Saturday, April 30, 2016

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Movie Name: Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace
Year of Release: 1999
Director: George Lucas
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Ahmed Best, Hugh Quarshie, Oliver Ford Davies
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Director George Lucas got back on the official directorial chair in 1999 to direct another trilogy associated with his iconic and highly profitable "Star Wars" franchise. The new trilogy followed the ascension of Darth Vader and gave more insight into how the Rebel wars started. "The Phantom Menace" introduces us to Jedi Masters Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, both of whom are trying to intercede diplomatically and avoid a potential blockade that is happening on Planet Naboo. This blockade is pitting young Queen Amidala versus Nute Gunray, who is in reality a puppet for the Trade Federation and a particularly evil Sith Lord. Following an attack on the planet, the Queen is taken hostage, only to be saved by the Jedi Masters. Their escape is however thwarted and they have to take rescue in a nearby planet, Tatooine, in hopes of finding parts they need to repair their ship. While there they meet the young Anakin Skywalker, who has great mechanical and driving skills, both of which come very handy for this fugitive group.
"Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace" premiered in 1999 to a barrage of expectation and of audience. The film resumed a universe that had not been touched on the big screen since Richard Marquand's "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" premiered in 1983. The film benefited from the advances in visual effects, namely performance capture and digital compositing. However, in what has become a trademark for the following sequels, George Lucas was unable to build a narrative that is engaging and entertaining. This film in particular falls prey of a concept that anchors itself too much on one of a video-game, with most characters having little to no motivation, and most of their interactions feeling trite and awkward. This film successfully manages to make Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, both stupendous actors, look and feel out of place. It's a film that exhibits such technical wizardry and a universe that is unique and ripe for exploration, however the actors engagement is always less than compelling, and the supporting characters are ostensibly poorly developed. The cinematography from David Tattersall is fantastic as is the score from John Williams. A mediocre come back to an iconic series.

Green Room

Movie Name: Green Room
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart, Alia Shawkat, Mark Webber, Macon Blair, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, David W. Thompson, Eric Edelstein, Brent Werzner, Samuel Summer, Kai Lennox
Genre: Crime, Horror, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Director Jeremy Saulnier is back, following his feature debut, the celebrated "Blue Ruin" which premiered in 2013. "Green Room" follows the story of a punk rock band who is touring the US barely scraping by with the measly dollars they manage to make. After a small debacle, they find themselves in Oregon, playing in a neo-Nazi skinhead club, much to their surprise. Following the show and getting paid, as they're about to leave the premises, one of the band members realizes they forgot their cell phone. When he goes back to retrieve it, he notices a group of people in the green room, surrounding a young woman who has been fatally stabbed. The club organizers bring everyone into the room, where they keep the band under surveillance and unable to leave. Once the owner of the club arrives, things escalate to a whole different level, where they suddenly become the target for this menacing group who wants to erase all evidence they were there.
Jeremy Saulnier has created with "Green Room" a film that is anguishing, and filled with tension. The film successfully builds momentum, and captures the band dynamics between the young individuals, while also displaying their shock and surprise to be caught in such a disturbing and dangerous situation. There's a great balance between a specific aesthetic and style, with a more gruesome and definitely graphic way in which the violence is displayed. The group of actors assembled to bring this story to life is uniformly good, from the eternally underrated Anton Yelchin, to the always great Imogen Poots and of course the fantastic Patrick Stewart, who oozes menace in a role that is quite different from his latest screen incarnations. The cinematography from Sean Porter is stunning. A very good film worth watching.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Sleepy Hollow

Movie Name: Sleepy Hollow
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken, Richard Griffiths, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Christopher Lee, Claire Skinner
Genre: Drama, Thriller, 
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
After the aborted project that was his version of Superman with Nicolas Cage, Tim Burton focused his attention on the adaptation of Washington Irving's classic story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (the film was intended to be directed by Kevin Yagher, well known for his makeup work from films such as "A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors" and "Face/Off" for instance). The film follows the story of Ichabod Crane, a progressive and forward thinking inspector who works in New York City as the 18th century is coming to an end (it's 1799). As he butts heads with the local magistrate, he's ordered to go to the town of Sleepy Hollow, where a series of murders have been occurring, and where the victims have all been left headless. When Ichabod arrives, he meets the Van Tassel family, a hugely influential force in the small rural town, who offers him lodging and information in regards to the events that are taking place. They all inform him that a headless hessian, has come back from the dead and is in fact the one responsible for all the murders. Ichabod dismisses it all until he is faced with the reality.
Tim Burton's unique universe and perspective for heroes who are definitely different (almost anti-heroes), finds a perfect match in Washington Irving's story. The film deftly and beautifully captures a small and Gothic bucolic town, in which these supernatural events are taking place. The stunning production design and cinematography, compliment the aura that Tim Burton is creating, of a dark atmosphere, that is ever present due to the menace of the Horseman. The film also possesses a fantastic sense of humor, most of it coming from Johnny Depp's fantastic portrayal of Ichabod - he's a daring and yet somewhat cowardly man, who is unlike any of the other characters in the story (he's also suppose to represent forward thinking, the age of enlightenment). The film has a fantastic rhythm and Tim Burton captures a great balance between Ichabod's sleuthing activities, and the supporting characters and their affairs across the small town. Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths, Christopher Lee all create great characters, and the score from Danny Elfman is as usual fantastic. A great film always worth revisiting.

The Sixth Sense

Movie Name: The Sixth Sense
Year of Release: 1999
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Anthony Tambakis, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Angelica Page 
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Suspense
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Following two films that were met with a very tepid response, director M. Night Shyamalan hit the jackpot with the hugely successful "The Sixth Sense". The film established him as a talent to be reckoned with and raked in 6 Academy Award nominations. The film focuses on the story of two main characters: Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, and his new patient, a shy young boy by the name of Cole Sear. Malcolm tries to get close to the young boy in order to understand how he can help him. Cole is bullied at school, and is frequently terrified by weird events that take place around him. We come to realize that Cole is able to see and hear dead people, something he eventually confides in Malcolm. The therapist however doesn't believe the young boy until things change very dramatically.
"The Sixth Sense" is a very intelligent film, one that has sadly become associated with the twist ending that is part of its iconic existence (much like Neil Jordan's "The Crying Game" for instance). The film is steadily built around the world of the young boy, and how unsettling events occur in his life, much to the dismay of his young single mother, who's desperately trying to take care of her son against all obstacles and difficulties. The director creates a compelling dynamic around this nuclear family, and as the supernatural elements start to emerge, the sense of unease and tension escalate more and more, all through the eyes of the frail Cole. It's a recipe that anchors the film quite successfully, since it allows the unexpected to throw an apparent conventional reality into disarray (and the director has also captured a similar concept that worked so well for William Friedkin's "The Exorcist": a child, an innocent as a potential victim of a supernatural entity). When the twist ending comes along and the pieces are successfully placed together, the film has already built an emotional resonance between the characters that offer the biggest reward for the viewer: Cole and his mother. Shyamalan is successful in capturing wonderful performances from Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette, and the cinematography from Tak Fujimoto (Jonathan Demme's usual collaborator) is superb. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Jungle Book

Movie Name: The Jungle Book
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Jon Favreau
Stars: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Director Jon Favreau follows his independent effort "Chef" with a big budget Disney film, featuring state of the art visual effects. The film "The Jungle Book" is an adaptation of the books by Rudyard Kipling and follow the adventures of Mowgli, a young boy who is left on his own in the jungle after his dad is killed by a dangerous tiger by the name Shere Khan. Mowgli is then raised by wolves and protected by the panther Bagheera and the bear Baloo. When Shere Khan returns to finish off what he started, Mowgli is forced to run towards villages with men, where he'll be more protected. During his escape he makes more friends, but also comes across some menaces, such as the python Kaa and the monkey king Louie. Shere Khan however uses his ties with the wolf pack to force him to come back and fight him.
"The Jungle Book" is a book that uses fables, where animals are given anthropomorphic qualities to give moral lessons. The work from Rudyard Kipling (he was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1907) has been a classic since being released in 1894, and has been adapted to the screen multiple times (Disney has released the animated version directed by Wolfgang Reitherman in 1967, and subsequent ones such as the live version one with Jason Scott Lee in 1994, directed by Stephen Sommers). Jon Favreau's version is a beautiful accomplishment, in the sense that it smartly combines the themes of belonging, growing up and family, while simultaneously having an ecological and environmental conscience. The film also successfully brings the story to life for a new generation, and does so with visual effects that are simply stunning: the animations of the jungle and animals, are simply fantastic. The film looks superb, and the voice cast is impeccable, particularly Bill Murray and Ben Kingsley, who lend their charisma to the characters Baloo and Bagheera respectively. It's a film that has an impeccable momentum and one that definitely has an impact, with just the right amount of humor and darkness. A very good film worth watching.

The Boss

Movie Name: The Boss
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Ben Falcone
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Tyler Labine, Ella Anderson, Kathy Bates, Annie Mumolo, Kristen Schaal, Mary Sohn, Cecily Strong, Timothy Simons, Eva Peterson, Ben Falcone
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3

Synopsis & Review:
Actor and director Ben Falcone follows his successful "Tammy" with another comedy, featuring his wife and co-writer, the fantastic Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy who is now a comedic force to be reckoned with, has had huge hits with Paul Feig's "The Heat" and "Spy", both of which were also well reviewed (not to mention the film that place them on the map, the hugely successful "Bridesmaids"). "The Boss" follows the story of Michelle Darnell, a financial guru and millionaire, who is a self made woman, with no family. She grew up in an orphanage, and has no emotional attachments. Following a tip from a rival businessman, she gets sent to prison for insider trading. Upon her release, she realizes she has no assets and has to fall back on living with her former assistant and her daughter. While living in that small apartment in Chicago, Michelle realizes that she has an opportunity to get back in business with girl scout cookies style of venture. What starts as a small endeavor quickly becomes something much bigger.
"The Boss" is another vehicle for Melissa McCarthy's undeniable charisma and talent. It's a comedy that tries very hard to have a bit of a racy side, alongside a bubblier one, however the tone is never achieved as successfully as the other films where McCarthy's talent has truly shone through. "The Boss" never finds it's tone, and some of the situations and scenarios fall flat and just go on interminably - the storyline involving Peter Dinklage is the best example of something that is under developed and where there isn't much momentum (the same can be said for Kathy Bates cameo, which could have been a much richer side to the story). Melissa McCarthy tries really hard to elevate the material, but for the most part this film has too many common places and not enough irreverence and intelligence. The additional cast has little to do, with Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage and Tyler Labine trying to provide support, but their parts are severely underwritten. An easily forgotten vehicle for a talented comedic actress.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Run Lola Run

Movie Name: Run Lola Run
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nina Petri, Armin Rohde, Joachim Krol, Ludger Pistor, Sebastian Schipper, Julia Lindig, Suzanne von Borsody, Lars Rudolph 
Genre: Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
"Run Lola Run" premiered in Germany in August of 1998, followed by the Venice Film Festival, but it only started creating buzz and attention when it expanded across all the screens in 1999 (including in the US where it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival). The film rightfully placed the talented Tom Tykwer and the wonderful Franka Potente as new fixtures to follow (and both their careers have enjoyed staying power). The film is divided in three vignettes and follows the story of Lola, a young and impetuous German girl, who receives a call from her boyfriend, the desperate Manni, whom while running an errand for a local criminal, lost the package he was suppose to deliver. Each vignette showcases the fate and the hurdles that Lola has to endure in order to help Manni and get to him in time, before the crime lord comes looking for the package. Each vignette showcases different obstacles and different endings.
Tom Tykwer has had a very interesting and eclectic career since "Run Lola Run" came out and established him as a directorial force to be reckoned with. He has had some really interesting ventures, such as "Cloud Atlas" and "The International" and others more divisive, such as "Heaven" and "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer". "Run Lola Run" is a film that bursts with inventiveness, and an energy that owes a lot to commercials and even comic books, but it's a film that is filled with ideas, sense of humor and such joy that is contagious to the viewer. The array of characters may not be profoundly expanded, but Franka Potente in particular creates a character that is simultaneously impetuous, young, and filled with emotion, that the viewer can't help but be fascinated by such an explosion of motion, color and joy. It's a film filled with attention to detail, where the humor is one of the main components, and where both the cinematography and score also have high marks. A truly wonderful film from an interesting director.

Midnight Special

Movie Name: Midnight Special
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Jensen
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Director Jeff Nichols is back, with another stunning film, following his wonderful last feature "Mud". "Midnight Special" places us directly in the midst of a chase that is taking place: Roy, Lucas and Roy's son Alton, are running from the law, and Roy is being the target of the chase since he's considered to have kidnapped the little boy. We slowly realize that Alton is slightly different, always wearing his goggles and muffles. Alton was taken from a cult like organization in the middle of Texas, where he and his parents had been living, before his mom fled, the same going for his dad, who in turn got Alton out of there with the intent of taking him to some geographical location that Alton has described. The chase is now being brought on by both the cult who wants Alton back and the FBI, who are stunned that a young boy can decrypt confidential information from satellites. As the story progresses we witness the extent of Alton's uniqueness and why everyone wants to capture him so intently.
"Midnight Special" is definitely a continuation of some of the themes that Jeff Nichols already brought forth in "Mud", namely the close relationship between a father figure and the young boy who's maturing and finding his own path in the world. Where the film is quite different, is the more fantastical side of the nature of the young boy, which is treated not like a traditional blockbuster/visual effects extravaganza: Alton is for all intended purposes the child of these concerned parents who are stopping at nothing to save him and get him where he needs to be. The family dynamics gives the film the heart and unique sensibility that really distances it from other sci-fi films that have been done. The film smartly captures the influences of John Carpenter's films from the early 80s (such as "Starman"), and is very well acted, with Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Jaeden Lieberher all creating great, believable characters. The cinematography from Adam Stone is beautiful as is the score from David Wingo. Another great film from Jeff Nichols. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Matrix

Movie Name: The Matrix
Year of Release: 1999
Director: The Wachowskis
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, Marc Aden Gray
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
After the auspicious debut in 1996 with "Bound" and also their work as screenwriters in such films as Richard Donner's "Assassins", The Wachowski siblings premiered their most ambitious film in 1999, "The Matrix", which revealed itself to be a watershed moment for pop culture. The film follows the story of Thomas Anderson, a programmer at a software company, who has the alter ego Neo in the hacking world. Neo finds himself communicating with someone who goes by the name of Morpheus, a legend in the hacking world. This cyber friendship makes Neo the target of some secret agents who want to capture Morpheus at all costs. When Neo finally meets Morpheus, he gets offered the opportunity to understand what reality is about. What he finds out changes his world forever.
The Wachowskis are incredibly imaginative and inventive writer/directors, with influences that range from Japanese manga, existential philosophy and martial arts films. "The Matrix" is a perfect distill of all of these influences, in a work that is unique, technologically savvy and one that became profoundly influential. They managed to create a universe that is distinctly theirs (also with the less successful sequels), filled with exciting ideas and shots that pushed the realms of how action films get produced. They successfully leveraged Keanu Reeves' screen presence (and somewhat limited dramatic range), and brought Laurence Fishburne and Carrie Anne Moss to new levels of attention. The film is an almost perfect articulation of what an action and entertaining film should be: rich in concept, boundary pushing and with a sense of humor. The film was also very successful at the Oscars, winning all the awards for which it was nominated (4), demonstrating the level of omnipresence the film had in the cultural discussion of that year. An iconic film from an irregular duo of directors, always worth watching.

Holy Smoke

Movie Name: Holy Smoke!
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Jane Campion
Stars: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Julie Hamilton, Tim Robertson, Sophie Lee, Daniel Wyllie, Paul Goddard, Pam Grier, Kerry Walker, Samantha Murray, Eva Martin
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Following the critically successful films that Jane Campion had in the early 90s (which included "An Angel at My Table", "The Piano" and "Portrait of a Lady"), the director ended the decade with one of her more divisive titles, "Holy Smoke". The film follows the story of Ruth Barron, a young Australian woman whom while taking a trip to India experiences a spiritual awakening and decides to stay in that country. Her family is shocked to learn of these events and of the fact that Ruth has no interest in coming back. In order to get her to return home, they make up a fake illness and her mother Miriam travels to India in hopes of convincing her to come home. The family then hires PJ Waters, an American expert in deprogramming people who have been involved in religious cults. The relationship between these two people evolves in a way that produces unexpected results.
Jane Campion has long been one of the most fascinating voices in modern film. Her films traditionally focus on heroines who are at odds with their surrounding worlds, women who find themselves initially undermined by an oppressively male domineering world. Throughout her features, as the story progresses, so does the catharsis of her heroines, who find their voices, their sense of self and their own sexuality as part of a unified rediscovered whole, who positions them as a voice to be heard in the world. These themes are on display in "Holy Smoke!", placing Kate Winslet's Ruth as a young woman discovering herself, her sexuality and voice, at the center of an attempt by her family and by an older man (the deprogrammer), to tone her desires and needs down. It's a film that has a unique tone, oscillating between drama and absurd. Unlike her earlier features, such as "Sweetie", the overall film doesn't feel quite as coherent, but it's still a great showcase of her universe, alongside the talents of the always fantastic Kate Winslet and the underrated Harvey Keitel. A good film worth watching.