Rogue One

December 17, 2016 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed by: Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”)
Written by: Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”) and Tony Gilroy (“The Bourne Supremacy”)

Prequel is one of the dirtiest words in the English language to “Star Wars” fans, right up there with midichlorians and Jar Jar Binks. The increasingly negative reception to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that unspooled from 1999 to 2005 has rendered the word toxic, which is why Disney’s marketing of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” has expressly avoided using the word at all—even though the movie is very much a direct prequel to the original “Star Wars” movie from 1977, known now as “A New Hope.”

This is the first live-action “Star Wars” theatrical adventure to deviate from the so-called saga of the Skywalker family being chronicled so far in Episodes I through VII (there was an animated “Clone Wars” film in theaters, as well as a pair of Ewok-centric TV movies in the ’80s and the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” from 1978) and represents the opening salvo in Disney’s mission to release a “Star Wars” movie every single year for the rest of all of our lives.

Opening around 15 years BBY (that’s Before the Battle of Yavin—the events of “A New Hope” and the super-geeky way in which the “Star Wars” timeline is sometimes parceled out), “Rogue One” focuses on Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), the reluctant brains behind the weapons tech in the Empire’s planet-killing Death Star. He and his family, including daughter Jyn, are in hiding from the Imperial officer heading up the Death Star project, Director Krennic (Ben Mendolsohn). When Krennic tracks them down, he kills Jyn’s mother and captures her father as she flees, taken in by militant Rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Fifteen years later, Jyn (Felicity Jones) is busted out of an Imperial prison by the Rebels and given the choice of helping Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droll, reprogrammed Imperial droid 2-KSO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) capture her father back from the Empire to find out how to stop the superweapon. When plans go awry after a test-firing of the Death Star levels a Rebel stronghold, Jyn and Andor must team up with a blind, Force-sensitive monk (Donnie Yen), his heavily-armed sidekick (Wen Jiang) and an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) to steal the plans for the Death Star, a monumental event that set in motion the entire franchise nearly 40 years ago.

Burdened with extensive reshoots and the unavoidable fact that we know how it all ends, “Rogue One” represented somewhat of a risk for Disney—albeit a risk that will, worst case scenario, not make quite as much money as “The Force Awakens” did last year and only sell 85% of the toys. Happily, though, the movie ends up killer, with a brutality of war featuring the troops on the ground we’ve never seen in a “Star Wars” film before. The scars of the reshoots show through here and there, though, with Whitaker’s character seemingly suffering the most, relegated to a plot device that goes nowhere—and the same goes for a mystical crystal Jyn wears around her neck. Neither of those, however, are likely to conjure up the negative conversations that one prominently featured CGI character will over his too-many scenes. For the record, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks, but a long-dead British actor resurrected to look like a Playstation 4 cutscene character—pretty good, but still off-putting and not quite right. Ultimately, we’re left with a thrilling “Star Wars” movie that dares to be different—for example: no opening crawl, no transitional wipes, and no Jedi—and ends up as a better film than the widely-beloved nostalgia hug that was “The Force Awakens.”

Chris Weitz – Cinderella (DVD)

September 25, 2015 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

In the live-action adaptation of “Cinderella,” Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Chris Weitz, 45, (“About a Boy”) takes a classic fairytale and creates a more contemporary story without losing the magic of the original 1950 animated film. The newest version features actress Lily James (TV’s “Downton Abbey”) as the title character, an orphaned young girl who finds herself sharing a home with an evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two equally awful stepsisters. During a phone interview with me to promote the recent DVD/Blu-ray release of the film, Weitz, whose grandmother was Mexican actress Lupita Tovar (“Drácula”), talked about creating a character much more independent than the one in the original animated movie and shared his thoughts about the Disney princess culture and whether he thinks little girls should idolize these types of characters.

Talk a bit about taking this very well-known fairytale and reinventing it. Where do you even begin?

I think the trick was to present a classic version of the story. It’s not ironic. It’s not postmodern. We also didn’t want to tell it in a way that a contemporary audience would think of Cinderella as a doormat. She puts up with a lot of stuff, but she doesn’t run away from home and she doesn’t hit her stepmother. In other movies, that’s something characters might do. Also, we wanted to ask, “Why does she love the prince?” In older versions of the story, it’s just kind of an afterthought that she would love him because he’s a prince and he’s good looking and charming and all those things. That’s kind of not keeping with how people view romance these days. We wanted to give a good reason why someone would fall in love beyond status. We wanted to tell a story of resilience as opposed to reaction and to show what it is like for two people to really fall in love.

Yes, I really loved that you gave Cinderella more control of her own life in this version. In the original Disney cartoon, I don’t like the fact that the prince is the ultimate goal and that marrying him is the only way she will find happiness. She’s more independent and strong here. Is that what you hoped to have come across?

Definitely. I think a lot of that is Lily James. She really pulls it off in terms of being able to present this character whose actions are very restrained in some ways. She doesn’t have a scene where she tells off the wicked stepmother, but Lily still manages to do that without seeming like a goody two-shoes. That’s really impressive. That’s definitely what we wanted, but it wasn’t something that was necessarily a foregone conclusion.

How do you feel about the princess culture in general? Do you have an issue with little girls idolizing these types of characters?

I think it’s a double-edged sword. Obviously there are aspects to [the princess culture] that seem to be very old-fashioned. But I think you can take the real estate of the princess story and use it to emphasize really important aspects of emotional development like resiliency and decency and honesty. Cinderella is not aggressive or hostile in any way. This is a story about getting through loss and difficult circumstances with dignity. There’s room for that story. I think it’s good that there are other types of stories, but there is room for this one, too. And I just want to point out that in this story Cinderella is never a princess. She is an orphan and then a queen. By the time she marries the prince he is the king. In the animated film she becomes a princess, but in this film she is ready to rule.

A few years ago, Disney said they were not going to make any more princess-themed films. Do you think that is possible for a studio that has such a strong following when it comes to these types of movies?

I think before there were princess stories there were fairytales. Those are kind of evergreen. The Disney princess industry is a huge industry, obviously. I think it would be a difficult thing to move away from that because it’s something people care about so much. But maybe the way things are going to go is to reexamine the idea of these princess stories in more modern ways.

Disney introduced audiences to their first Disney princess in 1937 with Snow White. Almost 80 years and 13 princesses later and we still don’t have a Latina princess. Earlier this year Disney announced they were working on a new Latina princess named Elena of Avalor who will be featured on the cartoon “Sophia the First” and will later get her own animated spin-off TV show. Is that enough?

You’re pointing to an issue that is in American pop culture, especially in movies. It’s something I really care about. As you probably know, Latino audiences, per capita, buy more movie tickets than any sector of society in the country. I don’t think it’s ever quite enough until it is. It’s good that there will be a Hispanic Disney princess-type character, but I want to see more. I also think Latino audiences should demand that as well and examine their film-going choices before they put down their money.

Personally, are more live-action adaptations of these animated Disney films something you’re excited about? We’re going to get quite a few over the next few years.

If you’d asked me this about 10 years ago I would’ve said I had no interest whatsoever. (Laughs) But now that I’m a parent, I really think it’s important that there are movies children want to go see and that parents won’t want to shoot themselves in the head while watching. So, yeah, I’m very much in favor of it and hope I can keep my hands in it as well and continue to work with Disney.

 

Cinderella

March 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh (“Thor”)
Written by: Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”)

The original 1950 Disney animated film might always be a classic to purists, but director Kenneth Branagh’s live-action version of “Cinderella” is superior on almost every front. Besides the fact the cartoon’s charming musical aspect is missing, there is so much to like about this new movie, I don’t feel the least bit guilty of actually looking forward to what Disney comes up with when they give the live-action treatment to other classic tales like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” in the future. Hopefully, they can also try to right the wrongs of “Snow White and the Huntsman” someday, too.

In “Cinderella” 2.0, screenwriter Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”) and director Kenneth Branagh (“Thor,” “Hamlet”) tighten up the storytelling and fill in a lot of the plot holes of the original film effortlessly and keep the traditional narrative intact for the most part. It’s a beautifully shot picture and something that fits perfectly in Branagh’s canon, especially with his background in the Shakespearean Theater. “Cinderella” exudes elegance with Branagh leading the way. As Cinderella’s stepmother, two-time Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”) is wickedly good and never oversteps her character’s evil ways. This role could’ve easily become a bit over-exaggerated like Charlize Theron’s take on the Evil Queen in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” but Blanchett is able to reel in the performance enough so that it doesn’t feel like she was mugging for the camera at any time. The same can’t really be said for actress Helena Bonham Carter who seems like the too obvious choice to play Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. Carter does a satisfactory job for her quick cameo, but it would’ve been nice to see someone that doesn’t always get a phone call when casting directors are looking for someone to fill a quirkier role. Basically, Carter has turned into the female version of Johnny Depp.

Aside from that uninspiring casting choice and an ending that doesn’t really know what it wants to do with itself, “Cinderella” is vibrant and at times transfixing. I’m still not completely sold on the whole Disney princess culture and the idea that a young girl can only find happiness when she is rescued by a prince, but Branagh’s interpretation makes it a little easier to swallow because Cinderella feels more in control of her own story. There are still glass slippers and happy endings, but unless you’re watching “Into the Woods,” would you want it any other way?

Chris Weitz – A Better Life (DVD)

November 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Filmmaker Chris Weitz admits his most recent film “A Better Life” has been a lot harder to let go than any of the other films he’s directed over the last 12 years, which include “About a Boy,” “The Golden Compass,” and “New Moon.”

Part of the reason Weitz has held the film so close to his heart is because he comes from a Latino background himself. His grandmother, Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, starred in the Spanish version of “Dracula” in 1931.

“It’s part of the reason I did the film and why it sticks with me,” Weitz told me during an exclusive interview for the DVD release of “A Better Life.”

“A Better Life” stars Demián Bichir (TV’s “Weeds”) as Carlos Galindo, an undocumented day laborer working to provide for his son Luis (José Julian) while living in Los Angeles.

I caught up with Weitz, 41, who was on his way to Bakersfield, California to accept an award from United Farm Workers of America co-founder Dolores Huerta.

What is it going to mean to receive an award from someone like Dolores Huerta for your work on “A Better Life?”

For this movie to make an impact on someone like her is extraordinary. She was fighting the good fight when it was dangerous and unfashionable to take on that kind of political cause. It’s an amazing seal of approval for the film. I am beyond honored to be receiving it.

HB56, a new immigration law making it legal for police officers to ask people for their immigration status, just passed in Alabama. What are your initial thoughts on the bill?

I think it’s disgusting. I think it’s a national shame. I think it shows how little understanding politicians have of the immigration issue. They’re acting like the 11 million undocumented people who are living in the shadows right now are taking jobs away from people. What they’re actually doing are taking the jobs nobody else is willing to do. What’s going to happen is that the fruits are going to rot in the field. Anytime these jobs are opened up to the average American, they don’t want to do it. These jobs are vital to our economy and generally done by immigrants from Mexico or Central America. The affect of this act is to tear apart families, frighten people who for the most part are good, church-going, hard-working people, and to enact federal policy as state law. There is no question the immigration system is broken. I don’t think anybody on either side of the aisle thinks everything hunky dory. The answer is actually something more like what President Regan did in ’86, which was to provide a path towards naturalization. The plan was never fully carried through. When this recession ends, we’re going to realize a lot of people we’ve been kicking out would be really helpful to us. These people are working in our healthcare industry and our agriculture industry.

What do you think is going to happen when fear overtakes these undocumented people inAlabama? I mean, parents are already pulling their kids from school. People aren’t showing up for work.

I think what’s going to happen is they’ll move on to another state. Rather than have the opportunity to integrate people into society, Alabama is pushing more people into the shadows, making them more desperate and exploited. In 1986, when people got a path toward citizenship, they had more incentive to invest in their schools, to buy houses, and to start their own businesses. The Center for American Progress has estimated that if these undocumented immigrants were naturalized, they could pump $1.5 trillion into the economy. It’s really important to acknowledge that you’re not going to remove all these people from this country. The estimated cost to do this is $200 billion. There’s never been a round up like that before. The only thing to compare it to would be the internment of Japanese Americans (in 1942) and that was on a much smaller scale. It can’t be done.

President Obama recently called immigration reform an “economic imperative.” However, three years since he took office we’re still waiting for a concrete plan. Do we need new leadership or can the Obama administration do something to finally get things moving forward?

I don’t think we need a change of administration. It’s obvious the Republicans aren’t going to do anything for immigrants. Two things can happen: Either the Obama campaign can decide to get tough now and put its money where its mouth is or they can do what it seems like their doing, which is play it softly hoping that a second term will allow them to enact reform later. Now, the question is whether Obama will be able to get the same voter base he did in 2008. We’ll have to see. There was something like a six million person shift in votes for Obama in the Latino community. How many of those people are going to come a vote again, who knows?

Were you prepared to answer questions about immigration reform when you decided to direct “A Better Life?”

I wasn’t really ready to take on questions in a political fashion. At the beginning, I just thought it was a great script. Then, I started going to conferences like the NCLR (National Council of La Raza) and the CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute) and realized I had to start to learn my stuff. The more I learned, the more I realized the film – although it’s not political at all in its content – was timely with the issues at hand, whether its something about the Dream Act or dividing families or the faulty immigration processing system. I’ve been unable to depart from this movie in the way I’ve been able to with any other film. This one has really stuck with me. It’s good because I really wanted my career to turn a corner in some way, but I really didn’t know how. This movie provided that.

Not many people know you come from a Latino background yourself. Did that help connect you to this story in some way?

Yeah, it did. I was part of the first generation of my family not to speak Spanish, which is very much like the kid (Luis) in the movie. He lost touch with his roots and so had I. The movie was an excuse to learn Spanish. I felt the right way to make the movie was to have a bilingual set, crew and cast. It’s been a really invigorating experience. It’s made me understand Los Angeles better. It’s made me feel like a better citizen. I’m still learning Spanish. My grandma came to America when she was 17. She still lives here. She is 101 years old. She still has her Mexican citizenship. She’s been a resident alien for 84 years because she was proud of where she came from.

What do you think about Demián Bichir’s chances of earning an Academy Award nomination for his role?

It would be hard for me to handicap it, but I just know it’s rare for a movie to be carried on the shoulders of one actor like Demián. It is a wonderful thing when the Academy recognizes someone who is relatively little known in this country. I know we’re in the hunt, but we’re going to have to work hard to get ourselves a spot. If he gets a nomination, I think it would be a really wonderful thing for the Hispanic community and people who really care about this pressing issue.

A Better Life

July 8, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Joaquín Cosio
Directed by: Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”)
Written by: Eric Eason (“Manito”)

It might be a Mexican-American version of the classic 1948 Italian neorealist film “Bicycle Thieves,” but “A Better Life” could not have come at a more appropriate time, as immigration policy advocates continue to plead with the feds to rule on the constitutionality of a raft of new immigration laws being implemented in a variety of states. The film also comes on the heels of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist José Antonio Vargas’s startling and nervy revelation of his undocumented status in an essay he wrote for the The New York Times.

No matter where you stand on the subject, “A Better Life” offers an honest and deeply moving depiction of a Mexican immigrant’s struggle to provide for his son and raise him well enough to never have to follow the same difficult path he chose. While the themes have been confronted before (it’s comparable to, but less melodramatic than, “Under the Same Moon,” and isn’t paced as gradually as the locally produced 2007 drama “August Evening”), “A Better Life” has its own distinct voice and a tender stroke of humanity that keeps it from being lumped together with any overstated political message.

In a nuanced and award-worthy performance reminiscent of Independent Spirit nominee Pedro Castañeda in “August Evening” and Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor,” Mexican actor Demián Bichir (“Che”) embodies a father not only desperate to find a lifeline as a day laborer (his truck and landscaping tools have been stolen), but to also reach his teenage son on a level of emotional understanding and mutual respect.

The stakes are high in “A Better Life” and Bichir matches the film’s tormented tone with a portrayal of a man overcome by both fear and faith. It’s the latter, however, that encourages him to fight for the things that are most important to him no matter what may stand in the way.

New Moon

November 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner
Directed by: Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”)
Written by: Melissa Rosenberg (“Twilight”)

It would be easy enough to dismiss “New Moon,” the latest vampire romance of the newly dubbed “Twilight Saga,” as easily digestible hokum, but you have to at least give author Stephenie Meyer credit for finding a niche in the horror genre no one else imagined. Whether or not you’re a fan of skinny pale vampires with waxed hair, Meyer has created a brand name that has impacted pop culture tremendously over the last four years.

But as millions of twihards swarm into theaters donning their “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” tees, most if not all go in with terrible cases of tunnel vision. Find someone with an unhealthy obsession for the “Twilight Saga” and you’ll find a devoted fan no matter how deficient the movie actually is. For anyone with a more discerning eye, it’s much easier to pinpoint all the flaws that make “New Moon” an average gothic fairy tale aimed at girly-girls not old enough to watch “True Blood” yet.

In “New Moon,” Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is starting her senior year in high school and still dating Edward Cullen (Rob Pattinson), the hottest blood-sucker on campus. As their relationship continues to develop, Bella can’t stop thinking of the impending future that awaits them. Someday Bella will be an old woman while the immortal Edward will forever be the hunky vampire she fell in love with.

The only solution Bella has is for Edward to turn her into a vampire so they can be together for eternity (talk about commitment!). Edward, however, isn’t enthusiastic on the idea of turning his lady love into a monster. After an unfortunate paper cut incident at Bella’s birthday party (a subtle tribute to Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” most twihards won’t notice), the sullen Cullen decides that Bella would be much safer if he and his family left Forks, Washington never to return.

Waiting in the wings to comfort Bella during her montage of depression is the always shirtless Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), a Native American tween who Bella turns to once Edward is gone. The love triangle becomes more complex when Bella finds out Jacob has been hiding a secret from her the entire time they’ve spent together – he’s a werewolf…and he hates vampires.

It all sounds kind of silly reading it as it probably did for Meyer when she wrote it and when screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg adapted it. The script is definitely not one of the finer features of “New Moon.” Like it predecessor, the stale dialogue spewed out by the leads can’t be ignored. When Edward tells Bella “you give me everything just by breathing,” you’ll wonder who else in the world other than Pattinson could get away with delivering such a tacky one-liner to a girl without getting laughed at.

Besides the questionable choices in romanticism, Rosenberg places entirely too much emphasis on things we already know. Edward and Bella are star-crossed lovers, so why reference “Romeo and Juliet” again and again? While it’s in Meyers’ original text, it’s a cliché choice to have included in a film already inundated with enough hamminess to fill the next two films in the series 10 times over.