Sunday, July 30, 2017

Vanilla Sky

Movie Name: Vanilla Sky
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall, Tilda Swinton, Michael Shannon, Shalom Harlow, Johnny Galecki, Delaina Mitchell
Genre: Mystery, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the critical success of "Almost Famous", celebrated director Cameron Crowe returned with a different opus, a remake of the Spanish film "Abre los Ojos" from Alejandro Amenabar. The film follows the story of David Aames, a young and attractive man, who is wealthy and in charge of the reigns of a big magazine in New York City. David is pursued by a beautiful woman by the name of Julie, with whom he has engaged in a episodic affair, something that takes a much secondary interest when he becomes enamored of Sofia, a beautiful Spanish young woman, whom he meets at a party (that she attends with his best friend). This turn of events goes much darker, as Julie becomes obsessed with David. She tries to commit suicide, taking David alongside with her in her car. Though he survives the event, his face is quite disfigured, and he resorts to wearing a mask to overcome those problems. Though he has his face reconstructed, David starts seeing some odd visions in his daily life, until one day when visiting Sofia, much to his shock and surprise, it's Julie he finds at the apartment. The events spiral out of control from then on, threatening his sanity.
"Vanilla Sky" is an odd film in Cameron Crowe's career. The director has made a trademark for himself by creating films about every day men, who are faced with challenging situations, but who choose to pursue their dreams against all odds (that these men are always surrounded by stunningly beautiful women is just luck of the draw, or good casting options). "Vanilla Sky" is an odd choice for him, since it's a film that basis its premise on the fact that the lead character, and the audience, never really know what is effectively real or if everything that has occurred is simply imagined by him. It's a tricky act to maintain for the entire duration of the film, but as the narrative unfolds, and the pieces start being sorted out, the whole sci-fi aspect of the film doesn't really gel or mesh with the film as a whole. The problem lies in the fact that the film can never get a defined tone - it tries to be a romantic opus about a hedonist who needs to grow up, but also a mystery thriller, and a futuristic parable. Tom Cruise invests all of his energy into this role, as does Cameron Diaz, but it's a film that though beautiful to look at (with cinematography from the fantastic John Toll), it lacks conviction and focus. A missed opportunity from an interesting director.

Atomic Blonde

Movie Name: Atomic Blonde
Year of Release: 2017
Director: David Leitch
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Bill Skarsgaard, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Roland Moller, Sam Hargrave, Daniel Bernhardt
Genre: Action, Thriller
Score out of ten: 7
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Synopsis:
Another graphic novel series gets the big screen adaptation, this time around by the hand of David Leitch, the co-director of the celebrated "John Wick". The film follows the story of Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent, who is dispatched to Berlin, just as the wall is coming to an end in 1989. The remains of the Cold War persist, and Lorraine is tasked with getting a microfilm that has the information on all infiltrated agents, and also uncover the identity of a double agent who has brought a series of problems to the department. Lorraine is informed while being briefed, not to trust anyone, since there are multiple organizations looking for that list, and everyone is trying to get the upper hand while doing so. It's up to her and her skills, to navigate the tense political climate, and carry the mission to completion.
"Atomic Blonde" is a very entertaining film, one that is well aware of what is staging in terms of narrative and all the parts that comprise it. This is a well crafted and polished B-film, that has sufficient plot to keep the action going, but reserving a lot of its focus on the stylized look, the well placed soundtrack, and the impeccable action scenes that are choreographed to perfection. It also has a key success factor in the lead, the always fantastic Charlize Theron. She manages to create a lead character, who is simultaneously lethal, while retaining a sense of humanity and vulnerability, which makes Lorraine a far more compelling character than say, James Bond (who seems to be impervious to everything, therefore becoming more of a caricature, something that the "Naked Gun" films always spoofed so well). The supporting characters are not quite as compelling, or well rounded, and this is definitely not a John Le Carré adaptation (the plot is a bit wafer thin), but the film is impeccably conceived and directed, with a great production design from David Scheunemann and score from Tyler Bates. A very entertaining film worth watching.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian

Movie Name: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten: 4
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Synopsis:
Luc Besson and his production machine is back, this time touting a huge blockbuster he wrote and directed himself, an adaptation of the comic book series "Valerian and Laureline". The film follows the story of Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline  who in the 28th century, comprise a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order, at least where human presence is felt (the two are also supposedly involved in some sort of quasi romantic relationship). The two embark on a mission that is focused on the immense city of Alpha-an ever-expanding space metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, something that threatens the peaceful existence of the City. It's up to Valerian and Laureline to identify that menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
Luc Besson who created a name for himself in the 80s and 90s, as one of the few French directors to produce and direct films that were immensely popular both in his native country but also outside (namely with "Le Grand Bleu", "Nikita" and "Leon"), has in the meantime become a powerhouse with his production company EuropaCorp, who has been responsible for the release of mid budgeted action films that are immensely popular (such as the "Transporter" and "Taken" series). His latest directorial effort was the surprise hit "Lucy", which has enabled him to tackle this dream project of his. "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" is very much like "The Fifth Element", a digest of a lot of pop references, from the screwball romantic comedy elements that are associated with the banter between the two lead characters, to the galaxy in peril style which is an instant ode to the universe of "Star Wars". This attempt at marrying all these elements ends up being its main downfall: the banter between the lead characters never really catches on, while the film introduces some subplots that appear out of nowhere to be quickly discarded with little to no consideration (not to mention the villain character or entity is never really quite flushed out). The casting is also a huge issue in the film, since both leads - Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne - don't really work at all in their roles - they both look too young, and their actions feel inconsequential and without any sense of urgency or peril, considering what is at stake (not to mention they have no chemistry). It's a film that lives mostly from the fantastic visual effects and concept design that it presents, and for that alone it manages to be sufficiently entertaining, but in the end it feels like a lot of noise for nothing. A quickly forgettable film.

Dunkirk

Movie Name: Dunkirk
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy, Harry Styles, Barry Keoghan, Matthew Marsh 
Genre: Action, Drama
Score out of ten: 9
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Synopsis:
Following the successful (and divisive) "Interstellar", director Christopher Nolan is back, with a film that unlike his previous efforts, is based on a true story, this time around focusing on an episode that occurred during World War II (which was also illustrated on Joe Wright's "Atonement"). The film follows the story of the evacuation of a group of Allied soldiers from the beaches (and harbor) of Dunkirk to the English coastline (from May 26th through June 4th 1940). The film focuses on a young soldier, and his attempts to exit the beach, and all the hurdles he and his companions have to go through in order to reach home safely (among those hurdles, the sinking of multiple ships). The film also focuses on the civilians that are brought into this situation, aboard their vessels to rescue all these soldiers.
Much has been written about the fact that "Dunkirk" is duration wise, the shortest feature directed by Christopher Nolan. That particular information, should in no way be detrimental to the fact that the director has built another fantastic film, one where his cerebral perspective aligns with the events that unveiled at the beach, and in particular with the lives of all those men. It's a perfect marriage of his taste for scale (and grandiose) and tension buildup. It's also a testament to this director's refinement that the film relies so little on dialogue exposition, and yet it manages to communicate so much. The film is exquisitely photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and has a crackling score from Hans Zimmer, both of which marry with the perfect editing from Lee Smith, to create a stunning example of how to create an indelible experience that captures the urgency and panic felt by so many during such a tying time. If anything can be pointed out to this film, is the fact that the characters almost feel secondary to the events unfurling, but this is such a fantastic achievement from a fantastic storyteller.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Movie Name: War for the Planet of the Apes
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Gabriel Chavarria, Michael Adamthwaite, Devyn Dalton
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten: 6.5
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Synopsis:
Director Matt Reeves is back, after the successful "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", which took the original Rupert Wyatt film to a much different level. Following the events of that film, we learn that there's a virus spreading through the Earth that is rendering humans unintelligible. They're losing the capacity to communicate. Caesar in the meantime has retreated with the apes to the woods, looking to live remotely and peacefully. However a belligerent Colonel is coming for them, targeting in particular Caesar. In one of those attacks, Caesar's family is killed, something that sets him on a revenge path, that may ultimately cost the future of all his tribe.
The "Planet of the Apes" universe has always been one that exposes the brutality of the Human species towards other species, or anything that they deem out of the ordinary (and therefore a potential threat). What has made this series such an iconic one since it was originally adapted in 1968, has always been the fact that it depicts a future where the human race is destroyed by its own doing. They bring on the evolution of other species (and in a way, the son taking the place of the father, which is the case of Caesar), which eventually takes over the planet itself. Matt Reeves is a very interesting and intelligent director, who infuses his stories with heart, allowing for characters to be more than just cardboard archetypes. From the central apes through their opponents, we witness a bit of what has set all these events in march, and what each of them aim to get out of their paths. Where the film does falter is in the effective building of tension, and the fact that for the most part this film plays like John Sturges' "The Great Escape" (which in itself isn't a bad thing at all), but without ever giving the film the edge that it needs to be truly memorable. Production wise, this film is top notch, with stunning visual effects, and two great leading performances from Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson. The cinematography from the veteran Michael Seresin is beautiful as is the production design from James Chinlund, who builds a devastated world with a mist of Dickensian and industrial tones. A good film worth watching.

Okja

Movie Name: Okja
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Stars: Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seo-Hyun Ahn, Steve Yeun, Lilly Collins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Giancarlo Esposito, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
After the critically well received (but filled with problems over distribution) "Snowpiercer", director Bong Joon Ho is back, this time around directing a feature film for streaming platform Netflix. The film focuses on the story of Mija, a young girl in South Korea, who for the past ten years, has taken care of a genetically engineered pig, Okja, who has grown massively and has become her best friend. Okja, and some other 26 animals have been given to different farmers around the world, by the company who has created them, the Mirando Corporation. This entity is governed by the insecure Lucy, who wants to make sure these animals are palatable to the general population once they start selling them. Things however come to a halt, when Okja is suddenly taken away from Mija, in order to be sent to the US. An animal liberation group comes to her aid, and they all set out a plan to expose Mirando and denounce their animal cruelty. But again things don't go according to plan.
Bong Joon Ho who made a name for himself outside of Korea with the well known "The Host", creates an interesting parable with "Okja". By demonstrating the bonds created between the young girl and the massive Okja, the director sheds light on topics such as corporate greed, unscrupulous executives and of course animal cruelty. The film definitely has some tonal issues, something that is more blatantly visible in the character portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is overacting and losing all sense of nuance (and he's not Robin Williams, and can't capture that sense of manic energy and sad puppet the late actor could do so well). But it's a film that has heart, and functions as an interesting parable for a lot of the maladies that exist in our society. It also has a good sense of humor, one that is perfectly embodied by the always brilliant Tilda Swinton, doing double duty this time around (the supporting cast with Paul Dano and Steve Yeun is also well cast). The visual effects are fantastic as is the cinematography of Darius Khondji. A good film worth watching.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Movie Name: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Jon Watts
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Donald Glover, Logan Marshall Green, Tony Revolori, Tyne Daly, Bokeem Woodbine, Zendaya, Abraham Attah
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
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Synopsis:
After the disastrous solo outings the character suffered with "The Amazing Spider-Man" features, a new incarnation got introduced in last year's "Captain America: Civil War". The new take on the character is a continuation of the storyline from that film, and continues to follow the adventures of Peter Parker, as he adjusts to his high school life, following his assignment alongside the Avengers. In this new world of super heroes and alien menaces, there's people who are trying to capitalize on scavenging on the remains of battles. That's the case of Adrian Toomes, a contractor, who realizes he can sell new arms and materials from the debris of these battles between these super powered beings. Peter/Spider-Man however realizes this angle, and soon both these personalities are engaged in a battle that may disrupt both their worlds.
Director Jon Watts has followed on the footsteps of other indie directors who are being recruited to tackle big spectacle films, such as Colin Trevorrow and Gareth Edwards (respectively the directors of "Jurassic World" and "Rogue One"). Much like these directors, the overall immediate perception is the lack of a distinct point of view. The production machine behind these big popcorn spectacles does have a way of eliminating nuance and a more unique point of view, but if there's something that the "Harry Potter" series has taught, is that different directors can bring their stamp of uniqueness to it - case in point, Alfonso Cuaron and his take on the third film from the Harry Potter series. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" tries to reconcile being a teenager comedy, filled with typical awkward humor and failed romantic attempts, with being a full blown action and super-hero film. The film has humor and winks a nice cinematic eye to John Hughes, but can't help on revisiting the all too familiar high school setting with tired plot lines. Where the film does add some edge is with the always reliable and fantastic Michael Keaton, who brings sufficient menace to elevate the proceedings to a different level. His story line is also where the film feels more interesting and compelling, whereas the plot points with Peter/Spider-Man and his relationship with Iron Man and the Avengers, feels strained and a bit forced. It's a film that doesn't bring anything new to the table. It's well crafted (and at this point, aren't they all well crafted), but really needs a more unique point of view to make it memorable. Sam Raimi's first two films had heart and a cinematic joy: this one tries to reference others without achieving its own. Maybe next time.

20th Century Women

Movie Name: 20th Century Women
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Mike Mills
Stars: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann, Thea Gill, Waleed Zuaiter, Alia Shawkat, Alison Elliott
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis:
After the wonderful "Beginners", director Mike Mills returns with another opus based on his life, this time around focused on his mom and his growing up in California during the late 70s. The film follows the story of Jamie, a 15 year old growing up in Santa Barbara in 1979. He lives with his mom, Dorothea, in a large house that they're slowly renovating. His mom has rented two rooms to two very different individuals: the young artist by the name of Abbie, who's recovering from cervical cancer is one of them, the other being the hippie William, who is also a fantastic mechanic. Jamie is deeply enamored with his best friend, the beautiful Julie, who is slightly older, and has already started exploring her sexuality (except with Jamie). Dorothea, who grew up during the Depression and has been one of the first women to work in commercial aviation, has divorced Jamie's dad and has been on her own for quite a while. She worries about his upbringing, and brings this group of residents and friends together to help her give Jamie a better perspective on life.
Mike Mills has managed during the course of his brief filmography to build a universe that is very much his own. His stories are deeply autobiographical, but they transcend the mere illustration of the past - they are far from nostalgic trips to his memory vault - they are meditations on what makes family more than just biological ties. His films are poems to the people who shaped him up to be the way he is, and that ends up being a metaphor for a lot of the relationships that people shape with the ones that are closer to them. "20th Century Women" in particular focuses on the women in his life, and how they had such a deep impact on his capacity to relate to women and build relationships with them (amorous and otherwise). Every single woman in this film is clearly outlined, and has an inner pulse and ambitions, something that gives this film a nuanced and compelling narrative. All the actors in this film excel, particularly Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning. They bring warmth, humor, edge, heart, and make this film utterly watchable. The cinematography from Sean Porter is beautiful, as is the wonderful and eclectic assembled score. A fantastic film worth watching.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Beguilled

Movie Name: The Beguiled
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
Genre: Action, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
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Synopsis:
After her "Little Mermaid" project for Disney fell through, director Sofia Coppola put together an adaptation of "The Beguiled", based on the novel by Thomas Culinan and the screenplay written in the 70s by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (which was directed by Don Siegel and featured Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page). The film focuses on a group of women under a same roof, specifically a school for young women in the South, during the American Civil War. One of the young students while picking mushrooms in the woods comes across a yankee wounded soldier. Initially surprised and torn between what to do with the soldier, the director and main teacher, agree to let the charming soldier stay, while they tend to his wounds. The soldier slowly ingratiates himself into the lives of the women, until one evening things come to a dramatic halt when he's discovered with one of the young students.
"The Beguiled" scored Sofia Coppola a best director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The writer/director has slowly built a career for herself, always with a distinct point of view, very much focused on women centric narratives ("The Virgin Suicides", "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette" for example). "The Beguiled" is another example of her point of view: what was in the original screenplay a story very much focused on the wounded soldier, becomes in this version, a story about the different women who occupy the house, their longings, and their fears. The film is beautifully built, slowly showcasing how the older women respond to the presence of a male figure in the house. That is particularly more evident with the character played by Kirsten Dunst, who becomes particularly enticed by the soldier. He romances her with hopes of leveraging her loneliness as a way to escape (war and a life of work). The film has a dark and gothic tone to it, but it's very much driven by Coppola's aesthetic and trademark character building, which allows for Kirsten Dunst in particular to create a character who looks tired, hopeless, and who suddenly reawakens when this persona comes into the house. Sadly her character is the more realized one, but it's still an impressive group and dynamic that is showcased in the feature. It's a beautifully constructed and acted film (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are equally great), from another unique voice in cinema. Worth watching.

Baby Driver

Movie Name: Baby Driver
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Edgar Wright
Stars: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzalez, Sky Ferreira, Jon Bernthal, Sky Ferreira, Flea, Paul Williams, Hal Whiteside
Genre: Action, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
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Synopsis:
Following his public split from the "Ant Man" project with Marvel Studios, writer and director Edgar Wright decided to tackle a project he had been working on since the 90s. "Baby Driver" follows the story of Baby, a young man who's been an orphan since he was a young boy following a violent car crash that killed both of his parents. Baby is an expert driver, working on different heists for a gentleman by the name of Doc, who holds some power over him. Baby has a strong affinity for music, since it also mutes a hearing issue he has, something that makes him use his headsets all the time. After a successful heist he meets Debra, a waitress at a diner, and they both fall in love with each other. That is just the needed motivation for Baby to move one with his life, but Doc has other plans.
Edgar Wright has managed thus far to create an eclectic and vibrant work portfolio. After his "Cornetto Trilogy" (comprised of the features "Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End") and the comic book adaptation "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World", he has tackled with "Baby Driver" an original screenplay of his own. The film, unlike the previous ones however, is neither as successful nor as memorable. Wright has always been able to marry a deftness for understanding pop culture, with humor and a stylistic approach that makes his films so unique and always interesting. "Baby Driver" anchors itself in the relationship of music with action scenes precisely choreographed. Sadly the film is never really a musical (how interesting it would have been to really go fully blown musical, much like Lars Von Trier did with "Dancer in the Dark"), and not really a believable action film (the heists themselves are simplistic and the film in general lacks a certain dose of story building to make them compelling and suspenseful, much like what Christopher Nolan did in the first instances of "The Dark Knight"). What ends up happening with this film is an amalgamation of stunt scenes with good music selection, with a cast that is either cast appropriately but unsurprisingly (Kevin Spacey) and others just not charismatic enough (Ansel Elgort). It's not a step backwards, but it doesn't add much to the work and promise this director has.