2013’s Best Directorial Debuts: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s “The is the End”

this-is-the-end-620x371

I’ve been contributing some year-end bits to the Film Stage website, including an entry on “This is the End” for a round-up of 2013’s Best Directorial Debuts:

There was no better cinematic introduction in 2013 than the bad-ass, middle-finger-raised, sneering appearance of Danny McBride in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut,This Is The End. And surprisingly, there were few better debut efforts, period. Rogen and Goldberg took a concept that could have failed miserably — real Hollywood celebs find their party interrupted by the apocalypse — and instead crafted a smart, knowing, Backstreet Boys-including, downright emotionally involving romp unlike any other film this year. It helped that the cast included James Franco (never better), Craig RobinsonJonah Hill, McBride, and a note-perfect Jay Baruchel, but as well as a disparate group that included Emma Watson and an unforgettable Michael Cera. But above all else, there was Rogen, ringleader onscreen and co-helmer off, demonstrating that he is a multi-talented entertainer to be reckoned with. – Christopher S.

Review: The Desolation of Smaug is flawed but still fun

martin-freeman-hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-photo-wallpapers-1920x1080

I reviewed Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” for the Buffalo News, and enjoyed it, with some reservations. Here is my three-star review.

Even after more than 12 (!) hours spent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth over the course of four films, Peter Jackson still finds ways to surprise us with breathtaking visuals. Meet Smaug, a greedy, paranoid dragon who enjoys lazily sleeping in a sea of gold – and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, no less.

The dragon is the most wondrous creature in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” an entertaining, meticulously crafted, exhausting bit of CGI-driven storytelling. In some ways, this is a stronger film than its predecessor, “An Unexpected Journey,” with more action, less scenes of dining dwarves, and some of the most thrilling set-pieces of its director’s career.

But while “Smaug” is sure to rake in Orc-loads of cash and generally please Tolkien diehards, it is now abundantly clear that Jackson and company will not come close to approaching the cultural impact of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, or creating as memorable a cinematic experience.

“Unexpected Journey,” remember, was greeted with surprisingly negative publicity on several fronts. There was the decision to turn “The Hobbit” – one 300-page book – into three separate films. And confusion and criticism greeted its use of a 48-frames-per-second projection rate. (Most theaters projected it at the standard rate of 24.)

“An Unexpected Journey” was by no means a bad film – I quite enjoyed it. But it was an unwieldy one that faced the unenviable task of setting the stage for installments two and three. (Watching the dwarves arrive at chez Bilbo, dine, clean up and snooze felt longer than a blind date with Gollum.)

“The Desolation of Smaug” arrives in theaters with less baggage, and while it, too, cannot help but feel flawed and inessential, to some degree, Bilbo Baggins gets his groove back.

Following a nicely atmospheric prologue, Jackson picks up right where we left off, with Bilbo (the ever-droll Martin Freeman) in possession of the ring, and dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (the glowering Richard Armitage) and the omnipresent Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leading the likes of Oin and Gloin. (If you remember which is Oin and which is Gloin, I salute you.)

After Bilbo and friends encounter a strange “skin-changer,” Gandalf departs on wizard business, leaving the group to enter a strange, hallucinogenic forest populated by horrific, giant spiders (prepare to feel queasy, especially in 3-D).

Next, they are taken prisoner by elves, including one audiences will remember well: Legolas, played once more by Orlando Bloom. It is here where we encounter one of the film’s most involving and exhilarating faces, as well as its most controversial – a new character, the elf Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly (“Lost”) in a breakout performance.

Tauriel might be the strongest female in all five films, a smart, tough, compassionate slayer-of-Orcs who is the opposite of a damsel in distress. (While she is saddled with a love interest, it is Tauriel who does the saving.) Lilly is perfect in the role, and I think fans of the novel will applaud her addition.

An uproarious escape involving fast-moving barrels (think water park, plus Orcs, dwarves, and elves) follows, leading us to Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), a narrow-eyed but helpful figure who sets the stage for the film’s climax – a venture into the Lonely Mountain, face-to-face with Smaug.

The dragon, first glimpsed in “An Unexpected Journey,” is wonderfully voiced by the great Cumberbatch, who, like Lilly, Luke Evans, a nicely Falstaffian Stephen Fry, contribute much. This is important, because even with an increase in action and a shorter running time (well, 161 minutes instead of 169 minutes), there are moments in which the film seems to slow to a crawl.

Surprisingly, many involve McKellen’s Gandalf, as well as the endlessly sneering Orc kingpin, Azog. (We get it, Azog. You’re mean.)

But when it moves, it moves, especially once we enter the Lonely Mountain. Then … it’s over. To be continued. While every member of the audience is surely aware that this is film two-of-three, it is hard not to feel a tad let down.

Each film in the “Rings” saga was based on a separate novel, and each had a conclusion that both moved things along and felt satisfying on its own. But “Unexpected Journey” and “Desolation of Smaug” merely stop.

Like “Unexpected Journey,” then, “Smaug” never quite achieves the highs of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This prequel trilogy seems tacked on, and that feeling – that we have been down this road before, and it mattered more – is difficult to overcome. Quite simply, “The Hobbit” trilogy will be forever dwarfed (no pun intended) by the more emotional, more epic “Lord of the Rings” saga.

However, most audience members will say, “So what?” As well they should, for “Desolation of Smaug” is a big, immaculately constructed bit of holiday fun. Forget its place in history, and just enjoy. See you in a year, for “There and Back Again.”

Breillat’s “Beauty” in Buffalo

sleeping b

There is no filmmaker quite like Catherine Breillat — see my review of her TIFF entry Abuse of Weakness for just a few reasons. But outside of festivals and Netflix, her films can be hard to find on a big screen in a city like Buffalo.

Good news: I’m not sure what the story is, exactly, but the Amherst Dipson will screen Breillat’s version of “Sleeping Beauty” at 11 a.m. on December 22.

Here is Manohla Dargis on the film:

“The Sleeping Beauty is driven by concepts rather than sumptuous illusionism. Its costumes, settings and artful boils are more convincing than those in Bluebeard, which had a cheap look that didn’t seem intentional and was even distracting. The Sleeping Beauty is more thoughtfully imagined and art-directed, though it’s too bad it wasn’t shot in film. Its digital images can look thin and don’t have the density and near-tactile quality that Ms. Breillat seems at times to seek, as her use of richly textured, sensuous material like fur and velvet suggests. Despite that, her ability to distill ideas into a single punctuating image — a woman’s torn stocking is here a ragged remnant of a sexual battle — remains powerfully in effect.”

Breaking: A local filmmaking team gains national recognition, and the North Park’s return is almost ready

Ass-Kicking-Buffalo-NY-770x300

There are often very cool film-related things happening in Buffalo, at places like Squeaky Wheel and Hallwalls, and beyond. Here are two to keep an eye on:

 

“Almost Perfect” garners a Best Film nod

Buffalo Rising has the story of a team of local filmmakers nominated for the 2013 National Film Challenge’s Best Film:

“[The worldwide competition] has nominated a local filmmaking team as one of the eighteen films to be eligible for audience voting — a designation that puts the makers one step closer to the winner of Best Film and other juried awards. Buffalo’s Team Reciprocity entered ‘Almost Perfect’ to be represented, which is now eligible to be voted upon as audience favorite. That means that you are now in the driver’s seat… it’s time to vote for your favorite entry.”

Check out the video here. It’s a blast. Bravo!

 

The reborn North Park is coming soon

You will read plenty here and elsewhere about the resurrection of Buffalo’s North Park Theater over the next few months. It’s fantastic news, and we can all help: a fundraiser will be held on December 27; see the North Park site for updates.

I spent many fine evenings at the North Park, and drove by it daily when I lived off of Hertel Avenue. This could be one of 2014’s greatest local film stories.

Review: Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir

roman

Recently, I reviewed the documentary “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” for The Playlist, and came away … semi-satisfied. Here is my review.

“I’ve been through a lot of tragedies, but I’ve also had lots of compensation for that. It’s not all dips—it’s up and down.” So says Roman Polanski, the Oscar winner in exile, in Laurent Bouzereau’s compelling, occasionally insightful, but wildly frustrating documentary “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” It is a film that takes great pains to allow the man behind “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” to talk, explain, and elucidate on his childhood, his career (to some degree), the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate, the rape that eventually led him to flee to Europe, his later life, and eventually, his arrest in Switzerland and possible extradition on sexual misconduct charges. Yet, for an artist whose stylistic flourishes changed the course of modern cinema and continue to fascinate, ‘A Film Memoir’ is a stiff, by-the-numbers affair.

It feels like an extension of Bouzereau’s usual work as directory of making-of docs and DVD special features; the Polanski documentary would not feel out of a place as the extra disc in a box set of the director’s work. And that’s too bad. Because it has something that Marina Zenovich’s more aesthetically ambitious Polanski studies—”Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” and “Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out” lacked: Polanski himself, as he lives today. To be more specific, Bouzereau shot this extended conversation with the director and his friend (and producer of “Macbeth,” “What?” and “The Tenant”) Andrew Braunsberg during Polanski’s 2009 house arrest in Switzerland.

That access is a major score, yet the use of Braunsberg as an interrogator is…odd. And quite foolish. It is difficult, after all, to find a filmmaker whose name carries more baggage—good and bad—than Roman Polanski. Allowing a friend and collaborator to interview him for the documentary is a choice that leaves Bouzereau and his film open to all manner of critique. Even when Braunsberg asks questions that could be construed as pointed, he does so as a friend. And why wouldn’t he? Braunsberg is not at fault here—Bouzereau is. Perhaps Polanski only agreed to participate if someone like Braunsberg was asking the questions. Who knows? Whatever the circumstances, the end result is an interesting disappointment.

After establishing our location—a lovely Swiss chalet, the site of Polanski’s detainment following 10 weeks in maximum security prison—the likable Braunsberg takes his friend back to his birth. The early years are, of course, essential to the director’s tale. Polanski’s is “a life that was quite unlike anybody else’s, full of such tragedy, such triumph, such disasters,” as Braunsberg puts it, and his house arrest provided ample time in which to ponder the past. Braunsberg says Polanski told him that he had “never had much time for myself, and I’m looking at this as my monastic retreat,” adding, “I’m thinking a lot about my childhood.”

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of his life is aware of Polanski’s harrowing youth. He was born in Paris—ironically, the city to which he would flee in 1977 (after a quick stop in London), but his father moved the family to Krakow, Poland, just before the Nazis invaded. The move “was a big mistake, of course,” Polanski says. Young Roman was sent with his mother and sister to Warsaw, and a life of starvation and catastrophe (Polanski recalls his mother finding a can of pickled cucumbers, a scene that he eventually used in “The Pianist”). His father returned, but the memories of what followed soon after still brings him to tears: “Father burst into tears and said, ‘They took mother.’ I wasn’t crying. And I said, ‘Stop crying, because they will pick us up.’ “ Polanski later learned that his mother was pregnant. This is without question the most involving portion of “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.” Polanski’s tales are devastatingly sad, especially those of the other children he knew. One memory, of a young boy named Stefan constantly clutching the one photo he has with his mother—by then likely in a concentration camp—is particularly moving.

Polanski was sent into hiding and survived, as did his father and sister. Clearly, he remains haunted by these years, and brought many specific elements into “The Pianist.” The genesis of Polanski the filmmaker, however, is rather an afterthought in Bouzereau’s documentary. We learn of his early days as an actor, meeting Andrez Wadja, his acceptance into film school after several acting school rejections, then, suddenly, we arrive at “Knife in the Water.” The film is hated in his homeland, but wins a prize at Venice, and lands the cover of Time magazine.

Bouzereau moves too quickly through the remainder of Polanski’s life. “Repulsion” (“I was never very fond of ‘Repulsion,’ Polanski states. “It was a bit of a prostitution.”), “Rosemary’s Baby,” Sharon, Manson…  While there are some interesting comments from Polanski about his late, eight-month pregnant wife’s almost inconceivable slaughter—his time with Tate was, he says, “An extremely happy period of my life which lasted unfortunately not very long”—we positively hurtle along to the rape of Samantha Geimer. Braunsberg introduces the topic with rather shocking casualness: “Then suddenly you had your experience with Samantha.” And we thrust back into the world covered in Zenovich’s docs. Here, however, tough questions are not asked. Polanski owns up to his actions, telling the interviewer, “Of course it was wrong; I have not changed my views about it.” And he explains his decision to flee in a way that is quite understandable. But it all feels…a little too calm. A little too restrained. Polanski answers every question—but are these the right questions?

The rest of the film brings us up to speed on Polanski’s life in Paris, his marriage and his children, and argues that the man speaking to us now is very different from the one in archival footage. “What I have now would have never occurred if what had happened before had not taken place,” he tells his friend, and that’s certainly an admirable viewpoint. This, it seems, is Bouzereau’s goal: to give us the human Polanski, not the Polanski of tabloid headlines. Undoubtedly, in  an attempt at presenting a full portrait of Roman Polanski the man, not enough time is spent on Polanski the filmmaker. The films are almost an afterthought. “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir” is a rare opportunity to hear a master filmmaker speak about his life. Both his haters and fans will agree, it is a highly watchable documentary. But don’t expect either group to feel they have heard the whole story. [B-]

More early Oscar nom picks: Directing, writing, and more

Blackfish-1

Recently, I gave you my early Oscar Best Picture picks. Here are my early thoughts on some other key categories:

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
  • Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
  • David O. Russell, American Hustle
  • Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis

(You will note I think the Coens squeak in, but still find myself unsure about the film as a Best Pic nominee.)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
  • Bob Nelson, Nebraska
  • Spike Jonze, Her
  • Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
  • David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke & Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
  • John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
  • Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, Philomena
  • Ghalia Lacroix and Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is The Warmest Color

BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • Blackfish
  • 20 Feet from Stardom
  • Tim’s Vermeer
  • Stories We Tell
  • The Square

(I feel “The Act of Killing” will sadly be ignored.)

It’s the most wonderful movie-going time of the year

Nebraska poster

Seriously. It is. Check out what is opening in Buffalo in the next few weeks:

December 18:

  • American Hustle — A biggie. Will David O. Russell follow Silver Linings Playback with another success? Early buzz is mixed, but this mix of Scorsese, comb-overs, and 70s chic looks fantastic.
  • Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues — It’s got a lot to live up to, but I expect Will Ferrell will bring in some major business. This is sure to make more of a commercial dent than the original, which turned into a favorite over time.

December 20:

  • Saving Mr. Banks — Hanks as Walt Disney? People will likely love it, but I can’t seem to muster up much enthusiasm.
  • Nebraska — Likewise, I find myself less excited than I was for Alexander Payne’s last film, The Descendants. But the poster is brilliant, and so is Bruce Dern, supposedly.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (unconfirmed) — The Coens’ long-awaited new film is set to go wide on the 20th … But I am waiting for an official announcement of Buffalo dates. It feels like that first trailer was two years ago, doesn’t it?

December 25:

  • The Wolf of Wall Street — I. Can’t Wait.
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — Ben Stiller’s film looks dangerously Gump-y, but seems a bold,, ambitious gambit.
  • Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom — This biopic obviously takes on new poignancy following the death of its subject. I saw the first hour at TIFF (before a technical malfunction canceled the screening), and must say, I was impressed with Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, but not the film.
  • 47 Ronin — Sorry, Keanu … I think we have a bomb.

Lots more is coming, including Lone Survivor, Spike Jonze’s Her, August: Osage County, and many others. This is shaping up to be a thrilling month-plus of cinema.

Thanks for stopping by!

fs-small-logo-300x300

It has now been nearly 8 months since I started this site, and while my output has slowed down significantly — damn real-life obligations … — I continue to truly love doing this, and I sincerely thank those of you who have stopped by, followed me on Twitter, or liked a Facebook post. I’m looking forward to celebrating the site’s one-year anniversary in just a few months.