Sunday, June 28, 2015

Crash

Movie Name: Crash
Year of Release: 1997
Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
Fantastic director David Cronenberg was coming off from the wonderful "M. Butterfly" when "Crash" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. The film was unexpected as usual from the director, and definitely created a sensation in the festival. "Crash" is an adaptation of the J. G. Ballard book of the same name and follows the story of Ballard, a TV director, who after experiencing a serious road accident, which leaves him scarred and with some body impairments, discovers this underground sub-culture of people who have gone through a similar situation. This group of people somehow use the energy of those collisions, and stage new ones, to somehow catalyze their sex lives. Both Ballard and his wife Catherine get immersed deeper with this group of people with some tragic results. 
David Cronenberg has long been a director who thrives to expand the concept of how the human body and people in general relate and equate with each other (and themselves). His films have progressed between analysis of what means to be human, from a physical and visceral standpoint, but also from a more cerebral point of view. "Crash" is a continuation of this exploration, and another staple to his body of work, where the characters face the machinery and the mechanics of automobiles as an extension of the human body, and therefore as a part of an erotic exploration of themselves. It's a film that, in parallel with "Dead Ringers" analyzes the effect, simultaneously constructive and destructive, that comes from reaching out to the unknown, and how that alters who you are as an individual, and the impact that it produces in your relationships. The director manages to capture the diversity of characters within this group, people who aim to understand how their bodies are evolving, and where that will lead them. The cast is uniformly fantastic, particularly the always great James Spader, Holly Hunter and the revelatory Deborah Kara Unger. The score from Howard Shore is clinical and seductive, as is the cinematography from Peter Suschitzky. A very good film from a great director.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Contact

Movie Name: Contact
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, David Morse, Jena Malone, James Woods, Angela Bassett, Rob Lowe, Haynes Brooke, Jake Busey
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
Following the critical and commercial success that was "Forrest Gump", director Robert Zemeckis returned with an adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel "Contact". The film originally developed by director George Miller, focuses on the story of Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer, who after years of looking for extra-terrestrial intelligence, finally has a chance for contact when her team starts receiving messages from space. Ellie's work is quickly taken over by powerful forces in government, who want to understand how to handle this amazing development. This escalates even further when the message received is decoded as instructions to build a device that functions as a portal. After much endurance and obstacles it's up to Ellie to go through this trip, and gain insight into this new dimension.
Robert Zemeckis has built a career around characters that are traditionally anti-heroes, characters that find themselves in situations that are unfamiliar, and yet through sheer resourcefulness and intelligence, overcome obstacles. That was the case of "Forrest Gump", "Romancing the Stone", "Back to the Future" or even the more recent "Flight". These flawed heroes, somehow a bit damaged,  shine an extra dimension and highlight a depth which allows the viewers to relate to these characters instantly. "Contact" is a very smart adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel, providing both an exploratory backdrop, in which the presentation of the sci-fi angle is expanded through the receiving of extra-terrestrial messages, through the process of building the vessel, and on the other hand, it has a more humane counter-point, with Ellie's childhood and relationship with her father, and now as a woman, her relationship with the pastor Palmer Joss (though this relationship is the least engaging component of the film). The director also smartly focuses his attention on Jodie Foster, who as usual, is luminous and radiates intelligence, and a fierce individuality, making her character simply unforgettable. This is a fantastic film always worth revisiting.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

As Good as It Gets

Movie Name: As Good as It Gets
Year of Release: 1997
Director: James L. Brooks
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
James L. Brooks has made a name for himself with the TV shows he has both created, written and produced, namely "Mary Tyler Moore Show", "Rhoda", "Taxi" and of course his involvement in the long running "The Simpsons". In the last 3 decades the director has tackled 6 features, with the 80s being his most successful decade yet: "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News" were great critical and commercial hits. "As Good as It Gets" was his big hit of the 90s. It focuses on the story of three core characters, specifically Melvin Udall, a cranky and obsessive compulsive writer, Carol a waitress single mother who works in the cafe where Udall eats, and Simon, an artist and a neighbor of Udall's. When Simon is attacked in his apartment, Melvin is coerced into taking care of Simon's dog. Simon's recovery doesn't go very well, and he's forced to go to Baltimore and ask his parents for help, and Melvin reluctantly agrees to go along, and ends up inviting Carol for the trip as well. This trip allows for the relationships between these unique characters to develop in unexpected ways.
James L. Brooks career as a director has focused on stories where quirky characters function within the confines of traditional family dynamics. These eccentric characters are usually cathartic elements for the remainder of the characters that inhabit his stories - this has happened in "Terms of Endearment" with Shirley MacLaine's Aurora, Holly Hunter's Jane character in "Broadcast News" and now Jack Nicholson's Melvin Udall character. His most successful stories are comprised of characters that are more than simple cliches - there's a delicate creation of a tapestry of relationships, which makes these films engaging, humane and also comical. "As Good as It Gets" benefits from a great cast, with Jack Nicholson deserving his third Oscar, with good supporting turns from Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear. A good film worth watching.

Inside Out

Movie Name: Inside Out
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Stars: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Paula Pell, Bobby Moynihan, Frank Oz
Genre: Animation, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis:
"Inside Out" marks another success story for Pixar, after a string of disappointing sequels and less than inspired original stories. Director Pete Docter achieves the rare feat of creating yet another classic and daring animated feature, following his previous hilarious forays "Monsters, Inc." and "Up". "Inside Out" follows the story of Riley, a young 11 year old, whose personality is overseen by different components, comprised of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Joy is mostly in charge of Riley's reactions and memories, however when Riley moves from her home state of Minnesota to San Francisco, a lot of her memories start getting tainted by Sadness. When the sparkly Joy tries to change the outcome of these memories, both she and Sadness get sucked out of the main "control room" and sent to the storage area of all memories. They both have to be resourceful and try to get back into the control room and help Riley avoid some seriously bad decisions. 
Pixar has always been smart in the way it combines stories that appeal to children, but also to adults, tackling issues that are complex using metaphors that are easy to digest to all crowds. It's a difficult task to achieve, and "Inside Out" is brilliant in the way it represents the inner depth of someones personality and reactions, in a way that is both inventive and endearing. Giving each side of Riley's personality a typification, allows the dynamics of this small group to be quirky and dynamic. It also allows to build the message that every part of someones life is tainted by both sadness and joy. It's a remarkable way of delivering a hefty message to an eclectic audience. The animation is simply stunning, as is the case with all the features delivered by Pixar. This time around it's fantastic that the story and film-making are on par with the visuals. A very good film!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Air Force One

Movie Name: Air Force One
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Stars: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Liesel Matthews, Paul Guilfoyle, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, Tom Everett, Jurgen Prochnow, Donna Bullock
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis:
After the double success (both commercial and critical) of both "In the Line of Fire" and "Outbreak", director Wolfgang Petersen returned with "Air Force One", another big commercial success in his career. The film follows the events that take place when the Air Force One, the plane where the President of the US gets taken and everyone inside is deemed a hostage. Unbeknownst to the criminals though, the President is a former military/soldier, and starts taking them apart one by one.
Wolfgang Petersen has built a career of tackling interesting yet genre driven stories that can be summarized quite quickly. Most of his films are anchored on a suspense which he deftly builds and manages throughout the duration of the feature. That has occurred with "In the Line of Fire" and the pending attack that was part of the premise, the virus menace that was at the root of "Outbreak" and the giant storm from "The Perfect Storm", to name but a few. "Air Force One" creates a central hero that is a figure of authority, but also an unexpected one, since the President is simultaneously the victim, but also the vindictive force. The director manages the suspense of maintaining the action between the events on the plane, and the events taking place in the land, while also allowing for the action set pieces to be coherent with the storyline and not detrimental or overwhelming it. It's a smart film featuring a good cast, with highlights going to Gary Oldman and Glenn Close, who both give edge and nuance to their characters. A good action film worth revisiting.

Jurassic World

Movie Name: Jurassic World
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Judy Greer, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Lauren Lapkus, Katie McGrath
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4

Synopsis:
The Jurassic Park franchise is back, after the last feature which premiered in 2001. This time around the film is under the helm of Colin Trevorrow, a young director, with only one other feature in his career, the independently financed "Safety Not Guaranteed".
"Jurassic World" takes us back to Isla Nublar, where the events of the original park took place. The park is now fully functional, and has been getting lots of visitors. The manager of the par is Claire, who receives the visit of her two nephews for the weekend. She's also busy overseeing a new dinosaur created genetically, one that is menacing and intelligent beyond anything ever seen. When this creature escapes the confinement area, things get out of control in the park, and all the public in attendance has to be evacuated. Claire with the help of Owen, an ex-marine and now a trainer at the park, have to save her nephews, and get everyone to safety. 
"Jurassic World" premieres 22 years after the original, and sadly without much originality to add to the franchise or build upon what Steven Spielberg so smartly created (alongside the late Michael Crichton). The premise of both films is very similar: men change the genetic code of creatures long extinct with the goal of creating a park and bring in the money, however things go awfully wrong, and soon enough there's people getting eaten, two young children being threatened, and a couple of heroes (and lovers) who have to ultimately save the day. Where Steven Spielberg created a sense of wonder and magic, Colin Trevorrow's feature feels contrived and derivative. The script is unoriginal, and the introduction of the new dinosaurs only works for a brief moment: the action for the remainder of the film is an inferior duplication of the events of the original film. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard do their best with their cliché ridden parts, while Vincent D'Onofrio as the token corporate villain doesn't have much to do. The film ends up being a pale homage to a film that even after 22 years (and visual effects from 1993), is still more interesting, more accomplished and more rewarding. Instantly forgettable.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Spy

Movie Name: Spy
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Paul Feig
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Allison Janey, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Julian Miller, Nargis Fakhri, 50 Cent
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
Following the success of both "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat", director Paul Feig is back with another successful comedy, featuring the star that broke out from "Bridesmaids", Melissa McCarthy. The film focuses on Susan Cooper, a CIA agent, who has been working at the agency for 10 years, all the time being an analyst and support for other agents, particularly the dashing (and James Bond like) Bradley Fine. When Bradley is suddenly killed in action, Susan volunteers to go into the field, and handle a dangerous assignment, of following the menacing Rayna Boyanov, who has a nuclear device and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. It's up to Susan and her colleague Nancy to handle this threat and avoid a possible nuclear attack. 
Paul Feig has successfully tackled stories focusing on female heroines lately to much lauded success. "Spy" is one of his finest efforts, since it successfully juggles the irony of tackling the spy genre, clearly defined for years by the James Bond films, with the talents of Melissa McCarthy, one of the most talented comedians currently working. The film is clearly defined by her "fish out of water" scenario, where Susan B. Cooper has to suddenly adjust to life in the field, something she always participated in through her male counterpart. Susan proves to be just as resourceful, even if it takes her a bit to settle into the mechanics of it. The director knows how to stage action scenes, but does so with a combination of humor, clearly relishing the fact that these acrobatics if taken too seriously end up being ridiculous. The supporting actors also play along, cast against type, particularly the wooden Jason Statham. Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Allison Janey, Miranda Hart are all great in their roles, and while the film doesn't give much depth to their characters, they have a chance to shine in their roles. Overall, this is a comedy that is rude, self aware, and cleverly done. Recommended.

Friday, June 5, 2015

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Movie Name: William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
Year of Release: 1996
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, Diane Venora, Paul Rudd, Jesse Bradford, Miriam Margolyes, Vondie Curtis-Hall, M. Emmet Walsh, Jamie Kennedy, Dash Mihok, Christina Pickles
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis:
Director Baz Luhrmann made a splash in 1992 with his debut, "Strictly Ballroom", but his career definitely gained more momentum when his interpretation of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" premiered in 1996, featuring a young cast and a pop soundtrack that resonated with audiences. The story was the traditional adaptation of the Shakespeare story: doomed young lovers, Romeo of the house of Montague, falls in love with the young Juliet of the house of Capulet. Their love tries to overcome the obstacles of the rivalry of both dominant families, but in the end their love story is a doomed one.
The William Shakespeare tale of young doomed love has been adapted countless times by many directors, namely by director George Cukor in 1936 and Franco Zeffirelli in 1968. Baz Luhrmann's version makes a contemporary interpretation of the story, and places the action on a fictional "Verona Beach" and the opposing factions (and families), as warring mafia empires. The director smartly maintains the original dialogue, but updates the surroundings to all the action, creating a hybrid of modern style with classic language. His style of over saturation of colors, quick editing, and pop music also makes the film a direct reflection of the time of its creation, while simultaneously adding a stylistic approach that makes the film very much the vision of Baz Luhrmann (who would crystallize his style with "Moulin Rouge" in 2001). It's a film that ultimately lives from the combination of the dramatic story of the doomed love affair, with the edge, vision of the director and a talented cast assembled. The actors are uniformly good, and this was a great confirmation of the talents of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and also a good showcase of the work of John Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora, who all shine in smaller yet memorable roles. The cinematography from Donald McAlpine is stunning as is the score from Nellee Hooper (who produced albums for Bjork and Massive Attack). A good film always worth revisiting.