Sunday, April 23, 2017

Knight of Cups

Movie Name: Knight of Cups
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, Cherry Jones, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Peter Mathiessen
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the well received "The Tree of Life", and the not so well received "To the Wonder", reclusive director Terrence Malick returned with another directorial effort (which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival of 2015). The film focuses on the life of Rick, someone working in the entertainment industry, who is trying to find meaning to his life, by understanding the relationships that define him, namely with his brother, father, and the assorted women he has had amorous encounters with.
I should start by saying that "Knight of Cups" feels like a film written and planned by a young student of Philosophy, who suddenly becomes enamored with a sense of self and self discovery, and hires a fantastic cinematographer, and a group of stupendous and beautiful actors to pose and act out supposedly deep meanderings about what life is all about. "Knight of Cups" plays like one of the most self-indulgent exercises captured on film, one that renders absolutely no meaning, borderlines on poor taste and goes interminably with no apparent sense. The narrative, thin as it may be, contains a lot of narration from different characters, who basically interact with each other by posing, or simply looking at each other as if though they're in a music video (the camera never anchors on anyone long enough, since the characters never really speak with each other). This film doesn't function as an art installation since the concept sustaining it is almost pedestrian - "life in the fast lane ends up alienating the sensitive yet damaged good looking central character", and doesn't function as a film, since there's no dimension to anyone, no characters to speak of, and it basically is a beautiful snapshot of a lot of locations (and apparently all of them are populated by stunning model like people). It's a career low point for everyone involved, and from a personal perspective, it definitely raises a lot of questions about Terrence Malick's talent and taste level.

The Handmaiden

Movie Name: The Handmaiden
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following his American detour with "Stoker", director Park Chan-Wook has returned with a new fantastic feature, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2016. The film is inspired by the novel of Sarah Waters, but the director transposes the action to Korea in the 1930s, when the country was occupied by the Japanese. The film focuses on a young pickpocket Sookee, who is hired as a handmaiden to a beautiful young heiress who lives with her uncle in a stunning mansion. Sookee was arranged to be in that position through a Count, in reality a swindler who wants to marry the beautiful heiress, place her in a mental asylum and run away with her fortune. Unknown to Sookee however there's other plans already set in motion, and she unexpectedly finds solace in the relationship that she develops with her mistress.
Park Chan-Wook who has been an iconic name in Asian cinema since "Oldboy" (which came out in 2003), brings to life another story that though seemingly linear at first glance, starts unveiling further layers as the narrative unfolds. It's a beautifully realized film, allowing for the central characters to be rendered with some detail. It also brings to life the context of living in an occupied Korea in the 30s, while simultaneously showcasing the perspective of being a woman in a society and culture controlled heavily by men and their interests. As the film unfolds and the twists become more apparent, the more interesting the dynamics of the characters are, and so is their dimension. The film is beautifully shot, with a stunning cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung, the same going for the production design. The main cast is uniformly strong and create indelible characters, particularly the central pair, Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

T2 Trainspotting

Movie Name: T2 Trainspotting
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Shirley Henderson, Kelly Macdonald, Angela Nedyalkova, James Cosmo, Scott Greenan, Irvine Welsh, Pauline Turner
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Acclaimed director Danny Boyle is back, following his fantastic, yet little seen "Steve Jobs" biopic. His latest feature is a follow up to his iconic "Trainspotting" which was released in early 1996 (it started it's wider unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival of that year). The film follows the misadventures of the same group, as they now deal with middle age. Mark Renton returns from Amsterdam where he hid following his escape with the money from the scam the group pulled off in 96. His mom has passed away, but his father is still living in the same place. Spud in the meantime has had a child with Gail, and is still troubled by his addiction to drugs. Sick Boy/Simon also continues to do drugs, but is now involved in blackmailing schemes, while trying to run a barely there pub that was an inheritance left by his aunt. Begbie in the meantime is in prison, and fails parole yet again. He stages an attack so he can be sent to the hospital and have more chances of escaping. Mark tries to make amends with his friends, and while Spud is welcome to see him, Simon initially isn't so receptive, but they do manage to smooth things out. They all set out to put together a new scheme, but with Begbie out of prison, that may turn all their plans upside down.
Danny Boyle continues to be one of the best and most inventive directors working these days. He always marries a unique stylistic approach to the material with a tone that is always adequate to the narrative he's building on screen. In this case we no longer have the frantic pacing that dominated the original Trainspotting - we have a rhythm that is closer to someone who is older (our narrator, Mark Renton), dealing with the consequences of his choices, and the fears of what's to come when you're not so young anymore. It's a film that is successful in showcasing just the perfect amount of the society and habits that it criticizes. It wears its nostalgia as a wink, and not so much as a crutch. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, picking up right where they left 20 years ago. A very good film, from an excellent director.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Moulin Rouge

Movie Name: Moulin Rouge
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, John Leguizamo, Garry McDonald, Kerry Walker, Jacek Koman, Matthew Whittet, Natalie Mendoza, Kylie Minogue, David Wenham, Lara Mulcahy, Natalie Mendoza, Christine Anu
Genre: Musical, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Australian director Baz Luhrmann followed his successful William Shakespeare adaptation of "Romeo and Julie" with a full blown musical (something he had previously tackled with "Strictly Ballroom"). "Moulin Rouge" follows the story of young Christian, an idealistic English writer, who lives in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. He loves the bohemian life, and that is best represented by the club "Moulin Rouge". When visiting the club, he is drawn to the beautiful courtesan Satine, the biggest star of the cast. Unbeknown to him however, she is promised to a rich investor, who is also visiting the club. The investment of this man is crucial to the longevity and existence of the club. These two young lovers however, can't be apart and will overcome all obstacles to pursue their relationship.
Director Baz Luhrmann has a specific aesthetic and formal style that at times marries perfectly with the material and produce great films, which was the case of "The Great Gatsby" and "Romeo and Juliet". On other occasions, the stylistic approach overcomes the tenuous storyline, and the film falls prey of decorativism, with the characters becoming puppets that showcase his love of pop music and over the top visuals. "Moulin Rouge" is a hybrid of both of his trends - in the pursuit of creating a classic romantic feature, Lurhmann creates a film that is excessive, visually opulent (almost garish at times), but one with heart and a genuine love of films. The film ends up faltering on defining fully dimensional characters, but it does manage to create a fully artificial interpretation of the bohemian world of Paris at the turn of the century. The cast tries their best to bring these characters to life, particularly Jim Broadbent who is, as always, fantastic. The cinematography from Donald McAlpine is stunning, as is the score from Craig Armstrong. An uneven feature from an interesting voice in films.

Memento

Movie Name: Memento
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After his auspicious debut with "Following", director Christopher Nolan debuted his follow up "Memento" at the Venice Film Festival of 2000 and also at the Sundance Film Festival of 2001. The film follows the story of Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator, who as a result of a past trauma, suffers from anterograde amnesia, or short-term memory loss. Leonard is looking for the men who attacked him and killed his wife, and uses a catch-up method that includes polaroids and tattoos to provide him with hints to what he's looking to discover. As Leonard continues his investigation he comes across different characters, all of whom have their own motivations to assist him.
Upon release "Memento" was received with rapturous reviews, and ended up nominated for two Academy Awards. The film has an interesting structure, where the director presents the action simultaneously in a linear fashion, while also showcasing the narrative in reverse order, both meeting at the end of the feature, fully forming a cohesive story. This unorthodox form of showcasing the central character's path allows for the audience to further empathize with the lack of memory that Leonard suffers, and it adds to the story's progressive exposure. It's an intelligent film anchored in a fantastic performance from the always underrated Guy Pearce. Christopher Nolan started establishing his credentials with this film, one that highlights intelligence, thoughtfulness, within the confines of a well known genre. A good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Movie Name: Ghost in the Shell
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Rupert Sanders
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han, Peter Ferdinando, Lasarus Ratuere, Danusia Samal, Anamaria Marinca, Tawanda Manyimo, Yutaka Izumihara
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following his feature debut, "Snow White and the Huntsman", director Rupert Sanders is back, this time tackling the adaptation of a well known comic, which was already adapted to a successful manga film in 1995, "Ghost in the Shell" from director Mamoru Oshii. The film takes place in a distant future, where the border of what separates human and cybernetic has become quite faded. People have cybernetic enhancements performed on their bodies. In this society, there's a revolutionary presence, that takes shape under the guise of a cyborg, one that has a cybernetic body and a human brain. Under the title of Major, this resourceful agent works with a special police unit to tackle the most sophisticated criminals and terrorists, and as we find out, she's targeting the hacker by the name of Kuze. Kuze's targeting the company that created Major, and as the investigation probes deeper, she suddenly realizes that the story behind her existence isn't truthful and there's definitely more for her to uncover.
"Ghost in the Shell" is an interesting film, one that is influenced by the original manga film and also Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner". It's visually stunning and the visual effects on display are nothing short of fantastic, however it's a film that feels under-developed. The essence of the central character and its struggle to understand what is truly humane within her and who she is, could have added an extra dimension to the film. As it is, the film ends up being more of a procedural with some touches of what means to be human, and some considerations of how technology is permeating human life on a biological level. It would be interesting to see what a director such as David Cronenberg could do with this type of material, since he has handled stories of this nature before ("Videodrome" and "eXistenz" for instance). Rupert Sanders is more interested in illustrating and staying close to the manga, not providing much dimension to the supporting characters. Scarlett Johansson tries to keep a detached mechanical demeanor, but in the end it's Juliette Binoche who has the most memorable and humane performance. It's a deeply flawed film, but one that contains sufficient ideas that makes it a worthwhile watch.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Man Who Wasn't There

Movie Name: The Man Who Wasn't There
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Borowitz
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the critical and commercial success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", the Coen Brothers returned with a decidedly more stylistic and subdued feature. "The Man Who Wasn't There" follows the story of Ed Crane, a low key barber who is married to Doris, a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Doris is having an affair with her boss, something that Ed has already figured out. When one of Ed's customers mentions he's looking for an investor for a new business he's mounting, he decides to blackmail Dave, Doris' boss. Dave decides to embezzle money from his department store to pay for the blackmail, but soon figures out who's responsible for the scheme. This sets in motion a series of events that leads to dramatic results.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is a stark and stylistically beautiful film from the Coen Brothers, with a stunning cinematography from their usual collaborator Roger Deakins. It's also a film that has a somber tone and rhythm, unlike most of their previous features which were always dominated by a continuous momentum. The film is an apt reflection of the dour central character, perfectly embodied by Billy Bob Thornton. It's an austere film noir, that definitely lacks a punch, which is where the film ends up faltering. The cast is phenomenal, which is typical for their productions, but the film misses a more aggressive pacing and momentum. A more subdued effort from these talented film makers.

Life

Movie Name: Life
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Director Daniel Espinosa is back, following his little seen and critically maligned "Child 44", this time around, tackling a script from the successful duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the duo responsible for writing "Zombieland" and "Deadpool"). The film follows the story of a crew of 6 people, that are currently on orbit at the International Space Station. The team manages to salvage an exploratory hub that came from Mars, and much to everyone's surprise, they discover life in some of the samples that came with the hub. Initially a joyous and celebratory event, the entity quickly starts growing, and reveals itself hostile, starting to attack the crew members. It's up to the team to avoid that the creature makes it to the surface of Planet Earth.
This is a film that is ripe with potential - it tries to merge the concepts of "Alien" with the somewhat grounded approach that "Gravity" brought forth. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Ridley Scott, nor Alfonso Cuaron are at the helm of the film. This is a feature that lacks a point of view, a successful sense of menace, and ultimately something that makes it more identifiable, and not so derivative of better films. Both "Alien" and "Gravity" were without a doubt, the merger of many factors, namely design, concepts, storytelling, but they were also works from directors that manage to have a strong point of view, and embed it (with varying degrees of success) in whatever films they create. "Life" tries desperately hard to give the characters something to do, but it lacks dimension, and definitely lacks a sense of menace. The antagonist creature, as polished as it may be, looks excessively digital, and is overly visible. One of the reasons why "Alien" was so successful was precisely the fact that the audience only partially saw the menace - letting the imagination do the rest is invariably its own reward. This is a film that has a good cast, and a great production team, but definitely lacks a stronger point of view. Quickly forgettable.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Movie Name: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian Holm, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Marton Csokas, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Peter Jackson had an interesting career prior to the adaptation of the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. He first established himself as a cult name with films that ranged from the over the top trilogy of "Bad Taste"/"Meet the Feebles"/"Dead Alive", to the indie film that showed his more dramatic side, with "Heavenly Creatures", which simultaneously launched the careers of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. After his first Hollywood film went largely unnoticed ("The Frighteners" with Michael J. Fox), the director tackled what would become his biggest challenge and the forever staple in the adaptation of fantasy films. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" premiered in December of 2001 to great accolades, being rewarded with Academy Awards and a huge commercial success. The film is a faithful adaptation of the novels from J.R.R. Tolkien, and follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, and his friends, as they come across a ring that can define the powers to be in the realms of Middle Earth. Alongside Bilbo are his hobbit friends Sam, Pippin and Merry, his human friends Aragorn and Boromir, an elf by the name of Legolas, a dwarf by the name of Gimli and the wizard Gandalf. This group sets out to destroy the ring of power, but are pursued by the hordes of Sauron, and the obstacles just become bigger and bigger as their odyssey begins. This is a journey that will test all their resilience.
Peter Jackson is an imaginative director, one with a thorough knowledge of film techniques, something that he put to good use with his initial films, that garnered him quite a lot of attention in film festivals. His adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" was a herculean task, since he tackled the three films simultaneously, and was his first time handling a task of that scale. The results are quite strong, even if structurally the films end up having an uneven momentum. The first volume manages to be quite possibly the best, since it defines the universe of the story, presenting and defining the lead characters, giving everyone just enough dimension to make their characters compelling and noteworthy. It's a film that works exemplary on all the different production levels that are on display, from the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie, the score from Howard Shore, the production and costume design, to the fantastic visual effects on display. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen in particular creating indelible characters. A very good film from a unique storyteller in film.

L.I.E.

Movie Name: L.I.E.
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, Tony Michael Donnelly, Walter Masterson, Adam LeFevre, James Costa
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
"L.I.E." (standing for Long Island Expressway) was director Michael Cuesta's debut feature, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival of 2001, and earning accolades in several festivals and awards guilds. The film follows the story of Howie Blitzer, a teenage boy, whose mom has passed away recently, and whose father is currently in the throes of dealing with some shady businesses and dating new people. Howie is pretty much left to his own devices, and spends time with the charismatic Gary, who flirts with him, and who has the habit of robbing houses in the neighborhood. One of their victims turns out to be Big John, one of Gary's clients. Big John develops a friendly relationship with Howie, something that is further enhanced when his father is arrested for dangerous practices in his business. "L.I.E." is a fantastic film and was a great debut for Michael Cuesta, who has gone on to direct a mix of feature films (more recently "Kill the Messenger") and high profile TV shows (such as Showtime's "Dexter" and "Homeland"). His first feature tackles difficult issues, with the central character coming to terms with who he is sexually, and also by making the dubious Big John his father figure. It's a film that deals with the alienation of families, lack of communication, and also how the process of finding one self isn't always a linear one. The film features two great central performances, one from the always underrated and terrific Brian Cox, and from Paul Dano, then just starting his career, who impresses beyond his young age. A very good film from a very interesting director.