JOHNNY CHAZZ: Focus Features is a segment of Universal Pictures producing well-written and sharp films. Having been a frequent Academy award winner and nominee over the past two decades, Focus Features have remained both intact and highly profitable for Universal. Having began in 1991 under the name of “Good Machine” with a mission of creating and generating both artistically interesting films as well as films, which struck the heart of the human soul. Films produced by Focus would never be referred to as or compared to big-budget blockbusters commonly seen today with major studios.
I would imagine that I probably fell in love with Focus Feature films back around the turn of the millennium when “Traffic” was released (a film that we discussed in detail right here on CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT last week). Directed by Stephen Soderbergh and featuring an all-star cast, "Traffic" focuses on a conservative judge who is appointed by the President to spearhead
Now becoming a small fan of Focus Features, I began to keep an eye out for other films that had been a part of this studio segment. I soon realized that just a year prior I had been very impressed with the film “Being John Malkovich” which was released in 1999. Directed by Spike Jonze, his surreal yet highly creative and colorful piece of work focused on a puppeteer who discovers a portal leading straight into the working mind of movie star, John Malkovich. This film received nominations for both Best Screenplay and Best Director categories. My picture points? 7.5/10.
The entertainly bizzare trailer for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH!
"Billy Elliott” was not exactly a box-office hit, but most people I spoke to who had seen it were quite moved by the film. Directed by Stephen Daldry, the film focused on a talented young boy who is torn between his unexpected love of dance and the disintegration of his family. The film was nominated for the Best Screenplay, Director and Actress categories. My picture points: 6.5/10.
In 2001, “
Gosford Park” was a pleasant surprise and surfaced as a multiple-storyline drama set in the 1930’s . The plot centers on the McCordle family, particularly the man of the house, William McCordle. As the film marches on, the drama increases as all the characters are after William and his money. This film was an Academy award winner for Best Screenplay and deservingly so. The film was also nominated for numerous other categories at the Academy Awards that year including Director, Costume and Supporting roles. My picture points? 7/10. England
The 2002 release of “Far From Heaven” was a tremendous surprise. Directed by Todd Haynes and starring Julianne Moore, this “melo-drama” set during the 1950’s outlined a housewife who is facing a marital crisis while mounting racial tensions are ongoing in the outside world. Ranking in my top 100 of all time, the interior sets and camera work are simply tremendous as “Far From Heaven” received 4 nominations including Score, Cinematography, Actress and of course – screenplay. My picture points: 8.5/10.
The next three films released by Focus Features were also tremendous and all rank in my top-250 of all time. In 2003, minor box-office hit “Swimming Pool” was a suspense thriller with a European flair with actresses Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sauvignier. My picture points: 8/10.
A "must-see" film...we recommend SWIMMING POOL!
"Lost in Translation” was released soon after in 2003 and directed by the up and coming Sofia Coppola, An American movie star (Bill Murray) with a sense of emptiness in life and in his marriage especially meets up with a neglected newlywed (Scarlett Johanssen) meet up as strangers in Tokyo, Japan and form a amazing, yet unlikely bond. With 3 Academy Award nomination, this film won the top prize with Best Original Screenplay – and deservingly so. My picture points: 9/10.
"21 Grams” then surfaced later in 2003 continued a tremendous season for the studio. Directed by Alejandro Inarritu and starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio Del Toro, this riveting cast took on the gripping story of a freak accident that brings together a critically ill mathematician, a grieving mother and a born-again ex-con. “21 Grams” received nominations for Best Actress and Supporting Actor. My picture points: 8/10.
In the last seven (7) years, the films of Focus Features have remained solid, yet have lacked a bit of the creativity and spark that their films the prior decade had owned. Still, films of note between 2003 and 2010 that I would recommend would be: "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), "The Constant Gardener" (2004), "Brokeback Mountain" (2005), "Eastern Promises" (2006), "Lust, Caution" (2006), "Atonement" (2007), "Burn After Reading" (2008), "Coraline" (2008), "Milk" (2008), and "A Serious Man"(2009).
An attempt to continue writing the terrific screenplays that constitute many of the Focus Features was made with the 2010 release of "The Kids Are All Right". The film lacked substance and audiences were quite disappointed. Still, the writing and creativity of the studio remains intact and this is precisely the backbone of where Focus Features’ strength lies. More importantly, it is the strength of Screenplay (Original) that continues to serve as the main ingredient in my love, respect and adoration for Focus Feature films.
JER: What a great change of scenery from our weekly "Film Recommendation of the Week" we have been seeing here on CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT! The reason and creation of this blog site was to comment and speak about everything film-related that others wouldn't dare or even imagine doing!
OK. But now I need to focus on Focus Features! (I know, that was bad) Focus became a well recognized studio for both of us, right at the time that we began talking film. Having recently recommended TRAFFIC on this blog site, it is already understood our love for how this film came about and the large debt of gratitude that needs to be directed towards the maverick studio that is Focus.
Along side TRAFFIC, other films you mentioned, JC, need to be highlighted more so… one other that didn’t quite get all the credit it deserved was 21 GRAMS. This was a great film with a great cast that works on the focus of a riveting character script. Again, not needing any fancy camerawork or high-tech special effects…the weight of the actors and their abilities to take us into their lives proves yet another great project that could not have been marketed or made through a major studio’s greenlight but produced wonderfully by Focus.
The highly- acclaimed drama/ thriller 21 GRAMS!
An interesting take I found about most Focus films is the time of day I enjoy watching them to help set the appropriate mood. I would have to say the LOST IN TRANSLATION, TRAFFIC and 21 GRAMS, for me personally, captures more of the ambience and enhances the photography and drama of the story when I watch them late in the evening with all the lights off! I like to turn up my surround-sound in my TV room and only be illuminated by the developments coming off my flat screen…it is truly a wonderful and satisfying experience! The reader may want to try this at home, watch a particular clip of your choice during the day and play it again late at night…you tell me if you cannot feel the difference.
I must also mention a very personal favorite of mine, CORALINE. Now it has been mistaken that Tim Burton had anything to do with this project…he did not. This wonderfully animated film was directed by Henry Selick (who also directed THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Tim Burton’s contribution to this film was story writer and producer) Selick’s separation of
’s work was proven to be imaginative and well received. This film has moved into both the likings of many children of all ages and still obtains a “cult” following as well. Burton
Holy crap! I am going to pick up a dropped ball by you, JC…how could you leave out EASTERN PROMISES? It is directed by one of our favorites, David Cronenberg (THE FLY, SCANNERS, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, VIDEODROME) and plays out with a remarkable cast including Viggo Mortensen (he was robbed of a nomination), Naomi Watts and the great Vincent Cassel. The film focuses on the rise of a small Russian mafia family in
. A very powerful and in-your-face drama/ action film that does not let up or give you a chance to breathe as it takes you into its world of crime and doesn’t let go! The film offers a departure for both actor Mortesnsen and director Cronenberg, respectfully. I think working with the assistance of an independant production company allows both artist and maker to freely allow expression to flow evenly without the constraints of marketing and publication for profit! London
In short, it is best understood that not ALL films can or should be released by major motion picture studios. I think that the sum of the Focus Features’ films would loose a touch, an artistic flair and would play to major audiences…instead, it is a wonderful studio coming from Universal Studios, allowed solely to be made and find its audience…however and whenever it can!
Please join us next week, when it's JER's turn to talk about...well, you'll just have to see...so, that means that, until then, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!
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