Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Great Scenes # 40: The Pink Panther (1963)

Directed by Blake Edwards

Actor Herbert Lom, the man who hilariously and famously portrayed Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther series has just passed away very recently and that inspired me to feature this film in my Great Scenes series. This is the first of the many, many funny series of films featuring Inspector Clouseau as a bumbling, clumsy detective. This takes place during the climax of the film where a costume party culminates in a chase scene. What's hilarious is that it's seen from a perspective of an ordinary pedestrian crossing the street after going in a bar so it ingeniously amps up the absurdity of the chase scene with crazy costumes. It's just a testament to the comedic instinct of director Blake Edwards.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (9/16/12 - 9/22/12)

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard) *** - Okay. I'm not a fan of the directorial work of Ron "Opie" Howard. He's such a dull connect-the-dots, perfunctory director that it's occasionally even offensive. But surprise, surprise, I have to say this film is his best film work since Apollo 13. It's almost as if the talky nature of the material has probably forced him to be more cinematic. But what makes this film pretty damn good is not Opie's direction but rather the stunning performance of Frank Langella who, in real life, doesn't look anything like Richard Nixon and barely resembles him even in prosthetics but his performance is quite convincing and he creates a well-rounded human character, beyond just a caricature. Michael Sheen is likewise also fantastic as David Frost and matches him. It's not a cinematic landmark but it's a surprisingly solid film.

Hero (Zhang Yimou) **** - Revisited this earlier in the week. It's still a visually sumptuous martial arts flick. On Blu-Ray, it loses very little of its majesty from the big screen. It's highly recommended. 

Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris) ** - Quirky indie dramedies are strictly a hit or miss for me. For every (500) Days of Summer (which I love), there's a Garden State (which I loathe). Unfortunately for this film, it's more the latter rather than the former. It's quite a novel idea: A blocked neurotic one-hit wunderkind writer dreams up a fictitious girl and she materializes in real life. Lots of potential for greatness in the idea but could go wrong in many different ways. And it does despite a few good moments. The film starts off rather Woody Allen-esque in its magic realism conceit but it goes off the rails when it tries for something unique and some depth, it results in a scene which comes off as borderline distasteful and jarring. Paul Dano tries his best and is rather good. I don't buy Zoe Kazan as a "dream girl" and the strong supporting cast is wasted.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Listology # 22: Top 10 Films of 2008

I apologize that I've been slow in posting lately.

10. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

Great black comedies have been hard to come by lately. So this film was a breath of fresh air. The film kicks off with a shocking, violent death of a young child yet still manages to make you laugh. That's something special right there. It's about a hit man whose accidental killing of a young boy leads him to be suicidal. Colin Farrell gives probably one of his career-best performances in this remarkable little gem of a film. 

9. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
This was a surprise hit of 2008. A little film by English director Danny Boyle featuring a mostly unknown Indian cast became a huge juggernaut in the Oscar-season and won a near-sweep 8 awards. It's a lovely feel-good tale about a young man who joins the Indian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? game show in order to try and find his lost love. It's a hokey fairy tale for sure but in the hands of Danny Boyle, it becomes gritty and stylish as well. 

8. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
I was not a big fan of Batman Begins so I wasn't really looking forward to this all that much, even with Heath Ledger's last completed performance. But I saw it and I was very impressed. It's a really dark film especially for what is technically a superhero movie. Heath Ledger deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance which I think would have happened anyway had he not tragically died. 

7. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
This film does not introduce its lead character until half hour into the film. It also contains a really long scene with just two people talking (pictured above). It tells the story of Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker. The film is of course challenging to sit through because, like what I described above, this is not a film which follows Hollywood conventions. This is also the film that introduced the world to Michael Fassbender, who has since become one of world cinema's biggest actors. 

6. The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin)
An Egyptian (i.e. Muslim) band gets lost while trying to find their way to their gig, playing at a special function in Israel. They find themselves temporarily stuck in a small Israeli (i.e. Jewish) town. This film does not ram down a message down your throat but naturally expresses it through its story and its characters. It's a lovely, slice-of-life film which celebrates the humanity of their characters despite their differing races and creeds. 

5. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
I often find that biopics are mediocre films which are often dreadfully formulaic and designed to make their stars win Oscars. Yet here I am, placing two biopics in my Top 10 but these biopics somehow escape those trappings. This time around, it's about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected into public office and whose life was also tragically cut short by violence. Sean Penn gives an amazing performance and he is helped by an extremely strong supporting cast (Josh Brolin, James Franco and Emile Hirsch were all amazing) and Gus Van Sant's direction keeps it from being just another lame biopic. 

4. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
A matriarch of a rather dysfunctional French family is diagnosed with cancer and must find a bone marrow match during a Christmas gathering. Now, at the hands of less-than-capable writer-director this film will inevitably dissolve into a formulaic, manipulative film which will wring in the tears of its audience. This film does not. It's not afraid to make its characters unsympathetic and eschews sentimentality but still manages to make you care for them. Catherine Deneuve heads the strong ensemble of actors. 

3. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
On paper, this film didn't sound too appealing for me: An aging professional wrestler, down on his luck, wishes to reconnect with his estranged daughter. But thanks to director Darren Aronofsky and the stunning performance of Mickey Rourke (whose career was given a jump-start thanks to this film), it is an gut-wrenching and emotional piece of work. The last scene is quite haunting and moving. 

2. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
If Twilight gave you a distaste for human-vampire love stories, this movie will restore your faith in that particular sub-genre. Based on a best-selling novel, this great Swedish horror film is about a young boy who befriends a peculiar young girl who happens to be a centuries-old vampire. It's a sweet coming-of-age drama  and it's also a scary, frightening and disturbing horror film. I would put this as one of the vampire movies ever made. 

1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)
Speaking of love stories, how about a love story between two robots? That's exactly what WALL-E is about and more. I'm a huge fan of PIXAR and they have made a lot of great work and this one, I believe, is one of their flat-out masterpieces. It's funny and moving but also stunningly beautiful. The first act which features almost no dialogue is triumphant achievement in visual storytelling and sound design that is simply remarkable. It's a great, great piece of work. 

Runners-up: Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood); Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Guillermo Del Toro); The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher); Appaloosa (Ed Harris); Kung Fu Panda (John Stevenson/Mark Osborne). 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (9/9/12 - 9/15/12)

Captive (Brillante Mendoza) ***1/2 - Director Brillante Mendoza's latest opus is about a group of people vacationing in a Philippine beach resort taken hostage by a fundamentalist Filipino-Muslim separatist terrorist group, the Abu Sayyaf. Isabelle Huppert plays a French Christian social worker. Just like with Mendoza's previous work, Kinatay, this is a challenge to get through. The film unfolds unconventionally, foregoing the expected narrative trappings and instead lets the film just happen, almost documentary-style (it is quite loosely based on a true story that actually happened). It's this structure that makes the film a trial to sit through, at times excruciating but people open to Mendoza's style (an increased budget allows him to be more visually gorgeous this time around) will find the film rather rewarding and thought provoking as both the hostages and their captors are humanized throughout. Not my favorite Mendoza film but a solid entry nevertheless. Huppert is of course predictably outstanding. It helps that Brillante is fantastic with actresses.

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard) ***1/2 - This got a theatrical release here but I opted not to see it since I heard it was butchered by the distributors. I'm so glad I did. I can't imagine watching this with the gore (and to a lesser extent, the nudity) toned down. But beyond that, this film is a wonderfully clever deconstruction of the horror genre, more so than, dare I say, Scream. I don't wish to reveal too much of the plot. Part of the joy here is to let all the unexpected twists and turns to unfold before your eyes. It's equal parts funny and scary with co-writer and producer Joss Whedon's quality stamp all over it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Great Scenes # 39: Manhattan (1979)

Directed by Woody Allen

This week marks the 11th anniversary of 9/11. What more appropriate tribute to the lives lost in the tragedy than by featuring one of the best films about New York City, Woody Allen's Manhattan. It is arguably one of his flat-out masterpieces. It starts with this legendary opening montage which, I believe, is a pure cinematic love letter to New York City. 

Weekly Round-Up (9/2/12 - 9/8/12)

ParaNorman (Chris Butler/Sam Fell) ****- This film caught me by surprise. I never thought I would *love* this as much as I did. A misfit young boy sees ghosts and is taken to task to save his town from a witches' curse. It's visually gorgeous stop-motion animation combined with modern-day CGI. It's got lots of funny, scary (yes, scary) and sweet moments along with very clever winks at classic horror films. I see that this is not doing that gangbusters at the box-office but I do think this has the potential to have a strong cult following a la Nightmare Before Christmas. It's my favorite animated film of the year so far and one of the best films of year so far period.

Keane (Lodge Kerrigan) **1/2 - A mentally unstable man struggles with the supposed loss of his daughter as he befriends a single mom and her young daughter. It's a low-budget indie drama but fairly predictable and standard. It's made watchable by the great performance of Damian Lewis.

(NOTE: I could have sworn I posted this earlier.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Listology # 21: Top 5 Best Opening Credits Sequences

Opening credits are often the most overlooked portion of a film especially at this day and age when many films have their main credits at the END of the movie. But lots of films have very creative opening credit sequences that are an art form in and of itself. You can have a list made up entirely of James Bond movies, for instance (though this is not one of them). Opening credits not only lets you know the stars and the crew of the film but also whets your appetite as to what's to come. Here are my five personal favorites in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

Anatomy of a Murder (1960)

With a fantastic jazz score by Duke Ellington, Saul Bass' already iconic credit designs kicks off Otto Preminger's fantastic courtroom thriller like no other film could.

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned the Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The film's satirical anti-war tone is ingeniously incorporated into the opening credits by Pablo Ferro with weird printed writing and setting a romantic ballad over phallic-looking planes. Yes, it's basically a sex scene with jet planes.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

This is one of the longest opening credits in mainstream cinema. Sergio Leone's classic spaghetti begins with a long quiet sequence where you can cut the tension with a knife.

Psycho (1960)

Another classic Saul Bass designed-opening credits which kicks off Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller. Man, the 1960's seems to be my favorite decade for opening credits! LOL.

Superman (1978)

Lots of superhero/sci-fi/fantasy movies have showy, spectacular opening (or closing credits) but I think the best would still be the original 1978 Superman opening. It's so great, Bryan Singer copied its style for Superman Returns.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (8/26/12 - 9/1/12)

I have no excuse. I just forgot. LOL.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) **** - I just flew three hours in a plane and went to a whole different country. What's the first thing I do? Watch a movie, of course (that's the way I roll). It turns out to be my favorite film of the year so far. The plot is simple: Two 12 year olds fall in love and run away throwing their parents and their town into a tizzy. The film is pure Wes Anderson: From the framing, the bright, colorful production design, the music, etc. It's also undeniably quirky, twee, hipsterish, whatever-you-wanna-call-it. In the hands of a less competent director, these types of things often irritate the hell out of me but in the hands of Wes Anderson, he uses it to enhance and complement the story he wants to tell, never sacrificing character and depth. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are great as the lead kids and supported very well by the veteran adult supporting cast. Fantastic score, cinematography and design, as well.

The Campaign (Jay Roach) *** - This seems like a winning combo: Funny men Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in a broad political satire. They're great and there are some genuine laughs to be had but I'll have to agree that this could have been a lot more biting and aggressive than it is. It flirted with it, it hinted at it and the actors are all game but it never did go to that next level. But as it is, it's a funny romp.

The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet) *** - This is one of Sidney Lumet's early works. I will say that it's not as great as any of the three films of his I consider great (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and Network). But still this picture is well worth watching for the great performances bv Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. There are some great powerful moments but it overall falls short of what it's trying to accomplish. A solid effort but far from a masterpiece.