Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Movie Name: Independence Day: Resurgence
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Rolland Emmerich
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Bill Pullman, Sela Ward, Maika Monroe, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spinner, Patrick St. Esprit, Angelababy, Nicolas Wright, Travis Tope, Chin Han, Robert Loggia, John Storey
Genre: Adventure, Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5

After the poorly received "Stonewall", director Rolland Emmerich is back on familiar ground, with yet another big blockbuster (he has directed big blockbusters such as "Godzilla", "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012"). The film is a direct sequel to "Independence Day" and the events that took place in 1996. It places us in the midst of the celebration of the victory over the alien invaders. However that menace reappears, this time around with further power and resources than previously, beating even the new and improved defense tactics that the human race has collectively put together. It's up to David Levinson, former President Whitmore, and their allies, to collectively devise a plan to defeat these alien forces intent on destroying the planet.
Rolland Emmerich is a director who has made a name for himself for directing big disaster films, where the focus is more on the destruction being presented, than exactly the human dimension those films have. Though his attention and particular brush focuses on the massive sets and showcasing as much visual effects as possible, there's still definitely a joy on his part in using the vast amount of resources he has to tell stories that reach the widest array of audiences possible. His screenplays are usually not the most subtle, or indicative of the diversity and complexity of human relationships, but there's a definite focus on providing entertainment and escapism to his audience. "Independence Day: Ressurgence" is a very good example of his point of view: a story that is anchored on cliches, and that treads a path that the original film successfully put forth. The cast uniformly boards the film with the intent of giving the story a mix of flimsy fun and some heart. The visual effects almost topple the entire film, but it's nonetheless a film that has few expectations and that manages to be unpretentious and occasionally entertaining.

The Neon Demon

Movie Name: The Neon Demon
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Stacey Danger
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

"The Neon Demon" is Nicolas Winding Refn latest release, following the much derided "Only God Survives". The film focuses on the fashion world in Los Angeles, specifically, on young model Jesse who has recently arrived to the city. We don't know much about Jesse, save for the fact her parents aren't around, and she lives in a motel, who is run by an unsavory man. Jesse immediately turns heads with her natural beauty and youth. Jesse meets makeup artist Ruby, who becomes a friend, and introduces her to other models in the business, who are not quite as fresh and relevant. When the situation at the motel becomes dangerous, Jesse seeks Ruby's help, not noticing that Ruby has other interests beyond just being friendly. The relationship between these women escalate to dramatic and unsettling results.
"The Neon Demon" is a film that lives primarily from a point of view where the aesthetic and stylistic concepts are the main focus. There's a parable behind this film, pointing out the superficiality of the modeling world, of a society that puts so much emphasis on beauty, which ravages youth and innocence, but the film in itself, is an object of utter beauty. The characters are mere sketches for what the director is conveying, none of them have much depth, however there's a very unsettling environment he successfully builds around Jesse, one that is simultaneously menacing and beautiful. It's a film punctuated by some beautifully shot set pieces, that balance the dark and horrific side in which the story is plunged into as the film progresses. The cast is uniformly good, particularly Jena Malone and Abbey Lee, who give their characters a sense of despair and longing beyond the superficiality that is conveyed throughout the film. The score from the fantastic Cliff Martinez is awesome, as is the cinematography from Natasha Braier. A different and somewhat superficial look into this dark universe, in a film that is undeniably beautiful to look at.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Before Night Falls

Movie Name: Before Night Falls
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Julian Schnabel
Stars: Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Olivier Martinez, Andrea Di Stefano, Santiago Magill, John Ortiz, Hector Babenco, Michael Wincott, Sean Penn, Diego Luna, Vito Schnabel, Najwa Nimri
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Celebrated artist Julian Schnabel followed his great debut "Basquiat", with another film focused on another artist who much like the celebrated painter, carved a live and a career on his own terms, even if he had to leave his birthplace in order to do so.
"Before Night Falls" follows the story of cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, introducing us to his humble beginnings on his family's farm. From then on we witness as Reinaldo begins to know more about literature, and how his career starts emerging, alongside his homosexuality. His life changes dramatically when Castro takes over and he finds himself in prison due to his sexuality. He finally manages to devise an escape plan and comes to the US as a refugee, where he lives in hardship, but continues to write.
Julian Schnabel continued his directorial career, with another biopic focused on a celebrated and marginalized artist, poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. The film paints a perfect picture of how the artist grew up and how the society in Cuba evolved and changed with the different political climates. It's a film that is simultaneously gritty and poetic, reminding us of how art can effectively change the world. It's a film that also presents the reality of what is like to be gay in a repressive society.  Javier Bardem is perfect once more, embodying the artist with utter and complete immersion, but the film also allows for Johnny Depp to play two distinct and memorable roles. A very good film always worth revisiting.

American Psycho

Movie Name: American Psycho
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Mary Harron
Stars: Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Josh Lucas, Matt Ross, Willem Dafoe, Bill Sage, Cara Seymour, Guinevere Turner, Samantha Mathis
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
When "American Psycho" premiered in 2000, it was finally the dawn for a project that saw many directors and stars attached (Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio were at some point attached to the project). The film was the second directorial effort for director Mary Herron, following the celebrated "I Shot Andy Warhol", which premiered in 1996. The film is an adaptation of the controversial book by Bret Easton Ellis and follows the story of Patrick Bateman, a young and well off professional. He works in Wall Street, though he's more focused on looking perfectly sculpted, being seen at the right spots (restaurants and clubs), and hanging out with his equally superficial friends. He has a fiancee, though he's also involved with other women, but beyond all this, he's got a dark side he fears is getting out of control. Patrick has a bloodlust, that starts escalating, and that threatens to overtake his entire life.
Mary Harron is a very interesting director, who has tackled stories where the focus is definitely on anti-heroes, and people who choose to make their own rules and lead unique lives. That was the case of Valerie Solanas (her focus of "I Shot Andy Warhol"), and also Bettie Page (her focus on "The Notorius Bettie Page"). "American Psycho" has the intelligence to take Bret Easton Ellis' blood drenched story, and adapts it in a way where the character doesn't really know if the things he's doing are actually real or not. The monster within Patrick, which he so carefully hides away behind a beautiful facade, doesn't come out only when his blood lust is unleashed - it can also be noticed by his continuous lack of emotions. The character is perfectly embodied by Christian Bale, who finally got a role that finally showcased his enormous talent. A good film always worth revisiting.

Finding Dory

Movie Name: Finding Dory
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Stars: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sigourney Weaver, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bill Hader
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Pixar Studios latest release is a sequel to one of their most iconic features, "Finding Nemo", which was released in 2003.  The film is equally a follow up for director Andrew Stanton, who after the unfairly maligned "John Carter" is back on his original animation roots (he also directed the beautiful "Wall E"). The film focuses on Dory, a blue tang fish, who is constantly being reminded of her lack of memory (or short memory loss, as she constantly states). Dory finds herself trying to find her roots and her family, and she ventures on her own, quickly followed by Marlin and Nemo who want to help her. She soon finds herself in the Marine Life Institute where she was born and where she hopes to find her family. It's up to her and her new friends to unveil where her family is and reunite them all.
Pixar's stories have been so incredibly successful because there's an underlying universal message that reaches beyond what is considered a traditional family film: their films is a result of a team work that aims to emphasize stories anchored in emotional truths, such as loss, love, family, courage, growing up, believing in one self. They manage to build stories that have a fantastic balance between humor and sentimentality, without ever being too maudlin. It has been a very successful venture for the studio, which has produced truly fantastic (and successful) features such as "The Incredibles", "Wall E"and "Inside Out". "Finding Dory" is almost a copycat of the original "Finding Nemo", with the focus now lying on Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres who brings her type of unmistakable humor to the character. It's a film so beautifully animated, that the over the top story at times becomes completely secondary. It's still a gorgeously entertaining film, worth watching and enjoying.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Almost Famous

Movie Name: Almost Famous
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudrup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Fairuza Balk, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Angarano, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Noah Taylor, Jimmy Fallon, Liz Stauber, Eric Stonestreet
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
Following his very successful "Jerry Maguire" in 1996, director Cameron Crowe came back with one of his best features. The film is simultaneously autobiographical and a celebration of the rock music of the 70s. The film focuses on William Miller, a young man who's on the verge of graduating high school, and loves music and writing about it. Upon meeting one of his idols, Lester Bangs, a seasoned writer, he gets a commission to write about a rock band named Stillwater. The band is on the brink of stardom, and has a series of groupies that follows them constantly. When Stillwater goes on tour, William tags along, causing a lot of concern to this mother, while simultaneously falling in love with one of the fans of the band, the lovely Penny Lane.
Cameron Crowe has had an uneven career, one that nonetheless reflects his profound love of music and his past as a rock music critic for the San Diego Union. His best films showcase just the right balance of character development, overtly sentimentality and romance, that have made them quite popular with audiences. "Almost Famous" is possibly one of his best, since it perfectly captures the rock zeitgeist of the 1970s, and how that decade was suddenly coming to the realization that the ideals of the 60s weren't really coming to fruition. It's a film filled with nostalgia, sentiment, and permeated with such joy for music and for just living life in the moment, that is hard not to feel the contagion. The actors are uniformly wonderful, with Billy Crudrup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Fairuza Balk, Philip Seymour Hoffman, all creating wonderfully unforgettable characters. The cinematography from John Toll is superb, as is the score from Nancy Wilson. A great film always worth watching.


Movie Name: Warcraft
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, Ben Foster, Toby Kebbel, Glenn Close, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Ryan Robbins, Dean Redman, Burkely Duffield
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3

After his first two strong features, "Moon" and "Source Code", director Duncan Jones, decided to tackle his first major blockbuster with an adaptation of the role-playing game "World of Warcraft" (which was released in 2004, and is itself a continuation of the universe that was first introduced in 1994 with "Warcraft: Orcs and Humans"). The film starts with the introduction of the Orcs, and the explanation that their world is dead. Their leader/wizard, has found a portal that leads the tribes to another world where they can successfully survive. Their wizard uses lethal magic that leverages the life force of captured tribes to activate an access to the portal, and also to empower some of the Orc warriors. The world they come to is named Azeroth, which has been peaceful for many years, and is ruled by loved king Wrynn, who is in turn aided by his loyal Lothar, and also by the kingdom's protector, the wizard Medivh. When the Orcs start attacking, all the different kingdoms in this particular world must come together, in order to stop this menace. Some key players in this battle are Garona, an orc/human hybrid, Khadgar, a young powerful wizard and Durotan, a chieftain from an orc clan. They all come to realize there's more to this battle than what initially any of them assumed.
The challenge to create a compelling story from an ongoing role-playing game is immense, particularly when there are so many fans throughout the world. Director Duncan Jones chose to create a film that reflects multiple influences, sadly in the end it falls very short of all that it tries to reference. There are traits of Peter Jackson's inevitable "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but also faint influences from John Boorman's "Excalibur", however any of the possible influences these interesting films could bring, eventually becomes submerged by an excess of digital effects that makes everything (and everyone) look like digital puppets. None of the characters actually manages to be sufficiently developed to be relevant - the valiant Lothar, which tries to copycat Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, is poorly brought to life by Travis Fimmel, who never knows if the whole film is campy or dramatic, since he can't decide on what type of tone to bring to the character. It's a poor casting decision, on what is otherwise an interesting array of actors, with Paula Patton trying to add some depth to a character that isn't given much to do, the same going for many characters that appear (and disappear). It's a film that has a lot of ambition, but one that needed a better screenplay with enough time to develop some of the key characters. The positive points for this film are mainly the visual effects which are impressive as is the cinematography from Simon Duggan. It's difficult to invest the attention of viewers when the characters are barely there to begin with and where the action set pieces feels as abstract and artificial as the game where its based on.

The Conjuring 2

Movie Name: The Conjuring 2
Year of Release: 2016
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O'Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Benjamin Haigh, Sterling Jerins, Patrick McAuley, Bob Adrian, Bonnie Aarons
Genre: Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

Director James Wan continues his successful streak, with a sequel to his great 2013 feature, "The Conjuring". The film focuses on another story recorded by Lorraine and Ed Warren. The film starts with the couple trying to understand the events surrounding the iconic Amityville mansion, and the impact that has on Lorraine, who through her visions manages to see something menacing in the house. The film then shifts the attention to a family in London, who is experiencing some disturbing events in their house. The family, comprised of recently separated mother Peggy Hodgson, with her 4 children, is experiencing a spirit in their house, that haunts them constantly, particularly the young Janet, who seems to be the main focus of attention. When things escalate dramatically, the Warrens are drawn to the case, in order to try to assess if the situation is a hoax or an actual case of possession. What they find surprises them beyond their expectations.
James Wan has created a body of work that, at its most successful, leverages influences from diverse films from such acclaimed directors such as John Carpenter, Brian DePalma and Roman Polanski. He understands that horror comes from the creation of a human element that is approachable, and consequently from familiar situations that suddenly become menacing. Unlike many of the horror films from the last decade, which anchored themselves on gore and hyperbolic violence, his films live from the creation of an environment, and the introduction of supernatural elements in the midst of families and their suburban tranquility (which was also the case of Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist" and even William Friedkin's "The Exorcist"). Where "The Conjuring" successfully and pragmatically went through the possession case of a family, the sequel tries to tie more loose ends with the different characters, and ends up feeling more gratuitously convoluted, and ultimately not as successful. It's still a film that holds the attention, builds an environment, and allows for the characters to exist beyond simple stereotypes. Less effective than the original, but still an interesting film.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The World is Not Enough

Movie Name: The World is Not Enough
Year of Release: 1999
Director: Michael Apted
Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Sophie Marceau, Robert Carlyle, Judi Dench, Denise Richards, Robbie Coltrane, John Cleese, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Samantha Bond, Michael Kitchen
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis & Review:
After the successful "Tomorrow Never Dies", the James Bond franchise continued with Michael Apted's "The World is Not Enough". The film places James Bond as a protector of a young oil heiress, who may have a secret agenda of her own as far as her relationship with him is concerned. Elektra's father was murdered by the dangerous Renard, who wants to destroy a crucial oil pipeline, and provoke a nuclear meltdown and therefore increase the oil prices. The stakes increase when M is also taken hostage, with James Bond having to rely on the assistance of Dr. Christmas Jones to stop this scheming plot.
Michael Apted was an interesting choice to tackle James Bond, since his career has been primarily focused on documentaries and dramas (he directed "Gorillas in the Mist", "Nell" and "Coal Miner's Daughter" to name but a few). His touch however isn't particularly felt, since the film feels very formulaic, as is the case with most of James Bond adventures. "The World is Not Enough" in particular features supporting female characters that are cliche ridden and in the specific case of Christmas Jones, borderline nonsensical. The film has some edge with the talented Robert Carlyle bringing some menace to an otherwise generic role, while Judi Dench as always has an imposing and commanding presence as M. Interestingly as Pierce Brosnan continued his 4 film run as the impervious spy, the stunts and the impact of the directorial second unit  kept on growing, as the scripts got sillier and sillier (his swan song "Die Another Day" was even more ludicrous than usual), which is also the case of "The World is Not Enough". The edge that Martin Campbell brought to the franchise with "Goldeneye" (and later on with "Casino Royale") wasn't taken into account in this film, that at times almost looks and sounds like a parody.

The Lobster

Movie Name: The Lobster
Year of Release: 2015
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Michael Smiley, Emma O'Shea, Garry Mountaine
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6

"The Lobster" debuted at the Cannes Film Festival of 2015 and won the Jury Prize. The film follows the story of David, a man whose wife has left him for another person. In this dystopian society, once you are single, you get sent to a hotel where you have 45 days to find another partner, or you get transformed into an animal of your choice. The way they can extend their stay at the hotel, is by hunting Loners, people who choose to live in the forrest, listen to electronica and generally avoid contact. David fakes who he is, in order to start a relationship, but that soon gets discovered, which forces him to run to the woods, and become part of the Loners. Once there, he meets someone he actually cares for, but that's not without challenges.
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a name for himself in the Festival circuit with the features "Dogtooth" and "Alps", features that have relied on unique concepts to develop their stories. "The Lobster" is another of those cases: the film features a unique concept of single people having to meet a mate, so they can avoid being transformed into an animal. The film is an interesting metaphor for how people forcibly become something else to avoid being alone. It's a film stylized in terms of acting and approach, bordering on performance art, which nonetheless is at times very funny, and also very bleak, in how it depicts human condition and relationships. Colin Farrell is perfect as David, giving the character a sadness that comes across in his physical posture, which translates as back problems. He is the true heart of the film, with Rachel Weisz, Ben Wishaw, John C. Reilly and Olivia Colman, all doing great supporting work. It's an interesting film, featuring an interesting concept, but the premise isn't enough to hold the film engaging since it starts flailing as it runs towards its bleak closure.