A review of The Aviator (2004)

If you have read the review I had published for Shutter Island, there is a particular section in the article where I cover the topic of cameo appearance. It can be tremendously distracting for me if I recognize too many familiar faces appearing in bit roles.

Are you ever the same way about watching a movie with an excessive amount of familiar faces appearing within it? There are certain instances when the minor appearance is acceptable and I will shrug it off without much thought or further consideration. Any given comedy film is the single most acceptable excuse for an excessive use of the cameo performance, because the desired intention would be to provoke a laugh.

However, a dramatic film is not necessarily the case unless the cameo appearance by a recognizable face is coherent to the story itself. An acceptable example of a dramatic cameo appearance that I am willing to overlook would be the appearance of Hunter S. Thompson in the film adaptation of his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene in which he makes an appearance is an introspective flashback when the main character, who is a fictionalized version of Thompson, visualizes his own self at an old age. Who better to portray Thompson at an older age than Thompson himself? It is relevant to the story and perfectly acceptable.

I would imagine that I am complaining too much about the topic, but it is a roundabout way to point out the irritating distraction I had experienced while watching The Aviator (2004). Too many recognizable faces and names were appearing as minor characters in the film. Were these actors making an appearance because they were given an opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese, the director of the film?

Alternatively, was it just another opportunity to earn an extra day worth of a paycheck? The answer to these questions may never present itself to me directly, but it is an annoying curiosity regardless. Although it is nothing more than a personal pet peeve to play the game of “Name That Face” while watching a film from a highly revered name of film, directing it has not been a complete deterrence from any personal enjoyment. The Aviator is well done and completely entertaining as it currently stands. I doubt there would be anything worthwhile that I would be able to change about the film in which could serve as an improvement.

There is one particular element of the production design, which immediately caught my attention while watching the film. Did anyone else observe the development of the color saturation and hue as the movie progressed through the timeline of the story? During the presentation of the earlier years in the story, the color saturation was a bit off from the usual color palette that we are accustomed to seeing. How often do we see purplish-blue peas?

I am referring to the dinner scene in the nightclub with Howard Hughes, Katherine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, and Johnny Meyer. Here is the video clip in order to observe the color tones that are utilized within the film. Right from the start of the segment, you may notice the purplish blue highlights adding a special glow around the musical performers. The particular hue is similar to the color of the peas that are placed upon the dinner table about a minute and twenty-four seconds into the clip.

Sure, it would be dishonest if I were to deny that I was rest assured about this information by watching the behind-the-scenes features that have been placed on the DVD. However, when I was watching the film in the movie theater I knew there was something going on with the color palette of the film since we never see purplish-blue peas in recently produced films unless it was intentionally produced that way.

The artistic decision to define a particular color palette within the film was designed to resemble the color limitations of the color film developing processes that were available to Hollywood filmmakers during the era in which each scene is set. The movie is more than just a selected color palette, but I did find the technique rather intriguing. Scorsese’s limited use of the color spectrum was a creative choice perfectly fitting for the movie as defined by its relevance to the story contained within it.

The surprising element in the film that caught me a bit off guard was the performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. The last time I remember watching one of his films with an incredibly strong performance was The Basketball Diaries. I would not want to limit his entire career down to just these two movies. He brought so much to the story in several different films with his acting performances. He is a talented actor, which is a fact that cannot be argued against very well.

I am considering that the strongest suits in the production value of the film would be DiCaprio’s performance, Scorsese’s directing, the cinematography, and editing of the movie. It all holds together very well, which allows the story to unfold rather smoothly.


A Review of Shutter Island (2010)

There is a certain appeal about a movie with a story filled with dark thematic elements and a production design that pushes the dark end of a visual scheme. The look and feel of all the elements that are present in a film noir movie is what draws me into watching it with interest. These movies are filmed in such a way that the dark shadows become a character of their own. The dark areas of the screen tend to add a bit of personal depth to the actual characters who reside within the story of the movie. The people have something to hide from the other characters, but they are not upfront about with holding any information.

It would be an intentional device to intertwine the visual style of film noir with that of the personal dark secrets held by the characters within the story. However, the particular method of film noir storytelling is clearly set apart from the visual cousin of the horror film, which also utilizes dark shadows and murderous characters to its advantage. The directive of storytelling between the two styles is as different as night and day. Film noir movies tend to break down the human condition into an allegory, parable, or investigative piece about human behavior.

If a horror film attempts to explain the human condition and behavioral actions of a serial killer, then it would add up to nothing more than a delusion of grandeur. The tools of cinematic production are the same, but the directive of storytelling is different. I am drawn to the directive of the film noir, which holds the dark elements of production design and a story that provokes the audience to contemplate various aspects of human behavior. To describe as plainly as possible, I enjoy a movie that pushes me to use my brain once in awhile instead of purely resting upon the mind-numbing and often boring appeal of scaring the crap out of me for two hours.

The golden era of film noir has been highly treasured during the 1940s, but there is still a strong presence of the genre appearing in contemporary films, including Martin Scorsese’s thriller Shutter Island (2010). The screenplay has been adapted from the bestselling book written by Dennis Lehane who has gained popularity in Hollywood with the cinematic adaptations of his books including Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River.

Perusing through the inventory of cinematic elements appearing in Shutter Island there are several pieces that are classic icons of the traditional film noir story. There is a detective, a criminal villain, questionable ethics from an authoritative figure, and the highly recognizable use of high contrast cinematography. The elements of storytelling through means of behavioral study, which I have already described, are fervently apparent in this film.

The prominent setting for the vast majority of the film is placed within the premises of an institution for the criminally insane. With an enclosed location such as a prison would be a twofold venture that presents the opportunity to serve up an army of criminals who all could be the villain of the story, but they are also monitored by an authoritarian system, who holds an indication of questionable ethics of professionalism. Marking the prison as a holding pen for mentally unstable people is nothing short of an easy target for the observation of human behavior, since every character will bring out their internal animal instincts for survival without any relevance of consideration for morals and ethics to slow them down.

Although the film, and the book as well, makes an honest effort at presenting the story with a twist ending, it was not so cleverly disguised in the final cut of the film. Various elements that would suggest the expectations held by the audience are false pretenses to be destroyed in the third act of the film were sneaking into the story as early as the beginning of the second act.

The lead character, Teddy Daniels, is a United States Marshal hailing from Boston who is assigned to a case that sends him to a remote insane asylum located on an island off the coastline of Massachusetts. He is joined by a fellow Marshal hailing from Seattle, Washington. An early warning sign has flagged Mr. Daniels’ inability to remember simple details about his new found partner such as the city and state from which he lives and works. Regardless if he is able to remember or not the minor details about his partner the audience is not expecting to be concerned over such triviality.

There is one minor detail about the film, which was distracting me. Although it is nothing more than a tiny speck within the grand scheme of the production, I noticed that it was preventing me from being completely immersed in the story.

When there is a large collection of cameo appearances within a film, especially by a group of recognizable faces, I begin to play a game of “Where’s Waldo” by pointing out as many recognizable cameo appearances as possible. This would serve more as a distraction to me than it would be as a positive contribution for the film to draw in a group of high quality talent to produce a valuable production. Many of the cameos are portrayed by character actors, which means I was spending a bit of time wondering which movies I have seen them in before, but unable to completely remember their names.

One particular heavyweight of a distraction in the movie was Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine who portrays the prison warden. His screen time is relatively brief, but he packs quite a memorable impression on the audience with his raspy voice that prattles on the topic of criminally violent behavior. If you have ever watched The Silence of the Lambs (1991) in conjunction with this film you would immediately see the interesting connection between his roles for each film.

Although it is commonly perceived at face value to be a horror film, it is clear to me that Shutter Island would be more intriguing to be watched as film noir more than any other style of cinematic storytelling. I walked away from the movie with a positive experience that I actually enjoyed watching it.

After speaking with an acquaintance I marked the observation that the film is clearly not for everyone’s personal enjoyment. Although it is directed by renowned film director Martin Scorsese, there are some stories that are produced by talented people who are unable to please everyone. After all, it would be worthwhile for me to admit here that I feel like one of the very few people who shrugged off The Departed (2006) as a dull film overburdened by excessive violence.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

To say that it is a film for children would be stating the obvious, but surprisingly the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) was something that I walked away from with a smile on my face. The movie that was produced for kids to enjoy turned out to be a funny movie for the adult crowd as well.

There is an ongoing discussion in several film circles whether the use of 3D projection technology is a mere business gimmick to sell more box office tickets. In my opinion, it is a business tactic, and it has been working successfully. It worked well fifty to sixty years ago, and it works beautifully today. The movie business accountants are smiling abundantly, if it is possible to imagine an accountant even smiling at all. Not very long ago, I remember seeing the trailer for this film and thought it would be interesting to watch, even if it is another 3D gimmick film to rake in the money for the movie studios.

The trailer poignantly displayed the humor within the film and that is what has drawn me in to see the film. Although I was sitting by myself without the benefit of hiding behind the excuse of having a child with me, I discovered myself to be enjoying the story, laughing at several of the jokes, and being impressed by the cool 3D animation effects. It must be said that 3D technology sure has evolved quite a bit since the glamor of its infancy years during the 1950s!

Therefore, it is to be said that the film production department over at Sony Pictures has jumped aboard the train that has been filled with 3D animation goodies and 3D projection effects. They did not want to be left out of the profit race at the box office. The result of the company’s efforts is an animated film about two young people who are a hybrid of the nerd and geek kind.

Flint Lockwood is the typical curious child who would take apart and put back together any mechanical device so that he could figure out how it works. Then after figuring out the mechanics of an invention, he would proceed to create a grandiose invention so extraordinary that it would almost be pointless to use in one’s everyday life. For example, Flint’s ultimate creation is a machine that converts water into soluble food for consumption. In essence, it sounds like something NASA has created for astronauts to use as a means to create food rations on a short supply while floating around in space. When the pair joins in a friendship there is a mystical change in the weather that only the combined geeky talents of the two of them are able to handle.

Flint’s alter (geek) ego is Sam Sparks, who interns for Weather News Channel at the time when the pair first meet. When she was growing up as a child Samantha was a weather nerd. She loved to calculate weather formations, and even requested the “Doppler Radar 3000” (or whatever it was named in the movie) as a birthday present from her parents.

Her super geek power of weather prediction is quite convenient for Flint when his super food producer robot goes on the blitz and starts converting rain clouds into a mass production line of food that pours down in super sized portions. Sam must use her skills to interpret the old school Doppler radar machine to predict when the next wave front of bad weather is going to hit the small community.

The film is a family friendly story that comes with the morale that it acceptable to be yourself even if you are a invention creating nerd or a weather predicting geek. If you just so happen to be one of those types of intellectuals who have a strong passion for engineering or meteorological and atmospheric conditions then there may be a great chance that you could save the world from meteor sized hamburgers and hot dogs!

I must admit that I found the film exciting and enjoyable, in spite of the gimmick use of 3D projection technology, and thought it very entertaining to watch how even the cartoon films seem to have a little fun with the “end of the world” disaster films.

Review: Lions for Lambs (2007)

When Lions for Lambs (2007) was theatrically released I was hesitant to go and watch it, because of the recent erratic and unique behavior of one of the film’s major stars: Tom Cruise. In this film he’s not the solo heavyweight actor who carries the entire production upon his shoulders. Cruise is joined by fellow renowned actors Robert Redford and Meryl Streep who have built their own separate reputations in the heavyweight category of dramatic acting. However, Redford and Streep are clearly separated from the likes of Cruise, because they don’t go around the talk show circuit jumping up and down on couches and claiming that postpartum depression is nothing but a mythical excuse for drug fiends (or something to that affect).

I point this issue out, because I have a hunch that Cruise’s behavior in recent years may have influenced the interest of a lot of people who may otherwise have been sitting in a movie theater watching this film. It doesn’t seem like Lions for Lambs had lasted for very long in the movie theaters., and I cannot remember how long it was running at the local cinema. During it’s opening weekend, the film placed fourth in the top ten weekend earnings, and this was a cause of concern for Tom Cruise. Despite all the press that Cruise had been receiving for his strange behavior, he has a professional ally on his side. Redford vouches for him by publicly announcing positive compliments of Cruise’s professionalism on the set during the film’s production. Bonus points go to Cruise for his work ethics, and an A+ goes to Redford for sucking up to his lead actor.

Despite the awkward reviews from some of the public critics that described it as a film that begins with a promise, but drums on with the same vitality as an Off Broadway theater production that lacks anything of value to say. Personally, I found the film to be an engaging and interesting story. I really could not find anything that I thought would be a tremendous hindrance from the film’s full value and potential as a wonderful fictional story. However, it is a large bite to swallow if the audience is expected to believe that a baby face Tom Cruise would be holding a political chair as a United States Senator, but that would be a statement of belief that is neither here nor there. The character he plays is a politician with a career on its way up the governmental ladder, and he maintains a personality filled with zeal and determination to accomplish lofty goals while he is in office.

The story is one of many new tales that would be spun from the offices of Hollywood moguls and scriptwriters who have found a new source of material in which they could produce their films without pulling another plot device from their pantry filled with stale ideas. The presence of American troops in the Middle East has become old news ever since the declaration of war has been announced in March of 2003. However, it will be used as a source of material for fictional films and documentaries for years to come. Lions for Lambs is another fictional venture into the domain of war stories about the Americans in the Middle East, and it serves as a reminder of how all the previous wars of the last century has spawned several war related films. The decision to create a film based upon a current or previous war is neither bad nor good, but the methodological approach in telling the story could be damaging or a way to improve upon a dire situation.

Speaking only for my own personal interpretation of Lions for Lambs, I believe the film was an entertaining parable of war and differences. It is a film with delusions of grandeur by attempting to include an argument of persuasion that fails to change my own opinion of the war. Remember that I could only relay my own interpretation of the material that is presented in the film, but there were a few times when I felt like I was watching a game of checkers when the characters were pretending to battle in a game of chess. There are two primary arguments that is being debated in the film. Argument A is presented by Senator Jasper Irving (played by Tom Cruise) who wants to initiate a new plan of long term sustainability in the Middle East with the highly visible American troops lingering around. The experienced television journalist Janine Roth (played by Meryl Streep) compares his plan to that of the Roman Empire, but he disagrees with her assessment.

Argument B is presented by collegiate professor Dr. Stephen Malley who is trying to convince an underachieving student that the future of the country rests in the hands of the next generation. In his argument he presents the true fact that a large portion of the volunteers that join the ranks of the American military are recruits from the lower economic classes and the American ghettos. Within the same breath he points out the fact of complacency from the privileged youth, such as the underachieving student, who feels comfortable with his current status in life and doesn’t feel obliged to take a strong stand for his personal beliefs. In both arguments there are two players who are either arguing for his or her side or trying to disprove the argument of their opponent. As each person takes a turn with a rebuttal argument there are big words and ideas that are thrown around, but nothing really seems to make a strong impression on me.

Hopefully, my review is not misunderstood to be a disapproval of the film’s quality as an enthralling and entertaining story. My experience within the field of professional debating is practically non-existent. But just like the rhythm of a written song, any argument could be felt and heard by the untrained ear. It is with practice and experience that a person could be able to nitpick the fine talking points of an argument to find its weaknesses. There is something that is missing in the two arguments that are presented in the film that would fulfill the primary purpose that every argument should accomplish if it is created and performed correctly. The main purpose of an argument is to persuade the listener over to the side of the speaker and reinforce the beliefs of its existing supporters. I was neither won over by the strengths of the given arguments in the film, nor was I deterred to swing in the direction of the opposing side. At certain points in the film I would agree with some of the talking points, while I disagreed with other valuable counterpoints. However, there was nothing about either argument that stood out with a strong arm and dragged me into taking action for either side.

Setting aside the weakness of the arguments I would like to point out that the film’s story was placed together well and I was highly entertained when I watched it. It may seem rather unusual to be describing my experience with this film as sheer moment of entertainment, but that is the only way I could describe the experience. The editing was smooth enough to keep the viewer up to speed during the transitions between the three main stories that occur in the film without loosing the pace between the growing intensity of the arguments between the characters. It’s a talkie film with a couple of scenes of war action, so it may have several dull moments in it for those viewers who are adjusted to watching action films. With everything summarized into a nicely wrapped conclusion I would like to give this film a comfortable eight points out of ten possible. It deserves the rating for its skills of presentation, but it needs a little more help in the realm of persuasion.

A Critique of Three Comedic Films

There are three films that I have recently watched that I thought would be in the best interest to write about their commonality. These three comedy films are best associated with the artistic nature and history of the directors who have helmed each one. These four directors, listed alongside their respective film titles, are Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading (2008), Frank Capra, It Happened One Night (1934), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amélie (2001).

Each of these four filmmakers has earned equal recognition amongst their peers and from the movie theater attendees. There are a combined total of seven wins and seven nominations for the Oscar awards that have been accredited to this group of directors for their work in filmmaking [awards statistics provided by IMDb.com]. The Coen brothers, in particular, have earned two of their four Oscar awards for writing the screenplays of the films in which they also have directed.

Although the four filmmakers have a varying degree of cinematic success each one has proven a running history of similar artistic styles. Frank Capra, for example, has only produced a single box office flop in his career leading up to 1938. By this point in his career he had already directed several films that revolve around a comedy of errors and characters that are social underdogs and underclassmen. The Coen brothers have established a career in dark comedies that include violent scenes intermixed with moments of witty dialogue and behavioral farce. The brothers have had their share of career highs and lows, but the artistic themes within their films have remained constant. Then there is the famous French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who helmed the cult classic films Delicatessen (1991) and Amélie (2001). With the addition of the American science-fiction and action film Alien: Resurrection (1997) to his list of credits there is cinematic evidence for his talent to create and instill dark visual film style. Each one of the filmmakers has all dabbled in stories of comedy whether it is through the humor of behavior or with intellectual wit. The dark presence amongst their stories invokes the dark reality of the real world. Even in Capra’s epic film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) there is the presence of suicide at the beginning of the film.

The sadistically dark humor appears in Burn After Reading which is presented as a slapstick comedy, but only in a Cohen film would the characters be brutally murdering each other with axes and guns as they are fumbling around with their own personal fallacies which are humorous to the viewing audience. With the obsessive compulsive behavior of Harry Pfarrer who desires to build the perfect sex toy machine at a cut rate price, or Chad Feldheimer’s fascination with saying the name Osborne Cox over and over again. The viewing audience finds their behaviors amusing, but would the laughter arise during the tense scene in which Osborne Cox is chasing Ted Treffon down the street in order to brutally bash his head in with the sharp blade of metal? The sadistic artistic style of the Cohen brothers has blended the right mixture of humor with criminal behaviors that would keep the viewers attuned to watching the film unfold before them.

In opposition to the brutality of the Cohen’s cinematic storytelling there lies its romantic counterpart that relies more upon the positive emotions and feelings of love and happiness more than upon evil behavioral actions. Amélie obtains its comedic style through romantic and social interactions between the characters. The characters are attempting to resolve their own personal desires to obtain the most perfect of happy endings through a meaningful connection of a romantic relationship. During each of the personal adventures of each one of the characters they blindingly struggle through their own personal discrepancies that hinder them from noticing the solution to their deepest of romantic desires. The comedy that is derived from the film is produced from the idea that the characters have the best of intentions, but their own desires and actions are hindering them from observing the reality of their situation. The unique visual form of storytelling that Jeunet has created for this film helped the audience emotionally connect with the characters.

The visual elements that appear in the film include the use of cinematography (such as color saturation and camera angles) along side with the use of editing that leads the audience along to interpret the non-verbal reactions of the characters who are responding to any action off the screen. One particular example of the visual style would be the moment in which Amélie discovers the true identity of the bald guy who has appeared in several of the photo booth film strips. Her reaction of surprise is apparently displayed on her face as she watches him exit from a photo booth, but the viewer is refrained from discovering his true identity until later in the film’s story line. This form of storytelling was used as an editing device to prolong the desire of curiosity as long as possible so that the audience would share the similar desire of curiosity that the main character would feel during the progression of the film’s plot.

It Happened One Night is filled with wonderfully written intellectually witty dialogue that has been spawned from the moral codes that the production companies have abide to during the 1930s that barred them from using any profane material in the films that were produced for the general public. The on going joke with the Walls of Jericho being represented by a plain bed sheet implied the moral well being of the characters who held the utmost of intentions to abstain from any sexual interactions between each other, but the use of a bed sheet as a physical separation between the two of the characters serves nothing more than a comedic piece of irony. As the film progresses through its course the two main characters are sexually drawn to each other through their intellectual banter, but a bed sheet is the only thing that separates the pair from seeing each other when they retire to their beds for the night.

The use of comedy is apparent in all three films, but they are clearly differentiated from each other depending upon the unique artistic style and tone of the film’s directors. One set of directors would prefer to invoke a laugh from the audience shortly after they bear witness to a murder scene, while another director would thrive upon the audience’s response to the visual interactions between the characters, and the last director would presume the purely intellectual approach that would require the characters to spit out witty verbal responses that would be sparred between the characters quicker than the fire from a machine gun rattle.

The three separate films have proven that an filmmaker can begin with the concept of telling a story with a bit of humor, but each one of them has utilized a different method in which to portray how the message is perceived by the audience. In every instance the audience should respond with a hearty laugh and a good nature feeling about the film they are watching, but it is with a unique formula in which the story has been created that would serve the interested of the audience. Not every single viewer would enjoy the bloody violence of Burn After Reading, but that same person would be satisfied with watching a romantic comedy film like Amélie or a witty classic film such as It Happened One Night.

The directors for the three films have already established a clear style for the methods in which they are willing to portray a story regardless of the genre in which it would be connected. It is their method of storytelling that draws the same viewers to their films over and over again, because there is an established relationship between the storyteller and the listener that is cemented by the common ground that they share in similar tastes in entertainment style.