Sunday, November 30, 2014

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Movie Name: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Mike Newell
Stars: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Simon Callow, John Hannah, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Bower, Charlotte Coleman, Rowan Atkinson, David Haig, Sophie Thompson, Corin Redgrave, Anna Chancellor, James Fleet
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Director Mike Newell has had a long career, and when "Four Weddings and a Funeral" premiered in 1994, he was coming off from two well received films, namely "Enchanted April" and "Into the West" (he started his career on TV in the 60s, directing "Coronation Street" show, amongst many others). "Four Weddings and a Funeral" follows the story of Charles, a young bachelor, who alongside his group of friends, attend a series of weddings where the eccentricity of their participants allows for some good laughs amongst everyone. In one of these weddings, Charles meets the American Carrie, whose attitude towards romantic affairs surprises, thrills and attracts him. What follows is a game of courtship between these two seemingly different people.
"Four Weddings and a Funeral" was a huge success in 1994, establishing the career of Hugh Grant as a leading actor, and further defining the careers of Kristin Scott Thomas and to a certain extent, Andie MacDowell (who was at the time coming from the successes of both Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" and Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day"). The film benefited from a funny, emotional and witty screenplay from Richard Curtis (who had at the time worked with Rowan Atkinson on the TV shows "Black Adder" and "Mr. Bean"), who mixed all those ingredients perfectly and allowed for all the supporting characters to have enough room to expand their quirks and add the right amount of interest to balance the romantic leads. Though the film isn't particularly original in what it presents, it's nonetheless a sweet comedy that allows for the actors to build interesting and engaging characters. Hugh Grant would trademark this character for a series of following films (with mixed results), and Kristin Scott Thomas would go on to a more diverse array of features such as Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient". A film worth watching!

The Theory of Everything

Movie Name: The Theory of Everything
Year of Release: 2014
Director: James Marsh
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Harry Lloyd, Michael Marcus, Adam Godley, Maxine Peake, Simon Chandler
Genre: Biography, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Director James Marsh has made a name for himself as a documentary director, having won an Oscar for "Man on a Wire". "The Theory of Everything" is his second feature, following the little seen "Shadow Dancer" which featured Clive Owen and Andrea Riseborough. The film follows the story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, who meet in the early 60s while both studying in University. Hawking is studying physics at Cambridge, and is at the cusp of becoming a renowned physicist, however much to his horror and sadness, he finds out that he's afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease. Initially Stephen tries to push Jane away, since his prognosis of life is limited, but her persistence, and their love, lead them both to marriage and to a life together. As the ailment takes away Stephen's ability to speak, and his motor skills, Jane is forced to find help since they have had 3 children in the meantime. As their life evolves and Stephen's acclaim and brilliance reach new crowds, so does the relationship between these two complex individuals.
Stephen Hawking is a brilliant scientist, one who has been met with hardship and challenges that are unfathomable by anyone. That he has managed to create a phenomenal career and simultaneously carve an inspirational path for everyone, makes him a perfect subject matter for a film. "The Theory of Everything" focuses on the relationship between Hawking and his wife Jane, particularly how their lives change and evolve as his ailment progressively robs him of his mobility and speech. The film depicts this relationship as one of complicity between these two people, but for all the intelligence and accomplishments the scientist has achieved, that's something that is barely touched by the film. The relationship is also seen from afar - for all the dynamics and tension that arises from these two people, that is strangely absent from being depicted in the film. The film is strangely placid, and too conventional in it's approach of a story of someone who is truly unique. The performance from Eddie Redmayne is a standout in the way it represents the progression of someone who is initially dynamic and full life, to someone who ends up being a prisoner of a body who has become non responsive. This film is a somewhat dramatically truncated viewing experience, particularly for a person such as Professor Stephen Hawking, who definitely deserves a richer and more layered story.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Forrest Gump

Movie Name: Forrest Gump
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Haley Joel Osment, Siobhan Fallon, Sam Anderson
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"Forrest Gump" was the big winner of the Academy Awards of 1994 - the film went on to win Oscars for best picture, director and actor, to name but a few. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Winston Groom, and follows the story of Forrest Gump, a southern man, who we accompany throughout his childhood and adult years. Forrest has a low IQ, which makes him a target for people who consider him stupid and slow minded, but throughout his life, through a random series of coincidences, he meets and interacts with most of American popular culture icons from the 60s, 70s and even 80s. The common thread that seems to dominate his entire life, is his love for Jenny, a young woman, who experiences all the excesses from the 70s and who ends up paying a steep price for it.
Robert Zemeckis is an intelligent director, who has directed modern entertainment classics, such as "Romancing the Stone", "Back to the Future" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". When "Forrest Gump" premiered, the director was coming from another hit, the comedy "Death Becomes Her". "Forrest Gump", much like the director's most personal films, features a central character who manages to succeed in his chosen path, no matter what the obstacles are - Forrest transcends the limitations of his IQ to have a successful life, one where he gets to touch and be touched by a series of interesting characters and situations. The film falters in the over simplification of themes and subjects - it tries to touch many situations, and the last stretch of the film feels forced (Jenny as the representation of the excess, who gets punished for that). The film is nonetheless a great accomplishment, featuring stunning visual effects and fantastic performances from Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Sally Field. A good film always worth revisiting.

The Crow

Movie Name: The Crow
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Brandon Lee, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott, Bai Ling, Anna Thomson, David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Laurence Mason, Michael Massee, Tony Todd, Jon Polito
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Alex Proyas' "The Crow" premiered in 1994 surrounded by a tragic aura, due to the untimely death of the lead actor Brandon Lee, while shooting the film. The Australian director had made a name for himself directing music videos and shorts, but "The Crow" was his introduction to the Hollywood factory. The film is an adaptation of James O'Barr's comic book, and follows the story of Eric Draven, a young musician, who alongside his fiancee, gets brutally murdered (around Halloween). He is supernaturally brought back to life by a crow, and what follows is his quest to exact revenge upon everyone who killed him and his loved one. His bloodthirsty quest takes him to the local crime lord, who wants to stop him at any cost.
Unlike most comic book adaptations from the early 90s, "The Crow" deliberately went for a darker look and tone, creating a sense of tragic and impending doom in most of the characters that populate the story. Alex Proyas' aesthetic which he further developed in "Dark City" was perfectly suited for this story, where the city feels almost post-apocalyptic (we never know which city it is) - the cinematography also adds to the look of that despair and ultimate hopelessness. "The Crow" successfully manages to be an exciting comic book adaptation, while retaining a sense of identity, and a sense of urgency, something that most comic book adaptations haven't really touched (so far). The film also benefits from a perfect casting - Brandon Lee is charismatic and his character has touches of longing, despair, rage and determination, and the soundtrack is fantastic (it features songs from Nine Inch Nails, Jane Siberry and The Cure, to name but a few). A great film always worth revisiting!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Death and the Maiden

Movie Name: Death and the Maiden
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Stuart Wilson
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Roman Polanski's "Death and the Maiden" followed his well received "Bitter Moon" from 1992, which featured great performances from Emmanuelle Seigner and Peter Coyote. "Death and the Maiden" was a return to his stage adaptation roots, and was based on Ariel Dorfman's play of the same name (adapted by Rafael Yglesias, who also wrote Peter Weir's "Fearless"). The film focuses on the story of Paulina Escobar, a political activist, who has a past of being tortured and raped by a sadistic doctor who would play Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" while raping her (she never saw the doctor who brutalized her).  Paulina currently lives with her husband Gerardo, in an isolated and remote area in a country who has recently abandoned a long standing dictatorship. One night her husband shows up with Dr. Miranda, a man who is helping him due to a flat tire he has had in the middle of a torrential downpour. Paulina recognizes the voice of Dr. Miranda as her rapist and she imprisons him and starts questioning him to confirm if he is indeed the man responsible for all her pain and suffering.
Roman Polanski has had a long and illustrious career, with some really high points and classics, such as "Repulsion", "Rosemary's Baby", "Chinatown", "Tess" and "The Pianist", but has also met his fair share of disappointments, such as "Pirates", "Frantic" and more recently "Carnage". His films focus on seemingly every day individuals, who are confronted with extreme scenarios, which force them to find their inner strength and overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges. "Death and the Maiden" focuses on the game established between a former victim and her potential former captor, who suddenly have their roles reversed. The film allows the suspense to slowly build, as these people coexist in that confined space, where the sanity of Paulina and the innocence or culpability of Roberto Miranda, are questioned. The actors all embody these characters to perfection, in particular Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley - Weaver in particular manages to create a woman who though shattered from a traumatic past, is still certain that the person whom she's torturing is in fact the inflicter of all her pain. The film is impeccably directed and also benefits from the beautiful cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli (who also worked on Jean Jacques Annaud's "The Name of the Rose" and Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America" to name but a few). A good film worth watching.

Bullets Over Broadway

Movie Name: Bullets Over Broadway
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Mary Louise Parker, Chazz Palminteri, Jack Warden, Rob Reiner, Joe Viterelli, Tracey Ullman, Jim Broadbent, Harvey Fierstein
Genre: Comey, Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

"Bullets Over Broadway" is one of Woody Allen's biggest hits of the 90s. It won Dianne Wiest her second Oscar, and it was also nominated for best picture, director, original screenplay to name but a few. The film focuses on the story of idealistic young playwright David Shayne. David in order to get his latest play produced, takes money from a gangster, however is forced to cast the gangster's girlfriend as one of the lead actresses (who is also dreadful). On top of this he needs to maintain the grand actress Helen Sinclair happy, and juggle the needs of the rest of his cast and his longtime girlfriend Ellen. Also coming to the fray is the input and interference of a vociferous hitman/bodyguard, one who has a lot of opinions about the play and the cast. It's up to David to navigate these chaotic and murky waters and create a successful play (and stay alive).
Woody Allen is one of the most singular voices in American cinema from the last 40 years. His output is phenomenal (he has had a film out every year since the 70s), and his universe is definitely unique and populated by characters that have become staples of how the general audience perceives New York, and a certain cultural elite from that city. "Bullets Over Broadway", followed two fantastic films, namely "Husbands and Wives" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery", both of which were well received both critically and commercially. "Bullets Over Broadway" is a return to Woody Allen's period pieces, but it has the traditional central character, who is an alter ego of the director, with the well known neuroses, self doubt, and relationship problems that have become staples of the director's work. The supporting cast of characters is also eclectic and extremely entertaining - particularly the characters embodied by Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly, as the stage diva and the talentless hack respectively. The cast is uniformly terrific, particularly the performances from Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack, while the cinematography of Carlo DiPalma is simply stunning. A beautiful film worth watching!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Pelican Brief

Movie Name: The Pelican Brief
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Stars: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, John Heard, Tony Goldwyn, James Sikking, William Atherton, Robert Culp, Cynthia Nixon, Stanley Tucci, John Lithgow, Anthony Heald, Nicholas Woodeson, Hume Cronyn, Stanley Anderson
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Late director Alan J. Pakula started his directorial career in the 1970s, when he directed a series of acclaimed films such as "Klute", "The Parallax View" and "All the President's Men". "The Pelican Brief" came out after his hit with "Presumed Innocent" and was an adaptation of another successful John Grisham book. The story follows a young law student, by the name of Darby Shaw, who writes a theoretical brief about who killed a few well known Federal Judges. This brief somehow finds itself in the hands of the FBI and also with other groups who desperately want to silence the source of its creation. In order to keep evading her pursuers, Darby contacts Gray Grantham, a reporter who may have some information on this case also from a different source. It's up to them to figure out how to remain alive and get the information to the public (this conspiracy involves many different parties, including the President).
The early 90s featured quite a diverse number of John Grisham book adaptations (all initially quite successful): besides "The Pelican Brief", there were Sydney Pollack's "The Firm" and Joel Schumacher's "The Client" and "A Time to Kill". "The Pelican Brief" featured a female central character, but the overall structure of the film was similar to other adaptations of Grisham's work: a young idealistic attorney (or law student), had to fight to expose a criminal conspiracy, while remaining truthful to his values and protect his loved ones. Alan J. Pakula managed to create an involving and suspenseful film, polished in its execution, allowing for the actors to create characters that though somewhat limited in scope, were nonetheless enticing to maintain the dynamics of the narrative (the archetypes are all there, namely the older lover, the faceless killer, the young idealistic and beautiful law student, etc). It's a film that though not surprising, it's effectively entertaining and well acted. Worth watching.


Movie Name: Interstellar
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, Matt Damon, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Oyelowo, Bill Irwin, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, William Devane, Topher Grace, Brooke Smith
Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Director Christopher Nolan is back with another epic story, that though flawed, reveals his ambition and his strength in mastering concepts that are simultaneously original, didactic and entertaining. "Interstellar" follows the story of the Cooper family, in particular the parent figure and the younger daughter. This family lives in a large farm, focused mostly on growing corn - we learn the planet Earth is slowly dying and the food is wasting away. Cooper (father) and his daughter Murphy, find what remains of NASA, which are attempting to launch an exploratory mission close to Saturn in order to find other planets able to contain human life (and therefore prevent the extinction of the human race). Cooper, who used to be a space pilot for NASA, decides to lead the mission, leaving behind his heartbroken daughter (and his son and father in law). This mission leads Cooper and his team through a black-hole, and his exploration will force them to lose decades of events on Earth due to the time relativity. It's up to them and the team left on Earth to try to save what is left of Humanity.
Christopher Nolan (and his brother Jonathan), have become well known as the creators of stories that are densely layered (as can be seen by "Inception" and "The Dark Knight" trilogy), and sometimes not overtly emotional. "Interstellar" tries to compensate that, by placing at its core the relationship of a father and his daughter, and how the bonds of love transcend everything. The film is ingenious in the depiction of the complexities of time and science - which also ends up being its downfall. For all the intelligence this story has (and it does have it in spades), it also takes itself far too seriously, bordering on overly didactic (and this isn't a documentary and the claims to be factually and scientifically correct shouldn't even come into discussion). Where Christopher Nolan soars is in fact in the way his stories always loop around themselves, and how his set pieces (action and otherwise) are always staged. The film allows for limited range from the ensemble of actors cast: the strongest performances end up being Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (who are the ones who have something more to play, than just a limited archetype). The soundtrack from Hans Zimmer is at points overbearing and uneven, but the cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema is simply stunning. This film doesn't reach the heights of Stanley Kubrick's "2001", but it is entertaining, challenging and visually stunning. Worth watching.

The Fugitive

Movie Name: The Fugitive
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Andrew Davis
Stars: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pantoliano, Sela Ward, Julianne Moore, Jeroen Krabbe, Daniel Roebuck, Andreas Katsulas, L. Scott Caldwell, Tom Wood, Ron Dean, David Darlow, Nick Searcy
Genre: Action, Adventure, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Director Andrew Davis started his career as a cinematographer, transitioning in the 80s to the directorial chair. By the time he directed "The Fugitive" in 1993, he had already had some success with "The Package" and "Under Siege". "The Fugitive" is an adaptation of the successful TV show from the 60s, which follows the story of Dr. Richard Kimble (the show was created by Roy Huggins). Kimble is a successful and renowned surgeon, who gets framed for the death of his wife, though he battled the actual killer the night of that deadly and lethal attack. While on transit to go to prison, he's involved in a huge traffic accident, which allows him to escape and follow the lead of his wife's killer. Hot on his trail is U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard and his team, who stop at nothing to get their prey.
When "The Fugitive" premiered in 1993 it was a huge success - the film featured perennial favorite Harrison Ford portraying yet another character suited for him, and had just the right amount of action set pieces and suspense to create an indelible experience. Andrew Davis working with a screenplay from Jeb Stuart and David Twohy (the latter one responsible for the screenplay of such films as Kevin Reynolds' "Waterworld", Ridley Scott's "GI Jane" and his own series "Pitch Black/Chronicles of Riddick"), created an eventful film which allows the suspense to slowly develop. It's a film that anchors it's thrilling component in the race to find the guilty party, since from the inception of the story, that is exposed clearly. It also allows the actors to play with their characters, while not deviating much from their established personas (the one who manages to create a character that is not uni-dimensional is Tommy Lee Jones). "The Fugitive" is an example of a well crafted and entertaining film.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Schindler's List

Movie Name: Schindler's List
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz, Mark Ivanir, Malgorzata Gebel
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 10

After the huge success of "Jurassic Park", director Steven Spielberg premiered another film in 1993, one that has become a modern classic, "Schindler's List", which enabled him a triumphant win at the Academy Awards (the film won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director). The film follows the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and a member of the Nazi party, who after witnessing the plight and death of Jewish people in Auschwitz (in the concentration camps), manages to quietly save a growing number of them through his factory (by employing them as essential workers).
"Schindler's List" is based on the book by Thomas Keneally and focuses on a particular story during the Holocaust. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, manages to simultaneously depict the suffering of millions, but simultaneously focus on the story of some of the individuals that were saved by Schindler. It also gives Schindler a human face, depicting him as a flawed individual, one with a conscience and a sense of guilt and despair (and a womanizer). Steven Spielberg creates with this film a visual poem, one that has heart, but also intelligence and restraint (the director doesn't fall prey of his need to over dramatize). Aesthetically the film is stunning, benefiting from the cinematography from Janusz Kaminski (the usual collaborator of the director). The inspiration from the work of Polish director Andrzej Wajda is felt, but the language of Spielberg is his own, and that comes across in every frame of this beautiful film. The performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes are indelible (particularly Fiennes' who truly deserved an Academy Award for his phenomenal work). A stunning film!


Movie Name: Nightcrawler
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Anne Cusack, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm, Michael Hyatt, Marco Rodriguez
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Dan Gilroy's directorial debut with "Nightcrawler", follows a very diverse career as a screenwriter, which has seen him tackle projects as Tarsem Singh's "The Fall", Shawn Levy's "Real Steel" and Tony Gilroy's "The Bourne Legacy". The story follows Lou Bloom, an eloquent young man, who lives in Los Angeles, and who makes a living through whatever process he can (that includes theft). When Lou realizes that there's money to be made by selling footage of crimes that is captured in real time, he slowly but steadily starts risking more and more to satiate his ambition. He stops at nothing, staging situations, and not revealing murder suspects (that he has shot with his camera), in a clear bid to keep selling his footage and accomplish his goals.
Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler" is a chilling view of the type of television programs that are presented to audiences, and the lack of scruples that dominates this type of business. Much like Sydney Lumet's "Network", it focuses its attention on the quest of television channels/networks, for ratings and audiences, and the type of footage and stories they will run to satiate that need. This blood lust, is equally found by the character personified by Jake Gyllenhaal, a young man who stops at nothing to achieve his goals, including robbery and even murder. His lack of scruples and his drive, is matched by the character portrayed by Rene Russo, the ambitious head of the television channel who enables his behavior. The film is a parable for our current times, where the ends justify any means that people employ to pursue their ambitions. Both actors are fantastic in their roles, particularly Gyllenhaal who embodies the physicality of a hungry predator and simultaneously the verbose quality of an arrogant young wannabe professional. The film also boasts the beautiful cinematography from Robert Elswit and a great soundtrack from James Newton Howard. A great film worth watching.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Movie Name: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars:Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever, Jeremy Shamos
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

Following the fantastic and underrated "Biutiful", director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is back with a film that is a complete change of tone from his previous directorial efforts. "Birdman" follows the story of Riggan Thompson, a once well known Hollywood actor, who is planning a comeback, through the direction and staging of a play on Broadway. The play is going through previews, and these have been met with quite a few challenges. Riggan is at odds with his daughter who's also his assistant (and recently out of rehab), he's been romantically involved with one of his co-stars (who may be pregnant), and a recently joined cast member is an arrogant and ego-centric diva (but very talented). On top of all this Riggan is battling self-doubt, and the voice of his former alter-ego, "Birdman", who is urging him to quit all and go back to Hollywood and to the franchise that made him such a hot commodity 20 years ago.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has made a career of tackling multiple story points, with characters whose lives and dramatic choices, make all of them somehow connected with each other. This has been the case of "Amores Perros", "21 Grams" and "Babel". However "Birdman" is a change of tone for his work - the film walks two parallel paths: on one hand is a satire towards Hollywood, and how there's a need to dumb down every film that is released, till the vestige of art is completely removed from the concept of film in general, and on the other hand, it's a quest for a man, and an artist, to find his true self, to find his inner voice and regain his dignity. The film beautifully achieves this thanks to a remarkable screenplay, direction, cinematography (from Emmanuel Lubezki), and cast that truly shines and elevates this material. Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts are remarkable, and the percussion that serves as soundtrack, truly gives the film the quality of a raw nerve that is has for most of its running time. A truly remarkable film worth watching!