Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2013 VENICE FILM FESTIVAL

The fall movie season has officially been kicked off as The Venice Film Festival begins today.  The world's oldest celebration of cinema marks it's 70th year and runs through September 7th.

"Gravity", the latest by director,  Alfonso Cuaron opens the festival and stars Oscar-winners, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. This world premiere is in eye-popping 3D (which I think is a first to open in Venice) and tells the dramatic tale of an astronaut who must be rescued after an accident leaves her trapped floating in outer space. This is scheduled to reach U.S. theaters on October 4th:



The festival will include over fifty feature films from across the globe with the usual mix of first-time and acclaimed filmmakers. Twenty films are in competition for the prestigious Golden Lion Award with the jury lead by Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci. One of these films (which I'm very much looking forward in seeing) is "Philomena" by Stephen Frears and stars the legendary, Judi Dench. Although it's due in the U.K. in November, no exact release for America has been set yet:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (2013)

Written by Danny Strong


Directed by Lee Daniels


Where & When: Emagine Cinemas, Canton, MI  August 18, 2013  9:45 PM



With the self-aggrandizing title "Lee Daniels' The Butler", I was afraid we were heading in to Tyler Perry territory. Although a silly legal dispute with Warner Bros. was the actual cause for this last minute title switch but Mr. Daniels seems to have made a movie that actually  has more in common with the style of the highly successful filmmaker than he may realize. The film shares in Mr. Perry's taste for crass humor, over-cooked dialogue and artificial drama. "The Butler" tells an overly simplified story of the African-American struggle in the 20th century seen through the eyes of a man who served seven U.S. Presidents in the role of their butler. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of the real-life butler, Eugene Allen) who was taught at an early age the valuable lesson of how to properly serve the white man to make them feel at ease. By being seen but never heard, Gaines was able to provide for his family and send his children to college but had to sacrifice his self-respect and silently endure discrimination at his job.

The film starts off very heavy handed with Cecil as a little boy witnessing a brutal plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer) rape his mother (played in silence by a miscast Mariah Carey) and then shooting his father (David Banner) dead for silently protesting. The mother of this monster (Vanessa Redgrave), feeling something like remorse, decides to take Cecil off the field and in to the house to work. It's here where he first learns how to serve and excels at the job.

Once he becomes a young man and fearing a similar fate like his father, Cecil decides to leave the South far behind and heads to the nation's capital. While there was no true escape from racism but better opportunities were still available in the North. A few lucky breaks leads to a prominent job, most especially for an African-American at the time, as a butler in the White House. Cecil begins his employment during the Eisenhower administration and meets fellow butlers, Carter (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz) who have been around for a while and show him the ropes. The President (Robin Williams) is struggling with the integration of public schools and while the new butler may overhear major decisions and policy changes being made, he strongly adheres to never responding nor ever repeating a single word.

Cecil's loving wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) can't understand all this silly secrecy. Regardless, she's very proud of her husband's position and the good life it provides her and their two young sons. But as the long hours keep her spouse away from home, Gloria grows less satisfied, turning to liquor (and a neighbor) to fill her lonely nights. Louis (David Oyelowo), the eldest son doesn't appreciate his father's hard work, finding the role of a domestic degrading. He gets involved at the beginning of the civil rights movement, much to his parents' disapproval, participating in peaceful sit-ins and freedom rides before moving towards the more radical side of the protests.

As the years go by, First Families arrive and depart but the servants remain to adjust to the varied needs and demands that are required to ensure their comfort. Cecil has become a respected, seasoned employee by the time President Reagan (Alan Rickman) and wife, Nancy (Jane Fonda) enter the White House. The First Lady invites Cecil and his wife to a state dinner although he's fully aware that it's more for the First Couple to have something quaint to discuss over cocktails than sincere appreciation of his long service.

Cecil Gaines' time as a dutiful servant in the White House should have been the most fascinating aspect in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" but the film has put the focus on a fairly predictable family drama. The director has given us a valuable history lesson, touching on the long painful struggle and difficult politics of the era but it's told through characters that are not fully fleshed out. The unimaginative script by Danny Strong relies far too heavily on coincidence to allow a member of the Gaines family to be up close and personal to nearly every important figure and event in American history. Even the cinematography by Andrew Dunn is flat and unmotivated.

It's amazing that Mr. Daniels has been able to lure such top talent to his last few films yet fails to utilize them properly or give any actual guidance. It's been up to the players to deliver which leads to widely varied and inconsistent performances. However, Mr. Whitaker is magnificent, as usual, and helps keep the film from completely flying off the rails. He plays a proud, complicated man only wanting his children to have a better life than he had but will completely shut them out if they don't follow his rules. It's been a long fifteen years since Oprah Winfrey had a major film role (in the underrated, "Beloved") and while there had been some concern that she wouldn't be able to be seen as just a character but this has proven to be a non-issue. The powerful media mogul is completely committed and delivers a fine performance. None of the all-star impersonations of the past presidents are particularly memorable although the best is James Marsden as Kennedy simply because he's the most obvious. The worst, by far, is John Cusack as Nixon. Only given a false bulbous nose, the first appearance by Mr. Cusack is as vice-president and while he makes a feeble attempt at the very distinctive voice but by the time the actor reappears as the thirty-seventh president, he's given up altogether. You can't really completely blame the actors as no one is on screen long enough to make any real impact.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is intended to be a sweeping historical epic, glittering with big Hollywood stars but what has been crafted is trivial, unrestrained and highly insignificant. A more accurate account of the compelling life of Eugene Allen certainly needs to be told as this does more of a disservice to his memory.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

THE CONJURING (2013)

Written by Chad & Carey Hayes


Directed by James Wan


Where & When: MJR Digital Theaters, Westland, MI. July 22, 2013  9:30PM


I'll admit that I spent a large portion watching "The Conjuring" peering through my hand that was partially covering my face. This apparently fact-based account of one family's ordeal of supernatural forces terrifying them in their new home will most certainly give you some serious chills the old-fashioned way as it focuses more on creating an eerie mood that's designed to really mess with your head.

Looking to escape the stress of urban living, the Perron family moved to a small and quiet community in Rhode Island. Their new home had been neglected for many years and needs a lot of work but the parents, Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) feels that it has great potential. The couple have five daughters who seem excited to give this new way of life a chance although the eldest, Andrea (Shanley Caswell) is a teenager and slightly less receptive to the idea. The only member of the household who has a problem is their dog who won't step foot in to this crumbling dwelling. This should have given them an indication that something is amiss but the family prepares to settle in to the house for the night.

In the morning, Carolyn is covered in odd bruises and the family is horrified to discover that their pet has been brutally killed. This is just the beginning of the nightmare that befalls the Perrons as a variety of strange and disturbing activities happen after all of the clocks stop at exactly 3:07 AM every day. The house fills with a rancid smell, a wall of family pictures come crashing to the ground, doors creak open on their own and some really creepy figures appear and vanish without warning.

It takes some time before the family no longer feels safe and finally flee in the middle of the night. But while holed up in a cheap hotel, the Perrons find that the unexplainable terror has followed them. Desperate to put an end to this once and for all, Carolyn seeks out the help of some professionals. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farminga) Warren have spent years researching and exploring paranormal activity and demonic possession. With her ability to connect with the non-living, Lorraine determines that an evil spirit haunts their home and an exorcism will be the only way to get it completely out of their lives. The church would have to authorize this action, which could take weeks but the Warrens decide to perform the act themselves after this deadly force takes over a member of the family.

Most horror films today seem to only be about a high dead body count and creatively coming up with plenty of grisly ways to reach that goal. "The Conjuring" refreshingly doesn't have much bloodshed as the emphasis is on well-developed characters and psychological terror. Although the director, Wan is responsible for bringing to the world the deranged hardcore violence of the first "Saw" film, he shows great appreciation for the subtle style of the genre made popular by Hitchcock to the more edgier fare created in the 1970's like "The Exorcist" and "The Amityville Horror". Mr. Wan has modeled his '70's set film on these classics with the results making this just as thrilling and suspenseful but he has followed them just a little too closely. No surprises are to be found as the screen is filled with the dark, murky imagery as expected and the scares can come across as cheap and predictable however this is what we expect and this is what is effectively delivered.

The acting lifts this material as well with a top-notch cast on board. Ms Farminga and Mr. Wilson (who worked previously with the director on his other horror hit, "Insidious") are a great team and make the couple's unusual career path seem credible. The always captivating and sorely underused  Lili Taylor whose terrific work here is, without a doubt, the highlight of the film. The actress commands as a fierce mother lion who fights and risks her life to protect her family from this unforeseen evil. The only actor who seems out of place is Ms Taylor's screen husband. Mr Livingston, who is better known for his comedic performances in "Office Space" and TV's "Sex and The City", appears to be the head of the household but comes across as far too passive considering the danger facing his brood.

Regardless of whether you accept this story as fact or if you believe ghosts, demons and witches are actually possible or preposterous nonsense, "The Conjuring" is still one hell of a scary movie.