6/28/2014

Blu-ray Review: Rob the Mob (2014)


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Original Review:
(Published 4/9/14)

“Did Gotti put you up to this?” It had to be a joke. No one would ever think of walking into an Italian American New York City social club and holding up the mob. Except in the early 1990s someone did the unthinkable and the only one laughing was the guy robbing the mob in the form of a twenty-something ex-con named Tommy Uva (Michael Pitt) who didn’t know John Gotti and most certainly wasn’t kidding around.

A young man who worked a day job as a collection’s agent with other ex-cons hoping for a second chance, Tommy was using his second chance to collect in a whole different way – from the very men that most people crossed the street to avoid.


Not content to spend his time trying to go legit while taking hard-earned money from people who couldn’t afford it, Tommy knew exactly what he was doing when he walked into one of several social clubs in a mind-blowing year-long spree.

In his eyes he was getting revenge – revenge on the type of guys who’d constantly humiliated his florist father growing up that Tommy believed led to his dad's premature death. The way Tommy saw it in an era where endless headlines and evening news coverage all focused on the trial of so-called Teflon Don aka Mr. John Gotti, these guys who’d been getting away for murder for decades were all past due and who better than him to collect?

Learning in the open court testimony of Gotti’s former underboss Sammy the Bull Gravano that none of the Made men holed up in New York City's Italian social clubs to play cards even bothered to carry a weapon (but something tells me that’s changed now), Tommy decides to settle old debts... with interest.

And interest is exactly what he receives from all sides, which Two Family House and City Island filmmaker Raymond De Felitta captures in this briskly paced, high-energy cinematic portrait that takes us with him on the crazy scheme from its unbelievable start to its inevitable conclusion.


Yet far from only focusing on Tommy, De Felitta recreates the incredulous reaction from all involved whether it’s the news media that dubs Tommy and his lady love/getaway driver Rosie (Nina Arianda) Bonnie and Clyde or the the F.B.I. agents staking out the very clubs he’s holding up that can barely believe their ears or eyes.

Spinning traditional robbery picture paradigms off their axis, De Felitta paints the wise guys that would ordinarily be placed in the role of the aggressors in a far more vulnerable light when they realize that in addition to money, jewelry and lost pride, Tommy has nabbed more than he bargained for in his latest heist.

Though he’d only gotten away with five dollars, nothing prepared Tommy for the discovery of what was hidden away in an elder mobster’s wallet that is not only worth its weight in gold but almost guarantees his future demise.

Returning to the apartment he shares with Rosie, the lovebirds are shocked as they unfold a well-worn sheet of paper, only to realize that in their hands they hold the official contact information including rank, address, full name and aliases for the entire mafia “family tree.”

Figuring the best way to stay alive is to play all sides, Rosie and Tommy begin phoning numerous individuals both on the list and off including a long time mob journalist (nicely played against type by Ray Romano).

And by casting the infinitely likable Andy Garcia as the unofficial head of a crime family who works a day job as a shop owner (not unlike Tommy’s deceased father), De Felitta and screenwriter Jonathan Fernandez add a welcome layer of humanism to what could’ve otherwise been a clich├ęd role.


In addition to making us question our antihero, Fernandez invites us to draw parallels between Garcia’s character’s relationship with his son to our lead as well given his reluctance to take out Tommy since, as he phrases it, “eagles don’t kill flies.”

An effective ensemble piece, Rob the Mob fits in nicely with the filmmaker’s impressive oeuvre thus far, which first caught my attention with the underrated crowd-pleasing Sundance hit Two Family House that I loved so much I chose to screen it in a film discussion series I hosted in Scottsdale.

While he's continued to make solid films, Rob the Mob is easily De Felitta’s strongest effort since House. A frenetic, fiercely funny yet jaw-droppingly bold true crime tale about two crazy in love kids who make one in a series of crazy decisions from which there’s no turning back, at its core, Mob’s driving force is love and family, which makes it a natural progression from the helmer, given his earlier offerings.


Admittedly, you wish you knew more about the duo or more specifically just what exactly they were thinking as the film isn’t sure exactly what to make of them either. Namely we go from questioning their sanity to admiring their intellect before wondering if they were that oblivious to the danger they were putting themselves in or if they had some kind of Romeo and Juliet meets Bonnie and Clyde like death wish. Yet what the film lacks in concrete answers it makes up for in admirable cinematic realism – easily transporting us back in time to the early ‘90s.

Anchored by the mesmerizing turns from its two stars, while Pitt (who managed to steal Boardwalk Empire away from everyone else) is always compulsively watchable, the real story in Rob the Mob is in De Felitta’s casting of the pitch perfect Tony award-winning actress Nina Arianda as his beloved Rosie.

Radiating off-the-charts charisma, Arianda is a real discovery and although she’s worked in film before, this performance is tailor-made to take her to the next level, reminding me again of the way that Two Family House helped launch the lovely Kelly Macdonald.

Whether she’s assembling an Uzi or impressing her new boss (a hilarious Griffin Dunne), Arianda instantly captivates viewers in a star-making role on par with Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny or Rosie Perez in White Man Can’t Jump.


Returning to the same theme that drove House's characters in celebrating a person’s desire to follow their dream (regardless of how risky it might be), in the end, Rob the Mob has a better emotional payoff than it does a concrete narrative one since the beautifully lensed yet nonetheless inevitably devastating final scene cuts into the plotline rather abruptly.

Of course, by echoing the same impulsive, anything-can-happen Cassavetes-esque spirit established early on, Rob the Mob reminds us that it wasn't designed to play by the traditional rules of three-act screenwriting. And as such, you may feel slightly unsettled by the way the rollercoaster ride of the film stops quite suddenly at the top of the hill.

However, by deciding not to put some kind of final statement on the work or abandoning the truth to explore the point-of-view of a supporting player, De Felitta’s ending is that much more reflective of the way that real life can take you by surprise… much like it did for the New York wiseguys who expected a practical joke but got Tommy Uva instead.



Blu-ray Review:

A surprisingly buoyant, lively, and charming character-driven true crime comedy, Raymond De Felitta’s underrated sleeper Rob the Mob has been given a second chance to make a terrific first impression on film lovers that missed out on the indie earlier in the year thanks to its Blu-ray and DVD debut.

Though it scored well with reviewers and in the art-houses of bigger cities that carried the Millennium Entertainment film in its limited theatrical release and on-demand rollout, it’s sure to garner great word-of-mouth from those who give it a spin.

Despite the soundbite heavy critical praise adorning its cover that calls the picture "Bonnie and Clyde meets Goodfellas," Rob the Mob is its own unique work and deserves adoration on its own merits, much like those two true crime classics.


Furthermore, the best thing about De Felitta’s feature is that it doesn’t easily fit into any convenient labels. Wild and freewheeling, Rob is an actor’s movie and one that tries to capture to pulse of New York at a certain time and place.

To achieve this right off the bat, Rob opens with a sharply edited introduction set to “Groove is in the Heart,” which De Felitta admits on the director’s commentary track was the brainchild and handiwork of Steven Soderbergh who spliced together stock footage with the song (of the Traffic director’s own choosing) to immediately transport us to early ‘90s New York.

Shortly thereafter, we’re quickly launched into a seemingly spur-of-the-moment robbery before we know who the characters are and what’s going on. Moving from chaotic handheld cameras to show us the point-of-view of our hopped up bandits, the cinema verite style segues into a smoother cinematographic version of its realism-heavy approach to catch up with the recently reunited lovers before they venture into their second and final crime wave.

While my original review (above) cited a wish for more character background and information to establish their motives and help us get a better understanding of them, sure enough the razor sharp Blu-ray offers some extended and deleted scenes that go a long way to answering some of our questions.


Though intriguingly out-of-chronological order on the menu, the three segments are actually served up in the order of strongest to weakest, with two slightly lengthy new sequences and a shorter third one that gives us a glimpse into Rosie’s home life (featuring actress Aida Turturro as her mother).

While the home scene is way too gritty to have meshed well with the rest of the frenetic and funny film in emphasizing Cassavetes-like in-your-face verite (which may have made the characters harder to empathize with at first), the previous two extras are absolute gold.

Even though it’s safe to say that the first sequence might have strayed too far from the main narrative in offering viewers more of Arianda and Dunne’s hilarious chemistry, it’s yet another stellar reminder of the leading lady’s talent as well as Dunne’s often unexplored comedic range.

Likewise, although the second scene might have grinded the fast and furious pacing to a halt by showing us a more complete interview that the couple had with Romano’s character (and the witty jokes about marriage could have been cut to save time), it provides a stronger motive for Tommy’s actions.


And this is especially true when it’s viewed right after the first deleted scene in which Tommy shows Rosie an offscreen family photo and seems angered at her implication that he looks more like his mother than the man who’d inspired him to act in the form of his deceased father.

A fascinating collection of roughly 18 minutes of footage, the deleted material along with the director’s informative commentary track (which should be of particular interest to indie filmmakers) helps paint a much stronger picture of one of the freshest New York stories of the year so far.

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

6/26/2014

Fox Cinema Archives DVD Review: Kentucky (1938)


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He may have been typecast and he was definitely too young for most of the roles he was offered but when it came right down to it, nobody played an old man better than Walter Brennan.

A character actor before there ever was such a term, although he played old men nearly his entire career, there was never anything caricature-based or disingenuous about Brennan's portrayals (whether he was cantankerous, charming or a curmudgeon) and he never played the exact same man twice.

In 1938, Brennan was only 44 years old when he portrayed a character roughly double his age in a performance that would garner him an Academy Award and help inspire the Walter Brennan "type" he was sought to inhabit again and again.


Yet Brennan’s ferociously lively and powerful turn in Kentucky is so good that even though he was a mere supporting player, his presence loomed large over not only the main romantic star-crossed lovers plotline at its core but Brennan also dominated scenes in which he didn’t even appear.

The best of his early state-name horse pictures including Home in Indiana and Maryland, White Fang and Calamity Jane filmmaker David Butler’s winning drama has been brought back to digital life thanks to a lush DVD transfer as part of Fox Cinema Archives’ latest wave of manufactured-on-demand classic films.

Released this past spring, Fox’s debut of Kentucky (which was based on John Taintor Foote’s story The Look of Eagles) as part of the Archive series was well-timed to coincide not only with the recent Oscars telecast but also the Kentucky Derby.


A compelling work that grabs you from its remarkable period prologue, the film revolves around a Romeo and Juliet or – to use a more American reference – Hatfield and McCoy style feud between two Kentucky families that began when being on opposite sides of the Civil War resulted in Goodwin blood being spilled by a member of the Dillon family.

Seventy-five years after he saw his father gunned down during a disagreement over letting Union soldiers take their champion thoroughbred horses, Brennan’s Peter Goodwin has vowed never to have anything to do with the Dillons.

But when the youngest member of the Dillon tree (played by Richard Greene) falls for Loretta Young’s beautiful Goodwin lass from afar, he vows to put aside the bad blood between them in order to follow his heart.

Yet when history repeats itself in the form of more deadly betrayal, gossip and lies, the feud is forced back onto the front burner as the Kentucky Derby draws nearer, predictably pitting the two families against each other.


While it’s hard to watch the cringe-inducing, degrading way that African-American actors were used in the movie as essentially cartoonish buffoons, if you’re able to look past it and keep the film’s time period in mind (given our contemporary era of political correctness that was nonexistent in 1938), then you’ll appreciate the rest of the picture as a richly made, thoroughly engrossing piece of pre-WWII entertainment.

A beautifully lensed Technicolor horse epic from cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, this Daryl F. Zanuck production may show its age with regard to the aforementioned racial insensitivities and a few clunky edits that don’t flow smoothly by waiting a long while to follow up on gaps in logic.

Nonetheless, it’s buoyed by its convincing cast and the timeless tale of lovers whose romance thrives despite which side of the horsetrack they’re from.

Likewise, Kentucky’s strongest asset is in the always timeless Walter Brennan who, despite mastering the art of defying time on and offscreen always made us think of his age as an afterthought when contrasted with the larger-than-life personalities of the characters he embodied throughout his enviable career, starting with his Oscar wining turn as a Kentucky horseman.


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Josh - Against the Grain (2013)


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Alternate Titles: 
Josh; Against the Grain; Josh: Independence Through Unity; Josh (Against the Grain)

Easily one of the most important projects to have any sort of relation to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, this impressive offering is the feature filmmaking debut of former Kardashians assistant editor turned writer/director Iran Parveen Bilal.

An eye-opening work set in contemporary Karachi, Pakistan, Josh is inspired by the true events surrounding food kitchen Khana Ghar owner Parveen Saeed’s goal to “erase hunger to erase crime” by providing affordable nutrition programs to citizens neither able to escape poverty nor a food supply under criminal slumlord control.


The end result is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that reaffirms the limitless potential of cinema as a vital, humanistic medium that bridges together people from all walks of life. Josh introduces ideas and points-of-views to western audiences that might not otherwise have had this vicarious opportunity to experience life in Pakistan from such an authentic, intimate and personal perspective.

Illustrating the tendency of those in the upper classes of Pakistan (and indeed everywhere) to turn a blind eye to the plights of those from other economic classes, Bilal also paints an emotionally complicated portrait of residents who leave homeland for what they perceive will be the much greener pastures of western civilization for school and/or work in America or England.

Yet far from taking a socioeconomic documentary approach, the filmmaker employs a mystery narrative for the film’s inciting incident which calls its main character and audience surrogate into action. As such, shortly into Josh, our heroine – a well-to-do teacher living a comfortable existence – ventures into the slums and becomes exposed to a side of her homeland the likes of which she has never before seen.


Essentially raised by her beloved nanny Nusrat (Nyla Jafri) since childhood, the beautiful schoolteacher Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) feels like she’s lost her mother all over again when Nusrat fails to return to work after several days.

With Nusrat’s cell phone left behind to guide her, Fatima journeys into the slum in which Nusrat resides and encounters the people in her nanny's community that she'd tried to feed in a shocking contrast of the haves and the have-nots.

Gradually uncovering a larger and more dangerous conspiracy wherein control of the people is tied to limiting their food source and access to education to prevent them from thinking for themselves, Fatima follows the breadcrumbs left behind until she zeroes in on the slumlord behind the enforcers, bullied residents and hungry schoolchildren alike.


Though bolstered by its talented cast, surprisingly for a filmmaker with an editing background, one of the biggest problems of Josh is making it past the first somewhat confounding act until at last we’ve begun to piece together through context clues exactly who is who and what is going on (which I wondered might be a subtitle translation problem as well). All the same, in spite of its bad editing, for those willing to remain patient and hang in there, the rewards of the film are plentiful.

Although it doesn’t have the same natural, fly-on-the-wall neorealist inspired technique evident in say Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! or Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, as unfortunately there’s entirely too much speechmaking and contrivances, Bilal’s literary use of symbolism and foreshadowing is nonetheless effective.

Muddied in its editorial presentation by a filmmaker who knows her tale so well that she doesn’t stop to think if (perhaps instead of another speech) we could’ve used a reference to the past to bring us up to speed, Josh is a necessary and worthwhile artistic endeavor that’s deserving of an audience despite its flaws.


Best viewed alongside a friend or relative with a gift for observation in helping you flesh out context clues to decipher the who, what and why much faster, this 2012 Women in Film Fund award winner plays even better the second time around.

And while undoubtedly a second edit by someone unassociated with the production would’ve helped clean up the film tremendously, it’s an auspicious debut by a welcome new cinematic voice.

While of course, the importance of a quality Pakistani female filmmaker cannot be understated, Josh (which translates to passion or excitement), has something much more urgent to say in its depiction of a side of Pakistan that we don’t see on the evening news here in the United States.

In addition to speaking volumes about Bilal’s potential as a future filmmaker, Josh also zeroes in on the issues of feudalism, hunger and corruption that as global citizens we can’t afford to ignore, regardless of class, gender, which country we’re from or the one we call home.


   


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

6/24/2014

Blu-ray Review: Capital (2012)


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Alternate Title: Le Capital

They wanted someone they could easily control as the new CEO but instead of a typical puppet, the board of directors at a prominent French investment bank wound up with a lying Pinocchio-like puppet-master (comic actor Gad Elmaleh playing it straight) who desires to break free of his marionette strings and puppeteers.


With not only the French board hoping to call the shots made by Elmaleh’s Marc but also a group of American hedge fund “cowboy capitalists” (led by Gabriel Byrne) longing to do the same, the puppet quickly cuts the strings and plots to get even.

In one of several manipulative deals, negotiations and ventures, Marc threatens to fashion a financial noose he won’t hesitate to put around the neck of anyone who tests him.

As such, he takes his wrath out on anyone and everyone from his long-suffering wife who hadn’t wanted to wear a $22 thousand couture dress (until Marc guilts her into submission) or the 10,000 jobs he doesn’t hesitate to cut – axing the regular worker bees in a backroom move mere moments after giving a bravura, rousing video conference in which Marc championed their role.


And in his first true dramatic test, Elmaleh does a hell of a job playing a ruthless bastard cut from the same cloth of Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko. Likewise, Elmaleh’s Marc becomes that much grander when viewed through the lens of the Oscar winning filmmaker Costa-Gavras.

The director’s signature, stagy flourishes abound but his utilization of fantastical elements from soliloquies to dream sequences lose the film's briskly paced urgency and feel wrong for the just-the-facts efficient speed of their “time is money” environment.

Furthermore, one of Capital’s biggest problems is that (despite the unorthodox techniques) thematically and topically we’re not being told anything we haven’t seen and heard onscreen before. Inundated as of late with several films about the perils of capitalism run amok in both fiction and nonfiction features that entertain on a blockbuster level, 2012’s Capital is a few years too late to the party.


From both the fiction feature and documentary versions of Casino Jack to 2011's crisp Margin Call or the Enron documentary to Capitalism: A Love Story years earlier, in this country (at least) we’ve been bombarded with tales of big screen economic woe with a collection of films that have far more sympathetic characters than the ones in Le Capital.

A cold world with cold people, Capital plays at times like an overlong, humorless foreign episode of Netflix’s original series House of Cards. Yet without Kevin Spacey’s tongue-in-cheek line reads or knowing winks at the audience or his against all odds charm despite some pretty horrific deeds – it’s a hard movie to get behind as our main character sinks into greater depths of ego-driven amorality and depravity.


Essentially raping a supermodel whom he felt had been fleecing him for money (but was just about to pay him back) and predictably choosing wealth, power and position over love and loyalty by the film’s final moments, Le Capital may be much more open about its main character’s misogyny than Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, but in the end, Martin Scorsese’s misguided epic still has much more to say.

Superlative production values help elevate the eye-candy of Marc’s luxury-driven lifestyle but unfortunately its surface level beauty prevents the film’s obvious “greed is evil” message from fully sinking in on the same level as Stone’s Wall Street or House of Cards episode director James Foley’s understated Glengarry Glen Ross.


Though it’s a capable, classy yet ultimately chilly adaptation of the Stephane Osmont novel, in this information age of recession when we’re inundated with similar stories about those who take the money and run on the nightly news, we need a new twist in our features.

Instead of centering a film around a CEO playing Robin Hood who steals from the poor and gives to the rich, it might be time for a different type of narrative. For example, it would be much more relatable to see a tale from the point-of-view of one of the 10,000 worker bees who – now laid off and a victim of cowboy capitalism – decide to stop being a puppet and get revenge not by workplace violence but by playing Robin Hood for real.

Yes, it’s wish-fulfillment cinema in a time when Death of a Salesman has become timelier than ever but it’ll also help get the message across better by giving viewers someone with whom we can identify instead of more of the same manipulated puppets or lying Pinocchios or privilege and power.

   

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Book Review: The $11 Billion Year by Anne Thompson


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Complete Title: The $11 Billion Year - From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

As an entertainment journalist who’s seen her own field drastically change over the last 25 years, Anne Thompson is uniquely qualified to evaluate the way that the Hollywood system has likewise evolved with advances in technology, fleeting trends and the passing of time.

One of the smartest and most refreshing voices working in a career that has been historically dominated by men (until the great democratic equalizer of the internet took off and everyone began to have their say as new distinct points-of-view came out of the cyber woodwork), Thompson has bravely ventured into every medium.

In high profile roles as a staff writer, columnist and editor of some of the most prestigious publications in the industry, Thompson has spilled both newspaper and magazine ink alike. From working as a columnist handling the business side of film for LA Weekly to transitioning to her new home at Indiewire online where her blog Thompson on Hollywood has become a must read for colleagues, movers, shakers as well as film buffs in the know over the past several years, Thompson recently called upon her vast experience to pen her long overdue first book, The $11 Billion Year.

Painting a fresh and fascinating yet analytically informative picture of a studio system stuck in an existential, midlife crisis, Thompson lists and fleshes out all of the challenges facing the executives over the course of the box office record-breaking year of 2012 in one chronological journalistic snapshot after another.


Basing the structure of her work (which takes us from Sundance in January all the way up through the Oscars awarded one year later) on William Goldman’s Broadway themed nonfiction classic The Season that took a similar production-by-production approach, Thompson launches into her accessible, highly readable yet eye-opening behind-the-scenes book.

Taking us along with her to festivals and press junkets, roundtable interviews and conventions in her demanding professional schedule where Wi-Fi access and good walking shoes are a must, Thompson keeps a detailed journalistic log of the goings-on while chronicling not only the films and players that will garner both awards consideration and buzz later on in the year but also the films that failed to find an audience.

Indiewire readers in particular will enjoy the portions of the book wherein Thompson champions little movies and fills us in on not only how the works came to fruition but also theorizes why they may have gotten lost in the shuffle of festivals and distributors in place of breakout hits like Silver Linings Playbook and Argo.

Likewise, it’s riveting to see her chart the wreckage of blockbusters that came crashing down in a catastrophic house of cards as one multi-hundred-million dollar tentpole franchise bombed after another while fulfilling the prophecy made by Spielberg and Lucas, with which she opened the work and set the stage for the business of film at a “make it or break it” verge of something great.


In fact it’s this beautifully written introduction that offers Thompson a unique opportunity to step outside her role as reporter. Waxing both poetically and analytically on the industry she covers, she uses a brilliant image to describe the way that the studio system tries desperately to hold on to the methods and modus operandi of the past while time marches on by likening it to Harold Lloyd clinging to the clock in Safety Last.

Offering intriguing commentary on the colorful cast of characters behind and in front of the scenes that will leave their mark on the banner year, while she obviously doesn’t even attempt to cover the 670 plus films released in 2012 (wherein a much smaller number finds distribution), she uses a keen critical eye to help explain the complex and fractured state of the business.

With more and more audiences drawn to Netflix original series versus spending big bucks for a ho-hum product at the multiplex, she evaluates the pros and cons of video on demand releasing in offering people with physical limitations, schedule conflicts or childcare problems the chance to see first-run films to stay part of the pop culture conversation.

At the same time, Thompson also addresses the allure of TV in seducing Steven Soderbergh to retire from traditional feature filmmaking. From the role that marketing can play as well as how too much second guessing your film in an attempt to reach every demographic can lead to disaster (John Carter), she discusses the differences another edit or a new title can make while also offering some good advice for filmmakers wrapped into her otherwise informative text.

For example, she advises people to start the titles of their films with the letter “A” (like Arbitrage) since it’s faster to find on a VOD menu and statistically brings in more revenue to stressing the importance of the G through PG-13 rating and its role in global ticket sales.


Yet just when you think she’s only focused on the business side of the story, Thompson goes from fangirl (recalling a childhood reading comics) to Oscar handicapper, explaining that recent rule changes have made certain races harder to call than ever before.

Admittedly, some of the information does get a little repetitive the further we get into Year but logically, this probably owes more to the chronological structure of the narrative than anything else as by that point, we’re dealing with topics that circle back to information referenced earlier on.

Needless to say, with this in mind, it’s an extremely minor flaw as – thanks to an index – after a first read-through you’ll most likely be jumping back into her text at various points in the narrative and will be grateful for the approach in getting your bearings faster.

Following Good Reporting 101, Thompson covers the who, what, when, where, why and how before forming her own thesis based on the facts to share not only what went down but ideas on how to change things for the better.

Still a film lover at heart and one still in the field for the right reasons – ready to advocate for the films and storytellers that inspire her – although some of the data regarding Hollywood’s love affair with reboots and remakes can be depressing to art-house, foreign and indie lovers who want an original story with which we can connect, Thompson takes a cautiously optimistic approach.

Sharing her wise advice and voice of experience, we’re left hoping that just like she’s done in an amazing career that’s taken her from one enviable post to another, Hollywood will see this new era of digital film, VOD and a whole new world of original voices for the positive developments they are to branch out.

And maybe with her $11 Billion title to guide them, studios will let go of that clock from the past and take a leap of faith – using these new opportunities to find new ways to bring the world together, across cultures and generations for shared experiences on the silver screen (whether in home or at the multiplex).


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

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6/23/2014

Fox Cinema Archives DVD Review: Forever Amber (1947)


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Like the hand-painted pages in an old-fashioned storybook, Forever Amber is a lush Technicolor adaptation of Kathleen Winsor’s eponymous, scandalously sexual 972 paged epic.

Obviously inspired by Scarlett O’Hara, Amber concerns a willful social climber in 17th century England who escapes what she perceives will be a dull life as a farm wife for the first of many affairs and men until she reaches a higher status and title as part of the royal entourage.


Given the sudsy potential of Winsor’s rabid bestseller that in all actuality boasts too much plot to easily capture in a little over two hours, Twentieth Century Fox wasted no time in snapping up the rights of what they hoped would be the next Gone With the Wind.

Replacing not only its original lead (with a sensational Linda Darnell filling in for inexperienced, far too young newcomer Peggy Cummins) but the film’s director as well, Fox pulled out all the stops to ensure that their adaptation of the book that had been banned by the Catholic Church and the Hay’s Code would be worthy of the public’s adoration.

Giving the work a whopping estimated budget of six million dollars, studio bosses kept a close eye on production, substituting Leave Her to Heaven helmer John M. Stahl (after thirty-nine days and three hundred thousand dollars worth of funds had been spent) with Otto Preminger, who not only had a history with Fox but with each successive film had begun branching out to different genres.


Following his work on early screwball comedies (like Danger – Love at Work) to Broadway adaptations (Margin for Error) and Film Noir (Laura), Preminger proved adept at period productions, tackling A Royal Scandal and Centennial Summer for Fox.

Banding together with an impressive group of behind-the-scenes collaborators including the man who’d lensed Stahl’s gorgeous Leave Her to Heaven and would go on to film South Pacific, The King and I, and Cleopatra in the form of Leon Shamroy, Preminger made a staggeringly ambitious, sophisticated sudsy epic that painted Amber in Scarlett O’Hara light, complete with a heartbreaking final shot.

Reuniting with composer David Raskin who’d scored Laura with what is now considered a definitive Noir genre soundtrack, Preminger and Shamroy’s frames inspired Raskin to new heights as his lively, romantic Amber score garnered the musical virtuoso an Oscar nomination.


An easily compelling period work – while admittedly daring in its frank depiction of a morally loose woman – Amber also managed to make us empathize and identify with the self-sufficient and at times coldly ambitious (anti)heroine against the odds.

Given Amber’s multifaceted characterizations that are much more fascinating when viewed through the lens of a different time period, credit is due to its three talented screenwriters who’ve managed to address certain double standards about gender in a surprisingly daring work for its 1947 release date (not to mention its 17th century setting).

Hardly an era of women’s lib, nonetheless Amber’s struggle to reconcile her own needs and wants with her role as a single mother (while the father of her son lives a carefree life free from responsibilities) is touched upon in intriguing ways throughout the film.


While we can’t abide her more manipulative side, all in all, Amber is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t while trying to find her way in a time period where women are defined by their associations with men.

Released during the height of the post-Casablanca/post-WWII women’s weepie subgenre, the film helped foreshadow the popular theme of ‘50s melodramas in which sometimes people don’t live happily ever after. Likewise arguing that there are different societal roles and expectations for each gender, Amber’s rich subtext makes Preminger’s long out-of-print, engrossing epic such a tantalizing find today.

A conflicted, complicated movie with its fair share of conflicted, complicated three dimensional characters, Forever Amber has been given a beautiful high gloss polish to the old Technicolor negatives for this Fox Cinema Archives release.

The latest entry in the studio’s collection of manufactured on demand Preminger titles (following the recent slate of his earliest directorial efforts released at the start of the year), Forever Amber will also be forever remembered for helping give birth to the popularity of its heroine’s name in post-WWII newborns of the baby-boomer generation.


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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: No Clue (2013)


Now Available to Own
   

  
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An affectionately made feature length Film Noir comedy, No Clue initially starts out like a Canadian cross between Andy Richter’s tragically short-lived Andy Barker, P.I. and HBO’s Bored to Death (minus the pot and kink fueled literary scene).

Yet thanks to both the impressive big screen quality technical specs (that elevate the small screen style work from indie obscurity into something much more cinematic) as well as the likability of Brent Butt’s unlikely “Average Joe” turned faux private dick hero Leo Falloon, Clue grows much stronger as it continues and relies on the strength of its own voice.


A small screen sitcom treasure in his native Canada due to the success of his two hit series, Corner Gas– which is likely getting its own feature adaptation – and Hiccups, Butt who produced and starred in No Clue also wrote its banter and Noir homage filled script.

For those (like this reviewer) unfamiliar with Butt's technique, it took awhile to get used to his flat Bob Newhart-like delivery mixed together with the film’s rapid-fire approach.

And while the speed of the dialogue was most likely inspired by screwball comedies popular during the Noir heyday, the more jokes Butt throws at the dartboard, the more bull’s-eyes the former comedian lands onscreen, despite seemingly a bit lost without the audible laughter of a studio or comedy club audience to make him feel more at ease.

Nonetheless, he’s so darn affable and his knowledge of the material is undeniably genuine that it’s relatively easy to hang in there until the film picks up momentum. And that it does, gathering enough speed to threaten to fly off the rails to the point that (despite a wonderfully funny second act), the editor hurries to wrap up the surprisingly complicated mystery in about half the screen time they should’ve allotted to make sure every clue, quote or plot strand was grasped by the viewer.


Needless to say, rather than Hercule Poirot style drawing room speechmaking, exposition and theatrics, No Clue is aiming to comically send up the terse realism of men like Marlowe, Hammer and Spade.

However, when you contrast the fast fact-filled conclusion with the meandering start, you do wish another pass would’ve been taken either at the script stage or in the editing room to ensure the whole thing flowed with as much innovative humor and imagination as we witnessed in its rather terrific second act that left us with little doubt why Butt is a star.

A specialty advertising salesman who deals in key fob, pen and “token” real estate, Butt's Leo is stunned when Amy Smart’s Kyra – “a smoldering tower of nuclear hottitude” – mistakenly walks into his office instead of the private investigator’s suite across the hall.


Emotionally distraught and worried about the whereabouts of her video game designer brother who’s recently gone missing – Leo is soon seduced into helping her against all logic, even if it is laundry night and he only gets machine access on the one night she enlists his help.

While the audience isn’t fooled for a minute that there’s something rotten in Denmark about the manipulative mystery woman, it takes the lovesick pen salesman a bit longer to catch on as he finds himself stumbling into a much bigger Noir mystery of double identities, misinformation and shadowy figures.


From riffs and name drops like (Maltese) Falcon Street and a company named Glass Key (after a terrific Veronica Lake picture of the popular private eye period), Butt’s solid script proves he’s well-versed in the world he’s using as creative fodder.

Likewise from the opening credit sequence that lovingly celebrates the rich tradition of detective thrillers with a creative cartoon pulp fiction comic book style credit sequence and onward, No Clue plays doubly well with Film Noir enthusiasts looking to play Where’s Waldo while spotting influences as they watch.

While it does what it can to avoid the limits of its modest budget, director Carl Bessai relies on his vast experience to turn what could’ve been a borderline B-picture spoof into one that – much like the guy pretending to be Bogart-like – longs to transcend B-status to join the A-crowd.


An official selection from the L.A. Comedy Festival, while the film may begin with a few hiccups and has an ending that flies by so fast that you might just need to take a second look, it’s not only well-made but backed up by a talented supporting cast whose combined energy help you overlook its flaws.

Moreover No Clue proves that in stark contrast to its title, its creator Brent Butt is not only clued into the genre he’s saluting but also eager to serve as a tour guide to take us down its shadowy streets filled with beguiling blondes and corporate cover-ups… laundry night be damned.
   

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Text ©2014, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.