Monday, June 30, 2014

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

Art-House Dramas:

Life Itself – Documentary/Biography – Jul 4
Plot Summary: The film looks at the life of film critic Roger Ebert. Key Filmmakers Involved: Director Steve James. Quality Potential: High. Steve James is best known for his excellent documentary Hoop Dreams, but he also made the well-received docs The Interrupters and The Invisible War and thus should do a good job with the material here. Roger Ebert lived a very entertaining life: writing movies, commentating on society, and of course reviewing films. He is probably the most famous of all critics, film or otherwise, and this is a must-see for those interested in film, criticism, and the man himself. Trailer: Here.

Boyhood – Drama – Jul 11
Plot Summary: This coming-of-age story focuses on Mason, a boy of five years, and how he grows into a young man. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Richard Linklater. Actors Involved: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, and Ethan Hawke. Quality Potential: High. Boyhood is ambitious unlike any film made before it. Richard Linklater and his actors periodically shot scenes over the course of twelve years allowing the actors (particularly Ellar Coltrane) to grow up before the audience’s eyes. It is a very good drama that has performed exceptionally well during its screenings on the festival circuit. It may very well even be an Oscar contender. This is a must-see for fans of great independent dramas and filmmaking. Linklater has done something special with this film. Trailer: Here.

I Origins – Drama/Sci-Fi – Jul 18
Plot Summary: A molecular biologist and his laboratory partner make a discovery that could fundamentally change everything about modern society. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Mike Cahill. Actors Involved: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Steven Yeun. Quality Potential: Medium. Mike Cahill’s first feature film was Another Earth (also staring Brit Marling), which was a good psychological sci-fi drama. I Origins looks like another good sci-fi drama along the same lines. It performed well at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning one of the feature film awards. It is worth checking out for fans of more cerebral sci-fi. Trailer: Here.

Art-House Comedies:

Begin Again – Musical/Romance – Jul 4
Plot Summary: Dan is a struggling music executive who has just lost his job. Greta is a young songwriter who was just dumped by her boyfriend on his way to music stardom. Dan and Greta’s paths cross when Dan hears Greta performing in a small bar in New York City. Something catches Dan’s ear and he goes out of his way to try and get an album made for Greta. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director John Carney and executive producer Judd Apatow. Actors Involved: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Adam Levine, Yasiin Bey, James Corden, and CeeLo Green. Quality Potential: Medium. There are a few reasons to get a little excited about Begin Again. It has a good cast. It is a musical that does not seem too over-the-top and features a few very popular musicians in supporting roles. And chiefly, it is a new musical romance from John Carney who gave us the brilliant musical romance Once (if you have not seen this, do so). Also, the film was met with mostly positive buzz at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (playing more as a crowd favorite than critic favorite), and it should serve as nice alternative programing to the summer’s blockbusters – maybe a good date movie. Trailer: Here.

Mood Indigo – Romance Dramedy – Jul 18
Plot Summary: Colin is a wealthy, inventive bachelor who is deeply in love with Chloe. Their love could be cut short however as Chloe is diagnosed with a rare illness caused by a flower growing in her lungs. Colin now must do everything he can to find a cure. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director Michel Gondry. Actors Involved: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aissa Maiga, and Charlotte Le Bon. Quality Potential: Medium. Mood Indigo played to mixed reviews when it opened in France last year, but that said I still think it looks fantastic. It reminds me a lot of another Michel Gondry film I like a lot called The Science of Sleep. The cast is also fantastic, featuring many of my favorite French actors (like Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, and Gad Elmaleh – plus relative newcomer Omar Sy is brilliant in The Intouchables and should be great in this too). This is definitely worth checking out for fans of Gondry’s fantasy-like style. Trailer: Here.

Wish I Was Here – Dramedy – Jul 18
Plot Summary: Aidan Bloom is at a crossroads in his life. He is 35 years old but things are not exactly how he imagined they would be as a younger man. His acting career has never taken off, and he feels that his life has no purpose. He is married with two kids, but their education is paid for by his father; however, things change when his father gets sick and can no longer afford to pay. Now, Bloom must homeschool his two kids. Spending time with them seems to bring something out in him that was always missing. Key Filmmakers Involved: Writer-director-producer Zach Braff. Actors Involved: Zach Braff, Joey King, Jim Parsons, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Ashley Greene, Mandy Patinkin, Donald Faison, Pierce Gagnon, James Avery, and Michael Weston. Quality Potential: Medium. Wish I Was Here is the long awaited feature follow-up to Garden State from Zach Braff (ten years), and it looks very much in the same style and tone. As a big fan of Garden State (it spoke to me at that time in my life), I am interested to see what Braff has to say now. He crowd-funded the film (following in the footsteps of Veronica Mars) and put together a strong cast. The film has been fairly well received during its festival circuit screenings. It is worth checking out for fans of Braff’s work. Trailer: Here.

Movie of the Week – Modern Times

This week’s movie: Modern Times (1936)

The Tramp struggles to live in America’s modern industrial society in which industry is put ahead of workers. Yet, there may be a chance for him after he meets a young homeless woman.

Modern Times is auteur Charles Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece and among the very best silent films of all-time (along with Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Man with a Movie Camera, and Chaplin’s City Lights). Chaplin also scored and edited the film, and he worked with cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh as well as production designer Charles D. Hall – his usual collaborators.

As usual, Chaplin also stars in the film as The Tramp. His then wife Paulette Goddard co-stars.

Modern Times is both Chaplin’s funniest and most moving film. It also features a strong political view (much like The Great Dictator), rallying for the common man during the Great Depression and against modern society and the brutality of the machine age. The film was Chaplin’s last silent film, made at a time when all of Hollywood had already switched over to talkies. Even so, Modern Times was hugely successful. Chaplin’s Tramp films all wonderfully blend slapstick comedy with deeper emotional resonance. Here, Chaplin creates what is in many ways a heartbreaking narrative about the dire struggle of the average American desperately trying to find employment as well as maintain their humanity. He juxtaposes those grand social statements against the sheer excitement and joy of his hysterical antics (I personally love the roller skates scene the most). This is a must-see for every film fan.

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Music Spotlight – Exciting New Artist – Dr. Rocket – June 2014

Exciting New Artist: Dr.Rocket, a 1960s’ influenced rock/pop band out of Portland, Oregon.

Dr. Rocket explodes out of the speakers with a charming blend of classic pop sensibility and modern arrangements. It is equally ambitious as it is accessible. The man behind the rocket, Nick Carver, pulls in his listeners with raw, emotional lyrics seemingly disguised by poppy riffs -- listeners can happily bounce around or engage on a deeper level.

Dr. Rocket is in the process of recording his first album, which is scheduled for release later this Summer.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

22 Jump Street (2014) – Review

Review: 22 Jump Street is somewhat amusing and does have a good time poking fun at itself, but ultimately feels like a waste of everyone’s time (creatively speaking, as of course this mostly just exists to make money).

22 Jump Street picks up where 21 Jump Street left off with Schmidt and Jenko heading to college as undercover cops investigating a new drug that has popped up on campus. There are a few differences plot wise, but the film is mostly the same as its predecessor. This begs the question: “Why was this movie even made then?” Well, simply, it was made to make easy money.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who generally make very funny films, decide to use 22 Jump Street as a platform to make fun of Hollywood sequels and the system that churns them out. This works well at first, but the issue is that they take the joke a bit too far, which leads to a film that is not very entertaining or interesting. They want the film to fit the joke to such an extent that they leave its narrative lacking completely. Even the character development, which was the first film’s best attribute, is undermined this time. In 21 Jump Street Schmidt fit in very well in with the cool kids while Jenko was a bit of an outcast (flipping on their expectations of what would happen when they returned to high school). This time, the same thing happens again but with Jenko fitting into the fraternity scene leaving Schmidt to hang out with the ‘art kids’. And, like last time, this narrative is about the conflict between Schmidt and Jenko being different and having to work to keep their friendship together. Thus, 22 Jump Street is retreading the exact same character moments on top of making the same jokes and featuring similar action set pieces. All this leaves the film feeling boring and unsatisfying because we already saw this film the first time. Yet, this seems like the intention of Lord and Miller, because that is the joke they are making with the film.

In an attempt to make fun of the Hollywood sequel machine, Lord and Miller have made a terrible and disappointing sequel to an enjoyable film, self-fulfilling their own joke. It all feels like a missed opportunity to make something funny with the good cast they have in place and entertaining characters they created with the first film. Satire works best when it is both biting and still creates a full narrative. This does neither. There is not really much more to say. It is essentially a less funny, less creative, less imaginative, not as well written version of the first film with no ambitions other than to just collect paychecks for all involved while making a mockery of the very thing they are doing (making a sequel to a surprisingly successful action/comedy based on a somewhat forgotten 1980s TV series).

If there is any good in the film, it comes from a few jokes that work and a few strong comedic performances (particularly Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell). I am sure that many will enjoy it, as it is just mindless noise that is content with going for the easy jokes while rehashing the first film. The film is in many ways an indictment of modern American filmgoers (in general) and the marketplace they create. It is terrible because it can be terrible – people will still go see it and apparently love it, regardless of actual quality. Moviegoers enjoyed the first film and seemed to want something that was exactly the same (but worse) for the sequel, so why even bother wasting creative energy on something more? The Transformers films are perpetually mindless, noisy, and artistically/emotionally vapid and yet they are more and more successful with each sequel. Michael Bay does not even try to make anything good. Why should he? It clearly does not matter. It just has to be bigger and louder. If audiences are happy with drivel then why should Hollywood takes creative risks when so much money is on the line? They can happily just continue to make the same things over and over again and take the cash and run.

Maybe I am being overly harsh on 22 Jump Street. It is pretty much what I expected it to be. I think that I am just disappointed with the overall lack of quality both from this film and Hollywood in general. Lord and Miller have made a film that is offensively lazy basically because they could. I do not like that mentality. This is a poor film and it is not really worth anyone’s time. Not because it is worse than any other bad film, as that is not true, rather it is because Lord and Miller are very capable of making another fun and entertaining action/comedy with 22 Jump Street and instead decided to just phone in a pointless sequel (seemingly gleefully pointing out just how pointless the film is along the way). This again leads me to ask a question I already know the answer to – why even make this film?

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have a good track record with fun action films and comedies like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, and The Lego Movie, which only makes their seeming lack of ambition on 22 Jump Street all the more disappointing. It is their worst film by a large margin.

Mark Mothersbaugh creates a simple and fun score for the film, but its seems as though much of dramatic emphasis is put on the soundtrack, as the soundtrack gets most of the good music cues while the score is relegated to filling in dead spaces. Barry Peterson’s cinematography is very good and is probably the highlight of the film. He does a great job with color, allowing the bright palette to pop. Steve Saklad’s production design works well enough with the film, but it too feels a bit lazy.

The cast of 21 Jump Street was very good and funny across the board. In 22 Jump Street, the cast is not quite as good overall. Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, The Lucas Brothers, and Nick Offerman have some okay stuff in supporting roles, but none of their characters are really given any dimension and the actors are not given much in terms of good material. Jillian Bell is funny as Mercedes, a college student who thinks Schmidt looks too old. Like most of the film’s jokes, it too is overplayed but Bell has such good delivery that she makes it work anyway. Ice Cube has a bigger role this time around as Captain Dickson. He continues to deliver his blend of proud father/tough guy police captain with the same vigor and hilarity as the first film. He has a bigger role, but it does not seem to really amount to anything meaningful narratively. Jonah Hill is fairly funny as Schmidt, but he has been funnier in other stuff. Again, the material is just not there and the character development this time is poor. Channing Tatum, however, still seems to get the most out of the film, playing Jenko with lots of charming energy. If the film is entertaining at all, it is solely thanks to Tatum.

Summary & score: 22 Jump Street is pointless (and yet it is still a little entertaining…mostly it is just disappointing). 5/10

Monday, June 23, 2014

Movie of the Week – About Time

This week’s movie: About Time (2013)

On his 21st birthday, Tim discovers that he can travel in time (a family tradition passed down from father to son), thereby changing the events in his life. At first it seems like a gift and Tim uses it like any young man would to get the girl of his dreams. Time travel is a tricky thing, however, and Tim soon realizes that if he meddles too much, everything he knows can be undone forever.

The film is written and directed by Richard Curtis, who also wrote other romantic comedy favorites Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary (as well as writing the great Mr. Bean series). About Time is his third feature that he wrote and directed, his first two were Love Actually (everyone’s favorite) and Pirate Radio; he also wrote the dramas Girl in the Café and War Horse. On About Time, he worked with composer Nick Laird-Clowes, cinematographer John Guleserian, and production designer John Paul Kelly.

About Time is a very charming romantic comedy. It also has a strong emotional dramatic undertone, giving the overall narrative a bit more weight than the average rom-com. The film is very funny as well. It is my favorite romantic comedy of 2013 and among my favorite twenty-five films of the year. It is a must-see for fans of rom-coms and Richard Curtis’s work.

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

Thursday, June 19, 2014

TV Series of the Month – Breaking Bad

This Month’s TV Series: Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

Walter White is a chemistry genius who through a series of circumstances has found himself a high school teacher while his former business partners have gone on to great wealth; and to make matters worse he has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Seeing only a bleak future for his family, Walter decides to recruit a former student (Jesse Pinkman) with the intention of producing and selling his own crystalized methamphetamine. What could go wrong?

Creator Vince Gilligan previously was a writer on The X-Files before coming to AMC with an idea for a new series. Initially, the show was given a small episode order and a low budget, but with each season the buzz and popularity grew. The series ended with five seasons, considered by many as one of television’s finest shows (season five in particular is one of the most brilliant and thrilling pieces of TV I have ever seen). While the series featured a lot of good work from many collaborators, director Rian Johnson stands out as possibly its best (directing a few of the most iconic and wonderful episodes – most notably Ozymandias).

The series also features a great cast led by Bryan Cranston (who is absolutely superb as Walter White, creating one of television’s most interesting antiheroes) and Aaron Paul. Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito are all excellent in support.

Breaking Bad is a must-see for fans of crime drama televisions series, as it is one of the most compelling both in terms of the fantastic character work done and the overall narrative. As Walter gets pulled further and further into a life of crime, he sees his morals ever give way to his unruly ego and hunger for power. Along with Mad Men, the series put AMC on the map as cable television’s leader in producing quality dramas (a mantel usually held by HBO, and is now again). Breaking Bad started out with a meager production budget and low viewership, but by the end of its run it was one of TV’s most popular and talked about series. It became event programing. Again, if you like crime dramas, this is a series you must invest in.

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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Chinese Puzzle (2014) – Review

Review: Chinese Puzzle is a very good romantic drama/comedy; and it serves as a nice conclusion to writer-director Cedric Klapisch’s trilogy following Xavier Rousseau’s love life.

The film is about Xavier Rousseau, a Frenchman who married an Englishwoman (Wendy) and has two children with her. They were very happy for ten years of marriage, until one day the love was gone. Wendy has decided to leave Paris and move to New York to be with a new man, taking the children with her. Xavier cannot stand to be away from his children and thus decides that he too will move to New York; however, once in the city he finds that he is faced with a whole new array of problems – he needs a job but is not an American citizen or green card holder and is only in the country on a tourist visa, he needs a place to stay but everything in New York is crummy and expensive, and he needs to find a way to finish his latest novel but has all this other stuff consuming his life, including being a good dad and spending time with his kids. In all this craziness and complication, can Xavier also find love again?

Klapisch’s trilogy has been about growing up and discovering who you are and want kind of love you need to make you happy. For Xavier, life always seems too complicated, as he is constantly wrapped up in multicultural/multilingual adventures, which leads him to constantly over-obsess about how difficult it is for him to find love – often getting in his own way. With Chinese Puzzle, Xavier feels much more grown up, as he is now in his forties, and yet he still seems fixated on the same questions and issues (but from a position of more experience). Xavier seems, however, finally ready to accept the circumstances of his life and not constantly dream of something else.

This works too for the viewers – especially those who have followed the series from film to film. L’Auberge Espagnole sees Xavier in his twenties and Russian Dolls sees him in his thirties. Xavier’s growth from film to film mirrors something very relatable in our own lives. We too are constantly searching for what we think or hope will make us happy, and often that revolves around finding love. In L’Auberge Espagnole, Xavier does not know what he wants and his time in Barcelona serves as true experience of awakening for him. He grows up a lot, ultimately realizing that he wants to be a writer, giving up economics (which sent him to study in Spain in the first place). In Russian Dolls Xavier is frustrated by his inability to find a substantial love, not immediately realizing that the girl for him very well might be Wendy who he is working with writing a script for a trashy TV-movie. In the end, Xavier realizes that in fact Wendy is the girl for him. But as is the case with life, things change and Chinese Puzzle finds the once happy couple at its end.

Chinese Puzzle and Russian Dolls are similar in many ways, as they both focus on Xavier searching for a way to simplify his life while being overwhelmed by its complication (or perceived complication). The main difference, however, is that in Chinese Puzzle, Xavier has grown up and his priorities have shifted. He is no longer chiefly concerned with finding love, but rather he wants to be involved in his children’s lives as much as possible, finding it difficult when he is sort of a fish-out-of-water arriving to start a new life in New York City (though, he does have a lot of help from his friend Isabelle).

The narrative decision to have Xavier try to become a citizen by marrying an American (not for love, but for the perks) is nothing new to romantic comedy premises, but Klapisch turns it on its end in a fun way. Firstly, the American girl that Xaiver marries is a Chinese-American whose parents have recently immigrated to America (she is a first generation American), when generally a girl such as this would be the one looking for a green card or citizenship through marriage. And secondly, Klapisch never introduces a love subplot to their arrangement, when the genre seemingly demands one (I expected it to happen until the bitter end – that is how ingrained rom-com troupes are in today’s narratives).

The film, however, seems to have too easy a happy ending, things wrapping up in a nice cute bow, which does ultimately take a little away from the film as a whole – especially if considered as a standalone narrative. For fans of the series, though, it does seem satisfying too. Xavier is able to get things together in New York, narrowly missing total disaster multiple times, while also finding what could be the great love of his life. Xavier has it all in the end, and has matured into the sort of man I think we all might aspire to be. Plus, all the main characters in the narrative find themselves in a good place in the end. Again, this feels a little too rom-com clichéd, given the cynical world that we seem to live in now, but it is also hopeful that we too will find happiness in our own lives, and in the end the film and series leaves its viewers happy (which is sort of a necessary evil of the genre right?).

The film succeeds thanks to its great leading characters and the strong character work that Klapisch has done across the series. Xavier, Martine, Isabelle, and Wendy all feel like fully realized real people – something that is quite rare in romantic comedies (this is a rom-com, despite the high level of drama because it ends happily). The film is also extremely funny – like the trilogy as a whole. Xavier constantly finds himself is awkward and comical situations that play fantastically for laughs.

Klapisch establishes a very modern artistic visual style in L’Auberge Espognole with a non-linear narrative, eccentric editing, and fantasy elements all blended together, and this continues through Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle, but it does not seem as much of an emphasis in Chinese Puzzle. Rather, Klapisch lets his characters take center stage a bit more, playing the narrative more straightforward, showing a maturity in his style as a filmmaker, following the characters’ own arcs.

Finally, Klapisch has made a film that feels much more multicultural and apart of New York City than most American films set in the city (which is funny, given that he is a French filmmaker making a film primarily for French audiences). The film is filled with many races and cultures, as well as many languages. Klapisch also shoots most of his scenes in the streets on New York (not Vancouver or Toronto or somewhere that is not New York City), giving the feeling of what the city is really like – and, he does not only limit himself to the city’s iconic landmarks (as they are almost completely left out – although, one can see the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, One World Trade Center, among other landmarks in the background of certain shots). While not specifically being about New York, it completely captures its spirit – what it is like to live in the city (and not just visit as a tourist).

Chinese Puzzle works as a standalone narrative, but is surely a much more satisfying film for those who have seen the two films that proceed it in the trilogy. It is a great romantic comedy, built on wonderful characters, humor, and strong dramatic (and even philosophical) moments.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Cedric Klapisch is a very stylish aesthetic director, but one who lets his characters be the focus (generally). His work feels much more pop-culture driven than many of his contemporaries in France, which allows his Xavier trilogy to work very well for American audiences. It is a French film, but feels very American too. I highly recommend L’Auberge Espagnole (my favorite of his films) and Russian Dolls as well as Chinese Puzzle – it is a fantastic modern trilogy (maybe a more pop version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy). I also like Klapisch’s film Paris.

Composer Christophe Minck (who also scored Russian Dolls) provides the same type of music for Chinese Puzzle as featured in the its predecessors; however, I found it to be a bit too much, too quirky at times. That said, Minck does get the music for the dramatic moments just right. Cinematographer Natasha Braier is a bit of a rising star. Here, she does excellent work, as the film is beautifully shot, and Braier wonderfully captures New York City. Production designers Roshelle Berliner and Marie Cheminal do very good work staging New York and Paris (Berliner designing the scene in NYC and Cheminal in Paris). The cities feel authentic and not fake as they sometimes do in popular mediums.

The cast as a whole is superb (as they are across the entire trilogy), aptly handling comedy and drama. Sandrine Holt, Peter McRobbie, Jason Kravits, and Li Jun Li are all very good in smaller supporting roles.  Pablo Mugnier-Jacob and Margaux Mansart are also very good as Xavier and Wendy’s children. Kelly Reilly has the difficult role of playing the character that sets the narrative in motion, as Wedny she ends her relationship with Xavier and takes their kids to America. Reilly does this quite gracefully, never feeling like the bad guy (even though the narrative is primarily told from Xavier’s perspective). She is a very good foil for Xavier, allowing him to express all the pain he is feeling, as she has a fantastic steely resolve (but it is also nice to see her come apart in moments too). Cecile De France has a ton of fun with Isabelle (as always) a woman who has a good thing going for her but is a bit reckless with her love life even so. She too is a good foil for Xavier, allowing him a good friend to confide in. Audrey Tautou has a bigger role with each film, but in Chinese Puzzle finally becomes a main character. Her history with Xavier is something that is probably vital for full enjoyment of the narrative. Here, Tautou is a model of emotional maturity for Xavier – someone who he can finally feel at home with (even if he does not realize it initially). She has excellent rage, hitting comedic and dramatic moments with equal skill. Romain Duris is fantastic as Xavier. He is incredibly charming, funny, and caring – but also feels real as those qualities are counter balanced by a short temper, selfishness, and sometimes emotional vagueness. Duris can pull off cool effortlessly, while still feeling emotionally accessible (no small trick). The trilogy is well worth your time if for nothing else than to see his excellent performance and Xavier’s transformation.

Summary & score: Chinese Puzzle is a strong and fresh romantic drama/comedy that will likely please fans of L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls, serving as the trilogy’s final chapter. 7/10

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Review

Review: Edge of Tomorrow is a very engaging and thrilling sci-fi actioner.

The film is about Major William Cage, a media relations officer charged with selling an invasion to the people of the world. Backtracking for a moment for context, the world has been forever changed, embroiled in a war for the very survival of humanity after an alien race crash lands on Earth and begins eradicating all life. Most of continental Europe has fallen. The allied forces of Earth see this invasion as their best chance at winning the war. Cage is just an ad man, not a real soldier. He believes he has no place in actual combat, and thus when he is given a combat assignment he tries to talk his way out of it and is labeled at deserter. Now, forced to take part in the invasion as a grunt with no training, Cage will surely die. The invasion is a complete disaster, as the aliens appear to be waiting for the allied forces. Everyone around Cage is dying as they try to make their way off the beach in France. Cage too dies, but is able to kill one of the aliens, its blood absorbing into him. He awakens again on the military base, staging point for the invasion, the day before. Somehow, by taking in the alien blood he has the ability to live the day over again. He must now live the same day over and over until he can figure out how to win the war. He is helped by Rita, a great warrior and hero of the allies’ only victory over the aliens.

There are a lot of elements of Edge of Tomorrow I really enjoyed. It is chiefly still a typical Tom Cruise action film, but what works particularly well is that in this film Cruise’s character Cage starts out as a coward, completely inept at fighting. He is not especially cool or bad-ass. He is just an everyman. This pulls the audience in and makes him relatable, which is greatly beneficial to the narrative overall, as director Doug Liman also presents this film as a character piece of sorts.

Ultimately, the film is essentially a combination of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers. Liman realizes the brilliance of Groundhog Day is the character work involved with Phil coming to terms with the bizarre situation he finds himself in, as the film works as an existential piece about the meaning of life (to some extent). Liman is not nearly as ambitious with Edge of Tomorrow, but even so he allows Cage to cycle through many emotional states as he comes to terms with what must be done – the big difference is that in Edge of Tomorrow there is actually a known end point and out for Cage (while in Groundhog Day there is not).

The character of Rita (the Angel of Verdun) is also fantastic. It is nice to see a female hero (and not just a hero, but humanity’s greatest warrior) in a big blockbuster. She is also not sidelined once Cage becomes an equally capable fighter; if anything, she remains the film’s chief bad-ass throughout. But what works best about Rita is that she is tough as nails, but not at the expense of her femininity, which is a nice breath of fresh air in the action genre (although, the sci-fi genre does feature a long line of great heroines).

What also worked really well for the film is its similarity to the allies’ struggle in WWII against the Nazis, and particularly Operation Overlord. The Mimics (the alien race) in the film are essentially Nazis – their rapid expansion across Europe mirroring the Blitzkrieg invasion and domination strategy of the Nazis. The invasion by the allies to try and defeat the Mimics also happens along the Northern coast of France (just like Operation Overload). In this way, Edge of Tomorrow is able to pay tribute to many great WWII films while still feeling fresh and sci-fi cool.

Liman succeeds as well in creating very entertaining action set pieces that while feeling a little video-game-like do completely enthrall and excite the audience. They are fast paced and involving, and most importantly backed up by the strong character moments that Liman has throughout the film – both for the main and supporting characters. Edge of Tomorrow also features a fair about of humor that serves as a break from what is otherwise very intense. Again, like Groundhog Day, Liman finds the humor associated with being able to relive the same day over and over; and, Cruise’s charisma is used to fantastic effect.

The film is not without issue however. The ending is fairly abrupt and feels a bit cheap, not giving proper closure to the characters (but hopefully there will be a sequel). The overall narrative also suffers from the problem of there never feeling like there are any real stakes. Yes, the film is very fun and entertaining; but by the very nature of the narrative, the stakes are weak. If Cage or Rita dies, it is fine because the timeline just resets. The film is never able to create a strong sense of suspense, which leaves a lot on the table in terms of involving the audience emotionally. The film thus works as light entertainment, never garnering any real gravitas.

And yet, overall, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best sci-fi action films to come out in the last five or so years. It is innovative, very entertaining, and features fun characters. It is well worth seeing for fans of the genre.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Doug Liman furthers his reputation for making highly entertaining action films with Edge of Tomorrow (finally following up on his strong work on The Bourne Identity). I do also like his less actiony films Swingers, Go, and Fair Game as well. Edge of Tomorrow is Liman’s best action film to date, and it seems to have reestablished Liman as one of the genre’s marquee directors. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Composer Christophe Beck’s score is solid and perfectly matches and supports the style of the film and the dramatic action onscreen. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is top class (which comes as no surprise). The film feels richer and more colorful thanks to his beautiful and crisp lighting. Oliver Scholl’s production design is also very good. He finds the right balance between futuristic-feeling technology and a look that also feels grounded in reality. I also enjoyed the visual throwbacks to iconic images from WWII throughout the film.

Edge of Tomorrow features a good cast, many of whom do great work in small supporting roles. Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Charlotte Riley, and Noah Taylor stand out among these small roles. Brenden Gleeson plays the commander of the allied forces General Brigham and does so with aplomb. Bill Paxton, however, is the real standout among the supporting cast, playing Master Sergeant Farell with a wonderful mix of comedy and intimidation. The breakout star of the film is Emily Blunt. She has established herself in period dramas, light comedies, and romance films, but here she really emerges as an action heroine (building off her character in Looper – which is sort of a riff on early Sarah Conner). She exemplifies all the characteristics usually reserved for male action stars. She is tough, cool, and in command – even to a greater extent than Tom Cruise’s Cage (even though it is primarily his character’s story). She is fantastic, and I hope to see her in future action films. Tom Cruise plays his typical action-film self, which works well as that character is highly enjoyable given the context of the genre. But, what is different here, as stated above in the review, is that he starts off as the opposite of his typically bad-ass self-confident hero. The audience gets to see him grow into the role, and Cruise plays this wonderfully, and it is this element that makes the film so effective.

Summary & score: Edge of Tomorrow is a very enjoyable and exciting sci-fi action film, built on great action scenes and fun characters. 7/10

Monday, June 16, 2014

Movie of the Week – Blue Is the Warmest Color

This week’s movie: Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)

Adele is a high school student who cannot seem to find her place. Everything changes for her when she is sexually awakened after seeing a young woman with blue hair in the street. Adele goes out of her way to meet this girl, who is named Emma. Finding Emma leads Adele down a road of discovery as she grows into herself and leaves adolescence behind.

The film is written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, who also made the well-received The Secret of the Grain. He works with cinematographer Sofian El Fani on the film.

The cast is excellent, featuring breakthrough performances from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

Blue Is the Warmest Color won the 2013 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or (for Best Film) and it was for the first time ever also awarded to the two leading actresses as well as the director. The film is a beautifully told, acted, and shot romance drama that works very much as a coming-of-age narrative. Along with The Hunt, this film was my favorite foreign language film of the year. It is a must-see for fans of romance dramas.

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

TV Spotlight – The 25 Best Series on TV – Part 5: 5-1

Rank: 5
Genre: Horror/Drama
Channel: NBC
Current Season: Third
Season Premiere Date: February 2015
Plot Summary: The relationship between FBI criminal profiler Will Graham and his therapist Dr. Hannibal Lecter is an interesting one – they are doctor-patient, friends, coworkers, and even cat and mouse. Will begins to investigate a series of murders, seeking Dr. Lecter’s advice. Little does he know, at first, that Lecter is right in the middle of the whole mystery.
Why It’s Worth Watching: Hannibal is maybe television’s most stylish production, as it is masterfully shot and designed. Creator Bryan Fuller is among the best on TV when it comes to writing series that are a bit odd but wonderfully put together aesthetically and feature full and interestingly complex characters. The show is fairly graphic, and thus it might not be for everyone – plus, it has a very black sense of humor – but for those willing to stomach its more colorful elements it is the best that network television has to offer (feeling very much like a cable series).

Rank: 4
Genre: Mystery/Drama
Channel: PBS
Current Season: Fourth
Season Premiere Date: 2016
Plot Summary: The tales of Sherlock Holmes and his crime-solving partner Dr. Watson (set in modern times).
Why It’s Worth Watching: I am not sure when Sherlock will return for its fourth season precisely, but early indications point to sometime in 2016 (there are also plans for a fifth season as well). With season three, Sherlock (which was already great) took things to a new level aesthetically, creatively, and in terms of storytelling. Episodes The Sign of Three and His Last Vow are among the best things I have ever seen on television. I cannot wait for more.

Rank: 3
Genre: Period Drama
Channel: AMC
Current Season: Seventh (part two) and final
Season Premiere Date: April 2015
Plot Summary: Donald Draper is an ad executive in New York City during the 1960s. He has had success and has a way about him, but like America as a whole during the 1960s Don too begins to feel his world change around him, bringing up complex feelings and emotions.
Why It’s Worth Watching: Mad Men has been among my favorite shows on television ever since it debuted in 2007. Lead by Matt Weiner, its writing is second to none and it features a tremendous cast (with actually well written female characters). It also continually creates amazing episodes that are the epitome of why today is called television’s golden age – episodes like this past season’s The Strategy and Waterloo (The Suitcase is my favorite of the series). This is a series that will be greatly missed when it ends (and it will thereby spell the end of AMC’s claim as the pinnacle of TV’s dramatic series, with Breaking Bad also coming to an end and HBO again turning out brilliant series after brilliant series).

Rank: 2
Genre: Mystery/Drama
Cast: Unknown
Channel: HBO
Current Season: Second
Season Premiere Date: January 2015
Plot Summary: Set in California, three characters investigate a new mysterious crime.
Why It’s Worth Watching: While we do not yet know many details of what season two of True Detective will look like and who it will star, there is no doubt that it is television’s second most anticipated series. Season one, led by Nic Pizzolatto’s great writing, strong performances from Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan, and the absolute stellar directing of Cary Joji Fukunaga (of which only Pizzolatto is returning for season two), seemed to take what was possible of a TV-crime-drama to a new level. Personally, I think it will be very hard for them to match season one’s brilliance, but I am sure excited to see what they do and what story they tell now. True Detective has claimed its spot as television’s best new series and very well could run the table come awards season.

Rank: 1
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy/Period Drama
Channel: HBO
Current Season: Fifth
Season Premiere Date: April 2015
Plot Summary: Seven noble families fight for control of the throne of Westeros (some faring better than others).
Why It’s Worth Watching: Game of Thrones is the quintessence of event television at its very best. Every episode has become an eagerly anticipated weekly ritual. The series succeeds on its blend of great characters and writing along with violence, suspense, intrigue, sex, and adventure/fantasy elements. It really has a little bit of everything, plus a sensational cast. It is able to grab its viewers because (for once) it is a series that is truly narratively shocking and absorbing, constantly defying expectations and breaking all the rules (the series did kill off its main character in the first season after all). It is also endlessly re-watchable. Planned to be seven seasons, Game of Thrones seems to only get more interesting and more exciting as the series progresses.