Sunday, September 16, 2018

Tale of Tales

Movie Name: Tale of Tales
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Stacy Martin, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Jessie Cave
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Italian director Matteo Garrone made a splash with his film "Gomorrah", an unflinching look at crime in Italy, which gave him the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival of 2008. He followed that with the film "Reality" and then this unexpected and sumptuous, "Tale of Tales", which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. The film is a loose adaptation of the novel by Giambattista Basile, and is comprised of three different storylines that eventually converge into one. All of these stories are populated by fantastical creatures (very much like Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). In one of the stories, a Queen sacrifices the life of her husband, all in the effort to be pregnant and have a child. Her husband vanquishes this mythical under the sea creature, whose heart makes the queen instantly pregnant (alongside with the virgin who also touched the heart of that creature). In another story, a libertine King, gets enraptured by the singing voice of a woman, who he is unable to see since she flees and hides. He doesn't realize that the woman, Dora, and her sister, are both elderly and live in almost seclusion. He insists in wanting to be with her, and Dora agrees to do so, but only during the still of the night, with no lights on. The King however, manages to capture a glimpse of her, and has her thrown out. Dora manages to survive, and is nursed by a witch. When she wakes up, she looks young and stunning. The third story focuses on a king, who lives with his daughter Violet. They have a loving relationship, but the king starts focusing on a flea, that he starts feeding until the creature gains immense proportions. When the flea dies, the King is heartbroken and decides to skin the creature. He also offers to give his daughter as a bride to whoever is able to guess the source of the tanned skin.
"Tale of Tales" is an interesting film, one that feels like an exercise in style and art direction, more so than the analogies that it tries to capture. The film also utilizes a well recognized international cast to craft this storytelling, though each one of the stories, comes with a sting and an underlying darkness that is alluded to in fairytales, but never quite as well captured/staged. This type of chapter driven storytelling always produces uneven cinematic experiences, since the characters are never quite given the dimension they should - these archetypes always feel like rough sketches. In this case, Garrone seems to have focused heavily in the production design by Dimitri Capuani and exquisite costumes from Massimo Parrini, and while the stories are sufficiently engaging, they are never more than superficial. This film is a testament that at times, it's preferable to focus on one chapter and make it work and give it enough depth, than to paint a beautiful, yet hollow canvas with good actors and generous production values. 

The Predator

Movie Name: The Predator
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Keegan-Michael Key, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, Yvonne Strahovski, Mike Dopud, Niall Matter
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis & Review:
Following the hilarious, but little seen, "The Nice Guys", writer/director Shane Black returns, with his take on the Predator, coincidentally, a sequel that harks back to the original from 1987, directed by John McTiernan, where he was an actor. The film immediately introduces us to an active fight going on between two Predators, with one of them escaping to Earth, and crash landing in the middle of a ransom exchange taking place. The team assigned to handle that situation, is placed in direct contact with that Predator, and that small pod that he escaped from. The lead of that force, Quinn McKenna, fearing no one will believe the incidents, ships some of the artifacts he managed to get from the alien vessel to a PO Box back in the US. However due to lack of payment, all those materials, find their way to his home, particularly to the hands of his 12 year old son. The captured Predator is intent on recapturing the artifacts and his crashed spaceship, which becomes increasingly more complicated when his Predator foe, follows him to Earth and goes on the same quest and rampage. It's up to McKenna and his battered group of veterans, to prevent the Predators from destroying everything in sight, and from taking his young son as a prized possession.
Shane Black is an interesting writer/director, in the sense that he always manages to capture a dynamic and humorous tone between the characters and situations he stages in his films. The action in his films always comes wrapped up in this arresting and highly enjoyable banter between characters that are seemingly at odds, but that manage to co-exist. "The Predator" could have been a perfect terrain for his brand, but it's a film that falters on dizzying amount of levels. The screenplay, while interesting in parts and mining the Predator lore for new paths, lacks spark, bite and humor, and not even Keegan-Michael Key can crack a joke convincingly. The story also feels contrived and disjointed - events occur, characters suddenly and dramatically alter themselves, all for the purpose to allow the story to continue from one set piece to the other. The most puzzling aspect of this film is the complete lack of charisma and chemistry between the actors that are supposedly trying to save the young McKenna, not to mention that they all look as if though they're playing stereotypes from a rejected version of Oliver Stone's "Platoon". The cast ends up faring particularly terribly, with Boyd Holbrook making a case for no one to ever cast him as a lead of anything, Jacob Tremblay equally making a bad impression, after his great performance in Lenny Abrahamson's "Room", and Thomas Jane being a shadow of his former self. The film fares positively in casting Sterling K. Brown, and in some of the action set pieces that are excitingly staged, but it's frankly too little for a director with such promise.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

In the Cut

Movie Name: In the Cut
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nick Damici, Kevin Bacon, Patrice O'Neal
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After the muted response to the underrated "Holy Smoke", celebrated director Jane Campion premiered "In the Cut" in 2003, at the Toronto Film Festival. The film follows the story of Frannie Avery, a high school teacher, who may have witnessed a murder, and who becomes amorously involved with the main detective running the investigation. Frannie is a quiet and somewhat shy woman, close to her much more outgoing and extroverted sister Pauline, and they both find themselves wrapped in this potentially fatal investigation. While Frannie's involvement with Detective Malloy deepens, so do her fears that he may actually be the man responsible for the killings that are occurring in the city, and that are getting progressively closer to her.
Jane Campion is one of my favorite filmmakers currently working. She has a distinct point of view, one where her universe is inhabited by women who are at times at odds with a patriarchal society that does not understand or actually fears their point of view (and their sexuality). "In the Cut" is a perfect example of that - Jane Campion makes Frannie a woman who despite her experience in life, is opening herself to a new partner, and a potentially harrowing experience, but who wants to do it on her own terms. She's a woman finding her voice, her wants, desires, but in the context of a thriller, where a dangerous individual is murdering women (for all intended purposes, castrating the emergence of their voices). It's a film that in a way, shifts the paradigm of the erotic thrillers of the mid 90s (jumpstarted by Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct" in 1992), and places the entire focus on the woman who potentially witnessed it all, and how that becomes the essence of the film. The relationship between these two disparate individuals, that connect, without much knowledge of who they are, but who try to make that connection flourish and work. The film does have its shortcomings, in the sense that the characters are not fully realized, and feel a bit under-nourished, but it's a beautifully shot film by Dion Beebe, featuring three accomplished actors in the central roles, namely Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh. For Meg Ryan this film was a change of pace (her part was originally intended for Nicole Kidman), whereas for both Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh, this cemented their continuous interest in diverse and richly layered parts. An underrated film from a great director and artist.

The Nun

Movie Name: The Nun
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Corin Hardy
Stars: Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Ingrid Bisu, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles, David Horovitch
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer

Synopsis & Review:
As "The Conjuring" universe keeps expanding, different releases featuring characters from that series pop up in order to maintain the franchise alive. Following "The Conjuring 1 and 2" and the "Annabelle" films, "The Nun" is another offshoot from that series which is being shepherded by director James Wan, with directing duties being assigned to different professionals. "The Nun" introduces us to a monastery in Romania, where a dark entity is plaguing the nuns that inhabit it. Following a gruesome suicide from one of the nuns, a priest experienced in the paranormal is sent to that remote region, with a young nun as his apprentice/help. Once in Romania, both Father Burke and Sister Irene, find the help of a local guide, a French-Canadian expat, with the nickname of Frenchie. He promptly drops them by the monastery, where the supernatural events immediately start occurring, testing the faith, resources and sheer survival skills from both Father Burke and Sister Irene.
What has been largely successful in the offerings of this particular universe, has been the ability from James Wan, to build horror/suspense, which builds progressively, allowing for the characters to exist and create a bridge with the viewers, before introducing elements that are supernatural. He also smartly plays a stylistic ploy, which places the films squarely in the decade they take place, something that his strong casts usually play off remarkably well. The offshoots of the main films have had mixed results. If the first "Annabelle" was a miss, last year's sequel was a vast improvement. "The Nun" from Corin Hardy, is another step back in terms of quality. The film is successful in conveying a sense of remoteness and isolation, but is too intent in showcasing the supernatural angle of the locale, something that removes the subtlety that has been a key offering of the more successful films of this series. There's also a visual and stylistic tone throughout the film that is very disconnected - there's a contextualization throughout the narrative that alludes the story takes place after WWII, but the mix of production design, digital effects and real effects, never quite gels, making the film feel amateurish in certain sections and hard to pin point when the action is actually occurring (according to the timeline of "The Conjuring" it would be the 1960s). The actors sadly don't have much to do, with Demian Bichir playing a priest who carries the guilt of a failed case (but who has little else to do) and the young Taissa Farmiga, playing Sister Irene, a strong and resourceful heroine, who tries her best to overcome these challenges, but whose story never gets properly investigated. What has made "The Conjuring" films successful, is the fact that they are stories of every day people battling extraordinary events - these offshoots try to be more about the supernatural entities, making the human element of the stories secondary. Time for James Wan and his creative team to put their lessons from "The Conjuring" into practice and hopefully elevate the creative results from these endeavors.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Hulk

Movie Name: Hulk
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Kevin Rankin, Celia Weston, Lou Ferrigno, Todd Tesen
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
After the critical and commercial success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", the always fantastic Ang Lee decided to tackle something decidedly different in his career, his first comic book feature. The film is an adaptation of the Marvel comic book, and follows the story of scientist Bruce Banner, who survives an accidental experiment on his laboratory, an accident that leaves him with a serious side effect. Every time Bruce gets angry, his metabolism alters, and he becomes this immense creature, someone possessed of limitless strength, and invulnerable to nearly everything, the giant and destructive Hulk. This creature of immense power gathers the attention of the army, who is intent on destroying him, under the direction of General Ross. Only Betty Ross, Banner's love interest has a way of calming him down and keeping the Hulk in check. 
Ang Lee is a tremendously talented director, who has made a career of unexpected choices and turns. Much like his initial work in Taiwan/New York, "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman" was followed by the period piece "Sense and Sensibility", "Hul" followed his return to his roots. The director tried to give the film a humane dimension, by making Bruce Banner's issues associated to a distraught parental figure, played with abandon by Nick Nolte. This over the top aspect didn't exactly marry with the almost literal stylistic approach the director adopted in terms of transitions between scenes and set pieces. It's a film that is interesting, and visually compelling, even if the render of the creatures feels at times too artificial. In the end, the cast makes the film engaging and compelling, particularly the duo comprised of Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, both excellent actors who give their characters depth and range that sometimes isn't associated with comic book properties. The cinematography from Frederick Elmes (who usually works with David Lynch) is great, as is the score from Danny Elfman. An uneven film from a fantastic director.

Children of Men

Movie Name: Children of Men
Year of Release: 2006
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Peter Mullan
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Alfonso Cuaron followed his successful "Harry Potter" foray, with what turned out to be one of his best reviewed films thus far. The film is an adaptation of a novel by P.D. James and takes place in the nearby future where women have become infertile, and where society is at the brink of social and economic collapse. The film focuses on Theo Faron, a former activist, who following a dramatic occurrence with his family, has become something of a recluse, staying mostly to himself, save for his good friend Jasper. His estranged wife Julian resurfaces, asking him to help transport a woman who needs papers and a safe passage out of London. That woman carries within her the seed for a new beginning, something that is of interest for different factions. It's up to Theo to navigate the dangerous waters ahead and safeguard the precious Kee.
Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most interesting directors working today. His technical prowess is fine tuned to each project he tackles, but what is really surprising about his features, is how the themes of family and individual growth and sacrifice come across in his narratives. "Children of Men" is a fantastic example of a film where the director manages to create a near future inhabited by economic uncertainty, immigration problems, social inequalities, all reflecting the fears of our current society, but also giving it a vibrancy and heart that makes it authentic and plausible. It's ultimately a film about the gift of life, and how that is the most powerful thing that humanity carries within itself. It's also a film impeccably shot, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, edited (by the director and Alex Rodriguez) and featuring a fantastic performance from the always underrated Clive Owen. A great film from an ever evolving director, who is never afraid of challenging himself.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Elephant

Movie Name: Elephant
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Gus Van Sant continued his idiosyncratic career with one of his most celebrated films, the Palm D’Or Winner “Elephant”, which was preceded by the more commercial feature “Finding Forrester” (2000) and the more experimental “Gerry” (2002). “Elephant” is inspired by the events and occurrences that took place in Columbine, CO, where two teenage students went on a murdering spree, and killed 12 students and one teacher, before ultimately committing suicide. The film follows the events taking place in a high school, focusing on different students, some of whom are suddenly thrust into this dramatic occurrence, where two students come to school with guns, chains and explosives, and start killing people arbitrarily. 
“Elephant” is a film that successfully  marries Gus Van Sant’s aesthetic and point of view, mostly by observing events unfold from multiple perspectives and simultaneously using the camera to capture a poetic tone to the existence of suburbia in America. As usual, he focuses his attention on younger subjects, with the film trailing different students, in order to provide some insight into who they are and what emotional and psychological baggage they are bringing into that school. The film doesn’t try to explain the events, but focuses more on documenting the events, and how a random explosion of violence can appear out of nowhere, when no one is expecting. It’s a film that culminates the perspective and point of view that Van Sant had already tackled in “My Own Private Idaho” and “To Die For”, and to some extent and in a parallel career, the same going for Larry Clark and his films “Kids”, “Bully” and “Ken Park”. These are all views into the lives of young people, how they deal with family lives, friendships and how alienated some of these universes produce disaffected people and interminable problems. It’s an interesting perspective, essentially because Gus Van Sant marries an observational style (almost documentary style), with a poetic tone that is perfectly captured by the late and celebrated cinematographer Harris Savides (with whom Van Sant had worked on “Finding Forrester”, “Gerry” and whom he would work with in the following “Last Days” and a few others until his sad passing in 2012). A fantastic film from a very unique director, always worth watching.

Dirty Pretty Things

Movie Name: Dirty Pretty Things
Year of Release: 2003
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Zlatko Buric
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following the well received “High Fidelity”, director Stephen Frears quickly changed gears again, this time around partnering with writer/director Steven Knight, for what turned out one of the greatly reviewed films of the year, “Dirty Pretty Things”. The film follows the story of Okwe, a Nigerian physician, currently working multiple jobs in London, since he is an illegal immigrant. Okwe works as a hotel receptionist, and also practices some medicine, in order to make ends meet. The hotel where he works is a center for all sorts of under the radar activities, most of them under the tutelage of Okwe’s manager, Juan. On a particular occasion Okwe discovers a human heart blocking a toilet in a recently vacated room, and he slowly uncovers a sinister trafficking behind the fa├žade of the peaceful hotel. Stephen Frears is a reference name in the British film industry since he shot to prominence in the 80s with the celebrated “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Prick Up Your Ears”, which he quickly followed with the acclaimed “Dangerous Liaisons”. Since then he has had his fair share of successes and misfires, “The Queen” and “Mary Reilly” respectively, but “Dirty Pretty Things” ranks as one of his best reviewed films. The film recaptures the grittiness of his earlier work, showcasing the not so pleasant reality that lies behind the glitz and glamour of London life. The trails and tribulations of migrant workers, and the criminal underworld, are represented without glamour, instead opting for somewhat direct approach to the proceedings. The film also benefits from a phenomenal cast, from the always great Chiwetel Ejiofor, to the underrated Audrey Tautou, the menacing (and credible) Sergi Lopez and the always reliable and talented Sophie Okonedo. It’s a film anchored in the traditional British realism approach, featuring the always beautiful cinematography from Chris Menges, and the score from Nathan Larson. A very good film worth watching.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Hot Shots

Movie Name: Hot Shots
Year of Release: 1991
Director: Jim Abrahams
Stars: Charlie Sheen, Cary Elwes, Valeria Golino, Lloyd Bridges, Jon Cryer, Kevin Dunn, William O'Leary, Bill Irwin, Bruce A. Young, Heidi Swedberg, Kristy Swanson
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Jim Abrahams made a name for himself as part of the directorial group, where he worked in tandem with Jerry and David Zucker (the ZAZ acronym). This group was responsible for the classics "Airplane", "Top Secret" and "Police Squad"/"Naked Gun". By the early 90s Jim Abrahams had also ventured as a standalone director, with the films "Big Business" and "Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael". "Hot Shots" was a return to his spoof and more slapstick roots, focusing this time around in poking fun at the machismo of Tony Scott's successful "Top Gun". The film follows the story of Topper Harley, a young hotshot pilot, who has been suspended from the army's pilot program following some reckless behavior. With a new captain in place, Topper is recruited back, in order to test a new program being established, all the while battling his family issues, mostly derived from the unfortunate accident that ended his father's career, himself a pilot. In order to assist him with this journey, is the beautiful therapist, Ramada Thompson, who has been involved with one of Topper's rivals. As they go through the events leading to the main exercise, strange occurrences pop up, leading all of them to the suspicion that something else may be going on.
"Hot Shots" drinks heavily from the same fountain which made "Airplane" such an irreverent and funny film. The film pokes holes at the whole young macho mythology behind "Top Gun", while using different lines of the screenplay to also stage the hilarious nonsense that has always dominated the ZAZ films. Even if the film doesn't hit all the spots that "Airplane" managed to successfully put in place, it's still a film filled with hilarious moments, from the spoof of Adrian Lynne's "9 1/2 Weeks" to Steve Kloves' "The Fabulous Baker Boys". The cast is uniformly game for all the events taking place, from Charlie Sheen, Cary Elwes, Valeria Golino and the always fantastic Lloyd Bridges. A fun film worth revisiting.

Alien vs. Predator

Movie Name: Alien vs. Predator
Year of Release: 2004
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Stars: Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen, Ewen Bremmer, Colin Salmon, Tommy Flanagan, Joseph Rye, Agathe de La Boulaye, Carsten Norgaard, Sam Troughton, Kieran Bew
Genre: Action, Horror, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the cold reception experienced by Jean Pierre Jeunet's "Alien Resurrection", the studio behind the franchise, decided to tackle an adaption of the comic book that had been created in 1989, that married two of the studio's properties: the Alien creature and the Predator. Director Paul W. S. Anderson, then coming off the success of "Resident Evil" was chosen to direct and write the screenplay for the feature. The film follows the events of an expedition in the Arctic, under the funding of Charles Weyland, the CEO of  the Weyland Utani company. This expedition aims to discover the origins of a pyramid buried in the ice. Unbeknownst to the the group, the pyramid is indeed ancient, but it is used as a stage for the Predator creatures to lure humans to be used as hosts for the Alien creatures, so they can go through a battle, which functions as a rite of passage for their young warriors. The group of humans going through the expedition soon realize the events taking place, and try to escape both menaces.
Paul W. S. Anderson's approach is one where his technical dexterity, sadly does not marry adequately with the stories and screenplays he creates. "Alien vs. Predator" is no exception: the group of characters is quickly forgettable, in detriment of the real allure, which comes in the shape of the Alien and Predator creatures. Unlike the films of Ridley Scott, James Cameron or David Fincher, the creatures are quickly presented and showcased, leaving little to the imagination. It removes a lot of the finesse that always dominated the series - the ever evolving game of shadows, of hide and seek, of suggesting more than gratuitously showing the monster, is not on display here. The human component is mostly fodder for the creature counterparts, both of which go on a game of non stop destruction. It's a film that tries to drink from its iconic progenitors, but is sadly devoid of the refinement, concept and ultimately execution of those films. The cast is quickly forgotten, even the reliable Lance Henriksen and the talented Ewen Bremmer. A missed opportunity.