Sunday, August 28, 2016

Mission to Mars

Movie Name: Mission to Mars
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Connie Nielsen, Don Cheadle, Jerry O'Connell, Peter Outerbridge, Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Kim Delaney
Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Director Brian De Palma experienced a comeback in the late 90s, following the huge commercial and critical success of "Mission: Impossible" and to a lesser extent "Snake Eyes" (this after the debacle he had with the much scrutinized and maligned "Bonfire of the Vanities"). "Mission to Mars" was his first openly sci-fi film, and it follows the adventures of a crew of astronauts who embark on a rescue mission to Mars, when the first team of astronauts on the planet mysteriously gets killed. When the team arrives on the planet, they discover one of the original team members has survived, and has been surviving thanks to the produce from a greenhouse. The planet has a large humanoid face exposed in a mountain, and upon further inspection the team discovers something they never expected.
"Mission to Mars" is an interesting film from Brian De Palma, who drinks inspiration from Stanley Kubrick, and goes for a sci-fi film that is more about finding who human beings are, and less about big action set pieces, and large explosions in outer space (a la Michael Bay and his well known "Armageddon"). The film explores the relationships between the team members, and his motivations for wanting to go to Mars, building an interesting dynamic between these different elements, allowing for the red planet to also become a huge character and be crucial in the development of the characters evolution and progression. It's a film worth watching for its ambition, for the questions it poses, and for the beauty of what it suggests. The film also features a beautiful score from Ennio Morricone and the gorgeous cinematography from Stephen H. Burum (usual collaborator of Brian De Palma). An unjustly vilified film worth rediscovering.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Movie Name: Kubo and the Two Strings
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Travis Knight
Stars: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Brenda Vaccaro, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Meyrick Murphy, Laura Miro, Alpha Takahashi, Minae Noji
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 9
Watch the Trailer

Animation studio Laika, has now produced and released a string of films that are nothing short of fantastic. Among their finest releases are Henry Sellick's "Coraline", Chris Butler and Sam Fell's "Paranorman" and now Travis Knight's "Kubo and the Two Strings". The film follows the story of Kubo, a young boy who's protected by his mother, and who goes to a small town close to the mountain where they live, to narrate heroic stories, using his magical skills to bring origami to life. Kubo is never allowed to stay out past sundown. One evening he accidentally is held up, and finally discovers why his mom has always told him to come back home before night settles in. He is being pursued by his grandfather and evil aunts who want to take his eye. Kubo with the help of a few friends, sets out to find out more about himself and how he can survive the attack of his powerful foes.
Laika's films have become, much like Pixar's, synonyms with stunning animation, beautifully executed, with plots that are usually anchored in the meaning of family, and more generally with characters who come to terms with who they are and their own sense of belonging in the world. "Kubo and the Two Strings" is a fantastic achievement, in the sense that it successfully creates a magical world, filled with stories within stories, with a young hero that is looking for his own roots and family history, coming across multiple obstacles, while being helped by a group of unexpected friends, who turns out to be a different type of family. It's a film that has heart, intelligence, and is aesthetically stunning, with fantastic character design, and transitions between frames that are simply beautiful. It's a film that though anchored in a specific culture, manages to transcend it, and amplify its message of family, love and compassion across the board, without feeling overtly manipulative or simplistic. A beautifully realized film worth watching.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Movie Name: Gladiator
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou, Spencer Treat Clark, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, David Hemmings, Tommy Flanagan
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Ridley Scott had a patchy 90s decade. He started with the great "Thelma and Louise", but faltered for the rest of the decade, culminating in the disappointing "GI Jane", which had a terrible critical reception. "Gladiator" was a huge comeback for the director, placing him in the running for the Oscars, eventually winning for best picture and best actor, amongst others. The film follows the story of General Maximus Decimus Meridias who is named keeper of Rome and its empire by dying emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus' son, Commodus, has other ideas, and sets events in motion that result in the death of Maximus' family and himself taken into slavery and trained as a gladiator. Soon Maximus and his fellow gladiators are called to Rome to participate in a marathon of gladiator games held at the behest of the new emperor. Once in Rome, Maximus is soon involved in a plot to overthrow the emperor with his former-love Lucilla, Commodus' sister.
"Gladiator" is a film that by all accounts, tries to modernize the classic sword and sandal films that were so popular in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s (made popular by films such as William Wyler's "Ben Hur", Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" and Mervyn LeRoy's "Quo Vadis", to name but a few). Using fantastic special effects and a talented cast, particularly Russel Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, Ridley Scott is successful in bringing the ancient Rome to life, with enough grittiness and drama that makes the story compelling and always watchable. It's a testament to the director's vision, that he manages to maintain the action set pieces and the more intimate dramatic elements in a balance that makes the film simultaneously entertaining and affecting. The cinematography from John Mathieson is stunning, as is the score from Lisa Gerrard and Hans Zimmer. A good film always worth watching.

The Gift

Movie Name: The Gift
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Sam Raimi
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Hillary Swank, Michael Jeter, Kim Dickens, Gary Cole, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Chelcie Ross
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
Watch it on Amazon

When "The Gift" premiered in 2000, director Sam Raimi was coming of from the well received "A Simple Plan" and "For the Love of the Game", films that positioned him as a director focused on films beyond the horror and fantasy genre that initially made him popular (with the "Evil Dead" series and also "The Quick and the Dead"). The film written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, follows the story of Annie Wilson, a young woman living in the bayous near Savannah with her three young children. Her husband has passed away, and Annie uses her gifts as a clairvoyant to make ends meet. One of her clients is a housewife trapped in an abusive marriage. The woman's husband, Donnie Barksdale, threatens Annie more than once. When the daughter of a prominent citizen (and fiancee of the school principal) disappears, Annie leads the police to the body. The body is coincidentally found in the lake close to Donnie Barksdale's house, making him one of the main suspects. But Annie's visions start showing something more than that.
Sam Raimi has been a director whose stylistic flourishes have carved a reputation for him, more so than his capabilities as a storyteller. In the late 90s he started tackling different screenplays, and venturing into more character driven material. "The Gift" is a suspense/thriller with supernatural elements, but other than that, it's very much driven by the group of characters and the rural setting where it takes place. The film benefits from a talented and eclectic cast, led by the fantastic Cate Blanchett, but even they can't save the general feel of predictability that comes from the overall material. The film lacks a certain grittiness to achieve the sense of menace that the story tries to convey. It's nonetheless a fairly entertaining film, quickly forgettable.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Erin Brockovich

Movie Name: Erin Brockovich
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Julia Roberts, Aaron Eckart, Albert Finney, Conchata Ferrell, Marg Helgenberger, Cherry Jones, Peter Coyote, Veanne Cox, Travey Walter, Wade Williams, Mimi Kennedy, William Lucking 
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
Watch it on Amazon

Following the critically well received "Out of Sight" and "The Limey", director Steven Soderbergh had a fantastic year in 2000, with the release of two big films that were both awards contenders and simultaneously audience draws, the films being "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic". "Erin Brockovich" is a biopic which depicts the life of a single mom struggling to make rent payments, who gets involved in a car accident. Trying to sue the person responsible for her crash, Erin loses her court battle much to her despair, and basically ends up working for the lawyer who failed to help her secure financial compensation from that accident. Erin's proactive nature and dynamic stance, gets her involved in a case which starts as a real estate investigation, and evolves into something much bigger involving a large company and a small community in California.
Director Steven Soderbergh is one of the most interesting directors working in films these days. He combines his taste for experimentation, with all types of subject matters, usually involving central characters that are somewhat at odds with the reality that surrounds them. His central characters have a unique view of the world and how they relate to it, and through their resilience and perspective, manage to persevere and overcome their obstacles. That was the case of characters such as Graham in "sex, lies and videotape", Kafka in "Kafka", Aaron in "King of the Hill" and even Liberace in "Behind the Candelabra". In such an eclectic career, "Erin Brockovich" may be more of a typical biopic, but it's a film that showcases an episode in the life of a strong willed woman, someone who focuses all her attention on her cases, at the cost of everything, including her own family life. If anything the flawed screenplay depicts a very benign version of a person, someone who is an advocate for all sufferers of injustice (almost like a new version of Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae"), but it's still a great character study. The film features fantastic performances from Julia Roberts (who won the Oscar), Albert Finney and Aaron Eckart, and also features the beautiful cinematography from Edward Lachman. A very good film always worth watching.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Movie Name: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Zhang Ziyi, Chen Chang, Pei-Pei Cheng, Sihung Lung, Fa Zeng Li, Xian Gao
Genre: Drama, Action, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

In 2000, celebrated Taiwanese director Ang Lee, was coming off from a series of films adapted from western authors, films that were well received, even if with different levels of critical acclaim ("Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm" were awards contenders, "Ride with the Devil" was an underrated feature, not seen by many). The director decided to go back to his origins (something he had done with "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" and "The Wedding Banquet"), and came back with his very own perspective of what a martial arts film was about. The film follows the story of two couples, one a more mature couple who has never confessed their feelings for each other, due to life's circumstances, and another, a younger couple comprised of a well off young woman, and a young robber, who against all odds fall in love. The story takes place in the 18th century, and it all starts when an iconic sword is stolen. This event brings all these characters together, some of which have old feuds to settle.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a film that, much like Ang Lee's other directorial efforts, subverts the genre that it belongs to, giving the film a heart and a poetic tone that is unlike the martial arts films that traditionally come from Hong Kong. The film retains the fantastic and gravity defying fight scenes from the martial arts genre, but it balances it out with character development and with a romantic side featuring a couple who has long loved each other in silence but never acted on their feelings. It's a film that successfully combines action and adventure, with a poetic side that comes from characters that remain faithful to an ideal and philosophy, even if that prevents them from actually pursuing what makes them happy. The film features a great performance from Michelle Yeoh and is gorgeously shot by Peter Pau. A great film always worth watching.

Chicken Run

Movie Name: Chicken Run
Year of Release: 2000
Director: Peter Lord, Nick Park
Stars: Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Jane Horrocks, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Tony Haygarth, Benjamin Whitrow, 
Genre: Comedy, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

Directors Peter Lord and Nick Park, had already established themselves as great directors of animated features by the time "Chicken Run" came out. Nick Park had already won three Oscars for animated shorts with his iconic characters, Wallace and Gromit. "Chicken Run" follows the adventures of a series of chickens at a chicken farm, which is depicted like a prisoner's camp. If the chickens fail to produce enough eggs, they are killed for food. One of the lead chickens, Ginger, has dreamt of fleeing the chicken farm with her friends. She starts devising a plan when a rooster by the name of Rocky comes into play, with knowledge of how to fly. With his assistance, Ginger starts putting together a plan to evade the lethal chicken farm.
"Chicken Run" is a film filled with humor and references such as the classic "The Great Escape" from John Sturges (where a series of prisoners tries to evade a German prisoner camp during World War II). The film has all the trademarks that have become a staple for all of Aardman's films: the irreverence, the stop motion and aesthetic style, the cinematic references to iconic and classic films, caustic sense of humor, and the improbably hero, who has to overcome self doubt and still save the day against all odds. "Chicken Run" has all of the traits mentioned before, on top of which is served by the voices of a diverse and talented cast, which brings a uniqueness to each and every one of the characters. It's a film filled with such joy, good humor, and stunning animation, that one can't help but just be surrendered by such a fantastic universe. A very good film always worth watching.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Charlie's Angels

Movie Name: Charlie's Angels
Year of Release: 2000
Director: McG
Stars: Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, Bill Murray, Sam Rockwell, Kelly Lynch, Tim Curry, Crispin Glover, Luke Wilson, Matt LeBlanc, Sean Whalen
Genre: Comedy, Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
Watch it on Amazon

"Charlie's Angels" is of course an iconic TV Show which debuted in 1976, and paved the way for a different type of storytelling, one which skewered more towards a female perspective, where the lead characters were all intelligent, sophisticated and resourceful women working for a non visible man by the name of Charlie. The show launched the careers of Jaclyn Smith, Farrah Fawcett and Kate Jackson. By the year 2000, Drew Barrymore and her producing partners assembled a new version of this show, now upgrade for the big screen, and anchored on a breezy and comedic tone, something the show didn't have. The film focuses on three heroes, Dylan, Natalie and Alex, all of whom work for Charlie, and are top notch investigators. They are assisted by Bosley, and this time around they are tackled with finding a software genius who has been kidnapped. While investigating the clues, the Angels start realizing that there's more to the story than they originally thought of, and it's up to them and their diverse set of skills, to unmask the real criminals.
"Charlie's Angels" was director McG's debut feature, after a career of directing music videos for different bands. His vision and stylistic approach is directly inherited from that previous stint: glossiness of the cinematography, quick cuts on the editing, blaring pop music to highlight set pieces, and overall lack of character development. All of these elements became part of his ongoing career, and are all on showcase in "Charlie's Angels". The film thankfully never takes itself seriously, particularly since the main characters are barely defined, and everything else is staged to highlight the beauty of the main leads, and how they can get away with surreal and outlandish action set pieces. Bill Murray as usual brings his deadpan delivery to the set, and makes the most of his underwritten role, the same going for Sam Rockwell. It's a film not to be taken seriously, easily forgotten, with a strong cast having a lot more fun than the audience.

Suicide Squad

Movie Name: Suicide Squad
Year of Release: 2016
Director: David Ayer
Stars: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jim Parrack, Ike Barinholtz, David Harbour, Common, Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara, Ben Affleck
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 3

The DC universe expansion continues, this time around tackled by director David Ayer, responsible for gritty films such as "End of Watch" and "Fury". The film focuses on a group of anti-heroes (or villains) that are assembled by Amanda Waller to tackle enemies or entities of humanity. This group is comprised of incarcerated villains, some with special skills, others just slightly deranged. Their first opponent is a supernatural entity who has taken over a young archaeologist, the witch going by the name of Enchantress. All these team members have to join their efforts in order to prevent the world from utter destruction.
The premise for "Suicide Squad" is ripe for a comic book film that is filled with irreverence and a distinct point of view. Sadly, the screenplay strips all of those components away, and goes for every possible cliche available. There are so called "villains" that are trying to reunite with their estranged daughters, star crossed lovers, people haunted by previous unfortunate accidents - for a film that is trying to emphasize villains without morals and qualms in pursuing their own interests, all the characters are pretty much one step away of redemption. The lack of coherent tone is made more dramatic by the casting, with Margot Robbie creating an instantly iconic character in Harley Quinn, Viola Davis as the icy Amanda Waller, and as a counterpoint, the utter lack of charisma and relevancy from Joel Kinnaman and Jai Courtney (Jared Leto as the Joker, ends up being a supporting side note, and exudes nothing but flash and no menace). The opposing villain also makes little sense, and by the end when the main battle occurs, we are caught yet again in a tired, over digitized sea of visual effects that add nothing to the story. For a film that had so much potential, this hits a few right marks, but for the most part, drinks from the same fountain that created "Batman vs. Superman": almost too serious for its own good, without having any edge to actually claim the irreverence that it suggests.