Sunday, February 22, 2015

Get Shorty

Movie Name: Get Shorty
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Stars: John Travolta, Rene Russo, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, Jon Gries, Bette Midler, David Paymer, Martin Ferrero, Miguel Sandoval
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

The success of the "Adams Family" films allowed director Barry Sonnenfeld to move on to more ambitious projects, such as "Get Shorty", an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard book. The film follows the story of Chili Palmer, a mobster working out of Florida, who has to go to Hollywood to collect a debt. Chili, who is a big movie buff, finds himself tangled up in the movie business, which ends up being eerily similar to the mobster underground that he's so familiar with. He befriends Harry Zimm, a film director who is himself struggling to get his films done, and gets romantically involved with Karen Flores, a B-movie actress with a good heart. Into this network of contacts comes Bo Catlett, a criminal who is also interested in the movie business. It's up to Chili Palmer to navigate these murky waters, which also include big ego actors such as Martin Weir, and venture out into this new business.
Barry Sonnenfeld has made a career of directing comedies with high concepts and traditionally with very high profile casts. That has been the case with "Adams Family", "Men in Black" and "Big Trouble". "Get Shorty" is, thus far, his best film, thanks in much to a crackling screenplay by Scott Frank, which brims with intelligence, wit and a very self reverential and satiric nod to the movie making business. He also benefits from one fantastic cast, where John Travolta exudes confidence and menace, while retaining his suave and calm demeanor. "Get Shorty" was released immediately after Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and further cemented the actor's comeback (something that has since gone nowhere). The supporting cast, including Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo and James Gandolfini is equally superb, colorful and diversified, allowing for the story to be truly brought to life in a dynamic and hilarious way. This is a comedy where everything flows perfectly, from the casting through the cinematography and the impeccable soundtrack (from John Lurie). A great comedy worth watching!

Die Hard with a Vengeance

Movie Name: Die Hard with a Vengeance
Year of Release: 1995
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Bruce Willis, Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp, Larry Bryggman, Anthony Peck, Sam Philips, Kevin Chamberlin, Sharon Washington
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

After the heavily criticized "Last Action Hero", John McTiernan went back to the franchise he started in 1988, with the second sequel to "Die Hard", again featuring Bruce Willis as the resourceful police detective John McClane. "Die Hard with a Vengeance" finds McClane in New York, and this time around he's the target of a terrorist going by the name of Simon. Simon puts McClane through a series of perilous tasks, under the threat of blowing up multiple bombs throughout the city. McClane has the assistance of a store owner by the name of Zeus, who gets dragged into these challenging tasks. Simon however has some hidden motivations, besides the more immediate and personal ones, his brother is the late terrorist Hans Gruber, the man McClane killed in the first "Die Hard" adventure.
John McTiernan has always been an intelligent film maker - his best films are always anchored on lead characters that are both resourceful and strong willed, who eventually find themselves in solitary positions fighting for their lives and those around them. That happened in "Predator", "The Hunt for the Red October", "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Die Hard". His sequel to "Die Hard" loses a lot of the claustrophobic element that made the first film so watchable and suspenseful, however the director smartly uses the city of New York almost as a maze, where the lead characters have to navigate in order to stay alive, and save the innocent population of further fatal explosions. It's a film that escalates the challenges of the original "Die Hard", giving the central and iconic character, a foil that is composed, intelligent, and persistent. Jeremy Irons makes the villainous character charming and menacing, perfectly balancing Bruce Willis' wisecracking, relaxed portrayal of McClane. It's a well orchestrated and acted film, worth watching!

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Movie Name: Casino
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars:Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, L.Q. Jones, Dick Smothers, Frank Vincent
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the critical success of "The Age of Innocence", Martin Scorsese focused his attention on another story dealing with organized crime. "Casino" is adapted from the book by Nicholas Pileggi, and follows the story of Ace Rothstein, who alongside Nicky Santoro, both of whom have ties with organized crime in NY, move to Las Vegas in order to control the gambling industry associated with the casinos in that area. Ace functions as the businessman and brains of the operation, while Nicky is the muscle, robbing and shaking the locals (and potential rivals). Things however start changing dramatically when Ace gets involved with Ginger, a local scamming artist, and Nicky gets more addicted to drugs.
"Casino" probes deep into the deep tragic life of Ace Rothstein, the center and narrator of the story. His "American Dream" lifestyle facade slowly fades away, as we see how organized crime destroys everything it touches - Ace as the tragic and deeply flawed central character is the epitome of Scorsese's characters - a man trying to stay afloat, carrying a heavy burden of experiences, and with a family life that has disintegrated into accusations and mutual loathing. At the core of the film is a trio of riveting performances, from Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci, all of whom bring to life these characters, with energy and weariness. The cinematography from Robert Richardson is simply stunning, as is the title sequence from Saul Bass. The film is an amalgamation of craft and a universe that is familiar to Scorsese, from the dynamics of dysfunctional family life to the intricacies of organized crime. A great film always worth revisiting.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Movie Name: Kingsman: The Secret Service
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Stars: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Michael Caine, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Sofia Boutella, Geoff Bell, Sophie Cookson, Edward Holcroft, Hanna Alstrom, Corey Johnson
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

After revitalizing the X-Men franchise with the intelligent "X-Men: First Class", director Matthew Vaughn returns with another adaptation of a comic book (from co-writer Mark Millar, who also wrote "Kick Ass", another of Vaughn's film adaptations). The film focuses on an agency by the name of Kingsman, ultra secretive, designed to stop enemies of liberty and state throughout the world. One of their top agents, Harry Hart, takes under his wing the rebellious and kind hearted Eggsy, coincidentally the son of one of his previous colleagues, who sacrificed himself in the line of duty to save Harry and other agents. They have to battle a deranged maniac by the name of Valentine, a multi-billionaire, with ambitions to save the planet, and sacrifice a part of its population in the process.
Matthew Vaughn has by now made a name for himself as an intelligent director, capable of mining established trends and concepts and make it into something fresh and interesting. "Kingsman" offers a fresh view on the traditional James Bond franchise, making it edgier, but also aware of itself. The characters are adequately drawn out for the narrative being presented - in this case we have the veteran spy played with charisma and charm by Colin Firth, who instructs the young impulsive Eggsy in the ways of becoming an agent, but also a mature and responsible adult. The villain is also played with humor and just enough menace, avoiding campyness, thanks to Samuel L. Jackson. The action set pieces are well staged, and the film benefits from an impeccable production design work from Paul Kirby. A very entertaining film worth watching.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Best films of 2014

2014 was a solid year for films, it featured new directorial efforts from masters such as David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson, and big disappointments from established names such as Ridley Scott and for the first time, Darren Aronofsky. Some good surprises came in the shape of big blockbusters such as Doug Liman's "Edge of Tomorrow" and some horrible surprises also came in the shape of big blockbusters, such as Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider Man 2". Below are the list of my favorite films of 2014.

Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward, Casey Wilson, Emily Ratajkowski, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini

The Grand Budapest Hotel
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

Inherent Vice
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Joanna Newsom, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Hong Chau, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Jordan Christian Hearn, Sasha Pieterse, Keith Jardine, Martin Donovan, Martin Dew, Taylor Bonin

Love is Strange
Director: Ira Sachs
Stars: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, Marisa Tomei, Darren E. Burrows, Cheyenne Jackson, Manny Perez, Christina Kirk, Harriet Harris, Charlie Tahan, John Cullum

A Most Violent Year
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, Matthew Maher

Director: Bennett Miller
Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice

Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Anne Cusack, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm, Michael Hyatt, Marco Rodriguez

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Stars:Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever, Jeremy Shamos

Under the Skin
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, Andrew Gorman

Special highlights also go to the following films: Bryan Singer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past", Doug Liman's "Edge of Tomorrow", Tim Burton's "Big Eyes", Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" and Bong Joon-Ho's "Snowpiercer". The biggest disappointments of the year for me were both Marc Webb's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and Ridley Scott's "Exodus: Gods and Kings".

Still Alice

Movie Name: Still Alice
Year of Release: 2014
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Shane McRae, Stephen Hunken, Daniel Gerroll, Seth Gilliam
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are back, following their critically well received "The Last of Robin Hood" and "Quinceanera". The film is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Lisa Genova and follows the story of Alice Howland, a renown linguistics professor, married for many years and mother of 3 adult children. Alice discovers through a series of events and occurrences, that she has an onset of early Alzheimer's disease. Much to her horror, she starts losing track of things and her memory also starts fading away, affecting her professional career, and also her family life.
Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have a short but interesting career, particularly with the interesting "Quinceanera" which put them on the map. "Still Alice" is a drama anchored in the performance of the actors, particularly the luminous Julianne Moore, who composes and creates a character slowly losing control of her life, and without being able to prevent it. Much of the other characters aren't given much depth or as much of an arc, but thanks to the directors choice of following Alice's progressive health deterioration, we witness the affect that it produces on the life of a vibrant woman and how it resonates throughout her family. The film falters in the somewhat superficial brush that it gives to the lives of that family (interestingly Sarah Polley's "Away from Her" was a more delicate and stronger perspective to this theme and particular ailment). It is nonetheless an intimate drama, featuring a truly memorable performance from Julianne Moore. Worth watching.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Movie Name: Carrington
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Christopher Hampton
Stars: Emma Thompson, Jonathan Pryce, Steven Waddington, Samuel West, Rufus Sewell, Penelope Wilton, Janet McTeer, Jeremy Northam, Alex Kingston, Sebastian Harcombe, Richard Clifford
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Christopher Hampton's has built his career mostly as a screenwriter (and playwriter), having won an Academy Award for writing Stephen Frears' adaptation of "Dangerous Liaisons" (based on the Choderlos de Laclos novel). "Carrington" is his first foray into directing, and it's an adaptation of Michael Holroyd's book, which details the relationship between Dora Carrington, a young painter, and Lytton Strachey in the early 20th century. Strachey, who is part of the literary group, Bloomsbury Group (which also featured E.M. Forster, Virginia Wolf and John Maynard Keynes), is first introduced to Dora Carrington during a Summer vacation where they are both staying with mutual friends. While initially repulsed by each other, their friendship slowly grows, as does Dora's beautiful work and Strachey's reputation as writer. Their relationship never blossoms into an amorous one, since Strachey is openly gay, but they eventually live together in the same household, while their romantic liaisons come and go.
Christopher Hampton's debut film, smartly anchors itself in the relationship between these two celebrated artists, which allows the actors portraying them, to build characters that are multidimensional. The director is influenced by the style imprinted by James Ivory (particularly in the impeccable production design and general aesthetic), but manages to build a narrative of his own, allowing for the lives of Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey to be brought to life with all the complexity associated with them. These are people who are flawed, with inner struggles, and who find in each other solace and a love that transcends their sexual preferences. The performances from Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson are truly fantastic, as is the beautiful score from Michael Nyman. An underrated film worth watching!

Jupiter Ascending

Movie Name: Jupiter Ascending
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Stars: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Doona Bae, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Christina Cole, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D'Arcy, Kick Gurry
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

The Wachowski siblings are back, following the fantastic "Cloud Atlas" with another foray into science-fiction. "Jupiter Ascending" follows the story of Jupiter Jones, a young woman, descendant from a Russian family, who suddenly finds herself in the midst of an inter-galactic battle over her destiny. Jupiter is a reincarnation of the dead monarch of the Universe, and the descendants of that monarch are battling over the reigns of different planets, one of each is Earth. Jupiter gets abducted, and hot on her trail, is her savior Caine Wise, a former military hunter enamored of her.
The Wachowski siblings have always been intelligent film makers, mixing interesting theories and complex scenarios, with a comic book sensibility, which has allowed them to walk a fine line between art and big budget action extravaganzas. "Jupiter Ascending" is however a minor effort in their careers - the film focuses on the dynamics between the innocent and naive Jupiter Jones, who unbeknownst to her is an all powerful monarch, and the genetically engineered hunter Caine Wise who falls in love with her. The problem with this apparently simple scenario, lies in the fact that the heroine has a lack of an apparent life and seemingly, of any sense, reason or intelligence (it doesn't help that the character is played without any real sense of interest or dynamics by Mila Kunis). The story has interesting elements, and it's clearly influenced by David Lynch's "Dune" and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (who has a great cameo), but sadly these are not expanded enough to make the film compelling. Visually the film is stupendous, featuring the beautiful cinematography from John Toll, while the production design from Hugh Bateup and costumes from Kym Barrett are simply gorgeous. It's a film that anchors itself in a heroine devoid of personality (a sad throwback to heroines who do nothing but get in danger and hope the male counterpart saves them), and regrettably that mitigates all the interest and compelling narrative points that the script sets in motion. For all the sound and fury the film beautifully displays, it ends up strangely hollow.

A Most Violent Year

Movie Name: A Most Violent Year
Year of Release: 2014
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, Matthew Maher
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Following the well received "All is Lost", writer/director J.C. Chandor is back, with another crackling film. "A Most Violent Year" takes place in New York, in 1981, when the city was experiencing one of the worst crime waves ever registered. The film focuses on the story of Abel Morales, a young entrepreneur, who deals with fuel and who has a big deal looming involving real estate, which will allow him to take his business to a different scale. However, the crime wave that is sprawling throughout the city has been affecting his business, since his trucks and his drivers have been attacked and robbed quite frequently. One of these drivers, fearing for his safety, uses a gun to retaliate, which sets in motion a series of events that threatens to destroy Abel's empire.
J.C. Chandor has systematically been building an interesting career with his features. His films tend to depict realistic situations and obstacles, and his heroes traditionally overcome these dire scenarios through much effort and intelligence. That is again the case with "A Most Violent Year" - the central hero, Abel, refuses to give into a life of crime, which sends him into conflicts with his wife, the lethal Anna, who comes from a life of crime. Abel perseveres against all obstacles in order to attain his goals and still maintain his ideals and hold onto his honesty. The film exquisitely captures New York of the early 80s, and the ruthless environment that make these businesses stay afloat. The performances from Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks are fantastic, particularly Chastain, who in the scenes she has, manages to create this complex woman, a mix of sweet and feral. The cinematography from Bradford Young is stunning as is the production design from John Goldsmith. A great film worth watching!  

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Bridges of Madison County

Movie Name: The Bridges of Madison County
Year of Release: 1995
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak, Jim Haynie, Sarah Kathryn Schmitt, Christopher Kroon, Phyllis Lyons, Debra Monk, Richard Lage
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

Clint Eastwood's "The Bridges of Madison County" was one of his most successful films of the 90s, and followed the underrated "A Perfect World". The film is an adaptation of the novel by Robert James Waller, and focuses on the story of Francesca Johnson, an Italian immigrant, who married an American soldier and moved to Iowa. In 1965 while her husband and children are off to Illinois for a state fair, Francesca meets a National Geographic photographer by the name of Robert Kincaid. He's in the area to do a photographic report on the covered bridges, and Francesca provides some direction - what ensues is a romantic liaison between these two people, who at surface are apparently different, but are seemingly destined for each other.
Clint Eastwood is a director who has managed to narrate a different set of stories on screen. His features have been diverse, but traditionally focus on central characters who beneath a rugged look and attitude, hide a tender and soft heart. He's also been a director who understands the rhythms of each story, in particular his more intimate character studies (such as "Bird" and "Changeling" for instance), where he allows the actors to take center stage, and truly make their characters fully alive. That is perfectly demonstrated in this film, that lives from the memorable performance of Meryl Streep, once again proving that she's an astonishing actress - she gives a mix of nuance, strength and vulnerability to her character, a woman who may have given up on her feelings and dreams for the well being of her family. This is a film that unveils the rituals of slowly falling in love, and realizing how that changes the course of a life. The film does falter in the casting of Clint Eastwood himself as the lead - he's not a good counterpart for Meryl Streep - there's a certain stiffness in his performance, but the film is nonetheless a good example of his storytelling prowess. Worth watching.