit.
Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD

Rank: 74
Release Year: 1957
Genre: War Drama
Director: David Lean
Plot Summary: Two prisoners in a Japanese POW camp during WWII have very opposing ideas on how to treat their imprisonment. An American, Shears, is dead set on escaping, while a British Colonel, Nicholson, believes they should behave in a gentlemanly manner. Nicholson even goes as far as to cooperate with the Japanese to build a bridge across the River Kwai if it means keeping his men alive, aiding the Japanese effort, while completely unaware that the Allies plan to destroy it.
What Makes It Special: David Lean is the master of epic filmmaking, and The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of his brilliant sprawling dramas. And yet, for all its scope and scale, this is at its heart a very human story of competing wills. The Japanese POW camp commander must have his bridge, Nicholson must have his men treated in a humane manner by the Japanese, and Shears must make it through the war – each will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. The interplay between each character is riveting. Plus, it has one of the best climaxes in cinema history.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 73
Release Year: 1949
Genre: Revenge Drama
Director: Robert Hamer
Plot Summary: Louis is a distant relative of the Duke of D’Ascoyne, but his mother was an outcast from the family and they lived poor all her life. Now with a little ambition, Louis plots to murder all eight of the remaining heirs ahead of him in the line of succession, claiming the title for himself.
What Makes It Special: This wonderful forgotten gem from British cinema features great performances (including Alec Guinness playing eight characters), sly witty dark humor, and a true sense of Britain in the 1940s. Kind Hearts and Coronets is full of irony and satire as Louis is a charming, dapper man completely set on preserving his manners as a gentleman, meanwhile remorselessly murdering his entire family. British cinema has a reputation for its clever, subtle humor and this may be it crowning achievement.
Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD

Rank: 72
Title: Star Wars
Release Year: 1977
Genre: Sci-Fi Action/Adventure
Director: George Lucas
Plot Summary: Farm boy Luke Skywalker, who dreamed of a different and more exciting life, is suddenly thrust into a galactic adventure, when he must deliver two droids to a former Jedi Knight, only to be pulled into a fight to save the Universe from the evil Empire and rescue Princess Leia from Darth Vader. Luke joins forces with a reluctant hotshot pilot, Han Solo, to find the Princess and destroy the Empire’s ultimate weapon.
What Makes It Special: While the modern blockbuster may have been birthed with Jaws two years earlier, Star Wars changed everything (for better or worse). The film captured the imagination of filmgoers of its generation, and each generation subsequently, with its great characters, strong narrative and drama, and exciting action. As a kid, there was maybe no other film that thrilled me more – and it is one of the few films (beloved by me as a child) that holds up into my adult years as well. There may never be a greater fantasy saga (and we are currently living in a time of constant massive blockbusters releases).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 71
Release Year: 1948
Genre: Romance Drama
Director: Max Ophuls
Plot Summary: Lisa Berndle lives next to a handsome pianist, Stefan Brand, as a young girl and develops a deep crush, devoting her life to being his alone. Yet, Stefan does not even notice her. As the years pass Lisa has an opportunity to be with Stefan, but will he truly love her or merely treat her as one of his many conquests?
What Makes It Special: French cinema auteur Max Ophuls is most notably remembered for his films La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de…, but it is Letter from an Unknown Woman that is his finest work – though mostly forgotten now. The film is incredibly sad, as it makes no illusions about its overall tragic narrative arc. However, the film is still very romantic and features many lovely, beautiful scenes. Yet, it is subversive in it approach to love. Yes love is glorious, but it transient as well. Lisa is obsessed with Stefan, giving him all her love – and for her it was worth all the pain and struggle even though it is unrequited. This is what makes the film so heartbreaking. It both champions love and distrusts it.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Movie of the Week – Dances with Wolves

This week’s movie: Dances with Wolves (1990).

After a perceived act of heroism (which was really an attempted suicide), Lt. John Dunbar requests for and is assigned to a remote Civil War outpost in the far West of the American Plains. Cut off from civilization, as he knows it, Dunbar’s world view is irreparably changed as he befriends a wolf and the neighboring Indian tribe – making him an outcast and criminal for the U.S. military.

Kevin Costner makes his directorial debut with the film, and does a masterful job. In the mid-to-late 1980s he had become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable leading men, but with Dances with Wolves he felt a more personal connection. It was a story he needed to tell himself, and not merely star in. Along with his 2003 film, Open Range, Costner has proved himself to be a master of the new American western. Costner assembled a strong group of collaborators for the film as well with composer John Barry (who won an Oscar for his work), cinematographer Dean Semler (who also won an Oscar), and production designer Jeffrey Beecroft.

Costner gives one of the best performances of his career as Lt. John Dunbar, capturing the sadness and regret of watching the end of a once flourishing people and the humanity and friendship that was (for the most part) never offered them. Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman are all very good in support.

Dances with Wolves won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. It is a classic and among the best Hollywood films of the 1990s. It works as both a western epic as it perfectly encapsulates the experience of a lone man in the frontier, but also works as a deconstruction of the genre, as it actually presents Native American culture as vibrant – rather than Indians appearing only as villains or caricatures. It is a must-see for fans of the genre.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 6: 80-76

Rank: 80
Release Year: 1975
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Psychological
Director: Milos Forman
Plot Summary: R.P. McMurphy is a mental patient who does not believe he belongs in an institution. In rebellion, he rallies the other patients against the oppressive head nurse.
What Makes It Special: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest works on many levels. It is in moments very funny, in others dramatically engaging, in others an interesting look at the administration of treatment to mental health patients and how society views and treats these people. At its heart however, the film succeeds due to its fantastic characters, lead by R.P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, played brilliantly by a great cast. Milos Forman is also unafraid to approach the film from a rather brash place. He does not delicately navigate the social stigma of metal health, instead taking it head on using McMurphy as his in (is McMurphy a con exploiting the system or someone actually in need of metal healthcare?). The result is a stunning, revealing look at mental institutions.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Streaming

Rank: 79
Title: Badlands
Release Year: 1973
Genre: Drama
Director: Terrence Malick
Plot Summary: Kit and Holly are infatuated with each other, but after Kit murders Holly’s father for trying to keep them apart the two take off on a killing spree across the American badlands.
What Makes It Special: Badlands is based on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree when a fifteen-year-old girl and her twenty-five-year-old boyfriend slaughtered several people including her entire family in 1958. It was America’s first experience with this kind of homegrown carnage. Terrence Malick’s film perfectly captures the country’s fascination with these killers – their celebrity. The relationship between Kit and Holly is also very interesting, as Holly seems to be both enchanted and terrified by Kit. The performances from Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are absolutely absorbing, mixing innocence with sort of a primal evil. Aesthetically, the film is engaging as well – particularly its photography. Badlands is in many ways the quintessential American masterpiece.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 78
Release Year: 1957
Genre: Drama
Plot Summary: J.J. Hunsecker is powerful but unethical New York City gossip columnist. He is unhappy with his sister’s relationship with a jazz musician. So, he coerces press agent Sidney Falco to break them up.
What Makes It Special: Sweet Smell of Success plays like a film-noir stylistically, as this is an underworld of sleazy people undertaking dirty business at all costs to get what they want. There are no heroes in this world. The narrative is built on the back-and-forth of the power struggles of its characters, each manipulating those around them to come out on top. It is a heartless world, and yet the shady treachery is wildly compelling. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis are both wonderful as Hunsecker and Falco, respectively, each giving one of their career best performances. This is a forgotten film-noir masterpiece.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 77
Title: Notorious
Release Year: 1946
Genre: Mystery/Romance Drama
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Plot Summary: Alicia Huberman flees America in shame after her father is accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. On her way to South America, she is approached by the CIA to spy on a group of Nazi working on a project in Rio de Janeiro.
What Makes It Special: Notorious perfectly employs many of Alfred Hitchcock’s narrative and stylistic devices, most notably the use of a McGuffin. The film wonderfully mixes romance, suspense, espionage, and drama all set in the fresh post-WWII world, with tensions still running high amidst hopeful optimism. Hitchcock’s directing is on point throughout, with each scene building towards a dynamically climatic conclusion. The performances are also fantastic. They are nuanced, and yet utilize the best attributes of each actor’s star quality. Cary Grant is ever charming, but here he has a darkly aggressive side, while Ingrid Bergman just commands the screen. Claude Rains is brilliant as the villain – playing his character as ultimately sympathetic. Notorious is maybe not a film that Hitchcock fans immediately point to, as it is not flashy, but it is secretly one of his best.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 76
Release Year: 1974
Genre: Drama
Director: John Cassavetes
Plot Summary: Mabel and Nick have a loving marriage, but Mabel’s fits of madness prove to be a disruptive force, maybe too strong to overcome.
What Makes It Special: A Woman Under the Influence is a demonstration of powerhouse performances and phenomenal directing. Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands run the full gambit of human in emotion over the course of the film, all staged in a confined space. John Cassavetes cultivates such an emotional experience that the film is rather jarring. It is a directors’ film for directors and an actors’ film for actors. It is embodies the craft.
Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Streaming