Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trainspotting

Movie Name: Trainspotting
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Kelly Macdonald, Peter Mullan, James Cosmo, Eileen Nicholas, Shirley Henderson, Irvine Welsh
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
After his well received feature debut "Shallow Grave", director Danny Boyle returned with what is still considered one of his most iconic films (and definitely one of the most talked about films from 1996). The film is an adaptation of the novel by Irvine Welsh, and focuses on the story of Renton, a young Scottish man, who is a heroin addict and lives in Edinburgh, always trying to find his next hit. His group of friends includes Spud and Sick Boy, both of whom are also addicts and the volatile and violent Begbie. After a stint in rehab, Renton goes to London in the hopes of sorting his life out, but somehow his friends and a shady drug deal have a way of coming back to him.
Danny Boyle and his unique inventiveness have always made him a fantastic director to keep an eye for. "Trainspotting" allowed him to focus on a group of characters at odds with the world, but also characters who deal with the seedy underbelly of crime in London and surrounds. It was a fresh look into the British crime drama (much like Neil Jordan's "Mona Lisa" for instance), and it also perfectly encapsulated the cultural movement of the late 90s, both musically (with the drum and bass/jungle/electronica music styles) and the general cultural aesthetic (the whole heroin chic style, fashion statements that both influenced and derived from the film). The film is also revelatory for the performances from the main leads, particularly Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald. To this day it's a film that remains remarkably fresh, with a unique point of view that is unlike much of what has been done ever since. A great film from a fantastic director.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Portrait of a Lady

Movie Name: The Portrait of a Lady
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Jane Campion
Stars: Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary Louise Parker, Martin Donovan, Shelley Winters, Richard E. Grant, Shelley Duvall, Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Valentina Cervi, John Gielgud
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
Following the critical and commercial success of "The Piano", director Jane Campion directed an adaptation of Henry James' novel, "The Portrait of a Lady" with a starry cast. The film follows the story of Isabel Archer, a beautiful young American woman, in late 19th century, who inherits a large fortune from her old uncle. Isabel longs for freedom and to experience everything in life, which makes her turn down an offer from the enamored Caspar Goodwood. While traveling in Italy, she meets another expatriate, a woman by the name of Madame Merle. A friendship blooms between these two women, and the older woman introduces Isabel to the seductive Gilbert Osmond. His charisma draws Isabel in, but after getting married, Isabel comes to realize that his real behavior and demeanor are quite different. Gilbert also has a daughter presumably from his first marriage, but to Isabel's surprise and shock, the young woman is actually Osmond's and Merle's from a relationship they both had. When Isabel's cousin becomes gravely ill, that becomes her chance to escape an infernal situation.
Jane Campion is one of the most interesting directors currently working. She has successfully crafted a universe of her own, dominated by female figures, who are carving their own path in an attempt to become their own person (such was the case of the fantastic "Sweetie", "An Angel at my Table" and also "The Piano"). These female characters are strong willed, and have their own perspective in the world, which in the times these stories take place, are usually considered insane and sometimes outcasts. In "The Portrait of a Lady" there are the usual Jane Campion's themes in parallel with Henry James' themes - dichotomy between the new world (represented by the American characters) and the old world (the traditional one represented by the European counterparts). "The Portrait of a Lady" is successful in building the web of relationships between these characters and allows for the main character to be flushed out as a young woman seeking her independence. The supporting characters are thinly depicted, but the actors manage to create lasting impressions, particularly Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan. The film also features a stunning cinematography from Stuart Dryburgh, and a beautiful score from Wojcieh Kilar. An underrated film from a great director.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Movie Name: The People vs. Larry Flynt
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Milos Forman
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, James Cromwell, Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli, James Carville, Miles Chapin, Donna Hanover
Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
Academy Award winning director Milos Forman, hasn't had much of a prolific career. The 70s and 80s were his most celebrated decades, where he won his Oscars (for both "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus"), but the 90s were less productive for the film maker, following his ambitious but little seen "Valmont' (which suffered the bad timing of coming off the heels of the successful "Dangerous Liaisons" from Stephen Frears). "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is a great example of how the director created engaging, dynamic and well rounded stories focused on people who were quite polarizing (and not your traditional one dimensional heroes). Working from a great screenplay from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" and "Big Eyes"), the film follows the story of Larry Flynt, from his humble beginnings in Georgia, to his adulthood, where he begins by owning strip clubs and ventures into the publishing of adult magazines. His magazine, "Hustler" eventually attracts the attention of politicians and self righteous religious leaders, and their attempts to silence his voice (and business), lead to a sea change court battle in regards to freedom of speech.
Milos Forman's career, since its inception in the Czech Republic, has been a celebrated one, though as I mentioned above, not particularly prolific (even considering that the director has ventured into acting a few times, namely in Mike Nichols' "Heartburn"). "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is one of his most interesting films - in a way, it's a film very much anchored in the exposes of the 70s, where the hero is battling stronger forces that are trying to castrate his voice. The film benefits from the truthful story of the polarizing personality that is Larry Flynt, and the diverse array of characters and personalities surrounding him (namely his wife Althea, his attorney Alan, his brother Jimmy and many others). Milos Forman successfully captures the life of Larry Flynt in different stages, from his childhood, through his adult years, and finally formative and battling years. The performances in this film are uniformly excellent, from Woody Harrelson (this is the film that effectively made everyone take him seriously as an actor), Courtney Love and Edward Norton. The beautiful cinematography from Philippe Rousselot should be highlighted, as well as Thomas Newman's score. A great film always worth revisiting.

Tomorrowland

Movie Name: Tomorrowland
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Brad Bird
Stars: George Clooney, Brit Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Hugh Laurie, Pierce Gagnon, Thomas Robinson, Chris Bauer, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer
Genre: Action, Adventure, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
Inventive director Brad Bird is back, following the successful "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol". "Tomorrowland" is a fantastic mystery and adventure story, focused on two individuals of different backgrounds who are thrown together in hopes of saving a utopian place, and ultimately the planet itself. The film introduces us initially to the brilliant and resourceful Frank Walker, a young boy who in 1964, follows a lovely young girl named Athena to a world unlike anything he's ever seen. The story suddenly shifts gears, timeline and attention to Casey Newton, a teenage girl who in the present day is using her technological knowledge and expertise to avoid the dismantling of the NASA program where her father works. Casey is picked by Athena, to help sort out problems that exist in this "Tomorrow World". In order to do so, they have to find the adult Frank, who was banished and since then has grown weary and suspicious of all. It's up to these two to join efforts and devise a plan of action. 
Brad Bird has successfully built a career that anchors itself in stories that are intricately well built, and where the heroes usually are aware of their potential, but are initially unable to channel it properly. This was showcased in "The Incredibles", but also "The Iron Giant" and now "Tomorrowland". The film smartly shows hints of what "Tomorrowland" is about, allowing us to understand how this other dimension was built and what was its objective. The film is built like a detective story, in which the younger central character, has first to figure out why she was chosen, and secondly, find the person who can be the solution to it all. There's a mix of mystery, but also of pure joy and amazement, as we see this whole new world from the perspective of the young Casey. The film somewhat falters in the lack of dimension that is given to the main opponent and villain of the story (played without much conviction by Hugh Laurie). The film is nonetheless an opportunity for George Clooney to showcase the humanistic side of his character, one that still allows itself to be dazzled by the promise of a better future, and where Brit Robertson shines as the young and intelligent Casey Newton. Although lacking a more fully developed antagonizing force (and therefore conflict), this is nonetheless a film that primes for originality, vision and entertainment. Worth watching!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Movie Name: Mad Max: Fury Road
Year of Release: 2015
Director: George Miller
Stars: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
Director George Miller is back to the series that initially jump-started his career, following his previous animated features. The film introduces us to Max, who is initially captured by Immortan Joe's thugs. Joe is a ruthless leader who commands a large community in a post apocalyptic world (one where water is scarce, and where he commands through force). One of Immortan Joe's generals (of sorts) is Imperator Furiosa, a woman who has been a slave to his needs for most of her adult life. We soon find out that she has decided to rebel, and take Joe's multiple wives to a refuge, where women can have a free life without persecution and slavery. Her departure does not go unnoticed - Immortan Joe and all his lackeys go in hot pursuit, and it's up to Max to come in and assist and aid this group.
"Mad Max: Fury Road" manages to be a stunningly choreographed, and exquisitely shot film, that possesses a strong feminist message to it. The film has a rather straightforward plot, much like the previous films in the series: this time around, this group of women have to get to their refuge, and once there, they realize that the utopia no longer exists and are forced to return to where they escaped. Max is once again the lone ranger type, who comes to the rescue of this desperate group, one led by a charismatic and fiercely independent (and also bruised) woman. Charlize Theron's character is indeed the strongest element of the film: she gives it depth, feeling, charisma and a heart, something that is lacking from Tom Hardy's character (and performance). Mel Gibson's version of Max, was at its peak (which would be "Mad Max: The Road Warrior"), the silent and charismatic loner, but one that brought a sense of urgency and despair, something that even with the fast paced editing and constant flashbacks, can't add to Tom Hardy's performance (he always feels wooden, emotionless and out of place). Visually the film is stupendous, with beautiful colors, fantastic production design, and an impressive body of stunts that makes this for a unique experience. Worth watching.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mars Attacks!

Movie Name: Mars Attacks!
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short, Natalie Portman, Lukas Haas, Danny DeVito, Tom Jones, Jack Black, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sydney, Paul Winfield, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, O-Lan Jones, Christina Applegate, Brian Haley, Barbet Schroeder
Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
After the phenomenal "Ed Wood", director Tim Burton returned in 1996 with one of his most irreverent and underrated features, the alien invasion satire, "Mars Attacks". The film follows a series of characters throughout the invasion of planet Earth by vicious Martians, intent on destroying and killing every single human. Some of these characters include the President of the US, a Las Vegas gambler and his New Age wife, the ditzy host of a fashion and entertainment show, a famed scientist, a former professional boxer amongst many others. All of these characters have their lives changed dramatically by the ferocious attack of the tiny green Martians. It's up to an inventive and somewhat less than ambitious young man, to figure out how to get humanity out of trouble.
Tim Burton's productive streak of the 90s continued with "Mars Attacks", an inventive and very ironic take on the big spectacle and special effects extravaganza of the typical Hollywood blockbuster. As if inspired by the spirit of Ed Wood, Tim Burton went out to parody a lot of the conventions of the traditional alien invasion film (in particular B Movies of that genre): the military inadequacy, the incapable president, and even the final big solution to repel the invaders. The film is possessed of such a smart sense of humor, always flaunting the tone simultaneously futuristic and retro, as if winking to the audience (the film is based on an original series of trading cards by Topps). The fantastic cast assembled (much like the destroy films from the 70s), is perfectly suited for the characters, from Jack Nicholson, through Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan and the always great Annette Bening. This is a film that successfully pays homage to the low budget films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, while retaining it's own identity. It features, as is the case for Tim Burton features, a great score from Danny Elfman, and the amazing cinematography from Peter Suschitzky. A great film worth watching!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jerry Maguire

Movie Name: Jerry Maguire
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kelly Preston, Bonnie Hunt, Jerry O'Connell, Jay Mohr, Regina King, Jonathan Lipnicki, Todd Louiso, Mark Pellington
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
After the success of "Singles", writer/director Cameron Crowe returned with "Jerry Maguire", which turned out to be a huge hit both commercially and critically (the film was nominated for 5 Oscars, including best picture of the year). The story focuses on Jerry Maguire, a successful sports agent, who after questioning the purpose of his career and momentum, writes a mission statement that ends up getting him fired. His sole support comes from a single and ambitious client, and a secretary, both of whom decide to help him start his own agency.  Along this path, Jerry gains insight about his life, the people in it and where he wants to see himself in the future.
Cameron Crowe's films have always focused on decent and professional individuals, who along the way have lost their path, and the connection with their loved ones, and with their ideals. These characters are confronted with a dramatic event which functions as a catalyst which forces them to rethink their lives. Of all his features that touch this storyline, "Jerry Maguire" is the most accomplished, since it perfectly encompasses both the ambition and simultaneously the return to a simpler life, which became associated with the 90s, following the ruthless ambition of the 80s. Tom Cruise successfully brings to life this conflicted young man, one who sees his life disappearing and finds the strength to rebuild itself and ultimately follow his own heart. The supporting cast is equally great, from the always reliable Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr. (who never did anything quite like this ever again) and Bonnie Hunt. The cinematography from Janusz Kaminski (Steven Spielberg's frequent collaborator) is beautiful, as is the eclectic score. A good film always worth revisiting.

Clouds of Sils Maria

Movie Name: Clouds of Sils Maria
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Olivier Assayas
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Brady Corbet, Claire Tran
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis:
Following the critical success of the mini series "Carlos", director Olivier Assayas has returned with another feature that tackles the film making and acting milieu, in the vein of what he tackled on "Irma Vep". The film follows the story of actress Maria Enders, a celebrated and international actress, who alongside her assistant Valentine, are both on their way to celebrate the career of a playwright and director who was responsible for the beginning of Maria's career 20 years previously. This director suddenly dies, making the ceremony more of a homage, whilst surprisingly Maria gets asked to participate in the play that originally made her famous, but now in a part that is more secondary. The part that made her famous, is now falling on the shoulders of a young and troubled Hollywood starlet. Reliving the play and the parts, bleeds into Maria's own life and how she sees herself and her relationships.
Olivier Assayas' film successfully depicts the level of complicity that exists between the two main female characters of the film, Maria and Val. As their rehearsing starts and the relationship between life and art bleed together, the fears and anxieties that dominate Maria's life and choices become more and more apparent. The film allows for these characters to exist in a bubble, one that showcases their complicity and also their different views on art and life, but the characters never exist beyond some of these broad strokes (Val is the intelligent, youthful and resourceful assistant, Maria the somewhat insecure older actress). The performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart are fantastic and naturalistic, but sadly the film doesn't live up to the quality they deliver. An interesting and flawed film from a great film maker.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Movie Name: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Stars:Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Don Cheadle, Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, Thomas Kretschmann, Henry Goodman
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Synopsis:
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" is the latest directorial effort from Joss Whedon, and another staple in Marvel studios yearly output. The film follows the events from the first "Avengers" and also integrates the timeline established from both "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Iron Man 3". The film focuses on the attempt by Iron Man/Tony Stark, to start an artificial intelligence program to help protect Earth, however this creature by the name of Ultron goes awry, and tries to eliminate humankind. It's up to the Avengers, with the aid of some new partners, to battle this creature, and prevent the destruction of the planet.
Most of Marvel studios features have become synonyms with films of polished execution, with reputable casts, and anonymous directors who are competent in their interpretation of the characters, but have close to no discernible point of view. The second chapter of "The Avengers" again follows the eclectic team, shedding some further light into some of their troubled pasts (briefly), but for the most part, focuses on building some dialogue bridges in between large action set pieces (that involve a lot of visual effects). What has become troublesome for these films, lies in an interesting paradox - as the scenarios become more complex with more and more characters, the more hollow and devoid of meaning and significance these films are. The menaces have become such abstract concepts, since in the end, the heroes always prevail. The actors go through the motions, exhibiting humor but not adding much gravitas or depth. There's a definite quality in all the terrific talent put on display, from the cinematography, score, visual effects, but all of that doesn't necessarily add up to a good film. Another quickly forgotten big budget film.

James and the Giant Peach

Movie Name: James and the Giant Peach
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Henry Selick
Stars: Paul Terry, Miriam Margolyes, Joanna Lumley, Jane Leeves, Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Sarandon, Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis, Steven Culp, Simon Callow,
Genre: Animation, Fantasy, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

Synopsis:
Following the success of "The Nightmare Before Christmas", Henry Selick returned with an adaptation of Roald Dahl's book of the same title. The story focuses on young James, who after the passing of his parents, ends up living with two aunts, who basically enslave him and for him to do all sorts of hard labor. James dreams of moving to New York, something he and his parents always dreamed of doing. After saving a spider, James comes into possession of some magical elements, after which an enormous giant peach starts growing in the garden. When James ventures inside the giant peach, he discovers a series of new friends, who end up helping him planning his escape and move to NY.
The fantasy and fantastical world of Roald Dahl comes to life through the unique perspective of Henry Selick. The director and his unique aesthetic, allow this story to marry perfectly the live action component which starts the film, and the progression into the stop motion animation that defines the rest of the feature. There's a beautiful but also dark tone to this film, which starts with the loss of the young hero's parents, through his imprisonment, but also the reverse of that, with the discovery of a new family comprised of protective friends, and the accomplishment of his dreams, as he eventually finds and moves into New York. His odyssey is filled with discovery and adventure, making the film enthusiastically dynamic and engaging. It's a perfect combination of a fantastic aesthetic, score and voice work. A very good film worth watching!