Sunday, November 27, 2016

Donnie Darko

Movie Name: Donnie Darko
Year of Release: 2001
Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wylie, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant, Daveigh Chase, James Duval, Seth Rogen, Alex Greenwald, Katharine Ross, 
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
Watch it on Amazon

"Donnie Darko" is director Richard Kelly's debut, and has become a cult film since its release in 2001. The film follows the story of high school senior Donnie Darko, a brilliant young man who's been dealing with some issues and is currently attending therapy in order to verbalize some of his frustrations. Following a random accident that almost kills him (and his family), Donnie starts listening to and seeing a giant rabbit who instructs him on what to do about certain occurrences at his school and some of the people that come into his life. The giant rabbit by the name of Frank, also warns Donnie about the upcoming end of everything. In parallel with all this, Donnie develops an interest in time travel, and how multiple realities can occur. It all falls into place one evening when Donnie's parents are out and he decides to throw a party, the precise date foreseen by Frank.
Even though "Donnie Darko" wasn't seen by many upon its release, the film has steadily gained a cult following. "Donnie Darko" manages to combine a smart screenplay, one that marries the nostalgia for 80s teen films, with science fiction themes (time travel) and also characters that have a foot in the indie world (characters that discuss politics, and where teenagers actually have a darker side to them). It's a film that doesn't balance character development in an optimal way, but it manages to have lots of threads that eventually tie together harmoniously, featuring a great cast (particularly with Jake Gyllenhaal showcasing the talent he'd further develop in other features) and a great score from Michael Andrews.  It's a film that rewards upon multiple viewings. Here's hoping the director gets back to directing further features.


Movie Name: Loving
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Terri Abney, Will Dalton, Marton Csokas, David Jensen, Bill Camp, Nick Kroll, Matt Malloy, Michael Shannon, Sharon Blackwood
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Director Jeff Nichols has followed his terrific "Midnight Special", with a more introspective feature, focused on a real civil rights case that occurred in the US in the 60s. The film takes place in Virginia and follows the story of Richard and Mildred, a young couple who decides to get married in Washington DC, when Mildred gets pregnant. Following their marriage, Richard decides to buy a plot of land in the same neighborhood as their families, so they can have a house of their own in that area. They soon find themselves in prison, since it's unlawful for inter-racial couples to wed and live in marital union in Virginia. After a plea bargain and a difficult situation that forces them to move back to DC, they eventually decide to fight the ruling and get the decision overturn.
"Loving" is a film that carries through some of the themes that have made Jeff Nichols' previous films so memorable: the relationship between the central couple is his main focus of attention, against all odds and obstacles that present themselves. The film presents this couple as two people simply trying to live their lives in peace, with a sense of dignity and union. It's also a film that for all its polish and execution, lacks a sense of wonder and discovery, something that both "Mud" and "Midnight Special" had in spades. It's impeccably brought to life, with good performances from both leads, but it's also a film that provides little insight into who these two people were. It provides a bit of insight to the crucial importance their case had they in abolishing a racist law, however it lacks extra depth to show a bit more of who these characters/people were. It's nonetheless a good film, that showcases the talent of Jeff Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Movie Name: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Year of Release: 2016
Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Josh Cowdery, Ron Perlman, Johnny Depp, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

Following the mediocre "The Legend of Tarzan" from this Summer, director David Yates is back in the Harry Potter universe, with the first film in a series of what is an offshoot from that character's world, this time around following the adventures of Newt Scamander. Newt finds himself in New York, in 1926, carrying a suitcase filled with magical creatures he's been collecting in order to avoid them becoming extinct. The magic world in America is quite different than the one in England, including the terminology used by magical practitioners. Due to a series of misunderstandings, Newt mixes his magical suitcase with the one being carried by Jacob Kowalski, who wants to open a bakery of his own. Newt, alongside Tina (a recently demoted investigator from the magic department), have to track down Jacob, while simultaneously figure out which creature has been destroying downtown New York, and threatening to start a war between the non magical world and the wizards.
David Yates has had a very successful career directing J.K. Rowling's film adaptations of her Harry Potter series (he directed 4 of that series). "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is Rowling's first original screenplay, and follows the adventures of a small character in the Harry Potter books, the awkward and squeamish Newt Scamander. The film introduces a series of new characters from this universe quite rapidly, and sets its hero on the quest to protect magical creatures, while simultaneously giving him a non-magical and a strong female counterpart (and potential love interest) sidekicks. The film is successful in exploring the dynamics of the magic world versus the mundane one, however where most of the Harry Potter films exhibited some restraint in terms of the usage of visual effects to depict that universe, this film is almost hyperbolic in that regards. The creatures are always present, there's always too much happening and competing for attention. It's definitely a well oiled machine that has produced this film, which includes a great cast with Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston (from Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice"), Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton creating interesting characters, while the cinematography from Philippe Rousselot is beautiful. It's an interesting first film,  hopefully the remaining ones will find a better balance with character and story development.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Movie Name: Arrival
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Jadyn Malone, Julia Scarlett Dan, Larry Day
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 10
View Trailer Here

Denis Villeneuve's impeccable career continues, following the great "Sicario" and the phenomenal "Enemy" (which I placed on the list of the best films of 2014). This time around he focuses on a superbly written screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on a story written by Ted Chiang). The film details the events that follow when mysterious spacecrafts enter our planet and just hover in 12 different locales spread around Earth. Trying to successfully establish contact with the visitors, the military in the US reach out to Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics who has previously helped them with translations. Louise's life has been marked by personal tragedy, and she lives by herself in a somewhat secluded area. Louise is part of a team, also including physicist Ian Donnelly. Through her persistence, Louise manages to create contact and starts deciphering their language, as the clock is ticking when so many nations are ready to jump in and start attacking these unknown visitors. Louise's vision finally manages to help her understand what these visitors want and how humans can benefit from this arrival.
Denis Villeneuve has built a career based on nuanced screenplays, where everything and everyone is always more than what they seem. The characters that populate his films are always more than a simple cliche, and that's the case again with "Arrival". Of all his most recent films, this may actually be his best yet, one that successfully marries an emotional core, with a message anchored on alien visitors that approach humankind to reveal how much we actually need to collaborate with each other as fellow human beings and not as competitive drones and nations. It's a film about the nature of communication, both as metaphor and a literal mechanism: the way the characters interact with each other as the film evolves changes, as they understand more about each other and themselves. In a way, this film is all that Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" wanted to be, but never was - it's cerebral without being cold, and it's heartfelt without being schmaltzy. It's a stunning film anchored by a terrific performance from Amy Adams, with the beautiful cinematography from Bradford Young and score from Johann Johansson. A truly great film worth watching!


Movie Name: Moonlight
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland, Patrick Decile
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" follows his debut from 2008, the little seen "Medicine for Melancholy". The film tracks the story of Chiron, a young black man in Florida. The film is divided in three different chapters, and chronicles episodes of the life of that young man, first as child, secondly as a teenager and finally as an adult. In chapter one we witness Chiron being persecuted and bullied by his classmates. He's taken under the wing of the charismatic Juan, who alongside his wife Teresa take interest in his quiet demeanor, particularly when they realize his mother is a drug addict. The second chapter introduces us to teenager Chiron, who continues to be quiet and abused, while his mother's addiction has worsened. During this time he also discovers who he is sexually when he has a brief tryst with a colleague. The third chapter introduces us to Chiron as an adult, where he's become a version of Juan, selling drugs, and he's toughened up. A call from his friend Kevin sends him back on a journey to revisit his past and possibly make sense of his present.
"Moonlight" has been met with great reviews - much like Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" critical reception and storyline, we witness the growth of a young man through time (played by different actors in this case).  The problem with this film, much like Richard Linklater's is the fact that in trying to compress such an extended scope of events and experiences into a normal feature, actually removes a lot of dynamics and actual character development that is needed to make these characters feel more than just sketches. "Moonlight" in particular, feels more poignant and touching during its first chapter, when Chiron as a child is discovering the world around him, and we accompany him in that journey, particular with Juan as his protector. Sadly Juan's character, much like Chiron's mother, are not given much screen time to fully understand who they are. Chiron's journey is definitely an interesting one, and the film is beautifully shot and acted, even when the supporting characters aren't as fully realized. An interesting film worth watching.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Doctor Strange

Movie Name: Doctor Strange
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Katrina Durden
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Marvel's output continues, this time around with a lesser well known character adaptation, which also takes the concept and execution of their traditional films in a different direction. The film focuses on Doctor Strange a character created by Steve Ditko in 1963, and who has since become a staple in the Marvel universe, appearing across multiple storylines and alongside diverse and iconic teams. The film introduces us to Stephen Strange, a highly successful and arrogant neurosurgeon, who suffers a horrible car accident, which leaves him with serious medical problems in his hands. After exhausting all available help and his financial resources, Strange goes to Nepal, seeking a place where assistance can be found. That help and new awakening come through the aid of the Ancient One, a master in mystical arts, who has long been a protector of Earth, and who introduces Strange to different arts, while simultaneously empowering him to defend threats that are looming.
Director Scott Derrickson who rose to fame with "The Exorcism of Emily Rose", finally manages to distill enough wonder and audacity in the typical Marvel film. "Doctor Strange" benefits from being a well written introductory tale, one that is filled with typical comic book cliches, including the arrogance of the central hero, who has to learn the price of humility through hardship, to the presence of the mentor who guides the hero through perilous tasks. Where this film jumps qualitative hurdles, lies in the smart casting, particularly with Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton elevating the quality of the film, adding gravitas and depth, alongside the fantastic visual style, where the dazzling visual effects really become an intricate part of the universe that is being presented and showcased. This film contains humor and simultaneously a sense of wonder into this new universe, that makes it feel fresh and different. It's a colorful splash into a genre that is starting to feel stale. Worth watching.