Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lost Highway

Movie Name: Lost Highway
Year of Release: 1997
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Michael Massee, Richard Pryor, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Jack Nance, Scott Coffey, Giovanni Ribisi, Henry Rollins
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

In the early 90s David Lynch was at the peak of his popularity, with a successful show by the name of "Twin Peaks", a Palm D'Or winning film by the name of "Wild at Heart". This wave of accolades quickly subsided, with the quick fade of the tv show and the subsequent "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me" - a remarkable feature that sadly not many people saw. "Lost Highway" was his next feature, which saw the light of day in 1997. The film, co-written with Barry Gifford (whom had written the novel "Wild at Heart", adapted by David Lynch in 1990), has an enigmatic tone: we're introduced to Fred Madison, a successful saxophone player, married to the beautiful Renee. This couple starts receiving disturbing videotapes at their front door, upon which they contact the police to help them out. Much to Fred's horror, one of the videotapes shows him killing Renee, and the police uses it to arrest and convict him. While on death row, the prison guards are shocked to find that the man in Fred's cell is no longer him: it's in fact Pete Dayton, a young auto mechanic. Since he has not committed a crime, he's released to the custody of his parents, and resumes his every day life. Pete is soon being followed by the same police detectives, and he also comes across a beautiful woman, a doppelganger for Renee, by the name of Alice, who turns out to be the mistress of a crime boss. Things quickly spiral out of control.
As usual in David Lynch's films, the director is more interested in the journey and path of the characters, he also focuses in creating a universe that borderlines the surreal, as a metaphor to underline the horrible events of every day life. "Lost Highway" features many of his usual trademarks, from the duality of personalities (something also featured on "Mulholland Drive"), to the extreme violence, sensuality, odd sense of humor and abstract concepts of time and space where characters seem to exist as a catalyst for a specific event. The cast is as usual eclectic and talented, with Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette creating indelible characters. The cinematography from Peter Deming is fantastic as is the phenomenal soundtrack. A unique film from one of the most distinct voices in American film.

A Life Less Ordinary

Movie Name: A Life Less Ordinary
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, Delroy Lindo, Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, Dan Hedaya, Tony Shalhoub, Maury Chaykin, Ian McNeice, Timothy Olyphant, Judith Ivey
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon.

Following the very well received diptych that was "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting", director Danny Boyle released "A Life Less Ordinary" in 1997, his first co-production with American studios (Fox), featuring a cast of well known American actors. The film focuses on the story of Robert Lewis, a young janitor, filled with dreams and ambitions, who gets fired one day and replaced by a robot. Out of sheer frustration, Robert kidnaps the daughter of his boss, Celine, a spoiled heiress who also happens to have a deranged dentist as a fiancee. Celine suggests that Robert asks for a ransom to return her to her father. This sets off a series of events, that also includes a duo of angels intent on making sure that Robert and Celine end up together, but who end up wreaking havoc everywhere.
Danny Boyle's unique flair and vision continued to gain momentum and further relevance with "A Life Less Ordinary", which again featured his typical anti-hero: an every day man who has to overcome obstacles (some truly surreal ones) in order to attain his dreams and ambitions. Robert is a character who progressively comes into his own, as he deals with all the obstacles that are thrown his way, and these hurdles only serve to reinforce what he truly wants and needs. Danny Boyle is a director who always imbues his films with a momentum and rhythm: his stylistic approach also adds an extra layer of interest to the narrative (always featuring a dynamic editing style). In this particular case, he revisits the screwball comedy genre, and twists it around, featuring edgy and hyperbolic violence and sense of humor that also served him so well in "Trainspotting". The cast in this film is uniformly fantastic, with Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci also creating unforgettable characters. The cinematography from Brian Tufano and the soundtrack from David Arnold were also top notch. A very good film from a very talented director.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

L.A. Confidential

Movie Name: L.A. Confidential
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
Stars: Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, David Strathairn, Ron Rifkin, Matt McCoy, Paul Guilfoyle, Graham Beckel, Simon Baker, Bob Clendenin, Tomas Arana, Michael Chieffo, Jim Metzler, Brenda Bakke, Jack Conley, Symba
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"L.A. Confidential" is one of the most celebrated films from 1997, hailing many of its accolades from the remarkable origin of the story, specifically the book by renowned writer James Elroy. Curtis Hanson was mostly known at the time as the director of suspenseful and middle of the road films such as "The Hand that rocks the Cradle" and "The River Wild". "L.A. Confidential" changed his visibility and went on to win awards for both him and screenwriter Brian Helgeland alongside actress Kim Basinger. The film focuses on the police department of LA in the 1950s, specifically three very different police officers: Jack Vincennes, a man who has made a career under the glamour of consulting for TV shows in Hollywood (and who craves the limelight), Bud White, a tough, belligerent and deeply honest man and finally Ed Exley, a detective who is ambitious above all, yet with a good heart. The lives of these three men get mixed with a deep and dirty scandal that runs through all the police department, the mayor's office and also involves Hollywood wannabes (and the gossip publications who live from it).
"L.A. Confidential" is a successful film in the way it transposes the engrossing and detailed novel from James Elroy to the screen, and brings to life the dynamics of the relationships between the three central characters. The main focus of the narrative is both Bud White and Ed Exley, two different sides of the police world, and yet, the way Curtis Hanson presents and develops the story, it allows for these two characters to be more than just simple cliches. There is depth, insight, and genuine investment from the director in flushing different threads to the story, allowing for different sides of this intricate scenario to be represented, and also managing to bring it all together for a climax that is both intelligent and rewarding. This is an example of how a truly great team can make a solid film come together, from the actors (with Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce leading the way), through the cinematography from Dante Spinotti and the score from the late Jerry Goldsmith. It's not a film that has a particular point of view (or style for that matter), but it's one that transposes its story in an engaging way (very much like a solid mini-series). Entertaining and well done.

American Ultra

Movie Name: American Ultra
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Stuart Greer, Michael Papajohn, Monique Ganderton
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

"American Ultra" is the new film from Nima Nourizadeh, following his feature debut "Project X" and a string of music videos for artists such as Bat for Lashes and Hot Chip. The film follows the story of Mike Howell and Phoebe Larson, a young couple living in a small town in Virginia. Mike runs the local Cash and Carry, and has been involved in petty crimes most of time he's lived there, whereas Phoebe is the more grounded one of the couple. Unbeknownst to Mike however, he's actually a secret agent from the C.I.A., and he has become the target for a young and ambitious agent who wants to clean up the project from which Mike came from - and that includes killing Mike. When a task force goes out to take Mike down, they end up finding out just how lethal type of an agent he actually is.
"American Ultra" is an interesting film that lives from the dichotomy of finding a stoner type character as a lethal weapon type of secret agent. On top of this apparent dichotomy there's also the perfect casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Mike - he deftly embodies and brings to life the shy and awkward Mike, who's unaware of his own skills, and who progressively comes into his own. Both he and Kristen Stewart manage to bring a level of dynamics and complicity between their characters, that livens the film. The supporting cast is unbalanced, with Topher Grace basically repeating the same character he has played in every single film he's been, something that Connie Britton, John Leguizamo and Walton Goggins alleviate with their colorful and far more nuanced performances. The film is engaging, while the director is creating the set up for the characters, but once the splatter starts, some of that dynamic edge starts losing some of the momentum. Still it's a film that manages to captivate and entertain.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jackie Brown

Movie Name: Jackie Brown
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Michael Bowen, Chris Tucker, LisaGay Hamilton, Hattie Winston, Sid Haig, Aimee Graham
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

Following the watershed moment that was "Pulp Fiction", Quentin Tarantino found himself dispersed in several different projects, such as "Four Rooms" and "From Dusk till Dawn", all met with different levels of critical (and commercial) success. His first big film after "Pulp Fiction" was the fantastic "Jackie Brown", an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "Rum Punch". The film focuses on a plethora of characters, but the main thread is Jackie Brown, a middle aged street smart stewardess, who smuggles money from Mexico to LA for arms dealer Ordell Robbie. When she gets caught, she gets offered a deal to help the police catch Ordell, in exchange for her freedom. Ordell plans to eliminate her, but unbeknownst to him, Jackie has already devised a plan to get herself off the situation, with enough money to start her life elsewhere.
Quentin Tarantino is an extremely intelligent film maker, one who references a multitude of influences, but who always manages to reshuffle these and come up with something that is unique, and most of the times indelible. "Jackie Brown" is one of his best features, combining his love for dialogue that is ripe with pop culture references and analysis (and of course, his taste for B films), and also a crackling plot that is smartly devised to keep everyone guessing how the game is going to be played out. The joy in his films is not only the end destination, but the path that he creates in making his characters (and audiences) getting there. This smartly assembled cocktail features, as usual, a phenomenal cast, with Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton and Robert De Niro, all shining in the roles they inhabit. The cinematography from Guillermo Navarro is fantastic (he traditionally works with Guillermo Del Toro) and the score is eclectic as usual, this time around featuring plenty of hits from the 70s. A superb film!

In and Out

Movie Name: In & Out
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Frank Oz
Stars: Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Matt Dillon, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, Bob Newhart, Gregory Jbara, Shalom Harlow, Shawn Hatosy, Lauren Ambrose, Zak Orth, Alexandra Olden, Deborah Rush
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Director Frank Oz has had its fair share of successes, "In & Out" being one of them (the others being for instance "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels", "Housesitter" and "Little Shop of Horrors"). "In & Out" based on an original script by Paul Rudnick (who also wrote "Jeffrey" and "Adams Family Values"), follows the story of Howard Brackett, a small town high school English teacher, who suddenly finds himself in the middle of unwanted attention, when one of his former pupils, a now famous actor, outs him during his acceptance speech upon receiving his Oscar. Howard, who's been engaged for quite sometime to his long suffering bride Emily, tries to deny it at first, until things start to quickly unravel. When a gossip reporter by the name of Peter Malloy comes to town to unmask the situation, Howard has to come to terms with who he is.
"In & Out" is an extremely funny comedy that anchors its laughs in exposing the ridicule that bellies the prejudices and cliches that people in general associate with gay individuals and culture. The film doesn't fall prey to making a mockery of difference, instead it celebrates the diversity of individuals, and ultimately is successful in making the characters feel human (and not just the usual cliches). It's a film that lacks the biting satire from Billy Wilder, but makes its point across with clever plays on cliches that everyone associates with the gay culture (Barbra Streisand albums, dancing, and quite a few more). The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly the always fantastic Joan Cusack who once again steals the film in a role perfectly tailored for her. A very good comedy with a good heart, always worth revisiting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Ice Storm

Movie Name: The Ice Storm
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Adam Hann-Byrd, David Krumholtz, Jamey Sheridan, Henry Czerny, Kate Burton, Katie Holmes
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the success of "Sense and Sensibility", Ang Lee returned with another critical success, adapting Rick Moody's novel "The Ice Storm" (which won the best screenplay award at the Cannes film festival). The film takes place in Connecticut in the 1970s, focusing on two groups of people, the Hood and Carver families. The adults are going through the motions of life, also experimenting with drugs, drinking too much, and involved in adultery. The kids are coming into their own personalities, going through adolescence, trying to find their own path. The relationships between these two families comes to a halt during a particular severe ice storm.
Ang Lee has created a successful career as a director which primes for its eclectic choice of material (he's also directed "Hulk" and also "Wedding Banquet", to name but a few). He successfully creates and depicts universes where families and their relationship dynamics are the main focus of attention, with these families existing in different contexts (New York in the 90s for "The Wedding Banquet", the English countryside of the 19th century for "Sense and Sensibility" and Woodstock in the 60s for "Taking Woodstock", to name but a few). These relationships and the quality of performances the director always manage to bring from his actors, makes his films indelible experiences. That is particular the case for "The Ice Storm", which captures the suburbia of middle class America in the 70s. The couples were all wanting to explore beyond their routines, the sexual revolution was the topic of discussion, and trying drugs was just a novelty at their parties. The film goes beyond this and explores the part of growing up, and how the kids from these somewhat disjointed families are coming into their own. Ang Lee also captures perfectly the sadness and melancholy bellying some of these characters, particularly Janey Carver's who comes across as someone profoundly unhappy in her life. The film features a great cast, with fantastic performances from Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire. The cinematography from Frederick Elmes (who also shot the classic David Lynch film "Blue Velvet") and the score from Mychael Danna are equally fantastic. A great film from a fantastic director.

Happy Together

Movie Name: Happy Together
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Wong Kar Wai
Stars: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Chen Chang, Gregory Dayton
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Director Wong Kar Wai continued his critically acclaimed streak of the 90s, with "Happy Together" which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim (and won the director the award for best director of the year). The film focuses on the story of Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai, a couple who arrives in Argentina for vacations (from Hong Kong) and who slowly drifts away. As both become disenchanted with each other, Yiu-fai starts working at a tango bar in order to get money to fly back home, whereas Po-wing drifts continuously into a destructive mode. The couple tries to get together, but ultimately their differences drive them apart.
Wong Kar Wai is one of the most singular voices in cinema, mixing a highly stylized view of the world, with a romanticism that makes his features feel simultaneously retro and very conceptual (which reached fantastic heights with "In the Mood for Love"). "Happy Together" follows the central couple through a patchy relationship, in a foreign soil, allowing for the director to create indelible set pieces, where these lovers in a strange land are desperately trying to call each other home. The central performances from Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung are fantastic, bringing to life these two different men, who can't escape each other, until there's nothing holding them together. The cinematography from Christopher Doyle is stunning, as is the music from Danny Chung (which features songs from Caetano Veloso). A great film from a very talented director.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Good Will Hunting

Movie Name: Good Will Hunting
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser, George Plimpton, Alison Foland, John Mighton
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the very well received "To Die For", director Gus Van Sant tackled what remains to this day, his biggest commercial success. Based on an original screenplay from two of his cast members, namely Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film focuses on the story of Will Hunting, a young man who's been abused growing up, and who works as a janitor at the M.I.T. Will is actually a wunderkind, and once that is apparent to one of the teachers at the college, he tries to assist him and focus his efforts in order to find a good position in the marketplace. Sadly the abuse suffered throughout the years, has left scars (both physical and otherwise), and in order to overcome it, Will starts getting counseling from a somewhat retired therapist by the name of Sean Maguire. The encounter of these two personalities functions as a cathartic moment for both, as they revisit moments of their lives that led them to where they are.
The universe of the very talented Gus Van Sant found an interesting match in the screenplay of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Van Sant's work traditionally focuses on stories of young heroes who are trying to find their path in the world, and who are sometimes at odds with that world. His universe and storytelling match perfectly with the story of Will Hunting, the bruised young genius, who keeps people at bay for fear of being hurt or let down. The film could have easily been maudlin or overly dramatic, however the director keeps it grounded in reality, with enough humor and edge which allows the characters to be seen as more than just archetypes. The cast is uniformly excellent, in particular Robin Williams (who won the Academy Award), Matt Damon and Minnie Driver. The cinematography from Jean-Yves Escoffier and the score from Danny Elfman (with songs from Elliott Smith) are also fantastic. A good film always worth revisiting.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Movie Name: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Jingchu Zhang,
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie is back, following his latest directorial effort, the mildly entertaining "Jack Reacher", which also featured his usual collaborator, actor Tom Cruise (McQuarrie also wrote the underrated "Edge of Tomorrow" for director Doug Liman). The latest installment of the Mission:Impossible franchise, picks up after the events of Brad Bird's "Ghost Protocol". This time around Ethan Hunt and his team at the IMF are being targeted by both the CIA and a shady organization named the Syndicate. The first wants to dismantle the IMF due to all the insubordinate and raucous behavior they display, while the Syndicate aims to basically plot chaos and mayhem around the globe, and the IMF is an obvious obstacle in their path. With little help and means, Ethan, Benji, Brandt, Luther and the help of a lethal and enigmatic agent, Ilsa, the team has to go on progressively riskier assignments to infiltrate and get ahead of the plans devised by the Syndicate, and specifically its ruthless leader, Solomon Lane.
Christopher McQuarrie has begun to create a directorial career for himself anchored in a hybrid mix of a polished B-movie style and a character angle that is reminiscent of some of the work from Don Siegel. His films feature emasculated characters, and devious plot lines, but the integrity and morals of his lead characters are never in question. The "Mission:Impossible" formula is one that though riveting for the exotic locations and elaborate stunts, reaches a point where it feels dangerously repetitive (much like James Bond), however Brad Bird, and now Christopher McQuarrie have infused the franchise with some interesting energy, primarily because their films feel like polished and effective B-movies, with enough thrills and humor to keep the audience satisfied. This particular chapter from the franchise can be accused of lacking a distinct point of view from the director, but it's still nonetheless a very entertaining and well done action film. The actors are uniformly solid in their familiar roles, but Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg remain as engaging as ever. Recommended!