Sunday, September 29, 2013


Movie Name: Rush
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Daniel Bruhl, Chris Hemsworth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Olivia Wilde, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Christian McKay, Stephen Mangan, Natalie Dormer, Colin Stinton, Alistair Petrie, Julian Rhind-Tutt
Genre: Drama, Action
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Prolific director Ron Howard is back after "The Dilemma", with his interpretation of the events that surrounded the rivalry of Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 70s. The film follows the ascent of both drivers, from Formula 3 drivers, to the big leagues, more precisely to Formula 1 racing. James Hunt is presented as a debonair, playboy type of racer, whereas Niki Lauda is presented as a more cerebral and focused counterpart. A rivalry between these two men propels them forward, with Hunt always trailing behind Lauda, until the latter one suffers a horrifying accident in a track, enabling Hunt to edge and come closer to the dream of being World Champion.
Ron Howard has a tradition for tackling stories without much attention for nuance. His films are unabashedly focused on making the audience create a sense of empathy with his core hero, without contemplating any darker side the character(s) may have. "Rush", written by Peter Morgan, suffers from this problem - the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda could easily be the one that Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer personified onscreen in Tony Scott's "Top Gun" in 1986, with the difference that this time around, the so called hero, actually is presented as an egotistical man, without much depth or sense of empathy (or dignity for that matter). The film fails in creating these characters as something palpable or even relatable - they are nothing more than archetypes, namely the playboy vs. the conservative man, whereas the women in their lives, are given nothing more to do, other than stay in the background, look preoccupied, and have brief scenes of walking into frame (and quickly exiting). The film is successful in presenting the dynamic of the sport and the sense of excitement that always prevailed in it - the fantastic cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives the film a look and treatment that are superb. Daniel Bruhl also manages to create an engaging performance, though it soon becomes a performance that runs always on a single view of the character. Though shot and impeccably recreated for the time it depicts, the film ultimately feels hollow and devoid of the emotion and excitement that always propelled these men and the fans to the circuits. Not recommended.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Enough Said

Movie Name: Enough Said
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone, Tavi Gevinson, Toby Huss, Amy Landecker
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Nicole Holofcener's new film is coincidentally, and sadly, one of James Gandolfini's last roles ever captured on film. The film follows the story of Eva, a middle aged, divorced masseuse, whose life runs placidly and comfortably, and who is in the process of "losing" her daughter, since she's moving away to go to college. While attending a party, Eva makes the acquaintance of a potential client, a published and well known poet, but also and more interestingly, a date with a man named Albert. Though not initially very attracted to Albert, himself also a middle aged divorced father of a young woman (who's also going to college), these two individuals find a middle ground and a shared complicity and sense of humor that allows for the relationship to start blossoming. That is until Eva realizes that her latest client, the fantastic poet, is also Albert's ex-wife, whose opinions of him are not exactly the best.
Nicole Holofcener has built a career in films, exploring the relationships of certain microcosms of individuals, where at the center, there's always a heroine who is seemingly displaced or out of contact with the reality that surrounds her. In this case, Eva is the heroine, who is charming and funny, but who hides her heart and feelings behind that sharp wit and humor. Albert is very much like her: a man who suffered through a divorce, and is trying to live his life quietly, hanging on to his only daughter and who embraces this relationship with joy and a possibility of finding happiness. The film allows the actors to flush out these characters, and is filled with humor and a genuine sense of wonder and tenderness between two people who are emotionally bruised. The cast is uniformly fantastic: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette and Ben Falcone. It's a surprise seeing Gandolfini playing a part that is so grounded and where he's so vulnerable and ultimately real.
A lovely film worth watching.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Movie Name: Prisoners
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Len Cariou, Wayne Duvall, David Dastmalchian, Kyla Drew Simmons, Erin Gerasimovich, Zoe Borde
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

"Prisoners" has been a surprise hit of the festival circuit of 2013. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who made his name with the film "Incendies", which was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, "Prisoners" is an original screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski, which made the list of best screenplays of 2010. The film follows the story of two neighboring families, who reunite for a Thanksgiving dinner. Both families have two little girls, who suddenly disappear, without a trace left behind. Their parents enlist the help of the police to trace their whereabouts, but nothing is found. Their only clue is a young man with mental issues, who becomes their prime suspect, without much evidence to follow up. Keller Dover, one of the parents, takes matters into his hands, and decides to investigate on his own, while the police, in particular Detective Loki, is feverishly trying to unveil the whereabouts of the girls.
Denis Villeneuve has a keen eye for the dynamics of every day life - he perfectly captures the lives of the families who are hit by this tragedy. In a matter of the first minutes of the film, we quickly realize who these people are. Their grief stricken despair is the more real, since the film never goes for a sensationalistic approach. There's a certain hint of Dennis Lehane's novels in the screenplay, but the characters are deftly presented, and the suspense is built progressively. The atmosphere that is built is certainly oppressive and bleak, but the film is elevated by the fantastic cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano, all deliver more than impeccable performances. A great film worth watching.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Short Term 12

Movie Name: Short Term 12
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Destin Cretton
Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, Kaitlyn Dever, Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Melora Walters, Alex Calloway
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Director Destin Cretton's "Short Term 12" has been navigating the waves of the Independent Film Festivals of this current year, and getting accolades and accumulating good reviews. The film takes it's name from a foster care facility, where children are kept while transitioning from traumatic domestic situations, to adoption situations or other more permanent (hopefully) and positive situations.
Grace and her boyfriend Mason are the veterans in the team, alongside Jessica and the newcomer Nate. Grace is the caregiver for all those children, each one coming from different, yet troublesome backgrounds. Grace herself is a survivor of some very difficult situations in her life. She finds out that she's pregnant, as one particularly troublesome child joins the group, making things erupt all around.
"Short Term 12" is a film that could have fallen easily into the "movie of the week" context, with the dramas of child abuse, however director Destin Cretton, wisely chooses to follow Grace, a young woman who has survived difficult ordeals, and who wants to provide help and guidance for the children. The film allows for these characters to fully live and have dimension, and much of it's core and heart, comes from the interaction of the actors. The director is also very successful in capturing the frailty of children's lives and expectations, as is in the way it captures the hardship of a young relationship and the steps to becoming a responsible adult. The threads that the film successfully builds are as delicate as they are strong in it's emotional impact. Brie Larson has a fantastic performance as the experienced, yet frail Grace, as does Kaitlyn Dever as the young Jayden. The film also benefits from the beautiful cinematography from Brett Pawlak. A great film not to be missed.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Movie Name: The Spectacular Now
Year of Release: 2013
Director: James Ponsoldt
Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Masam Holden
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

James Ponsoldt's previous film "Smashed" was a minor triumph with several critics, and "The Spectacular Now", which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was again greeted with another array of good reviews. The film follows the story of Sutter, a high school senior, who is extremely sociable and engaged in multiple activities. He has a girlfriend whom he loves, and he's also an alcoholic. His mom has been raising him by herself, since his dad left years ago. When his girlfriend breaks up with him, Sutter accidentally discovers the sweet and discrete Aimee. Aimee is honest, grounded, and becomes enamored of Sutter's charisma and charming personality. This romance, Aimee's first, starts developing little by little as the prospect of going to college looms nearby.
James Ponsoldt's core strength in this film are the characters and the actors who bring it to life. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley create two people who are trying to find their place in the world. Miles drinks himself to a stupor everyday, in order to avoid dealing with the fact that his dad left, and that he's afraid of being alone once his high school days are over (his micro-universe). Aimee on the other hand is smothered by a family life, that doesn't allow her to dream. In a way, they both end up being a catalyst for each other's lives. This web of relationships is captured in a naturalistic way by the director, who captures a slice of every day life, showcasing the dreams and expectations of the young and the sadness and some disillusionment of the older generation. The two lead actors are fantastic, as is the always great Jennifer Jason Leigh and the underrated Mary Elizabeth Winstead. A very good film worth watching!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones/Beautiful Creatures

Movie Name: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Harald Zwart
Stars: Lilly Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan, Kevin Zegers, Kevin Durand, Lena Headey, Godfrey Gao, Jemima West, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Aidan Turner
Genre: Action, Aventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1

Movie Name: Beautiful Creatures
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Richard LaGravenese
Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4

The success of "Twilight" has opened the door for a series of adaptations of young adult novels. This year's crop already includes "The Mortal Instruments:City of Bones" and "Beautiful Creatures". Both films, though with different pedigrees and talent involved, definitely have quite mediocre results. On both counts, the story is quite standard - there's a young brooding female hero, who is either an outcast, or misunderstood by everyone, who comes to realize that she's the bearer of special powers. These powers, unbeknownst to her, set her aside from everyone, and of course, during the narrative, she comes to realize that the salvation of Earth relies on her shoulders. In parallel with this coming of age story, there's a forbidden romance, that comes in the shape of a mysterious young man, who is either a supernaturally gifted man, or a sensitive young man who looks beyond our heroine's conflicts. Both of these films also feature a diversified array of supporting characters, that supposedly create a conflicting context for the two young lovers to overcome obstacles.
Harald Zwart has made a career for himself directing films that are targeted primarily to a younger audience, such as "The Karate Kid" and "Agent Cody Banks". His adaptation of "The Mortal Instruments" is a complete mess, with characters that are never quite fully explained (such as the main antagonist, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), or ever fully dimensional. It's difficult for an audience to be invested in anything that happens on screen, when the characters are so clumsily created. The actors don't really help much. Richard LaGravenese comes from a different pedigree - an accomplished screenwriter, turned director (he wrote Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King" and Clint Eastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County" before directing his debut "Living Out Loud", to name but a few), his adaptation of "Beautiful Creatures" doesn't fare much better, but has a great cast that elevates the flimsy material. Jeremy Irons brings his usual gravitas and depth to any part, as does Viola Davis. Emma Thompson however is poorly cast as the villain, overacting and feeling out of place in a film that is otherwise quite placid and also forgettable. The young leads are engaging, but the film never goes beyond the typical cliches.
Summarizing these adaptations - both films feel devoid of substance and of authenticity (and enthusiasm) of any kind. What elevated the "Harry Potter" series for instance, was the creation of a universe filled with magic, where the spark of the unknown and wonder/menace was always present. These current films try to be angst filled, but end up portraying their young ingenue leads as vapid and selfish heroines, stuck in a two dimensional world where their antagonists are as paper thin as the depth of their feelings.

The World's End

Movie Name: The World's End
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Edgar Wright
Stars: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Reece Shearsmith, Bill Nighy, Pierce Brosnan, David Bradley
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Following "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World", director Edgar Wright is back to his UK based stories, this one again devised with Simon Pegg, whom he worked with on "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz". "The World's End" follows the story of 5 high school friends, all of whom come from the same small town. 20 years after they all finished school, the leader of the pack, Gary King, decides to reunite the group, so they can celebrate an alcoholic itinerary through all the pubs that are part of their hometown. Gary has never outgrown his high school days, and desperately wants to relive those glory days. When this diversified group comes to town, they start realizing that things have changed with their inhabitants. What they discover leads them on a bigger adventure than they expected.
Edgar Wright and his frequent collaborator, actor Simon Pegg, have smartly been deconstructing genres with their previous films. "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" smartly mixed their original genres (horror and action respectively) and infused them with a sense of humor that makes them unique and unlike anything else. "The World's End" again uses this genre mix, this time with the "end of the world"/"alien invasion" concept, mixed with a comedy ensemble component that makes this film a riot to witness. The cast is uniformly good, with Simon Pegg making the best of his character's lunacy, whereas Nick Frost this time around gets the more serious, responsible part. The film ends up faltering a bit towards it's epilogue (which ultimately ends up being unnecessary), but it's nonetheless a fun film to watch.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Grandmaster

Movie Name: The Grandmaster
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Stars: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Jin Zhang, Darren Leung, Qingxiang Wang 
Genre: Action, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Director Wong Kar Wai's first full length feature after his american movie "My Blueberry Nights", is a biographical story focusing on legendary kung fu master, Ip Man. The film follows the story of the renowned master, as he gains his iconic status, through his hardship (and his family's) with the japanese occupation of China and his ultimate escape to Hong Kong (where he ultimately becomes the teacher of Bruce Lee).
Wong Kar Wai has made a name for himself since the early 90s with films that impressed both stylistically and aesthetically, but also for his renowned focus on shooting for quite some time, to get exactly what he wants from the performers and from each scene (his celebrated "In the Mood for Love" had a shooting time of 15 months). "The Grandmaster" though apparently distinct in tone from his previous films, ends up being a kung fun film that has a love story at it's core. The forbidden love of master Ip Man and Gong Er, gives the film it's beating heart, which is surrounded by the fantastically well choreographed kung fu scenes. It's a romantic film, stylized, but rewarding in terms of the characters it presents. The film also benefits from the incredible cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd, which gives the film an almost abstract tone, from the color, to the details it captures (and also the visual trademarks from the director, with slow motion sequences). A good film worth watching.