Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Man Who Wasn't There

Movie Name: The Man Who Wasn't There
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Borowitz
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Following the critical and commercial success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", the Coen Brothers returned with a decidedly more stylistic and subdued feature. "The Man Who Wasn't There" follows the story of Ed Crane, a low key barber who is married to Doris, a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Doris is having an affair with her boss, something that Ed has already figured out. When one of Ed's customers mentions he's looking for an investor for a new business he's mounting, he decides to blackmail Dave, Doris' boss. Dave decides to embezzle money from his department store to pay for the blackmail, but soon figures out who's responsible for the scheme. This sets in motion a series of events that leads to dramatic results.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is a stark and stylistically beautiful film from the Coen Brothers, with a stunning cinematography from their usual collaborator Roger Deakins. It's also a film that has a somber tone and rhythm, unlike most of their previous features which were always dominated by a continuous momentum. The film is an apt reflection of the dour central character, perfectly embodied by Billy Bob Thornton. It's an austere film noir, that definitely lacks a punch, which is where the film ends up faltering. The cast is phenomenal, which is typical for their productions, but the film misses a more aggressive pacing and momentum. A more subdued effort from these talented film makers.


Movie Name: Life
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer Here

Director Daniel Espinosa is back, following his little seen and critically maligned "Child 44", this time around, tackling a script from the successful duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the duo responsible for writing "Zombieland" and "Deadpool"). The film follows the story of a crew of 6 people, that are currently on orbit at the International Space Station. The team manages to salvage an exploratory hub that came from Mars, and much to everyone's surprise, they discover life in some of the samples that came with the hub. Initially a joyous and celebratory event, the entity quickly starts growing, and reveals itself hostile, starting to attack the crew members. It's up to the team to avoid that the creature makes it to the surface of Planet Earth.
This is a film that is ripe with potential - it tries to merge the concepts of "Alien" with the somewhat grounded approach that "Gravity" brought forth. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Ridley Scott, nor Alfonso Cuaron are at the helm of the film. This is a feature that lacks a point of view, a successful sense of menace, and ultimately something that makes it more identifiable, and not so derivative of better films. Both "Alien" and "Gravity" were without a doubt, the merger of many factors, namely design, concepts, storytelling, but they were also works from directors that manage to have a strong point of view, and embed it (with varying degrees of success) in whatever films they create. "Life" tries desperately hard to give the characters something to do, but it lacks dimension, and definitely lacks a sense of menace. The antagonist creature, as polished as it may be, looks excessively digital, and is overly visible. One of the reasons why "Alien" was so successful was precisely the fact that the audience only partially saw the menace - letting the imagination do the rest is invariably its own reward. This is a film that has a good cast, and a great production team, but definitely lacks a stronger point of view. Quickly forgettable.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Movie Name: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian Holm, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Marton Csokas, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Director Peter Jackson had an interesting career prior to the adaptation of the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. He first established himself as a cult name with films that ranged from the over the top trilogy of "Bad Taste"/"Meet the Feebles"/"Dead Alive", to the indie film that showed his more dramatic side, with "Heavenly Creatures", which simultaneously launched the careers of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. After his first Hollywood film went largely unnoticed ("The Frighteners" with Michael J. Fox), the director tackled what would become his biggest challenge and the forever staple in the adaptation of fantasy films. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" premiered in December of 2001 to great accolades, being rewarded with Academy Awards and a huge commercial success. The film is a faithful adaptation of the novels from J.R.R. Tolkien, and follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, and his friends, as they come across a ring that can define the powers to be in the realms of Middle Earth. Alongside Bilbo are his hobbit friends Sam, Pippin and Merry, his human friends Aragorn and Boromir, an elf by the name of Legolas, a dwarf by the name of Gimli and the wizard Gandalf. This group sets out to destroy the ring of power, but are pursued by the hordes of Sauron, and the obstacles just become bigger and bigger as their odyssey begins. This is a journey that will test all their resilience.
Peter Jackson is an imaginative director, one with a thorough knowledge of film techniques, something that he put to good use with his initial films, that garnered him quite a lot of attention in film festivals. His adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" was a herculean task, since he tackled the three films simultaneously, and was his first time handling a task of that scale. The results are quite strong, even if structurally the films end up having an uneven momentum. The first volume manages to be quite possibly the best, since it defines the universe of the story, presenting and defining the lead characters, giving everyone just enough dimension to make their characters compelling and noteworthy. It's a film that works exemplary on all the different production levels that are on display, from the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie, the score from Howard Shore, the production and costume design, to the fantastic visual effects on display. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen in particular creating indelible characters. A very good film from a unique storyteller in film.


Movie Name: L.I.E.
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, Tony Michael Donnelly, Walter Masterson, Adam LeFevre, James Costa
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

"L.I.E." (standing for Long Island Expressway) was director Michael Cuesta's debut feature, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival of 2001, and earning accolades in several festivals and awards guilds. The film follows the story of Howie Blitzer, a teenage boy, whose mom has passed away recently, and whose father is currently in the throes of dealing with some shady businesses and dating new people. Howie is pretty much left to his own devices, and spends time with the charismatic Gary, who flirts with him, and who has the habit of robbing houses in the neighborhood. One of their victims turns out to be Big John, one of Gary's clients. Big John develops a friendly relationship with Howie, something that is further enhanced when his father is arrested for dangerous practices in his business. "L.I.E." is a fantastic film and was a great debut for Michael Cuesta, who has gone on to direct a mix of feature films (more recently "Kill the Messenger") and high profile TV shows (such as Showtime's "Dexter" and "Homeland"). His first feature tackles difficult issues, with the central character coming to terms with who he is sexually, and also by making the dubious Big John his father figure. It's a film that deals with the alienation of families, lack of communication, and also how the process of finding one self isn't always a linear one. The film features two great central performances, one from the always underrated and terrific Brian Cox, and from Paul Dano, then just starting his career, who impresses beyond his young age. A very good film from a very interesting director.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Movie Name: Kong: Skull Island
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Tian Jing
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

After a career directing shorts and TV Series, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts made a name for himself with the well received "The Kings of Summer". This follow up is a huge difference in themes and scale, and is a somewhat successful B-Movie/Grindhouse film, wrapped in a big blockbuster style. The film follows an agency and government expedition to a mostly unknown island, that has surfaced on the radar, but that no one knows much about. Under the guise of getting further geological information, seismic charges are dropped into the Island, which in turn awakens the herculean Kong, a colossal ape that is the undisputed king of that island. The teams get dispersed, some die, but thanks to the unexpected help of a long lost survivor, they figure out a plan to reach their evacuation point. However, they soon realize that Kong isn't the only creature they should fear.
Unlike Peter Jackson's retelling of the King Kong story (from 2005), Jordan Vogt-Roberts goes for a different tone, one that is definitely more anchored by influences of B-films, and even Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now". The film takes place in 1973, and successfully captures the dynamics of that time (political, military and social), the colors, and the music, but soon that quickly becomes background when the team reaches the island. The film then quickly becomes a creature feature, with Kong quickly coming into play, decimating part of the team, while other equally menacing creatures surface to also challenge the human teams of reaching safety. Sadly none of the characters are actually given much to do, particularly the always interesting Brie Larson, who as photo journalist Mason Weaver, spends most of the time behind the camera (her motivation is to discover why the island is so secretive). Tom Hiddleston is sadly miscast as the lead tracker - he lacks charisma, humor and depth to actually make the character memorable, the same going for Samuel L. Jackson (who by the way looks like he just phones in his more recent performances, such as David Yates' "The Legend of Tarzan"). The film manages to be entertaining thanks to John C. Reilly's always welcome presence, and the tone of the film, that oscillates between large budget extravaganza (fantastic special effects), and B-movie aesthetic, which perfectly suits it. A mildly entertaining film.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Movie Name: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Simon West
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Noah Taylor, Iain Glen, Daniel Craig, Chris Barrie, Leslie Phillips, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Richard Johnson
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon

After two successful feature films, "Con Air" and "The General's Daughter", director Simon West tackled the adaptation of well known video game "Tomb Raider". The film follows the story of Lara Croft, a beautiful and well off heiress, who is a treasure hunter. She is faced with a new adventure, when a group named the Illuminati steals one of her artifacts, in the pursuit of something that will potentially give them control over the entire world. In a quest to stop them, Lara goes to Cambodia and then Venice, in order to battle them.
The "Tomb Raider" series has so far been comprised of two features: both of them have had Angelina Jolie as the lead character, and that has been the highlight of the films. The story at the base of this film, doesn't provide much character development - we never really know much about Lara, and what really drives her. Angelina Jolie gives some edge and nuance to a character that on paper (or video game), is simply a resourceful and attractive grave digger (a female equivalent of Indiana Jones, but with male servants and more money). The film features beautiful locations, solid visual effects, but sadly is also instantly forgettable - the sense of menace and dread is never effective, and the supporting characters (and main villains), have no development or much in terms of motivation. It's a film without a solid point of view, and the sense of entertainment that Steven Spielberg built with his Indiana Jones series, is mostly absent from this franchise. Angelina Jolie aside, this film is forgettable.

Jeepers Creepers

Movie Name: Jeepers Creepers
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Victor Salva
Stars: Gina Philips, Justin Long, Jonathan Breck, Patricia Belcher, Brandon Smith, Eileen Brennan, Jeffrey William Evans, Patrick Cherry, Tom Tarantini
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

"Jeepers Creepers" premiered in 2001, and was a surprise hit. The film produced by celebrated director Francis Ford Coppola, focuses on two siblings who are driving home for vacations. While driving on a rather isolated road, they notice an old van, which at some point pursues them. They are not aware of the driver, but they notice the van yet again, and this time, the driver is disposing of what seems to be a body down some sort of a chute. After much discussion, the siblings decide to investigate, and Darryl, the younger brother, goes down the chute and discovers much to his horror, a series of bodies. This sets in motion an intense chase from the driver in pursuit of the siblings, with further surprises happening when they discover the true nature of the driver.
"Jeepers Creepers" is an interesting film, one that manages to be a creature feature, that smartly hides the creature for most of the duration of the film. The film successfully builds the relationship between the two siblings and lead characters, and places them in the middle of a rather isolated road and location, and therefore more exposed to the attack of this driver/entity who is relentless. The tension progressively builds, until the siblings (and us), realize the true nature of the attacker. The director also smartly hides the creature in the dark, suggesting more than showing the totality of it, and going for the cheap thrills. The film has some great influences, namely from Steven Spielberg's "Duel" and George Miller's "Road Warrior"- but all these are presented in an original way, with just enough humor and nostalgia, that make it feel fresh and original. Worth watching.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Get Out

Movie Name: Get Out
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, LilRel Howery
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

After a successful and celebrated career as an actor and comedian, Jordan Peele has ventured into feature film directing, with a particularly interesting debut, in an unexpected genre. "Get Out" focuses on the story of a young mixed racial couple, comprised of Chris and Rose. Rose decides to introduce Chris to her family, and they go for a weekend at their place, somewhere in the South. Upon arrival, Chris notices that the family has a few live in employees, all of them black, and all of them behaving somewhat erratically. As the weekend goes on, Chris gets to interact more closely with the members of the family, including Rose's brother Jeremy, and Rose's mother Missy, a celebrated psychiatrist, who specializes in hypnotherapy. Chris who's in the throes of quitting smoking, is cornered by Missy one evening, and is suddenly hypnotized, and thrown into a trance. Things escalate and get progressively weirder when a bizarre party happens at the house.
Jordan Peele creates with "Get Out" a film that is populated with a tension that is progressively built. The apparent calmness that surrounds Rose's family, and their particular affluence, hides something darker, that is slowly unveiled and ultimately revealed as monstrous. It's a film that makes its scares based on a smart plot, and a feeling of unease that is progressively created, with little utilization of gore or brutal violence. The film lacks in terms of character development for the supporting characters (or even for Rose herself), but the premise manages to keep the viewers engaged and attentive. The performances from Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford and Stephen Root are engaging and nuanced, making the film highly enjoyable and watchable.
An interesting debut from an unexpected voice.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Best films of 2016

2016 was an interesting year for films. The comic book properties continued to deliver in terms of  box office revenue, some elevating the quality output, such as Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange", others simply not so inventive or interesting, such as Bryan Singer's "X-Men: Apocalypse". The Summer crop for big budget films, turned out to be quite mediocre, even with some great talent behind the lens (Duncan Jones's "Warcraft" was a missed opportunity), but the year ended with a few strong surprises from young directors and seasoned veterans, that made my list of great films for this year. I usually place my favorite film first on the list, and this year that place goes to Denis Villenuve's "Arrival".

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Jadyn Malone, Julia Scarlett Dan, Larry Day

La La Land
Director: Damian Chazelle
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons

Director: Pablo Larrain
Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Grant, Max Casella, Corey Johnson, Caspar Phillipson, Ralph Brown

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Yoshi Oida

Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland, Patrick Decile

Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Stars: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Meyrick Murphy, Laura Miro, Alpha Takahashi, Minae Noji

The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Stacey Danger

Love & Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett, Stephen Fry, James Fleet, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Lochlann O'Mearain, Jenn Murray, Morfydd Clark, Sophie Radermacher, Jemma Redgrave, Conor MacNeill, Conor Lambert, Kelly Campbell

The Jungle Book
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose

Midnight Special
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Jensen

Special highlights should go to the following films that were equally impressive: Robert Eggers' The Witch, Kleber Mendonca's Aquarius, J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls, Steven Spielberg's The BFG and Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals. The films that simply failed on multiple levels include David Yates' The Legend of Tarzan, Anna Foerster's Underworld: Blood Wars and James Bobin's Alice Through the Looking Glass.


Movie Name: Lion
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Garth Davis
Stars: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Divian Ladwa
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

"Lion" is director Garth Davis' feature debut, following an acclaimed career as a commercials director, and his work alongside the phenomenal Jane Campion on the show "Top of the Lake". The film, based on a true story, focuses on a young boy, by the name of Saroo, who lives with his mother, brother and sister, in a remote and extremely poor village in India. Saroo and Guddu, both try to help the family as they can, by doing small tasks, and getting whatever pay they can. One evening trying to help out his older brother, Saroo goes with Guddu to get work at night, but ends up falling asleep. While looking for his brother, Saroo enters a decommissioned train, falls asleep, and much to his surprise in the morning, discovers the train has taken off and he's now miles and miles away from home. He finds himself in Calcutta, all alone, and unable to explain with precision where he's from. After a few mishaps he finds himself in an orphanage, and finally gets sent to Australia where he's adopted by a loving couple. Saroo grows up to be a well adjusted and dynamic young man, until he starts remembering the family he has back in India. This prompts a quest to find their whereabouts that totally consumes him.
"Lion" is a film with a fantastic premise, one where a young man manages to make contact with a life he thought lost forever, against all odds. It's a film that is sentimental and emotional, where there's a mix of "poverty porn" (where the camera almost revels in showcasing the poverty and destitution of some people), with a genuine aim to showcase the reality of people living below the poverty line. It's a film that has a heart, and that showcases that life does come with a surprising abundance of good people, who want to make a positive impact in the world. However, for dramatic purposes, it's a film that lacks in adding dimension to some of the supporting characters - Rooney Mara's Lucy has very little to do, the same going for David Wenham's John (who is even more in the periphery).  Dev Patel creates Saroo as a young man on a quest, a man who's thankful for what he has, but that is haunted by what he lost - and this is possibly one of his finest performances thus far. Nicole Kidman also gives a strong performance, but the highlight of the film turns out to be the young Sunny Pawar, who carries most of the first part of the film, and the cinematography from Greig Fraser, which is really stunning. It's an unbalanced film, something that the overtly dramatic and sentimental ending almost take to "film of the week" territory. There's still quite a lot to enjoy and it's a fairly strong debut.