Sunday, September 27, 2015

Starship Troopers

Movie Name: Starship Troopers
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris, Jake Busey, Clancy Brown, Patrick Muldoon, Seth Gilliam, Michael Ironside, Rue McClanahan, Marshall Bell, Matt Levin, Blake Lindsley
Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon.

Synopsis & Review:
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, familiar with controversy surrounding his films (among his north american films are "Flesh + Blood", "Robocop", "Total Recall", "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls"), was met once again with more criticism when his big budget sci-fi extravaganza, "Starship Troopers" premiered in 1997. The film takes place in the future, in a somewhat militarized society, and focuses on the story of Johnny Rico, a young man from rich families, who volunteers to the military, following the footsteps of the girl he's interested in, Carmen. The aim of this frantic increase of military force and strength is to engage war with an alien species (giant insects), who destroy everything in their path. Rico, Dizzy, and all of their colleagues and friends will be met with challenges both during training and on the field that will test their resilience and endurance.
Paul Verhoeven has always been a director who is able to subvert the most common and cliche ridden screenplay. He's interested in what truly drives and compels his characters (and men and women in general), and isn't afraid to showcase the less than estimable side of the human nature. Though seemingly miles away from David Cronenberg, in terms of aesthetic and focus, they both are driven by an interest of the human body, and how it relates to others and within themselves. "Starship Troopers" is based on the book by Robert A. Heinlein, and behind the facade of the big special effects extravaganza with lots of special effects and battles, Paul Verhoeven places concepts, and depicts how a fascist state coerces and manipulates their citizens. It's a film that takes the concept of an apparently innocuous entertainment, and introduces subversion and some disruptive questioning into our own society. The film ends up lacking more substance in terms of the cast, who with the exception of Michael Ironside and Neil Patrick Harris, are all quite mediocre. This is a somewhat underrated film from an interesting (and somewhat irregular) film maker.


Movie Name: Grandma
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Paul Weitz
Stars: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Pena, Nat Wolff, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Frank Collison
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Director Paul Weitz, better known for having started the "American Pie" franchise, and the more interesting "About a Boy" (both alongside his brother Chris Weitz), has returned with what has turned out his best feature (so far). "Grandma" premiered to great reviews at the Sundance film festival of 2015, and follows the story of Elle Reid, a middle aged woman, who is the throws of a breakup with her (much younger) girlfriend of four months, Olivia. Elle is a published and well known poet, who has worked in the Academic world for the last years, which have turned out to be quite painful, since the recent death of her partner of 38 years, Violet. On the day of this breakup, Elle has the visit of her granddaughter Sage, who comes asking for money. She wants to have an abortion, and since Elle has no money and they both want to avoid going to Sage's mother (and Elle's daughter), they set out to find alternative ways of getting that money.
Paul Weitz smartly creates a character study with this film, focusing his attention on the dynamics of three generations of women within the same family. The core of the film is Elle, the matriarch, still reeling from the loss of her companion of so many years. She's presented as a fully rounded character/person, with both a loving caring side, as well as one with acerbic wit and sarcasm that cuts through everything. She's a woman who has learnt to live with her choices, and who sees her daughter and granddaughter for who they are, loving them above all. The other women in the family are no quite as well developed as this immense character, but they are nonetheless an illustration of what Elle as a mother and as a woman has built within her family unit. The cast assembled is fantastic, with Lily Tomlin creating a character that distills both her comedy chops, as well as the more dramatic undertones, all of which make her Elle character more than a stereotype. Julia Garner, Judy Greer and Sam Elliott all add an extra dimension to this interesting and heartfelt film. An interesting and well layered film from an irregular director.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Men In Black

Movie Name: Men in Black
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Mike Nussbaum, Jon Gries, Siobhan Fallon
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon.

Synopsis & Review:
Barry Sonnenfeld's 90s winning streak hit its peak with "Men in Black" in 1997, the second biggest hit of the year behind James Cameron's "Titanic". The film is an adaptation of Lowell Cunningham's comic book and focuses on the story of the agency MiB, the Men in Black, an agency who tracks extra terrestrial existence on Earth. One of his senior agents, by the name of Kay, recruits a young and impulsive New York officer, who becomes his partner, by the name of Jay. Their first mission is to save the universe and the galaxy from an alien entity under the name of "Bug".
Barry Sonnenfeld's most successful films have, thus far, found the perfect balance between comedy and action, making for a fresh and unique take on genres that fall prey to generic cliches much too often. "Men in Black" is by far his most well known franchise (closely followed by "The Adams Family"), and achieves the perfect balance of having the sleuth and detective type of story, combined with the allure of science fiction, which brings the whole undercurrent of irony and comedy to the front. The film doesn't take itself seriously, and has fun playing with conventions and expected scenarios, twisting both of them and throwing everything into disarray. This allows for the actors, particularly Tommy Lee Jones, and his traditionally intense and monolithic persona to shine through in a role that is tailor suited for him. The film also benefits from the fantastic effects from Rick Baker (who won another Oscar for this film), production design from the awesome Bo Welch (who has worked with Tim Burton) and score from Danny Elfman (another Tim Burton collaborator). A very good film always worth checking out!

Black Mass

Movie Name: Black Mass
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Scott Cooper
Stars: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Juno Temple, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, David Harbour, Lonnie Farmer
Genre: Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
On his third feature, director Scott Cooper achieves something that his previous films only hinted at: something truly galvanizing and powerful. The film depicts the events that surrounded the life of convicted criminal James "Whitey" Bulger, a Boston based criminal, since 1975 throughout his apprehension in Santa Monica in 2011. The film depicts the progression of Bulger's criminal doings in South Boston, and his ongoing relationship with the FBI, in the capacity of informant, and how he manipulated the situation in order to get traction over his rivals and dominate the Boston criminal underground. In the process, Bulger's brother, a politician of the highest level also got dragged into the situation.
Scott Cooper, himself an actor, has built a directorial career thus far anchored in stories that though not priming for originality, allow for actors to bring their characters to life. This has allowed for his films to have an inner life that the contrived screenplays only hint at (that was the case for instance of "Out of the Furnace"). His films feel very much indebted to the 70s directors that he seems to try to emulate, such as Sidney Lumet. "Black Mass" may be his best feature yet: the director focuses on a specific time frame in the life of a well known criminal, James Bulger, and how his ongoing relationship with the FBI allowed him to have considerable power over the Boston area. The relationships between the characters are sufficiently drawn out to understand the neighborhood mentality and the allegiances made between these endless array of criminals and of course, the agents tracking them. There are influences of Sidney Lumet, but also and of course, of Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas", though Scott Cooper has a truly fantastic and indelible ace with the performance of Johnny Depp, who creates a character who is reptilian, menacing and controlled in every nuance. It's a fantastic portrayal, never falling into caricature. The rest of the cast is equally top notch, with highlights going to Joel Edgerton and Julianne Nicholson. A riveting film worth watching.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Movie Name: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Year of Release: 1997
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Arliss Howard, Richard Attenborough, Vince Vaughn, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, Harvey Jason, Richard Schiff, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Camilla Belle, Thomas F. Duffy
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon.

Synopsis & Review:
On the heels of one of his most celebrated and successful years (that being 1993), director Steven Spielberg followed "Jurassic Park" with a sequel that was another success. The film focuses on Ian Malcolm, the surviving chaotician from the original film, who finds out there was a second island where dinosaurs were bred before being transported to the main island. There are efforts taking place by Hammond's nephew to bring some of those animals to the mainland, and though initially reluctant to go, Ian finds out his girlfriend Sarah is part of a team already there, which prompts him to go back immediately. As things quickly take a bad turn, and very dangerous dinosaurs are left unchecked in downtown San Diego, it's up to Ian to figure out a way to lure the predators back to the island and save the city and his loved ones.
Steven Spielberg is in all fairness one of the most celebrated directors and film makers of the last 40 years. Throughout the years, his cinematic language has constantly evolved and refined, and between his most epic and action driven films, and his most intimate dramas, there's always a distinct auteuristic touch that clearly distinguishes his films. "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" is an example where the director once again places the family unit under the menace of an outside factor that looms as a factor of eminent destruction. It's always thanks to the integrity and decency of his lead characters, that the lead characters always prevail. "Jurassic Park" always posed the question of the extent of technology manipulation and the relationship with nature (which is something more akin to Michael Crichton's universe) and how this produces less than ethical results. Spielberg has managed to anchor this perspective, with his more humane interests, focusing on characters that are dynamic, flawed and yet ultimately decent. The special effects are fantastic, as is the cast, with Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn adding the extra thrills to a very enthusiastic ride. Worth watching.

The Visit

Movie Name: The Visit
Year of Release: 2015
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Patch Darragh
Genre: Suspense, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3

Synopsis & Review:
Director M. Night Shyamalan returns after his reviled latest directorial efforts (specifically "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth", both of which were met with indifference and harsh reviews). "The Visit" follows the story of two siblings, Becca and Tyler, both of whom are sent to spend a week with their maternal grandparents, whom they've never met. There is some tension in the past between their grandparents and mother, and their mother seizes this opportunity for everyone to know each other, while simultaneously she goes on vacation with her new boyfriend. The kids entertain each other shooting a documentary of this familiar healing process, but start noticing the awkward, erratic and outright bizarre behavior from their grandparents. This starts to escalate progressively until they become fearful of their safety.
M. Night Shyamalan has built a name for himself as a director who likes to rethink the premises of the typical suspense film. He builds an intricate web of family relationships, upon which a dark menace is released (the alien invasion of "Signs" or the outsiders of "The Village" for instance), forcing the family nucleus to deal with that menage. "The Visit" is a smaller effort, both in terms of budget and scope, when compared with his earlier efforts, but again uses the dynamics of a family in danger to bring out situations of tension and fear. Unlike his other films though, there's never a definite investment in the characters we're following - both central narrators are kids who are suffering from their parental abandonment (their father left), while the menace comes from a situation that is quickly perceived. The film never probes deep into motivations and in the end feels contrived and devoid of real substance (or menace). Another wasted effort from a once inspired director.