Flipped

FILM RATING:  3 stars

Writer/Director Rob Reiner’s most recent addition to the world of cinema is Flipped (2010), a super sweet, PG-rated, coming-of-age movie set in the early 1960’s. It’s basically a simple story about first love between two tweens. I had no intention of watching this flick initially, but then heard some mixed reviews on a few film podcasts, with both really negative and really positive remarks. So when Flipped debuted on HBO in HD this week, I recorded it to my DVR and checked it out. And I was pleasantly surprised that the movie wasn’t too Disney or Lifetime for me, being rated so light. While it isn’t a movie I’ll watch again anytime soon, I give props to Reiner for putting together a sort of “lite” version of Stand By Me (1986) for the younger set. It’s got heart and its intentions are in the right place. This story isn’t about a group of boyhood friends, like the classic Stand By Me, but instead about girl-boy friendship and early love.

The young stars of this film, played by Madeline Carroll and Callan McAuliffe, do a fine job of providing solid believable performances. The same can be said for the entire supporting cast, which includes Rebecca De Mornay, Anthony Edwards, John Mahoney, Aidan Quinn, and Penelope Ann Miller. Reiner assembled a pretty well known cast of older actors, who don’t seem to be headlining more significant projects, but put their acting chops to work here. Together, the cast helps tell this short 90-minute story without going too over-the-top.

One of the standout features of the film is the warm, saturated and beautiful cinematography by Thomas Del Ruth, who also worked with Reiner on Stand By Me. Del Ruth has an eye for good lighting and composition in his photography. I really appreciated what he did here because without his work, this film could’ve devolved into a Special of the Week TV movie. But Del Ruth gives the film a marked cinematic feel. The production design on the film by Bill Brzeski was also well done. I never questioned being set in the 60’s while watching the film. Every little detail in the sets, locations, props, costumes, and makeup were spot on. While the sound design and music for the film didn’t stand out for me, the sound was solid and did its job.

If you’re looking for a family friendly flick or something to just escape into for an afternoon, Flipped isn’t a bad choice. It reminds you to not always judge a book by its cover.

 

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Top 10 Movies of 1994

(Updated on February 11, 2012)

1994 was an ok year for film, with a few incredible movies and a lot of mediocre ones. But some of the films from this year are a part of our pop culture like no others: Speed and Pulp Fiction. Both have placed an indelible mark on movies that we can still see to this day. Many will argue that it’s a travesty that I’m listing Pulp Fiction as the #10 movie of 1994. Unfortunately, I missed out on the buzz that was Pulp Fiction when it came out in 1994. I was young and just not open to this gritty and violent art film. I didn’t see the film until 2009 actually (sorry!!). And while I enjoyed it, the experience was less surprising and thrilling to me than for most when they saw it in the context of its time. As I watched Pulp Fiction, I remember seeing many things that rang familiar in other movies, which were clearly influenced by it. But because I saw those other films first, I didn’t quite appreciate their originality in Pulp Fiction. This provides a great lesson on the importance sometimes of watching a movie when it comes out. The Social Network (2010), for example, is a movie that is very much of its time and I’ll be curious to see how it holds up 5, 10 or 20 years from now. Will it feel as relevant? Are it’s stories really as old as time, as many have suggested? Or is it just another film that gets lost in the shuffle with other films “stealing” some of its glory. Thankfully I’ve seen The Social Network several times now and don’t have to worry about repeating my Pulp Fiction experience. And I intend to not fall so far behind again on current movies. But life doesn’t always provide what we want, when we want it. Regardless, I did enjoy Pulp Fiction and upon a second viewing, it might move up this list.

In terms of Speed…it was a highly charged, swiftly kinetic, low-budget “indie” film that showed what you can do with a simple idea if executed well. Not that this was a new concept to movies, really, but it felt fast and fresh at the time and it seems like there’s a few new movies every year that try to capture that same magic as Speed did on a public bus with a random group of strangers thrown together in a crisis. Speed was just a re-awakening of this concept.

And now for the Top 10 movies of 1994…

10.  Pulp Fiction  (3 stars)

9.  The River Wild  (4 stars)

8.  True Lies  (4 stars)

7.  Disclosure  (4 stars)

6.  The Client  (4.5 stars)

5.  Speed  (5 stars)

4.  Stargate  (5 stars)

3.  The Shawshank Redemption  (5 stars)

2.  Clear and Present Danger  (5 stars)

1.  Legends of the Fall  (5 stars)

Watching Legends of the Fall from it’s new blu-ray release recently, I’m reminded again of how classically epic this movie is, along the lines of Gone With The Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Braveheart (1995), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Titanic (1997)….and I’m reminded of how few of this type of movie we get today. I’m not saying I want 20 epic films released each year, but a couple would be nice! The last great film I would categorize to be like Legends of the Fall is The Last Samurai (2003), ironically brought to us by the same director as Legends of the Fall, Edward Zwick. A classic epic film always has a love story and a conflicted but heroic male character at its core. There’s always incredible “landscape” cinematography, which happens to be on the sea in Titanic. There’s always an incredible score by a great music composer. And there’s always a great cast of characters that provide incredible support to the male lead. It’s not a very popular genre or style of filmmaking today, but its a genre that always stands the test of time. I hope to contribute to it myself as a filmmaker, and help bring a few of these films to the screen someday for myself and the rest of the fans for this type of film. In the meantime, revisit Legends of the Fall if you haven’t in awhile. And be reminded of why we love this kind of great movie.

The Sunset Limited

FILM RATING:  3 stars

HBO’s new made-for-TV film The Sunset Limited (2011) starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson is a fascinating and fresh look at just pure philosophical, spiritual, and psychological conversation. Much like HBO’s outstanding TV series In Treatment, starring Gabriel Byrne. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones, The Sunset Limited is a VERY simple, almost theatrical, concept. It’s two men, Black (played by Jackson) and White (played by Jones), in a room talking about life. White is a professor who was saved from Black earlier in the day when he was trying to commit suicide. Black is a reformed ex-con who was in the “jailhouse”, as he likes to call it, for murder. Black believes in God and the Bible. White doesn’t. Over the course of this 90-minute movie, Black and White go back and forth at each other, throwing out crisp, intelligent, yet hard to comprehend dialogue like you’d expect from writer Aaron Sorkin in The Social Network or on The West Wing. While much of what was said is wrapped in riddles and hard-to-digest ideas, The Sunset Limited really gets you thinking. It’s a the kind of film I’ll have to revisit a few times over the years to really get. Much like the internal struggle we all have in our own heads, Black and White battle back-and-forth and don’t end with any real answers. They just end the conversation for the day.

Both Jones and Jackson give very good performances here, really showcasing their acting and dialogue abilities. I wish there was more emotional depth to these characters and to the film itself, but this is really just a head game and its best to not expect anything more. The production design, lighting, and cinematography are interesting and give the film a nice gritty context for Black and White to play out. I like that they don’t go anywhere and that both actors are forced to make things happen in this one-room set. I give The Sunset Limited 3 stars and suggest you check it out on HBO now, or down the road on Blu-ray/DVD.

Animal Kingdom

FILM RATING:  3 stars

Continuing my journey of late with Australian films (see my post on The Black Balloon), I just watched Animal Kingdom (2010) on Blu-ray this past week. Set and filmed in Melbourne, Australia, Animal Kingdom is a family crime drama along the lines of Heat (1995), The Town (2010), The Departed (2007), Point Break (1991), and Donnie Brasco (1999). But it’s a unique take on the genre from an Australian point of view. It even brings a bit of The Sopranos into the mix. First time writer/director David Michôd clearly brings his great love of crime dramas to bear with this story. While not as flashy and engaging as the classic movies I reference above, Animal Kingdom still brings a lot of interesting character study to the table.

Newcomer James Frecheville plays ‘J’, a 17-year old teenager who is forced to live with his extended family due to the death of his mother from a drug overdose. Turns out his family is filled with criminals led by his sweet but sinister matriarchal grandmother Janine, played with interesting finesse by Aussie actress Jacki Weaver. J moves in with his grandmother and her 3 sons, J’s uncles, played by Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford, and Sullivan Stapleton, who waste no time bringing J into the family business. Also part of this mix is Joel Edgerton, as a fellow bank robber and friend of Mendelsohn’s character “Pope”. Without giving too much of the story away, J goes through some growing pains as he deals with his new life in this different kind of family. As one of the detectives after Pope and the rest of his family, Guy Pierce’s “Leckie” wants to save J from a life of crime under the control of his grandmother. But what does J want?

Animal Kingdom is a fairly slow moving movie, spending a lot of time getting us into the inner familial workings and mindsets of this Melbourne crime family. We don’t really see any of the crimes that this band of brothers normally commits, just a small retaliation against the police. While this is interesting, much like the typical modern crime drama, this is probably where I felt Animal Kingdom was the weakest. While bank robberies, drug deals, and other criminal acts have been shown over and over in movies and television shows, I think its because we as viewers like seeing the adrenaline rush and camaraderie that comes with those activities. It helps pick up the pace and give us stakes. Since Animal Kingdom basically lacks that adrenaline, it never really got me into the story to where I cared emotionally all that much about this crime family. Still, the Cody family is interesting and the actors do a great job of each representing their characters. Where I think a bank robbery or two would’ve helped is in tying these various characters together for me. Instead, we mostly watch the slow deterioration of each of them as the film goes on.

The cinematography and production design both stand out on Animal Kingdom. I loved the house where the Cody’s reside, and the various sets and locations all add flavor to the film. Probably the strongest part of the production is the music by composer Antony Partos. The score for this film has a deep haunting and eery feel that gives the movie depth and tone that really helps tell the story. There are two scenes where music is front and center, with no dialogue and just visuals, and both really worked for me on an emotional level. I just wish there was more of that throughout the film and in the characters. Emotion is one of the key ingredients of film, television, and any storytelling for that matter. While there’s a fine line between too much and too little emotion, Animal Kingdom could have benefitted from a little more in my opinion. But overall, it’s a well made Aussie Indie film that is definitely worth seeing on Blu-ray. Ironically, my favorite parts of the Animal Kingdom experience were listening to and watching director David Michôd talk about the making of the film in the audio commentary and the special features. Michôd is a very sharp and caring filmmaker whose depth of soul really comes through in his discussions of his craft. Hopefully he’ll bring more of himself to his next film.

Black Swan

FILM RATING: 3 stars

To be honest, when I first saw this movie poster for Black Swan (2010), I never thought I would go see this film in the theater. It was just so far outside of my normal movie “box” that it didn’t appeal to me. I figured I would wait for Blu-ray to rent it. And then the critical buzz for it began. I had only seen one Darren Aronofsky film, The Wrestler (2008), up until recently when a friend of mine turned me on to The Fountain (2006). Both movies were good, so I decided to go check out Black Swan and see if this interesting director could make an interesting movie about ballet.

Aronofsky did make an interesting and well-crafted movie here. But I’ve got mixed feelings about the final results. I’m not going to summarize the plot to the film since I don’t feel there’s much of one here, so what little there is should be left for you to discover while watching the film. I think the strongest part of the film is the middle act where we see Natalie Portman’s lead character Nina Sayers become more like the black swan instead of the white swan that she has been all of her life. It’s the mixing of the two aspects of her psychology, black & white, yin & yang, that interested me the most. The first act where we are introduced to Nina and the rest of the characters in the story dragged a bit for me. And I found Nina’s innocent and naive “white swan” life to honestly be annoying. I just didn’t buy into this young woman in New York City being so immature and princess-like in our modern 21st century. Especially as an urban girl. I couldn’t wait for her to get “real” and more like the black swan. I see what Aronofsky was doing here in heavily emphasizing the contrast between the white swan and black swan personalities of Portman’s character as we move through the movie, but it just felt too forced, theatrical, and over-the-top for me to relate to it and enjoy it. Being a 37-year old man whose never been in to theater or ballet, the story itself was not very appealing from the beginning. And rather than make that world more accessible to me, I think Aronofsky closed me off to it by stereotyping it and making it feel fake and theatrical. It may be that the real world of ballet is like Aronofsky’s portrayal, but that doesn’t mean it makes a good film…at least not for me.

The bottom line is that the story just didn’t work for me overall. That being said, I did really enjoy the scenes between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, who plays Nina’s competition within the ballet group. Kunis is more purely black swan compared to Portman’s white swan. And the pairing of these two personalities gave real sizzle to those scenes where they psychologically, verbally, and physically battle each other. They had onscreen chemistry that was exciting. Kunis really showed her acting talents in her role as Lily in Black Swan. I can’t wait to see her get more dramatic roles where she can put those talents to use further. Vincent Cassel, as ballet director Thomas Leroy was great as well. His dialogue just chewed into Portman, creating very highly charged scenes between the two. Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mom was a little too crazy for me to appreciate. Her botched-looking facial plastic surgery was distracting and creepy. I’m assuming that Hershey made the mistake of trying to look younger than her age at some point in her life and got plastic surgery that just hasn’t held up well over the years. Either that or she just hasn’t aged well. Either way, I didn’t care for Hershey in this film. Finally, Winona Ryder has a small part in the film that brings her back to the screen in a good role after many years of wasting away in bad to average movies.

Now aside from the story within Black Swan, there is some real filmmaking craft in the movie. I think the cinematography by Matthew Libatique is well shot and good looking. There was a little too much handheld photography for my taste. When I actively notice that the camera is handheld in a film, I tend to dislike it because then it feels more forced to me. And there were times in Black Swan when I had no idea why handheld was the choice. It just made me feel dizzy and sick from all the heavy jittery camera moves. I like handheld photography, but it can be over done too. Still, there is some incredible photography in Black Swan that makes it worth seeing simply for that.

Clint Mansell’s music for the Black Swan is good. Not quite as good as I think he did with The Fountain (2006) and Moon (2009), but his reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s music from Swan Lake is interesting and something that I want to listen to on its own to really appreciate. Mansell does a good job of helping emotionally tell Aronofsky’s story in this film, and that is where a good film score starts in my opinion. Production design, costumes, make-up and everything in the art department for Black Swan are top notch. It’s all of these supporting aspects of filmmaking that really helped keep Black Swan enjoyable for me to watch when I was bored or disinterested with the story. I could focus on the music, photography, and everything else and notice how well done each was.

I give Black Swan 3 stars out of 5. What keeps it from a rating of 2.5 stars is the cinematography, music, production design, and acting. The story of Black Swan is a mix of drama, thriller, and horror genres with a bit of musical thrown in. I doubt that Black Swan will be a film that I watch repeatedly over the years because it was just too over-the-top for me. I can see why there are many critics and fans of this film that are enamored with it. But it just wasn’t a film for me. I can appreciate it like a fine wine, but like wine, it either tastes good to you or it doesn’t. And Black Swan left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. I suggest you wait and rent this film on Blu-ray to see if you have a taste for it.

Tetro

FILM RATING: 3 stars

Tetro (2009) is one of the most visually stunning black-and-white films I’ve ever seen. Not since Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) have I seen a film look so good without color. The crystal clear, inky black digital cinematography is simply spectacular. Every little detail of this finely crafted production shines through in every frame. Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this art house flick showcases every bit of his vast technical filmmaking experience. My only complaint is that the story suffers a bit from a lack of focus/clarity and emotional depth. Tetro goes right to the edge of really pulling me into the characters and the story, but then backs off, never crossing over into the absorbing cinema that I wanted it to. I will definitely revisit this film in a few years and see if there is something more there that maybe I missed. Some subtlety that takes Tetro from being good to outstanding. There’s no question that visually and artistically the film is outstanding, I’m just looking for an emotional connection to the story to elevate it above and beyond it’s technical merits. For now, I give the film 3 stars out of 5. I really want to give it 3.5 stars, but I just can’t convince myself right now to go any higher. Sometimes it just takes time to appreciate something more beyond your initial response.

The story of Tetro centers around two estranged brothers, one whose just turning 18 (Bennie) and the other whose much older (Angelo or ‘Tetro’ as he calls himself). Tetro abandoned his family many years before to go “find himself” as a man and an artist. Now living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tetro has abandoned his artistic expression as a writer and is living with a pretty miserable outlook on life. Bennie has come to find him now that he is old enough to leave home. Coppola’s story unravels slowly as we watch the reconnection of the two brothers and eventually find out more. I don’t want to say anymore since I think Tetro will be better if viewed with less knowledge of the story. Tetro is a cinematic journey best seen with no expectations I think. Vincent Gallo plays Angelo ‘Tetro’ Tetrocini. What a talented actor Gallo is! I’m amazed he hasn’t had a break into more mainstream acting gigs after all of his years of acting. Or maybe he doesn’t want that break. The only film other than Tetro that he’s been in that I’ve seen, or really even heard of, is Goodfellas (1990), but he just had a bit part in Scorsese’s gangster opus. Tetro definitely gives Gallo his due and it showcases his ability to engage a viewer through character development. Also phenomenal is newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who sizzles with fresh youthful exuberance and energy as Bennie Tetrocini. The first few minutes of the film, as well as all the way through the end, just pop as we see Ehrenreich showcase his great acting talents as well. He just has this face and body language that inhabits the screen well. And the chemistry between Gallo and Ehrenreich is perfect. I can’t wait to see how Ehrenreich’s career develops. The flaws I see with Tetro have nothing to do with these two fine actors and the rest of the supporting cast. It’s the story’s plot and writing that doesn’t come together as well as I would like. But all the parts for a great film were present. Tetro just needed that special nameless ingredient to gel them all together.

Director of Photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. did an unbelievable job on this small film. The lighting, the choice of lenses, and the compositions of the various shots really make this film look fantastic. There’s a great mix of classic and modern style to the cinematography, showing us close-up details that would’ve been hard to shoot without the small, lightweight digital cameras of our modern age, but there’s also an epic look and feel to the film at times that harkens back to the classic era of filmmaking in the late 30’s and 40’s. I could see the influences of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, both filmmaking masters in the use of strong light-and-dark contrasts in black and white photography. I’m also glad to see a film where handheld photography is NOT the main modus operandi. It seems like most films of the last decade have prioritized handheld shooting to a point where it’s become annoying to watch the camera move all the time for no real reason other than it can. I guess I’m a bit more classical in my thinking that the camera can just sit still and let the action take place on the screen by the subject matter. I don’t have to always actually feel the camera following the characters or the story.

Production Design by Sebastián Orgambide was great, with fascinating old-looking sets and locations all shot in Argentina and Spain. The film is set in the present, but it feels like the past. That nifty trick is obviously reinforced with the black-and-white photography, mixing old and new in a delightful way. I also like Coppola’s technique of using color photography, cropped to a more square TV/home video look to represent the past when showing us flashbacks to Tetro’s youth. The entire production is just so carefully crafted in each and every detail…and it makes the film that much more enjoyable. It’s one of those things where you don’t always notice it when it’s not in a movie, but you really do when it is.

While there is a lot to like with Tetro, it also has it flaws simply as a story that engages you. Like I’ve said repeatedly, Tetro looks fantastic. Technically its a filmmaking masterpiece that surely filmmakers and film schools will study and talk about for many years to come. I just wish the story left me with that same feeling. Still…don’t pass up the chance to see this film on Blu-ray or in HD on TV. I wouldn’t even bother watching this on DVD…I doubt that format would let this film sing in the ways it does.

I love the graphic design of the opening credits for Tetro. Very clean…classic yet modern…and set against abstract out-of-focus lights. Slick and cool!!

Nice Guy Johnny

FILM RATING:  3 stars

In one of the first major indie films to skip a theatrical release and prove that online and video-on-demand (VOD) distribution can work, Actor/Director Edward Burns recently brought us Nice Guy Johnny (2010). Made for $25,000 according to Burns, and with a production crew of three people, Burns being one of them, Nice Guy Johnny is an impressive all-digital effort by one of the brightest young filmmakers to buck the studio system. Ironically enough, Burns made his first feature film The Brothers McMullen (1995) for the exact same amount of money 15 years earlier. It was this film, shot on repackaged 16mm film stock, that started Burns’ career. It’s exciting to see him go back to his indie roots now that he’s made a name for himself. I have enormous respect for Burns as an Actor, a Filmmaker, and a person. Even if I don’t always think his work is the best.

Nice Guy Johnny is the story of a young guy, played by newly minted actor Matt Bush, whose been following his dream career as a sports talk radio show host. But he made a promise to his fiance years ago that he would leave that career behind and get a “real” job if it didn’t start paying well when he turned 25. Now he’s 25, about to get married, and he’s still stuck in a middle-of-the-night time slot for his radio show, with little income to show for it. But he absolutely loves his job. And he doesn’t really want to leave it behind for a dull job working at a cardboard box manufacturer on the East Coast, provided by his fiance’s father. Being the dutiful “nice guy” that Johnny is though, he travels back to the east coast to interview for the job anyways. While he’s there, he visits his Uncle Terry, played by Ed Burns, who questions his choice of getting married and quitting his job. Uncle Terry seems to know that Johnny isn’t going to “win” by getting married to a woman who doesn’t want him to be who he is. Against Johnny’s vehement objects, Terry decides to set Johnny up with a girl that will appreciate him for who he is and what he does, seemingly to give Johnny a taste of something else so he has a more balanced outlook on life and his decisions. Kerry Bishé plays the girl that Johnny is tempted with.

Shot on the Red Digital Cinema camera and edited using Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Nice Guy Johnny looks good. I watched the film on DVD through Netflix ironically, instead of by streaming or video on demand. It wasn’t as good of a presentation as the High Def trailer looks, but it was still decent. The cinematography in the film is better than average and I felt like Burns and his cameraman did a good job of lighting and shooting the picture. I think the film “suffers” for not having a larger crew to finesse the details of camera work and filmmaking, but when I remind myself that 3 people made this for $25,000, I’m very impressed with the results. What more could be done given those circumstances? I probably shouldn’t compare this small indie film to a $30 Million Hollywood studio film. But I think most people just watch a film and compare it to all the other films they watch and make a judgment simply based on what they see and hear and not on what it cost to make or how it was made. Or at least that’s the general way I look at movies as a cinephile. I see all films as equal in terms of the possibility for me watching them or loving them. At the end of the day, it’s an experience you go for a short ride on, and it works or it doesn’t.

Overall, I give Nice Guy Johnny 3 stars out of 5. The story was interesting and told pretty well with the cast of actors that Burns chose. The editing led by Janet Gaynor was solid with good pacing. The movie moved along well and kept me engaged. If this is the future of Indie films, I think there’s a bright future ahead! While Nice Guy Johnny isn’t landing in my top 5 films of 2010, it was a worthy film experience and I think it sets the foundation for more creative work to come at a similar production level. If more filmmakers can learn how to tell their stories at this level, just imagine how many more possibilities for great films there can be! You could make 80 Nice Guy Johnny’s for the cost of one Winter’s Bone (2010). Or 1,500 films compared to one The Social Network (2010), a film also shot on the Red camera. Granted…quality always trumps quantity in my mind. But I think you get my point. The more opportunities for work from filmmakers, the more opportunities for great films. Especially films we can watch at home or on the internet instead of in the theater. There’s a new demand for a new type of film venue. I can’t wait to see what Burns does next!