Saturday, March 28, 2015

Twelve Monkeys

Movie Name: Twelve Monkeys
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Matt Ross, Christopher Meloni, LisaGay Hamilton, Frank Gorshin, Bill Raymond, Simon Jones, Jon Seda
Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

After the critical and commercial success of "The Fisher King", director Terry Gilliam returned with another film, the science fiction success "12 Monkeys". The film is loosely inspired by the short feature "La Jetée", from Chris Marker. The story focuses on James Cole, a prisoner living in a facility underneath Philadelphia in the year 2027. Cole is sent back in time to gather information on the virus that was released in 1996, and almost destroyed all of humanity. However Cole finds himself in 1990, confined in a mental institution where he meets Jeffrey Goines, another patient and animal rights advocate. In that institution he also meets Dr. Kathryn Railly, who takes a particular interest in his case, and who helps him untangle this conspiracy. As Cole gets sent back to the future and back to different time frames, the origin of the virus becomes apparent, and it's up to him and Kathryn to somehow prevent this catastrophe from occurring.
Terry Gilliam has made a name of himself as a creator of universes that are touched by a unique sense of humor and of fantastic. His most iconic film, "Brazil", is summarily, a nightmarish vision of a society tangled in bureaucracy, where the existence of dreams and of self, is completely destroyed. A lot of the characters that inhabit his stories are simultaneously dreamers, idealists, but also heroes whose souls have been crushed by the rumblings and mechanics of a state, government or a grotesque society. "Twelve Monkeys" is one of his most interesting films, existing within his universe, mostly due to the central affliction of its main hero, James Cole, who the audience is ambiguously made aware is from the future (or may be imagining everything). The aesthetic of the film is very much on par with what has become the trademark of the director: a mix of baroque with camera angles that push the characters (and viewers) into the core of the events. The cast of the film is equally interesting, with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt creating convincing and memorable characters. The cinematography from the excellent Roger Pratt (also responsible for Tim Burton's "Batman" and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil") is fantastic, as is the production design from Jeffrey Beecroft. A good film always worth revisiting.

Sense and Sensibility

Movie Name: Sense and Sensibility
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, James Fleet, Greg Wise, Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton, Imogen Stubs, Hugh Laurie,
Genre: Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Celebrated director Ang Lee premiered his adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995 to universal acclaim, following two films that had been equally critically well received, namely "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman". "Sense and Sensibility" focuses on the story of the Dashwood family, in particular the three daughters from that clan. The girls, alongside their mother, find themselves in a difficult situation, following the death of patriarch, who by law must leave the bulk of his estate to his son, from his first marriage. The women are left with almost no income, and are taken by a kind cousin. The lack of a suitable dowry, makes the situation of finding a suitable suitor for the two older sisters a bit more complicated. The quiet and sensible Elinor forms an emotional attachment to Edward Ferrars, the brother of her sister-in-law, whereas Marianne falls for the dashing John Willoughby, who unbknowst to her, has his fair share of issues and problems. These relationships are all put through some challenges, as the women navigate society, monetary interests and personal emotions.
Working from a script adapted by Emma Thompson herself, Ang Lee stages the story of the Dashwood family with a naturalism and lack of artificialism, that grounds the story and characters in a time where women had little rights and where the intricate details and arrangements of finding a suitable marriage was the focus of many families. The two central characters, the romantic Marianne and the guarded Elinor are the windows, which allow us to understand the habits and the delicate arrangements of this society. Ang Lee successfully captures all these nuances, allowing for the characters to be flushed out with nuance, never allowing situations or characters to become caricatures. The actors are uniformly good, particularly Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. The cinematography from Michael Coulter is lovely, as is the score from Patrick Doyle. A very good film from a fantastic director.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

To Die For

Movie Name: To Die For
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, Joaquin Phoenix, Illeana Douglas, Casey Affleck, Alison Folland, Dan Hedaya, Wayne Knight, Kurtwood Smith, Holland Taylor, Susan Traylor, Maria Tucci, Tim Hopper, Michael Rispoli, Buck Henry, David Cronenberg, George Segal
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the poor reception of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues", director Gus Van Sant returned in 1995 with "To Die For", which is still one of the best titles of his excellent filmography. An adaptation of the book by Joyce Maynard, the film follows the story of Suzanne Stone, an ambitious small town weather channel girl, who wants to climb the professional ladder and become a nationwide tv anchorwoman. Suzanne has always, since she was a small child, aimed to be famous. She marries Larry Maretto, a local restaurant owner, who slowly becomes an impediment to her goals, which makes Suzanne devise plans to get him out of the way. Things don't go exactly according to plan, but in the end, they make her a well known name on the news.
Gus Van Sant has been able throughout his career to navigate more mainstream efforts, with his more personal aesthetic and themes (good examples of both are "Good Will Hunting" and "Elephant", respectively). "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho" clearly established him as a voiced to be heard, but "To Die For" was the first film to showcase his talents to a much wider audience. An almost perfect satire for the media obsessed society we all live in, Suzanne Stone's story is in many ways as pertinent now as it was 20 years ago. The obsession with being onscreen, the culture of vanity and attention, the ruthlessness of ambition, the lack of morals, all this is still on par with what is currently on television (it's the case of shows like "Keeping with the Kardashians"). The director smartly places Suzanne at the center of the narrative - she addresses the camera directly, since she's making her own documentary about her own life story. In parallel, there's an actual documentary crew making their own story on Suzanne - all these feeds, make the film dynamic and superbly funny. The film also features fantastic performances from Nicole Kidman, Joaquin Phoenix and Illeana Douglas (this is perhaps Nicole Kidman's finest performance to date). A terrific film always worth watching!

Strange Days

Movie Name: Strange Days
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D'Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, Richard Edson, William Fichtner, Josef Sommer, Nicky Katt, Michael Jace, Joe Urla
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Celebrated director Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days" premiered in 1995, to a mostly muted response, and followed her successful previous feature, "Point Break". The film took place in the near future, 1999, the end of the millennium, and focused on Lenny Nero, a former police officer, now dealing with shady technology, specifically discs and devices that allow people to experience whatever is recorded on those same discs. Lenny comes across a disc that showcases the murder of a prostitute he knows, which leads him to find out a bigger conspiracy involving the LA Police Department, and a racially charged situation that threatens to destroy the entire city. In parallel he's trying to pursue his former lover Faith, now a well known singer, who also finds herself involved in this situation. 
Kathryn Bigelow has made a career thus far always filled with interesting stories, where her central characters are thrown into situations that they're unfamiliar with, and with their resources and skill, manage to overcome these odds. "Strange Days" features a screenplay from James Cameron, and the film manages to have multiple layers that start peeling away, the further the story develops. The suspense builds successfully, as the story evolves from a murder investigation, to a much larger scope, which deals with a lot of the concerns and problems that affected LA 20 years ago. Kathryn Bigelow interweaves these components, mixing media, and smartly editing the film to give the sense of urgency, desperation and also joy the characters go through. The film is an effective lesson in how to make a deft and intelligent action feature. Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Lewis create memorable characters, and the film also features a fantastic score from Graeme Revell and a stunning cinematography work from Matthew F. Leonetti. An underrated and fantastic film from a very interesting director.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Movie Name: Seven
Year of Release: 1995
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree, John C. McGinley, Richard Portnow, Mark Boone Junior
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

Following the debacle of his feature debut, "Alien 3", director David Fincher returned with one of the most iconic films of the 90s, the thriller "Seven". Written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the film focuses on the story of two police detectives, one about to retire, by the name of Somerset, and his much younger colleague, by the name of Mills. These two seemingly different men find themselves trying to capture a deranged and menacing serial killer, who is staging these elaborate scenarios depicting the Bible's 7 deadly sins, executing people as a means to prove his point and finish his grandiose plan. Unbeknownst to them, these two resourceful men become part of this man's schemes.
David Fincher's "Seven" turned out to be an iconic film of the mid 90s, re-imagining the serial killer sub genre, with an aesthetic and point of view, one that was simultaneously bleak and uncompromising. David Fincher would further explore this aesthetic and approach with his following feature films, but "Seven" (and its title sequence), forever influenced much of the suspense and thrillers that were released for the remainder of the 90s, and even today, that influence can still be felt on TV shows such as "Hannibal" and films such as "John Wick". David Fincher manages to create with this film a very specific universe, one where the city and its inhabitants are dominated by this relentless darkness, where the never ending rain seems ready to engulf everything in sight. The sliver of innocence, personified in this film by Mills' wife, is herself corrupted by the evil that touches everything, which gives this film the emotional arc and punch that has made it one of the staples in the genre. The performances are fantastic, particularly Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, who walks away with one of the most iconic and villainous character creations. The cinematography from Darius Khondji is stunning as is the score from Howard Shore. A modern classic from a fantastic director.


Movie Name: Cinderella
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Chaplin, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Nonso Anozie, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex Macqueen
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Following the mediocre "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" which premiered in 2014 to lackluster reviews, actor/director Kenneth Branagh is back, this time around with the retelling of a classic Disney story (itself an adaptation of the classic European folk tale which had written versions of it by Charles Perrault and also The Brothers Grimm). The story follows the young heroine Ella, who is brought up in a loving household by her mother and father. Following her mother's passing, Ella's father remarries, this time around to a Madam Tremaine, who joins the household alongside her two daughters. Ella suffers at the hands of these women, something that worsens following her dad's surprise death. In one of her outbursts, Ella meets the prince of the kingdom, hunting in the forest, and who is captivated by her charm. In a sumptuous ball that is staged for the prince to choose a future wife, Ella (renamed Cinderella by her stepsisters and stepmother), against the wishes of Lady Tremaine, dazzles and enchants the prince, thanks to her spirit and the help of her fairy godmother.
The classic Cinderella story has seen multiple adaptations, iterations, and influenced so many of the crop of multiple films of the last 30 years (to name but a few, there are Andy Tennant's "Ever After", Garry Marshall's "Pretty Woman" and Tommy O'Haver's "Ella Enchanted"), that this new version by Kenneth Branagh almost feels like yet another attempt to breathe life to a tired and overused fairy tale. The producing studio, Disney, is trying to re-utilize much of their animated portfolio with these adaptations, following the success of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and Robert Stromberg's "Maleficent". So far the common thread across these adaptations have been the lack of a distinct point of view: all these films are marked by a decidedly generic tone, one where the production values and visual effects threaten to swallow the entire narrative. Even Tim Burton's film version of "Alice" was one of his worst features, something that again happens with Kenneth Branagh's "Cinderella". Aside from the performances from Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter (who brings some needed humor to the story), and the costumes from Sandy Powell, "Cinderella" is an anemic and generic retelling of a story that is about the enchantment and magic of love and empowerment. Another mediocre effort from director Kenneth Branagh.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Movie Name: Safe
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman, James Le Gros, Steven Gilborn, Janel Moloney, Beth Grant, Dean Norris
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

After his feature length debut with "Poison", director Todd Haynes returned in 1995 with the critically well received "Safe". The film follows the story of Carol White, a young housewife with a seemingly idyllic life in the suburbs, with a husband who loves her and a stepson. Carol starts exhibiting symptoms of illness, with unexplained headaches, congestion, dry cough, nosebleeds, and so forth. Her family doctor dismisses these issues, and suggests Carol seek a psychiatrist. Finally Carol is informed she has environmental illness, where her body is reacting against the constant exposure of chemicals from every day life. She finally finds herself in a new age center, run by a shady individual who may have his own agenda towards Carol.
Todd Haynes has built a career tackling stories that focus on protagonists that are outside of society's traditional norms. "Safe" is no exception, since the director focuses on the progressive decay of Carol, and how she becomes repulsed by all reality that surrounds her, material and also emotional. Carol may be the epitome of what represents society in general in the late 20th century (and now also in the 21st century) - out of balance with what surrounds us, alienated from contact and progressively removed from what makes us ultimately human. The film features a stunning performance from Julianne Moore, who was then establishing herself, and who embodies Carol and her phobias with a piercing conviction, allowing us to feel her despair and isolation. A great film from a fantastic director.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mighty Aphrodite

Movie Name: Mighty Aphrodite
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter, F. Murray Abraham, Claire Bloom, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Rapaport, Jack Warden, Peter Weller, David Ogden Stiers, Donald Symington, Paul Giamatti, Tony Sirico, Tony Darrow
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Following the successful "Bullets Over Broadway" from 1994, Woody Allen returned in 95 with one of his comedies, where he played the central character, this time around, a sportswriter by the name of Lenny. Lenny and his wife Amanda have adopted a child, and Lenny becomes increasingly curious about who the birth mother is, particularly since the child is so incredibly intelligent. Lenny is horrified to find out that the mother is Linda, a prostitute and porn star, who is also incredibly dumb. Lenny decides upon himself to save Linda, since he's terrified of the Greek tragedy "Oedipus Rex", and that the legendary tragedy will occur with himself and his son.
Woody Allen's steady production schedule allows him to direct and release a film every year, since 1977 (with the exception of 1981). His output during the 80s was truly phenomenal, something that happened as well during the early 90s, but by 95 "Mighty Aphrodite" was the first of his features that would indicate some of the questionable quality output that would follow in the early 2000s. Though filled with some truly memorable moments, a lot of them featuring the hilarious Mira Sorvino's performance (who won an Oscar for this role), "Mighty Aphrodite" started to feel like a tired version of something he had written years ago. The film didn't provide the freshness of his recent previous efforts, such as the wonderful "Alice" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery", but it did have another great cast, featuring good performances from Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Rapaport. The cinematography from Carlo Di Palma was stunning as usual, as was the Production Design by Santo Loquasto (both longtime associates of the director). A somewhat forgettable film from a truly unique director.

Leaving Las Vegas

Movie Name: Leaving Las Vegas
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Mike Figgis
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber, Emily Procter, Valeria Golino, Graham Beckel, Carey Lowell, Kim Adams
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

By 1995 British director Mike Figgis was coming off a string of interesting films, namely "The Browning Version", "Mr. Jones" and "Liebestraum", all of them somewhat little seen, but nonetheless enough to establish him as a talent to follow (this following the films that launched his career, "Stormy Monday" and "Internal Affairs"). "Leaving Las Vegas" follows the story of Ben Sanderson, a screenwriter, whose wife has abandoned him, and has taken their young son with her. Ben increases his alcohol intake further and further, until he gets fired, upon which he decides to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. While in Vegas he meets a beautiful prostitute by the name of Sera, with enough problems of her own, who unexpectedly forms a bond with Ben, and whom he moves in with. 
"Leaving Las Vegas" revealed itself a surprise critical success in 1995, winning an Academy Award for Nicolas Cage, on top of 3 additional nominations, for Elisabeth Shue (who lost for Susan Sarandon in Tim Robbins' "Dead Man Walking"), and also for best director and adapted screenplay (both for Mike Figgis). The film further cemented the indie movement and Mike Figgis' aesthetic, specifically the natural approach the director aimed for in the way it depicted the characters, interactions between the main players and environments. Unlike Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend", Mike Figgis' main character is bent on killing himself, something that even the love of the tender and beautiful woman he meets can't stop. Both main actors make the film indelible - Nicolas Cage is simultaneously endearing, enraging and funny, while Elisabeth Shue is both hardened and sensitive and caring. These performances fire up a film that is at its core, tragic and sad. A great film worth watching.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Home for the Holidays

Movie Name: Home for the Holidays
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Jodie Foster
Stars: Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Dylan McDermott, Claire Danes, Charles Durning, Geraldine Chaplin, Cynthia Stevenson, Steve Guttenberg, Austin Pendleton, Amy Yasbeck, David Strathairn, Emily Ann Lloyd
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"Home for the Holidays" was Jodie Foster's second feature, following the fantastic "Little Man Tate", which premiered in 1991 (the year of her big success with Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs"). "Home for the Holidays" is an adaptation of a short story by Chris Radant, and follows the story of Claudia Larson, a young single mother, who travels home for Thanksgiving dinner on the same day she's laid off from her job. Claudia has a colorful family life, particularly antagonizing with her older sister Joanne, who is adamant in controlling their parents life (besides controlling her own family's life). The catalyst for the succession of discord occurs when Claudia's younger brother, Tommy shows up with a colleague from work, Leo, who starts flirting with Claudia. Tommy and Joanne are particularly antagonistic of each other, since Tommy is gay and has partner and Joanne and her husband are both quite homophobic. All these forces come to a halt during Thanksgiving dinner.
Jodie Foster's work as a director has focused thus far in the intricacies of family life, and how different people build different family relationships. That was the case of "Little Man Tate, and also of her third feature, "The Beaver". "Home for the Holidays" features an eclectic and fantastic cast to bring to life the dynamics of a Midwestern family, where the children have moved on and grown up to be very different individuals with different career paths and life choices, which for some are difficult to understand, but in the end, that's what makes them equally interesting. Jodie Foster successfully creates this air of complicity, camaraderie and also antagonism between these family members. The cast is fantastic, with the always excellent Holley Hunter and Anne Bancroft creating strong characters. The supporting cast is equally diverse, with Cynthia Stevenson and Geraldine Chaplin creating equally indelible characters. A very good film from a director who's started to show a very interesting universe of her own.


Movie Name: Heat
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman, Tom Noonan, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Celebrated director Michael Mann followed his successful and critically acclaimed "The Last of the Mohicans" with "Heat", one of his original screenplays, that became one of the most well received films from 1995. The film follows the story of two men - Neil McCauley a professional robber, who has a group of individuals he teams up for one final big coup, and Vincent Hanna, the policeman who alongside his team is trailing Neil. In the periphery of these group of men, are the women who give them the emotional stability they need and long for, each of them having different types of relationships with their loved ones. Neil knows his time to retire is coming, and he sees this final opportunity as a way to depart the criminal life, and move on with a woman he loves and has just met. Vincent on the other hand, sees his marriage flailing, and focuses most of his energy in apprehending these criminals on the loose. These opposing forces finally come to a halt.
Michael Mann has been a director known for his meticulous preparation for whatever project he tackles on. Following his directorial efforts from the 80s (such as "Thief" and "Manhunter"), the 90s saw him ascend to a level of critical acclaim and popularity he had not experienced before. "Heat" was a good commercial success since it was also advertised as the meet up of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, who hadn't reunited since Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part 2" (and even then, they did not share screen time). The film is an exploration of the lives of these two seemingly different men, both bound to a sense of moral certitude that sets them apart from their colleagues in their fields. The film builds all these different relationships between all these characters, giving the story a complex emotional backdrop, against which these action set pieces occur. The film falters in the depiction of the female characters that it presents, but the goal for this is clearly to follow the lives of these men in their final battle (very much like a modern western duel). The film benefits from the beautiful cinematography from Dante Spinotti, who lights the city of Los Angeles beautifully, and the arresting score from Elliot Goldenthal. This is a fantastic film from a great director always worth revisiting.