Monday, December 31, 2012

A Reel Review: LES MISERABLES


 
 
Adapting musicals to film is a tricky business. Movies are all about brevity, and film-fans can often get frustrated having to sit through a song-and-dance routine before getting to the next plot point. Musicals at their core are all about the music and the performances, and fans of the stage, the core-audience of these adaptations, will easily be turned off by having the source material reduced or cut. There is a balance which needs to be struck, and that was the massive task in front of director Tom Hooper in his adaptation of LES MISERABLES, one of the biggest, grandest, and most popular stage productions of all time.
Jean (Hugh Jackman) is an ex-prisoner who breaks parole despite being under the watchful eye of ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). Jean starts a new successful life and eventually befriends Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who eventually dies and asks him to care for her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who as a young girl is under the care of her criminal uncle and aunt (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Cosette eventually meets and falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is taking part in a violent revolution.

Director Tom Hooper clearly understands that movie comes first in an adaptation. All good films center around character, and that means emotion. Despite the grand scale and fantastic sets, Hooper never lets us forget about the characters in LES MIS. He literally pulls the audience out of the back (and front) rows and right in the faces of the characters; every tear, twitch, and look in the character’s eyes are right there for us to see and feel, and that makes the emotion, and consequently, the story of LES MIS flow naturally with energy and heart.
By making the cast-members sing all of their lines live, the door is opened for tremendous performances by everyone. There is real acting and emotion happening on-screen at all times, and it is all summed up in Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed A Dream”. Hathaway’s performance is filmed in one long take, with no edits or cutaways to apply eyedrops. That means the tears she eventually sheds are real, making this LES MIS not only the most realistic stage adaptation, but perhaps the most realistic movie ever filmed. This is raw emotion on film with enough power to bring the tears out of anyone.

The songs do very well in moving the plot forward, although some of them chug on for what seems like forever; by the third verse you may already get the point. It often feels like the film could have used some cutting here and there, as just when you think the film is heading out the exit door, no less than four more numbers come along. However, it is all a means to an end, and those hearty enough to soak it all in will be handsomely rewarded by film’s end.
Again, performances are outstanding all around…with Jackman and Hathaway being the standouts. Russell Crowe appears to have a bit of a limited range, but he seems to accomplish what is asked of him. The show is nearly stolen by the younger performers (under the age of 10), and by Samantha Banks, who is the only cast-member of LES MIS to have performed in the stage production.

People who are not fans of musicals on film may not be converted over with this LES MIS, as there is a lot of singing and only a handful of spoken words throughout. Fans of the stage may be turned off by the immediacy of the film, but should be happy over the honesty of the performances, and thrilled at the fact that they are out of their seats and practically on stage standing right next to the performers. Movie-fans have a lot to enjoy as well, because LES MIS puts character and story first, and that’s something everyone can relate to.
BOTTOM LINE: See it




Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Reel Review: DJANGO UNCHAINED


 
 
The first thing that needs to be said about Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is this: it is not a new film. It is instead a large collection of Tarantino’s favorite film genres; recycled and refurbished as the driving force in an Old West backdrop. But DJANGO should not be judged upon that and that alone. The recycling of old ideas are the tools by which Tarantino chooses to tell his story. How well he uses those tools is how DJANGO should be judged.
Two years before the Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who is taken under the wing of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who needs him to complete a job. Once the job is complete, Schultz decides to assist Django in freeing his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is a slave under the ownership of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his butler Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

DJANGO UNCHAINED is saturated in film lore. The film starts off as a Spaghetti Western, evolves into a Buddy-Cop flick, transforms into a Men-on-a-Mission movie, and then wraps with a Man-on-a-Reckoning/Vengeance tale; all with a sprinkle of BLAZING SADDLES here and there.  This is Quentin Tarantino unleashing his favorite things in such a heavy-handed manner you often wonder if he will show up on screen and begin drawing circles with chalk around all the references.
But the question for DJANGO is if this approach works as a storyteller. It does; for exactly one-half of the movie. DJANGO starts off very strong; setting up such a great Old West atmosphere it would not be a shocker to see Clint Eastwood show up in an old parka. There are moments of brilliance in DJANGO by way of making the many genres work for the story. However, for every single moment of brilliance there are five dumb ones. DJANGO too often falls into overlong scenes with too much talking and no payoff, leading to a lack of energy and urgency which borders upon dullness. The second act going into the third is where this problem is very apparent, as Django himself becomes an observer in his own character story. And speaking of character that is where DJANGO falls on its face. For as much talking as everyone does, there is no true development for anyone; everyone is very one-dimensional, which means there is no reason to care who gets shot, hung or castrated by movie’s end.

Tarantino deserves credit for tackling a touchy subject (slavery) with such brutal honesty. Nothing is held back. Nothing. The film is beautifully shot (although not overly remarkable), the gun-battles are fun (although the bloodshed is ridiculously exaggerated), and Tarantino’s skill for sharp dialogue continues to shine. However, Tarantino just can’t help himself at times. The film too often features music from the 1970’s era; everything from Jim Croce to Johnny Cash. The out-of-place music jolts you out of the Old West and makes the film feel like a light parody. The worst mistake made was the awful and tasteless inclusion of a gangster-rap song during a climatic gun-battle. For a director who claims to love the Old West genre so much, he oddly doesn’t think twice about taking a dump all over it.
The cast seems to be having fun with their roles, and they are equally fun to watch; perhaps a little too much fun as everyone seems to know that the entire run is tongue-in-cheek. The best work is done by DiCaprio and Jackson, who have great chemistry together for as much as their interesting character dynamic is allowed to grow.

There are several ways to look at DJANGO. As homage to the past it’s great. As an Old West film, its priority is in style, and not in transporting you to another time. As a Quentin Tarantino film it doesn’t quite have the zip of his prior works. As an overall movie, its shortcomings in character and energy are too much to overcome. A real shame, because this shoulda been a contender.
BOTTOM LINE: Rent it




Friday, December 21, 2012

A Reel Review: HYDE PARK ON HUDSON


 
In what could be considered a sequel/companion piece to THE KING’S SPEECH (2012), HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is a look at the relations between the U.S. and Britain prior to the outbreak of WWII, along with an intimate look at the leaders of both nations.
War is looming between Britain and Germany, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bill Murray) and his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) invite the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Coman) to the United States for a weekend at their private cottage. The Royals are looking for U.S. support in the case of a world war, while FDR engages in an improper relationship with his cousin, Daisy (Laura Linney).

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON has a lot going on. There are several storylines to be dealt with; FDR’s relationship with his wife and mistress, the young Royal Family getting used to their responsibilities along with American customs, and the weight of a possible second world war. None of these many storylines mesh together very well, and when things shift it often feels like watching five different films cobbled together. The film lacks a central focus, and what’s worse is that never has a sense of urgency about it. It never feels like a bad ending to all the drama would really matter.
Director Roger Michell often tries to get into the heads of his characters. There are a handful of scenes which are remarkable; the scene in which FDR and King George first get to know each other is as fine and exquisite as anything put to the silver screen. Unfortunately these moments are too few, and HUDSON falls back to its uninteresting grind of scattered dullness.

Bill Murray is very much a joy as FDR; very much sounding and looking the part. He has a handful of shining moments, but again, they are very few. The choices made with his FDR character are questionable, as FDR is too little shown as an important world leader and too much as a dirty old man. Still, Murray is the highlight of the film and is a joy to behold.
The biggest problem with HYDE PARK ON HUDSON is that it really has nothing important to say about its characters or their problems. There is just no interest to be found anywhere; no matter how often Murray charms away the camera. It is intolerably uninteresting, and unforgivingly boring.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Reel Opinion: How the New LES MISERABLES Movie is Unlike Anything You've Ever Seen


 
This month, a new film based upon Victor Hugo’s novel, LES MISERABLES opens. Over the years, it has been adapted into a globally successful musical play and countless film adaptations.
This new adaption seems to fall into a long line of Oscar-hopefuls over the years with the razzle-dazzle of a Broadway play. However, this LES MISERABLES is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before; every single actor is singing every single word…live.

Normally, the actors involved in a musical-to-film will go into a recording studio months before they arrive on set. In that studio, they would record their vocals…and then months later lip-sync on-set while the cameras are rolling. There is nothing wrong with the technique as it has been used for a hundred years. However, there is always the issue of the actors trying to recreate the emotion and feeling they had months before while recording the vocals; having had to make their acting-choices long before they met their cast-mates and took inspiration from the costumes and sets. This can lead to a disjointed film and obvious lip-syncing.
Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH) avoids that problem by having his actors cut their vocals live on set as the cameras roll. Each actor wore a tiny, wireless earpiece on set, which played the basic melody of the song. By recording the vocals while acting on set, the actors were given the freedom of spontaneity, which gives the film a more natural appearance. In short, this is as close as you can get to a live stage production of LES MISERABLES.

Not only is this very innovative, but it is very true to the spirit of a LES MISERABLES stage production, which is really driven by the music in the first place. Hooper is taking it back to its roots and embracing it. This is pioneer-filmmaking; done for the pleasure of fans of stage and film.
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The curtain rises on LES MISERABLES on December 25th, and stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter.
 
 
 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Reel Review: THE HOBBIT - AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY


 
After director Peter Jackson swept the Oscars with his LORD OF THE RINGS finale in 2003, the cries for “more Middle-Earth” went up and never died down. With his first part of JRR Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT (sub-titled AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY), Jackson gives us a remarkable looking, jam-packed monstrous sampling of that beloved fantasy world; a massive helping which may be too much for most common-folk to swallow.
Sixty years before the events of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) recruits a homely hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), to assist a company of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), to retake their homeland which has been invaded and occupied by Smaug the dragon.
The source material which Jackson is working from is a very simple, 500-page children’s’ book with a quaint A to Z storyline. Looking to beef things up and give his built-in audience their demands of “more Middle-Earth”, Jackson delved into the extensive Appendices and post-RINGS writings which fill in the blanks of the history of Middle-Earth. THE HOBBIT is not just the story of “how” things happened, but also the “why”. As much as many filmgoers may hate the term, THE HOBBIT is very much a prequel, with many pieces and parts moving towards what will eventually become THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
The many plots and moving parts often seem like a distraction from the main story of Bilbo and his struggles to cope with his very first adventure in a big wide world full of danger within a company of dwarves who don’t want him there in the first place. The detours often seem unnecessary, but most of them do pay off by movie’s end, with the promise of the loose threads being picked up in the next two films. Amidst all the plot and mythology going on, Bilbo’s story as a character often takes a back seat, and his development seems to come in large spurts spread throughout the film. The technique works, as Bilbo’s little arc does pay-off with a fair bit of emotion.
Fans of Jackson’s RINGS trilogy and Tolkien’s writings will lap up every last detail of THE HOBBIT. Jackson has once again breathed life into Middle-Earth, with remarkable photography and near-perfect blending of practical effects and CGI. The amount of detail in the sets and characters, real and artificial, is astonishing. Middle-Earth has never looked more beautiful. Jackson also once again proves his talent as an action director; crafting together some excellent action sequences full of breathtaking moments and eye-popping visuals. THE HOBBIT is a great ride and more fun than a gaggle of drunken dwarves.
Each one of Jackson’s Middle-Earth films have been landmarks in CGI characters, and THE HOBBIT continues that tradition. The computer-generated characters, from goblins to trolls to eagles to wolf-like characters (and that just scratches the surface of the population) have an astonishing amount of detail and have a real-world presence and weight. The highlight of the CGI cast is once again Andy Serkis’ motion-captured Gollum, who looks absolutely incredible; he has never looked more life-like, menacing, and tragic.
The large cast is outstanding and seems to be having fun with their roles. Ian McKellen steps right back into his old grey cloak as if no time at all has passed. It is a joy to see him back along with Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee; so good it feels like going home for the holidays. Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo, having picked up many little movements and inflections that Ian Holm had when he first had the role in 2001. The film is nearly stolen by Richard Armitage’s Thorin, who gets most of the screentime and character development.

The total enjoyment of THE HOBBIT depends on just how much the viewer really loves their Middle-Earth. Non-fans of THE LORD OF THE RINGS won’t be sold any further here, as it is very far from an accessible, straight-ahead, A to Z film; plus its lightness on character and thickness on plot makes for a challenge to latch on to something. The story of THE HOBBIT is simple, but the world it is set in is massive, and it comes at you in heaps on the big screen. It is exactly what a journey should be: long and fulfilling.

BOTTOM LINE: See it



Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Reel 10: THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS


“I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.”
 
This month marks the 10th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS.
THE TWO TOWERS was the second part of Jackson’s adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS books. As the middle part of the trilogy, it was the most difficult to adapt into a stand-alone film as it really didn’t have an end, or a beginning. However, Jackson and his fine crew were able to craft together a memorable and deeply entertaining film by interjecting powerful themes of friendship and the importance of enduring hard times and insurmountable odds. Aside from the very-human drama, TOWERS was also memorable for its battle-scenes, driven by special software which gave thousands upon thousands of artificial CGI characters their own “minds”, which gave them ability to carry on a battle on their own.

Speaking of CGI characters, each LORD OF THE RINGS film was known for having at least one notable artificial character, and in THE TWO TOWERS, it was the villainous and scheming Gollum. Brought to life by remarkable motion-capture acting by Andy Serkis, Gollum was not only a marvel to look at, but it paved the way for motion-capture filmmaking. Without TOWERS, there never would have been AVATAR.



The result paid off. THE TWO TOWERS was an enormous box-office success, and a decade later, holds a respectable position as the 19th highest-grossing film of all time. The film was nominated for six Oscars, winning two.

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This Blogger fondly remembers, and holds dear those magical three years in which he and his very own Fellowship lived and breathed THE LORD OF THE RINGS year-‘round. THE TWO TOWERS was special to look forward to as it was the first time we got to revisit Middle-Earth after the remarkable THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. With FELLOWSHIP, we had found our ground. In TOWERS, we learned how to defend it.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lorien fall.”



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reel Facts: Concerning High Frame Rate Hobbits


 
 
Director Peter Jackson finally makes his long-awaited return to JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth this week with the first part of his adaptation of THE HOBBIT; the prelude to Jackson’s Oscar-winning THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Aside from legions of fans eagerly awaiting the curtain to rise on Bilbo Baggins and his friendly company of dwarves, THE HOBBIT’s historical impact lies in its technical presentation; it is the first film to be released in seven different formats.
Aside from the standard 2D and 3D formats, THE HOBBIT is the very first feature to be filmed and presented in a High Frame Rate (HFR). Frame Rate refers to the number of images (or frames) which flash before your eyes in one second. The standard for filmmakers (for the past 200 years) has been 24 frames-per-second (24fps). Jackson, along with innovative filmmakers James Cameron and Douglas Trumbull, have been pushing for the industry to make films at a higher frame rate. THE HOBBIT has been filmed at 48fps, and will be available at theatres in 2D and 3D formats.

Why the change? The bottom line is more images per second means greater detail, and that greater detail means a more immersive experience which puts you right into the movie. Also, the more detail counters the murkiness which today’s 3D films tend to suffer from.
Shooting at a higher frame rate is nothing new, but its uses have always been limited, and for specific purposes. Higher frame rates are typically used to film something extremely fast-moving for an extreme slow-motion playback, because more frames means no motion-blur in slow-motion. Things like shattering  glass or water splashing are crystal clear; the scene in INCEPTION (2010) when Leonardo DiCaprio gets dunked in a tub was shot at 1600fps, and then slowed down:


Notice the clarity of the water, and how the higher frame rate captured the water around his face. Exactly how that level of detail and lack of motion blur will look at regular speed will determine if 48fps will stick, or just become another gimmick like 3D has in the past decade. The first concern is that so much visual information on the screen may be difficult, or impossible for some people’s eyes and brains to process; imagine seeing a bicycle wheel spin at a high speed, only you can see every spoke turning at all times. It’s a possible case of sensory overload; just like our ears unable to withstand extremely loud noises, our eyes may not be able to process the overflow of images.

The good news is, despite the seemingly overwhelming list of choices... 2D at 24 and 48fps, 3D at 24 and 48fps, IMAX and IMAX 3D (the seventh is a new audio format), is that Jackson is presenting us with options. If you want no parts of 3D or a flashy new presentation, no one is holding a Ring of Power to your head and making you deal with it.

For a list of theatres and their formats, click HERE (this is updated often)

For a rough example of how a higher frame rate will look, click HERE

 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Reel 20: A FEW GOOD MEN


“You can’t handle the truth!”
 
 
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Rob Reiner’s A FEW GOOD MEN

Adapted for the big screen by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the stage-play of the same name, A FEW GOOD MEN was a genre-setting, military-courtroom drama which has ripple effects to this day. Centered around two U.S. Marines charged with murder and their lawyer who defends them, A FEW GOOD MEN explored issues of law and order and military ethics in a clever mash-up.
Rob Reiner, fresh off the success of his film MISERY (1990), put together an all-star cast. It’s headliners were Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, but often forgotten are the supporting cast; Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack, Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Noah Wyle (who would go on to television fame in ER).
The film was a critical and commercial success, and would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s screen-time was limited to a handful of scenes, but his impact was immediate and memorable enough to rightfully earn that nomination, and also a ranking in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Villains. AFI would also rank the film in its Top Courtroom Dramas, and Top 100 Movie Quotes.

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As a former soldier and a fan of courtroom dramas, this Blogger instantly took a liking to A FEW GOOD MEN, and the film is always used as a reference when making a legal, or military ethics argument. The film is not only put together extremely well (the law-books never seem more exciting), but it carries important messages that last in and out of the armed forces.

“You don’t need to have a patch on your arm to have honor.”



Monday, December 3, 2012

A Reel Review: KILLING THEM SOFTLY


 
 
The last time Brad Pitt and writer/director Andrew Dominik got together, the result was the masterful THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007); a beautifully-crafted opus which broke the mold on the stock old-west film with thoughtful focus on character ahead of gunshots and standard horse-chases. Their newest collaboration, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, also veers away from its hack-em-up mobster-flick roots by focusing on the backdrop more than the story and character.
Jackie (Brad Pitt) and his heavy-drinking pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) are cold hit-men hired by the mysterious Driver (Richard Jenkins) to whack two small-time crooks (played by Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) that were dumb enough to rob a high-stakes card-game run by mobster Markie (Ray Liotta).

KILLING THEM SOFTLY has very little plot, if any; two guys out to whack two other guys. It throws in a bit of mystery by making it unclear who was actually behind the card-game robbery, but Andrew Dominik has other things to do in his mobster-flick. The film is set during the 2008 Presidential campaigns. Most of the scenes conveniently (and almost annoyingly) take place with a campaign speech playing on a TV or radio. The campaign speeches, mostly centered around the Nation’s economic crisis, serve as a clever narration; the content of each speech loosely mirrors the plot of the movie. It works as much as it misses; it’s there so much you can’t help but to say “I get the point” by the mid-way mark because it is so heavy-handed.

The characters in KILLING THEM SOFTLY don’t do much other than deliver long monologues about the state of their business and the country they live in. With so much talking going on, the film not only forgets about its own story, but it leaves its sub-text behind as well. Many scenes and characters serve zero purpose in the grand scheme of things; Gandolfini’s character is given a ton of screentime, contributes nothing to the plot and vanishes off-screen in a blink.

Despite the soupy narrative, Dominik has once again crafted a beautiful looking film. Partially shot in some of the still-abandoned areas of New Orleans, the film has a stark, desolate look which adds to Dominik’s ongoing social-commentary on the state of the country. Dominik’s camera takes us to some interesting, never-before-seen places, and there is a slow-motion assassination scene which has to be seen to be believed.

Dominik also pulls great performances out of his entire cast. Despite not having a whole lot to do but talk and listen, Brad Pitt’s hit-man character is a joy to watch, and his intro into the film is very memorable. James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta slip right back into their mobster-shoes so well they might as well have been playing the characters they first became famous for.

The movie wraps with a zinger of a line; a line so good it has to be considered to be one of the greatest closing-lines in film history. It is a strong social statement and wraps the film perfectly, and is almost enough to forgive and forget the fact that sitting through a lecture-hall on film just isn’t that much fun or interesting. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is definitely unique, but far from masterful.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it



Friday, November 30, 2012

A Reel Review: HITCHCOCK

 


In 1959, author Robert Bloch penned a suspense novel by the name of PSYCHO, which was based on the bloody murders committed by Ed Gein in Wisconsin just two years before. In 1960, despite objections from the studios, famed director Alfred Hitchcock decided to adapt PSYCHO into a feature film. Here in 2012, we have director Sacha Gervasi’s HITCHCOCK, which aims to tell the story of how all it all came about.
Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), is fresh off the success of his latest film, but is feeling very much his 60 years and wants to do something fresh and new. With the help of his wife and film-collaborator Alma (Helen Mirren), he works to adapt the novel PSYCHO to the big screen, despite the financial and personal risks, and the objections from studios.

HITCHCOCK marvelously re-creates the settings from PSYCHO so well, fans of the famous film will instantly be thrilled, and non-fans will be inspired to finally see it. It is a treat to see such famous scenes re-created and what went on behind-the-scenes (and the shower curtain) to make them happen. However, HITCHCOCK smartly keeps those peeks behind the walls scattered and few, as this is a story of not just how PSYCHO got made, but why. It is very much Hitchcock’s story, as great and good lengths are taken to show and tell what was driving him to make what was considered to be such a risk back then. HITCHCOCK evolves into a family drama; as the strained relationship with his wife goes, so goes the production of the film.
Director Sacha Gervasi (in his first fictional film) manages to take things a level deeper; there are several peeks into the mind of Hitchcock himself. Hitchcock re-imagines the murders committed by Gein in his mind; extensive peeks in which he himself has conversations with the mass murderer. The imagined scenes never feel out-of-place, as they eventually help Hitchcock find his inspiration, which in turn moves the overall plot forward as he makes his film.

As smart as things are, HITCHCOCK never seems to break away from anything seen before as far as dramatic arcs go. Gervasi seems to be following the standard blueprint (rise, fall, rise again), and as enjoyable as the film is, feels small and simple by the time it wraps.
But keeping the simplicity afloat are the incredible performances by the cast. When casting actors to portray historical figures, finding look-alikes is half the battle, and HITCHCOCK knocks it out of the park with Hopkins (who vanishes inside Alfred Hitchcock), and Scarlett Johansson (who is a dead-ringer for Janet Leigh). Film fans who are familiar with the work of these two Hollywood heavyweights will think that the two had grown young again. Helen Mirren is memorizing, and the rest of the cast, which includes Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Ralph Macchio (!), and James D’Arcy (who creepily looks a lot like Anthony Perkins).

In keeping with Hitchcock tradition, the film is “hosted” by Hitchcock himself. It’s a clever and humorous move which will have film-buffs smiling from ear-to-ear. HITCHCOCK will thrill hard-core movie fans, and it will also generate interest for newcomers in one of the most important people in movie history.

BOTTOM LINE: See it

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Reel 70: CASABLANCA


“Here’s looking at you, kid”
 
This month marks the 70th anniversary of Michael Curtiz’s CASABLANCA.

CASABLANCA is always found near the top of any list of all-time greats. Based upon an unpublished stage play and set during World War II, the film starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Its focus was a simple, yet effective story of a man caught inbetween love and virtue. With its noir-style of classic shadow and lighting effects, it was a marvel to look at in black-and-white, but it was its blend of drama and romance which really made it stand out.
CASABLANCA would go on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Long term, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranks it as the third-best film of all time, and it was selected for preservation in the U.S. Film Registry in 1989 for its historical and cultural significance.

Of all the great things CASABLANCA does, it is perhaps its screenplay (which won an Oscar) which is the most overlooked. The film is the source for many of the greatest quotes in movie history. The AFI’s list of Best Movie Quotes has six lines from CASABLANCA:

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” – 20th

“Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By” – 28th (often paraphrased as “play it again Sam”)

“Round up the usual suspects” – 32nd

“We’ll always have Paris” – 43rd

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” – 67th

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Any student (or blogger) of film would be well-served to study the writing of CASABLANCA. Its script isn’t just very quotable; it tells a simple, yet important story effectively. A lot of what the movies are today comes from CASABLANCA.



 
 

 

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Reel Review: HOLY MOTORS


 
Elusive French film director Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS has been making serious waves in 2012, having received sweeping acclaim at the Cannes film festival, and the right to a claim as the best-reviewed film of the year. It breaks the mold of the standard three-act film and has a style never seen before. It is a deeply, personal film for Carax; one that might not be accessible to many.
Oscar (Denis Lavant) travels by limousine around Paris to a series of nine appointments, transforming into new characters at each stop. With each character comes a new storyline, a new supporting cast, and a new style of film.

HOLY MOTORS hooks you early on with the fascination of seeing Oscar transform into a new character every fifteen minutes. He goes from a business executive to a motion-capture artist to an assassin (among others) without much explanation as to why he is in this situation. Eventually, little hints are dropped towards something bigger at work, and that adds to the ongoing intrigue. Also, each new storyline is presented in a different film genre; everything from noir, monster films, musicals and melodrama.
If that weren’t enough, the segments in HOLY MOTORS are completely off-the-wall bizarre; ranging from naked leprechauns to domesticated chimps to dragon-sex. Not to mention transitions utilizing vintage black-and-white vaudeville clips and an intermission filled with an accordion band (led by Oscar himself). With so much going on, the promise of an explanation is enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

Unfortunately, HOLY MOTORS tries to get smarter than it actually is. The explanation behind all of the wackiness is never given. The finale offers nothing but even more head-scratching; a completely ambiguous ending to an ambiguous film and you cannot help but to walk out of the theatre in utter silence and/or disbelief. Carax doesn’t offer any sort of point to the film, and it just feels odd for the sake of being odd.
The best thing about HOLY MOTORS is the performance from Denis Lavant, who transforms in front of our very eyes playing ten different characters. He isn’t just an actor playing multiple roles, he is a character playing multiple roles; there is a depth Lavant reaches which propels him to one of the best performances in 2012. The supporting cast in the form of Kylie Minogue, Edith Scob, and a sexed-up Eva Mendes are also very good.

There is usually nothing wrong with a film which challenges the audience to draw their own conclusions or take away their own meaning, but that only works if you give them something to latch onto. HOLY MOTORS does no such thing. Somewhere, buried underneath all the rubble of disconnected movie, there is likely meaning which only Carax and Carax alone can understand. That means HOLY MOTORS is an inside joke which never should have been let out of the clown car.

BOTTOM LINE: Fuck it

Friday, November 23, 2012

A Reel Review: LIFE OF PI


 
Without a doubt, Ang Lee’s adaptation of LIFE OF PI is the Taiwanese director’s most stunning visual achievement. Its perfect blend of CGI, practical effects and live-action animals will significantly raise the bar in the film industry; much in the same way AVATAR raised the bar in digital environments and THE LORD OF THE RINGS changed the game in CGI characters. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and its incredible style often outweighs its important substance.
Pi Patel (played by four actors; Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film, and Irfan Khan narrating the story as an older man), grows up an inquisitive boy searching for truth. He finds inner peace by adapting his favorite aspects from different religions. His family runs a zoo in India, and when financial troubles force the zoo to close, his father decides to relocate. On the overseas trip, the ship hits a storm and capsizes. Pi is the only human survivor, left alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker.

PI spends a great deal of time in the first act setting up Pi’s backstory prior to the shipwreck. It drags in some places, but there is always some intrigue going on as the story is told by Pi himself; a story being told with a promise of something important at the end. The backstory, as tedious as it is to sit through, eventually pays off after the shipwreck, and Pi has to survive alone in the mighty Pacific with untamed animals. The film doesn’t let itself become another CAST AWAY by focusing on clever survival techniques. Although that aspect is there, the real focus is on the eventual developing relationship between Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker. It is a relationship that doesn’t get sappy where the two become cuddle-buddies, but instead goes to a mutual respect where they both need each other to survive.
Ever-present throughout Pi’s journey is his steadfast faith, which keeps him focused and motivates his will to live. As powerful as it is, it comes dangerously close to capsizing the entire film. The third act, and eventual finale, goes into an ambiguous ending which questions everything that has happened throughout the entire film. It is frustrating because there is a significant amount of emotional investment in both Pi and his tiger-friend, and although the ambiguity of it all is supposed to be a lesson in faith, as a storytelling device it falls flat and feels unnecessary. It’s not as bad as the old trick of the hero waking up to discover his entire adventure has been a dream; in fact, it’s much worse.

Despite the clunky ending, LIFE OF PI is piloted by a master craftsman. Ang Lee does tremendous work with some startling visuals which have to be seen to be believed. Where many filmmakers rely on CGI as a crutch, Lee uses it as an important tool to tell his story. His camerawork and transitions are nothing short of amazing.
Equally amazing is the CGI and practical effects work, in particular bringing the tiger to life. The tiger is a true character in the film, and there are many moments where you cannot tell where the CGI begins and the live-action animal ends.

It’s difficult to say if the ending of LIFE OF PI is flawed enough to derail the entire film, although it is very tempting. A person with a deeper understanding of faith and/or philosophy may be able to dig deeper and make sense of it, but in broad strokes, it may ultimately prove that filmmakers shouldn’t ever be afraid to make changes from the source material for the sake of the film. LIFE OF PI has to be recommended for being one of the most beautiful films ever made, and one of the most challenging to find meaning in.
BOTTOM LINE: See it

 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Reel Opinion: The Importance of Lucasfilm Phase Two

 

Kathleen Kennedy, the new President of Lucasfilm and successor to George Lucas, recently announced that the new merger with Disney will ultimately produce up to two or three films per year. This new high-rate of film production will kick-off with a seventh STAR WARS film in 2015.
More movies (especially quality movies) are always a good thing; especially when they come out of the studio(s) which have brought us TOY STORY, THE AVENGERS, and STAR WARS. However, this ambitious new plan goes beyond Buzz Lightyear, superheroes, and that far away galaxy.

It in the late 1960’s there was a renaissance going on in San Francisco as young filmmakers looked to experiment more and more with their craft; creating new technologies and moving the industry in different directions. In 1969, Lucas, with his friend and collaborator Francis Ford Coppola, founded American Zeotrope. Zeotrope produced Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), along with Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), which would eventually pave the way for STAR WARS.
After the success of STAR WARS, Lucas went on to establish Lucasfilm, which would continue the ideas of Zeotrope in pushing film technology; things we take for granted today like digital cinema, CGI, THX and Skywalker Sound, and ILM all sprouted from Lucasfilm. Zeotrope would go on to focus on filmmaking, eventually earning 15 Academy Awards and 68 nominations since its inception.

The merging of Lucasfilm, the technology innovator, and Disney, the most productive movie factory ever, harks back to the original ideas of Lucas and Coppola. Disney will now have the advantage of nearly-endless innovative technology, and Lucasfilm will have the benefit of strong filmmaking and storytelling. Fifty years ago, Zeotrope and Lucasfilm changed filmmaking forever. There is no certainty that will happen again, but be damn sure the opportunity exists.
Even better still is Kennedy’s ambitious new plan. That many films per year can only mean more opportunities for talented filmmakers. Disney is not the type to hire any old meathead to helm their films, so it is reasonable to assume that the three films per year can and should be written and directed by some of the best names in the business.

Historically, the merger has brought things back full-circle, and there seems to be no ceiling. There is a bright horizon to look away to.
 
 
 

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Reel Review: LINCOLN


 
 
Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN is nothing like the typical Hollywood biopic which begins at the birth of the person and ends at their death or triumphant moment. It is instead an honest, intimate and revealing look at the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and Presidency. On the surface, the decision to begin the story of President Lincoln in the 4th quarter of his life seems to be a head scratcher, but as LINCOLN unfolds, it becomes clear that this was the only story to be told; the most important deed ever done by Lincoln, which defined him and the country he loved.
The Civil War is nearing its end, and Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is pushing the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, despite the doubts of his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). Lincoln knows he must pass the Amendment before the war ends, and must ally himself with radical members of Congress such as Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to get the necessary votes.

Based on the novel TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin, LINCOLN unfolds unlike any other drama to hit the big screen. It spends most of its time dealing with political maneuvering to get the necessary votes to abolish slavery. This maneuvering consists of backroom deals and negotiations just coming short of a bribe. It’s a fascinating look at the way the government was run back then, and it often feels like Spielberg found a way to get C-SPAN into the offices and chambers in the 1860’s. It is often dry and dense, and comes close to feeling like a drawn-out, feature-length LAW AND ORDER episode. However, there is no melodrama here, no embellished events to force an emotional response, no sappy bookends or overdrawn weepy speeches; just raw politicking.
However, Spielberg never forgets who or what the human center of the film is; Abraham Lincoln himself. The character shoulders the burdens of the war-torn country, his grieving wife, his oldest son who probably hates him (played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the peace negotiations with the Southern armies, and the backlash from his want to abolish slavery. On top of all these burdens he must carry, Spielberg makes excellent strides in making Lincoln a likeable human. Using history as a reference, Lincoln is a lovable family man with great intelligence and penchant for telling stories to get his point across. He is an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, but above all else he is human, and LINCOLN never lets us forget that.

And bringing Abe to life is the extraordinary Daniel Day-Lewis, who absolutely vanishes inside the character. From the moment he first appears on screen to the moment he fades away, the fact that it is Daniel Day-Lewis is forgotten. He dominates the screen and pulls you in, making you feel every ounce of his burden. As great as he carries the man, perhaps his best moments are when he does not speak at all; it is tempered to the point where as he listens, you feel like you are listening along with him. There is a deep spirituality to the performance which Day-Lewis has not ventured into before. It is nothing short of breathtaking.
Surrounding Day-Lewis are outstanding performances by an outstanding cast. Sally Field is great as Mary Todd, and their scenes together are great, albeit so real it almost hurts to watch them. Acting is out-of-this-world from the cast; David Strathairm, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Halbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, and Jared Harris (as General Grant) are all incredible.

Backed by John Williams’ pretty-good score, Spielberg’s touch in LINCOLN is very gentle; probably his most tempered work to date. It is powerful but never forces anything; earning every bit of payoff it offers. And when that payoff comes, the most important moment in the history of the United States is made clear by LINCOLN the film, and Lincoln the man.
BOTTOM LINE: See it

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Reel 20


“Do you believe in destiny? That even the powers of time can be altered for a single purpose?”
 
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel had seen many film adaptations prior to 1992, with many having only remote connections to its source material. Coppola, then only a few years removed from his GODFATHER PART III, focused his efforts on the first-person narratives of the book, making it more of a personal story as opposed to the monster-movie adaptations which had come before. Coppola compared his vision to an alternate take on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, which brought in sympathy for the devil in his film, making Dracula more than just a set of fangs.



DRACULA also brought in an all-star cast which included (a then nearly unknown) Gary Oldman as Dracula, along with Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, and Tom Waits. Making many parts of the film feel like an erotic dream and relying on practical effects (CGI was just coming around at the time), the film was a visual marvel. DRACULA would eventually win three Oscars (Costume Design, Sound Effects, Makeup), and also won four Saturn Awards, with Best Director for Coppola and Best Actor for Oldman.

*
As a young college student preparing a paper on the differences between the mythical and factual Count Dracula, this Blogger was pleased (and most impressed) at just how much both sides were represented in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. Both myth and legend are given equal representation and put to good use, making DRACULA not only a great book-to-film adaptation, but the absolute best package-deal for the Dracula legend. The film also began this Blogger’s fascination with the other legend, Gary Oldman. And this Blogger also maintains that DRACULA’s score (by Wojciech Kilar) is the best score for a horror film ever written.
 
Vampire films have been a dime-a-dozen over the past decade or so, but there are none which have done it better over the past twenty years than Francis Ford Coppola’s vision.
“The blood is the life…and it shall be mine.”

 

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Reel Review: A LATE QUARTET


 
The last couple of decades in the career of Christopher Walken can fairly be described as zany and screw-bally. Earlier this year, Walken, in his dramatic (and sometimes comedic) role in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, reminded us that he does have an Oscar on his shelf. Now, in the thick of Oscar season, Walken fires another reminder at us with a full-on dramatic performance in A LATE QUARTET.
A world-famous string quartet is heading into their 25th season. It was founded by Peter (Walken) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir), and includes Juliette (Catherine Keener) and her husband Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). As they begin to plan a new tour after some time off while Peter mourned the death of his wife, Peter is then diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and decides that he will leave the group if he cannot physically play any longer.

A LATE QUARTET sets itself up as a one-man’s journey movie, seemingly ready to focus on Peter’s physical and emotional struggles as he copes with his new, debilitating disease which threatens to destroy everything he has worked so hard for. However, rookie director Yaron Zilberman keeps the theme of a quartet in mind, and shows us the ripple effects of Peter’s situation. Peter’s situation puts the group into drama usually seen in rock-bands; packed tightly with betrayal, extra-marital affairs, trust issues and the fear of an unknown future. What really works over and over is that each action by the characters leads to another situation, and long-time annoyances which have been simmering for years reach their boiling points.
Zilberman also keeps a musical theme cruising along just underneath all of the drama. The film’s title derives from one of Beethoven’s String Quartets (a piece of music the group struggles with playing throughout the film), which is a long piece which is meant to be played without pause. As one character explains, the instruments slowly go out of tune during the playing of the piece and the musicians must make the adjustments as the performance continues. The idea here is that the piece of music mirrors human relationships and how we adjust, and when it is all over, we tune back to where we need to be. It’s a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, but it works.

The films performances are all outstanding, with everyone getting plenty of screentime and opportunity to flex their muscles, but it all belongs to Walken. He carries the pain and torment of a man near the end of life as he has known it perfectly, and he conveys the physical changes his disease brings along in heartbreaking and realistic ways. Catherine Keener and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman (two more Oscar nominees/winners) are also at the top of their game, but the show is nearly stolen by young Imogen Poots, who plays Juliette’s daughter who eventually has a love affair with Daniel. Poots is an emotional ball of flame, and shows that she has a very bright career ahead of her.
The third act sets itself up as a typical sports-film in the vein of rise-fall-rise again, but then reels itself back and dips its toes in reality for a bittersweet and proper ending. It overall shows its maturity with its storytelling and especially its acting performances. Walken owns the movie, but there is a lot more to enjoy in this quartet.

BOTTOM LINE: See it

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Reel Review: SKYFALL

 

Understand this about SKYFALL, the latest 007 film in the Daniel Craig era; by the time this film ends, the James Bond that the world has come to know over the past 50 years will finally reveal himself, very much making Craig’s previous Bond films (CASINO ROYALE, QUANTUM OF SOLACE), prequels to the character. In the grand scheme of things it works, as further adventures of Craig’s British secret agent will now carry more weight and have more meaning. That will ultimately be the legacy of SKYFALL, but how does it fare as a movie…?
After a failed attempt by Bond (Daniel Craig) and his fellow agent Eve (Naomi Harris) to recover a hard-drive with the identities of all the secret agents spread out across the world, Bond is presumably killed and goes into hiding. The list has been stolen by Silva (Javier Bardem), an old friend from the past of the head of the British secret service, M (Judi Dench), who must now fight for her job and her life.

The plot of SKYFALL in the early goings is simple; recover the list of stolen identities before Silva can post them all on the internet, which would lead to many agents being exposed and killed. Director Sam Mendes, in his first Bond outing, is wise enough to not let that storyline serve as the real guts of SKYFALL. When M is threatened in her job and her life, Bond switches into a son protecting his mother (mum). The transformation practically happens on camera, and gives the film the needed and heart and weight for people to really care.
The film goes a level deeper with the arrival of new Bond villain Silva, whose connection to M makes for interesting character development for everyone. The contrast between Bond and Silva, M and Silva, and M and Bond nearly takes center-stage, and makes this a very unique Bond film in that the characters and what they have to deal with becomes more important than the old save-the-world-from-the-monologuing-bad-guy.

Mendes handles his Bond-verse with the experience of a director who has been 007-ing it for 50 years. The film is saturated in James Bond-lore, with plenty of winks and nods and in-jokes towards previous films. None of that ever distracts or derails the film, and Mendez also directs some outstanding action sequences (there is a motorcycle chase which has to be seen to be believed) which are spread out enough to keep things from turning into a headache.  Things are further augmented by the outstanding cinematography by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins. Deakin’s work with natural light, shadows and silhouettes make SKYFALL a beautiful film to look at, and without a doubt the best-looking Bond film ever made.
Daniel Craig really comes into his own as Bond here, giving all the charm, roughness and tender caring that the character needs. Javier Bardem is a great, flamboyant villain who takes some unexpected turns which could not have been pulled off by anyone else. He is unfortunately a little underutilized; appearing in only a handful of scenes. The show is nearly stolen by Judi Dench, whose M character is finally given something to do other than sit behind a desk. The supporting cast in the form of Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney is also excellent, as is the performance by young Ben Whishaw; Bond’s perfectly-casted new (Q)uartermaster.

The third act is preceded by an outstanding assassination attempt, which is so good it overshadows the eventual final battle, which feels a little drawn-out and tacked-on. That final sequence is a very much a departure from the rest of the film, but by its end its purpose is clear in several vital ways. Its impact is permanent and important, making SKYFALL not just a great James Bond flick, but more importantly, a great movie.
BOTTOM LINE: See it

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Reel 50


 
 
 
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis Milestone’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, which starred Marlon Brando, Richard Harris, and Trevor Howard.
 
The film, while not very successful, holds a place in history for being the first movie shot with the Ultra Panavision 70 Widescreen format (a new widescreen format at the time), and for being one of the first filmed in the South Pacific. It is also known for adding to the legend of Marlon Brando, who effectively took over directing duties and was blamed for the film falling behind schedule and over its budget.

More noteworthy is that MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY’s 50th anniversary also falls just after the loss of the film’s centerpiece, the full-size working replica of the Bounty.
 
 
 

The Bounty was the first large vessel built from the ground-up for a film using historical resources. After filming, she was scheduled to be burned, but Brando protested, and the ship was saved. After a short career as a tourist attraction, she went back to the movies; used during the filming of TREASURE ISLAND (1989) with Charlton Heston, and eventually the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films.

In late October of this year, just a few weeks before MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY’s anniversary, Bounty sank in rough seas while trying to sail away from Hurricane Sandy. Going down with the ship was her long-time captain, Robin Walbridge.
 
 
 
The loss of such an important piece of film history is insignificant to the loss of human life. It is safe to say that Captain Walbridge understood Bounty’s importance, and also understand what an old sailing ship really is. To paraphrase a certain fictional ship Captain; A ship is not just sails and a keel. That’s what a ship needs. But what it really is, is freedom.



 
 
 
 
 

 

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Reel Review: WRECK-IT RALPH

 

Animated films have to accomplish a lot these days. Thanks to the success of Pixar over the past two decades, the bar has been raised to the point where an animated film needs to keep adults entertained just as much as the kiddies. Many films try to walk that fine line, while others just go right for the kids. WRECK-IT RALPH is a film which takes place in the setting of classic arcade-style video games, which means the door is wide open for adults to come in and enjoy some nostalgia. But how does it play for the young-ins…?
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy (but not a bad guy) in the video game Fix-It Felix Jr. Growing tired of being the villain and looking to prove his goodness, Ralph begins “game-jumping”; jumping from one game to another, including Hero’s Duty (a first-person shooter game), and Sugar Rush, a racing game in a candy-land world. In Sugar Rush, he meets Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), and the king of Sugar Land (brilliantly voiced by Alan Tudyk), and discovers that his game-jumping has threatened every game in the arcade.

RALPH is a film that is saturated in video-game mythology, and the film is at its strongest when it spends time behind-the-scenes of the arcade. The questions of what video game characters do when their game is not being played, or what is just off-screen are brilliantly answered; the film can easily do for arcade games what this year’s CABIN IN THE WOODS did for horror films. The cameos of classic video-game characters are a pleasure to see, and the screen is literally packed with familiar faces; picture a STAR WARS Creature Cantina only on a bigger scale with characters you have gamed with for years.
When Ralph begins game-jumping, the fun of the video-game mythology gets even better, but then comes to a literal screeching halt when his jumping stops at Sugar Land. While the design of the candy land is exquisite and the characters interesting enough, the film completely steps away from its own mythology and nearly goes into a whole new movie. It’s a bit of a disappointment that no more game-jumping occurs once the Sugar Land stuff starts as the film did such a great job in the early goings setting up a great universe. The happenings in Sugar Land do serve a purpose, and the characters do go through some excellent (albeit predictable) development and drama, but again it is such a departure from the stronger first act it’s enough to jar you out of the film. Also, when the film drifts from its own video-game mythology, its shifts gears into a kiddie flick, and adult audiences will be instantly bored out of their minds. RALPH also seems to shift away from its main character and over to Vanellope; often coming dangerously close to becoming the goddamn Sarah Silverman Show.

What it all boils down to is WRECK-IT RALPH is one-half of a good movie; older audiences will love the nostalgia but will snooze through everything else. Younger audiences will be thrilled at the cartoonish hijinx, but the in-jokes involving 30 year old video game characters will go right over their heads. Nostalgia can only get you so far in a film like this, and you have to revert to story to add substance, but for RALPH the blending could have been better. There is plenty for young and old audiences to enjoy; it just comes one level at a time.
BOTTOM LINE: Rent it

PS The animated short PAPERMAN, which runs before, is a work of genius.

 

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Reel Review: FLIGHT

 

Fans of Oscar winning director Robert Zemeckis (FORREST GUMP, CAST AWAY, BACK TO THE FUTURE) have been waiting impatiently for him to step out of his decade-long fascination with motion-capture film (which has produced THE POLAR EXPRESS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and BEOWULF) and get back to the world of live-action. With FLIGHT, Zemeckis does just that with moderate success, but forgets to bring along some extra jet-fuel which made his earlier work and even his motion-capture films better than good.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an airline pilot with a drinking problem. After a heavy bender, Whip snorts cocaine to sober up and boards his flight for Atlanta, of which he is Captain. The flight encounters a mechanical failure, and Whip pulls off a skilled and miraculous crash landing, saving all but 6 of the 102 lives on board. After being hailed as a hero, Whip’s toxicology report reflects his physical state (drunk), and he is faced with many moral choices while facing his addiction denial.

FLIGHT spends a lot of time with Whip as he drinks and stumbles and lies his way around the consequences of the flight and eventual crash. He is eventually faced with some excellent moral choices which would help him support his denial and get away from the incident without any prison time (the feds tend to frown upon airline pilots flying drunk). Whip denies his problem, storms out of AA meetings, and pushes away the people who try to help him.
With that stage set, FLIGHT seems set for some excellent drama. Unfortunately, the film never digs deep enough into the issues of addiction, denial, and faith and only presents the tip of the iceberg. We see Whip go through the motions, but never deep enough to really pull you in. Also, for as much time as the film spends with Whip (there are only a handful of scenes without him), we never really learn much more about him other than he likes to drink and lie about it; it brings about an emotional detachment which ultimately means who cares. That and the shallowness of the exploration of the dramatic themes makes FLIGHT feel very routine and run-of-the-mill.

There is still a lot to enjoy about FLIGHT. It is funny, sad and tragic in spurts, and Zemeckis does excellent work in crafting the film together. His talent for picking the right music for the right time hasn’t lost a beat, and he directs a spectacular performance out of Denzel Washington and his excellent supporting cast (Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, and a fantastic John Goodman). The real highlight of the film is the plane crash itself, which runs nearly 10 minutes and will have anyone clenching their seats in fear.
The shallowness of FLIGHT again makes it feel very routine, and the ending can be seen coming from a mile above the Earth; it overall feels like a movie made specifically to be shown at AA meetings and MADD/SADD gatherings as it explores only just enough to get a message across. FLIGHT is a trip you can walk away from, but not one you would be so eager to take again.

BOTTOM LINE: Rent it

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reel Facts & Opinions: Disney buys Lucasfilm

 

 
FACT: In one of the most stunning moves made this side of the Outer Rim Territories, Disney has announced that it has purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion and stock. Kathleen Kennedy will be promoted to President while answering to the current Disney chair, Alan Horn.
On top of that, the studio is targeting 2015 for a seventh (!) STAR WARS film.

Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked closely with George Lucas on the INDIANA JONES series, will serve as the brand manager for STAR WARS and executive producer on further STAR WARS films. Lucas will serve as a creative consultant.
OPINION: First of all, the year of 2015 is shaping up to be a monster of a year, with AVENGERS 2, JUSTICE LEAGUE, and now STAR WARS EPISODE VII on the docket. But besides that…

As shocking as it is, this move makes good sense for the future of Lucasfilm and the STAR WARS brand. The last Lucasfilm feature, RED TAILS (2011) was a critical and financial disaster, the planned STAR WARS live-action TV series has been stuck in development for over five years (citing budget problems), and George Lucas himself has expressed interest in pursuing endeavors outside of filmmaking.
Lucasfilm will change forever after this move, which is why it makes perfect sense for the buyer to be Disney; a studio which has also changed dramatically in less than a decade.  Originally founded in the kiddie-film business, the Mouse House has branched out with Oscar-winning Pixar films, and most recently, taken control of the Marvel Movie Universe; the latter move which produced this year’s THE AVENGERS, one of this year’s best-reviewed films and top box-office draw world-wide.

The future of STAR WARS will be the interesting journey. Since the sixth film (third episode in the timeline), the franchise has branched out sideways (timeline-wise) with animated films and various video games, but there has never been any inkling that there was more story to tell post RETURN OF THE JEDI. Although Lucas and Kennedy have a great friendship and working relationship, there has to be some kind of concern over what can possibly be next for that universe which seemingly reached the end of its journey. What kind of a threat will our heroes (new or old) face? Will it be a lesser threat than what was faced in Episodes 1-6, which will in effect make EPISODE VII seem like a smaller film? Or will it be a bigger threat than that dreaded Empire which will then diminish the heroics of our beloved Rebel Alliance? Content will be king here, and story will be everything.
Still, there is a lot to be excited about. The right people are in the right places doing the right things; Lucas gets to tell his stories from a distance, Kennedy gets to make the right things happen, and Disney gets to inject some of its Pixar/AVENGERS magic (Joss Whedon, who directed AVENGERS, has had a lifelong dream to direct a STAR WARS film) into a franchise which has been sputtering over the past decade. Besides that, a new generation of STAR WARS fans will get to discover that universe with new light and energy. The Twin Suns are looking bright.

What say you?