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Boyz N the Hood (1991) Review

31 03 2011

Copyright 1991 Columbia Pictures.

★ ★ ★ ★

I know I’m a little late on this one, but last night was the first time I have ever seen this film.  Honestly, it was a lot different then I had always imagined it to be; I thought it would be a glorification of gang life and filled with extreme violence.  However, much to my surprise and delight, this film actually takes an extremely strong stance against violence and hate in the streets.

Boyz N the Hood is the debut film of then 24-year-old writer/director John Singleton.  It follows the story of Tre Styles (Desi Arnez Hines II, young; Cuba Gooding Jr., older) and his life as a teenager growing up in south central Los Angeles.  Styles, whose father (Lawrence Fishbourne) is a strict, yet caring man that works towards instilling good ideals in his young son, encounters many conflicts resulting from the rough and violent neighborhood he grows up in.  Determined to get out of Los Angeles, he tries his best to not get caught up in gang violence and petty theft like his friend and neighbor, Doughboy (Ice Cube).  Likewise, Doughboy’s brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut), a star high school football player, is trying to get out of the hood without involvement in the criminal activity surrounding.  In the end, some of the characters make it out and some end up spending the rest of their lives in the hood or die there on the streets.

I was impressed with the film overall, it highly exceeded my expectations.  In honesty, my background is about as far from south central L.A. as you could possibly get, so I was a bit concerned whether I could relate to the story before watching.  It turned out to be a solid, relatable story on a thematic level to almost anyone though I think.  No matter where you come from, most people have dealt with adversity and decisions they have to make to provide a better life for themselves.  Of course, most people’s adversity and life decisions aren’t as dramatic or impending as the ones that Tre has to make.

Outside of launching a career for director John Singleton, this film also helped launch the careers of many of the young African-American cast members including Gooding Jr., Ice Cube and Chestnut.  The entire cast was top notch in this film and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing these roles.  The direction and pacing throughout were very well handled, especially considering how young director Singleton was at the time of filming.  My only complaint is that the film bordered on being too preachy in several scenes.  In one scene in particular, Tre’s father, Furious, takes Tre and Ricky to Compton and gives a heavy handed lecture on gentrification.  It’s important information that Singleton was wanting to convey to the young audience, but it came across like an infomercial and didn’t really propel the story at all.  Outside of several instances like this, I felt the story overall was well balanced, entertaining and informative.

This landmark film in urban cinema basically created the blueprint for many films to come.  It was one of the most successful films commercially in 1991 making almost 10 times it’s budget at the box office.  In addition, it was critically well-regarded and garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for John Singleton.  The only thing that is a shame is that many young people have idolized the lifestyle of characters like Doughboy and tried to replicate that style in their own neighborhoods.  If you truly understand this film, you will know that this is the exact opposite response that Singleton wanted viewers to leave the theater with.  The final titles have the moral of the story spelled out for you – “Increase the Peace.”

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Anticipated Release: The Rum Diary

30 03 2011

Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in "The Rum Diary." Copyright 2011 GK Films, Infinitum Nihil and Film Engine.

It was revealed yesterday that writer/director Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary will be released theatrically through FilmDirect.  The film, which stars Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckart and Amber Heard, is set for an October 28, 2011 release date.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about seeing this film.  For those of you who are unaware of who Bruce Robinson is, he directed the seminal British comedy classic Withnail and I (one of my favorite comedies of all-time).  Following the success of Withnail and I in 1986, he has only directed two other pictures: How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Jennifer Eight. This is his first release as a writer/director since 1992 and, even though his two latest films weren’t as well-received, this new project has some amazing source material and a great cast to accompany.

The Rum Diary, the book, was written by acclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s (though unpublished until 1998).  It was his second novel following the still unpublished Prince Jellyfish. Like many books by a young writer (Thompson was 22 at the time of writing), it is a semi-autobiographical piece dealing with his time in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960.

According to the press release from New York yesterday, the story “…tells the increasingly unhinged story of itinerant journalist Paul Kemp (Depp). Tired of the noise and madness of New York and the crushing conventions of late Eisenhower-era America, Kemp travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a local San Juan newspaper run by the downtrodden editor Lotterman (Jenkins). Adopting the rum-soaked lifestyle of the late ‘50s version of Hemingway’s “The Lost Generation,” Paul soon becomes entangled with a very attractive American woman, Chenault (Heard) and her fiancée Sanderson (Eckhart), a businessman involved in shady property development deals.  It is within this world that Kemp ultimately discovers his true voice as a writer and integrity as a man.”

Now, as with any film, there is a possibility that there could be a let down, but this film seems to have some pretty amazing things going for it and I can’t wait until it comes out.  Bruce Robinson adapting a Hunter S. Thompson film starring Johnny Depp  – that just sounds like magic on screen to me.





Missing (1982) Review

29 03 2011

Copyright 1982 Universal Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Missing is a 1982 film by Greek writer/director Costa-Gavras.  Like many Costa-Gavras films (Best Foreign Film Winner Z, State of Seige, Music Box), it blends strong political overtones with an interesting and exciting story.  In some films it is difficult for this blend to work without getting preachy or heavy handed, but in Missing, it works beautifully.

The film is based on the true life events surrounding the 1973 coup d’états by General Augusto Pinochet (though the film never actually mentions his name).  Charles Horman (John Shea) is a freelance American journalist temporarily residing in Chile with his wife, Beth, before the coup.  His work in Chile, outside of personal projects, was for a liberal leaning newspaper and, in addition, Horman kept extensive notes on the situation involving both Chilean and American involvement in political matters.  While on a short trip to Vina del Mar with a friend from America who is visiting, Terry (Melanie Mayron), Horman hears of the coup that is rising in Santiago.  He rushes to get back to his wife and, on the way home, notices the military brigades, strict curfew laws and dictatorial rule that is taking over the city.  Once home, Beth wants to leave the country immediately; however, all air transportation has been suspended.

In the days following, Beth and Charles get separated from each other.  When Beth comes back to her hoouse in Santiago, she finds it in shambles and can’t find Charles anywhere.  Charles father, Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), come to Santiago to help find his son who, by the time he arrives, hasn’t been heard from in over two weeks.  The rest of the film deals with the search for Charles by both Ed and Beth.  Ed, a Christian Science conservative, seems to have never really had a deep relationship with his son over their opposing views.  Yet, in the search, it shows how deeply he loved his son and how he wants justice.  Whether they find Charles or not, I will leave open so that it won’t spoil the ending of the film.

The story and direction by Costa-Gavras is top notch.  His ability to make an entertaining film out of such politically infused material is amazing.  The pacing, the shot composition and overal mood for the film is perfect for this story.  Jack Lemmon, what can you say?  This is a man who no matter what role he takes, shines and brings something special to a performance.  I’ve seen many Jack Lemmon films and never once have I seen one where he didn’t amaze me with his abilities as an actor; this film is no different.  His restrained emotion and no-nonsense attitude towards the whole situation, but deep underlying hurt for the disappearance of his son, is so nuanced and perfect for this role that it is hard to see anyone else playing the part.  The rest of the cast works for their roles; however, Sissy Spacek felt a little out of place to me in this film (though she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role).  Other Academy Award nominations included Lemmon for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart.  Stewart and Costa-Gavras would take home the award for their screenplay.

This is an eye opening film that draws you in on almost every level.  I had never heard about the coup in Chile, so for me, I was quite interested to continue research on the events that took place after watching the film.  As a filmmaker, what more can you ask?  A satisfied, entertained viewer that wants to continue to learn about the topics surrounding the true story you’ve depicted.





A Soldier’s Story (1984) Review

28 03 2011

Copyright 1984 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

A Soldier’s Story is a 1984 film directed by Norman Jewison.  It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway play A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller.

The film centers around the murder investigation concerning an African-American sergeant on a military barracks in Louisiana near the end of World War II.  The victim, Sergeant Waters, is played by Adolph Caesar in an Academy Award nominated role.  He is a found on the side of the road with two .45 caliber bullets in his chest and there is a lot of turmoil over the case due to concern over a race war if it’s found that a white officer had murdered Waters.  To investigate, the army sends a Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins) from Washington, D.C.  Davenport, who is a trained lawyer and the first black officer many people at the barracks have ever encountered, presses through racism, deceit and conflicting stories to try to get to the bottom of what happened to Waters.  It is found through multiple interviews that Waters was not that good of a person in general and one who seemed to have many issues concerning his feelings towards both white and black people.  The story unfolds to find a much deeper than originally expected motive in the case concerning Waters’s murder.

Jewison, as a director, is well suited for a script of this nature.  Prior to this film, he had directed films such as In the Heat of the Night and …And Justice for All, both of which make strong statements towards equality and justice.  His handling of delicate issues is always done with a certain air of dignity which really works well for this type of film.  The script is obviously based on a stage play, as the structure is very much limited to certain locations and the majority of the narrative is based around the series of interviews that Davenport conducts.  However, though the structure of the story is confined somewhat to its stage beginnings, the execution of the film helps show more than tell some of the interview sequences and keep the viewer interested in what is happening.

The majority of the film’s actors are African-American and all of them do wonderful jobs in their respective roles.  Early appearances of celebrities such as Denzel Washington and David Alan Grier are made throughout the film.  Caesar, who plays Waters, as earlier mentioned was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film for which I guess I found deserving.  There was nothing spectacular to me about his performance aside from a few select scenes, but all in all it was a solid portrayal of the character.  In my opinion, however, if anyone from the film deserved a nomination, it would be Denzel Washington as Private First Class Peterson.  I felt like every second of his time on screen was entrancing and it’s no wonder from this early role that he developed into such a wonderful, well-respected actor.

I would definitely recommend this film to anyone.  It’s one of those films from the 1980s that seems to kind of evaporated a bit over time as far as public knowledge, but who’s story and performances make it a definite must see for anyone who enjoys films with justice and equality as a strong thematic motivator.





The Tourist (2010) Review

27 03 2011

Copyright Sony Pictures Entertainment 2010

★ ★ ★

The Tourist is the sophomore effort of German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark.  His debut film, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), in 2006 was one of the best films of that year and won countless awards including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Needless to say, I think anyone anticipating this movie had high hopes.  It was a chance for this brilliant director to work with two of the world’s foremost leading actors and with a budget 50 times that of his debut film.  Unfortunately, it seems that something was lost in translation.

The film focuses on the girlfriend  (Angelina Jolie) of a man named Alexander Pierce, whom has stolen several billion dollars from an English gangster (Steven Berkoff).  Law enforcement organizations from all over the world are trying to locate him for back taxes in the neighborhood of $800 million, primarily the British government.  So, in hopes he will make contact with Jolie’s character, they keep a very close watch on her at all times.  As a diversion, she pawns the Interpol official into thinking unsuspecting American math teacher Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) is Pierce (as Pierce has supposedly had a multi-million dollar facial reconstruction recently).  Without giving too much away, the plot goes back and forth in much the manner of a Cary Grant vehicle such as Charade. While trying to keep action and suspense high, there are the ever-present moments of comedic effort and surprise.

The problem is, however, that Depp’s character doesn’t sell the same charisma that Grant was able to pull off and, in turn, Jolie doesn’t have the same cool style that Audrey Hepburn exuded in similar roles.  I really appreciate the ode to those wonderful films of the 1950s and 1960s and The Tourist has some really interesting parts to it, but the execution just doesn’t work.

I know this sounds like a pretty bad review, but I wouldn’t say that the film is not worth watching.  It’s not a terrible film by any means, it’s just with the talent involved, the script and the budget accompanying, I feel like a much better product should have come out in the end.  Every major director has their hits and misses, so I don’t want to lambast Donnersmark much for making a film that didn’t live up to my expectations.  I hope his next effort is closer to the glory of Das Leben Der Anderen, but in reality, I think any director would be happy to have just one film of that caliber to their name in an entire career and Donnersmark, at 37, can’t complain with his current track record.





Directors who Started in Other Departments – PART II

25 03 2011

As we move into the second part of this series, we will focus on directors who originally started as cinematographers.  The focus again will be prominent directors who were prominent cinematographers, which excludes one-timers like Christopher Nolan on Following or Gordon Willis’s one foray into directing with 1980’s Windows. Being a cinematographer first and foremost and having recently directed a short of my own, this entry in the series will be the closest to home for me.  As one of the more well known cinematographer-turn-directors, Nicholas Roeg, quoted about directing, “And later I thought, I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography.”

The Cinematographers:

Nicholas Roeg (1928- ) – Roeg began his career in the early 1950s as a clapper-boy, quickly moving up to camera operator by the end of the decade.  In the early 1960s, he continued to work as a camera operator and also had the opportunity to shoot 2nd unit photography on David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia under head DP Freddie Young.  He moved into the role of cinematographer during the 1960s as well, shooting such stark classics as The Masque of the Red Death and Farenheit 451, as well as lighter material such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His first film as a director came in 1971 with his breakthrough debut Walkabout, a film he also took a cinematography credit on.  His directing career would continue with my personal favorite of his Don’t Look Now, the eerily surreal Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie and Insignificance. After the mid-1980s, his output became more sporadic though he has continued to make films as a director, his latest being in 2007.

Andrzej Bartkowiak (1950 – ) – Bartkowiak trained at the esteemed Polish Film School in Lodz, Poland where many well-known Polish and international directors and cinematographers train.  He immigrated to the United States in 1972 and began working in commercials before working on his first feature as a cinematographer, Deadly Hero. His real recognition, however, came in a series of films he shot with one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet.  Bartkowiak’s first film with Lumet was the dark cop tale Prince of the City, and followed this with Deathtrap, The Verdict and Daniel with Lumet.  Other notable films as a cinematographer include Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, Twins and The Devil’s Advocate. Bartkowiak moved into directing with Romeo Must Die; his following films as director have all been in the action film genre.  He spent the entire decade of the 2000s directing, though it looks like he is moving back into the cinematographer’s seat for the upcoming Joel Schumacher film Trespass.

Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) – Cardiff is, in my opinion, one of the best cinematographers who has ever lived.  His work in early Technicolor is astounding and his ability to manipulate hues to fit the perfect mood for the story is astounding.  Cardiff began his career as a clapper-boy (in the camera department at least, he originally began as a child actor) and moved into being a camera operator a few years later.  His work as operator on Pressburger and Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, led to a relationship with the two directors that would later allow him to be the cinematographer on two of their best known films, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He won an Academy Award for the former.  Following Oscar nominations included War and Peace in 1956 and Fanny in 1961.  His first feature as a director was Intent to Kill in 1958; his most well known feature, however, was Sons and Lovers in 1960.  Sons and Lovers was nominated for seven Academy Awards including a nomination for Cardiff as director.  Coincidentally enough, fellow cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis shot Sons and Lovers and received his first of two Academy Awards for it.   Cardiff continued to direct intermittently into the 1970s, but it seems his true passion was his first love of cinematography; this he continued to do into his 90s with shorts and documentary subjects.

Ernest Dickerson (1951- ) – Dickerson began his career shooting music videos and, as a cinematographer, is probably best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee on such films as She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X. The same year he shot Malcolm X, he began his career as a director with the film Juice. After several features in the 1990s, Dickerson as has gone on to become a prolific television director.  His television directing credits include episodes of E.R., Heroes, The Wire, Weeds, Burn Notice, Dexter and The Walking Dead, among many others.

Freddie Francis (1917-2007) – Francis spent a short time as a camera assistant in the 1940s before becoming a camera operator and operating through the mid-1950s.  At this point, he began his career as a cinematographer and would go on to win an Oscar for Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers in 1960 for Best Black-and-White Cinematography.  Following his win, he only shot a few more films before moving into directing with 1960’s Two and Two Make Six. Though most of his directing career was limited to horror and low-budget features, Francis said in an interview, “I got a lot of fun out of being a cameraman, but obviously directing is more interesting. One thing wrong with being a cameraman in Britain is that from the financial point of view you have to keep working all the time and you often have to work with people whose work, frankly, doesn’t excite you. When I got the opportunity to direct I decided to try it and if I wasn’t excited with what I did, well, that would be my own problem and no one else’s. But basically I love making films. If someone asked me now to photograph a film I still would.” (1976).  Interestingly enough, he did return to cinematography in 1980 with the popular film The Elephant Man. This return to cinematography must have revitalized his interest greatly as he continued to shoot films from then until his final feature Straight Story in 1999.  In his second wave as a DP, he would win another Academy Award almost 30 years after his first for the 1989 film Glory.

Ronald Neame (1911-2010) – Neame’s credits as a cinematographer were fairly extensive through the 1930s with Happy until the mid-1940s with David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. His directorial career began in 1947 with Take My Life. He continued his varied career as a director until the short The Magic Balloon in 1990.  His most known films as a director include 1960s Tunes of Glory (his personal favorite film of his own), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Scrooge and The Poseidon Adventure. Over his career he received three Oscar nominations which, oddly enough, were not for cinematography or direction; they were two for writing and one for special effects.

Barry Sonnenfeld (1953- ) – Sonnenfeld is probably best known, in cinematography at least, as being the Coen Brothers’ first regular DP before their longtime collaboration with British Cinematographer Roger Deakins.  His credits with the Coens included their debut Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing; other notable credits as a cinematographer are When Harry Met Sally…, Misery and Big. He moved into directing in the early 1990s with the first Addams Family movie and continued with the sequel, Get Shorty and both Men in Black films, among others.  He also dabbled in television with the creation and an Emmy award for the television show Pushing Daisies.

There are certainly other cinematographers who moved into direction from shooting, but none so with the success of these listed.  An honorable mention for this category can be Steven Soderbergh who shoots many of his own films under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”.  However, I have never been a huge fan of Soderbergh’s personally shot movies and being that he didn’t actually begin as a cinematographer, I can’t add him to the main list.  Another honorable (much more so than Soderbergh) mention is Stanley Kubrick who began as a stills photographer for such magazines as Look! in the 1950s and shot his first film Fear and Desire.  Rumor has it Kubrick was also largely responsible for shooting Spartacus after not agreeing with Director of Photography Russell Metty on the look of the film.  As an interesting side note, Metty won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for Spartacus.






Timecrimes (2007) Review

24 03 2011

Copyright 2007 Magnolia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

I will be the first to admit that I am a sucker for movies that deal with time travel.  Ever since I was a child the concept has interested me and I am always immediately drawn to watch any movie, read any book or play any video game that revolves around the idea.  When I was cued in to this movie from a co-worker, I immediately put it on my instant queue on Netflix and am very glad I did.

The film is the debut feature from Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, who had previously received an Oscar nomination for his short musical film 7:35 a.m. (which is conveniently located in the Special Features section of this film in its entirety).  The story focuses on the character of Hector who has just bought a new home in the Spanish countryside with his wife Clara.  When Clara goes to get groceries from the local store, Hector is left sitting in the back yard with his binoculars looking over the lush, mountainous landscape.  Something he spots through his binoculars leads him to further investigation which, in turn, spawns a series of events that lead him to a research facility containing a time machine.  Without giving too much away, the film contains many intricacies dealing with the problems of time travel, primarily the causation paradox.

Being a primarily plot-based film, character building is minimal.  However, for the type of film that it is, I didn’t feel like it detracted much from my viewing experience.  Films that deal with dreams, time travel or other complex happenings have to spend a certain amount of running time explaining the theory behind the plot motivation and, to me, this almost becomes a character in itself.  And, let’s face it, when we go to see or rent a film that deals with one of these complex topics, we are specifically watching for the mind bending phenomena of the plot, so it’s hard pressed for me to get too excited about two dimensional characters.

Timecrimes is a low budget feature.  There is nothing really flashy about the photography, set design or locations.  It’s a breath of fresh air in this era of filmmaking to see something that is organic like this though.  Everything you need for the story to be conveyed is in place and works smoothly without extra millions being thrown into digital effects.  Granted, I strongly oppose most digital effects in movies unless it is absolutely pertinent to the telling of the story.  I feel too many films over the past 10 years have worried more about their effects value then about how well the story structure evolves.

In conclusion, if you get a chance to catch this one, I would definitely recommend it.  If you are a time travel junkie like myself, then it is a must see and you need to sign on to Netflix or go by the local video store and get it right now.  Vigalondo’s sophomore effort will be coming out soon entitled Extraterrestre. I hope this budding director continues to make films as good as this one, because if so, then he’ll definitely be someone to keep an eye on over the next few years.








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