Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Royal Tennenbaums

Movie Name: The Royal Tenenbaums
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Houston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana, Grant Rosenmeyer
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following his breakthrough feature "Rushmore", director Wes Anderson continued his association with writer/actor Owen Wilson, and both created the family dysfunctional opus "The Royal Tenenbaums". The film follows the story of a particular family where all the offspring were child geniuses, who are now grown up and somewhat trying to adjust to a reality where they're not the precocious tykes they once were. They are all dealing with challenging situations in life, and they reunite once their mother gets a marriage proposal, particularly because though estranged from their father, she never really divorced him. Royal, the patriarch, distanced himself from the family, and suddenly comes back to try and win the graces of the family (particularly because he's been evicted from the hotel where he was living).
Wes Anderson has by now trademarked a style that is very much his own. A quirky, design detailed with retro references, humor filled universe, where all the characters are sketched out with very particular traits, to better portray a canvas that is a representation of his view of the world. If "Rushmore" was an introduction to his view of the world, "The Royal Tenenbaums" was effectively the first one where he delved deeper and came out with a style that he would continue to refine in his next features (and his most recent "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a crystallization of all these elements that make his style so unique). This film brings forth a lot of the themes that are so associated with his work: the family unit that is filled with idiosyncratic characters, all of whom are in some way trying to adjust to a very ordinary universe, all peppered with self questioning and love pursuits that seemingly go nowhere. This merger of design aesthetic with humor and heartfelt characterizations, feels in a way like a nod to the superlative work of Jacques Tati, but it's still very much his own. The actors are all phenomenal, as usual, with Gene Hackman easily creating one of his best characters, with strong support from Ben Stiller and Bill Murray. The cinematography from Robert D. Yeoman is stunning as is the production design of David Wasco. A very good film from a very interesting director.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Planet of the Apes

Movie Name: Planet of the Apes
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Estella Warren, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson, Evan Parke, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Glenn Shadix
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the fantastic "Sleepy Hollow", director Tim Burton tackled the iconic book "Planet of the Apes" from writer Pierre Boulle, which had already been adapted with tremendous success in the 60s by Franklin J. Schaffner (with Charlton Heston). The story focuses on the story of astronaut Leo Davidson, who following some unexpected events at a space station, crashes in an unknown planet in the year 5021, and much to his surprise, the planet is ruled by humanoid apes who speak english, while humans are slaves. Leo ends up under the protection of an ape by the name of Ari, who is against the current treatment of humans, but he quickly escapes, freeing all human prisoners in the process. While retreating to Calima, the apes temple, Leo finds out that the area has the remnants of a space station, and starts discovering further details about the history of the planet.
Tim Burton is a talented film maker with a very unique aesthetic and universe. "Planet of the Apes" which could have been a fitting proposition, since it tackled the concept of another alienated and lost hero, suffered from a lot of studio pressure, and the resulting film feels rushed and without his particular stamp. The film is competently executed, from the visual effects, score (from the always fantastic Danny Elfman), to the phenomenal cast, particularly Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Giamatti, but sadly lacks the distinct point of view that makes every Tim Burton so unique and particular. It's a film that showcases a lot of potential, but the epilogue lacks impact, and the casting of Mark Wahlberg is a poor one, since he feels lost and lacks the capacity to give both the vulnerability and intelligence the character needs. A missed opportunity from a talented director.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Others

Movie Name: The Others
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan, Alakina Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy, Renee Asherson
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Alejandro Amenabar followed his well received "Open Your Eyes", with his first English speaking feature. The film, which he wrote, follows the story of Grace Stewart and her two children, who are living in a remote house in a somewhat isolated area in 1945. Grace's children have an uncommon ailment, which makes them sensitive to sunlight, and therefore the house always has the drapes drawn, and the children never go outside. The arrival of three servants to the house, coincides with a series of occurrences, all of which makes Grace suspect that there are other individuals in the house. The children mention to Grace there's a little boy by the name of Victor living in the house also, something that frightens and surprises Grace. As the strange occurrences continue Grace progressively realizes what truly lies beneath the house, the servants and her own family.
Alejandro Amenabar is a veritable dynamic talent who has emerged from Spain since the early 2000s. "The Others" was both a commercial and critical success, and it's a testament to his talent and capability to build suspense and mystery progressively, like a yarn that is slowly created. The film builds suspense and surprise, by using shadows and light, and by featuring an effective performance from Nicole Kidman, who more than ever, brings to mind the late Grace Kelly. The relationship between the main characters is just odd enough to add the air of unease that dominates the entire film. It's an intelligent film that frightens more by suggestion, than by relying on gore or gratuitous violence. The cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe is stunning, as is the production design from Benjamin Fernandez. An entertaining film from an interesting director.

Ocean's Eleven

Movie Name: Ocean's Eleven
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Eddie Jemison, Bernie Mac
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Prolific director Steven Soderbergh followed his successful year (2000, where he won the Oscar for best director, for "Traffic"), by tackling a remake of the Lewis Milestone film of 1960, "Ocean's Eleven", which featured the iconic members of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. , Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop). The film focuses on Danny Ocean, who following his release from prison, reunites with his best friend Rusty Ryan. They both go to Las Vegas, to prepare for a coup that involves robbing three of the biggest casinos in the area. Danny in particular wants to tackle those three casinos, since they're all owned by Terry Benedict, who is currently dating his ex-wife Tess. Danny and Rusty go about recruiting a team of people they believe can make the whole heist go smoothly.
Steven Soderbergh is one of the most interesting directors working in Hollywood currently. He has the deftness of being able to combine a more conceptual and artistic vein, with a commercial knack, which makes his films an interesting hybrid. If some of his earlier work was a bit more esoteric (such as the underrated "Kafka"), following "Out of Sight", he started a series of films that mixed some experimentalism with known genres, something that "Ocean's Eleven" is a perfect example of. The film exhibits an ease and flow to itself - it's smart and entertaining, but also very humorous. It's a film that is aware of its concept, with an impeccable production team, making the set pieces flow seamlessly (and Steven Soderbergh is usually also responsible for the cinematography of his features). It doesn't take itself seriously, and the film is more successful for it. The entire cast has a great chemistry and complicity, something that makes the film even furthermore entertaining. A good film from a great director, always worth watching.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mulholland Drive

Movie Name: Mulholland Drive
Year of Release: 2001
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Robert Forster, Patrick Fischler, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, Mark Pellegrino, Monty Montgomery, Chad Everett, Rita Taggart, James Karen, Michelle Hicks, Wayne Grace, Michael Des Barres, Melissa George
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
David Lynch followed the celebrated "The Straight Story" with what was originally intended as a new pilot for a TV show. When the pilot didn't get picked up, the project found itself in limbo, until Canal + gave the money to finish what needed to be wrapped in terms of story, and "Mulholland Dr." was born. The film premiered at the Cannes film Festival of 2001, where it won the award for best director, and it went on to win many more accolades that year. The film focuses on three characters: the first one we are introduced to is Rita, a beautiful woman, who due to an accident, is amnesiac and finds herself randomly in the streets of Hollywood. The second is a young actress coming to town, by the name of Betty. The bright eyed Betty is staying at her aunt's, and she's going for an audition and an attempt at becoming an actress. The third central character is Adam Kesher, a young director, going through some tribulations in his personal life, and whose latest feature comes under the attention of some characters wanting to control some of the participants in that same film. Betty and Rita are brought together, and jointly start trying to understand who Rita is, which sends them a progressively darker road.
David Lynch is one the most unique directors currently working. He has been one since his debut with "Eraserhead" (1977), and has carved out a career on his own terms, with themes that are very much his own, but usually a merger of surrealism, filled with cinematic references, American art (Norman Rockwell infused aesthetic), a stylized and sometimes highly violent perspective of society. The merger of these themes, distilled through his very unique sensibility, mixed with a zany sense of humor, have made most of his films simultaneously delicious and full of elements to interpret and try to discern. None of this is more obvious than in "Mulholland Dr. " that is quite possibly one of his most enigmatic and also most interesting films. The film that starts as an investigation in the milieu of the Hollywood arena, which becomes something else, much darker in tone, making the viewer question what had been watched and seen before. It's a film that takes you on a journey with these characters, one that builds an atmosphere that becomes progressively more ominous and yet also romantic (and at times quite funny). It's a fascinating film, anchored in one of the best performances captured by Lynch on film, that of Naomi Watts, who manages to show true versatility and range within seconds of a singular scene. A great film from a unique voice in film.

The Mummy

Movie Name: The Mummy
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2
View Trailer

Synopsis:
Writer, Producer and Director Alex Kurtzman, a name long associated with JJ Abrams, is tackling Universal's first film in a series of monster films that are supposedly coming out in a series. The first is "The Mummy", which focuses its attention on the character of Nick Morton, a military man, who while in service in Iraq, discovers an ancient tomb containing a cursed mummy. Turns out this mummy is in fact a long lost princess and heir to the Egyptian throne, who made a pact with evil forces, and now freed, focuses her attention on Nick. Nick alongside his unexpected ally, the beautiful Jenny Halsey, are soon the target of this powerful entity, who follows them to London, where she starts wreaking havoc. It's up to these two with the help of a hidden society to try to derail her plans.
The most surprising element about a film such as this, isn't the sophistication of the visual effects, or the considerable talent that has been placed in front and behind cameras. It's effectively the fact that there are 6 talented screenwriters credited to this film, and yet this is potentially one of the most nullified stories that has graced the screens in recent memory. There is no intrigue, no character building, no real opposing forces to speak of, no real sense of excitement. There are some random chase scenes, some characters that try to mimic Griffin Dunne's deadpan delivery from John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London", all of them amounting to very little. The most recent films from Stephen Sommers focused on "The Mummy" were silly and over the top, but there was a somewhat genuine sense of silliness to them. This new incarnation doesn't really know what it wants to be: a classic pulpy adventure or modern revisitation with a bite. Sadly it fails on both counts: the mummy comes across more like a tragic figure from the past, and Tom Cruise spends the film looking confused and surprised by what he really needs to be doing. A messy and instantly forgettable film.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman

Movie Name: Wonder Woman
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Elena Anaya, Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, Lilly Aspell, James Cosmo, Lucy Davis
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer

Synopsis:
The expansion of the DC comics universe continues, following the critically reviled "Batman vs. Superman" and "Suicide Squad". Director Patty Jenkins follows her celebrated debut "Monster" with a bigger canvas, one that showcases her vision for the iconic Wonder Woman character, that Zack Snyder introduced last year in "Batman vs. Superman". The film follows the story of Diana, who is brought up in a secluded island by the tribe of Amazons. While there, Diana is trained to become a resourceful warrior, something that is tested when a man crashes in the waters surrounding the island. The man turns out to be a spy, by the name of Steve Trevor, who is working for the Allies, during the first World War. Diana is convinced that the God of War, Aries, is in reality influencing humankind to create war. She, alongside Steve Trevor, go to London, and then Paris, in order to fight in the trenches, and get to the German General, she believes to be the main instigator of war (and secretly Aries).
Patty Jenkins has managed to create a smartly built adaptation of the Wonder Woman mythology. The film leverages the scenarios that were carved by the comic books, and even the original TV show from the 70s. The director builds the universe where these women exist for the first part of the film, allowing for the relationship between the lead characters to evolve. This relationship building continues through Diana's attempt at understanding the fabric of society and women's roles in the 1910s. These are the sections of the film that holds more interest, all the way through Diana's action scenes at the trenches. The final act of the film turns out to be the most generic, with the special effects overcoming the storyline that had been built before (and in a way, is very similar to the approach that Zack Snyder uses in his DC universe adaptations). The film is nonetheless entertaining for the most part, even if a bit campy when it comes to drawing out the villain characters (it also brings to mind Joe Johnston's "Captain America: The First Avenger"). The cast assembled is quite strong, with good performances from Chris Pine and Connie Nielsen. The cinematography from Matthew Jensen is beautiful, as are the costumes from Lindy Hemming. An interesting effort from an interesting director.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seven Psychophaths

Movie Name: Seven Psychopaths
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Harry Dean Stanton, Kevin Corrigan, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Zeljko Ivanek
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Playwright and director Martin McDonagh followed his well received debut feature "In Bruges" with "Seven Psychopaths", another intelligently written and well acted film, featuring his usual accomplice, actor Colin Farrell. The film focuses on Martin, a struggling screenwriter in LA, who is experiencing problems in writing his next project. His best friend Billy, tangles him up in a scheme he has around town, one that involves stealing dogs and holding them for ransom. Unfortunately their latest victim, turns out to be the dog of a crime lord, something that sets in motion a series of unexpected events.
"Seven Psychopaths" manages to be simultaneously a dark comedy, but also a big wink to filmmaking and the art of writing. The film has nods to the styling of independent films from the 90s, with the quick witted dialogue, but also with the sudden outbursts of brutal violence. It's a film that is very intelligent, and very self aware, but one that doesn't make these characters more than just archetypes, something that it plays off appropriately. It has a great cast, with Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken making the biggest impressions, but most of the supporting cast has nothing much to do. It's still an entertaining film well worth watching.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Movie Name: Florence Foster Jenkins
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Prolific director Stephen Frears is back, following the successful "Philomena" and the little seen "The Program". "Florence Foster Jenkins" is based on the true story of the lady with said name, who was born in 1868 (and passed away in 1944), and was considered the worst opera soprano ever. The film introduces us to Florence as the New York socialite and heiress, who funded the Verdi Club to promote the love for opera and music. Her husband, an English actor, is also her manager, and though he leads a somewhat lateral life with a girlfriend (due to Florence's health), he's a staunch supporter and devoted to her. Upon hiring a young gifted pianist, Florence performs a small recital, one that is met with laughter and derision, but also with enthusiasm, something that fuels Florence willingness to continue (even if everyone thinks she's terrible, without ever telling her so). Her recordings make their way to the radio, where a lot of the audience think that they are humorous takes. She manages to book Carnegie Hall, much to the shock of her devoted husband, who has always tried to shield Florence from the barrage of negative criticism.
The works from Stephen Frears have always been somewhat irregular - he has touched many themes with different levels of success, but one thing that has been a staple of his work, is the consistency with which he allows for actors to build interesting characters. If some of his early and most interesting films, such as "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Prick Up Your Ears" married a view of the English society with the disruption of social norms and thrives for personal expression, his Hollywood ventures have been somewhat glossier (with turns both inspired such as "The Grifters" and "Dangerous Liaisons" with others less interesting, such as "Hero" and "Mary Reilly"). "Florence Foster Jenkins" manages to be a film that is impeccable in its execution and detail, allowing for three great central performances, in particular from both Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (who is a surprise). However it's also a film that has nothing more than that - it demonstrates and illustrates, but it's incapable of truly transmitting the fervor and love that Florence felt for music and opera. For someone and a character who butchered opera as this lady supposedly did, this is a tame film that lacks energy and a much needed exuberance (one has to wonder what Pedro Almodovar or John Waters would do with this material). A quickly forgotten film somewhat redeemed by its central performances.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Movie Name: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scoledario, Brenton Thwaites, Kevin McNally, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Stephen Graham, Keira Knightley, Martin Klebba, Adam Brown, Angus Barnett, Golshifteh Farahani
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following the dismal critical reception of the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (directed by Rob Marshall and released in 2011), one that still managed to surpass 1 billion dollars in revenue, Disney pushed forward with another sequel, this time around directed by the duo of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the Norwegian directors whose film "Kon-Tiki" was nominated for an Academy Award. The new film again follows the misadventures of captain Jack Sparrow, this time around giving him a new foe, and some old and new allies to combat this supernatural entity. Among the new allies are the son of Will Turner, who's trying to break the curse that holds his father captive. Also on a quest is the young Carina Smyth, an astronomer, who is looking for a map that can lead her to finding answers she needs. Their new foe, is a Spanish captain by the name of Salazar, who battled Jack when he was younger, and who is now a half dead creature, seeking vengeance across the oceans. It's up to Jack and his allies, to discover Poseidon's trident and eradicate all curses from the oceans.
As with every franchise in existence, the audiences come to see them for familiarity, and for extravagant set pieces, that provide entertainment and distraction (just like every single Marvel feature). The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, has never been a particularly engaging one: it has been mostly memorable because of how Johnny Depp has subverted and given a new dimension to a character that on paper was a simply eccentric pirate. As the series has continued, and the plotlines have become more and more convoluted, and the budgets have ballooned, that has meant grander visual effects, bigger stunts, usually to cover up whatever holes the stories may have. This film in particular checks all of those points: it has massive set pieces, truly fantastic visual effects,  and sadly that's mostly of whatever positive elements it has going for it. The actors, including Johnny Depp are swallowed whole by the digital spectacle that surrounds them, as beautiful and as extravagant as they may be. As much as a well oiled machine this is, the film lacks a distinct point of view, and the extremely talented actors Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush, have very little to do (and sadly both the young leads are terrible). This is a film that is quickly forgotten, and is mostly salvageable for some humorous moments that Johnny Depp manages to create.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Secret World of Arrietty

Movie Name: The Secret World of Arrietty
Year of Release: 2010
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Stars: Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made his career as a key member of Hayao Miyazaki's team, and from Studio Ghibli's talented design team. "The Secret World of Arrietty" is his feature film debut, and features a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, adapted from Mary Norton's novel (the long standing series which was "The Borrowers"). The film follows the adventures of young Arrietty, a tiny little girl, who lives with her family within the walls and in the basement of the house of big people. In order to survive, Arrietty and her father "borrow" things from the big people, things that are unperceived, such as a sugar cube, clothing pins, anything they can find of use. A young boy named Shawn comes to the house where Arrietty lives, and accidentally spots her in the garden. This relationship grows further as Arrietty goes on her first borrowing expedition, and Shawn once again spots her. This however endangers her family, as other people in the house soon start looking for the tiny people.
The universe of Studio Ghibli is one populated by a mix of real and magical creatures, and how their relationships evolve. "The Secret World of Arrietty" fits within this universe perfectly, since the tiny people come across as magical entities placed in a somewhat dreary world. This film doesn't fall under Miyazaki's typical stories of the relationship of men with technology and nature, but it's still and nonetheless populated by the relationship between what is considered normal and what is considered different (which was the case of the wonderful "Spirited Away" for instance, with the relationship of Chihiro/Sen with Haku). "Arrietty" perfectly captures the delicate and strong relationship that is developed between young people, independently of their background and personal story. It's a timeless tale, told in a beautiful and delicate way. The animation is top notch as is the case with all of Studio Ghibli's releases, and the score from Cecile Corbel is equally impeccable. A very good film worth watching.

Alien: Covenant

Movie Name: Alien: Covenant
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
After the critical and commercial success of "The Martian", director Ridley Scott is back to the "Alien" saga, which originally propelled his name, this time around following up the mediocre "Prometheus" with a film that tries to adhere closer to the mythology created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett in 1979. The film follows a crew from the spaceship "The Covenant" who are on a mission to colonize a distant planet. During the trip, the ship suffers some damages, and the crew is forced to awake. They discover a signal coming from a nearby planet, and set out to discover what lies within. Upon arrival, they start getting infected with some alien parasites, where the remainder of the crew, come to find out that the survivor is actually David, the android from the original "Prometheus" crew. Much to their horror, the alien species starts proliferating again, and soon the crew is desperately fighting for their lives.
What was so original, interesting and compelling about the original series of films, wasn't so much the alien creature and how destructive and terrifying it was. It was primarily the fact that Ripley was the heart and center of the films, and it was her odyssey dealing with these creatures that showcased her resilience, intelligence and heart (and in doing so, proving that humans can overcome the deadliest foes). What these new features have revealed, particularly the more they try to marry it with the original films (always finding new female characters as their heroines), is the general lack of coherence and of compelling characters that create effective drama (it's pretty much a given that most characters are going to be fodder for the alien to destroy). Whereas "Prometheus" was poorly written, "Alien: Covenant" provides further insight (and a better structure), and shifts the focus of the story from the human centerpieces. Writing aside, the film features Ridley Scott's impeccable aesthetic and point of view, with a superb cast, and production team. The film tries to marry design aspects from the original 1979 feature, with digital effects, making the whole endeavor feel awkward and not entirely successful. At this point these films feel more like a desperate attempt to breathe life into a property that has run its course. The legacy of the "Alien" films deserves better, and so does Ripley.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Nice Guys

Movie Name: The Nice Guys
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following the successful "Iron Man 3", director Shane Black is back with a new feature, one that again combines his trademark of action mixed with comedy and satire. The film follows two men in Los Angeles, in the late 70s. One, Jackson Healy,  is a muscle for hire, and the other, Holland March, is a smart yet clumsy detective. They are both thrown together, when they are hired to discover what happened to a young woman by the name of Amelia. They have to cope with an increasing series of odd events, but luckily with the assistance of March's daughter, they soon are on the right path to find their missing woman. However, not everything is what it seems in this missing persons case.
Shane Black is a talented writer/director who always manages to create films where the odd pairing of his central characters makes for memorable and entertaining situations (such was the premise of Richard Donner's "Lethal Weapon" and his best feature to date, the underrated "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"). "The Nice Guys" has all the trademarks that made his name well known as a screenwriter: a noir/thriller environment with inspiration from classics such as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown", with a quick and biting wit, very much screwball comedy inspired. This film in particular has the selling point of having two great actors as leads, both with lots of chemistry. What the film lacks, is the biting satire that was so well developed in his previous features, stronger and more defined female characters. It's still a film with a great cast, fantastic cinematography (from academy award winning Philipe Rousselot) and impeccable production design. An interesting film from a compelling director.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Denial

Movie Name: Denial
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Mick Jackson
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Mark Gatiss, Harriet Walter, John Sessions
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Director Mick Jackson has returned with a new feature, after the celebrated TV film "Temple Grandin", from 2010. The film is based on the book and events surrounding the life of acclaimed Historian Deborah Lipstadt. The narrative focuses specifically on the libel case that was brought against Deborah by David Irving, a Holocaust denier. The case, which was brought against Deborah in 1996, had huge media exposure, and it also included Deborah's publishing house, Penguin. The libel/defamation case, argued Deborah had published lies about Irving's reputation and about the Holocaust itself. Deborah's legal team went out about presenting facts and therefore dismantling David Irving's case, who chose to represent himself throughout the process.
Mick Jackson's best directorial efforts have been features where he marries his experience in directing documentaries with material that is based on real situations and people (though his most popular film may be "The Bodyguard" from 1992, with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston). "Denial" is the perfect material for the director, since it's based on a real case that occurred in the mid 90s, and outlines how a resourceful, intelligent and articulate Historian resolved to battle a libel case that involved one of the biggest atrocities witnessed by humanity. It's a film that is thorough in how it illustrates the process and who were the key players - it's taut and the director has just enough stylistic flourishes to make it a compelling and interesting film. The film falters in the further definition of the characters (we always have a somewhat limited view of the main key players), but the case itself is enticing, and is serviced by a fantastic group of actors, particularly Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall, who give enough nuance and depth to what might otherwise be cliched characters. A good film worth watching.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Movie Name: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Year of Release: 2017
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Ving Rhames, Michelle Yeoh, David Hasselhoff, Laura Haddock
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following the surprise success of "Guardians of the Galaxy" in 2014, the sequel was inevitable. The film continues to track the adventures of the band of misfits. This time around, the group becomes the target of the Sovereign race, after successfully eradicating a creature that was intent on destroying one of their most prized possessions. Old family issues come into play as our heroes try to flee their captors/persecutors. Peter Quill's father makes his appearance, saving them from a perilous situation, and allowing Peter to gain further information about his birth and how his mom came to meet his father. However as Peter quickly discovers, not everything and not everyone is what they seem to be.
James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" managed to be a surprising and entertaining film, because it successfully married pop culture references, just enough character richness (which wasn't much to begin with) all tied under the bow of a great soundtrack, one that simultaneously brought a sense of nostalgia and irreverence, while also giving the whole outer space adventure additional context (and making the whole adventure more humane). Somehow that balance got lost in the second feature - the film suffers from rhythm issues (the film becomes at points tremendously tedious, with characters having emotional epiphanies every other scene), and the soundtrack, once a highlight to particular sections, has become something the narrative revolves around - it does not underline the scenes, it defines them. The overabundance of visual effects has also made the feature strangely hollow and lacking emotional depth - the characters (and by consequence the actors), are dwarfed by everything that surrounds them - though the film features a few beautiful sequences, and the humor prevails, the taste level throughout is questionable. The film comes across as an indulgent exercise, when restrain and more focus was needed to provide the characters with enough to do, an actual foe/villain to battle, one that wasn't excessively abstract or lacking personality. The fantastic cast doesn't have much to do, though Kurt Russell seems to be having fun in some of his scenes. A sadly missed opportunity.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Being 17

Movie Name: Being 17
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Andre Techine
Stars: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Corso, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Remi Garcia
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Celebrated director Andre Techine is back, with the feature "Quand on a 17 ans", which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (2016). The film follows the story of two teenage boys, both of whom live in the French countryside. Damien, lives in the small town, alongside his mother, a warm, good humored doctor, while is father is out of country on military duty. Tom, the other teenager, lives further out, on a farm by the mountains. His adoptive parents are dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, which puts Tom living temporarily with Damien and his mother, Marianne. The boys, who have been at odds with each other, often with physical violence, are forced to reassess their relationship. Things finally become clearer when Damien confesses his attraction and love for Tom, something he initially refuses and pushes back violently. A dramatic event however bring these two young men together.
Andre Techine has made a career for himself with intelligent dramas that perfectly capture the dynamics of family relationships, be it blood relations or families that are built upon deep friendships. Some of his finest efforts have been films that capture the pains and challenges of a first love, something that "Les Roseaux Sauvages/Wild Reeds" demonstrated (back in 1994). "Being 17/Quand on a 17 ans" is another perfect example of his capabilities in capturing the bonds that are formed between young inexperienced people who are discovering who they are, how they relate to each other their longing and desire. It's a remarkable film that traces the realities of living in a small town, of discovering a different type of love, and ultimately of coming to peace with one self. It's a film that removes artifice, and presents itself with emotion and honesty. The performances from the central trio are all solid and engaging, particularly the wonderful Sandrine Kiberlain as the pragmatic yet sensitive mother. A very good film from a great director.

Bridget Jones's Baby

Movie Name: Bridget Jones's Baby
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Sharon Maguire
Stars: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Sally Phillips, Shirley Henderson, James Callis, Neil Pearson, Sarah Solemani, Celia Imrie, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Joanna Scanlan, Kate O'Flynn
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
The Bridget Jones saga continues, this time around with the original director, Sharon Maguire, coming back to helm the third feature, and the original script being handled by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson ( this feature unlike the previous two, was not based on a previously published novel). The film follows the misadventures of Bridget Jones, now a 43 year old single woman, following her split from Mark Darcy, who in the meantime has married someone else. While celebrating her birthday with a friend from work, Bridget engages in a casual tryst with an American by the name of Jack. The same week, she goes to a Christening and also engages in another casual romp with Darcy (who is actually in the midst of a divorce). Much to Bridget's surprise, she becomes pregnant, however she does not know who the father actually is. Bridget decides to present the situation to both men, who both agree to help her through the process with unexpected situations presenting themselves.
What made the original film work (which came out in 2001), was the obvious charm and talent of Renee Zellweger, alongside the story of an accident prone Bridget Jones, who tended to be caught up in romantic dalliances which were not always the best and most advised for her. The first two films also dealt with her struggles pertaining to a sense of self image, and how she overcame those to find resilience and self affirmation within her own skin. This third film side steps this altogether: the new Bridget is slim and more confident. She's a slightly older Bridget, with a slightly bruised heart, but still hoping her prince charming is available. The film ultimately suffers from a barely there concept, something that Renee Zellweger again carries with her charm, but this is a Bridget who no longer has the spark and the irreverence that dominated the first feature (her spunk has somehow been tampered down). The film tries to marry the concept of aging with being a mother at an older phase in life, trying unsuccessfully to be funny while doing so, however that's a premise that was slightly better explored in "Baby Mama" (the Sigourney Weaver character in that film). For all the incredible cast that is assembled, this is a film that is safe and ultimately quickly forgettable.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Knight of Cups

Movie Name: Knight of Cups
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, Cherry Jones, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Peter Mathiessen
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 1
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the well received "The Tree of Life", and the not so well received "To the Wonder", reclusive director Terrence Malick returned with another directorial effort (which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival of 2015). The film focuses on the life of Rick, someone working in the entertainment industry, who is trying to find meaning to his life, by understanding the relationships that define him, namely with his brother, father, and the assorted women he has had amorous encounters with.
I should start by saying that "Knight of Cups" feels like a film written and planned by a young student of Philosophy, who suddenly becomes enamored with a sense of self and self discovery, and hires a fantastic cinematographer, and a group of stupendous and beautiful actors to pose and act out supposedly deep meanderings about what life is all about. "Knight of Cups" plays like one of the most self-indulgent exercises captured on film, one that renders absolutely no meaning, borderlines on poor taste and goes interminably with no apparent sense. The narrative, thin as it may be, contains a lot of narration from different characters, who basically interact with each other by posing, or simply looking at each other as if though they're in a music video (the camera never anchors on anyone long enough, since the characters never really speak with each other). This film doesn't function as an art installation since the concept sustaining it is almost pedestrian - "life in the fast lane ends up alienating the sensitive yet damaged good looking central character", and doesn't function as a film, since there's no dimension to anyone, no characters to speak of, and it basically is a beautiful snapshot of a lot of locations (and apparently all of them are populated by stunning model like people). It's a career low point for everyone involved, and from a personal perspective, it definitely raises a lot of questions about Terrence Malick's talent and taste level.

The Handmaiden

Movie Name: The Handmaiden
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following his American detour with "Stoker", director Park Chan-Wook has returned with a new fantastic feature, which made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival of 2016. The film is inspired by the novel of Sarah Waters, but the director transposes the action to Korea in the 1930s, when the country was occupied by the Japanese. The film focuses on a young pickpocket Sookee, who is hired as a handmaiden to a beautiful young heiress who lives with her uncle in a stunning mansion. Sookee was arranged to be in that position through a Count, in reality a swindler who wants to marry the beautiful heiress, place her in a mental asylum and run away with her fortune. Unknown to Sookee however there's other plans already set in motion, and she unexpectedly finds solace in the relationship that she develops with her mistress.
Park Chan-Wook who has been an iconic name in Asian cinema since "Oldboy" (which came out in 2003), brings to life another story that though seemingly linear at first glance, starts unveiling further layers as the narrative unfolds. It's a beautifully realized film, allowing for the central characters to be rendered with some detail. It also brings to life the context of living in an occupied Korea in the 30s, while simultaneously showcasing the perspective of being a woman in a society and culture controlled heavily by men and their interests. As the film unfolds and the twists become more apparent, the more interesting the dynamics of the characters are, and so is their dimension. The film is beautifully shot, with a stunning cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung, the same going for the production design. The main cast is uniformly strong and create indelible characters, particularly the central pair, Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim. A very good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

T2 Trainspotting

Movie Name: T2 Trainspotting
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Shirley Henderson, Kelly Macdonald, Angela Nedyalkova, James Cosmo, Scott Greenan, Irvine Welsh, Pauline Turner
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Acclaimed director Danny Boyle is back, following his fantastic, yet little seen "Steve Jobs" biopic. His latest feature is a follow up to his iconic "Trainspotting" which was released in early 1996 (it started it's wider unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival of that year). The film follows the misadventures of the same group, as they now deal with middle age. Mark Renton returns from Amsterdam where he hid following his escape with the money from the scam the group pulled off in 96. His mom has passed away, but his father is still living in the same place. Spud in the meantime has had a child with Gail, and is still troubled by his addiction to drugs. Sick Boy/Simon also continues to do drugs, but is now involved in blackmailing schemes, while trying to run a barely there pub that was an inheritance left by his aunt. Begbie in the meantime is in prison, and fails parole yet again. He stages an attack so he can be sent to the hospital and have more chances of escaping. Mark tries to make amends with his friends, and while Spud is welcome to see him, Simon initially isn't so receptive, but they do manage to smooth things out. They all set out to put together a new scheme, but with Begbie out of prison, that may turn all their plans upside down.
Danny Boyle continues to be one of the best and most inventive directors working these days. He always marries a unique stylistic approach to the material with a tone that is always adequate to the narrative he's building on screen. In this case we no longer have the frantic pacing that dominated the original Trainspotting - we have a rhythm that is closer to someone who is older (our narrator, Mark Renton), dealing with the consequences of his choices, and the fears of what's to come when you're not so young anymore. It's a film that is successful in showcasing just the perfect amount of the society and habits that it criticizes. It wears its nostalgia as a wink, and not so much as a crutch. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, picking up right where they left 20 years ago. A very good film, from an excellent director.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Moulin Rouge

Movie Name: Moulin Rouge
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, John Leguizamo, Garry McDonald, Kerry Walker, Jacek Koman, Matthew Whittet, Natalie Mendoza, Kylie Minogue, David Wenham, Lara Mulcahy, Natalie Mendoza, Christine Anu
Genre: Musical, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Australian director Baz Luhrmann followed his successful William Shakespeare adaptation of "Romeo and Julie" with a full blown musical (something he had previously tackled with "Strictly Ballroom"). "Moulin Rouge" follows the story of young Christian, an idealistic English writer, who lives in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. He loves the bohemian life, and that is best represented by the club "Moulin Rouge". When visiting the club, he is drawn to the beautiful courtesan Satine, the biggest star of the cast. Unbeknown to him however, she is promised to a rich investor, who is also visiting the club. The investment of this man is crucial to the longevity and existence of the club. These two young lovers however, can't be apart and will overcome all obstacles to pursue their relationship.
Director Baz Luhrmann has a specific aesthetic and formal style that at times marries perfectly with the material and produce great films, which was the case of "The Great Gatsby" and "Romeo and Juliet". On other occasions, the stylistic approach overcomes the tenuous storyline, and the film falls prey of decorativism, with the characters becoming puppets that showcase his love of pop music and over the top visuals. "Moulin Rouge" is a hybrid of both of his trends - in the pursuit of creating a classic romantic feature, Lurhmann creates a film that is excessive, visually opulent (almost garish at times), but one with heart and a genuine love of films. The film ends up faltering on defining fully dimensional characters, but it does manage to create a fully artificial interpretation of the bohemian world of Paris at the turn of the century. The cast tries their best to bring these characters to life, particularly Jim Broadbent who is, as always, fantastic. The cinematography from Donald McAlpine is stunning, as is the score from Craig Armstrong. An uneven feature from an interesting voice in films.

Memento

Movie Name: Memento
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After his auspicious debut with "Following", director Christopher Nolan debuted his follow up "Memento" at the Venice Film Festival of 2000 and also at the Sundance Film Festival of 2001. The film follows the story of Leonard Shelby, an insurance investigator, who as a result of a past trauma, suffers from anterograde amnesia, or short-term memory loss. Leonard is looking for the men who attacked him and killed his wife, and uses a catch-up method that includes polaroids and tattoos to provide him with hints to what he's looking to discover. As Leonard continues his investigation he comes across different characters, all of whom have their own motivations to assist him.
Upon release "Memento" was received with rapturous reviews, and ended up nominated for two Academy Awards. The film has an interesting structure, where the director presents the action simultaneously in a linear fashion, while also showcasing the narrative in reverse order, both meeting at the end of the feature, fully forming a cohesive story. This unorthodox form of showcasing the central character's path allows for the audience to further empathize with the lack of memory that Leonard suffers, and it adds to the story's progressive exposure. It's an intelligent film anchored in a fantastic performance from the always underrated Guy Pearce. Christopher Nolan started establishing his credentials with this film, one that highlights intelligence, thoughtfulness, within the confines of a well known genre. A good film worth watching.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Movie Name: Ghost in the Shell
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Rupert Sanders
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Michael Pitt, Juliette Binoche, Chin Han, Peter Ferdinando, Lasarus Ratuere, Danusia Samal, Anamaria Marinca, Tawanda Manyimo, Yutaka Izumihara
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Following his feature debut, "Snow White and the Huntsman", director Rupert Sanders is back, this time tackling the adaptation of a well known comic, which was already adapted to a successful manga film in 1995, "Ghost in the Shell" from director Mamoru Oshii. The film takes place in a distant future, where the border of what separates human and cybernetic has become quite faded. People have cybernetic enhancements performed on their bodies. In this society, there's a revolutionary presence, that takes shape under the guise of a cyborg, one that has a cybernetic body and a human brain. Under the title of Major, this resourceful agent works with a special police unit to tackle the most sophisticated criminals and terrorists, and as we find out, she's targeting the hacker by the name of Kuze. Kuze's targeting the company that created Major, and as the investigation probes deeper, she suddenly realizes that the story behind her existence isn't truthful and there's definitely more for her to uncover.
"Ghost in the Shell" is an interesting film, one that is influenced by the original manga film and also Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner". It's visually stunning and the visual effects on display are nothing short of fantastic, however it's a film that feels under-developed. The essence of the central character and its struggle to understand what is truly humane within her and who she is, could have added an extra dimension to the film. As it is, the film ends up being more of a procedural with some touches of what means to be human, and some considerations of how technology is permeating human life on a biological level. It would be interesting to see what a director such as David Cronenberg could do with this type of material, since he has handled stories of this nature before ("Videodrome" and "eXistenz" for instance). Rupert Sanders is more interested in illustrating and staying close to the manga, not providing much dimension to the supporting characters. Scarlett Johansson tries to keep a detached mechanical demeanor, but in the end it's Juliette Binoche who has the most memorable and humane performance. It's a deeply flawed film, but one that contains sufficient ideas that makes it a worthwhile watch.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Man Who Wasn't There

Movie Name: The Man Who Wasn't There
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Borowitz
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Following the critical and commercial success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", the Coen Brothers returned with a decidedly more stylistic and subdued feature. "The Man Who Wasn't There" follows the story of Ed Crane, a low key barber who is married to Doris, a bookkeeper with a drinking problem. Doris is having an affair with her boss, something that Ed has already figured out. When one of Ed's customers mentions he's looking for an investor for a new business he's mounting, he decides to blackmail Dave, Doris' boss. Dave decides to embezzle money from his department store to pay for the blackmail, but soon figures out who's responsible for the scheme. This sets in motion a series of events that leads to dramatic results.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is a stark and stylistically beautiful film from the Coen Brothers, with a stunning cinematography from their usual collaborator Roger Deakins. It's also a film that has a somber tone and rhythm, unlike most of their previous features which were always dominated by a continuous momentum. The film is an apt reflection of the dour central character, perfectly embodied by Billy Bob Thornton. It's an austere film noir, that definitely lacks a punch, which is where the film ends up faltering. The cast is phenomenal, which is typical for their productions, but the film misses a more aggressive pacing and momentum. A more subdued effort from these talented film makers.

Life

Movie Name: Life
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
Director Daniel Espinosa is back, following his little seen and critically maligned "Child 44", this time around, tackling a script from the successful duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the duo responsible for writing "Zombieland" and "Deadpool"). The film follows the story of a crew of 6 people, that are currently on orbit at the International Space Station. The team manages to salvage an exploratory hub that came from Mars, and much to everyone's surprise, they discover life in some of the samples that came with the hub. Initially a joyous and celebratory event, the entity quickly starts growing, and reveals itself hostile, starting to attack the crew members. It's up to the team to avoid that the creature makes it to the surface of Planet Earth.
This is a film that is ripe with potential - it tries to merge the concepts of "Alien" with the somewhat grounded approach that "Gravity" brought forth. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Ridley Scott, nor Alfonso Cuaron are at the helm of the film. This is a feature that lacks a point of view, a successful sense of menace, and ultimately something that makes it more identifiable, and not so derivative of better films. Both "Alien" and "Gravity" were without a doubt, the merger of many factors, namely design, concepts, storytelling, but they were also works from directors that manage to have a strong point of view, and embed it (with varying degrees of success) in whatever films they create. "Life" tries desperately hard to give the characters something to do, but it lacks dimension, and definitely lacks a sense of menace. The antagonist creature, as polished as it may be, looks excessively digital, and is overly visible. One of the reasons why "Alien" was so successful was precisely the fact that the audience only partially saw the menace - letting the imagination do the rest is invariably its own reward. This is a film that has a good cast, and a great production team, but definitely lacks a stronger point of view. Quickly forgettable.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Movie Name: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian Holm, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Marton Csokas, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
Director Peter Jackson had an interesting career prior to the adaptation of the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. He first established himself as a cult name with films that ranged from the over the top trilogy of "Bad Taste"/"Meet the Feebles"/"Dead Alive", to the indie film that showed his more dramatic side, with "Heavenly Creatures", which simultaneously launched the careers of Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. After his first Hollywood film went largely unnoticed ("The Frighteners" with Michael J. Fox), the director tackled what would become his biggest challenge and the forever staple in the adaptation of fantasy films. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" premiered in December of 2001 to great accolades, being rewarded with Academy Awards and a huge commercial success. The film is a faithful adaptation of the novels from J.R.R. Tolkien, and follows the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, and his friends, as they come across a ring that can define the powers to be in the realms of Middle Earth. Alongside Bilbo are his hobbit friends Sam, Pippin and Merry, his human friends Aragorn and Boromir, an elf by the name of Legolas, a dwarf by the name of Gimli and the wizard Gandalf. This group sets out to destroy the ring of power, but are pursued by the hordes of Sauron, and the obstacles just become bigger and bigger as their odyssey begins. This is a journey that will test all their resilience.
Peter Jackson is an imaginative director, one with a thorough knowledge of film techniques, something that he put to good use with his initial films, that garnered him quite a lot of attention in film festivals. His adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" was a herculean task, since he tackled the three films simultaneously, and was his first time handling a task of that scale. The results are quite strong, even if structurally the films end up having an uneven momentum. The first volume manages to be quite possibly the best, since it defines the universe of the story, presenting and defining the lead characters, giving everyone just enough dimension to make their characters compelling and noteworthy. It's a film that works exemplary on all the different production levels that are on display, from the cinematography of Andrew Lesnie, the score from Howard Shore, the production and costume design, to the fantastic visual effects on display. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen in particular creating indelible characters. A very good film from a unique storyteller in film.

L.I.E.

Movie Name: L.I.E.
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Michael Cuesta
Stars: Brian Cox, Paul Dano, Billy Kay, Bruce Altman, Tony Michael Donnelly, Walter Masterson, Adam LeFevre, James Costa
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
"L.I.E." (standing for Long Island Expressway) was director Michael Cuesta's debut feature, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival of 2001, and earning accolades in several festivals and awards guilds. The film follows the story of Howie Blitzer, a teenage boy, whose mom has passed away recently, and whose father is currently in the throes of dealing with some shady businesses and dating new people. Howie is pretty much left to his own devices, and spends time with the charismatic Gary, who flirts with him, and who has the habit of robbing houses in the neighborhood. One of their victims turns out to be Big John, one of Gary's clients. Big John develops a friendly relationship with Howie, something that is further enhanced when his father is arrested for dangerous practices in his business. "L.I.E." is a fantastic film and was a great debut for Michael Cuesta, who has gone on to direct a mix of feature films (more recently "Kill the Messenger") and high profile TV shows (such as Showtime's "Dexter" and "Homeland"). His first feature tackles difficult issues, with the central character coming to terms with who he is sexually, and also by making the dubious Big John his father figure. It's a film that deals with the alienation of families, lack of communication, and also how the process of finding one self isn't always a linear one. The film features two great central performances, one from the always underrated and terrific Brian Cox, and from Paul Dano, then just starting his career, who impresses beyond his young age. A very good film from a very interesting director.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Movie Name: Kong: Skull Island
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Tian Jing
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

Synopsis:
After a career directing shorts and TV Series, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts made a name for himself with the well received "The Kings of Summer". This follow up is a huge difference in themes and scale, and is a somewhat successful B-Movie/Grindhouse film, wrapped in a big blockbuster style. The film follows an agency and government expedition to a mostly unknown island, that has surfaced on the radar, but that no one knows much about. Under the guise of getting further geological information, seismic charges are dropped into the Island, which in turn awakens the herculean Kong, a colossal ape that is the undisputed king of that island. The teams get dispersed, some die, but thanks to the unexpected help of a long lost survivor, they figure out a plan to reach their evacuation point. However, they soon realize that Kong isn't the only creature they should fear.
Unlike Peter Jackson's retelling of the King Kong story (from 2005), Jordan Vogt-Roberts goes for a different tone, one that is definitely more anchored by influences of B-films, and even Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now". The film takes place in 1973, and successfully captures the dynamics of that time (political, military and social), the colors, and the music, but soon that quickly becomes background when the team reaches the island. The film then quickly becomes a creature feature, with Kong quickly coming into play, decimating part of the team, while other equally menacing creatures surface to also challenge the human teams of reaching safety. Sadly none of the characters are actually given much to do, particularly the always interesting Brie Larson, who as photo journalist Mason Weaver, spends most of the time behind the camera (her motivation is to discover why the island is so secretive). Tom Hiddleston is sadly miscast as the lead tracker - he lacks charisma, humor and depth to actually make the character memorable, the same going for Samuel L. Jackson (who by the way looks like he just phones in his more recent performances, such as David Yates' "The Legend of Tarzan"). The film manages to be entertaining thanks to John C. Reilly's always welcome presence, and the tone of the film, that oscillates between large budget extravaganza (fantastic special effects), and B-movie aesthetic, which perfectly suits it. A mildly entertaining film.