Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Movie Name: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif, Bruce Hopkins, Craig Parker, David Wenham
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the astounding commercial and critical success of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring", director Peter Jackson continued the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, with the following tome, "The Two Towers". This time around, the story finds all of the group scattered in different directions. Frodo and Sam continue their path to destroy the ring, but find the creature Gollum following them. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas, find themselves in the kingdom of Rohan, where they discover the king has been under the nefarious influence of Saruman. It's up to them, with the help of recovered and more powerful Gandalf, to change the tides, and battle the biggest army assembled by Saruman, to completely vanquish what is left of Rohan and the kingdom of men.
If "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" opened the doors to this magical universe, the adaptation of the second tome by Peter Jackson, continued to expand the scope and dynamics of these characters, while also introducing new supporting key roles to the ever expanding saga. The film does have an interesting construct and mechanism, where sections of exposition are broken with sections of action, which can become a bit tedious after a while, but Peter Jackson has a way to embrace the viewers in this richly layered universe, and never making the films falter into predictability. The director smartly allows for new characters to emerge, all the while allowing them to perfectly adhere to the dynamics of the story and the focus of the lead narrative (and characters). It's a film that marries impeccable storytelling techniques, with stunning production values, including the beautiful cinematography of the late Andrew Lesnie and the score of the great Howard Shore. Another great example of an impeccably executed piece of entertainment.

Snatched

Movie Name: Snatched
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Jonathan Levine
Stars: Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Joan Cusack, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Oscar Jaenada, Bashir Salahuddin
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Director Jonathan Levine continues his track record of tackling offbeat comedic material, following his previous films "Warm Bodies" and "The Night Before". This time around the story focuses on Emily Middleton, a thirty something woman, who gets fired from her sales assistant job, and whose boyfriend also breaks up with her. Since Emily has already booked a trip to Ecuador, and none of her friends wants to travel with her, she decides to invite her lonesome mother to tag along. After much resistance, Linda finally caves in, and both women find themselves in a beautiful resort in Ecuador. While there Emily flirts with a handsome gentleman by the name of Tom, who turns out has a hidden agenda, that gets both women in trouble. It's up to them, with the help of their brother/son Jeffrey, to figure out a way to escape unscathed.
"Snatched" is a film that definitely promises a lot more than it delivers. It's essentially a vehicle for the comedic talents of Amy Schumer, however her trademark type of humor is aggressively diluted. What has made Amy Schumer such a refreshing presence in comedy, is her point of view, one that challenges perceptions about typical female stereotypes, alongside her candor and self deprecating style. While some of that can be seen as the film initially starts, as the narrative unfolds, it quickly becomes something quite conventional, standard, and ultimately forgettable. The script definitely lacks a biting satire, and the whole "Fish out of water" and "Growing up" lessons that it delivers, feel like something that has been done in more compelling ways in much better and iconic films (it's interesting how there's even a slight semblance to what Robert Zemeckis' "Romancing the Stone" has created, but without any of it's humor or energy). Both Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn try their hardest to make the story and character dynamics compelling, but there's too little to appreciate aside from their talents. A forgettable feature.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Ornithologist

Movie Name: The Ornithologist/O Ornitólogo
Year of Release: 2016
Director: João Pedro Rodrigues
Stars: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan, Juliane Elting
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues is back, following his last film "The Last Time I saw Macao" which came out in 2012 (though he has directed a few shorts and documentaries since then). "The Ornithologist", follows the story of Fernando, a solitary ornithologist who is looking for black storks. While doing his observations, he takes his kayak down the river, and gets caught up in some unexpected rapids. He is discovered by a couple of Chinese pilgrims, who bring him back to life, but who suddenly decide to tie him up, in order to convert him. Fernando manages to escape, but his path keeps being met with interesting and colorful characters.
João Pedro Rodrigues has made a career for himself, by building stories around a universe that is very much his own. That was the case with his "O Fantasma", which came out in 2000, and followed the story of a young gay man who gets progressively more alienated from contact and society, and finally ends up living in a garbage dump. His films and universe tend to reflect a lot of themes that are close to him as an individual, namely his cultural legacy, his queer identity and the history of Portugal itself. Of all his films, "The Ornithologist" is quite possibly the most interesting, functioning on so many levels, from a perspective of pastoral story, to questions of faith and identity. It's definitely a film that stays with you, one that asks for many questions and forces the viewer to be invested in what is happening on the screen. The cinematography from Rui Poças is stunning. A very interesting  film from a unique voice in film.

Thor: Ragnarok

Movie Name: Thor: Ragnarok
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ray Stevenson, Luke Hemsworth, Matt Damon, Sam Neill, Rachel House
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Marvel's filmic output continues, this time around with another adventure focused on the character Thor, after the previous two films respectively directed by Kenneth Branagh and Alan Taylor. This time around, Thor finds himself looking for his father, only to discover Odin has chosen to disappear and not resume his ruling. This causes for a new character to make her way into the plot: Odin's oldest daughter, Hela, the goddess of death. She manages to defeat both Thor and Loki, and heads to Asgard, in order to pursue her ambitions of ruling the entire galaxy. It's up to Thor, with the aid of Hulk, Loki and Valkyrie to thwart her plans.
Director Taika Waititi is known for his comedic films, particularly the most recent "Hunt for the Wilderpeople". He tries to infuse the film with a light and comedic tone, after the more somber tones of the previous tomes. However, as much as the film adopts a rather crass and trashy aesthetic (how is it possible that a film that costs so much money looks so incredibly cheap), the humor is never derived from situations being funny - they are more of a result of the director looking at the audience, winking and saying "see, even really powerful beings are silly and childish". This could potentially work for a film that toyed with the idea of comic book characters having every day foibles and issues, but the film never finds a right tone: the nemesis of it all, Hela, kills a ton of people, while still trying to be sarcastic, something that Cate Blanchett does like no other, but still she massacres cardboard characters, always tongue in cheek (is the film suppose to be a dark comedy at this point). Sadly, there's a lot of threads, and tones competing for attention (the whole section with Jeff Goldblum feels especially conceived to be part of "Guardians of the Galaxy"), and they never quite gel. The film is never really enthusiastic, and even the production design looks garish and cheap. With such a talented cast assembled, Cate Blanchett manages to walk away with what little her character has to do.  One of the worst Marvel films to have come out yet.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Movie Name: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Ed Zwick
Stars: Tom Cruise, Coby Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany, Robert Knepper, Judd Lormand, Christopher Berry, Hunter Burke
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the underrated and little seen "Pawn Sacrifice", director Ed Zwick is back, continuing with the saga started by Christopher McQuarrie with "Jack Reacher" in 2012. The film is again an adaptation of a novel by Lee Child, in the series he has written focused on the character of Jack Reacher. This time around, the character finds himself helping Major Turner, once he discovers she has been arrested under the accusation of espionage. Soon Reacher finds himself a target also, and he successfully manages to liberate Turner, so they can try to understand who's trying to frame and kill them. Along the way, they tag along with a young girl, who gets involved by indicating that she's related to Reacher. The criminals will stop at nothing to prevent their plot from being unveiled.
Jack Reacher is a character who truly deserves someone with a grittier vision to take this series to a darker domain, or at least imprint it with a B-movie aesthetic it so badly deserves. As it stands, it's a film that tries to be many things without truly having a personality or point of view: it's not as clever as the Bourne series, and not as pedestrian as the Taken series. It's somewhat in between, trying to be somewhat a throwback to the 80s (peppered with some "Death Wish"/Charles Bronson), without really achieving the goal of being memorable. It's a slick film with solid production values, with a director who knows how to create a well crafted feature, without ever creating something particularly distinct. And that ends up being the downfall of this film: it alludes to much, but it doesn't define an actual point of view, or something that packs a punch like the character seemingly does. Tom Cruise does his best to carry the film, but he's the only one with something to do. The supporting characters are barely there, and are quickly forgettable (and if the poster of the film is any indication, yes, the main star does have its back to all of the supporting cast). It's an instantly forgettable feature, from an interesting director.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Hours

Movie Name: The Hours
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Stephen Daldry
Stars: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Stephen Dillane, Ed Harris, Jeff Daniels, Toni Collette, Allison Janey, Claire Danes, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Linda Bassett, Jack Rovello
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Stephen Daldry stepped into the film directorial world with the astounding success of "Billy Elliot", which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination. Following that film, he quickly returned with "The Hours", an adaptation of the book by Michael Cunningham, which was a huge critical darling of the year, and was again nominated for a multitude of awards. The film takes place in three different time periods, but each one has a common thread that harks back to Virginia Woolf and her novel "Mrs. Dalloway". Also each of the segments takes place during one day, but the film also unveils the connection that some of the choices these characters make has on different person's lives (and across times). The first segment takes place in 1923 as Virginia Woolf starts writing "Mrs. Dalloway" and is dealing with the challenges of her mental health and her marriage to Leonard Woolf. The second segment takes place in Los Angeles, in 1951, where Laura Brown, a married and pregnant housewife, is trying to cope with the realities of her life, and how that has actually become an extension of her ambitions and dreams (or not). She tries to bake a birthday cake with her young son for her husband, and as her day progresses, she tries to figure out what to do with her life. The third segment takes place in present times, where Clarissa Vaughan (a modern embodiment of Mrs. Dalloway) is throwing a party for her friend (and former lover), the renowned poet Richard (who is also dying). During her day, as people come and go through her life, Clarissa is forced to examine her current relationships, and also the ones who have shaped who she is.
"The Hours" is a finely tuned film detailing the relationships that are maintained from the complex lives of these fascinating women that are at the center of the film. Under the mantle of Virginia Woolf's life and oeuvre, the film expands that universe, by creating multiple threads that deal with longing, ambitions, love and resentment, that touch this diverse array of characters. It's a film that smartly navigates all three timelines highlighting both similar traits that these women share, but also amplifying how times have widened their choices allowing them to sketch their paths and options in life. It's a rewarding film, heavily anchored on a very talented cast, with all actresses creating indelible performances, including the superlative Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, but also in smaller roles, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette. Their male counterparts equally excel, from Stephen Dillane to the always underrated Jeff Daniels. The score from Philip Glass is stunning as is the cinematography from Seamus McGarvey. A very good film worth watching.

Mindhunter

TV Show Name: Mindhunter - Season1
Year of Release: 2017
Directors: David Fincher, Andrew Douglas, Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm
Stars: Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany, Hannah Gross, Anna Torv, Cotter Smith, Joe Tuttle, Cameron Britton, Joseph Cross, Stacey Roca, Alex Morf, Happy Anderson, Michael Park, Marianne Bayard, 
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis:
It speaks to the immense credit of David Fincher, that his new directorial effort is a TV show for streaming giant Netflix (following another of his efforts, "House of Cards"). The TV show created by Joe Penhall, is based on the true crime book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, and takes place in 1977, as the criminal psychology and criminal profiling disciplines were starting to get established. The series, specifically focuses on two lead characters, two agents who are placed working side by side, the young and energetic Holden Ford, and the veteran and tired Bill Tench. Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist at a Boston University that has provided council to the FBI, joins them, as their process to gather information from detained criminal subjects, becomes a focus of some attention. Carr sees in this process, the potential to understand violent serial criminals, and this team slowly starts establishing a practice including the creation of a script in order to get information from these criminals. The agents start investigating a few specific serial killers, and as their expertise increases, their services start getting used by local law enforcement.
"Mindhunter" is a show that is rewarding as a whole, since it invites the viewers to understand how a practice was established, and how important the roles of specific investigators were to actually define approaches to getting information from violent criminals. It's a show that very much adheres to David Fincher's universe, one that marries the darker aspects of people's lives (and criminality), with the more humane side of having a family life or trying to develop one. It definitely has parallels with the world he illustrated in the superior "Zodiac", but it's a gripping show, one that sheds light on the process of putting a practice in place, and how personal, political, ideological factors come into play when all these relationships are set in place. The series looks impeccably shot and styled, adhering to the director's trademark, from the cinematography, to the production design. The actors are for the most part quite good, but Jonathan Groff and Anna Torv, do create strong characters from the outlines they establish (while Hannah Gross mostly plays her character very one note). A very good show worth checking out.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Movie Name: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Chris Columbus
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Robbie Coltrane, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, Matthew Lewis, Bonnie Wright, Tom Felton, John Cleese, Adrian Rawlins, Toby Jones, David Bradley, Shirley Henderson, Gemma Jones, Geraldine Somerville, Adrian Rawlins, Jason Isaacs, Tom Knight, Jamie Waylett, Miriam Margolyes
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the extremely successful "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", director Chris Columbus continued the work with the same team, and adapted the following book in the series. This time around, Harry finds himself in a situation where an elf by the name of Dobby, warns him not to come back to Hogwarts, since he's in imminent danger. Harry and Ron, manage to get to Hogwarts, with the aid of Ron's flying car. A series of dramatic occurrences start unfolding at the school, leaving some students petrified, including Hermione. In parallel, Harry discovers he can speak to snakes, much like his nemesis, Voldemort. With the involuntary aid of their new teacher, Gilderoy Lockhart, both Harry and Ron set out to discover what is happening at the school and save Hermione.
Chris Columbus' successful first foray into the Harry Potter universe, was an introduction to a rich universe, one populated with a variety of supporting characters and magical locations and events. The director however limited himself to illustrating the narrative, without adding much style or much of a personal perspective to the proceedings. The second film follows the same pattern, and feels even more rushed from a production standpoint. There's a noticeable effort on the central actors to improve their performances, and there's definitely an impeccable production team working at the peak of their capabilities, however, the film feels definitely rushed. The darkness that peaked through the books, is never really visible in the film. The director doesn't give the characters enough depth to make them more compelling or livelier, something that will change with the following film in the series. Kenneth Branagh manages to create a humorous and cartoonish character, while the rest of the supporting actors are equally strong, particularly the alway reliable Alan Rickman. The cinematography from Roger Pratt is stunning as is the score of the always excellent John Williams. A minor film in the series, but nonetheless still entertaining.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Gangs of New York

Movie Name: Gangs of New York
Year of Release: 2002
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, Alec McCowen, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Martin Scorsese followed the somewhat little seen "Bringing Out the Dead" with "Gangs of New York", a big budget project he had been pursuing for years. The film, which was shot in the Cinecitta Studios in Rome, was met with a fair number of obstacles, and upon its arrival was greeted with fair to medium reviews, and though the film had been touted as the one for the celebrated director to win the Academy Award, it ended up not being the case (Roman Polanski won for "The Pianist", and in fact "Gangs of New York" won none of the 10 Academy Awards for what is was nominated). The film follows the story of Amsterdam Vallon, who in 1862 returns to the neighborhood of Five Points, Manhattan, with the goal of avenging his father, who died while battling a rival gang, led by the ferocious and charismatic Bill the Butcher. Amsterdam ingratiates himself with Bill's gang, but internal rivalries for the affection of a beautiful pickpocket artist named Jenny, expose him and his intentions, leaving him severely beaten and in dire need of recovery. Following this Amsterdam makes a claim to defeat Bill, and as they start a new turf war, the draft riots occur, which throws further chaos to this bloody battle.
Martin Scorsese is of course a master in filmmaking. His encyclopedic knowledge of film history is well know, as is his body of work, which contains more than its fair share of modern classics. "Gangs of New York" however, is a film where the intentions and ambitions far surpass the results on screen. The director tried to tell the story of how America was forged, using the microcosms of the gangs rivalry, peppering the story with enough romantic and familiar angst in order to make the story more palatable. However, the film as ferocious as it may be in some parts (particularly the ones with the always fantastic Daniel Day Lewis), just can't escape the shadow of all the cliches that it puts on display. Ultimately it's a film that feels like a rehash of many other stories and is quickly forgettable. Most supporting characters are very one dimensional, and aside from Daniel Day Lewis' strong performance, everyone else has little to do (even Leonardo DiCaprio, who is typically excellent, feels out of place). The cinematography from Michael Ballhaus is stunning, as are the costumes from the always excellent Sandy Powell. A minor film from an excellent director.

Blade Runner 2049

Movie Name: Blade Runner 2049
Year of Release: 2017
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
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Celebrated director Denis Villeneuve returns to the screens, after the beautiful "Arrival" (which was my favorite film of 2016). This time around he's tackling the sequel to one of the most iconic films of the 80s, Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner". The film takes place 30 years after the original, and focuses on a young blade runner, by the name of K, who is still intent on retiring the remaining replicants who have escaped. The animosity towards replicants persists, but when retiring one of them, K discovers something that upon further analysis, reveals information that is so shattering that can undo the very fabrics of society. Hot on the trail of this information, is the leader of the company that bought Tyrell's flailing business and that has made it into a huge successful conglomerate. It's up to K to dig into the past, and to his own life in the process, and figure out how all the pieces come together, before the attempt to bury all this information becomes a reality.
Denis Villeneuve has gradually but assuredly become one of the most interesting directors working these days. His past films have been fantastically well crafted, which climaxed with the fantastic "Arrival" (which was a perfect combination of pacing, script and acting). The sequel to Ridley Scott's uneven "Blade Runner", pushes some of Denis Villeneuve's themes to another futuristic setting. Something that permeates all his films, is a central character that is seemingly at odds with the ordinary world that surrounds her, a world that is touched by violence. In "Blade Runner 2049", the central character, though knowing what he is, has deep down qualms and questions about himself. His pursuits further dig into his own sense of self. And that is a very pertinent theme to "Blade Runner": what effectively makes us humans and what are these creatures that emulate sentient life. It's a beautiful film, that allows for the central character to shows us the remnants of a world. A revised noir film of sorts, aesthetically stunning, featuring a controlled and tense performance from Ryan Gosling. If anything can be said for the film, is a somewhat indulgent subplot, which doesn't add much to the development of the film and narrative, but it's still a striking piece of work. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is stunning as is the evocative score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. A beautiful film from one of the most interesting directors currently working.