Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seven Psychophaths

Movie Name: Seven Psychopaths
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Harry Dean Stanton, Kevin Corrigan, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Zeljko Ivanek
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Playwright and director Martin McDonagh followed his well received debut feature "In Bruges" with "Seven Psychopaths", another intelligently written and well acted film, featuring his usual accomplice, actor Colin Farrell. The film focuses on Martin, a struggling screenwriter in LA, who is experiencing problems in writing his next project. His best friend Billy, tangles him up in a scheme he has around town, one that involves stealing dogs and holding them for ransom. Unfortunately their latest victim, turns out to be the dog of a crime lord, something that sets in motion a series of unexpected events.
"Seven Psychopaths" manages to be simultaneously a dark comedy, but also a big wink to filmmaking and the art of writing. The film has nods to the styling of independent films from the 90s, with the quick witted dialogue, but also with the sudden outbursts of brutal violence. It's a film that is very intelligent, and very self aware, but one that doesn't make these characters more than just archetypes, something that it plays off appropriately. It has a great cast, with Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken making the biggest impressions, but most of the supporting cast has nothing much to do. It's still an entertaining film well worth watching.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Movie Name: Florence Foster Jenkins
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Stephen Frears
Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
Watch it on Amazon

Prolific director Stephen Frears is back, following the successful "Philomena" and the little seen "The Program". "Florence Foster Jenkins" is based on the true story of the lady with said name, who was born in 1868 (and passed away in 1944), and was considered the worst opera soprano ever. The film introduces us to Florence as the New York socialite and heiress, who funded the Verdi Club to promote the love for opera and music. Her husband, an English actor, is also her manager, and though he leads a somewhat lateral life with a girlfriend (due to Florence's health), he's a staunch supporter and devoted to her. Upon hiring a young gifted pianist, Florence performs a small recital, one that is met with laughter and derision, but also with enthusiasm, something that fuels Florence willingness to continue (even if everyone thinks she's terrible, without ever telling her so). Her recordings make their way to the radio, where a lot of the audience think that they are humorous takes. She manages to book Carnegie Hall, much to the shock of her devoted husband, who has always tried to shield Florence from the barrage of negative criticism.
The works from Stephen Frears have always been somewhat irregular - he has touched many themes with different levels of success, but one thing that has been a staple of his work, is the consistency with which he allows for actors to build interesting characters. If some of his early and most interesting films, such as "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Prick Up Your Ears" married a view of the English society with the disruption of social norms and thrives for personal expression, his Hollywood ventures have been somewhat glossier (with turns both inspired such as "The Grifters" and "Dangerous Liaisons" with others less interesting, such as "Hero" and "Mary Reilly"). "Florence Foster Jenkins" manages to be a film that is impeccable in its execution and detail, allowing for three great central performances, in particular from both Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg (who is a surprise). However it's also a film that has nothing more than that - it demonstrates and illustrates, but it's incapable of truly transmitting the fervor and love that Florence felt for music and opera. For someone and a character who butchered opera as this lady supposedly did, this is a tame film that lacks energy and a much needed exuberance (one has to wonder what Pedro Almodovar or John Waters would do with this material). A quickly forgotten film somewhat redeemed by its central performances.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Movie Name: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Joachim Ronning, Espen Sandberg
Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Kaya Scoledario, Brenton Thwaites, Kevin McNally, David Wenham, Orlando Bloom, Stephen Graham, Keira Knightley, Martin Klebba, Adam Brown, Angus Barnett, Golshifteh Farahani
Genre: Action, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

Following the dismal critical reception of the latest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (directed by Rob Marshall and released in 2011), one that still managed to surpass 1 billion dollars in revenue, Disney pushed forward with another sequel, this time around directed by the duo of Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, the Norwegian directors whose film "Kon-Tiki" was nominated for an Academy Award. The new film again follows the misadventures of captain Jack Sparrow, this time around giving him a new foe, and some old and new allies to combat this supernatural entity. Among the new allies are the son of Will Turner, who's trying to break the curse that holds his father captive. Also on a quest is the young Carina Smyth, an astronomer, who is looking for a map that can lead her to finding answers she needs. Their new foe, is a Spanish captain by the name of Salazar, who battled Jack when he was younger, and who is now a half dead creature, seeking vengeance across the oceans. It's up to Jack and his allies, to discover Poseidon's trident and eradicate all curses from the oceans.
As with every franchise in existence, the audiences come to see them for familiarity, and for extravagant set pieces, that provide entertainment and distraction (just like every single Marvel feature). The "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, has never been a particularly engaging one: it has been mostly memorable because of how Johnny Depp has subverted and given a new dimension to a character that on paper was a simply eccentric pirate. As the series has continued, and the plotlines have become more and more convoluted, and the budgets have ballooned, that has meant grander visual effects, bigger stunts, usually to cover up whatever holes the stories may have. This film in particular checks all of those points: it has massive set pieces, truly fantastic visual effects,  and sadly that's mostly of whatever positive elements it has going for it. The actors, including Johnny Depp are swallowed whole by the digital spectacle that surrounds them, as beautiful and as extravagant as they may be. As much as a well oiled machine this is, the film lacks a distinct point of view, and the extremely talented actors Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush, have very little to do (and sadly both the young leads are terrible). This is a film that is quickly forgotten, and is mostly salvageable for some humorous moments that Johnny Depp manages to create.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Secret World of Arrietty

Movie Name: The Secret World of Arrietty
Year of Release: 2010
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Stars: Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler
Genre: Animation, Adventure
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8
View Trailer Here

Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made his career as a key member of Hayao Miyazaki's team, and from Studio Ghibli's talented design team. "The Secret World of Arrietty" is his feature film debut, and features a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, adapted from Mary Norton's novel (the long standing series which was "The Borrowers"). The film follows the adventures of young Arrietty, a tiny little girl, who lives with her family within the walls and in the basement of the house of big people. In order to survive, Arrietty and her father "borrow" things from the big people, things that are unperceived, such as a sugar cube, clothing pins, anything they can find of use. A young boy named Shawn comes to the house where Arrietty lives, and accidentally spots her in the garden. This relationship grows further as Arrietty goes on her first borrowing expedition, and Shawn once again spots her. This however endangers her family, as other people in the house soon start looking for the tiny people.
The universe of Studio Ghibli is one populated by a mix of real and magical creatures, and how their relationships evolve. "The Secret World of Arrietty" fits within this universe perfectly, since the tiny people come across as magical entities placed in a somewhat dreary world. This film doesn't fall under Miyazaki's typical stories of the relationship of men with technology and nature, but it's still and nonetheless populated by the relationship between what is considered normal and what is considered different (which was the case of the wonderful "Spirited Away" for instance, with the relationship of Chihiro/Sen with Haku). "Arrietty" perfectly captures the delicate and strong relationship that is developed between young people, independently of their background and personal story. It's a timeless tale, told in a beautiful and delicate way. The animation is top notch as is the case with all of Studio Ghibli's releases, and the score from Cecile Corbel is equally impeccable. A very good film worth watching.

Alien: Covenant

Movie Name: Alien: Covenant
Year of Release: 2017
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5
View Trailer Here

After the critical and commercial success of "The Martian", director Ridley Scott is back to the "Alien" saga, which originally propelled his name, this time around following up the mediocre "Prometheus" with a film that tries to adhere closer to the mythology created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett in 1979. The film follows a crew from the spaceship "The Covenant" who are on a mission to colonize a distant planet. During the trip, the ship suffers some damages, and the crew is forced to awake. They discover a signal coming from a nearby planet, and set out to discover what lies within. Upon arrival, they start getting infected with some alien parasites, where the remainder of the crew, come to find out that the survivor is actually David, the android from the original "Prometheus" crew. Much to their horror, the alien species starts proliferating again, and soon the crew is desperately fighting for their lives.
What was so original, interesting and compelling about the original series of films, wasn't so much the alien creature and how destructive and terrifying it was. It was primarily the fact that Ripley was the heart and center of the films, and it was her odyssey dealing with these creatures that showcased her resilience, intelligence and heart (and in doing so, proving that humans can overcome the deadliest foes). What these new features have revealed, particularly the more they try to marry it with the original films (always finding new female characters as their heroines), is the general lack of coherence and of compelling characters that create effective drama (it's pretty much a given that most characters are going to be fodder for the alien to destroy). Whereas "Prometheus" was poorly written, "Alien: Covenant" provides further insight (and a better structure), and shifts the focus of the story from the human centerpieces. Writing aside, the film features Ridley Scott's impeccable aesthetic and point of view, with a superb cast, and production team. The film tries to marry design aspects from the original 1979 feature, with digital effects, making the whole endeavor feel awkward and not entirely successful. At this point these films feel more like a desperate attempt to breathe life into a property that has run its course. The legacy of the "Alien" films deserves better, and so does Ripley.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Nice Guys

Movie Name: The Nice Guys
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Stars: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Kim Basinger, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Murielle Telio
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 6
View Trailer Here

Following the successful "Iron Man 3", director Shane Black is back with a new feature, one that again combines his trademark of action mixed with comedy and satire. The film follows two men in Los Angeles, in the late 70s. One, Jackson Healy,  is a muscle for hire, and the other, Holland March, is a smart yet clumsy detective. They are both thrown together, when they are hired to discover what happened to a young woman by the name of Amelia. They have to cope with an increasing series of odd events, but luckily with the assistance of March's daughter, they soon are on the right path to find their missing woman. However, not everything is what it seems in this missing persons case.
Shane Black is a talented writer/director who always manages to create films where the odd pairing of his central characters makes for memorable and entertaining situations (such was the premise of Richard Donner's "Lethal Weapon" and his best feature to date, the underrated "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"). "The Nice Guys" has all the trademarks that made his name well known as a screenwriter: a noir/thriller environment with inspiration from classics such as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown", with a quick and biting wit, very much screwball comedy inspired. This film in particular has the selling point of having two great actors as leads, both with lots of chemistry. What the film lacks, is the biting satire that was so well developed in his previous features, stronger and more defined female characters. It's still a film with a great cast, fantastic cinematography (from academy award winning Philipe Rousselot) and impeccable production design. An interesting film from a compelling director.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


Movie Name: Denial
Year of Release: 2016
Director: Mick Jackson
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Mark Gatiss, Harriet Walter, John Sessions
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7
View Trailer Here

Director Mick Jackson has returned with a new feature, after the celebrated TV film "Temple Grandin", from 2010. The film is based on the book and events surrounding the life of acclaimed Historian Deborah Lipstadt. The narrative focuses specifically on the libel case that was brought against Deborah by David Irving, a Holocaust denier. The case, which was brought against Deborah in 1996, had huge media exposure, and it also included Deborah's publishing house, Penguin. The libel/defamation case, argued Deborah had published lies about Irving's reputation and about the Holocaust itself. Deborah's legal team went out about presenting facts and therefore dismantling David Irving's case, who chose to represent himself throughout the process.
Mick Jackson's best directorial efforts have been features where he marries his experience in directing documentaries with material that is based on real situations and people (though his most popular film may be "The Bodyguard" from 1992, with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston). "Denial" is the perfect material for the director, since it's based on a real case that occurred in the mid 90s, and outlines how a resourceful, intelligent and articulate Historian resolved to battle a libel case that involved one of the biggest atrocities witnessed by humanity. It's a film that is thorough in how it illustrates the process and who were the key players - it's taut and the director has just enough stylistic flourishes to make it a compelling and interesting film. The film falters in the further definition of the characters (we always have a somewhat limited view of the main key players), but the case itself is enticing, and is serviced by a fantastic group of actors, particularly Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall, who give enough nuance and depth to what might otherwise be cliched characters. A good film worth watching.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Movie Name: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Year of Release: 2017
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Kurt Russell, Sylvester Stallone, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Ving Rhames, Michelle Yeoh, David Hasselhoff, Laura Haddock
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4
View Trailer Here

Following the surprise success of "Guardians of the Galaxy" in 2014, the sequel was inevitable. The film continues to track the adventures of the band of misfits. This time around, the group becomes the target of the Sovereign race, after successfully eradicating a creature that was intent on destroying one of their most prized possessions. Old family issues come into play as our heroes try to flee their captors/persecutors. Peter Quill's father makes his appearance, saving them from a perilous situation, and allowing Peter to gain further information about his birth and how his mom came to meet his father. However as Peter quickly discovers, not everything and not everyone is what they seem to be.
James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" managed to be a surprising and entertaining film, because it successfully married pop culture references, just enough character richness (which wasn't much to begin with) all tied under the bow of a great soundtrack, one that simultaneously brought a sense of nostalgia and irreverence, while also giving the whole outer space adventure additional context (and making the whole adventure more humane). Somehow that balance got lost in the second feature - the film suffers from rhythm issues (the film becomes at points tremendously tedious, with characters having emotional epiphanies every other scene), and the soundtrack, once a highlight to particular sections, has become something the narrative revolves around - it does not underline the scenes, it defines them. The overabundance of visual effects has also made the feature strangely hollow and lacking emotional depth - the characters (and by consequence the actors), are dwarfed by everything that surrounds them - though the film features a few beautiful sequences, and the humor prevails, the taste level throughout is questionable. The film comes across as an indulgent exercise, when restrain and more focus was needed to provide the characters with enough to do, an actual foe/villain to battle, one that wasn't excessively abstract or lacking personality. The fantastic cast doesn't have much to do, though Kurt Russell seems to be having fun in some of his scenes. A sadly missed opportunity.