Tuesday, July 15, 2014

SNOWPIERCER (2014)

Written by Bong Joon-ho & Kelly Masterson


Directed by Bong Joon-ho


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. July 4, 2014 12:00PM



End-of-the-world, sci-fi thrillers do not get any stranger than "Snowpiercer", the Korean director, Bong Joon-ho's first foray in English-language film-making. Due to long-term complacency over global warming, the Earth has finally shut-down and frozen over, leaving what's left of humanity to live on a high-speed train circling the uninhabitable planet. The complete destruction of Earth, however, certainly doesn't mean the end of a class system as the privileged few live in comfort and style in the front of the train while the folks in the back are left to suffer in discomfort and squalor. While this may all sound way, way out there and kinda silly but in the very steady hands of Bong Joon-ho, he makes it all seem possible and plausible. Much like his quirky, box-office hit, "The Host" where the director successfully merged horror and politics, "Snowpiercer" is a loopy, feverishly imaginative, thought-provoking, thrill-ride.

The film begins seventeen years after the apocalypse with the passengers living in the last car of the train, surviving on tasteless, protein bars and treated more like animals, feeling fed-up and miserable. Although there have been previous failed attempts to revolt, Curtis (Chris Evans) has a plan that might actually succeed. A brooding man of few words, he is seen as their great savior which makes him feel very uncomfortable and unworthy of all the praise. The goal is to get to the water supply which will give them some leverage but first they need to get to the prison section to release a man that knows how to unlock the train car doors. With his loyal, scrappy sidekick, Edgar (Jamie Bell) by his side, Curtis signals his fellow inhabitants to overtake the guards and advance towards the prison.

Once they locate their target, Minsu (Song Kang-ho, star of "The Host") proves to be unreceptive to the plan. Aware that he's addicted to Kronol, a narcotic made from explosive chemical waste, Curtis uses that to bargain with Minsu. Insisting on taking his equally addicted daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung) along, Minsu begins unlocking the car doors where unforeseen dangers lurk behind them. As the militant mob move forward, the director keeps the tension and suspense on high throughout. The brutal, bloody battles are equally horrific and quite beautifully staged. Based upon a French graphic novel, "Le Transperceneige", production designer, Ondoej Nekvasil successfully brings the images to life, giving each section of the train a bold and distinctive look every time we move in to a new car.

There is little surprise that Mr. Evans, who has made his career playing men capable of incredible feats, delivers in the intense action sequences but he's also surprisingly effective in the film's quieter moments, particularly when retelling the harrowing experience of life on the train when they first boarded. In addition to the familiar faces such as Oscar-winner, Octavia Spencer and John Hurt, an international cast of lesser known but fine actors has also been assembled which include Vlad Ivanov, the Croatian performer who would be known here for his work in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", Adnan Hasković from Bosnia and Icelandic actor, Tómas Lemarquis. The highlight, also of little surprise, is the incomparable Ms. Swinton and just like her recent appearance in "The Grand Budapest Hotel", the actress is barely recognizable buried under elaborate make-up. Filling in for a role originally conceived for a male but with none of the pronouns altered, she is deliciously batty as Mason, the overenthusiastic mouthpiece for Wilford, (played by Ed Harris), the creator of this fascist society.

There usually are not many serious messages to be found in summer action thrillers but "Snowpiercer" offers something to consider in between all of the histrionic fighting. The film delivers all the mind-blowing excitement you would expect as well as plenty of unexpected.twists. Forget about "Transformers", "Snowpiercer" is the action film of the summer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

SPIKE LEE FILMS: FROM BEST TO WORST


This week marks the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing". I remember being completely shocked and mesmerized by this controversial 1989 film as I had never seen anything like it. The film has since appeared on several "Best of" lists and was selected in 1999 by the National Film Preservation Board to preserve this culturally significant work.


In honor of this landmark, New York Magazine has compiled all of Spike Lee's films and ranked them from his very best to those that didn't exactly work out as well. This list originally ran in August 2012, tied to "Red Hook Summer", Lee's twenty-first theatrical release. In the two years since, Lee has released a remake ("Oldboy"), a Michael Jackson documentary ("Bad 25"), and filmed Mike Tyson's one-man Broadway show ("Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth").

Click below to see the article:

Spike Lee Films, Ranked From Best to Worst

Sunday, June 22, 2014

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (2014)

Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber


Directed by Josh Boone


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 8, 2014 4:15PM



"The Fault In Our Stars" is the best-selling YA novel by John Green that tells the tender tale of two ailing teenagers who fall in love. It's no surprise that Hollywood wanted to get on board but would anyone beyond the rabid fans of this wildly popular novel really be willing to sit through this young romance under tragic circumstances? To be perfectly honest, I was resistant to the idea myself but "Stars", with a sensitive script by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, the team behind the delightful "(500)Days of Summer" and effective direction by Josh Boone, manages to blend the right amount of joy, humor and heartbreak. Despite some moments that fall heavy on the sappy side, overall the film works thanks in large part to a breath-taking, star-making performance by Shailene Woodley. I would be shocked if the twenty-two year old actress is not a serious contender for an Oscar, she's that good here.

Ms Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She's on medication to help slow the progression and has to carry an oxygen tank to aid in her breathing. Her loving but concerned parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell of "True Blood") are worried that Hazel doesn't have any friends and insist she try a support group to meet people. Highly resistant to the idea and ready to stop going after a few meetings, along comes the dreamy form of Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a young cancer patient in remission who lost a leg to the disease. Once he locks eyes with Hazel Grace, he's completely smitten and finds her anti-social behavior quite endearing. Hazel tries to withstand his persistent pursuit but eventually he softens her tough exterior.

The two bond over Hazel's favorite book that happens to deal with a young girl's struggle with cancer but the obscure ending frustrates them both. Hazel would love to talk to the author, Peter Van Houten to find out the meaning but he has become a recluse living in Amsterdam. After making contact with the assistant to the writer, Augustus generously offers Hazel Grace the use of his charitable wish so they can fly to Sweden to get answers personally from Van Houten. Despite a health set-back for Hazel, they make the trip (with mom to chaperon) and meet the writer, played by Willem Dafoe. If you haven't read the book, I'll stop here. Not because anything particularly shocking or surprising happens but the inevitable tears that flow will feel better earned if you're caught somewhat off guard. With the specter of imminent doom always hanging over the young lovers, at least a few tears are most certainly unavoidable but surprisingly, you don't feel manipulated as the waterworks come from an organic place.

While Ms Woodley was able to bring a sense of naturalism to her role, Mr. Elgort is not nearly as fortunate. Even with those sweet, puppy dog eyes working overtime, the actor has no clue on how to convincingly sell these gooey lines of devotion he is given. The script also does him no favors by managing to make Augustus simultaneously a charming, slightly goofy, gentleman but also kind of creepy. His passion for Hazel Grace is so intense and relentless that, at times, makes you feel concerned for her safety.

"The Fault In Our Stars" plays like any other glossy romance although told from an unconventional fatalistic angle.The film largely succeeds as it takes a more truthful look at love and human connection on borrowed time at the moment when life should just be beginning. It's well known that there is no happy ending but you get to experience all of the elation and sorrow of first love expertly portrayed by a rising new talent.

Monday, June 16, 2014

2014 OUTFEST FILM FESTIVAL

It's almost that time again for the Outfest Film Festival. This celebration of cinema that explores the lives of the LGBT communities will begin on July 10th and continue on through July 20th. As ususal, there will be a fascinating slate of films from around the globe.

The opening night presentation will be "Life Partners", the debut feature from director, Susanna Fogel and will screen at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. This comedy tells the story of two close friends (Leighton Meester from TV's "Gossip Girl" and Gillian Jacobs from "Community") who realize that the longest relationship they have ever had is with each other. To remedy this situation, they both decide to explore internet dating with some interesting results. Adam Brody, Kate McKinnon from "SNL" and Gabourey Sidibe also star.



The closing night film at the Ford Amphitheatre is "Space Station 76", the first film written and directed by comic actor, Jack Plotnick ("Girls Will Be Girls"). This spoof of '70's sci-fi tells the story of the crew of a space station, lead by a closeted captain (Patrick Wilson), that is shaken-up by the arrival of a new female member (Liv Tyler) which sets off this wild and wacky romp.

In between, there are Centerpiece screenings with documentary ("My Prairie Home"), U.S. dramatic feature("Appropriate Behavior") and two international ("The Way He Looks", "Lilting") films being represented.









The festival also has a series entitled "Provocateurs" which is a collection of films that looks in to the lives of early pioneers who were fearless and outspoken with their desire to break the long-standing rules of society. These figures include filmmakers Bruce Labruce and Wakefield Poole, scholar, José Esteban Muñoz, performance artist, Kate Bornstein and feminist writer, Susan Sontag.







Tickets are on sale now. For the complete list of films and venues, please go to:

OUTFEST 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

GODZILLA (2014)

Written by Max Borenstein


Directed by Gareth Edwards


Where & When:  CineStar at The Sony Center,  Berlin, Germany. May 20, 2014  2:00PM


Godzilla, the undisputed king of the monsters, first started its reign of terror on Japanese audiences back in 1956.  This campfest became a box-office sensation there and then Raymond Burr, a little-known actor at the time, was spliced in to an English-language version a few years later and an international star was born. Although this giant sea creature's appearance came across slightly more cuddly than frightening,  by today's standards anyway, it worked well enough to scare and excite viewers to spawn countless sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs including a much reviled Hollywood remake in 1998. Another attempt to revive this creature is now out by director Gareth Edwards and his "Godzilla" remains faithful to the spirit of the original film. This behemoth is modern-looking yet recognizable and made even more impressive in 3D with some pretty spectacular action sequences to keep you on the edge of your seat. While all of the thrills and destruction are just right, what is lacking, however, is a compelling human element to keep you engaged in between despite a classy cast of actors displaying some first-rate panic on their faces.

Many years after the U.S.testing of a hydrogen bomb on a island in the Pacific, what appears to be a massive skeleton is discovered in a collapsed mine nearby in the Philippines. A scientist (Ken Wantanabe) has been called out to investigate and finds that a large egg seems to have recently hatched and whatever was inside has gone out in to the ocean.

Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), is an American managing a nuclear plant in Japan. High-strung and focused mainly on his work, he even forgets the day is his birthday. Lucky for Joe he has a lovely wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche) who also works at the plant and a sweet young son that remembered. A strange seismic disruption causes panic at the nuclear facility and Joe and Sandra race out to find answers. As Sandra and her group go down to the reactors to check their condition, a major explosion occurs which could release radiation in to the city unless the area they're in is shut off. Torn between saving thousands of lives or his wife, Joe makes the difficult and tragic decision.  Despite his personal sacrifice, the reactors are destroyed by some unknown force, which is officially blamed on an earthquake, and the city becomes uninhabitable.

Fifteen years later, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a Marine and has just come home to San Francisco to be reunited with his lovely wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and his sweet young son. Not long after the family celebration, Ford receives a call informing him that his father had been arrested for trespassing in the contaminated city in Japan. Reluctantly, he heads out to bail out his old man who is obsessed about finding out what really caused the nuclear plant's destruction. While Godzilla doesn't make it's presence known until about half way through the film, a M.U.T.O. or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism emerges to terrorizes the city in the meantime. After another giant winged monster (this time female) appears looking for her mate and a convoluted explanation that all of these massive creatures are in search of nuclear energy to feed on, the human race is simply in the way as Godzilla and the monster couple battle for dominance.

The creation of Godzilla arose from the residue of the atomic bombing in WWII and the horrific aftermath which had left the Japanese shaken and uncertain of the future. The later films focused on other weighty topics such as the fear of alien invasion and threats to the environment. This Godzilla has pretty much steered clear of making any topical statements with pure entertainment being the ultimate goal. However, the director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous film was the low-budget 2010 horror flick, "Monsters", has made a point of taking his version very seriously and with great respect. This is the first produced screenplay for Max Borenstein and while he's able to create some magic with setting up the impressive monster battles, his script fails to enlighten the flesh and blood characters. In fact, my biggest gripe with this film is the treatment of the cast.

The terrific actors used here are not the typical faces usually found in your average action-thriller but they are spectacularly and shockingly wasted, most particularly the glorious Ms Binoche. I don't even know why the Oscar-winning actress (who famously turned down the role that went to Laura Dern in "Jurassic Park") even agreed to be in this as she's given only maybe ten minutes of screen time that offers her no opportunity to properly utilize her gifts. Recent Oscar Nominee, Sally Hawkins, who was so brilliant in "Blue Jasmine" is equally underused here as an assistant to Mr. Wantanabe's nearly mute scientist. While Mr. Cranston has a slightly more substantial part but he's so ridiculously overheated that there are moments where his skull seemed ready to literally pop off.

With the aid of state-of-the-art CGI, this "Godzilla" becomes the monster of our times. This creature impressively smashes and thrashes to win the day but the overall feel is far too hollow and generic, making the film have as much depth as a video game.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

WINNERS FROM THE 2014 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

I know this is a bit of old news but I was on an European vacation for the last two weeks and I have to comment on this year's winners from the Cannes Film Festival. "Winter Sleep", the latest from Turkish director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan took home the top prize. This lengthy (196 minutes!) drama examines a wealthy former actor who has great influence in his small town but not much respect. I don't know how much commercial appeal this film will have but at this time, there is no distribution deal set for it to screen in America. I was thrilled that Julianne Moore took home the "Best Actress" Award for her performance in David Cronenberg's "Maps To The Stars". Ms Moore has been passed over far too many times in the past for such great work, so this is a long time in coming. I'm also happy that the amazing twenty-five year old film maker, Xavier Dolan won the Jury Prize for his new film, "Mommy" which, in a surprise, tied with eighty-three year old art-house legend, Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye To Language". Another pleasant surprise is the American director of the well received, "Foxcatcher", Bennett Miller went on to capture the directing award.

This year also marks the final appearance of Gilles Jacob, the long-time president of the festival who is retiring after thirty-five years. Some of the many innovative ideas he brought to help mold this in to a first-class celebration of world cinema include starting a market at Cannes to help independent films find distribution as well as securing investors for future productions, creating the Un Certain Regard competition for the more challenging works, the Camera d'Or prize for first-time directors and the Cinéfondation which offers support for new filmmakers. Mr Jacob received a warm standing ovation at the closing night ceremony.

Here is the list of winners from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival:

Palme d'Or: "Winter Sleep"



Grand Prix: "La Meraviglie" (The Wonders)

Prix de la Mise en Scene (Best Director): Bennett Miller, "Foxcatcher"

Prix d'interpretation masculine (Best Actor): Timothy Spall, "Mr. Turner"



Prix d'interpretation feminine (Best Actress): Julianne Moore, "Maps to the Stars"

Prix du Scenario (Best Screenplay): Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, "Leviathan"



Prix du Jury (Jury Prize): "Mommy" and "Goodbye to Language" (Tie)



Camera d’Or (Best First Feature): "Party Girl"

Un Certain Regard: "White God"

Friday, May 16, 2014

2014 SUMMER MOVIE PREVIEW

It seems so odd to me that summer keeps creeping up on the movie release calendar. It used to be that it started in June when school got out but then it moved to Memorial Day and now it seems to have started at the beginning of May. Weird. Anyway, summer is here once again and there seem to be hundreds of movies hitting theaters. I've narrowed down a small number of the films that really have captured my attention:

All dates are subject to change:

MALEFICENT

Release date: May 30, 2014

I don't know how many people were actually dying to know the back story of the evil fairy from the 1959 Disney animated film, "Sleeping Beauty" but it's now here. The live-action, "Maleficent" stars the perfectly cast Angelina Jolie as the title character and tells the tale of what events lead her to want to place a horrible curse on Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning), the daughter of her former friend, the King (Sharito Copley). I'm not quite sure how well this film will all turn out but it looks absolutely amazing.



A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

Release date: May 30, 2014

After the big success of "Ted", Seth MacFarlane is back behind the director's chair with the comedy, "A Million Ways To Die In The West". Set during the wild west, MacFarlane stars as a meek sheep farmer who loses his lady love (Amanda Seyfried) to an aggressive suitor (Neil Patrick Harris). He meets a new lady (Charlize Theron) in which he has much more in common however she's married to a ruthless cowboy (Liam Neeson). Since the creator of "Family Guy" is behind this, expect plenty of raunch and tasteless humor.



OBVIOUS CHILD

Release date: June 6, 2014

Jenny Slate is best known for accidentally cursing on live television during her short run as a cast member of "SNL" but hopefully she will become better known as a film actress. In the indie romantic-comedy "Obvious Child", Slate stars as a struggling comedian who has a long history of making bad decisions. After a one-night stand with a cute guy (Jake Lacey), she finds herself in trouble and struggles to finally make some choices that will make her life better. A sensation at this year's Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Gillian Robespierre made this feature based on her 2009 short film.



JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE
Release date: June 13, 2014

JERSEY BOYS
Release date: June 20, 2014

GET ON UP
Release date: August 1, 2014

These three films represent a long overdue look in to the lives of a few of the greatest entertainers in music. "Jimi: All Is By My Side" takes a look at Jimi Hendrix shortly before he became a rock guitar legend. Andre Benjamin of the hip-hop outfit, Outkast plays the musician during his life-changing time in London. John Ridley,  a recent Oscar-winner for Best Screenplay for "12 Years A Slave", directs.



The Tony-winning musical, "Jersey Boys" about the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons has finally been made in to a feature film. Clint Eastwood, (of all people) sits in the director's chair as we follow these teenage singers through the early struggles of trying to make it in the tough world of the music business before hitting the top of the charts.



Finally, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul is getting the biopic treatment he deserves in "Get On Up". Last seen on screen as Jackie Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is even more impressive as Brown as  the singer goes from his early childhood in poverty to eventually becoming one of the most electrifying performers ever. This is director, Tate Taylor's follow-up to his debut, "The Help" and his stars, Viola Davis and Oscar-winner, Octavia Spencer also make an appearance here.



BOYHOOD

Release date: July 11, 2014

Richard Linklater has managed to created a moment that really hasn't been seen before; an actor actually aging in real-time over the course of a fictional film. "Boyhood" follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a six year old boy to a teenager in high school while he struggles through adolescence and his relationship with his divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). The film was shot over the course of twelve years and manages to capture an experience that CGI could never properly do. Linklater won the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival and I have a feeling that it's just the beginning of the accolades for this film maker.



DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Release date: July 11, 2014

I didn't expect much from "Rise of The Planet of The Apes", especially after that horrible Mark Wahlberg/Tim Burton reboot but I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed it. The film was a box-office hit so, a sequel was inevitable."Dawn of The Planet of The Apes" takes us a number of years after the last one and mankind has been almost wiped out by a deadly virus but the apes have managed to thrive, lead by the highly intelligent, Caesar (played in a motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis). A small band of surviving humans (which includes Gary Oldman and Keri Russell) want a place on the planet but the apes have other ideas.



MOOD INDIGO

Release date: July 18, 2014

Michel Gondry, the director behind "The Science of Sleep" and "Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind", is back with his latest visual gem, "Mood Indigo". The film maker, who seems to me like the French equivalent of Wes Anderson, tells the whimsical, romantic tale of a wealthy man (Romain Duris) who falls in love with a sweet young lady (Audrey Tautou) but their relationship is threatened by a rare malady of a flower growing in her lungs. It may sound a little silly but I'm sure you can't help being swept away by the magical images.



MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT

Release date July 25, 2014

The annual Woody Allen film is entitled, "Magic In The Moonlight".and based upon the title, it's safe to say it's a romantic-comedy. Set in the French Rivera in the '20's, Colin Firth stars as an Englishmen out to prove that a fortune teller (Emma Stone) is a fraud. However, he winds up not foreseeing that she would captivate his heart. Marcia Gay Harden, Eileen Atkins and Jacki Weaver also star.



LUCY

Release date: August 8, 2014

"Lucy" is the latest action-thriller by Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita", "The Fifth Element")  that features the busy Scarlet Johansson as the title character who is used to smuggle an experimental drug in her body. This narcotic leaks in to her, which alters Lucy's mind and body, giving her super-strength and allowing her to use the full capacity of her brain. This makes her a powerful and unstoppable force although that certainly won't make those responsible not attempt to try.



LOVE IS STRANGE

Release date: August 22, 2014

I really loved "Keep The Lights On" and the writer/director of that, Ira Sachs is back with another intriguing film. "Love Is Strange" stars Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a long-time New York couple who get married as soon as it becomes legal in the state. However, this happy occasion causes several unexpected ripples in their lives which leads them to actually having to live apart. Cheyenne Jackson and Marisa Tomei also star.