Saturday, February 27, 2016

Election

Movie Name: Election
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Mark Harelik, Phil Reeves, Molly Hagan, Delaney Driscoll, Colleen Camp, Matt Malloy, Jeanine Jackson, Holmes Osborne
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
"Election" was one of the most critically celebrated films of 1999. The film was director Alexander Payne's second directorial effort, after the well received (and little seen) "Citizen Ruth". "Election" takes place in Omaha, NE and focuses on two central characters: high school teacher Jim McAllister and student Tracy Flick. Tracy is an overtly ambitious and determined teenage girl, who is running for class president, seemingly without opposition. Jim knows that Tracy was involved in an affair with one of his colleagues, which cost him his job and his marriage. Annoyed by her presumptuousness, Jim decides to convince the popular but dim witted Paul to run against her, and to everyone's surprise, Paul's younger adopted sister also joins the race. These unexpected obstacles throw Tracy off, but she's still undeterred to win at any cost.
Alexander Payne has made a career of observing the unraveling of the lives of every day people. His characters are traditionally faced with a somewhat cathartic event, and their aftermath and how it affects their surrounding relationships is traditionally the focus of his features. "Election" is very successful in showcasing the life of a small midwestern city, and how the ambition of a young woman in high school throws into disarray the life of a teacher, who was blissfully sedated in the tranquility of his own existence. It's a film with a corrosive irony that also benefits from great performances from Matthew Broderick and particularly Reese Witherspoon (this character fits her to a tee, and it's almost the opposite of what she created for Matthew Bright's "Freeway"). A very good film worth watching.

Triple 9

Movie Name: Triple 9
Year of Release: 2016
Director: John Hillcoat
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Kenneth Williams, Michelle Ang, Terence Rosemore, Terri Abney
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Synopsis & Review:
Director John Hillcoat is back, after the successful "Lawless" and the bleak "The Road". "Triple 9" is a film that focuses on a series of characters that find themselves connected through crime in the city of Atlanta. The film starts by immediately introducing us to a crew of dirty cops who are in the process of robbing a bank. That heist isn't as successful as expected, but it turns out that they're expected to do another stint. The head of this group is being blackmailed by the Russian mob and this next coup is virtually impossible to accomplish. The only way to pull it off is to manufacture a 999, police code for "officer down". The focus their attention on a new police officer who has joined their group recently, but things take a decidedly unexpected turn.
John Hillcoat has had a long career as a director of commercials and music videos. The feature that placed him on the map was the Nick Cave written western, "The Proposition". "Triple 9" presents itself as a grittier and messier version of Michael Mann's "Heat", but sadly has none of the character development or engagement that the latter film created. The characters of "Triple 9" are thinly developed, and even fantastic actors such as Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson, can't bring much edge or difference to this endeavor. The film builds momentum and there's definitely a seedy underbelly of crime that the director sheds a light on, but it's simply not compelling enough to be distinct (or better) of what TV shows such as "The Wire" have accomplished. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, and the remainder of the very talented cast make an effort to elevate the material, but the film feels implausible and ultimately disappointing. A missed opportunity.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Witch

Movie Name: The Witch
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Sarah Stephens
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
"The Witch" is Robert Eggers' feature film debut, and has already garnered plenty of accolades, namely the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival (of 2015). The film takes place in New England in the 17th century. A devout family is expelled from a small community, because the patriarch of the family doesn't agree with the way the Church and Christian faith is professed in that small village. The family decides to take ownership of a plot of land by the woods. They quickly build out a small farm and start their crops, and the family expands with a newborn baby. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, things slowly start unraveling, with the oldest daughter in particular coming under heavy scrutiny and accused by her siblings of being influenced by the devil.
Robert Eggers in his directorial debut (following a career that started as a production designer), manages to create a film that is anchored in a meticulous depiction of what life in the 17th century would be like. It's a film that does not rely on shock value to slowly create a sense of impending doom and general unease. The isolated family with their strong faith starts reeling from all the dramatic events that shake their beliefs, themselves and their sense of family. The director smartly lets the situations unfold, more through suggestion, than showcasing or fully revealing the forces surrounding the family. It's a strong film lives from the successfully created environment, with Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Dickie creating interesting characters. The cinematography from Jarin Blaschke is beautiful, as is the costume design from Linda Muir. An interesting film worth watching.

Deadpool

Movie Name: Deadpool
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Kyle Cassie, Stefan Kapicic
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Synopsis & Review:
"Deadpool" is another of Marvel's characters to be adapted to the big screen. The character hails from the "X Men" story lines, and is as such, a mutant with an edge. The film introduces us to Wade Wilson, a mercenary with a good heart, who falls in love with a woman who's his perfect match. Wade finds out that he's terminally ill, and voluntarily goes to a program that supposedly can heal and regenerate him. He soon finds out that the program is a shady practice, where humans are tested to develop mutations - after much torture his finally develops not without some serious side effects. He decides to exact revenge on the people who left him for dead, particularly when they also kidnap his former lover.
Tim Miller's debut film, following his work as an animator and director of short features, is a mix bag of dark humor, risque language and a conventional introduction to a comic book character. The film ultimately isn't as different nor as non-conformist as it hails itself to be: the edge of the violence and language aside, the film is very similar in tone to what Peyton Reed's "Ant Man" or Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" were. Where the film is indeed successful is the perfect casting of Ryan Reynolds as the central character. The actor makes the character such a perfectly rapid fire wise cracking hero, that everyone else on this film just ends up looking and feeling a bit like the Colossus character - artificial and contrived. What indeed happens is that when Deadpool isn't on screen, and thankfully that happens only a few times, the film holds little to no interest. The action sequences are well orchestrated and the sense of humor is indeed welcomed, but unlike James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy", the antagonist never feels sufficiently developed, and the remaining characters aren't sufficiently drawn out. Here's hoping the next film comes with a far better screenplay.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

45 Years

Movie Name: 45 Years
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Synopsis & Review:
Following the successful "Weekend" and his HBO show "Looking", writer/director Andrew Haigh has returned with the well reviewed and awarded "45 Years" (the film won Best Actress and Actor at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015, to name but a few of a slew of awards). The film is an adaptation of a short story from David Constantine and follows the story of a couple of has been married for 45 years and who's about to have a party to celebrate that event. During the week leading to that event, Kate and Jeff receive the news that the body of Jeff's former girlfriend from the 60s has been found. She had disappeared, in an accident in 1962, and her body has just now been found. Jeff shares some information with Kate about that relationship, but as the days pass, more information comes into play, and Kate starts realizing the impact that that woman has had on her life during all the years she has been married to Jeff.
Andrew Haigh has been a close observer of relationships in all his projects thus far. "45 Years" observes in detail how a relationship that has existed for a lifetime, contains secrets that threaten its existence. The unveiling of the situation behind Jeff's first relationship and its impact on his subsequent one with Kate are deeply felt by her, who gradually understands how their lives were impacted by secrets that were kept from her. This finally escalates to her dramatic moments at the celebration of their union, where Kate finally acknowledges the anger she feels towards her partner and their marriage. This film is a powerful and realistic look at the evolution of a long relationship between two people, and how some unspoken truths can damage something beyond repair. Andrew Haigh perfectly captures the existence and lives of these two people, who are brought to life by two fantastic actors, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. They both depict people whose lives are altered by a past event, that has in a way always existed in their lives, but that now becomes something very real and palpable. It's a film made from a frank and honest point of view, much like Andrew Haigh had done with "Weekend". A very good film worth watching.

Hail, Caesar!

Movie Name: Hail, Caesar!
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Fisher Stevens, Max Baker, Veronica Osorio, Heather Goldenhersh
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4

Synopsis & Review:
Writer/Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are back, following the stupendous "Inside Llewyn Davis", with a shift in gears, and revisiting a genre they have tackled before, the screwball comedy. The film focuses on the story of Eddie Mannix, the manager of Capitol Films, one of the big (fictional) studios of Hollywood in the 1950s. Eddie is dealing with the portfolio of films that his studio is producing and the stars he has on his payroll. One of the studio's big productions, "Hail Caesar!" hits a snag, when the lead star disappears and Eddie receives a ransom note indicating that Baird (the lead actor) has been kidnapped. The kidnappers turn out to be a group of disgruntled screenwriters, who are also secretly communists, and are intent on partaking in the profits the studios make at the expense of their talent. It's up to Eddie to clean up this entire situation.
Joel and Ethan Coen have made a career of juggling multiple genres, which they revisit through their unique perspective. They've been successful in some of their comedies, particularly "Raising Arizona" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?", but have also floundered, particularly with "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers". "Hail, Caesar!" sadly turns out to be one of their least successful films: it tries to capture the glory and underbelly of classic Hollywood, by exposing some of the dirt behind what went on in the business, but sadly the film lacks momentum, spark or even a genuine caustic tone to make an impression. Most characters are simply cliches, and appear and disappear quickly enough, never making much of an impression (sadly so, since Tilda Swinton's characters and Alden Ehrenreich's both deserved more attention). The film is an impeccable showcase for the artistry and professionalism of the team that the directors brought together, namely the cinematography of Roger Deakins and the score from Carter Burwell, but lacks rhythm and even the slapstick that made the flawed but funny "The Hudsucker Proxy" worth watching. Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes all create interesting characters, but sadly not enough to save the film. A quickly forgotten endeavor from these talented directors.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Bone Collector

Movie Name: The Bone Collector
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Phillip Noyce
Stars: Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah, Michael Rooker, Luis Guzman, Michael McGlone, Leland Orser, John Benjamin Hickey, Bobby Cannavale, Ed O'Neill, Richard Zeman
Genre: Crime, Mystery, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Following the success of both "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Saint", director Phillip Noyce tackled another genre film, this time around adapting a novel by Jeffery Deaver. The film focuses on two police detectives: one a brilliant mind, who due to an accident is a paraplegic tied to a bed, and a recently graduated one, equally deft and intelligent, but still trying to understand where she stands. These two professionals are brought together, when some dangerous killer starts abducting people in a taxi and leaving them to die in particularly sadistic ways. With time counting down between each abduction and possible death, they both have to figure out what the motivation for these rituals are and profile this killer, so they can successfully prevent this from happening again.
Phillip Noyce has had an interesting career in Hollywood, mixing more commercial fare with films that speak clearly to his origins (he's Australian) and sensibilities as a film maker (one can compare his more commercial films such as "Salt" and "Patriot Games" versus his more personal films such as "Rabbit Proof Fence" and "The Quiet American"). "The Bone Collector" is simultaneously one of his most underrated and yet also most successful films since it knows it's just a procedural with really handsome people. As most films with serial killers which popped up in the late 90s, this film is deeply influenced by David Fincher's "Seven", but has the hook of having the main hero tied to a bed, and making the partner a young and beautiful female police officer. The film rode the popularity of having Angelina Jolie in one of the main roles, just as her career was taking off, which elevated what is a somewhat competent, but already heavily scrutinized subject matter. The film features good work from Craig Armstrong, on the score, and Dean Semler on cinematography (who won an Oscar for Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves"). A solid film from an interesting director.

Being John Malkovich

Movie Name: Being John Malkovich
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, John Malkovich, Mary Kay Place, Octavia Spencer, Charlie Sheen, Kevin Carroll 
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
After a prolific career directing music videos, director Spike Jonze made his fantastic feature film debut with "Being John Malkovich", which was also writer Charlie Kaufman's first feature to be transposed to the big screen (after a career of working for different TV shows). The film focuses on puppeteer Craig Schwartz and his wife Lotte Schwartz. Craig loves his profession, even if it means a meager income, though it does allow him to inhabit the skin of others. When the income situation comes to a halt, he is forced to take a job as a file clerk, located on the five-foot tall 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. In this office, Craig finds a hidden door which he learns is a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich, enabling him to control the actor as if he's a puppet. This control lasts fifteen minutes after which he is spit into a ditch next to the New Jersey Turnpike. Craig is fascinated by this turn of events, and takes his wife to experience this otherworldly sensation. This sets in motion a series of events that changes both their lives irrevocably.
Charlie Kaufman's view of the world, which successfully mixes humor with a deep emotional pathos and irreverence, meets in Spike Jonze the perfect associate in this deeply funny and intelligent film. Craig nullifies himself to become the man he thinks his loved one wants, all the while noticing much to his shock, that she eventually resents him for it. The film is ultimately a contemplative rumbling on the meaning of relationships, of taking ownership of one's own decisions and self, and the efforts we all make to be loved. There's a subversive and acid sense of humor at play, particularly with Catherine Keener's character, Maxine, whom the actress brings to life in a truly memorable way. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with John Cusack, Cameron Diaz (nearly unrecognizable) and John Malkovich creating indelible characters. The cinematography from Lance Accord is beautiful as is the title song from Bjork, "Amphibian". A great film worth watching!