Sunday, March 23, 2014

Superman Returns

Movie Name: Superman Returns
Year of Release: 2006
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Brandon Routh, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Eva Marie Saint, Frank Langella, Parker Posey, Sam Huntington, Kal Penn, David Fabrizio, Tristan Lake Leabu, Ian Roberts, Peta Wilson, Jack Larson, Jeff Truman
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Tackling the legend of “Superman” was a difficult task for Warner Bros., but in the end, Bryan Singer’s film is more than worth the wait – it’s a mature and accomplished film, that gives time for the characters to exist, instead of being just a muddle of action sets pieced together.

“Superman Returns” has had a difficult time getting to the screen. From the cancelled Tim Burton version with Nicolas Cage, to the choices of directors (like McG and Brett Ratner to name a few), to casting choices, this has been a long gestating film, that finally sees the light of day, and with incredibly accomplished results. 
Bryan Singer, more known for his “Usual Suspects” and “X-Men” films, builds with “Superman Returns” a more than fitting companion to the early Superman films, directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester – we’ll skip “Superman 3” and “”Superman 4 – The Quest for Peace”, which is the same assumption that Bryan Singer has done.
“Superman Returns” starts by introducing us to the current whereabouts of the title character. The film picks up where the first two had stopped. Superman has been gone for five years, in a quest to discover whatever the remains are of his home planet – Krypton. Upon his return to Earth, he finds out that Lois Lane has moved on with her life, and is now together with Perry White’s nephew, Richard, and has a small boy. He also learns that his nemesis, LexLuthor has been released from jail since Superman failed to show up in court and sustain the accusations that Luthor was charged with. Lex Luthor in the meantime has managed to get a hold of Krypton’s technology and plans to create chaos and destruction.
As can be noticed by this summary, “Superman Returns” updates all the elements that the films from Richard Donner and Richard Lester introduced in 1978 and 1980. However Bryan Singer, not only remains faithful to the spirit  of those films, but he surpasses that initiative by creating a film that is visually stunning and that has a maturity and rhythm unlike any other comic book adaptation so far (the only one that compare to it, is what Sam Raimi has done with “Spiderman”). The script allows time for Superman/Clark Kent to try to adjust himself to the life he once had on Earth, and how that has definitely changed. He is still the alien in the midst of a new reality, dominated by fear (terrorism, war), and he still stands for the good values – universally (and no longer just the “American way”). The film also allows for the dynamics between the main characters to come forth – Lois, Clark and Richard form an interesting love triangle, which for a change does not have a buffoon in one of it’s sides. It would be easy to make James Marsden’s Richard an unpleasant character, however the filmmakers went in a totally different direction, and in doing so, managed to explore the dynamics of the relationships between these people. The action sets that Bryan Singer has choreographed in this film are quite stunning – the special effects are present to enrich the story, and not be the focus of the film. From the plane crash, to the sinking of the yacht, all the sets are incredibly well done and they serve a dramatic purpose to the story. And as far as flying is concerned, Superman has never flown so incredibly realistically. 
As for the actors, Brandon Routh turns out to be a great casting choice for Superman. From his looks, to his voice and presence, he’s just perfect in the part.  The same can be said for Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor. Spacey usually excels playing disturbed characters (“Swimming with Sharks”, “Seven”, “The Usual Suspects”), and in this case, he does a terrific job. Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane turns out to be quite different from the spunkiness that Margot Kidder had. She’s far too young to be believable in that role, and her character doesn’t come across as strong as it should. Still she manages to imbue her character with a fragility that makes sense in the story. All the other actors create small but memorable parts, from Eva Marie Saint to Parker Posey’s funny Kitty Kowalski.

All the team that Bryan Singer has gathered – his usual collaborators on his previous films – manage to create with Superman Returns, a great action film, which unlike some of the latest comic book adaptations, doesn’t try to sell a bunch of action-sets as a whole film – the core here are the relationships and the meaning of family in the midst of a new reality. 


Movie Name: Enemy
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

2013 was a good year for Denis Villeneuve. In parallel with his bigger budget feature, "Prisoners", he also premiered "Enemy", a decidedly more experimental and offbeat feature that has now reached the screens. The film follows the story of Adam Bell, a history teacher, who lives a seemingly normal life - he goes from school to his home, has a relationship with a beautiful young woman and gets phone calls from his mom every now and then. One evening while watching a film, Adam notices that a supporting actor in the feature looks exactly like him. He successfully finds out who the actor is and where he lives - and much to his surprise and shock verifies that the actor is his exact double. The double, named Anthony, has a pregnant wife, and his relationship with her has been stressed with the shadow of infidelity. The relationships between these doubles start spiraling out of control, when they seemingly stop understanding where one's life ends and the other begins.
"Enemy" is based on a book by Jose Saramago, named "The Double". The story of the doubles who meet and who are enthralled by each other's lives while death looms by, has been transposed by Denis Villeneuve superbly. The black spiders that dominate the film, represent the shadow of death over these relationships and over these doubles. The film questions if Adam and Anthony are indeed the same person, with one being a representation of the other's guilt (the unfaithful husband). Denis Villeneuve manages to create a sense of unease throughout most of the film, with a great cinematography and soundtrack contributing to the sense of discomfort that keeps escalating. Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic as the dual central character - Adam the meeker of the pair, and Anthony the ego driven counterpart. An awesome film worth discovering.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Movie Name: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Lea Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the critical acclaim of "Moonrise Kingdom", Wes Anderson's new opus is a further exploration of his universe, filled with his traditional quirks and irreverence, all time capsuled perfectly in a period of time that no longer exists. The film follows the story of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Monsieur Gustave is a playboy, who romances much older women. When one of them dies, and leaves him a renowned painting, he and his trusted aid go in pursuit of that inheritance.
Wes Anderson has created a style that is very much his own, and this film is a perfect example of all that his career has progressively built up. There's the retro setting and environment, the attention to detail, the large sprawling cast, which brings to life characters that are clearly archetypes, and the sense of humor and irony that permeates all of his stories. Where some of his previous films, such as "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Darjeeling Limited" attempted to build a bridge with a certain sense of reality (and his unifying sense of family), his latest endeavors, are definitely highly stylized films, ones that feature a very elaborate microcosms where each piece and element is clearly placed and designed to achieve a certain style and emotion. The film looks impeccable, and the cast is phenomenal, in particular the fantastic Ralph Fiennes. The film is deliciously assembled, but at the end, I couldn't help but wonder - will the director do something beyond this style in his next efforts?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Movie Name: Poltergeist
Year of Release: 1982
Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robbins, Heather O'Rourke, Michael McManus, Richard Lawson, Zelda Rubinstein, James Karen
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

"Poltergeist" premiered on June of 1982, showcasing a different side to writer/producer Steven Spielberg's universe, one populated with some dark entities. The film followed the story of the Freeling family, who suddenly starts experiencing strange and unexplainable events in their house. Things escalate further, until these entities attack their household, and one of the family members goes missing. The family resorts to professional researchers to help in understanding the occurrences and hopefully bring some peace to their lives.
By the time "Poltergeist" premiered on the screens, writer/producer Steven Spielberg was already widely known as one of the most talented film makers in Hollywood. He was coming of a string of hits that included "Jaws", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark". 1982 of course would see the release of the indelible "ET", but also the darker "Poltergeist", which would mark one of the first in a series of increasing prolific producing projects that would keep Spielberg occupied during the 80s (which included for instance, Joe Dante's "Gremlins", Matthew Robbins' "Batteries not Included" and Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future"). The film retains all of Spielberg's traditional focus: the family unit in a dire situation, with love and unity overcoming the hurdles and obstacles. However "Poltergeist" made these obstacles colossal, since they were supernatural and evil. These entities menacing the family, were also attacking innocence itself, personified in the film by the young Carol Anne (something that William Friedkin had already explored with his take on William Peter Blatty's "Exorcist"). The film ended up being more of a vision of it's writer and producer, than of the director, cult celebrated director Tobe Hooper, who at the time was still widely known for his low budget "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (whose career sadly never attained the promise it's debut showcased). The film successfully builds a sense of domesticity and peaceful existence, which is totally put into disarray with the strange events. The special effects though a bit dated by today's standards, still help create the tone of menace and wonder that dominates the film, as does the wonderful score from Jerry Goldsmith. A film always worth watching and coming back to.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wind Rises

Movie Name: The Wind Rises
Year of Release: 2013
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Herzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Darren Criss
Genre: Animation, Biography, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9

"The Wind Rises" was announced as the last film of director Hayao Miyazaki, who announced his retirement shortly after the film came out. The film follows the true story of aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes. We accompany the life of Jiro since his poor childhood, through his education in Tokyo, and  the hardship that followed a devastating earthquake in 1923. Jiro is an idealistic and a dreamer, a man who is deeply immersed in his passion for flying and creating airplanes. He falls in love with a young woman who sadly has a terminal illness, but both struggle to maintain their relationship.
Hayao Miyazaki has always been a unique film-maker - his films have always immersed the viewer in the relationship between Man and Nature. There has always been a magical and surreal element to his stories, but they have always been rooted in the concerns of how Man relates to his environment, and how careless and dangerous the ambition of humanity can doom their own destiny. My personal first encounter with Hayao Miyazaki's work, was with one of first projects,  the series "Future Boy Conan". That iconic show, already set forth all of his themes, that kept showing up throughout his more recent and well known endeavors, namely "Castle in the Sky", "Princess Mononoke", "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Moving Castle". "The Wind Rises" is, of all of his features, the one that is more anchored in reality, but it is nonetheless a poetic vision of someones' desire and ambition to fly, and how that dream can be corrupted and tainted for uses that are destructive and belligerent. The film is visually stunning, as is the case with all of the director's features. A beautiful film not to be missed.