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Thursday, September 24, 2009

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER

By D.E.Levine

Director: Marc Webb
Writers: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Patricia Belcher, Rachel Boston, Minka Kelly et al.
Producers: Mason Novick, Jessica Tuchinsky, Mark Waters and Steven J. Wolfe
Co-producer: Scott Hyman
Associate Producer: Veronica Brooke
Original Music: Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Romance, Musical, Comedy

Advertised as not a love story but rather a story about love. This story is about a fellow who falls head over heels in love with a girl who simply doesn't believe in cheesy things like love or fate.

Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom is convinced that he will one day spot his soul mate and while involved with Summer (Zooey Deschanel) he truly believes they'll live happily ever after forever.

Summer, a product of divorce, isn't interested in the concept of love or marriage. She's like many girls we know with a philosophy to match.

One cannot say this is truly original because all the basic elements and characters of a comedic romance are there. All have been previously used, i.e. the boy looking for true love, the girl looking for a fleeting relationship, the friends who provide comic relief, the voice of reason via the character of a child, a musical number that adds brightness and lightness and various other elements that are both good and bad.

However, despite it's lack of originality, the cast is good and the story is entertaining. We don't have to agree with the film's philosophy in order to enjoy it, and Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel work well together and play off each other in a most entertaining manner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

COCO BEFORE CHANEL

By D.E. Levine

Director: Anne Fontaine
Writer: Edmonde Charles-Roux (book), Anne Fontaine, Camille Fontaine (screenplay) and Christopher Hampton (collaborator)
Producers: Phillippe Carcassonne, Caroline Benjo and Carole Scotta
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Emmanuelle Devos, Marie Gillain, Alessandro Nivola et al.
Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Country of Origin: France
Language: French with English subtitles

For those who didn't know the story of Coco Chanel, this film takes us from the abandoned orphan Gabrielle through her years as a music hall chanteuse who self asserts herself into becoming the mistress of a wealthy playboy, Etienne Balsan, instead of turning to prostitution.

Initially designing a hat and then multiplying her her production at the request of her wealthy lover's female friends, she initially is only trying to better herself and earn a bit of money.

When she moves onto the estate of her lover, Chanel decides to learn to ride a horse. Opting for comfort, she redesigns one of her lover's suits and rides into a picnic clad in trousers and a riding jacket. It's the beginning of an entirely new style in women's fashion.

We see Chanel walking among society women and assessing their uncomfortable corsets and multi-layered garments and then ripping apart her own clothes and redesigning them without corsets and layers so that she can breathe and move with ease.

Throughout the film we are given a glimpse that because Coco was on the outside of society looking in, she was able to glimpse the situation of female garments with fresh eyes and devise comfortable, simple, modern designs that became an essential part of the emancipation of women in the 20th century.

It's never suggested that the road is easy, but it is unfortunate that, as with so many female carriers, Coco's was funded by her male married lover Arthur "Boy" Capel, an English friend of Balsan's who steals her from Balsan and finances her business before dying.

Whether Capel appreciated her designs or was struggling to give her something to occupy her time and fulfill her when he was busy with his wife, is open to conjecture.

At any rate, after his death, Coco took the business to new heights and became a legend in her own right.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

HARMONY AND ME

By D.E. Levine

Director: Bob Byington
Writer: Bob Byington
Producer: Kristen Tucker
Cast: Justin Rice, Kevin Corrigan, Pat Healy, Kristen Tucker, Alex Karpovsky, Allison Latta, Margie Beegle, Keith Poulson, Jeremy Pollet, Bob Byington, Bob Schneider, et al.
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Languagr: English

Even with a grant from Sundance, distribution deals are difficult to get so when the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City offered a premiere and a week-long run in its Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, the film's principals happily accepted.

We caught the film on its premiere night when the showing was followed by a Q&A with its writer/director (Byington), producer (Tucker), and lead male star (Rice). Filmed in Austin, Justin Rice of the indie rock group Bishop Allen plays Harmony with fellow musicians playing small roles. The film's writer/director Bob Byington wrote several of the songs and plays a role in the film and the producer, Kristen Tucker, plays the female lead who dumped Harmony and leaves him heartbroken and moping.

Some might say the film doesn't have a plot, but actually, with deadpan wit, masochistic Harmony attempts to cope after being dumped by Jessica, who he learns through a friend, always considered him a loser.

Wearing a locket with Jessica's picture around his neck and his heart on his sleeve, 30-year old Harmony tells everyone he meets the sad story about his lost love. Stuck in an apparently aimless life, Harmony goes to a dull desk job, spends time with his sarcastic mother and brothers, goes bowling with co-workers, takes piano lessons, gets involved with a weird neighbor and hangs out with friends who all seem to be unhappy.

The picture is funny in a droll sort of way, filled with one-liners and a clever, dry wit. Harmony is definitely searching for something although we're not quite sure if it's his rhythm, a new love, a different life or something else. Harmony sulks and is self-pitying and egocentric throughout the film and that alone might explain why Jessica dumped him.

Monday, September 14, 2009

MORE THAN A GAME

By D.E.Levine

Director: Kristopher Belman
Writers: Kristopher Belman and Brad Hogan
Cast: LeBron James, Dru Joyce III, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, Coach Dru Joyce II, Romeo Travis
Producers: Harvey Mason Jr., Kristopher Belman, Matthew Perniciaro, Kevin Mann
Executive Producers: Harvey Mason Jr., Maverick Carter, LeBron James and Jimmy Iovine
Co-Producers: Stephanie DeNatale and Brian Joe
Associate Producers: Danny Gao, Humberto Ramirez Jr. and V. Scott Balcerek
Original Music: Harvey Mason Jr.
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary

Everyone should see this film, because what it teaches transcends skin color and ethnic background. It's a beautiful film made by some very talented people about the development and growth of some really talented youths. It's a coming of age story about forming friendships and young men with a story so good it could never have been dreamed up by a fiction writer. And it's also a love story of parents for their children and friend for friend.

Certainly helmer Khristopher Belman was blessed with luck when as an unknown beginning filmmaker he decided to follow his local Akron high school basketball team from St. Vincent-St. Mary around, intending to make a short film. At the time, one of the high school players was a youth named LeBron James. who would shortly become an NBA superstar.

When James became a high school superstar given national coverage and then an NBA superstar, the unknown Belman suddenly found himself with a film that could become a hot property if handled correctly - and he took his time to handle it correctly and craft it into a fascinating and truthful documentary.

Incorporating home movies filmed by Coach Dru Joyce II when the original four boys (James, Joyce III, Cotton and McGee) started playing together at age 10 in a Salvation Army donated area, Belman investigates their motivation, their mostly disadvantaged backgrounds, and the magical way in which they formed a friendship and learned consummate teamwork which made them not only a force to be reckoned with locally, but took them across the United States competing with the best basketball teams in the nation. Eventually, they became national heroes and Akron was placed firmly on the map as far as basketball.

Coach Joyce left corporate America to coach when his son told him basketball was what he wanted to do in life. Smaller and thinner than all the other boys, Joyce III compensated for his size by being better at other things and frequently was the deciding factor in winning the game. The interviews with Coach Joyce about his decision to seek something more satisfying by supporting his son and the others, to encourage and shape them as young men instead of just making money in corporate America, is extremely moving

Devoted to each other, the four boys passed up the all black high school in favor of the mostly white, Irish St.Vincent-St. Mary because the coach at the black high school wasn't willing to give Joyce III a chance to play due to his small size. Told they were selling out their own kind, they stuck together through it all.

This type of devotion is repeatedly demonstrated in the careful examination of the four athletes made by Belman. Their devotion to each other, the addition of Travis in high school, and the effects of it all, is studied in depth by Belman.

As good as the team is, the standout is James who was singled out in high school as the most outstanding high school player in the nation and went on to become an NBA star. Despite James' meteoric rise, to Belman's credit he examines each of the five youths in depth, from their family background to the aspirations, giving them equal coverage and including news coverage and interviews with their original high school coach.

When their high school coach leaves in their junior year, the boys feel abandoned, betrayed and angry. Even after Coach Joyce picks up the reins, their emotional turmoil is manifested as we see their game fall apart. The viewer sees the friendship, the egos, the overconfidence and the problems with celebrity as the team spirals downward.

It's not a fairy tale, but this story does have a happy ending. Coach Joyce decides his attempt to raise the right kind of young men has been overshadowed by his basketball coaching and shifts his teaching method to emphasis their friendship, support for each other, and the fact that their senior year is their last year together.

As we see the triumphant outcome, we also get to hear how each of the five players was affected. To his credit, Belman doesn't leave us hanging at the end. Instead he tells us what became of each of the five friends and we're able to see if and how they achieved their goals.

This is definitely a feel good film. But, beyond that, it's a frank look at the difference that friendship and teamwork can make for athletes, and a raw look at how much the parents gave and sacrificed in order to make a better life for their kids by letting them work hard at something for which they really had a passion and supporting them unconditionally.

While Belman may have thought this would be a small film, it now looks like it could accelerate to become as big or bigger than Hoop Dreams.

Monday, September 7, 2009

ONG BAK 2

By D.E.Levine

Directors: Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai
Writer: Panna Rittikrai and Tony Jaa (story); Ek Iemchuen, Nontakorn Taveesuk (screenplay)
Producers: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa and Akarapol Techaratanaprasert
Executive Producer: Somsak Techaratanaprasert
Cast: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Saranyu Wongkrajang, Santisuk Promsiri, Natdanai Kongthong, Pattama Panthongphetthai, Wongkamlaoprimrata Det-Udom, Nirut Sirijanya, Petchtai Wonkamlao, Somdet Kaewler, Dan Chupong, Supakorn Kitsuwon, Nga Caravan, Mum Jokmok, Yokyek Chernyim, Tim Man
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Country of Origin: Thailand
Language: Thai (with English subtitles)
Genre: Action, Drama

Visually stunning scenery and costumes plus breathtaking martial arts and beautiful traditional dance scenes all contribute to making Ong Bak 2 a fast paced action film that moves along quickly and ends with an unexpected twist.

Shot over a period of two years, the film flows along quickly as a fascinating period piece opening vistas into life in 1431 Ayudhaya and thereafter.

When Tien, the son of a Royal Army general, is hidden by his parents as Lord Rajasena runs amok in northern Thailand and enemies attempt to dominate the country by killing all of the ruling class, we see the young boy trained in dance and music but not given the martial arts training he desires.

As the enemies grow more successful, Tien sees his parents murdered, is traumatized but manages to escape but is captured by slave traders and thrown into a crocodile pit where he must fight for his life so that the slave traders can be entertained.

Rescued by Garuda Wing Cliff bandits led by the wise and sympathetic Chernang, he is singled out as specially gifted and trained to be a fighting champion. Jaa is thrilling as in his rite of passage he demonstrates Thai boxing skills, snake fist kung fu, Japanese swordsmanship and drunken boxing, triumphing over his competitors. He is also taught how to kill, not just fight, because according to Chernang, killing is the final step to becoming a great leader.

Chernang wants to hand leadership of the bandits over to Tien but the impetuous teenager says he must settle a personal score and takes off to track down and kill Lord Rajsena.
In actual battle, he uses not only his skills, but an elephant, in ways I've never seen demonstrated before. There's a scene where Jaa fights off an attacker behaving like a bird and using eagle claw while on top of the elephant. In fact, this is a martial arts movie unlike any I've ever seen before from any country.

The fight scenes are brutal using no doubles or wires and Jaa moves gracefully through many variations of martial arts, combining Thai, Chinese and Japanese styles in the movie and performing them all with amazing skill and agility. While his "graduation" test shows his spectacular performance against single competitors, the village fight scene at the end takes Jaa seamlessly from Thai boxing to tiger crane boxing to sword, three section staff and finally into rope dart.

Jaa is graceful and flawless in the martial arts performances. His and and foot placements are perfect. The fight scenes are brutal but have been carefully choreographed so no one will be hurt, But the script loses focus and moves from a revenge story to a hazy plot with aspects of romance, spirituality and evil triumphing over good.

Returning to the bandit village, Tien has a shock when he is confronted by the Rajasena's army and must do battle with them although they appear to have supernatural powers. In a stunning plot twist, his parents' murderer, dressed all in black armor and mask, appears to do battle and turns out to be the least expected person Tien imagined.

Forced to kill or be killed, Tien appears to be facing certain death at the hands of his captors. However, I've been told this is a Thai cliffhanger that will be cleared up in a sequel, if one is made.

The question remains, since this production went over budget and schedule and Jaa even defected for a while, will another Ong Bak movie be made?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG

By D.E.Levine

Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Writer: Ron Clements, John Musker, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland (story); Ron Clements, John Musker and Rob Edwards (screenplay); Ed Baker (story "The Princess Frog"); Chris Ure, Jared Stern and Dean Wellins (additional story material); Will Csoklas and Ralph Eggleston (additional source material)
Producers: Peter Del Veccho
Excutive Producers: Aghi D. Koh and John Lasseter
Associate Producers: Paul D. Lanum and Craig Sost
Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Elizabeth M. Dampier, Breanna Brooks, Ritchie Montgomery, Don Hall, Paul Briggs, Jerry Kernion, Cody Burton, Michael Colyer, Emeril Lagasse, Kevin Michael Richardson, Randy Newman, Terence Blanchard, et al.
Original Music: Randy Newman
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English, French
Genre: Animation, Musical

Set in 1920s jazz era New Orleans, This is hand-drawn automation at its best. With an original score by Randy Newman that mixes jazz with blues, gospel, and Dixieland, the film is really entertaining and in a sense a relief from all the CGI generated special effects.

There's plenty of razzle dazzle as Tiana, a girl from the Afro-American area of New Orleans who dreams of opening her own restaurant and meeting and marrying a prince, along with her childhood playmate Charlotte, a wealthy girl with an even wealthier daddy.

There's voodoo, friendship, family and many traditional as well as outlandish themes in this film which may seem to some like a throwback to earlier forms of entertainment but is actually a current concept built upon earlier technology.

What's gotten a great deal of publicity is the fact that this is the first Disney film since (1946) Song of the South that features African-American characters. The important thing is that ethnicity and heritage are not relevant since the characters just happen to be of a certain heritage and skin color.

The film does not revolve around the concept of race and color. Instead, the beautifully animated and performed film is very reminiscent of the magic that happened during Disney's golden age.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

TAKING WOODSTOCK

By D.E.Levine

Director: Ang Lee
Writers: James Schamus (screenplay), Elliot Tiber (book) and Tom Monte (book)
Producers: Ang Lee and James Schamus
Executive Producers: Celia D. Costas
Associate Producers: Patrick Cupo and David Sauers
Cast: Henry Goodman, Edward Hibbert, Imelda Stauton, Demetri Martin, Kevin Chamberlin, Lee Wong, Anthoula Katsimatides, Clark Middleton, Bette Henritze, Sondra James, Jeffrey dean Morgan, Christina Kirk, Gail Martino, Emile Hirsch, Adam LeFevre, Eugene Levy, Andy Prosky, Dan Fogler, Carmel Amit, Zachary Booth, Jennifer Merrill, Ivan Sandomre, Matthew Shear, Darcy Biedsoe, Jesse Kile, Ashley Middlebrook, Bec Stupak, Gabriel Sunday, Jonathan Groff, Marrie Gummer, Stephen Kunken, Liev Schrieber, Kevin Sussman, Richard Thomas, Darren Pettie et al.
Original Music: Danny Elfman
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Language: English
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama, Musical

Forty years after the original dramatically peaceful, albeit soaked, Woodstock Concert, Ang Lee brings us a light comedy about Elliott Teichberg, a nice Jewish boy who was trying to help his parents keep afloat with their decrepit and dying upstate motel when he inadvertently helped the concert take place.

Although we never actually see or hear the Woodstock concert or any original recordings of it, this film focuses on the amusing behind the scenes events that took place before, during and after the concert.

Elliott unwittingly sets the wheels for the concert in motion when he learns that a nearby town has denied a permit for a large music concert. As a young Chamber of Commerce president, he decides to use the permit that he previously filed and had approved for his annual "artistic presentation" to bring the concert to White Lake.

He figures that his parents will be able to book the rooms of their El Monaco Motel. When the concert is switched to White Lake, Elliott is booking 12 to a room and his parents are raking in the cash.

The quiet Catskills community is transformed and when the concert planners discover that much of the El Monaco sits on swamp land, they barter with a neighboring dairy farmer for use of his cow pasture and he negotiates a very good deal for himself, with the stipulation that the cow pasture and neighboring land will be cleaned up after the concert (something we see at the end of the film).

Director Lee made use of New York theater actors (about 500) to create a crowd and used CGI enhancement to expand the crowd to 50,000. Everyone is tranquil, peaceful, polite, well-behaved, and even with the use of LSD, very mellow.

Except for the fact that the admission booths aren't operating so money isn't collected by the event planners, and the fact that the rain drenched earth became slick mud and traffic clogged the only road bringing traffic to a standstill for days (causing the governor to declare the area a disaster area), the concert goes splendidly.

The movie seems low key for such a major transforming event, but it is enjoyable and focuses primarily on the relationships of those individuals involved behind the scenes.