Saturday, February 28, 2015

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015)

Written by Kelly Marcel


Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. February 18, 2015 5:00PM



Back in the early days of cinema, Hollywood movies would freely feature racy themes involving mature subject matter. Once religious zealots began to use their influence to put pressure on the studios to change their wicked ways, the Hays Code was born, designed to censor any undesirable activities from the silver screen. The code was strictly enforced by 1934 and American films would only feature a sanitized world where there would be no morally objectionable content or language and kisses could not last more than three-seconds.

Thanks to provocative foreign films and US film makers pushing the boundaries, the Production Code finally came to an end by 1968 with a rating system taking it's place. This leads to cinema telling once forbidden stories, particularly involving sexuality. The X-rated "Midnight Cowboy" (although very tame by today's standards) about a male prostitute won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1969 and porn films like "Deep Throat" and "The Devil In Miss Jones" became very chic during the early 1970's.

Cinema has cooled down considerably since then as the sexiest thing you might see today at your local theater is some super-hero wrapped in a skin-tight suit. This is why I was thrilled with the prospect of a film being adapted from "Fifty Shades of Grey". This sexually drenched tale, based on the mega-selling novel by E.L. James, involves the kinky relationship between a domineering businessman and a somewhat compliant college student seemed to finally offer something for adults at the movies. This glossy film from director, Sam Taylor-Johnson disappoints as it may stimulate some from the waist down but it doesn't offer much from the neck up. The book is hardly revered as a great work of fiction but it's fans are quite vocal and rabid. The female team of Taylor-Johnson and writer, Kelly Marcel attempt to bring some substance to this light-weight erotica but there's only so much they can do with this material.

A mousy student, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is filling in for her ailing roommate to interview the young billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for the college paper. Overwhelmed by how attractive he is, Ana is flustered as she attempts to ask him probing questions. Mr. Grey, amused and intrigued by the student, flusters her further by putting on the charm.

It doesn't seem likely their paths would cross again but the two meet cute at a hardware store where Anastasia works. On a mysterious errand to pick up ropes and other restraints, Ana takes this opportunity to ask him if he would agree to a photo shoot to accompany the article. Mr. Grey complies, which he uses as an opportunity to ask Ana out.

After they begin their affair, Anastasia is mesmerized by the expensive gifts and lavish trips that Christian bestows upon her. But she is warned he doesn't do relationships and has particular requirements in the bedroom. Actually, a bed isn't even involved as Mr. Grey introduces this young lady to his idea of ultimate pleasure; complete sexual submission. The rest of "Fifty Shades" focuses on the pushing of Anastasia's limits, not only with Christian's unusual carnal desires but also with his lack of romance or commitment.

Although "Fifty Shades" is being promoted to be about love and passion, it's message is clearly anti-romance. If Christian was broke and ugly, you can be sure that Anastasia wouldn't be conflicted over what to do about this unavailable, emotionally stunted man. Due to the subject matter, you would expect at least a certain amount of edginess and tension but the sexually inexperienced, Anastasia takes it all in stride, making the extreme bondage seem simply playful.

Ms Johnson shares in the appealing qualities of her famous acting parents, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. She's quite a compelling presence although it's unfortunate the actress is forced to rely on the silly act of biting her lip to express all of Anastasia's jumbled emotions. As for our Mr. Grey, I'm unsure of what to make of Mr. Dornan. The Irish model/rocker is perfectly handsome and brooding but he isn't able to reveal much behind those sexy, dark eyes. Jennifer Ehle and Oscar-winner, Marcia Gay Harden appear briefly as the mothers of the lead characters but these talented actresses are pretty much wasted.

I can't say I enjoyed "Fifty Shades of Grey" and I certainly wasn't turned on. Perhaps it wasn't made with me in mind (in fact, I'm quite sure of that) but I can't imagine who this film was actually made for. Are there really a large number of women out there who literally want to be dominated and punished by a man? Sure, many people bought the book and the story is played off as a naughty, sexual fantasy but for some women, it's a brutal, unpleasant reality that they wish they could forget.

Monday, February 23, 2015

WINNERS FROM THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS AND THE CESAR FILM AWARDS

To wrap up the film awards, here were the final two presented over the weekend:


This marks the thirtieth year of the Independent Spirit Awards and "Birdman" took the Best Picture prize.  It's surprising how closely many of these winners mirrored the eventual Oscar selections. I guess it just shows that independent film is where quality work is to be found these days.

Here is the complete list of winners of the Independent Spirit Awards:

Best Feature: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
Best Director: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Best Female Lead: Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Best Male Lead: Michael Keaton, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
Best Supporting Female: Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"
Best Supporting Male: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Best Screenplay: Dan Gilroy, "Nightcrawler"
Best First Feature: "Nightcrawler"
Best First Screenplay: Justin Simien, "Dear White People"
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
Best Editing: Tom Cross, "Whiplash"
Best Documentary: "Citizenfour"
Best International Film: "Ida" (Poland)
Robert Altman Award, (for a film with an extraordinary ensemble cast): "Inherent Vice"
Special Distinction Award (for "Uniqueness of vision, honesty of direction and screenwriting, superb acting and achievement on every level of filmmaking"): "Foxcatcher"
John Cassavetes Award (for features under $500,000): "Land Ho!"

"Timbuktu" swept the 2015 César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscar. The film, which also received a Best Foreign-Language film nod from the Academy, won seven awards including Best Film.  What made this event (which celebrates it's fortieth year) most notable is Kristen Stewart winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Clouds of Sils Maria", making her the first American actress to win a César. The film is due to be released in the US later this year.

Here is the complete list of winners of The César Awards:

Best Film: "Timbuktu"



Best Director: Abderrahmane Sissako, "Timbuktu"
Best Actress: Adèle Haenel, "Les Combattants"
Best Actor: Pierre Niney, "Yves Saint Laurent"
Best Supporting Actress: Kristen Stewart, "Clouds Of Sils Maria"
Best Supporting Actor: Reda Kateb, "Hippocrate"
Best Original Screenplay: Abderrahmane Sissako, Kessen Tall, "Timbuktu"
Best Adapted Screenplay: Cyril Gely, Volker Schlöndorff, "Diplomatie"
Best Cinematography: Sofian El Fani, "Timbuktu"
Best Foreign Film: "Mommy"
Best Animated Film: "Minuscule"
Best Documentary: "Salt Of The Earth"
Best Editing: Nadia Ben Rachid, "Timbuktu"
Best Set Design: Thierry Flamand, "La Belle Et La Bête"
Best Costumes: Anaïs Romand, "Saint-Laurent"
Best Short Film: "La Femme De Rio"
Best Animated Short: "Les Petits Cailloux"
Best Score: Amine Bouhafa, "Timbuktu"
Best Sound: Philippe Welsh, Roman Dymny, Thierry Delor, "Timbuktu"
Best Debut Feature: "Les Combattants"
Best Newcomer (Male): Kevin Azaïs, "Les Combattants"
Best Newcomer (Female): Louane Emera, "La Famille Bélier"

THE 87TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS


After months of trophy overload, the award show that still really counts, the Oscars brought an official close to the season.  For the first time in quite a while, every Best Picture nominee walked away with at least one award. Although "Birdman" was the big winner taking the honor of Best Picture, the film tied with "The Grand Budapest Hotel" with a total of four Oscars.  I'm very surprised that my personal fav, "Boyhood" didn't fare better as I think it was, by far, one of the strongest films of 2014. The acting categories offered no suspense as the winners followed the predictable path paved by the numerous other awards.

Our host, Neil Patrick Harris didn't fail to deliver all the charm and showmanship you would expect. As he's done during his hosting duties on The Emmys and The Tonys, Harris kicked off the show with a very entertaining musical number with help from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black. However, it went downhill from there as the writers seriously let him down. Most of the jokes he told throughout landed with a thud and the skit involving his award predictions in a locked box was anti-climatic.

I am glad Mr. Harris brought up the very white acting nominees as the Academy seemed to make an attempt to rectify that unfortunate situation by including a racially diverse group of presenters on the Oscars such as Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, David Oyelowo and Oprah. I've also enjoyed how the show tries to include some veteran performers and this year we had Shirley MacLaine (who didn't look happy to be there) and Julie Andrews (who most certainly did).

Speaking of Ms Andrews, that brings up the numerous musical performances on the program. My feeling is that those numbers should be limited to the opening of the show (depending on the host) and the Best Song nominees. I think Lady Gaga did a great job during the "Sound of Music" 50th anniversary tribute and Jennifer Hudson's song after the "In Memoriam" segment was quite moving but all they seem to add was length to the already long show. This may not rank as one of the better Oscar telecasts but I would be willing to give Mr. Harris a pass and give him a second chance.

Here is the complete list of winners from the 87th Annual Academy Awards:

Best Picture: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) "
Best Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) "
Best Actress: Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"
Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Best Adapted Screenplay: Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"
Best Original Screenplay: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
Best Foreign Language Film: "Ida"
Best Documentary Feature: "CITIZENFOUR"
Best Animated Feature: "Big Hero 6"
Best Film Editing: Tom Cross, "Whiplash"
Best Original Song: "Glory" from "Selma" (written by Common and John Legend)
Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Best Costume Design: Milena Canonero, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Anna Pinnock, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Best Sound Editing: Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, "American Sniper"
Best Sound Mixing: Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley, “Whiplash”
Best Visual Effects: Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher, "Interstellar"
Best Short Film, (Live Action): "The Phone Call"
Best Short Film, (Animated): "Feast"
Best Documentary, (Short Subject): “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

OSCARS: THE BEST PICTURE WINNERS OVER THE YEARS


As the excitement builds for the Academy Awards this Sunday, instead of going on about predicting who's going to take home the top prize, I want to take a look back to the glorious history of the Oscars and the coveted Best Picture.

There have been eighty-six films selected for this honor that range from epics ("Ben-Hur", "Lawrence of Arabia"), historical dramas ("Gandhi", "Schindler's List"), family dramas ("Ordinary People", "Krammer Vs. Krammer"), war ("Platoon", "The Deer Hunter"), comedies ("The Apartment", "Annie Hall"), musicals ("My Fair Lady", "Chicago"), westerns ("Dances With Wolves", "Unforgiven"), dark thrillers ("The Silence of The Lambs", "No Country For Old Men") and questionable merit ("Cimarron", "Around The World In Eighty Days"). I've seen fifty-one of these films. How many have you seen?

Click below to take a look at all of the past Best Picture winners:

OSCARS: The Best Picture Winners Through The Years

Monday, February 9, 2015

THE BOY NEXT DOOR (2015)

Written by Barbara Curry


Directed by Rob Cohen


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. February 2, 2015 5:35PM


The insane and inane, "The Boy Next Door" is a classic woman-in-peril thriller that expertly utilizes every worn-out cliche of the genre. The film is barely held together by the star-wattage of entertainer, Jennifer Lopez. She plays Claire Peterson, a high-school teacher with a teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). The first misstep is that even dressed down, JLo is still too glamed-up to be convincing as an average mother.

Claire has been separated from her cheating husband (John Corbett) for months. Although he wants to win his wife back, Claire just can't get past his indiscretion to be able to trust him again.

Enter Noah (Ryan Guzman), a sweet and helpful 19-year old who has moved next door to care for his ailing uncle. He befriends Kevin but it's his mother who captures Noah's attention. The handsome boy flirts shamelessly with the lonely Claire who enjoys the attention but fully aware this is completely inappropriate.

Finally, Noah makes his move on a rainy night when her son is away with his father. Although she tries to resist, Claire gives in to her desires  We witness their passionate lovemaking that generates as much heat as a lingerie commercial. The next day, Claire leaves in a hurry after informing the boy that it was a mistake and will never happen again. But Noah will not be ignored. So begins a progressive series of crazy stalker moves that terrorizes Claire and her family.

The only thing I will say about this routine script is that the writer, Barbara Curry shouldn't be surprised to be overrun by a slew of lawsuits. Many plot points were cribbed from other thrillers and piled them together in way which logic or reason were never a factor. Rob Cohen, the director who brought us such action-adventure gems as "xXx", "Alex Cross" and the first "The Fast and The Furious", doesn't help matters. He sleepwalks through this exercise in banality with no effort to offer even one semi-fresh idea.

The enterprising Ms Lopez is appealing as usual. You see the actress working earnestly to give a performance of a lifetime but this feeble film is hardly worthy of her efforts. Mr. Guzman, a former model and previously seen in the last two "Step Up" films, oozes plenty of charm and sex appeal however, when it comes time for him to suddenly become a raving psycho lunatic, the results are sadly laughable. The appearance of Kristin Chenoweth brightens the film briefly. Playing Vicky, the high-school vice-principal and Claire's friend, the Broadway musical star delivers a much needed jolt of sass and spunk.

"The Boy Next Door" should have been fun and campy but the filmmakers have taken this erotic melodrama far too seriously. Lazy and recycled are the best words I can come up with that best describes this overheated mess. I just thought of one more; bad.

Monday, February 2, 2015

WINNERS FROM THE 2015 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL


"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl", adapted from the popular young adult novel of the same name, took home the top prizes at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed the offbeat film, which tells the story of a high-school boy falling in love with a girl with leukemia, selected Best Dramatic Feature from both the Grand Jury and the Audience Award. This is the third consecutive time where the same film has won from each voting group following "Fruitvale Station" and "Whiplash", one of this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees. Fox Searchlight won the bidding war for "Dying Girl" but no date set for a U.S release.

Here is a partial list of the Grand Jury and Audience Awards from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival:

Grand Jury Prize: U.S.Dramatic: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”



Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic: Robert Eggers, “The Witch”

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic: Tim Talbott, “The Stanford Prison Experiment”



U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Editing: Lee Haugen, “Dope”



U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography; Brandon Trost, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”



U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary: “The Wolfpack”

U.S. Directing Award: Documentary: Matthew Heineman, “Cartel Land”

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary:“The Russian Woodpecker”

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary Directing Award: Kim Longinotto, “Dreamcatcher”

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic: “Slow West”

World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Directing Award: Alanté Kavaïté, “The Summer of Sangaile”

Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Audience Award: U.S. Documentary: “Meru”

Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic: “Umrika”

Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary: “Dark Horse”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SELMA (2014)

Written by Paul Webb


Directed by Ava DuVernay


Where & When: Vista Theater, Hollywood, CA. January 17, 2015 7:00PM



In "Selma", I was almost three years old when the events of this historical drama took place. I've always been aware of the march for voting rights but this deeply moving film by Ava DuVernay helped put it in a much clearer perspective for me. The harrowing, painful struggles and horrific sacrifices many endured not only for their own basic American liberties but for mine as well. A film about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is well overdue but instead of trying to cover his entire extraordinary life, "Selma" focuses on this very specific time of the civil rights leader.

The film takes an unsentimental look at the legend of Rev. King, displaying a cigarette-smoking, possible womanizing, ambivalent human being. This may disturb some but I find it makes him even more fascinating. How this brave but fallible man was willing to risk his life and lose precious time away from his family for a higher calling. Playing King, David Oyelowo (one of several British actors populating the film in key roles) may not share many physical characteristics but the actor expertly captures the civil-rights leader's fire and gravitas.

"Selma" begins in Norway as Rev. King (Oyelowo) with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) are there for him to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Back in Alabama, four little black girls are murdered by a bomb set in their church by the Klan. This horrific act was sent as a violent reminder for African-Americans to remember their place. While they may have earned the right to vote but because of the Jim Crow laws in the segregated South, it was made virtually impossible for African-Americans to register. King seeks the help of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who is sympathetic but feels this issue will need to wait.

No longer willing to wait, Rev. King travels from his home in Atlanta to Selma with fellow civil rights activists, Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar Dorsey) and Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) to devise a plan of action. Speaking before a local congregation, King inspires the crowd to march from Selma to Montgomery for a non-violent protest against this oppression.

There are several obstacles in the way including FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) secretly surveilling the activities of the key players while trying to use some of this information to create deeper tension between King and his wife. George Wallace (Tim Roth), the Governor of the state, is determined to stop the march and has no issue with using brute force.

Ms DuVernay first worked behind the scenes for other filmmakers before deciding she wanted to tell her own stories. She became noticed for her second film, the wonderful very low-budget indie, "Middle of Nowhere", receiving plenty of critical acclaim and awards. With a budget two hundred times bigger than her last feature, the director displays a remarkably confident artistry that many veteran filmmakers with a much longer list of movies still aren't able to accomplish. The filmmaker purposely avoided making anything remotely resembling your standard cinematic biography, stating they are her least favorite form of film. Ms DuVernay has taken what could have easily been an earnest run-through of a history lesson and given it inventive flourish with vibrant camerawork by Bradford Young and kinetic editing by Spencer Averick. Although the film was not given permission to use any of King's actual speeches, you would never notice. The script by Paul Webb (with considerable contribution from the director but denied credit through arbitration) perfectly captures the spirit of his memorable, eloquent words.

Many of the important figures from the civil rights movement make brief but effective appearances (with some deserving their own feature films) and are well-played by a variety of notable performers including Common (who co-wrote the theme song, "Glory" with singer, John Legend) as Southern Christian Leadership Conference director, James Bevel, Cuba Gooding, Jr. appearing as attorney, Fred Gray, Lorraine Toussaint as activist, Amelia Boynton Robinson and one of the film's producers, Oprah Winfrey as the feisty woman known for knocking down the abusive Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, Annie Lee Cooper.

"Selma" comes at a very turbulent time in America with regards to race. With several tragic homicides involving African-Americans by law-enforcement occurring across this country and angry, fed-up people out in the streets protesting, it may seem like we haven't made much progress. There is no denying we have moved forward as a society, right up to this country having it's first African-American President but the racial tensions and the fight for true equality that's depicted in the powerful "Selma" is sadly, still far from over.