Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Royal Tennenbaums

Movie Name: The Royal Tenenbaums
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana, Grant Rosenmeyer
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following his breakthrough feature "Rushmore", director Wes Anderson continued his association with writer/actor Owen Wilson, and both created the family dysfunctional opus "The Royal Tenenbaums". The film follows the story of a particular family where all the offspring were child geniuses, who are now grown up and somewhat trying to adjust to a reality where they're not the precocious tykes they once were. They are all dealing with challenging situations in life, and they reunite once their mother gets a marriage proposal, particularly because though estranged from their father, she never really divorced him. Royal, the patriarch, distanced himself from the family, and suddenly comes back to try and win the graces of the family (particularly because he's been evicted from the hotel where he was living).
Wes Anderson has by now trademarked a style that is very much his own. A quirky, design detailed with retro references, humor filled universe, where all the characters are sketched out with very particular traits, to better portray a canvas that is a representation of his view of the world. If "Rushmore" was an introduction to his view of the world, "The Royal Tenenbaums" was effectively the first one where he delved deeper and came out with a style that he would continue to refine in his next features (and his most recent "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a crystallization of all these elements that make his style so unique). This film brings forth a lot of the themes that are so associated with his work: the family unit that is filled with idiosyncratic characters, all of whom are in some way trying to adjust to a very ordinary universe, all peppered with self questioning and love pursuits that seemingly go nowhere. This merger of design aesthetic with humor and heartfelt characterizations, feels in a way like a nod to the superlative work of Jacques Tati, but it's still very much his own. The actors are all phenomenal, as usual, with Gene Hackman easily creating one of his best characters, with strong support from Ben Stiller and Bill Murray. The cinematography from Robert D. Yeoman is stunning as is the production design of David Wasco. A very good film from a very interesting director.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Planet of the Apes

Movie Name: Planet of the Apes
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Estella Warren, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson, Evan Parke, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Glenn Shadix
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the fantastic "Sleepy Hollow", director Tim Burton tackled the iconic book "Planet of the Apes" from writer Pierre Boulle, which had already been adapted with tremendous success in the 60s by Franklin J. Schaffner (with Charlton Heston). The story focuses on the story of astronaut Leo Davidson, who following some unexpected events at a space station, crashes in an unknown planet in the year 5021, and much to his surprise, the planet is ruled by humanoid apes who speak english, while humans are slaves. Leo ends up under the protection of an ape by the name of Ari, who is against the current treatment of humans, but he quickly escapes, freeing all human prisoners in the process. While retreating to Calima, the apes temple, Leo finds out that the area has the remnants of a space station, and starts discovering further details about the history of the planet.
Tim Burton is a talented film maker with a very unique aesthetic and universe. "Planet of the Apes" which could have been a fitting proposition, since it tackled the concept of another alienated and lost hero, suffered from a lot of studio pressure, and the resulting film feels rushed and without his particular stamp. The film is competently executed, from the visual effects, score (from the always fantastic Danny Elfman), to the phenomenal cast, particularly Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Giamatti, but sadly lacks the distinct point of view that makes every Tim Burton so unique and particular. It's a film that showcases a lot of potential, but the epilogue lacks impact, and the casting of Mark Wahlberg is a poor one, since he feels lost and lacks the capacity to give both the vulnerability and intelligence the character needs. A missed opportunity from a talented director.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Others

Movie Name: The Others
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy, Renee Asherson
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Alejandro Amenabar followed his well received "Open Your Eyes", with his first English speaking feature. The film, which he wrote, follows the story of Grace Stewart and her two children, who are living in a remote house in a somewhat isolated area in 1945. Grace's children have an uncommon ailment, which makes them sensitive to sunlight, and therefore the house always has the drapes drawn, and the children never go outside. The arrival of three servants to the house, coincides with a series of occurrences, all of which makes Grace suspect that there are other individuals in the house. The children mention to Grace there's a little boy by the name of Victor living in the house also, something that frightens and surprises Grace. As the strange occurrences continue Grace progressively realizes what truly lies beneath the house, the servants and her own family.
Alejandro Amenabar is a veritable dynamic talent who has emerged from Spain since the early 2000s. "The Others" was both a commercial and critical success, and it's a testament to his talent and capability to build suspense and mystery progressively, like a yarn that is slowly created. The film builds suspense and surprise, by using shadows and light, and by featuring an effective performance from Nicole Kidman, who more than ever, brings to mind the late Grace Kelly. The relationship between the main characters is just odd enough to add the air of unease that dominates the entire film. It's an intelligent film that frightens more by suggestion, than by relying on gore or gratuitous violence. The cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe is stunning, as is the production design from Benjamin Fernandez. An entertaining film from an interesting director.

Ocean's Eleven

Movie Name: Ocean's Eleven
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Eddie Jemison, Bernie Mac
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Prolific director Steven Soderbergh followed his successful year (2000, where he won the Oscar for best director, for "Traffic"), by tackling a remake of the Lewis Milestone film of 1960, "Ocean's Eleven", which featured the iconic members of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. , Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop). The film focuses on Danny Ocean, who following his release from prison, reunites with his best friend Rusty Ryan. They both go to Las Vegas, to prepare for a coup that involves robbing three of the biggest casinos in the area. Danny in particular wants to tackle those three casinos, since they're all owned by Terry Benedict, who is currently dating his ex-wife Tess. Danny and Rusty go about recruiting a team of people they believe can make the whole heist go smoothly.
Steven Soderbergh is one of the most interesting directors working in Hollywood currently. He has the deftness of being able to combine a more conceptual and artistic vein, with a commercial knack, which makes his films an interesting hybrid. If some of his earlier work was a bit more esoteric (such as the underrated "Kafka"), following "Out of Sight", he started a series of films that mixed some experimentalism with known genres, something that "Ocean's Eleven" is a perfect example of. The film exhibits an ease and flow to itself - it's smart and entertaining, but also very humorous. It's a film that is aware of its concept, with an impeccable production team, making the set pieces flow seamlessly (and Steven Soderbergh is usually also responsible for the cinematography of his features). It doesn't take itself seriously, and the film is more successful for it. The entire cast has a great chemistry and complicity, something that makes the film even furthermore entertaining. A good film from a great director, always worth watching.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mulholland Drive

Movie Name: Mulholland Drive
Year of Release: 2001
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Robert Forster, Patrick Fischler, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Mark Pellegrino, Monty Montgomery, Chad Everett, Rita Taggart, James Karen, Michelle Hicks, Wayne Grace, Michael Des Barres, Melissa George
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
David Lynch followed the celebrated "The Straight Story" with what was originally intended as a new pilot for a TV show. When the pilot didn't get picked up, the project found itself in limbo, until Canal + gave the money to finish what needed to be wrapped in terms of story, and "Mulholland Dr." was born. The film premiered at the Cannes film Festival of 2001, where it won the award for best director, and it went on to win many more accolades that year. The film focuses on three characters: the first one we are introduced to is Rita, a beautiful woman, who due to an accident, is amnesiac and finds herself randomly in the streets of Hollywood. The second is a young actress coming to town, by the name of Betty. The bright eyed Betty is staying at her aunt's, and she's going for an audition and an attempt at becoming an actress. The third central character is Adam Kesher, a young director, going through some tribulations in his personal life, and whose latest feature comes under the attention of some characters wanting to control some of the participants in that same film. Betty and Rita are brought together, and jointly start trying to understand who Rita is, which sends them a progressively darker road.
David Lynch is one the most unique directors currently working. He has been one since his debut with "Eraserhead" (1977), and has carved out a career on his own terms, with themes that are very much his own, but usually a merger of surrealism, filled with cinematic references, American art (Norman Rockwell infused aesthetic), a stylized and sometimes highly violent perspective of society. The merger of these themes, distilled through his very unique sensibility, mixed with a zany sense of humor, have made most of his films simultaneously delicious and full of elements to interpret and try to discern. None of this is more obvious than in "Mulholland Dr. " that is quite possibly one of his most enigmatic and also most interesting films. The film that starts as an investigation in the milieu of the Hollywood arena, which becomes something else, much darker in tone, making the viewer question what had been watched and seen before. It's a film that takes you on a journey with these characters, one that builds an atmosphere that becomes progressively more ominous and yet also romantic (and at times quite funny). It's a fascinating film, anchored in one of the best performances captured by Lynch on film, that of Naomi Watts, who manages to show true versatility and range within seconds of a singular scene. A great film from a unique voice in film.

The Mummy

Movie Name: The Mummy
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Writer, Producer and Director Alex Kurtzman, a name long associated with JJ Abrams, is tackling Universal's first film in a series of monster films that are supposedly coming out in a series. The first is "The Mummy", which focuses its attention on the character of Nick Morton, a military man, who while in service in Iraq, discovers an ancient tomb containing a cursed mummy. Turns out this mummy is in fact a long lost princess and heir to the Egyptian throne, who made a pact with evil forces, and now freed, focuses her attention on Nick. Nick alongside his unexpected ally, the beautiful Jenny Halsey, are soon the target of this powerful entity, who follows them to London, where she starts wreaking havoc. It's up to these two with the help of a hidden society to try to derail her plans.
The most surprising element about a film such as this, isn't the sophistication of the visual effects, or the considerable talent that has been placed in front and behind cameras. It's effectively the fact that there are 6 talented screenwriters credited to this film, and yet this is potentially one of the most nullified stories that has graced the screens in recent memory. There is no intrigue, no character building, no real opposing forces to speak of, no real sense of excitement. There are some random chase scenes, some characters that try to mimic Griffin Dunne's deadpan delivery from John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London", all of them amounting to very little. The most recent films from Stephen Sommers focused on "The Mummy" were silly and over the top, but there was a somewhat genuine sense of silliness to them. This new incarnation doesn't really know what it wants to be: a classic pulpy adventure or modern revisitation with a bite. Sadly it fails on both counts: the mummy comes across more like a tragic figure from the past, and Tom Cruise spends the film looking confused and surprised by what he really needs to be doing. A messy and instantly forgettable film.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman

Movie Name: Wonder Woman
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, Lilly Aspell, James Cosmo, Lucy Davis
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis:
The expansion of the DC comics universe continues, following the critically reviled "Batman vs. Superman" and "Suicide Squad". Director Patty Jenkins follows her celebrated debut "Monster" with a bigger canvas, one that showcases her vision for the iconic Wonder Woman character, that Zack Snyder introduced last year in "Batman vs. Superman". The film follows the story of Diana, who is brought up in a secluded island by the tribe of Amazons. While there, Diana is trained to become a resourceful warrior, something that is tested when a man crashes in the waters surrounding the island. The man turns out to be a spy, by the name of Steve Trevor, who is working for the Allies, during the first World War. Diana is convinced that the God of War, Aries, is in reality influencing humankind to create war. She, alongside Steve Trevor, go to London, and then Paris, in order to fight in the trenches, and get to the German General, she believes to be the main instigator of war (and secretly Aries).
Patty Jenkins has managed to create a smartly built adaptation of the Wonder Woman mythology. The film leverages the scenarios that were carved by the comic books, and even the original TV show from the 70s. The director builds the universe where these women exist for the first part of the film, allowing for the relationship between the lead characters to evolve. This relationship building continues through Diana's attempt at understanding the fabric of society and women's roles in the 1910s. These are the sections of the film that holds more interest, all the way through Diana's action scenes at the trenches. The final act of the film turns out to be the most generic, with the special effects overcoming the storyline that had been built before (and in a way, is very similar to the approach that Zack Snyder uses in his DC universe adaptations). The film is nonetheless entertaining for the most part, even if a bit campy when it comes to drawing out the villain characters (it also brings to mind Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger"). The cast assembled is quite strong, with good performances from Chris Pine and Connie Nielsen. The cinematography from Matthew Jensen is beautiful, as are the costumes from Lindy Hemming. An interesting effort from an interesting director.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seven Psychophaths

Movie Name: Seven Psychopaths
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Harry Dean Stanton, Kevin Corrigan, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Zeljko Ivanek
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Playwright and director Martin McDonagh followed his well received debut feature "In Bruges" with "Seven Psychopaths", another intelligently written and well acted film, featuring his usual accomplice, actor Colin Farrell. The film focuses on Martin, a struggling screenwriter in LA, who is experiencing problems in writing his next project. His best friend Billy, tangles him up in a scheme he has around town, one that involves stealing dogs and holding them for ransom. Unfortunately their latest victim, turns out to be the dog of a crime lord, something that sets in motion a series of unexpected events.
"Seven Psychopaths" manages to be simultaneously a dark comedy, but also a big wink to filmmaking and the art of writing. The film has nods to the styling of independent films from the 90s, with the quick witted dialogue, but also with the sudden outbursts of brutal violence. It's a film that is very intelligent, and very self aware, but one that doesn't make these characters more than just archetypes, something that it plays off appropriately. It has a great cast, with Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken making the biggest impressions, but most of the supporting cast has nothing much to do. It's still an entertaining film well worth watching.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Movie Name: Florence Foster Jenkins
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Prolific director Stephen Frears is back, following the successful "Philomena" and the little seen "The Program". "Florence Foster Jenkins" is based on the true story of the lady with said name, who was born in 1868 (and passed away in 1944), and was considered the worst opera soprano ever. The film introduces us to Florence as the New York socialite and heiress, who funded the Verdi Club to promote the love for opera and music. Her husband, an English actor, is also her manager, and though he leads a somewhat lateral life with a girlfriend (due to Florence's health), he's a staunch supporter and devoted to her. Upon hiring a young gifted pianist, Florence performs a small recital, one that is met with laughter and derision, but also with enthusiasm, something that fuels Florence willingness to continue (even if everyone thinks she's terrible, without ever telling her so). Her recordings make their way to the radio, where a lot of the audience think that they are humorous takes. She manages to book Carnegie Hall, much to the shock of her devoted husband, who has always tried to shield Florence from the barrage of negative criticism.
The works from Stephen Frears have always been somewhat irregular - he has touched many themes with different levels of success, but one thing that has been a staple of his work, is the consistency with which he allows for actors to build interesting characters. If some of his early and most interesting films, such as "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Prick Up Your Ears" married a view of the English society with the disruption of social norms and thrives for personal expression, his Hollywood ventures have been somewhat glossier (with turns both inspired such as "The Grifters" and "Dangerous Liaisons" with others less interesting, such as "Hero" and "Mary Reilly"). "Florence Foster Jenkins" manages to be a film that is impeccable in its execution and detail, allowing for three great central performances, in particular from both Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (who is a surprise). However it's also a film that has nothing more than that - it demonstrates and illustrates, but it's incapable of truly transmitting the fervor and love that Florence felt for music and opera. For someone and a character who butchered opera as this lady supposedly did, this is a tame film that lacks energy and a much needed exuberance (one has to wonder what Pedro Almodovar or John Waters would do with this material). A quickly forgotten film somewhat redeemed by its central performances.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Movie Name: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scoledario, Brenton Thwaites, Kevin McNally, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Stephen Graham, Keira Knightley, Martin Klebba, Adam Brown, Angus Barnett, Golshifteh Farahani
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following the dismal critical reception of the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (directed by Rob Marshall and released in 2011), one that still managed to surpass 1 billion dollars in revenue, Disney pushed forward with another sequel, this time around directed by the duo of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the Norwegian directors whose film "Kon-Tiki" was nominated for an Academy Award. The new film again follows the misadventures of captain Jack Sparrow, this time around giving him a new foe, and some old and new allies to combat this supernatural entity. Among the new allies are the son of Will Turner, who's trying to break the curse that holds his father captive. Also on a quest is the young Carina Smyth, an astronomer, who is looking for a map that can lead her to finding answers she needs. Their new foe, is a Spanish captain by the name of Salazar, who battled Jack when he was younger, and who is now a half dead creature, seeking vengeance across the oceans. It's up to Jack and his allies, to discover Poseidon's trident and eradicate all curses from the oceans.
As with every franchise in existence, the audiences come to see them for familiarity, and for extravagant set pieces, that provide entertainment and distraction (just like every single Marvel feature). The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, has never been a particularly engaging one: it has been mostly memorable because of how Johnny Depp has subverted and given a new dimension to a character that on paper was a simply eccentric pirate. As the series has continued, and the plotlines have become more and more convoluted, and the budgets have ballooned, that has meant grander visual effects, bigger stunts, usually to cover up whatever holes the stories may have. This film in particular checks all of those points: it has massive set pieces, truly fantastic visual effects,  and sadly that's mostly of whatever positive elements it has going for it. The actors, including Johnny Depp are swallowed whole by the digital spectacle that surrounds them, as beautiful and as extravagant as they may be. As much as a well oiled machine this is, the film lacks a distinct point of view, and the extremely talented actors Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush, have very little to do (and sadly both the young leads are terrible). This is a film that is quickly forgotten, and is mostly salvageable for some humorous moments that Johnny Depp manages to create.