Monday, July 29, 2013
Buddy comedies seem so commonplace these days that it's easy for some of the truly outstanding ones to get lost in the shuffle. This was the case of "Midnight Run", a film I had only heard about recently with notable praise. Still, I didn't have much expectations for the film, figuring that this 80s comedy couldn't possibly hold up well after all these years. If I hadn't heard of it before, it couldn't be that great right? Well, I was dead wrong. This film played like gangbusters for me, even as I was initially resistant and cynical.
The plot of the film involves the transportation of an accountant Jonathan Mardukas (played by Charles Grondin) cross country from NY to LA, after he skips on his bail that was posted following embezzlement of a Chicago mob boss' money. Bounty hunter Jack Walsh (played by Robert DeNiro) is tasked with bringing him in to the bail bondsman by midnight five days later (hence the film's title), in return for a sizable payout. We quickly learn that the FBI is also on the case, hoping to use Mardukas as a witness for the mob's criminal activities. With the FBI and the mob chasing after Mardukas and Walsh, hijinks ensue.
As the plot unfolds, the film serves as a striking reminder of the consistent high quality of DeNiro's acting during the early part of his career. Even in a relatively small film like this, he still gives a rich performance. It's a far cry from his recent "paycheck" roles in films like "Meet the Fockers". What really makes this film lift off though, is the fantastic easy-going rapport between Grondin and DeNiro. Grondin plays the stuffy "straight man", while DeNiro is loose and temperamental. It sets up the perfect buddy comedy dynamic, with endlessly amusing arguments.
The supporting players are just as entertaining too. Every one of them (namely Dennis Farina, Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton and Joe Pantoliano) adds value to the film. It's a solid collaborative effort, adding to the overall great energy and tone of the film.
In a nutshell, this is just a really fun movie. There are lots of hilarious sight gags that bring to mind "The Blues Brothers" and "Plains, Trains & Automobiles", while the joyous music score further adds to the delight. It also has just enough heart to add some poignancy without being overly sentimental. The film perfectly captures one of those crazy roadtrips which seem like a nightmare in the moment, but in hindsight you just look back and laugh at the amazing adventure you had. Perhaps its 2 hr and 5 min running time feels a tad excessive, but I honestly wouldn't know what to cut out. This midnight run is never anything less than enjoyable.
Friday, July 26, 2013
The theatrical release of Fruitvale Station expands nationwide this weekend, expecting to amass further acclaim for this impressive directing debut. Some bloggers have already weighed in on the film, with enthusiastic responses. Check them out below, among other awesome posts from the past week:
James raves about Fruitvale Station in his highly positive review.
Mike Ward also reviewed Fruitvale Station, describing it as powerful and affecting.
Tinsel & Tine conducted an insightful interview with Ryan Coogler about Fruitvale Station.
Andrew highlights the career of Philip Seymour Hoffman in his latest Tuesday Top Ten.
Mark from The Awards Circuit listed his 3 favourite Philip Seymour Hoffman performances and films.
Alex lists the Top 10 First R-Rated Performances by Child Actors.
Anna from Movie Mezzanine had a fascinating discussion with writer Tobias Lindholm about The Hunt and its Danish-ness.
Jess from French Toast Sunday named her Top 6 Cover Songs Performed by Movie Characters.
Mike Scott reviewed Only God Forgives. Although I disagree with his praise of the film, it's an eloquent and smart analysis.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
"Only God Forgives" begins with the rape and murder of a young prostitute by an expatriate living in Thailand. In retaliation, the girl's father exacts murderous revenge on him with the aid of a sadistic local cop. In the wake of his death, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) implores his brother to take out their own revenge on the cop and his goons. That's all there is to this film - reprehensible people doing reprehensible things.
This is the kind of movie that makes people hate movie snobs. It's comparable to abstract performance art and not very cinematic in the usual sense of the word. It's mostly just violence for the sake of violence. Whereas Tarantino would portray such sadism with a playful "wink", Refn revels in the cruelty of it all. As a result, it becomes oppressive and off-putting. When there isn't bloodshed, it's filled with dull, lifeless posing and distant stares from most of the cast. I love me some Ryan Gosling, but he was laughably bad in this. Mostly mute for no apparent reason, he barely even responds to people when they talk to him. This is not normal human behaviour! The villain (although there really aren't any "good guys" in the film) is also a strange character. There's a scene with his daughter that seems to suggest that he's a compassionate person, but his actions speak otherwise.
Honestly, if it weren't for Kristin Scott Thomas' fierce performance, I would think that the film was set in some kind of undead zombie universe. You truly miss her when she's not on screen. She almost saves the film, but everyone else is way too sedate for her performance to have any meaningful effect.
Overall, I recognize the film's impressive visual style, with its impeccable set design and lighting. There's even a sick beauty to the creative ways in which the characters choose to inflict pain and death. Also, the film has an interesting aural quality, as can be expected from a Nicolas Winding Refn film. Unfortunately, these strong aspects are not enough to be satisfactory for a full feature-length film.
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013
When Guillermo del Toro announced his epic vision for "Pacific Rim", fanboys all over the world rejoiced. Naturally, it arrived this summer with huge expectations and thankfully, it didn't disappoint.
The story begins with a brief introductory prologue about the war between mankind and sea monsters called kaiju. Earth is on the brink of an apocalypse and requires one last stand to prevent humanity from going extinct. Using high-tech fighting machines called jaegers, a team of experts sets out to engage in this final showdown with the beasts. I could go on to analyze the finer details of the screenplay, but that would be futile. "Pacific Rim" is first and foremost an action movie, not a drama.
After the perfectly concise "cliffs notes" backstory, you are fully prepared for the thrill ride ahead. The film is jam-packed with setpieces that literally took my breath away at one point. As I said, the film is all about the fighting and those scenes are truly worth the price of admission. The battles deliver the excitement and adrenaline rush that a great summer blockbuster should. The sheer scale of the film is staggering, with some amazing visuals that are so detailed that you can tell that a lot of hard work was put into it. Simply put, the film looked expensive.
You may be wondering what separates this from films like "Transformers"? Well, this is a case where the director's touch makes a big difference. In the hands of Guillermo del Toro, the big moments are filmed with a measure of beauty and artfulness, unlike the rote bravado of some other directors in the genre. Heck, I'm a Transformers apologist (the first film) and even I could tell a distinct difference in terms of directing skill. Guillermo captures that wide-eyed wonder and "wow factor" that's very rare in these days of "popcorn movie" saturation. Yes, the film may lack emotional/intellectual depth and nuance, but it's an outstanding visual spectacle.
Among all the fighting, there's also a welcome dose of humour. This comes mainly from Charlie Day, who once again proves that he makes every film better with his presence. As an eager scientist, his energetic shtick suits the role perfectly. Less effective is his counterpart Burn Gorman. His characterization is just too broad and strays into caricature. This is a minor qualm however and didn't affect my enjoyment of the film whatsoever. The other actors fare well too, but they are really just there to serve the story (it's clearly not an "actor's film").
With its efficient storytelling, brisk pacing and outstanding visuals, "Pacific Rim" successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do. If you want an exciting action movie with purposeful direction, then I would definitely recommend this one.
Friday, July 19, 2013
It's been a while since I've done a "Follow Friday" post, but this week delivered lots of great reading. This includes great Top 10 lists from Dan and Stevee, among other interesting articles. Check em out below:
Dan Fogarty named his Top Ten Bruce Willis Movies.
Stevee makes a brief return to blogging to reflect on last year's visionary directors.
Dan Heaton reviewed one of my favourite Billy Wilder films - Stalag 17.
John wonders whether The Fifth Estate could be a sleeper hit at the Oscars.
Nick from French Toast Sunday shares his Six Shawshank Redemption Films, i.e. the films he can watch anytime.
Nick from The Cinematic Katzenjammer gives us 11 Reasons Everyone Needs To See Pacific Rim.
Sam reviewed the highly acclaimed Before Midnight.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
This week's Hit me with your best shot took me way back to my childhood with "Mary Poppins". I wore out that VHS as a child, but I hadn't revisited it in at least 10 years. To be honest, I don't think it holds up as well under modern adult eyes, but it's still a delight. On this viewing I was struck by how audaciously wacky it is and that's what I focused on for my favourite shot.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, July 15, 2013
My top pick for this week is Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt", starring Mads Mikkelsen. It's a film that premiered at Cannes last year and garnered the festival's Best Actor prize for Mikkelsen. A year later, the film finally hits theaters across the pond and we can now share in the enthusiasm for this fine film.
The movie follows a brief period in the life of a schoolteacher who is wrongfully accused of sexual abuse by one of his young female students. After rejecting her inappropriate advances, she decides to fabricate a lie in retort. Her vivid imagination manages to convince some of the higher powers in the school system and it launches a whirlwind of drama for this innocent man. As the lie spreads, it changes significantly to the point where all of the children are now accusing him. It's shocking to watch, exposing some of the ugliest elements of human behaviour. Although the lie started with this young girl, its escalation was primarily the result of the vivid imagination of the adults, not the child. This fact perfectly illustrated how the smallest doubt can give you such strong conviction. There are several brilliant moments in the film where you can see the characters thinking. You can sense their internal debate as they make up their minds about Lucas. Likewise, you as the viewer will often wonder what you would do in the same situation.
If you were to cut out the pre-confession segment of the film, it would change the movie significantly. Klara (the accuser) is so utterly convincing that the film would have become a psychological mystery as you would try to ascertain his guilt. Child molestation is such a serious issue and the film emphasizes this through all the vicious antagonism that he endures throughout the community. As the film shows, even some of your close friends will turn their backs on you (Klara is actually his best friend's daughter) based on the mere suggestion of child abuse. The film isn't completely oppressive in its indictment of human behaviour though, thanks to the inclusion of some kind-hearted, rational people.
Mads Mikkelsen's performance has been lauded by many and he deserves all the praise, but honestly there was so much else going on that I could barely focus on him to fully judge his acting. Mikkelsen was obviously doing strong work though, skillfully showing how these allegations can destroy your life forever. I almost wanted to criticize him for being too placid at times, but he makes perfect acting choices throughout. In these situations, sometimes all you can really do is sit back and hope that people come to their senses.
One of the main criteria for a good film is its ability to suspend your disbelief. I've read other critics dismiss the film as an exaggerated witch-hunt, but I completely disagree. Based on what I saw in this film, I am convinced that this could easily happen in real life. We're naturally predisposed to believe a cute little girl when she claims abuse (especially when she vividly describes something that she shouldn't know about). Heck, I think I'd believe her myself and this simple truth terrifies me.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
Back in January, "Fruitvale Station" caused a major stir at the Sundance Film Festival. It brought back back the awful memories of a tragic New Year's Eve incident, touching the hearts of critics and audiences alike. By the end of the festival, it had swept both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards. Suffice it to say, I had high hopes for this film. After watching it on Friday, I can now say that it almost lives up to the hype.
The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young father who is on a collision course with fate on New Year's Eve 2008. As we spend a day with him, this urban drama establishes a documentary-like feel as it recreates the events surrounding that day. In fact, it feels more authentic than some documentaries in that there's no music cues or fancy editing to make it more entertaining. In addition, the script stays true to the manner of speech and attitude of its urban characters. The dialogue isn't all that eloquent and by extension, the plot (i.e. before the incident) is a bit mundane. Whether this works for you or not is entirely up to personal preference. To me, it made the script feel thin. That's not to say however that the direction of the film is sub-par. On the contrary, it's an impressive feat of realism. The plot is all about arriving at the impending big event and in a way, it makes it all the more powerful. Considering the serious nature of what happens, it's impressive that a newcomer would have the conviction to take the "less is more" approach. He could have easily made it more maudlin, but he respectfully reels it in. What unfolds is just an ordinary day, abruptly cut short by a shocking act of injustice. When it happens, it's so staggeringly real that you feel like you're watching a friend suffer. It's surprisingly unsentimental, but extremely powerful and that's all due to the controlled direction and outstanding performances.
I don't know if it was the director or the actors' decision to underplay the sentiment, but bravo to them. I was in tears all the way to the end. Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz are all astonishing in their roles. Diaz is perfectly cast (see "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" for a similarly adept performance) and Spencer's portrayal is such a beacon of strength that even the viewer could take solace in her calm presence. As the main character, Jordan reminded me of a young Denzel Washington, which is of course a major compliment. What's so great about the character is that he isn't a saint, just like some of Denzel's recent roles. He formerly sold drugs, served time in prison, cheated on his girlfriend and yet, you are absolutely drawn to him. Despite his past, he's a good person deep down who loves the women in his life above all else (his mother, grandmother, daughter and girlfriend). He also had positive aspirations for his future, which is so encouraging given his African-American urban background. Jordan uses these character traits perfectly, combining his handsome charm with a fierce intensity that captivates the viewer.
Oscar's background doesn't really mean much in the long run though. Your reaction to his demise doesn't hinge on your love for the character. The film is about a violation of a human being's right to life, plain and simple. Just like similarly themed documentaries, it's infuriating and saddening. Although it left me an emotional wreck, I'm grateful to have witnessed this affecting cinematic recreation.
Friday, July 12, 2013
When "Before Sunset" ended with Jesse leaving his wife to be with Celine, I always pondered the consequences of the decision. In effect, he went on a business trip and never came back home. It was a sweetly romantic ending for our main couple though, but yet you could tell that this relationship would have its difficulties too. From their conversations in that film, it was clear that a relationship with Celine would have its ups and downs. She's pessimistic about love and can quickly get into a funk. As a result, I was nervous before watching this movie, as I wanted to hold on to the idea of this perfect fairy tale romance. As I watched the film though, it became clear that it was a good decision to continue the story. Unlike other 2nd sequels, this film felt like a thoughtful, cohesive extension of its predecessors.
As I suspected, the pair have come into their own struggles when we meet them again 9 years later. The film begins with Jesse saying goodbye to his son (from the wife he unceremoniously dumped) at the end of their vacation in Greece. It quickly establishes that Jesse's decision understandably soured the relationship between him and his ex-wife. We also see the strong relationship between him and his son, which has significant implications due to the custody battle between the parents. It initially feels like an unrelated side plot, but it's pivotal to the plot.
As he returns to Celine and their own twin girls, we rekindle the famous romance of Celine and Jesse. Thankfully, the chemistry is still there, but there's a distinctly different vibe. The energy has changed, the youthful spark is diminished. They are now relaxed and comfortable with each other like an "old married couple". The most important thing though, is that they obviously still like each other a lot. They tease and joke around like the best of friends. The tone continues like that through a middle section where they are dining with some friends. They debate the value of romantic love, the loss of loved ones etc., letting the script come through nicely with some insightful discussions. Yet, I wonder if this section was necessary. The film just doesn't feel right as an ensemble piece and it came across as less naturalistic than the previous films. The presence of other characters requires an element of forced contrivance that's not as organic as when it's focused on the pair of lovers.
It doesn't last too long however and it serves a good function of setting up a hotel night for the two that really gets the plot in motion. As they make their way to the hotel, they get back to their wonderful tête-à-tête that brings a smile to your face. You can notice slight differences in their personalities (both good and bad). In particular, I was surprised at Celine's amazing sense of humour and by extension, Julie Delpy herself. Delpy proves to be a natural comedienne and I was often howling with laughter. I haven't seen many outright comedies this year, but this is definitely the funniest film I've seen in 2013. When they get to the hotel room however, that's when get down to the real "nitty gritty" of "Before Midnight".
I just claimed this to be a laugh riot, but that's not exactly true for the full runtime. As we delve into the development of their relationship since the previous film, the film becomes brutally honest about the darker side of marriage. We finally get to see a real argument between the pair and it was a proper argument indeed. It threatens to tear apart the whole relationship and it's quite tense. I wouldn't go into details, but believe me, it's powerful.
What eventually happens following the argument feels so perfectly in sync with what we know about the characters both individually and together. It's a unique situation where the actors have literally had decades to understand the characters, and it shows. The director and his actors have crafted a fitting end to the trilogy, truthfully revealing the harsh reality of longterm committement. It proves that even in the most amorous relationships, you sometimes have to fight to make the love last. It takes sacrifice and compromise. When two people complement each other as well as Celine and Jesse though, it's clearly worth the few emotional and psychological bruises along the way.
I would definitely recommend this film, though I personally don't think it's as excellent as the previous films. As I stated earlier, it sometimes lacked the naturalistic flow that I've come to expect. Likewise with the direction, it doesn't have the same affection for the setting in "Before Sunrise" and neither does it have the impressive unobtrusive long takes found in "Before Sunset". I also didn't like the new characterization of Jesse as a shallow horndog. It didn't jive with what we know of the character and it felt forced in to facilitate a cliche discussion about men thinking only with their penis. It takes away from some of the magic for me but overall, the film is deserving of its enthusiastic reception.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
This week on Hit me with your best shot, we watched the early David Cronenberg film "Dead Ringers". It was my first time watching it and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I found it a bit dry overall, but there were some strong moments that were quite chilling. Additionally, there were some scenes that were actually funny (was that intentional?). I feel I must also make mention of Jeremy Irons' great performance. He really made me believe I was watching two different persons.
For my favourite shot, I went with an image that somewhat reflects the film's dark humor.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, July 8, 2013
In the Western world, particularly in American society, the idea of socialism can send people into panic mode. We've come to think of it as such a foreign, evil concept that we sometimes forget that there was actually a sizable socialist movement happening in the USA during the early 1900s. Well, that's the subject of Warren Beatty's sweeping epic "Reds".
I'm not as well versed in my world history as I should be, so I relish films like these that seek to inform while they entertain. This film certainly pulls off both of those goals as it is truly fascinating. It tells the story of a pair of writers (played by Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty) as they engage in a romance while participating in the 1917 Russian revolution and the concurrent activism in the United States. These are real life people and the film uses a useful tool to reflect that. Specifically, there are scattered interviews throughout that give some insights from persons who lived during the era and it turns out to be one of the strongest elements of the film. It adds valuable historical context of the events in addition to a strong sense of the time, place and people.
That last element (people) is really what's it's all about. Socialism is about fulfilling the needs of all of society's people equally. For the Bolsheviks, it was about overthrowing the aristocracy and giving power to the working class. Similarly, their American counterparts were rallying against capitalism. The film's protagonists are proponents of this philosophy and they give a really interesting point of view. They both initially came from comfortable lifestyles based on the capitalist economic model, but somehow they got captivated by the idealism of the socialist cause. As we learn of their experiences, it's easy to see what drew Beatty to these individuals' stories in the first place (John Reed and Louise Bryant). They are such rich, interesting characters and they are amplified by the talented actors playing them.
The acting quality proves to be very important as its such a long film (3 hours and 15 minutes) that it threatens to lose the audience at various points. Fortunately, Diane Keaton, Warren Beatty and the supporting cast are all in top form in this film. I need to single out Diane Keaton in particular as she completely carries the film. She's so unassuming yet absolutely engaging for every minute she's on screen. Louise Bryant is a smart, complex woman and you really get that feeling just by looking at her eyes. Her romantic interests Beatty and Jack Nicholson are solid too, with Nicholson particularly showing a different side to his now famous persona. He's never been so sauve. I must admit, it's curious to see Maureen Stapleton as the Oscar winner from this cast, but she's good in her minor role.
Apart from the acting, there's a fine screenplay at work which allowed these actors to flourish. It's just a well-made film overall, fully deserving of all its Oscar nominations. The win for cinematography is especially nice to see as there are some tracking shots in the film's final act that literally made my jaw drop.
"Reds" has all the makings of a great film and it largely succeeds. I will say though, I wanted to see more of the actual events of the Russian revolution but I guess there are other films like "Doctor Zhivago" for that. It keeps its focus on specific people and that's admirable. In fact, the film turns out to be an epic that isn't really that epic at all (in terms of visual grandeur and narrative sensationalism). As a result, you may find your patience tested throughout but trust me, it's worth it.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Hit me with your best shot returns this week with George Lucas' 1973 high school drama "American Graffiti". This was my 2nd time viewing this film and I find it quite curious. When one thinks of these end of high school dramas, you immediately expect an atmosphere of nostalgia. As I watch this film however, I feel like any nostalgic feeling is forced by the viewer. In fact, I find it to be a very sad and melancholic film. It doesn't make me want to go back to high school at all.
Despite the difference in tone compared to more rosy high school films, it's still able to strongly capture the essence of the high school experience in the early 1960s. It's such a great curio for that time period, especially in relation to slang terms like "going steady". I sometimes wish the story would delve into the individual characters even more, but the broad themes and iconography provide enough interest. This iconography is the focus of my pick for best shot.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, July 1, 2013
If you've watched enough movies about Louisiana's bayou region, you know that the plot will involve some shady dealings or at the very least some tragedy. Even the animated film "The Princess and the Frog" had some sinister elements to it. "Eve's Bayou" is no different and the execution seems acutely aware that you already have a good idea of what's going to happen. How successfully this pays off in the end is subjective. For me, it was ultimately effective.
The film's title has double meaning, referring to the name of the main protagonist, as well as the actual name of the place where the story is set. Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) is the narrator, recounting the story of her family. It begins with a party, which serves to introduce us to all the characters. The most striking of these introductions is that of the mother Roz Baptiste. Played by Lynn Whitfield, she's a beautiful woman who projects fierce confidence. Her piercing eyes and sharp bone structure almost resemble that of a villain or sultry witch from a Disney movie. That may sound like an exaggeration, but let's not forget that this is the bayou, so of course there's voodoo and mystical abilities at play. In fact, her sister-in-law Mozelle has psychic powers. The other main family members include Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) and her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson). As everyone is enjoying the festivities, it's Louis who gets the plot going with a scandalous act of adultery, accidentally witnessed by Eve.
Although his character is important, he often seems like a mere plot device. He's such a simpleton, that it's sometimes hard to believe that he's a doctor. To be honest, all the male characters seem like afterthoughts. It's not a major problem, as you soon realize that the film is about women and the secrets and lies that they keep. What fascinating women they are too.
As I mentioned earlier, Whitfield's aura as Roz is that of strength and independence. As a result, it's hard to imagine her being the weak victim that she is. Perhaps that's the point that Lemmons is trying to make, as her fake public persona is part of her own web of lies. To me, Whitfield plays it almost too well though.
The film has a beautiful sadness to it and that's heavily influenced by Debbie Morgan's excellent performance as Mozelle. She's been through so much pain and tragedy and she infuses it into her environment whenever she's on screen.
Good's characterization of Cisely brings with it some turmoil as well. Her character is coming into womanhood, but it's under circumstances that are far from ideal.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the young Jurnee Smollett. She's obviously not as experienced as Whitfield, but she's impressive in the lead role. It's much more than "child acting". She gives a fully-realized and purposeful performance. Her character is the voice of reason, trying to make sense of her world amidst a family of women content to sit back and deceive themselves. She's like a surrogate for the audience, asking all the right questions and revealing harsh truths. She's just as frustrated as the viewer, hoping the other women will jolt themselves out of their entropy and improve their situation. Of course, this desire falls on deaf ears which is understandable considering the status and culture of Southern women in the early 1960s.
As I said earlier, the film thrives on its predictability (every major event is hinted at about 20 minutes prior). It's this awareness that keeps you interested however. You keep watching as you want to see how it all plays out. It felt a bit too stage-bound at times (Mozelle has one too many monologues), but it's altogether an engaging watch. As you get comfortable though, the film then plays its trump card with a stunning ending. It's devastatingly effective and hits home the message about the effect of the lies we tell to protect ourselves.
Our lies will be our undoing, but once the cycle starts, is the truth attainable any more? Futhermore, should we even try to correct our past mistakes? I thought I knew the answer to that question, but by the end of this film I had my doubts. The fact that "Eve's Bayou" ends up being so thought-provoking coming from such a rote dramatic formula speaks a lot to the quality of Kasi Lemmons' writing and directing. Go rent this film and see for yourself.