All posts by Jason Weiler

Pixar Goes Back to College in “Monsters University”

Pixar 3

As has become a tradition, this summer famed animation studio Pixar is ready to release another beloved and groundbreaking feature film. This year, they try their hand at the prequel with “Monsters University,” a prequel to 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” that tells the story of how Mike and Sully first met in their college days. To promote the film’s release, I had the great privilege of touring Pixar’s campus across the bay in Emeryville for two days.

The two day press event was, like many of their films, magical. After arriving to the beautiful campus, which looks more like a college quad than movie studio, all of us reporters were escorted into the main building, aptly named the Steve Jobs Building after their late co-founder.

Inside, I was shown Pixar’s latest short film, “The Blue Umbrella”, which will precede “Monsters University” in theaters. Without giving too much away, “The Blue Umbrella”, which is a love story between umbrellas in a rainy metropolis, is fantastic, employing some of the most photo realistic animation from Pixar yet.

After screening “The Blue Umbrella,” “Monsters University” director, Dan Scanlon and Producer Kori Rae, took the stage to present 40 minutes of the film. Again, without saying too much, the film looks very promising, filled with hilarious jokes and “monsterized” versions of the college experience, as well as stunning animation. With that, day one of the tour was concluded.

Day one was about the finished product, but day two was about how that product was made. Upon arrival to the campus, I had the chance to sit in on presentations with animators, character designers, voice artists, storyboard artists, and even Scanlon and Rae. In just 20 minutes per person, I learned something about every key part that goes into crafting a Pixar film. If there was a bad part about the tour, it was having to leave the Pixar campus.

Though I only saw a fraction of the daily operations, it’s obvious that the people at Pixar are having fun, something that shows in their excellent work in “The Blue Umbrella” and “Monsters University.”

Sturgess and Solanas Turn Love “Upside Down”

sTURGESS

Actor Jim Sturgess summarizes “Upside Down” with a concise two part statement: “It’s a classic love story set up, like Romeo & Juliet. But rather than it being family or gangs that pulls them apart, it’s gravity.”

It’s hard to find a better summary than that for Writer-Director Juan Solanas’ new film, surely one of 2013’s more ambitious movies. The film tells the story of Adam (Sturgess) and Eden (“Spiderman’s” Kirsten Dunst), young lovers who are separated by the opposing gravities of their dual gravity planet, Eden being from the modern “up” world while Adam resides in the impoverished “down” world. As they try everything they can to be together, they come to realize the true power that their love possesses. While the film shares many similarities with the classic love stories, its scientific setting is what distinguishes it from your average hollywood romance.

“It was really hard to imagine it at first.” Sturgess recalls. “It’s not a futuristic world, it’s more of an alternative reality, but the story felt like a fairy tale I should’ve read as a child.” That blend of love and science fiction is something Solanas was careful to incorporate into his film, which came to him in a vision seven years ago.

“I had this vision, and I started thinking about double gravity, I don’t know where it came from,” Solanas says passionately,“but once I understood the story, and because of what I am, an Argentinian from the third world living in Europe, which are two worlds upside down, I knew I could project what I know into this story.”

Solanas, admittedly a visual storyteller, does just that in Upside Down, which has stunning effects that all at once highlight the stories’ fantasy and make the character’s journey realistic.

“It’s my way,” Solanas declares triumphantly. “I’m a real visual guy, when I think about something, I visualize it into reality. It’s why I don’t drive, because it happened once when I was driving and I almost killed myself (laughs).”

Sturgess was drawn to the intriguing blend of genre, but found in shooting the film that despite the fantastical aspect, there wasn’t an over reliance on effects.

“I expected it to be this studio shoot with lots of green scenes,” he says. “I was amazed to realize that they built these huge sets, and it ended up being a lot of on-location shooting.”

Methods like these are just a few of the ways that Solanas approaches his vision, which also included utilizing a smaller amount of shots than the average film, which he has a good reason for doing. “Most movies have about 3,000 cuts, mine has about 900. If it’s a good shot, leave it.”

 

While the visuals in Upside Down are mesmerizing, the chemistry between Sturgess and Dunst is what ultimately drives the film. Sturgess knows exactly why this is the case, saying “the chemistry we had is a real testament to Juan, and his ability to make the characters so real.”

Solanas too places the utmost emphasis on his two actors being the anchors for the film. “The characters are apart of myself. It’s easy then to recognize yourself in the actors” he explains. “When I met Kirsten and Jim, I knew no doubt that they were Eden and Adam. They felt the movie the way I felt it.”

With all it’s visuals and it’s classic love story, Upside Down is more than anything a fun movie to behold, and it’s clear that Sturgess and Solanas not only had fun making the film, but that they successfully realized the idea that came to Solanas seven years prior. “The day we shot the mountain scene, Juan came to me and told me, ‘this is the vision I had,’” Sturgess proudly recalls. “That was a huge moment, to see all these people working together, and making his vision truly a reality.”

 

Foghorn Grade: B 

Beware of the Side Effects

An Interview with Dr. Sasha Bardey, producer of the new film “Side Effects”

What’s always fascinated me, and I know it fascinated Scott (Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) is high functioning evil. The guy who steals your car is low functioning evil, but the person who is able to manipulate people and ruin their lives, that’s high functioning evil, and that happens.

Dr. Sasha Bardey has made a career of combining two of the most challenging disciplines, psychiatry and forensics. Now, as a producer of “Side Effects,” the latest from acclaimed Director Steven Soderbergh, Bardey was instrumental in both keeping the film’s story both gripping and authentic. In his own definition of his work, Bardey explains: “a forensic psychiatrist is a psychiatrist who works on the interface of psychiatry of the law. Whenever there is a legal question that might have a psychiatric component then that’s where I comes in.”

We’ve seen this type of story time and time again in movies. Someone is killed, the accused claims insanity, both sides bicker over whether the claims are merited. The plea of insanity is as exciting in the movies as it in reality, but who is responsible for determining whether the accused is in fact mentally ill? People like Dr. Sasha Bardey. Bardey has been doing this work for almost 20 years, and he remains as fascinated by it today as he was when he first started, making the prospect of his work coming to life on the big screen all the more amazing. As Bardey explains, “What’s always fascinated me, and I know it fascinated Scott (Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) is high functioning evil. The guy who steals your car is low functioning evil, but the person who is able to manipulate people and ruin their lives, that’s high functioning evil, and that happens.”

Much of the film’s story revolves around the usage, and misusage, of the prescriptions that doctors prescribe, something that Bardey says he faces everyday in the field. “We’re trained to be naive. If someone says that they are feeling depressed, I say tell me about it. We don’t have x-rays in psychiatry, so you have to do evaluations and you have to be careful, but you are going to get duped.”

Knowing the high abuse potential of prescription drugs makes treating patients infinitely more complicated, something Jude Law’s character finds out more and more through the story. To combat the misuse, doctors like Bardey and Jude Law’s character must become like a detective. As Bardey describes, “Jude Law’s character gets pushed into such a corner that he’s gotta take action. But he doesn’t have a gun, he uses what he knows how to do to get justice, which is something we haven’t really seen in other movies, you know, using psychiatric tools to make something that’s wrong right.”

Unlike many films, “Side Effects” conveys many useful messages to its audience, something of which Bardey is extremely proud. “I think what Soderbergh and Burns did so well is that there isn’t just one single lesson in the film. There are messages about medication, about the naive doctor, about psychopaths, about the boundaries between doctors and patients, about the criminal justice system. Most importantly though, the movie raises these issues but doesn’t take a position, it lets you make that decision.”

Foghorn Grade: B

 

Review: Statham Shines in Slick, Albeit Familiar Parker

If there is a list of actors you wouldn’t want to cross, Jason Statham is sure to be towards the top of that list. Statham has been one of Hollywood’s most reliable action kings for years, and with “Parker” he is poised to remain near the top. Statham stars as the title character Parker, a thief with a unique (and sometimes troublesome) set of moral standards who is double crossed by his crew when the job goes awry.

In keeping with his morals, he explains to his chief partner Hurley (Nick Nolte) “when I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it,” and with that sets out for Palm Beach, Florida to get revenge on his former associates. His attempts to infiltrate his former crew’s plans for a master heist leads him to an unlikely partnership with struggling realtor Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez). Like many of Statham’s films, “Parker” certainly takes its share of liberties with the story whilst championing its action sequences, but its hard to deny the quality of the action. The fight sequences are as breathtaking as they are violent, and the stunts are a spectacle in themselves, which is crucial to the entertainment value of an action movie. Yet, what separates “Parker” from most action films is the camera work.

Lopez … is rarely nothing more than a thorn in the film’s side, but the ever charming Statham more than offsets these irritations.

Unlike many films within the genre that rely on fast paced editing and shaky camera work, Director Taylor Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman) employs fluid wide angle cinematography as well as disciplined editing, both of which allow the viewer to better grasp the action. At times though, the lack of plausibility within the story is tiresome, and Lopez’s Leslie is rarely nothing more than a thorn in the film’s side. However, the ever charming Statham more than offsets these irritations.

Statham definitely takes a beating in “Parker” (the hotel room sequence is especially grisly), and while the outcome is what we’ve come to expect, it’s hard not to root on for one of Hollywood’s most consistent action stars. Despite it’s predictable plot and some lackluster performances, Statham’s performance and its commendable cinematography ultimately constitute “Parker” as a entertaining film experience.

*Parker, starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, and Nick Nolte, is Rated R. 118
minutes. Now Playing.

Foghorn Grade: B-

Life of Pi: Ang Lee Tackles the Third Dimension

Just like the character Pi in his newset film, Ang Lee has been on his own journey into unfamiliar waters over the past 4 years. “Life of Pi,” which is now playing in theaters, was by far his most challenging project, not to mention his first foray into the wonders of digital and 3D filmmaking. “3D is fascinating, and troublesome,” he states in his soft and welcoming voice, “It is an art form, one that we don’t fully understand.”

The film, based on Yann Martel’s best selling 2001 book of the same name, tells the story of young Pi Patel, who becomes stranded on a life boat with a bengal tiger having survived a shipwreck. Throughout the story, the two endure a grueling physical and emotional journey that bonds them forever, and like many of his films, Lee has once more created a compelling tale that stays with you long after the screen goes dark. Like most of his work, the cultural setting of Pi is far away from what Lee is comfortable and knowledgeable about — which he prefers.

“Culturally, the further away I am the better, because it’s more exciting that way,” he says, smiling. Like the novel on which it’s based, Lee’s film interprets faith in a peculiar way, setting the stage for the audience to perceive as they wish rather than offering a solid thesis. As Lee points out, “Faith is not something you can prove, it’s beyond that. It requires you to take a leap, and trust something you can’t prove.” Lee’s leap of faith was in bringing this story to life, which he’s done so brilliantly. The film has many strengths, but the visuals are by far the most awe inspiring aspect. Though this is his first digital and 3D film, Lee has managed to create one of the most beautiful films to this date, and one that is sure to be a groundbreaker for the future of 3D.

To have the kind of filmography skills of Lee is an achievement in itself, but perhaps the most inspiring part about him is that with every project, he strives to do something he’s never done before. “I like to see my whole career as a prolonged film school, just learning to make movies.” With “Life of Pi,” Lee can cross beautiful 3D achievement off the list.

 

Life of Pi, starring Suraj Sharmaand Rafe Spall, is rated PG. Now playing in theaters. 127 minutes.

Foghorn Grade: A+


Interview with Flight Director Robert Zemeckis

In “Flight,” legendary director Robert Zemeckis finds himself in familiar territory: Oscar contender. The man behind such legendary films as “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Cast Away,” returns this year with his first live action film in nearly ten years, and only his second R-rated film ever (1980’s Used Cars is the other.)

“Flight” tells the story of airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Oscar Winner Denzel Washington) who heroically crash lands his out-of-control plane full of passengers in a field in rural Georgia. Though there are casualties, Whip is labeled a hero for doing what no other pilot could do under those circumstances.

However, as the investigation ensues, we learn that there is more to this tragic character than meets the eye. Zemeckis remembers fondly the unconventional process that went into making this film recalling, “I had my screenwriter (John Gatins) on set with me everyday, because he wrote such a unique and powerful screenplay, and I needed him there to be my creative soulmate.”

If that wasn’t enough to break convention, Zemeckis made the film almost entirely in chronological order, a practice that is almost non existent in modern Hollywood. “That was always our goal to do it that way, but of course you can’t always hold yourself to it” he says, laughing.

While making the film, one constant that Zemeckis had to keep in his mind was that the movie is not just about flying, it’s about the tragedy of Washington’s character. “There are two types of heroes” explains Zemeckis, “movie heroes and real life heroes, and this story is about a real life hero…Whip is really great at a lot of things, and he’s also really flawed. He shows how all of us are imperfect.” Perhaps what makes “Flight” so compelling is the central theme it employs, one of people using different methods to search for the same answer.

Zemeckis proudly states, “that theme is everything, it was vital to the movie. None of this is by accident, so because nothings written by accident there’s always a plan.”

The film presents an honest story, about an imperfect man, and it does so without talking down to the audience. Most impressively, it does this without excluding anyone, including college students.

Zemeckis is very aware of this fact, and it’s what he loves most about it. “I remember when I was in college, I loved stories about experiences that I hadn’t experienced yet. I think anyone who makes it to 16 has some emotional miles on them, and I don’t think you have to have calendar miles to understand what this movie’s about.”

FOGHORN GRADE: A-