Sunday, August 13, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

Movie Name: Annabelle: Creation
Year of Release: 2017
Director: David F. Sandberg
Stars: Miranda Otto, Anthony LaPaglia, Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Philippa Coulthard, Samara Lee, Grace Fulton, Tayler Buck, Mark Bramhall
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Score out of ten: 6
View Trailer

Synopsis:
The universe of stories developed by director James Wan with his "The Conjuring" film series continues, this time around with a prequel to "Annabelle", who first appeared in "The Conjuring", followed by it's original film dated from 2014. In "Annabelle: Creation" we are introduced to the family who first came in touch with the doll, and the malevolent force that lies within. This family is composed of a father, who is a doll maker, and who originally creates the Annabelle doll, the mother, and the young daughter, named Bee (diminutive from Annabelle). A dramatic accident leaves the family without their daughter,  and a few years later, a small group of orphan girls comes to the house. The girls, under the tutelage of a kind and helpful nun, are excited by the prospect of living in such a nice place, but soon one of them, the sweet Janice, starts realizing there are disturbances and strange occurrences around the house. These events start escalating and get progressively more aggressive, until one their hosts, Mrs. Mullins, unveils what has happened since the demise of her daughter.
Director David Sandberg has followed his debut feature "Lights Out", with another stylistic and smartly built exercise in suspense and horror. Using the premise established in the first (and not so accomplished) "Annabelle", the director takes the narrative to the origins of the mystique surrounding the doll, creating in the process, a haunted house type of horror film. The film smartly suggests more than it shows, playing with the shadows, shapes, and the fear coming from the young children. It also takes its time to create the sense of unease, and menace that starts permeating everyone, in particular the group of children that are in the house. The film is beautifully shot, and while most characters don't have enough depth or dimension, the environment and universe that is built is successful and sufficiently enticing. An interesting film from a promising director.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Magic Mike

Movie Name: Magic Mike
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Alex Pettyfer, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, Betsy Brandt, Riley Keough
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following his double feature releases of 2011, with "Haywire" and "Contagion", prolific director Steven Soderbergh returned in 2012 with what turned out to be a surprising hit, the low budget "Magic Mike". The film, loosely based on the life of actor Channing Tatum (before he became famous that is), follows the story of Mike, a male stripper and dancer living in Tampa, Florida. Mike works as a dancer with hopes of saving enough money to start working on building furniture and making that into his main business. During the day he also works construction, which is where he meets the young Adam. He takes the kid under his wing, and soon he is dancing with the troupe. Mike soon meets Adam's older sister, and becomes clearly smitten by her, and her grounded and no nonsense type of personality. As events unfold, he realizes it's time for him to make decisions and finally grow up.
Steven Soderbergh is one of the most talented film makers currently working. He is as an interesting story teller, as he is one of the most well versed technically inclined film makers (he edits and does the cinematography of most of his films). What has been interesting to witness throughout his career, is his choice of material. "Magic Mike" mostly succeeds in his approach to capture both the spectacle of the performance, and the actual life of these young men, who strip for a living and basically live in this bubble of attention and surreality, that seems to be about to burst at any moment. It's a film that is thin of story and character development for most of the supporting characters, but it still allows for Matthew McConaughey in particular to build a charismatic and magnetic character, with his host of the club, the older (and not necessarily wiser) Dallas. It's an interesting exercise for a fantastically gifted director. Worth watching.

The Founder

Movie Name: The Founder
Year of Release: 2016
Director: John Lee Ancock
Stars: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Laura Dern, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Kate Kneeland, Justin Randell Brooke
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten: 6
Watch on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the well received "Saving Mr. Banks", director John Lee Hancock is back, tackling another true story. "The Founder" follows the story of Ray Kroc, an itinerant salesman, always looking for new ideas to make money. One of his clients, are two siblings by the name of MacDonald, and Ray is positively perplexed by the way they have established a restaurant in San Bernardino. Ray finds a way to start working with the brothers, first as a franchise salesman, but as his ambition grows, so does his plans and ultimately what he wants the chain of restaurants to become. He eventually has to battle it out with the siblings, due to a contract he signed early on.
John Lee Hancock is a competent film maker, whose films while not priming for a specific point of view, make nonetheless for an interesting viewing. His films usually have an impeccable production team, and are anchored by a magnetic performance from his lead actor/actress (Sandra Bullock on "The Blind Side", Emma Thompson on "Saving Mr. Banks for instance). "The Founder" is no exception: the film creates an impeccable period reconstitution of the US in the 50s and 60s, and gives Michael Keaton another opportunity to create a character that is charismatic and brimming with ambition. The performance is actually so good, that it becomes the most memorable thing about the film, even though the central character is not portrayed in the most flattering light, and yet his appeal is there from beginning to end. It's a film that is conventional, illustrative, and polished - and almost instantly forgettable, but it does give Michael Keaton another opportunity to shine. And for that alone, it deserves to be seen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Vanilla Sky

Movie Name: Vanilla Sky
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall, Tilda Swinton, Michael Shannon, Shalom Harlow, Johnny Galecki, Delaina Mitchell
Genre: Mystery, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the critical success of "Almost Famous", celebrated director Cameron Crowe returned with a different opus, a remake of the Spanish film "Abre los Ojos" from Alejandro Amenabar. The film follows the story of David Aames, a young and attractive man, who is wealthy and in charge of the reigns of a big magazine in New York City. David is pursued by a beautiful woman by the name of Julie, with whom he has engaged in a episodic affair, something that takes a much secondary interest when he becomes enamored of Sofia, a beautiful Spanish young woman, whom he meets at a party (that she attends with his best friend). This turn of events goes much darker, as Julie becomes obsessed with David. She tries to commit suicide, taking David alongside with her in her car. Though he survives the event, his face is quite disfigured, and he resorts to wearing a mask to overcome those problems. Though he has his face reconstructed, David starts seeing some odd visions in his daily life, until one day when visiting Sofia, much to his shock and surprise, it's Julie he finds at the apartment. The events spiral out of control from then on, threatening his sanity.
"Vanilla Sky" is an odd film in Cameron Crowe's career. The director has made a trademark for himself by creating films about every day men, who are faced with challenging situations, but who choose to pursue their dreams against all odds (that these men are always surrounded by stunningly beautiful women is just luck of the draw, or good casting options). "Vanilla Sky" is an odd choice for him, since it's a film that basis its premise on the fact that the lead character, and the audience, never really know what is effectively real or if everything that has occurred is simply imagined by him. It's a tricky act to maintain for the entire duration of the film, but as the narrative unfolds, and the pieces start being sorted out, the whole sci-fi aspect of the film doesn't really gel or mesh with the film as a whole. The problem lies in the fact that the film can never get a defined tone - it tries to be a romantic opus about a hedonist who needs to grow up, but also a mystery thriller, and a futuristic parable. Tom Cruise invests all of his energy into this role, as does Cameron Diaz, but it's a film that though beautiful to look at (with cinematography from the fantastic John Toll), it lacks conviction and focus. A missed opportunity from an interesting director.

Atomic Blonde

Movie Name: Atomic Blonde
Year of Release: 2017
Director: David Leitch
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Bill Skarsgaard, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Roland Moller, Sam Hargrave, Daniel Bernhardt
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten: 7
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Another graphic novel series gets the big screen adaptation, this time around by the hand of David Leitch, the co-director of the celebrated "John Wick". The film follows the story of Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent, who is dispatched to Berlin, just as the wall is coming to an end in 1989. The remains of the Cold War persist, and Lorraine is tasked with getting a microfilm that has the information on all infiltrated agents, and also uncover the identity of a double agent who has brought a series of problems to the department. Lorraine is informed while being briefed, not to trust anyone, since there are multiple organizations looking for that list, and everyone is trying to get the upper hand while doing so. It's up to her and her skills, to navigate the tense political climate, and carry the mission to completion.
"Atomic Blonde" is a very entertaining film, one that is well aware of what is staging in terms of narrative and all the parts that comprise it. This is a well crafted and polished B-film, that has sufficient plot to keep the action going, but reserving a lot of its focus on the stylized look, the well placed soundtrack, and the impeccable action scenes that are choreographed to perfection. It also has a key success factor in the lead, the always fantastic Charlize Theron. She manages to create a lead character, who is simultaneously lethal, while retaining a sense of humanity and vulnerability, which makes Lorraine a far more compelling character than say, James Bond (who seems to be impervious to everything, therefore becoming more of a caricature, something that the "Naked Gun" films always spoofed so well). The supporting characters are not quite as compelling, or well rounded, and this is definitely not a John Le Carré adaptation (the plot is a bit wafer thin), but the film is impeccably conceived and directed, with a great production design from David Scheunemann and score from Tyler Bates. A very entertaining film worth watching.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian

Movie Name: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten: 4
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Synopsis:
Luc Besson and his production machine is back, this time touting a huge blockbuster he wrote and directed himself, an adaptation of the comic book series "Valerian and Laureline". The film follows the story of Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline  who in the 28th century, comprise a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order, at least where human presence is felt (the two are also supposedly involved in some sort of quasi romantic relationship). The two embark on a mission that is focused on the immense city of Alpha-an ever-expanding space metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, something that threatens the peaceful existence of the City. It's up to Valerian and Laureline to identify that menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
Luc Besson who created a name for himself in the 80s and 90s, as one of the few French directors to produce and direct films that were immensely popular both in his native country but also outside (namely with "Le Grand Bleu", "Nikita" and "Leon"), has in the meantime become a powerhouse with his production company EuropaCorp, who has been responsible for the release of mid budgeted action films that are immensely popular (such as the "Transporter" and "Taken" series). His latest directorial effort was the surprise hit "Lucy", which has enabled him to tackle this dream project of his. "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is very much like "The Fifth Element", a digest of a lot of pop references, from the screwball romantic comedy elements that are associated with the banter between the two lead characters, to the galaxy in peril style which is an instant ode to the universe of "Star Wars". This attempt at marrying all these elements ends up being its main downfall: the banter between the lead characters never really catches on, while the film introduces some subplots that appear out of nowhere to be quickly discarded with little to no consideration (not to mention the villain character or entity is never really quite flushed out). The casting is also a huge issue in the film, since both leads - Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne - don't really work at all in their roles - they both look too young, and their actions feel inconsequential and without any sense of urgency or peril, considering what is at stake (not to mention they have no chemistry). It's a film that lives mostly from the fantastic visual effects and concept design that it presents, and for that alone it manages to be sufficiently entertaining, but in the end it feels like a lot of noise for nothing. A quickly forgettable film.

Dunkirk

Movie Name: Dunkirk
Year of Release: 2017
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 
Genre: Action, Drama
Score out of ten: 9
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Synopsis:
Following the successful (and divisive) "Interstellar", director Christopher Nolan is back, with a film that unlike his previous efforts, is based on a true story, this time around focusing on an episode that occurred during World War II (which was also illustrated on Joe Wright's "Atonement"). The film follows the story of the evacuation of a group of Allied soldiers from the beaches (and harbor) of Dunkirk to the English coastline (from May 26th through June 4th 1940). The film focuses on a young soldier, and his attempts to exit the beach, and all the hurdles he and his companions have to go through in order to reach home safely (among those hurdles, the sinking of multiple ships). The film also focuses on the civilians that are brought into this situation, aboard their vessels to rescue all these soldiers.
Much has been written about the fact that "Dunkirk" is duration wise, the shortest feature directed by Christopher Nolan. That particular information, should in no way be detrimental to the fact that the director has built another fantastic film, one where his cerebral perspective aligns with the events that unveiled at the beach, and in particular with the lives of all those men. It's a perfect marriage of his taste for scale (and grandiose) and tension buildup. It's also a testament to this director's refinement that the film relies so little on dialogue exposition, and yet it manages to communicate so much. The film is exquisitely photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and has a crackling score from Hans Zimmer, both of which marry with the perfect editing from Lee Smith, to create a stunning example of how to create an indelible experience that captures the urgency and panic felt by so many during such a tying time. If anything can be pointed out to this film, is the fact that the characters almost feel secondary to the events unfurling, but this is such a fantastic achievement from a fantastic storyteller.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Movie Name: War for the Planet of the Apes
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Gabriel Chavarria, Michael Adamthwaite, Devyn Dalton
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten: 6.5
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Synopsis:
Director Matt Reeves is back, after the successful "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", which took the original Rupert Wyatt film to a much different level. Following the events of that film, we learn that there's a virus spreading through the Earth that is rendering humans unintelligible. They're losing the capacity to communicate. Caesar in the meantime has retreated with the apes to the woods, looking to live remotely and peacefully. However a belligerent Colonel is coming for them, targeting in particular Caesar. In one of those attacks, Caesar's family is killed, something that sets him on a revenge path, that may ultimately cost the future of all his tribe.
The "Planet of the Apes" universe has always been one that exposes the brutality of the Human species towards other species, or anything that they deem out of the ordinary (and therefore a potential threat). What has made this series such an iconic one since it was originally adapted in 1968, has always been the fact that it depicts a future where the human race is destroyed by its own doing. They bring on the evolution of other species (and in a way, the son taking the place of the father, which is the case of Caesar), which eventually takes over the planet itself. Matt Reeves is a very interesting and intelligent director, who infuses his stories with heart, allowing for characters to be more than just cardboard archetypes. From the central apes through their opponents, we witness a bit of what has set all these events in march, and what each of them aim to get out of their paths. Where the film does falter is in the effective building of tension, and the fact that for the most part this film plays like John Sturges' "The Great Escape" (which in itself isn't a bad thing at all), but without ever giving the film the edge that it needs to be truly memorable. Production wise, this film is top notch, with stunning visual effects, and two great leading performances from Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson. The cinematography from the veteran Michael Seresin is beautiful as is the production design from James Chinlund, who builds a devastated world with a mist of Dickensian and industrial tones. A good film worth watching.

Okja

Movie Name: Okja
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Steve Yeun, Lilly Collins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer

Synopsis:
After the critically well received (but filled with problems over distribution) "Snowpiercer", director Bong Joon Ho is back, this time around directing a feature film for streaming platform Netflix. The film focuses on the story of Mija, a young girl in South Korea, who for the past ten years, has taken care of a genetically engineered pig, Okja, who has grown massively and has become her best friend. Okja, and some other 26 animals have been given to different farmers around the world, by the company who has created them, the Mirando Corporation. This entity is governed by the insecure Lucy, who wants to make sure these animals are palatable to the general population once they start selling them. Things however come to a halt, when Okja is suddenly taken away from Mija, in order to be sent to the US. An animal liberation group comes to her aid, and they all set out a plan to expose Mirando and denounce their animal cruelty. But again things don't go according to plan.
Bong Joon Ho who made a name for himself outside of Korea with the well known "The Host", creates an interesting parable with "Okja". By demonstrating the bonds created between the young girl and the massive Okja, the director sheds light on topics such as corporate greed, unscrupulous executives and of course animal cruelty. The film definitely has some tonal issues, something that is more blatantly visible in the character portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is overacting and losing all sense of nuance (and he's not Robin Williams, and can't capture that sense of manic energy and sad puppet the late actor could do so well). But it's a film that has heart, and functions as an interesting parable for a lot of the maladies that exist in our society. It also has a good sense of humor, one that is perfectly embodied by the always brilliant Tilda Swinton, doing double duty this time around (the supporting cast with Paul Dano and Steve Yeun is also well cast). The visual effects are fantastic as is the cinematography of Darius Khondji. A good film worth watching.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Movie Name: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Jon Watts
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Donald Glover, Logan Marshall Green, Tony Revolori, Tyne Daly, Bokeem Woodbine, Zendaya, Abraham Attah
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer

Synopsis:
After the disastrous solo outings the character suffered with "The Amazing Spider-Man" features, a new incarnation got introduced in last year's "Captain America: Civil War". The new take on the character is a continuation of the storyline from that film, and continues to follow the adventures of Peter Parker, as he adjusts to his high school life, following his assignment alongside the Avengers. In this new world of super heroes and alien menaces, there's people who are trying to capitalize on scavenging on the remains of battles. That's the case of Adrian Toomes, a contractor, who realizes he can sell new arms and materials from the debris of these battles between these super powered beings. Peter/Spider-Man however realizes this angle, and soon both these personalities are engaged in a battle that may disrupt both their worlds.
Director Jon Watts has followed on the footsteps of other indie directors who are being recruited to tackle big spectacle films, such as Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards (respectively the directors of "Jurassic World" and "Rogue One"). Much like these directors, the overall immediate perception is the lack of a distinct point of view. The production machine behind these big popcorn spectacles does have a way of eliminating nuance and a more unique point of view, but if there's something that the "Harry Potter" series has taught, is that different directors can bring their stamp of uniqueness to it - case in point, Alfonso Cuaron and his take on the third film from the Harry Potter series. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" tries to reconcile being a teenager comedy, filled with typical awkward humor and failed romantic attempts, with being a full blown action and super-hero film. The film has humor and winks a nice cinematic eye to John Hughes, but can't help on revisiting the all too familiar high school setting with tired plot lines. Where the film does add some edge is with the always reliable and fantastic Michael Keaton, who brings sufficient menace to elevate the proceedings to a different level. His story line is also where the film feels more interesting and compelling, whereas the plot points with Peter/Spider-Man and his relationship with Iron Man and the Avengers, feels strained and a bit forced. It's a film that doesn't bring anything new to the table. It's well crafted (and at this point, aren't they all well crafted), but really needs a more unique point of view to make it memorable. Sam Raimi's first two films had heart and a cinematic joy: this one tries to reference others without achieving its own. Maybe next time.