Sunday, February 18, 2018

Altered Carbon

TV Show Name: Altered Carbon
Year of Release: 2018
Directors: Alex Graves, Peter Hoar, Nick Hurran, Andy Goddard, Miguel Sapochnik, Uta Briesewitz
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Conner, Dichen Lachman, Will Yun Lee, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, Waleed Zuaiter, Tamara Taylor, Byron Mann, Hayley Law, Marlene Forte
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Another month, another new TV show provided by Netflix. This time around, this one comes through Skydance (the production house responsible for some "Mission: Impossible" features and also the latest "Terminator" installments, to name but a few). "Altered Carbon" is an adaptation of the novel by Richard Morgan, which has been shepherded by Laeta Kalogridis, who has previously worked with Martin Scorsese on "Shutter Island" and James Cameron on "Avatar". The story takes place in the future, where consciousness and the sense of self has shifted, since people can inhabit different bodies (or sleeves), carrying with them their memories through years and years. A man deemed responsible for some serious crimes, is thawed out (in this future, criminals are frozen for periods of time corresponding to their sentence), and given a new sleeve, in order to investigate a murder attempt that has taken place against someone with a lot of power and resources. Kovacs, is an expert investigator, and possessed of lethal skills. He's also placed in a sleeve who carries a lot of memories for the police officers who are quickly on his trail. As Kovacs adapts to this new time, he also remembers faces and situations of his past, as all these timelines and characters clash as he unfolds the mysteries surrounding that murder attempt.
"Altered Carbon" is an interesting show that wears a lot of its influences very apparently. There's the instantly recognizable influence from "Blade Runner", but there's also bits of "Minority Report" thrown in, and even "Total Recall" (all from the mantle of Philip K. Dick). The show succeeds in being a noir/detective story, where the hero navigates a dangerous path to find the puppet master behind all the machinations occurring. It's also peppered with very interesting concepts on mortality, the possibility of living endlessly and the effects that it creates on people, caste systems, and also the evolution of society itself. If some of these topics are brushed a bit more roughly, the show is nonetheless an interesting suspense yarn, that is exposed progressively, therefore being able to retain the attention of the viewer during the 10 episodes. Visually the series is interesting, even if needed a bit more consistency in tone (the production design is a bit all over the place, the same going for the costume design). The acting group assembled is adequate without being particularly memorable, though James Purefoy plays sinister perfectly at this point. An interesting show worth watching.

Black Panther

Movie Name: Black Panther
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, John Kani
Genre: Action, Aventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Director Ryan Coogler has followed his successful film "Creed" with a foray into the Marvel Universe. This time around, the story focuses on T'Challa, the new elected king from an African kingdom by the name of Wakanda. This nation has thrived for centuries under the blessing of a rare substance by the name of Vibranium, which among its many applications, has given their rulers enhanced strength, speed and healing capabilities. The newly minted king, finds himself dealing with a vibranium smuggler, and most importantly a figure from the past, who unknown to him, is someone casting a big shadow on his new ruling. It's up to him and his family and closest allies to battle these dark forces and prevent the dangerous situation of escalating to a world menace.
"Black Panther", unlike "Doctor Strange" or "Ant Man" for instance, doesn't benefit from an introductory film or storyline. That has already happened in Anthony and Joe Russo's "Captain America: Civil War", where the character was introduced in the context of the battle that raged between the other superheroes in that film. "Black Panther" deals with the aftermath of the events of that feature, giving some insight into the burden carried out by the son of a great ruler, and the expectations he holds on himself to follow suit. That's the most humane thing about a film, that other than that plot point, ends up being pretty formulaic and relying once again on the exquisite special effects and production design to actually make an impact. Sadly the arc and story developed for the lead character, and also the supporting ones, doesn't do justice to the available means that were put together by the Marvel production machine. It's of praise that the female characters are indeed given more relevance, but they're barely defined (and it's not compelling enough to say a film has good female characters just because they fight men on equal terms), while the main antagonist, has little definition, or even motivation to do whatever he's doing. Sadly in this film, there's not really anyone who actually creates a memorable character, with Letitia Wright walking away with the most humorous moments. The cinematography from Rachel Morrison is beautiful, as are the stunning costumes created by Ruth E. Carter. Another impeccably done yet instantly forgettable film from the Marvel cannon.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Panic Room

Movie Name: Panic Room
Year of Release: 2002
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Ann Magnuson, Patrick Bauchau, Ian Buchanan
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the iconic "Fight Club", David Fincher returned to the screens with "Panic Room", a tight exercise in suspense, featuring a female protagonist, something that his previous films hadn't had, save for his debut, "Alien 3". The film follows the story of Meg Altman, a recently divorcee mother of a teenage girl, who is looking for a new place to live in New York. Both she and her daughter find a beautiful brownstone, that contains a panic room, a space specifically created for when the house is invaded, or when it's occupants feel unsafe. On the night they first move in, the house is broken into by three men, one of them being the grandson of the previous owner. They are looking for 3million dollars in bonds, which are contained in a safe located within the Panic Room. When they begin their invasion, Meg sees the three men coming into the house and takes Sarah, her daughter, to the room, in order to escape. What follows is a cat and mouse game, between the assailants and the resourceful Meg.
As is typically the case with films directed by David Fincher, "Panic Room" is a richly detailed film, where all details are accounted for. The film uses a much tighter canvas to tell this story of a resourceful hero overcoming odds of being pushed, pressured and ultimately forced out of her comfort zone, to come into her own and vanquish those obstacles. It's a common thread to all of Fincher's heroes and leads throughout his features - characters forced out of their comfort zone, facing their fears, and ultimately battling them out. This time around, the always fantastic Jodie Foster embodies the central character, creating in Meg a dutiful and attentive mother, someone who is still recovering from a painful divorce, and who's trying to make the best of what she can for herself and for her daughter. This extraordinary circumstance, forces her to realize that her life is worth defending, and more importantly, her daughter's survival. It's a finely realized film, where the characters of the assailants are not quite flushed out, therefore presenting them more like sketches (though the issue there lies with a poor screenplay). The film features the beautiful cinematography from Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji, and the gripping score from Howard Shore. A very good and entertaining film from a terrific film maker.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Minority Report

Movie Name: Minority Report
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Max Von Sydow, Kathryn Morris, Lois Smith, Tim Blake Nelson, Mike Binder, Peter Stormare, Steve Harris, Neal McDonough, Patrick Kilpatrick, Jessica Capshaw, Daniel London, Arye Gross, Ashley Crow
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the beautiful "A.I.", director Steven Spielberg tackled another futuristic story, this time around with the adaptation of another Philip K. Dick short story. The film takes place in the near future, where technology has permeated across every aspect of society. The film introduces us to an experimental law enforcement project in Washington D.C., where for the first time  ever the concept of pre-cognition is being used to prevent crimes from occurring. These precogs are three individuals who have the ability to see into the future, and therefore predict violent crimes, allowing the police the ability to prevent crimes even before they occur. This division is run by chief John Anderton, a hard working man who suffered the dramatic loss of his son, and whose personal life crumbled as a result of that. When Pre-Crime is about to be debated, and expand to a national level, a striking occurrence comes into play that may disrupt everything that makes this project so special.
"Minority Report" is one of Steven Spielberg's best films to this day. It perfectly marries a taut and well written screenplay, with a combination of style, production design and visual effects that is expertly put together. Unlike some of his other forays into Science-Fiction, "Minority Report" actually tries to stay grounded and build bridges to how reality can effectively progress, and questions ethics and politics in ways that are intelligently showcased without being judgmental. It's also a film where there are no perfect archetypes in the main characters - the hero is flawed and humane, the same going for the antagonists. It's also a testament to its impact, that this film influenced so many of the science fiction features that have since come out. Tom Cruise is perfectly cast in the lead role, allowing him to play a conflicted man on the run, with a great cast rounding up his efforts, particularly Samantha Morton, Max Von Sydow and Lois Smith. The cinematography from Janusz Kaminski is stunning as is the score from John Williams. A fantastic film from a brilliant film maker.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Men In Black II

Movie Name: Men in Black II
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rosario Dawson, Rip Torn, Johnny Knoxville, Tony Shalhoub, Patrick Warburton, Jack Kehler, David Cross
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the success that met the first "Men in Black" the sequel was inevitable, which came out 5 years later. This time around, agent J has to and seek out the retired agent K, since there's a new alien threat on Earth. This new threat, who has taken the shape of a beautiful lingerie model (and has a two headed assistant), is looking for an alien artifact. This alien browsing on Earth is witnessed by a waitress, who spurs the romantic interest of agent J, and who turns out has a tie to agent K. It's up to them to reunite and save the planet.
Barry Sonnenfeld's career has been largely dominated by comedic films, with his most successful ones ("The Adams Family", "Men in Black", "Get Shorty") being a perfect blend of wit, finely tuned characters and a unique stylistic approach (that is also a testament to his early career as a cinematographer). "Men in Black II" follows the pattern established by the first film, with the dichotomy of the central characters making for the odd couple routine, providing enough fodder for the successful comedy bits. The film also benefits from the casting of an interesting array of very talented supporting actors, including Rip Torn, Lara Flynn Boyle and Rosario Dawson. The film however doesn't really add anything new in terms of structure or further expansion of the characters, particularly when compared to the original, but it's expertly built with a fantastic team featuring the score from Danny Elfman, the makeup effects from Rick Baker and production design from the great Bo Welch. An entertaining, yet forgetful sequel from an interesting film maker.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Best films of 2017

2017 was dominated by headlines detailing how movie attendance was generally down. However, the trend of releasing films based on comic books continued. As streaming and new distribution channels come into play, it's interesting to assess how films and how we consume them is rapidly changing. My ten best list, includes films produced and released during 2017. I also included two new TV shows that debuted in 2017, that are worth checking out.

Lady Bird
Director: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalfe, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Jake McDorman, Jordan Rodrigues, Odeya Rush, Andy Buckley, Marielle Scott

Call Me By Your Name
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Stars: Timothee Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Peter Spears

The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly

Dunkirk
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Matthew Marsh 

The Post
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

Phantom Thread
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Camilla Rutherford, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter

Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Carla Juri, Edward James Olmos, Mackenzie Davis, Hiam Abbass, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, Sean Young

Marjorie Prime
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, Hannah Gross, Stephanie Andujar, Azumi Tsutsui

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Kerry Condon, Amanda Warren, Clarke Peters, Nick Searcy, Sandy Martin, Samara Weaving

I, Tonya
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

TV shows worth investigating include the David Fincher produced and directed Mindhunter and Amy Sherman-Palladino's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Special highlights should go to the following films that were equally impressive: Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father, Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky,  Mike Flanagan's Gerald's Game and Darren Aronofsky's divisive Mother!. The films that simply failed on multiple levels include Zack Snyder's Justice League, Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2 and David Ayer's Bright.

Phantom Thread

Movie Name: Phantom Thread
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Gina McKee, Camilla Rutherford, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Three years following the underrated "Inherent Vice", director Paul Thomas Anderson is back with "Phantom Thread". The film follows the story of acclaimed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, in London in the 50s. Woodcock is a perfectionist, and a person fastidious and extremely observant of his daily routines. He is accompanied in his life and business by his stern sister. In one of his trips to the country (to recover and gain inspiration), Woodcock meets Alma, a waitress working in a small coffee shop. There's an instant attraction, and Alma becomes an inspirational muse, love interest, and equally model for the collections that Woodcock is producing in his atelier. However as their collaboration continues, the less interested he becomes in keeping her around, something that provokes Alma to react in an unexpected manner.
Out of all Paul Thomas Anderson films, "Phantom Thread" has in my opinion, some contacts with one of his more joyous previous films, but in a much darker perspective. I'm speaking of course of the beautiful and romantic "Punch Drunk Love". Though both films chronicle the blossom of romantic relationships, whereas "Punch Drunk Love" is a beautiful and artistic dig at the traditional screwball comedy, "Phantom Thread" goes for a much darker and murkier aspect of that romanticism. The film focuses on the relationship between a relentless, deeply methodical and accomplished man, and his elected muse, someone who's never given much opportunity to disclose her background, her wants and needs, or really grow as an individual. There's a monstrous narcissism that consumes Woodcock, preventing him from seeing what surrounds him, with only his sister keeping an edge over his ego and behavior, which teeters on infantile at times. It's definitely a film of a different scope for the director, who has always gone in the direction of focusing his attention in polarizing characters, but ones that were always encased in a very diverse web of relationships. This film is an exploration of this amorous relationship, one that evolves as these two people become accustomed to each other, and how they learn to get something out of each other. It's definitely a compelling film, featuring great performances from the three leads, alongside impeccable camera work from the director himself, and a subtle score from Jonny Greenwood. A good film worth watching.

Oculus

Movie Name: Oculus
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis:
"Oculus" is a follow up to a short feature directed by Mike Flanagan from 2006. The film follows the story of Kaylie and Tim Russell, siblings in their early 20s, who ten years prior went through a very disturbing and traumatic event in their family. Tim was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution as a result of having shot their father. Kaylie has long suspected that the events that unfolded were a direct result of supernatural presences that existed within a mirror that was present at their home. Now an adult, Kaylie has tracked down that mirror, and she intends to prove the power from that mirror, with the help of her recently released brother. However, the mirror, and the powers that it holds within has some different ideas.
Mike Flanagan has carved out a career for himself, with smartly constructed suspense and horror films, where the concept/premise of what is being watched is the focus, building an environment of discomfort and unease, as opposed to the graphical or visceral elements that have characterized so many horror films. "Oculus" is a great example of his approach - the film has an interesting premise, with a haunted mirror that influences some characters to do extreme things, and that can control what the characters see in reality. It's a premise that makes for a very dynamic unfolding of the narrative, as the director smartly interweaves the present and past timelines, to give the story an added sense of menace and distress (particularly since in the past timeline, the children are being forced to defend themselves from their possessed parents). The film is thin on character development, but it does manage to maintain the interest of the audience, by never overexposing the entity, and by suggesting more than gratuitously showcasing frights and scares. The cast assembled is interesting and diversified, with Karen Gillan and Rory Cochrane creating strong performances, while Brenton Thwaites continues to showcase the same type of performance from film to film (null, devoid of emotion and ultimately, credibility). The cinematography from Michael Fimognari is impeccable, as is the score from The Newton Brothers. An entertaining film worth watching.

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
View Trailer

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
View Trailer

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.