Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for June, 2010

Peter Jackson will probably direct ‘The Hobbit’ after all

Well, it certainly hurt when Guillermo del Toro left as director of The Hobbit due to the dire financial situation of its producing studio, MGM.  But it now appears that the Lord of the Rings master himself very well may step in to take over.  It’s not a done deal yet, but it does look imminent that Peter Jackson will return to the helm.  Jackson himself is a producer on the film and it makes sense for him to sit back in the director’s chair to keep the project from floundering into Development Hell.  A ton of cash has already been sunk into pre-production, and Jackson’s involvement could lure in the investments they’ll need to keep going with the planned pair of films.

Unfortunately, the financial state of MGM is still the deciding factor here.  Not only is its predicament putting this franchise on hold, it’s also stonewalled the continuation of the James Bond films.  MGM is reportedly over $4 billion in the hole, and until it either gets itself in reasonable shape or capitulates to a buyout (Warner Bros. recently offered $1.5 billion and was turned down), the completion of The Hobbit is still in doubt.  Hopefully it gets back on track, and that would be so much more exciting if Jackson were back in command!


Teaser: ‘The Social Network’

The teaser trailer for David Fincher’s next film, The Social Network, has just hit the internet.  It’s a textbook example of how to construct an effective teaser.  Establish your film’s focus (in this case Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg and not the network’s users or even the network itself), and then include enough bits of dialogue to give a sense of how the film will approach its subject.  It doesn’t tip its hand too much and it does an excellent job of stoking anticipation for those already excited about it.

For many, the prospect of a movie based on Facebook may seem silly and built on a rather thin foundation.  But the story behind the rise of this social network and its mercurial creator has ample dramatic notes to form a very compelling film.  Last month, I read David Kilpatrick’s nonfiction work “The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting The World.”  It’s a fascinating book about a fascinating subject, and that’s coming from someone who is a conflicted Facebook user and not exactly an afficianado or even a fan.  Whatever your own experience with Facebook, it is a connective force of nature that in less than a decade has soared past half a billion users.  Everyone knows about it, whether they use it or not.  It’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is one of the most influential and yet one of the least understood shapers of the modern world, which makes him and his Facebook saga excellent fodder for a film, especially in the hands of the detail-obsessed Fincher. All of the words in the teaser can be aptly applied to Zuckerberg: Punk, Billionaire, Genius.  He is all of the these things and more, and all before the age of 26.

Fincher is the perfect match for the material.  He’s an ultra-focused analyst behind the camera and he’ll approach his subject from every possible angle using every bit of information he can cram in without losing narrative effect, whether that subject be the unidentified Zodiac Killer or the wunderkind mastermind behind the world’s greatest social force.  He’ll give this story the professional dress of reality and the dramatic heft of world-shaking consequence, a balancing act that lesser filmmakers find very difficult.  He won’t glamorize nor condemn his subject, though the teaser gives the impression that he will be rather critical.  Talented young actor Jeffrey Eisenberg (Adventureland) is also a promising choice to play Zuckerberg.  He has the ability to combine an endearing earnestness and passion with the grating hyperconfidence of a young punk too smart for his own good.

Oh, and did I mention that the script is written by West Wing meistro Aaron Sorkin?  So, yeah, the writing will probably be pretty solid too.

Great teaser, and I’m starting to get very excited about this project.

Daniel Day Lewis as Professor Moriarty?!!

With the Sherlock Holmes sequel greenlit and pressing forward, there’s been a lot of speculation about who step into the shoes of the detective’s famous nemesis, who was present but hidden in the first film and who will feature prominently in the followup.  Well, word is director Guy Ritchie apparently has his #1 target: Oscar-winning and otherwise-known “Greatest Living Film Actor” Daniel Day Lewis.  Ritchie plans to soon pitch the part to the famous and famously selective thespian, but backup choices are rumored to be Gary Oldman, Javier Bardem, and even Sean Penn.

Those are some fine backup choices, but the prospect of Day Lewis playing the brilliant criminal mastermind is the stuff of movie-geek dreams.  I’m having a hard time getting my head around the incredibly picky Day Lewis signing up for Ritchie’s high-octane and post-hip filmmaking style.  But the actor is certainly open to experimentation, as he even took to singing for Rob Marshall in the recent musical Nine.  I hope Ritchie has a hell of a pitch.  I’d love to see a talent like Day Lewis dueling wits with Robert Downey Jr’s eccentric sleuth.

Hat-tip to Nick Famiga

New ‘Inception’ Clip

Because you just can’t get too much of this upcoming film.  More footage that makes things look even cooler than before, if that was possible.  Enjoy!

Unsung Masterpiece: ‘United 93’

The audience reluctance that greeted United 93 and stuck with it after its release  is certainly understandable.  Released only four years after the horror of September 11, Paul Greengrass’ docudrama take on the saga of United Airlines Flight 93 is hardly fun escapist entertainment.  But you’d be hard pressed not only to find a better film from the last decade, but also to find one that so strongly slams our faces into some of the most important questions about cinema as an art form.  What is the artistic value of  cinema verite, in which the viewer is thrust into a dramatic situation stripped of narrative dressing and meant only to live through potentially terrifying experiences?  Is there merit to using the theater as a means to present horrific historical events without any clear political or social context?   What is the value of putting your audience through a meat-grinder without providing any tangible catharsis?  All valid and important questions.

United 93 is certainly quite the conversation starter.  So why it is a masterpiece?  The label can be supported by a three-sided analysis.

First of all, the film is a masterful technical achievement, both in its technique and in the way in succeeds in pushing every necessary button to terrify and affect its audience.  Greengrass’ camera treats every aspect of the film equally, refusing to dwell on a subject to the point of glorification or to lessen the dramatic significance of any player, even the highjackers.  The heroes don’t get different camera angles than the villains nor do they get different dramatic music (there is no music).  The film views these events straight-up, almost in real time, allowing our terror to flow from a story we already know the ending to.  Indeed, our knowledge of the ending makes the hyper-realistic approach all the more horrifying.  Every voice, every image, every sound is used to paint as realistic a picture as possible about what happened that day, both onboard Flight 93 and on the ground in the nation’s air-traffic control headquarters.  Greengrass uses expert sound sound design and a superb sense of space to lock his audience into an inescapable emotional corner.  The merits and flaws of such an approach, especially when dealing with such a fresh national wound, are certainly food for debate, but it cannot be debated that the film itself accomplishes the task through the high-level filmmaking on display.

The film also has a great deal of value as a historical document.  It’s portrayal of the crisis through the air-traffic controllers is an absorbing  and incredibly realistic account that becomes almost as frightening and suspenseful as the events on the plane.  For all the carnage that took place that day, the work done by the people in air traffic control was remarkable, and the film will serve as a testament to that fact for a long time to come.  The film’s status as a historical document does run it into some interesting yet well-founded trouble, however, since everyone aboard Flight 93 perished and it’s impossible to really know all of the things that the film presents as fact.  Greengrass does use every single bit of research available to him, though, from black box recordings to phone calls placed to friends and family before the plane went down, so it’s likely as real and visceral an account as we’ll ever see, whether the context be artistic or historical.  The feel of the entire film is one of absolute veracity, and it is from this obsessive attention to detail that it draws much of its substantial power.

The third way in which United 93 displays its cinematic merit is perhaps its most distinctive.  Whereas many, many films have examined the banality of evil, few have explored the banality of heroism.  That United 93 does this, and does it so well, in recreating one of this country’s most painful hours is a testament to its bravery and its commitment to its cinema verite goals.  That the passengers who tried in vain to retake Flight 93 are heroes is not in question.  However, the presentation of their heroism is of a kind rarely seen in cinema, and even more rarely seen in presentations of heroes inducted into our own national canon.  These passengers are just normal folks, which makes their gumption of courage all the more impressive.  But their heroism also stems from pretty normal roots, notably a readily apparent desire for self-preservation.  They haven’t accepted their own fates, and therefore cannot be said to be acting purely on behalf of unseen potential victims on the ground.  From a filmmaking standpoint, their heroic acts are not preceded by grandiose speeches nor are they accompanied by glorious orchestral notes or aggrandizing slow-motion.  In fact, their push to retake the plane is marked by a striking if justifiable savagery.  Now, there is black and white here.  This is, at its core, a battle between good and evil.  But onscreen, as our eyes consider it, it’s a chaotic and animalistic grapple with grunting and screaming and fingernails and bludgeons.  It’s a decidedly unpoetic depiction of very real heroism, which comes not from long struggle or carefully mounted revolution against tyranny but rather from the rapid progression of shock by, examination of, and reaction to a horrific situation anchored by a desire to preserve both their lives and the lives of others.  It almost looks like instinctual human behavior, like an even-tempered yet wild animal backed into a corner by a nasty mean animal.  This is a daring presentation of these people that somehow manages to honor their heroism while rooting their heroics in a palpable reality, and in my opinion its the most substantial artistic accomplishment of the film.

As a viewing experience, United 93 is one of the most stirring, painful, and exhausting I’ve ever had.  I literally have to sit  up in the dark as the credits roll and recover from what I’ve just seen.  This underscores, however, that this film is not entertainment, and while that may have kept people from the multiplex and relegated the film to under appreciated status, it doesn’t take away the enormous quality and importance of it as a consummate work of art.  This one will stick around for a long time, and I hope that as more time passes, more people will observe the lengths to which it both preserves and honors the heroism and the pain of that dark day nearly nine years ago.

Review: Toy Story 3

There are movie studios…and then there’s Pixar.  Paramount is a movie studio.  Universal is a movie studio.  Pixar, however, is a creative powerhouse the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the heyday of Disney.  They are not simply a manufacturer of entertainment; they are indeed the greatest and most consistent collection of storytellers on the face of the earth.  They lift our eyes to the skies and fill our dreams in a way that affects every single age group with equal impact.  These are not children’s stories.  They are human stories, viewed through the wondrous prism of the childhood mind.  Enjoy these guys while they’re around.  Sooner or later, it has to be believed, Pixar will make a bad movie.  Hell, before that they’d have to make one that is a step below great.

But that time hasn’t come yet.

With Toy Story 3, the greatest of that particular series and the best film to be released so far this year, they have returned to the artisitic heights they achieved with masterpieces like Finding Nemo and Wall-E.  They’ve created not only that incredibly rare good second sequel, but they’ve crafted as affecting an ode to the beauty of the generational continuum as I’ve ever seen.  With Andy leaving his toys and packing up for college, this may seem like a story about the end of childhood, about closing the door and striving to a find in a place in a world that no longer needs you.  But it’s about so much more than that.  It’s about how childhood is never lost, only passed on.  We impart our wonder and our dreams to those who come after us, and they in term keep our eyes filled with light and our hearts tethered to that purity of feeling that life and all its struggles try so hard to steal from us.

Pixar, yet again, has created magic.

The story sees our collection of toy heroes at a serious crossroads.  Andy is packing them up as he leaves for college, and they’re stuck wondering about what the future will hold for them now that their owner and friend is moving on.  Will he leave them to gather dust in the attic?  Will he take some of the them with him?  Or will he let his mom donate them to the local daycare?  As you probably know, they end up at the daycare, missing the old days yet excited about what seems to be a splendid existence with new children to play with them.

But the daycare is not as splendid as it seems.  Some of the toys there, led by the deceptive and bitter Lotso the hugging bear and a hilariously sketchy Ken doll, have created a cruel system of self-perservation where the new toys are fed to the grinder of the reckless toddler room, with very young kids who rip toys to shreds and show no ability to properly play with guys like Buzz and Woody and the gang.  So now the story becomes a prison-break saga that rivals the likes of The Great Escape and the Shawshank Redemption.

But that’s just the surface of the story, thrilling as it is (and it is endlessly exciting).  What we really have here is a tale of seemingly abandoned souls wandering the existential abyss as they seek to escape the darkness while wondering if there’s a still a place in the light for them at all.  There’s a terrific and rather frigthening sequence near the end where our toy friends are literally facing their own demise.  This is not done is the usual cartoony way, with overly dramatic music and a clear knowledge that rescue is just around the corner.  No, our heroes really do not think they’re going to make it, and instead of panicking, they gaze at their fate, accept it, and hold each other’s hands as it looms.  It’s a startlingly bleak sequence that few children’s films would dare to tackle.  In my theater, children of all ages sat silent as this took place, they themselves entirely unsure of whether or not their heroes would make it out.  The power that Pixar weilds over an audience is always palpable.

But Pixar, as everyone knows by now, specialized in the light at the end of the tunnel.  They’re not afraid to explore the dark, but they do so always with a hopeful eye toward the realization of dreams.  And after they plunge our heroes into the abyss (which is so stirring thanks to how truly loveable they’ve made these characters), they resolve their tale in the greatest way possible.  The ending is entirely unexpected , but it’s a gorgeous display of how the beauty of childhood is inherited by proceeding generations.  Our greatest gift to our children is that greatest gift to us as a species; our sense of wonder.  Our sense that anything is possible and that the stories and magic we create are the most valuable commodities we have.

The story of the toys with Andy may be over, but the story of these toys as characters is merely entering another chapter.  Youth comes and goes, but the excitement and imagination that Pixar has so captured in these characters…that is forever.  Andy realizes, as we all must, that our duty is to keep passing that torch.  The way may be bumpy and dark at times, as it is for Buzz and Woody and our other plastic friends, but on the other side is that continued sense of wonder and shared love, the very essence of what makes like worth living.

When it comes to that, Pixar keeps us going….again and again and again.

Review: The A-Team

I didn’t expect much from The A-Team.  The recent run of films based on 70s and 80s TV shows (Charlie’s Angels, Garfield, Alvin and the Chipmunks, etc) runs the gamut from barely tolerable to abysmal, and I didn’t expect this to be much different.  I found the original show amusing but cringingly campy and cheap.  But, I had a free movie pass to burn and there was nothing else showing, so what the hell.

But The A-Team managed to succeed in the one area where I was hoping it would: it entertained the ever-loving hell out of me.  From its early sequence onward, it managed to dispel my cinephile cynicism and whisk me along on its popcorn-littered summer ride, and I had a whole lot of fun.  It won’t end up on many “Best Of” lists at the end of the year, but it is a more than worthy attraction in what has been a rather dull summer so far.

That the film works as well as it does it almost entirely due to the qaulity and commitment of the cast.  The TV show was all about these characters, and as cliched and two-dimensional as they are, the actors make them easy to get behind and get you to enjoy just watching them shoot the shit with each other, so to speak.  Liam Neeson brings his usual intelligent heft to the role of Hannibal Smith, the stalwart leader of the group.  Bradley Cooper, love him or hate him, is perfect for the role of the dashingly narcissistic Faceman, and even ultimate fighter Rampage Jackson (clearly not an actor but clearly not caring) seems absolutely at ease in the shoes of Mr. T, exuding a genuine charisma as the musclebound B.A. Baracus.

But the standout of the cast is relative newcomer Shartlo Copley, who last year dazzled as the star of the sleeper hit District 9.  Here, as lovable madman Murdoch, he get to further flex the comedic skills that he flashed a bit at the beginning of that previous film, and he displays an extreme likeability and sharp comic timing that could very easily make him a star.  I hope that happens.  His performance in District 9 is one of the best science fiction cinema has ever seen, and he brings the spark to this film that really makes it fun.  Every scene he’s in becomes a damn good time at the movies.

The story, as you might expect, is fairly cookie-cutter and involves our heros hoping around the world trying to clear their names after escaping from wrongful imprisonment.  It’s been done many times before, but who cares?  In fact, that’s part of the film’s appeal.  It’s a total throwback not so much to the cheesy TV show but to the men-on-a-mission action flicks on the late 80s and early 90s.  The focus here is on these larger-than-life characters, not the mission they’re on, and the film is wise to keep the focus there.

For his part, director Joe Carnahan (Smokin Aces) shows a very solid competency at handling the action and shooting his characters much like the action stars of the 80s were shot.  He knows that the appeal of his film is getting to watch badass guys do badass things, and he shoots his film accordingly, also displaying a welcome adherence to the more open old-school ways of shooting action sequences, letting his camera actually observe a scene rather than jump-cutting every .5 seconds.

In a summer that has shown a disconcerting shortage of thrills in its first couple months, The A-Team is a welcome bit of honest fun.  It knows what you want out of it, and it delivers on those expectations, even if it doesn’t strive to do much more than that.