Sunday, September 29, 2013

Movie Review: "Rush"

You know, I have never really cared that much for car racing in real life, and yet that does not keep me from finding Rush one of the most complete and satisfying films of 2013.

The thing about Rush is that it's not really a racing movie.  While the film does follow the world of Formula-One racing, it is not what the movie is about.  Where Rush really accelerates and manages to resonate, is in portraying the complicated love-hate rivalry between racecar drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the early 1970s.

This is a true story that is so fantastic that it almost seems as if it was fabricated, but the film never feels fake or Hollywoodified.  Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan go to great lengths to not make it the good guy vs. bad guy scenario.  They present both the flaws and the things that made Hunt and Lauda great men of the sport.  Hunt's a charming, easy to like playboy who is self-destructive, and Lauda is so calculating and abrasive he rarely shows emotion or vulnerability, and yet you've gotta love a man who is not afraid to say what he thinks.  Featuring some of the most exciting cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle since he won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and some genuinely whip smart editing, you really get the feeling of being in this world, on the track with these titans of racing.  What manages to evoke this feeling is Howard's documentary like approach to the material.

Ron Howard really is a chameleon of a director.  He never makes the same movie twice, and there really is no other film in his filmography quite like this one.  He sheds many of the genre conventions that you find in his other works for a stripped down, realistic approach.  You feel as if you're a fly on the wall watching the ultimate racing doc that's all rock-and-roll.  Then there's the rocking Seventies setting that's equal parts nostalgic and cool, by and large thanks to the surprisingly nuanced and of-the-times musical score from Hans Zimmer.  However, there is also a heart to this movie that is both a testament to Howard's ability to shape smart characters and the performances of his actors.  These two things combine to make these character's oddly likable, even when they aren't always the nicest of people.

Overall, Rush is simply put, a phenomenal experience at the theater.  It's a movie that can be fun, emotional, and thoughtful all in one.  It paints the picture as to why we need rivalries in life.  There has to be something pushing us to greatness, and very often a healthy rivalry is the only way to get there.  Even if a Formula-One movie isn't your cup of tea, I implore you to at least give the film a chance as a character piece.  Stars Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl compliment one another in their performances very much the same way that Hunt and Lauda did on the racetrack, and sometimes you don't need flowery words to express how much a performance, or in this case, two performances work.  Rush is definitely a movie I will be revisiting in the future and is one that I will more than likely include, very proudly I might add, on my year end best list.

I give Rush an A+!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Art of the Ending

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is a journey, not a destination," and yet in stories we yearn for that good ending, the destination, the full summation of the journey we've just been through in order to put it all behind us.  What Emerson was saying was that in real life, this isn't possible.  There is no one destination because your journey is ongoing.  However in films, television, or books, the story does not continue beyond the destination, therefore we are afforded the luxury of neat and tidy Hollywood endings.  I think this is why we, as consumers of stories, are so harsh on the endings of a story.  If the ending does not satisfy us, we complain about it, and more times than not we're never satisfied with the destination of the journey we've just been on.  How many people prefer The Empire Strikes Back to Return of the Jedi?  I think it's funny, how we so often want those Hollywood endings in our real lives, and yet in storytelling, we tend to find the journey more fascinating than the destination.  This is what I'm examining here today.  The art of the ending.

Why do we tend to gravitate towards the journey when we secretly long for the destination, and why is it when we finally reach a destination, we are dissatisfied?  I think the reason we enjoy seeing other people's journeys play out, whether it be in books, films, or TV, is because of just that, it's other people's struggles and not our own.  It gives us that sense of escapism or a different emotional experience that we cannot get in our day-to-day lives.  By getting involved in the lives of others, it allows us to leave our own lives for just a few moments of every day and to be someone else for a brief period of time.  I believe this is why we gravitate towards the journeys of our favorite fictional characters, and part of the reason we favor the journey over the destination is simply because we do not want it to end, but I think the real reason has more basis in our own reality.

When we embark on our individual journeys in real life, there's always another destination to reach, therefore our stories do not end.  I think this is why, when we're given the opportunity to embark on a journey with a definitive destination, albeit in a fictional realm, we jump at the chance.  It's that human desire to have an ending, for everything to be wrapped up all nice and tidy with a neat little bow, that makes us want to embark on a fictional journey.  However, here's where fiction and reality collide.

Once you've invested yourself in a fictional journey you have your own elevated expectations as to what you're wanting out of the destination when you reach it.  We have our own ideas of how we want to see a fictional story play out, and when the story doesn't play out the way we wanted it to, we arrive at the destination and think, "What a rip-off!"  The same way we might arrive at a real life destination only to realize that there's only another journey awaiting you.  This human inability to never have the destination match up with our lofty expectations, is why I think we prefer the journey over the destination.  It's the reason why, when we watch a murder mystery, we feel it's all over once the killer's revealed.  There's nothing left, the journey was the search for the killer, and now there's nothing but an empty, hollow feeling.  Of course, this now leads me to ponder the question, how do storytellers create destinations and endings that are worthy of the journey and do not let down the audience?

Honestly, I do not think that there is an answer to the above question.  People will always find something wrong with anything.  We have too high expectations and the real world often can't live up to them.  Storytellers are human, they are not otherworldly aliens who can magically make everything perfect.  This is why I think the Hollywood ending is a load of crock.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love a happy ending, and that's not what I'm talking about when I deride the Hollywood ending.  What I mean by the Hollywood ending is an ending that does not feel worthy of the journey that we've just experienced.  In other words, the Hollywood ending is an ending that has come out of left field in order to give the illusion of perfection.  However, as humans, we know that we are imperfect and therein lies the rub with the Hollywood ending.  It feels false and unearned.  So to answer the earlier question, how do storytellers create destinations and endings worthy of the journeys we're asking audiences to go on?  It's simple, we follow the facts.

Part of being a storyteller is being a detective.  You've created these characters, come up with these great original ideas that give twists and wrinkles to a storyline, and you've crafted one heck of a journey, then there comes the question:  How do I end it?  This is the question that has ruined more films, TV shows, and books, than I can count.  A fictional story's ending has to feel as if it spins naturally out of the journey that came before it.  If you've created all of these complications and whatnot to the story, you have to resolve those issues logically and not with the simple wave of a magic wand (however it is easier to make a happy ending that is also logical if you do include magic in your story in some way).

The thing is, you have to think, if this was real life, how would these things play out, and that's where you'll reach destinations that are ultimately the right ones for your story.  These destinations may not always feel good, in fact, they may actually hurt, and that might have been the intent of the story.  There's a reason we have the bittersweet and sad endings, it's because life can be both of those things, but life can also be happy and filled with hope.  Just because an ending is happy or hope-filled, it doesn't mean it's a Hollywood ending, it just means that the ending earned that happy ending through its journey.  If you're a writer and you want your ending to be happy, then you need to work on the events of your story.  If you've included things in your story that take off into dark territories, then you're more than likely not going to end happily, unless you work realistic scenes of redemption into the story, only then can you arrive at a destination that is the one you desired.

Personally, as a writer, I tend to just start writing and I go wherever the journey takes me.  The destination may be one that's sad, or it may be one that's happy.  The bottom line to a good, artful ending, is that it has to feel earned by the story.  When an ending comes out of left field and broad sides us, that's when we call foul and favor the journey over the destination.  The goal for storytellers to strive towards, is to let their stories lead them where they need to go, rather than trying to meet their own preconceived destinations.  I must continue to do the same things in my own writings.  If we can do this, then the consumers of these stories will find a destination that may not be the one we desired, but is the one that feels right.  It's like the ending to The Dark Knight.  Would I have written a big, Summer blockbuster like that where we ended with our hero taking the wrap for a slew of murders and on the run from the police?  No, but that was the destination that felt the most logical, was the most realistic, and therefore it felt earned, which is why I still get shivers down my spine when I see that finale.  As a matter of fact, I will leave you all with that perfect, bittersweet ending to The Dark Knight.  Cheers!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Movie Review: "Prisoners"

Prisoners is a simple enough film to follow.  When two little girls go missing and are believed to have been kidnapped, one of their father's -- portrayed by a gruff Hugh Jackman -- takes the law into his own hands, torturing the prime suspect when the police can't charge him with anything.

This is a film that asks many moral questions, most notably -- What would you do if this happened to you?  While I'd like to think most fathers wouldn't go to the extremes Jackman's character does, I don't know if I'd blame someone either for doing what he does in this film.  I think that's why so many in the cast seem to relate to this material, and it shows in their performances, which are all strong, in particular a near mute Paul Dano as the prime suspect with a shattered psyche.  Ultimately, though, while Prisoners offers some rich, complex characters, the lack of any levity, as well as the more, "been there, done that," procedural elements of the story, really make this a long watch.

We can see much of what Prisoners has to offer, in particular the detective aspects of hunting down the kidnapper, by staying at home and watching an episode of Law & Order in one-third of the time.  Perhaps the film would have been stronger had it focused entirely on Jackman torturing Dano's character?  Sure, there would have never been any levity in that scenario either, but at least it would have made for a more tight and concise story that would have been different and justified why this had to be a film and not just an episode of a TV show.

I give Prisoners a B-!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Movie Review: "The Spectacular Now"

Director James Ponsoldt's film, The Spectacular Now, is a film that tries to be more than its material actually allows it to be, ultimately taking itself far more seriously than the material allows, making the final act of the film fairly melodramatic.  In the film, actor Miles Teller portrays Sutter, a hard-partying high school Senior who gives no thoughts to his future, and then he starts dating nice girl Aimme, portrayed by Shailene Woodley, and of course complications ensue and Sutter's views on life are challenged.  If you are a fan of Ponsoldt's previous directorial efforts, you will probably find much to enjoy here, but if you aren't, you will be disappointed, especially considering the film festival buzz that came off this one.  The thing isn't that The Spectacular Now is a poorly made film, it is well acted and well shot, with some truly phenomenal single take scenes, but the film's lack of humor and overseriousness, not only makes the film exceptionally depressing, but it also makes the film traipse into cliche and melodrama near the end in order to try and make stakes out of the story.  Ultimately, for a film with so much hype and talent, for it to feel so scripted and not realistic when the emotional beats most matter, it makes this a film that is really only worth viewing for admirers of great acting.

I give The Spectacular Now a D!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

J.K. Rowling Returns to the Wizarding World!

Huge news today as J.K. Rowling announces her return to the Wizarding World she created in her Harry Potter books.  Warner Bros. Pictures and Rowling will be working together to adapt the Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, into a film series that chronicles the adventures of the book's fictitious author, magizoologist, Newt Scamander.  Rowling will be supplying the screenplay for the film, which currently has no director or any producing partners announced, but I'd be personally surprised if Harry Potter film producer, David Heyman, doesn't wind up being a part of this in some way shape or form.

This all comes after a post I made about two weeks ago, where I pondered ideas of how J.K. Rowling could create further longevity for the Harry Potter franchise.  My suggestion was to do a spin-off of some sort, not really focusing on Harry and his friends, but by focusing on the vast amount of intriguing characters and situations that the world of witches and wizards offers.  However, as I mentioned, I didn't think Rowling would ever approve of any other writer to come in and take over the care of her baby, and I was right.  When the idea of the film adaptation was reportedly presented by Warner Bros. to Rowling, she said she'd find it difficult to have another writer realize Newt's story, and that got her brain firing on the idea for the film series and the ultimate decision to write the films.

Personally, I am stunned and super excited about the news.  There has long been rumblings that Rowling would someday return to the world she created in some way, but I don't think anyone ever thought it would be anything more than a Wizarding World Encyclopedia or something.  The idea of getting a new set of wondrous characters created by Rowling, that we're sure to fall in love with as they go on these adventures searching for magical creatures, it's the kind of thing that gets my own imagination thumping.  While this will be Rowling's first screenplay, her characters and dialogue are already so rich, and her plotting so intricate, I see no reason to think she wont knock the script out of the park.

The story is reportedly taking place 70 years before the Harry Potter series, so cameos from Harry, Ron, or Hermione, aren't likely, but a young Albus Dumbledore perhaps?  We'll see.  What's also of extreme interest is that Rowling says Newt's story will start in New York, marking the first time she's ever interpreted the Wizarding World of America.  We've seen how the Wizarding World functions in Europe through the other books and films, but I think this shows a step forward into an even more exciting direction, further expanding the world in which she created.  Then, there's the simple fact that while Newt Scamander is a familiar name, little is known about his actual personality.

If you so choose, you can read Newt's character biography on the Harry Potter wiki, but the way Newt talked, the way he acted, is not known, so in essence we're getting an all new creation with plenty of room for growth.  We know he falls in love and gets married to a woman named Porpentina, no word as to whether she's a witch or a muggle, but that right there shows the potential for what the film series could deal with other than just Newt searching for magical creatures and cataloging them.  Of course, what I think has me most excited, is the fact that this film is not going to be a book adapted into a film, but will be a film first, and if there is a book adaptation of it, it will be an adaptation of the screenplay.

There is just a different feel to me when a story is written directly for the screen, rather than being written as a book and then having to make that transition to film.  When you're adapting a book, first and foremost, you already have to cut out most of the meat of the book, because books delve into the character's psyche.  Books show us a character's thoughts, feelings, and memories, in a way that films can't do, but what films do that books can't, is add the visual and aural element that makes films so unique as a form of storytelling.

There is a certain rush of emotion that you get watching a character break down into tears or fighting a dragon, that you just don't get from reading it on the page and imagining it.  While you may feel like you know the characters better in book form, as a film you often get a more direct emotional experience thanks to the movement of the camera, the sound effects, and the all important musical score.  Then there's the fact that the plot of a book, and the plot of a movie are structured differently.

A book can meander down many little rabbit holes and subplots, but a film, especially a blockbuster film, typically needs to shed all of the subplots that do not directly filter into the main plotline, in order to make a more cohesive whole that moves at a brisk pace.  This fact above is one of the main reasons many Harry Potter fans still gripe to this day about the film adaptations of the books, but with this film series being written exclusively for film, it just opens up all new possibilities.

What this really opens up the potential for, is a James Bond/ Indiana Jones-type character in the Wizarding World that could conceivably go on adventure, after adventure, after adventure, if that type of neverending character is what Rowling is going for here.  Personally, I don't know if that is what Rowling wants to do, seeing as she tends to love to plot big, intricate stories, rather than doing an adventure by adventure basis where the villains and supporting cast change each time out.  Of course, her latest book, The Cuckoo's Calling, kind of ends with the potential to be this type of neverending franchise, so who knows.  Perhaps Rowling wants to create a different kind of character with Newt.

Ultimately, I've already talked and hypothesized more about this than I initially planned to, but I'm just that excited.  As for who should direct, I think it would be a blast if one of the previous Harry Potter directors returned to helm the film.  David Yates might not be so keen to return after directing the last four films in the franchise, and Alfonso Cuaron seems pretty preoccupied right now with his Oscar buzz for Gravity, but with the story taking place in America, would it be too far fetched to hope that the only American director of the Harry Potter films, Chris Columbus, return to direct?  He effectively kicked off the whole film franchise, directing the first two films, and I think if they're going for a more lighthearted adventure approach, he'd be perfect. 

Of course, that's all just wishful thinking, and even at this current juncture, there is no release date set.  I expect you wont be seeing this film till at least 2016 at the earliest, and that would be pushing it.  The key take away here is that we're getting new, J.K. Rowling written adventures in the Wizarding World, and that's enough to make any fanboy giddy with excitement.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rumor Overload

Is it just me, or does it seem like almost every website will publish just about anything nowadays to get page hits?  I mean, there have always been rumor sites for film, TV, technology, etc., that much has never changed, nor do I really want it to.  A good film rumor is the equivalent of walking into a grocery store and seeing the latest, preposterous headline on The National Enquirer.  It's fun and can sometimes make you chuckle, but it seems we've gotten to a point with film rumors and websites that even just a rumor becomes a big internet tidal wave that almost every single film website posts, as if it's breaking news.  What's inspired this post is the mass of rumors that have emerged over the past nine months or so surrounding the elusive Star Wars: Episode VII.

I see no reason to be ashamed in saying that I'll be one of the first people in line to see the new Star Wars.  I'm a fanboy, I love Star Wars and always will, and a new cinematic installment is a seemingly impossible dream come true.  What has frustrated me more so than the lack of news that has come from Disney and Lucasfilm since they announced Star Wars: Episode VII, is the amount of rumors that pop up on almost every website I go to that used to only ever post facts, not rumors.  The problem with this is that these websites with respectable pedigrees, or at least I thought, are posting these stories, sometimes not even saying their rumors, talking about these stories as if it's almost a done deal, and they either worry fans, or get our hopes up for something that doesn't happen.

Here's a perfect example.  Back around the end of July there were countless internet reports that director J.J. Abrams was close to dropping out of the film only a few months after officially signing onto the project.  While I do believe that there is almost always truth to just about any rumor in Hollywood, posting this and treating it as if it's the truth nearly gave thousands of fanboys heart attacks.  Soon after, Lucasfilm and Disney came out and officially said that this was completely false and that J.J. was excited about directing Episode VII, but the damage had already been done, creating hours of fret for nothing.  As I said earlier, is it possible that J.J. might have been mulling over the idea of departing the film?  Yeah, it's entirely possible, in fact I think it's only logical that in some way shape or form, J.J. had possibly mentioned to an anonymous person that he was still unsure about directing the film.  Of course, when this gets to the internet, it turns into, "J.J. Abrams is Quitting Episode VII!"  This is my problem with the rumor culture we're in right now, and it's not just Star Wars.

There are so many rumors flying around the films of Marvel Studios right now, most of which exaggerating a small nugget of truth or dreamy-eyed comment, transforming these little pieces into rumor.  Recently actress Katee Sackhoff said she had met with Marvel Studios about a job.  Immediately people were saying a Ms. Marvel movie was in production because she's blonde and could play the part.  People are so quick to jump the gun, because they want to be the first person with the scoop.  They all want to be like Latino Review breaking the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker before anyone else, so what do they do, they try to find any tiny little clue and try to solve the mystery before there is sufficient evidence.  Say an actor offhandedly mentions to an interviewer that they'd love to be in the new Star Wars movie and that they've talked to J.J. Abrams about how much they love Star Wars, I can guarantee you that the story would read, "So-and-So Is Cast in New Star Wars Movie."  So how do we remedy this?  By only posting the things that come straight from the mouths of Lucasfilm producer Kathleen Kennedy, execs at Disney, or J.J. Abrams himself.

Here's what we actually know about Star Wars: Episode VII, officially confirmed by the above mentioned people:

*  There will be a Star Wars: Episode VII and it will be released at some point in the year 2015.    

*  Episode VII is based off of story treatments for a new trilogy of Star Wars films taking place after Return of the Jedi.  These treatments were written by George Lucas and supplied to Disney when he sold Lucasfilm to them last year.  However, Lucas will only be a creative consultant this time out.   

*  Episode VII is being written by Toy Story 3 writer, Michael Arndt, with The Empire Strikes Back writer, Lawrence Kasdan, and X-Men: First Class writer, Simon Kinberg, working as consultants on the film.

*  The new head of Lucasfilm and famed Spielberg producer, Kathleen Kennedy, will be producing the film alongside Bad Robot's Bryan Burk.

*  The film is a joint production between Disney, Lucasfilm, and Bad Robot.

*  J.J. Abrams is directing.

*  Frequent Abrams' collaborators, costume designer Michael Kaplan, editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, and cinematographer Daniel Mindel, are all signed on to work on Episode VII (they all previously worked with Abrams on his Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III).

*  Composer John Williams was confirmed by Kathleen Kennedy herself during the recent Star Wars Celebration Europe fan event.  For those who have lived their cinematic lives under a rock, Williams was the composer of every single live action Star Wars film that's ever been released, so this is exceptionally great news.

*  Cinematographer, Daniel Mindel recently confirmed that the film will be shot on actual 35mm film, rather than on digital cameras.  Seeing as how Abrams is a film-lover and has never used digital, I don't really see how that's a story, but there you are.

*  The films will be primarily shot at Pinewood Studios in London, England, similarly to how every other Star Wars film has ever been shot.

And that's it, as far as what's been officially confirmed by the head honchos.  While Kennedy herself mentioned that they're trying to do more practical effects work and on-location shooting than what was featured in the CGI-heavy prequels, that's no real confirmation on anything, and the story is definitely being kept tightly underwraps.  People are just assuming that the film will be based on the books and comic books that take place in the Star Wars timeline after Return of the Jedi.

For the record, there is no confirmation yet of the returns of Han, Luke, and Leia.  Am I pretty much certain that them and their children will be the focus of these new films?  Yeah, but until it's official it's all just rumor.  Once we know anything for sure, then I'll talk about whether or not I think the subject is a good or bad thing for the Star Wars franchise, but until then, don't freak when you hear Leonardo DiCaprio might play Luke's son, or that Zac Efron might be Han Solo's (these are real rumors folks).  At the end of the day, while these might be names that Disney would want to attach to Star Wars, as well as these actors and their agents, the real casting will come from Abrams and Kennedy, and I can guarantee you that we probably haven't even heard of the names yet that are actually in serious contention for the major roles.  That's just my opinion, seeing as how the Star Wars franchise has always had a pension for casting unknowns in the leads and well known character actors in the supporting roles.  So till then...

Friday, September 6, 2013

My Most Anticipated Movies of Fall & Winter 2013

With a fairly dismal Summer movie season having come to an end, I figured now would be fine time to take stock of what the rest of the year has for us.  It's funny how the year breaks down into three different periods.  There are the first four months of the year, which is the dumping ground for movies that the studios have very little faith in and just need to release them, while the rest of the world is crazed with the Oscars.  Then there's the next four months, or the Summer movie season, which is the parade of what big ideas and even bigger stacks of money can bring to moviegoers.  Then, there's the final four months of the year, where the offerings of Fall and Winter are typically more prestigious, filled with small Independent films and big lavish dramas looking for Oscars, but there are always a few blockbusters and animated films throughout the Holidays to keep me from going completely Oscar crazy.  Till January, at least.

With that all said, I figured I'd do a list of the ten movies I'm looking forward to the most out of these last four months of 2013.  My goal is to always heighten awareness of movies that you may not know was coming out, and it's also just the perfect place for me to hypothesize and say what I think looks good based upon trailers and internet buzz I've been reading on the films.  While there are many more films coming out in this next four months that look intriguing, these ten films are the ones I will be in line to see on opening day if I can make it.  So here we go, here are the 10 films I'm looking forward to the most for the rest of 2013...


10.  Inside Llewyn Davis
The first offering from the Coen Brothers since they wowed with their remake of True Grit Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens doing what they do best:  dark comedy that's witty and thought provoking.  The film tells the story of a fictitious, Bob Dylan-esque singer/songwriter in Greenwich Village in 1961 New York, who is struggling with failure, a common Coen trope.  The film has already won over the French at the uber-prestigious Cannes Film Festival back in May, winning the Grand Prix Award.  While such success doesn't always translate to the Oscars, this film's soundtrack, which is full of songs written and produced by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, will undoubtedly be big hits and will more than likely be nominated for a few Best Original Song Oscars.  Ultimately, though, I just want to see this one because I like the Coens doing this type of film that's sort of quirky, offbeat, darkly funny, and yet incredibly smart.  Not to mention the beautiful photography being supplied by one of my favorite cinematographers, Bruno Delbonnel.
(Opens Dec. 20th)

9.  Rush
Ron Howard's latest has been gaining lots of traction recently.  The film tells the famed rivalry of Formula One racers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1976 season, when Lauda experienced a near death crash, only to get back behind the wheel and race again in just a matter of weeks.

The buzz on this film from early screenings is that this is perhaps Howard's best directorial effort since Apollo 13.  The film has been described as sexy and highly entertaining, which the former part Howard said was his biggest apprehension in tackling the material, as to whether or not he could pull off the playboy side of James Hunts' character, but the word is, is that Howard has done a more than adequate job.  Add on to that Oscar buzz for the dual leads, Daniel Bruhl as Lauda, and Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth in a more dramatic function as Hunt, and you have something that could not only be a high octane thrill ride thanks to the emphasis on racing, but also be a moving character study.  We only have about three weeks till we can decide for ourselves if Rush lives up to the hype, but I am personally intrigued.
(Opens Sept. 27th)

8.  The Book Thief
This film could be the small blip on the Oscar radar that could wind up being one of those surprising Oscar underdog stories, or it could just be a great movie that's not given any special attention whatsoever.  The film tells the story of a young foster child in 1939 Nazi Germany, who takes to stealing books from book burnings, of course it also involves her family harboring a Jewish man.  Everything is ripe for this film to break out with the Academy. 

It's based off a bestselling book by Markus Zusak, and it's a historical drama with a lean towards the importance of the arts in our culture, as well it features an Oscar caliber cast in the likes of Geoffrey Rush.  Then there's the fact that film composer extraordinaire, John Williams, is doing the music, and my interest is as high as it can go.  Not only is Williams almost always a guaranteed lock for a nomination for Best Original Score, but this will mark the first film in nine years that he's scored that was not directed by Steven Spielberg or George Lucas.  Williams has become so exclusive in his older age, he must have been genuinely moved by this story to have wanted to write the music for it, and given his track record with phenomenal movies, that's enough to make me want to see this.  However, the story also just intrigues me. 

Whether or not this film, that has been kept low profile by the studio all the way through production, manages to break out big when it's released, we'll see, but it's the type of film that has the potential to at least make my year end best list.
(Opens Nov. 15th)

7.  The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug
While some people might complain that it feels like Peter Jackson is trying to milk the thin tome that was The Hobbit for all it's worth by making it a trilogy, ultimately, as a fan of Middle Earth, I don't care.  Last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brought back all of the delight that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so engaging for me. 

While The Hobbit is less dire in its circumstances, where Jackson really made it work was in illuminating the more lighthearted tone of the story.  The Hobbit is a children's adventure story, and on that front the first film more than satisfied, and the second one is poised do so yet again.  The most exciting and action packed moments of the book are what is in store for us in this installment, with everything from the spiders of Mirkwood to Bilbo's encounter with the titular dragon, Smaug, himself.  While the big climactic Battle of the Three Armies is being held back for the third installment, this second installment has all of the right makings to surpass the first film. 

While I don't think The Hobbit trilogy will ever be as beloved as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, at the end of the day, any journey into Middle Earth with Peter Jackson as your guide will show up most other fantasy franchises, and it's why this film is on this list.
(Opens Dec. 13th)

6.  Jack Ryan:  Shadow One
It has been a long while since we last saw Jack Ryan on the bigscreen.  In my personal opinion, there has never been a bad Jack Ryan movie.  While I prefer the Harrison Ford movies more than the Alec Baldwin or Ben Affleck attempts, at the end of the day I've always loved Jack Ryan's brains over brawn approach to gathering intelligence and protecting our country.

Like every film franchise nowadays, they seem to think we need to see the origin story of Jack Ryan, therefore Shadow One will star Captain Kirk actor, Chris Pine, as a young Jack Ryan in his early days at the CIA.  With an all-star cast that includes Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, and Kenneth Branagh (who also directs) as the bad guy, I don't think anyone can argue that this doesn't have the potential to be a proper return to form for the series.  I just hope that the filmmakers, entranced by this world of high octane action movies,  remember why Jack Ryan is such an engaging character.

Ryan is not a man of action, he is not Jason Bourne.  Ryan sits in an office and gathers intelligence, and while he does almost always find himself in some sort of action at some point during each Jack Ryan adventure, Jack Ryan is the everyman.  He is not the best shot, he is not the best fighter, he is just a man looking to survive, and that's what I hope Shadow One remembers when it hits on Christmas Day.
(Opens Dec. 25th)

Still no trailer for the film, so we'll just have to settle for
a screenshot of Pine as Ryan with Costner as his boss.

5.  The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
For me, Ben Stiller is not one of my go to filmmakers.  While Zoolander had its moments, Tropic Thunder was not the type of comedy film I enjoy.  While I have never been a huge fan of Stiller's directorial efforts, I have been hearing for a long time that he was looking for a project that was different than his usual schtick.  When I first heard he would be making a new adaptation of the classic James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I thought he was just going to make it another farce in the vein of his previous movies as a director, but from early buzz on the movie and the looks of the first trailer, we'll be getting the complete opposite.

In this version, Stiller plays an office worker who daydreams about himself in these heroic situations, romanticizing the object of his affection, a fellow co-worker portrayed by Kristen Wiig.  With that cast in place, you would think this would just be another Zoolander or Tropic Thunder, but it seems that Stiller is going with a more subdued approach, emphasizing the human element over any wild flights of fancy.  While the film, dealing with the subject of daydreams and such, will undoubtedly feature some fantastical moments, many of which might be quite funny, I think the film is showing restraint on Stiller's part to deliver something truly special.  I think this film is shaping up to have all of the right ingredients that I am looking for in a great movie.  With early Oscar buzz and the visually impressive marketing campaign, emphasizing the off-kilter cinematography and style of the film, this is definitely one to look out for when it rolls out Christmas Day.
(Opens Dec. 25th)

4.  The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire
Expectations would be high for this film even if the first film wasn't any good, given the vast popularity of the books, but the fact that the first film in The Hunger Games franchise was also a good movie to boot, it just makes me more excited for Catching Fire.  While I was initially trepidatious of a new director coming into the series, fearing it might make the film's tone and style change too abruptly from its predecessor, new director Francis Lawrence seems to have simply taken what Gary Ross did with the first film, and expanded upon it.  I like the fact that Lawrence is taking an if it isn't broke, don't fix it mentality to the look and style of the film, but from the trailers and stuff, it's obvious Lawrence is also giving this film a grander scope and scale on top of the already stellar design work.  Then there's the simple fact that I find Catching Fire the most complete emotional experience of all three of the books, and you have me at fever pitch.
(Opens Nov. 22nd)

3.  Thor:  The Dark World
The first Thor movie is one that has really grown on me since I first saw it two years ago.  At first I was indifferent towards it, I even gave it a D+ rating.  However, it's one of those cases, that the more I rewatched it, the more I realized I actually liked it, and if I could go back, I'd retract my initial rating and give it an A+.  Sure, it's pure popcorn entertainment that might not be as mighty as say The Avengers, but at the end of the day Thor is just such a fun moviegoing experience, I can't help but be charmed by it every time I watch it.  Chris Hemsworth's work as Thor is as charismatic and charming as any movie star portrayal I've ever seen, and who doesn't love Tom Hiddleston as Loki?  The cast of characters is just very lively and likable, and I think it's one of the reasons why I'm excited to return to Asgard.  Then there's the fact that this sequel seems to be doing what every sequel does best, take the foundations of the first film and expand upon that.

The film looks as if it's from the same world as the first Thor, but there is a noticeable grit that has been added to Asgard, even in the trailers.  New director, Alan Taylor, seems to be working on not just making Asgard this fantastical paradise, but a living, breathing world that is real and not just a fantasy.  Then there's the simple fact that the film finds Thor having to reteam with his adopted brother, Loki, after the events of The Avengers, in order to save the nine realms, and my interest is piqued.  How will everyone react to what Loki did in The Avengers?  Can Thor trust Loki to not betray him?  These are the things I am admittedly most excited about for this sequel, and from the sounds of it, this film will deliver on both points and then some.  November cannot come soon enough.
(Opens Nov. 8th)

2.  Gravity
I think at this point, to say I'm excited to see director Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, is an understatement.  This movie seems to have all the elements of why I love to go to movies.  Big, large scale filmmaking, done creatively with a technical precision, and yet a humanism beneath it that makes you actually care for the story unfolding.  While I haven't seen the film and wont know if I actually do care for Sandra Bullock's character till then, the film is said to be about overcoming adversity from the director's mouth himself.

After recently experiencing the loss of her daughter, Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), goes up into space on a routine mission with fellow astronaut, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney).  When an accident separates Stone from the shuttle and sends her cascading out into the farthest reaches of space, she must somehow find her way home.  This film has all of the makings of a great tale about the triumph of the human spirit, with early rave reviews already hinting at that idea.  Then there's the fact that this could possibly be Cuaron's masterpiece.

Cuaron is known for long, highly controlled takes, with tons of camera movement and whatnot.  With a film like this, where most of it was created within a computer, this must have freed Cuaron to fully realize shots that in a realistic context would have never been possible.  From the slew of trailers, simply taking small two minute scenes from the movie and showing them as a preview, the studio has already given a great idea of what to expect, with these long, continuous shots that are absolutely breathtaking, as the shots float around through space as if carried in zero gravity.  Then there's all of the Oscar buzz that this one is already getting.  Gravity could definitely be the major tech victor come the Academy Awards next March, and possibly even nab Best Director along with it.

Luckily, we don't have to wait much longer to see it, since the film hits theaters October 4th.
(Opens Oct. 4th)

1.  Saving Mr. Banks
My most anticipated movie for the rest of the year is one that admittedly has many question marks, and yet it has piqued my interest enough to where I think, if it succeeds, it has more potential to move me than any other film I've talked about so far.

The story of how Walt Disney tried to convince Mary Poppins' author, P.L. Travers, to allow him to make a movie out of her book, could easily be one of the greatest movies about moviemaking of all-time.  Only Disney would be able to make a film about the inner workings of Disney, because would they seriously give the rights to anyone else?  While much of the talk has been around Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney and Emma Thompson playing Travers, I don't think anyone has any questions about both of these performances being up for serious Oscar contention.  The biggest question mark is whether or not Disney only scratches the surface of this tale.

While Travers eventually conceded to let Walt make the film, the truth is that she was a tough person to get along with, and that she was not overtly satisfied with the film once it was finished.  Will Disney look at it through rose tinted glass, or will they tell the truth?  I don't know, with it being Disney, they might opt to make it cheery with a happy ending, which there is nothing wrong with that, but as a fan of movie history, I'd like to have the real story shown.  There are hints of that in the trailer, with the film delving into Travers' own childhood, showing how her father inspired the character of Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins.  As well, from the word, the original drafts of the script pulled no punches and represented the facts as most know them to have actually happened.

We'll have to wait and see, but this could not only be a fascinating look at how one of the most timeless classic films of all-time came to be, but also be an emotionally rewarding experience, the likes of which only movies can achieve.
(Opens Dec. 25th)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Batman/Superman Dream Cast

By now it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that most people know that Ben Affleck will be the new Batman in the upcoming Batman/Superman movie.  The incredibly ridiculous and downright embarrassing reactions of many fans have made me almost ashamed to say that I am a Batman fan, but the controversy behind Affleck's casting did help to inspire this post.

What if you were the writer, producer, and director of this movie, and let's say you had a time machine at your ready disposable.  What if you could cast any actor, from any time period in movie history, and bring them to modern day to star in your ideal Batman/Superman movie?  That's the question I'm looking to answer for myself in this post.  I will be taking actors all the way from the Golden Age of Hollywood to modern day in order to assemble my all-time dream cast.   Now, I know this is not possible, but it's fun to speculate, isn't it?

Personally, if I were calling the shots on this movie, I would make it a lighthearted film in the vein of The Avengers.  While Batman would be fairly devoid of humor and driven by the deaths of his parents, I would represent Batman as a hero.  I've always preferred Batman when he's represented as a hero working alongside the police, rather than as a vigilante being hunted by them.  As well, I'd show a Batman that is slightly more fantastical.  He has a bunch of James Bond-like gadgets, which will put him on an even keel with Superman, and would also open the door to where many of Batman's superpowered villains can be done in this world.  As for Superman, I'd show Superman as an optimistic force.  He's charming and knows how to smile. The main thing I felt Henry Cavill's Superman was missing in Man of Steel, was that feeling of security and safety that Superman should exude.  He's the strongest man alive.  He's confident, he knows who he is, and he will take on any bully, and that's why I love Superman so much.  So that's the Superman I'd write.

Now, for my dream cast, many of the actors I chose were never part of a prior superhero movie or TV show, and some were.  I didn't want to just take the best actors who have played these roles before and throw them into my dream cast, because when I started to do that, the cast was not meshing together well.  The thing is when casting a movie, you might want to cast a particular actor, but you realize that the actor just doesn't look right when standing next to another.  The dream cast I would assemble I think perfectly captures the tone of what I'm going for, and each actor would work well off of one another.  So while there are a few actors who have played the characters that I've cast them as before, there are even more who have never been anywhere near the world of comic books.  So to start things off, I will do the villains of the piece, and then the supporting characters, followed up by who I'd cast as Batman and Superman!  Here we go:


The Joker - Mark Hamill

To those who have never watched Batman: The Animated Series, they'll be scratching their heads about this, but for people like me who grew up with Hamill as the voice of the Joker every Saturday morning, he is the quintessential Joker.  In fact, he's been so popular as the Joker he's portrayed the voice many times more over the past two decades, including the Batman: Arkham video games.  For me, I'd take an early Nineties Hamill, when he was still a little younger in features, deck him out in the Joker makeup, and just have him do what he did in every episode of the TV show.  If you've ever watched the Behind the Scenes videos of him doing voice-over work, he gets so into it he acts it, I mean all he literally is missing is the makeup to be a live action Joker, so why not give him the shot.

Lex Luthor - James Cagney

This one may seem a little strange at first, but to me it seems so logical.  One of cinema's most quintessential tough guys.  Cagney pretty much defined the film gangster, and managed to do it with a combo of class and toughness.  Shave his head, and Thirties or Forties-era Cagney would make a phenomenal Lex Luthor, especially if going the criminal genius moonlighting as a big businessman route, which is what I would do with Luthor.

Detective Harvey Bullock - Ernest Borgnine

Bullock is the one Gotham City Police Officer who has never gotten his due on the bigscreen, and if I were calling the shots I would change that.  What I love about Bullock, is that he hates Batman, he does not play by the rules, and he's a total slob, and yet he respects Commissioner Gordon's authority and believes in what's right, even if his methods of achieving the right thing aren't always by the book.  Bullock's also just a great means for comedic relief with all of his sly comments about Batman, which is why the overweight cop with a bad attitude would suit a Fifties-era Ernest Borgnine perfectly.  Imagine the Marty-era Borgnine that won Best Actor as Bullock.  It would be amazing.

Commissioner James Gordon - Gary Oldman

This is one of the few roles where I would literally take an actor who has already knocked the part out of the park three times in The Dark Knight trilogy.  Not only is Oldman one of the finest actors of all-time, but he's just one heck of a Commissioner Gordon.  He plays Gordon with a world weariness that shows a man worn down by all of the evil in Gotham City, and yet he never gives up.  That is why Gordon is one of the best characters in all of comics, and it's why Oldman's portrayal is the Commissioner Gordon portrayal I'd want.

Alfred Pennyworth - Alec Guinness

I think I've said this many times, but had they of made a Batman movie in the Sixties, Seventies, or Eighties, there was only one guy I think that should have played Alfred, and it was Sir Alec Guinness, better known as Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Guinness was one of those British thespians who could quite literally take anything you threw at him and turn it into a dynamite performance.  He was just a consummate professional, who also had a kind and gentle demeanor.  Plus, he was such a great mentor in Star Wars, Alfred Pennyworth would have only been a logical next step.

Jimmy Olsen - Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Yeah, I know JGL was in The Dark Knight Rises as their version of Robin, but I wouldn't cast an adult JGL as Superman's best pal, I would cast the teenage Joseph Gordon-Levitt from his 3rd Rock From the Sun days.  Gordon-Levitt showed a natural charisma even back then, handling comedy with a quirky ease, which is Jimmy.  Not to mention, this era of JGL would infuse a little more of a Gen-X sensibility that would bring a little more edge to Jimmy, rather than the traditional Golly-Gee-Whiz portrayal.

Perry White - Fred MacMurray

 Yes, I'm choosing the dad from My Three Sons, but MacMurray was a far more versatile actor than just being pigeonholed as one of the quintessential sitcom dads.  See his work in the film noir classic, Double Indemnity, to witness his dark side, but what makes me think he'd be perfect as Perry White is his work as Mr. Sheldrake in The Apartment.  While I don't think Perry White should be a businessman cheating on his wife, it's the charm that MacMurray has in the role, as well as a sense of authority, that suits Perry White.  Not to mention the fact that MacMurray was just one of the most likable onscreen personas of all-time.

Lois Lane - Jean Arthur

Arguably my favorite actress of all-time.  What I've always loved about Jean Arthur is that she played these characters that were tougher and spunkier than most men, but those same characters always had a moral compass and a gooey center that leaned towards sentimentality.  That is Lois Lane.  It's the reason Superman is attracted to her, because she isn't a damsel in distress, but she is someone who has a heart and will always do what is right.  Sure, she was a blonde and Lois traditionally has darker hair, but that's nothing that a bit of hair coloring can't fix.

Batman/Bruce Wayne - Clint Eastwood

I've bounced back-and-forth as to who the ideal Batman should be, and I keep coming back to the Man With No Name, aka a Sixties-era Clint Eastwood.  I don't think anyone would argue that a young Eastwood would have the grit to portray Batman, given he was Dirty Harry after all, but I also think that Eastwood could bring the necessary charm required to pull off Bruce Wayne and the friendship between him and Clark Kent.  If you see Eastwood in interviews or in countless of his more dramatic roles where he wasn't playing a grizzled man, he's really a rather sensitive and charming man who loves Jazz.  I think if you bring both sides of Eastwood out for this one role, you could have the most amazing Batman portrayal that's ever existed.

Superman/Clark Kent - Tom Welling

Tom Welling was my Superman.  I watched him for ten whole years playing the role of Clark Kent in TV's Smallville, only to get the briefest glimpse of him as Superman.  As it is, Welling always had the build, the voice, and the confidence to pull off both Clark and Superman, and I for one would pay money to see him flying around in a red cape.  What Welling excelled at, was presenting a more humanized Clark, who was often conflicted by his emotions, but always did the right thing.  That's what I love about Welling as the ideal Superman candidate.  He has charm at the bucket loads, and has a pretty good sense of humor as well, as is evidenced from some of the more lighthearted, comedic episodes from Smallville's run.  In short, he's everything I want out of Superman.  He plays the role not as an omniscient mythological God, but as a masquerading human being with human emotions, a strong moral compass, and most importantly, a charming persona that makes me feel safe when I see him swoop in to save the day.  What more can you ask for when casting Superman?

So that's what I would do.  Sound off in the comments below with your own suggestions for a dream Batman/Superman movie.