Sunday, September 17, 2017

Far from Heaven

Movie Name: Far from Heaven
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Michael Gaston, Ryan Ward, Lindsay Andretta, Celia Weston, Barbara Garrick
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the fantastic "Velvet Goldmine", director Todd Haynes turned his attention to the classics from Douglas Sirk, and tackled a film very much in that vein, but without the hidden context that those alluded films had. The film follows the story of Cathy Whitaker, who lives with her husband Frank, young son and daughter in suburban Connecticut in 1957. On the outside, they have an idyllic life, however Frank is secretly gay and is finding it harder and harder to continue the marriage. Cathy on the other hand finds herself drawn to Raymond, a young black man who is the son of her late gardener. What starts as a friendship, starts blooming into something else, but soon her neighbors and social circle discover this relationship, quickly ostracizing Cathy and her family, forcing her to abandon that relationship at great cost.
Todd Haynes has by now managed to create a career where he subverts conventions at every turn, and that is clearly apparent in "Far From Heaven". The feature is inspired by the works of Douglas Sirk (such as "Written on the Wind", "All that Heaven Allows" and "Magnificent Obsession" to name but a few), but gives it a more fully dimensional reality, by addressing issues with homosexuality and racism openly, something that the classics in the 50s were not able to do, due to the Hays code. Much like Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes creates a drama that pierces to the core of relationships, doing it with a beautifully accomplished style. The central performances are great, but this truly is a fantastic showcase for the talents of Julianne Moore, who has never been better. The cinematography of Edward Lachman is equally stunning, the same going for the score of the late Elmer Bernstein. A very good film, always worth revisiting, from a very talented director.

Mother!

Movie Name: Mother!
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Stephen McHattie, Kristen Wiig, Chris Gartin
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Following the flawed "Noah", director Darren Aronofsky is back, with another feature that is certain to create much discussion and incensed opinions. The film introduces us to a couple: a man who is a writer and who's experiencing problems continuing with his work, and his much younger wife, who has been working diligently to restore his house, that got consumed by a fire. Into this idyllic life comes a stranger, initially knocking at the door looking for a bed a breakfast, but who turns out to be a fan of the writer's work. Soon this stranger's wife also appears, and as much as the young woman wants them out, the writer feeds off their attention, and invites them to stay. Things continue to escalate, as these strangers sons soon appear, feuding over a will, causing a fatal accident to occur. Things keep getting out of hand, until the young woman finally lashes out at the writer's attention seeking necessity, at the risk of her own well being. What ensues defies everything she prepared for.
"Mother!" premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, with the majority of the reviews being largely positive. After tackling a biblical story with "Noah", director Darren Aronofsky built this time around an original story that has some connections with the Bible, but that is very much his own interpretation of the concept of creation, mother earth and conflict. Though the film is being sold to audiences as a relative of Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (and at times the writer figure comes across as a demonic one, something that even one of the cards in the film illustrates), this clearly goes in a much different direction. It's a film that definitely invites discussion, that creates a sense of bafflement, shock and anger. It's a testament to the director's capabilities, that he takes the viewer on a journey through themes and characters that are not obvious, but that are definitely representations of religious tales, and of course, to a larger extent, of how we treat and worship figures at the cost of sacrificing sanity, individuality and ultimately life. The cinematography from Matthew Libatique is fantastic, as is the central performance from Jennifer Lawrence, who carries on her shoulders the anguish of undying love, but also the maternal aspect of that character. A very interesting film from a very talented director.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Chicago

Movie Name: Chicago
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Rob Marshall
Stars: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Colm Feore, Taye Diggs, Dominic West, Lucy Liu, Christine Baranski, Sebastian La Cause, Mya, Chita Rivera, Deidre Goodwin
Genre: Musical, Crime, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
"Chicago" was Rob Marshall's feature debut, following a celebrated and awarded career as a choreographer on Broadway. The film is an adaptation of the musical from Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb, and follows the story of two women in Chicago during the roaring 20s. The film focuses on the young and beautiful Roxie Hart, who while married to quiet and hard working Amos, dreams of a life in vaudeville, and fools around with a few men in the hopes they can get her to that stage. The film also focuses on Velma Kelly, a well known performer, who finds herself in deep trouble, once she kills her husband and sister, who were having an affair without her knowledge. Roxie also finds herself arrested when the man she thought was a passport to a career in show business, turns out to be an imposter, upon which she ends up killing him. These two women find themselves on death row, and have to resort to the services of mercenary attorney Billy Flynn, who knows how to play the media in order to get his clients easily freed.
"Chicago" is a film that lives essentially from the exuberance of the set pieces and musical numbers that puts on display. The lean narrative is a mere pretext for the beautiful musical and choreography that Rob Marshall stages. The rhythm and motion of the film is seamless, which makes for an engaging watch. The cinematography from Dion Beebe is exquisite, and the central performances are equally engaging and compelling (even if not exactly memorable). Renee Zellweger feels miscast, but manages to make the most of her character, while Richard Gere exudes confidence as the oily, mercenary lawyer. While not as iconic as the classic musicals, this is a film where style topples narrative and character development, but without good results to merit repeated viewings.

It

Movie Name: It
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Andy Muschietti
Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgaard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes
Genre: Drama, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis:
"It" is another adaptation of Stephen King's oeuvre, and follows a previous adaptation dated from 1990, which was created as a mini series, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. The film follows the story of a group of children in 1984, in a small town in Maine by the name of Derry. The film starts with the gruesome murder of the young George. That murder wrecks the life of that family, particularly haunting the life of his older brother, Bill. Bill and his friends, Eddie, Richie, Beverly, Ben and Mike, are a group of young children from different backgrounds, with very different family lives, but who take shelter in each other. During their Summer vacation they spend time together, but start having persistent visions of a menacing clown in his balloons, who wants to lure them. Ben explains to the group that through his research of the city, there's something that appears every 27 years, that goes on a killing spree, during which time a lot of children disappear. The group sets out to discover if that story is indeed real, and what relationship does it have with the menacing clown figure.
The adaptation of "It" was a bit troubled with a few directors coming and going, until director Andy Muschietti took the job. The director was previously responsible for the successful "Mama", and was a perfect fit for the material. The film is successful in creating and illustrating the life of a small town in the 80s, and the camaraderie that is established between children. Though at times these relationships feel a bit too forced and artificial, the director manages nonetheless to create a sense of communion and support between the young heroes of this story. He's far more successful in staging the suspense and defining the stalking aspect of the predatory figure who wants to capture and kill the young members of the group. The film doesn't rely in overtly gore aspects, and is simultaneously intelligent in playing with how the fears of the different characters, force them all to face them in order to vanquish that figure of evil. It's an interesting film, that leaves the narrative open to a continuation, but sufficiently well developed to stand on it's own. Worth watching.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Catch Me If You Can

Movie Name: Catch Me If You Can
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, James Brolin, Brian Howe, Frank John Hughes, Chris Ellis, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Pompeo
Genre: Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Director Steven Spielberg had a fantastic 2002, with two great films released the same year. The second one was "Catch Me If You Can", an adaptation of the book (and life) of Frank Abagnale Jr. (the book was also written by Stan Redding). The film follows the story of young Frank Abagnale, who in 1963, following his parents divorce, flees home, and starts creating elaborate cons in order to make ends meet. What starts as small incidents, soon takes on larger exploits, including assuming to be an airline pilot with Pan Am, and forging payroll checks. His cons catch the attention of FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who starts a chase on him, soon realizing he's just a teenager. As Frank's cons keep expanding (and his impersonations include other professions, such as medical doctor and attorney), he eventually flees to Europe to evade capture. Carl is however ever persistent, and finds out where Frank has been hiding.
Steven Spielberg is always at his best when bringing to life stories that live within his universe, without focusing on calculated material and execution, that is fabricated to elicit awards results. "Catch Me If You Can" is a film that perfectly captures the reality of the 60s, but also and more accurately how attitudes around families were changing and shifting, and how the relationship of a young man with an absent father molded his decisions (and instigated his fears). A lot of Spielberg's stories have an absent father figure, and this story is one of a son trying to live up to his father, played fantastically by Christopher Walken. The film is also very successful because of the central relationship between the two central characters, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, goes beyond the typical cat and mouse chase. The film feels effortless, and just with enough heart not to become maudlin. A very good film from a master film maker.

The Bourne Identity

Movie Name: The Bourne Identity
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Doug Liman
Stars: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Clive Owen, Gabriel Mann, Julia Stiles, Walton Goggins, Josh Hamilton, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Tim Dutton
Genre: Action, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Following his indie endeavors which resulted in "Swingers" and "Go", director tackled his first big budget feature with "The Bourne Identity". An adaptation of the Robert Ludlum book, and with a crackling screenplay from Tony Gilroy (who co-wrote it with William Blake Herron, and was subsequently involved in the sequels), the film follows the story of young secret agent, Jason Bourne. When we first see him, he's salvaged from the high seas by a crew of fishermen, and we realize that he has amnesia. Bourne remembers flashes of events, but doesn't recall much about his life and how he found himself at sea. He soon finds himself in Switzerland where he uncovers a safety deposit box with a lot of different identities and a lot of money. With the help of a young german woman by the name of Marie, he hitches a ride to Paris, in hopes of unearthing who he is, and understanding of how he knows the skills he has. Hot on his trail are his former peers and the agency responsible for his training.
Doug Liman has by now established himself as a director capable of taking routinely and formula driven films and making them into something compelling, dynamic and very watchable. His path into big budget features started precisely with "The Bourne Identity", which was his first big hit (though it suffered from some shooting issues). The film combines a smartly written plot, with sufficient questions thrown around, with a central character who is and feels imminently real, much of that due to Matt Damon's minimal performance. Both Damon and Franka Potente, both create characters that feel out of place everywhere they go, and that adds an extra air of despair (they're a non criminal "Bonnie and Clyde") and verisimilitude to the situations they find themselves in. It's a film that takes a more realistic approach to the spy thriller (as opposed to the James Bond films that at the time were reaching their cartoon-style apotheosis), from the well choreographed fight scenes, to the chase scenes through Paris. A very good action film always worth revisiting.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Adaptation

Movie Name: Adaptation
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Cara Seymour, Curtis Hanson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Judy Greer, Brian Cox, Ron Livingston, Doug Jones
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the success of his first feature, "Being John Malkovich", director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman reunited for another collaboration. "Adaptation" which is a loose adaptation of the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean, became something quite different. The film follows the story of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter in Hollywood, who is trying to adapt the book "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean. Charlie soon finds himself with a serious case of writer's block when he realizes the book isn't adaptable. Much to his frustration, his twin brother Donald moves in, and decides to break into screenwriting also. Unlike Charlie, Donald is more outgoing, and has more success with women. Both brothers get entwined with Susan Orlean's personal life, and herself is romantically involved with the man featured in her book, John Laroche. These relationships have an unexpected outcome as Charlie desperately tries to finish his screenplay.
"Adaptation" is another great example of two unique voices in film meeting and creating something distinctively original. The film is a testament and a glimpse into the creative process, also giving an interesting and ironic view at the art of screenwriting. The irony also lies in how Charlie Kaufman portrays himself to be insecure and neurotic, giving his twin brother (or alter ego), all the qualities he wishes he had. It's a very intelligent film, that works on many different levels, all the while giving the trio of lead performers a chance to truly excel. Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper are phenomenal, as is the entire supporting cast (including Tilda Swinton and Brian Cox). The cinematography from Lance Acord is beautiful, as is the score of the eternally underrated Carter Burwell. A great film worth watching!

Death Note

Movie Name: Death Note
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Adam Wingard
Stars: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, Jason Liles, Paul Nakauchi, Jack Ettlinger, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Chris Britton
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten: 4
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Another one of Netflix's original productions, "Death Note" is the adaptation of a popular Japanese manga series. The film is directed by Adam Wingard, who has made a name for himself with a few thrillers, including "The Guest", which had some good reviews and propelled his name further. "Death Note" follows the story of Light Turner, a high school senior whose mother has recently passed away, leaving him scarred and in a somewhat tense relationship with his police officer father. He comes into possession of a strange book by the name of Death Note, which gives him the power to kill whomever he writes in the book. The supernatural entity that comes with the book, explains to him that he can also choose how people die. Light with this new surge of power, starts using the book to target criminals, eventually creating a reputation for this vigilante persona, causing the attention of multiple individuals, including a very talented investigator by the name of L.
"Death Note" is a film that comes a few years later after the trend of remaking Japanese films/properties died down (the last big film from that trend was probably Walter Salles' "Dark Water" with Jennifer Connelly). This one however, unlike some of the films from the early 2000s (such as Gore Verbinski's "The Ring"), feels more like a distant cousin from those features. For starters the core demographic is younger, but also the material itself lacks a sense of menace that made those popular features somewhat memorable and enticing (look as an example the mediocre and popular "The Grudge" from Takashi Shimizu, which came out in 2004). The film is definitely light in the creation of an effective environment and also in style. It features the great cinematography from David Tattersall and the score from Atticus Ross (and Leopold Ross), but the cast is just barely memorable, even the always reliable and great Willem Dafoe. A forgettable endeavor.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

About Schmidt

Movie Name: About Schmidt
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, June Squibb, Howard Hesseman, Harry Groener, Connie Ray, Len Cariou
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Alexander Payne followed his breakthrough film "Election", with another critical hit. "About Schmidt" which came out at the end of 2002, ended up on the lists of the best, and garnered Jack Nicholson another Oscar nomination. The film follows the story of Warren Schmidt, an actuary with a life insurance company in Omaha, Nebraska. After his retirement, and the passing of his wife, Schmidt decides to drive in his Winnebago to Denver, to attend the wedding of his daughter. Though he disapproves of his daughter's choice of husband, Schmidt ends up going through the motions, and meets the eccentric family of his future son in law.
As usual in Alexander Payne's films, his stories are comprised of people leading ordinary lives, but who are thrown into some chaos that disrupts their known habits. His universe is somewhat melancholic and inhabited by people with flaws, but always punctuated by humor. He successfully mitigates the harshness of situations, with a dry (sometimes dark) sense of humor, something that has been a constant in all of his films. "About Schmidt" is almost a one man show, giving Jack Nicholson a perfect opportunity to play a character that is more subdued and quieter than his usual larger than life characters. The actor relishes this opportunity, and gives the character the melancholy, sadness and humor that Schmidt experiences, as his life changes. The film also features a great performance from Kathy Bates, as the mother of the groom, who makes some advances towards Schmidt. It's a film that lives from the richness of its characters, and in that sense it's an endearing and compelling watch. Recommended.

Logan Lucky

Movie Name: Logan Lucky
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Seth MacFarlane, Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson, Sebastian Stan, Hillary Swank, Farrah Mackenzie, David Denman, Jon Eyez, Dwight Yoakam, Edward Gelhaus, Macon Blair
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten: 8
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Celebrated director Steven Soderbergh is back, after a brief hiatus, and after his well received dual releases of 2013, "Side Effects" and "Behind the Candelabra". "Logan Lucky" follows the story of the Logan siblings, comprised of Jimmy, Clyde and Mellie. All three live in West Virginia, and are very close, even if they all have had a fair amount of bad luck in life. Jimmy, the eldest, loses his job in construction due to a knee injury, while Clyde works at a bar since coming back from enlisting in the army (where he lost his hand). Mellie works in a salon, and helps Jimmy taking care of his daughter, whom he shares with a slightly resentful ex-wife. Jimmy devises a plan to rob the money from a NASCAR event in North Carolina, but in order to do so, he needs to recruit the help of Joe Bang, an incarcerated bank robber (alongside his brothers Fish and Sam, both of whom are deeply religious). The intricate plan will require all pieces aligning together perfectly, something that will also require taking Joe out of jail ahead of time.
"Logan Lucky" is another example of how fantastically gifted Steven Soderbergh is. Taking a smartly written screenplay, the director introduces rhythm, humor and authenticity to a film that could have easily turned into a broad caricature. It's a testament to his talent that the director, reuniting with Channing Tatum (with whom he created "Magic Mike"), manages to bring all the pieces together, creating a film that is well orchestrated, well acted, and perfectly in tune with the material. This isn't simply a different version of "Ocean's 11" - this film strips the layer of flash that one had, and replaces it with humor and heart. The cast is uniformly great (with the possible exception of Seth MacFarlane, who overacts in his attempt to be overly funny and larger than life), and the score from David Holmes is perfectly cool and breezy. A very good film worth watching.