Sunday, March 11, 2018

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Movie Name: Brawl in Cell Block 99
Year of Release: 2017
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Marc Blucas, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Willie C. Carpenter, Victor Almanzar, Tom Guiry, Clark Johnson, Fred Melamed, Dion Mucciacito, Adam Mucci, Rob Morgan
Genre: Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Director S. Craig Zahler made a name for himself with his first feature, "Bone Tomahawk". His second directorial effort follows the same approach that his first feature had: a definitely B movie approach in character definition, building momentum and environment, until violence erupts in a most brutal way. "Brawl in Cell Block 99" follows the story of Bradley Thomas, an imposing man with a past, who suddenly sees himself laid off from his current job. He discovers his wife has been having an affair, but after a tense argument, they decide to patch things up, upon which Bradley also decides to go back to being a drug runner for a crime boss by the name of Gil. Bradley and his wife Lauren, soon find themselves with more money, living in a nicer neighborhood, and expecting a baby. Things take a turn for the worse, when Bradley and some new associates go seize new drugs, and are discovered by the police. Bradley decides to do the right thing, at the cost of his associates, which puts him in a tough spot when he goes to prison.
S. Craig Zahler is slowly carving out a reputation for himself with his first two features, which have received some critical praise and the attention of some well respected directors. His aesthetic and point of view, is one that definitely recalls a mix of Don Siegel, Michael Winner, both of whom were directors who became associated with gritty and urban crime stories (with somewhat low budgets). This B movie aesthetic, typically means the stories are a lot more straightforward in their approach to character definition, in the pursuit of the violent satisfaction that lies behind the hero's journey, typically one of vengeance (and the audience by extent). "Brawl in Cell Block 99" goes in a similar direction, allowing for the situation in which Bradley finds himself in, to be slowly built out, particularly as the pieces keep getting more dramatic as the escalation gets worse. It's a film that doesn't bring anything new, but it has a "grindhouse" tone to it, which makes it watchable. It also provides Vince Vaughn an opportunity to create a character that is different from his typical role. An interesting, even if forgettable film from a director with potential.

A Wrinkle in Time

Movie Name: A Wrinkle in Time
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Ava DuVernay
Stars: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Evans, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Pena, Andre Holland, Rowan Blanchard, Conrad Roberts
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
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Prolific director Ava DuVernay is back, following her high profile previous directorial efforts, "Selma" and "13th", which were met with great critical accolades. "A Wrinkle in Time" is the adaptation of the book by Madeleine L'Engle, and is a big budget extravaganza hailing from Disney. The film follows the story of Meg, whose parents are brilliant scientists. They're on the verge of finding out a way for humans to travel across time and multiple dimensions, much to the disbelief of the scientific community. They're also about to adopt a baby boy, whom they have decided to name Charles Wallace. The story then takes a time jump, and four years later, Meg is a somewhat antisocial student, while Charles Wallace has turned out to be a prodigal young boy. Their father has disappeared, which has caused much distress on the family. Out of nowhere three fantastical women appear, all with tremendous power and insight, who open the gateways to a different universe. They want to help Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin, uncover what has happened to Meg and Charles' father. On this quest they'll have to vanquish both this ominous dark force, named "The It", and simultaneously find the strength within to get back home.
"A Wrinkle in Time" is a well known book, that has been adapted without much subtlety and apparently without much sense of taste. The story, which revolves around multiple universes, ends up being summarized in this screenplay, by a young girl finding her father, who has disappeared and is captured inside an orange square, seemingly frozen by his own fears. It's a film that overly simplifies what could have been a potentially life affirming and heartwarming story of a young girl coming to terms about her own resourcefulness , and how to overcome a gut wrenching situation. It ends up being manipulative in the worst possible way, and also nonsensical, without ever giving the story a sense of wonder (apparently the way you express excitement upon landing in a new planet, is by running down the hill with your arms wide open, closing your eyes while you're doing it - and hoping you don't trip). Visually the film is equally all over the place, with some crude visual effects, and a taste level that leaves a lot to be desired (which also extends itself to the choice of soundtrack, which is predictable and a whisper away of overreaching). In a way, this film took all the lessons that Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" had provided, and actually made it worse. It's hollow, saccharine, and instantly forgettable. A miss.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Jeepers Creepers 3

Movie Name: Jeepers Creepers 3
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Victor Salva
Stars: Stan Shaw, Meg Foster, Gabrielle Haugh, Brandon Smith, Jordan Salloum, Chester Rushing, Jason Bayle, Ryan Moore, Michael Sirow, Joyce Giraud, Michael Papajohn
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
Watch it on Amazon

Following the previous two iterations of the "Jeepers Creepers" franchise, the third one is decidedly a more modest endeavor, which barely premiered in theaters and went instead to VOD and streaming services. The film takes place between the events of the first and second film. Right after Darry gets taken by the creature, the local sheriff gets the help of another police officer, who has dealt with the creature before. This new sheriff, by the name of Dan Tashtego, has his own team prepared to battle the creature, who in the meantime has gone on a killing spree across the area. This killing spree affects a family who was also victim of the creature 23 years ago - that victim keeps appearing to his mother, warning her about the impending visit of the creature, since he hid something that belongs to it. All these disparate characters realize they have to unite their efforts if this creature is to come to an end.
What made the original "Jeepers Creepers" so interesting and original, was the fact that it managed to create a sense of dread and suspense, without showing much of the creature, and for a large part of the film, without realizing its motivation to pursue the lead characters. It was a mix of Steven Spielberg's "Duel" and the entity of Robert Harmon's "The Hitcher" - a relentless creature pursuing the innocent lead characters, who only wanted to go home (much like a classic fairytale). As the other sequels have evolved, the allure of that first film has subsided, with the creature being featured more prominently, and the pyrotechnics and action set pieces also increasing. This third film, of all of the ones premiered thus far, is the weakest, and also most nonsensical. Also in terms of production values, this film looks like a very low budget endeavor, with most of the gothic feel of the first film gone, and replaced with an anemic stylistic approach. It's a film where most characters are non existent, and where everyone is just cannon fodder for the merciless creature (and there's not much development in terms of the mythology of that same creature). The only winning points for this film are the presence of the underrated Meg Foster (a veteran from the 80s, who was in John Carpenter's "They Live") and of Stan Shaw. An instantly forgettable film.


Movie Name: Annihilation
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong
Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
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Following the well received "Ex Machina", writer/director Alex Garland is back, with another equally impressive feature. "Annihilation" is the adaptation of a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and follows the story of Professor Lena, a former military professional, who is now teaching molecular biology classes at Johns Hopkins. Lena has been dealing with the disappearance of her husband, who has been gone for a year (he's also a military professional). Her husband suddenly reappears without any recollection of anything, and immediately starts feeling sick. On their way to the hospital, they are seized by military personnel. They are taken to a secret military installation, where Lena is informed that her husband volunteered to explore an area that has been contained, since it's under the influence of an alien entity. Lena, alongside a team of 4 other women are sent to investigate what is occurring in that area, since all the teams that have been sent before, have never come back. What they find defies all their expectations.
Alex Garland who initially achieved success as a writer and screenwriter (he was responsible for the book "The Beach", and for the screenplays for "28 Days Later", "Sunshine" both directed by Danny Boyle and "Dredd", directed by Pete Travis), has been forging a very interesting career for himself as a director. "Ex Machina" was an excellent debut, shedding light on the development of AI, whereas "Annihilation" goes in a different direction, focusing on the encounter of humans with an alien entity who manipulates genes and DNA. The film smartly plays with notions of time, biology, mortality, gender dynamics, and does so in a way that is compelling, enigmatic and suspenseful. The film also manages to be superb in the sense that all lead characters are very different women, all of them carrying very different experiences and all very nuanced. It's also stylistically beautiful (thanks to the cinematography from Rob Hardy and score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury) and features another striking central performance from Natalie Portman (following her excellent role in Pablo Larrain's "Jackie"). A great film from a very interesting director.

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

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, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

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

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

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

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

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.