Sunday, January 31, 2016

American Beauty

Movie Name: American Beauty
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards, John Cho, Ara Celi
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
"American Beauty" was Sam Mendes' feature film debut, following an acclaimed theater career. It was also Alan Ball's first feature script, following a successful career on television working for shows such as "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill" (he has of course gone on to create and write the shows "Six Feet Under" and "True Blood"). "American Beauty" is a closer look into the lives of the Burnham family - an apparent idyllic and picture perfect household, the family is in reality alienated from each other. The father Lester has lost his interest and remains completely passive to everything, while mother Carolyn has become a control freak in order to keep her frustrations at bay. Daughter Jane is growing into her own young adulthood, as a young woman with dreams and ambitions. The neighbors next door, themselves a pit of dysfunction, are like a catalyst that start a series of events, that shift the dynamics of this family in every possible way.
Sam Mendes, alongside Conrad Hall's stunning cinematography, capture the dysfunction behind the picture perfect cliche of the American family. The film is smartly written, allowing for the group of characters to be more than simple stereotypes (even when it's an easy cop out to do so). It's also more than a dissection of a way of life - it aims to capture the dynamics and contradictions of living with someone you've grown distant and alienated from. Sam Mendes also illustrates perfectly the level of dark humor and surrealism that permeates the story and life in general. The performances are great particularly Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, both of whom excel in their charismatic portrayals (fantastic work also from Chris Cooper and Allison Janney). The score from Thomas Newman is equally indelible. A good film always worth revisiting.

The Truman Show

Movie Name: The Truman Show
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Peter Weir
Stars: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Ed Harris, Holland Taylor, Peter Krause, Paul Giamatti, Adam Tomei, Philip Baker Hall, Harry Shearer, Brian Delate
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Australian director Peter Weir's career continued its momentum during the 90s with the successful features that were "Green Card" and "Fearless". "The Truman Show" turned out to be one of his high profile films, garnering both critical and commercial success - the film was nominated for 3 Oscars and made the list of the best of the year for many publications and critics circles of the year. The film focuses on Truman Burbank, a man in his 30s who lives in a small town, but who has always dreamed to see what lies beyond the boundaries of his small town. Truman is married to Meryl, and leads a quiet and routine life, one that starts being disrupted by incidents that catch his attention, namely lights falling from the sky, strange meteorological events that take place whenever he wants to leave town and so on. We come to realize that Truman's life is in reality a huge reality show, where everyone are actors portraying a role, except for Truman, who has basically been raised on set since he was a child and has no knowledge of what the world is. This comes to a dramatic halt when Truman decides he wants to leave town.
"The Truman Show" was one of Andrew Niccol's first scripts (the other being "Gattaca" which he directed in 1997), and due to the prestige cast and considerable budget, the directing reigns were given to Peter Weir. The film smartly plays on the concept of the "big brother" and how people like to observe others in a voyeuristic fashion. It's very much a parable of people's fascination with television, with the lives of others and power ultimately corrupts everyone. It's also a testament to the tenacity of people's dreams and ambitions, as embodied by the ever chameleon Jim Carrey. The film definitely has the scope and intelligence to embrace the quirkiness at its core, without losing its emotional core, namely Truman's longing to discover the world, and the girl he loved and got away. Jim Carrey, Laura Linney and Ed Harris all create great characters, as does Paul Giamatti who was then still relatively unknown. A good film worth watching!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Anomalisa

Movie Name: Anomalisa
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Stars: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Genre: Animation, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
Director and writer Charlie Kaufman is back, alongside director Duke Johnson, with a new vehicle for his unique and inventive universe. The film focuses on the character of Michael Stone, a celebrated author who specializes in Customer Service, who's in Cincinatti for a conference. Michael is going through the motions in his life, and is profoundly unhappy. A past relationship he had before getting married haunts him, which propels him to contact his previous girlfriend when he arrives at the hotel. When that encounter goes awry, Michael is suddenly enraptured by the voice of another woman, Lisa, who's also at the hotel to listen to his speech. Michael feels an immediate connection to Lisa, whom he pursues feverishly.
Charlie Kaufman is another unique voice in cinema, and has created a portfolio of features (alongside some very talented directors) that definitely highlight his perspective of relationships. Though anchored on concepts that are surreal, these are deeply emotional stories that reflect his views on relationships and on the world in general. "Anomalisa" is anchored on a beautiful concept: Michael's loneliness is expressed by the fact that to him everyone sounds exactly the same. There's no difference in his life from anyone that surrounds him - he doesn't feel loved or connected to anyone, and much to his surprise, this woman who in her own words is "nothing special", has a distinct voice of her own, that just connects with him immediately. This metaphor highlights the concept that there's that one special person for everyone, that sounds unique and touches us in ways no one else does. The film is beautifully executed, with fantastic animation and stunning voice work from David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan (who makes the voices of everyone other than Michael and Lisa). The score from Carter Burwell is equally a great highlight. A very good film worth watching!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Thin Red Line

Movie Name: The Thin Red Line
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Travolta, Dash Mihok, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Miranda Otto, John Savage, Tim Blake Nelson
Genre: Drama, War
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
"The Thin Red Line" was Terrence Malick's fourth feature, following a twenty year gap since his last one, the fantastic "Days of Heaven" which premiered in 1978. The reclusive director has since then went on to direct more features, but "The Thin Red Line" was at the time his big comeback and as such attracted a huge array of talented actors. The film is an adaptation of James Jones' novel, and follows the story of a group of young soldiers during the second World War, specifically during the battle of Guadalcanal. This particular group of soldiers endures hardship in order to secure a strategically-positioned airfield. As these soldiers experience the horrors of war, the bonds between them tighten.
Terrence Malick's films are traditionally interesting in their concept and most of the times in their execution. The director has tried for most of his career to capture the perfect (and elusive) balance of visual/filmic and poetry, one that encompasses his views of the world. Throughout his features, his focus has been the relationship of humankind with Nature, and the dynamics of families. This can be seen in "The Thin Red Line", which starts with a premise of being a film focused on the events of World War II, and rapidly becomes something quite different. The director is more interested in witnessing and capturing the way the soldiers relate to their environment and to each other. There are glimpses into the lives they have left behind, with their inner thoughts exposing their fears and desires. It's a film that shows a different side to the nightmarish world of war. It features great performances from Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and Jim Caviezel (it was his breakout role). The cinematography from John Toll is stunning as is the score of Hans Zimmer. A great film from a distinct voice in film making.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Snake Eyes

Movie Name: Snake Eyes
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, John Heard, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, Luis Guzman, David Anthony Higgins
Genre: Action, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Still riding the resounding success of "Mission: Impossible", director Brian De Palma returned in 1998 with another interesting film, featuring the always compelling Nicolas Cage (also riding the wave of his recent Oscar win for Mike Figgis' "Leaving Las Vegas").
The film focuses on Ricky Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City cop. One night, during a heavyweight boxing championship, he becomes tangled in the assassination of the Secretary of Defense, something that also involves his best friend (who was also at the venue). As Rick becomes the head investigation officer on the case, he slowly starts untangling the conspiracy behind the whole murder, and the identity of the person behind its orchestration.
Brian De Palma is of course one of the most talented directors from the movie brat group, and even though he has not yet won an Oscar (unlike his colleagues and friends, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese), he has directed his fair share of iconic films, namely "Carrie", "Blow Out", "Body Double" and "The Untouchables". His track record during the 90s was a bit more uneven, particularly after the disastrous (and well publicized) "The Bonfire of the Vanities". "Mission: Impossible" redeemed him, and allowed him to make "Snake Eyes", a stylistic and arresting film that looks back on his more suspenseful films (such as "Dressed to Kill" for instance), and allows for Nicolas Cage to create a greasy character much to his liking. The film showcases as usual, De Palma's virtuosity in staging long steady shots (without cuts), with Stephen H. Burum's camera following Nicolas Cage everywhere. It's an entertaining film, one that allows for the audience to bask in the true pleasure that Brian De Palma always has to tell a story that is part of his cannon. He is a movie buff, and his films are homages to other works, while retaining his own sense of style and identity. The film features an inspired performance from Nicolas Cage and a great soundtrack from Ryuichi Sakamoto. This is a film that has lost some traction, but deserves to be seen.

The Siege

Movie Name: The Siege
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Ed Zwick
Stars: Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, Tony Shalhoub, Sami Bouajila, Mark Valley, Jack Gwaltney, David Proval, Lance Reddick
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
After the success of "Courage Under Fire" and "Legends of the Fall" (not to mention his award winning epic "Glory"), director Ed Zwick tackled a hot pressing topic, terrorism, with "The Siege". The film follows a fictional situation, in which terrorist cells have made several attacks on New York City. The film specifically focuses on the characters of FBI agents Hubbard and Haddad who are dispatched to deploy and solve the situation. These two agents get the support of a CIA agent by the name of Elise Kraft, who slowly reveals to know a lot more than she originally shared. When the terrorist attacks continue, the President places the city under martial law, bringing the army into fray. Under the command of General Devereaux, the troops seal off Brooklyn and detain all young males of Arab descent in Yankee Stadium. As the situation escalates, and Hubbard and Kraft race to find the last terrorist cell in the area, the full disclosure of the situation starts to emerge.
Ed Zwick has made a career out of focusing on stories where his heroes are virtuous and heroic, within a strict and authoritarian environment. That again is easily visible in the character portrayed so dynamically by Denzel Washington (and to a certain extent, Annette Bening). The film successfully conveys the feeling of impotence and fear that comes with the realization of a threat that may come from anywhere. It's an ominous realization, particularly considering the fact the film was released 3 years before 9/11. The director successfully presents the tension and dynamics of ethnic profiling, and the fear that comes with the loss of personal freedom associated with it. It's a strong film, that allows for the characters to have multiple shades and not be one-dimensional. The film features good performances from Denzel Washington, Annette Bening and Tony Shalhoub, and has a great cinematography from the very talented Roger Deakins. A good film worth watching.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Best films of 2015

2015 saw a bunch of franchises restart, by basically going back to their original molds and trying to capture the original magic (see "Jurassic World" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"). Some were incredibly successful, others not so much (see the latest installment of the "Terminator" saga). Netflix also started dabbling in releasing features, and some truly interesting independent films made their way to the main surface (such as Sean Baker's "Tangerine" shot with an iPhone). It was a year that finally saw a great film from the prolific Ridley Scott, and welcomed the return of Todd Haynes and George Miller. It was also a year where some great performances were delivered, particularly Rooney Mara's in "Carol", Leonardo DiCaprio's in "The Revenant" and Charlize Theron's in "Mad Max: Fury Road". Another great year for films.

The Revenant
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Joshua Burge, Fabrice Adde

Carol
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Trent Rowland

The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, Gene Jones, Keith Jefferson, Lee Horsley

Spotlight
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 

Room
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Stars: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Amanda Brugel, Wendy Crewson, Cas Anvar

Steve Jobs
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, John Ortiz, Sarah Snook

The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Enzo Cilenti

Anomalisa
Director: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Stars: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Inside Out
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

Mad Max: Fury Road
Director: George Miller
Stars: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter

Special highlights should go to the following films that were equally impressive: Alex Garland's Ex Machina, Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, Justin Kurzel's Macbeth, Adam McKay's The Big Short and Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, who made a smart blockbuster for a series that seems to keep getting better. The biggest disappointments of the year were M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit and Colin Trevorrow's Jurassic World.

The Revenant

Movie Name: The Revenant
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Robert Moloney, Lukas Haas, Joshua Burge, Fabrice Adde
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

Synopsis & Review:
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is back, alongside his creative team, with another stupendous and indelible filmic experience. The film is an adaptation of the novel by Michael Punke, and follows the story of fur trapper Hugh Glass in the 19th century. The film introduces us to a group of men who are in the process of gathering pelts for trade in the South Dakota area. Following an attack from Native Americans (themselves looking for one of their own who was kidnapped), the group retreats and takes to the river in order to get back to their fort. While trekking to go back, Glass the scout of the group (alongside his son), is brutally mauled by a bear. The Captain of the militia, orders the team to carry him back for care, but the path reveals itself unbearable while taking the wounded Glass. A small group stays behind to tend to Glass, including his son, and Fitzgerald, an ambitious and unscrupulous trader, who kills Glass's son and leaves him for dead. Glass miraculously manages to gather strength and slowly starts a path through the frozen grounds to claim his vengeance.
"The Revenant" manages to be a fantastic film worth watching and savoring on so many levels. It's phenomenally shot, all in beautiful locations, with each frame stunningly composed by Emmanuel Lubezki, which makes this a gorgeous film to look at. It's also a continuation of the themes that Inarritu has dabbled in before, particularly in "Biutiful", where we also had the father figure going through extremes to make sure his child was taken care of (something common to the constant care of Glass' character in this film). "The Revenant" also marries successfully the poetic tone of Glass' life experiences, namely his communion with nature with his cherished life with his wife and child (both scarred after a brutal attack from the military, which left his wife dead and his child burned). The film feels a bit influenced at points by the tone of Terrence Malick, but is never derivative, and never veers into abstract contemplation. In parallel with this tone, there's also the fantastically gruesome and brutal side of nature, and how the main character suffers through the hardship of multiple attacks - in quite a graphic and impressive way (though it's human nature at its ugliest that reveals to be the most gruesome of what's depicted). Leonardo DiCaprio creates a character that is the heart and soul of the film, giving Hugh Glass a steely resolve, but also a beating heart for his child and for the family that no longer exists. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto is equally fantastic in itself! A beautiful film worth watching!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Shakespeare in Love

Movie Name: Shakespeare in Love
Year of Release: 1998
Director: John Madden
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Colin Firth, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Martin Clunes, Antony Sher, Mark Williams
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
"Shakespeare in Love" is now well known as the big Oscar winner of 1998, and the film that managed to dethrone "Saving Private Ryan"'s almost sure win (and it was also one of the topics of Peter Biskind's book "Down and Dirty Pictures", which focused on Miramax's tactics for campaigning when Oscar season is in place). The film focuses on the story of Will Shakespeare, a young but struggling poet, who in England in the sixteenth century, sold his next play to both Philip Henslow and Richard Burbidge but is now facing a far more difficult problem: he has writer's block and is unable to move on with his writing. This situation changes when he meets the beautiful Viola de Lesseps - she loves the theatre and ambitions to become an actor, however she's forbidden from doing so, since only men can be actors. Viola manages to come up with a plan that allows her to pursue her dream, all the while slowly becoming involved with Shakespeare.
John Madden made his career primarily directing British tv shows. He experienced some critical acclaim with "Ethan Frome" in 1993, but it was "Mrs. Brown" in 1997 that really placed him on the map. "Shakespeare in Love" was a film with plenty of turnarounds in terms of casting and even director - the film was at one point going to star Julia Roberts and be directed by Ed Zwick. The film lives primarily from the smart script from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, which mixes historical facts about William Shakespeare with romantic and farcical elements. It's intelligent, comical and successful due to the incredible work from its talented cast: Judi Dench and Geoffrey Rush in particular create memorable characters, whereas the rest of the film, though entertaining, it's never more than a polished and well executed BBC film (as can be seen for the rest of the filmography of this director - competent and well executed, but without a distinct voice or tone).

Friday, January 1, 2016

Music with an Impact - 2015

2015 came and went, and allowed for some great artists to come back with deep and insightful albums, such as Bjork's "Vulnicura", without a question my favorite album of the year that has passed. It was also the year that Radiohead gifted us with one of the most fantastic James Bond tracks, which sadly wasn't used by the producers. All and all, it was a fantastic year with some truly remarkable albums.
Below are my favorites.

Bjork - Vulnicura
Grimes - Art Angels
Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto - The Revenant, Original Soundtrack
Andrew Bayer - If It Were You, We'd Never Leave
Roisin Murphy - Hairless Toys
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Empress of - Me

The Hateful Eight

Movie Name: The Hateful Eight
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, Gene Jones, Keith Jefferson, Lee Horsley
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Synopsis & Review:
After the resounding success of "Django Unchained", director Quentin Tarantino (which won a second Oscar for best Original Screenplay with "Django", following his first for "Pulp fiction") returns with another western. "The Hateful Eight" introduces us to Major Warren, who is in the mountains of Wyoming in the middle of a huge snowstorm without a horse. He comes across a carriage with a bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth who is taking his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, to Red Rock to be hanged. Warren manages to convince Ruth to let him in, and after taking in another unexpected passenger, they all find themselves in Minnie's Haberdashery, where they encounter four other people trying to escape the snowstorm. These apparent strangers, stranded in the storm, start discovering further secrets about each other with unexpected consequences.
Quentin Tarantino's further expansion of his universe continues, with "The Hateful Eight" becoming a more claustrophobic film after the bigger endeavors that were "Inglorious Basterds" and "Django Unchained". "The Hateful Eight" is a character piece, featuring eight central characters, none of whom are what they appear to be: there's a dark and unknown side to all of the characters in the film, which the director smartly peels away and allows for the story to gain momentum. He divides the story in chapters, much like his previous efforts, and has as usual, the burst of violence at some point, that immediately makes sure that you as a viewer knows that this is indeed a Quentin Tarantino film. The film falters a bit initially, with some dragging in terms of narrative and over exposition, but it definitely picks up the pace afterwards. The film is fantastically well written and acted, particularly by Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh who shine throughout the entire film and create unforgettable characters. The cinematography from acclaimed director of photography Robert Richardson is grandiose and stunning as is the score of Ennio Morricone.
A very good film worth watching.