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
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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.

20th Century Women

Movie Name: 20th Century Women
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Thea Gill, Waleed Zuaiter, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the wonderful "Beginners", director Mike Mills returns with another opus based on his life, this time around focused on his mom and his growing up in California during the late 70s. The film follows the story of Jamie, a 15 year old growing up in Santa Barbara in 1979. He lives with his mom, Dorothea, in a large house that they're slowly renovating. His mom has rented two rooms to two very different individuals: the young artist by the name of Abbie, who's recovering from cervical cancer is one of them, the other being the hippie William, who is also a fantastic mechanic. Jamie is deeply enamored with his best friend, the beautiful Julie, who is slightly older, and has already started exploring her sexuality (except with Jamie). Dorothea, who grew up during the Depression and has been one of the first women to work in commercial aviation, has divorced Jamie's dad and has been on her own for quite a while. She worries about his upbringing, and brings this group of residents and friends together to help her give Jamie a better perspective on life.
Mike Mills has managed during the course of his brief filmography to build a universe that is very much his own. His stories are deeply autobiographical, but they transcend the mere illustration of the past - they are far from nostalgic trips to his memory vault - they are meditations on what makes family more than just biological ties. His films are poems to the people who shaped him up to be the way he is, and that ends up being a metaphor for a lot of the relationships that people shape with the ones that are closer to them. "20th Century Women" in particular focuses on the women in his life, and how they had such a deep impact on his capacity to relate to women and build relationships with them (amorous and otherwise). Every single woman in this film is clearly outlined, and has an inner pulse and ambitions, something that gives this film a nuanced and compelling narrative. All the actors in this film excel, particularly Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning. They bring warmth, humor, edge, heart, and make this film utterly watchable. The cinematography from Sean Porter is beautiful, as is the wonderful and eclectic assembled score. A fantastic film worth watching.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Beguilled

Movie Name: The Beguiled
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
Genre: Action, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
After her "Little Mermaid" project for Disney fell through, director Sofia Coppola put together an adaptation of "The Beguiled", based on the novel by Thomas Culinan and the screenplay written in the 70s by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (which was directed by Don Siegel and featured Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page). The film focuses on a group of women under a same roof, specifically a school for young women in the South, during the American Civil War. One of the young students while picking mushrooms in the woods comes across a yankee wounded soldier. Initially surprised and torn between what to do with the soldier, the director and main teacher, agree to let the charming soldier stay, while they tend to his wounds. The soldier slowly ingratiates himself into the lives of the women, until one evening things come to a dramatic halt when he's discovered with one of the young students.
"The Beguiled" scored Sofia Coppola a best director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The writer/director has slowly built a career for herself, always with a distinct point of view, very much focused on women centric narratives ("The Virgin Suicides", "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette" for example). "The Beguiled" is another example of her point of view: what was in the original screenplay a story very much focused on the wounded soldier, becomes in this version, a story about the different women who occupy the house, their longings, and their fears. The film is beautifully built, slowly showcasing how the older women respond to the presence of a male figure in the house. That is particularly more evident with the character played by Kirsten Dunst, who becomes particularly enticed by the soldier. He romances her with hopes of leveraging her loneliness as a way to escape (war and a life of work). The film has a dark and gothic tone to it, but it's very much driven by Coppola's aesthetic and trademark character building, which allows for Kirsten Dunst in particular to create a character who looks tired, hopeless, and who suddenly reawakens when this persona comes into the house. Sadly her character is the more realized one, but it's still an impressive group and dynamic that is showcased in the feature. It's a beautifully constructed and acted film (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are equally great), from another unique voice in cinema. Worth watching.

Baby Driver

Movie Name: Baby Driver
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Edgar Wright
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Sky Ferreira, Jon Bernthal, Sky Ferreira, Flea, Paul Williams, Hal Whiteside
Genre: Action, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
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Synopsis:
Following his public split from the "Ant Man" project with Marvel Studios, writer and director Edgar Wright decided to tackle a project he had been working on since the 90s. "Baby Driver" follows the story of Baby, a young man who's been an orphan since he was a young boy following a violent car crash that killed both of his parents. Baby is an expert driver, working on different heists for a gentleman by the name of Doc, who holds some power over him. Baby has a strong affinity for music, since it also mutes a hearing issue he has, something that makes him use his headsets all the time. After a successful heist he meets Debra, a waitress at a diner, and they both fall in love with each other. That is just the needed motivation for Baby to move one with his life, but Doc has other plans.
Edgar Wright has managed thus far to create an eclectic and vibrant work portfolio. After his "Cornetto Trilogy" (comprised of the features "Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End") and the comic book adaptation "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World", he has tackled with "Baby Driver" an original screenplay of his own. The film, unlike the previous ones however, is neither as successful nor as memorable. Wright has always been able to marry a deftness for understanding pop culture, with humor and a stylistic approach that makes his films so unique and always interesting. "Baby Driver" anchors itself in the relationship of music with action scenes precisely choreographed. Sadly the film is never really a musical (how interesting it would have been to really go fully blown musical, much like Lars Von Trier did with "Dancer in the Dark"), and not really a believable action film (the heists themselves are simplistic and the film in general lacks a certain dose story building to make them compelling and suspenseful, much like what Christopher Nolan did in the first instances of "The Dark Knight"). What ends up happening with this film is an amalgamation of stunt scenes with good music selection, with a cast that is either cast appropriately but unsurprisingly (Kevin Spacey) and others just not charismatic enough (Ansel Elgort). It's not a step backwards, but it doesn't add much to the work and promise this director has.

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.