Saturday, November 28, 2015

Brooklyn

Movie Name: Brooklyn
Year of Release: 2015
Director: John Crowley
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O'Higgins, Eva Birthistle, Emily Rickards, Jessica Pare, Paulino Nunes, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
John Crowley's "Brooklyn" is the adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel of the same name, which was written and released in 2009 (and was on the short list for the prestigious Man Booker Prize of that year). The film tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young and bright Irish girl, who lives in a small town with her mom and older sister Rose (in the 1950s). The beautiful Rose works as a book-keeper and wants Eilis to have a better life than what the small town where they are can provide - she therefore arranges for Eilis to come to America, specifically the Brooklyn area. Initially homesick and lonely, Eilis slowly starts engaging more socially, and finds herself taking night classes to also become a book-keeper and meets a young Italian-American man who captures her attention. However things back home take an unexpected turn and she's forced to come back.
John Crowley's career has thus far been a discrete one, with titles such as "Boy A" and "Closed Circuit", which barely failed to register with audiences. "Brooklyn" is however a different case - the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival of 2015 to much acclaim, and was instantly bought by Fox Searchlight as a possible Oscar contender. And indeed the film is a well told story of a young woman finding her own path and coming to terms with her own choices. The film really brings the plight of the young Eilis to life particularly depicting her anguish and pain in leaving her family and friends behind in Ireland, and understandably facing her fears of being in a new country, new city and new life. The film at points brings to mind the best work of Merchant Ivory, with the impeccable production design, costumes, cinematography and score. The casting is also spot on, with Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Emory Cohen all creating memorable impressions, however the film truly belongs to the luminous and beautiful Saoirse Ronan. She creates a nuanced character, filled with fear, anxiety, joy, love and we witness it all through her beautiful eyes and face that are filled with emotion. A finely assemble film, worth watching.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Spotlight

Movie Name: Spotlight
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Tom McCarthy
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Gene Amoroso, Doug Murray, Darrin Baker 
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Actor, writer, director Tom McCarthy is back with another fantastic film, which adds another gem to his directorial career which features "The Station Agent" and "Win Win". The film focuses on the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that uncovered a scandal of epic proportions in the Catholic Church. The film follows the Spotlight team, in particular the 4 journalists and their editors, who start to slowly discover the story behind the sexual abuse that children have been suffering for decades in the Boston area, all with complicity of the church hierarchy. The team realizes that there is a web of implications from this case, one that touches a lot of different sections of the Boston society and that all sorts of deals and arrangements have being done throughout the years to quietly make the cases disappear.
Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" is another successful film from 2015, following James Vanderbilt's "Truth" to tackle the importance of media and investigation to showcase injustices and issues that are relevant for our society. "Spotlight" is fantastic in detailing the process on how the reporting team investigates a dramatic event in the Boston community, where the catholic church presence is still heavily felt. The director manages to present the reality of the community, and how this shattering event has trickled down through so many families and destroyed so many lives. McCarthy doesn't add any glamour to the research process that characters go through or indulges in any glossiness for the film in general - instead there's an actual sense of urgency, realism and grittiness that adds a layer of relevance to the film that makes it more unique. In a way it's a film that feels relevant not only because of the theme that it showcases, but also of how it's built and how it allows to understand how a community echoes the destruction that is forced upon its members. The cast is uniformly excellent, with particular emphasis going to Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci, both creating layered and compelling characters. A really good film worth watching.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Dark City

Movie Name: Dark City
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt, Richard O'Brien, Ian Richardson, Bruce Spence, Colin Friels, Melissa George, Mitchell Butel, Ritchie Singer
Genre: Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Following the problems with the shooting of "The Crow" director Alex Proyas took some time to work on his next project, which turned out to be the darkly creative "Dark City". The film focuses on the character of John Murdoch, who wakes up in a bathtub, in a hotel, without a recollection of whom he is. Murdoch tries to retrace his steps, and as he does so, the more surprising are the facts he starts to collect: the city seems to always be surrounded in darkness, and everything comes to a still during specific times. He comes to realize there are strange men going around re-arranging people, situations and even city, and they are now hot on his trail. It's up to him to discover himself and a way to battle these strange creatures.
Alex Proyas' career had been established in the commercials before venturing into full length features. If "The Crow" introduced his aesthetic and universe, while remaining faithful to the spirit and tone of the comic book series of James O'Barr, "Dark City" is definitely an extension but also a more personal venture into what the director really likes to explore. The film, much like "The Crow", is again bathed in a overwhelming darkness and has a definite sense of timelessness - the characters, production design, mix a retro look while simultaneously being futuristic. This allows for the film to be a truly unique expansion of the director's universe, where he can visually and narratively explore the elements that are part of his focus, namely the unexpected hero, who possesses more power than his antagonists, but somehow has to learn and acknowledge it, and the characters who surround him and provide him with a sense of history and humanity. The film is very successful in building all of this intricate scenario, and creates a compelling lead character, however the supporting characters again fall prey into a somewhat predictable and cliched exposition. It's a film that nonetheless drinks inspiration from noir, science fiction and even some of Fritz Lang's 30s expressionist films, but gives all this a consistent tone that is really interesting and compelling. The actors are all equally engaging, while the cinematography from Darius Wolski (Ridley Scott's cinematographer of choice) is simply beautiful. A very good film worth revisiting.

Celebrity

Movie Name: Celebrity
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Famke Janssen, Melanie Griffith, J.K. Simmons, Gretchen Mol, Dylan Baker, Debra Messing, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Sam Rockwell, Hank Azaria, Allison Janney, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Lerner, Kate Burton, Andre Gregory, David Margulies, Adrian Grenier, Celia Weston, Aida Turturro
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
After the caustic and fantastic "Deconstructing Harry", Woody Allen returned in 1998 with a decidedly lighter take on the cult of celebrity and vapid journalism (and the general obsession with celebrities). The film focuses on a typical Woody Allen proxy character named Lee Simon, a travel writer and pretense novelist, who is trying to get a foot into the door with celebrities. After divorcing his wife of 16 years, Robin (a former English teacher), Lee immerses himself in the celebrity journalism milieu, which leads him down a path of inconsequential encounters, sex escapades, which lead him to question his own sense of worth. Meanwhile Robin overcomes her own insecurities, and finds success in television.
"Celebrity" is one of Woody Allen's less revered films from the 90s, and that can be largely attributed to the fact that for all it's intended purpose of being critical of the celebrity world, in the end it feels like a fairly superficial look that sheds no further light or insight into something that is vastly consumed by everyone. The film again focuses on the neurotic Woody Allen alter ego, this time around played by Kenneth Branagh to perfection, around whom all this parade of gorgeous people move and seem to be dazzled by, only to quickly be distracted by something else (or someone else). The film continues extending the angst and the themes of most of Woody Allen's films, however his acutely tuned view of the world, with the mix of biting satire and drama, doesn't gel with the material - the celebrity world needs a particular sense of parody, and the best types of satire are the ones that deconstruct it, such as Gus Van Sant's "To Die For". Nonetheless, the film manages to get some really interesting performances from Judy Davis and Branagh, and the cinematography from Sven Nykvist is beautiful. Another flawed yet interesting film in the Woody Allen cannon.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Spectre

Movie Name: Spectre
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Christoph Waltz, Rory Kinnear, Monica Bellucci, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Jesper Christensen, Stephanie Sigman
Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Synopsis & Review:
After the colossal success of "Skyfall", director Sam Mendes is back, with yet another world trip alongside James Bond. This time around, James Bond faces an enemy that is the umbrella under which all of his previous enemies originated from - the organization by the name of Spectre, and specifically under the tutelage of someone from his own past, a man named Blofeld. Bond starts by sabotaging Spectre's plans in Mexico City, and quickly moves to London, where he has to navigate the efforts of a new Intelligence Bureau adamant on terminating the 00 program, that is being created by an ambitious man by the name of C. Unraveling these plans leads back to Mr. White (the character introduced in Martin Campbell's "Casino Royale"), and eventually to his daughter. It's up to Bond and his team, to defeat Spectre and their goal of taking over the world with a unified surveillance system that tracks everything and everyone.
The James Bond series has a reached at this point a level of polish that is undeniable. The production assets behind these films have reached a point, where the glossiness of it all pours from every inch of celluloid on screen (or in case of digital, of every byte on screen). That being said, it also means that these films have a formula that they abide to, and the variables end up being the players and the locations where they are set. "Skyfall" deviated a bit from this formula, in the sense that it presented a closer relationship between the action and the past of James Bond himself, something that the series has always shied away from. "Spectre" tries to pick up that pace, but also be reverential of past adventures, which means that it presents bigger explosions and set pieces, something that eventually dwarves the actors, their interactions and whatever subtlety the screenplay has. The main villain on this film has little if anything to do, and the level of danger is close to none (even more shocking when compared to the edge and charisma brought by Javier Bardem in "Skyfall"). Where the film does succeed is in the stunts, the action set pieces and in the supporting cast that make the film tolerable, particularly the wonderful Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris. The cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema is superb as is the elegant score from Thomas Newman. Another forgettable installment from a series that needs another restart.

Room

Movie Name: Room
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Stars: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Amanda Brugel, Wendy Crewson, Cas Anvar
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Director Lenny Abrahamson is back, after the well received "Frank" from 2014. "Room" has been premiering through a series of different festivals, and has collected a series of accolades (namely at the Toronto Film Festival where it won the People's Choice Award). The film is an adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel and it follows the story of a young boy by the name of Jack, who has lived inside a tiny room (in reality a tool shed) since he was born. Jack's been in that space with his mom, a young woman by the name of Joy who was kidnapped when she was 17, and has been kept in that space since then (and been raped and physically hurt by her captor). Jack's mother has gone to extreme lengths to make sure he isn't hurt or harmed by their captor, but the entrapment is closing in on them and she devises a plan to make sure they are able to escape their situation. It's up to Jack to carry through the plan, venturing into a world he's never seen and somehow find the help for them to be rescued.
"Room" is a film that though presented with a bleak premise, manages to be simultaneously heartwarming and in the end, life affirming. The horrors of being kidnapped and raped for years, are presented in a way that is not exploratory - the film focuses instead on the child, someone who doesn't know the world, who hasn't seen anything, aside from what his mother has told him and from what he has seen on television. This is a child whose social skills are limited to the interactions with his mother, a young woman who has been corralled in a situation that has pushed her to the very limit of existence (for all intended purposes, she has disappeared for 7 years, and is likely considered dead). The director successfully showcases Jack's point of view, filled with his daily tasks and the reality of what surrounds him, activities that make him feel safe and secure, whereas the toll of confinement is really seen through the eyes of his mother, who is wasting away further and further. The film features three fantastic performances, namely Jacob Tremblay as Jack, Joan Allen as Nancy and particularly Brie Larson as Ma, who gives a truly mature and nuanced performance, simultaneously feral in her protection of her son, but also bruised and battered by years of abuse and a childhood of her own that got stolen. The cinematography from Danny Cohen is fantastic, capturing the gray tones and slow richer palettes as the characters emerge from their room. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Buffalo 66

Movie Name: Buffalo 66
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Vincent Gallo
Stars: Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara, Mickey Rourke, Rosanna Arquette, Jan-Michael Vincent, Anjelica Huston, Kevin Pollak, Alex Karras
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Vincent Gallo's debut feature premiered at the Sundance Film Festival of 1998 to considerable acclaim. The actor/director then mostly well known for Abel Ferrara's "The Funeral" and Emir Kusturica's "Arizona Dream", created an impact with his feature debut which he also wrote (with Alison Bagnall). The film follows the story of Billy Brown, a recently released convict who dreads going back home to visit his parents. In desperation, Billy kidnaps Layla from a tap dancing class and pleads with her to impersonate his wife and to accompany him. Much to Billy's surprise, Layla takes to her role enthusiastically. She breaks through to obsessive Buffalo Bills football fans Janet and the hard-edged Jimmy, Bill's parents.
1998 was a successful year for independent films, with a slew of them making it all the way to the Academy Awards. Vincent Gallo's "Buffalo 66" was one of the most iconic ones, since it presented his point of view in such a unique, stylish and personal way (it also helped that it had Christina Ricci then breaking away from her child actress persona and roles - that same year she was in the well received "The Opposite of Sex" directed by Don Roos). The film manages to present all the quirky characters that make the bulk of the narrative in a way that is fresh and compelling. In terms of style and concept, the film feels closer to the perspective of Gus Van Sant, but the director amps up the visual and stylistic approach. The film is indeed the vision of its director and star, bordering on self reverence, and though some of the characters feel contrived and under-developed, the flaws make it an interesting film to view and experience.The group of actors is fantastic with Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston all creating quirky characters, that end up bringing edge, humor and heart to the story. A good film worth revisiting.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Suffragette

Movie Name: Suffragette
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Sarah Gavron
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Meryl Streep, Samuel West, Geoff Bell, Natalie Press, Grace Stottor
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Synopsis & Review:
"Suffragette" is director Sarah Gavron's second feature, following her debut with "Brick Lane" back in 2007. Working from a screenplay by acclaimed writer Abi Morgan (who wrote amongst others, Steve McQueen's "Shame" and Phyllida Lloyd's "The Iron Lady"), the film is a dramatic representation of the fight that women endured to gain the right to vote in England in the early 20th century. The film focuses in particular on the figure of young Maud Watts, who at 24 has a young child of her own, and herself has been working in dry cleaning business since she was 7. Maud becomes aware of the effort that the suffragette movement is having in England, and gains further insight through the voice of their iconic leader, Mrs. Pankhurst. She becomes directly involved in the movement through a coworker, the rebellious Violet, who introduces her to the stoic and undeterred Edith Ellyn. This group of women start retaliating, as authorities devise a plan to control and muffle this movement.
This is a film that has a powerful and pertinent (to this day) story, one that needs to be told and brought to attention. Sadly, though filled with a fantastic cast and production values, this film lacks passion, depth and ultimately fails to be impactful. The screenplay focuses on the story of the young Maud, a resilient and fairly quiet young woman, who suddenly becomes this activist, without much rationale behind it. The choices and sacrifices this woman has to make are gut wrenching, yet the film quickly places them at a distance, not allowing the characters nor the situations much time to evolve. The supporting characters are largely characterized in very blunt strokes, with Violet and Edith making for the women in the movement that have more relevance, but never giving them much to do. The film ends up being mostly successful when it focus in the microcosms of Maud's life and how she as a woman learns to stand up for herself. This success can be attributed to Carey Mulligan's heartfelt performance - her sad eyes mask a longing and steely determination that steadily grow through the film. Her character alone deserved a more interesting screenplay, something that sadly falls short. The cinematography from Eduard Grau is great, as is the score from Alexandre Desplat. A missed opportunity.