Thursday, October 31, 2013

At the Movies – November 2013 – Part 2: Hollywood Films

Romance and Rom-Coms:

About Time (Richard Curtis) – Romance Sci-Fi – Nov 1
Plot Summary: On his 21st birthday, Tim discovers that he can time travel – a family trait passed on through the men in the family. Using this newfound ability, Tim is determined to win the heart of Mary, a girl he fancies (but it is proving more difficult than he anticipated). Filmmakers: About Time is the new film from writer-director Richard Curtis, the master of the British romantic comedy who gave us such films as Notting Hill, Bridget Jone’s Diary, and Love Actually (he also wrote The Black Adder, Mr. Bean, The Girl in the Café, and War Horse). This will be his third time writing and directing a feature film (his first two were Love Actually and Pirate Radio). He is working with composer Nick Laird-Clowes (of The Dream Academy), cinematographer John Guleserian (Like Crazy), and production designer John Paul Kelly (Bloody Sunday). Cast: The film stars Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams (veteran of many romance films). Bill Nighy (who frequently works with Richard Curtis), Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, and Tom Hughes feature in support. Expectations: About Time looks like a lot of fun. Yes, the whole time travel romance thing has been down before (see The Time Traveler’s Wife, which also stars Rachel McAdams, coincidentally), but Richard Curtis is a great writer and should bring a fresh take to the material. The film already came out in the U.K. earlier this year. It played to strong reviews from moviegoers, but critics were a bit more mixed. In a month crowded with big adventure films, this might be a nice change of pace. Trailer: Here.


Serious Films:

The Book Thief (Brian Percival) – Drama – Nov 15
Plot Summary: Liesel is a young orphan girl living amongst the horrors of WWII Germany. The only way she is able to keep herself from being lost in the anguish of it all is to steal books that have otherwise been banded by the Nazis so that she can share them with others, including the Jewish refuge her adoptive parents are hiding in their house. Filmmakers: Director Brian Percival comes from a background in British television, including directing multiple episodes of Downton Abbey. The Book Thief is his second feature. He is working with genius film composer John Williams (Lincoln), cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (Red), and production designer Simon Elliott (Byzantium). Cast: The film stars newcomer Sophie Nelisse and co-stars Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Ben Schnetzer and Nico Liersch feature in support. Expectations: The Book Thief looks like the kind of drama that is trying to be an Oscar-made prestige film, but ends up missing the mark. That said, it does look like a decent drama that is probably worth renting for fans of the book and war dramas. The primary cast is very strong and Sophie Nelisse looks like she gives a potentially breakthrough performance. Trailer: Here.

Action/Adventure:

Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood) – Action/Adventure Sci-Fi – Nov 1
Plot Summary: Aliens attacked Earth, and the world just barely survived. In an attempt to be better prepared for a future invasion, the military begins training new young leaders whose brains are better situated to deal with the aliens. Ender Wiggins is one such recruit. He is sent to a military school in space, where he soon begins to separate himself from the rest of the class with his strategic brilliance. Will he be Earth’s saving grace? Filmmakers: Writer-director Gavin Hood made a name for himself with his breakout hit Tsotsi (which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), but has since struggled in Hollywood directing two underwhelming films: Rendition and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Looking to finally capitalize on his potential, he is working with composer Steve Jablonsky (Pain & Gain), cinematographer Donald McAlpine (who shot X-Men Origins: Wolverine for Hood), production designers Sean Haworth (The Thing) and Ben Procter, and producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek Into Darkness). Cast: The film stars Asa Butterfield, and co-stars Harrison Ford and Hailee Steinfeld. Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, and Nonso Anozie feature in support. Expectations: Ender’s Game has potential to be good. Gavin Hood is a director with talent; he has just struggled within the confines of Hollywood. And, the cast features a good mix of solid young talent and quality veterans. But, I suspect it will be a throwaway blockbuster – entertaining and fun, yeah probably, but nothing special. The sour taste of Hood’s Wolverine movie (which is fairly terrible) serves as a hard-to-forget reminder of what happened last time he tried to make a big budget genre film. Plus, this feels like a weak attempt for Summit Entertainment to reenter the Young Adult Genre Film bonanza now that their golden goose (Twilight) has expired. For fans of summer blockbuster style films, this is probably worth renting, but for everyone else, there are other big genre movies to wait for (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Thor: The Dark World). Trailer: HereReview: Here.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor) – Action/Adventure – Nov 8
Plot Summary: A new enemy has come to the universe, one so menacing and powerful that not even Odin and the might of Asgard can withstand it. Thus, Thor must embark on his most trying adventure yet, looking to both Jane Foster and his troublemaker brother Loki for help. Filmmakers: With Kenneth Branagh not returning, Marvel engaged veteran HBO series director Alan Taylor to give Thor a much more grounded, gritty feel – using his work on Game of Thrones as a template. He is working with composer Brian Tyler (Iron Man 3), cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau (who shot Taylor’s season two episodes of Game of Thrones), and production designer Charles Wood (Wrath of the Titans). Cast: Returning are Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, and Anthony Hopkins, while new to the series are Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Zachary Levi, and Chris O’Dowd. Expectations: Thor is probably my favorite of the Marvel Phase One individual superhero films. It has a great mix of action, drama, and comedy, and Kenneth Branagh brought a fantastic tone and look to the world. Plus, Chris Hemsworth is phenomenal as Thor. Thus, Thor: The Dark World is a film I am really looking forward to seeing. Alan Taylor is on paper a very good and smart choice, as his work on Game of Thrones is wonderful (a darker style Marvel is very interested in bringing to Thor, as Phase Two overall seems to be darker tonally). However, Taylor is accustom to coming into a series with the main, strong creative force being someone else and just directing what is on the page (all the aesthetics and other big creative decisions already made). Here, he will need to step up and make those decisions (Marvel’s overall creative overseer, Joss Whedon, did need to step in to punch up a few scenes).  From what I have seen, the film looks visually fantastic and I think it will probably end up being about as good as the first Thor film (which would be slightly disappointing given that The Avengers and Iron Man 3 are both very good and elevated the expectations of future Marvel films). Trailer: HereReview: Here.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence) – Action/Adventure Sci-Fi – Nov 22
Plot Summary: After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark have become symbols of hope in Panem, inciting rebellion in many of its districts. Thus, Katniss and Peeta are targets for a government desperate to retain their power – but how to deal with these national heroes? Filmmakers: Writer-director Gary Ross is not returning (which is probably not a bad thing), and thus Lionsgate hired Francis Lawrence to take over. His work on Kings probably best translates to what he will need to do with Catching Fire. Although, he has shown he can capably direct action too with Constantine and I Am Legend. He is working with composer James Newton Howard (who also scored the first film), cinematographer Jo Willems (Limitless), and production designer Philip Messina (who also worked on the first film). Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Lenny Kravitz, and Donald Sutherland all return. New to the series are Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Toby Jones, Amanda Plummer, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Expectations: The Hunger Games, while entertaining, lacked a good story with a true dramatic arc for Katniss. Everything just felt too easy, as she never really has to make a tough choice, and thus the film is dramatically uninteresting. In an effort to correct this, Lionsgate hired two Oscar winning screenwriters to adapt Catching Fire for the screen: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (who is currently writing Star Wars VII). Francis Lawrence has never really made a good film (his best work coming on Kings), but Catching Fire does not need to be anything amazing. It just needs to be entertaining and create a more dynamic dramatic narrative arc for Katniss. From what I have seen, the film looks a lot more compelling than the first. I am interested to see how it turns out narratively (as its box office success is all but assured). Trailer: HereHereReview: Here.

Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) – Family Adventure Comedy – Nov 29
Plot Summary: The Kingdom of Arendelle has been plunged into eternal winter by the icy sorceress Elsa. Now, it is up to her sister Anna and her rag-tag group of friends (which includes a talking snowman) to save the kingdom, battling the harsh elements and beasts that await them. Filmmakers: Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have never worked together before, but each comes from an animation background within Disney. Buck co-directed Tarzan (and also Surf’s Up for Sony Animation) while Lee co-wrote Wreck-It Ralph. I think Buck will be focused on the animation and Lee the story aspects. They are working with composer Christophe Beck (The Muppets) and producer John Lasseter (Disney Animation’s head guy). Cast: The voice cast includes: Kristen Bell, Alan Tudyk, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, and Jonathan Groff. Expectations: Disney’s Pixar film this year, Monsters University, while commercially successful did not really make the same type of impact that Pixar films usually do, leaving 2013’s Animation Oscar wide open (much like 2011 when Pixar released Cars 2, their worst film). Frozen looks good, in a safe Disney sort of way. Although, to me, it kind of looks like they are trying to just recapture the feel and general story ideas of Tangled (Disney’s best animated film in some time). In any case, this certainly looks like it should be in the running to compete for the Animation Oscar and parents taking their kids should not be too disgruntled at the prospect of watching it (as it looks funny). Trailer: HereReview: Here.

Comedy:

Last Vegas (Jon Turteltaub) – Comedy – Nov 1
Plot Summary: Four friends in their sixties decide to get together for one last hurrah in Vegas to celebrate the final member of their group’s last days as a single man. Filmmakers: Director Jon Turteltaub is well versed in making forgettable Hollywood fair with films such as Cool Runnings, National Treasure, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and this looks like more of the same. He is working with composer Mark Mothersbaugh (21 Jump Street), cinematographer David Hennings (Horrible Bosses), and production designer David Bomba (The Company Men). Cast: The film stars Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, and Michael Douglas. Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, and Romany Malco feature in support. Expectations: Last Vegas is The Bucket List version of The Hangover – I mean, I guess this had to happen eventually right? Yes, it does have a strong group of actors, but this is essentially just a paycheck to them – they show up, say some lines, make some faces, and get paid (Dennis Quaid has been doing it for decades). And yet, there will probably be some laughs for those willing to use a rental on it. Trailer: Here.

Plot Summary: Brett has fathered 533 children. How did he do this? A mix-up at a fertility clinic he made donations to twenty years ago. Now, 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to reveal his identity. Brett has always been an underachiever and must now decide if he wants to step up and take responsibility. Filmmakers: Writer-director Ken Scott already made this film in Canada and released it in 2011. It is called Starbuck. Apparently unafraid to rehash the same material again (I mean, what is the difference between remaking your own film and directing any other Hollywood movie that just recycles past narratives), he is working with composer Jon Brion (This Is 40), cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards (The Change-Up), and production designer Ida Random (No Strings Attached). Cast: Vince Vaughn stars (and will once again treat us all to his tired shtick), while Cobie Smulders, Britt Robertson, and Chris Pratt feature in support. Expectations: Delivery Man looks like a lot of Vince Vaughn’s comedies – an underachieving but mildly charismatic man-child who tries to finally put his life together. Vaughn plays this character pretty well (Dodgeball and Fred Claus – for the five people that enjoyed it, me included), and the supporting cast, particularly Chris Pratt (who is hilarious), should add some good stuff. More than likely, this film will just be a throwaway comedy, but maybe it will turn out to be funny and somewhat emotionally resonate. Maybe even worth renting. Trailer: Here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

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

Art-House Dramas:

Oldboy (Spike Lee) – Mystery Thriller – Nov 29
Plot Summary: One day, seemingly randomly, Joe is kidnapped and locked in a solitary room. He spends twenty years in the room and then he is released. Now obsessed with vengeance, Joe makes it his mission to find out who kidnapped him and why. Filmmakers: At first glance, this seems like a strange project for Spike Lee to be taking on, but once and a while he leaves his usual work to make more of a Hollywood-like thriller (Inside Man for example). He is working with composer Roque Banos (Evil Dead), brilliant cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond the Pines), and production designer Sharon Seymour (Argo). Cast: The film stars Josh Brolin and co-stars Elizabeth Olson and Sharlto Copley. Samuel L. Jackson, Hannah Simone, Hannah Ware, Michael Imperioli, Rami Malek, Lance Reddick, Max Casella, and James Ransone feature in support. Expectations: Probably everyone’s initial reaction to this film is: “wait, what, why does this need to exist?” And that feels very valid. Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is incredible, and it is hard to imagine that Spike Lee will be able to bring anything warranting a remake to the material. And yet, this film has some interesting aspects. Lee is capable of doing great work (though he seems to mostly miss the mark these days), and he is working with a good crew and a sneakily great cast. Maybe there is no reason for this remake to exist, but it does and surprisingly there is some potential for it to be more than just a waste of everyone’s time. I would say it even looks kind of cool. Trailer: Here.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick) – Biography Drama – Nov 29
Plot Summary: The life and times of Nelson Mandela – from childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected President. Filmmakers: Coming from a background of British television, director Justin Chadwick has made two previous feature films, and neither is particularly good (but neither is terrible either). He is working with composer Alex Heffes (who worked with Chadwick on The First Grader), cinematographer Lol Crawley (Four Lions), and production designer Johnny Breedt (Hotel Rwanda). Cast: The film stars Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela, and features Naomie Harris in support. Expectations: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom looks like it should provide Idris Elba with a great platform to show off his acting talent (something fans of The Wire and Luther know all too well), and may even garner him an Oscar nomination. But, as a narrative film, I am a bit skeptical of Justin Chadwick’s ability to make a great film. It does look like a good drama, but I still have my doubts. I hope I am proved wrong. Trailer: Here

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Counselor (2013) – Review

Review: The Counselor is a crime drama that explores the good and evil (mostly evil) of man. The film is about a successful Texas lawyer who is enchanted by greed and wants more. To get it, he commits to a deal with a South American drug cartel. When their drug shipment is hijacked, the cartel blames the lawyer and his associates (a club-owner named Reiner and a go-between Westray). Now, the lawyer finds his whole world collapsing, making him realize what is really important to him – his lovely fiancée Laura, not the money and power he was initially allured by.

Let me just start out by saying: no, The Counselor is not a crime thriller filled with suspenseful action sequences (which is what most going in seem to believe it is) – and it was never meant to be. Rather, it is a set of conversations (much like Richard Linkerlaker’s Before Sunrise series about the nature of relationships and love) between a variety of characters (primarily centered around the Texas lawyer, only referred to as Counselor) about good and evil, ranging from greed, sex, money to love, acceptance, and life’s meaning. Many of the conversations (which all contain weighty and well-written dialog from Cormac McCarthy) seem to take on a philosophical feel, as many double as lessons about life.  It is these conversations and wonderful performances from the cast that make the film something special.

Those expecting (and only wanting) action and thrilling suspense will likely be disappointed and find the film slow and probably convoluted – unwilling to settle in, pay attention, and absorb all that the film offers.

Director Ridley Scott, working with McCarthy, gives the film a beautiful aesthetic look and the gloss of high production quality. The world in which these devious characters inhabit has a sheen to it, which nicely juxtaposes to the grimy underworld in which they deal. El Paso is seemingly a perfect setting, as just across the border is Juarez one of Mexico’s most crime-ridden cities, plunged into poverty and despair by the cartel’s control and constant violence. El Paso must seem like a shining beacon by comparison. In this setting, the audience is treated to a parable of sorts.

In many ways, Ridley Scott has made what narratively feels like an independent drama with the budget, look, and style of a bigger Hollywood film. While Hollywood films have become driven by action set pieces, simple narratives, and happy endings, The Counselor offers none of these. The film is not void of action, as there are a few very violent moments, but they are not there to provide the audience with exciting moments, and none of them involve the film’s lead character (who the audience has an investment in). The violent moments serve the role of showcasing just how brutal this world of crime really is, as well as forwarding the plot. These are hard, morally neutral men who do horrid things in the name of money and power. Scott does not try to glamourize the violence at all. If anything, the brutality in the film is jarring, not celebrated (like many Hollywood films).

Scott and McCarthy do not give in to the idea of a simple narrative either. The audience is expected to pay attention here and work a few things out for themselves. The overarching themes and ripe, layered dialog set the mood and provide the audience with everything they need to understand what is happening. It is refreshing to watch a Hollywood film that does not placate its narrative. This could have easily just become yet another average-man action film. The lawyer’s world is dissolving around him. The cartel even goes as far as to start murdering his friends and associates and kidnaping his fiancée. He tries to dig himself out of the hole he is in, but there is nothing he can do. He can only accept his fate. If this were a typical Hollywood film, he would have somehow found a way to fight back against the cartel, rescuing his fiancée, and there would have been big action scenes filled with suspense. Again, this was never that film.

The Counselor plays a bit like a parable with the message warning about the trappings of green and instead to take stock of what is truly important in your life (love). The lawyer has a great life and a beautiful woman who loves him and who he loves, what else could he want? But there is always more. He is surrounded by men that have seemingly more, like his friend Reiner who lives in an exotic house, drives luxury sports cars, and dates glamorous women. Reiner seemingly has everything, and yet he spends most of his time with the lawyer talking about relationships and wanting love. Or Westray, the lawyer’s go-between with the cartel, when things go bad he can only say that he knew this day would come and that he should have left the game sooner but he stayed on too long anyway. The lawyer starts out in the luxury of a privileged life in El Paso (and seemingly jet setting across Europe) only to end up alone with nothing in a rundown dirty motel in Juarez. This is what greed does. It corrupts. The lawyer wants into this life, and yet those he engages to help him get a foothold seem to just want a simpler life but are stuck. They cannot stop. The lawyer learns this lesson through pain and loss.

The character of Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend, seems like the epitome of evil. She has completely accepted who she is and what she wants (which is everything) never looking back. Unlike the lawyer, Reiner, and Westray who all have a foot in both worlds (so to speak) wanting the money and power but also wanting to maintain some sense of their own soul, Malkina has no soul, which gives her a edge in an ugly world. To her, nothing has meaning or worth except money and power, and thus she is willing to do anything to acquire them.

The lawyer’s fiancée Laura seems like the opposite. She genuinely seems good, but she too is corrupted by what money and power can give her. The opening scene of the film features just the lawyer and Laura in bed. They clearly love each other and are encased in light (in the form of well-lit white sheets). Even here, however, the lawyer is already starting to corrupt her. Then later, he pulls her in further with an extravagant diamond engagement ring (following a brilliant scene between the lawyer and the diamond’s seller).

Each of the principal characters showcases a different level of greed’s corruption. Scott and McCarthy have created a drama that ruminates on the ugly side of humanity, an evil that is within all of us (we only need give in). While flashy aesthetically, The Counselor is a film built on portentous conversations between well-drawn and played characters in an effort to get at the heart of evil in man (and the way back). Again, while flashy from a production standpoint, the film is not an action thriller taking place in the world of drug cartels. It is much more momentous and refreshing, and honestly demands multiple viewings to appreciate its high ambitions.


Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ridley Scott has always been a master of visual filmmaking. And again with The Counselor he has delivered a film that is aesthetically very impressive. Working with a great script from Cormac McCarthy, he has made a film that feels like a narrative made in the same spirit as Before Sunrise and Pulp Fiction (though much darker) in that it is made up of a series of conversations that seem to take on a life of their own. One could even maybe call it a cross between these two films. Another comparison can be made by calling it a Hollywood version of No Country for Old Men, as it is in many ways very similar in style (which is no surprise as McCarthy wrote the novel for which the film is based). I think this is a brilliant film that has been greatly misunderstood by most people and hopefully will find its audience in the coming years.

Daniel Pemberton’s score plays an important role in The Counselor. Scott’s pacing is rather slow, as he gives the performances priority. Thus, Pemberton’s music takes on the role of supplying a sense of dread and dramatic tension to the film, accompanying the performances and tone, something it does well. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is top notch. The film is beautiful, even though it is partially set in very dirty and gritty places. The camera is smooth and mannered throughout, not a victim to the wave of hand-held work that has overrun all films trying to create a more realistic sense to their world and action. Wolski’s photography, and really the film as a whole, has a much more classic look and feel, prizing ambiance over stark realism. Arthur Max’s production design might even be better than Wolski’s work (which is saying a lot). His sets tell the audience who these characters are while also being incredibly aesthetically engaging. Max creates a world that is both fantastical and alluring while also ugly, dirty, and soulless.

If nothing else, The Counselor is filled with wonderful performances from both bit players and its leads. Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, Ruben Blades (who is particularly good), Toby Kebbell, and Edgar Ramirez are each very good in very small roles. Rosie Perez and Bruno Ganz bring a lot to their small supporting roles, creating fantastic scenes. Brad Pitt is great as Westray, a man who is totally cool and confident (maybe even overly so). He presents himself as a sage, and yet seems to not listen to or take his own advice and falls victim to all the same vices he points out in others (though one could say: thus is human). Javier Bardem is electric as Reiner. He seems almost overwhelmed by the lifestyle he has acquired for himself, but by the same token cannot give it up. Of all the characters, there is a real honesty and frankness to him (even if it only an illusion). There is a sense, like with Westray, that he knows the music has stopped but he is still running around in circles just waiting to be expelled from the game. Cameron Diaz is good in the film as well. Malkina is the kind of character she does well with (similar to the high powered Christina Pagniacci in Any Given Sunday). Penelope Cruz does a good job playing off both the lawyer and Malkina, serving as a much more innocent character new to this life as Laura. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as the lawyer. He undergoes such a transformation from confident hot shot to a man completely broken and desperate as everything crumbles around him. What Fassbender does so well is translate each phase of the process dramatically and emotionally to the audience, each dire moment. The audience keeps hoping that maybe he will find a way to resolve everything, but it is already too late before the film even begins.



Summary & score: The Counselor is the rare Hollywood film that actually engages with its audience on a higher level, revealing truths about humanity, our world, and good & evil. It is ambitious, absorbing, grim, and (sadly) largely misunderstood. 8/10

Monday, October 28, 2013

Movie of the Week – Chungking Express

This week’s movie: Chungking Express (1994).

The film follows two cops who have both recently come out of relationships badly. The first, Cop 223, is hot on the tail of a heroin dealer, while also pining over the loss of his ex-girlfriend (who left him). The second, Cop 663, is too busy missing his former flight-attendant girlfriend to notice a local lunch counter girl who has a crush on him.

The film is written and directed by Hong Kong auteur Kar Wai Wong (also known for his films In the Mood of Love and 2046). It served as his breakthrough work, garnering international acclaim. Wong worked with composers Frankie Chan, Michael Galasso, and Roel Garcia, cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Wai-keung Lau, and production designer William Chang. Wong’s collaboration with Doyle has particularly birthed some of cinema’s greatest emotion-laden photography during their seven films together.


Chunking Express is a stunning cinematic experience, filled with vivid colors and kinetic motion and dramatic energy. It is one of the best films of the 1990s (arguably in the top five). It is a must-see for fans of Kar Wai Wong and 1990s independent film. It is one of the many international films to completely change the way audiences saw and thought about indie cinema during the decade, revolutionizing in many ways Hollywood – ushering in a new era of auteur filmmakers.


Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 9: 65-61


Rank: 65
Release Year: 1973
Genre: Horror
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Plot Summary: Laura and John Baxter are still grieving the recent and unexpected loss of their young daughter. They are in Venice attending a conference, trying to move on when they encounter two elderly sisters, one of whom is a psychic. The sisters give them a warning form beyond that begins to consume both Laura and John in different ways.
What Makes It Special: Leave it to British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg to make a horror film that plays much more like a character drama. Don’t Look Now is unlike almost any other film in the genre. It does not really go out of its way to scare or be suspenseful; rather it takes its time delving into its characters and slowly building tension, bubbling just beneath the surface. The narrative takes on the structure of a mystery needing to be uncovered. And yet, despite its slow pacing and lack of classic scary moments, the film ends up being one of the creepiest in film history (with a brilliant ending).
Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Video On-Demand


Rank: 64
Title: Annie Hall
Release Year: 1977
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton
Plot Summary: The film chronicles neurotic New Yorker Alvy Singer’s relationship with the carefree Annie Hall.
What Makes It Special: Annie Hall is maybe the quintessential romantic comedy. It perfectly balances its humor and entertainment value with its pop-culture relevance and the wonderful chemistry between its two leads. It not only showcases Woody Allen (one of cinema’s most prolific filmmakers) at his best as a writer, but also as a director, as it is maybe his most interesting film aesthetically. Allen essentially throws everything he can think of at the film stylistically, and yet it all works wonderfully, creating something that is kooky, poignant, and really funny (it also won Best Picture over Star Wars).
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 63
Release Year: 1993
Genre: Drama
Plot Summary: Julie Vignon de Courcy tries to move on in the face of grave grief and emptiness after her husband (a famous French composer) and young daughter are killed in a car accident.
What Makes It Special: Blue takes full advantage of all film has to offer as a window into deeper human emotion. It is a masterwork of visceral filmmaking. Krzysztof Kieslowski explores the depths of emotional resonance that color and sound can reach. Blue is devastating and liberating. It is an explosion of sapphire tones and grand operatic music pulling the viewer into a turbulent world of loss and rebirth, in which Juliette Binoche is truly astounding as Julie. It is a cinematic experience that stays with you.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray

Rank: 62
Title: Pulp Fiction
Release Year: 1994
Genre: Crime Drama
Plot Summary: The ensemble film tells four intertwining tales of violence and redemption featuring two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and pair of two small-time bandits.
What Makes It Special: Quentin Tarantino more or less changed American cinema with Pulp Fiction. His use of language, violence, and irony felt edgy, vital, and honest when American films had seemingly become generic and anemic (save for a few). Tarantino, in addition to a few other fresh young talented filmmakers, completely revitalized independent cinema in the late 1980s and 1990s. Pulp Fiction finally treated its audience as intelligent. It does not waste a moment or line of dialog. Everything has a purpose and point, all driving the narrative and characters forward. It reminded everyone that yes writing is important, be it a violent action movie, comedy or drama.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 61
Release Year: 1944
Genre: Drama/Mystery
Plot Summary: Three unlikely friends (a Land Girl, American GI, and British soldier) find themselves together in a small Kent town on the road to Canterbury where they discover a mystery involving a man pouring glue in young girls’ hair. The three set out to solve the case.
What Makes It Special: A Canterbury Tale is not so much a narrative film, though it does start off that way with an old-time detective plot, as it is a spiritual journey. The film is highly ambitious in its aspirations for its emotional impact on its viewers. If anything, the Archers create a revelatory experience, asking viewers to find what is truly important in their lives, stripping away all the nonsense that seemingly drowns us all. The film (a product of WWII era England, under constant aerial attack by German planes) also strives to be a rallying cry expressing the sentiment and way of life that was being threatened by the Nazis. It is a remarkable cinematic experience, one that is genuinely ethereal.
Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

TV Series of the Month – Sex and the City

This Month’s TV Series: Sex and the City (1998-2004).

The series is about four women in New York City and their pursuit of love, sex, careers, and happiness, centered on freelance reporter Carrie Bradshaw who writes about sex from the perspective of a modern 1990s’ woman, using her life and friends’ gossip for inspiration.

Darren Star created the show, coming off the successes of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. However, writer Michael Patrick King sort of took over the show’s creative responsibilities. Although, he also wrote both of the awful feature films that follow the series (and essentially kill all its goodwill).


Sex and the City is primarily thought of as a show for woman, and while that may be the case it is also a highly entertaining well-made series about people trying to find their place in the world, which can and should be enjoyed by all (man or woman). It is easy to dismiss the show as a comedy, and it is very funny, but personally I think it is more of a drama (though on the lighter side), as each of these four women must overcome multiple major struggles in their lives of the course of the show. The series helped launch HBO’s brilliant original programing and the Golden Age of Television. It is not to be missed for fans of light, funny dramas (I mean, do you really want to watch its reboot/prequel The Carrie Diaries instead?).


Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD and Video On-Demand

Monday, October 21, 2013

Movie of the Week – Black Narcissus

This week’s movie: Black Narcissus (1947).

Five nuns, led by Sister Clodagh, are tasked with opening a convent high within the Himalayas, but they soon find themselves overwhelmed by the beauty and exotic majesty of their surroundings.

Black Narcissus is one of the Archers’ (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) four great Technicolor masterpieces (the others being: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Red Shoes). The Archers work with composer Brian Easdale, cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar for his work), and production designer Alfred Junge/costume designer Hein Heckroth (Junge also won an Oscar for the film) – all frequent and brilliant collaborators. The film was shot in its entirety in Britain, mostly in a studio, and yet many believe that it was shot on location in India (some even claim they recognize landmarks and places seen in the film from their travels in India), which is a testament to just how magnificent the technical and aesthetic work is on the film – it is just a stunningly beautiful piece.

The film stars Deborah Kerr (and she is wonderful) and features very strong work from its entire supporting cast, namely Kathleen Byron (who creates one of cinema’s most astounding villains), Sabu, David Farrar, and Jean Simmons.

Black Narcissus was my introduction to the Archers, and it changed everything. Their films during the 1940s are aesthetically enchanting, highly compelling, and purposely and poignantly written (especially their four Technicolor outings). It is my opinion that their work during the 1940s in terms of the overall quality of a body of work is unequalled by any other filmmaker during a decade in film history (though, one can argue Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950s, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1970s, and maybe even Christopher Nolan’s 2000s). They are among my personal top five directors of all-time. Getting back to the film, it is both a brilliant character drama about repressed emotions (specifically sexuality and desire) and a tense thriller as good as any in the genre. It is one of the best films ever made and one that should not be missed.


Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lorde – Pure Heroine (2013) – Review


Review: Lorde is the stage name of New Zealand singer-songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Conner. Her debut album Pure Heroine follows her critically acclaimed EP The Love Club (which came out earlier this year).

Lorde’s Pure Heroine seems to both fit perfectly into today’s musical landscape as many of the tracks are ripe with catchy pop hooks and a sarcastic (if not bored) reaction to hip hop’s major influence on youth culture in addition to the mundane sameness of radio-friendly music, which can especially be heard in the song Royals. Yelich-O’Conner has a very sultry yet lively voice that is in many ways hypnotizing, giving her songs this smooth quality that is easy for listeners to latch onto and find themselves enchanted by. There is just something special about her voice.

Musically, many of the songs, all of which produced by New Zealand musician Joel Little, have a very minimalist and stripped-down sound. This is a nice touch, as it fits Yelich-O’Conner’s voice well and offers a different sound to the EDM and orchestration of a lot of today’s pop music. However, the beats that accompany Lorde (which she also helped compose with Little) are also maybe the weakest aspect of her album. Upon multiple listens, the music just seems to arrive at the rather monotonous place and I often find myself just zoning-out while listening instead of being engaged.

Lorde is a breath of fresh air among young pop stars, and this is an album well worth checking out. In a way, this is a pop album that is very much anti-pop in its sound and message. 3/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Royals – Produced by Joel Little
2)      Team – Produced by Joel Little
3)      Tennis Court – Produced by Joel Little

Available on: Digital Download

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Haim – Days Are Gone (2013) – Review


Review: Los Angeles indie pop/rock group Haim, made up of the three Haim Sisters (Danielle, Alana, and Este), have arrived with their debut album Days Are Gone, following up on their strong EP Forever from last year.

Days Are Gone is solid musically throughout, mixing a fun pop/rock style with a modern sonic sensibility, though void of synths and other EDM-influenced instrumentation, which is refreshing for once. This at its heart it is a light rock album that feels very fun-loving. And, as a pop/rock album, most of the songs are about failed relationships, and thus is on some level very relatable. While the lyrics seems to find the Haim Sisters in the throes of breakups and lost love (usually featuring them as the heartbreaker), the music itself is very bright and energetic, maybe even infectious.

The Haim Sisters work with a few producers including Ariel Rechtshaid (indie pop), Ludwig Goransson (Childish Gambino’s producing partner on Camp and the composer of the music on a few TV series including Community), and James Ford (British indie pop/rock) as well as songwriters Jessie Ware and Kid Harpoon on the album, giving it a varied makeup that works very well in keeping things feeling fresh from track to track. However, even with the varied producers and song styles, Haim retains their sound throughout, which has a very late-1980s feel (like a lot of today’s pop music), and thus their album seems to arrive perfectly positioned for a listener base poised to consume it.

The Haim sisters have all been recording and from a young age, growing up in a musical family (their parents are musicians as well). Thus, Days Are Gone could have merely been the lifeless output of seasoned studio musicians (who have already run the mainstream gauntlet as teens with the group the Valli Girls). As is, the album is a sassy, enthusiastic joy to listen to.

Days Are Gone is well worth checking out for fans of pop/rock, as it fits today’s musical trend while still feeling light and fresh. 4/5

Essential Tracks:
1)      Falling – Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid and the Haim Sisters
2)      The Wire – Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid and the Haim Sisters
3)      Days Are Gone – Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid and the Haim Sisters

Available on: Digital Download

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013) – Review

Review: Captain Phillips is an intense and realistic-feeling thriller. The film is about the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, the Captain of a U.S. cargo ship that is taken hostage by Somali pirates.

Director Paul Greengrass is known for his documentary-like directing style: shaky handheld camera work, gritty realistic feel, natural lighting, and naturalistic acting. His style is again employed to great effect in Captain Phillips. If nothing else, the film feels very realistic (with really only Tom Hanks’s presence separating it from feeling like a documentary – seeing Tom Hanks, a huge movie star, almost takes the audience out of it, but thankfully Hanks is quite good in the film).

The camera is constantly right in the mix of the action, giving the audience the impression that they are right there with Phillips, a hostage themselves. And to this degree, Greengrass builds up a fair amount of tension that feels unrelenting. The audience is never given a chance to really breathe. Every time it seems like things will be alright, the stakes are only ratcheted up to a higher rung. Greengrass does not provide a release until the credits role. This is quite a feat for a film in which the audience knows how it ends coming in. And yet, it also in a way works against the narrative’s overall pacing. While Greengrass has created a perfect tone and look for the film, the perpetual stress that the audience feels for the second two acts is almost too much and even feels a bit tedious. Audiences need moments of release throughout, typically, for a thriller to maintain its hold for an entire narrative.

The issue here with Captain Phillips is that there simply is not enough time. There film’s runtime is already 134 minutes, which leaves almost no time for lighter moments to juxtapose the tense moments against. Basically, the film is structured primarily just to tell the story of the pirates taking the ship and the immediate aftermath and resolution. The film does not have much character development or the time to create a fuller feeling narrative.

The lack of character development does not seem like a big issue in the moment, because Greengrass keeps things moving and the tension high. The audience is essentially on the edge of their seats from the time the pirates board the ship until the end, but not because they are invested in the characters rather it is the aesthetic style that has pulled them in. However, aside from the audience’s interest in seeing the narrative resolved, there is not much else to keep them interested in the film besides seeing the ploy resolved.

Phillips is not really developed much more than being a typical ship Captain who worked hard to get where he is, worries about his kids, and takes his duties seriously. Even more grievous, though, is the lack of development of the pirates. Greengrass shows the audience that they live in squalor with warlords forcing them to work, but it all feels superficial. He just does not have the time to really dig into what drives these men. The audience never really cares about these men, even though there are greater forces seemingly extorting them, causing them to choose this life (left with no other option). They are very interesting characters, but the audience is not really given much, and the film even seems to simply vilify them (when that just feels like too easy an answer, despite its attempts to show the story from both sides). Thus, Phillips is left as the only hero, but without much development, it is up to Hanks’s performance and charisma to draw the audience to his side (and he is up to the task). It feels like Greengrass wanted there to be an interesting dichotomy between the opposing sides, each with their valid motivations for why they do what they do, he just did not have enough time or could not structure the main drama efficiently enough to fit it all in.

In many ways, Captain Phillips is a film that works in much the same way as Zero Dark Thirty, but it succeeds to a much lesser degree because unlike Zero Dark Thirty, the film never quite creates a powerful and compelling lead character (which I almost think should have just been Muse, as his dramatic arc is far more compelling). Plus, the story, while interesting, just does not have the same initial grab as Zero Dark Thirty’s narrative, thus character development is even more vital and thusly missed to a greater extent.

However, despite its faults, Captain Phillips is still undoubtedly a strong thriller (especially on its initial viewing). Greengrass pulls the audience in with his brand of gritty realism and then just lets the suspense mount and mount.


Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Paul Greengrass changed the way Hollywood makes action thrillers with the aesthetic style with which he shot his Bourne films. However, he is maybe even a better filmmaker when recreating true stories as dramatic features. Bloody Sunday and United 93 are probably his strongest films, and Captain Phillips is very much in the same vein. It is too bad that he could not have included more character moments (as I think the film could have been incredible).

Henry Jackman combines industrial and tribal influences to create a fantastic score that complements the drama and tension within Captain Phillips. It also does a good job setting the tone for the film. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is a frequent collaborator with Greengrass (having shot United 93 and Green Zone). Their work together really perfects Greengrass’s aesthetic shooting style on this film. Many have complained that Greengrass’s camera often feels overly shaky (seemingly for no reason), but here everything comes together to create a genuine feeling of realism. Again, the audience feels like they are right in the middle of the action. Paul Kirby’s production design compliments this realism as well. His sets and design look and feel very authentic.

The cast, mostly made up on unknown actors, feels honest – in many cases the performances feel as if they are being done by people who do these jobs in real life. Francine Maisler’s casting is phenomenal, especially in her finding the actors playing the four main Somali pirates. Catherine Keener plays Phillips’s wife, but I assume her role was initially much larger as she appears in what is essentially a cameo in the first act without really anything to do. Michael Chernus, Mahat M Ali, Faysal Ahmed, and Barkhad Abdirahman are all good in smaller supporting roles. Barkhad Abdi really emerges as a potential breakout star with his performance as Muse. Despite his small stature, he comes across as being very intimidating, and he is able to convey the pain and deeper struggle that he is experiencing as he is trying to lead his men to a good result (aka them garnering money for their hostages). Tom Hanks is also very good in the film. He has just enough charisma to get the audience on his side (plus, he is the innocent party). His fear feels genuine which translates to the audience, making the tension all the more palpable.



Summary & score: Captain Phillips succeeds as a good thriller because of director Paul Greengrass’s aesthetic style. It is a gripping narrative film that feels real. 7/10