Saturday, December 28, 2013


Movie Name: Nebraska
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Elizabeth Moore
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"Nebraska" follows the story of Woody Grant and his son David, both of whom embark on a trip from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize of 1 million dollars. Woody, a chronic alcoholic with a heart of gold, whom their sons don't know very well, is desperately trying to leave something for his family as he sees his death looming, while his son David, mostly wants to find a way to connect with his father. Both David and Woody embark on this trip, visiting Woody's family in the process, unearthing some family history unknown to David.
Director Alexander Payne, has followed his award winning "The Descendants" with another interesting insight into the dynamics of a family. "Nebraska" delves deep into the lives of a Midwestern family, one where the dreams have long been buried by the triviality of every day life, and where a man who has numbed himself with alcohol all his life, finally decides to pursue a dream of his own, when he sees death looming. The film falls trap of certain elements that are almost taken from a Coen brothers film (which makes the film at a certain point feel almost cliche driven), but the humanity and insight that has always been present in Alexander Payne's films is always felt. Bruce Dern and Will Forte create characters that have a mix of melancholia and compassion, with a sadness in their eyes which makes them humane and not just regular archetypes. June Squibb for all her spark, ends up being the comic relief in an otherwise more one note type of performance. The cinematography from Phedon Papamichael is stunning while the score from Mark Orton tries to create the "Midwestern" vibe (a la "Fargo"), and becomes almost too intrusive in the story. A good film worth watching.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

Movie Name: Saving Mr. Banks
Year of Release: 2013
Director: John Lee Hancock
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Lily Bigham, Kathy Baker, Rachel Griffiths, Annie Rose Buckley
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Director John Lee Hancock follows the massive success of "The Blind Side" with another truthful story, this one detailing the "battle" of bringing the character Mary Poppins to the big screen. The film introduces us to P.L. Travers, the British author of the series of books about Mary Poppins, who in 1960 was finally courted by Walt Disney to come to America, in order to sign the rights to the character, so the film adaptation could be worked on. Mrs. Travers turns out to be quite an opinionated author, filled with impositions and barriers to every single suggestion coming from the screenwriters and composers, battling even Walt Disney himself. Mary Poppins as it turns out, is a figure dear to the writer, who created that character from her own childhood experiences. The perseverance from the writers and from Walt Disney himself, ultimately win over Mrs. Travers doubts and qualms about handing over the rights of her character to the Disney studio.
John Lee Hancock is a director whose films are very loose adaptations of truthful events, where the screenplays usually sidestep edgier or possibly controversial subject matters. "Saving Mr. Banks" sidesteps any information on the personal life of the author, and focuses solely on her trip to Los Angeles to work on the adaptation of her stories for the big screen. Emma Thompson in that regard excels, creating a character who is simultaneously irritating and ultimately endearing. Her possessiveness of the character Mary Poppins stems from her childhood, which is presented in a series of picture perfect flashbacks (with Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson playing the parents), which are ridden with cliches and ultimately add nothing much to the story itself. Tom Hanks has little to do, but his performance as Walt Disney is subdued and adds the necessary backdrop for Emma Thompson's character friction and conflict. The remaining talented group of actors have little to do, but they bring the story to life with enthusiasm, particularly Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak and the stupendous Paul Giamatti. A film worth watching for the brief insight it provides about the process of bringing an iconic character to the screen.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Movie Name: Inside Llewyn Davis
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Phillips, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Karpovsky
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

After the successful remake of "True Grit", the Coen brothers return with one of their original screenplays. "Inside Llewyn Davis" follows the story of a folk singer, aptly named Llewyn Davis, who upon the demise of his folk duo, decides to embark on a solo career. His career isn't going well and Llewyn resorts to small gigs as a session musician to get some money, while crashing at his friends couches in order to have a place to sleep. Most of his personal relationships are deeply strained, amongst them with his sister and also with a friend whom he slept with and who is now possibly pregnant with his child. Llewyn is desperately trying to make his career gain momentum, but the obstacles and difficulties just seem to constantly pop up out of nowhere.
The Coen brothers continue to chronicle and expand on their universe, filled with offbeat characters who struggle to achieve their goals, while the entire universe seems to be throwing obstacles their way (which was the case for example of the characters played by Nicolas Cage in "Raising Arizona" or Tim Robbins in "The Hudsucker Proxy"). "Inside Llewyn Davis" follows the story of a young folk artist, fantastically well played by the talented Oscar Isaac, who though desperately trying to catch his big opportunity, is always a shy moment away of living in the gutter. The film perfectly depicts his attempts at getting his life on track, though all these attempts go nowhere. Much like "A Serious Man", the events that surround Llewyn Davis, always seem to topple his ambitions and goals. The film has a good balance of humor and drama, and the music is definitely in tone with the period and the artists of the era. There's a melancholic tone that comes from the film, but it's a film that rewards the viewer upon it's first initial impact. Carey Mulligan and John Goodman create interesting supporting characters and the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is stunning. A film worth watching.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

American Hustle

Movie Name: American Hustle
Year of Release: 2013
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, Paul Herman, Robert De Niro, Colleen Camp, Anthony Zerbe
Genre: Drama, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

David O. Russell continues his recent prolific output, with another interesting film, featuring a fantastic cast from his previous features. "American Hustle" follows the story of Irving Rosenfeld and his beautiful associate Sydney Prosser, both con artists, who are finally caught by an ambitious FBI agent by the name of Richie DiMaso. In exchange for not going to jail, this team of con artists is tasked with bringing in 4 major arrests, the first one of which involves a series of politicians and connections to the mafia. This plan that is deployed, is somehow jeopardized when Irving's wife comes into play with her unusual and explosive behavior.
Most of David O. Russell films have thus far always ventured into offbeat heroes, or people who are placed in extreme situations and yet somehow find their own sense of humanity (always punctuated with a dark sense of humor). That was the case with "Three Kings", "Flirting with Disaster" and the more recents "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook". "American Hustle" is deeply rooted in the 70s, with the sense of decor and the production design almost swallowing the entire film itself, but yet, the performers and the sense of an experienced film-maker is present, which makes the feature flow to an expected grand finale. Though not as finely tuned as "Silver Linings Playbook", since "American Hustle" has a sense of rhythm that falters midway through the film, this is nonetheless an engaging feature that allows Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence to create interesting characters. The cinematography from Linus Sandgren is beautiful as is the soundtrack from Danny Elfman. A good film worth watching.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Movie Name: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Graham McTavish, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

A year has passed, and Peter Jackson returns with his second feature in the epic three part that is "The Hobbit". Whereas the first film introduced us to the main characters of the story, the second one follows them as their quest becomes filled with additional menace and new accomplices and foes reveal themselves. Bilbo and the group of dwarves continue their quest to reach the mountain, and they are aware that they have a powerful enemy on their pursuit. This enemy, Sauron, who commands the legions of Orcs, wants them all killed. It ends up being the elves who saves this crew, who ultimately make their way to the mountain, where they have to face the monstrous Smaug, the dragon.
Peter Jackson is an extremely talented storyteller. As usual in his features, a lot of references from classic films that shaped his vision as a filmmaker, permeates through the frames on screen (that was apparent in his adaptation of "King Kong"). The world of the Hobbit is of course one that he knows from his previous adaptations of Tolkien books. Where this film showcases his talent, is not only in the incredible sophistication of the special effects (that are stunning), but how seamlessly the bigger action set pieces co-exist with the more intimate ones where the actors get to breathe life into these fantastical creatures. The film is beautifully shot, and it's an overall exciting venture through a universe the director knows better than anyone. Though one can say this feels like an exhausted theme and universe, what Peter Jackson puts on screen is stunning and superbly well crafted. Worth watching.

Anchorman 2

Movie Name: Anchorman 2
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate, Meagan Good, James Marsden, Dylan Baker, Kristen Wiig, Judah Nelson, Josh Lawson
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

The creative team of director Adam McKay and actor Will Ferrell is back, with a sequel to their 2004 film, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy". This team has created other features together, namely "Talladega Nights", "Step Brothers" and "The Other Guys", but this one is a direct sequel to one of their most popular characters, Ron Burgundy. The film follows Ron Burgundy as he falls from grace in the early 80s. He's fired from his news anchor position in detriment of his wife who gets promoted. Ron is somehow revived when a new tv channel starts, GNN, one that features news 24 hours a day. Ron goes in pursuit of his old friends/news team, and they all move back to NY, where the team is faced with a new management and Ron's somewhat new concepts of what news are. Ron has also to deal with his new family life and trying to be a part of his son's life.
Adam McKay's features with Will Ferrell are traditionally a bit of an uneven ride: for every inspired joke, there are quite a few that don't work, but that somehow is part of the show that they put on display. "Anchorman 2" tries to tackle the traditional underdog/triumphant hero story, with the irreverence that is traditional with Will Ferrell, and that usually works quite successfully. Some of the supporting characters are not quite equally interesting, namely Steve Carell's Brick Tamland, who is painful to watch (and so sad to waste the talent of the fantastic Kristen Wiig in their scenes together). Though the supporting cast is uniformly there for the ride, this is Will Ferrell's show, and for the most part, it's a funny one to enjoy.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Trois Couleurs: Bleu/Three Colors: Blue

Movie Name: Trois Couleurs: Bleu
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Krzyztof Kieslowski
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Benoit Regent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Very, Helene Vincent, Phillipe Volter
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 10

“Three Colors: Blue” introduced to a vaster audience the universe of Krzysztof Kieslowski, always dominated by the search of meaning and the need of connection in a world where contact is often non-existent.

“Trois Couleurs:Bleu” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1993 and came preceded by the critical acclaim that Kieslowski had had in the Cannes Film Festival with “La Double Vie de Véronique”(1991) and the TV Series “Dekalog” (that spawned the renowned “A Short Film About Love” and “A Short Film about Killing”).
The film was shot under the concept of a trilogy dedicated to the ideals upheld by the French revolution, namely liberty, equality and fraternity (these last two would be the central themes in the following films, respectively “Trois Couleurs:Blanc” and “Trois Couleurs:Rouge”).
“Bleu” centers it’s story on Julie, a woman we see in the beginning of the film being involved in a car crash, where she eventually loses her husband and daughter. Julie becomes aware of her tragedy while in the hospital, and the audience realizes that her husband was a world renowned composer. His latest project was a hymn for the European Union. Julie starts to become haunted by the music that was being composed, and we realize that is was she the one responsible for the creation of the music, not her husband. Once out of the hospital Julie goes through her belongings and arranges everything in order to distance herself of the life she once had – her goal is to lead a life with no connections, detached as much as possible – visiting her mother in the asylum she mentions – “les sentiments sont des pièges” (the feelings are traps). As the story unwraps Julie starts creating new relationships and becoming aware of old ones that had always been there, but not of her knowledge.
This short summary of the story of “Trois Couleurs: Bleu” serves to showcase some of the themes that were always part of the work of K. Kieslowski. In it we have the individual that has been somewhat damaged, and that tries to distance himself/herself from what surrounds him/her, and ultimately finds redemption/salvation. In this case, the story focuses on a woman (played with a sad intensity by the radiant Juliette Binoche) that has lost her family. Her pain doesn’t come through in tears or emotional outbursts – instead she tries to create a distance between herself and what she once was. She tries to “erase” that former person, that life. She takes with herself nothing but a windshime, composed of blue stones that used to be in her daughter’s room. In her effort to silence her pain, Julie tries to create a life where she has no relationships with anyone – something that proves impossible, since everywhere she goes, she seems to touch someone’s existence, from the prostitute that lives in her building, to her husband’s former music collaborator (who has always loved her). And even though she tries to silence it, the music still echoes through her, which is something that always haunts her, and ultimately something that will be cathartic for her final realization and liberation. The peace that she finds, is extended to the sense of closure she tries to bring to all the matters that were part of her previous life – very much like a closure of a circle. 
The film is a stunning creation from K. Kieslowski, starting with the beautiful way it was shot (from the director of photography Slawomir Idziak), to the music from his usual collaborator Zbigniew Preisner, who creates in this film a truly operatic and almost transcendental score (adjusting itself to the fact that the main character is a composer). The actors are wonderful, with all the applause going rightfully to Juliette Binoche – she creates a muted pain that is extremely visible and heartfelt. Julie is a “walking wound” trying to heal the best way possible, trying to rebuild an existence with small details, with small gestures, in an effort to fill a huge emotional gap. 
This is a film that will continue to surprise and touch audiences – it’s filled with beauty and melancholy but in a way, there’s an underlying sense of joy and of the celebration of life, that you can’t help being surrendered by it.

sex, lies and videotape

Movie Name: sex, lies and videotape
Year of Release: 1989
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo, Peter Gallagher, Ron Vawter
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

“sex, lies and videotape” marked the start of an era for Hollywood – the era dominated by Miramax, Sundance and the emergence of independent filmmakers as a powerful voice to be heard – all backed by significant gains at the box office.

When “sex, lies and videotape” premiered in Sundance in January of 1989, Steven Soderbergh was a professional with some credit in the editing area, but other than that, a virtual unknown. Though today Steven Soderbergh is one of the big names among the directors of Hollywood, matching up his more mainstream efforts as “Erin Brockovich” and “Ocean’s 11”, with more personal and experimental films as “Full Frontal” and “The Limey”, when “sex, lies and videotape” premiered in 1989, the odds that something would come out of that were very small. He had a relatively obscure cast, headed by James Spader, who was more known for John Hughes’ film “Pretty in Pink” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”, all in supporting roles, Andie MacDowell, then more known as a model and for a credit in Hugh Hudson’s “Greystoke” (where her voice was dubbed by Glenn Close’s), Peter Gallagher had done mostly television and for Laura San Giacomo, this was the beginning of it all. “sex, lies and videotape” ended up winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival and the Palm D’Or at Cannes, the same year, edging out “Do the Right Thing” from Spike Lee, one of the main contenders for the award. The film went on to collect accolades and awards, and had a very respectable box-office (pushed by a strong marketing campaign from Miramax), introducing everyone to the concept of independent film – something that John Cassavetes had done throughout his career, but that in the late 80’s early 90’s would be blown to a whole new level (for more details about this whole process it’s best to read the wonderful book – Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind). The film itself is a wonder, overshadowing some more recent efforts of the director. Through a very tight structure Soderbergh analyzed relationships between couples, man and women, and showed intimacy and connection between people in a way that not many directors had done and have done since. The wonderful screenplay managed to confront sexual intimacies without being titillating, all through the wonderful lens of Walt Lloyd, the director of photography (and some of the plans that were captured give that sense of something private, intimate and delicate). The audience ended up being drawn to the journey of those characters, where there was no “villain”, only credible characters, filled with their own frailties, insecurities, needs and longings. Soderbergh used the booming video technology extremely well, creating a gritty sense of reality within film, and making us, the audience, feel as voyeurs to a reality that was being shown in front of our very eyes.
The actors excelled at their roles – Andie MacDowell was stunning, earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process, and starting out an illustrious career. This is still her best role by far. James Spader won the best actor award at Cannes, and has had a career divided between interesting supporting roles in blockbusters (Mike Nichols “Wolf” is a good example) and more starring roles in other independent efforts (Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary”). Laura San Giacomo has gone to other supporting roles (Garry Marshall’s “Pretty Woman”) and to television stardom with the show “Just shoot me”, the same that has happened with Peter Gallagher (respectively with Jon Turteltaub’s “While you were Sleeping” and “The OC”), just to highlight a few.
“sex, lies and videotape” has managed to become a classic in more ways than one, but for it’s sheer cinematic essence, it’s an incredibly accomplished film.

La Mala Educacion/Bad Education

Movie Name: La Mala Educacion
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Lluis Homar, Francisco Boira, Francisco Maestre, Javier Camara, Raul Garcia Forneiro, Nacho Perez
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

“La Mala Educación” continues to further explore Pedro Almodóval’s universe, filled with larger than life characters, always bordering the risible, but always heartfelt, emotional, humorous and ultimately rewarding. 

After the highly successful films “Todo Sobre Mi Madre” (All About My Mother) and “Hable Con Ella” (Talk to Her), Pedro Almodovar announced that “Bad Education” would focus on his upbringing in a catholic school and mention the sexual scandals in it (pedophilia for that matter). When the film premiered in Cannes’ 2004 opening night, the audience and critics alike were surprised to see that Almodóvar made a beautiful film that didn’t seek shock value, instead went for an extremely intelligent narrative and great performances from his well chosen cast. Unlike his previous films, this was a story populated by men, where the connections between all of them apparently obvious, turned out to be quite surprisingly complex. 

The film starts with Enrique, Fele Martinez’s character, a film director having a creativity crisis, that ends up meeting a childhood friend, who gives him a screenplay based on their shared memories of growing up in a catholic school. As Enrique reads the screenplay, his own story unfolds before his and our eyes, all served with plenty of humor (something that the character of Javier Cámara – Paquito, provides in abundance, a bit like Agrado, Antonia San Juan’s character from “Todo sobre mi madre”). Enrique’s friend, excellently played by Gael Garcia Bernal, turns out to be an actor that sees the screenplay as an excellent way to move on to bigger roles and have a career in the movie industry. However, as the screenplay requires a male actor that can also play a feminine character named Zahara, Enrique refuses his claim, after which the movie is put on hold. The story unfolds from there, like a Russian doll, with further connections between characters and what is the film within the film and what is reality. Almodóvar manages to create these balances in the story surprisingly well, never once leaving the audience confused, and that only comes to prove his artistry in the universe that he has created. Some of the audience may like to relate this film to his previous work, namely “La Ley El Deseo” (Law of Desire), where the main character was also a film director, involved with a man that wasn’t what he seemed to be (Antonio Banderas’ character in that film went from slightly homophobic to jealous gay lover). However, Bad Education refines the concepts that Law of Desire placed in motion – the main character, the film director (which ends up being a autobiographical mention to Almodóvar’s own career), navigates through a reality that is at times too seedy and degrading, persevering in his quest for artistic liberty and personal happiness. Where Law of Desire was mostly a journey into one man’s life and the way it connected everyone around him, Bad Education is a journey about a man that through the relationships that he has, learns to reconcile with his past, and set a path for his present and future. Whereas Law of Desire ended in tragedy, Bad Education ends on a more optimistic tone – as the credits roll we learn the fate of the main characters, where we learn that the director continues to work, and that only confirms that Almodóvar’s career has never been better.

Dancer in the Dark

Movie Name: Dancer in the Dark
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Joel Grey, Jean-Marc Barr, Siobhan Fallon, Vladica Kostic, Udo Kier, Zeljko Ivanec
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

“Dancer in the Dark” won the Palm D’Or at Cannes in 2000, and continued to prove that Lars Von Trier is a brilliant filmmaker, willing to expand frontiers of genres and reshape concepts and ideas.

“Dancer in the Dark” premiered in Cannes in 2000, with a lot of expectation surrounding it, mainly due to the fact that Lars Von Trier has a tradition of always bringing great films to the Croisette (“Breaking the Waves” won the Special Jury Award in 1996, and “Europa” also won special mentions in 1991). The film had had some previous publicity in the media, mainly due to the fact that acclaimed singer Bjork was the main actress in the film, and also because of reputed clashes between her and the director. The film ended up winning two top honors at the festival, namely the Palm D’Or and the best actress award for Bjork (whose song, “I’ve seen it All”, from the soundtrack, was nominated for the Oscar for best original song).
The film revolves around the story of Selma, a Czech immigrant factory worker. She sublets a small trailer in the yard of an American family, in rural America of the 50’s (when the witch hunting for communists was in full bloom, which is noticeable as the story unravels). Selma is going blind, due to a genetic condition, and she knows her son, Gene, will suffer the same destiny if he does not get a specific surgery. She works the long hours in the factory, plus night shifts and also other spare jobs, so she can save all the money possible, even though her sight does not allow her to work anymore. Her only escape is her love of musicals – in her few spare hours she is also training for the lead part of a local presentation of “The Sound of Music”, and although she can’t see anymore, she attends matinees for Busby Berkeley films with her friend Cathy (played by Catherine Deneuve). The drama starts to unveil the moment that Bill, the police officer and also Selma’s landlord, steals her saved money, and she ends up having to kill him, mostly due to his own pressure. It’s a downward spiral for Selma from that point on, with her arrest and trial.
Lars Von Trier has created with “Dancer in the Dark” a film that oscillates between a harsh reality, and one where the musical numbers give it almost an otherworldly feel (and it’s not a coincidence that Busby Berkeley films are mentioned). Filmed with digital video (by Robby Muller, who also shot “Breaking the Waves”) and choreographed by Vincent Patterson, the film intersects bleak moments where Selma is desperate (for instance during her trial), with glorious musical numbers, meant to represent her escape from reality (this fact is beautifully illustrated in the number “I’ve seen it All”, where we, the audience, come to terms to the fact that Selma has lost all her sight).
The film ends up succeeding in being more than just a traditional musical, and that is due to Lars Von Trier’s ability to film stories that require a leap of faith. The same way we had to believe in Emily Watson’s character (Bess) in “Breaking the Waves”, and her ultimate sacrifice, Selma’s character requires the same belief from us – all her hardship, all her pain, are meant to equally save someone. Bjork ends up being the soul of the film in more than one sense – her performance is so terribly heartfelt and painfully real, that you can’t help being moved – she embodies all that mothers stand for, and in the musical numbers, her voice and sheer presence shine through.   Also responsible for the soundtrack (with the help of her usual collaborator, LFO’s Mark Bell), Bjork deservedly won praise and awards for the film. The rest of the supporting cast is equally top notch, from Catherine Deneuve (who crumbles her usual icy visage in the last moments of the film), to David Morse’s Bill (the police officer who has financial problems), Peter Stormare as the lovable Jeff and Cara Seymour’s Linda (the wife of Bill, who lives in the erroneous conviction that all is well in her household).

“Dancer in the Dark” is a film that ends up staying with you, not only for the sheer intensity and drama that presents to you, but above all because of the immense beauty and almost otherworldly moments that manages to put on screen – “just like a musical”.

Velvet Goldmine

Movie Name: Velvet Goldmine
Year of Release: 1998
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Christian Bale, Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette, Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, Janet McTeer, Michael Feast
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

In tackling the Glam Rock of the 1970’s, Todd Haynes elaborates a story that simultaneously celebrates the exuberance of rock music and the parallels that are created with the dawning of the androgyny / gay scene of our days. 

Before Todd Haynes tackled the glam rock of the 1970’s, he had created a name for himself with two independent films – “Poison” and “Safe”, the last one being the first film to really put Julianne Moore as a leading protagonist (in 1995 she also ended up doing the highly forgettable films  “Assassins” for Richard Donner, “Nine Months” for Chris Columbus and “Roommates” for Peter Yates). Though his previous efforts were met with positive reviews, and particularly “Poison” which placed him under the label of the “New Queer Cinema”, alongside such directors as Greg Araki (he recently directed “Mysterious Skin”), Tom Kalin (who directed the acclaimed “Swoon”) and Rose Troche (director of “Go fish”), “Velvet Gooldmine” proved out to be quite a challenge, not only by the sheer dimension of the events that it depicts, but also because the main person that it tried to emulate, didn’t want to be a part of the film – David Bowie himself (the title of the film is the name of one of Bowie’s songs). 
The film describes the eruption of the Glam Rock scene in London in the 70’s, focusing on it’s brightest star, Brian Slade. The film’s narrative is presented in the guise of Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Citizen Kane”, where a journalist investigates what happened to the central character, who is no longer present, but who still makes itself feel present. The character “Arthur”, played by the always wonderful Christian Bale, is a journalist, himself a part of the movement of the glam rock, as a fan, movement that acted as a catalyst in his teens, that allowed him to come forth with his  own sexuality. It’s upon his shoulders that the task of investigating the story falls. Todd Haynes creates analogies of the dandies that populate the story and the liberty that Glam Rock provides, with the legacy that Oscar Wilde has left (epitomized by his broach that goes from generation to generation). The “gay” condition here and it’s relation to the music, end up being synonymous of liberty and of the right to be different and artistic. Todd Haynes manages to create a sense of the wild and delirious world of rock and roll, with a great sense of humor (the whole posse that follows Brian Slade is a good example), something that Cameron Crowe also explored in “Almost Famous” – though his was a more autobiographical story.
Though the film has it’s shortcomings in the way it develops the story – the usual cliches are all there to see – rock and roll plus sex and drugs, the sheer energy that the film boasts – you just have to see the “video-clips” of Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Brian Slade - and it’s incredible visuals are more than rewarding (the film ended up wining the award for “Best Artistic Contribution” at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival). Todd Haynes manages to create an accomplished sight of the swinging London of the 70’s, be it the underground clubs where Brian Slade/ Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes his debut, or the concerts where Kurt Wilde/Ewan McGregor (standing for a mix of Lou Reed/Iggy Pop) totally chews the scenery and spits it out. 
The actors are all amazing, starting by Ewan McGregor pre-Star Wars, edgy and with the remarkable presence and voice that he has showcased before and after (namely in films as Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” and Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge”), Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who even though this not being his film debut, made a huge ripple in the pond, and who has been more recently working with Woody Allen (“Match Point”) and winning Golden Globes for playing Elvis Presley (in the mini series “Elvis” directed by James Steven Sadwith). Both actors sang some of the songs that populate the film, some of them from Marc Bolan and T-Rex, others from Iggy Pop. The wonderful soundtrack includes the presence of such luminaries and classics as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, and some of the songs ended up being revised by the specially created band “Venus in Furs”, led by Radiohead’s lead singer, Thom Yorke (though the film also boasts performances of Brian Molko’s Placebo and Donna Matthews from the band Elastica). The cast also boasts good performances of Toni Collette, as Mandy Slade (based on David Bowie’s first wife, Angie), the liberal and vivacious wife of Brian Slade – Collette more recently was seen in Curtis Hanson’s “In Her Shoes” and was nominated for an Oscar in M. Night Shymalan’s “The Six Sense”. Christian Bale who ends up being an outsider in the love triangle that the three other main characters form, gives the film it’s resonance, in the way that the audience sees his growing from teenager to adult and the way the Glam Rock movement epitomizes so much for himself and his generation. Bale who more recently played Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” also boasts in his resume Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” and Mary Harron’s “American Psycho”.
“Velvet Goldmine” is a film well worth watching – with the volume pulled way up, as it suggests. Though not entirely accomplished, it’s nonetheless a film that it’s daring, original and totally captivating, and for that alone, it deserves to find a wider audience than it did when it came out in the movie theaters.


Movie Name: Philomena
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Peter Hermann, Michelle Fairley
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Prolific director Stephen Frears is back with another small gem, following the little seen films that were "Tamara Drew" and "Lay the Favorite" (which were also met with different critical response).
"Philomena" follows the (true) story of Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC reporter going through a professional struggle, following his abrupt termination from a high profile career. He casually meets the daughter of Philomena, a lady in her 70s, who proceeds to tell him her life story. In the early 50s she had a child out of wedlock, while being taken care by nuns, and as a result, she was forced to work for them for the following 4 years. Her child was also taken from her and adopted by an American couple. After all these years, Philomena wants to know what happened to her son, and these seemingly different people embark on a quest that ultimately brings meaning and a new sense of peace to both (for different reasons).
Stephen Frears is a filmmaker who started his career on television. His best features always deal with a sense of realism, one that feels imminently truthful and close to the viewer. That has been the case with his features "My Beautiful Laundrette", "Prick Up Your Ears", "Dangerous Liaisons", "The Grifters", "The Snapper" and "Dirty Pretty Things". Though sometimes the match of his skills with the material isn't the most fortuitous, such as "Mary Reilly" or "Hero", his features always have a strong humane core. "Philomena" benefits from a screenplay (co-written by Steve Coogan), which adequately balances drama and humor, making the rhythm of the film feel effortless and fluid. It also helps that the two leads are great actors, who portray those characters superbly. This film doesn't try to be a condemnation of a time and of a mindset (for a closer look at the morality and brutality that is hinted here, Peter Mullan's "The Magdalene's Sisters" is the film to watch), it focuses instead on the journey of those two characters. A good film worth watching.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Movie Name: Out of the Furnace
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Scott Cooper
Stars: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Bingo O'Malley
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

Following the success of "Crazy Heart", director Scott Cooper has returned with a new feature, again with a fantastic cast. The film follows the story of brothers Russell and Rodney Baze, both of whom live in an industrial town, where the main employer is a mill. Rodney, the younger, has been deployed to war a few times, while Russell has stayed and worked in the mill, just like their father. Russell lives a quiet life, with the woman he loves, always looking out for his frail father and his brother, who has a difficult time adjusting to civilian life, after his war experiences. Rodney gets involved with underground fighting, whose menace escalates dramatically when he gets involved with some dangerous individuals.
"Out of the Furnace" is a film that ends up combining influences from features that were done in the 70s. It directly seems to have traces from Michael Cimino's "Deer Hunter" and a bit of Michael Winner's "Death Wish". The film is successful in building a bleak and claustrophobic small town environment, one that seems where time hasn't evolved for many years, and where people have few expectations and prospects in life. There is an attempt at defining the relationships of these characters, however, whereas some are underdeveloped (such as Zoe Saldana's), others fall into traditional traps (Casey Affleck's). Though finely acted by a very talented group of actors, the film can't help feeling trapped in a genre and style that has been explored before and in a much better way. A honorable attempt but not a very interesting development.

Kill Your Darlings

Movie Name: Kill your Darlings
Year of Release: 2013
Director: John Krokidas
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen, John Cullum
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"Kill your Darlings" is the feature debut from John Krokidas. It follows the coming of age story of American poet Allen Ginsberg and his relationship with Lucien Carr. The film introduces us to Allen Ginsberg, as he's about to go to college, and leaving behind a family life that is in shambles (with his unstable mother and father who has checked out). Once in college, Allen comes across the charismatic Lucien Carr, who is involved with an individual by the name of David Kammerer. Allen becomes tangled in a literary circle that also includes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, which expands his notions of writing, of life and also of his own sexuality. In fact he becomes very affectionate towards Lucien Carr, who while trying to dismiss David's attentions, ends up dramatically changing the lives of everyone.
John Krokidas builds with "Kill your Darlings" a portrait/snapshot of the beat generation movement. The ghosts of the war, the exploration of sexuality for new artists, experimentation with drugs, the fluid movement of music, all permeating and influencing what would become the next generation of writers and artists. The film is successful in it's depiction of the insecurities of young Allen Ginsberg, his attempts at finding his own artistic voice, and ultimately at finding his own sense of self (including his sexuality). The relationship that Allen slowly builds with Lucien Carr is one of mutual exploration for both young men, though it's ultimate resolution reveals more about the prejudices of those times.  The acting is uniformly good, with Daniel Radcliffe creating a young and emotional Allen Ginsberg, while Dane DeHaan is more cerebral and aloof as Lucien. The supporting cast is equally good, with highlights going to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael C. Hall. A good film worth watching.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Movie Name: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Toby Jones, Patrick St. Esprit, Willow Shields
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

The sequel to the highly successful "Hunger Games" is back, this time directed by the competent Francis Lawrence. The film picks up after the events of the first one: Katniss Everdeen has returned to her district after winning the games, and in the process she, alongside Peeta, have become symbols for all the people being oppressed by the regime led by President Snow. In order to silence these insurgencies that are starting to pop up, celebratory games are devised, where the participants are selected from all the winners from previous games. Katniss and Peeta once again get dragged to this mortal game, where they have to forge alliances to keep themselves alive, in what is a different game setting for all of them.
Francis Lawrence is a director who has tackled both comic book characters (in his debut "Constantine") and big literary successes (both "I Am Legend" and "Water for Elephants"). In tackling "Hunger Games: Catching Fire", Francis Lawrence decided to pick up what Gary Ross had done with the first film, and expand the canvas. He has benefited from a bigger budget, which definitely gives the film a more polished and sophisticated look. Where the film clearly moves forward is in the production values that it showcases - from the special effects, through production design and even costume design. The screenplay in itself is a progression when compared to the previous film - it's cleverly constructed and allows the characters to have further depth, as opposed to being scared and frantic. The film has a fantastic cast, and they make the action believable and entertaining. A good entertainment, worth watching.