Thursday, October 31, 2013

Is Once Enough? Contemplating the Sequel

                Scrolling down my Twitter feed recently, I discovered that filmmakers are looking to resurrect the 2011 R-rated comedy, “Horrible Bosses” with a sequel. While it received mixed reviews from critics, I personally liked it.  It was hilarious, with some memorable lines which I endlessly quote with my family and friends.  The film had closure at the end as well.  All was resolved, and I was satisfied with the run of events.  Does it really need a sequel?  As much as I loved it, I think that its originality would be lost if they tried to take the film a step further.  Even the best movies out there don’t need more to them; they are best left off as is.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case.
Often, when a film becomes a box office smash, is popular among critics and audiences alike, and renders a lot of profit, filmmakers consider a sequel.  Extending the alleged end to a film can be a great idea.  Who needs closure to a storyline when you can have more!  In theory, this is a great idea.  Given there is enough money to be spent and film makers have a team willing to resurrect such a great story, what is there to lose?  How about originality, closure, a timeless story, or even simply the up-keeping of a director or an actor’s reputation?
                Originality is a key factor for a good film.  A fresh storyline that no one has heard of before can make or break a film.  If brilliant enough, a film can receive positive recognition that ranges from a simple film critique to a nomination from the Academy.  Films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Inception” are quality original films.  John Hughes wrote the script for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in a week, and over time it has become a cult classic.  “Inception” brought a new concept of planting thoughts into the mind of a CEO’s son; with layers of dreams and an ending that still has me thinking, it has definitely stood the test of time.  Plots and concepts like these are important for any good story or film.  If ideas are being recycled, there is a slim chance that a film will be successful. 
                Closure is an important aspect of a film.  It is the defining factor of a stand-alone film. If you can watch a film and in those two hours (or whatever the length may be) and let the credits role feeling the story came full circle and resolved anything that wasn’t right, then there is closure.  Closure comes in many forms, whether it is morals taught, people falling in love, or the unfortunate death of a significant character.  It is what makes a film worth watching to the end.  How many of us have watched one (good or bad) just to see what happens at its conclusion?  I have, just to know how things end up.  Without this element, it would be hard to distinguish what the really important parts of a film are. 
                One may argue that the lack of closure is a good thing.  For example, television series, book series, films that require two or three motion pictures overall to serve their purpose.  When there is originally intent to make another film after the first, directors and screenwriters choose to leave windows of opportunity.  By taking advantage of their position early in the game, successful sequels can and will (potentially) be the result.  The Christopher Nolan “Batman” films are an excellent example, as each film got better and better upon release.  The endings to the first and second left me on the edge of my seat, filled with excitement to see what was to come next. This is not the case with every film, sadly. 
There are some good things that come out of sequels; all should not be put down.  Superhero sequels, for example, are usually satisfactory.  Picking up from where the vigilante left off and continuing their saga can make a great picture.  With a strong enough first film, given it introduces the struggles and the lifestyle that evolved from ordinary to extraordinary that each hero goes through, a platform for a sequel is easily set up.  The same applies to book series, like Harry Potter, or film series, like Star Wars. 
On the other hand, some films are better off left alone.  If directors keep recycling plot lines just for the sake of raking in a lot more money, then they have lost the idea of what makes a film worth watching.  Let’s take “The Prestige”, for example.  Christopher Nolan’s film about two feuding magicians looking for the better trick has a fantastic plot line, though it can get confusing with the constant twists.  It is one that will make you replay the film as soon as the credits begin to role.  The ending provides closure, and although our mind is blown, we are happy with the fact that all had come full circle.  Is there potential to squeeze in a sequel and extend the story? Sure.  But will Nolan continue it? Absolutely not.  Getting it right (and then some) the first time is good enough to leave all happy at the end (more or less). 
Unfortunately, directors find that they can push their luck and spend more money in hope that their next film will rake in more cash. Films can make a director or an actor (or anyone involved in a film, really) have their reputation skyrocket into infinite fame and fortune.  However, a film can also break them apart and keep them from ever being A-listed again.  Once a bad sequel comes along and a high-profile actor bandwagons onto it, their career can potentially be destroyed.  It's a sad thing, but it has happened a few times too many.
How many times have you highly anticipated a fantastic sequel to one of your favorite films? Let’s take “the Hangover” for example.  Wildly inappropriate, hilarious, and quickly became THE R-Rated comedy of 2009, this film took audiences by storm.  Upon the release of its sequel (which everyone thought was going to be as top-notch as the first, if not better), it was a disaster.  It recycled the plot of a drug-induced tirade, and began to lose its luster.  Clearly the Wolf Pack didn’t learn their lesson the first time around and just not get involved in anything risky.  That’s what made the first one so bold.  Last Memorial Day, a third film was released, which wasn’t even worth seeing. These films could have potentially destroyed the reputations of Bradley Cooper, a well-respected actor who has received nominations for various prestigious awards. Fortunately, it didn't.
Fellow moviegoers, be weary next time you consider buying a ticket, purchasing a Blu-Ray, or simply hopping on Netflix to view the movie that follows one of your favorite films.  Unless the first one left doors open for a potentially awesome second part, then don’t become upset upon your two hours of cinematic letdown.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Don Jon Film Review

This September, Joseph Gordon-Levitt publicly released his film, "Don Jon," in which he starred, wrote, and directed.  It offered an original storyline with the talents of Julianne Moore, Scarlett Johannson and Tony Danza. Originally opening at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, "Don Jon" has been successful in box offices and among critics.
The message offered is an interesting one, and JGL takes an edgy route to convey it. Jon (Gordon-Levitt) takes few things in life seriously, one of them is pornography.  He finds that no matter how wonderful being with a woman can be, nothing comes close to the synthetic sex he finds online.  all this changes when he meets Barbara (Johannson).  Convinced he is in love, he takes it slow with her at her request.  She changes him, for what may seem the better, but he soon loses track of himself.  When she finally stays the night, however, she catches him watching porn and freaks out. 
Jon now must figure out what really matters to him.  Julianne Moore presents herself as a new window to his world.  She understands him, and with her unexpected help he discovers living vicariously through porn isn't the same as making love.

Is something easier to come by better than the actual thing, which may take time and effort to achieve?  Going beyond simply love, anything that is easy to obtain can leave your grasp just as easily.

The cast for "Don Jon" is superb.  JGL is an excellent protagonist, and though Johannson's New Jersey accent was nauseating, she fit the role.  Tony Danza, who portrays Jon's father, was hilarious and mercurial in nature, creating an erratic atmosphere.  As far as casting goes, the only change I would make was Julianne Moore.  Although she is a wonderful actress, I felt that she was too old for the role she was cast in, especially as the film progresses.  Perhaps someone ten or fifteen years younger would have been a better fit.  Someone like Emma Stone, or even Zooey Deschanel would be a better candidate for the role.  The concept behind casting her makes sense as the film progresses, but its effectiveness wouldn't have made a difference with a younger actress.  
As cinematography goes, the camera angles were repetitious.  This was important to show how monotonous his everyday life was.  Once Jon's life starting taking twists and turns, the camera work seemed less robotic in nature and more free-flowing and natural.  Overall, it was effective for what was being conveyed.  

Unfortunately, if you had seen the trailer for this film, you essentially saw the entirety of the picture.  Minus the ending, which seemed rushed.  Nevertheless, the ending caught me off guard.  The lack of predictability here makes the film so refreshing.  Up to the last fifteen minutes of "Don Jon," the film became a elongated version of  the theatrical trailer.  If the two-and-a-half minute clip wasn't so revealing, I'm sure I would have enjoyed the film much more.  Witty, smart and laugh-out-loud funny, "Don Jon" is worth the watch, and the trip to the theatre for those JGL fanatics, like myself.

I am confident that this isn't the last we will see from the cinematic renaissance man anytime soon. Supremely talented, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is sure to go places in the world of film, whether he is acting, directing or screenwriting (or all three simultaneously).  For his first film where he balances all three, this is a job well done.  His film company HitRecord was in charge of "Don Jon." Started in 2010, HitRecord works to bring together people passionate about film production and makes films and books.  After the great success of "Don Jon," there is much more to come from this company (at least I hope so)!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense

Every year, an increasing number of directors take on the ultimate challenge of creating a movie that will pull at your emotions to the most extreme points a film is capable of.  Comedy makes you laugh till you can’t breathe.  Tragedy makes you cry until your throat aches from being choked up.  Then, there are suspense/psycho thriller films.  There is nothing like gripping the edge of your seat, scared to watch what happens next, yet simultaneously dying to know where the twists will take you next.


Many filmmakers have strived to create good thriller films, but no one has done it quite as well as Alfred Hitchcock.  He didn’t focus on gore, like many contemporary directors did.  Hitchcock went for the shocking, the twists that had audiences more dumbfounded than grossed out.  A poll from Britain’s Daily Telegraph said Hitchcock is “Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else."


His plots focus on crime, violence and murder and ushered in techniques directors even use to this day.


Voyeurism is when an artist takes a figure and focuses on them in a private setting, like a bedroom or a dressing room.  Often known as “keyhole paintings,” this technique gives us the feeling that we are looking at the audience through the keyhole of a door.   The camera angles Hitchcock used were similar to this.  He would pan over scenes similar to the way a person’s gaze would. Audiences felt like they were part of the film, standing in the room beside Jimmy Stewart or Grace Kelly.  These angles emphasized the fear, anxiety and terror characters in the film would feel, and create everything to be more tangible to us.  For example, in “Rear Window,” the main character sits by his window throughout the film looking through his camera’s zoom lens, observing his neighbors. 


The MacGuffin Factor is a motivator (whether it is an idea, a person or an object) that pushes the protagonist to behave the way they do.  Oftentimes, it wouldn’t be verbally mentioned.  In horror films, as Hitchcock has used, it is the film’s main focus in the first few scenes, but it loses its importance.  It will still drive the main character throughout the film.  However, by the end of the film, so many twists have jumped out at audiences that often it is forgotten about.  For example, the suitcase full of money in “Psycho” becomes forgotten by the middle of the film, if not sooner as the characters hunt for Marion. 


Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, an appropriate name for this man, as he will live on in film history forever.  The English film director and producer established many precedents and techniques for the genres of film he focused on.  His filmmaking lasted for over half a century from the 1920’s up until the later 1970’s.  In all 53 of his films, he has made a cameo, whether it was boarding a train or walking past a shop window. 


There are several films (some more well-known than others) that I like to revisit as autumn and Halloween rolls in.  These are my top five favourites:


1. Psycho (1960): among the most mainstream and well-known horror films, “Psycho” Is very high up there.  It is based on the book written by Robert Bloch.  A secretary (Janet Leigh) takes $40,000 from a client and rides all the way to the Bates Motel.  There, she meets a strange man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives with his mother.  Upon her visit, she is murdered and the hunt for the money (and Marion Crane) begins.  How about some useless knowledge about this film?  The blood in the famous murder scene?  Hitchcock used chocolate syrup, since it has the same consistency as blood.  “Psycho” was also the first film to have a toilet flushed onscreen.  The more you know. 


2. Rear Window (1954): The film that inspired the Shia LaBeouf film “Disturbia,” “Rear Window” is sure to increasingly keep you on the edge of your seat as the plot progresses.  Injured sports photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) sits in his apartment during the heat of the summer.  As he watches the people who live in his apartment’s courtyard, he discovers that a man who lives across the way is a murderer.  With the help of his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), they spy on him as he tries to cover up the evidence of his murdered wife.  As the film progresses, you will find yourself further and further on the edge of your seat.  My heart pounded upon my first viewing, and even though I know how it all ends, I cannot help but have panic attacks during the climax of the film.    


3. Rope (1948): Not only does it offer a good storyline and Jimmy Stewart, but it has cinematography that shouldn’t go unnoticed.  The film opens with a murder scene, as two college students strangle a classmate.  They proceed to hide the evidence before a dinner party in their apartment, but constantly fight to keep their cool. What they believe is the perfect crime isn’t, as their professor (James Stewart) smells a rat.  Audiences will be as nervous as the criminals throughout the film.  Now, for the cinematographic aspect.  At the time, film reels could only hold nine minutes of film at a time.  In “Rope,” Hitchcock moved his camera around the scenery for the entire film as though to make it look like it was all one continuous shot.  Today, this wouldn’t seem like such a fantastic feet. In his time, it required patience and smart camera angles.  Viewers think that the film was filmed in one shot, as the camera pans the rooms and actors.  You feel as though you are walking throughout the set alongside the cast members. 


4. The Birds (1963): well-known for its strange plot (which was inspired by a short story), this film is more than enough to get under someone’s skin.  The film stars Tippi Hedren, as she searches for a pair of lovebirds for Mitch Brenner’s (Rod Taylor) sister’s birthday.   As the movie progresses, they develop a relationship, and the birds begin acting increasingly strange.  Many people fear in San Francisco that the apocalypse is approaching in the form of birds.  Everywhere.  They perch on fences, injure people and are just plain old creepy.  After seeing “The Birds” I would not be surprised if you refuse to leave your house for a week.  As all the birds migrate south for the winter, paranoia will take over your mindset, as they flock in bountiful packs overhead. 


5. Vertigo (1958):  Once more, Jimmy Stewart stars in this Hitchcock film, this time alongside Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes.  The plot follows Scottie (Stewart) as an acrophobic retired cop. Scottie becomes obsessed with a friend’s wife (Novak), and follows her around only to find out she may be suicidal.  “Vertigo” is dark, and keeps the audience on their toes.  The film introduced the camera technique known as the “zolly,” or dolly zoom.  Irmin Roberts conceived this idea, as the image appears to stretch.  It is essentially the opposite of a zoom. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Cinematic Evolution of Batman

                From the advent of the Batman comic books in May 1939, this caped crusader has taken over the big screen through the decades. Originally created by Bob Kane, Bruce Wayne was orphaned as a child, as he watched the brutal murder of his parents by a mugger.  He was then raised by his butler, Alfred Pennyworth and left with a fortune beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  When Gotham City becomes filled with crime and villains, Wayne takes on an alter ego and becomes the Batman, looking to restore justice and peace.

 Several actors have had the utmost honor of portraying Batman, each bringing their own personality to it.  Interpretations change, depending on the plot of the film, the super villains being juxtaposed with the hero, and the directors piecing it together.  Some actors and films have been more successful than others.

Adam West.  The 1966 film that preluded the television series on TV Land, West brings a whimsical interpretation of Batman. Filmed in the style of the comic book, all the camera angles focused on villains are on a slant.  Plus, the colors stand out and we cannot help but feel the comics come to life.  West is a fun Batman as he parades around with Robin getting rid of bombs.  The slapstick humor throughout is light and fun.  The transition from comic book right to the film and television series, however ushered in a desire for a darker Batman, one to be taken seriously.  Hence…

Michael Keaton. From 1989 to 1992, Michael Keaton came to the forefront to take on the challenge of resurrecting the Batman.  In these two films directed by Tim Burton and starring alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson in these films, he moved away from just playing Batman as the main focus.  Keaton was able to bring in the playboy millionaire side of Bruce Wayne into play.  As important as the hero himself is, the hero cannot exist without the balance of having a secret identity.  His performance of Batman was pretty stellar as well and this phase in Batman’s evolution was important.  It turned West’s almost dopey Batman into a sophisticate extraordinaire.

Val Kilmer.  There isn’t too much reason to even mention this actor.  His portrayal in the 1995 film “Batman Forever” was terrible.  The film itself was god-awful, too.  Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey co-starred in this picture as the villains Two-Face and the Joker.  They parade around Gotham City in attempt to drain the brains of the citizens.  This movie had very little to offer for audiences.  It was a feast for the eyes with bright colors and unique cinematography, along with a killer soundtrack.  Kilmer’s performance does Bruce Wayne justice, but does very little for Batman.

George Clooney.  1997 marked the year for the fourth Batman film in the 1990’s, this time with George Clooney as our hero.  Clooney has been good for only the playboy aspect of Bruce Wayne.  No one is as suave as him, after all.  He wasn’t a very effective Batman.  Chris O’Donnell costarred with Clooney as Robin, this being the first time since the 1960’s.  The film is two hours of dumb show as the super pair try to stop Bane, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy from destroying Gotham City with ice and plants.  “Batman and Robin” also attempts to work on the chemistry between superhero and sidekick, but unfortunately fails to do so. It was anything but well-received by critics, and wasn’t taken seriously for something that was trying to go for that kind of tone.  Clooney himself had said, “I think we might have killed the franchise" and called it "a waste of money."

Christian Bale.  The most recent of the Batman films, Bale has brought a darker side to Batman.  Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy has brought in millions of dollars in the box office, teaming together all-star casts for each film.  This series of films focuses on the backstory of Batman, leading up to what he became.  Audiences learn about his past, and the mysterious air that Bale gives off is perfect for what Nolan is trying to convey.  Bale has achieved the greatest balance between playboy Bruce Wayne and stealthy Batman.  His suave appearance makes it so, along with the grace he uses in his bat suit.  He brings a distinct scratchy voice to his interpretation, which is a great contrast against the soft-spoken Bruce Wayne.

NOW, Ben Affleck.  In the “Man of Steel Sequel,” Superman is teaming up with Batman.  However, Christian Bale has opted out of this film in order to avoid being branded as Batman eternally.  This past August, Affleck has been announced as the next caped crusader.  He will be a subpar Bruce Wayne, but when it comes time to put on the bat suit he will be too awkward, as far as physique goes.  Especially in comparison to Henry Cavill, the current Superman whom he will be costarring with.

As far as I'm concerned, Michael Fasbender, Ryan Gosling or Jake Gyllenhaal should have been chosen to play Batman.  They would have been good as Bruce Wayne and as Batman.  Although the focus of the film will be Superman, and Batman will be more or less a sidekick for all the happenings on screen, that shouldn’t distract us from who Batman is played by.  Don’t get me wrong;  Affleck is a great actor.  I loved him in “Good Will Hunting” twenty years ago, and thought he was swell in “Argo.”  However, he shouldn’t be parading around at Batman at this point in his career.

Originally when Michael Keaton had been chosen to play Batman, hundreds of thousands of disgruntled Batgeeks had written letters to Warner Bros. Studios, complaining about this decision.  Ben Affleck, you have been warned.  Unless you can surprise us as an adequate disposition of both Bruce Wayne and Batman, prepare yourself for disapproval from fanboys and critics alike.