Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Episode Nine (Amélie / American Beauty)

Amélie (2001)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Guillaume Laurant (scenario), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (scenario), and 
Guillaume Laurant (dialogue)

Stars: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus

It most likely won't have you rolling on the floor while clutching your sides, it probably won't bring tears to your eyes and it certainly won't leave you pondering its message and meaning. This film's aims are much smaller - desiring only to bring you a chuckle and a fuzzy feeling in your heart, and at this it surely succeeds. Sweet and stylish, exuding warmth and charm in every facet of its production, from the music to the acting and from the story to the cinematography. Show me the person who can sit through this without cracking a smile and I'll show you the perfect casting for the 347,843rd version of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Score: 9 / 10

American Beauty (1999)

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

Throughout the film I sense that we're teetering on the brink and one false move will send the entire thing crashing in on itself and failing utterly. Whether or not the film crosses that line is up for debate, but I feel it stays upright (though just barely). The main problem is that the characters in this black comedy / satire are written (mostly) as one-dimensional stereotypes and played as "phony" by the actors. Going in either direction is fine, but doubling up on the "phony" factor puts you dangerously close to unintentional self-parody at times. That said, Spacey is incredible to watch going through the ultimate mid-life crisis and Mendes directs like a seasoned pro in his debut.

Score: 7 / 10

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Episode Eight (All About Eve / Almost Famous)

All About Eve (1950)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screenplay)
Stars: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders

If not the single greatest script of all time, All About Eve certainly earns itself a spot in that conversation. Featuring a solid story with stellar dialogue, the film plays out as a nearly constant exchange of verbal barbs, which makes for great drama and humor. Some might accuse the dialogue of being a little too perfect and witty, thereby stripping the characters and situations of their reality. However, considering the nature of these characters as actors and writers (along with the simple fact that it is so much fun to watch), I'm entirely willing to disregard that particular complaint. Fantastic performances all around - especially from Bette Davis whose turn as an aging star is probably the best of her career. Plus, the mere presence of George Sanders in a film will automatically boost its score by at least a point in my book. Absolutely amazing movie.

Score: 10 / 10

Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson

The film plays best when it is going for funny and heartwarming - the times when it goes for drama are the times where it starts to fall flat. I don't particularly care for Fugit in the central role - in fact, I'd almost rather remove his character altogether and just follow the band, except that this would mean we wouldn't get to enjoy McDormand playing the eccentric, overprotective mom, who is a definite highlight of the film for me. Guess I'm just going to have to deal. Hudson and the soundtrack are phenomenal and the film does a great job of recreating the feeling of the period in which is is set. Oh, and that "Tiny Dancer" scene is indeed great.

Score: 6 / 10

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Episode Seven (Alien / Aliens)

We're back to the DVD / Blu-Ray collection for the time being.

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Dan O'Bannon (story and screenplay), and Ronald Shusett (story)
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt

Awesome mixture of horror and sc-fi. The art direction and overall atmosphere are absolutely top notch. I know that people debate back and forth whether Alien or Aliens is better, but I have to give the edge to the original. I think it is all about the setting, in the sequel they have to escape to the ship - in this one, there may be fewer villains but there is nowhere to escape to. Feels so much more tense and claustrophobic knowing that the menace must be dealt with directly. And has there ever been a more menacing creature designed for the screen than the xenomorph? Setting aside the fact that the franchise has been ridden into the ground by now, the original concept is still brilliant.

Score: 9 / 10

Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron (story and screenplay), David Giler (story), Walter Hill (story)
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn

Barely falls short of the original, but is still great in its own right. More of the same would have been a bad idea (especially considering how perfectly it was executed during the first go 'round), but anything other than the original concept doesn't play quite as well. A catch-22 to be sure. Nonetheless, Cameron manages to keep things very entertaining with this more "action-y" take on the material. Fun side characters, highly quotable, solid action... pass the popcorn, man.

Score: 9 / 10

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Episode Six-Point-Five: James Franco Edition (127 Hours / Oz the Great and Powerful)

Today, we've got a Blu-Ray that got added to the collection after we were already past its location as well as a new(ish) theater release. But hey, they star the same actor so we can totally lump them in together. Cool? Cool.

127 Hours (2010)

Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Danny Boyle (screenplay), Simon Beaufoy (screenplay), and Aron Ralston (book)
Stars: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara

A lot of criticism has been directed at Boyle's hyperactive direction and editing, but I feel that it is fairly effective here. While a slower pace and a more somber atmosphere could have made for a more intense experience throughout, I feel that the higher tempo kept things from dragging (which could have easily happened in a story that focuses primarily on a single man in a single location). The first two thirds of the film still might not engage everyone, but when the story turns to "do or die" desperation in the final act it really shines - taking you from cringing horror to watery-eyed triumph. Franco is great in this and the journey is totally worth the climactic conclusion.

Score: 6 / 10

Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Mitchell Kapner (screenplay), David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay), and L. Frank Baum (novel)
Stars: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis

Despite the beautiful scenery and fantastic creatures, Oz is a land devoid of much magic or charm. Finley, China Girl and Knuck are charmless, weak substitutes for the original trio of sidekicks. This leaves the success or failure of the film squarely on the shoulders of the Wizard and the Witches - and while Franco is tolerable as Oscar and Williams and Weisz play their weakly-written roles well, Kunis is woefully miscast. Given Raimi's prior films, I was looking forward to his Wicked Witch, but it fell way, way short for a variety of reasons. The film seems stuck somewhere between taking itself seriously and going into full "camp" mode - either of which would have been better than the limbo we ended up with. Major letdown.

Score: 3 / 10

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Theater Interruption (Mama / Side Effects)

Mama (2013)

Director: Andrés Muschietti
Writers: Neil Cross (screenplay), Andrés Muschietti (story and screenplay), and Barbara Muschietti (story and screenplay)

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier

If there's anything that totally derails the film, it is its uneven storytelling; the first and final acts are more of a dark fairy tale, with emphasis on character, theme and atmosphere. Meanwhile, the middle act is a typical ghost story, overly reliant on jump scares and easily the weakest segment. I also have to say that Jessica Chastain looks way out of place here. However, I absolutely loved the creature design - both in sound and visual style. The feral children are definitely unsettling as well. The story was never anything great, but worked well enough when it took on the more fairytale-esque tone.

Score: 4 / 10

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns (screenplay)
Stars: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law

A modern-day Hitchcock that does a wonderful job of keeping the audience on their toes, but may go a bit overboard on some of the plot twists in the later stages of the story. It really does feel like two different films and I would have liked to see more of the first half's atmosphere carried over into the second, but both are very good in their own ways. If this turns out to be Soderbergh's last film, at least it is a significant step up from "Contagion." Mara and Law are fantastic and make up for the abysmal work by Zeta-Jones and the 6'1" void that Channing Tatum leaves on screen.

Score: 6 / 10

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Stay Tuned

We'll be returning to our "journey to the end of the shelves" on the 13th. So don't touch that dial! (And explain to me how you are navigating the internet with a dial...)