AFI Film Fest Roundup 2013
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
As AFI Festival Director (since 2010) Jacqueline Lyanga says, “the viewing of art should not be a privilege” and that is why the festival, one of the best in the world (and certainly my favorite) is always free to the audience. Sponsored by Audi this year, there’s an amazing array of gratis screenings to choose from.

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This year’s artistic director is Agnès Varda. Before the French New Wave, there was Varda. “The filmmaker created a visual language that merged documentary style with imaginative camera work, wrote L.A. Mag columnist, Drew Tewksbury. “Exploring feminist and realist themes since the 1950s, she deftly mixes playful elements with profound metaphors.” In addition to being enmeshed in this year’s AFI, she’s got an exhibit on hand at the nearby LACMA museum. (Varda Loves L.A.)

AFI went so far as to incorporate imagery from Varda’s 1961 film “Cléo From 5 to 7” into their posters and presentation video (which makes great use of The Doors’ L.A.-centric song, “The Changeling”).


Also on hand for presentations and Q&As are famed filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Steve McQueen (pictured below with AFI Festival Director Jacqueline Lyanga), as well as star power along the lines of Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson (who were on hand to present their new film “Saving Mr. Banks” at one of the gala screenings).

There is everything from corny cannibal horror to classic New Wave, and lots in-between. As always, AFI Fest offers a fantastic mix of art-house dramas, Hollywood blockbusters (pre-release), documentaries, socio-political eye-openers, costume spectacles, and earnest indies (many of which are the product of crowd-funding).

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I missed a few on my list of to-do’s this year, but here’s a peek at what I did see:


“Blue Ruin”
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(2013, USA, Thriller, Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)

When an aimless beach bum finds out that the killer of his parents is being released from prison, he swings into action to wreak bloody revenge. He gets his man, but what he doesn’t count on is the loyalty and solidarity of the con’s well-armed and very pissed-off family. Excellently-acted, beautifully shot and deliberately-paced to nail-biting perfection, “Blue Ruin” takes a deserved place in the pantheon of no-holds-barred revenge thrillers. Fans of Chan Wook-Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” will especially enjoy this flick. (And do yourselves a big favor: watch “Blue Ruin” instead of the odious “Oldboy” remake.)


“Cléo From 5 to 7”
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(1961, France, Drama, Directed by Agnès Varda)

A chronicle of minutes that make up a possibly doomed pop singer’s life, “Cléo From 5 to 7” is a buoyant blend of vivid vérité and marvelous melodrama. In France, the afternoon hours from five to seven are known as the time when covert lovers meet, but in this afternoon nothing could be further from the truth as Cléo awaits possibly fatal test results from her doctor. While the subject matter seems heavy, the movie is light as soufflé and as easy to absorb. It offers brilliant insight on how inner beauty affects outer beauty and whether or not the two can be mutually exclusive. The locations, costumes, and fantastic cinematography and editing present a time-capsule of pure wow.


“Congratulations!”
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(2012, USA, Comedy, Directed by Mike Brune)

When 8 year-old Paul Ryan Gray goes missing from the living room of his own home during a party for his older brother’s graduation party, Detective Dan Skok of the Missing Persons Bureau and his team of investigators move into ‘the scene of the crime’ and launch an investigation from its source: the Gray family house. Never straying from the property lines, the defective detectives paste ‘missing’ posters all over the house, search under the beds and behind the curtains, and – on occasion – call the boy’s name. An oddball mystery to be sure, this is the kind of flick that will appeal to fans of absurdist comedy along the lines of Monty Python or Kids in the Hall and who enjoy the antics of clueless detectives like “Sledge Hammer!” or “Andy Barker, P.I.”


“Congress, The”
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(2013, Isreal/Germany, Sci-Fi/Semi-Animated, Directed by Ari Folman)

Featuring an all-star cast, “The Congress” merges live-action drama and pseudo animé  sci-fi. It’s about an aging, out-of-work actress who decides to sign away her forever-young digital image for a future Hollywood, but once her 20-year contract is up she learns the true impact of her vain decision. While the sociopolitical aspects of the film are undeniably interesting, it’s an entertaining but ultimately uneven and unfulfilling experience at best.


“Documenteur: An Emotion Picture”
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(1981, France/USA, Drama, Directed by Agnès Varda)

A naturalistic, understated cinema vérité,  “Documenteur” follows a French woman who, separated from her lover and getting by as freelance typist, struggles to find a place in L.A. for herself and her young son. Not a lot happens in the film; it’s mostly musings and the cacophony of monotony of day-to-day life, yet there is a spiritedness in the work that’s quite unique to its director, Agnès Varda. It’s also quite a treat to see the so-alive Los Angeles locations as they were in the very early 1980s. From the expansive hand-painted murals of Downtown to the gentle rolling of the Pacific Ocean of Venice, it’s all about the big picture as seen through the eyes of an ordinary woman.


“Gloria”
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(2013, Chile, Drama, Directed by Sebastián Lelio)

Gloria is a middle-aged divorcée trying to remain vibrant and viable, but it’s hard when no one really seems to need – or even notice – her. First seen picking up casual dance dates at a local disco, Gloria eventually forms a steady relationship with one of them. All too soon she finds herself entangled in her boyfriend’s inability to extract himself from the ruins of his previous marriage, as her own grown children and ex-husband become even more distant from her. While there’s a lot to draw from here, there was perhaps too much Lelio found precious; a sagging center had me leaving the theater for another screening before I could see how it all ended.


“Green Inferno, The”
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(2013, USA, Horror, Directed by Eli Roth)

The story follows a group of privileged New York college kids who go off to the Amazon rain forest to show their seriousness about activism – one is motivated by fame, one to bring attention to barbaric practices played out by the native tribes, while another is interested only in the killer pot. Little do they know, they destined for a ‘killer pot’ of another kind when they encounter a tribe of bloodthirsty and flesh-famished cannibals. (Read more of my report for Fangoria magazine at their website). Fans of Roth might eat this up, but I consider myself in that camp and I was actually pretty disappointed. It’s been 6 years since Roth’s last foray behind the camera, making it even more of a shame he has not evolved or grown as a screenwriter or filmmaker since his 2004 debut, “Cabin Fever.” Characters from “Cabin Fever” or “Hostel” or “Hostel II” could have been slotted into “The Green Inferno” or vice versa, and no one would be the wiser.


“Herblock - The Black & The White”
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(2013, USA, Documentary, Directed by Michael Stevens)

Political cartoonist Herbert Block’s career at The Washington Post spanned 55 years and 13 presidents, a timeframe in which he claimed three Pulitzer Prizes, the Medal of Freedom and a significant role in President Nixon’s resignation. Gwen Ifill, Ben Bradlee, Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ted Koppel and Jon Stewart are among the witnesses to Block’s life, work and indelible contribution to American satire in this very informative and well-made documentary. Although a lot of it is talking heads, I was never once bored: the editing and presentation are every bit as dynamic as the anecdotes.


“Jodorowsky's Dune”
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(2013, USA/France, Documentary, Frank Pavich)

It is not necessary to be familiar with French-Chilean cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky to enjoy this lively doc about ‘the greatest movie never made’ – what was to be an epic, experimental sci-fi cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel “Dune.” Set to roll in a pre-“Star Wars” early 1970s, the film became a victim of its own unprecedented grandiosity. Director David Lynch would later go on to do the Hollywood version, while midnight movie maverick Jodorowsky would continue to steep himself in relatively obscure arty endeavors. Admirers of quixotic quests (not to mention fans of “Lost in La Mancha”) will thrill to the ecstasy and the agony of dreams dreamt and then dashed. Fortunately, the film’s not a downer and there’s nothing more charming than the interviews with the now 80-something year old auteur himself. A must-see for filmmakers, aficionados, dreamers, doers and ‘warriors’ of all ilk.


“Little Black Spiders”
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(2012, Belgium, Drama, Directed by Patrice Toye)

Set in 1978 and set in a secret Catholic home for unwed mothers, we follow the tale of winsome, bookish Katja. Some of the entrenched teens want to put their mistake behind them as soon as possible, but Katja, herself an orphan, longs to have her little baby. She dreams of a life with the married literary teacher with whom she fell in love, writing him a series of naïve, unsent letters as she awaits the birth of their child. During the long wait, the girls share each other’s ups and downs, form friendships and amuse themselves with whatever distractions they can. One fateful day the bubble bursts, and Katja becomes aware of the plans that the nuns are making behind their backs. More a dreamy coming of age drama than baby-stealing suspenser, “Little Black Spiders” nonetheless managers to present an ending that’s harrowing, gripping, and effective.


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“Marriage of Maria Braun, The”
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(1979, West Germany, Drama, Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Taking place during the fallout of World War II, a young bride tries to cope with poverty and loneliness in the wake of her soldier husband’s presumed death. This is the first film in Fassbinder’s famed “BRD Trilogy” (though it does no harm to see them out of order), and we follow this blonde bombshell’s sense of survival as she ruthlessly does anything and everything to rise above the rubble. While the film is somewhat turgid in places, it’s still wonderful to behold on the big screen.


“Mary Queen of Scots”
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(2013, Swiss, Drama, Directed by Thomas Imbach)

Her tale is one I never tire of – I’ve read several books on the subject of the tragic Queen, and enjoyed many a melodrama. While this version brings nothing new to the table in terms of storytelling or style, “Mary Queen of Scots” is enjoyable enough for both the completest and the casual costume drama fan. Its leads are well-cast, and the story is told in a straightforward fashion (except for a through-line of puppet-populated dream sequences which quickly wear out their welcome).


“Selfish Giant, The”
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(2013, UK, Drama, Directed by Clio Barnard)

In a contemporary reworking of the titular story by Oscar Wilde, we follow the illegal exploits of Brits on the breadline. Thirteen year old Arbor and his best friend Swifty have been expelled from school, are all but abandoned by their poor and ignorant parents, and have no talents other than stealing and horsemanship. When the boys meet Kitten, a local scrap-dealer and street horse-racer, what little innocence the youngsters have left is exploited, transformed, and leads to a tragic event which is shocking as it is poignant. Deftly directed, Barnard’s film gives just as much credence to quiet dialogue scenes as it does to a danger-fraught harness pace-race that’s reminiscent of Ben Hur on a budget.


“Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, The”
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(2013, Belgium, Horror/Suspense, Directed by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)

From the makers of “Amer” and “O is for Orgasm” comes an even more bizarre fever dream mixing elements of psychedelic giallo (“The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh”), spousal paranoia (“Possession”), and architecturally-aware suspense (“Suspiria”, “The Tenant”). In “The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears”, we follow – or rather, try to keep up with – a man whose wife has gone missing and is presumed dead. Maybe murdered. Style rules over substance here, and what style it is! Breathtaking Art Nouveau curves blend seamlessly with shapely nude bodies and women’s tendrils and tresses while razors, knives and strangling hands in black leather gloves provide bloody mayhem that’s good to the last drop.


“Stranger by the Lake”
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(2013, France, Thriller, Directed by Alain Guiraudie)

At a remote waterfront cruising spot for men, Franck falls for Michel but Michel is already spoken for. Our protagonist pines for a few days, watching from afar. One night, he witnesses Michel drowning his lover… he is shocked, but his desire for this dangerous man overrides any sense of personal safety, and the two men begin an affair. (Read my entire review at the Fangoria magazine website.)


Until next year… that’s my AFI Fest fun! [read my 2012 Round-up here]

November's DVD Delights and Blu-ray Bounties
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
This week’s peeks: Mad Men Season 6, Dexter Season 8, and all seasons of The Twilight Zone!

Much as I love film (yes, I say that with all the Fellini’esque pretention you can imagine), a great TV series can rock my world. While The Twilight Zone predates me, I caught up as a tot in re-run heaven. I’ve seen them all. As for Dexter and Mad Men, I’ve been right there with Mr. Morgan and Don Draper from their very first small screen appearances.

Mad Men really is an unprecedented show in its depiction of a bygone era… it’s not just about the highballs, slick suits and crisp crinolines; the attitudes and morés of the 1960s – moving from the upright 50s to the swingin’ 60s -- are captured in a deep, humanistic and believable way, as seen through the eyes of mysterious ad exec Don Draper (John Hamm). Through the years, we’ve seen Don happily married, then divorced, on top of the Madison Avenue heap, and toppled off it, married again, and reassessing his life as he ages and becomes less relevant in a world in which no-one over 30 is to be trusted. But let’s face it: could Don Draper ever be trusted?

Now we’re on the penultimate season. (Looks like the roll-out of Season 7 will be split in two. "Season 7 A" will debut in 2014, and a "7 B" in 2015, each comprised of seven episodes.) It’s 1968, and Don is still married to Megan, but bristling at her burgeoning career as a soap opera star. Though he once gave Peggy, a lowly secretary, a chance at being an ad-gal – and not only did she succeed, she became his competitor – Don’s still in the stone-age when it comes to women’s lib. All around him, the world is in flux and upheaval: from the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce merger, to his shameless sexual affair with the next door neighbor, to the bigger picture things such as the assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s a slow-starter, but once Mad Men Season 6 begins to cook, it practically burns.

DVD Release Date: November 5, 2013

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Dexter Season 8 (The Final Season)

While I didn’t hate the final season of Dexter as most diehard fans, I still do find it pretty disappointing. Especially the last episode, “Remember the Monsters”. And even more specially, the last two minutes of the show.

Looking on the bright side, I loved the fact that the incomparable Charlotte Rampling was a key character throughout the season and also that Hanna (Yvonne Strahovski) returns and plays a major role. The Deb/Dexter dynamic is disappointing, but we already saw that coming in Season 7.

No spoilers here, and I do recommend the disc for completists. Just don’t go into it expecting the old black magic.

DVD Release Date: November 5, 2013

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The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series

Travel to another dimension of sight and sound again and again through these rockin’ remastered high-definition film transfers of all 156 episodes.

Season 1 boasted some of the most essential episodes: "Time Enough at Last" starring Burgess Meredith as a bespectacled bookworm who is the lone survivor of an atomic explosion; "After-Hours" starring Anne Francis as a department store shopper haunted by menacing mannequins; and "A World of His Own," starring Keenan Wynn as a playwright whose characters come to life. Season 2 has some of my faves as well: "Eye of the Beholder" in which a disfigured woman undergoes plastic surgery; "Night of the Meek," where a department store Santa Claus gets a chance to perform the real St. Nick's duties; and "Long Distance Call" which is about a little boy who can talk to his deceased grandma on his toy telephone.

The show never really lost its edge, and its universal themes stand the test of time, but when season 4 debuted, the format changed from 30 minutes to an hour – sometimes less is more, as many of the subsequent episodes lack the consistent punch of earlier seasons. Drained by three seasons of consistent creativity, Serling and Buck Houghton vacated their roles as producers (but Serling stayed on as host and sometime writer). Still the final two seasons feature some of the most memorable and enduring actors -- Jack Klugman, Robert Duvall, and Burt Reynolds to name just a few.

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Special Features

Excerpts from Rod Serlings’s Audio Lectures at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College
Audio Commentaries by Martin Landau, Don Rickles, Cliff Robertson, Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, Bill Mumy, Leonard Nimoy, Mickey Rooney, Mariette Hartley and more

Video Interviews with Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, Jr. and more

Vintage Audio Recollections with Buck Houghton, Buzz Kulik, Douglas Heyes, Lamont Johnson, Burgess Meredith and more

Isolated Music Scores featuring the legendary Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Fred Steiner and more

Rod Serling Promos for “Next Week’s” Show

Rare Rod Serling Appearances: The Liar’s Club, The Mike Wallace Interview, The Garry Moore Show, Tell It To Groucho, The Jack Benny Show and more

Highlights from the Museum of Television and Radio Seminar



DVD Release Date: November 19, 2013



 

My day with Michael Fassbender & Brad Pitt
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Although I actually have had a day with Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender (when I did interviews for articles I’d written on Inglorious Basterds), my title here is more figurative than literal.

I was lucky enough to see two movies in one day featuring these two actors. What’s more, they turned out to be two of the best movies I’ve seen all year! Does it get any better than that? Read on.

The Counselor

What’s it about? A respected lawyer's one-time flirtation with an illegal business deal spirals out of  control. Like a John Grisham tale, but with a lot more edge, this story plays out with nail-biting intensity, black humor, shocking violence, and heartbreaking consequence.

Where’s Michael? Michael Fassbender is the lead actor, as the Counselor. He’s in nearly every scene and he carries the movie splendidly. It’s among his very best work.

Where’s Brad? Brad Pitt plays Westray, a laconic ageing lothario who knows it’s time to get out of the shady biz, but just can’t resist the senoritas.

Why Should I See It? It’s written by Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses, The Road, No Country for Old Men), and it’s directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster). Cameron Diaz makes love to a yellow Ferrari, and shares a bed with a cheetah. Need I say more?




12 Years A Slave

What’s it about? Taking place in the 1800s and based on the writings of Solomon Northup, this powerful true story is that of a free, well-educated black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into Southern slavery. After enduring cruelty at the hands of a malevolent and mentally unstable slave owner, in the 12th year of his ordeal, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist forever alters his fate.

Where’s Michael? Michael Fassbender is the sinister slavemaster with whom Solomon spends most of his incarceration.

Where’s Brad? Brad Pitt is the kindly abolitionist.

Why Should I See It? Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Soloman is pure Oscar gold. And not in a manipulative way, at all. 12 Years a Slave is this year’s Amour, in terms of difficult, yet ultimately poignant and truly realistic subject matter.



Dean Martin Celebrity Roast-Collector’s Edition DVD Boxed Set Review
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson


A warning on the package cautions that the racial and ethnic humor of the era may be deemed inappropriate by today’s standards. ”Keep in mind the tenor of the times, the bawdy party atmosphere, and the fact that many of these celebrities were friends who loved to give and take a good shot.  The cigarettes are real, the drinks are free, and the camaraderie is heartfelt.”

I disagree with that warning. Just a few weeks ago, I tuned in for the one on Comedy Central honoring James Franco. It was hilarious. And totally politically incorrect: it was rife with racist jokes, sexual innuendoes, pokes at drug and alcohol abuse, and shocking, lewd humor in general.

From a quick review of this hefty boxed set (looks more like a case of bootlegger’s whisky than a DVD bounty!), I am happy to say the original players are every bit as funny as today’s comedic whippersnappers. Hosted by renaissance drunk Dean Martin, the Celebrity Roast marks the first televised instance of what had been a naughty, and quite exclusive send up of honorees, by the Friar’s Club. The first episode of Martin’s show, done before a live audience in Las Vegas, aired in 1973 and it went strong for many years.

dean martin boxed setThis new DVD set features roasts honoring Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Jimmy Stewart, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Kirk Douglas, Michael Landon, Jackie Gleason, Don Rickles, Joan Collins, Ronald Reagan, Betty White, and many more.  Guests include Muhammad Ali, George Burns, Florence Henderson, Bette Davis, Phyllis Diller, and Milton Berle.  The DVD set also includes lots of extras, with bonus comedy sketches, two more Dean Martin specials, featurettes, interviews, and home movies. Plus a Dean Martin action figure!

The first chapter I watched further illustrates how “the more things change, the more they stay the same” – as Betty White currently has a hit TV show on the air, and it’s she who was being roasted in this 1977 episode and also had a hit TV show on the air. Roasting her were Red Buttons, Jimmie Walker, Charlie Callas, La Wanda Page, Orson Welles, Milton Berle, Foster Brooks, Bonnie Franklin, Rich Little, Georgia Engel, John Hillerman, Dan Haggerty, Abe Vigoda, Peter Marshall, Phyllis Diller, and her husband Alan Ludden. Much merriment was made of Betty’s love of animals and her spay and neuter crusade which extended even to “the animal crackers at my dinner party!” Ludden, famous as the host of the popular game shows, jokingly said he had to sit up and beg before she would marry him. "Then on our honeymoon, she rolled over and played dead!"

Overall, it’s a really fun set. I honestly don’t know how I could ever manage to watch all the episodes (even after a few, the jokes feel recycled), but it would be great to have on at parties or playing while you’re busy with chores. I’ve been watching bits and pieces of these roasts on YouTube, and this is much, much better. The quality is excellent.


Prisoners Movie Review
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Originally published by Yahoo! Movies

You will feel the cold in your bones are you watch “Prisoners” -- a revenge saga which takes place during a particularly wet and snowy late fall in Pennsylvania -- thanks to chilly cinematography by Roger Deakins, a shivery score by Icelandic composer Johan Johannsson, and especially to an icy, unrelenting performance by Hugh Jackman as the distraught parent of a missing child.
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Facing their nastiest nightmare, two couples are forced to find out what they’re made of when their two little girls, ages 6 and 7, go missing after Thanksgiving dinner. Keller (Jackman) goes on the attack, while his wife (Maria Bello) retreats into a fog of pills and bedcovers; Franklin (Terrence Howard) bends with the breeze, while Nancy (Viola Davis) is the only truly rational one.

Dropping into this dynamic is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who must straddle three worlds: that of his work, those of the families, and the dark mind of the suspect. Make that, suspects. However, the first one is troubled soul Alex (Paul Dano), who has the IQ of a 10-year-old but the brute strength of an able young man. When he’s released due to lack of evidence, and the girls are not soon found, things spiral out of control.

There are pointed questions of morality thrown about, obliging the audience to put themselves into the respective shoes of its cast of characters. On that level, “Prisoners” works wonderfully. There are some truly gripping, nail-biting scenes of intense suspense. On that level, “Prisoners” works wonderfully. There’s a mystery, red-herrings, cover-ups and slip-ups, adding layers of texture. On that level, “Prisoners” works wonderfully. Unfortunately, all this wonderful is nearly undermined by a plot which is worthy only of a low-budget horror movie (all they needed was a lesser cast and more blood). Going off the rails in the loopiest of twists, complete with an arch confession-monologue out of something akin to a Perry Mason suspect in a “Saw” movie, “Prisoners” really is nothing more than a popcorn flick all dressed up as a full course meal.

But that’s OK. It’s still highly entertaining and at 2-1/2 long, you’ll certainly get your money’s worth at the movies.


Rush Movie Review
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Originally published by Yahoo! Movies

Director Ron Howard has gotten Oscar attention for two movies: A Beautiful Mind (won), and Frost/Nixon (nominated). Both of these films had strong central, interlocking characters which can only be described as “frenemies.” Each man’s inner-strength was spurred by, and depended on, his counterpart. In A Beautiful Mind, Ed Harris’ shadowy William Parcher mentally tangos with brilliant madman John Forbes Nash Jr., (Russell Crowe) using and abusing his illness, yet driving the mathematician to greater heights. In Frost/Nixon, the psych-outs are quieter, more calculated and chess-like. It’s check/checkmate, as Frank Langella and Michael Sheen go head-to-head for their respective reputations.

chris-hemsworth-rushThis formula for success, if you’ll pardon the pun, is abundantly evident in Howard’s Formula 1 racing movie, Rush. Not only is it based on (and quite faithful to) a true story like those other two movies, but it’s also cast impeccably.

Taking place in the swinging 70s, we follow two speed racers: one a playboy, the other playing-it-safe. Chris Hemsworth’s hedonistic London-lad good looks, complete with blonde hair in a shag (so to speak) and blue eyes mischievous enough to evaporate women’s underwear in a glance, makes him picture perfect as James Hunt. His counterpart is Niki Lauda: Austrian, straitlaced, stone-faced, and far more interested in wheels than women. He’s portrayed flawlessly by Daniel Brühl, who manages to bring a human heart to the frostily reserved exterior. Major kudos must also go to Howard, for revealing these men’s personalities little by little through their private relationships, their public rivalry in the press, their personal enmity on the track. Each had a completely different approach, yet they were both successful. But we all know: there can be only one winner.
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Set against the sexy and glamorous golden age of Grand Prix racing, Howard, along with his DP Anthony Dod Mantle (who usually works with Danny Boyle, and also shot the sumptuous Antichrist for Lars Von Trier), bring this world to life in a very real, yet heightened, manner with sin-soaked color saturation, racecars in blurs, and steely-eyed determination in sharp focus. What’s more, the soundtrack, peppered with the hits of the day (Bowie’s “Fame” is especially well-placed), doesn’t overtake Hans Zimmer’s unusually restrained score.

Yes, it’s formulaic; but thrillingly so. Yes, it’s more accessible than arty; but it’s still a handcrafted film. When James and Niki are pushed to the breaking point of physical and psychological endurance, we feel it… and see it. Rush may not have the gravitas to be a truly great film, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Bonus Review: Empire State

Can’t get enough Hemsworth-in-a-true story? Check out Chris’ brother Liam in Empire State, new on Blu-ray and DVD. Don’t be fooled by Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson taking the forefront on the box cover, and don’t think twice about exploding armored security truck on the back. Empire State is actually a more dramatic thriller and is less about shoot-em-ups than it is about how greed can affect friendships and family. Hemsworth plays Chris Potamitis, a real-life security guard, who was part of the largest cash heist in U.S. history (roughly $11 million).

chris-hemsworth-liam-hemsworthTold mostly through Chris' point of view, as we see how easy it is to let outer influences get in the way of common sense. In this case, the main catalysts are Chris’ BFF, lowlife New York hustler Eddie (Michael Angarano, bringing to mind a younger Sam Rockwell), and Chris’ honest, hard-working dad, Jimmy (Paul Ben-Victor) who loses his job after working hard all his life. The money will make a huge difference in each of their their lives… not to mention, the local mobsters and the cops (namely Det. James Ransone, played very well by The Rock, in a non-showy role).

While Empire State doesn’t quite come together in terms of character development and motivation, it’s still a well-acted, fun-setting period piece (New York in the 70s… a different world!), and it’s a kick to see the real Chris Potamitis at the end.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire Burns White-Hot with Katniss and Her Wedding Gown
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Originally published for my “Fashion in Film Beat” at Yahoo! Movieszoetic trish summerville

The sequel to “The Hunger Games” – which grossed nearly $700 million worldwide – promises to be on every best-dressed list in Tinsel Town!

In the hotly anticipated fantasy action thriller, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” begins as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returns home safe after winning the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Along with fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), she must prepare the 75th Annual Hunger Games (The Quarter Quell) - a competition that could change their land of Panem forever.  hunger games catching fire costumes

Along with a whole new set of cinematic challenges and a new director (Francis Lawrence, best-known for Constantine and I Am Legend), “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” features a whole different look from costume designer Trish Summerville, who’s worked with the likes of Christina Aguilera and whose film credits include “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

When I caught up with both Lawrences – Francis and Jennifer – at a recent red carpet event, I just had to ask about Katniss’ wedding gown… which is breathtaking, to say the least.

Staci Wilson: Are there even more outrageous fantasy costumes in the new movie?

Francis Lawrence: Yeah, there’s a lot. We brought on a fantastic costume designer, Trish Somerville, who I’d worked with before in music videos. She came from a fashion and styling background so we brought her on and she did loads and loads of great stuff. I mean, there’s some really amazing dresses that Effie wears, and Trish even got some Alexander McQueen museum pieces for Katniss to wear in the chariots, and for the interviews, [not to mention] the wedding dress and the Mocking Jay dress. So, to answer your question: there’s loads of fun costumes in this!

Q: How much input do you have in something like that, with the costumes?

Francis Lawrence: A lot. But it all sort of starts with me wanting to bring Trish on, so you know, I know the kind of level of taste and sophistication that she brings, and so that’s making a big decision right there. And then in the early conversations with her, talking about certain kinds of things that we both like that we thought that we could use. Someone as talented as she is, I kind of let her run with it and then just make little changes, specifically if it has to do with story.
Q: Or practicality.

Francis Lawrence: Yeah. Well, sometimes practicality. That gets tricky. The wedding dress was pretty impractical. Jen was falling a lot in it.

Jennifer Lawrence: Yeah, the wedding dress was incredible, it’s stunning and unbelievable, I’m not good with big dresses, and stairs. I didn’t know that until afterwards, I wish I would have known! [laughs]the-hunger-games-catching-fire

I recently discovered that NET-A-PORTER, one of the biggest luxury fashion and beauty retailers on the Web, is featuring an exclusive capsule collection inspired by the movie. Created by costume designer Trish Summerville herself, “Capitol Couture” features laser-cut leather, streamlined silhouettes and dramatic eveningwear.

The luxury clothing line “Capitol Couture by Trish Summerville” consists of 16 ready-to-wear garments, as well as jewelry and leather goods inspired by “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”. The collection will be available exclusively on NET-A-PORTER this fall to coincide with the film’s worldwide release on November 22, 2013. francis_trish

“Kill Your Darlings” Movie Review
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Originally published by Yahoo! Movies

The source of the writers’ adage “kill your darlings” is the nineteenth century English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who, during his Cambridge inaugural lecture series (published as “On the Art of Writing”), said it, meaning: don’t fall in love with your words, don’t get too attached to them, and excise ruthlessly.

The phrase is used as a metaphor for the titular film (opening October 16, 2013 in NY/LA via Sony Pictures Classics), in which one of the core members of the beatnik poets, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) killed a man he both loved and loathed.

Those even vaguely familiar with the icons of the Beat Generation know the names Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Bourroughs. But unless you’re a buff, you’ve probably never heard of Lucien Carr. It was because of the wild and charismatic Carr that Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs met and became a clique. It was also because of Carr that the trio became material witnesses in a curious, murky murder case in 1944.

David Krammerer (Michael C. Hall) was a teacher and met Carr when leading a youth group the boy belonged to. The older man became infatuated with the youngster and followed him across the country as Carr moved from city to city. While the cinematic version of events (written and directed by first-time feature helmer John Krokidas) leaves things more ambiguous and poses the question that perhaps Carr’s sexual preferences were abstruse and that he was drawn to Krammerer just as equally, it would seem by all non-fictional accounts he was stalked to the point of temporary insanity (prior to murdering Krammerer, Carr attempted suicide at least once).killyourdarlingsmontage

But “Kill Your Darlings” isn’t really about Carr and Krammerer. Now I tell you, right? The kaleidoscope-like drama is actually projected through the bespectacled eyes of young poet Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), as a whole new world opens up to him in his early years at Columbia University. Leaving behind a dreary home-life complete with a certifiably insane mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and beaten-down dad (David Cross -- who, by the way, played Allen Ginsgerg himself in one my favorite films of all time, Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There”),

Allen finds that college is a playground of intellectual and rebellious pursuits… not to mention sex, drugs and jazz. Through the gregarious and Puck-like Lucien, Allen forges friendships with aspiring writers and decidedly nonconformist rabble-rousers Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Kerouac (Jack Huston). What follows feels like a musical jam or a free-form poem, and yet it’s a cohesive, well thought-out story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Quite an accomplished feat for relative newbie Krokidas, who’s very well-aided by a brilliant editor, composer, and cinematographer (Brian A. Kates, Nico Muhly, and Reed Morano, respectively).  

What’s more, the casting is magnificent. Radcliffe has shed the Harry Potter image like magic; it’s a pleasure to see Michael C. Hall out of Dexter mode; and Jennifer Jason Leigh, though in a small role, breaks the heart. But the movie really belongs to DeHaan, who I first discovered in the television series, “In Treatment”. He went on to wow in “Chronicle” and “True Blood”. While he is, in many ways the successor to River Phoenix, I am still unconvinced of his range. However, in his niche, DeHann’s a cinematic juggernaut.

In the end, Allen Ginsberg became the undisputed voice of a generation. And in the existential howl, he dedicated his first published collection of poetry, “Howl & Other Poems” (1956) to his pied piper, Lucien Carr.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…” --Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”



The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec Blu-ray Review & Fashion Report
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Originally published in my Yahoo! Movies Fashion in Film beat

When you think of big ladies’ hats, what comes to mind? I think of a bygone era. I mean, who really wears hats anymore? I think of The Kentucky Derby. And maybe Easter. They’re hardly modern, hip or cool, but it seems that young and fashionable Kate Middleton is out to change all that.

adeleThe Duchess of Cambridge is a headwear couture inspiration to so many, including Adèle Blanc-Sec, the stylish fictional French heroine of Luc Besson's latest flick, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec”, now on Blu-ray and DVD.

Granted, Adèle’s (Louise Bourgoin) adventures are period -- taking place everywhere from Paris to Peru, and even Egypt -- at the turn of the 20th century. But there’s something thoroughly modern about the feisty novelist-turned-archeologist.  Based on Jacques Tardi's comic book heroine, this haute dame is reminiscent of Indiana Jones and Amelia Peabody rolled into one pretty package.  Given just that extra little oomph from visualist auteur Luc Besson, she’s the kind of gal women want to be, and men want. That’s quite a feather in her cap, and it serves her well.

Though she’s often buttoned up to her chin, encased in a whalebone corset, fighting folds of petticoats, wading in walking skirts, and bound in lace up ankle boots, she is still somehow a free spirit. What stands out most with Adèle is her crowning glory: her hats. This is the exuberant era of extravagant, wide brimmed statement pieces festooned in flowers, draped in scarves, fettered with feathers, and even growing grass. Kudos to costumer Olivier Bériot, for his amusing attention to detail. Similar to the rising height of men’s top hats, this lady’s headgear reflects the super-steampunk status her wildly comic escapades – not to mention the feathers linked in with the bird-seeded subplot.

That’s right… I haven’t mentioned the flying pterodactyl yet! The film opens in Egypt, where Adèle is ready to raid a tomb. For a good cause, mind you: our heroine’s sister is deathly ill, and the key to her cure rests in the mummified hands of a legendary physician. The plan is to bring the corpse back to Paris, where brilliant but batty Professor Esperandieu (Jacky Nercessian) will bring the dead doc back to life. Needless to say, things start to unravel when Adèle is caught and Esperandieu , testing his resuscitation technique on a baby pterodactyl, must contend with prodigious consequences. Mixing practical with CGI, the special effects are top-notch, adding to the easy suspension of disbelief in this marvelously merry caper.
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The high-definition transfer is excellent, especially on the Blu-ray. Detail, texture, and rich hues amaze, even during darker turns in the tombs in the beginning of the film. BTW, these scenes shot on location in Egypt, not on a studio lot in Paris. Not that the Paris scenes are anything to sneeze at -- color is rich and well saturated but never overdriven.

Extras in the disc include:

•Making of - A typical featurette with raw footage from the shoot, and a bit of background info about Jacques Tardi's comic books.

•Interviews - A passel of production interviews with director Luc Besson and cast members discussing the film, its history, characters, locations, etc.

•In the Studio - Footage from the recording booth showing Louise Bourgoin singing. The music video "Adèle" is also included.

•Trailer

A fun fascinator for sure, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” is highly recommended!

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2 Guns Movie Review
Staci Layne Wilson
staci_wilson
Originally published by Yahoo! Movies

Do you love the cheeky crime action thrillers of the 80s and 90s? Are you a card-carrying fan of Elmore Leonard’s cinematic pulp, and do you long for the heydays of the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer shoot’em ups? If your answer was a resounding “Yes!” then have I got good news for you: 2 Guns opens nationwide tomorrow.

Starring marquee titans Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg as colorful, clever, and cocky undercover agents, pulling off some super-impressive spy vs. spy twists and turns (at first; the one-ups then begin to border on the ridiculous, if not still sublime, in the third act) as they pursue a South-of-the-border drug lord (played with laconic panache by Edward James Olmos).

…Or is he pursuing them? After our squabbling duo rob the bank where the kingpin launders his money, it’s anoybody’s guess who’s gonna wind up with the cash and the stash – will it be the corrupt NCIS superior (James Marsden), the Russian roulette obsessed government “enforcer” (Bill Paxton), or the bodacious babe (Paula Patton) whose assets aren’t confined to her considerable cleavage?2_Guns

Armed to the teeth and with mouthfuls of quips reminiscent of classic R-rated bickering buddies Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs., (or Bad Boys Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, or Tango and Cash aka Sly Stallone and Kurt Russell), Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur brings out the best in his heretofore sometimes too-serious leads, keeping things light, playful, and always on the brink of explosion. (Literally – there’s enough gleeful use of T-N-T in this flick to make Wile E. Coyote look like Mahatma Gandhi). Add a few muscle cars and spinning revolver cylinders, winks at waitresses and rat-pack pork pie hats, and you’re all revved up and dressed up for a fun night at the movies.


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