Category Archives: Director's Chair

The Wiz (1978)

Girl, do you know that you’re 24 years old, and you’ve never been south of 125th Street? Well, you haven’t!

— Aunt Em

I have only seen bits and pieces of African-American interpretation of the classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz simply called The Wiz. I know some of the famous songs in the films like “If You Believe”, “No Bad News” and “Ease on Down the Road”. I don’t remember anything else. I was surprised that Sidney Lumet directed this movie when I looked up his credits on IMDb. This film was nominated for 4 Academy Awards in 1979, but it came away empty handed. I can understand why.

This version of story taken place in Harlem where the introverted Dorothy (Diana Ross) is a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher living with his Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene). During a Thanksgiving celebration, Aunt Em tries to persuade Dorothy to accept a high school teaching position. Dorothy is reluctant to move on with her life. She is comfortable staying in Harlem at the same apartment.

When she tries to take out the garbage, her dog Toto runs out of the apartment into the massive snowstorm. When she recovers him, a funnel cloud whisks her into Munchkin Land where people come alive from the graffiti on the walls. When Dorothy and Toto crash into the land from the Oz ceiling, she kills the Wicked Witch of the East, Evermean. She frees the munchkins from the evil reign of Evermean, who inherits her silver high heel shoes from the Good Witch of the North, Miss One (Thelma Carpenter). Dorothy desperately wants to go home. Miss One tells Dorothy to fellow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City to find the Wiz (Richard Pryor) who is the only person that could send her back home.

Dorothy is left wandering around Oz that resembles New York City until she meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) the next day. He is surrounded by the Four Crows (Derrick Bell, Roderick-Spencer Sibert, Kashka Banjoko, Ronald ‘Smokey’ Stevens) that refuses to let him down to watch around his garden. Dorothy intervenes and frees him. She wants to bring Scarecrow along who wants to find a brain from the Wiz.

They find the yellow brick road and find the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) who was trapped under fallen props at an amusement park and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) at a local library front. They tag along for Tin Man to find a heart and the Lion to find courage. In order to go to the Wiz, they have to kill the Wicked Witch of West, Evillene (Mabel King).

I have no words to say about this movie. I was happy watching the bits and pieces that I have seen. This movie is over two hours long. It felt like six hours. I am not exaggerating. The sequences go on repeatedly for far too long. I cannot believe that this movie was nominated for any Oscars, except for the music. I thought the music was the only saving grace in this steaming pile of a film.

Judgment: Buy the soundtrack instead. Save yourself the torture to your eyes.

Rating: *1/2

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The Honorable Discharge of “The Hurt Locker”

(Note: I wrote this article for the Atlanta Free Press for their Oscar Bound feature a couple of months ago. You could find it here.)

“Ferociously suspenseful” and “a near-perfect film” are a couple of the apt descriptions that have been bestowed upon director Kathryn Bigelow’s eighth feature film, The Hurt Locker. It has been garnering praise from critics and audiences since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. Now, this release from Summit Entertainment is pressed as a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar in March.

The Hurt Locker is a bit of a departure for Bigelow. Best known for the surfer mystery thriller, Point Break, and the Russian submarine action film, K-19: The Widowmaker, she has been working on the fringe of Hollywood since her feature film debut, The Loveless in 1984. She strictly works on independently financed action-oriented films where she has optimal creative input. Today, she is the talk of the town with Oscar buzz surrounding her.

The components of making this groundbreaking film are as fascinating as what Bigelow has captured on super 16mm. Its genesis came from her chance meeting with writer and war photojournalist Mark Boal in the winter of 2004. Boal talked about his experiences embedded in a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and Bigelow decided she wanted to make a big-screen fictionalized account of it.

In the film, three soldiers, the maverick Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner), the withholding Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the anxious Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), dismantle roadside bombs over the span of 38 days. Boal’s accuracy and Bigelow’s keen eye make the audience wonder about the motivations of the characters. The typical action hero does not make mistakes or rash decisions. These characters do. You might not understand the intentions of Renner’s James, but you could sympathize with him.

Bigelow is a hands-on director who goes outside the studio system by filming on locations instead of sound stages. The $11 million-budgeted movie was shot over 45 days in the summer of 2007. Both cast and crew endured 115-degree weather and sandstorms in Amman, Jordan. Jeremy Renner as James wore an actual bomb suit made of Kevlar and ceramic plates weighing close to a hundred pounds. Bigelow wants everything to be as authentic as possible.

As a director, Bigelow wanted to make the film feel like a documentary, using a dozen cameras hidden at the bomb sequence locations. It makes the film more organic because the actors did not know where they were placed. She wants the audience to be transported to Baghdad circa 2004, from the battlefield to the streets and inside humvees, watching out for potential insurgents as if they are present with the characters.

The final product is a testament of perfect pacing. The smallest detail is not overlooked. There is cinematic poetry in a recently fired bullet falling to the ground and the slow motion of a roadside bomb detonating. The tension is palpable.

Kathryn Bigelow may not be a household name, but with the critical success of The Hurt Locker, she is poised to compete for the Best Director Oscar this year. She received a Directors Guild of America nomination for her work, competing against Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, Quentin Tarantino and her ex-husband James Cameron. Cameron, who has described the film as “the Platoon for the Iraq War,” recently won Best Director at the Golden Globes for his sci-fi action spectacle, Avatar. Accepting the award, he disclaimed, “I’m not well prepared because frankly I thought Kathryn was going to get this. She richly deserves it.”

Bigelow’s Hurt Locker is the first movie about the Iraq war conflict that does not beat the audience over the head with an obvious political message. It immerses you in a world that has never been explored. This could be the year when, for the first time in Academy history, the Oscar for Best Director goes to a woman.

Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)

You know, you’re half smart, Ocean.

— Willy Bank

Soderbergh and company wanted to conclude the Ocean’s saga with Ocean’s Thirteen. This installment is a return of form with the gang returning to their roots in Las Vegas. I am glad that everyone returned to the slick caper story like the first movie.

During their absences between capers, the gang is reunited when Reuben suffers a cardiac infarction when a deal with an egomaniacal property owner, Willy Bank (Al Pacino) goes south. When one of the Twelve is wronged, a price needs to be paid. Danny pays Willy a visit when he was at the construction of his place, The Bank Casino.

The Bank Casino is an extravagant showplace with no expense spared with its marble floors and golden silverware. Willy wants to win another “Five Diamond” necklace for the best hotel in terms of customer service and overall cleanliness. Willy’s right-hand woman, Abigail (Ellen Barkin) is his eyes and ears to see if anybody would do anything during their soft opening.

Danny and Rusty seek the advice of Roman to find a way to seek revenge on Willy before the official opening of The Bank Casino on July 3rd. After some brainstorming, the team decides to destroy Willy from the inside out. First, they have to get inside of the building by bribing the lead concierge, Debbie (Olga Sosnovska), rig all of the games so the gamblers win, create a seismic event and distract a “Five Diamond” critic (David Paymer).

If they pull off this feat, they could get away with over $500 million dollars and at the same time bankrupt Willy Bank in the process. As their plan goes along, they realized that they bit off more than they can chew. Begrudgingly, they seek the help of Terry Benedict to help them carry out the mission.

First, what was up with Al Pacino’s skin? He was fluorescent orange. He was tanoxeric. It distracted me. I’m glad that they recaptured some of the magic from the first movie. I have a problem with some of the lighting. The shadowy scenes muddled everything. Nothing popped out of the screen. Soderbergh ended the series of a good note.

Judgment: If you want to see a return to form, watch this movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

Terry, I can’t predict the future. I pay professionals to do that, and even they get it wrong sometimes.

— Reuben

After the massive success of the first movie, Soderburgh and company came back together for Ocean’s Twelve. This setting and story are dramatically different from the glitz and glamour from the first incarnation. Instead of the bright lights of the Las Vegas, the Eleven are focused their attention on Europe. I think that this was a mistake, because it hurt the caper aspect of the story.

When the Eleven successful pilfered Terry Benedict out of his $150 million dollars at the ending of the first movie, (spoiler alert) the beginning show how the gang was doing during the three and a half since the heist. Most of them spent some or all of their $13 million dollars cut.

They get a rude awakening when Benedict tracks them all down wherever they were hiding. He offers them a chance to correct their mistakes by stealing his money. Benedict gives them two weeks to return the money with interest, which is roughly $200 million dollars, or he will kill them.

The gang has a pow-wow to discuss how they could get the money is that short amount of time. They decide to go to Amsterdam to meet up with Matsui (Robbie Coltrane), who gives them an assignment to steal the world’s oldest stock certificate from 1602 worth $2.5 million Euros.

When they do, they realize that a famous cat burglar named “The Night Fox” (Vincent Cassel) got the stock first. Not only that, but the team realizes that The Night Fox made the call to Benedict that ratted them out.

The Night Fox issues a challenge to the Ocean’s Eleven to steal a Coronation Faberge Egg from exhibit in Paris. They want to beat The Night Fox at their own game. Eleven becomes Twelve when they enlist the help of Roman (Eddie Izzard) to help pull off the switch-a-roo.

This movie as a whole is not well executed. The dialogue was not up to par. The scenes dragged on way too long. I was bored to tears. The movie looks grainy. The interaction with the members felt clunky and stagy. There wasn’t the synergy from the first outing. I was disappointed with this movie, especially the last thirty that fell off the tracks.

Judgment: This is one of the instances that the sequel is not better than the original.

Rating: **1/2

Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

You guys are pros. The best. I’m sure you can make it out of the casino. Of course, lest we forget, once you’re out the front door, you’re still in the middle of the fucking desert!

— Reuben

Breaking away from his trademark quirky sensibility, Steven Soderbergh remade the 1960s Rat Pack classic heist film, Ocean’s Eleven. Instead of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammie Davis, Jr., the main leads are George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Quite a departure. Soderbergh has some success with mainstream movies; I think that his subsequent Ocean’s trilogy exposed himself more to the mainstream consciousness.

Re-channeling his Out of Sight persona, George Clooney plays the titular Danny Ocean that is recently paroled after four years. When he is released, he goes to old stomping grounds to reconnect with his former crewmembers, travel across the country to reconnect with the poker teacher to the stars, Rusty (Pitt).

Ocean’s plan is to steal “x” amount dollars from three casinos, the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand all of them owned Las Vegas casino owner, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia). He would need a large crew at least a dozen to pull off the multiple cons needed to pull off the heist.

Seeing that they need a way inside the way, Danny and Rusty pay a visit to a former casino owner that was wronged by Benedict and knows the ins and outs of the security system, Reuben (Elliott Gould). After he is in, the rest of the crew is assembled like Frank (Bernie Mac), two drivers the twins, Virgil and Turk (Casey Affleck, Scott Caan), electronic expert Livingston (Eddie Jemison), explosives Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), a “grease man” Yen (Shaobo Qin), Saul (Carl Reiner) and last but not least, master of disguise, Linus (Damon).

They have pow-wow to lay out the foundation of this impossible feat. If they succeed, they stand to get 150 million dollars when the casinos are distracted from an upcoming fight between Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko that same day. In order to let the heist run slowly, they have to lay the groundwork like plant a device on the casino’s closed circuit camera, recreating the vault to practice, the daily routine of their mark.

While relaying the routine of Benedict, Linus thought it would be a good idea to enlist the help of Benedict’s main squeeze, Tess (Julia Roberts) who was also Danny’s ex-wife. Danny’s ulterior motive becomes clear that steals the money is not his only motivation. He wants to get Tess back.

The movie is slick and a little too polished. I had the same problem with this movie as I did with Spike Lee’s Inside Man. I don’t like it when a filmmaker talks down the audience. We don’t need to know every single detail that needed to be explained. When the heist was taking place, I didn’t believe that these people would be able to pull that off. The only person that I liked was Andy Garcia. He has a permanent stoic look on his face that works well with his dickish Terry Benedict.

Judgment: Have a good time with Ocean and the gang in this solid remake.

Rating: ****

Seven Samurai (1954)

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Find hungry samurai.

— Gisaku

The next person in the LAMB director’s chair for this month is the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Known for his samurai epics, most of his filmography was in the Criterion Collection as was his best known epic, Seven Samurai. It is currently ranked #14 of the Top 250 of All Time on IMDb. It was nominated two Academy Awards in 1954.

Not being familiar with Kurosawa’s work, I wanted to see the grandaddy of them all. Watching the movie, it was good film, but you really have to invest your body and soul to it.

Taking place in 16th century Japan, the movie is about a group of villagers that are besieged by a team of bandits that want to pillage their rice and wheat. Being that it was not harvest time, the bandits to come back when the rice is ripe to take it.

Scared for their safety, a couple of villagers Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) and an samurai apprentice, Katsushiro Okamoto (Isao Kimura) set out on a journey to find a samurai suggested by the village elder, Gisaku (Kokuten Kodo) to help them protect their village when the bandits come back.

On the journey, they meet an older but wiser samurai, Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura) that has the job to recruit six other samurai to protect the village. He recruits Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba), Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi),  Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki), Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô) and Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune).

During the course of the movie, the seven samurais train the villagers to defend themselves against the rebels that will eventually come.

The performances were very good, especially Toshirô Mifune as Kikuchiyo. He is crazy and dirty. Loved him so much. When the movie got boring in parts, he makes you want to watch more. What is he going to do next?

The score by Fumio Hayasaka was so good. There was so much tension in his simplistic sounds.

This is a very simple story. Does it need to be dragged out for three and half hours? I was happy for the intermission in the middle, but when the final credits rolled. I was physically exhausted.

Judgment: A well made film that needs your undivided attention to fully enjoy it.

Rating: ****1/2

Millions (2004)

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God doesn’t rob banks, all right? God does not rob banks.

— Damian Cunningham

Reverting back to his old ways, Danny Boyle tackled “the boy gets the money” genre in a family friendly film, Millions. This was a recommendation from a member from my Oscar Watchers group when I pose the question of what film of Danny Boyle’s should I see. This movie was too far-fetched for my liking.

Damian Cunningham (Alex Etel) is a precocious seven-year-old that moves to a new town with his older brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) and his father, Ronnie (James Nesbitt).

He has the tendency to be fascinated by the patron saints. His imagination runs wild when he is visited by this saints.

Damian builds a fort in the backyard near some train tracks. One day when he is in his fort, a large bag rolls and crushes Damian’s fort. He opens up the bag to find hundreds of thousands worth of English pound notes that will be of no value when the Euro currency begins.

Anthony and Damian devise a plan to spend the money before the money is no good.

Danny Boyle usual tricks are in place here with the double speed and all that. It did not gel with the supposed whimsical nature of the story. I was bored to tears. This movie gave me a headache that I had to stop it. I did not care about the story. It was ridiculous. It was supposed to be an Aesop’s fable, but not. I just didn’t care about the movie at all.

Judgment: If you want to induce a headache, watch this movie.

Rating: **

28 Days Later… (2002)

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He was full of plans. Have you got any plans, Jim? Do you want us to find a cure and save the world or just fall in love and fuck? Plans are pointless. Staying alive’s as good as it gets.

— Selena

It has been years since laying eyes on 28 Days Later… Seeing it again last night, I realized I love it even more than the first time that I saw it.

Danny Boyle has an eye of turning the typical zombie movie genre on its head. He created something rather unique that elevated the genre as a whole to another level.

Jim (Cillian Murphy), a man wakes from a short coma finds himself the last man in London. The streets are empty, littered with trash, overturned cars and piles of dead bodies.

Jim wanders around the cityscape until he goes to a church where there are more dead bodies and the “infected” are. The infected are people that contracted a rage virus that broke out when a bunch of activists tried to free infected laboratory chimpanzees and the virus gets out. This could be an allegory to the AIDS epidemic.

He encountered more of the infected as Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) help out Jim by disposing of them with gas bombs, guns, baseball bats and machetes.

I enjoyed the endless amounts of blood and gore. It was humorous. It was tense and suspenseful like good horror movie should be. Boyle’s signature moves worked well here with the double speed shots, and the quick cuts.

This is a road trip movie that speaks to the survival of the human race. What happens when the world as you know it is gone forever? How can you survive? By any mean necessary.

Judgment: If you want to see a solid zombie flick that pushes the limits of the genre, check this movie out.

Rating: ****1/2

Sunshine (2007)

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So if you wake up one morning and it’s a particularly beautiful day, you’ll know we made it. Okay, I’m signing out.

— Capa

Deviating from his usual formula of “boy gets girl, boy gets money, boy is all right in the end” style of movie, Danny Boyle dipped his foot into the sci-fi genre by making Sunshine. Not to be confused with the Ralph Fiennes vehicle, Sunshine from 1999.

Never heard of this movie until a couple of film critics were suggesting this movie to watch. Watching it was an interesting experience that I wish had a better ending.

Roughly fifty years into the future, the Earth is in the middle of another Ice Age when the sun begins to die. A team of astronauts went out on a mission to revive the dying gas giant. The missions fails.

Seven years later, eight crew members of the Icarus II tries to finish what the crew of the Icarus failed to do. The captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) made it his ultimate goal to re-ignite the sun and all costs.

One of the ships crew members, Trey (Benedict Wong) makes a disastrous mistake that sabotages the ultimate mission. They discover that the Icarus I is still floating near the sun. They want to rendezvous with it to get the necessary supplies to complete the mission.

Boyle’s infamous Dutch angles are present here. No idea why. There are a lot of sequences of some of the characters  in an observation deck staring directly at the sun. Why?

I enjoyed the first hour of the movie, when I finally understood what the hell was going on with the plot. It was very good, but the train jumped off the rails big time. The last thirty minutes of this flick transformed from a tense, sci-fi drama into Jason X all of a sudden. WTF! I cannot divulge what happens, but the movie completely lost me.

Judgment: If you want to see a person flesh torn off, this movie is for you.

Rating: ***1/2

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