THE COLOR OF TIME (2013)

December 11, 2014

 

color of time Greetings again from the darkness. It’s either a most unusual biopic on Pulitzer Prize winning poet CK Williams, an example of how director Terrence Malick has influenced the next wave of filmmakers, or a self-congratulatory exercise disguised as a class project. Regardless of your final take, most cinephiles will muster at least a modicum of interest in a film with 11 directors and 12 writers … each NYU film students during James Franco’s time on campus as an adjunct professor.

We see the life of CK Williams through the flashbacks and memories of James Franco (as an adult Williams prepping for a reading of “Tar”). Williams as a child, as an adolescent, and as a college student (played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) offer a glimpse into the girls and events that helped shape his poetry. The sequence of Williams as a child is so similar to Malick’s Tree of Life, that we viewers experience our own flashbacks … right down to Jessica Chastain recreating her scenes from that movie (this time as Williams’ mother).

Mila Kunis plays Catherine, Williams’ second and current wife, and it’s clear – in a modern expressionist kind of way – that they are very happy together. There are a couple of disjointed sequences that come across as created simply to provide an outlet for Zach Braff and Bruce Campbell. However, when dealing with poetry, rules don’t apply … at least that seems to be what this group of young filmmakers would have us believe. The washed out colors, fuzzy focus, shots of nature, and muted emotions dotted with monotone dialogue are all elements of artsy films. Whether these are the foundations of artsy films is a separate topic. Interspersed throughout are a couple of clips of CK Williams with his own readings.

Experimental filmmaking is always a risk and should not be discouraged. It’s given us every advance in the medium for a century. It is a bit worrisome, however, when experimental film appears so similar to the work of a current master. Let’s hope that’s just the first step in the process of developing filmmakers. This one also acts as a reminder that turning poetry into actual images often defeats the purpose of the written words.

watch the trailer:

 

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OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


OZ: The old and new

March 5, 2013

Director Sam Raimi has a quasi pre-quel to the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz opening nationwide on Friday March 8.  Because of production rights, Mr. Raimi was limited to the source material from L Frank Baum’s book and not allowed to borrow from the film. His cast includes James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.  I won’t spoil the surprise of who is the Wicked Witch this time around, but just for fun, let’s compare the witches from the original to witches in this version.

The great Margaret Hamilton played the dual roles of the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch:

oz margaret hamilton

 

 

 

 

Here are the photos of the three witches in Oz the Great and Powerful

oz mila kunis   oz rachel weiszoz michelle williams

 

 

 

I’ll leave it to you to decide what the difference might be.

Here is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


TED (2012)

July 1, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Upon watching the trailer, it would be easy and understandable to simply write off this movie as a ridiculous piece of junk produced merely to capitalize on the popularity of Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy” creator). That would be a mistake. While much of what Ted has to say will burn your ears, the insight that goes into his lines is often unmistakeably brilliant.

The movie opens with terrific narration from Patrick Stewart. It’s done in A Christmas Story style, only with a caustic and deadpan irreverence that will jolt you before the opening credits have even rolled. We learn the story of 9 year old John Bennett, a social outcast who receives a teddy bear for Christmas. First, what parent buys their 9 year old a teddy bear??? Anyway, that night, under the covers, young John wishes that he and Ted could be lifelong friends. In the morning, he awakes to find a sweet, lively teddy who startles everyone.

 The talking bear becomes an instant celebrity and is even booked on the Johnny Carson show … the first of many 1980’s pop culture references. As in the case of Corey Feldman (pointed out by the narrator), celebrity often fades. Flash forward 25 years and John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted are living together with John’s girlfriend (Mila Kunis). The boys spend most of their time smoking pot and watching TV re-runs and worshiping the 1980 Flash Gordon cult movie. It’s a typical man-child existence except that one of them is a vile, 4 letter-word spewing teddy bear, and there is no logical reason that the beautiful Kunis hasn’t walked away from the four year relationship with the hapless floater John.

 Mr. MacFarlane’s true talent lies in laughing at our societal norms and encouraging us to laugh at ourselves. He does this through Brian, the pet dog on “Family Guy“, and now here with a talking teddy bear. He holds little back in ripping our obsession with celebrity, our near-clinical anxiety towards all things Politically Correct, and the villainous ways of entitled corporate types (played here by Joel McHale). Luckily the same rules don’t apply for talking teddies, so we hear things that we aren’t even allowed to think. Because he can, MacFarlane mixes in his love of the 80’s with numerous references and we even get odd cameos from Tom Skerritt, Nora Jones and Ryan Reynolds. The most bizarre reference takes up a substantial part of the movie … Sam Jones, the star of Flash Gordon, appears as an aged party animal, teaching the boys some new tricks. Most of this will be dead time to those unfamiliar with the 1980 movie … and evidently few of us have been impacted by it like MacFarlane.

 Ted is a mash-up of John Waters, Bad Santa, Jackass and just about every stereotypical slacker-buddy movie from the past 25 years. It’s all of that and none of that at the same time. Depending on your viewpoint, Ted is either a crass, irreverent, totally inappropriate waste of movie time, or it’s a comical, insightful observation on where we are as a society right now. Only you can decide … just please don’t take your kids.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always wished your teddy bear would come alive OR you have a freakish attraction to Flash Gordon

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your preference in comedy leans towards the sweet and innocent (two words that have no place near this movie)

watch the trailer:


BLACK SWAN (2010)

December 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Normally, I watch a movie, organize my thoughts and write my comments. Not surprisingly, this film has me all tangled up in thoughts, opinions and analysis. Though I won’t, I could easily write 10 pages on this mesmerizing work from visionary director Darren Aronofsky. It’s best if this film is allowed to work it’s (black) magic on each individual viewer.

What I can tell you is that similar to Christopher Nolan‘s Inception, there will be a definite line of demarcation between those who like and those who don’t. And just like with Nolan’s exceptional film, among those who “like” this one, there will still be much debate and discussion about themes, meanings, presentation, performances and message. In my opinion, that’s a pretty good report card for both films.

Be forewarned … this is a very dark, risky and edgy film. Know that it steps even farther out than Mr. Aronofsky’s previous work in The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and Pi. In other words, he works very hard on the presentation so that the viewer can be whisked away in many different directions emotionally.

The multi-faceted story has many angles, any of which could be construed as the lead. Natalie Portman (Nina) stars as a mid-20’s member of a struggling New York ballet company. Barbara Hershey is Nina’s smothering mother, who gives all dance mom’s a bad name with her attempts to live vicariously through her daughter, while also stifling her growth into adulthood (the pink bedroom looks as if an 8 year old girl would be in heaven). Wynona Ryder (Beth) plays the “aging” prima ballerina who is forced into retirement, and Mila Kundis (Lily) is the mysterious newcomer who may or may not have an agenda. The powerful Vincent Cassel (Thomas) is the company director and plays the role full bore.

Thomas announces that the company will be performing “Swan Lake” and, almost knowing the dancers will hiss at the re-tread, he quickly adds that it’s never been done his way … the same dancer playing both the White and Black Swan. He knows that Nina is the perfect choice as the White Swan but isn’t sure she can dig deep enough for the dark side. Lily is her polar opposite … mirror image … as the emotionally free, with a comfortable level of darkness and evil. I mention mirrors because they play a key role throughout the film.

When Nina is chosen for the role, a twisted friendship with Lily emerges. This draws Nina further inside herself exposing thoughts and actions she never before imagined. On top of this, Thomas is the predatory authoritarian who constantly challenges her, leading to even more self-doubt.

 As Nina slowly transforms from little girl into womanhood, we witness what looks like a slow slide towards madness. Has she gone too far? Will she snap out? Much of what we see is a clash between reality and her delusional mind. The viewer must decipher where the line is … often multiple times within a single scene! We are left wondering if Lily is stealing Nina’s identity or is it the other way around?

The other topic we cover is the constant battle that dancers face. The cutthroat competition, backstage battles, increasing pain and injuries, the fear of failure – both physically and emotionally, and the immense dedication and skill required for this short-lived profession. There is a drive for perfection in these dancers, just like in the best athletes, musicians, actors, etc. Of course, perfection as a goal leads to disappointment in result.

As for similar type movies, I really can’t name one.  What I can do is tell you there are bits and pieces of The Red Shoes (1948), All About Eve (1950) and some early Polanski (Repulsion, The Tenant).  I can’t rave enough about the script from Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin.  Camera work is ground-breaking during the actual performance.  We are weaving in and out of the stage with the dancers.  Breathtaking! The musical score combined with the familiar songs topped with amazingly subtle (and some not so subtle) effects makes this best described as an artsy horror film meshed with a crackling psychological thriller held together by nightmarish melodrama. Hopefully you are intrigued and this one is just “perfect” for you!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have no idea what I mean when I say “artsy horror film”, but you are intrigued by the thought.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the mere mention of “artsy horror film” has you reaching for a Julia Roberts DVD


DATE NIGHT (2010)

April 12, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most married couples can probably relate to the grind of a life absorbed with work and parenting. Sometimes the fantasy turns into having a quiet moment of solitude. Heck, even “date night” can devolve into just another responsibility tacked on at the end of a long week. This is the premise for director Shawn Levy’s film. The best part? It doesn’t matter at all.

The reason this film works is not the plot or script, but rather the talents of the two funniest people in showbiz today: Steve Carell and Tina Fey. The two seem to have an exceptional comedic connection that brings out a timing that reminds of the best comedy teams of all time.

Sometimes what makes for the funniest comedy is putting “normal” people into exceptional situations and let them react. Here, Carell and Fey are just a typical suburban couple trying to re-ignite the luster of an all too comfortable marriage. The motivation comes when their friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) announce they are splitting. This starts Carell and Fey off on a series of skits that would make Seinfeld proud.

The nightmare begins when the couple “steals” a reservation in a hot new restaurant and assume the identity of, what turns out to be a couple of low level thieves. The multitude of skits that follow include supporting work from dirty cops (Common and Jimmi Simpson), the real reservation holders (funny James Franco and Mila Kunis), a mob boss (Ray Liotta), a corrupt city official (William Fichtner) and a “security expert” in the eternally shirtless Mark Wahlberg.

The approach of the film reminds me of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting and The Out of Towners. Some of the best comedy occurs when the main players aren’t tossing out incessant one-liners. Think back to Cary Grant’s screwball comedies. He was not a bumbling idiot or a stand-up comedian walking through life. His characters were reactionary to the odd-ball situations in which he was placed. That is the approach of Carell and Fey, and I hope they pursue future projects together.


THE BOOK OF ELI (2010)

January 18, 2010

 (1-16-10) Greetings again from the darkness.Yet another in a string of post-apocalyptic films showing Hollywood has little hope for our future.

The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society) deliver a western/samurai tale of a man (Denzel Washington) walking west because voices in his head told him to. Those voices also told him to protect the book he is carrying (a King James Bible) and go full out Bruce Lee on anyone who tries to stop him (OK, I made that part up … but he sure does). Oh, and the man (Eli) has been walking west for THIRTY-ONE years! The real point seems to be Gary Oldman’s character (Carnegie) controls one shabby little town, but dreams of real power. The kind of power that the book can bring. Ding Ding! Religious power! He wants to be a post-apocalyptic tele-evangelist, sans TV. He just knows he can control the masses with the message of the bible. I don’t think I am giving anything away here. Good vs Evil. Just like all the great westerns.

The Hughes brothers assemble a nice supporting cast with Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals (her mom in the film), Tom Waits, Michael Gambon and Malcom McDowell. Kunis has by far the most screen time and the final shot of her is really the only humor I found in the film … though, not even sure it was supposed to be funny.

We get a pretty bleak, yet coherent, film for the first 65%. Then it just turns unbelievable. The Shyamalan twist is downright ridiculous due to what we have been watching for the previous 90 minutes. And as much as it pains me to say, Oldman’s character is just too low rent to provide a real worthy adversary for Eli. So while the film has an interesting look, it just lacks real guts.