Wednesday, May 28, 2014
With the huge success of "Les Miserables" and "Frozen", the musical genre seems like its making a strong comeback, especially if 2014 is any indication. This coming year brings a number of options for fans of the genre. As soon as next month we'll have our first musical of the year (well, apart from "Muppets Most Wanted" and "Rio") in the form of Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys". Have a look at the trailers below to find out what's in store:
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
For this week's Hit me with your best shot, Nathaniel decided to tackle the infamous Oscar-winner "How Green Was My Valley", aka "Nostalgia: The Movie". I say this in jest, as I quite like the film despite its penchant for overt sentimentality. On this rewatch, I was actually quite intrigued by the way director John Ford manipulates the schmaltz in the film. Sure, there's an overarching nostalgia, but there are also instances where it's curiously downplayed (notice how unceremoniously the boys depart their home for example). The sentimentality is so frequently undercut by rugged "manliness", derived from the coal mining industry that sustains the town. Suffice it to say, it deserves more than its "sappy trifle" reputation would suggest.
Staying on the subject of sentimentality, I've always loved the film's title. It's so apt, as it perfectly conveys the tone and message of the film. The past tense and lack of question mark instantly put you into the mindset of the film's narrator, reminiscing about happier times. It practically compels you to let out a sigh after saying it. For my best shot then, I decided to go with something that best captured the general feeling of the film and its title.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, May 26, 2014
Wars form a central component in "X-Men: Days of Future Past". Yet this latest entry into the X-Men franchise isn't a "war movie" per se. Rather, it's a story about finding peace before the slippery slope of violence takes hold. This resolute sense of morality is just one of the impressive factors at play in this film, which is my latest choice for "Movie of the Week".
The film begins with a prologue, as we get a glimpse at the future. As we find out through Professor X's (Patrick Stewart) narration, a holocaust of sorts has been unleashed on mutants around the world. We see piles of dead bodies, inclusive of mutants and human sympathizers alike. It's all a result of a decision made decades prior, when humans decided to develop robots called Sentinels, which absorb mutant powers in order to exterminate them. In a last-ditch effort to save the mutants from extinction, Professor X devises a plan to send Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to change the course of history.
The time travel takes Logan to 1973, during the final days of another losing war - Vietnam. The conflict has taken its toll on humans and mutants alike, with Professor X's Institute for Gifted Youngsters deserted by the large numbers of drafted mutants who perished. The young Charles Xavier is left a broken man, internalizing all the suffering of his fellow mutants, in addition to harboring resentment towards his best friends (Raven Darkholme/Mystique and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto) who abandoned him. In comes Wolverine to save the day then, hoping to convince this trio (Professor X, Mystique and Magneto) to work together and prevent the events that lead to Mystique's shape-shifting powers being stolen to create the Sentinels.
By setting the plot within the context of the fictional Sentinel war and the controversial Vietnam war, "X-Men: Days of Future Past", immediately shows its intent to reach for grander themes. Just like the future humans (many of whom were persecuted for aiding the mutants) are no better off with the Sentinels, so too did the Vietnam War turn out to be a pointless waste of American lives. The script then links the two, positing the Sentinel program as its own desperate attempt to reinvigorate the human race. As we flash forward to the dystopian future though, the film sends a clear message of the futility of war, forming the foundation for this unexpectedly deep plot.
As it turns out, this is the rare superhero film that gives equal weight to the drama and action. In fact, it may even place more emphasis on its dramatic elements. Unlike the much-maligned "Man of Steel" for example, it strongly considers the consequences of aggression. It addresses the moral issues surrounding friendship, forgiveness and revenge through the relatably human interactions between its mutant characters. Indeed, Logan's mission is mainly one of persuasion, as he urges Magneto, Professor X and especially Mystique to foster peace with the humans, even under attack by Bolivar Trask (the scientist behind the Sentinel program). As such, it allows the film's phenomenal cast to shine, portraying their superhuman characters with unusual vulnerability. Of particular note is James McAvoy, giving a tremendously moving portrayal of a lost man who must find his way again.
This attention to character feeds the action-based thrills too. Specifically, the film wisely acknowledges its extensive cinematic history and trusts that the audience has a pre-existing attachment to the characters. Each setpiece is crafted with a nod to the fans, highlighting the cool powers and distinct personalities of each of the X-Men. The iconography also pays dividends in the heavy tone of the dark future-set scenes, lending genuine gravitas to the idea of mutants in peril. A common criticism of superhero movies is the lack of a true sense of danger and consequences for the protagonists. Well, I can honestly say that in this instance I truly feared for the characters. What's even more impressive is that these emotions were garnered without a bombastic score to force my feelings. It's all due to the film's uniquely character-based design (even the visuals and sound effects aren't showy). The film is therefore unlikely to get any Oscar attention for its technical elements, but that's perfectly fine. It's got the real essentials of a good movie(acting, script, directing), not just superficial blockbuster glitz.
In the end, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" impresses for the ways that it constantly subverts expectations. Instead of building to a triumphant epic showdown, it reaches for a more meaningful, desperate tale of survival. If this is a hint towards an evolution towards more thematically-rich stories in this fantasy-based superhero subgenre (i.e. excluding the inherently "grounded" Dark Knight trilogy), then maybe we can tolerate the endless influx of these movies a little longer.
Friday, May 23, 2014
This week all the buzz was mostly about Godzilla, so I've included some of my favourite reviews for this post. Check them out below, as well as some other interesting reads from the past week:
Andrew and Sarah agreed that this is the perfect summer movie.
Johnson from An Online Universe wasn't so impressed, blaming the poorly executed script and the editing.
Nathan was conflicted about the end results, but admired Gareth Edwards' vision.
Nick appreciated the film's focus on the power of nature.
Paul reviewed Godzilla, Million Dollar Arm and Veronica Mars for his awesome TV gig at Twin Cities Live.
Alex honored the recently deceased cinematographer Gordon Willis with a lovely visual tribute.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The indie scene welcomes a new filmmaker this year, with the arrival of Pablo D'Stair's debut feature - "A Public Ransom". In this psychological drama, D'Stair plays with the medium by using a monochrome visual palette and several long takes. He clearly has an affinity for experimentation and the result is a mixed bag.
The story here involves a young writer named Steven (Carlyle Edwards), who gets entangled in a strange mystery. One day, he stumbles upon a questionable missing child poster (written in crayon), with the words "HLEPP ME?" and a phone number attached. Being the unemployed, idle person he is, he decides to dial the number out of sheer curiosity. It turns out that there's actually a man named Bryant (Goodloe Byron) on the other end, who claims to have kidnapped a young girl.
Initially dismissive of his confession, Steven chooses instead to draw inspiration from the incident to craft his next story. However, when he eventually meets Bryant in person, things start to get very fishy. This mysterious man demands a $2000 ransom and starts to creepily invade his life by forging a close relationship with Steve's best friend Rene (Helen Bonaparte). Over the course of the film, Steven must decide what's real and what's not, as Bryant becomes an ever-present threat to his piece of mind.
As the mystery unravels, the film seems to be influenced by various established directors, whether intentional or not. In particular, there are hints of Tarantino in the music choices and narrative structure (segmented by the days of the week) with a little bit of the Coen brothers in the script's black humour. In terms of the visuals, the press notes indicate that it was visually inspired by the early films of Bresson, Fassbinder and Jarmusch. Obviously, this is quite a varied mix and it's this amalgam of auteur styles that works to both the benefit and detriment of the film.
The most significant stylistic choice is certainly the film's look. The purposeful "vintage" style gives it a cool grungy feel, but it also sacrifices clarity. This murkiness is particularly noticeable in the outdoor nighttime scenes, of which there are many (and long ones at that). The environment is nicely shot but it too often detracts from the film's main draw - the performances.
Everyone knows that the acting in small budget films can be hit-or-miss, so it's a great relief that this film has such an able cast. Most impressive is Carlyle Edwards in the lead role, giving a performance that truly carries the film. His unique type of unsettled anxiety really sits well with the heady nature of the story. Even when the film is hard to follow (there are too many rambling phone conversations), his cadence and animated gestures keep you interested. If only we could see more of his face, which is frequently hidden in darkness. There's a lack of needed tension in some areas of the film and I think a stronger visual representation of the characters would have helped a great deal with audience engagement.
Overall, "A Public Ransom" is a film that perhaps tries too hard to establish an "auteur" vision, but it's fundamentally well-made. D'Stair's directing and writing shows promise, but the film's real coup is its leading man. When all is said and done, sometimes it just takes a good actor to make a film work.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
This week on Hit me with your best shot, Nathaniel revived a previous episode in the form of Bryan Singer's "X-Men". It's a film that I fondly remember due to the X-Men fantasticism of my youth and upon rewatch it's easy to see why. It totally plays up the cartoonish elements of the premise and is particularly reminiscent of the animated TV series. As such, it may not have held up very well over the years (even the music feels dated), indicating how quickly the superhero movie has evolved. For my choice then, I decided to highlight the absurdity.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, May 19, 2014
As the 2014 summer movie season gets into full swing, one of the more enjoyable cinema experiences will undoubtedly be Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla". With the critical failure of the previous iteration of the franchise, this is the rare occasion where a reboot felt necessary. After much anticipation, this famous city-destroying monster is back, but is there anything new to offer?
From the opening credits, "Godzilla" is smartly laying the foundation to tell its story. Showing footage of nuclear explosions, it plays with the paranoia surrounding nuclear technology, that reached its height in the mid-20th century. Later in the movie, we find out that this explosion was a desperate attempt to eradicate a giant sea creature. As you can surmise, the attempt was unsuccessful and in a cruel bit of irony, it turns out that nuclear radiation is actually the main food source for these prehistoric monsters.
As we fast forward to the present day crisis of the film, this conundrum remains the real crux of the story. As new monsters emerge throughout the Pacific region and devaste cities, the humans must come to terms with their culpability in this reckoning. Long dormant following the end of a highly radioactive period in earth's history, or desire for nuclear technology has revived these prehistoric creatures from the stone age. No longer needing to dwell near the earth's core, nuclear hotbeds attract them with their freely available sustenance. So as we make advancements in technology, there are unanticipated side effects that cause nature to respond. In effect, the situation bares some similarities to the consequences of climate change. As Ken Watanabe declares in the film, Godzilla (the king of the monsters) is here to restore the natural order.
It's this kind of modern thinking that makes this take on "Godzilla" feel relevant and fresh. So many scenes begin with images of various flora and fauna, subtlely reinforcing this focus on the natural world. As Godzilla's fellow creatures wreak havoc around the world, you get the sense that this a disaster movie more in the vein of "The Day After Tomorrow", rather than the terrifying creature feature that you'd expect.
Of course, the film is often heart-poundingly terrifying, but in a curious way. The attack scenes are superbly conceived and executed, but they often feel like they cut away right before the big climax. It fits in with the erratic way of natural disasters, but from a narrative standpoint it admittedly breaks up the momentum. It also robs the film of that higher level of Spielberg-like grandeur and wonder that it sets up through its visuals and sound. Unfortunately, these scenes give way instead to endless strategizing by the humans, by far the least interesting parts of the film. This is largely due to the minimal attention given to the human characters, as the script gives each actor a constricting set of emotions to convey. The cast is uniformly solid, but they're prevented from giving any further depth or nuance.
In the end however, this lack of character development hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. It's clear to see that Godzilla (and by extension, nature itself) is the true star of this show. With his imposing stature and commanding face (there's even a hint of old-school cheesiness to the design), everyone is just forced to stand back and watch in awe. He's one bad mofo.
"Godzilla" may not be the perfect summer movie that we unrealistically hope for, but its strongest aspects are truly top-notch. Particularly from a conceptual standpoint, Gareth Evans has an excellent vision for the character and its fictional world. This Godzilla is highly suited for today's society, exploiting our contemporary concerns for maximum thrills. This is what blockbuster reboots should strive for.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
If you weren't already aware, there's a bustling movement of underground indie cinema, producing films that you never hear about. One of these is John Brian King's "Redlands", a dark drama released earlier this year. This contained narrative uses a small cast with 3 main characters and is unlike anything you'll see in the multiplexes.
The story begins by introducing us to Vienna - Nicole Fox, of "America's Next Top Model" fame - as she records one of her frequent vlogs. She appears to be a cheerful girl with aspirations of becoming a model. Everything seems normal at first until we see her at her first photo shoot. It turns out that she wants to be a "glamour" model, posing nude for amateur photographer Allan (Clifford Morts), much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Zack. He protests intermittently, but he benefits too much from her earnings (to fund his music career) to seriously object. It's plain to see however, that there's something fishy about the whole situation (the photographer doesn't even have professional equipment), but Vienna's too naive to realize it. As Vienna develops a close work relationship with Allan, the plot slowly ambles down its increasingly dark path.
"Slow" is indeed the key word to describe this film. If there's one thing you'll take away from this viewing, it's the value of a good editor. Sadly, this film was sadly lacking in that department. It's filled with so many agonizingly long, uninteresting scenes that it almost becomes unbearable. The script is just so underdeveloped that you can feel the actors straining to make it work.
It's a shame really, as the characters have some amusing traits that could have been put to good use with a better script. Vienna is naive and slightly delusional, Zack has a vulgar, dirty mouth and Allan is an insensitive sociopath. Of the trio, only Vienna and Allan get any true character development, though the resolutions of their individual character arcs are less than satisfying. Zack meanwhile turns out be completely inessential to the plot. Still, based on the way the characters are written, I think the premise could have worked well as your standard dark comedy. Unfortunately, it tries to be a provocative art film but it just doesn't have the goods (it's way too dialogue-heavy for that).
There are glimmers of a quality film throughout "Redlands" (humourous dialogue, intriguing characters) but these are few and far between. I really wanted to get on board with it, but this foray into micro-budget filmmaking left me drifting. Perhaps you'll manage to get more out of it than I did. "Redlands" is now available on Vimeo On Demand and Amazon Instant Video.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
This week's pick for Hit me with your best shot is perhaps the most fitting film for this series - Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up". Its plot mainly centers around a British photographer Thomas, who spends most of his time seeking inspired shots in his work and his daily life. He's basically going through the same thing we do here every week, often finding interest in seemingly ordinary images. To make it even more "meta", Antonioni himself is compiling his best shots to make this film. What results is an alluring expression of feeling and mood, framed around a rudimentary plot.
For my best shot then, I took my cues from Antonioni and his lead character and went for something that captivated me simply for the mood it conveys.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, May 12, 2014
My top pick this week is Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar". This caught my attention as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, marking Palestine's 2nd nomination in the category. Its central topic is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing with it a story of romance, suspense and intrigue.
"Omar" is the story of a young Palestinian man (the title character) caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He and his two close friends are freedom fighters employing their own makeshift guerilla tactics to retaliate against the Israeli forces. During one eventful mission they successfully shoot down an Israeli soldier, raising many suspicions. The next day, Omar is captured during a seemingly routine chase and questioned about the incident. After a period of brutal torture and questioning, he is given an ultimatum - confess and become a secret informant against his companions or face life imprisonment. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he must make the crucial decision between preserving his future but betraying his people, or facing possible death for not cooperating.
The premise sets up a thrilling movie full of action and suspense. Clocking in at a neat 96 minutes, it gets right to the point. With its quick edits and polished cinematography, it could be easily mistaken for an action thriller in the vein of The Bourne trilogy. In fact, it seems less concerned with the psychology of this war and more with providing good old Hollywood entertainment. Thankfully then, their lead actor Adam Bakri has movie star charisma to spare, coupled with the impressive agility of a true action hero. He scales the separation wall with ease, dodging all the bad guys like a champ. If there was any doubt as to which side you should be rooting for, then Omar would quickly eliminate it.
As is the custom of these types of thrillers, Omar's actions aren't motivated only by his personal political philosophy. There must be a romantic element mixed in. Such is the case, as his love for the beautiful Nadia (sister of one of his friends) ends up being a key factor in his decision-making. His Israeli captors use her as blackmail, while their relationship contemplates many aspects of his daily life.
It all boils down to a plot that is enjoyable and accessible, albeit disappointingly familiar. There's a fascinating discourse to be had given the complexity of Omar's predicament, but this is subdued by a constant focus on the violence and the love story. With such dire actions and consequences involved, it lacks the requisite socio-political context. Granted, it's still thoroughly exciting, but a bit more thought-provoking social commentary would have taken the film to another level.
In short, "Omar" is a entertaining film with high production values, accompanied by a compelling lead performance. Its Hollywood sheen and crowd-pleasing design make it easy to understand why the Academy was so taken with it. Like so many other Oscar nominees, it's gratifying in the moment, even if it's bound to fade from memory in the not-too-disant future. It's too bad that the narrative hinges so much on trite sentiments of young love, as it could have been a truly robust piece of socially conscious cinema.
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Guest post by: Robert Lueras
It looked as if Ben Affleck was ready to have a steady stream of good-to-great years following the 2012 release of Argo, for which he took home an Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite the thought that he was snubbed by not receiving a Best Director nominee, the multi-talented Californian definitely had enough going for him to not worry about that matter. That was, of course, until 2013 rolled on and his latest film, Runner Runner, hit theatres.
To the dismay of everyone involved, from the critics to anyone who invested in the film, Runner Runner was a substantial flop. Well, to be fair, Ivey Poker points out that the online poker-themed movie did decently in foreign markets (aka everywhere but the U.S.). In the ensuing months, Affleck was met with a load of criticism after it was revealed he is portraying Batman in the next Superman film. Again, he was the punching bag of nearly everyone writing about him and, like that, his good graces had gone, well, bad.
Adding fuel to the negative fire surrounding Affleck was the latest news from his camp. Apparently the actor was booted out of the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas after security realized he was counting cards. According to TMZ, he is banned for life from the Sin City locale. Another headline, another bashing. Could it be that the oft-successful movie star just pushed his luck too far? Or did he, perhaps, take his role in Runner Runner too seriously? Maybe it's a mix of the two.
For those unfamiliar with that particular movie, Affleck co-starred as the protagonist alongside the screwed-over college kid portrayed by Justin Timberlake. In the film, Timberlake tries to pay of his student loans by making bank in online poker, except he stumbles upon one of the sites owned by Affleck's character and he loses it all. In other words, Affleck's a bit of a gambling super-villain, not unlike the way he was probably seen by Hard Rock security who caught on to his card-counting scheme.
Perhaps, he would have just been better off sticking to poker, because apparently he's quite good at that particular card game, too. According to a feature posted at gaming site Bet Fair, he is a regular at high-stakes games in his native California. Not only that, but he took home a whopping $356,400 in the California State Poker Championship in 2004, which had a mere $10,000 buy-in. If not poker, though, then maybe he is just better off putting all of his energy in wrapping up his obligations for Gone Girl, a drama-thriller due out in October of this year. He stars as Nick Dunne, a man who finds out that his wife has gone missing right after they celebrated their five-year anniversary.
You can watch the Gone Girl trailer below.
Posted by Shane Slater at 9:11 AM
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
This week's pick for Hit me with your best shot is a film by Robert Altman - "3 Women". As its title suggests, it's a story focused on the lives of three women, played by Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule (all fantastic). To be honest, I'm still trying to wrap my head around this creepy, disturbing film. I therefore don't have much to give by way of analysis, so I'll just let my pick for best shot do the talking.
Click below for my favourite shot...
Monday, May 5, 2014
Let me tell you about a movie that completely blindsided me recently (in a good way). It's my pick for "Movie of the Week" and its name is "The Bear". It's not a film you hear discussed much these days, but it was significant enough in 1988 that it managed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Editing.
"The Bear" opens with the images of a pair of bears, rummaging for food in an undisclosed mountain woodland. They are a mother bear and her cub and they are blissfully unaware that their lives about to change. While digging through the mountainside, a rock slide occurs, knocking the mother dead. Now an orphan, the bear cub must now fend for himself in this dangerous world.
It's quite a dark opening for a supposed "family" movie and given this classification, I expected to hear a subsequent long "Noooo!" or something of the sort. I waited for it...but nothing. It soon dawned on me that this film would be almost completely dialogue free (save for some token lines from villainous hunters). All my expectations were swiftly knocked aside. This was a film starring real bears (animatronic bears were used for the violent scenes), without any anthropomorphisms. In effect, I was watching a nature documentary, albeit formed into a fiction narrative.
This tale of survival really picks up when we are introduced to the cub's future guardian (a large male grizzly bear) and the film's antagonists (a pair of hunters). As the bears try to evade these men, the plot unfolds with suspense, drama and even some comedy. It's amazing how much mileage director Jean-Jacques Annaud manages to get out of his use of sound, cinematography and weather elements. The score sells the danger/tension surrounding the approaching enemy and the sentimentality of the bears' burgeoning friendship. Likewise, the look of the film evokes the various feelings that our main character is going through. It all makes for an engaging viewing experience, often for the sheer originality of the concept. Granted, there are some dull stretches. These mainly come when the director relies on the bears to naturally do something interesting without stimuli. Though when you consider the difficulty involved, you can't help but be impressed.
"The Bear" is not founded on any extraordinary screenwriting. Instead, it grabs the viewer with simple naturalism to foster appreciation for these animals. That it manages to do so without any Disneyfication (we even see the bears in kill mode for food) or explanatory narration is a tremendous accomplishment. It's truly a relic of the type of family film that we rarely see anymore. I'm certainly glad I didn't dismiss this film based on its poster and IMDb description. Go on and check it out for yourself.
Friday, May 2, 2014
Film Festival guru Shala Thomas recently capped another year at the Tribeca Film Festival, with more access then ever before. She managed to get some really awesome shots of various celebs. Check them out in the link below, as well as the other great reads from the past week:
Shala made good use of her press credentials to get some fantastic pictures at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Stevee reflects on 10 Years of Mean Girls for the film's anniversary.
Jess from French Toast Sunday made a list of the Top 10 Performances in Darren Aronofsky Films in honour of their Darren Aprilofsky month.
Lauren from Man, I Love Films wrote an interesting piece about The Structures of Cinematic Racism.