Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Secret World of Arrietty

Movie Name: The Secret World of Arrietty
Year of Release: 2010
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Stars: Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made his career as a key member of Hayao Miyazaki's team, and from Studio Ghibli's talented design team. "The Secret World of Arrietty" is his feature film debut, and features a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, adapted from Mary Norton's novel (the long standing series which was "The Borrowers"). The film follows the adventures of young Arrietty, a tiny little girl, who lives with her family within the walls and in the basement of the house of big people. In order to survive, Arrietty and her father "borrow" things from the big people, things that are unperceived, such as a sugar cube, clothing pins, anything they can find of use. A young boy named Shawn comes to the house where Arrietty lives, and accidentally spots her in the garden. This relationship grows further as Arrietty goes on her first borrowing expedition, and Shawn once again spots her. This however endangers her family, as other people in the house soon start looking for the tiny people.
The universe of Studio Ghibli is one populated by a mix of real and magical creatures, and how their relationships evolve. "The Secret World of Arrietty" fits within this universe perfectly, since the tiny people come across as magical entities placed in a somewhat dreary world. This film doesn't fall under Miyazaki's typical stories of the relationship of men with technology and nature, but it's still and nonetheless populated by the relationship between what is considered normal and what is considered different (which was the case of the wonderful "Spirited Away" for instance, with the relationship of Chihiro/Sen with Haku). "Arrietty" perfectly captures the delicate and strong relationship that is developed between young people, independently of their background and personal story. It's a timeless tale, told in a beautiful and delicate way. The animation is top notch as is the case with all of Studio Ghibli's releases, and the score from Cecile Corbel is equally impeccable. A very good film worth watching.

Alien: Covenant

Movie Name: Alien: Covenant
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
After the critical and commercial success of "The Martian", director Ridley Scott is back to the "Alien" saga, which originally propelled his name, this time around following up the mediocre "Prometheus" with a film that tries to adhere closer to the mythology created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett in 1979. The film follows a crew from the spaceship "The Covenant" who are on a mission to colonize a distant planet. During the trip, the ship suffers some damages, and the crew is forced to awake. They discover a signal coming from a nearby planet, and set out to discover what lies within. Upon arrival, they start getting infected with some alien parasites, where the remainder of the crew, come to find out that the survivor is actually David, the android from the original "Prometheus" crew. Much to their horror, the alien species starts proliferating again, and soon the crew is desperately fighting for their lives.
What was so original, interesting and compelling about the original series of films, wasn't so much the alien creature and how destructive and terrifying it was. It was primarily the fact that Ripley was the heart and center of the films, and it was her odyssey dealing with these creatures that showcased her resilience, intelligence and heart (and in doing so, proving that humans can overcome the deadliest foes). What these new features have revealed, particularly the more they try to marry it with the original films (always finding new female characters as their heroines), is the general lack of coherence and of compelling characters that create effective drama (it's pretty much a given that most characters are going to be fodder for the alien to destroy). Whereas "Prometheus" was poorly written, "Alien: Covenant" provides further insight (and a better structure), and shifts the focus of the story from the human centerpieces. Writing aside, the film features Ridley Scott's impeccable aesthetic and point of view, with a superb cast, and production team. The film tries to marry design aspects from the original 1979 feature, with digital effects, making the whole endeavor feel awkward and not entirely successful. At this point these films feel more like a desperate attempt to breathe life into a property that has run its course. The legacy of the "Alien" films deserves better, and so does Ripley.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Nice Guys

Movie Name: The Nice Guys
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following the successful "Iron Man 3", director Shane Black is back with a new feature, one that again combines his trademark of action mixed with comedy and satire. The film follows two men in Los Angeles, in the late 70s. One, Jackson Healy,  is a muscle for hire, and the other, Holland March, is a smart yet clumsy detective. They are both thrown together, when they are hired to discover what happened to a young woman by the name of Amelia. They have to cope with an increasing series of odd events, but luckily with the assistance of March's daughter, they soon are on the right path to find their missing woman. However, not everything is what it seems in this missing persons case.
Shane Black is a talented writer/director who always manages to create films where the odd pairing of his central characters makes for memorable and entertaining situations (such was the premise of Richard Donner's "Lethal Weapon" and his best feature to date, the underrated "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"). "The Nice Guys" has all the trademarks that made his name well known as a screenwriter: a noir/thriller environment with inspiration from classics such as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown", with a quick and biting wit, very much screwball comedy inspired. This film in particular has the selling point of having two great actors as leads, both with lots of chemistry. What the film lacks, is the biting satire that was so well developed in his previous features, stronger and more defined female characters. It's still a film with a great cast, fantastic cinematography (from academy award winning Philipe Rousselot) and impeccable production design. An interesting film from a compelling director.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Denial

Movie Name: Denial
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Mick Jackson
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Mark Gatiss, Harriet Walter, John Sessions
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Director Mick Jackson has returned with a new feature, after the celebrated TV film "Temple Grandin", from 2010. The film is based on the book and events surrounding the life of acclaimed Historian Deborah Lipstadt. The narrative focuses specifically on the libel case that was brought against Deborah by David Irving, a Holocaust denier. The case, which was brought against Deborah in 1996, had huge media exposure, and it also included Deborah's publishing house, Penguin. The libel/defamation case, argued Deborah had published lies about Irving's reputation and about the Holocaust itself. Deborah's legal team went out about presenting facts and therefore dismantling David Irving's case, who chose to represent himself throughout the process.
Mick Jackson's best directorial efforts have been features where he marries his experience in directing documentaries with material that is based on real situations and people (though his most popular film may be "The Bodyguard" from 1992, with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston). "Denial" is the perfect material for the director, since it's based on a real case that occurred in the mid 90s, and outlines how a resourceful, intelligent and articulate Historian resolved to battle a libel case that involved one of the biggest atrocities witnessed by humanity. It's a film that is thorough in how it illustrates the process and who were the key players - it's taut and the director has just enough stylistic flourishes to make it a compelling and interesting film. The film falters in the further definition of the characters (we always have a somewhat limited view of the main key players), but the case itself is enticing, and is serviced by a fantastic group of actors, particularly Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall, who give enough nuance and depth to what might otherwise be cliched characters. A good film worth watching.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Movie Name: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Year of Release: 2017
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Ving Rhames, Michelle Yeoh, David Hasselhoff, Laura Haddock
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following the surprise success of "Guardians of the Galaxy" in 2014, the sequel was inevitable. The film continues to track the adventures of the band of misfits. This time around, the group becomes the target of the Sovereign race, after successfully eradicating a creature that was intent on destroying one of their most prized possessions. Old family issues come into play as our heroes try to flee their captors/persecutors. Peter Quill's father makes his appearance, saving them from a perilous situation, and allowing Peter to gain further information about his birth and how his mom came to meet his father. However as Peter quickly discovers, not everything and not everyone is what they seem to be.
James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" managed to be a surprising and entertaining film, because it successfully married pop culture references, just enough character richness (which wasn't much to begin with) all tied under the bow of a great soundtrack, one that simultaneously brought a sense of nostalgia and irreverence, while also giving the whole outer space adventure additional context (and making the whole adventure more humane). Somehow that balance got lost in the second feature - the film suffers from rhythm issues (the film becomes at points tremendously tedious, with characters having emotional epiphanies every other scene), and the soundtrack, once a highlight to particular sections, has become something the narrative revolves around - it does not underline the scenes, it defines them. The overabundance of visual effects has also made the feature strangely hollow and lacking emotional depth - the characters (and by consequence the actors), are dwarfed by everything that surrounds them - though the film features a few beautiful sequences, and the humor prevails, the taste level throughout is questionable. The film comes across as an indulgent exercise, when restrain and more focus was needed to provide the characters with enough to do, an actual foe/villain to battle, one that wasn't excessively abstract or lacking personality. The fantastic cast doesn't have much to do, though Kurt Russell seems to be having fun in some of his scenes. A sadly missed opportunity.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Being 17

Movie Name: Being 17
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Andre Techine
Stars: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Corso, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Remi Garcia
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Celebrated director Andre Techine is back, with the feature "Quand on a 17 ans", which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (2016). The film follows the story of two teenage boys, both of whom live in the French countryside. Damien, lives in the small town, alongside his mother, a warm, good humored doctor, while is father is out of country on military duty. Tom, the other teenager, lives further out, on a farm by the mountains. His adoptive parents are dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, which puts Tom living temporarily with Damien and his mother, Marianne. The boys, who have been at odds with each other, often with physical violence, are forced to reassess their relationship. Things finally become clearer when Damien confesses his attraction and love for Tom, something he initially refuses and pushes back violently. A dramatic event however bring these two young men together.
Andre Techine has made a career for himself with intelligent dramas that perfectly capture the dynamics of family relationships, be it blood relations or families that are built upon deep friendships. Some of his finest efforts have been films that capture the pains and challenges of a first love, something that "Les Roseaux Sauvages/Wild Reeds" demonstrated (back in 1994). "Being 17/Quand on a 17 ans" is another perfect example of his capabilities in capturing the bonds that are formed between young inexperienced people who are discovering who they are, how they relate to each other their longing and desire. It's a remarkable film that traces the realities of living in a small town, of discovering a different type of love, and ultimately of coming to peace with one self. It's a film that removes artifice, and presents itself with emotion and honesty. The performances from the central trio are all solid and engaging, particularly the wonderful Sandrine Kiberlain as the pragmatic yet sensitive mother. A very good film from a great director.

Bridget Jones's Baby

Movie Name: Bridget Jones's Baby
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Sharon Maguire
Stars: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Sally Phillips, Shirley Henderson, James Callis, Neil Pearson, Sarah Solemani, Celia Imrie, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Joanna Scanlan, Kate O'Flynn
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
The Bridget Jones saga continues, this time around with the original director, Sharon Maguire, coming back to helm the third feature, and the original script being handled by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson ( this feature unlike the previous two, was not based on a previously published novel). The film follows the misadventures of Bridget Jones, now a 43 year old single woman, following her split from Mark Darcy, who in the meantime has married someone else. While celebrating her birthday with a friend from work, Bridget engages in a casual tryst with an American by the name of Jack. The same week, she goes to a Christening and also engages in another casual romp with Darcy (who is actually in the midst of a divorce). Much to Bridget's surprise, she becomes pregnant, however she does not know who the father actually is. Bridget decides to present the situation to both men, who both agree to help her through the process with unexpected situations presenting themselves.
What made the original film work (which came out in 2001), was the obvious charm and talent of Renee Zellweger, alongside the story of an accident prone Bridget Jones, who tended to be caught up in romantic dalliances which were not always the best and most advised for her. The first two films also dealt with her struggles pertaining to a sense of self image, and how she overcame those to find resilience and self affirmation within her own skin. This third film side steps this altogether: the new Bridget is slim and more confident. She's a slightly older Bridget, with a slightly bruised heart, but still hoping her prince charming is available. The film ultimately suffers from a barely there concept, something that Renee Zellweger again carries with her charm, but this is a Bridget who no longer has the spark and the irreverence that dominated the first feature (her spunk has somehow been tampered down). The film tries to marry the concept of aging with being a mother at an older phase in life, trying unsuccessfully to be funny while doing so, however that's a premise that was slightly better explored in "Baby Mama" (the Sigourney Weaver character in that film). For all the incredible cast that is assembled, this is a film that is safe and ultimately quickly forgettable.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Knight of Cups

Movie Name: Knight of Cups
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, Cherry Jones, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Peter Mathiessen
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the well received "The Tree of Life", and the not so well received "To the Wonder", reclusive director Terrence Malick returned with another directorial effort (which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival of 2015). The film focuses on the life of Rick, someone working in the entertainment industry, who is trying to find meaning to his life, by understanding the relationships that define him, namely with his brother, father, and the assorted women he has had amorous encounters with.
I should start by saying that "Knight of Cups" feels like a film written and planned by a young student of Philosophy, who suddenly becomes enamored with a sense of self and self discovery, and hires a fantastic cinematographer, and a group of stupendous and beautiful actors to pose and act out supposedly deep meanderings about what life is all about. "Knight of Cups" plays like one of the most self-indulgent exercises captured on film, one that renders absolutely no meaning, borderlines on poor taste and goes interminably with no apparent sense. The narrative, thin as it may be, contains a lot of narration from different characters, who basically interact with each other by posing, or simply looking at each other as if though they're in a music video (the camera never anchors on anyone long enough, since the characters never really speak with each other). This film doesn't function as an art installation since the concept sustaining it is almost pedestrian - "life in the fast lane ends up alienating the sensitive yet damaged good looking central character", and doesn't function as a film, since there's no dimension to anyone, no characters to speak of, and it basically is a beautiful snapshot of a lot of locations (and apparently all of them are populated by stunning model like people). It's a career low point for everyone involved, and from a personal perspective, it definitely raises a lot of questions about Terrence Malick's talent and taste level.

The Handmaiden

Movie Name: The Handmaiden
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following his American detour with "Stoker", director Park Chan-Wook has returned with a new fantastic feature, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2016. The film is inspired by the novel of Sarah Waters, but the director transposes the action to Korea in the 1930s, when the country was occupied by the Japanese. The film focuses on a young pickpocket Sookee, who is hired as a handmaiden to a beautiful young heiress who lives with her uncle in a stunning mansion. Sookee was arranged to be in that position through a Count, in reality a swindler who wants to marry the beautiful heiress, place her in a mental asylum and run away with her fortune. Unknown to Sookee however there's other plans already set in motion, and she unexpectedly finds solace in the relationship that she develops with her mistress.
Park Chan-Wook who has been an iconic name in Asian cinema since "Oldboy" (which came out in 2003), brings to life another story that though seemingly linear at first glance, starts unveiling further layers as the narrative unfolds. It's a beautifully realized film, allowing for the central characters to be rendered with some detail. It also brings to life the context of living in an occupied Korea in the 30s, while simultaneously showcasing the perspective of being a woman in a society and culture controlled heavily by men and their interests. As the film unfolds and the twists become more apparent, the more interesting the dynamics of the characters are, and so is their dimension. The film is beautifully shot, with a stunning cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung, the same going for the production design. The main cast is uniformly strong and create indelible characters, particularly the central pair, Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

T2 Trainspotting

Movie Name: T2 Trainspotting
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Shirley Henderson, Kelly Macdonald, Angela Nedyalkova, James Cosmo, Scott Greenan, Irvine Welsh, Pauline Turner
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Acclaimed director Danny Boyle is back, following his fantastic, yet little seen "Steve Jobs" biopic. His latest feature is a follow up to his iconic "Trainspotting" which was released in early 1996 (it started it's wider unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival of that year). The film follows the misadventures of the same group, as they now deal with middle age. Mark Renton returns from Amsterdam where he hid following his escape with the money from the scam the group pulled off in 96. His mom has passed away, but his father is still living in the same place. Spud in the meantime has had a child with Gail, and is still troubled by his addiction to drugs. Sick Boy/Simon also continues to do drugs, but is now involved in blackmailing schemes, while trying to run a barely there pub that was an inheritance left by his aunt. Begbie in the meantime is in prison, and fails parole yet again. He stages an attack so he can be sent to the hospital and have more chances of escaping. Mark tries to make amends with his friends, and while Spud is welcome to see him, Simon initially isn't so receptive, but they do manage to smooth things out. They all set out to put together a new scheme, but with Begbie out of prison, that may turn all their plans upside down.
Danny Boyle continues to be one of the best and most inventive directors working these days. He always marries a unique stylistic approach to the material with a tone that is always adequate to the narrative he's building on screen. In this case we no longer have the frantic pacing that dominated the original Trainspotting - we have a rhythm that is closer to someone who is older (our narrator, Mark Renton), dealing with the consequences of his choices, and the fears of what's to come when you're not so young anymore. It's a film that is successful in showcasing just the perfect amount of the society and habits that it criticizes. It wears its nostalgia as a wink, and not so much as a crutch. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, picking up right where they left 20 years ago. A very good film, from an excellent director.