Friday, April 19, 2013

After Earth: M. Night Shyamalan

Sony Pictures has announced that one of their big summer offerings, After Earth is moving up a week from June 7th to May 31st.  The news is incidental and may not mean too much.  After all, the futuristic father/son science fiction flick stars Will Smith in his preferred genre alongside his son Jaden, and dates switching is all apart of the tentpole game.  If nothing else it gives the original film, co-written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, another weekend to breathe before Man of Steel presumably takes the world by storm.  What is fascinating is that nearly all of the marketing material is cleverly trying to disguise the fact that Shyamalan is directing this.  Surely, with Will Smith's marquee name and mug, there would be little question that he wouldn't be front and center, but the fall from grace from the Hollywood echelon for Shyamalan is interesting to the point that while critics and fans have continued to throw stones upon his career and not quite living up to the potential he first brought, he is still one of the few filmmakers allowed into the big budget Hollywood circle and continue making pricey films.  Perhaps this is because, despite (or in spite) of the drubbing his films consistently bring, they still make lots of money:

  • The Last Airbender (2010)- $319.7 million
  • The Happening (2008)- $163.4 million
  • The Lady in the Water (2006)- $72.7 million
  • The Village (2004)- $256.6 million
  • Signs (2002)- $408.2 million
  • Unbreakable (2000)- $248.1 million
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)- $672.8 million

All figures are worldwide box office totals, which skews the picture slightly and puts more vetted interest in international receipts and their ultimate power on Hollywood product.  In this light, ever one of Shyamalan's films have made their money back-- I'm dismissing his first feature, the 1992 dramedy Wide Awake because it has nil to to with the Shyamalan brand.

Yet it's still a fascination that the man once deemed heir to the Spielberg throne fell so hard and so fast in the cinematic conversation.  Naturally, starting things off with a lightening in a bottle success story like The Sixth Sense would never be an easy act to follow for that film was so huge and so beloved in such a short period of time-- it was one of those genuine once-every-few-years surprise stories that seems to galvanize the culture and jolt it.  Looking back, the film still holds up as a lithe and suspenseful ghost story.  The film earned six Oscar nominations, including two for Shyamalan-- anything that followed would be hard to match.  Some take great offense to Unbreakable, his quickie follow-up which also featured Bruce Willis.  I find it the best film of his career, a corker of originality, suspense and everything in the air finesse-- it's the tightest and most economical film he's made, and showcases sequences worthy of the coined moniker, Hitchcockian, however, in some finicky circles, he was already beginning to lose some of his luster.  In full confession, the twist of The Sixth Sense was ruined for me before I saw the film shortly after it arrived, and that luster hadn't really materialized for me the first go around.

Signs was a big honking success, and was a nice showcase for the directors ability to distill good, natural performances in hooky, Twilight Zone-ish environments, but for the first time (at least for me), it felt like a cheap, gotcha at the audience.  The Village continued that trend but brought it to a more insipid level, despite being beautifully photographed.  Even still, however, Shyamalan seemed a game showman and certain sequences of both films have a flowing magnetism that deserved a better script and richer characters.  There was a sort of rooting interest in them in spite of themselves.  The latter product (The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender) almost feel read like stern middle fingers to Shymalan's detractors.  And yet, the filmmaker seems to in a sense be eating his cake and having it to-- for he's in a metaphoric movie land jail for delivering years of crap product and barely whispered during the marketing of his latest film, but still enjoying the autonomy of making big budget studio films with movie stars and producing films that are turning a profit.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cannes Film Festival

The line-up for the 2013 Festival de Cannes is currently being announced.

  • The Great Gatsby (USA)- directed by Baz Luhrmann- out of competition

  • Behind the Candelabra (USA)- directed by Steven Soderbergh- Soderbergh's HBO film about the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much younger boyfriend (Matt Damon.)  Rumored to be Soderbergh's final film; Soderbergh won the Palme D'Or for his breakout film, sex, lies and videotape.
  • Borgman (The Netherlands)- directed by Alex van Warmerdam
  • Grigris (France)- directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
  • Heli (Spain)- directed by Arnat Escalante
  • The Immigrant (USA)- directed by James Gray- Gray's romantic drama stars Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner and Marion Cotillard and tells the story of an immigrant woman and a dazzling musician.  Gray previously visited Cannes with Two Lovers, also starring Phoenix.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (USA)- directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen- The Coen Brothers return to Cannes (their first trip since No Country For Old Men in 2007) with their latest revolving around a 60s-era folk singer.  Stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake.  CBS Films picked up the film for a fall release.
  • Jeune et Jolie (France)- directed by Francois Ozon- The director of Under the Sand and 8 Women returns to Cannes with his latest, described as a portrait of a 17-year-old girl in four songs and four seasons.  Charlotte Rampling co-stars.
  • Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (USA)- directed by Arnaud Desplechin- Cannes regular and French filmmaker Desplechin (A Christmas Tale) makes his English language debut starring Benicio Del Toro and Mathieu Amalric.
  • La Grande Bellezza (France)- directed by Paolo Sorrentino- The story of an aging writer who bitterly recollects about this lost youth.  Sorrentino is no stranger to Cannes with This Must Be the Place (which starred Sean Penn as an aging rock star) and Il Divo, which won the Jury Prize in 2008.
  • La Vie D'Adele (France)- directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
  • Michael Kohlhass (France)- directed by Arnaud des Pallieres- French period drama starring Mads Mikkelsen.
  • Nebraska (USA)- directed by Alexander Payne- Payne returns to Cannes (he previously brought About Schmidt in 2002) with his latest family-strewn drama, this one stars Bruce Dern, Will Forte and Stacey Keach.  Paramount plans to release this film sometime later this year.  Curiously many reported Nebraska wouldn't be ready in time for Cannes.
  • Only God Forgives (USA)- directed by Nicolas Winding Refn- Refn's follow-up to Drive, which earned him the Directors Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, is a grisly noir with Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas.  The trailer has already elicited fan boy excitement and is due for release stateside, courtesy of Radius/TWC this summer.
  • The Past (The Netherlands)- directed by Asghar Farhardi- Farhardi follows-up the Oscar-winning A Separation with another tale of marital strife starring Berenice Bejo and Tahar Rahim.  Coincidentally, Cannes passed on the opportunity to screen A Separation two years ago.
  • Shield of Straw (Japan)- directed by Takashi Miike- From the director of 13 Assassins.
  • Soshite Chichi Ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son) (Japan)- directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
  • Tian Zhy Ding (South Korea)- directed by Khang Ke Jia
  • Un Chateau en Italie (France)- directed by Valera Bruni Tedeschi- Drama about a family forced to sell their family home.
  • Venus in Fur (France)- directed by Roman Polanski- Drama concerning an actress trying to convince a director she's perfect for a part; based on the play by David Ives.  Polanski won the Palme D'Or in 2002 for The Pianist.

  • All is Lost (USA)- directed by J.C. Chandor- Survival story starring Robert Redford from the writer/director of Margin Call.
  • Blood Ties (USA)- directed by Guillaume Canet- Crime drama about two brothers on opposing sides of the law.  Clive Owen, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, and in her second Cannes film of 2013, Marion Cotillard, star.

  • The Bling Ring (USA)- directed by Sophia Coppola (opener)- Previously reported.
  • Anonymous (Iran)- directed by Mohammad Rasoulof
  • As I Lay Dying (USA)- directed by James Franco- Franco directs and adapts the William Faulkner novel.
  • Bends- directed by Flora Lau
  • Death March- directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr.
  • Fruitvale Station (USA)- directed by Ryan Coogler- Given an extended title since winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award and being snapped up by the Weinstein Company, Fruitvale will tour Cannes before entering art house cinemas this summer.
  • Grand Central (France)- directed by Rebecca Zlotwski
  • La Jaula de Oro (Spain)- directed by Diego Quernada-Diez
  • Les Salauds (France)- directed by Claire Denis- The legendary Denis (White Material, Beau Travail) returns to Cannes with her latest.
  • L'Image Manquante (France)- directed by Rithy Panh
  • L'Inconnu du Lac (France)- directed by Alain Guiraudie
  • Miele (Italy)- directed by Valeria Golino
  • Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (The Philippines)- directed by Lav Diaz
  • Omar (Israel)- directed by Hany Abu-Assad
  • Sarah Prefere La Course (Canada)- directed by Chloe Robichaud

Special screenings:
  • Otdat Konci – Taisia Igumentseva
  • Seduced and Abandoned – James Toback
  • Week of a Champion – Roman Polanski
  • Stop the Pounding Heart – Roberto Minervini
  • Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight – Stephen Frears
  • Max Rose – Daniel Noa
Midnight screenings:
  • Blind Detective – Johnnie To
  • Monsoon Shootout – Amit Kumar
  • Zulu (France)- directed by Jerome Salle 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Bling Ring to Premiere at Cannes

It is being reported that Sophia Coppola's The Bling Ring will open the Un Certain Regard sidebar at this years Cannes Film Festival.  Coppola is no stranger to Cannes as Marie Antoinette debuted (rather infamously) in competition at the 2006 film festival.  This promises to be one of the bigger American presences at the film festival which will unveil its entire line-up tomorrow.  Curiously, The Bling Ring- which stars Emma Watson as a member of fashionistas who steal from the rich and famous, won't be included in the regular competition line-up, as one would suspect a filmmaker of Coppola's name and international respect would be deemed worthy of such, especially in light of last years controversial lack of a strong female presence at the festival.  The film will open in the U.S. this June.

Musings & Stuff's Snarky Summer Movie Preview Part 1

The summer movie season is nearly underway.  A time where brain cells are freed and lulled in a state of submission.  Where the big movie studios offer their biggest, their noisiest, and more expensive offerings.  Like all franchises, I will put this is installments to make it easier to read, write, and with the hopeful intrigue for further visits.  Let's peruse the slate of this years selection:


MAY 3rd

Typically, a big title opens up the summer movie season in an attempt to start the battle of the numbers game in the right direction.  Last summers The Avengers was the opener of the season and like magical, tick-tocking clockwork, Iron Man 3 gets the mantle this year.  Picking up on the adventures of Tony Stark, following the mega-spectacle events he experienced as part of The Avengers, Iron Man 3 will certainly be one of the biggies of the year.  Director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) takes over director duties from Jon Favreau (who helmed the first two installments.)  The teasers and full-tilt media blitz campaign underway seem to highlight a darker turn for the hero, once and again portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr.  This time he's sparring against The Mandarian (Ben Kingsley.)  Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall join the franchise alongside returning co-conspirators Gwyneth Paltrow (as love interest Pepper Potts) and Don Cheadle (as James Rhodes / War Machine.)  While the last Iron Man left something to be desired as it more than anything else felt like a soggy cog in the glut of the construction of The Avengers-- an ailment of sorts that plagued all the Marvel productions-- there's a certain interest that perhaps the third installment will get back to the frothy star vehicle charms that made the first Iron Man refreshing in its slippery self awareness.  

Black seems like a novel choice for tentpole captain.  After a successful screenwriting career in the early 1990s (Lethal Weapon), his star faded out in light of his bombastic offerings only to be redeemed with the indie satire Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which happened to also revive Downey, Jr.'s career.  That oddball, off-kilter match worked wonders the first time out, hopefully it can remain even under the less irony-filled machinations of comic book blockbustering.  Then again, this being the first film after the ultimate mega-ness that was The Avengers, there's a nagging thought that the entire Marvel universe may not have a plan of its own on a micro-character level or a macro-universe level.  Each offering since Iron Man 2 (including The Avengers) have felt similarly like elongated commercials for the next thing...where, exactly is it all heading?  I suppose there won't be a definitive answer until the disparate franchises start to dwindle in popularity.  Both Iron Man films prior have grossed north of $300 million so finality may a long way in coming.

Also opening: Things We Lost in the Fire and Oscar-winning In a Better World director Susanne Bier debuts Love Is All You Need, her romantic comedy starring Pierce Brosnan.  Olivier Assasyas (Carlos) has Something in the Air, a French drama that made the film festival rounds last year.  Finally, What Maisie Knew, a family drama starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard and Steve Coogan, a modern adaptation of the Henry James novella of the same name opens from the directors of The Deep End, Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The (Oscar) Producers

It was announced today that the Academy is bringing back the producing team of Craig Zadan and Neil Maron for the 2014 Academy Awards.  Zadan and Maron produced this past years telecast which drew high ratings and a whole cavalcade of criticism.  The ratings themselves may have been key to the re-hiring of the team who this past year focused their Oscar telecast on the theme of music in film (which featured Shirley Bassey singing "Goldfinger," Barbra Streisand singing a poignant rendition of "The Way We Were," as well as awkward musical tributes to Chicago, Dreamgirls and last years Les Miserables.  The telecast was also highly criticized for host Seth MacFarlane's hosting stint (which many claimed was crude and sexist), sloppy execution (the Jaws theme playing off winners?) as well as it's strange devotion to the film Chicago, which was produced by Zadan and Maron.

I suppose none of these things matters to much as the ratings were significantly up.  It matters nil after all since it really does always revert back to the movies themselves-- remember six of the last years nine Best Picture nominees were huge hits that grossed north of $100 million.  If 2013 can match that success story, there's little to fear.  That being said, I wish for a more streamlined telecast and wish the team good luck to that.  As well as the always controversial choice of Oscar host.

9 Years Ago Today...

Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume Two, the second part of his genre-busting, east meets west epic revenge tale, opened in theaters.  Culminating the tale The Bride (arguably the greatest character the auteur has penned; less arguably the greatest performance of Uma Thurman's career.)  Celebrate by watching the series again, or plucking an eye out.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Danny Boyle's Best Films

With Danny Boyle's Trance unfortunately still lumbering in my brain, I'd like to turn things more positive.  Here's his filmography ranked by me:

  1. Trainspotting (1996)
  2. 28 Days Later (2003)
  3. 127 Hours (2010)
  4. Millions (2005)
  5. Shallow Grave (1994)
  6. Sunshine (2007)
  7. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
  8. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
  9. Trance (2013)
  10. The Beach (2000)
What's your favorite Danny Boyle film?


If you put Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Vanilla Sky and the sexuality-as-sin oeuvre of Adrien Lyne and mixed them with a mild hallucinogen, it might look a bit like Trance, a derivative and frustrating mind-bender from Danny Boyle.  The problem with the picture is that as it unravels and unleashes twist upon twist, it becomes achingly clear that there's not much to the mystery whatsoever.  There's certainly nothing wrong with a stylish little yarn that craves nothing more than to wrap your mind in little knots, but the entire film is nothing more than a McGuffin, an endless distraction to the fanciful tricks of a director wanting to simply show off.  The overdone mechanics feel edited to the point of exhaustion, but devoid of the simple pleasures of entertainment.  It's slightly strange coming from the nervy and fascinating stylishness that Mr. Boyle can typically deliver even the slightest of genre trifles-- before the filmmaker leaned to more prestige fare like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, he wrought a delightfully seedy elegance to sleek B-thrillers like Shallow Grave and 28 Days LaterTrance feels like a step back for the mere fact that not for a second can any moment can be taken even momentarily as played straight.

Set in the elite British art world, Trance begins by setting up requisite rules, only to abandon them a few scenes later.  The film does this again and again and again.  Simon (James McAvoy) is a tweedy art auctioneer who suffers amnesia after the botched theft of Goya's masterpiece painting Witches in the Air.  It is revealed he was a part of the heist, but can't remember where he hid the painting, of which is perplexing to leader of the pack goon Franck (Vincent Cassel; tops at playing the oiliest of men.)  Bereft of ideas, Simon decides to see a hypnotist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to find out where he may have hid the painting.  The proceedings become more and more convoluted and ridiculous as Elizabeth becomes more entangled with Franck and Simon, as the prisms of memory, dreams and reality become further linked together.  On the outset it sounds like a hip and trippy zinger and for the first third of the play, there's a promise and smidgeon of thrills to match Boyle's trigger happy zeal.

However upon enveloping twists, it's clear the filmmakers are more interested in pulling the rug under us as much as possible to keep the conceit going and suddenly Trance finds itself in the bargain basement realm of shlock M. Night Shyamalan terrain.  Written by Joe Ahearne (with a touch-up job by John Hodge), the film reveals itself to be little more than a tease, a glimmer of the great fun a nifty twister could provide giving the tight elements of something resembling structure.  I promise not to provide spoilers, but Trance feels somewhat spoiler-proof because its confusing and hardly cares enough to add up in the first place.  The character of Simon hardly makes sense to begin with and as played with the bland cuddliness of McAvoy it becomes harder to chew upon.

It's curious that Trance was made while Boyle was preparing for his duties as director of the Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics because the film reads rushier, more frantic and splattered all over the place.  And while a stylish abandon adorns the movie at every turn (with lots of help from the gifted cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), there's such a lack of control that as it shrugs to its concluding nonsense, the logic has outnumbered the visual finesse and it just feels limp, of which is somewhat ironic for a movie that hinges a huge plot point on the flesh of Rosario Dawson's body.  D+

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"Chins up...smiles on."

The first glimpse of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has arrived.  It made its grand entrance in at the MTV Movie Awards.  Whatcha think?

MTV Movie Awards

Oh the MTV Movie Awards, were art thou ever cool?  I seem to remember back in my youth they were kind of neat, even a tad bit relevant in sorting out prizes in pop culture deemed too risque or cool or hip for the old-hat Academy.  Well, years of pandering to the Twilight crowd, and shilling endless airtime to the next wannabe blockbuster and the infuriating "the movies you've seen" plea made in the ubiquitous advertisements have all kind of killed that I assume.  The strangeness comes in the winners-- a scattered checklist of "hip" things.  Marvel's The Avengers was king (not a surprise for the biggest box office champ of last year), but Silver Linings Playbook cleaned up too, an odd

MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Marvel's The Avengers
BEST MALE PERFORMANCE: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
BEST FEMALE PERFORMANCE: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE: Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect 
BEST ON-SCREEN DUO: Mark Wahlberg & Seth MacFarlane, Ted
BEST SHIRTLESS PERFORMANCE: Taylor Lautner, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
BEST KISS: Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
BEST FIGHT: The Avengers vs. Loki, Marvel's The Avengers
BEST VILLAIN: Tom Hiddleston, Marvel's The Avengers
BEST MUSICAL MOMENT: Pitch Perfect- The Bellas
BEST HERO: Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
BEST WTF MOMENT: Django Unchained- Jamie Foxx & Samuel L. Jackson
--In an excruciating sequence, Foxx's Django blasts servile head-servant Stephen, played by Jackson, and sets the Candieland mansion ablaze with the strike of a match


A tip of the hat to the Best Shirtless Performance winner in Taylor Lautner, who showed up on the stage with a padded belly exclaiming that his recent legality has produced a lot of drinking, and that this award was his Oscar.  Totally staged, and the line readings were a bit flat, but the first sign of a sense of humor in the young actor makes this speech his single best performance to date.  Surprising that this was the only win of the night for The Twilight Saga's swan song.  Stranger so was that he managed to beat stiff shirtless competition from the likes of Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig.  Seriously, how could one have resisted the beefcake display of Magic Mike?!?!?

Weekend Box Office

Baseball is still our national pastime as evident by the over-performing success of the Jackie Robinson story with Brian Helgeland's 42.  It was also a bad weekend for long in the tooth franchises as Dimension Films' Scary Movie 5 debuted with less than half of the opening weekend total of the previous installment which came out back in the stone age of 2006.  Regardless, 2013 is still fairly meh.  G.I. Joe: Retaliation meanwhile became the fourth film of 2013 to break $100 million, while Ryan Gosling's The Place Beyond the Pines proved a successful expansion showing up in the top ten in less than 500 screens.

  1. 42- $27.2 million
  2. Scary Movie 5- $15.1 million
  3. The Croods- $13.2 million / $142.5 million
  4. G.I. Joe: Retaliation- $10.8 million / $102.4 million
  5. Evil Dead- $9.5 million / $41.5 million
  6. Jurassic Park 3-D- $8.8 million / $31.9 million
  7. Olympus Has Fallen- $7.2 million / $81.8 million
  8. Oz: The Great & Powerful- $4.9 million / $219.4 million
  9. Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor- $4.5 million / 45.4 million
  10. The Place Beyond the Pines- $4.0 million / $5.4 million

Lower down the roster:
  • Trance- Danny Boyle's mindbender expanding to nearly the same level as The Place Beyond the Pines in its second week of limited release but with only a fraction of the success.  More to come on my thoughts soon.  It's earned $1.1 million in two weeks.
  • The Company You Keep- Robert Redford's film starring every actor of a certain age may well be a low key success story as it earned a $7,000+ per-screen average in its second week of limited release, and so far has earned $400,000.
  • The Sapphires-The film that Weinstein famously snatched up at last years Cannes Film Festival only to dump in the spring with little fanfare has earned $700,000 in four weeks of very limited release.
  • No- The spectacular Chilean film which was nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award has earned $1.1 million in nine weeks of limited release-- a solid number for a foreign entry.  YAY!  A must see.
  • Disconnect- The technology-dependent ensemble drama starring Jason Bateman and Hope Davis was the limited winner of the weekend earning $8,000 on fifteen screens for an okay take of $130,000+.
  • To the Wonder- Terrence Malick's latest earned $7,000 on seventeen screens with a take of $130,000.  A far cry from the wall set by The Tree of Life's $93,000 per-screen average two years ago, but that film had a major push from distributor Fox Searchlight, a Palme D'Or and Brad Pitt.  To the Wonder has mixed reviews and a lesser than push from Magnolia Pictures.  The film was, however, the top independent download on iTunes.

What did you see this weekend?

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola's latest gets a trailer and a poster.  Excited?

It stars Emma Watson as the leader of a group of thieves who steal from the rich and famous.  Based on actual events.  Coppola is a divisive filmmaker but there's no denying her style, her voice nor her influences.  I can't wait.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Welcome to Jurassic Park

Foregoing the fact that the 20th anniversary of Steven Spielberg's mega-opus Jurassic Park makes me feel quite old, it's a great movie to catch up with.  In 1993, it was a wonder of summer blockbustery spectacle, yet there's an uncanny and unique wonder to the film, one that seems to improve with time.  Like many films that come around at that certain and magical time when a budding movie geek is building his palette and taste, Jurassic Park in many regards feels like an old friend-- a big, lumbering beast of a that might potentially eat me one day.  It's in that respect that the 3-D conversion re-release doesn't exactly read (at least to me) as a corporately cynical way of milking a long in the tooth franchise, but instead like a celebration of a film that time has only improved upon its legacy.

Revisiting this special friend, it's remarkable how the astounding and groundbreaking effects still hold up and the razzle dazzle of twenty years ago can still be held in the same regard (or perhaps even higher so) than the mega-digitized-extraganza-spectacles of today.  Even some of the dated imagery has a delightful effect opposed to the you-know-it's-all-fake Deceptacons and Avatars of today.  More importantly, there's just enough sense of character that there's enough of a rooting cause for them.  Just as importantly, many are incidental (or in the case of Wayne Knight, evil enough) that it's okay to root for dino-carnage as well.

Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, there's little point in arguing that Jurassic Park is high art, it's a high calorie roller coaster ride (made literal when it became an existing theme park attraction at Universal Studios; synergy in motion), but under the expert skill and showmanship of Spielberg, it's a great roller coaster ride that chugs along at an exceptional pace.  And for a plot that conceived on the silly premise of the return of dinosaurs, only for them to attack humans, there's such a grandiosity to the spectacle, it nearly is art.  Spielberg is essentially riffing on Jaws, his first great film and the grandfather movie for the whole summer blockbuster craze to begin with.  And similarly makes the frightening fun and the fun frightening.  I've previously addressed the effect Jaws can have on a five-year-old.  A couple of years later, I was ready and willing participant to Jurassic Park.

Looking back it's startling and thrilling in the sense that nearly every splice of the film is iconic.  From the helicopter circling down on the waterfall and pristine island to Richard Attenborough's "Welcome to Jurassic Park," to the car ride of eventual doom and the escape acts.  The T-Rex was the always the centerpiece, but the tease of his entrance was just as, if not more memorable.  Just as the chords of John Williams' Jaws score announced terror before we faced it, the same effect occurred here in the benign image of rings in a water cup.  And then it happens...

It wasn't just the mastery of technology, it was the mastery of suspense.  Spielberg, still working the mindset of an industrial Hitchcock, builds till the moment of panic.  That edge of your seat gamesmanship that happens to be more fun than the payoff itself.  In that sense pass the popcorn and bemoan the state of the current crop of Hollywood offerings.

My favorite shot of Jurassic Park to play along with the great piece, "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," offered at The Film Experience, comes very early on in the film.  It involves little technical whatsits but clearly, authoritatively and quietly sums up what the feeling that the filmmaking experience should be.

And Jurassic Park still does that even twenty years in...blindsides you in the magic and wonder of the cinema.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Elysium Trailer

Matt Damon and Jodie Foster go all sci-fi distopia on us in Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9.  First impressions?  Meh!

Reason #451,000 to Heart Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon, the wonderful mind behind perhaps the greatest television series in history with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the Academy Award nominated co-screenwriter of the first Toy Story finally hit it huge last year for writing and directing Marvel's The Avengers.  While I'm averse to many big studio things, and more than a few franchises, and comic book vigilantes, and well...lots of things, Whedon helming a big budget franchise can lead to nothing but good things.  Not so much that The Avengers was the best thing in the world (even though it's fair to say that without the wit, humor, humanity and genre-bashing skillery of Mr. Whedon, it would have likely been the blueprint cog that many of the proceeding films felt like), but it because now as the director of one of the biggest movies ever, it gets a free ride for a bit...

...and that can be only good.  For only a man of his quirks and endless imagination would film a black and white modern version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in the midst of an Avengers break.  God bless him, and let's all hope that his Marvel duties don't impede on him too much.  The film opens this June after receiving kind words from the Toronto Film Festival last year and SXSW last month.  Here's the out all the past Whedon alums.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert

A sad day for the film community as we have lost one of our own.  Roger Ebert passed away at the age of 70 due to a long struggle with cancer.  It's a hard blow for a man who devoted his entire life to the cinema.  He was not only a film critic, he was in very essence, "the film critic."  One of the last of the very few influential writers and proponents of the cinema.  Ebert starting writing for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and was one of the few whose opinions really mattered in the sense that a film could be made by endorsement.  Introduced at a time in film culture where something like that really mattered and was treasured, not unlike Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris or his late partner/rival Gene Siskel.  Through his PBS show Sneak Previews and later the syndicated At the Movies with Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, he was part of great duo that championed cinema.  I remember watching Siskel & Ebert as a budding cineast myself every Sunday evening (my own personal church.)  This is one of the few shows that held an actual conversation about film, free of celebrity interviews or naval-gazing.  It was simple and delightful.  One of Ebert's greatest and most lasting recognitions to the film community was that by watching and writing and talking about all movies, he may ways became one of "the" cultural tastemakers.

Quite simply, with his endorsement, he could put a film on the map, especially the smaller movies that needed the most help.  To think that it's utterly possible that big sweeps of the country may never had heard, much less desired to watch movies like Hoop Dreams or My Dinner with Andre without watching Siskel and Ebert give them equal time with the big studio offerings on their show.  Their patented two thumbs up was a lark, and a soundbite, but also brilliant.  But the show itself was far more thoughtful and conversationalist than anything else-- it was a discussion about movies by people in utter awe of them.  My favorites were always when the critics cited their best and worst of the year, and the annual pre-Oscar tradition when they picked the winners.  Ebert's writing also had that rarefied ability, as it read as a discussion and dissection, at once articulate, funny and friendly.   Which only hints at his actual power.

In late 2003, he famously extolled Charlize Theron's performance in the film Monster as "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema."  Ebert didn't write or say this for hope of ad-time blurbs or mere hyperbole; he simply thought so.  It was one of the many cases where his imprint, his seal of approval, his thumb up changed the course of a movie.  The independent film may have become a financial success and Academy Award winner without it, but his fervor and devotion meant something.  It meant something more because Ebert's opinion was the one that mattered.  A few years later, Ebert championed the film Crash (2005), naming it his favorite film of that year.  While the film had a relatively sparse pre-Oscars awards haul and the film, while a hit when released in May, had received mixed reviews.  To think his endorsement didn't help the film edge on to become the surprise Best Picture winner that year is slightly foolish.  He championed the film because he was moved to by his response to it.  The point hardly matters how often or not one might have agreed with his analysis, but rests in that his continual commitment to the film community at large.  Through his film reviews, television shows, best-selling books, film festival and continued love for the medium, the Pulitzer Prize winner was a voice of reason and the cinemas biggest supporter.

It feels like the end of an era now.  There's no more Kael, or Sarris, or Siskel and now, sadly Ebert has passed on.  It was only a few days ago that Ebert took a leave of absence, a testament that even though he was battling illness for several years, he continued to watch and write and his thoughts still did matter.  Of course, there's many bright and talented writers of film currently working, but none of them will likely ever have to hold a candle in the public eye like Ebert.  The nature of the game has changed, and the advancement of technology has rendered the ability for anyone to be a film critic (no, the irony is not lost on me.)  We're in an age where a movie can sink or swim by opening night praises or catcalls on Facebook and Twitter.  In that regard, it's a shame that we may never have a tastemaker with the demeanor or intelligence of Roger Ebert ever again.  It's a greater shame that we don't have Roger Ebert anymore.

The balcony is closed.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013: First Quarter

Time flies quickly.  We're already a quarter into 2013 and it feels like it just begun.  While the first couple of months of the cinematic year are clearly focused by the craziness and nonsense of the awards mania, movies did in fact come out.  While typically a dumping ground for inferior product and whatsits, I thought I'd pontificate.

Here's the "best" of the new year in terms of popularity, which means dollars and cents:
  1. Oz: The Great & Powerful- $200.2
  2. Identity Thief- $130.0
  3. The Croods- $93.8
  4. Mama- $71.5
  5. Safe Heaven- $69.8
  6. A Good Day to Die Hard- $66.5
  7. Warm Bodies- $65.2
  8. Jack the Giant Slayer- $61.5
  9. Olympus Has Fallen- $56.5
  10. G.I. Joe: Retaliation- $55.5
How about that?  The narrative this year so far has been focused on the downward stats on attendance and dollars earned.  A nod I have a particular distaste for as money should have nothing to do with the overall conversation of cinema.  That being said, 2013 thus far has been a waiting game for all.  Waiting, not just for a film to spark and engulf us into the joys of filmmaking, but also for the next big thing-- Oz: The So-So and Kinda Sexist changed the latter, to the mercy of executives and shareholders around the world...God bless!  Just to purge, the international box office paints a different picture; here's the top ten worldwide moneymakers of the 2013 so far:

  1. Oz: The Great & Powerful- $414.2
  2. A Good Day to Die Hard- $295.6
  3. The Croods- $242.7
  4. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters- $216.4
  5. Jack the Giant Slayer- $158.0
  6. Identity Thief- $146.7
  7. G.I. Joe: Retaliation- $135.9
  8. Mama- $127.0
  9. Warm Bodies- $104.5
  10. Gangster Squad- $99.2
Eight out of ten films overlap, but perceives failures Jack the Giant Slayer, Gangster Squad and A Good Day to Die Hard don't quite seem quite that overall.  Meanwhile, the Hansel & Gretel sequel is a real thing now, so thank you international audiences for that.

The top ten per-screen averages of 2013:
  1. Spring Breakers- $87,667
  2. The Place Beyond the Pines- $69,864
  3. Somebody Up There Likes Me- $34,362
  4. From Up on Poppy Hill- $28,793
  5. Quartet- $23,561
  6. Stoker- $22,935
  7. 56 Up- %22,088
  8. Gimme the Loot- $21,065
  9. The Gatekeepers- $20,517
  10. Oz: The Great & Powerful- $20,223
Moral of the story is that 2013 has been James Franco's world; the rest of us are just living in it.

Enough with the numbers game!  It's about the quality dammit. And while 2013 has been so far, as previously mentioned, a few months of the waiting game, there have been a few things to pay attention too.  Here's my take:

Honorable mentionsStoker and The Place Beyond the Pines aren't quite films that work for me as a whole, but they are worthy auteural installments of the collections of their filmmakers,  Chan-wook Park and Derek Cianfrance.  Both have lovely visual touches and are worthy argumentative pieces of film.  Also of note are two films that had blink and you miss them 2012 Oscar qualifying releases that were shafted aside into early spring 2013 by tentative indie studios clearly mismanaging their properties-- On the Road and Ginger & Rosa.  Again neither film is perfect, but both have indelible performances worthy of discussion and foaming at the mouth.  On the Road features a hopefully star-making turn by Garrett Hedlund and Ginger & Rosa has a worthy one for Elle Fanning.  Both of them deserve better-- casting directors take notice.  Warm Bodies, a surprise box office hit was a quiet charmer as well, even though it clearly follows the strident Twilight mold.

The real deals:

4) Beautiful Creatures- Speaking of a film that follows the strident Twilight formula, Beautiful Creatures reversed roles of teenage witch and mortal falling in love in a fried green tomato backdrop.  It shouldn't have worked and well, audiences didn't go for it, which in a way may be an outside complement for a film that's smarter, funnier and fresher than it really has any right to be.  Director Richard LaGravenese brought a literary sense to this tweener, but also had a top drawer cast in Alice Englart (also a find in Ginger & Rosa) and Alden Ehrenreich (both refreshing newcomers), and able support in Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, and most wondrous of all, Emma Thompson.  The mix of tones and acting styles, a gentle mix of earnest and camp made this a delightful surprise.  Terribly marketed by an unsure Warner Bros. seemingly desperate to brand this as something it wasn't quite, it's worthy of a look and a cult when it comes out on Blue-Ray.  Review here.

3) Side Effects- Steven Soderbergh's alleged swan song from the cinema was a lean, nervy potboiler.  Perhaps a film that could have been done in his sleep, it matters not.  Review here.

2) No- The most artful film thus far of 2013 was actually a Foreign Language Oscar nominee this year, and dare I say it (shameful I'm aware), I feel it might actually be better the winner.  Review here.

1) Room 237- The most refreshing and entertaining celebration of film geekery, perhaps of all time.  The Shining was one messed up movie.  Review here.

Anything coming out so far have any awards potential?

Well, Oz: The So-So & Kinda Sexist will have an outside shot at effects awards, but the nature of the blockbuster contingent can be hard to predict as we're not quite sure what the rest of the year will hold.  Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton's ugly revisionist tale did well with the Academy and Oz was clearly made in the same mold, so Production Design seems a near given, but who really knows.  Stoker and The Place Beyond the Pines will have its critical champions and are worthy perhaps of some plaudits, but since neither will likely be audience favorites nor money makers, the Oscars aren't probable.  Aside from that James Franco has an bonafide Indie Spirit nod in the making for Spring Breakers.  That's all folks.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Finding Dory: April Foolishness

Pixar Animation Studios, the once revered and most beloved American film studio around, is jumping the shark yet again.  Well maybe that's not fair, but on a personal note, I'm completely conflicted about the news blurb that Finding Dory will be coming to a theater near you sometime in November, 2015.  A sequel to 2003's Finding Nemo, which holds a dear place in my heart (it's one of the top five, or maybe four, or maybe three films they've ever made in my book.)  Pixar isn't a stranger to the sequel world, as no one can ever quite escape the lure of franchisicity (I know that's not a word, but I'm using it anyway), but the majesty of the Toy Story films are so good, it's almost easier to swallow the drivel that was Cars 2, the only film in Pixar's illustrious canon that so clearly and obviously came out of corporate greed.  Monsters University, a sequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. enters cinemas this summer as well.

I'm eternally hopeful that this will be more of a Toy Story-type scenario than a Cars one, but I still have this feverish averse reaction to meddling with gold.  The delight of Finding Nemo was its heart, it's sweetness, it's buoyancy.  Most of that came in the supporting character of Dory, delightfully and magnetically voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in a performance that should have earned an Oscar nomination, regardless of convention or snobbery.  Dory was the perfect supporting character, however, which feels like it might stymie this project.  It was a nearly indispensable character that I liken to those of which Thelma Ritter played in the fifties.

The Place Beyond the Pines

There's a lot of brooding in The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 film Blue Valentine.  There's much more than brooding however, as the angst-ridden, alpha-male melodrama unwinds and twists and turns.  There's a sense from the very beginning that Cianfrance's scope is large and looming, that there's a stake for the mythic in the somber staging of a film about fathers and sons and cops and robbers.  That sense starts at the opening shot.  It's of a ripped tatted torso belonging to star and Blue Valentine alum Ryan Gosling, himself no stranger to mythic archetypes of damaged anti-heroic men (or of showing off his physique, which at this point must surely be insured for a handsome sum.)  The camera moves out and the establishing shot and nearly bravura opening sequence showcases Gosling nearly already as something of a legend.  Cianfrance employs an artful, if a tad indulgent, opening tracking shot that follows Gosling-- here playing a mythic figure in his own right as a carnival stunt motorcycle driver with the moniker Handsome Luke-- as he enters the whirly motorcycle cage with two other stunt drivers.  And off he goes, spinning in circles, entrapped in a steely prism of danger and dread with the mere glint of exhilaration at its ridge, not unlike the movie that surrounds him. 

The openings speaks volumes for the film itself and also about its filmmaker-- it's hard for to severely judge a film with such ambition, and a certain nobility that comes along with it, but the film as a whole unfortunately can't quite measure up to the sum of its parts and that reckless ambition swerves The Place Beyond the Pines into heady, heavy-handed and downright cold terrain.  Whether sculpted by the cinematic ego of its helmer or not, the film becomes unwieldy as it chugs along its nearly two and a half hour running time.  Perhaps he bought a little much into the praise he received for Blue Valentine, a not completely dissimilar tonal companion piece, one that infolding as the degeneration of a marriage that often felt like, "the degeneration of a marriage."  The difference was that there was a spark and jolt of spontaneous electricity that ignited throughout the flash-forward/flash-back narrative.  It felt as though it was an invitation, a fly on the wall tracking of a pure love gone rotten.  The Place Beyond the Pines (its title derived from what the Iroquois tribe referred to as Schenectady, New York, where the film is set) is at once stubbornly straight-forward, but also hard and cold in its exactness.

But first the good news.  The opening is nearly intoxicating as it converges both Gosling the movie star and grand actor in a singularly absorbing way.  Outfitted with bleach blonde hair and cut-off Metalica shirts, his Luke is a lost boy relic of the sorts James Dean and Marlon Brando played generations ago.  The brooding glint of his stare registers pain, toughness, but also an approachable innocence.  Not unlike what he contributed to Drive a mere two years back, Gosling inhabits a place in the cinematic perception of masculinity, one that's more penetrating the less we know about his circumstance.  A vagabond joy rider who seeks his thrills trapped in his cage of doom, he's nonetheless a believable romantic.  Early on, he reconnects with Romina (Eva Mendes), a past conquest who informs Luke that the last time he came in town produced a baby boy, now a year old.  Conflicted as to what to do, as to whether stick around and try to provide for his son and his mother, or hit the road as per usual, Luke broods.

He finds lodging and a friend of sorts in a slimy mechanic played by Ben Mendelsohn (excellent) and nearly immediately segues into a partnership of robbing banks.  The jagged genre push elevates The Place Beyond the Pines from somber into to something else entirely, but it's hinged on the half-baked idea that Luke, a intriguing man who may not exactly be the brightest, honestly believes his thrust into crime is for the best.  However, there's an absorbing feeling, coupled with Gosling masterly portrayal, that this mere setup will pay off in rich dividends emotionally.  Sadly, that's where the bigger than it needs to be sense of pretension gets the better of Cianfrance, who wrote the screenplay with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder.

Suddenly just over an hour into the enterprise, The Place Beyond the Pines shifts gears to Bradley Cooper, a boy scout cop who is elevated into hero status in one of the biggest circuitous twists in store.  As jarring as the newly instated double header seems at first, the second chapter of the film, while failing to be quite as utterly absorbing or as thrilling as its beginning, still has its rewards, mostly because Cooper, who broods nearly as much as Gosling is in top form, but also because there's a slightly nifty counterpoint to his character's supposed nobility that matched with an ambition and headiness of its own.  He plays Avery Cross, a family man with a one year old son as well...remember that bit, nothing in The Place Beyond the Pines is unintentional.  Cross becomes embroiled in a scandal of sorts with some pretty shifty cops-- Ray Liotta plays the shiftiest, who reads as trouble from his first appearance.  It almost feels like Cianfrance is riffing on Julius Caesar or something as Cross, whose father is a former politico, and his moral compass become tampered by his new found reputation, guile and greed.

Just as his story appears to be unwinding, The Place Beyond the Pines decides its not quite over yet as the screen fades out and a title card reads, "15 YEARS LATER."  There was audible shrieks and jostling in seats at this moment, and it appears that the full circle triptych of Cianfrance's labor was to conclude, most jarringly, with the now teenage children of Luke and Avery.  Played by Dale DeHaan (Lawless,Chronicle) and Emory Cohen (notable for his "colorfully critiqued" character as Debra Messing's son on the TV show Smash) play Jason and AJ, who are bonded more so by the forces of nature than by mere coincidental high school experiences.  It's shame and more than a bit of over-the-top bombastic one at that the Cianfrance chooses to conclude his meticulous "mythic" tale in such a decidedly thump like fashion.  It's not quite the fault of the actors (if nothing else, Cianfrance proves his gift of bringing out the best and most natural in his performers), but the heavy-handed direction of a tale that not quite as big and mighty as the filmmakers may assume it to be.  C
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