Wednesday, April 30, 2014

At the Movies – May 2014 – Part 2: Hollywood Films

Romance and Rom-Coms:

Blended – Romantic Comedy – May 23
Plot Summary: Jim and Lauren meet on a blind date. It goes poorly. They hope to never see each other again. Inexplicably, they end up stuck together, along with their respective kids, on an African Safari. As these things usually go, they experience Stockholm syndrome and begin to fall in love with each other, while their respective kids start to get along (while also being unruly). Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Frank Coraci and producer Adam Sandler. Actors Involved: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Bella Thorne, Terry Crews, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Joel McHale, and Kevin Nealon. Potential: At this point, Adam Sandler has pretty much squandered all his goodwill. There is none left, and yet his films continue to make money because people like to laugh at stupid things. Maybe his best film is The Wedding Singer (which Frank Coraci also directed), and his other collaboration with Drew Barrymore, 50 First Dates, is also well-liked (more or less), so why not just throw them together again, it cannot be any worse than anything else he has made recently. On a side note, Terry Crews is fantastic. Trailer: Here.


Million Dollar Arm – Sports Drama – May 16
Plot Summary: J.B. Bernstein is a sports agent who is all washed up, but unlike Jerry Maguire not a single client believes in him. Desperate to get back on his feet and back in the game, he comes up with a crazy idea: why not transform an Indian Cricket player into a professional baseball pitcher. And yes, this is based on a true story. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Craig Gillespie, writer Thomas McCarthy, composer A.R. Rahman, and executive producer Bill Simmons (for sports fans). Actors Involved: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Bar Paly, Alan Arkin, and Suraj Sharma (who some will know from Life of Pi). Potential: Million Dollar Arm looks like a typical Disney live-action release: lots of sappy charm (like another baseball movie The Rookie). That said, this does have a good team behind the camera. Todd McCarthy is a very good writer of dramas (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Up, Win Win – all very good) and Craig Gillespie is a versatile director. This very well could be a sleeper for May. I also love baseball movies. Honestly, I even really like For Love of the Game. Trailer: Here.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Action/Adventure/Superhero – May 2
Plot Summary: Peter Parker is back with a new adventure. He is still trying to find out what happened to his father who mysteriously disappeared, which leads him back to Oscorp. To stop him, Oscorp throws a bunch of villains at him, like Electro, Rhino, and Green Goblin, because why not. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Marc Webb, writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner, composers Johnny Marr, Pharrell Williams, and Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Daniel Mindel, and production designer Mark Friedberg. Actors Involved: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, Campbell Scott, and Chris Cooper. Potential: The first The Amazing Spider-Man was a bit of a letdown overall, really only succeeding on the chemistry and talent of its leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (their stuff is fun), but never approaching the heights of Sam Raimi’s first two films. The first also had the awkwardness of again rehashing the origin story. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, free from this, has now the potential to tell a new story for Peter Parker, and Sony is certainly throwing a lot of talent at it (although, I would argue that the writing team of Orci and Kurtzman’s success is completely dependent on the quality of the director, and Marc Webb is only ordinary, thus will this new Spider-Man ever really be something special?). I suspect that the film will be entertaining and fun, but again not approaching the quality of the best superhero films (the likes of Spider-Man 2 for example). And yet, Garfield and Stone will probably be great in this and I am optimistic that the other actors will bring something to the film as well this time (unless they are terribly underwritten like the Lizard was last time). Trailer: Here.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi/Superhero – May 23
Plot Summary: The future is a mess with robotic monsters laying waste to mutants and humans alike, in a ploy to change the future, Professor X and Magneto send Kitty Pryde back in time…wait, wait that is the comic, I am sorry, I forgot this is the movie version of the X-Men, which really means Wolverine…Professor X and Magneto send Wolverine back in time to warn their younger selves about the events that lead to the destruction of the world as they know it. To change the future, they must change the past (or something like that, it is time travel, it does not make sense). Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Bryan Singer. Actors Involved: Every X-Man to ever appear ever…not really, but there are a lot, here are the highlights: Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman (WOLVERINE!!!), James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart. Potential: Sadly, Matthew Vaughn did not return to direct and write this movie. It is a big loss. His X-Men: First Class is by far the best in the series (like, it is not even close). So, we are left with Bryan Singer returning to the fold, and he is bringing his X-Men cast with him (because what we all want is more Halle Berry as Storm – said nobody, ever, or almost every other actor from his films as their characters; that said, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are fantastic and the redeeming quality of that original trilogy, if it can even be redeemed). Singer has made a film that looks massive and incredibly ambitious. It actually looks really cool, but I am of course highly skeptical, you know because of every other film he has ever made being mediocre. Maybe I am being a bit harsh, but honestly, those first two X-Men films are poor by comparison to what Vaughn did and the cast he assembled. I am also completely over Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Why does X-Men: Days of Future Past need to be yet another Wolverine movie? Oh that is right, because Fox thinks that he is the only character general audiences care about. And sadly, they might be right. X-Men: First Class, the only X-Men film to not feature Wolverine heavily (he only has a cameo) is also the lowest grossing (I think). So Fox will just keep rolling out Wolverine stand alone and Wolverine plus pals films. Okay, okay, enough complaining. The film looks big and should be entertaining. Maybe Singer will pull it off? It is not impossible. Trailer: Here.

Maleficent – Action/Adventure/Fantasy – May 30
Plot Summary: This is basically a live-action version of Sleeping Beauty, but focusing more on the villain character of Maleficent, her backstory and such. It also features Princess Aurora heavily as well, and their dynamic (which could be interesting). Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Robert Stromberg. Actors Involved: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Juno Temple, Brenton Thwaites, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Sam Riley, and Lesley Manville. Potential: I am all for these new live-action adaptation of the fairytales that Disney did fantastically as animated films. I like the characters. I like the stories. But, so far, they have not been very good at all. Alice in Wonderland is fairly awful and Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman is very forgettable. Maybe Maleficent will be the film to break the curse? Disney has hired Oscar winning visual effects man Robert Stromberg to make his feature directorial debut. I just hope that this film, like Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful (which I mostly liked because of what Sam Raimi brought to it), will not be too dependent of visual effects and thus lacking good narratives and characters. Stromberg does have a good cast. Angelina Jolie very well could can a wonderful Maleficent (she looks great in the trailer), and Elle Fanning, Juno Temple, and Sharlto Copley are all actors that I enjoy. I do not really expect great things for this film, but I hope that it is much more satisfying than the few updated fairytales we have seen so far – a step in the right direction ahead of the Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, and Cinderella updates. Trailer: Here.


Walk of Shame – Comedy – May 2
Plot Summary: Meghan is a news reporter who dreams of becoming an anchor. Finally, after years of waiting and hard work, she has the opportunity of a lifetime – a job interview to be a news anchor. But, she decides to go out and celebrate the night before. Things get out of hand, and she finds herself stranded in Downtown L.A. without a phone, car, ID, or money. She has only eight hours to make it to the interview. What will she do?!?!? Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Steven Brill. Actors Involved: Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Gillian Jacobs, Sarah Wright Olsen, and Ethan Suplee. Potential:  Most people will probably recognize the name Steven Brill as the director of a couple Adam Sandler films from the early 2000s (if they recognize it at all, which probably asking too much). His track record is very terrible. The last two films he wrote were Ready to Rumble and Little Nicky, and the last two films he directed were Drillbit Taylor and Without a Paddle (but for those with fond memories of The Mighty Ducks Trilogy, he did write those films too). So basically, Walk of Shame being watchable is completely dependent on the comedic talent of Elizabeth Banks; and to that degree, the film does have a check in the positive column (but that might be the only one, well also one for Gillian Jacobs supporting, she is really funny too). Watch this at your own discretion. Trailer: Here.

Neighbors – Comedy – May 9
Plot Summary: Mac and Kelly Radner have a good, peaceful life in the suburbs with their newborn child. Everything changes, however, when a fraternity buys the house next door and converts it into their frat house. The Radner’s try to play nice, but the noise, parties and other antics drive them up a wall. They decide to engage in a prank war with the frat, thinking it will scare them off. Big mistake. Things escalate to unforeseen heights of madness and debauchery. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Nicholas Stoller and producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. Actors Involved:  Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jake Johnson, Lisa Kudrow, Carla Gallo, Craig Roberts, and Jason Mantzoukas (who is fantastically funny in The League). Potential: Neighbors has a lot of comedic talent behind it. Director Nicholas Stoller previously directed the very funny films Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement. Meanwhile, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen are responsible for Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End. Neighbors is the first potentially great R-rated comedy of 2014 and a dark horse for both comedy of the year and best film of May. The film has played to excellent audience reaction during a few preview screenings (like at SXSW). Critics also seemed to be enamored with it. This is worth checking out for fans of R-rated comedy. Trailer: Here.

A Million Ways to Die in the West – Comedy/Western – May 30
Plot Summary: Albert is a cowardly farmer, but somehow he has wooed a mysterious new woman who has come to town. He must summon up his courage, however, when her husband, a notorious gun-slinging villain, arrives in town looking for her. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Seth MacFarlane. Actors Involved: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Christopher Lloyd, and Wes Studi. Potential: I thought Ted was funny and I like Family Guy and American Dad!, but A Million Ways to Die in the West looks kind of ho-hum and a bit lazy comedy wise. I will still rent it, but I am not convinced that it is worth seeing in theaters. Comedy and the Western genre are things that usually do not go well together (unless you like Little Big Man or Blazing Saddles, both of which many do). This seems like a parody of the western genre, but that genre is honestly and sadly all but dead in modern filmmaking. Usually, parodies work because of their proximity to what they are making fun of, but here MacFarlane is basically kicking a corpse (when, and maybe this is just me, seeing westerns return as a viable genre would be great). All that said, MacFarlane does have a talent for jokes and makes the absurd work. This could end up being incredibly funny. Trailer: Here.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

At the Movies – May 2014 – Part 1: Independent Films

Art-House Dramas:

Belle – Period Drama – May 2
Plot Summary:  Dido Elizabeth Belle is the illegitimate, mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Captain, who is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle. She must find her place in a world that sets her above many due to her family but still looks down on her because of her skin color. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Amma Asante and composer Rachel Portman. Actors Involved: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, and Tom Felton. Potential: Belle looks like a decent period drama. It is set in the 1700s and features a strong cast. Rachel Portman’s score will likely be perfectly suited to the material (as this type of film is right in her wheelhouse, and she has turned out some excellent work – such as: Never Let Me Go, The Cider House Rules, The Duchess, and Emma). This probably worth renting for fans of period dramas (like the great miniseries on the BBC, things like: North & South, Bleak House, Cranford, Little Dorrit, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Downton Abbey). Trailer: Here.

Art-House Comedies:

Chef – Comedy – May 9
Plot Summary: Chef Carl Casper loses his job because he argued with the owner of the restaurant he worked for at over the food they were preparing, his creativity felt hampered. Now unemployed, Casper has the idea to go out on his own, preparing the food he wants to make and cares about by way of a food truck. Meanwhile, he also tries to rekindle his relationship with his estranged family. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director-producer Jon Favreau. Actors Involved: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr. Potential: Leaving Hollywood films behind, which he only made to medium success (really only Elf and Iron Man are worth mentioning, among the five he made), writer-director Jon Favreau returns to the kind of films he made his name on – indie comedies, like Swingers and Made. Chef looks funny and potentially heartfelt. It should make for good counter programming to all the big movies of May. It is probably worth renting. Trailer: Here.

The Double – Comedy/Thriller – May 9
Plot Summary: A government agency clerk leads a boring life. Everything changes, however, when a new co-worker arrives. This new employee is his exact physical double, but completely opposite in terms of personality. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Richard Ayoade. Actors Involved: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Chris O’Dowd, Sally Hawkins, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Paddy Considine, Craig Roberts, and Yasmin Paige. Potential: The Double is writer-director Richard Ayoade’s second feature, following up Submarine. It looks very odd, but cool – like a nightmare version of a Wes Anderson film. I am very interested to see it, as I generally like quirky, aesthetically interesting films that are well-done. This certainly has the potential to be one of those. The cast is also very good. The film came out in the UK last year and played to critical acclaim. Trailer: Here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Transcendence (2014) – Review

Review: Transcendence is an interesting sci-fi film that works more as a philosophical debate on whether technology’s progression is a benefit or hindrance to man than an action thriller. The film is about scientists Will and Evelyn Caster and their work on artificial intelligence. On the verge of a breakthrough, Will is mortally poisoned with radiation by a revolutionary (terrorist) organization ‘RIFT’. In an effort to save his mind, Evelyn with the help from another scientist, Max Waters, conceives of the idea to upload Will’s consciousness on their AI interface. RIFT tries to stop them, fearing what a machine with this much power could mean and do (having watched The Terminator presumably thousands of times, or maybe they are just creeped-out by The Brave Little Toaster, i.e. self-aware, talking machines). Evelyn, however, succeeds and gives Will’s now upload consciousness access to the internet. Will quickly sets in motion a plan for his eventual takeover of the world. RIFT and US Government join forces to try and stop him.

Transcendence is marketed as a big action thriller with sci-fi inclinations – something big and ambitious similar to the films of Christopher Nolan (who executively produces the film); however, first-time director Wally Pfister (who previously shot seven Nolan’s films) has created a film that is not an action thriller, and really does not feature much action at all. Pfister is much more interested in digging deeper into the question of what advancing technology means for humanity than seeing engrossing action set pieces. He wants Transcendence to engage its audience on a higher level than purely entertainment. For those willing to accept the film as such, it is intellectually and philosophically fascinating.

One of the main moral question is seems to ask is what is the importance of freedom to humanity? If the world can be made a better place with a future than is truly superior in comparison to today, is it worthwhile if we must sacrifice some of our freedoms? This is a question that is very much relevant today socially and politically. Our national security is always seemingly brought up when the government wishes to infringe upon our freedoms (our privacy, freedom of speech, and so on). Is our supposed safety a priority above these freedoms? This is a question also asked in this month’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Transcendence, however, takes it a bit further. Humans by nature seem to not know what is really best for themselves, others, the Planet, or really anything else, as we are all of us ruled by our own self-interest – what we believe is right for us in any given moment. What we think is right is often incorrect in the grand scheme; thus, should we surrender a portion or even all of our free will in order to support a system (political, social, ecological, and so on) that functions ubiquitously in the benefit of everyone? We would be better off, but we would not be in charge of our own lives, and would we even be human anymore without choice? This is a theme explored in countless utopian/dystopian sci-fi films (and books).

Pfister also delves into the question of man’s soul both in terms of what makes a person himself and what actually constitutes a soul. The soul is often recognized as the thing that defines each of us as ourselves. It encompasses our collective experiences and memories – our hopes, dreams, fears. In many religions, it is the soul that passes on to the next realm, leaving our decaying body behind. Yet, if our consciousness (which is essentially our soul) can be uploaded from our brain onto a new platform, specifically a processing interface, what does that mean for the soul? This is something somewhat catastrophic for religious views as if our consciousness can be transferred (or copied) by encoding the electrical impulses within our brain then the soul is no longer a valid idea as being an entity that exists within but also separate to our body. If consciousness is merely a product of our brain chemistry then when our brain dies so do we as beings (not just our body with our consciousness passing on). But this then asks the question: what is the soul? Is our soul our consciousness or is it something more intangible? If our consciousness can be copied or transferred to a different platform, what does that mean for our soul? Is our soul separate from our consciousness? Is what makes us who we are more than just our collective experiences and memories? Does the soul add something more, making us human? But if the soul is separate from our consciousness, what happens to that part of us when we die? Pfister does not want to answer these questions with his film; rather, he merely wants to engage his audience by asking these questions, as really there are not tangible answers.

Technology’s advancement is also explored in an interesting duality. The film seemingly makes Will the villain once his consciousness is given the computational power of an advanced AI system. He seemingly wants to enslave humanity so that everyone and everything will serve his end. As humans, we are seemingly biologically conditioned to fight for our freedoms. Will taking them away is what makes him the villain in our eyes – even if his endgame is in the benefit of all mankind. But Pfister takes it a step farther as well. At what point does technology infringe upon the laws of nature? The idea of a god has always held power because we are limited – we live, we die, we cannot create on the same grand level, we cannot give life to the same extent. But what if these truths are no longer true? To some extent, the advancement in technology and medicine that we have seen has already given us the power to create and extent life outside of what our biology would allow (and we have always had the power to take life). Yet, our mortality will always set us apart from the gods. But what if technology gave us the ability to be immortal? Are we then too not gods ourselves? We can create. We can destroy. And now too, we are eternal. Thus, is there a point at which humanity should no longer allow technology to progress? To keep gods and man separate. To preserve nature’s laws.

I found Transcendence to be very interesting in regards to its ability to explore big philosophical ideas and questions. Yet, there are some issues that do hold it back. Chiefly, it is structured as almost a sci-fi horror/thriller, but it lacks a thrilling payoff that we are conditioned by our knowledge of narratives to expect. The film, thusly, feels slow and lacks a satisfying punch. To some extent, the film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first two acts (or for fans of Angel, Will is seemingly a version of season four’s big bad Jasmine), but then retreats from that narrative vehicle to solely ask bigger intellectual questions – which is fine; but as the marketing has billed it as something of an event blockbuster, there is a disconnect in expectations versus reality, which will leave many disappointed.

On a side note, Pfister is one of the staunchest advocates for film stock over digital (as is Christopher Nolan). He shot the film on 35mm film and finished the film photochemically without a digital intermediate (which is very rare these days – on both accounts). Transcendence, then, can be maybe read as a struggle between film stock and digital. Yes, digital can do all these great things, but it still seems to lack the wonder and magic of film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Making his feature directing debut, it is clear that Wally Pfister is very influenced by Christopher Nolan. Transcendence was even a project Nolan was considering before beginning work on Interstellar, giving it to Pfister thinking that it would be a good fit. The film is beautifully shot and designed, and Pfister gets good performances from his cast. The narrative too is very ambitious for a first time director, as it tries to balance the scale of a blockbuster with its intellectual, philosophical aspirations. Pfister does a fine job, but he does not quite get the balance and pacing right, as again the film does feel a bit slow and ultimately not as satisfying as it could (should). That said, I do look forward to his next project as a director. I also wonder if he will shoot anymore films in the future as he is one of the best.

Mychael Danna’s score is fantastic. It is inquisitive, booming, and above all very captivating. It gives the film an additional layer of emotional gravitas. Jess Hall’s cinematography is also very good. It must be difficult to shoot a film for one of the very best former directors of photography, but Hall delivers work that is probably his best to date. The lighting gives the film such a wonderful and fitting ambiance. Chris Seagers’s production design is top notch as well. The film feels a little bit like science fiction, especially with his wonderful lab sets that are classically very white, clean, sterile; but, his work also grounds the film in reality with other sets that feel very rooted in today’s world (the set for the old, dilapidated town even seems to create the sense that humanity’s present has eroded away, giving way to the future – making it a great backdrop to Will’s main lab).

The acting in the film is solid throughout, even faced with many underwritten characters. Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, and Cillian Murphy all have smaller roles in Transcendence, but each brings something. Freeman does a version of his typical character – the man who to some extent explains things to another character (and subsequently to the audience); but even so, he does it with such skill and class that it works every time. Mara plays Bree, the head of RIFT. She is somewhat of an ambiguous, under-developed character (in terms of being someone who exists to a greater extent than merely serving a plot point), but Mara nonetheless brings a nice edge to the character and an emotional sincerity. Murphy too is under-developed as FBI Agent Buchanan, charged with stopping Will. Yet, like Freeman and Mara, he brings enough to the role to overcome the overall lack of character above moving the plot forward. Paul Bettany plays Max Waters, a scientist and friend who helps Evelyn Caster upload Will’s consciousness. Bettany is very good in the film as he struggles with the moral questions of what they are really doing. It is easy to get lost in science, forgetting the wonder and meaning of life and the world around us. Bettany is very good in being a relatable anchor for the audience amidst all the technical jargon and lofty ideas. Rebecca Hall is in some ways the film’s main character, as it is her struggle to first save Will and then later her realization that maybe Will is not acting in a manner that benefits humanity, rather he is trying to enslave the world. Her scenes inside the lab with Will are fantastic and play like those of a horror film, as Will’s disembodied voice and a computer rendered image of his face follower her around, always watching. Hall is very good in the film, and pulls the audience in emotionally. Her performance is a big reason the film works (in addition to its outstanding aesthetics). Johnny Depp has the difficult role of playing a character who is mostly not seen but heard (although, I think that he is not nearly as good as Scarlett Johansson was in Her, and he has the benefit really giving a more physical performance in many ways). Depp walks the line between sincerity and creepy as a face on a monitor, while in life he plays Will as higher-level intellectual – not bothered by such mundane things as money or matters of everyday life, wholly confident in his academic life, but also completely physically and emotionally dependent, almost childlike, as well.

Summary & score: Transcendence asks big questions, and to this regard it is intellectually and philosophically interesting and engaging; but it terms of being an entertaining blockbuster, it is a bit lacking. 6/10

Monday, April 21, 2014

Movie of the Week – Inherit the Wind

This week’s movie: Inherit the Wind (1960)

The film is based on the real-life case from 1925 in which two great lawyers argue for and against a science teacher who is accused of the crime of teaching evolution.

Director Stanley Kramer is maybe best known for his films It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I would argue that his courtroom dramas Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg are his best. He worked with composer Ernest Gold, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, and production designer Rudolph Sternad on this film.

The cast is fantastic and the film’s strongest aspect. Each actor gives a phenomenal performance. The film stars Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly, while featuring Dick York, Harry Morgan, Claude Akins, and Elliot Reid in support.

Inherit the Wind is a very good courtroom drama and fans of those types of films should enjoy it (although, I am not convinced that the procedures and protocol resemble a real courtroom in any way). The film, however, is an even better social drama. And sadly and maybe surprisingly, the issues tackled in the film are still present in modern society. Things like: freedom of speech, freedom to discover and learn new things (regardless of whether these things are treated as facts/truths or not), and freedom to be different. In the film the science teacher is persecuted for teaching evolution in a small town that is very religious (some protestant faction). The law forbids him from teaching the topic in the local public high school (despite the whole separation of church and state), but he does it anyway believing that his students should be aware of all possibilities and decide for themselves (which seems reasonable). What strikes me is that even today, eighty-nine years after the original case this is still a hot topic, religious groups clashing with public education/science. It is just kind of sad that we as a people have not progressed past a place of fear, ignorance, and mistrust (regardless of religious beliefs). It is a little frightening as well. Films like Inherit the Wind are important as they expose and explore the power and narrow-mindedness (on both sides) of beliefs existing in a state of ‘tunnel vision’ often leading to people becoming their worst-selves.

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 14: 40-36

Rank: 40
Release Year: 1949
Genre: Mystery
Director: Carol Reed
Plot Summary: In the wake of an old friend’s (the black-market opportunist Harry Lime) death, pulp novelist Holly Martins comes to post-WWII Vienna to investigate the mysterious circumstances, only to discover things are not quite as they appear to be.
What Makes It Special: Postwar Vienna seems like the perfect setting for a film-noir. The city (like Berlin) was split among the allies, each managing and patrolling a different section of the city, leaving it ripe to be exploited by black-market dealers. Holly Martins makes a great fish-out-of-water character who is seemingly unwillingly pulled into the investigation of his friend’s mysterious death. Carol Reed’s direction and style is spot on, but one cannot help but feeling like Orson Welles also had a hand in the film’s creative process (and I personally think it is the best project Welles was involved with after Citizen Kane). It is a fantastic mystery film and a must for hardboiled detective fans.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 39
Release Year: 1959
Genre: Mystery Thriller
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Plot Summary: New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, leading to a misadventure in which Thornhill desperately tries to survive (and even finds himself playing spy).
What Makes It Special: North by Northwest is in many ways a remake (a much more ambitious one at that) of The 39 Steps, but then again Alfred Hitchcock liked to reuse the same basic premises over and over. Here we have the premise of ‘the wrong man’ who by some cruel twist of fate finds himself unwillingly immersed in an international conspiracy. The film not only succeeds as a great mystery, as Thornhill tries to uncover the conspiracy, but also as a very entertaining action adventure film (one might even call it an early precursor to popcorn blockbusters) with fun action set pieces and very memorable and iconic locations and scenes.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 38
Title: Casablanca
Release Year: 1942
Genre: Romance Drama
Director: Michael Curtiz
Plot Summary: In the early days of WWII, Rick Blaine operates a small club in still unoccupied North Africa, but his life becomes very complicated when an old flame, Ilsa Lund, comes into town.
What Makes It Special: Casablanca is maybe cinema’s most iconic romance drama (along with Gone with the Wind). (And too like Gone with the Wind) it is often quoted (and misquoted) and much loved. But behind all the hype, Michael Curtiz has created a film about missed opportunities and heartbreak, something that speaks to audiences universally. The performances from Bogart and Bergman are also phenomenal; tapping into a brooding longing that is powerfully resonating. There is real chemistry between them; it is palpable.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 37
Title: Chinatown
Release Year: 1974
Genre: Mystery
Director: Roman Polanski
Plot Summary: Private detective J.J. Gittes is hired to expose an adulterer, but finds himself caught right in the middle of a larger conspiracy – one that involves deceit, corruption, and murder.
What Makes It Special: With Chinatown, Roman Polanski directs a hardboiled, film-noir style mystery that feels both classic and modern. Polanski (much like he did with Rosemary’s Baby) is also unafraid to give his film a very real edge. Gittes may be the protagonist, but he is not a hero and the Los Angeles he inhabits is certainly not a place of happy endings nor is it one where dreams come true. It is an ugly, messy world ruled by corruption, disorder, and power. It’s Chinatown.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 36
Title: The General
Release Year: 1926
Genre: Action Comedy
Cast: Buster Keaton
Plot Summary: After Union spies steal a Confederate locomotive, engineer Johnnie Gray pursues them singlehandedly, straight through enemy lines.
What Makes It Special: Buster Keaton is silent cinema’s other great comedian (at least in the Hollywood Studio system), and The General is his great film. The set pieces are incredible and impressive even today. Keaton has such a talent for stunts, pratfalls, and physical comedy. This production seems almost unbelievably ambitious in the gags and comedy bits it employs. To say the least, The General is a silent era masterpiece.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

TV Series of the Month – Bottom

This month’s TV series: Bottom (1991-1995)

The British comedy series is about best friends Edward and Richard (Eddie and Richie) who share a flat together, living off the government and doing nothing with their time. These episodes showcase their hijinks.

The series is created by its stars Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall (who star in and write all eighteen episodes), Ed Bye produces the show.

Bottom is the third series with Edmondson and Mayall. The first is the brilliant The Young Ones (Christopher Ryan from that show also shows up in a few episodes of Bottom) and the second Filthy Rich & Catflap (which I have only seen the pilot of, as it is included on The Young Ones’ DVD set). Bottom lasted three seasons before Edmondson and Mayall took the characters to the stage performing live shows. While The Young Ones is probably the best of the three series, Bottom is also incredibly funny and is a must-see for fans of that show.

Trailer: Here (well, really, the first episode)
Available on: DVD and Video On-Demand

Movie of the Week – The Graduate

This week’s movie: The Graduate (1967)

Benjamin Braddock has recently graduated from college. Now faced with seemingly endless opportunities, though acutely aware that this notion is unequivocally false, he is lost and unable to face his future in a world that turns innocence and hope into mundane, pessimistic (soul-crushing) apathy and cynicism. There is a sense that if he does not move forward the world cannot corrupt him, but that all changes when he is seduced by one of his parent’s friends, Mrs. Robinson. At first, Benjamin is happy to engage in this affair (as it seems simple and easy); however, when he meets Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, everything changes. Finally, there is something Benjamin wants.

In 1966 director Mike Nichols announced himself as one of the most exciting new auteur filmmakers, taking full advantage of Hollywood’s artistic revolution following the collapse of the production code, with the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His next film, The Graduate, is even better (and he won a Best Director Oscar for it). I think it is his best to date (and it is among my favorite films). Nichols worked with brilliant people on the film, including cinematographer Robert Surtees and production designer Richard Sylbert. Nichols also utilizes the fantastic Simon & Garfunkel album Sounds of Silence to score the film.

Dustin Hoffman stars in the film with Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross co-starring. William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, and Elizabeth Wilson feature in support.

The Graduate is one of the most artistically influential films for modern filmmakers. Nichols in a sense changed the narrative language of editing to do very interesting and expressive things. The film also perfectly captures the mood of college graduates facing the world, hesitant to actually grow-up. The film blends melancholy and comedy wonderfully, as well – in many ways setting the stage for the rise of the indie dramedy. This is a must-see for all cinema fans.

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Movie of the Week – Anatomy of a Murder

This week’s movie: Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Paul Biegler is a small-town lawyer, who has more talent than ambition. He takes on a new case after a beautiful young woman comes to see him and asks him to defend her husband. The circumstances of the case are as follows: Lt. Manion shot and killed another man; there is no disputing this fact. He is, however, pleading temporary insanity because the man he shot had previously that night raped Manion’s wife sending him into a state when he discovered his wife beaten and crying. Biegler now has the difficult task of proving that the defendant did indeed suffer from temporary insanity in a court of law (even if the truth seems a bit murky).

Director Otto Preminger wanted to make a film that strictly followed the rules, manners, and procedures of real courtroom trials (when most films tend to be more fictionalized recreations). He also wanted to make a film that spoke to his hatred of censorship (which is why the details of the case include rape and sexually material – like the intent of Mrs. Manion). This is Preminger’s finest film, but he also made a few other great movies, including: Laura, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Advise & Consent. On Anatomy of a Murder, Preminger worked with jazz legend composer Duke Ellington, cinematographer Sam Leavitt, and production designer Boris Leven.

Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best courtroom dramas of all-time (and among my favorites), coming in a period between 1957-1962 that yielded many of the greatest courtroom films to-date, including: Witness for the Prosecution, Paths of Glory, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a must-see for fans of law dramas and fans of Jimmy Stewart, as it features one of his best performances.

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