Sunday, November 16, 2014

CLASSIC REVIEW: SCHINDLER'S LIST

As a part of my First Year Seminar, I had to watch Steven Spielberg's masterpiece Schindler's List and write an essay of it. I watched and reviewed The Reader as well this year, but looking into the film as the paper required me to, I found it fairly innaccurate of its depiction of the aftermath of the Holocaust. But this is an important film, an essential film every college-age person should see to inform them of the Holocaust. Aside from this, the acting, script, score, direction and cinematography aren't bad either. Without further ado, here's my paper/review of the film: (kind of spoiler alert, but everyone casually familiar with the movie already knows how it ends)

"As a movie buff, it is unavoidable in the discussion of great cinema to not talk about Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg’s film regarding the heroic actions of Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. Ranked among the finest motion pictures of all time, the movie not only daunted me by its time duration and prestige, but its reputation as one of the saddest, most emotional films ever made. With all this in mind I eagerly pressed play, and was not disappointed by the cinematic triumph Spielberg brought to us over two decades ago now.

The true-to-life story is as follows: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) comes and establishes an enamelware business near the Krakow Ghetto in World War II Nazi Germany. Despite being a Nazi party member himself, Schindler gets Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley in a very subtle, emotionally stifled role), a Jewish man to gain relationships in the community. The two strike up a partnership early on, and Stern is loyal to Schindler. He hires Jewish workers because they are cheap labor, and profits largely from this advantage. Because these Jews assist in creating the enamelware that helps creates valuable metals for the war, they are saved from having to go to the camps because their skills are “essential” to the war.

Things are going relatively well for Schindler, until ruthless SS Amon Goeth (a despicable Ralph Fiennes) comes to overlook the building of a concentration camp. Once this camp is completed, Goeth orders a liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, killing and deporting many Jews to the camps, thus getting rid of much of Schindler’s employees. Schindler, never the fool, uses the immense amount of money he has made to bribe Goeth into creating a sub-camp for his employees. Later, Goeth is ordered to ship the last of the Jews in his camp to Auschwitz. Schindler recognizes not only the blow to his business this will bring, but begins to truly see the horror of the Nazis, and bribes Goeth handsomely into letting his workers be shipped to a bullet factory he plans on creating back in his hometown. He then creates his list—a list containing the names of the people he wishes to transfer to the new bullet producing plant.

After another bribe to an Auschwitz officer after the delivery of a train carrying the women went wrong, Schindler successfully employs his workers, showing them a great deal more of kindness and respect in his bullet factory, (where he does not really produce ammunition but rather buys from more established brands). As Germany surrenders, Schindler convinces the SS guards to go home, and, along with Stern who he’d saved earlier in the film from deportation, the Jews he has saved show enormous gratitude towards him, and he reluctantly accepts, wishing he had been able to save more.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

REVIEW: GONE GIRL

"No, don't stop! I haven't seen it yet!"
"Shhhhhh... lalalalalalala I'm not listening, I'm not listening!"
"AHHHP! AHHP AHHP AHHP! Don't say another word, you will not ruin this for me!"

All of the above are common phrases you will hear when you begin to try to talk about David Fincher's latest film Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's ubiquitous, bestselling novel of 2012. I couldn't go anywhere on vacation without seeing a copy of it in a tourist's hands, that sable cover with wisps of a woman's hair taunting me to come and pick it up. It's length alone intimidated me. So when I heard critics and people online saying "How can you NOT have heard of all the plot twists?" I just cupped my hands over my uncultured hears and pressed the red X at the top of the window. I was not having this movie ruined for me.

And thats why I'm sympathetic with you, the reader, who may be going through my exact same plight. But even if you're not at all familiar with Flynn's source material, I'm betting you're pretty familiar with Ben Affleck, who's gonna be playing Aquaman or something like that in a couple of years. Critics of Affleck were pretty much silenced after Argo picked up a trio of Oscars, and the film's director David Fincher is one of the most respected in the industry. Together, with an admittedly odd cast featuring Madea, Barney Stinson and...Rosamund Pike (?) they actually create what is easily one of the best movies of the year and another Affleck movie which will surely get some Academy Awards love come later this year.

Get your speech ready
I poke fun at the cast for their less than serious dramatic past, but my goodness everyone comes to play, especially Pike as the titular gone girl, and it's no spoiler to anyone to say that she will be receiving an Oscar nomination for this role, if not already the clear frontrunner of the year. Affleck is quietly furious, being subtle where he could be over-the-top. Let it go on record that I didn't mind Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but I'm pretty sure everyone will agree this is Tyler Perry's finest work onscreen thus far as Affleck's big-time lawyer. Harris has a much smaller role for someone getting third billing, and he's my only beef with the movie. Harris is great, and I can't wait to see him host the Oscars this year, but he's just too likable to fill the shoes of someone as creepy as Desi Collings. Not to say he was bad, perhaps just a little miscast.

You probably know the basic, spoiler-free plot summary by now: Nick's (Affleck) wife Amy goes missing, and he's the one suspected of murdering her. The plot doesn't reinvent the wheel (will, not til the second half at least) but what makes this so wickedly entertaining is Fincher's touch. He has the perfect eye for lighting, the film, like The Social Network  and "House of Cards" is the spot-on level of darkness, lending the film a noir tone. It never takes itself too seriously, there's always some black humor sprinkled throughout, because that's what you need to do to cope with something of this magnitude. Fincher's attitude towards the media is scathing but real: Nancy Grace certainly gets a send-up in the movie and I couldn't be happier, maybe she'll take it down a notch or two now. His fingerprints are all over it, and you don't need a wisecracking detective to figure that out.

If Boyhood was the beginning of Oscar movies in 2014, Gone Girl is surely the beginning of Oscar season. I was enchanted the whole way, completely boggled by some aspects of the film, and overall thoroughly impressed. Don't expect Gone Girl to vanish come awards season.

Rating: 4/4 stars

Thursday, October 2, 2014

MY SECOND FINISHED SHORT FILM!

I believe last year I wrote that, after my short film Keeping it P.C. was released, that my next project, The Good Old Days was coming out later that summer. A year and a half later, and it's finally available on YouTube, and can be seen right HERE! There was more than our fair share of production problems. We could not, for the life of us, us being director/editor/actor Aaron Haynes and producer/actor Emilio Kalogiannis and myself, the writer/actor (we're a very small team) find someone to fit the role of Jaquizz, one of the six characters in our film. It's not like we're holding auditions and were finicky...we were begging people to come fill the roles of this essential character, and finally, a few months ago, during those last few precious days of summer before we all started college, we got Alex Manhertz, who added a great deal of character to the small but pivotal role of Jaquizz.

The idea of this film can from watching an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" in my 11th grade history class. Our teacher (I had the class with Aaron) was showing us how family life in the 1950s was being portrayed on television. Your patriarchal father, with the dutiful wife and rascal kids, who got into a wacky situation, and in the end it was all resolved with a neat little ribbon and a good message for the youngsters watching at home. That fascinated the pants off of me. I'd grown up watching some "Beaver," mostly "Andy Griffith" and "Brady Bunch" from that era, but I never looked at the content like we did in History with a critical lens. Immediately while watching the show a thought hit me: what if Ward Cleaver (the father) was somehow flung into the future? How would he adapt? What would he say? How would his family react? What would he think of our society now?

My mind went racing, and I quickly jotted down a few pages of script before consulting Aaron that day what the names of the characters should be. I knew I wanted my character to be named Bill, a strong, generic name of any decade. Alluding to the show of the 50s, I knew the wife had to be Lucy, and an additional nod to that show with her son being Ritchie. As I looked on IMDb just moments ago to get the name of the dad from "Leave it to Beaver," I realized the character's real name was Theodore Cleaver. That's a fantastic coincidence, considering Aaron and I just pulled Aaron's character's name out of thin air: Teddy.

So the family was complete. But I didn't just want to have Bill reacting to his changed family, I wanted him to interact with a character or two from our time. His of-the-era reaction to any non-white person lead me to create Jaquizz, the modern day friend of Bill's family in the future. But who else would he talk to on his journey? That would be McCarthy, a nod to Joseph McCarthy, who we also studied in History, notorious for his prosecution of those he considered "Communists," and his ever growing "blacklist" that had the names of those people. I had a friend named Morgan Silver in Spanish class that year, who is your typical Virginian fellow. I wanted to make a caricature of Morgan and have him personify what kids nowadays refer to as "'Merican pride."

Read on to see what roles the characters function in the film:

Sunday, September 21, 2014

REVIEW: THE GIVER

In a year where the most anticipated movie franchise is The Hunger Games, the movie coming out this weekend is The Maze Runner, and Divergent is one of its more successful films, what a wonderfully refreshing surprise it is to see The Giver, a sci-fi action(ish) movie based on a beloved young adult book. They're really changing things up here in 2014.

All joking aside, I was actually pretty excited to hear a few months ago that "The Giver" was finally getting its dues. The novel we all had to read sometime or another as tweens (for me it was fifth grade) gets the silver screen adaptation. And full disclosure, that is the last time I've read "The Giver." For me it was a complicated time, and I have memories of lying on my beanbag chair, reading that final chapter, wondering what the book was all about. It certainly wasn't "Magic Treehouse" or "The Bailey School Kids," no this was definitely a young adult book, emphasis on adult. Critics hadn't been the kindest to it so far, or audiences for that matter, but when you put my childhood onscreen, I will pay money to see how you translate it.

And the results are; pretty well! I'm a little surprised by the critical dismissal, but not all surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for audiences. This book is a tough sell to put on the screen and have it appeal to the general public, even though most of us kids born in the 90s are familiar with the text. It doesn't help having new faces come along for the ride: ask your kid if they know Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush or Cameron Monaghan. But all-time greats like Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep in your movie don't hurt it either. The two legends are the second best thing about this movie, Streep playing the sorta/kinda antagonistic Chief Elder, who, in this dystopian, "peaceful" society, gives Jonas (Thwaites) the role of the Memory Receiver, to obtain memories of the past from the Giver (Jeff Bridges).

I'm simplifying it hear, because it's honestly hard to communicate to a casual viewer if they're not familiar with the book. But the visuals, especially the black and white cinematography early on in the film, are to be commended. Bicycles, drones, injectors for "medicinal" purposes, all cool aspects to this future where everyone gets assigned a job when they're young and is happy forever, or at least numb and ignorant to the world before them. But let's get to the real star here: the score. Bravo Marco Beltrami, whose work here is Oscar-worthy as he accompanies the film's more whimsical moments with an equally nostalgic, swelling score. Known for mostly horror films, Beltrami deserves some hardware here, because a movie's music hasn't hit me so much since Gravity!

Otherwise, though the story is unique in some ways, in others it couldn't be more generic, following the path of a someone who knows too much movie down to a T. The acting by Rush, Monaghan, and phew, especially Katie Holmes as the mother, is occasionally wooden, and there's at least one unintentionally funny moment where Jonas is playing with little Gabriel, who you'll see to realize is a very important part of The Giver if you're unfamiliar with it. So while it may be more up your bookish, teenage neighbor's alley, give The Giver a shot, you may just end up surprising yourself with how good it is.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars

Saturday, August 23, 2014

DVD REVIEW: LOCKE

Unlike me, the Washington Post rarely gives out four star reviews, and when they do it's for sure a movie to be taken notice of. Their most recent one to my knowledge was Guardians of the Galaxy, a very fitting rating for such a fantastic piece of pop art. So back when, around April or so, I saw Locke got it's highest possible rating, I added it instantly to my list of movies to check out for later. When I finally got the opportunity to watch it, I popped it in with eagerness, anxious to see how if it's praise and lauding was legit...and I've never been so thankful for the Washington Post.

This review may be short, as describing what Locke concerns is giving away the movie's very element of surprise, how it creeps up on you. How you slowly, and this is all I'll say, start to realize that, however confident and reassuring his Ivan Locke may appear, Tom Hardy plays a man who in the course of a few hours begins to experience his life deteriorate before him, vanish into thin air as he drives to a destination he won't allow himself to be absent from. I w
ill provide some interesting trivia: the movie was filmed in the course of one night, and then repeated for a week, with voice actors in hotels reciting their lines as Tom Hardy picked up the calls on his car's phone system. So what we're seeing is essentially a play performance, cut together to include the best takes, with a stylish background of cars, streetlights and signs in-between the monologues and dialogues Locke exchanges with family, coworkers and...others.

Before going into Hardy, who I talked about in depth a few years back before his iconic role as Bane, I want to congratulate one other actor in particular: Andrew Scott. His Donal, one of Locke's coworkers, is occasionally bumbling, tipsy, aggravated, but he alone is the film's main source of humor amid the devastating backdrop of material with a ton of gravity. He was a joy to listen to. But now on to the man whose shoulders mostly carried this film's weight: Mr. Hardy. I watched the film that caught Christopher Nolan's eye to lead to his international breakout in Inception; Bronson, where he plays the most dangerous prisoner in Britain. He was brash, violent, psychopathic even, but he was always fascinating to observe. He's the exact opposite here: restrained, calm, with a soothing Welsh accent. Your emotions run the gamut with this man: he's a creep, he's disturbed, he's a good father, a great worker, he's pathetic, he's lonely, he's passionate. You only see his top torso, but, expressing himself with telling facial expressions and plenty of profanity, you see completely the man Ivan Locke is, and what he will be once this endless night comes to a close.

Steven Knight (who weirdly just had The Hundred-Foot Journey come out, which he wrote, especially since it's the last thing I'd imagine him penning) has created a severely flawed man, but never an unlikable one. The truth is so pure here you'd be disappointed to see anything else come out Locke's mouth, he's one of the most honest men I've seen depicted on film. Great direction, a bravura solo performance from Hardy, appealing night visuals and some absolutely brilliant, Oscar-worthy writing, Locke is sure to become the movie cinephiles protest the most over that was robbed at this year's upcoming Academy Awards.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

THOUGHTS ON ROBIN WILLIAMS

It completely disheartened me to read a text last night informing me comedic legend Robin Williams died of an apparent suicide. I commented on the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a warning sign to those struggling with addiction, I commented on the death of Michael Clarke Duncan because he was in my all-time favorite movie The Green Mile. Not since the latter's death have I felt such remorse and sadness for a celebrity's demise, and this time it's so much worse.

As a tween going into middle school, a school where I knew pretty much no one do to circumstantial events, I went to a very kind woman's house every day in the morning as a sort of daycare. She would pop in a movie every day for me, then when the bus came paused it, and the next day I would finish it up. On average it took me about three days to finish a film if it was about two hours, which was the longest the children's movies she played ever were. I really got into movies after the Oscar season of 2008, but this was an enormous platform that set the stage of what was to come. My absolute favorite film at the time was Jumanji, and I distinctly remember telling her this, so she went out of her way to get it from a neighbor for me to watch.

For a guy who doesn't enjoy watching movies over and over nowadays, I've seen Jumanji at least 15 times, maybe 20. That amount of watchability is usually reserved for a Disney movie (including Aladdin), but Jumanji was different. With its fantastical sense of adventure, excitement and special effects, I was captivated every time, and Williams' performance as Alan Parrish is almost entirely responsible. That movie rests squarely on his shoulders, and even though his typically manic, Williams persona doesn't shine through, he's still a joy to watch. With those mischievously piercing blue eyes, Williams made us fall in love with him over and over again. How could you not in roles in Flubber, Night at the Museum, Hook, Robots, and yes, even Jack, which I hold to be a little underrated despite the critical thrashing it got since it came from the man who helmed The Godfather.

Besides being stellar in movies geared towards kids, he was an outstanding, exceptional thespian, with complex, fascinating roles in the likes of The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage (which I just watched today out of tribute) and his Oscar winning turn in Good Will Hunting. The moment he grabs Hunting by the throat and tells him to stay out of his personal life is probably what got Williams the award, it's a jarring moment when the usually jolly actor threatens a man's life. It's superb acting, and it's amazing because Williams going over the top wasn't Williams going over the top--it was just his persona. He even popped up for a brief, memorable role on my favorite show "Louie." His "Inside the Actor's Studio" appearance made one man become physically in pain after laughing so hard. That about sums up Robin Williams.

Going on the various social media platforms and seeing his genius and legacy being celebrated, it warms my heart to know how many people grew up cackling with laughter at the Genie's wisecracks, seeing him go drag as Mrs. Doubtfire, or make us chuckle with Ben Stiller as Theodore Roosevelt. The selfish thing for me to think here is that I haven't even seen some of his best work: Good Morning, Vietnam, Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, One Hour Photo, or a single episode of "Mork and Mindy." He had such a wide ranging, eclectic body of work one is never sure which Robin Williams they'd get. And now that the man is gone, we can all relive his filmography over and over.

You're free now, Genie.  

REVIEW: BOYHOOD

Hype for a movie varies a lot nowadays. Social media, and websites like this one, blogs and whatnot, can carry a movie a long ways. Movie stars aren't enough in today's world I don't believe. You don't really need an A-listers presence to tell a good story anymore, and the ushering in of special effects has also helped in this. Websites like Metacritic, IMDb and primarily Rotten Tomatoes tell you if you should invest your $8.50 into a couple of hours of entertainment. Part of Boyhood's strategy, at least some of it anyway, of getting butts into seats was toting its incredibly rare 100% Rotten Tomatoes score, which has since dropped to a much less impressive 99% after two critics disliked it. And you can listen to those two people, who I'm sure have very valid opinions...or you could listen to the other 176 people, make that 177 now including me, who are citing Boyhood as one of the finest movies this year, and an accomplishment in the world of cinema.

It's a question that's been thrown around a lot I believe: why not wait a few years to gradually show the progression of a life instead of hiring actors who look like their younger counterpoint to play older them (though they would've had to wait an awfully long time for Kate Winslet to transform into Gloria Stuart for Titanic)? Richard Linklater has flirted with this concept with his Before trilogy, showing a couple's relationship every nine years. He's also had tremendous success with directing Jack Black in two of finest roles: Bernie and School of Rock. He's made two uniquely animated, rotoscoped movies, the stoner classic Dazed and Confused, and has scored a pair of Oscar nods. But then again, he also made the remake to Bad News Bears and his debut feature, Slacker, which some consider a cult classic, but I think to be pretentious and loooooong-winded, even with its interesting concept. The good outweighs the bad in this case, and Boyhood is the peak in his career by far, which for an artist like Linklater, is saying a big deal.

I can't go terribly much into detail about Boyhood, because it is not really a motion picture as it is an experience. Not a Gravity type of adventure, but you literally, and I know that word gets literally tossed around literally a lot, but you literally witness the choice moments of an American life. And that is something to be lauded for the years to come. Ellar Coltrane is the film's focus, a boy with divorced parents, his older sister, and a whole life awaiting him when we first see the adorable child at age six, watching him physically and mentally grow into the thoughtful, soft-spoken, confident man he becomes when he moves into his dorm room at the end of it, as I'm about to do in 16 days as of this post. Patricia Arquette is his caring mother, a woman with unfortunate luck with men, but a devotion to her kids nonetheless. Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, is the sometimes sassy sister to Coltrane's Mason. Ethan Hawke, who I believe has the best chance of being nominated among this cast, is the liberal, "fun dad" who shows as much devotion as Arquette's Olivia, but sees them on weekends, so seeing him is a treat. I cheered internally the most when the kids stayed with him for a while, his Mason Sr. is a blast to watch.

I can't count how many times I gasped out of recognition of something onscreen, and I'll just say this one as not to give too much away: when one of the children in the film plays the round, oval 20 Questions, which I most definitely had as a kid (one regular, and one Harry Potter version, but I go on). Little things like that not only make this film relatable to someone who primarily grew up in the 2000s, but it's a time capsule for us millennials alike. No I don't have a sister or divorced parents, but a solid portion of my friends do, and I've seen the impact on them up close. Mason endures alcoholic stepdads, bullies, that terrible MySpace era in 2009 where everybody had hair like the picture above. He doesn't have super powers, he doesn't get into a terrible amount of trouble, he doesn't have any discernible talents besides photography skills. He's your everyday kid, and we get to see not the milestones (first kiss, first car, learning to ride a bike, etc.) but the little moments that compromise the rest of the 350 days of the year that aren't holidays, vacations, what have you.

In Boyhood Linklater has created an unsentimental look at life here in the States, complete with era-appropriate songs, events, hairstyles and all. You'll laugh, maybe cry if you're a parent, but everyone will go away seeing at least a fraction of themselves in Mason or his family. It's the finest film of the year so far, and I hope it gets an Academy Award for every year Linklater, his incredible crew, and his incredibly game cast took to craft this monumental motion picture.

Rating: 4/4 stars