Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Disaster Artist

Movie Name: The Disaster Artist
Year of Release: 2017
Director: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, June Diane Raphael, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Joe Mande, Melanie Griffith
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
Prolific actor, screenwriter and director James Franco is back, following his long interminable list of projects that keeps him busy. This time around, he's focusing his attention on the making of one of the cult films that has been around since 2003, "The Room". The film introduces us to young actor Greg, who is taking acting classes in San Francisco, without much success. In one of the acting workshops, he meets the enigmatic and intense Tommy. Tommy and Greg become fast friends, even if most of what Tommy states about his origins, age and activities, seem completely fabricated and fictitious. Both friends decide to move to Los Angeles, and try for their acting ambitions, since Tommy already has an apartment in the city. Greg manages to get an agent, but both his and Tommy's auditions lead them nowhere. With unemployment as their reality, Tommy decides upon himself to write a script, which he calls "The Room". With his apparently bottomless cash funds, Tommy decides to direct the film, which is originally scheduled to shoot for 40 days, but that is met with quite a few challenges, most of which related to his inexperience.
"The Disaster Artist" is a film that, much like Tim Burton's "Ed Wood", makes the central hero, someone who feverishly pursues their dreams and ambitions, even if they don't really know what they're doing. What makes "Ed Wood" so perfect, is that the film is an ode to film makers of the past, people who wanted to tell stories and immerse the audiences in the world they were creating. "The Disaster Artist" however focuses more on the eccentricities of someone who wants to act, and be on the screen, almost as a personal statement against the world that has always pushed him down. The film ends up being so funny and ironic, for the simple reason that Tommy is relentless and simultaneously clueless about making films, and above all, about himself and how he comes across to others (both on and offscreen). It's a film with lots of winks and nods to the film making business and process, and that in itself is the most successful part of this film. All the cast is uniformly good, but James Franco manages to create a character that is funny, over the top and a close ringer to the original Tommy. A fun film worth watching.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Movie Name: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Rebecca Miller, Judd Hirsch, Adam Driver, Grace Van Patten, Candice Bergen, David Cromer, Sakina Jaffrey
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
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Synopsis:
Director Noah Baumbach is back, following his latest two features, which found him reaching much bigger audiences that some of his previous efforts ("While We're Young" and "Mistress America" to be more specific). "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)", premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, even though it's a film produced by streaming giant Netflix. The film follows the tribulations of a New York family, namely the patriarch Harold, a retired teacher and sculptor, his current wife Maureen, and his offspring, Danny, Matthew and Jean. Danny who is going through a separation, comes to New York with his daughter who's about to go to college to study film. Danny is having to stay with his father, while his divorce gets settled. Harold in the meantime, is trying to get a retrospective on his work, while simultaneously considering moving out of the city, since the cost of living in New York has pushed them out. All these events come to a halt, when Harold ends up in the Hospital due to a small accident he had. This forces Matthew, the youngest son, to fly from Los Angeles to also provide some assistance, while he himself is going through some personal issues.
Noah Baumbach's films, much like Woody Allen's, are deeply rooted on familiar topics for him, namely a certain intellectual milieu that exists and thrives in New York. In this arena of culture and artists, and to a certain extent, privilege, exists these dysfunctional relationships of parents and children, things that are never quite well resolved, due to personal ambitions or withheld affections, all this emotional tension that seems to slow cook but never really boils. In the case of "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)", these relationships are more pronounced, as the patriarch is dealing with the effects of old age, health complications, and yet also wanting to achieve a level of recognition that never really happened during his younger years. This is obviously a film that rehashes a lot of dynamics that have been seen before, but what salvages this feature, is the fantastic cast that is assembled. Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel, make for a very compelling cast, and bring to life the challenges that characters have of adjusting to deflated egos, sibling rivalry and even emotional baggage that is carried around for a lifetime. Even if the material isn't the freshest, there is enough gusto in the performances to make the film enjoyable. Worth watching.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Marjorie Prime

Movie Name: Marjorie Prime
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, Hannah Gross, Stephanie Andujar, Azumi Tsutsui
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis:
After the well received "Experimenter", director Michael Almereyda is back, with one of his best features (he came to prominence in the early 90s with "Nadja", which premiered in 1994). "Marjorie Prime" takes place in the near future, and focuses on the story of Marjorie. Marjorie is 85 and struggles with dementia. In order to alleviate these challenges, her daughter Tess and son in law Jon, have provided her with an AI type of assistant, which has taken the form of her deceased husband, Walter (when he was in his 40s). Through their interactions, conversations and mutual pool of memories, Marjorie can revisit parts of her past, and to a larger extent keep herself engaged and in the moment. Walter Prime (Prime is the name of the application that runs these AI assistants), keeps learning continuously, not just from Marjorie, but from Tess and Jon, in order to collect more memories and be more useful in its purpose. As the story evolves, we witness as the Prime application (and the forms it takes) becomes such a presence in the lives of these individuals.
"Marjorie Prime" is a film that is smartly built on the premise of memories being copies and interpretations of events that took place, but ones where humans access them continuously, but where they get more and more faded out as they get accessed. The Prime application, functions in the film as possibilities of closure and closeness to characters whose lives were shattered by the loss of someone, or for characters who never had a chance to deal with unearthed issues. Marjorie initially uses the program to remind herself of things she's losing, as she's battling dementia, but as the film evolves, and Tess then uses the program, and eventually Jon, it's interesting to see how they all try to capture something from the past, through their own prism, in order to achieve some sense of peace or understanding. It's a film that, similarly to a lot of interesting sci-fi concepts, questions how we interpret memories, events, and how sometimes finding the right place for these means nothing if these events aren't addressed, digested and truly comprehended. It's a very intelligent film, one that lives from interactions, and from the performances of their leads, all of whom are great in their roles. The film also features a beautiful soundtrack by Mica Levi, and an elegant cinematography from Sean Price Williams. A very good film worth watching.

The Circle

Movie Name: The Circle
Year of Release: 2017
Director: James Ponsoldt
Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Ellar Coltrane, Nate Corddry, John Boyega, Amir Talai, Ellen Wong, Beck
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis:
Director James Ponsoldt continues his string of interesting projects/features, with the adaptation of Dave Eggers book, "The Circle". The film focuses on the story of young Mae, who lives in a suburb of the Silicon Valley area, working an aimless job, who suddenly finds herself being interviewed for a job with one of the hottest tech companies in the area. Mae aces the interview, starts her new position, and progressively gets a better understanding of how "The Circle" operates across multiple people's lives, including her own and the one of her friends and family (including her parents, who get dragged to the network, even when her father is dealing with some serious health issues which they prefer to keep private). "The Circle" is governed by the charismatic Bailey, who comes in contact with Mae, through some unexpected circumstances. This turn of events makes Mae an instantly recognizable character within the company, and within the social network, something that keeps evolving, as the Circle's plans also keep expanding ever more.
So far James Ponsoldt's films have been ever more successful, the more they are focused on characters that are trying to find their place in the world. They are typically young adults, that are establishing or figuring out their own path, and finding that adulthood is perpetually tangled in familial relationships that define or influence those paths. "The Circle" has some of those traits, and it's interesting to observe Mae's interactions in the world, both personal and professional, particularly as she tries to achieve something for herself, and help her parents in the process. However the film introduces a concept, somewhat similar to Irwin Winkler's "The Net" (1995, before the dot com), where the young heroine is working for a company that has sinister motives to everything they do. Obviously "The Circle" tries to be a jab at Facebook, and how privacy is slowly eroding from people's lives, however the film ends up having these two facets that never really marry successfully. On one hand, you have the story of young Mae trying to find her bearing in the world, and on the other there's a somewhat tech thriller looming, and these two never gel solidly. Emma Watson is always a compelling presence, as is Tom Hanks, however the material just isn't as interesting as it could be. It's not sufficiently "Three Days of the Condor", and it's definitely not as intimate and heartfelt as "The Spectacular Now". Here's hoping the director's next feature is a more interesting one.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Movie Name: Murder on the Orient Express
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., Leslie Odom Jr., Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Tom Bateman, Josh Gad, Phil Dunster, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton, Sergei Polunin
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
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Synopsis:
Director Kenneth Branagh is back, following his latest big hit for Disney, "Cinderella". This time around, the actor/director tackles the adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, that was previously adapted to the big screen in 1974, by Sidney Lumet, and had an equally impressive cast that included Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and Sean Connery. The film follows the adventures of Hercule Poirot, as he embarks the Orient Express to be taken to a case that needs to be solved in London. During the journey, Poirot comes to know all the passengers, including Samuel Ratchett, who offers him a very generous amount of money to be his personal bodyguard, since he fears for his safety. That same evening, much to everyone's shock, he appears murdered in his cabin, with twelve stab wounds. It's up to Poirot to use his logical and illustrious mind to solve the complicated case.
Agatha Christie's novels and in particular her character Poirot have been adapted and transposed to the screens on multiple occasions. This one hailing from Kenneth Branagh, features a strong and diversified cast, and the film definitely benefits from robust production values, but even upon its start, is a film that is riddled with an artificial tone and feel that never quite manages to be resolved. The film, much like the mustache that Branagh uses for the duration of the film, feels bloated and excessively manicured, never really allowing for any of the characters to exist, much less allowing for any of the viewers to create any empathy with the events that have unraveled on the train. It's a film that has a sterling array of great actors, and yet they get very little bandwidth to really expand on the motivations for their characters. They become nothing more than small anecdotes, and therefore difficult to care much about their outcome. It's a film that could potentially feel claustrophobic, since it takes place on a train, yet that angle is never really sufficiently used (though the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is beautiful). The great cast has nothing much to do, though it's always fantastic to see Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench dialing it up a notch. A forgettable endeavor from an irregular director.

Lady Bird

Movie Name: Lady Bird
Year of Release: 2017
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
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis:
Celebrated actress Greta Gerwig (she was last seen in Mike Mill's wonderful, "20th Century Women"), has followed up her first directorial effort, with the largely autobiographical "Lady Bird", in what is one of the best films of the year. The film follows the story of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, who is a senior in high school, in 2002, in the Sacramento area. She's intelligent, filled with enthusiasm, but most of all, she longs to leave Sacramento, and move to the East Coast, particularly New York, in order to go to college. She currently attends a Catholic school, where she is best friends with the sweet and understanding Julie. They both decide to audition for a play, since Christine isn't really sure that's something she wants to do, but it's definitely something she wants to try. Once there she meets a young man by the name of Danny, whom she develops an infatuation with, and whom she stars dating. After the premiere of the play, the group goes for a celebration, and Christine discovers some hidden secrets about Danny. As her life keeps going through ebbs and flows, the more Lady Bird knows she wants to try something different, and move beyond the expectations of staying where she is.
"Lady Bird" is a film that surprises and delights, due to its combination of humor, heart, style and incisive observations. It's a film that is so very funny, without ever falling to pratfalls or easy subterfuges. It anchors its humor in the situations that it depicts, and it does so by representing how life is filled with a combination of drama and the absurd. Greta Gerwig manages to build a story and give the central character an arc, and a sense of growth, that comes from allowing this young woman to understand her mistakes, but also pose her questions, declare her ambitions, and find her own identity. It's a film that expertly mixes the angst of growing up with the humor behind certain situations. And it makes it by making the central character authentic, inquisitive, and not perfect. It's a film that is intelligent, with a sense of style and taste that reveals a lot of insight. Saoirse Ronan once again proves she's an excellent actress, as does Laurie Metcalfe, who plays her mom with a ferocious intent and energy. A really great film worth watching.

The Bad Batch

Movie Name: The Bad Batch
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Yolonda Ross, Giovanni Ribisi, Louie Lopez Jr., Aye Hasegawa
Genre: Drama, Horror, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
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Synopsis:
Director Ana Lily Amirpour made a name for herself with the well received "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night", which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and went on to be a staple at a multitude of film festivals during 2014 and 2015. For her follow up feature the director went in a somewhat different direction. The film focuses on the story of Arlen, a young woman who finds herself in a desert wasteland. She is soon captured, and we come to realize she's the target of a small community of cannibals, who take one of her arms and legs, before she manages to escape. With the assistance of a hermit/wanderer, she finds herself in a town named Comfort, where she manages to recover, and even get a prosthetic leg. The town is governed by a man with the name of "The Dream", who rules the town through a supply of drugs, mixed with staged parties. Arlen during one of her walks, stumbles upon one of the cannibals who attacked her, who is rummaging through garbage with her daughter. Arlen's reaction sets a series of events in place.
"The Bad Batch" is a film that promises more than it delivers. It starts by introducing a bleak and post apocalyptic dystopian future, with survivors living in a deserted wasteland. The central hero, a young woman, is immediately put through a difficult situation, which she manages to overcome. However, during the entirety of the film, the character never really amounts to much, both in terms of motivation, nor in terms of understanding what her actions and interests actually are. It's a film that basically gives the actors very little to do, providing suggestions to what they should behave like or look like, without anchoring them in a world that is sufficiently well developed or established. The film tries to be a derivative of George Miller's "Mad Max", but lacks everything in terms of character dynamics, and even context establishment. The film contains certain stylistic flourishes, but aside from that, it's a resounding lesson on how to squander talented actors and a decent budget on something that is instantly forgettable.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Movie Name: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Year of Release: 2017
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
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Synopsis:
Following his previous directorial effort, "Seven Psychopaths", writer and director (and playwriter) Martin McDonagh is back with another original feature. The film focuses on the story of Mildred Hayes, a divorced woman living with her son in Ebbing, Missouri. Mildred is still coming to terms with the horrible and brutal murder of her daughter Angela, and decides to call out the mediocre performance of the local police department, by renting three billboards in a secondary road without much traffic. This initiative angers some elements of the police force, and also causes for some disputes to emerge in the small town, since the local police chief is well respected, but also dying of cancer. These billboards are particularly grating for officer Jason Dixon, a somewhat young police officer, whose temper seems to get the best of him, and who finds himself in trouble due to his clear antagonism with Mildred.
Martin McDonagh has made a career for himself with very successful and well received stage plays, but also with a slew of films that have found good critical response (in particular "In Bruges"). "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" has been playing to great acclaim across multiple film festivals. And one can easily see why - the film allows for Frances McDormand to play a character that is tailor made to her skills, namely a woman that is resolute, fiercely independent, calling events out as she sees them, intelligent and ferocious. The film also allows for the entire repertoire of characters (and the actors playing them), so shine, even in the smallest roles. It's a film that brings to life that small town, and how lives are intertwined, even if people are seemingly so disparate. It's also a film that mixes comedy and deep rooted drama, without creating characters that are simplified cliches and overly simplistic. If anything, it's a film that unfolds its narrative and its layers as the action progresses, showcasing interesting characters and situations that never feel gratuitous for the sake of being present. This mix of characters and subplots is also its downfall, since characters do come and go, but it's a film that works on multiple levels and gives its incredible cast an opportunity to shine. Worth watching.

Gerald's Game

Movie Name: Gerald's Game
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel, Chiara Aurelia
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
In a year that has seen plenty of Stephen King's adaptations being transposed to the screens, streaming giant Netflix has premiered another of those versions with "Gerald's Game". The film from director Mike Flanagan, follows the story of a married couple, Jessie and Gerald, both of whom go to a secluded house during the weekend to try and spice their marriage. Gerald who is a bit older than Jessie, prepares everything in advance, so they can stay all by themselves, and engage in some potentially exciting bedroom games. As a result of one of those games, Jessie finds herself cuffed to the bed. When the erotic game fizzles, Gerald starts feeling poorly and suddenly collapses due to a heart attack and promptly dies. Jessie finds herself enable to get free, since the keys for the cuffs are by the bathroom. As the minutes and hours start unfolding, Jessie's ghosts, paranoia and fears start mounting, jeopardizing her own survival.
Mike Flanagan who has made a career for himself directing thriller and horror features, most notably 2016's "Ouija, Origin of Evil", manages to create with "Gerald's Game", a film that smartly plays what is a one person debacle, into an engaging and claustrophobic experience. The film starts by introducing the couple's dynamics early on, but when Gerald passes, things quickly become more exciting, since Jessie and her fears and ghosts come into play. The director smartly visualizes them and places them in the room, alongside imprisoned Jessie, which makes for an interesting and compelling viewing. The film manages to never fall trap of the cliches associated with couples of different generations, instead allowing for the characters to be well developed, particularly Jessie, who eventually finds within herself the resources to survive. The film gives Carla Gugino an opportunity to showcase her versatility in a lead role, simultaneously giving the always underrated Bruce Greenwood an opportunity to play a character outside his typical supporting roles (he's played Presidents, Admirals and figures of authority quite a few times). A good film worth watching.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League

Movie Name: Justice League
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Jeremy Irons, Ray Fisher, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Billy Crudup, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard, Jesse Eisenberg, Joe Morton, Michael McElhatton, Anthony Wise, Holt McCallany, Joe Manganiello
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
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Synopsis:
Director Zack Snyder is back, following the critical lambasting that surrounded his previous directorial effort, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice". "Justice League" had its fair share of problems during shooting, including the director stepping away for personal reasons, and the hiring of Joss Whedon for additional reshoots and refinements of the script. The film picks up after the events of the aforementioned film: Superman has died, and the world is still recovering from that shock, in particular Lois Lane and Martha Kent. A new menace looms in the shape of Steppenwolf, another entity that has been banned to an alternate dimension, and who has set his sights on taking over Earth. Batman seeks the assistance of Wonder Woman, but they soon realize they need further assistance, which comes in the shape of The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. They unite their considerable talents, to defeat this impossible foe, but also to bring back Superman, without whom, the task will be impossible to achieve.
"Justice League" again lags behind the concepts that doomed a lot of "Batman v Superman": the characters are flat and unidimensional, and not much motivation is provided for any of them, the same being said for the supporting characters (Amy Adams and Diane Lane have nothing to do, except look beautiful and concerned). Where this film improves upon the previous, is the insertion of a levity, humor, that is finely captured by the youth and dynamic quips of Ezra Miller's Flash/Barry Allen character. Zack Snyder is a director, very much like Michael Bay, who can capture artificiality and set pieces that are all about visual mayhem (and they share a very similar aesthetic), but lacks the ability to make characters credible, or give them enough range for audiences to care about them. This film in particular carries with it, the distinction of having characters that so many people know from comic books, and yet there's nothing particularly memorable or engaging about it. The choice of antagonist, is once again, a creature that is digitally created, with digital minions that feel artificial, hollow and devoid of real menace, and therefore, lack of personality. It's a film with stunning production values, but also one that feels like a set of marketing ads/commercials for either men's fragrances or expensive cars. The film manages to have some spark thanks to the presence of Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller and Connie Nielsen, all of whom with very little to do, manage to add some heart and humor to the proceedings. This series is in dire need of a new point of view.