Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Big Short

Movie Name: The Big Short
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Tracy Letts, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan, Byron Mann, Adepero Oduye
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Director Adam McKay has made a name for himself directing comedies that have been, for the most part, quite successful, namely "Anchorman"(both the original and the sequel), "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby", "Step Brothers" and "The Other Guys" (all films featuring his producing partner, the hilarious Will Ferrell). "The Big Short" is a definite change of pace for the director, since it's a drama (with tints of dark comedy), tackling the whole debacle that was at the genesis of the economic meltdown that started in 2007. The film is an adaptation of the book by Michael Lewis (two of his books have been successfully adapted to the screen, namely, John Lee Hancock's "The Blind Side" and Bennett Miller's "Moneyball") focuses on 3 central characters and builds an intricate universe of relationships from these central characters onwards. These 3 men are Michael Burry, a manager of a large hedge fund in California, who realizes that the US housing market is very unstable, and who predicts the market will collapse. He realizes he can profit from this situation, and sets about proving himself right, at the cost of alienating some of his investors. When this information reaches the ears of investor Jared Vennett, he realizes those predictions are true, and seeks to also make a profit based on this impending market. Joining him is also Mark Baum, an experienced trader, who comes to realize that the whole system is based on a fraudulent process that knows no limits (or principles).
Circling these three characters, are a series of others who suddenly also realize the pending economic catastrophe, and who are powerless to make any difference.
Adam McKay's "The Big Short" is an expose-film, that captures some of the best traits of the films that Oliver Stone was making in the late 80s early 90s (minus the formal experimentation that was always associated with Oliver Stone). The film smartly mixes the process of explaining the specific jargon and terminology of the financial industry, with a levity of explanation, which allows for the audience to better understand the stakes of what the financial experts were doing on the markets. By also allowing the characters to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, it builds a rapport with that same audience (particularly in a scenario such as this, where literally everyone was affected by this global economic meltdown). The film synthesizes a lot of information, and slowly peels away the disturbing machinations of a financial market that is based on less than transparent premises. It's a strong film that is anchored on a taut script and fantastic performances from Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. A pertinent and solid film worth watching.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Movie Name: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Year of Release: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Max Von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Pip Torrens, Greg Grunberg, Ken Leung, 
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
After the divisive reception of "Star Trek Into Darkness", director J.J. Abrams was chosen to bring to life another iconic series, George Lucas' "Star Wars". The film follows the events of Richard Marquand's "Return of the Jedi": since the victory of the rebels over the empire, and the death of both the emperor and Darth Vader, Leia has become a General with the rebels, Han Solo has resumed his smuggling ways and Luke Skywalker has disappeared. There's a new face of evil, that comes under the title of First Order, who is shepherded by both Kylo Ren, a new follower of the dark powers of the force and General Hux. Into this mix comes three unexpected players: Rey, a young scavenger, Finn a storm trooper who becomes aware of the machinations of the evil empire and decides to quit, and Poe Dameron, a fantastic rebel pilot. Rey in particular ends up holding a crucial importance that ties to the evolution of what the story and these key players have been about. They all have to thwart the plans of the First Order to use their ultimate weapon of destruction, capable of destroying star systems.
At this point "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is part of a cinematic empire that is engraved in the memories of cinephiles all over the world. The films simply reach a massive amount of audience and expectation, since they deal with characters that have become classic and familiar since they first showed up in 1977. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is in a way, a restart of the original trilogy and features a more interesting plot than the one that George Lucas came up with in his three prequels which premiered between 1999 and 2005 (and were met with derision and heavy criticism). J.J. Abrams who has been working steadily and heavily in television, knows how to mix the classic references of the original trilogy, with the sophistication of the audience's new tastes (and also technology awareness). The film successfully mixes the analogical visual and style present in the first trilogy, with a far more modern and digital approach. This evolution of style and perspective can also be witnessed by the way the screenplay chooses to focus the story on a lead female central character. Where the film falters yet again, is in the edification of a good opposing force, one that has an edge and a sense of true villainy. Adam Driver and his Kylo Ren for instance never gets fully flushed out, and his arc is somewhat diminutive. The film is entertaining, visually stunning, but ultimately falters in being as well developed narratively as the original trilogy. Here's hoping the sequels progress the story in a better direction.

Carol

Movie Name: Carol
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Trent Rowland
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Director Todd Haynes is back, following his successful mini series which he directed for HBO, "Mildred Pierce". The film is an adaptation of the book by Patricia Highsmith, "The Price of Salt", and follows the story of two women from very different backgrounds, who in New York of the 1950s, embark on a love affair that may have harsh consequences for both of them. The film starts by introducing us to Therese Belivet, a young clerk working in a department store, who ambitions to become a photographer. During one of her working days, she meets the beautiful and sophisticated Carol Aird, who is out buying Christmas gifts for her daughter. What starts as an innocent meeting, evolves into a flirtation, and Therese learns that Carol is going through a divorce, and her husband is making the custody process a very difficult one. As the relationship starts getting deeper between the two women, so does Carol's fear that she may lose her custody over her daughter.
Todd Haynes has been successfully revisiting the American society of the 1950s in some of his most celebrated features, such as the beautiful "Far from Heaven" and the above mentioned "Mildred Pierce". He revisits these periods with a sense of simultaneous beauty and realism, capturing the both the wonder and style exhibited by Douglas Sirk's films of the 1950s, while simultaneously bringing into the foreground the sexual and social realities of living in those times (something that because of the Hayes code could never be fully and explicitly showcased in the classic films). "Carol" is a perfect example of a character study, one that slowly reveals the personalities of these two women, as they embark on a relationship, that is simultaneous an escape for one of them, and a coming of age for another. The evolution of Therese is particularly more visible, since she starts as an insecure and undecided young woman, and throughout the film she becomes deeply enamored of someone, and has to come to terms with finding her own path and who she truly is. The film allows for the two lead actresses to have fantastic performances, particularly Rooney Mara, who perfectly conveys the anxieties of Therese in her delicate features, and in her eyes. It's a performance that is nuanced, yet powerful. The cinematography from Ed Lachman is beautiful, as are the costumes from Sandy Powell. The score from Carter Burwell is at times reminiscent of Philip Glass, but still beautiful and elegant. A beautiful film worth watching.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Saving Private Ryan

Movie Name: Saving Private Ryan
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina, Max Martini, Dylan Bruno
Genre: Action, Drama, War
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Director Steven Spielberg followed his prolific year of 1997 (where he released two films, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" and "Amistad"), with one huge success, which ended up winning him his second Oscar for best director, the celebrated and iconic "Saving Private Ryan". The film starts on the morning of June 6th 1944, with the allies landing on the coasts of Normandy, depicting the ferocity and violence of war. The film then shifts the focus of the story to Captain John H. Miller, who is tasked with assembling a unit of troops to go and find James Ryan, the youngest and sole survivor of 4 brothers all of whom have been sent to war. Miller assembles a diverse group of soldiers, and they all start their quest to find Ryan. After a failed attempt, they finally locate the soldier but decide to stay in that area since it's a crucial one to the allies efforts.
"Saving Private Ryan" is a fantastic film from an accomplished master. Sadly though it also exhibits one of Steven Spielberg's worst traits: his unrelenting need to sentimentalize and overdo stories that speak for themselves. "Saving Private Ryan" has one of the most strikingly well done entrance shots, one that inspired several other films and TV shows - the brutality of the depiction of the atrocities of war is astonishing, as is the overall tone of the rest of the quest the soldiers embark on. It's a film that manages to showcase the hardship, sacrifices that are made by people while in situations as extreme as wars. However, towards the end of the film, there's this mawkish tone that is introduced when a contemporary view of one of the central characters comes into light, destroying the tone and poetry that was captured by the rest of the film. The cast is uniformly good, with Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi creating memorable characters. The cinematography from Janusz Kaminski is stunning as is the score from legendary John Williams. A short of brilliant film by a master storyteller.

The Danish Girl

Movie Name: The Danish Girl
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Tom Hooper
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch, Adrian Schiller
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
After the divisive yet successful "Les Miserables", director Tom Hooper is back with another period piece, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, itself a fictionalized account of the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery (Lili Elbe had her own autobiography published in 1933).
The film introduces us to Einer Wegener and Gerda Wegener, a young married couple in Denmark in the 1920s, who are both artists. Einer in particular has been getting some extra attention with his paintings, while Gerda, has experienced some trouble breaking through in the market. When one of her models misses an appointment, Gerda asks her husband to replace her and wear some silk stockings and a dress. What starts as an innocent request, it re-awakens in Einer a lost longing, something he always kept hidden throughout his adult life: the desire to be a woman. Initially with some reluctance, Einer finally realizes who he really is, and sets about becoming that person, while his wife desperately tries to maintain the relationship they once had. Things dramatically change when Einer discovers a doctor who has performed gender reassignment surgery and decides to take Einer's case.
Tom Hooper's films have so far fared better in tackling larger than life historical personas: individuals who overcome troubling circumstances to become successful in their own right (which was the case of his mini series "John Adams" and his Oscar winning film "The King's Speech"). "The Danish Girl" is somewhat a less accomplished feature, despite the fact that it features a revelatory performance from the wonderful Alicia Vikander. This is due primarily to the fact that the core component of the story, Einer's transition into becoming Lili, is never felt as something guttural, emotional and primal. For someone who claims that there's no going back to being a man, the process for Einer/Lili to evolve feels strangely superficial. The film is more successful in portraying the nuances of Gerda's career and life, how she learns to navigate the strangeness of her own life. The central character inversely becomes more about one specific thing, instead of allowing the viewer to understand the inner and fuller life of this complex person. Tom Hooper after a while starts repeating some scenarios within the story, which make the film feel derivative and repetitive. The supporting cast has little to do, but Amber Heard and Ben Whishaw create compelling characters with the little screen time they have. A missed opportunity to portray a person who was a trailblazer in her own right.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Macbeth

Movie Name: Macbeth
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, David Thewlis, David Hayman, Elizabeth Debicki, Lynn Kennedy, Seylan Baxter, Scot Greenan, Kayla Fannon, Ross Anderson, Scott Dymond, 
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Director Justin Kurzel, who made his feature debut with "The Snowtown Murders", has followed that Australian based feature, with "Macbeth", a visceral adaptation of William Shakespeare's play of the same name. The film follows the story of a Scottish general by the name of Macbeth, who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that he will become King of Scotland. Prompted by his ambitious wife, Macbeth murders the King, but allows the King's son to escape. After being crowned, Macbeth is consumed by guilt and paranoia, and soon becomes a tyrant, committing more murders to protect himself. This at the cost of everyone who surrounds him, including his wife.
Justin Kurzel's authentic adaptation of "Macbeth" is the latest in a series of features that have been done throughout the years, which also include Orson Welles' 1948 adaptation, Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and Roman Polanski's 1971 version. Kurzel's is beautifully shot by Adam Arkapaw, and uses Scotland's locations to a beautiful effect. The scenery becomes a part of the story, which manages to be simultaneously dramatic, but also brutal, violent and carnal. It's a film that is both visually striking, stylized to a certain extent, but who has a beating brutal heart underneath it all, due to the fantastic performances from all the cast, particularly the always excellent Michael Fassbender and the luminous Marion Cotillard. The cinematography from Adam Arkapaw is stunning, capturing the beauty of the landscape but also the core feelings that are part of the story, namely the violence, intrigue and the fantastical elements of it. It's a riveting and unique vision of the play, worth watching.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Opposite of Sex

Movie Name: The Opposite of Sex
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Don Roos
Stars: Christina Ricci, Martin Donovan, Lisa Kudrow, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Galecki, Ivan Sergei, Colin Ferguson, William Lee Scott, Dan Bucatinsky, Rodney Eastman
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
"The Opposite of Sex" marked the directorial debut of screenwriter Don Roos, well known for writing Barbet Schroeder's "Single White Female", Jonathan Kaplan's "Love Field" and Herbert Ross' "Boys on the Side" amongst others. The film follows the story of sixteen year old Deedee Truitt, who runs away from home, pregnant by her boyfriend, and who ends up living with her older half brother Bill. While staying with Bill, she seduces his boyfriend Matt, and they elope, once she convinces him that she's pregnant with his child. Bill and his friend Lucia go on their trail, and eventually discover them.
Don Roos made a career for himself in the 80s writing for such tv shows such as "Hart to Hart" and "The Colbys", before moving on to features. "The Opposite of Sex" premiered in Sundance to much acclaim, and featured one of the first adult roles of Christina Ricci, who had steadily worked through her adolescence in films such as Brad Silberling's "Caspar" and Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm". The film also featured a great performance from the underrated Lisa Kudrow (then popular for the TV Show "Friends") and Hal Hartley's usual collaborator Martin Donovan. The film is a dark comedy superbly written, with much insight into relationships, slowly pealing away its acerbic wit and sarcasm to show a pulsing heart and mature view into relationships and sexuality. Don Roos successfully builds an interesting web of relationships, with situations that verge on overly dramatic (almost soap opera style), but yet he exacts restraint and allows for these characters to evolve and be more than just one dimensional cliches. It's a testament to the director and the cast, that the performances are all so interesting and different. A very good film worth watching.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Gods and Monsters

Movie Name: Gods and Monsters
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, Lolita Davidovich, David Dukes, Kevin J. O'Connor, Mark Kiely, Jack Plotnick, Jack Betts, Matt McKenzie, Todd Babcock, Pamela Salem
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Bill Condon's "Gods and Monsters" marked the ascension of the director to a more visible career (and won him an Oscar for adapted screenplay), since before this feature, the director was primarily doing television work. The film focuses on the life of film director James Whale, who gained prominence in Hollywood by directing "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" in the 30s. Now in the 1950s, Whale has retired and lives in a nice home in CA with his maid Hanna who disapproves of his homosexuality. Whale befriends a gardener (and former marine) who comes to his property, and they start a friendship, with the retired director silently lusting for his younger friend. As they become closer, Whale's intentions towards Boone become apparent, but not for the reasons Boone himself expected.
"Gods and Monsters" allowed to showcase the amazing talents of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave. It's a film that focuses on a Hollywood icon, James Whale, a director who had fallen out of grace due to his sexuality. The film successfully captures the allure and magic of the silent films of Hollywood, all the while peeling off a layer and exposing the hidden truths of Hollywood and the prevailing homophobia at the time. Bill Condon smartly focuses the story on a fractured man, a person who feels like he belongs nowhere and who has been forgotten by everyone. His attempts at connecting are thwarted and yet he remains charismatic and filled with energy and wit that are unique. The film is a three part piece, between this central character who is unable to adjust, a stranger who is a bridge to the modern times, and the witness (the maid), who knows the details of the central character's life and who also infuses the film with humor and heart. This film lives from the fantastic performances from Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and remains thus far one of the best features from director Bill Condon's career. Worth watching.

Elizabeth

Movie Name: Elizabeth
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant, Vincent Cassel, Kathy Burke, Kelly Macdonald, Edward Hardwicke, Emily Mortimer, John Gielgud, Eric Cantona, Daniel Craig, James Frain, Jamie Foreman
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth" was one of the revelations of 1998, garnering a series of Oscar nominations (winning one for best makeup), and ending up on several critics lists of the best films of the year. The film focuses on the story of Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who ascends to the throne following the death of her half sister, Queen Anne (in the 16th century). Elizabeth has to navigate the interests of the court, all of whom have different agendas. She is having an affair with a childhood sweetheart, Robert Dudley, though multiple advisers are wanting her to marry other more suitable men in order to secure her throne. As Elizabeth becomes more aware of the politics of court, the more assertive and calculating she becomes, learning to deal with her enemies in a ruthless fashion.
Shekhar Kapur who started his career as an actor, reached in the mid 90s a certain popularity due to the critical praise of his film "Bandit Queen" (released in 1994). "Elizabeth" is a interesting look into the machinations of politics at times when women had little to no power, and were used as pawns in order to secure suitable positions in different nations. The film slowly showcases the evolution of Elizabeth, from a young, innocent waif, believing in love, to someone who becomes aware of the rulings of politics and power, and how ambition makes men stop at nothing. It's a role that allows Cate Blanchett to truly shine, as she evolves across the feature, showcasing the nuances of a woman who learns what it truly means to dominate a court and a kingdom (and it was, after Gillian Armstrong's "Oscar and Lucinda", her first really big role which showcased her amazing talent).
The director smartly casts a series of fantastic supporting actors to weave this tapestry of devious politics, with Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston and Kathy Burke all creating great characters. The cinematography from Remi Adefarasin is stunning as are the costumes from Alexandra Byrne. A very good film worth watching.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Brooklyn

Movie Name: Brooklyn
Year of Release: 2015
Director: John Crowley
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O'Higgins, Eva Birthistle, Emily Rickards, Jessica Pare, Paulino Nunes, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
John Crowley's "Brooklyn" is the adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel of the same name, which was written and released in 2009 (and was on the short list for the prestigious Man Booker Prize of that year). The film tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young and bright Irish girl, who lives in a small town with her mom and older sister Rose (in the 1950s). The beautiful Rose works as a book-keeper and wants Eilis to have a better life than what the small town where they are can provide - she therefore arranges for Eilis to come to America, specifically the Brooklyn area. Initially homesick and lonely, Eilis slowly starts engaging more socially, and finds herself taking night classes to also become a book-keeper and meets a young Italian-American man who captures her attention. However things back home take an unexpected turn and she's forced to come back.
John Crowley's career has thus far been a discrete one, with titles such as "Boy A" and "Closed Circuit", which barely failed to register with audiences. "Brooklyn" is however a different case - the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival of 2015 to much acclaim, and was instantly bought by Fox Searchlight as a possible Oscar contender. And indeed the film is a well told story of a young woman finding her own path and coming to terms with her own choices. The film really brings the plight of the young Eilis to life particularly depicting her anguish and pain in leaving her family and friends behind in Ireland, and understandably facing her fears of being in a new country, new city and new life. The film at points brings to mind the best work of Merchant Ivory, with the impeccable production design, costumes, cinematography and score. The casting is also spot on, with Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Emory Cohen all creating memorable impressions, however the film truly belongs to the luminous and beautiful Saoirse Ronan. She creates a nuanced character, filled with fear, anxiety, joy, love and we witness it all through her beautiful eyes and face that are filled with emotion. A finely assemble film, worth watching.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Spotlight

Movie Name: Spotlight
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Tom McCarthy
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Gene Amoroso, Doug Murray, Darrin Baker 
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Actor, writer, director Tom McCarthy is back with another fantastic film, which adds another gem to his directorial career which features "The Station Agent" and "Win Win". The film focuses on the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that uncovered a scandal of epic proportions in the Catholic Church. The film follows the Spotlight team, in particular the 4 journalists and their editors, who start to slowly discover the story behind the sexual abuse that children have been suffering for decades in the Boston area, all with complicity of the church hierarchy. The team realizes that there is a web of implications from this case, one that touches a lot of different sections of the Boston society and that all sorts of deals and arrangements have being done throughout the years to quietly make the cases disappear.
Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" is another successful film from 2015, following James Vanderbilt's "Truth" to tackle the importance of media and investigation to showcase injustices and issues that are relevant for our society. "Spotlight" is fantastic in detailing the process on how the reporting team investigates a dramatic event in the Boston community, where the catholic church presence is still heavily felt. The director manages to present the reality of the community, and how this shattering event has trickled down through so many families and destroyed so many lives. McCarthy doesn't add any glamour to the research process that characters go through or indulges in any glossiness for the film in general - instead there's an actual sense of urgency, realism and grittiness that adds a layer of relevance to the film that makes it more unique. In a way it's a film that feels relevant not only because of the theme that it showcases, but also of how it's built and how it allows to understand how a community echoes the destruction that is forced upon its members. The cast is uniformly excellent, with particular emphasis going to Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci, both creating layered and compelling characters. A really good film worth watching.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dark City

Movie Name: Dark City
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, Melissa George, Mitchell Butel, Ritchie Singer
Genre: Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Following the problems with the shooting of "The Crow" director Alex Proyas took some time to work on his next project, which turned out to be the darkly creative "Dark City". The film focuses on the character of John Murdoch, who wakes up in a bathtub, in a hotel, without a recollection of whom he is. Murdoch tries to retrace his steps, and as he does so, the more surprising are the facts he starts to collect: the city seems to always be surrounded in darkness, and everything comes to a still during specific times. He comes to realize there are strange men going around re-arranging people, situations and even city, and they are now hot on his trail. It's up to him to discover himself and a way to battle these strange creatures.
Alex Proyas' career had been established in the commercials before venturing into full length features. If "The Crow" introduced his aesthetic and universe, while remaining faithful to the spirit and tone of the comic book series of James O'Barr, "Dark City" is definitely an extension but also a more personal venture into what the director really likes to explore. The film, much like "The Crow", is again bathed in a overwhelming darkness and has a definite sense of timelessness - the characters, production design, mix a retro look while simultaneously being futuristic. This allows for the film to be a truly unique expansion of the director's universe, where he can visually and narratively explore the elements that are part of his focus, namely the unexpected hero, who possesses more power than his antagonists, but somehow has to learn and acknowledge it, and the characters who surround him and provide him with a sense of history and humanity. The film is very successful in building all of this intricate scenario, and creates a compelling lead character, however the supporting characters again fall prey into a somewhat predictable and cliched exposition. It's a film that nonetheless drinks inspiration from noir, science fiction and even some of Fritz Lang's 30s expressionist films, but gives all this a consistent tone that is really interesting and compelling. The actors are all equally engaging, while the cinematography from Darius Wolski (Ridley Scott's cinematographer of choice) is simply beautiful. A very good film worth revisiting.

Celebrity

Movie Name: Celebrity
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Famke Janssen, Melanie Griffith, J.K. Simmons, Gretchen Mol, Dylan Baker, Debra Messing, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Sam Rockwell, Hank Azaria, Allison Janney, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Lerner, Kate Burton, Andre Gregory, David Margulies, Adrian Grenier, Celia Weston, Aida Turturro
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
After the caustic and fantastic "Deconstructing Harry", Woody Allen returned in 1998 with a decidedly lighter take on the cult of celebrity and vapid journalism (and the general obsession with celebrities). The film focuses on a typical Woody Allen proxy character named Lee Simon, a travel writer and pretense novelist, who is trying to get a foot into the door with celebrities. After divorcing his wife of 16 years, Robin (a former English teacher), Lee immerses himself in the celebrity journalism milieu, which leads him down a path of inconsequential encounters, sex escapades, which lead him to question his own sense of worth. Meanwhile Robin overcomes her own insecurities, and finds success in television.
"Celebrity" is one of Woody Allen's less revered films from the 90s, and that can be largely attributed to the fact that for all it's intended purpose of being critical of the celebrity world, in the end it feels like a fairly superficial look that sheds no further light or insight into something that is vastly consumed by everyone. The film again focuses on the neurotic Woody Allen alter ego, this time around played by Kenneth Branagh to perfection, around whom all this parade of gorgeous people move and seem to be dazzled by, only to quickly be distracted by something else (or someone else). The film continues extending the angst and the themes of most of Woody Allen's films, however his acutely tuned view of the world, with the mix of biting satire and drama, doesn't gel with the material - the celebrity world needs a particular sense of parody, and the best types of satire are the ones that deconstruct it, such as Gus Van Sant's "To Die For". Nonetheless, the film manages to get some really interesting performances from Judy Davis and Branagh, and the cinematography from Sven Nykvist is beautiful. Another flawed yet interesting film in the Woody Allen cannon.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Spectre

Movie Name: Spectre
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Christoph Waltz, Rory Kinnear, Monica Bellucci, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Jesper Christensen, Stephanie Sigman
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Synopsis & Review:
After the colossal success of "Skyfall", director Sam Mendes is back, with yet another world trip alongside James Bond. This time around, James Bond faces an enemy that is the umbrella under which all of his previous enemies originated from - the organization by the name of Spectre, and specifically under the tutelage of someone from his own past, a man named Blofeld. Bond starts by sabotaging Spectre's plans in Mexico City, and quickly moves to London, where he has to navigate the efforts of a new Intelligence Bureau adamant on terminating the 00 program, that is being created by an ambitious man by the name of C. Unraveling these plans leads back to Mr. White (the character introduced in Martin Campbell's "Casino Royale"), and eventually to his daughter. It's up to Bond and his team, to defeat Spectre and their goal of taking over the world with a unified surveillance system that tracks everything and everyone.
The James Bond series has a reached at this point a level of polish that is undeniable. The production assets behind these films have reached a point, where the glossiness of it all pours from every inch of celluloid on screen (or in case of digital, of every byte on screen). That being said, it also means that these films have a formula that they abide to, and the variables end up being the players and the locations where they are set. "Skyfall" deviated a bit from this formula, in the sense that it presented a closer relationship between the action and the past of James Bond himself, something that the series has always shied away from. "Spectre" tries to pick up that pace, but also be reverential of past adventures, which means that it presents bigger explosions and set pieces, something that eventually dwarves the actors, their interactions and whatever subtlety the screenplay has. The main villain on this film has little if anything to do, and the level of danger is close to none (even more shocking when compared to the edge and charisma brought by Javier Bardem in "Skyfall"). Where the film does succeed is in the stunts, the action set pieces and in the supporting cast that make the film tolerable, particularly the wonderful Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris. The cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema is superb as is the elegant score from Thomas Newman. Another forgettable installment from a series that needs another restart.

Room

Movie Name: Room
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Stars: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Amanda Brugel, Wendy Crewson, Cas Anvar
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Director Lenny Abrahamson is back, after the well received "Frank" from 2014. "Room" has been premiering through a series of different festivals, and has collected a series of accolades (namely at the Toronto Film Festival where it won the People's Choice Award). The film is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel and it follows the story of a young boy by the name of Jack, who has lived inside a tiny room (in reality a tool shed) since he was born. Jack's been in that space with his mom, a young woman by the name of Joy who was kidnapped when she was 17, and has been kept in that space since then (and been raped and physically hurt by her captor). Jack's mother has gone to extreme lengths to make sure he isn't hurt or harmed by their captor, but the entrapment is closing in on them and she devises a plan to make sure they are able to escape their situation. It's up to Jack to carry through the plan, venturing into a world he's never seen and somehow find the help for them to be rescued.
"Room" is a film that though presented with a bleak premise, manages to be simultaneously heartwarming and in the end, life affirming. The horrors of being kidnapped and raped for years, are presented in a way that is not exploratory - the film focuses instead on the child, someone who doesn't know the world, who hasn't seen anything, aside from what his mother has told him and from what he has seen on television. This is a child whose social skills are limited to the interactions with his mother, a young woman who has been corralled in a situation that has pushed her to the very limit of existence (for all intended purposes, she has disappeared for 7 years, and is likely considered dead). The director successfully showcases Jack's point of view, filled with his daily tasks and the reality of what surrounds him, activities that make him feel safe and secure, whereas the toll of confinement is really seen through the eyes of his mother, who is wasting away further and further. The film features three fantastic performances, namely Jacob Tremblay as Jack, Joan Allen as Nancy and particularly Brie Larson as Ma, who gives a truly mature and nuanced performance, simultaneously feral in her protection of her son, but also bruised and battered by years of abuse and a childhood of her own that got stolen. The cinematography from Danny Cohen is fantastic, capturing the gray tones and slow richer palettes as the characters emerge from their room. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Buffalo 66

Movie Name: Buffalo 66
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Vincent Gallo
Stars: Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara, Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette, Jan-Michael Vincent, Anjelica Huston, Kevin Pollak, Alex Karras
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Vincent Gallo's debut feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival of 1998 to considerable acclaim. The actor/director then mostly well known for Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral" and Emir Kusturica's "Arizona Dream", created an impact with his feature debut which he also wrote (with Alison Bagnall). The film follows the story of Billy Brown, a recently released convict who dreads going back home to visit his parents. In desperation, Billy kidnaps Layla from a tap dancing class and pleads with her to impersonate his wife and to accompany him. Much to Billy's surprise, Layla takes to her role enthusiastically. She breaks through to obsessive Buffalo Bills football fans Janet and the hard-edged Jimmy, Bill's parents.
1998 was a successful year for independent films, with a slew of them making it all the way to the Academy Awards. Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66" was one of the most iconic ones, since it presented his point of view in such a unique, stylish and personal way (it also helped that it had Christina Ricci then breaking away from her child actress persona and roles - that same year she was in the well received "The Opposite of Sex" directed by Don Roos). The film manages to present all the quirky characters that make the bulk of the narrative in a way that is fresh and compelling. In terms of style and concept, the film feels closer to the perspective of Gus Van Sant, but the director amps up the visual and stylistic approach. The film is indeed the vision of its director and star, bordering on self reverence, and though some of the characters feel contrived and under-developed, the flaws make it an interesting film to view and experience.The group of actors is fantastic with Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston all creating quirky characters, that end up bringing edge, humor and heart to the story. A good film worth revisiting.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Suffragette

Movie Name: Suffragette
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Sarah Gavron
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Meryl Streep, Samuel West, Geoff Bell, Natalie Press, Grace Stottor
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
"Suffragette" is director Sarah Gavron's second feature, following her debut with "Brick Lane" back in 2007. Working from a screenplay by acclaimed writer Abi Morgan (who wrote amongst others, Steve McQueen's "Shame" and Phyllida Lloyd's "The Iron Lady"), the film is a dramatic representation of the fight that women endured to gain the right to vote in England in the early 20th century. The film focuses in particular on the figure of young Maud Watts, who at 24 has a young child of her own, and herself has been working in dry cleaning business since she was 7. Maud becomes aware of the effort that the suffragette movement is having in England, and gains further insight through the voice of their iconic leader, Mrs. Pankhurst. She becomes directly involved in the movement through a coworker, the rebellious Violet, who introduces her to the stoic and undeterred Edith Ellyn. This group of women start retaliating, as authorities devise a plan to control and muffle this movement.
This is a film that has a powerful and pertinent (to this day) story, one that needs to be told and brought to attention. Sadly, though filled with a fantastic cast and production values, this film lacks passion, depth and ultimately fails to be impactful. The screenplay focuses on the story of the young Maud, a resilient and fairly quiet young woman, who suddenly becomes this activist, without much rationale behind it. The choices and sacrifices this woman has to make are gut wrenching, yet the film quickly places them at a distance, not allowing the characters nor the situations much time to evolve. The supporting characters are largely characterized in very blunt strokes, with Violet and Edith making for the women in the movement that have more relevance, but never giving them much to do. The film ends up being mostly successful when it focus in the microcosms of Maud's life and how she as a woman learns to stand up for herself. This success can be attributed to Carey Mulligan's heartfelt performance - her sad eyes mask a longing and steely determination that steadily grow through the film. Her character alone deserved a more interesting screenplay, something that sadly falls short. The cinematography from Eduard Grau is great, as is the score from Alexandre Desplat. A missed opportunity.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

American History X

Movie Name: American History X
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Tony Kaye
Stars: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Beverly D'Angelo, Elliott Gould, Ethan Suplee, Avery Brooks, Stacy Keach, William Russ, Alex Sol, Antonio David Lyons, Joe Cortese, Jennifer Lien, Paul Le Mat, Jordan Marder
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Director Tony Kaye's debut feature was surrounded in controversy, with the director simultaneously battling actor Edward Norton and the studio New Line. The film follows the story of Derek Vineyard, a young man who is part of a group of skinheads and white supremacists. One night, when his truck is in the midst of being burgled, he shoots and kills one of the people involved and curb stomps another. He is sentenced to prison, where he goes through a rude awakening process. Upon his release, he tries to give his younger brother a different perspective on life, since he knows he's trying to follow his footsteps. His new perspective on life is one that is not limited by racism and hate, and that's something he wants to pass to his younger brother. This new attitude trickles through his entire life and family members with dramatic consequences.
Director Tony Kaye's started his career directing music commercials during the early 90s, including Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train". "American History X" ended up wrapped up in controversy with Edward Norton involved in the editing of the film and Tony Kaye suing New Line Studios. The film is successful since it showcases the evolution of the central character that learns through life and hardship, that there are plenty of sides to each story. The film is a hard look at the consequences of prejudice and violence, and of how all these things permeate someone's life in all its aspects (and how these choices are hard to shake once you want to distance yourself from them). The director successfully mixes tones and styles, yet doesn't let these overwhelm the content of the film (the director also serves as the film's cinematographer). The cast is uniformly good, with Edward Norton creating one of his strongest performances, with good support from Beverly D'Angelo and Edward Furlong. A good film worth revisiting!

Truth

Movie Name: Truth
Year of Release: 2015
Director: James Vanderbilt
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, David Lyons, Dermot Mulroney, Rachael Blake, Andrew McFarlane, Felix Williamson, Steve Bastoni, Louis Herthum
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
"Truth" is the debut feature of celebrated screenwriter James Vanderbilt, who wrote films such as David Fincher's "Zodiac", Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man" and Roland Emmerich's "White House Down". The film is an adaptation of the book by Mary Mapes, and follows events that occurred at CBS in 2004, prior to the elections that took place that year. Mapes is a news producer for the tv show "60 Minutes", working with Dan Rather. Following a string of successful reporting pieces, they start investigating a new story based on information that former President Bush, then seeking re-election, had in the early 1970s received preferential treatment from officials of the Texas Air National Guard. After the story is aired, the documents upon which its based are called into question by a variety of sources, aiming to target its credibility. When the noise and controversy continue to increase, CBS orders an internal investigation targeting the team that gathered the content and built the expose.
"Truth" is a film that is directly inspired by the politically charged thrillers from the 70s, where reporters and the media played a part in exposing the corruption of politics. Titles such as Alan J. Pakula's "The Parallax View" and "All the King's Men", and also James Bridges' "The China Syndrome" all presented the reporters as tireless professionals, idealistic and focused on a tireless pursuit in presenting the truth to the masses. James Vanderbilt's film follows a very similar concept, echoing the tone, but adjusting the context for the present, slowly building the momentum and giving insight into the key players and into the story itself. The film lets the characters be drawn in an engaging way, particularly Cate Blanchett's Mary Mapes, who is depicted as an intelligent, resourceful and also fallible woman, who suddenly sees herself as a target of thinly veiled conspiracy. The supporting characters, such as Robert Redford's Dan Rather, and their investigation team, though not as flushed out, make for an interesting and diversified group and create a compelling backdrop for the investigation that is the basis of the film. The film boasts a fantastic cast, with Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford creating great characters, well supported by Dennis Quaid, John Benjamin Hickey and Topher Grace.  The cinematography from Mandy Walker (who worked on Baz Luhrmann's "Australia") is fantastic, and the score from Brian Tyler is equally good. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Wings of the Dove

Movie Name: The Wings of the Dove
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Ian Softley
Stars: Helena Bonham Carter, Linus Roache, Alison Elliot, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Gambon, Elizabeth McGovern, Alex Jennings, Ben Miles
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
After directing "Backbeat" and "Hackers", director Ian Softley tackled an Henry James' adaptation, "The Wings of the Dove", adapted into a screenplay by Hossein Amini (who went on to write Nicolas Winding Refn "Drive"). The film takes place in London, early 20th century and follows the story of Kate Croy, a beautiful young woman who due to the fact that her parents have no money, ends up living with her wealthy and domineering aunt, who wants to see her married to an established and rich man. Kate is already involved and enamored with Merton Densher, a journalist of few means. One day Kate is introduced to a an American woman traveling across Europe, by the name of Milly. Milly is a very wealthy heiress and is also terminally ill. Kate devises a plan for Merton to get involved with Milly, so she will leave him money when she passes away, enabling them both to marry. However the plans don't go exactly as planned, once this triangle gets to Venice and affections start shifting.
"The Wings of the Dove" is a film that draws inspiration from the work of celebrated director James Ivory (who directed the Henry James' adaptations "The Bostonians" and "The Europeans"). The film manages to convey the need to marry successfully and how that impacted the life of people in society. That is perfectly conveyed as the film progresses and Kate is presented almost as a prisoner of these labored and tacit conventions, that prevent her from following the love she has found. What is finely captured in the film are the nuances of Kate's character, as she creates a fiendish plot in order to gain the money she and Merton need to wed. It's a testament to Helena Bonham Carter's talent, that she makes the character lovable even with her insecurities and devious scheme. The supporting characters, though not as well rounded as Kate, provide an interesting backdrop to a film that showcases the nature of how love can present itself in different circumstances. The cast is uniformly good, with Linus Roache, Alison Elliot, Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon all providing good support for a stellar central performance from Helena Bonham Carter. The cinematography from Eduardo Serra is stunning, as are the costumes from celebrated and awarded costume designer Sandy Powell. A good film worth watching and revisiting.

Steve Jobs

Movie Name: Steve Jobs
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, John Ortiz, Sarah Snook
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Fantastic and celebrated director Danny Boyle is back, following the awesome (and little seen) "Trance". "Steve Jobs" is a biopic and an adaptation of the book from Walter Isaacson (with a screenplay by celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin). The film captures the life of Steve Jobs in three different time periods, that represented important events that catapulted Jobs' life and the life of his company Apple Computers in important directions. The film anchors itself on the preparations of what has become the iconic presentations of software that Apple is well known for: in each event we are introduced to the stress and pressure Steve placed on his team and everybody he interacted with. The film slowly also peels away the man behind the implacable facade, showing us his trouble relationship with the daughter he never wanted to assume, and the people who shaped Apple to be what they were.
Danny Boyle is an extremely intelligent director and film maker, always creating indelible film experiences from material that can be challenging (for instance "127 Hours"). Capturing the life of someone as iconic and well known as Steve Jobs could have proven a difficult task, but Danny Boyle manages to create a film that is dynamic, tense and engaging, interweaving the story with flashbacks, and other visual imagery that allows for a wordy screenplay to come to life. The film is successful in showcasing the personality of a leader that is demanding and insightful, while also probing deeper into who he was as an individual, with his flaws and shortcomings, creating someone more humane and relatable. Danny Boyle was also extremely successful in his casting, with Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Katherine Waterston creating really engaging and well rounded characters that bring the story and the film to life, with intelligence and a beating heart. As it happens with most biopics this film will probably receive criticism for not depicting Steve Jobs appropriately, but this is a work of fiction, not a documentary. It's another fantastic film for Danny Boyle's incredible filmography.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Crimson Peak

Movie Name: Crimson Peak
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts
Genre: Drama, Horror, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Guillermo Del Toro has followed his big sci-fi spectacle "Pacific Rim" with a decidedly smaller and somber endeavor, one that speaks highly of his taste for gothic and dark stories. The film focuses on the story of Edith Cushing, a young american writer, who in the 18th century suffers the loss of her mother at a young age. Edith is haunted by visions of ghosts, and that has shaped a lot of her writings. Her father, a wealthy but self made man, is protective of her, as his her friend and wannabe suitor, Dr. Alan McMichael. When the British Sharpe siblings come to town, Edith is enamored by the handsome Thomas, who is looking for investors for his drilling invention, one he claims will make the process of digging for the red clay from his property a lot faster and profitable. When Edith's father learns more of the intents of the siblings, he unexpectedly is murdered and Edith agrees to marry Thomas and follow him to England, specifically his property that goes by the name of Crimson Peak.
Guillermo Del Toro has a specific universe of his own. He's a writer and director who creates universes filled with a mythology that is unique, populated with ghouls, and creatures that are simultaneously magical and dangerous. "Crimson Peak" larks back to ghost stories of the 30s, 40s and 50s, giving it however an extra dimension that is simultaneously more sensual and also violent. The film is at its core a yarn about characters that aren't really what they seem to be, with the ghosts and supernatural giving it an extra layer of interest. The film lives of the rapport between the core characters, and also of the somberness of the majestic house (and production design), that functions as an extra character on its own. The actors all excel in their performances, particularly Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, while the production design from Thomas Sanders (who also worked in the glorious "Bram Stoker's Dracula" from Francis Coppola), and art direction of Brandt Gordon are equally phenomenal. A special highlight should also go to the fantastic costumes of Kate Hawley, which give an extra dimension of ethereal versus shadow in the way these characters come to life. This is a film that indeeds lives from the junction of all these talents, to bring to life a classic story of "whodunit" in a way that is engaging and entertaining. A good film worth watching.

Bridge of Spies

Movie Name: Bridge of Spies
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Michael Gaston, Sebastian Koch, Billy Magnussen, Eve Hewson, Noah Schnapp, Dakin Matthews, Joe Forbrich
Genre: Drama, History
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Synopsis & Review:
Director Steven Spielberg is back, after the successful "Lincoln", which in the end won yet another Oscar for Daniel Day Lewis. Spielberg is indeed back with another feature, one that falls under his mantle of the "big important films". The film is inspired by actual events, takes place at the height of the cold war, the 1950s, and follows the story of attorney James B. Donovan, a senior partner at a law firm in Brooklyn, an admired professional who specializes in insurance law. When a Russian spy is caught on American soil, Donovan is hired to defend him. He manages to deter the sentence to life imprisonment, but when one American pilot is caught in Russian territory, Donovan is sent to East Berlin to secure a swap of these two politically antagonizing prisoners. On top of this, he also has to deal with an American student who has been imprisoned in East Berlin by the Communist regime of East Germany. It's up to his diplomatic skills to overcome these divisions and secure these swaps.
Steven Spielberg is, justifiably so, a legendary filmmaker. He has in his career so many admirable films, that the quality of his work is indisputable. However, he also has in his career films that are less than stellar, films that for some reason are less accomplished, namely "1941" and to a certain extent "Hook". "Bridge of Spies" is not by any means a bad feature: there's a level of polish and artistry, which may read as "classic storytelling". However, when analyzed a bit further, this film feels and looks like the work of someone on auto-pilot. The characters are vaguely drawn, such as Donovan's family - if they're going to be stand-ins for simple cliches, then why even present them (Amy Ryan is a fantastic actress, who ends up having nothing to do). Some characters are presented, then swiftly discarded (such as Alan Alda's senior associate at the law firm). Though the core of the film is indeed the negotiation, and the heightened sense of danger that the swap is meant to convey, that fear and anguish is never passed on, because ultimately, the film is sedate and doesn't present real characters - it portrays an amalgamation of different cliches from different films (a good example of tension and the true menace of the former East Block can be seen in Florian von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others").  The real highlight of the film is Mark Rylance, who creates an interesting character, a man who is weary, with depth, history and his own fears. The score of Thomas Newman is elegant as usual. A less than stellar film from a gifted film maker.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

U Turn

Movie Name: U Turn
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Julie Hagerty, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Laurie Metcalf, Abraham Benrubi, 
Genre: Drama, Crime, Suspense
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Oliver Stone's winning 90s decade continued with another great, yet mostly unseen, film, "U Turn". The film is an adaptation of John Ridley's book "Stray Dogs" (Ridley is the Oscar winning writer of "12 Years a Slave"), and it follows the story of a petty criminal by the name of Bobby, who wanders into a small town on the run from some serious criminals who have already taken some of his fingers. In the small town he comes across an array of strange characters and becomes involved with the beautiful (and married) Grace. Her husband hires Bobby to kill Grace, who in turn hires Bobby to kill Jake. In a town, where nothing is what it seems, Bobby suddenly finds himself trapped in a situation that is almost surreal and seemingly without solution.
Oliver Stone's career was filled with fantastic films through the 80s and 90s, but as the 90s came to an end, the same happened with the quality of his directorial efforts. "U Turn" exhibits the traits of the formal experimentation that Oliver Stone trademarked with the fantastic "JFK", "Natural Born Killers" and even "Nixon", but in this film he and his usual collaborator, cinematographer Robert Richardson, applied it to a noir context, which turned out was a perfect fit. The film uses the small town as a claustrophobic setting, one from which none of the characters have a chance of escaping. In that town, the typical archetypes from film noir appear, such as the femme fatale, the young hothead, the young beautiful ingenue, the drifter, all adding a layer of familiarity and bizarreness, much like a "Twilight Zone" scenario. The film succeeds in being both a dark crime drama and another step in an experiment that stretches the language of film. The director has also managed to assemble a fantastic cast, with the awesome Sean Penn leading the ensemble, with Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton and Claire Danes in supporting roles. The cinematography from Robert Richardson is fantastic, as is the score from the legendary composer Ennio Morricone. An underrated film worth revisiting.

The Walk

Movie Name: The Walk
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Mark Camacho
Genre: Drama, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
Academy award winning director Robert Zemeckis is back, following the successful "Flight". The film is an adaptation of the book by Philippe Petit, which details the incredible feat that Petit executed in 1974, when he walked on a wire between the twin towers in New York (and this feat was also the target of the James Marsh documentary "Man on a Wire" which won the Oscar in 2008). The film uses Petit as a direct narrator for the story, introducing us to the character in Paris, when he's a struggling acrobat, living from live performances on the street. That's how he meets his companion Annie, to whom he confides the dream of walking across the twin towers in New York. Before that however, he attempts and succeeds a high wire act at Notre Dame Cathedral, which lands him in trouble with the authorities. Finding a team of accomplices in Paris, Petit soon devises a scheme to make "Le Coup" work.
Robert Zemeckis is one of the most successful directors in Hollywood of the past 4 decades. He has created films that blend a sense of wonder with an acute perception of how technology empowers directors to realize their vision - that has happened with some of his most accomplished films such as "Who's Framing Roger Rabbit", "Back to the Future", "Forrest Gump" and "Contact". "The Walk" has a fantastic story as a premise - a man overcoming a challenge that is towering and almost impossible. Sadly though, Zemeckis presents the story in a way that feels too glossy, overproduced and frankly borderline tasteless (the vignettes with Petit addressing the camera directly on the Statue of the Liberty are at best poorly conceived and at worst tacky). Where the film does redeem itself is in the depiction of the stunt that Petit and his accomplices put together: the process and the recreation of the feat is engaging, revealing a dynamic that sorely lacks in the remainder of the film. The cast does what it can with underwritten parts, with the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Petit as an obsessed man with a dream (and a bad wig it seems), while Ben Kingsley once again plays the older voice of reason. The score from Alan Silvestri is wonderful, as is the cinematography from Darius Wolski (who also worked on Ridley Scott's "The Martian"). A somewhat failed effort from a talented film maker.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Titanic

Movie Name: Titanic
Year of Release: 1997
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, David Warner, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Jason Barry, Ioan Gruffudd, Jonny Phillips, Mark Lindsay Chapman, Jenette Goldstein
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon.

Synopsis & Review:
"Titanic" was the big Oscar winner of 1997, and is to this day the second biggest money maker of all times at the box office. The film followed James Cameron's "True Lies" and was surrounded by months of expectations that the film would flounder and bankrupt Twentieth Century Fox. The film ended up being a massive success worldwide, making Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet instantly recognizable by everyone. The story focuses on Jack Dawson and Rose Bukater, two young people coming from different classes who meet on the biggest ocean liner ever built in 1912. They both are sailing towards the US, with different goals: Jack going back home, Rose with an intent to marry a rich tycoon by the name of Cal Hockley. They both meet, fall in love, and struggle to overcome both Cal and the tragic demise and sinking of the Titanic.
James Cameron is a tremendously gifted film maker, one that has his own universe, usually putting his characters in environments that are alien to them, forcing them to overcome their fears and becoming owners of their own fate. "Titanic" was a passion project for him, since it married his love of deep sea diving, with a legendary historical moment, one marred by drama and fatalities. He decided to build a love story around this massive disaster, and staged the sinking with an accurate and harrowing detail, giving his viewers an almost direct representation of what those last moments represented for the people on the doomed ship. The film is a testament to his capacity to hold the attention of viewers with a story that though contrived (and his screenplay is a bit overly simplistic and maudlin at times), overcomes those shortcomings to become something truly epic and impressively assembled. It's a film that has top production values in all fields, from production design, cinematography, visual effects, and though not as impressive as his classics "Terminator" and "Aliens", still stands as a towering achievement. The cast is also impressive, with highlights going to Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Gloria Stuart and Frances Fisher, all of whom create interesting characters. The definition of good entertainment can be found here.

The Martian

Movie Name: The Martian
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Enzo Cilenti
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Now well into his 70s, Ridley Scott shows no signs of stopping, and his latest feature, "The Martian" is finally the achievement he has been craving for, but has eluded him since his really last strong feature which was "Black Hawk Down" in 2001 (and following the mediocre "Exodus" from last year). The film (an adaptation of the novel by Andy Weir) follows the story of a team of astronauts exploring the planet Mars, who have to leave the planet on emergency due to a severe storm that is approaching. In the midst of the urgency, astronaut Mark Watney is hit by debris, and his teammates consider him dead, and abandon the planet. Watney wakes up to see another day, and much to his dismay and fear, finds himself alone in an inhospitable planet. It's up to him to devise a way to make rations work, find a way to create food and await a salvage team to reach him (there's a new team that will reach Mars, but that's almost 4 years away). Using nothing more than his intellect and a lot of effort, Mark overcomes hurdle by hurdle, until he finds a way to communicate back to Earth and inform everyone he's still alive.
Ridley Scott has created with "The Martian" a story that mixes and emphasizes his strong points in his long and varied career: impeccable visuals, production design, visual effects, with a more humane and heartfelt approach that sometimes has eluded some of his previous features. Much like "Alien" and "Blade Runner", the director creates a world of beauty, but also of menace, one were this single individual has to find ways to overcome a series of obstacles in order to stay alive. The film is very successful in mixing the hardship of Mark Watney's survival efforts, with the teams stationed back on Earth, that are trying at every step to create strategies to reach out to him and save him - that includes navigating impossible scenarios, diplomatic hurdles, political issues. The pacing of the film is perfectly timed, putting the viewer in the perspective of a time lapse, and the urgency to reach the stranded astronaut before he dies. It's a film that marries an impeccable script, one that ties intelligence, humor and resourcefulness, with stunning visuals, score and a fantastic cast, with highlights going to Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. A really good surprise from a somewhat uneven director.