Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Post

Movie Name: The Post
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healy, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Will Denton, Jennifer Dundas, Christopher Innvar, Coral Pena
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis:
Following his less seen, but by no means less excellent, "The BFG", celebrated director Steven Spielberg is back, with one of his finest features of the last few years. The film is based on the true story of the events that surrounded the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The Washington Post in 1971, during the Nixon administration. The film specifically focuses on the story of Kay Graham, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, a woman who inherited that position following her husband's suicide. The film introduces us to her and to the scenario, as the newspaper is about to go public. When we're introduced to Kay she's depicted as an intelligent, humane and kind person, without much voice of her own, in a business that is solely male dominated, and where her input is considered secondary. She has a dynamic relationship with her editor, something that escalates when the New York Times starts publishing a classified document, that details the findings surrounding the involvement of the Government in the Vietnam War. This event sparks a scandal of epic proportions, and the Times is indicted as a direct result of that. When the source that started this while process finds its way to the Post, it's up to Kay to decide what to do with the publication of those documents, and how that can impact the future of her newspaper and its employees.
"The Post" is a film, much like Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" that serves the point of illustrating that exposing the truth, is at times a perilous and difficult task, one that involves overcoming powerful voices that just want to silence that same truth. This is a film that comes at an important time, when the debates surrounding the veracity of news is being questioned on a daily basis. This film is perfectly executed by Steven Spielberg and his fantastically talented team - they manage to create a perfect choreography of actors and camera, and make the scenes flow seamlessly, without a falter or glitch. It's a testimony to the director's capabilities, that the film never feels overly didactic or sanctimonious - it's a film that showcases what a tremendously talented director, with an impeccable production team and cast can effectively do - deliver a gut wrenching lesson on the power of free speech and upholding justice. The cast is truly stelar, with Meryl Streep once again delivering a nuanced performance, which contrasts heavily with Tom Hanks, who this time arounds plays the character always on the verge of a heart attack (this role would have been more interesting if played by someone such as David Strathairn). The supporting cast is uniformly impeccable, particularly the always underrated Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson and the fantastic Tracy Letts. A fantastic film worth watching and discussing.

I, Tonya

Movie Name: I, Tonya
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janey, Julianne Nicholson, Paul Walter Hauser, Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic, McKenna Grace, Jason Davis, Caitlin Carver
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
Director Craig Gillespie is back, and in fine form, following two previous films that were met with a somewhat tepid response (following his celebrated start with "Lars and the Real Girl" and his impeccable remake of "Fright Night"). "I, Tonya" is a dark comedy, detailing the life of American ice skater, Tonya Harding. The film chronicles her life, from the time she was a child, through her convoluted upbringing, with her mother always demanding more from her, particularly when it came to her attention and focus on ice skating. By the time she turns into a teenager, Tonya falls in love and into an abusive relationship with Jeff Gillooly, just as her range and accomplishments in the ice ring get progressively more successful. The story continues to track Harding's experiences in professional ice skating, until the scandal surrounding the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan, at the Winter Olympics of 1994, and how it involved people who surrounded Tonya, namely her ex-husband, and a mutual acquaintance of both, Shawn, a young man with delusions of grandeur.
"I, Tonya" is a film that captures with a deep irony, how public perceptions are built, and how troubled and damaged upbringings can cast a deep shadow on someone's life. Craig Gillespie, employs a documentary style of approach in depicting the events taking place, but allows the actors to break the fourth wall, particularly the stupendous Margot Robbie, who addresses the audience, demystifying a lot of the events that occurred or that are being depicted. It's a film that walks a fine line between being tragic and comedic, with the latter always vanquishing, but Margot Robbie manages to infuse the character with a heart and a pain that comes across in every single smile and dour expression she gives. The overall cast is fantastic, particularly the always remarkable Allison Janey, Julianne Nicholson and Sebastian Stan. It's an inventive, funny, and deeply humane character study, which makes for a really rewarding watch. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

John Wick: Chapter 2

Movie Name: John Wick: Chapter 2
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Chad Stahelski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Laurence Fishburne, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Thomas Sadoski, David Patrick Kelly
Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
After the surprise success of "John Wick", both commercially and critically, most of the team behind the original feature is back for a sequel, which continues the adventures of the professional killer. The film picks up shortly after the events of the first film, with John being asked by a crime lord to do a service for him, something that he has to comply, due to the rules of the game. When John goes to Italy to finish the job, he finds himself in a tough spot, with a series of people on his tail. Upon dispatching these foes, John returns to New York to settle scores, and finds himself once again in a tough situation, of being himself the target for a series of hitmen.
What has made this series so entertaining has always been the fact that it knows that it's nothing more than a slick B movie. It's a series that holds no pretensions, and yet it has enough smarts to create a central character that though not fully realized, is also sufficiently engaging and dimensional to hold the interest of the viewers. It's a far more interesting version of James Bond, since it avoids being cartoonish, instead being violently over the top, while retaining humor and enough edge to always keep the audience entertained. Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast, since his silent demeanor is perfectly on par with the taciturn aspect of the character. The action set pieces are expertly choreographed by director Chad Stahelski, who also manages to populate the film with an interesting array of supporting actors, from Laurence Fishburne, through Ian McShane. The cinematography from Dan Laustsen is beautiful. A solid and entertaining action film.

Fun Mom Dinner

Movie Name: Fun Mom Dinner
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Alethea Jones
Stars: Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, Bridget Everett, Adam Scott, Rob Huebel, Adam Levine, Paul Rust, David Wain, Paul Rudd
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
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Synopsis:
Following a career of directing TV shows and shorts, "Fun Mom Dinner" is director Alethea Jones first feature film. The film is the first film from writer Julie Rudd (who is married to well known actor Paul Rudd, who also cameos in this film). The film follows the story of 4 mothers, whose children all go to the same school, and who all decide to have a fun night out, including dinner and some drinks. Initially in the group is divorcee Jamie and her best friend, the funny Melanie. They both invite Emily who is going through a rough patch in her marriage, and she brings along the resistant Kate, her high school best friend, who has no interest in hanging out with these two other women. As the night progresses, this group gets involved in some pratfalls, all the while learning a bit more about each other.
"Fun Mom Dinner" is a film that tries desperately to be a R-rated comedy companion to Paul Feig's "Bridesmaids". Sadly it's a film that lacks the bite, the humor, the heart, to effectively engage the viewer to be invested in the lives of these 4 women. All central characters are poorly developed, and aren't much more than cardboard variations of common place cliches, and ultimately the situations that are generated, simply aren't comical or engaging. For all the high jinks that are depicted, the film feels tame, safe, when it truly needed more of heartfelt satire tone. The cast populated with impeccable actors, are wasted in lifeless and forgettable roles. A passable effort.

First They Killed My Father

Movie Name: First They Killed My Father
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Angelina Jolie
Stars: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata, Mun Kimhak, Heng Dara, Khoun Sothea, Sarun Nika, Run Malyna
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
Following her little seen "By the Sea", director Angelina Jolie returns, with a subject matter that is closer to her previous directorial efforts and subject matters (such as "In the Land of Blood and Honey" and "Unbroken"). The film is an adaptation of a book by Loung Ung, one that traces her childhood in Cambodia, as the country was ravaged by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. The film introduces us to Loung, who is 7 and who suddenly sees herself taken alongside her family, from the cities to work camps. While there, she witnesses the progressive deterioration of the quality of life of her family (including her parents and six siblings). She eventually gets isolated from her family and goes through the harshness of labor camp, and is trained as a child soldier. Things take a turn when the Vietnamese army invades the country and deposes the Khmer Rouge regime, allowing her and her reunited siblings to find solace in refugee camps.
Angelina Jolie has thus far in her career, mostly focused on stories that have a backdrop of extreme situations of war, famine and destruction, as vehicles to demonstrate the sheer bravura and resilience of the human spirit. "First They Killed My Father" may be her best feature yet: it's a film that anchors itself in the point of view of a child, and how her witnessing the destruction of all that was familiar to herself, though horrifying and shattering, still kept her going in the hopes of finding a semblance of family. It's a film that again marries her point of view of documenting the destruction and arrowing effects of war, with the beauty that surrounds everyone, particularly in this case, the young central character. The film is simultaneously brutal in its depiction of violence, and aesthetically stunning, capturing the natural beauty of Cambodia (thanks to fantastic cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle). A good film, worth watching. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Call Me By Your Name

Movie Name: Call Me By Your Name
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Peter Spears
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
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Synopsis:
Celebrated director Luca Guadagnino is back, with another striking feature, following the equally alluring and beautiful "A Bigger Splash". "Call Me By Your Name" is an adaptation of the novel by Andre Aciman by acclaimed director James Ivory (who is also one of the credited producers on this project). The film follows the story of young  seventeen year old Elio, who lives with his parents in an idyllic small town in Northern Italy, in 1983. Typically during the Summer, his father gets a research assistant, who in this occasion, turns out to be a dashing young American by the name of Oliver. Initially surprised by Oliver's aloof nature, Elio slowly becomes fascinated by the young man, until they both surrender to an attraction that consumes their attention and emotions.
Luca Guadagnino is a director who manages to perfectly capture the nuance of how amorous relationships develop. "Call Me By Your Name" is a perfect example of his artistry in successfully defining a stage, and allowing for the characters to co-exist and evolve. The film is wonderful in capturing the intellectual aspect of these characters, but also the familial relationships that are established in the Italian countryside, where an air of sensuality permeates across the main characters. It's a film that is perfect in capturing the agonies of young love, but also the energy and placid feel of the Mediterranean culture in the 80s (and there's definitely an ode to the countryside so perfectly captured by James Ivory in the classic "A Room with a View"). The cast is stupendous, particularly Timothee Chalamet, who manages to showcase his versatility with his usage of multiple languages and musical prowess, but also by imbuing his character with vulnerability, fear, impulsiveness and tenderness. Both Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbard are excellent in their roles. The cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is luscious, and the score is phenomenal (the songs from Sufjan Stevens are beautiful). A stupendous film worth watching, from a very talented director.

Logan

Movie Name: Logan
Year of Release: 2017
Director: James Mangold
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Daphne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis:
The Wolverine centered trilogy comes to an end, with another film directed by James Mangold, who tackled the previous "The Wolverine". This time around, the film takes place in 2029, and finds Logan/Wolverine taking care of an elderly Charles Xavier, who needs constant medication to keep his powers under control. Logan drives a limousine, while saving money so he and Charles can escape for a safe haven. This existence is disrupted by the appearance of a woman, wanting Logan to drive her and her small child to a safe area in North Dakota. Both Logan and Xavier soon discover that the young girl is an engineered mutant, who has a series of nefarious people on her trail. The young girl turns out to have powers very much alike Wolverine, and they slowly form a bond of trust, as they race to reach out North Dakota, where they aim to reunite with other mutants, and escape their captors.
As the Wolverine series comes to an end, it should be pointed out, that all three films function independently, and their common thread seems to be the character itself. This latest incarnation of the mutant character, references George Stevens' "Shane" (both literally and thematically), and it's built very much like a western/dystopian futuristic film (where the lonely central hero has to save the young girl, who in turn saves and redeems his soul). It's a film that takes time to develop the context of the narrative, further enhancing the characteristics and motivations of the main character (which at this point, have already been explored extensively in all the X-Men films and the individual Wolverine features). However for all its good intentions, the film doesn't define an effective villain figure, and again, feels like a generic film, devoid of a substantial stylistic approach or point of view towards the action or the central character for that matter. The film is successful in capturing the strong performances from Hugh Jackman, Patrick Steward and Stephen Merchant, all of whom are spot on, however this doesn't manage to make the film sufficiently compelling (even if it is an improvement over the previous iterations). This is again a case, where this iconic character needed a creative vision defining an arc for a series of adventures, as opposed to distinct films that somewhat try to tie with other narrative threads on the X-Men series, failing on both levels, both as distinct storylines and tying plot points with other franchise films.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Darkest Hour

Movie Name: Darkest Hour
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis:
Following the poor reception of "Pan", director Joe Wright has returned with another period piece, focused on a well known personality, the esteemed Winston Churchill. The film focuses specifically on the first month Churchill was in power. We are introduced to the narrative, as current British prime minister Neville Chamberlain is removed from his position, following his inability to deal with the Nazi forces taking over Europe, and the impending World War. Upon Churchill's nomination, one of his first herculean tasks, is getting the British troops out of Dunkirk, where they are under siege, without much opportunity to escape. Churchill's spirit and personality, guide him through the challenges and political machinations he must face in order to move onward and prepare the country to pending war that is looming.
One of the biggest issues with "Darkest Hour" is the fact that it makes most of the interactions of the lead character with all the supporting ones, through a series of speeches (therefore rendering most of the supporting characters, mostly passive voices). The film, which contains beautiful stylistic approaches from the director, can't hide the fact that at its core, is illustrating some very dire circumstances in the history of Humanity. However, whenever it tries to humanize the central character, it always puts that same character pontificating, talking at others, as opposed to having discussions or even dialogs with others. It makes for a rather repetitive and tedious approach to a personality, who should be fascinating in itself. There isn't much grasp to what Churchill was effectively going through, since all we glimpse are his interminable speech writing, and walking through corridors, always smoking and drinking (it's surprising he simply didn't die from all the alcohol and smoke poisoning he must have ingested, as the film suggests). For all the elegance and good taste that the director has always had, there's a somewhat stunted approach to this material, that lacks finesse, particularly when outlining the life of someone as charismatic as Winston Churchill - there's never a particular point of view into what made him unique, and his most humanizing factor, ends up being his wife, played by the stoic Kristin Scott Thomas, who sadly has nothing much to do. For all his virtuosity, it's hard not to look at Gary Oldman's performance, as a calculated risk to win an award, when he has deserved more so, for far more subtle work he has done in his career. The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is stupendous, as is the score from Dario Marianelli. A minor film from an interesting director.

Downsizing

Movie Name: Downsizing
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgard, Ingjerd Egeberg, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, James Van Der Beek, Tim Driscoll, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris, Margo Martindale, Mary Kay Place, Pepe Serna, Joaquim de Almeida
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
Director Alexander Payne is back after the success of "Nebraska" which came out in 2013. This time around, he tackles an original screenplay he wrote with his usual writing partner, Jim Taylor (they both wrote "Election" and "Sideways"). The film takes place in a near future, where concerns with the environment and the future of the human race, has incentivized scientists efforts to figure out solutions to delay the demise of life on Earth. A group of scientists in Norway figures out a way to shrink people to a small percentage of their original size, therefore diminishing their footprint and the level of waste they generate. This trend soon becomes a reality, and more and more people start adhering to it, creating communities of downsized people. A young married couple from Omaha, Paul and Audrey Safranek, dealing with money issues, decide to embark on that process. Paul however is the only one that goes through it, since Audrey has second thoughts. Since the process is irreversible, Paul finds himself alone in the downsized community, "Leisureland", something that becomes more dramatic after his divorce. Paul soon finds himself establishing contact with neighbors, and particularly with a young woman who comes to his building to clean apartments, a Vietnamese refugee who was shrunk against her will. This friendship changes his life forever.
"Downsizing" is another interesting companion piece to the series of films that Alexander Payne has been directing since "Citizen Ruth". Behind its futuristic setting, we once again find the story of an average man, who has to come to terms with what he wants to do with his life, following a dramatic event that shatters his sense of normalcy. "Downsizing" adds extra layers of political and social commentary, as it presents many of the problems we in society in general juggle, such as the ostracizing of other communities/minorities, immigration, the general state of the environment. It's a film filled with great themes, but also with a heart, allowing for characters to exist, with nuance and humanity. There is a general sense of ease as the film evolves, inviting the viewers to question, reflect, without ever being preachy. The score from Rolfe Kent is wonderful, as is the cinematography from Phedon Papamichael. The cast is uniformly good, from the always reliable Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig and the surprising Hong Chau. A good film worth watching.

Bright

Movie Name: Bright
Year of Release: 2017
Director: David Ayer
Stars: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry, Veronica Ngo, Alex Meraz, Happy Anderson, Ike Barinholtz, Margaret Cho, Jay Hernandez, Matt Gerald, Dawn Olivieri
Genre: Adventure, Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
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Synopsis:
Director David Ayer is back, following the tepid response of his big blockbuster effort, "Suicide Squad". He sticks to the adventure/fantasy genre with "Bright", the first big budget feature film hailing from streaming giant Netflix. The film takes place in an alternate universe, where humans co-exist with Orcs, Elves, in a crime infested Los Angeles. The story focuses on veteran police officer Daryl Ward, who has an Orc as a partner, officer Nik Jakoby. When the film begins we are introduced to a situation where Ward has been shot in the line of duty, while his partner was paying attention to something else, allowing the perpetrator to escape. Now back in active duty, everyone wants Jakoby out, and tensions run high. When both police officers get called out to an incident, they get involved with an elf running with a magic wand, something that has tremendous power, and is coveted by everyone. It's up to these officers to escape everyone's persecution, and salvage the wand.
"Bright" was written by Max Landis (and heavily re-written according to multiple reports), who was responsible for the underrated "Chronicle", and in its concept, has the potential to be interesting - different species co-existing in an urban, dangerous landscape, much like Jack Sholder's "The Hidden". However, as tampered by David Ayer, the film attempts to marry his style (he made a name for himself with the gritty dramas, "Training Day" and "End of Watch"), with a more fantastical universe, producing results that are not quite engaging or sensical for that matter. The characters are once again paper thin, without much characterization, and whatever humor there is, comes mostly at the cost of Joel Edgerton's character as he attempts to conform to the human patterns and behaviors. The metaphors for racial tension in this film are bluntly utilized, and the film has incongruent action set pieces where there are car chases in seemingly deserted roads in the middle of Los Angeles. Also supporting characters show up and disappear, without much sense to their contribution to the story itself. Will Smith usually reliable and intense in his performances, dials it in, seemingly aware that this film is quickly dispensable. Here's hoping the next Netflix endeavor is a better one.