Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Mask

Movie Name: The Mask
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Chuck Russell
Stars: Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, Richard Jeni, Orestes Matacena, Nancy Fish, Joely Fisher, Kevin Grevioux, Reg E. Cathey, Jim Doughan, Denis Forest
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Director Chuck Russell made his name in the 80s as a director of low budget horror films: his first feature was one of Freddy Kruger's sequels ("A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors"), which he followed with "The Blob". "The Mask" was a more ambitious film for him, and it was also an adaptation of a comic book published by Dark Horse comics. The film follows the story of Stanley Ipkiss, a young bank employee who suddenly sees himself in the possession of a strange mask. Stanley is a meek and shy man, however when wearing the mask, his personality completely changes, and he becomes this super creature, aptly named "The Mask", who is a version of himself without any of the constraints or insecurities. Stanley finds himself as a target of a group of criminals, intent on robbing the local bank, and soon he's having to fight for his life and reputation, and also save the beautiful girl he just met.
"The Mask" was another surprise success of 1994, and further cemented the reputation and versatility of comedian Jim Carrey. The film has plenty of references to Looney Tunes and Tex Avery, and as such, it is indeed like a live action cartoon. The characters are sketched out roughly, but the film is more interested in depicting the level of insanity, absurd and non stop humor that is traditionally associated with cartoons. The film also benefits from fantastic visual effects, that further give Jim Carrey an elasticity to really expand on the capabilities of "The Mask". The film ends up being a comely comedy about a hero, that though on a first glance has the potential to be possibly edgy, in the end it's quite sedate and family oriented. An interesting comedy worth revisiting.


Movie Name: Speed
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Jan de Bont
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Daniels, Joe Morton, Alan ruck, Glenn Plummer, Richard Lineback, Beth Grant, Hawthorne James, Carlos Carrasco
Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"Speed" was Jan de Bont's debut feature as a director, following a long and illustrious career as a director of cinematography (he was the cinematographer for such films as Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct", John McTiernan's "Die Hard" and Ridley Scott's "Black Rain" to name but a few). "Speed" follows the story of Jack Traven, a young and resourceful police detective, who is faced with a monumental challenge. A criminal who has targeted him specifically, places a bomb on a bus - if the bus goes over 50mph it gets activated - after it's active, it can't get below that speed, otherwise it will detonate. Jack gets on that bus with the hopes of deactivating the bomb, but his skills are insufficient to do so, on top of which the city has enumerable obstacles that he needs to avoid in order to save the lives on the bus. One of the passengers, a young and beautiful woman by the name of Annie, tries to help him out.
The screenplay of "Speed" from Graham Yost, though apparently simplistic, without much character development, allowed for the construction of an entertaining action film, due to the clever premise of the narrative. Jan de Bont smartly staged the whole film in real-time - that allows the viewers to closely emphasize with the scenario that is being presented to them. The supporting characters that populate the bus, allow for different levels of interaction with the lead ones, adding some humor and additional backdrop drama, but the central core of the film is indeed the cat and mouse chase that is built between these two antagonizing characters. This is a film that benefits from great action set pieces, as well as actors who are charismatic enough to embody these characters, something that Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper and Sandra Bullock do convincingly (though Sandra Bullock would improve greatly with the years and career choices). This was one of 1994's surprise hits, and a well deserved one. It's an entertaining film always worth watching.

True Lies

Movie Name: True Lies
Year of Release: 1994
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Art Malik, Tia Carrere, Eliza Dushku, Bill Paxton, Grant Heslov, Charlton Heston, Marshall Manesh, James Allen
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"True Lies" was one of 1994's big successes, and followed James Cameron's equally successful "Terminator 2: Judgement Day". The film is a remake of a french film ("La Totale"), which James Cameron adapted and made into his own universe. The film follows the life of Harry Tasker, who leads a double life: his full time job as an undercover and highly skilled spy takes him everywhere and places him in difficult and dangerous situations, while his family life on the other hand, is quiet and sedate (his wife thinks he works with computers). Longing for a more exciting life, Helen lets herself be dazzled by a car salesman, himself impersonating a spy, something that Harry discovers and drives him into a jealous rage. Harry decides to put his wife through a test to verify her fidelity, and unexpectedly she is drawn to one of his dangerous missions, when terrorists target him specifically. 
James Cameron has been a director (and also writer) whose films are anchored by challenging scenarios, where the average hero finds the inner strength to overcome obstacles that are at times towering and impossible to surpass. That's what makes his characters easy to associate with - those are the cases for Ellen Ripley in "Aliens", Sarah Connor in "Terminator" or even Jake Sully in "Avatar". "True Lies" uses the premise of a spy film (almost like a James Bond), and layers it with the right dosage of comedy, without ever making it look forced or like a caricature of the genre. This comical component is strongly emphasized with the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who manages to elevate the material and make the transition of the meek Helen, to the sexy and vixen Helen believable and enticing. The action set pieces are fantastically well staged, as is traditional with James Cameron, who knows how to produce visually arresting action and suspenseful scenes like few directors currently working (his work never feels shallow or overly digitally modified, as does for instance the work of Michael Bay). The cast is strong, with Arnold Schwarzenegger using his limited range to go along for the ride, with the most humorous sections going to Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Arnold (the latter as the sarcastic sidekick). A very entertaining film always worth revisiting.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Leon, The Professional

Movie Name: Leon, The Professional
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Luc Besson
Stars: Jean Reno, Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman, Danny Aiello, Michael Badalucco, Ellen Greene, Elizabeth Regen, Peter Appel, Don Creech, Randolph Scott
Genre: Crime, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Luc Besson and his EuropaCorp are currently well known for quite a few franchises that have been quite successful, namely "The Transporter", "Taken" and "Taxi", but in the early 90s, the director was establishing his own name as a writer/director. "Leon, The Professional" followed one of his biggest hits, "La Femme Nikita" (which was remade in the US by John Badham, and re-titled "Point of No Return"), and again focused the attention on a hired killer. The film follows the methodical and asocial Leon, who is faced with a new situation in his perfectly controlled life - he has to train and take care of a young girl by the name of Mathilda. This situation arises because her family is savagely murdered by a corrupt cop, and the little girl finds herself with no one else to ask help from. She learns the trade from Leon, hoping to exact revenge upon the man who destroyed her life.
Luc Besson has steadily been creating stories where the female characters are the driving forces in most of the narratives he devises (his latest "Lucy" is no exception). In "Leon, The Professional", Jean Reno's killer is almost a recluse, and keeps social contact to a whisper, something that the intruder portrayed by Natalie Portman (in her feature debut) throws into disarray. The film, though shot in New York, is very much a European director's vision of the American reality, namely with certain situations and set pieces very stylized and hyperbolic in the violence that it depicts. It is nonetheless, an engaging and entertaining piece of cinema, one that expands a thin premise into a story about an isolated man learning to love, and a young girl growing up and understanding the hardships and brutality of life. Jean Reno and Natalie Portman are both excellent in their roles, as is Gary Oldman portraying the sadistic and corrupt cop (he would go on to work with Luc Besson also on "The Fifth Element"). A solid action film, always worth revisiting.


Movie Name: Foxcatcher
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Bennett Miller
Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

"Foxcatcher" is Bennett Miller's third feature film, and easily one of his best so far (his previous ones were the fantastic "Capote" and "Moneyball"). The film, based on a true story, introduces us to Mark Schultz a young athlete, who is a Gold Olympic Medalist from the 1984 Games, who lives in a small apartment, trying to make ends meet, all the while training with his older brother Dave, for the upcoming world championship. Mark's world is suddenly altered when John Du Pont contacts him, wanting to arrange a meeting in his Foxcatcher facility - the goal of the millionaire is to sponsor Mark's career and have him train locally (and have himself as the coach and mentor of a team). Mark gladly accepts the invitation, unlike his brother Dave who doesn't want to uproot his family. Mark wins the Championship, and starts the process of training for the upcoming Olympics, however his relationship with Du Pont has deteriorated at that point (something emphasized by illegal substances consumed by both). In an attempt to improve the morale of the group, Du Pont hires Dave to be the coach of the Foxcatcher team, which he accepts. His training enables Mark to be on the US wrestling team, but the results are less than stellar during the games. Upon their return, Mark abandons the training facility, while Du Pont's erratic behavior escalates with dramatic consequences.
Bennett Miller is a director who has steadily created a body of work known for the analytical precision with which he recounts his stories. "Foxcatcher" is a good example of his take on true life stories - he introduces the characters, without giving much insight about the lives we are presented with. With John Du Pont, we learn early on he comes from a life of privilege, but that he has a lot of issues with the presence of his domineering mother, and the film also hints at a certain level of homosexual repressed tendencies. Mark and Dave on the other hand, are young men, who had tough childhoods, and struggled through life, and for whom being an athlete and winning had always been their primary goal. These seemingly different worlds, one of privilege, class and money, versus a more humble one, are perfectly depicted in the film, giving more context and understanding into the worlds of these characters. The film doesn't offer an explanation for the actions of Du Pont - that's not the goal of the director - this is a snapshot of different worlds and personalities clashing, and how the results of these clashes can be dramatic and tragic. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are all incredible in their roles, creating interesting characters, that aren't just mimicking the real people they are portraying: they create complex and layered characters. The cinematography from Greig Fraser is stunning (he's also worked on Andrew Dominik's "Killing Them Softly" and Jane Campion's "Bright Star"), as is the score from Rob Simonsen. A great film that will make you think and reflect.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Into the Woods

Movie Name: Into the Woods
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Rob Marshall
Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Magnussen, Simon Russell Beale, Mackenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour
Genre: Comey, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Director Rob Marshall is back, following the critically derided, but commercially successful "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides". The film is an adaptation of the musical from Stephen Sondheim, who has also seen his work adapted by Tim Burton with "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street". "Into the Woods" is a musical with a different take on well known fairy tales, encompassing Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. The focus of the story is the merger of these characters, whose paths cross in the woods, which becomes the focal point of where all these characters converge. The story starts when the Baker and his Wife have to reverse a curse brought on by a witch, due to actions that the Baker's father did many years ago. In order to reverse the curse, the couple has three days in order to get 4 items requested by the witch, which makes them cross paths with all these different characters from these fairy tales.
Rob Marshall's career started in the theater, as a choreographer, and his name is forever associated with the huge success that was "Chicago". Since then he's directed literary properties such as "Memoirs of a Geisha", and another musical, "Nine", both of which were met with disappointing results. "Into the Woods" turns out to be one of his better efforts: the film successfully merges all these disparate characters into an interesting and otherworldly universe, benefiting from a fantastic cast, who can carry the amazing score to great heights. Where the film does indeed falter, is the somewhat disjointed third act that feels forced and rushed. This creates an overall uneven experience, as characters are dropped without much of a follow up. Still, the film is captivating and visually impressive, with the cinematography from Dion Beebe creating a sense of magical woods, as well as the fantastic production design from Dennis Gassner and the costumes from the always remarkable Collen Atwood. From the sprawling cast, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt turn out to be the highlights of the film. An interesting film worth watching.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Big Eyes

Movie Name: Big Eyes
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Madeleine Arthur,
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

After the double releases of 2012 with "Dark Shadows" and "Frankenweenie", director Tim Burton is back, this time around reuniting with screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, whom with he worked on the most excellent "Ed Wood" in 1994. The film is based on the true story of famous artist Margaret Keane, and her paintings depicting sad children with huge eyes. The film introduces us to Margaret in the late 50s, when she leaves her first husband, alongside her daughter to make a living in San Francisco. While in the Bay Area, Margaret meets another charming painter by the name of Walter Keane, who claims to have learnt painting while living in Paris (after the second world war). The romantic relationship quickly develops, and the couple weds in Hawaii. Upon returning to Northern California, Walter tries to sell both their artwork without much success, until Margaret's paintings catch the attention of several people, something that Walter perceives, and takes ownership of, claiming the authorship of the paintings. Margaret for sakes of keeping the money income flowing, though with reservations, goes along with the scheme, until the cracks start showing up.
Margaret Keane's life story is a convoluted one, and definitely one that sparks the interest of director Tim Burton. Much like his heroes, the central character, is someone artistic and with a different sensibility. Margaret is a burgeoning artist who is taken advantage of by an egomaniac man of limited skill, or so it appears as is depicted by Christoph Waltz in the film. "Big Eyes" is very successful in capturing the tone, ambiance of the 60s, with all the vibrant colors (and stunning cinematography), but the depiction of the central characters is a bit uneven - whereas Amy Adams builds a layered character, a woman who slowly gains conscience and awareness of her self worth, Christoph Waltz's character slowly devolves into a parody of a human being - much of this is due to Waltz's overacting, which makes Walter into a grotesque monster of selfishness and ultimately a user of the worst kind. The film is nonetheless a fantastic insight into the artworld of the 60s, and to the work of an artist who had to claim her own spot in that universe, and in her own life. A good film worth watching.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Movie Name: Nell
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Michael Apted
Stars: Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, Richard Libertini, Nick Searcy, Robin Mullins, Jeremy Davies, Sean Bridgers, Joe Inscoe
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Michael Apted's "Nell" premiered in 1994, following his previous acclaimed features "Thunderheart", "Class Action" and "Gorillas in the Mist". The film is based on the stage play by Mark Handley, and follows the story of Nell, a young woman who has been raised in the woods by her speech impaired mother, completely isolated from any other human contact. When her mother dies, Nell is found out by a local doctor, who is fascinated by her specific language, but who wants to keep her in her house and surroundings. Nell soon finds herself the target of more attention, namely from a psychology student by the name of Paula Olsen who wants to see Nell observed from a more clinical perspective. These two factions come a halt when a judge orders Nell to be contained in a medical facility for close observation and understand her mental capacity.
Michael Apted has been an interesting director throughout most of career - he has forged a path simultaneously focused on documentary features, alongside more commercial endeavors such as "Coal Miner's Daughter", "Gorky Park" and the James Bond film "The World is Not Enough" to name but a few. "Nell" was a special project for him, since it was a project developed by Jodie Foster, who was the producer and who also intended to direct, but who later decided to opt out of the director's chair. Michael Apted wisely lets the film be an exploration of a character that is unique, someone who is deeply immersed in a universe of their own, and for whom the entire world is filled with strangeness and bizarre behaviors. The film falters towards the end, when it plays the character almost as a simpleton savant, but for the most part, it's a character study for a woman whose fear has always been of not being able to connect and ultimately be alone. Jodie Foster is fantastic in the central role, giving the character an inner life and a motivation that is touching - her interactions with Liam Neeson are equally affecting and emotionally resonant. The cinematography from Dante Spinotti is stunning, as is the score from Mark Isham. A good film always worth watching.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Client

Movie Name: The Client
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Joel Schumacher
Stars: Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Renfro, Mary Louise Parker, Anthony LaPaglia, Anthony Edwards, J.T. Walsh, Will Patton, Bradley Whitford, Anthony Heald, Kim Coates, Kimberly Scott, William H. Macy, Ossie Davis
Genre: Drama, Crime, Mystery
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Joel Schumacher in the early 90s was at the peak of his popularity: following the commercially successful "Flatliners" and "Falling Down", he tackled "The Client", the third adaptation of a John Grisham novel (after the successful Alan J. Pakula's "The Pelican Brief" and Sydney Pollack's "The Firm", both of which came out in 1993). The film follows the story of Mark Sway, an 11 year old boy, who by accident witnesses the suicide of what turns out to be a mob lawyer. An ambitious and aggressive prosecutor sees Mark as a perfect witness to bring down organized crime, while promoting his own political ambitions. Fearing for his and his family's safety, Mark hires Reggie Love, a recovering alcoholic, who has been in practice for 5 years but is knowledgeable of the intricacies of the system.
Joel Schumacher has been a director with a curious track record, where for each interesting film he tackles, there's a string of disappointing ones (in the 90s alone he directed forgettable films such as "Batman and Robin" and "8mm" for instance). "The Client" is one of his best films, where he successfully crafted a suspense thriller and managed to capture fantastic performances from Susan Sarandon, Brad Renfro and Tommy Lee Jones. The adaptations from John Grisham novels are usually quite successful, in the sense that there's always at the core a similar functional story device: the idealistic young hero, trapped in a compromising scenario, from which he has to get out, through sheer intelligence and resourcefulness (traditionally this hero is an attorney). "The Client" is no different, with the attention this time around focused on the weary attorney Reggie Love, and her young client, Mark Sway. Schumacher manages to stage this compelling story in a vivid way, making for a film that is competent and engaging, also benefiting from the cinematography of Tony Pierce-Roberts (known for his work with the Merchant Ivory team). A good film always worth re-watching.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Movie Name: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Aidan Turner, Stephen Fry, Dean O'Gorman, John Callen, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Peggy Nesbitt, Mary Nesbitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Billy Connolly, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

As usual around this time of the year, Peter Jackson returns with another chapter dedicated to the characters of Middle Earth. The final installment in the Hobbit saga, picks right after the previous chapter: the dragon Smaug is loose and on a rampage, destroying the city by the lake. When the dragon is destroyed, everyone finally tries to claim part of the gold that exists in the mountain, particularly the dwarf king, who sees that enormous fortune as his and his clan's. The survivors from the city by the lake all drift towards the remains of the city by the mountain, as do the elves, who have claim on some of the treasures in the city. Unbeknownst to them is however, a monumental orc army ready to destroy them all. It's up to all these factions to unite and overcome this potentially lethal battle.
Director Peter Jackson has become synonym with films rooted in fantasy and with an epic scale of story (and budget). The final film in his Hobbit trilogy, concludes Bilbo's adventures, focusing almost exclusively in the long battle scene that occurs for the domination of the mountain where the treasures lie. The film doesn't really add anything in terms of character development, or narrative expansion - the sole focus is the final battle that occurs between the opposing factions. The film succeeds in creating a momentum and a sense of grandiosity, due to the truly remarkable visual effects, production design and cinematography, however those components almost invariably tend to dwarf the major players in the narrative. Bilbo, Gandalf and Bard, have little to do in the film - and this is where the major issue lies in the conclusion of their arcs and of this story in general: this epilogue almost feels like an afterthought, as a final push to develop something where there's nothing (the battle never feels as dramatic and as game changing as the battles that existed in "The Lord of the Rings"). The film is nonetheless a testament to the craft of Peter Jackson and his team, who have truly created something engaging and unique, bringing to life the universe created by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles

Movie Name: Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Neil Jordan
Stars: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, Kirsten Dunst, Stephen Rea, Christian Slater, Thandie Newton, Domiziana Giordano, Laure Marsac, Roger Lloyd Pack
Genre: Horror, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the critical and commercial success of the wonderful "The Crying Game", the talented Neil Jordan tackled the long in development adaptation of Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire". The film follows the story of young and handsome, Louis Pointe du Lac, the proprietor of a large plantation in New Orleans, in the 18th century. Following the death of his wife and daughter, Louis who longs to join his dearly loved ones, is turned into a vampire, by the seductive and lethal Lestat de Lioncourt. Unlike Louis, Lestat is devoid of qualms when the need to satiate his thirst arises, killing without remorse. When their relationship threatens to strain beyond repair, Lestat turns a young girl into a vampire, in the hopes of creating a tranquil home life. However the young girl's plans are quite different, and Lestat soon finds himself as the target of her vengeance. Fleeing to Europe, Louis and Claudia, find themselves in the company of other vampires, who become suspicious of their American counterparts.
Director Neil Jordan had tackled the horror/fantasy genre before in his career, namely with the fantastic "The Company of Wolves" in 1984, and with less illustrious results, "High Spirits" in 1988 (though the director was excluded of the editing process for this latter film). "Interview with the Vampire" turned out to be a huge hit in 1994, due to the fantastic cast assembled, but the film in itself, is quite faithful to the original novel and is quite successful in creating a somber, intelligent, and simultaneously menacing tone throughout it's duration. Neil Jordan builds a universe where vampires question their immortality and deal with the passing of time as their worst enemy - their incapacity to adjust to times as civilization evolves, is always their fear. Louis, with his guilt and ultimately, his shred of humanity, manages to be a unique creature within this species, and as such, is desired by several of his counterparts. The assembled cast is uniformly good, with Tom Cruise creating a menacing and entertaining villain, balanced by the more introspective tone of Brad Pitt's Louis. The film is visually exquisite, thanks to the work of Philippe Rousselot, also benefiting from a fantastic score by Elliot Goldenthal.  A great film always worth revisiting.

St. Vincent

Movie Name: St. Vincent
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Deirdre O'Connell, Reg E. Cathey
Genre: Comey, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

"St. Vincent" is director's Theodore Melfi's debut feature, after a series of short features which he directed from 1999 onwards. The film follows the story of Vincent, a man in his 60s, whose life is changed by the arrival of new neighbors. Amongst these new neighbors is a precocious and polite little boy by the name of Oliver, who due to his mom's work schedule, finds himself spending time with Vincent, as an awkward babysitter. Vincent has all sorts of bad habits, which includes drinking, gambling, and also dating a Russian, pregnant prostitute by the name of Daka. As Vincent and Oliver become more familiar with each other, the young boy realizes there's more to Vincent than his brisk and rough exterior.
Director Theodore Melfi, who also is the screenwriter of the film, manages to successfully bring to life a small group of characters, particularly the central iconic one wonderfully played by Bill Murray. Vincent is a modern Walter Matthau - a rough exterior with a vicious wit, but with more than one side to him. The film follows the traditional register of the young boy, coming of age, who learns all sorts of habits from the less respectable side of life, and who learns to enjoy it in the process (all themes that have been explored countless times in other films). The film starts building this universe quite refreshingly, but quickly delves into a more familiar and visited territory, which ultimately is redeemed by the performances of the main cast. Bill Murray is excellent, as usual, showcasing a character that is acid, sweet, intelligent, and multifaceted. Naomi Watts is the comic gem of the film, playing the Russian prostitute, who is dry and always focused on business - it's a lighter character for her, in a career traditionally associated with dramas, whereas Melissa McCarthy ends up being more muted in a performance that asks her to be the more emotionally crippled mother of the central character. This is a film that lives solely from the performances that it captures, and for that alone, it deserves to be seen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Movie Name: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Aidan Quinn, Ian Holm, Richard Briers, John Cleese, Robert Hardy, Cherie Lunghi, Celia Imrie
Genre: Drama, Horror, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2

When Kenneth Branagh's "Frankenstein" premiered in 1994, the actor/director was coming off from the well received "Much Ado about Nothing" (and to a certain extent, the lesser seen "Peter's Friends" and "Dead Again"). The film aimed at capitalizing on the classic monster genre, which had been successfully re-started with Francis Ford Coppola's and his beautiful "Bram Stoker's Dracula". However whereas Coppola's had an operatic and luscious perspective, Branagh's was mostly loud, garish and without much sense of direction. The film follows the novel of Mary Shelley, focusing on Victor Frankenstein's attempts at re-creating life, following the unfortunate death of his mother, during childbirth. Frankenstein, a brilliant student, successfully manages to create a man using different body parts, against the advice of his teacher and mentor and his other close friends. This man/creature, however seeing himself as a monster, sets about destroying his creator for leaving him in such an agonizing shape and without a companion. Frankenstein ends up paying an extremely high cost for playing God.
Kenneth Branagh's has thus far had a very uneven directorial career: his best feature is still to this day, his debut, the classic and justly lauded, "Henry V" which came out in 1989 (and landed him Oscar nominations in both acting and directing). "Frankenstein" sadly feels like a missed opportunity for the director - as has become his staple, there's a general lack of style and substance in the way the story is approached. The characters for all their dazzling and movements, feel like puppets, without much motivation, or depth for that matter. Branagh tries to compensate for his lack of character exploration, by increasing the volume of the soundtrack and the scale of the sets that seem to dwarf their characters in comparison. He also focuses too much attention on shirtless shots of himself, while trying to create the creature - the film seems random, and insufficiently focused on what it should be. The talents of the diversified cast are squandered away, particularly the fantastic Helena Bonham Carter who has little to do with her part. Unlike "Bram Stoker's Dracula" who used a baroque and unique perspective to depict the events of the novel upon which it was based, "Frankenstein" (whose screenplay had the contribution of the talented Frank Darabont) tries to be overly faithful to the novel, without bringing a distinct point of view. The final result is as inert as the monster that the film tries to bring to life. A sadly missed opportunity.

Pulp Fiction

Movie Name: Pulp Fiction
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Greene, Duane Whitaker, Alexis Arquette, Angela Jones, Paul Calderon, Burr Steers, Frank Whaley
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 10

When "Pulp Fiction" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino was mostly known for "Reservoir Dogs", which had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, to great reviews. "Pulp Fiction" won the Palm D'Or, and went on to win many awards in 1994, eclipsing the other big film of 1994, Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" (which ended up triumphing at the Academy Awards, whereas "Pulp Fiction" settled for the Oscar for Original Screenplay).
"Pulp Fiction" follows the stories of a group of diverse characters, some of which though initially seemingly unrelated, end up intersecting each others path (and where the sense of time progression is also arranged differently). The film introduces us to two hit men, by the name of Jules and Vincent, who are sent on an assignment to retrieve a valuable suitcase for their boss, Marcellus Wallace. That task is met with some unpredictable obstacles, and both men have to resort to an expert to help them overcome the situation they find themselves in. Marcellus on the other hand has other businesses, namely with a boxer by the name of Butch, whom he orders to lose a fight. When Butch decides against the arrangement, that puts him and his girlfriend Fabienne in a extremely precarious position. Due to a bizarre set of events, these two men find themselves trapped in a basement at the mercy of some deranged lunatics. Marcellus' wife on the other hand, goes on the town with Jules, who is dealing with a drug habit, that ends up affecting the outcome of their meetup.
The power and originality of "Pulp Fiction" is still felt even 20 years after its debut. The film continues to feel as fresh and original as it did when it premiered - the way the characters and stories intersect is superbly done and executed. The film feels and reads like a slice of the underbelly of LA, with hit men who quote the bible, wannabe actresses who exude charisma, offbeat stories about war and relics that are unlike anything you'll ever witness or see again. The cast is uniformly fantastic, particularly Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, both of whom are indelible in their creations. The true testament to the importance of this film, lies in the way it juggles multiple film references, and yet it feels uniquely distinguishable. It's a film that invented on it's own a new sub-genre, and successfully opened the way to the career of Quentin Tarantino. A modern classic.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Movie Name: Exodus: Gods and Kings
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Ewen Bremmer, Indira Varma, Isaac Andrews, Tara Fitzgerald
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3

The prolific Ridley Scott is back, following the mediocre "The Counselor" from 2013 (which was a huge disappointment, since it featured a screenplay from Cormac McCarthy and a very talented cast). "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is another big budget extravaganza, and it is for all intended purposes a remake of the classic Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments", from 1956. The film follows the story of Moises, who alongside Ramses, are the princes of Egypt, 1300 years BC. Both young men were raised and brought up together, but whereas Ramses is the son of the pharaoh, Moises is the son of the pharaoh's sister. Egypt has prospered for years at the expense of the slave work from the Hebrews, who long for freedom above everything. Moises and Ramses come to a clash, once it becomes suspected (and then confirmed), that Moises is indeed a Hebrew - he is banished from the court and country, and wanders the deserts. He slowly rebuilds his life, until God appears to him and orders him to lead his people to freedom.
"Exodus: Gods and Kings" is an uneven filmic experience, which in the end, results as a very flawed feature. For all its visual richness, envisioned by the director and the amazing team he's assembled, the screenplay doesn't develop much upon the classic that Cecil B. DeMille directed over 50 years ago (though some of the camp factor from the original has indeed been toned down). The impressive visual effects, can't hide the fact that the actors have little to do, and the antagonism between the main two leads feels under-played. Cecil B. DeMille's version still contains the richness and awe of the Technicolor, and though it's acting is uneven, there's a genuine sense of majesty and scale, something that "Exodus" never actually creates. A lot of the issue lies within the supporting cast, that never gets a chance to exist beyond a few limited scenes. It's perplexing watching the talented Sigourney Weaver doing absolutely nothing (her presence ends up being nothing more than a cameo), the same can be said for the fantastic Ben Kingsley. Ancient Egypt is brought to life in a visually stunning way, however it never feels real, nor authentic - the film is eerily reminiscent in certain sections of the work of director Rolland Emmerich, without the fun that usually comes with it. By the time the parting of the sea comes along, there's absolutely no investment in the characters or in their fate, since their motivations feels contrived and non-existent. This is one of the big disappointments of the year - avoid it at all costs and watch the 1956 version instead.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hudsucker Proxy

Movie Name: The Hudsucker Proxy
Year of Release: 1994
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, Charles Durning, John Mahoney, Jim True, Bill Cobbs, Bruce Campbell, Harry Bugin, Joe Grifasi, Steve Buscemi, Anna Nicole Smith, Noble Willingham, Peter Gallagher, Richard Schiff, Mike Starr, Christopher Darga
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

When the "The Hudsucker Proxy" premiered in 1994, the Coen brothers were effectively releasing their first studio film (in this case financed by Warner Brothers, which gave them their first big budget, after years of working on independent films, such as "Blood Simple", "Raising Arizona", "Millers Crossing" and "Barton Fink"). The film follows the story of simpleton Norville Barnes, who is appointed as CEO of a company by one of their scheming directors, in an attempt to take over the control of the destiny of that company. However his plans get derailed when Norville turns out to be an inspired and creative individual. This plan however strikes the curiosity of energetic and driven journalist Amy Archer, who goes undercover to understand what goes on at Hudsucker industries. In the end it's up to Norville to find his inner voice and strength to regain control and overcome all the sabotages that are set to derail him.
The Coens tried with "The Hudsucker Proxy" to capture the whole screwball comedy that was made popular in the 30s and 40s by talented film makers such as Howard Hawks ("Bringing Up Baby", "His Girl Friday") and George Cukor ("The Philadelphia Story"). The film uses the same concepts, with the naive hero who gets dazzled by the bright lights of the big city (and the unexpected success), the cynical and beautiful reporter, and the usual older, villainous tycoon. These archetypes are also on par with what the Coens had worked on some of their early films, particularly "Raising Arizona", but here the brothers mined this universe specifically with the intent to recapture a tone and style, that sadly isn't entirely successful. Tim Robbins creates a central hero with a goofiness and heart, that gives the film it's tender core, while Paul Newman is successfully villainous, however Jennifer Jason Leigh depicts ultimately what fails about the film - for all the technical proficiency exhibited, there's a lack of inventiveness, of feeling about these characters, which in turn makes the viewer not care about their destiny. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is stunning as usual, as is the soundtrack from Carter Burwell (the longtime associates of the Coens). A flawed film, yet worth revisiting for what it suggests and depicts.