Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Welcome to part 2 of this special edition of Hit me with your best shot. This week we looked at the second half of "Gone with the Wind". Many would agree that this section is less impressive than the previous one, as it's more concerned with the melodrama of the characters rather than the striking cinematography and art direction. There's one particular image that stands out to me though. It's one of those great character entrances.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, August 25, 2014
This week's top pick is one of the surprise hits of the summer - "Chef". Directed by and starring Jon Favreau, it's a feel-good comedy that will leave you smiling and salivating over its culinary charms. The film's story may be simple, but it makes up for it with it's big heart.
Jon Favreau stars as the titular Chef Carl Casper, a man who is stuck in a rut. After years of overseeing an acclaimed menu at his Los Angeles restaurant, his output has become boring and uninspired. Eager to prove he's still relevant, he plans to experiment with a new menu, just in time for a visit from a top food critic. Unfortunately, the owner rejects the idea and forces him to stick with his traditional offerings. It ends in disaster, as the restaurant receives a scathing review. A social media meltdown follows and Casper is soon out of a job. Hoping to clear his mind and rejuvenate his passion, he heads to Miami with his ex-wife and son for the summer.
What follows is a journey through the USA as Casper goes back to basics, selling Cuban sandwiches out of his newly acquired food truck. Joining him are his son and former co-worker Martin (John Leguizamo). It's an unusual situation (fast food seems far too menial for an ambitious chef), but it pays off in the end. Indeed, the "food porn" aspects are merely backdrop for the heartwarming road trip adventure at the core.
While there are certainly enough delectable meals to appease the Food Network junkies, the narrative's pleasures are much more elementary than the chocolate lava cake which causes a stir in the first act. There's just a sincere expression of joy that emanates from the film. From the adorable father-son bonding to the communal experience of creating and eating food, it reminds us that our jobs should enrich our lives (rather than just provide a paycheck). It's a desire we can all relate to and it's key to the film's success.
Another major source of delight in "Chef" is the casting. The ensemble features a number of well-liked actors - including Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, Robert Downey Jr. and Bobby Cannavale - and they all seem to be having a great time. It's like a dream guest list to a dinner party.
"Chef" may not be the most ambitious film, but its engaging warmth is acutely felt in every frame. You'll hardly ever find a film that's as easy to watch. It's like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.
Friday, August 22, 2014
If you follow me on twitter you're probably aware that I recently spent a weekend with the awesome French Toast Sunday gang (see above) in Baltimore. I had a really great time hanging out with them and exploring the city (future #LAMBMeetup?). You should definitely follow them and listen to their podcast. On last week's episode, they had a fun discussion on Movies We Recommend But Wouldn’t Watch Twice. Check it out among all these other great links from the past week:
French Toast Sunday did a redux podcast of Movies We Recommend But Wouldn’t Watch Twice.
Kyle from Movie Mezzanine examined the use of the song "Fight the Power" in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
Alex gave us an update on his feature film Wait.
Jason wrote short take reviews for Ernest & Celestine, Omar, Outside the Law, The Lego Movie and Suddenly, Last Summer.
Shala made a playlist of 10 Songs that Remind Her of Indie Films.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
This week brings the first part of a special 2-week edition of Hit me with your best shot as we tackle the seminal classic - "Gone with the Wind". Nathaniel had us dedicate this first post to the first half of the film (pre-intermission) and it gave us many glorious images to choose from. No matter how you feel about the film, there's no denying its visual grandeur.
Set around the American Civil War, the film shows the fall of the highly romanticized Southern way of life. It depicts these events in a very cinematic way, with stunning views of impressive plantations and the opulence associated with them. It's almost enough to make you pity those seemingly "harmless" Confederates.
For my best shot then, I wanted to capture the visceral power of the film.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, August 18, 2014
This week I only managed to catch one film while on vacation, but it was a significant one. "A Most Wanted Man" is one of the final films (in addition to the Hunger Games franchise) of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and it's a strong reminder of the incredible talent we've lost. In this spy thriller from director Anton Corbijn, the actor shows off his knack for delivering rich, engaging performances.
The story takes place in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks. Following reports that terrorist groups were operating out of Hamburg, a secret spy group has been formed to intercept any future terrorist plots. The group is led by Gunther Bachmann and they are put to the test when a mysterious half-Chechen, half-Russian man named Issa Karpov turns up in Hamburg. The heir to a large fortune from his corrupt father, suspicions arise as to his intentions in Germany. As tensions build, a tug of war ensues between Bachmann, the CIA and a young lawyer (Rachel McAdams) who is determined to protect her client from wrongful extradition.
Adapted from a John le Carre novel of the same name, the solemn tone of the film is similar to his previous adaptations like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". As with Gary Oldman's performance in that film, "A Most Wanted Man" defers much of its gravitas to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the brooding leader of the central spy agency. It's another superlative performance by the actor, effortlessly transforming himself into the character. He dons a deep voice (with an often indecipherable accent) and employs his trademark slouch when the plot gets really heavy. When he's on screen, the rest of the cast seems to modulate their performance in an act of subconscious reverence for the man and the character. It's truly a showcase role.
Aside from Hoffman though, the rest of the film falls short of greatness. As a former British intelligence agent himself, le Carré certainly knows about the inner workings of a spy operation. The story from the novel involves a lot of planning and hypothesizing as the players gather intelligence, which likely reflects the real nature of the job. In making the transfer to cinema however, screenwriter Andrew Bovell seems to have stuck too closely to the source material. The discussions and political maneuvering surrounding Karpov's links to terrorism are interesting, but there weren't enough suspense and thrills to compliment the drama. With such a stellar cast on hand (particularly Robin Wright, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi and Willem Dafoe), they could have been better used in order to raise the stakes. This is something that was done with the all-star cast of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" to great effect. Instead, this film is a very slow burn that never really catches a fire.
"A Most Wanted" may not be as thrilling as it should be, but it features a lead performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman that should not be missed. He was an actor at the top of his game and this a shining example of that. May his legacy live on through his incredible filmography.
Friday, August 15, 2014
Well, we've come to the end of our Twice A Best Actor roundtable series. It was a pleasure to discuss all these performances and I'd like to once again thank Drew for inviting me to the panel. For our final discussion, we examined a pair of Spencer Tracy's early performances.
Click here for the Spencer Tracy discussion
Click here for the final wrap-up post
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
This week's film for Hit me with your best shot is an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play "Suddenly, Last Summer". It stars Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift and it surely put their acting talents to good use with its wordy script. The story is about the secrets surrounding a young man after his mysterious death, which are so scandalous that his mother requests a lobotomy for her niece (his presumed lover) in order to cover them up. The plot that unfolds is what I can best describe as psychological warfare. From the sinister intent of the lobotomy to the unhealthy mother-son relationship, there's a lot of crazy to go around.
In choosing my best shot, I've tried to reflect the film's madness with an image that seems like a subliminal attempt to mess with the viewer.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, August 11, 2014
After months of discussing the potential of "Boyhood", I've finally gotten the chance to see the film. Way back in January, I was wondering whether the film really had to goods the be an Oscar player. Well lo and behold, the film has now firmly positioned itself as the first genuine Best Picture contender of the year.
Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is the end product of a monumental undertaking. Filmed over the course of 12 years, it follows the growth of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age 5 to 18. Along the way, we see him go through the various milestones of early life (elementary school, puberty, first love, high school graduation etc.). It's quite simply, the most ambitious coming of age narrative ever put on screen.
Watching "Boyhood" truly feels like you're getting a window into someone's life. There's an unembellished quality in the acting, writing and directing that gives the film a strong sense of naturalism. As with any Linklater film, it's the sum of all the parts that makes it resonate.
In Ellar Coltrane, Linklater cashed in on a risky gamble. Critics often devalue the skill level of child performances (sometimes accurate when you consider the many failed child stars) but Coltrane is certainly a natural screen presence. From an early age his eyes conveyed a inquisitive, perceptive mind that gave credence to the artistic, free-thinking young man that he would become. The existential debates towards the end of the film serve a purpose for the film's themes but they also feel true to the character and the actor. As Coltrane ages into his teenage years, there's a slight awkwardness to his acting that fits perfectly with the role.
While Mason seems like someone who is predisposed to doing good things in his life, there's also the question of "nature vs nurture". In that sense, the impact of his divorced parents play an essential part in the plot. Played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, they are the more refined actors among the main cast. Hawke effortlessly plays his effervescent self (he's mostly absent but there's no doubt that he's a loving father), while Arquette gets the crucial task of being the main provider and role model as a single mom. Her character arc is inspiring and she plays it beautifully. It's easy to see why her children (Mason's sister is played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) would grow up to be such smart, caring and positive individuals.
As these characters grow and change through the course of the film, Linklater guides the plot with a light touch. He proves to be the consummate writer-director, as his writing doesn't announce its themes and the direction never gets in the way of the story. It's a specific portrait of Americana made universal through the struggles and concerns of its characters. Their lives are far from perfect, but you can sense the abundance of love - from outside and within - that lets you know that things will turn out fine. It's life-affirming in the most unassuming way, just the way Linklater likes it.
Linklater's style may not be distinct enough to be called a traditional "auteur", but there's a consistent underlying optimism that defines his work. Whether it's a marriage on the brink of collapse or young people trying to figure out what to do with their lives, he always leaves you with a token of hope. That he accomplishes this without straying far from realism is what makes "Boyhood" and the rest of his filmography so special.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
This week we went outside the box for Hit me with your best shot, looking at the quirky short films of Canadian filmmaker Jamie Travis. I managed to watch all 3 of the selected films and my favourite was "The Saddest Boy in the World". To me, it felt like a mix between the dark comedy of Hal Ashby (specifically "Harold and Maude" with the suicidal aspect and oblivious mother) and the meticulously art directed style of Wes Anderson. This combination gives it a wry quality that I really enjoyed.
I tried to capture the film's best qualities with my choice for best shot, eventually settling on the image below. I think it shows that Wes Anderson type of orderly composition, where the human characters are part of the art direction. In addition, I like the juxtaposition of the dull faces with the ice cream cones, since children + ice cream usually signifies joy. Within the context of the film, there's also another layer of brilliant comedy. These children are actually staring at our title character (who has just missed the ice cream van) and they have the audacity to *not* seem like they're enjoying it! Man, he truly was the saddest boy in the world.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, August 4, 2014
This week's top pick is the latest blockbuster that has everyone raving - "Guardians of the Galaxy". With the double whammy of critical approval and audience adoration, it seems like the Marvel machine will persist to infinity and beyond. Now, that isn't to say that these films aren't without merit. However, you can probably sense that I'm starting to feel a little fatigue.
In "Guardians of the Galaxy", we find ourselves in cosmic territory. A man from Earth (abducted as a child) named Peter Quill has found a precious artifact and attempts to sell it to the nice people on Xandar. Before he can do so however, he's intercepted by an assassin woman with green skin named Gamora. A fight ensues which attracts some other strange characters (including a talking raccoon and a tree creature) before they are all sent to prison for their misbehaviour. There they meet the super-strong Drax and eventually hatch a plan (albeit very reluctantly) to escape prison together and embark on a space adventure. Eventually, they adopt the moniker "the Guardians of the Galaxy".
This is obviously a somewhat reductive reading of the material, but it captures the essence of the plot. The Marvel movies have never relied on the intricacy of their plot details, so a long synopsis is pointless. Indeed, their strength is in the excitement of engaging with the visual spectacle and the cool characters.
Within those expectations, this film certainly succeeds. I completely agree with the general praise of its strong points. The visual effects are very impressive and the characters are thoroughly entertaining with a bold sense of humour. I also love the central idea of a group of misfits gradually progressing from outright hatred to genuine friendship, which it accomplishes in a pleasingly organic way.
Yet while I acknowledge these positive attributes, I find it hard to summon up the same level of emphatic enthusiasm for the film. I found the film to be objectively funny, but it's not as "fun" as I'd hoped. This isn't entirely the film's fault, as the feeling stems mostly from its late release date. I've now reviewed many of this summer's films as "Movie of the Week" entries and they've all thrilled me with their distinctive traits (evocative shots, shrewd writing, deeply felt emotions). In comparison, this one didn't surprise me enough to give me the same kind of rush, especially when these "hero saves the day" stories are now so ubiquitous. It's therefore unlikely that I'll remember this film much at the end of the year. I already get to see Chris Pratt being hilarious every week when "Parks and Recreation" is in season. Likewise, the awesome visuals are more a function of the film's $170 million budget rather than inspired creativity. There's nothing inherently new here.
I may sound like a snarky curmudgeon, but I do genuinely feel that "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a fundamentally good film. It's hard to deny that it's made with the audience's enjoyment in mind. I'm just hesitant to exalt it as some grand achievement when it doesn't even measure up to similar films from the past few weeks alone. I'm ready for the fall movie season to begin so we can finally shift our attention to a more diverse sampling of cinema.