Saturday, June 25, 2011

Jamie Foxx IS Django IN Django Unchained

The rumor mill has been swirling for a while as to who would be playing the lead character in Quentin Tarantino's next film - a self-described "Southern" called Django Unchained. Two names were prevalently mentioned: one being Will Smith and the other being Idris Elba. Smith was an awful choice and I think almost everyone who loves films breathed a hefty sigh of relief when his negotiations fell through. Elba was a heavy fan-favorite for the role, but he never entered serious talks. I feel like Foxx is a nice middle-ground. He's a big name (bigger than Elba for now), but less annoying than Smith and a better fit for something that likely won't fit the status quo.

Foxx will play the title character, a freed slave who becomes a hired killer en route to saving his wife from an evil plantation owner. Christoph Waltz will again collaborate with Tarantino in the part of a German bounty hunter who trains Django in the art of killing. In a bit of inspired casting, Leonardo DiCaprio is likely for the role of the evil plantation owner, Calvin Candie, with Samuel L. Jackson reportedly signed on to play his manservant.

It all sounds like a lot of fun. The film opens everywhere Christmas 2012.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Trailer Time

Here are some trailers for interesting upcoming films:

1. Bellflower

This film has been receiving a healthy amount of buzz after playing recently at a few festivals. It looks pretty interesting and was reportedly made on a budget of less than $20,000 over the course of a few years.

2. Daylight 

Another violent, independent film that's making a little noise recently. I don't think the trailer explains a lot, but it does show some promise. The plot of the film is said to deal with a couple lost in America fighting through an ordeal with a gang of conniving kidnappers.

3. The Last Circus

I don't really think I need to say much of anything about this film. Looks insane.

4. Becoming Santa

I actually had the privilege of seeing this film recently and would highly recommend it to anyone. An entertaining gimmick documentary (as opposed to a subject documentary), Becoming Santa is funny, touching, interesting, and downright strange. The subject - Jack - isn't some crazy to be marveled at, he's in on the joke and is a great source of the film's comedy as our tour guide through the peculiar world of Santas.

5. City of Life and Death 

This is another film I was lucky enough to see. To call it an unpleasant viewing would be an understatement, but that's because the historical subject - Japan's Rape of Nanking perpetrated against the Chinese in WWII - was such a monstrous act. City of Life and Death is a great examination of the deplorable nature of man in wartime and the struggle of those who are subject to it.

6. A Dangerous Method

This is David Cronenberg's next and features some very talented performers. The director's latest efforts have been some of his best and some of the best films in recent years too, so one can hope that he'll keep his streak running. 

Tree of Life Review

The word I have come to associate most with The Tree of Life in the past couple weeks is "hyperbole". Some people say that it's the "worst movie ever made", which is obnoxious and completely ridiculous. Really, it's the worst movie ever? Just because it's unconventional? The beautiful images, at least, don't score any points with you? On the other end of the spectrum, I hear that it'll "change your life" or that it's "what cinema is made for", which is also crazy. The Tree of Life is not film at its very best, but rather simply film doing something different. It also does not transcend the screen in any profound, life-altering way. It might elicit some eye-squinting, chin-grabbing, glasses-chewing "hmmm"s, but if it fundamentally alters the way you think about the world we live in, chances are you never really thought about it before to begin with. No, The Tree of Life isn't film perfection, or the best film ever, or of the year or even Malick's best, but it is a great film and more importantly an interesting film and one worth seeing and sitting through, perhaps more than once.

So now that I've officially lead with what reads like a conclusion, let's discuss the film itself. It is hitting American theaters now after a tremendous amount of hype and interest. I don't think anyone going into the film knows quite what they're in for, but with the director being who he is, the product of his labors should come as no surprise. Malick has always been unconventional, highly-visual, highly-lyrical filmmaker, but The Tree of Life seems to take his tendencies and distill them down to their purest forms. The film is his least narratively-inclined. The story of the film, one could say, focuses on a 1950's Texas family with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain playing the respective 'riarchs. They don't have a particular story, or linear path - we are just given glimpses of their lives as if it was anyone else's lives. They eat dinner, they fight, they run, they play, they grow, they change.

Stuck in the middle (actually nearer to the beginning) is a sequence of breathtaking shots depicting the beginning of all things, Earth, life and man. I loved this portion of the film and while I enjoyed the family sequences too, I could have watched this go on for the full 2.5 hour runtime. (Perhaps someday I'll get my wish as Malick is said to be currently working on a documentary that would do just that). It's exciting to see these images and know that you share a world with them.

The two distinct portions of the film come together in that both mean to show how we came to be. The latter does so on a much larger scale, showing quite literally the miracle of life, while the former aims to show how our development makes us into the people we are as adults, which would then effect subsequent generations. The two are certainly more connected than even that though as we are meant to realize that every event, from the dawn of life on Earth and perhaps before, has had an impact (though it may be minute) on the lives we live and who we eventually become.

Chastain and Pitt have their own ways of raising their three, onscreen sons and this parental duel ultimately creates the man we see in the presumably present scenes featuring Sean Penn ("Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me.") He doesn't become either one of them, in which case life could be described as more of a circle. He is from them, but not them; a branch moving in a direction away from them, but still wholly connected and even further down resides the whole of the tree and the rest of humanity and existence.

There's a fair amount of voice-over in the film as well; nothing expository, just some lyrical musings that I found less interesting than the visuals at the time of viewing. I won't dismiss them without seeing the film for a second time, but admittedly I didn't pay as much attention to them as some of the film's other elements.

Malick is allegedly working on a six-hour version of the film, which I would be all for (though I might have to take it in two parts). The potential for what can be shown within the film is endless. Apparently a great deal more of the family's "story" was filmed than what was shown. However, what does appear in this abridged cut is very interesting and quite an accomplishment. I applaud Malick for his ability to capture this story of life itself like no one has in film before. The Tree of Life isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, so to speak, and I wouldn't fault anyone for not liking it. It's not like any film you're likely to see in wide-release. That doesn't make it better or worse than conventional films, it just makes it different and these days that's a quality that's starting to become rare.

Monday, June 13, 2011

X-Men: First Class Review

With all of the comic book related films coming out or on the horizon, it's easy to sweep X-Men: First Class under the rug. They aren't the draw that DC's big two are and their story isn't going to tie into the upcoming Avengers film. They don't even have the familiar fan favorites like Wolverine, Storm and Cyclops this go around. I didn't know whether I was that interested in this film either. I've been burned by the X-Men so badly lately with embarrassments like Last Stand and Wolverine. However, First Class is just the shot in the arm the series needed. Working as something of a reboot, First Class returns the franchise to the glory of the first two Singer films and even, in some ways, improves upon them.

Speaking of the Singer films, First Class begins on the right foot by using a scene identical to the one that began the first X-Men film. This is only logical considering the film's heavy focus on Erik Lehnsherr AKA Magneto. As a child I was really struck by the emotionally intense opening, which featured young Erik being ripped away from his mother at the gates of a concentration camp, which incites his mutant powers. It's use in First Class is no less intense, but this time Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw character is inserted into the story.

I had some concerns about how Erik as a young man would be portrayed in the film, despite my being a fan of Michael Fassbender, but those were quickly put to rest. I expected a less enraged, more conflicted character than the one we've seen Ian McKellen play, but Fassbender's Magneto has perhaps an even harder edge. From the get-go, he's hunting down and viciously handling ex-Nazis, all the while using his unique power in startling violent ways - which I suppose isn't surprising considering the director. Even when he teams up with the more friendly mutants, he maintains his edge up until the fantastic and tense conclusion. Fassbender really knocks this out of the park, with every scene being better for having him in it.

The other main strong-point is in the film's other lead, James McAvoy as a young Charles Xavier. He brings a lot of humor, intelligence and an appropriate 60's sensibility that you'd hope from the man who will become Patrick Stewart. Despite their opposing viewpoints, Xavier and Lehnsherr make for a dynamic and believable pair, with the former helping the latter control his power and mollify his pain through use of his own unique gift. One of the highlights of their pairing is a scene in which they use a newly constructed Cerebro to hunt down and recruit various mutants, which features a highly-satisfying cameo. Their well-developed pairing comes to an emotional ending, which anyone who knows anything about X-Men could guess about. Frankly, I think I would have enjoyed the film more if it were simply the Fassbender-McAvoy show.

The film's weakpoints come from its supplementary characters. The ones that are given more attention like Beast and Mystique are fine, but the other recruits fall a little flat or feel a bit lame, especially in their little party scenes. The character Angel is particularly unpleasant and poorly acted, receiving way more attention than was necessary. I thought that the film held true to its period setting and 60's style for the most part, but it falls by the wayside on occasion, specifically with this Angel character who does not uphold the aesthetic or attitude in any way.

Some of the other rogues in this film were a bit unnecessary as well, however the primary antagonists in Bacon and Jones were quite good.

X-Men: First Class definitely sets itself apart from it's predecessors with many new characters, a whole new cast and its unique temporal setting, but it still connects itself to the other films when it counts. All in all though, and no disrespect to Singer, it might just be the best X-Men film of all (with X2 close behind). Vaughn is at his very best here, finding an outlet for his talents with this stylish and hyper-violent film. The conclusion definitely leaves the franchise open for a sequel in the same vein. Vaughn should forget his Kick-Ass follow-up as it would be a waste of time. I'm not sure anyone anticipated or wanted this prequel/reboot, but it's what we have and we're damn lucky.

Despite my reservations about some of the lamer characters, I have to give the film an 'A' based on Fassbender and McAvoy alone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Midnight in Paris Review

I can't really talk about Midnight in Paris in terms of Woody Allen's career as many have - many say it's his best in years. I really couldn't tell you because despite all the film-watching I do, I have never really kept up with the ultra-prolific director. I can tell you, however, that it's a thoroughly enjoying, inoffensive, lovely film for and about Romantics and the nostalgic. How anyone could not like the film is a mystery to me.

Midnight tells the tale of a writer, played by Owen Wilson, who is obviously a stand-in for Allen himself. He's in Paris with his snobby fiance and her snobby parents doing boring snobby things with their pedantic friends. One night, instead of dancing (can't imagine Woody dancing), he decides to take some air and once the clock strikes Midnight, he's approached by an old-fashioned buggy that whisks him away to the 1920's and the company of many historical luminaries (mostly writers and artists). They use their various expertise to help Wilson's character with his professional and personal matters, which are sometimes one in the same.

Not a whole lot happens in these encounters except talking, but the talking is highly enjoyable. Hemingway is prominently featured and his spirit is captured wonderfully. Adrien Brody's performance as Dali is another highlight of the film, as is the entire scene with the three surrealists. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds are also delightfully portrayed in the film by Tom Hiddleson (Thor's Loki) and Alison Pill.

Through an encounter with Gertrude Stein and Picasso, Wilson meets and subsequently falls for Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. This brings him some conflict about whether he can have a wife and a mistress, but it's the lack of any sustained conflict that makes this film so enjoyable. We don't really care if he's unfaithful to his fiance because, frankly, she's not very nice or pleasant and Adriana is. This lack of conflict extends to the chronological and psychological as well. Nothing is thrown off or warped by Wilson's "time-traveling" and consorting with historical figures, nor is there any hint that he's making it all up in his head. He's not crazy, there's no overt magic at play or time machines or any need to explain what exactly is going on with him. It's very simple, after Midnight, he goes back to this era that he loves (and has the potential to visit other eras too apparently) and it's real because it's really happening to him.

Films, including a lot of comedies, make too much of unnecessary conflicts between characters. What we have in Midnight is something of an internal conflict and not one that's causing a terrible amount of strife even. Wilson's character is nostalgic for a bygone era that, to him, is the golden age. Upon meeting Adriana, he realizes that there are people like him in every era, who pine for days gone by. He can't very well live out his life in the 1920's Paris, even if he wanted to, but how does he reconcile this with the reality of his present? He has to capture what's golden about that age and insert it into his, which entails a permanent move to Paris.

The performances in Midnight in Paris are all quite good, especially Wilson's. The look of the film, especially in the period scenes is beautiful and whimsically rendered. I only wish I knew more about the characters and era portrayed in the film, but I appreciate Allen's expository restraint. He's obviously very knowledgeable about the figures he includes in the film and it's a credit to him as a writer for being able to give them all a voice. The point of these portrayals wasn't to learn about these characters, but instead to experience them.

A fun, lovely film.


Super 8 Review

Since I saw the first Super 8 trailer a year ago, I've been excited for it. Abrams coming off a home run in Star Trek and to be teaming with a legend like Spielberg sounded like a sure win. A Bad Robot/Amblin team-up with designs on replicating the latter's magic from decades past such as we've seen in Jaws, Close Encounters, and E.T.. I couldn't ask for anything more to my liking. The trouble is, in reality, Super 8 is a failure and a cheap imitation that has more in common with modern day films than those of hallowed cinema history.

So I've been waiting over a year to see what's actually going to pop out of that crashed train's cargo and I'm still left waiting as the film progresses. You're almost on the hook for the entire film waiting for the big reveal and when it finally comes, it's a huge disappointment. People will argue that this isn't what the film is about and that the children featured in the story are rightfully the focus of the movie, but the gang of filmmaking misfits isn't interesting enough to hold my attention for two hours. The lure of the monster is what has me. Without saying too much specifically about it - the creature turns out to be something of a mess. It's CGI limbs and teeth and nothing that looks remotely realistic or frightening. Even its origins and nature are uninspired and underdeveloped.

My question is why make the damn thing such mystery? The film is more Jaws or ET than Close Encounters, so what's the point? Yes, the shark in the former is offscreen for a great deal of the film, but the audience knows it's a shark. To me, there's just something arrogant about withholding your respective film monster. It's like "oh, wait 'til they get a load of what we cooked up!". They did the same thing with Cloverfield, which I'd argue is a superior film simply because it delivers something that is interesting. A better film would simply feature the monster and allow it proper exposure throughout, without all this grandiose revealing.

Another issue with the monster is that it can't just be a monster. It's not the true villain, it's actually a victim of the true villain - the military. All the while it destroys and devours people, but that's just a symptom of the abuse inflicted upon it by the cruel and one-dimensional military men. When portraying antagonists in the form of the government or military officials, I feel it's better to go to one extreme or the other as far as character development. Either you give these villains the a lot of attention or zero at all. They're either fully developed bad guys or faceless malevolent operatives. All Super 8 gives us a bunch of mustache-twirling.

I think this comes down to the root of the film's problem, which is a fundamental inability to make choices. It focuses on too many relationships and too many people without properly developing a single one, with the exception of perhaps the main children Joe and Alice. Joe and his distant father, Joe's father and Alice's father, the monster and the doctor, Joe and his pudgy friend Charles, Joe and his dead mother, the group of friends amongst each other - these are all relationships that try to get shoehorned into the film and none work very well. There's a scene when Joe and Charles meet up to watch their footage of the train wreck and it's discovered that they're both interested in Alice, which was pointless to begin with, but made even more annoying by the fact that it plays off what a strong bestfriendship the two have, which has not even been remotely hinted at up until that point. And in all this confused examination of the bonds between two characters, singular ones fall by the wayside.

Having the film set in the time period of Spielberg's greatest successes is a fun diversion from the film's mediocrity. Some of the shots and use of color are great throwbacks and the cars and the clothes too. However, there are moments when it starts to become a bit too overstated. I understand that this is a different time period, the kids don't need to be screaming the lyrics of "My Sharona" in unison to hammer that point home. Again, I'll mention a Matt Reeves film - Let Me In. I didn't love the film, but felt there was some very cool uses of nostalgia in it. The kids cruising around to Blue Oyster Cult don't need to talk about how they're listening to BOC because it's just a part of the background.

And speaking of the film's kids, I thought most of them were pretty good little actors, which I don't say often. However, their whole story seemed a bit contrived and boring to me. I don't really care about the movie they're trying to make, but it's given a lot of attention throughout the film. They're making a zombie movie whilst name dropping Romero repeatedly - hasn't this been done before? It also seems to me that the subject of their film is what it is because zombies are currently very in vogue.

I really wanted to like the film's conclusion, which features a touch of cool imagery and a nice cut to credits, but it fell very flat and left me completely unsatisfied. In the end, we see Joe letting go of his mom's death (which frames the entire film) and him and his father coming together. My problem with this is that it feels very forced. I don't see how that issue is relevant to the creature's departure from the film. There's this effort to connect the two - the town's experience with the monster and Joe's familial drama - but they're utterly unrelated. I mean, Eliot has an absent father in ET, but that's not mirrored in his relationship with the alien. Some things can just remain background, providing realism and development to the characters and setting. Super 8 suffers from an unnecessary infusion of cheap emotionalism.

I was hoping this film would recapture some of Amblin's glory from an era gone by. And I, being a huge supporter of period films, thought that setting the film within that era would be a major plus, but perhaps I was thinking about it all wrong. The 70's/80's Amblin films weren't great themselves for imitating an era gone by. They existed within their own era, so something hoping to match them would have to exemplify it's own times in an equally positive way. The most you can hope for by imitating is an imitation, where I was hoping for the genuine article. Turns out you just can't go back to that time. Super 8 is an unimpressive, heartless, an unoriginal action film consistent with what is currently being pumped out of Hollywood. Setting it in a different era doesn't change that. It won't be considered among the classics it's aspiring to be, except for as a cheap imitation.