Thursday, October 31, 2013

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Girl Most Likely


With a cast that includes Annette Bening, Kristen Wiig, Matt Dillon and Darren Criss, I expected "Girl Most Likely" to at least be mildly amusing. Well, that wasn't the case as this comedy is largely humourless. It's a real shame because the plot had some seeds of potential that would have allowed the film to flourish with this talented group of actors.
The story follows Imogene (Kristen Wiig), a young playwright who loses her job and her boyfriend in New York City, prompting an emotional breakdown that leads to a fake suicide. Due to her unstable mental state, she's forced to move in with her eccentric mother in New Jersey. Unfortunately, they have a strained relationship. This is further exacerbated by the fact that also has to deal with her mother's disengenuous boyfriend (Matt Dillon), her awkward brother (Christopher Fitzgerald) and a strange young man (Darren Criss) who is renting her old room. As she slowly reconnects with her hometown community though, she gradually fines new meaning in her life.
These characters and the themes lay the foundation for an interesting character study, but the film gets stale very quickly. Despite the offbeat characters, the performances aren't nearly quirky enough to make them interesting. Whoever's decision it was to downplay the comedy made a huge mistake. Furthermore, there are some interesting ideas of depression, family and tolerance, but the screenplay is reluctant to dig any deeper than the basic plot outline. To be honest, it's a cowardly screenwriting effort.
"Girl Most Likely" is easily one of the most disappointing films I've seen this year. It wastes a perfectly capable cast (especially Kristen Wiig who found great success with a similar character in "Bridesmaids") on a script and a pair of directors who clearly don't have a proper grasp on the material. As a result, it's a film that is thoroughly lackluster. I'd skip it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

OLDIE GOLDIES: A Face In The Crowd (1957)

This week on Oldie Goldies I looked at one of the many great films by Elia Kazan - "A Face in the Crowd". This rags to riches story follows the rise of a charismatic everyman who becomes an overnight media sensation. It makes for a thoroughly compelling film, as the potent screenplay brilliantly shows the power that comes with fame and celebrity. It's so timeless that you could easily adapt it to a contemporary setting without changing a thing.

Monday, October 28, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Dirty Harry


When one thinks of 70s cinema, "Dirty Harry" is rarely mentioned as one of the decade's best. While it's not exactly a forgotten film, it just doesn't seem to have the same respect as the other great films of the era. While watching the film however, it's easy to notice that it features many of the same trademark stylistic qualities as those famed films by Francis Ford Coppola et al. What made the 1970s so great, is the way that the filmmakers approached film as art, while still ensuring they served their function as entertainment. This is clearly evident in this film.
The plot is instantly recognizable as your usual crime thriller, as the title character attempts to track down a madman named "the Scorpio Killer". We are quickly introduced this serial killer's murderous intent from the very first scene, as he takes out an innocent victim sniper-style. It's a striking opening, not only for the blunt wickedness of the act, but also for the way it is shot. Bruce Surtees (the cinematographer) uses an overhead perspective which instills a strong sense of place (the city of San Francisco) while also establishing the idea of rooftops as a sniper's playground. In fact, the angular metropolis layout reminded me of video games like SimCity. Evidently, even this bright sunny locale is prone to random acts of violence. As we get deeper into the plot, the gritty reality of this danger continues to be fostered through this impeccable cinematography.
To support these daring images, the director Don Siegel and his team of screenwriters also make conscious decisions to portray the setting as a place filled with vice. It's a film that is packed with flawed characters, including our hero Harry. In particular, Siegel isn't shy with his depictions of nudity, racism and violent crime.
As Harry navigates the city to capture this criminal, the film also illuminates the daily procedural aspects of his job. Apart from the murder investigations, the film does an interesting thing by alternately showing police work as annoyance. Yes, Harry has to deal with serial killers, but he also has to deal with more trivial cases of people doing dumb things (like threatening to jump off buildings). It's a fascinating side to police work that is rarely ever included in similar thrillers. This further adds to the realism of the screenplay, showing some of the other variables that make crime-solving difficult.
The final aspect that makes this film compelling is the actors. The casting is simply perfect, with Clint Eastwood effortlessly embodying the confident arrogance of Harry, while Andrew Robinson is suitably diabolical as the villain. The quality of these performances prove to be very important as Harry is forced to make tough (sometimes unlawful), but understandable decisions to prevent further murders. Likewise, if it weren't for the sinister actions and deranged demeanour that Robinson conveys, Harry's blurred moral lines wouldn't be nearly as justifiable. Of course, each viewer brings their own personal set of values, but the script goes a long way in fleshing out the conflicted morality at play.
Overall, this film is the impressive result of a confident director making the most of a talented cast and crew. Despite the pulpy elements of its crime thriller genre, the film doesn't rest on its laurels. It's just as accomplished (smart writing, artful cinematography, skillful acting etc.) as a prestige drama. Truly, the fact that "Dirty Harry" is often seen as a minor effort in the pantheon of 70s cinema emphatically proves that famous saying - "They don't make em like they used to".

This film is part of my List of Shame.

Monday, October 21, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: The Way Way Back


I watched many good films this week, but the one that left the biggest impression was "The Way Way Back". Chronicling a summer in the life of a lonely, awkward teenager named Duncan (Liam James), this endearing story wore down the cynic in me and won me over. It's a comedy so forthright with its sweetness, it's a minor miracle that it still manages to feel so genuine and true to life.
The film opens with a jarring scene that introduces our main antagonist Trent, played by Steve Carell (shockingly believable as an arrogant stud). He is the new boyfriend of Duncan's mom Pam (Toni Colette) and he is driving them to his beach house for the summer vacation. Along the way (with Pam fast asleep), he asks Duncan to reveal his opinion of himself, on a scale of 1 to 10. Upon replying with the number 6, Trent rebukes him, saying that he's a 3 due to his underdeveloped social skills. Trent further remarks that the experiences Duncan will have in this crucial summer will greatly improve his character. Of course, it's an insensitive way of getting this point across, but there's a truth to it that succinctly sets up the film's themes.
Indeed, we soon realize that Duncan is incredibly awkward, painfully so at times. As the viewer, you'd even want to shake him out of his self-imposed dullness. Fortunately for him, he'll soon get a wake up call from a welcoming stranger named Owen. Played with affable charm by Sam Rockwell, he's a fascinating character to compare with Trent. Even as the script sets up Trent as the villain, Owen isn't all that different. He points out Duncan's lacking sense of humour and his shyness and forces him into uncomfortable situations. However, the different approaches (serious vs playful) by these two men with equal intentions, have vastly different effects on this impressionable young man. It's this attention to character detail and truthful screenwriting that makes this screenplay so admirable. Owen is obviously the inspirational father figure type in this story, but the writers are smart enough to avoid the cliches. There are no "seize the day" pep talks or declarations of love, just endearing expressions of humanity and kindness. He simply spends quality time with Duncan, giving him a summer job at the local water park and ample opportunities for social interaction.
The film shines on these finely written characters, all rendered with superb acting. Apart from Carrell, James and Rockwell, there are standout performances from Allison Janney and Toni Collette. As one of the neighbours in this beach town, Janney's character is similar to Trent, in that she's unafraid to speak her mind. In particular, she never hesitates to point out her own son's physical flaw - his crossed eyes. However, she's also just as expressive with her affections towards him. She's such a welcome scene-stealing presence in the film.
Last but certainly not least, Toni Collette is outstanding as Pam, a woman coming to terms with her failed romantic relationships. Much like her impressive turn in "About a Boy", she has an amazing ability to convey fragility with minimal effort. In a film that already has a lot going for it, she really does make it that much richer.
Many would label this as a coming of age story, but I don't think it's as ambitious as that description usually implies. Duncan's character arc relates to that universal desire to be a better version of ourselves, whether young or old. It's this unabashed optimism that makes "The Way Way Back" such pleasant viewing. It's a film with an important message, delivered with skill by a fine ensemble and a winning script. Taken from the lyrics of the film's end credits song, I'll leave you with that final note - Go where the love is.

Friday, October 18, 2013

#FF Captain Phillips, Le Week-End and more...


The major release of this week was the new Paul Greengrass film "Captain Phillips", starring Tom Hanks. As a fan of the film myself, I was glad to see the warm reception from my fellow bloggers. Check out some of those reviews below, as well as the other great reads from the past week.

Dan was a big fan of Captain Phillips, giving it an enthusiastic review.

John gave Captain Phillips a rave review.

Ryan also praised Captain Phillips in his review.

Amanda from Filmoria reviewed Le Week-End (in black and white version too!).

Simon from Flickering Myth sees similarities to the "Before" trilogy in his review of Le Week-End.

Alex compiled another fantastic list, naming his "Top 10 Movies that Make Him Cry".

David is back in the predicting game, so go check out his early picks for Best Picture!

Joey from The Awards Circuit posted his Ten Best Films of the 51st New York Film Festival.

Josh singled out 10 Acting Contenders We Might Be Overlooking for Oscar.

Shantanu shines the spotlight on a great Bollywood Film - Taare Zameen Par.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

OLDIE GOLDIES: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

This week on Oldie Goldies I highlight one of the best movies about the movies - "Sunset Blvd.". Similar to its thematic sibling of the year ("All About Eve"), the film centers largely on an aging actress desperately trying to hold on to her fame. Playing that role here is the striking Gloria Swanson, who does justice to this plum role. The film surrounding her is equally as riveting, from the brilliant screenplay to the haunting art direction and cinematography. The AMPAS certainly agreed, awarding the film with 3 Oscars (Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Score) in addition to nominations for: Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture.

Monday, October 14, 2013

MOVIE OF THE WEEK/OSCAR WATCH: Captain Phillips


This week brought yet another Oscar contender to table, in the form of Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips". Based on a true story, it recounts the hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates. As tensions mount after this ambush, the titular captain (Tom Hanks) must use all of his wits to protect his crew from this band of pirates and their fearsome leader Muse(Barkhad Abdi).
Much of the film is focused on this power struggle between Muse and Captain Phillips and it's a compelling one at that. Hanks and Abdi are superb in their portrayals, never losing sight of their characters' individual realities. Not once do you feel like the plot or dialogue has been embellished for dramatic purposes. There's not a false note in the entire film. Neither actor uses showboating acting methods, captivating the audience instead with empathetic performances of surprising vulnerability. Hanks in particular gives an accomplished display, underplaying the heroism to give it that everyman quality that we've come to love from him. This is a slightly different version though. Throughout his career his acting has often felt "young" (or at least younger than he is), but here he fully embraces the experienced confidence of the character. It's almost like we're seeing a new movie star emerge in front of our eyes.
On the other hand, a truly new actor is presented in Abdi. In his first ever film role, he gives it a fearless authenticity that's effectively unrefined. His dialogue scenes sometimes show his inexperience, but there's no denying his natural ability. Especially in his quieter moments, he successfully conveys a man who is constantly thinking (whether it be worrying, planning or simply contemplating).
These two characters are the foundation for the story and my, what a story it is. This is a plot that is deceptively simple. Yes, the trajectory of events is nothing special, but the screenwriting between start and finish is remarkable. There's a high level of difficulty here, as it requires a great deal of narrative interest to keep the audience engaged. The screenplay accomplishes this perfectly, sustaining a powerful forward momentum from the time the hijacking occurs. It's truly a masterclass of writing and editing, as it breezes through the 134 minute run time without a single dull moment. It's efficient storytelling, eschewing unrealistic monologues and lengthy exposition, yet still supplying ample thematic and character depth. Indeed, the characters' casual anecdotal remarks provide more satisfying background information than some prequel films.
Of course, Paul Greengrass makes a major contribution too, as he firmly puts his stamp on the material. Throughout the film, it plays distinctly like an action-thriller, which is all due to his direction. The big moments (hijacking, escape attempts, rescue attempts) have an undeniable kinetic energy that's usually reserved for more overt action or thriller films. Such is the palpable sense of urgency that you may even begin to doubt your knowledge of the characters' fates, despite the real life evidence. It makes for an entertaining film, even though it sometimes clashes with the intimate nature of the story. The context unfortunately provides no big action setpieces to properly take advantage of his style. In truth, the setting and material seem to call for a more typical dramatic approach (a lot of it is even shot in closeup), so it slightly prevents the film from being as poignant as it ought to be.
All things considered though, the film that Greengrass set out to make is very respectable in its own right. It's highly proficient filmmaking that ticks all the boxes required for an entertaining cinematic experience. Biopics have never been so thrilling.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Gravity


The genre of science fiction, specifically those set in space, has bred some of cinema's finest achievements - "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Alien" for example. With all due respect to the reverence attached these films(based largely on their age), 2013's "Gravity" is just as brilliant and in some ways, even more quintessential. For experiencing the visceral thrill of being in space, "Gravity" is unmatched.
The 90 minute adventure of the film tracks a space mission involving our protagonist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). This is her first expedition, accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). It's a wondrous new experience for her, made all the more pleasant by the quippy charm of Kowalski. Unfortunately, their work is soon disrupted by high-speed debris hurtling towards them.
What follows is a frightening but thrilling tale of survival. Stone must summon all her courage and wit to devise a new rescue mission. The damage of the collision is catastrophic, practically a disaster movie of sorts. It's a specific personal experience for Stone, but Cuaron amplifies the gravity (no pun intended) of the situation to mind-blowing effect. In a feat of virtuosic directing, Cuaron uses visual storytelling that is unique and original. Words are inadequate to describe the astonishing quality of the cinematography and visual effects. Never has something so unfathomable seemed so tangible. You're likely to be left in flabbergasted awe, wondering how they managed to successfully pull off such an ambitious film. It's a triumph on all fronts, with particular achievements in visuals, sound and editing.
Cuaron really reinvogorates the power of the closeup and the long take. The immediacy is palpable, never allowing you to detach yourself from the raw energy of the adventure. But even though the action is forceful and robust, there's an overarching grace due to the fluidity of the camerawork and editing. It's impressive enough to work as a silent film, but there's no denying the excellence of the film's sound. The sound effects and score resonate and help to transport you to this new frontier (assuming you've never been to space yourself).
Indeed, the technical prowess almost defies the usual classification of cinema. However, there's a beating heart at the film's core that avoids any esoteric agenda. The images of earth, space and spacecraft are stunning, but the human story is why you bought the ticket (by the way, please watch this on the big screen). The screenplay itself is perhaps the weakest element of the film, something you're likely to hear from the film's detractors. I wager that this is simply because the technical craft is so ahead of its time that the storytelling is glaringly conventional. This is nitpicking though, as its not a bad script by any means. It's a film of powerful emotion, delivered by an actress in peak form. Never let it be said that Sandra Bullock is not a good actress. She carefully lays out that character arc so that the emotions creep up on you, coalescing in a rapturous finale. It's such a great character, instilling with it a sense of heroism and sprituality. Without her, the film wouldn't be nearly as profound.
There's a point in the movie when Clooney explains the blissful feeling of being in the calm environs of space. It allows you to literally leave all your troubles and fears behind. The film's audiovisual excellence translates this so perfectly for the viewer. It's why this movie will attract numerous repeat viewings.
But earth beckons in the background, beautiful in its own right. At the end of the day you have to go back home, whether its from a daring space mission or a simple trip to the movie theater. "Gravity" is an apt title then, conveying the truth in the science "fiction". The moments of euphoria (such as the experience of this groundbreaking film) enrich our lives but there are internal and external forces that pull us back to our everyday reality. The beauty of this dichotomy is what allows "Gravity" to transcend its genre and for that, it's a masterpiece.

Friday, October 11, 2013

#FF Gravity, The Third Man and more...


As you already know, "Gravity" made a major splash this past week with massive box office and universal critical acclaim. Personally, I couldn't be happier. It deserves all the attention and as expected, that has resulted in some fascinating debates. Check out some select reviews of the film below, as well as other great reads from this week.

Anna called it one of the best science fiction films ever made.

Candice describes the film as A Harrowing Yet Remarkable Film About Life, Death And The Fight In Between.

John was completely taken with the character arc and Cuaron's direction.

Lindsay from French Toast Sunday calls it a near-perfect cinematic achievement.

Ruth thinks of it as a triumphant film through and through.

Andrew gives his thoughts on Bonnie and Clyde and its inherent falsity.

Morgan caught up with the classic film The Third Man for Fogs' Movie Reviews.

Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, October 10, 2013

OSCAR WATCH: Rush


In case you haven't heard, Ron Howard is back with a new film - a biopic of Formula One competitors Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It follows their exciting rivalry throughout the 1976 racing season, with a disastrous incident in the mix to provide some much needed dramatic weight. It's a film that is distinctly unbalanced in tone and quality but to its credit, it finishes strong.
The first half is certainly weaker, presenting a slight film that negates the main reason for making the film at all. Opening with a voiceover, Lauda explains the risks and dangers associated with the sport. It's particularly ominous, but seems to be quickly forgotten. There's a jovial tone focusing on the glamour of the lifestyle that establishes the characters but adds nothing else. It has a glossy sheen and puts too much emphasis on the petty name-calling and trash-talk. Even though there are brief moments alluding to the fatalities that occur each season, these are swept aside all too quickly. If this was a dangerous sport, then you wouldn't know it from this portion of the film. That is, until Lauda gets into freak accident and gets trapped in his flaming car.
Indeed, the second half is where things really kick into high gear. After surviving the incident, Lauda is determined to overcome the setback and recover in time to still emerge as world champion. Even with obvious damage to his face, he remains as competitive and confident as ever. Brühl plays it well, selling you on the determination of the character. I most admit however, to being more impressed by Chris Hemsworth. As the rakish Hunt, he's perfectly cast. Hunt is all about bad boy sex appeal, which Hemsworth has in spades. Lauda on the other hand, is the buttoned-up, wholesome polar oppposite. He's focused and disciplined, unlike his plilandering nemesis. In other words, he's quite boring from a dramatic point of view. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the roles, but Brühl's predicament should have been approached with a bit more than one-note steeliness.
Performances aside, this section of the film is great for the excitement of the racing scenes. There's a tension and excitement that takes hold, due to the dynamic editing, cinematography and "ticking clock" screenwriting. These final scenes are much better at capturing the serious competitiveness of being a sportsman. The lingering memories of Lauda's crash also add a humanity to the story and characters that was missing at the start. It all comes together for an awesome, heart pounding climax.
Despite the lackluster opening, Howard soon gets on track to deliver the visceral thrills that the story deserves. It may not reinvent the wheel, but it's worth the trip.

OLDIE GOLDIES: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

This week's Oldie Goldies pick is 1957's "Sweet Smell of Success". This film tells the story of a Broadway columnist and his efforts to break up his sister's romance with a musician, with the help of a press agent. On the surface, the plot seems trivial (by film-noir standards), but its sly undercurrents reveal a brilliant screenplay at work. It's also stylishly directed with rock solid acting from the entire cast.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

NYFF: Wrapping up the festival


The 51st New York Film Festival isn't over yet, with the world premiere of "Her" still to come. My time at the festival is sadly over though, but I have no regrets. I had a wonderful time at my first film festival. It was a welcome change to watch films with New York's cinephile community, in addition to the benefits of attending press screenings. I wouldn't hesitate to come back again.

To recap my experience, here are a few random thoughts and observations:
  • Press conferences are awesome. It's an invaluable experience to hear from the filmmakers right after watching a film.
  • Joaquin Phoenix is every bit as flippant as you'd expect.
  • Steve McQueen is a very intelligent man. He gave the best press conference of the weekend.
  • I had the pleasure of meeting fellow LAMB bloggers Shala Thomas and Max Covill. They're so cool!
  • I also met THE Nathaniel Rogers and Michael Cusumano. They're cool too!
  • Favourite film: 12 Years A Slave
  • Favourite director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
  • Favourite performance: Paulina García, Gloria
  • Favourite screenplay: Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, Gloria
Here's how I'd rank the 8 films I saw(in order of preference):

12 Years A Slave
Gloria
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Le Week-End
The Immigrant
About Time
Abuse of Weakness
Bastards

Monday, October 7, 2013

NYFF: 12 Years a Slave & Le Week-End

Thanks to Manhattan traffic, I only made it to 2 of my 3 scheduled screenings on my final day. The good news is that I was able to see one of the year's best films, which more than made up for it. Read on for my thoughts on "12 Years A Slave" and "Le Week-End".

Sunday, October 6, 2013

NYFF: About Time & Abuse of Weakness

After watching a non-festival showing of "Gravity" (more on that later this week) last night, my two screenings had a lot to live up to. Perhaps that played into my underwhelmed responses, but I assure you that these are my true gut feelings towards these films. Read on to find out what I had to say about "About Time" and "Abuse of Weakness".

Saturday, October 5, 2013

NYFF: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

My second day at the New York Film Festival was considerably lighter, but no less vital. The focus of the day was the world premiere of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". Read on for my thoughts on the film:

Friday, October 4, 2013

NYFF: The Immigrant, Bastards & Gloria

My first day at the 51st New York Film Festival was quite the busy one and it's a minor miracle that I managed to stay alert after only arriving in NYC late this same morning! Thankfully my body didn't give in to its narcoleptic tendencies and I managed to fully absorb 3 different films. My responses to the trio were extremely varied but I ended the day on a high note. Read on for my reviews of "The Immigrant, "Bastards" and "Gloria".

Thursday, October 3, 2013

NYFF: Preview

The time has come and naturally I'm very excited. Tonight I'll be heading straight to the airport after work to catch my flight, set to arrive at JFK around midnight. I therefore won't get much sleep, as I need to get up bright and early to collect my press credential, followed by a full day of press screenings. It promises to be a great film festival and I've got some interesting films lined up. So without further ado, here's my schedule for the long weekend. All are from the Official Selection unless otherwise stated.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

PODCAST: Most Anticipated for Fall/Winter

I recently made my 3rd appearance on the LAMBcast, discussing our Most Anticipated Films for the rest of 2013. Give it a listen to find out what Justin, Robert, Lindsay, Kristen and I are looking forward to.

Click here to listen.